Books: The Poet As a Young Corpse CHATTERTON

by Peter Ackroyd; Grove; 234 pages; $17.95 THE FAMILY ROMANCE OF THE IMPOSTOR-POET THOMAS CHATTERTON by Louise J. Kaplan; Atheneum; 301 pages; $24.95

Encouraged by applause, the teenage performer runs off to the big city. But his early popularity vanishes as quickly as it arrived. Increasingly isolated and destitute, he takes a chemical overdose and dies before his 18th birthday. Only then is his talent recognized.

This prototype of the self-annihilating artist seems yet another casualty of the rock culture; in fact, Thomas Chatterton perished in a London garret in 1770. Pondering the tragedy, William Wordsworth labeled him "the marvellous boy," and Samuel Johnson burbled, "It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things." Not all the appraisal was so rhapsodic. Horace Walpole...