William Whitehead

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 31:445-58.

WILLIAM WHITEHEAD, another English poet, of a more estimable character [than Paul Whitehead], was born at Cambridge in the beginning of 1715. His father was a baker in St. Botolph's parish, and at one time must have been a man of some property or some interest, as he bestowed a liberal education on his eldest son, John, who after entering into the church, held the living of Pershore in the diocese of Worcester. He would probably have been enabled to extend the same care to William, his second son, had he not died when the boy was at school, and left his widow involved in debts contracted by extravagance or folly. A few acres of land, near Grantchester, on which he expended considerable sums of money, without, it would appear, expecting much return, is yet known by the name of "Whitehead's Folly."

William received the first rudiments of education at some common school at Cambridge, and at the age of fourteen was removed to Winchester, having obtained a nomination into that college, by the interest of Mr. Bromley, afterwards lord Moutfort. Of his behaviour while at school his biographer, Mr. Mason, received the following account from Dr. Balguy. "He was always, of a delicate turn, and though obliged to go to the hills with the other boys, spent his time there in reading either plays or poetry; and was also particularly fond of the Atalantis, and all other books of private history or character. He very early exhibited his taste for poetry; for while other boys were contented with shewing up twelve or fourteen lines, he would fill half a sheet, but always with English verse. This Dr. Burton, the master, at first discouraged; but, after some time, he was so much charmed, that he spoke of them with rapture. When he was sixteen he wrote a whole comedy. In the winter of the year 1732, he is said to have acted a female part in the Andria, under Dr. Burton's direction. Of this there are some doubts; but it is certain that he acted Marcia, in the tragedy of Cato, with much applause. In the year 1733, the earl of Peterborough, having Mr. Pope at his house near Southampton, carried him to Winchester to shew him the college, school, &c. The earl gave ten guineas to be disposed of in prizes amongst the boys, and Mr. Pope set them a subject to write upon, viz. PETERBOROUGH. Prizes of a guinea each were given to six of the boys, of whom Whitehead was one. The remaining sum was laid out for other boys in subscription to Pine's Horace, then about to be published. He never excelled in writing epigrams, nor did he make any considerable figure in Latin verse, though he understood the classics very well, and had a good memory. He was, however, employed to translate into Latin the first epistle of the Essay on Man; and the translation is still extant in his own hand. Dobson's success in translating Prior's Solomon had put this project into Mr. Pope's head, and, he set various persons to work upon it.

"His school friendships were usually contracted either with noblemen, or gentlemen of large fortune, such as lord Drumlanrig, sir Charles Douglas, sir Robert Burdett, Mr. Tryon, and Mr. Mundy of Leicestershire. The choice of those persons was imputed by some of his schoolfellows to vanity, by others to prudence; but might it not be owing to his delicacy, as this would make him easily disgusted with the coarser manners of ordinary boys? He was school-tutor to Mr. Wallop, afterwards lord Lymington, son to the late earl of Portsmouth , and father to the present earl. He enjoyed, for some little time, a lucrative place in the college, that of preposter of the hall. At the election in September, 1735, he was treated with singular injustice; for, through the force of superior interest, he was placed so low on the roll, that it was scarce possible for him to succeed to New-college. Being now superannuated, he left Winchester of course, deriving no other advantage from the college than a good education: this, however, he had ingenuity enough to acknowledge, with gratitude, in a poem prefixed to the second edition of Dr. Lowth's Life of William of Wickham."

In all this there is nothing extraordinary; nor can the partiality of his biographer conceal that, among the early efforts of his muse, there is not one which seems to indicate the future poet, although he is anxious to attribute this to his having followed the example of Pope, rather than of Spenser, Fairfax, and Milton. The Vision of Solomon, however, which he copied from Whitehead's juvenile manuscripts, is entitled to considerable praise. Even when a schoolboy he had attentively studied the various manners of the best authors; and in the course of his poetical life, attained no small felicity in exhibiting specimens of almost every kind of stanza.

Although he lost his father before he had resided at Winchester above two years, yet by his own frugality, and such assistance as his mother, a very amiable, prudent, and exemplary woman, could give him, he was enabled to remain at school until the election for New college, in which we have seen he was disappointed. Two months after, he returned to Cambridge, where he was indebted to his extraction, low as Mr. Mason thinks it, for what laid the foundation of his future success in life. The circumstance of his being the orphan son of a baker gave him an unexceptionable claim to one of the scholarships found at Clare-hall by Mr. Thomas Pyke, who had followed that trade in Cambridge. His mother accordingly got him admitted a sizar in this college, under the tuition of Messrs. Curling, Goddard, and Hopkinson, Nov. 26, 1735. After every allowance is made for the superior value of money in his time, it will remain a remarkable proof of his poverty and economy, that this scholarship, which amounted only to four shillings a week, was in his circumstances a desirable object.

He brought some little reputation with him to college, and his poetical attempts when at school, with the notice Mr. Pope had taken of him, would probably secure him from the neglect attached to inferiority of rank. But it is more to his honour that by his amiable manners and intelligent conversation, he recommended himself to the special notice of some very distinguished contemporaries, of Drs. Powell, Balguy, Ogden, Stebbing, and Hurd, not only admitted him to an occasional intercourse, but to an intimacy and respect which continued through the various scenes of their lives. In such society his morals and industry had every encouragement which the best example could give, and he soon surmounted the prejudices which vulgar minds might have indulged on the recollection of his birth and poverty.

When the marriage of the prince of Wales in 1736, and the birth of his son, the present king, called for the gratulatory praises of the universities, Whitehead wrote some verses on these subjects, which he inserted in the first collection of his poems, published in 1754, but omitted from the second in 1774. They are restored, however, to the late edition of the English Poets, as they have been reprinted in some subsequent collections; nor can there be much danger to the reputation of a poet in telling the world that his earliest efforts were not his best.

The production with which, in Mr. Mason's opinion, he commenced a poet, was his epistle On the Danger of Writing in Verse. This, we are told, obtained general admiration, and was highly approved by Pope. But that it is "one of the most happy imitations extant of Pope's preceptive manner," is a praise which seems to come from Mr. Mason's friendship, rather than his, judgment. The subject is but slightly touched, and the sentiments are often obscure. The finest passage, and happiest imitation of Pope, is that in which he condemns the licentiousness of certain poets. The tale of Atys and Adrastus, his next publication, is altogether superior to the former. It is elegant, pathetic, and enriched with some beautiful imagery. The Epistle of Anne Boleyn to Henry Vlll., which followed, will not be thought to rank very high among productions of this kind. "The truth is," says Mr. Mason, "Mr. Pope's Eloisa to Abelard is such a chef d'oeuvre, that nothing of the kind can be relished after it." Our critic has, however, done no credit to Whitehead by this insinuation of rivalship, and yet less to himself by following it with a petulant attack on Dr. Johnson. In his eagerness to injure the reputation of a man so much his superior, and with whom, it is said, he never exchanged an angry word, he would exclude sympathy from the charms which attract in the Eloisa, and, at the expence of taste and feeling, passes a clumsy sarcasm on papistical machinery.

The Essay on Ridicule was published in 1743. It is by far the best of his didactic pieces, and one upon which, his biographer thinks, he bestowed great pains. "His own natural candour led him to admit the use of this excellent (though frequently misdirected) weapon of the mind with more restrictions than, perhaps, any person will submit to, who has the power of employing it successfully." The justice of this observation is proved by almost universal experience. Pope and Swift at this time were striking instances of the abuse of a talent which, moderated by candour, and respect for what ought to be above all ridicule and all levity, might contribute more powerfully to sink vice into contempt than any other means that can be employed.

This poem is not now printed as it came from the pen of the author on its first publication. Some lines at the conclusion are omitted, in which he was afraid he had authorized too free a use of ridicule, and the names of Lucian and Cervantes, whom he held as legitimate models, are omitted, that honour being reserved for Addison only.

His next essay was the short epistle to the earl of Ashburnham on Nobility. His biographer is silent concerning it, because it was not inserted in either of the editions of his works, nor can he assign the reason, although it does not appear to be very obscure. With much excellent advice, there is a mixture of democratic reflection on hereditary titles, and insinuations respecting

Such seeming inconsistent things
As strength with ease, and liberty with kings,

which he might think somewhat uncourtly in the collected works of one who had become the companion of lords, and the Poet Laureat.

In the publication of the poems now enumerated, while at college, Mr. Mason informs us that he was less eager for poetical fame than desirous of obtaining a maintenance by the labours of his pen, that he might be less burthensome to his mother. With this laudable view, he practised the strictest economy, and pursued his studies with exemplary diligence. Whether his inclination led him to any particular branch of science we are not told. In 1739 he took his degree of bachelor of arts, and in 1742 was elected a fellow of his college. In 1743, he was admitted master of arts, and appears about this time to have had an intention to take orders. Some lines which he wrote to a friend, and which are reprinted among the additional fragments to his works, treat this intention with a levity unbecoming, that, which, if not serious, is the worst of all hypocrisy. He was prevented, however, from indulging any thoughts of the church by an incident which determined the tenour of his future life.

William, third earl of Jersey, was at this time making inquiries after a proper person to be private tutor to his second son, the late earl, and Whitehead was recommended by Mr. commissioner Graves as a person qualified for this important charge. Mr. Whitehead accepted the offer, as his fellowship would not necessarily be vacated by it, and in the summer of 1745, removed to the earl's house in town, where he was received upon the most liberal footing. A young friend of the family, afterwards general Stephens, was also put under his care, as a companion to the young nobleman in his studies, and a spur to his emulation. Placed thus in a situation where he could spare some hours from the instruction of his pupils, he became a frequenter of the theatre, which had been his favourite amusement long before he had an opportunity of witnessing the superiority of the London performers. Immediately on his coming to town, he had written a little ballad farce, entitled, The Edinburgh Ball, in which the young Pretender is held up to ridicule. This, however, was never performed or printed. He then began a regular tragedy, The Roman Father, which was produced on the stage in 1750. He appears to have viewed the difficulties of a first attempt with a wary eye, and had the precaution to make himself known to the public by the Lines addressed to Dr. Hoadly. Those to Mr. Garrick, on his becoming joint patentee of Drury-lane theatre, would probably improve his interest with one whose excessive tenderness of reputation was among the few blemishes in his character.

It is not necessary to expatiate on the merits of the Roman Father, which still retains its place on the stage, and has been the choice of many new performers who wished to impress the audience with a favourable opinion of their powers, and of some old ones who are less afraid of modern than of antient tragedy, of declamation than of passion. Mr. Mason has bestowed a critical discussion upon it, but evidently with a view to throw out reflections on Irene, which Johnson never highly valued, and on Garrick, whom he accused of a tyrannical use of the pruning-knife. To this, however, he confesses that Whitehead submitted with the humblest deference, nor was it a deference which dishonoured either his pride or his taste. He avowedly wrote for stage-effect, and who could so properly judge of that as Garrick?

The next production of our author was the Hymn to the Nymph of the Bristol Spring, in 1751, "written in the manner of those classical addresses to heathen divinities of which the hymns, of Homer and Callimachus are the archetypes." This must be allowed to be a very favourable specimen of his powers in blank verse, and has much of poetical fancy and ornament. The Sweepers, a ludicrous attempt in blank verse, would, in Mr. Mason's opinion, have received more applause than it has hitherto done, had the taste of the generality of readers been founded more on their own feelings than on mere prescription and authority. It appears to us, however, to be defective in plan: there is an effort at humour in the commencement, of which the effect is painfully interrupted by the miseries of a female sweeper taken into keeping, and passing to ruin through the various stages of prostitution.

About this time, if we mistake not, for Mr. Mason has not given the precise date, he, wrote the beautiful stanzas on Friendship, which that gentleman thinks one of his best and most finished compositions. What gives it a peculiar charm is, that it comes from the heart, and appeals with success to the experience of every man who has imagined what friendship should be, or known what it is. The celebrated Gray, according to Mr. Mason's account, "disapproved the general sentiment which it conveyed, for he said it would furnish the unfeeling and capricious with apologies for their defects; and that it ought, to be entitled A Satire on Friendship." Mr. Mason repeated this opinion to the author, who, in consequence, made a considerable addition to the concluding part of the piece. "Still, however, as the exceptionable stanzas remained, which contained an apology for what Mr. Gray thought no apology ought to be made, he continued unsatisfied, and persisted in saying, that it had a bad tendency, and the more so, because the sentiments which he thought objectionable were so poetically and finely expressed."

This is a singular anecdote; how far Gray was right in his opinion may be left to the consideration of the reader, who is to remember that the subject of these verses is school-boy friendship. Some instances of its instability Whitehead may have experienced, and the name of Charles Townshend is mentioned as one who forgot him when he became a statesman. But it is certain that he had less to complain of, in this respect, than most young men of higher pretensions, for he retained the greater part of his youthful friendships to the last, and was, indeed, a debtor to friendship for almost all he had. What Gray seems to be afraid of, is Whitehead's admission that the decay of friendship may be mutual, and from causes for which neither party is seriously to blame.

The subject of this poem is not indirectly connected with the verses which he wrote, about this time (1751) to the rev. Mr. Wright, who had blamed him for leading what some of his friends thought a dependent life, and for not taking orders, or entering upon a regular profession. For this there was certainly some plea. He had resigned his fellowship in 1746, about a year after he became one of lord Jersey's family, and with that, every prospect of advantage from his college. He had now remained five years in this family, and had attained the age of thirty-six, without any support but what depended on the liberality of his employer, or the sale of his poems. It was not therefore very unreasonable in his friend to suggest, that he had attained the age at which men in general have determined their course of life, and that his present situation must be one of two things, either dependent or precarious.

In the verses just mentioned, Whitehead endeavours to vindicate his conduct, and probably will be found to vindicate it like one too much enamoured of present ease to look forward to probable disappointment. He is content with dependence, because he has made it easy to himself; his present condition is quiet and contentment, and what can his future be more? thus ingeniously shifting the subject from a question of dependence or independence, to that of ambition and bustle. But although this will not apply generally, such was his temper or his treatment that it proved a sufficient apology in his own case. Throughout a long life, he never had cause to repent of the confidence he placed in his noble friends, who continued to heap favours upon him in the most delicate manner, and without receiving, as far as we know, any of those humiliating or disgraceful returns which degrade genius and endanger virtue.

The poems now enumerated and a few others of the lighter kind, he published in 1754 in one volume; and about the same time produced his second tragedy, Creusa, which had not the success of the Roman Father, atthough Mr. Mason seems inclined to give it the preference. But it ought not to be forgot that, with the profits arising from these theatrical productions, our author honourably discharged his father's debts.

About this time, lord Jersey determined that his son should complete his education abroad, and the late lord Harcourt having the same intentions concerning his eldest son lord viscount Nuneham, a young nobleman of nearly, the same age, Mr. Whitehead was appointed governor to both, and gladly embraced so favourable an opportunity of enlarging his views by foreign travel. Leipsic was the place where they were destined to pass the winter of 1754, in order to attend the lectures of professor Mascow on the "Droit publique." They set off in June, and resided the rest of the summer at Rheims, that they might habituate themselves to the French language, and then, passed seven months at Leipsic, with little satisfaction or advantage, for they found the once celebrated Mascow in a state of dotage, without being quite incapacitated from reading his former lectures.

In the following spring, they visited the German courts, proceeded to Vienna, and thence to Italy. On their return homeward, they crossed the Alps, and passed through Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, being prevented from visiting France by the declaration of war, and landed at Harwich in September 1756. During this tour Whitehead wrote those elegies and odes which relate to subjects inspired on classic ground, and in which he attempts picturesque imagery with more felicity than in any of his former pieces. He had, indeed, in this tour, every thing before his eyes which demanded grandeur of conception and elevation of language. He beheld the objects which had animated poets in all acres, and his mind appears to have felt all that local emotion can produce.

Mr. Mason complains that these elegies were not popular, and states various objections made to them; he does not add by whom: but takes care to inform us that the poet bore his fate contentedly, because he was no longer under the necessity of adapting himself to the public taste in order to become a popular writer. He had received, while yet in Italy, two genteel patent places, usually united, the badges of secretary and register of the order of the Bath; and two years after, on the death of old Cibber, he was appointed poet laureat. This last place was offered to Gray, by Mr. Mason's mediation, and an apology was made for passing over Mr. Mason himself, "that being in orders, he was thought, merely on that account, less eligible for the office than a layman." Mr. Mason says, he was glad to hear this reason assigned, and did not think it a weak one. It appears, however, that a higher respect w as paid to Gray than to Whitehead, in the offer of the appointment. Gray was to hold it as a sinecure, but Whitehead was expected to do the duties of the Laureat. In this dilemma, if it may be so called, Mr. Mason endeavoured to relieve his friend by an expedient not very promising. He advised him to employ a deputy to write his annual odes, and reserve his own pen for certain great occasions, as a peace, or a royal marriage: and he pointed out to him two or three needy poets who, for the reward of five or ten guineas, would be humble enough to write under the eye of the musical composer. Whitehead had more confidence in his powers, or more respect for his royal patron, than to take this advice, and set himself to compose his annual odes with the zeal that he employed on his voluntary effusions. But although he had little to fear from the fame of his predecessor, he was not allowed to enjoy all the benefits of comparison. His odes were confessedly superior to those of Cibber, but the office itself, under Cibber's possession, had become so ridiculous, that it was no easy task to restore it to some degree of public respect. Whitehead, however, was perhaps the man of all others, his contemporaries, who could perform this with most ease to himself. Attacked as he was, in every way, by "the little fry" of the poetical profession, he was never provoked into retaliation, and bore even the more dangerous abuse of Churchill, with a real or apparent indifference, which to that turbulent libeller must have been truly mortifying. He was not, however, insensible of the inconvenience, to say the least, of a situation which obliges a man to write two poems yearly upon the same subjects; and with this feeling wrote The Pathetic Apology for all Laureats, which, from the motto, he appears to have intended to reach that quarter where only redress could be obtained, but it was not published till after his death.

For some years after his return to England, he lived almost entirely in the house of the earl of Jersey, no longer as a tutor to his son, but as a companion of amiable manners and accomplishments, whom the good sense of that nobleman and his lady preferred to be the partner of their familiar and undisguised intimacy, and placed at their table as one, not unworthy to sit with guests of whatever rank. The earl and countess were now advanced in years, and his biographer informs us, that Whitehead "willingly devoted the principal part of his time to the amusement of his patron and patroness, which, it will not be doubted by those who know with what unassuming ease, and pleasing sallies of wit, he enlivened his conversation, must have made their hours of sickness or pain pass away with much more serenity." The father of lord Nuneham also gave him a general invitation to his table in town, and to his delightful. seat in the country; and the two young lords, during the whole of his life, bestowed upon him every mark of affection and respect.

During this placid enjoyment of high life, he produced The School for Lovers, a comedy which was performed at Drury-lane in 1762. In the advertisement prefixed to it, he acknowledges his obligations to a small dramatic piece written by M. de Fontenelle. This comedy was not unsuccessful, but was written on a plan so very different from all that is called comedy, that the critics were at a loss where to place it. Mr. Mason, who will not allow it to be classed among the sentimental, assigns it a very high station among the small list of our genteel comedies. In the same year, he published his Charge to the Poets, in which, as Laureat, he humorously assumes the dignified mode of a bishop giving his visitatorial instructions to his clergy. He is said to have designed this as a continuation of The Dangers of writing verse. There seems, however, no very close connection, while as a poem it is far superior, not only in elegance and harmony of verse, but in the alternation of serious advice and genuine humour, the whole chastened by candour for his brethren, and a kindly wish to protect them from the fastidiousness of criticism, as well as to heal the mutual animosities of the "genus irritabile." But, laudable as the attempt was, he had not even the happiness to conciliate those whose cause he pleaded. Churchill, from this time, attacked him whenever he attacked any, but Whitehead disdained to reply, and only adverted to the animosity of that poet in a few lines which he wrote towards the close of his life, and which appear to be part of some longer poem. They have already been noticed in the life of Churchill. One consequence of Churchill's animosity, neither silence nor resentment could avert. Churchill, at this time, had possession of the town, and made some characters unpopular, merely by joining thew with others who were really so. Garrick was so frightened at the abuse he threw out against Whitehead, that he would not venture to bring out a tragedy which the latter offered to him. Such is Mr. Mason's account, but if it was likely to succeed, why was it not produced when Churchill and his animosities were forgotten? The story, however, may be true, for when in 1770, he offered his Trip to Scotland, a farce, to Mr. Garrick, he conditioned that it should be produced without the name of the author. The secret was accordingly preserved both in acting and publishing, and the farce was performed and read for a considerable time, without a suspicion that the grave author of The Schol for Lovers had relaxed into the broad mirth and ludicrous improbabilities of farce.

In 1774, he collected his poems and dramatic pieces together, with the few exceptions already noticed, and published them in two volumes, under the title of Plays and Poems, concluding with the Charge to the Poets, as a farewell to the Muses. He had, however, so much leisure, and so many of those incitements which a poet and a moralist cannot easily resist, that he still continued to employ his pen, and proved that it was by no means worn out. In 1776 he published Variety, a tale for married people, a light, pleasing poem, in the manner of Gay, which speedily ran through five editions. His Goat's Beard, (in 1777) was less familiar and less popular, but is not inferior in moral tendency and just satire on degenerated manners. It produced an attack, entitled Asses Ears, a Fable, addressed to the author of the Goat's Beard, in which the office of Laureat is denied to men of genius, and judged worthy to be held only by such poets as Shadwell and Cibber.

The Goat's Beard was the last of Whitehead's publications. He left in manuscript the tragedy already mentioned, which Garrick was afraid to perform; the name Mr. Mason conceals, but informs us that the characters are noble, and the story domestic. He left also the first act of an Oedipus; the beginning, and an imperfect plan of a tragedy founded on king Edward the Second's resignation of his crown to his son, and of another composed of Spanish and Moorish characters; and a few small poetical pieces, some of which Mr. Mason printed in the volume to which he prefixed his Memoirs, in 1788.

After he had taken leave of the public as an author, except in his official productions, he continued to enjoy the society of his friends for some years, highly respected for the intelligence of his conversation and the suavity of his manners. His death, which took place on April 14, 1785, was sudden. In the spring of that year he was confined at home for some weeks by a cold and cough which affected his breast, but occasioned so little interruption to his wonted amusements of reading and writing, that when lord Harcourt visited him the morning before he died, he found him revising for the press a paper, which his lordship conjectured to be the birth day ode. At noon finding himself disinclined to taste the dinner his servant brought up, he desired to lean upon his arm from the table to his bed, and in that moment he expired, in the seventieth year of his age. He was interred in South Audley-street chapel.

Unless, with Mr. Mason, we conclude that where Whitehead was unsuccessful, the public was to blame, it will not be easy to prove his right to a very high station among English poets. Yet perhaps he did not so often fall short from a defect of genius, as from a timidity which inclined him to listen too frequently to the corrections of his friends, and to believe that what was first written could never be the best. Although destitute neither of invention nor ease, he repressed both by adhering, like his biographer, to certain standards of taste which the age would not accept, and like him too, consoled himself in the hope of some distant aera when his superior worth should be acknowledged. As a prose writer, he has given proofs of classical taste and reading in his Observations on the Shield of Aeneas, originally published in Dodsley's Museum, and afterwards annexed to Warton's Virgil; and of genuine and delicate humour in three papers of The World, No. 12, 19, and 58, which he reprinted in the edition of his Works, published in 1774.