Chatterton’s precious things: tokens of professional self-promotion

Stream: Session B
Date: Wednesday, 20 July 2022
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.00 pm


Thomas Chatterton was an eighteenth-century adolescent English writer and artist, who produced a large, multi-modal body of works between the ages of eleven and seventeen. His oeuvre comprises hundreds of poems and prose writings, both contemporary and medievalist, and several hundred medieval illustrations, that belong to his infamous “Rowley” medieval manuscript forgeries; less well known, however, is the integral nature of material poetics to his creative style. Chatterton’s composite works used textual, visual and plastic techniques—he was fascinated by the symbolic and manipulative possibilities of the visual and material “thingness” of his manuscripts and literary works. Tokens, those physical objects that serve symbolically as a visible or tangible representation of something else—a special feeling or quality, an invitation or a gift—abound in Chatterton’s textual, visual and mixed media documentary and manuscript works. His tokens were sometimes words that represented the physical, sensual and kinetic worlds, and sometimes documentary forms such as letters and manuscripts, maps, wills and testaments. Sometimes they were gifts, both symbolic and real. In the eighteenth-century, the mutual exchange of meaning implied in the giving or receiving of a token, relied heavily on shared cultural values concerning such physical objects or artefacts. Indeed, cultural codes embodied in physical tokens of love, for example, or a testamentary will, or an apparently medieval manuscript, were both subjectively compelling and systemically authoritative—not only to Chatterton, but to the majority of his readers. These objects had specific attributes, layouts or formats, that were recognized and understood in the eighteenth century in specific ways that related to cultural beliefs about truth, authenticity and authority—for example the authenticity of manuscripts, the scholarly authority of antiquarian and historical publications, the statutory reliability of legal documents, or the revelatory honesty of love letters. This paper will argue that Chatterton relied upon the symbolism built into the material forms of his tokens to impel his narratives; he therefore saw the exchange of tokens in symbolic and persuasive terms, embodying the power to influence the relationship between poet and reader, and to build consensus with his readers in the pursuit of his own ambitious personal and professional purposes.

KATE SUMNER teaches English at Reddam House School in Sydney. Her doctoral thesis explores the professional performance and creative style of Early Romantic English poet, artist and marvellous boy, Thomas Chatterton. Her research contributes to understanding the creative underclasses and literary “failures” of this complex period in British cultural history. She also writes short fiction.