1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Headley

Richard Alfred Davenport, in Chiswick British Poets (1822) 73:85-88.



HENRY HEADLEY was born at Irstead, in Norfolk, in 1766, and was the only son of the vicar of North Walsham, in the same county. At the proper age young Headley was placed under the care of Dr. Parr, who-was then master of the grammar school at Norwich. With such a tutor, and with excellent natural talents, he could not fail of making a rapid progress. His mind was likewise turned more strongly to studious pursuits by the delicacy of his constitution, and a tendency to pensiveness in his disposition, both of which unfitted him for boisterous amusements. But though sometimes pensive, he was never gloomy; he could join in the laugh, and indulge in sallies of wit and humour, and it was not easy to disturb the serenity of his temper. For poetry he displayed an early fondness, and is said to have written many verses while he was at the school of Norwich.

In January, 1782, when he was barely sixteen, he was admitted a commoner of Trinity College, Oxford; and in May was chosen a scholar of that society, he soon became intimate with many young men of worth and genius; but the two with whom he seems to have formed the closest friendship were William Benwell, and William Lisle Bowles, who were at that time scholars of Trinity College. He was an ardent friend, and it is an unequivocal proof of his merit, that he inspired those whom he loved with the same feelings towards himself.

The Reverend Thomas Warton was then senior of Trinity, where he usually resided; and his character and his writings were enthusiastically admired by Headley, to whom anecdotes of Warton were one of the most favourite subjects of converse with his companions. These anecdotes, and the perusal of his various publications, says Mr. Kett, "operated as fuel supplied to the flame of his inclination, and stimulated him to give his mind the direction which marked the course of his subsequent studies, and induced him to prefer the 'monuments of banished minds,' as existing in old English poetry, to all other literary pursuits."

After having for some time, under the signature of T. C. O., been a correspondent of the Gentleman's Magazine, he collected and revised his verses, and published them, in 1780, with the title of Poems and other Pieces. They were dedicated, in a strain of elegant compliment, to his former preceptor, Dr. Parr. Headley also wrote the sixteenth number of The Olla Podrida, an Oxford periodical paper; and he contributed to a more short-lived work of the same kind, which bore the quaint title of The Lucubrations of Abel Slug.

His next production was given to the public in the following year, when he was not quite two and twenty, and establishes his claim to be considered as a judicious critic and a man of taste. This is the Select Beauties of ancient English Poets, with Remarks, a work which will remain a lasting monument of his extensive reading, sound judgment, and correct appreciation of poetical character. At so early an age to have deserved to be placed by the side of Percy and Warton is an enviable praise, which cannot justly be denied to him. There can be no doubt that he powerfully aided to direct the public attention to our almost forgotten bards of the old school; or that the success of the Select Beauties encouraged Mr. Ellis to bring forward his Specimens of the early English Poets. It was the intention of Headley to add to his selection two volumes more, and to prepare for the press the most valuable part of the poems of Robert Southwell.

Headley quitted Oxford after having resided there three years, in the course of which period he lost his father. His college friends knew not, for some months, whither he was gone; but it was at last discovered that he had married, and retired to Matlock, in Derbyshire. It is said that, being disappointed in obtaining the hand of his Myra, he contracted a hasty marriage with another lady. Such an unadvised step is often a source of sorrow. There is, however, no reason to suppose that he had cause to regret his disappointment or his precipitate union.

The tie which Headley had formed was speedily severed by Death. For five years symptoms of a consumptive tendency in his constitution had been increasing, and they now became so alarming that it was thought necessary that he should try the effect of a milder climate. He accordingly, in May, 1788, made a voyage to Portugal, and took up his residence in the villa of M. do Vismes, at Cintra, where he was treated with the kindest attention. But all that could be done was in vain; and, finding that his disorder gained ground, he determined to return to his native country. He reached his house at Norwich in August, and after two months of severe suffering, borne with exemplary patience, he expired, in his twenty-third year, on the 15th of November, 1788; and was buried near his parents in the church of North Walsham. An elegant inscription, composed at the request of his widow, by his friend Benwell, commemorates his genius and virtues.

The poems which Headley has left us may be compared to those few faintly warbled but pleasing notes of the nightingale, which we sometimes hear in early spring, when the season is not yet sufficiently advanced for her to pour forth the full stream of her melody. They are the promise of what he might have accomplished had not his existence been prematurely closed. His fancy, though not highly creative, was elegant; and his powers of pathos and description were not inconsiderable. That he could also at times adopt a playful style is proved by his parody on Grey's Elegy, and by some of his lines to Myra: but the prevailing bias of his mind was to subjects of a pensive nature; and even his versification, partly modeled on that of our elder writers, has to my ear a mournful cadence, which is in unison with the melancholy tenor of those ideas in which he most delighted.