Henry Headley

Henry Kett, "Biographical Sketch" in Headley, Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry (1810) 1:iii-xix.

HENRY HEADLEY was the only son of the Rev. Henry Headley, Vicar of North Walsham, in the county of Norfolk. He was born at Irstead, in Norfolk, in 1766. The reputation of Dr. Parr, as Master of the Grammar School at Norwich, induced Mr. Headley to place his son under his care, at a time when the Doctor had several scholars, who, as well as young Headley, afterwards displayed the great advantages they derived from his instructions. As the constitution of young Headley was naturally delicate, much of the time which his school-fellows spent in robust exercises, he devoted to writing, and many of the wild and tender effusions of his fancy proved the poetical bias of mind. These early blossoms of his genius were distributed among his friends, and some of them still cherish the remembrance of their beauty and sweetness.

On the 14th of January 1782 he was admitted a Commoner of Trinity College, in the University of Oxford, under the tuition of the Rev. Charles Jesse; and at the following election on Trinity Monday, May 27, was chosen scholar of that society. His situation in the University was as favourable as he could desire; for it not only allowed him ample scope for the expansion of his genius, and the indulgence of his literary propensities, but presented him with a full view of that living example of classical taste and learned research, which he beheld with admiration, and followed with enthusiasm. This example was the Rev. Thomas Warton, well known to the Public by his numerous works: he was at that time senior Fellow of Trinity College, and usually resided there; and the situation of Headley, as a scholar of the same College, was favourable to the contemplation of Mr. Warton's character, general manners, and habits of life. As his friends found, that no subjects were more agreeable to Headley, than anecdotes of Warton, they often fed his curiosity with a treat he so much enjoyed. The information they gave him, and the perusal of his various publications — his Poems — his Observations on Spenser — and his History of English Poetry, operated as fuel supplied to the flame of his inclination, and stimulated him to give his mind that direction which marked the course of his subsequent studies, and induced him to prefer the "monuments of banish'd minds" as existing in old English poetry, to all other literary pursuits.

The various objects which the appearance of the University of Oxford presented, could not fail to produce a powerful effect upon his imagination. The delightful gardens and public walks, the various seats of learning and piety, where heroes had been taught the lessons of honour and virtue, sages had planned their systems of philosophy, and poets had indulged their flights of fancy — the survey of the gothic battlements and lofty towers, "mantled with the moss of time," — the crisped roofs, the clustered columns, and the mellow gloom of the painted windows were all objects so closely connected with the study of antiquities, and with the history and the glory of his native country, as to give a deep tincture to his mind; they were perfectly congenial with his taste, and contributed with the before-mentioned circumstances to mature and refine it.

Meanwhile, whate'er of beautiful, or new,
Sublime, or dreadful, in earth, sea, or sky,
By chance or search, was offer'd to his view,
He scan'd with curious and romantic eye.
Whate'er of lore tradition could supply
From Gothic tale, or song, or fable old,
Rous'd him, still keen to listen and to pry.
At last, though long by diffidence control'd,
And solitude, his soul her graces 'gan unfold.
Beattie's Minstrel, Stanza 58.

Diligent as he soon became in exploring the stores of ancient English poetry, he did not allow his darling studies to engross so much of his time as to interrupt the enjoyments, or damp the ardour of social intercourse. Happily finding, in Trinity College, several of its members who were young men of talents, learning, and amiable manners, he had little difficulty in selecting his associates. He soon formed a strict intimacy with William Benwell, whose congenial taste, suavity of manners, exemplary conduct, and classical attainments, fully justified the predilection of Headley. And he was often the associate of William Lisle Bowles, who has since distinguished himself as an eminent poet. Both were scholars of Trinity College at the same time with Headley, and were nearly of the same standing; and although they were engaged in literary pursuits different from those of Headley, as that generous sympathy which animates ingenuous and cultivated understandings was the basis of their attachment, they warmly encouraged him to prosecute his favourite studies.

His long vacations, far from being passed in idle rambles from home, were devoted to his studies and the anxious discharge of his domestic duties. At this time his father was confined by an illness, which terminated in his death: the impression made upon the mind of his affectionate son, by a prospect so melancholy, may be collected from the beginning of his poem to Myra.

From these sad scenes, where care and pale dismay
Darken with deepest clouds the coming day,
Where duty breathes in vain its lengthen'd sigh,
And wipes the stagnant tear from sorrow's eye,
O'er all its hopes views hovering death prevail,
And mourns the social comforts, as they fail;
Say, can a novice Muse, though you inspire,
In artless thanks awake the sadden'd lyre?

in 1786 he produced the first collected fruits of authorship by the publication of his Poems and other Pieces. Most of them had appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, and were presented to the Public in this collection in a corrected form. They were inscribed to his preceptor Dr. Parr, whom he complimented in an appropriate passage from a modern Latin author, applied with a felicity of judgment, for which Headley was always remarkable.

In 1787, at the age of 22, he published Select Beauties of Ancient English Poets, with Remarks. The list of subscribers to this work was highly honourable to the author, consisting chiefly of a large, and very respectable number of Oxford and Norfolk friends. The Dedication to William Windham, Esq. of Felbrig, then M.P. for the city of Norwich, is neat and appropriate. That Mr. Windham took an opportunity of handsomely returning this public testimony of Headley's esteem, will appear in the course of this narrative.

Of the benevolence of Headley's disposition many instances might be adduced; the following occurred to do honour to his character during his residence in the University.

When Dr. Uri, a learned Hungarian, who had been invited to Oxford from the University of Harderwick, for the purpose of making a catalogue of the Oriental Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, was discharged by the delegates of the Oxford press with a trifling gratuity, Headley showed the greatest solicitude to save this venerable scholar from impending poverty; he contributed, with Dr. Parr, Dr. Valpy, Dr. Smyth, Master of Pembroke College, the Rev. William Agutter, the writer of this narrative, and many others, to raise an annuity for his life. Dr. Uri frequently displayed his various knowledge of books, and recounted the adventures of his youthful days with a peculiar quaintness of narrative, and a diverting mixture of various languages, to the many parties made for him in Trinity College, and to no one of its members was he a more welcome guest than to Headley; and he cherished to the close of life for no one of his benefactors a warmer or more grateful attachment.

As a tribute of respect to Dr. Uri, Headley gave a sketch of his character in a Latin inscription, written under his profile, which, for terseness of expression, may pass as an extract from a classical author.

He was an occasional contributor of many ingenious pieces to the Gentleman's Magazine, under the signature of C. T .O. and wrote the Essay, No. 16, in the Olla Podrida, a periodical work, published in Oxford in 1788, by the Rev. Thomas Monro, an intimate friend, and one of his old school-fellows, then a Demy of Magdalen College. This Essay contains some excellent observations on ancient and modern tragedy.

He left Trinity College after having resided there for the greater part of three years. The extreme concern he felt on quitting the University, he expressed in the beautiful and pathetic poem (page 207, Vol. ii.) which was never before printed correctly, and for which the Public are indebted to the kindness of his amiable sister, Mrs. Parish, of Guilford-Street, London.

For some months after he left Oxford, the inquiries of his college friends for his place of residence were vain: it at length appeared that he was married, and had retired to Matlock, in Derbyshire, pleased with such a sequestered retreat, and the wild scenery of the country, which accorded with the romantic turn of his mind.

The symptoms of a consumptive tendency in his constitution, which had been increasing for some years, were now so strongly confirmed, and he became so alarmingly indisposed, that his physician advised him to try the benefit of a warmer climate, and to take a voyage to Lisbon. Thither he determined to go, without delay, and his friend Benwell, excited by the most poignant sympathy, hastened to London to take leave of him. With what sensations the meeting and the parting of two such friends were attended under such distressing circumstances, may be more easily imagined than can adequately be described. Harassed by an incessant cough, and unaccompanied by any one he knew, Headley had the resolution to undertake this voyage in May 1788, but on landing at Lisbon, far from feeling any effectual relief, found himself oppressed by the heat of the climate. A few days would probably have terminated his life, had he not availed himself of a letter of recommendation kindly given to him by Mr. Windham to Mr. De Visme.

This gentleman, anxious to meliorate the deplorable state of Headley's health, conveyed him to his beautiful villa near Cintra, allotted spacious apartments for his use, procured for him an able physician, amused him with his elegant books and pictures, and gave him every facility of deriving the desired benefit from the change of climate.

His malady had however made too great a progress to be stopped by such expedients: and as he found he received no material benefit from his residence in Portugal, he returned to England in the month of August, to his house in Norwich. After suffering to such a degree, as to put his patience to a very severe trial, he died on the 15th of November 1788, in the 23d year of his age.

He was buried near his parents and two sisters, in the church of North Walsham, in Norfolk. A plain black marble slab, stating the periods of his death and his age, was put up to his memory, near a monument which had been erected by his desire to the memory of his father.

The following epitaph was written at the request of his widow, by the Rev. W. Benwell, and is now for the first time made public.

Son of the Rev. HENRY HEADLEY, and late of Trinity College, Oxford,
Who died November 15, 1788,
His mournful Widow placed this stone.
With genius and literary abilities eminently distinguished,
With an imagination the most vigorous and judgment the most penetrating,
And a taste for whatever was excellent in art or nature,
In all his pleasures most pure, elegant, and refin'd,
In his friendships ardent and unchanging,
In his affections as a husband most tender and exalted;
Beloved, admired, and reverenced
By the few whose happiness it was
To know his uncommon merits and qualifications.
He supported for more than five years
A state of almost unremitted pain and illness,
With a fortitude and manliness of mind,
That was never stimulated to severity, or subdued into complaint;
And fell an early and much-lamented sacrifice
To a lingering consumption,
In his twenty-third year.

With respect to his person, he was of middle stature, thin, and delicately formed. Lavater might have taken a useful hint from his physiognomy, for his features were remarkably expressive. When he was in health, his cheeks glowed with the tints of the damask-rose, his face was the index of genius and sensibility; and in the moments of social intercourse, when he was animated by some favourite subject, his eyes sparkled with extraordinary vivacity.

There was a charm in his society, which all acknowledged, who came within the sphere of its influence. The stream of his conversation was rather rapid than diffuse; rather bright than profound. He caught the peculiarities of different characters with wonderful quickness, and described them with matchless humour: he excelled in original and lively sallies of imagination; yet his wit was free from malevolence, for he was perfectly good-natured, and his ridicule was as often turned upon himself as it was levelled against others.

The writer of this narrative recollects but one instance of his anger. His resentment was roused by an unfounded insinuation, that he preferred the company of some of his acquaintance of another college, because they were of superior rank to his friends at Trinity. This gust of his passion was violent though short. Such a noble wind as his could recognize no predilection for associates, but that which depended upon merit alone.

He was high spirited without arrogance, and elevated without pride. Nothing could be more abhorrent from his disposition than the cringing of the sycophant, or the abject servilities of the flatterer. Although he had smarted under the discipline of his old master, he recounted many instances of his kindness, and he would not have paid the compliment of a Dedication of his Poems, even to Dr. Parr himself, had he not regarded him as a person of transcendent worth: to such worth alone he made his obeisance; and when Headley offered the incense of his praise, it was the sacrifice made by genius upon the altar of gratitude.

When suffering the attacks of indisposition, he showed great firmness of mind and cheerfulness of temper. There was indeed a buoyancy in his disposition, that elevated him above the weight of his malady, and which seldom failed to display itself in the most agreeable manner, on the appearance of any one of his friends, who might truly exclaim in the words of his favourite poet Shirley—

—I often saw
A smile shoot graceful upward from his eyes,
As if they had gain'd a victory over grief.

It would be difficult to find a person actuated by keener sensibility: his mind was accordingly the genial soil in which friendship took a rapid and a deep root, and soon bore the most delicious fruits. His heart beat with all the tenderness, and his actions displayed all the energetic charities of a son, a brother, a husband, and a friend.

When his life was verging towards its close, and the fire of his imagination began to be damped by his sufferings, his sympathies continued to be ardent and energetic; the kindness of his friends was still his predominant and favourite topic of conversation, and he only ceased to recount the instances of their attachment when he ceased to breathe.

Considered as a Poet, he displayed some of the mature fruits as well as the tender blossoms of genius. His verses were for the most part pleasing, elegant, spirited, and nervous, but generally of a pensive cast: his strains were those of the plaintive nightingale, rather than of the cheerful lark: his poetry was the exact picture of his mind, the image of his genuine feelings; it arose naturally out of the different situations of his life: he was born and occasionally resided near the sea: he delighted, therefore, to describe those scenes, amid which, in his days of health, he had taken delight to ramble;

On those lov'd shores, where Yare with ceaseless sweep
Joins the dark bosom of the fearful deep.

He was a great admirer of good pictures — his taste as a connoisseur suggested to him the following appropriate description, and his gallantry prompted him to convert it into a high and very elegant compliment to a lady.

Slaves to the laws of taste, let some admire
Paulo's bold stroke, or vivid Titian's fire;
With critic skill, and just precision, trace
Poussin's learn'd air, or soft Corregio's grace.
In mute amaze let others trembling stand,
And feel the dark sublime of Rosa's hand;
Be mine the task their varied styles to view,
And mark their blended beauties met in you.

He disdained to be a competitor for fame with those whose merit consisted merely in writing sonorous and empty verses; but the excellence he aimed at, and that which he attained, consisted in the display of vivid images and vigorous expressions, faithful delineations of nature, and rich melody of versification. The following specimens may serve to confirm these remarks, and it will not be easy to find two poems of the kind superior to them in point of sweetness and tenderness. The former has much of the manner of Shakspeare, the latter of Pope.

No noise I heard, but all was still as death,
Save that at times a distant dying note
Of spirit unseen, or Heaven's minstrelsy,
Would indistinctly meet my ravished ear;
Such as was never heard from harp or lute,
Or waked into a voice by human hand,
Ah, Philomel, the strain was thine!—
POEMS, vol. ii. p. 182.

Ye pamper'd favourites of base mankind,
Whether with riches poor, or learning blind,
From your distracted views oh pause awhile,
And hear a brother's tale without a smile;
And let contrition note how much is due
To all the generous cares I owe to you.
Whilst fatt'ning pomp secure in cumb'rous state,
His scanty crumbs withheld, and barr'd his gate,
Nor sullen deign'd with scorn's averted eye
The cheaper tribute of a selfish sigh,
The neediest suppliant of sorrow's train
For bread I hungering sought, and sought in vain;
Each petty solace thus by you denied,
With sleepless watch Fidelio supplied:
When Winter wet with rain my trembling beard,
My falling tear he felt, my groan he heard,
When my grey locks at night the wild wind rent,
Like withered moss upon a monument,
What could he more? against the pitiless storm
He lent his little aid to keep me warm;
Even now as parting with his latest breath,
He feels the thrilling grasp of coming death,
With all that fond fidelity of face,
That marks the features of his honest race,
His half uplifted eye in vain he moves,
And gasps to lick the helpless hand he loves.—
POEMS, vol. ii. p. 186.

With respect to his proficiency as a scholar, it would be unjust to his reputation not to remark, that he was particularly well acquainted with the Greek tragedians, and was skilled in Latin composition. He often conversed on the pathos of Euripides, the simple energy of the Greek epigrammatists, the copiousness of Cicero, and the fire of Lucan, with the accuracy of one who well understood their phraseology, and highly relished their original beauties: he has enriched his works with critical and illustrative remarks drawn from these and other classical sources.

Of few scholars could it be more truly said — "Nihil legebat, quod non excerpebat." He reaped the produce of many fields, but conveyed few weeds, mixed with corn, into his granary: his commonplace book, which was always at hand, attested at once the extent of his researches, and the judicious nature of his extracts from every book he read.

As the Author of the Select Beauties of ancient English Poetry, with Remarks, he has given proofs of great diligence and critical skill. He performed in this work more than he promised; for he included under the unostentatious and general term Remarks, a Preface, Introduction, Biographical. Sketches, Notes, and a Supplement. The rigid critic may complain that this work bears marks of negligence and precipitation — but the same severity would induce him to censure a beautiful face for its freckles, or a diamond for a slight flaw. Such a critic would be uncandid and unjust not to allow, that Headley has executed much more in point of quantity, and completed his design much better in point of judgment, than could be expected from a person so young, and whose health was extremely precarious. His principles of criticism are sound, his remarks are pertinent, and they are often made with a degree of acuteness, force, and discrimination, that would have done credit even to a Johnson, or a Walpole.

The collection of the twenty-nine Biographical Sketches of the old English Poets may be considered as a rich cabinet of exquisite portraits, finished with all the truth and spirit of a Vandyke. They possess a peculiar delicacy of touch, and fidelity of character. The colours are vivid, the features of each person are discriminated with the greatest precision; and we have only to regret, that we have no more compositions of the kind from the same masterly hand.

The following Selections afford ample specimens of his diligence as well as of his talents and his taste. He was obliged to travel through many a dreary and extensive forest of old English Poetry, often without a guide, before he could find and select the beautiful garland of flowers, which he has presented to the Public. Much of the work was executed when his spirits were drooping, when he was depressed by grief, or afflicted with pain: his work was intended to be as much a solace amid his sufferings, as a monument of his fame. It may, however, justly be pronounced to be one of the most curious and pleasing collections of the kind in our language, and may deservedly be classed with Percy's Reliques of ancient English Poetry, and Ellis's Specimens of early English Poets. Had it pleased Divine Providence to prolong his life, and bless him with health, he would have completed his plan by publishing two additional volumes, as well as the better part of Robert Southwell's Poetry. His more mature age would have justified all other promises of his youth, and he would not only have been, as it seems just to surmise, a most distinguished ornament to the literature of his country, as a critic and an antiquarian, but probably would have gained a nich in the Temple of the British Poets above Warton, and very near to Pope. A fatal malady prevented the growth of some of his laurels, but not before others had produced such branches as those who do justice to his memory and his productions, will ever delight to see thriving in the most fair and flourishing state.

The Select Beauties were spoken of in terms of just commendation by various reviewers. The following are the concluding observations in the Monthly Review for January 1788.

"The Selections are made from an attentive perusal of the respective authors, and exhibit complete and satisfactory specimens of their different modes of writing. A work executed as this is, with diligence and taste, is an acquisition to English literature. It brings to light a number of poetical beauties, which before were hardly known to exist; and by separating them from those dull and jejune pieces, among which they were buried, restores to their authors that fame which could be revived by no other means."