HENRY KIRKE WHITE was born at Nottingham, on the twenty-first of March, 1785. His father, John, was a butcher; his mother, Mary Neville, was of a respectable family in Staffordshire. Of the schoolmistress, who taught him to read and whose name was Garrington, he has drawn a pleasing picture in his verses entitled Childhood. At about six years of age he began to learn writing, arithmetic, and French, from the Rev. John Blanchard; and when out of school was employed in carrying about the butcher's basket. Some lines On being confined to School one pleasant Summer Morning, written at the age of thirteen, by which time he had been placed under the tuition of a Mr. Shipley, are nearly equal to any he afterwards produced. Next year he was made to work at a stocking-loom, preparatively to his learning the business of a hosier; but his mother, seeing the reluctance with which he engaged in an employment so ill-suited to his temper and abilities, prevailed on his father, though not without much difficulty, to fix him in the office of Messrs. Coldham and Endfield, attorneys in Nottingham. As his parents could not afford to pay a fee, he was (in 1799) engaged to serve for two years, and at the end of that term he was articled. Most of his time that could be spared from the duties of the office was, at the recommendation of his masters, spent in learning Latin, to which, of his own accord he added Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Some knowledge of chemistry, astronomy, electricity, and some skill in music and drawing, were among his other voluntary acquirements. White was one of those, who feel an early and importunate craving for distinction. He had already been chosen member of a literary society in his native town; and soon after his election, as Mr. Southey relates, "he lectured upon genius, and spoke extempore for about two hours, in such a manner, that he received the unanimous thanks of the society, and they elected this young Roscius of Oratory their Professor of Literature." He next became a writer in several of the Monthly Miscellanies; and (in 1803) put forth a volume of poems. A few words of unfortunate criticism in one of the Reviews, which in a few years more he would have learned to smile at, had nearly crushed his hopes as an author; when Mr. Southey, into whose hands both the Review and the Poems themselves chanced to fall, generously came to his relief. The protection of one so deservedly eminent could not fail of affording him some comfort: though he still complained that "the Review went before him wherever he turned his steps, that it haunted him incessantly, and that he was persuaded it was an instrument in the hands of Satan to drive him to distraction."
It is not usual to hear a poet, much less a young poet, complaining that Satan is busied about his concerns. But his mind, which had before been disposed to scepticism, was now determined with such force to an extreme of devotional feeling, as scarcely to retain its due balance. In what manner the change was effected, it is not very material to inquire; but the different accounts which Mr. Southey has given of the matter, according to the information he received at different times, may serve to shew how little dependence is to be placed on relations of this kind. At first he tells us "that Mr. Pigott, the curate of St. Mary's, Nottingham, hearing what was the bent of his religious opinions, sent him, by a friend, Scott's Force of Truth, and requested him to peruse it attentively, which he promised to do. Having looked at the book, he told the person who brought it to him, that he would soon write an answer to it; but about a fortnight afterwards, when this friend inquired how far he had proceeded in his answer to Mr. Scott, Henry's reply was in a very different tone and temper. He said, that to answer that book was out of his power, and out of any man's, for it was founded upon eternal truth; that it had convinced him of his error; and that so thoroughly impressed was he with a sense of the importance of his Maker's favour, that he would willingly give up all acquisitions of knowledge, and all hopes of fame, and live in a wilderness unknown till death, so he could ensure an inheritance in heaven." In a subsequent correction of this statement, Mr. Southey informs us that Scott's Force of Truth was put into his hands by his friend and fellow-pupil Mr. Almond, since Rector of St Peter's, Nottingham, with an entreaty that he would peruse it at his leisure: that the book produced little effect, and was returned with disapprobation; but that afterwards in a conversation with Mr. Almond, he declared his belief with much vehemence and agitation. This was soon after he had reached his eighteenth year. Maturer judgment "convinced him that 'zeal was to be tempered with discretion; that the service of Christ was a rational service', that a strong assurance ' was not to be resorted to as the touchstone of our acceptance with God,' that it was not even the necessary attendant of religious life;" as more experience of his spiritual associates discovered to him that their professions of zeal were too frequently accompanied by want of charity; and that in matters of religion, as in every thing else, they "who feel the most, generally talk the least."
That even before his conversion, as it is rather improperly called, he was not without a sense of religious duty, may be inferred from his having already chosen the Church as a profession in preference to the Law. To this alteration in his plan of life he might have been directed by a love of study, or by the greater opportunities held out to him of gratifying his literary ambition; but it is unreasonable to suppose that he would have voluntarily taken such a measure, if his own conviction had run counter to it. The attorneys to whom he was bound, were ready enough to release him; since, though well satisfied with his conduct and attention to their concerns, they perceived him to be troubled with a deafness which would incapacitate him for the practice of the law. The means of supporting him at the University were accordingly supplied by the liberality of the friends whom he had gained; and after passing a twelvemonth with the Rev. Mr. Grainger, of Winteringham in Lincolnshire, to prepare himself, he was in 1805 entered a sizar of St John's, Cambridge. Here his application to books was so intense, that his health speedily sank under it. He was indeed "declared to be the first man of his year;" but the honour was dearly purchased at the expense of "dreadful palpitations in the heart, nights of sleeplessness and horrors, and spirits depressed to the very depths of wretchedness." In July, 1806, his laundress on coming into his room at College, saw him fallen down in a convulsive fit, bleeding and insensible. His great anxiety was to conceal from his mother the state to which he was reduced. At the end of September, he went to London in search of relaxation and amusement; and in the next month, returned to College with a cough and fever, which this effort had encreased. His brother, on being informed of his danger hastened to Cambridge, and found him delirious. He recovered sufficiently to know him for a few moments; but the next day sank into a stupor, and on the 19th of October expired. It was the opinion of his medical attendants, that if he had lived his intellect would have failed him.
He was buried in All-Saints Church, Cambridge, where his monument, sculptured by Chantrey, has been placed by Mr. Francis Boott, a stranger from Boston in America.
After his death all his papers were consigned to the hands of Mr. Southey. Their contents were multifarious; they comprised observations on law; electricity; the Greek and Latin languages, from their rudiments to the higher branches of critical study; on history, chronology, and divinity. He had begun three tragedies, on Boadicea, Ines de Castro, and a fictitious story; several poems in Greek, and a translation of Samson Agonistes. The selection which Mr. Southey has made, consists of copious extracts from his letters, poems, and essays.
Mr. Southey has truly said of him, that what he is most remarkable for is his uniform good sense. To Chatterton, with whom this zealous friend and biographer has mentioned him, he is not to be compared. Chatterton has the force of a young poetical Titan, who threatens to take Parnassus by storm. White is a boy differing from others more in aptitude to follow than in ability to lead. The one is complete in every limb, active, self-confident, and restless from his own energy. The other, gentle, docile, and animated rather than vigorous. He began, as most youthful writers have begun, by copying those whom he saw to be the objects of popular applause, in his own day. He has little distinct character of his own. We may trace him by turns to Goldsmith, Chatterton, and Coleridge. His numbers sometimes offend the ear by unskilful combinations of sound, as in these lines—
But for the babe she bore beneath her breast:
While every bleaching breeze that on her blows;
And sometimes, though more rarely, they gratify it by unexpected sweetness. He could occasionally look abroad for himself, and describe what he saw. In his Clifton Grove there are some little touches of landscape-painting which are, as I think, unborrowed.
What rural objects steal upon the sight,...
The brooklet branching from the silver Trent,
The whispering birch by every zephyr bent,
The woody island and the naked-mead,
The lowly hut half hid in groves of reed,
The rural wicket and the rural stile,
And frequent interspersed the woodman's pile.
Among his poems of later date, there is one unfinished fragment in this manner, of yet higher beauty.
Or should the day be overcast,
We'll linger till the show'r be past;
Where the hawthorn's branches spread
A fragrant cover o'er the head;
And list the rain-drops beat the leaves,
Or smoke upon the cottage eaves;
Or silent dimpling on the stream
Convert to lead its silver gleam.