WILLIAM WHITEHEAD was born in Cambridge. "It would be vain," says his biographer, Mason, the poet, "to conceal that he was of low extraction; because the secret has been more than once delivered by those who gain what they think an honest livelihood by publishing the lives of the living; and it would be injurious to his memory, because his having risen much above the level of his origin bespeaks an intrinsic merit, which mere ancestry can never confer. Let it then be rather boasted than whispered, that he was the son of a baker." This is really making too much of a small thing. Every day certainly witnesses more wonderful events, than the son of a tradesman rising to the honours of a poet laureate, and the post of a travelling tutor. Why Mason should speak of the secret of his extraction being divulged, is difficult to conceive, unless we suppose that Whitehead was weak enough to have wished to conceal it; a suspicion, however, which it is not fair to indulge, when we look to the general respectability of his personal character, and to the honest pride which he evinced, in voluntarily discharging his father's debts. But, with all respect for Whitehead, be it observed, that the annals of Baking can boast of much more illustrious individuals having sprung from the loins of its professors.
His father, however, was a man of taste and expenditure, much above the pitch of a baker. He spent most of his time in ornamenting a piece of ground, near Grantchester, which still goes by the name of Whitehead's Folly; and he left debts behind him at his death, that would have done honour to the prodigality of a poet. In consequence of his father dying in such circumstances, young Whitehead's education was accomplished with great difficulty, by the strictest economy on his own part, and the assistance of his mother, whose discharge of duty to him he has gratefully recorded. At the age of fourteen, he was put to Winchester school, upon the foundation. He was there distinguished by his facility in the production of English verse; and before he was sixteen he had written an entire comedy. When the Earl of Peterborough, accompanied by Pope, visited Winchester school, in the year 1733, he gave ten guineas to be distributed in prizes among the boys. Pope prescribed the subject, which was "Peterborough," and young Whitehead was one of the six who shared the prize money. It would appear that Pope had distinguished him on this occasion, as the reputation of his notice was afterward of advantage to Mr. Whitehead when he went to the university. He also gained some applause at Winchester for his powers of acting, in the part of Mercia, in Cato. He was a graceful reciter; and is said to have been very handsome in his youth. Even his likeness, which is given in Mason's edition of his works, though it was taken when he was advanced in years, has an elegant and prepossessing countenance. It was observed, that his school friendships were usually contracted with youths superior to himself in station. Without knowing his individual associates, it is impossible to say whether vanity, worldly prudence, or a taste for refined manners, predominated in this choice; but it is observable, that he made his way to prosperity by such friendships, and he seems to have early felt that he had the power of acquiring them. At Winchester he was school-tutor to Mr. Wallop, afterward Lord Lymington, son to the Earl of Portsmouth.
At the election to New College, in 1735, he was treated with some injustice; being placed too low in the roll of candidates; and was obliged to leave Winchester, without obtaining from thence a presentation to either university. He, however, obtained a scholarship at Clare-hall, Cambridge, from the very circumstance of that low extraction for which Mason apologizes. Being the orphan son of a baker, in Cambridge, he was thought the best entitled to be put on the foundation of Pyke, who had been of that trade and town. His scholarship was worth only four shillings a week: and he was admitted as a sizar; but the inferiority of his station did not prevent his introduction to the best society; and, before he left the university, he made himself known by several publications, particularly by his Essay on the Danger of writing Verse. Having obtained a fellowship, and a master's degree, he was on the point of taking orders, when his intention was prevented, in consequence of his being invited by the Earl of Jersey to be the domestic tutor of his son, Viscount Villiers. This situation was made peculiarly agreeable to him by the kindness of the Jersey family, and by the abundant leisure which it afforded him to pursue his studies, as well as to enjoy public amusements. From frequenting the theatre, he was led to attempt dramatic composition. His first effort was a little farce, on the subject of the Pretender, which has never been published. In 1750 he brought upon the stage a regular tragedy, the Roman Father, an imitation of Corneille's Horace. Mason has employed a good deal of criticism on this drama, to prove something analogous to the connoisseur's remark on Goldsmith, "that the piece would have been better, if the artist had bestowed more pains upon it." It is acknowledged, at the same time, by his biographer, that the Roman Father was long enough in its author's hands to receive many alterations; but these had not been for the better. It was put through the mangle of Garrick's criticism; and he, according to Mason, was a lover of no beauties in a play, but those which gave an opportunity for the display of his powers of representing sudden and strong effects of passion. This remark of Mason accords with Johnson's complaint of Garrick's projected innovations in his own tragedy; "That fellow," he said, "wants me to make Mahomet mad, that he may have an opportunity of tossing his hands, and kicking his heels." For the faults of the piece, however, it is but circuitous and conjectural justice to make Garrick responsible; and, among those faults, the mode of the heroine's death is not the slightest. After Corneille's heroine has been stabbed by her brother, she appears no more upon the stage. The piece, to be sure, drags heavily after this event; for, in fact, its interest is concluded. Whitehead endeavours to conquer this difficulty by keeping her alive, after she has been wounded, in order to have a conference with her father, which she terminates by tearing the bandages off her wounds, and then expires. But the effect of her death by this process is more disagreeable than even the tedium of Corneille's fifth act. It inspires us with a sore physical shuddering instead of tragic commiseration.
In 1754 he brought out, at Drury Lane his tragedy of Creusa, a play which, though seldom read, and never acted, is by no means destitute of dramatic feeling and conception. The subject is taken from the Ion of Euripides; but with bold, and sometimes interesting alterations. In the Greek story, Creusa, Princess of Athens, who had been violated by Apollo, had concealed her shame by exposing her infant. She had afterwards married Xuthus, a military stranger, who, at her father's death, succeeded, in her right, to the throne of Athens. But their marriage-bed having proved fruitless, they arrive at Delphi, to consult the oracle for an heir. The oracle pronounces, that the first whom Xuthus shall meet in going out of the temple is his son. He meets with Ion, a youth of unknown parentage, who had been reared as a servant in the holy place, and who, in fact, is the child of Creusa, whom she had exposed. Xuthus embraces Ion for his son; and, comparing his age with the date of a love adventure, which he recollected in former times, concludes that Ion is the offspring of that amour. It is no sooner known that Xuthus has found a son of his own blood, than the tutor of Creusa exhorts the queen to resent this indignity on her childless state, and to rid herself of a step-son, who may embitter and endanger her future days. The tutor attempts to poison Ion, but fails — Creusa is pursued to the altar by her own son, who is with difficulty prevented from putting her to death; but a discovery of their consanguinity takes place — Minerva descends from heaven to confirm the proofs of it; and having predicted that Ion shall reign in Athens, and prudently admonished the mother and son to let King Xuthus remain in the old belief of his being father to Ion, leaves the piece to conclude triumphantly — Such is the bare outline of the ancient drama. Whitehead's story is entirely tragical, and stripped of miraculous agency. He gives a human father (Nicander) to (Ilyssus) the secret child of Creusa. This Nicander, the first lover of the lady, had, on the discovery of their attachment, been driven into banishment by Creusa's father, but had carried with him their new-born offspring: and both he and the infant were supposed to have been murdered in their flight from Athens. Nicander, however, had made his way to Delphi, had entrusted his child to the temple; and living in the neighbourhood, passed (under the name of Aletes) for the tutor of the mysterious orphan. Having obtained a high character for sagacity, he was consulted by the priestess Pythia herself; and he is represented as having an influence upon her responses (it is an English poet, we must recollect, and not a Greek one, who is telling the story). Meanwhile, Creusa having been forced to give her hand, without her heart, to Xuthus, is still a mourner, like Lady Randolph, when, at the end of eighteen years from the birth of Ilyssus, she comes to consult the oracle. Struck, at the first sight of llyssus, by his likeness to Nicander, she conceives an instinctive fondness for the youth. The oracle declares him heir to the throne of Athens; but this is accompanied with a rumour of bitter intelligence to Creusa, that he is really the son of Xuthus. Her Athenians are indignant at the suspicion of Xuthus's collusion with the oracle, to entail the sceptre of their kingdom on his foreign offspring. Her confidant (like the tutor in Euripides) rouses her pride as a queen, and her jealousy as a mother, against this intruder. He tries every artifice to turn her heart against Ilyssus; still she retains a partiality for him, and resists the proposal of attempting his life. At length, however, her husband insults her with expressing his triumph in his new-found heir, and reproaches her with the plebeian grave of the first object of her affection. In the first transport of her wrath she meets the Athenian enemy of Ion, and a guilty assent is wrung from her, that Ilyssus shall be poisoned at the banquet. Aletes, ignorant of the plot, had hitherto dreaded to disclose himself to Creusa, lest her agitation should prematurely interfere with his project of placing his soil on the throne of Athens. He meets her, however, at last, and she swoons at recognising him to be Nicander. When he tells her that Ilyssus is her son, she has in turn to unfold the dreadful confession of having consented to his death. She flies to the banquet, if possible, to avert his fate; and arrives in time to snatch the poisoned chalice from his hand. But though she is thus rescued from remorse, she is not extricated from despair. To Nicander she has to say, "Am I not Xuthus' wife: and what art thou!" She anticipates that the kingdom of Athens must be involved in bloodshed for her sake: one victim she deems would suffice, and determines that it shall be herself. Having, therefore, exacted an oath from Xuthus and the Athenians, that Ilyssus shall succeed to the throne of her fathers, she drinks of the fatal goblet.
The piece contains some strong situations its language is unaffected; and it fixes the attention (if I may judge from my own experience) from the first to the last scene. The pure and holy character of the young Ilyssus is brought out, I have no hesitation to say, more interestingly than in Euripides, by the display of his reverential gratitude to the queen, upon the first tenderness which she shows him, and by the agony of his ingenuous spirit, on beholding it withdrawn. And, though Creusa's character is not unspotted, she draws our sympathy to some of the deepest conceivable agonies of human nature. I by no means wish to deny that the tragedy has many defects, or to speak of it as a great production; but it does not deserve to be consigned to oblivion.
The exhibition of Creusa was hardly over, when Whitehead was called upon to attend his pupil and Viscount Nuneham, son to Earl Harcourt, upon their travels. The two young noblemen were nearly of an age, and had been intimate from their childhood. They were both so much attached to Whitehead, as to congratulate each other on his being appointed their common tutor. They continued abroad for about two years, during which they visited France, Italy, and Germany. In his absence, Lady Jersey made interest enough to obtain for him the offices of secretary and registrar of the Order of the Bath. On his return to England, he was pressed by Lord Jersey to remain with the family; and he continued to reside with them for fourteen years, except during his visits to the seat of Lord Harcourt. His pupils, who had now sunk the idea of their governor in the more agreeable one of their friend, showed him through life unremitted marks of affection.
Upon the death of Cibber, in 1757, he succeeded to the place of poet laureate. The appointment had been offered to Gray as a sinecure; but it was not so when it was given to Whitehead. Mason wonders why this was the case, when George the Second had no taste for poetry. His wonder was misplaced. If the king had a taste for poetry, he would have abolished the laureate odes. As he had not, they were continued. Our author's official lyrics are said by Mason to contain no fulsome panegyric, a fact for which I hope his word may be taken; for to ascertain it by perusing the strains themselves would be an alarming undertaking. But the laurel was to Whitehead no very enviable distinction. He had something more to pay for it than "His quit-rent ode, his peppercorn of praise" [Cowper, in Table Talk]. At first he was assailed by the hostility of all the petty tribe, among whom it is lamentable, as Gray remarks, to find beings capable of envying even a poet laureate. He stood their attacks for some time, without a sensible diminution of character; and his comedy of the School for Lovers, which was brought out in 1762, before it was the fashion to despise him, was pretty well received, as an easy and chaste imitation of the manners of well-bred life. But the same year the rabid satire of Churchill sorely smote his reputation. Poor Whitehead made no reply. Those who, with Mason, consider his silence as the effect of a pacific disposition, and not of imbecility, will esteem him the more for his forbearance, and will apply it to the maxim, Rarum est eloquenter loqui varias eloquenter tacere. Among his unpublished MSS. there were even found verses expressing a compliment to Churchill's talents. There is something, no doubt, very amiable in a good and candid man taking the trouble to cement rhymes upon the genius of a blackguard, who had abused him; but the effect of all this candour upon his own generation reminds us how much more important it is, for a man's own advantage, that he should be formidable than harmless. His candour could not prevent his poetical character from being completely killed by Churchill. Justly, some will say; he was too stupid to resist his adversary. I have a different opinion, both as to the justice of his fate, and the cause of his abstaining from retaliation. He certainly wrote too many insipid things; but a tolerable selection might be made from his works, that would discover his talents to be no legitimate object of contempt; and there is not a trait of arrogance or vanity in any one of his compositions, that deserved to be publicly humiliated. He was not a satirist; but he wanted rather the gall than the ingenuity that is requisite for the character. If his heart had been full of spleen, he was not so wholly destitute of humour as not to have been able to deal some hard blows to Churchill, whose private character was a broad mark, and even whose writings had many vapid parts that were easily assailable. Had Whitehead done so, the world would probably have liked him the better for his pugnacity. As it was, his name sunk into such a by-word of contempt, that Garrick would not admit his Trip to Scotland on the stage, unless its author was concealed. He also found it convenient to publish his pleasing tale, entitled Variety, anonymously. The public applauded both his farce and his poem, because it was not known that they were Whitehead's.
In 1769 he obtained an unwilling permission from Lord Jersey to remove to private lodgings; though he was still a daily expected guest at his lordship's table in town; and he divided his summers between the country residences of the Jersey and Harcourt families. His health began to decline about his seventieth year, and in 1785 he was carried off by a complaint in his chest. His death was sudden, and his peaceable life was closed without a groan.