1879 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Whitehead

Walter Hamilton, in The Poets Laureate (1879) 182-90.



Come, METHOD, come in all thy pride,
DULLNESS and WHITEHEAD by thy side,
DULLNESS and METHOD still are one,
And WHITEHEAD is their darling son.
* * * * * *
But HE, who in the Laureat chair,
By Grace, not Merit, planted there
In awkward pomp is seen to sit,
And by his Patent prove big wit.
CHURCHILL. "THE GHOST."

When the Duke of Devonshire (then Lord Chamberlain) offered the laureateship to Gray, he made the remarkable suggestion that the poet should hold the office as a sinecure, and be excused from writing the usual odes.

In a letter to his friend and biographer, Mason, Gray explains his reasons for declining this very handsome offer:—

"I hope you couched my refusal to Lord John Cavendish in as respectful terms as possible, and with all due acknowledgments to the Duke. If you hear who it is to be given to, pray let me know, for I interest myself a little in the history of it, and rather wish somebody may accept it, that will retrieve the credit of the thing if it be retrievable, or ever had any credit. Rowe was, I think, the last man of character that had it; Eusden was a person of great hopes in his youth, though at last he turned out a drunken parson; Dryden was as disgraceful to the office from his character, as the poorest scribbler could have been from his verses:—

"The office itself has always humbled the possessor hitherto; if he were a poor writer, by making him more conspicuous; and if he were a good one, by setting him at war with the little fry of big own profession; for there are poets little enough even to envy a poet laureat."

Mason was also proposed for it; but he says that Lord John Cavendish made the apology to him, "that being in orders, he was thought less eligible than a layman." This could scarcely have been the true motive for not selecting Mason, as clergymen had held the office previously; it was then conferred upon Whitehead, and unsolicited, if, as Whitehead says:—

The following fact is true
From nobler names, and great in each degree,
The pension'd laurel has devolv'd to me,
To me, ye bards; and what you'll scarce conceive,
Or, at the best, unwillingly believe,
Howe'er unworthily I wear the crown,
Unask'd it came, and from a hand unknown.
A CHARGE TO THE POETS.

That Mr. Mason was a little nettled at being passed over may be judged from the sarcastic remark he inserted on the subject in his life of Whitehead, that:—

"He wonders the privilege offered to Gray, of holding the office as a sinecure, was not also offered to Mr. Whitehead; as the King (George II.) would readily have dispensed with hearing poetry, for which he had no taste, and music for which he had no ear."

It was not until the appointment of Robert Southey, that the Duke of Devonshire's suggestion of ceasing to write official odes was adopted.

To return to Whitehead, of whose uneventful life there is little to be said, and of whose literary merits a contemporary author remarked:—

Next Whitehead came, his worth a pinch of snuff,
But for a Laureat, — he was good enough.

He was born at Cambridge in 1715, and was the son of a respectable baker. He was educated at Winchester school, and showed a taste for poetry at an early age; on one occasion this taste brought him under the notice of Pope, who paid a visit to the school in 1733, with the Earl of Peterborough.

The Earl offered a guinea each to those six youths who should compose the best poems on a subject to be chosen by Mr. Pope. The selected topic was the Earl's warlike career, and Whitehead was one of the six successful competitors. Having obtained a scholarship, he entered at Clare Hall, Cambridge, in the humble capacity of a sizar, and was made Master of Arts in 1742. He then became tutor to the son of the Earl of Jersey, in whose house he passed the greater part of his quiet and inoffensive life.

Whitehead's poems present few remarkable features, the style is formed upon that of Pope, lacking however the brilliant wit and polished versification of his master.

When he obtained the laureatship (through the interest of his patron, the Earl of Jersey), Mason, it is said, advised him to employ a deputy to write the necessary annual odes, in order to reserve his own powers, unaffected by this tedious monotony of song; that then on rare occasions, with a more interesting topic, as a royal marriage, or declaration of peace, the merit of his own verses would strike the public with surprise.

Whitehead disregarded this advice; he wrote the usual official poems, which had the negative merit of being considered superior to those of his predecessor; and he was engaged in the composition of a birthday ode when he died.

One of the most interesting of Whitehead's odes is the one for the New Year 1761, in which, after deploring the horrors of war, and rejoicing over the victories in Canada, he thus celebrates the accession of George III.:—

—And who is he, of regal mien,
Reclin'd on Albion's golden fleece,
Whose polish'd brow, and eye serene
Proclaim him elder born of Peace?
Another GEORGE! —ye winds, convey
Th' auspicious name from pole to pole!
Thames, catch the sound, and tell the subject sea
Beneath whose sway its waters roll.
The hoary Monarch of the deep,
Who sooth'd its murmurs with a father's care,
Doth now eternal sabbath keep,
And leaves His trident to his blooming Heir.
O, if the Muse aright divine,
Fair Peace shall bless his opening reign,
And through its splendid progress shine,
With every art to grace her train.
The wreaths, so late by Glory won,
Shall weave their foliage round his throne,
Till kings, abash'd, shall tremble to be foes,
And Albion's dreaded strength secure the world's repose.

These poetical aspirations for peace were not destined to be realised in the long and turbulent reign that ensued, when "Albion's dreaded strength" was wasted on a hundred bloody battle-fields, and costly, useless, and unsuccessful wars impoverished the nation, and drove the starving people to the verge of a revolution.

Whitehead was more successful as a dramatist than as a poet. He wrote two tragedies, The Roman Father (an imitation of Les Horaces, of Corneille) and Creusa, Queen of Athens, which he dedicated to the Earl of Jersey. A comedy, called The School for Lovers, in which Garrick and Mrs. Cibber played the leading characters; and the farce entitled A Trip to Scotland. This had considerable success, and, when printed, was dedicated to David Garrick.

As Laureate, Whitehead did not escape the usual fate of being lampooned by the envious wits, and small poets of his day. Foremost amongst his antagonists was the witty, but unprincipled Churchill, to whose biting sarcasms Whitehead was unable to reply effectively in verse, he therefore treated them with mild contempt, contenting himself with the remark:—

Hence I, though older far, have lived to see,
Churchill forgot, an empty shade like me.

In his Charge to the Poets, a harmless, somewhat heavy poem, Whitehead presumed to dictate to his brother bards:—

Then since my King and Patron have thought fit
To place me on the throne of modern wit,
My grave advice, my brethren, bear at large,
As Bishops to their Clergy give their charge.

Churchill would not acknowledge his supremacy, and replied:—

Thee, WHITEHEAD, Thee I now invoke,
Sworn foe to Satyr's gen'rous stroke,
Which makes unwilling conscience feel,
And wounds, but only wounds to heal.
Good natur'd, easy creature, mild,
And gentle as a new-born child,
Thy heart would never once admit
E'en wholesome rigour to thy wit,
Thy head, if Conscience should comply,
Its kind assistance would deny,
And lend thee neither force, nor art,
To drive it onward to the heart.
O may thy sacred power controul
Each fiercer working of my soul,
Damp every spark of genuine fire,
And languors, like thine own, inspire;
Trite he each Thought, and ev'ry Line
As moral, and as Dull as THINE.

Some of Whitehead's shorter poems have an agreeable tone of gaiety and sprightliness; The Song for Ranelagh is one of the most pleasant in its style:—

Ye belles, and ye flirts, and ye pert little things,
Who trip in this frollicksome round,
Pray tell me from whence this impertinence springs,
The sexes at once to confound?
What means the cocked hat and the masculine air,
With each motion design'd to perplex?
Bright eyes were intended to languish, not Stare,
And softness the test of your sex.

The girl who on beauty depends for support,
May call every art to her aid;
The bosom display'd and the petticoat short,
Are samples she gives of her trade.
But you on whom fortune indulgently smiles,
And whom pride has preserv'd from the Snare,
Should slyly attack us with coyness, and wiles,
Not with open, and insolent war.

The VENUS, whose statue delights all mankind,
Shrinks modestly back from the view,
And kindly should seem by the artist design'd
To serve as a model for you.
Then learn, with her beauty, to copy her air,
Nor venture too much too reveal;
Our fancies will paint what you cover with care,
And double each charm you conceal.

The blushes of morn, and the freshness of May,
Are charms that no art can procure;
O be but yourselves, and our homage we pay,
And your empire is solid and sure.
But if, Amazon like, you attack your gallants,
And put us in fear of our lives,
You may do very well for sisters and aunts,
But, believe me, you'll never be wives.

He is here alluding to the very reprehensible practice of ladies appearing in male costume at the Ranelagh masquerades, which, although only attended by fashionable society, were conducted in such a lax manner, that the guards placed in the rooms were found of little service in maintaining order and decorum.

Whitehead's last poetical work, except indeed the official odes, was a fable called The Goat's Beard, published in 1777. This peculiarly feeble poem is founded on some lines of Phaedrus, which relate that when the she goats had, by their entreaties, obtained from Jupiter the privilege of having beards, as well as the males, the he goats grew angry, and complained that the god had degraded their dignity, by admitting females to equal honours with themselves.

To which Jove replied:—

"That if they would take care to preserve the real and essential advantages which their sex gave them over the other, they would have no reason to be dissatisfied with letting them participate in what was merely ornamental."

This slender plot Whitehead treated as an allegory, changing the goats into men and women, for whose benefit he enlarges the eight pithy lines of Phaedrus into about 800 dull ones of his own.

The Goat's Beard was answered by an attack entitled, Asses' Ears, a Fable, in which the office of laureat is denied to men of genius, and judged worthy to be held only by such men as the present possessor, a Cibber, or a Shadwell.

Whitehead, in addition to the laureatship, held the office of Registrar and Secretary to the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. He died April 14, 1785, at the age of seventy, and was buried in South Audley Street chapel.

AN EPITAPH ON W. WHITEHEAD, ESQ.
INTENDED FOR HIS MONUMENT IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY.
Beneath this stone a Poet Laureat lies,
Nor great, nor good, nor foolish, nor yet wise
Not meanly humble, nor yet swell'd with pride.
He simply liv'd — and just as simply died:
Each year his Muse produced a Birth Day Ode,
Compos'd with flattery in the usual mode:
For this, and but for this, to George's praise,
The Bard was pension'd, and receiv'd the Bays.

THE LAUREAT.
AN ODE.
That Laurel, once by Dryden worn,
But since by many dunces borne,
Each rival dunce cry'd fie on!
The boasted laurel was, they said,
No more than a poor —,
At Court call'd Dann-de-Lion.

For scenes of comedy renown'd,
And justly for his acting crown'd,
The prince of fops and folly;
For kings, nor poetry regarding,
And writing odes not worth one farthing,
Long liv'd the Laureat Colly.

Him, Pope assail'd by legions backed
And often to his couplets tack'd
The name of idle Cibber;
Yet Coll, unskill'd in long and short,
Made in plain prose a smart retort
To Pope a damn'd Grim Gribber.

Will. Whitehead bade the reign commence
Of Birth-day odes and common sense;
And there his efforts rested;
True poetry, by genius fir'd,
Billy's cold bosom ne'er inspir'd;
For Bill was chicken-breasted.

Warton, on Greek and Roman base,
Rescued the laurels from disgrace,
With fame no foes shall hinder.
Blest with the gift of ev'ry tongue,
Themes Royal royally he sung,
A HORACE, and a PINDAR!

Warton, I know you'll ne'er repine
That witlings carp at ev'ry line,
And with your lyricks quarrel.
Alas! from party, spite, or whim,
Such ever is the fate of him
Who boasts the Royal laurel.