‘Could you account for everything that surrounds you in the course of a single second?’ asks one of the characters in Peter Ackroyd’s first play for radio, Chatterton: The Allington Solution (Thursday). ‘All the intentions, the wishes, motives, perceptions, judgments that swirl around any one of us.’ It’s a provocative question. And especially now in 2008 that we are bombarded by information, tempting diversions and constant external hubbub. How can we tune in to what we are thinking and make sense of our own reactions, thoughts and feelings, let alone take note of the bigger picture around us? And yet if we can’t begin to understand and record the true reality of our own situation, at this particular moment in time, how can we possibly hope to understand the past? History, Ackroyd teasingly suggests, is nothing but a good story; and the better the historian, then the better told the story.
How can we be sure, for instance, that Thomas Chatterton, the Romantic poet who was found dead in his poverty-stricken garret on 24 August 1770, committed suicide? In itself, perhaps, it was an event of not much historical significance. Chatterton was young, had not published much, and was notorious not for his genius but for having so brilliantly forged the work of a medieval priest and poet. We know of him as a tragic poet only because his death was memorialised first by Coleridge in his poem ‘A Monody on the Death of Chatterton’ and later by the artist Henry Wallis, in that famous portrait of the dead young man, just 17, collapsed on his couch surrounded by torn-up bits of paper. The portrait shocked Wallis’s Victorian contemporaries with its uncompromising depiction of death, but it also enthralled them (and still fascinates us), giving birth to the notion of the neglected poet, the undiscovered genius, who is driven to poison himself by lack of money and despair.