Monday, 12 March 2012

The Death of Chatterton

A couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Bristol and ended up wandering lost in a failed effort to find actual Bristol from the station (this is more difficult than it sounds). As it transpires, however, ending up somewhat off the usual route can be a blessing in disguise, and I found myself, through fate or idiocy, stumbling upon this unfortunate looking property curiously marooned between two very busy roads. The house, as a little oval plaque helpfully informed me, in which 18th Century poet Thomas Chatterton was born. Chatterton was something of a child prodigy - an extremely gifted young poet who took to forgery in an attempt to have his work respected, convincing many that he had discovered a collection of songs written by a fictional medieval monk called Thomas Rowley. He later commited suicide having moved to London and failed to make a living from his work.

I am not a particular fan of Thomas Chatterton - his poetry contains altogether far too many e's for my liking:

The boddynge flourettes bloshes atte the lyghte;
The mees be sprenged wyth the yellowe hue;
Ynn daiseyd mantels ys the mountayne dyghte;
The nesh yonge coweslepe bendethe wyth the dewe;
The trees enlefed, yntoe Heavenne straughte,
Whenn gentle wyndes doe blowe to whestlyng dynne ys broughte.

I am, however, a big fan of Henry Wallis' painting 'The Death of Chatterton' - in fact it has always been one of my favourite paintings without my really knowing why.

I think now, having happened upon this curious house in the way I did, it has become clearer - both painting and house seem to exude an air of hopelessness and abandon. Chatterton, in this painting, a great and later to be widely renowned poet, is presented as a desperate young boy having torn up his manuscripts and swallowed the arsenic that ended his life. On looking at it, it is as if we have discovered the lost shell of something that was once great and is now empty - and this is how it felt to see the house. Boarded up, falling apart; the last house standing where many once stood, and now surrounded by busy, oblivious traffic.

The house looked as ghostly and lost as the child in the painting - both exist now as material objects that have travelled from a time where they made sense to now, in a modern setting - a busy street, an art gallery - and every so often somebody like me will come along, read the plaque, think a while, and then pass and continue with their modern lives. The difference is, the painting is in a frame on a wall behind a velvet rope, and the building, having fairly recently been occupied by squatters (English Literature students apparantly attempting to renovate the property), has now been boarded up and protected by the somewhat less glamorous 'velvet rope' of Sitexorbis empty property security company.


!*#? said...

Did you go left instead of right out of temple meads? Actually even if you did go right it's not that obvious how to get to the center... sill Bristol!

Nicola Patten said...

Nope I went right and sort of headed for the spire which usually serves me well but it deceived me!