Poem inspired by Henry Wallis's portrait of the death of Chatterton


Thomas Chatterton to Thomas Rowley, a Verse Epistle

24 August, 1770, Redcliffe, Bristol

Magpies steal. This was not stealing. My self
from myself estranged, I borrowed you.
I wore your monkish cowl as my disguise.
Your parchment, quill, you lent me willingly;
willingly you lent me language too.
A novice still, I trained myself to speak
in a strange tongue: across the years, the centuries,
lost words and vanished sounds revived in me.
In me came alive an antique world no-one
had ever known. Your habits fitted me;
your speech I made my own.

I am before, I am after, I am behind my time.
Until my hour comes round, all time disowns me.
By neglect, by poverty, I am undone;
My place, my name, forsake me.
But this I know, this I foresee:
that, like our noble king,
bird-shaped and black-hooded, fiery-beaked,
I will haunt this land, unrecognised
save only by a trusted few.

Here in my garret, once your cell, you
to yourself I willingly resign. Your signature,
your quill, your parchment, I forego.
Here begins my glory, my posterity.
I drink deep from the chalice. I compose
my fame. I fling my arm down, so.

'Chatterton', by Henry Wallis, 1856.