Thomas Chatterton was only 17 years old when he died, (1752-1770), the original starving poet in a garret. It’s a mystery, still not certain, whether he committed suicide or if it was an accidental death.
Most of us know the pre-Raph painting of Chatterton on his deathbed by Henry Wallis, shown above. I’ve always loved the painting, it’s so beautifully detailed depicting Chatterton’s beauty even in death.
The poem below is just one from the pamphlet I published in 2014: in a series of poems we imagine friends, relatives and others of influence in Chatterton’s life gathered around the foot of his deathbed, remembering and commenting on his life. This poem is from his mother’s point of view.
The pamphlet is an ekphrastic* collection with mention made of each part of the painting, and at the back of the pamphlet there’s a potted history of Chatterton. Available as an eBook, details can be found here.
Geranium scents the pale garret
breeze ruffling his hair, his dead hair,
hair I’ve brushed so many times.
My brilliant boy, he lies there still,
blue as his breeches,
blue as the mourning sky.
I will go mad. See his lifeless hand.
‘Ssssuicide,’ whisper shreds of papers.
My dear would not choose to
leave this way.
‘No suicide embrace for me,’ he wrote,
‘A poet’s penance is to live.’
Oh, my boy. My life.
Where was the time to put things right?
My ice blue son.
Polly Stretton © 2014
*poetry about another form of art.