Thomas Chatterton

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1880 April 6
Rhyme: abbaabbacddccd
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Caine, Recollections, 184-191.


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the Ballads and Sonnets first edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


In 1880 DGR became preoccupied with the late eighteenth-century poet-prodigy Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), who committed suicide in London at age 17. His representation of the poet is intensely romantic and sentimental, which corresponds with the prevailing spirit of his age. Later scholarship has revealed a much more interesting and complex character.

DGR's interest seems to have begun when his friend Theodore Watts-Dunton was commissioned to edit the selections from Chatterton that would appear in volume 3 of T. H. Ward's English Poets. As he helped Watts-Dunton with the historical research he became fascinated—his brother thought inordinately so—with the legends that had grown up around the poet (see his correspondence with Watts-Dunton of April-May 1880, (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 80. 129-170passim ). His elaborate set of historical notes and copies of the poems are preserved in the British Library (Ashley 1416) and were first published by Doughty and Wahl in their edition of DGR's letters (see Doughty and Wahl, Letters, IV. 1766-1774 ). Additional materials are housed in the library of the Delaware Art Museum, including DGR's copies of Chatterton's “An Excelente Balade of Charitie”, “Wedding Ballad”, and “The Minstrel's Marriage Song” (both (from Aella).

Textual History: Composition

DGR wrote the sonnet around 6 April 1880 (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 80. 113 ), as his comment in a letter of that date to Watts-Dunton shows. The draft manuscript is preserved in the library of the Delaware Art Museum. The poem was written as DGR was about to get heavily involved with Chatterton and his works—a project he undertook to help his friend Watts-Dunton. On 16 July he sent a fair copy of the poem in a letter to his mother. This letter and the fair copy of the sonnet is in the Getty Library.

Textual History: Revision

In an interesting letter of 7 May to Watts-Dunton DGR discusses his revisions for the sonnet: “Have improved the Chat[terto]n sonnet in one or two respects. I reflected that my meaning in the line ‘Even to that unknown shrine else deified’ was not that it would have been deified if known, but would have been so except for the interruption of his work by the death he chose. This I find by first scribble where the ‘unknown’ was an amendment on ‘secret,’ ‘sacred’ and ‘inmost.’ I propose now that the line run ‘Even to that inmost shrine else deified.’ ( Fredeman, Correspondence, 80. 160 ).

Printing History

Although DGR originally wrote this sonnet to accompany Watts-Dunton's edition of Chatterton, (see Allen, Dear Mr Rossetti, 105), it seems clear that by July 1880, when he sent it to Christina and his mother, the sonnet was not going to be published in that way. It was first printed in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets as one of the group of sonnets he headed with the title Five English Poets. The sonnet is collected thereafter, but WMR altered the indentation in his 1886 edition and thereafter to correspond to the rhyme scheme. He also broke up the five-sonnet grouping and printed this sonnet, like the four others, separately.


DGR was keen to get a likeness of Chatterton, as he was for images related to Blake, Keats, and Shelley. However, he determined that getting an authentic image of Chatterton was unlikely due to the number of frauds on the market. The final line of the sonnet references DGR's view of this situation.

Henry Wallis, a fellow Pre-Raphaelite, painted the famous Death of Chatterton (1856), with red-headed George Meredith posing as Chatterton.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 5-1880.raw.xml