At Plymouth last year I visited the home of Charles Armitage Brown, John Keats’s friend and collaborator. Set back behind trees, Brown’s Regency villa resembles Wentworth Place, the home he had shared with the young poet, who died, aged twenty-five, of tuberculosis. For fifteen years Brown thought about writing a memoir of Keats, but was unable to confront the anguish of doing so. Then, settled at Plymouth in 1836, he made a start. To offset his friend’s ‘disappointment, his sorrows, and his death’, Brown began with Shelley’s Adonais, the great Romantic elegy in which Keats hastens to ‘the abode where the Eternal are’. Awaiting his arrival is the pale form of another young poet who had destroyed himself, aged seventeen, with a cocktail of opium and arsenic: Thomas Chatterton.
Poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts contend that the perilous, self-destructive lives of Chatterton and a few other Romantics initiated a myth of doomed genius: that poetic achievement comes when life is pushed fatally to its limits. This Chatterton myth, they suggest, explains the ‘skewed’ popular image of poets