Reports of 18th century Romantic icon's suicide were 'greatly exaggerated'

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The Independent Culture

His status as a tormented icon of the Romantic movement was confirmed when he took an overdose of arsenic in a fit of madness in his London garret at the age of 17.

For centuries, the 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton was thought to have committed suicide to bring to an end his poverty-stricken existence as a failed artist. This view was based on the findings of an inquest shortly after his death in August 1770 in which it was revealed that he had died from arsenic poisoning.

Yesterday, it emerged that the mystique surrounding the death of the young poet may have had an altogether more carnal basis. New research indicates that Chatterton did not intend to kill himself and was in fact living a comfortable life from the proceeds of his poetry. An academic claims that Chatterton was taking arsenic as a cure for a sexually transmitted disease he had contracted and had accidentally confused the dose.

As a well-documented opium user, it is thought that he may have unwittingly created either a lethal concoction of drugs or simply used the wrong dose of arsenic.

Nick Groom of the Department of English at Bristol University, who conducted the research, re-examined all available evidence leading to the demise of Chatterton.

As well as the poet's works, he also examined accounts of his personality, two fake suicide notes, rumours surrounding his personal life and financial records.

His research was an attempt to piece together a rounded picture of a man who became a poster boy for the Romantic movement after his death.

Although he had moved to London only several months before his death to establish himself as a professional writer, Chatterton was not in a state of dire poverty as has been widely assumed. Dr Groom discovered that the reception of his poetry would not have given him sufficient cause to wish to terminate his life as he was in a good financial position from publishing his poems in several different journals. He also found that Chatterton was taking the drug that would eventually kill him as a cure for a sexually transmitted disease. The findings dispel the Romantic myth cast over his death by other poets in the aftermath of the overdose, said Dr Groom.

He said: "Reports into Chatterton's madness by Robert Southey and other Romantic poets were gradually exaggerated. While the case was briefly 'proved' by the discovery of suicide verses ... the case for accidental death has only ever had the facts to go on. These facts tell a different story of the death of Thomas Chatterton."