Thomas Chatterton's material tokens of exchange

Stream: Session C
Date: Wednesday, 18 May 2022
Time: 3.30 pm – 5.00 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. Readers of Rowley’s lyrical verse, for example, with its archaic-sounding, pseudo-medieval diction and word order would immediately suspect their significance as archaic historical and literary manuscripts to Britain’s cultural nationalism; similarly, Chatterton’s employer Mr Lambert clearly recognized in the format of his apprentice’s mock-testamentary “Will” all the connotations of statutory truthfulness, and therefore had to cease his indenture (as Chatterton hoped he would) because of the suicide threat the work contained, despite its manifest satirical features; and lastly, in the series of imposturous love letters written on behalf of his friend Mr John Baker to Miss Eleanor Hoyland, Chatterton relied upon the woman’s belief in the revelatory honesty and promise of his manipulative letters and love tokens. The approach used in this chapter to investigate Chatterton’s stylistic preoccupation with the material dynamics of his works, both contemporary and medievalist, owes much to Bill Brown’s “Thing theory”, and his critical enunciation of the “codes by which our interpretive attention makes [physical objects] meaningful”. Although Brown’s work is mainly concerned with twentieth-century American modernists, within the larger historical and critical context of twentieth-century mass consumerism, his theory is also usefully applied to Chatterton’s peculiarly mid-eighteenth-century materialising fascinations, as it helps to understand his conscious symbolic manipulation of the concrete in his poetics. It supports analysis of the techniques he used to engaged the physicality of his books and tokens, and pre-existing cultural beliefs about such literary objects. This paper will argue that Chatterton relied upon the symbolism built into the pictorial or 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 (Presenter), UNSW
Kate Sumner teaches English literary history and criticism, and academic literacy and language skills. Her doctoral thesis, submitted in early 2020, examines the performative professional style of young Romantic poet and artist Thomas Chatterton, in the context of mid-eighteenth-century Georgian literary sociability. She is currently juggling the post-doctoral search for a permanent position, with casual teaching roles and raising children.