WILLIAM WHITEHEAD, a poet of considerable eminence, and who rose to the laurel, was a native of Cambridge, where he received the first rudiments of learning, but was afterwards removed to Winchester, in which situation he gained much applause for his poetical compositions.
Being superannuated, and consequently deprived of the advantage of an election to New College, he returned to his family at Cambridge, and was admitted a sizer of Clare-Hall, in which humble situation, the respectability of his talents, and the amiableness of his manners, procured him the countenance of many friends, who promoted his future fortune.
In 1741, he published his epistle on The Danger of Writing Verse, which obtained general admiration: and next year he was elected a fellow of Clare-Hall, and seems at one period to have formed the resolution of taking orders; but having been recommended as tutor to Lord Villiers, son of the Earl of Jersey, he gave so much satisfaction in the family, that his lordship wished to attach him wholly to himself; and in compliance with his pleasure, Whitehead resigned his fellowship, and gave up all thoughts of the church, He amused himself, however, with literary composition; and in 1750, his tragedy of The Roman Father was acted on the stage of Drury-Lane, where it was received with distinguished applause. In 1754 he collected his works into a volume; and in the spring of the same year brought forward his Creusa, which likewise gained a considerable portion of favor. A few months after, in company with his pupil Lord Villiers, and his friend Lord Nuneham, son of the Earl of Harcourt, Whitehead set out for the continent; and having made the grand tour, returned to England in 1756. It was during this period that he wrote his beautiful Ode to the Tiber, and his six elegies, which are the most popular of his poems, and breathe all the spirit of the muses.
During this absence from his native country, Whitehead, through the interest of his patrons, had received the badges of secretary and register of the order of the Bath: and in 1757 he was appointed poet laureat, which Office he held to the day of his death, and acquitted himself in it with a considerable share of credit. If his odes are inferior to those of his successors, Warton and Pye, they are infinitely above the level of the compositions of his predecessors.
From time to time the laureat favoured the public with different pieces of no small merit, but which require no distinct enumeration. He died at his lodgings in London, April 14, 1785, in the 70th year of his age, and was buried in South Audley-street chapel.
His character, which has few prominent features, may easily be collected from this account of his life. He appears to have been a very amiable man, and lived in intimacy with the great: virtuous, caressed, and respected. All his friends bear ample testimony to his unaffected piety, unblemished integrity, engaging politeness, inviolable truth, steadiness in friendship, and the unassuming ease and sprightliness of his conversation. He was a man of good breeding, virtue, and humanity. He died, retaining all his faculties more perfectly than is usually the lot of those who dive to such an age. Of these his memory was the most remarkable, which being always strong, continued to that late period with no diminution of vigour; and as his reading and observation had been far more extensive and various than he had occasion to exhibit in that mode of writing which he chiefly employed to convey his sentiments, this accurate retention, of what he had by study acquired, made him a living library, always open to communicate its treasures to his acquaintance, without obtruding itself by any ostentatious display, or assumed superiority. As a poet, be is characterized by elegance, correctness, and ease, more than by energy, enthusiasm, or sublimity.
The most prominent feature in his poetry seems an innocent and pleasant humour. He is never dull or absurd in his serious pieces; his taste and his judgment were too good to pardon insipidity, or impropriety, even in himself; but there is certainly more facility, as well as originality in his humorous than his serious writings.