1818 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Headley

William Beloe, in The Sexagenarian (1818) 1:172-78.



Here let a tribute of the tenderest affection and regret be paid to the memory of one of these bright gems, whose lustre was too soon, alas! how soon obscured in the dark unfathomed cave of death. He who employs the pen now used in delineating the character before us, knew him in boyish days, witnessed the earliest dawning of his genius, viewed his progress with delight and astonishment, occasionally aided his literary labours, remarked also that no common anguish the approach of that incurable malady, which finally and abruptly hurried him to his grave.

Henry's father was a clergyman, discharging humbly and meritoriously his professional duties in a country village. He discerned early marks of superior talents in his son, and placed him under a distinguished master, whose instructions have produced many eminent men and accomplished scholars.

The youth's health was always delicate, which gave him a propensity to retirement, to books, and particularly to poetry. There was a characteristic taste, delicacy, and feeling, in his earliest productions, which will at this distant period stand the test of the severest criticism. Under the instructor above alluded to, he became a very good, if not a very profound scholar; and he went to the university of Oxford with the greatest ardour for literary pursuits, still retaining his early prepossessions in favour of poetry.

The bias which he took towards ancient English poetry, and the perseverance and zeal with which he pursued and cultivated a knowledge of the earliest English poets, probably arose from his introduction to Thomas Warton, whose History of English Poetry, and other productions in illustration of our ancient bards, were his great and constant favourites. With the feelings which this kind of reading inspired, aided by the delicate frame of his constitution, and the natural sensibility of his temper, he at this period wrote some beautiful pieces of poetry, which he was induced to print. They were soon disposed of, and were for a long time enumerated among the scarce tracts of our language, but they have since been reprinted with an accurate biographical sketch.

It was not at all likely that such exquisite susceptibility of mind and temper as characterized our friend, should be a long time without fixing on one individual object, to share his tenderness and sympathy. This accordingly happened, but "hinc illae lacrymae." He surrendered himself a willing captive to the charms of a lovely and accomplished woman, of the same age and similar propensities with himself, and with respect to whom, there was but one thing wanted to secure to a union between them, as much of happiness as can be the lot of humanity. The attachment was supposed to be reciprocal; this is to appearance implied by the following fragment, written, as it should seem, on revision of some verses composed by the lady in question.

The time was once when oft the long day through,
Far, far too busy for my present peace,
O'er these the pensive fablings of your muse
I hung enamoured, whilst with anxious glance
The kindred feelings of my youthful years
In visionary view full glad I found,
And blissful dreams familiar to my heart,
O'er which sweet Hope her gilding pall had flung.
Such, oh! such scenes, with Myra to have shared,
Was all my fruitless prayers ere asked of Fate.

* * * * * *

Mischance stood by, and watched, and at an hour
When least I thought her near, with hasty hand
All my fair pictured hopes at once defaced.

The lines which follow are much too beautiful to require any apology for insertion.

The traveller thus when louring skies impend,
In sorrowing silence leaning on his staff,
From some ascent his weary steps have gained,
Breathless looks back, and pausing, wonders well
The lengthened landscape past: now hid he finds
Mid far off mists and thick surrounding showers
Each city, wandering stream, and wildering wood,
Where late in joy secure he journeyed blythe,
Nor met the phantom of a single fear,
Where every cloud illumined by the sun,
Hung lovely, and each zephyr fragrance breathed.
(Caetera desunt).

The obstacle, however, could not be removed, and it was deemed expedient and prudential that the connection should be dissolved. It was so, but our friend never got the better of the shock, which his sensibility sustained. He absented himself from his friends, and when he again appeared among them, he introduced a wife; but such a wife! — no more like her by whom he had been rejected, than he himself to Hercules. Who she was, where he found her, why he married her, are matters which, if known at all, can only be so to a very few. But the vessel was too much shaken, and battered, and crazy, to weather many of the gales of life. There was deadly and corrosive poison lurking within. It was deemed advisable that he should try the air of Lisbon. He prepared to do so, and in his progress thither, before he embarked, he visited him who now pays this tribute to his memory. But oh how altered! He was also alone; he who wanted, he who merited every care, every attention of the tenderest sympathy, had, when approaching almost to the last stage of pulmonary decay, no friend, no companion, no kindness to soothe his sufferings, or cheer him on his way. Shame! shame! shame! She whose duty, if not affection, should have prompted her to undertake the benevolent office, remained behind; and if not foully slandered, went to the theatre with a paramour, within an hour after parting with her husband, with every probability of seeing him no more. She married this same fellow afterwards; but both are dead, and may God forgive them.

But as we were saying, he proceeded to Lisbon, where he would have died a victim to the want of proper attention and attendance, but that the incidental recommendation of a friend, procured for him hospitality of no ordinary kind or extent. All was, however, unavailing, and he returned without benefit. He did not survive a great while afterwards, but to the last, retained his native sweetness of temper, unruffled by sufferings, and his elegance of taste and powers of intellect, unclouded and undiminished. Peace to his ashes. A purer spirit has not heaven. He died at the early age of twenty-four; yet in that short interval, he directed the national taste to the investigation of natural and simple beauties, which had long lurked unnoticed and unknown, in the productions of our earlier bards; and had he lived, would, beyond all doubt, have pursued the course of his studious propensities, and have brought to maturity somewhat of still greater importance to the literature of his country.

A few specimens of this young man's taste and talents will be found in the Appendix, but the following Song ["The Sentiments borrowed from Shakspeare," now attributed to William Collins], which is not printed with his works, seems to merit insertion here.