1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Headley

Edgar, "Henry Headley" Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction 3 (28 February, 6 March 1824) 133-35, 154-55.



HENRY HEADLEY was the only son of the Rev. Henry Headley, Vicar of North Walsham, in the County of Norfolk. He was born at Irstead in Norfolk, in the year 1766. The Deputation of Dr. Parr, as master of the grammar school at Norwich, induced Mr. Headley to place his son under his care, under peculiarly favourable circumstances. As the constitution of young Headley was naturally delicate, much of the time, which his school-fellows spent in robust exercises, he devoted to writing, and many of the wild and tender effusions of his fancy, proved the poetical bias of his mind.

On the 14th of January, he was admitted a commoner of Trinity College, Oxford, under the tuition of the Rev. Charles Jesse; and at the following election on Trinity Monday, May 27th, was chosen scholar of that society. His situation at the University was as favourable as he could desire; for it not only allowed him ample scope for the expansion of his genius, and the indulgence of his literary habits, but presented him with living examples of classical taste, and learned research, which he could not behold without enthusiastic admiration. Among these bright examples was the Rev. Thomas Wharton, well known to the public by his writings: he was at that time Senior fellow of Trinity College, where he usually resided: and Headley, as a scholar of the same College, was favourably situated for the contemplation of Mr. Wharton's character, general manners, and habits of life. As his friends found that no subjects were more agreeable to Headley than anecdotes of Wharton, they often fed his curiosity with a treat he so much enjoyed. The information they gave him, and the perusal of his various publications — his poems — his observations on Spenser — and his history of English poetry, stimulated him to give his mind that direction which marked the course of his subsequent studies, and induced him to prefer "the monuments of banish'd minds" as existing in old English poetry to all other pursuits.

The various objects which the appearance of the University of Oxford presented, could not fail to produce a powerful effect on his imagination. The delightful gardens and public walks; the various seats of learning and piety, where heroes had been taught the lessons of honour and virtue, sages had planned their systems of philosophy, and poets had indulged their flights of fancy — the survey of the gothic battlements and lofty towers "mantled with the moss of time" — the crisped roofs, the clustered columns, and the mellow gloom of the painted windows, were all objects so closely connected with the study of the by-gone times, as to give a deep tincture to his mind; they were perfectly congenial with his taste, and contributed to mature and refine it.

Kindred minds will invariably cling together, wherever they meet. Happily finding in Trinity College several of its members, who were young men of talents, learning, and amiable manners, he had little difficulty in forming an acquaintance. Among the select number of his associates was William Lisle Bowles, who has since distinguished himself as an eminent poet.

His long vacations, far from being passed in idle rambles from home, were devoted to his studies, and the anxious discharge of his domestic duties. It is of importance to observe such traits as these in his character, especially at a time when men of literary pretensions appear by their actions, in too many deplorable instances, to deem it the privilege of genius to hold the important demands of ordinary life in utter contempt. At this time his father was confined by an illness which terminated in his death: the impression made upon the mind of his affectionate son, by a prospect so melancholy, may be collected from the beginning of his poem to Myra.

From these sad scenes, where care and pale dismay
Darken with deepest clouds the coming day,
Where duty breathes in vain its lengthened sigh,
And wipes the stagnant tear from sorrow's eye,
O'er all its hopes views hovering death prevail,
And mourns the social comforts as they fail;
Say, can a novice muse, though you inspire,
In artless thanks awake the sadden'd lyre?

In 1786, he produced the first collected fruits of authorship by the publication of his poems and other pieces. Most of them had appeared In the Gentleman's Magazine.

In the following year, at the age of twenty-two, he published Select Beauties of Ancient English Poets, with remarks. Such a work was highly complimentary to these pioneers of our literature, as well as honourable to the author. The plagiarisms of many of our modern flippant scribblers from these writers are so many abundant proofs of the merit which even they attach to them.

He was an occasional contributor of tinny ingenious pieces to the Gentleman's Magazine, under the signature of C. T O., and wrote an Essay in the Olla Podrida, a periodical work, published in Oxford, in 1788, by the Rev. T. Monro, which contains some excellent observations on ancient and modern tragedy.

He left Trinity College, after a residence there of nearly three years. For some months after his departure from Oxford, the inquiries of his college friends for his place of residence were in vain: it at length appeared, that he was married, and had retired to Matlock, in Derbyshire, pleased with such a sequestered retreat, and the wild scenery of the country which accorded with the romantic turn of his mind.

The symptoms of a consumptive tendency in his constitution, which had been increasing for some years, were now so strongly confirmed, and he became so alarmingly indisposed, that his physician advised him to take a voyage to Lisbon. Thither he determined to proceed immediately, and his college friend, William Benwell, excited by the most affectionate sympathy, hastened to London, and took leave of him under circumstances of distress, which may be more easily imagined than described. Though harrassed by an incessant cough, and unaccompanied by any one he knew, Headley had the resolution to undertake the voyage: he sailed in May, 1788; but on landing at Lisbon, so far was he from feeling an effectual relief, that he found himself oppressed by the heat of the climate. A few days would probably have terminated his life, but for the unremitting kindness of a friend, to whom he had an introductory letter, and who procured him every facility of deriving the desired benefit from the change of climate. His malady had, however, made too great progress to be stopped; and as he found that nothing was to be gained from a residence in Portugal, he returned to England in August, to his house in Norwich. After suffering to such a degree as to put his patience to a very severe trial, he died on the 15th November, 1788, in the twenty-third year of his age, and was buried near his parents, and two sisters, in the church of North Walsham in Norfolk.

Mr. Headley was of middle stature thin, and delicately formed. His features were remarkably expressive: when in health, his cheeks glowed with the tint of the damask rose — and genius and sensibility were written an his face.

There was a charm in his society which all acknowledged who came within the sphere of its influence. The stream of his conversation was rather rapid than diffuse — rather brilliant than profound. He caught the peculiarities of different characters with amazing quickness, and described them with matchless humour; he excelled in original and lively sallies of imagination; yet was his wit free from malevolence, for he was perfectly good-natured, and his ridicule was as often turned upon himself, as levelled against others.

The Rev. Henry Kett, (from whose Memoir of Headley, the present notice is chiefly abstracted,) observes, that active benevolence was a prominent feature of his character, and recollects but one instance of his anger. His resentment was roused by an unfounded insinuation, that he preferred the company of some of his acquaintance of another college, because they were of superior rank to his friends at Trinity. This gust of his passion was violent, though short. Such a noble mind as his could recognize no predilection for associates, but that which depended upon merit alone. He was high spirited without arrogance, and elevated without pride. Nothing could be more abhorrent from his disposition than the cringing of the sycophant, or the abject servilities of the flatterer. Although he had smarted under the discipline of his old master, (Dr. Parr) he recounted many instances of his kindness, and he would not have paid him the compliment of a dedication of his poems, had he not regarded him as a person of transcendent worth: to such worth alone, he made his obeisance; and when Headley offered up the incense of his praise, it was the sacrifice made by genius upon the altar of gratitude.

When suffering the attacks of indisposition, he showed great firmness of mind, and cheerfulness of temper. There was, indeed, a buoyancy in his disposition, that elevated him above the pressure of his malady, and which seldom failed to display itself in the most agreeable manner, on the appearance of any one of his friends, who might truly exclaim, in the words of his favourite poet, Shirley,

—I often saw
A smile shoot graceful upwards from his eyes,
As if they had gain'd a victory over grief....

It would be difficult to find a person actuated by keener sensibility than Mr. Headley; his mind was accordingly the genial soil in which friendship took a rapid and a deep root, and soon bore the most delicious fruits. His heart beat with all the tenderness, and his actions displayed all the energetic charities of a son, a brother, a husband, and a friend. When his life was verging towards its close, and the fire of his imagination began to be weakened by his sufferings under a disorder, which it is singular enough, generally seizes as its victims, the most accomplished, interesting, and amiable of our species, his sympathies continued to be ardent and energetic: the kindness of his friends was still one of his favourite and prevailing topics of conversation, and he only ceased to recount the instances of their attachment, when he ceased to breathe.

Considered as a poet, he displayed some of the mature fruits, as well as the tender blossoms of genius. His verses were for the most part pleasing, elegant, spirited, and nervous, but generally of a pensive cast; his strains were those of the plaintive nightingale, rather than of the cheerful lark: his poetry was the exact picture of his mind — the image of his genuine feelings: it arose naturally out of the different situations of his life: he was born, and occasionally resided near the sea; he delighted, therefore, to describe those scenes, amid which, in his days of health, he had rejoiced to ramble

On these lov'd shores where Yare, with ceaseless sweep,
Joins the dark bosom of the fearful deep.

He was a great admirer of good pictures; his taste as a connoisseur suggested to him the following appropriate description, and his gallantry prompted him to convert it into a high and very elegant compliment to a lady:—

Slaves to the laws of taste, let some admire
Paulo's bold stroke, or vivid Titian's fire;
With critic skill, and just precision, trace
Poussin's learn'd air, or soft Correggio's grace;
In mute amaze let others trembling stand,
And feel the dark sublime of Rosa's hand;
Be mine the task, their varied styles to view,
And mark their blended beauties met in you!

The excellence at which he aimed in his poetry, and to which he may be fairly said to have attained, consisted in the display of vivid images and vigorous expressions, faithful delineations of nature, and rich melody of versification. The following specimens may serve to confirm these remarks, and it will not be easy to find two poems of the kind, superior to them, in point of sweetness and tenderness. The former has much of the manner of Shakspeare, the latter of Pope:—

TO PHILOMEL.
A FRAGMENT.
No noise I heard, but all was still as death,
Save that at times a distant dying note
Of spirit unseen, or Heaven's minstrelsy,
Would indistinctly meet my ravish'd ear;
Such as was never heard from harp or lute,
Or waked into a voice by human hand,
Ah, Philomel, the strain was thine!

THE BEGGAR'S DOG.
Ye pamper'd favourites of base mankind,
Whether with riches, poor, or learning, blind,
From your distracted views, oh, pause awhile,
And hear a brother's tale without a smile;
And let contrition note how much is due
To all the generous cares I owe to you.
Whilst flatt'ring pomp secure incumbrous state
His scanty crumbs withheld and barr'd his gate;
Nor sullen deign'd with scorn's averted eye
The cheaper tribute of a selfish sigh,
The neediest suppliant of sorrow's train,
For bread I hungering sought, and sought in vain;
Each petty solace thus by you denied
With sleepless watch Fidelio supplied;
When winter, wet with rain, my trembling beard,
My falling tear, he felt, my groan he heard,
When my grey locks at night the wild wind rent
Like withered moss upon a monument,
What could he more? against the pitiless storm
He lent his little aid to keep me warm;
Even now, as parting with his latest breath,
He feels the thrilling grasp of coming death,
With all that fond fidelity of face
That marks the features of his honest race,
His half uplifted eye in vain he moves,
And grasps to lock the helpless hand he loves.

This is in far better taste, and with more correct feeling, than Lord Byron's poem on a similar subject, which will occur to the memory of most of our readers. Headley was a scholar of no ordinary attainments: he was familiar with the Greek tragedians, and well skilled in Latin composition, and his works are enriched with critical and illustrative remarks drawn from these and other classical sources.

His collection of the twenty-nine biographical sketches of the old English poets, may be considered as a rich cabinet of exquisite portraits, finished with all the truth and spirit of a Vandyke. They possess a peculiar delicacy of touch and fidelity of character. The colours are vivid, and the features discriminated with the greatest precision. We have only to regret that there are no more compositions of the kind from the same masterly hand.

We cannot better conclude this memoir, than with the following stanzas to the memory of Headley, by the Rev. William Lisle Bowles, M.A., which do much credit, both to the head and heart of the author:—

To every gentle muse in vain allied,
In youth's full early morning Headley died!
Ah! long had sickness left her pining trace,
Rueful and wan on each decaying grace;
Untimely sorrow touch'd his thoughtful mien!
Despair upon his languid smile was seen!
Yet resignation, musing on the grave,
(When now no hope could cheer, no pity save,)
And virtue that scarce felt its fate severe,
And pale affliction dropping soft a tear,
For friends belov'd from whom she soon must part,
Breath'd a sad solace on his aching heart.
Nor ceas'd he yet to stray, where, winding wild,
The Muse's path his drooping steps beguil'd,
Intent to rescue some neglected rhyme,
Lone-blooming, from the mournful waste of time.
And cull each scatter'd sweet, that seem'd to smile.
Like flowers upon some long-forsaken pile.
Far from the murmuring crowd, unseen, he sought
Each charm congenial to his sadden'd thought,
When the grey morn illum'd the mountain's side,
To hear the sweet bird's earliest song he hied:
When meekest eve to the fold's distant bell
Listen'd, and bade the woods and vales farewell;
Musing in tearful mood, he oft was seen
The last that linger'd on the fading green.
The waving wood, high o'er the cliff reclin'd,
The murmuring waterfall, the winter's wind,
His temper's trembling texture seem'd to suit,
Like airs of sadness the responsive lute.
Yet deem not hence the social spirit dead,
Tho' from the world's hard gaze his feelings fled:
Firm was his friendship, and his faith sincere,
And warm as pity's, his unheeded tear,
That wept the ruthless deed, the poor man's fate,
By fortune's storms left cold and desolate.
Farewell! — yet be this humble tribute paid
To all thy virtues, from that serial shade
Where once we sojourn'd. — I alas! remain
To mourn the hours of youth (yet mourn in vain)
That fled neglected. — wisely thou hast trod
The better path; and that high meed, which God
Ordain'd for virtue, tow'ring from the dust,
Shall bless thy labours' spirit! pure and just!