1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Kirke White

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 86.



HENRY KIRKE WHITE was born, on the 21st of August, 1785, at Nottingham, where his father was a butcher. He gave early tokens of the genius for which he was afterwards distinguished; and had written verses when scarcely more than a child. While at school and wooing the Muses, however, his spirit was subdued by his occupation; on one whole day in every week, and during his leisure hours on the others, he was compelled to carry out the butcher's basket, this drudgery he was forced to exchange for one scarcely less repulsive; at the age of fourteen, the loom of a hosier was selected as a fitting labour for this "darling of Science and the Muse:" his mother, however, felt that his yearnings after fame were indications of a higher destiny, and succeeded in placing him in the office of an attorney. Here he earnestly laboured to acquire knowledge; soon "learned to read Horace with tolerable facility, and made some progress in Greek;" obtained an insight into several of the sciences; and became so conspicuous at the age of fifteen, as to be elected one of six professors in the Literary Society of his native town. Having already felt a consciousness of his natural powers, his mind was directed towards the Universities, — he was ambitious of academic distinction, yet with a very remote hope of ever attaining it. Having printed some prose and poetry in several of the Magazines, he was induced, in 1803, to endeavour to forward his darling project by publishing a small volume. The volume was harshly handled by a critic in the Monthly Review, and the hopes and aspirations of the youth seemed for a time crushed for ever. Events which appear the most ruinous are often the most propitious. The ungentle usage the young Poet had received, attracted towards him a friend, who was not only kind and generous, but already in the zenith of his reputation; the friend was Robert Southey, a man, who, from that day to this, seems to have considered it a leading duty of his life, and the highest recompense of his genius, to assist young strugglers after fame through the slough of despond which so continually surrounds them. His Memoir of White is one of the most exquisite examples of biography the English language can supply; and does as much honour to the living, as to the memory of the deceased, Poet. White achieved his object; was entered at St. John's College, Cambridge, and rapidly obtained the highest honours the University could confer upon him. All the wasting anxieties of years were now rewarded — the bud had blossomed — and the obscure and friendless youth found fame and "admiring friends." But the penalty was yet to be exacted: the ardour with which he had studied-the eager longings after immortality — the unsubdued resolve to be "marked among men," had weakened his frame; — life was the price he paid for distinction; and "Science self destroyed her favourite son."

On the 19th of October, 1806, he died: "his death," says Dr. Southey, "is to be lamented as a loss to English literature;" he adds, that "his virtues were as admirable as his genius." "Distress and poverty," says another great authority, "could not impair his mind — which death itself destroyed rather than subdued."

Nearly all the Poems of Henry Kirke White were written before he attained the age of nineteen. When he entered College, he was advised "to stifle his poetic fire for severer and more important studies — to lay a billet on the embers until he had taken his degree, and then he might fan it into a flame again." This advice he followed so scrupulously, that a few "fragments" are the only produce of his maturer years. His Remains have been among the most popular productions of the age: edition after edition has been called for; and a collection of the Works of British Poets would be imperfect if it did not contain the Poems of this "marvellous boy," — the martyr-student, the endowments of whose mind were even surpassed by the generosity of his nature, the sweetness of his disposition, the soundness of his principles, and the fervency of his piety. His poetical talent was but one of many rare excellences; a character more perfect, in every sense of the word, has rarely fallen under the notice of the biographer. Had he lived to enter the sacred profession, which latterly became the engrossing object of his thoughts, he would have been one of its brightest ornaments; and it is certain that he must have occupied a foremost station among the Poets of his country. As it is, he has left us abundant proofs of the wisdom of virtue; his, upright conduct, no less than his genius, drew friends around him; and it is to the former, even more than to the latter, that his memory is indebted for one of the most valuable tributes that ever came from the pen of a public writer.