Sometimes, artists will make suicide look less gruesome than it is: embellishing or even idealizing it. Japanese representations of seppuku (the traditional samurai suicide by disembowelment) often do such a thing. They make suicide into something heroic. But the same kind of unwarranted beautification can be found in Western art, especially from the Romantic period.
A classic example from literature is of course Goethe’s 1774 novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (“The Sufferings of young Werther”), which became very popular all over Europe. It was the first novel that caused several copycat suicides. Several adolescent readers in the early 1800s got carried away to the extent that they really thought the best way to cope with a broken love affair was to kill themselves, like Werther did in the story.
I don’t really like such artistic embellishment. Intentionally or by emotional identification or by pure misunderstanding, it can make suicide into some kind of worthy, lofty, noble example – a tragic but understandable last act. A brave, almost honorable option. Evidently, it would better to not consider suicide such an example. To view it in a slightly more realistic way.
The Chatterton Craze
I want to show you a famous painting that in my view is a prime instance of untrue, mendacious romanticizing: the gratuitous beautification of a nasty, horrible death. Do you know about the brief, sad life of Thomas Chatterton?
Born in Bristol in 1752, young Thomas was a kind of poetry prodigy. He read a lot and in his early teens already wrote remarkable poems. At about 15, he claimed to have discovered and transcribed old-English poems by a medieval monk, one “Thomas Rowley”. This was Chatterton’s own invention; he wrote all those poems in brilliant medieval language and style himself. Many people were taken in at first. A few of these “medieval poems” were published; other ones were not yet accepted.
In the summer of 1770, feeling poor and lonely and rejected, 17-year-old Thomas Chatterton locked himself in his London attic, tore all his writings to shreds, and killed himself by taking arsenic. His body was found a couple of days later by a visiting doctor, who took care to preserve all the torn fragments of poetry.
Seven years after Chatterton’s death, in 1777, a more or less complete edition of his “medieval poems” was published by an admirer. They became popular, and after some discussion people came to the conclusion that indeed Chatterton had written everything himself. Some now considered him a genius and partly thanks to his young and tragic death, Chatterton gradually became a kind of cult hero.
In the early 1800s, ever more romantics began to write about him. Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Rossetti, Keats, de Vigny, Croft, all contributed to the romantic glorification of this tragic, brilliant, not understood, dramatic, lonely poetic hero. His praises were not just sung in verse and prose; several artists began to depict him – his death, that is. This engraving is an early example.
But in 1856 the Chatterton cult reached its zenith when the young Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Wallis exhibited his painting The Death of Chatterton, complete with a Marlowe quote on the frame: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight”. This idealized, melodramatic work instantly became a tremendous success. For years, huge crowds came to see it, it was reproduced in lithographs, and Wallis was asked to paint smaller identical copies (he made at least two more).
Well, here is a picture of the original. Click it to see a larger picture for more details.
There are a few things I really want you to notice. First of all, the painting is titled “The Death of Chatterton” but actually it should have been named “The Dead Chatterton”, which is something different. Wallis did not depict Chatterton’s death, but how the young poet was supposed to have been found two days after his death.
If you think this is nitpicking, shall we try to imagine Chatterton’s actual dying? What happens if you poison yourself with arsenic?
Arsenic Poisoning in Reality
An acute arsenic poisoning goes like this. First, you experience confusion, headache, drowsiness and diarrhea. Your entire body begins to convulse. Your stomach begins to hurt terribly. You may have more diarrhea, begin to vomit, or urinate blood. You will get ever stronger convulsions with severe cramping, your muscles contracting involuntary.
You will not die immediately yet, but breathing becomes ever more difficult: it begins to feel like choking, with all the sheer panic that comes with suffocating, with desperately trying to breathe but somehow not getting enough oxygen: a bit like drowning. A cruelly slow, extended way of drowning.
What happens inside you is that the arsenic is interfering with several important metabolic processes in such a way that gradually, a multi-system organ failure occurs. Meaning that organs like your lungs, kidneys and liver are beginning to fail. Sometimes, but not always, the heart is affected too.
Finally, your contortions and your desperate gasping will come to an end when you slip away from your physical agony and struggling and panic and pain. You fall into a coma. And after that, after your last unconscious convulsions, yes, you die. Lucky you!
So how you will you be found? Almost elegantly stretched out upon your bed, like this painted Chatterton?
No. More likely you will be found with your mouth still open from your last gasps for breath, lying somewhere on the floor in a contorted curled-up position, in a puddle of vomit, urine and blood.
A pathologist will immediately recognize you died from arsenic poisoning, because arsenic also causes severe hemorrhaging in the soft tissue of all your body orifices, including your lips and mouth, your nostrils, your eyes, your ears. They will show a dark reddish color from internal bleeding.
This Painting Is a Lie
There are several more details that make Wallis’s painting less realistic than it looks at first sight. Such as, here we have an untended human corpse two days after death, in August, in an attic room with an open window. Where are the flies? But I won’t go into more unpleasant specifics now.
Wallis did not paint Chatterton’s suicide. He didn’t even try. He painted just an esthetically pleasing fantasy, a posed scene, a Big Lie. And he made matters even worse by intentionally suggesting Peacefulness (or something like that). What do I mean?
On the face, Wallis painted an expression that you will have registered subliminally, but perhaps without consciously noticing it. This is because on the painting, the face is not in an upright position. I’ve taken the liberty of rotating the detail of Chatterton’s face here, so its expression will more directly jump at you.
What do you think? With his brush strokes, Wallis did what some undertakers will do: covering the usual emptiness of a dead face with a different kind of expression. In this case, a suggestive one. One that permeates the atmosphere of the painting even if you didn’t notice it at first glance. This Chatterton does look fairly happy with his having killed himself so gruesomely, doesn’t he? Almost content, almost satisfied. And certainly peaceful.
In the rest of the painting, in the background, Wallis skilfully added some small details to suggest the dead poet’s loneliness and poverty. But he carefully avoided any hint, even the slightest, of the ugliness, the sordidness, the bloodiness, the desperation, the gruesomeness, the misery, the wretchedness, the total loss of human dignity that usually comes with suicide. On the contrary: he made it look almost beautiful, peaceful, painless and dignified. A Big Lie.
Why this Lie? It wonderfully fitted in the Victorian mindset: both that of the then-modern artists scene, and that of the more conservative general public.
For the artists who joined in the Chatterton craze, this dead teen represented not simply tragedy. He also represented the bitterness of lacking artistic recognition, and more important, the exalted cause of artistic freedom and individuality. To them, Chatterton represented the heroic determination to be different, the stubborn refusal to accept life as it is, the bravery of preferring death over making any concessions. Chatterton was their hero.
And to the Victorian public that came in droves to admire this painting, it represented not just tragedy either. It also appeared to express a kind of moral lesson, in a pleasing and elegant way. The lesson that this brilliant young poet had to pay for his genius with his untimely death; that some of us may be uniquely gifted but that such gifts are nothing to be jealous about, because talent comes at a price.
Both the artists and the public preferred to see romance instead of reality, ignoring the simple truth that suicides nearly always involve unbearable mental agony, cruel physical pain, and a sordid loss of dignity.
But generally, people – including depressed, suicidal people – still prefer not to torment themselves with the actual, brutal face of suicide. In a way, that still is taboo. And this avoidance is certainly understandable.
But I wonder: in a few situations, might a honest confrontation with that brutal reality work as a useful kind of deterrent? A bit like how in some countries, packets of cigarettes must now legally show grisly photos of cancerous lungs?
Imagine a booklet with all kinds of graphic, explicit suicide photos: a mangled head after a jump from the top floor, a hanging body with wetted pants and swollen feet, and so on. Would this help to frighten people away from contemplating suicide? As a kind of reality check? To be honest, I would like some researcher to try this out, to test such a “frightening strategy”.
It would not work with anyone – that’s for sure. It would not work for people like the extremely depressed at the end of the line, or people who’ve already made up their mind, or people who feel a psychotic urge to kill themselves.
But maybe, just maybe, it might work with a few others: with what I call the suicide dreamers. Those who in their depression develop some abstract fantasy of blissfully releasing death, without being fully aware of the more gruesome dimensions of such a death.
Well, this is just a wild thought. Maybe such a “frightening strategy” would do more harm than good. Of course I don’t really know.
I do know that the romantic Chatterton cult has never completely disappeared: his myth lives on in art and literature and music, even today. In exactly the same way as the myth of Victorian beauty Lizzie Siddal (who also died young) still lives on today. There are poems, songs, even an opera and a novel about the Chatterton theme.
Robert James Selby
An often-mentioned Chatterton song is the one by French singer Serge Gainsbourg, but I don’t like that one at all. I’d rather go for the fine Ballad of Thomas Chatterton by English singer Robert James Selby – who happens to be a bit of a Chatterton lookalike, see the photo below.
Does Selby with his Chatterton ballad make the same error of idealizing and romanticizing as Wallis did with his Chatterton painting? That judgment I want to leave to you, but at least this is a good song.
If you want to know more about Selby, or if you are interested in his album Scrap Book Ballads Volume One, please do take a look at his Robert James Selby blog which is in fact a full-fledged artist’s website. Warmly recommended.
So, here is Selby with his Chatterton ballad (give him a little time).
Robert James Selby – The Ballad of Thomas Chatterton
For a full StayOnTop playlist, see the Music page.
• footnote: The original 1856 painting The Death of Thomas Chatterton by Henry Wallis is in the London Tate Gallery. Right now this painting is one of the 150 works in the Tate exposition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde which will run until January 13, 2013.
The model posing as dead Chatterton for Wallis was the young writer George Meredith.
The earlier 1794 engraving Death of Thomas Chatterton by Edward Orme is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
• update: (thanks to reader AnRi) The Centre for Romantic Studies of the University of Bristol hosts a Thomas Chatterton Society dedicated to the poet’s work and historical background. Anyone who is interested can apply for membership here.