1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Kirke White

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:301-02.



HENRY KIRKE WHITE, a young poet, who has accomplished more by the example of his life than by his writings, was a native of Nottingham, where he was born on the 21st of August, 1785. His father was a butcher — an "ungentle craft," which, however, has had the honour of giving to England one of its most distinguished churchmen, Cardinal Wolsey, and the two poets, Akenside and White. Henry was a rhymer and a student from his earliest years. He assisted at his father's business for some time, but in his fourteenth year was put apprentice to a stocking-weaver. Disliking, as he said, "the thought of spending seven years of his life in shining and folding up stockings, he wanted something to occupy his brain, and he felt that he should be wretched if he continued longer at this trade, or indeed in anything except one of the learned professions." He was at length placed in an attorney's office, and applying his leisure hours to the study of languages, he was able, in the course of ten months, to read Horace with tolerable facility, and had made some progress in Greek. At the same time he acquired a knowledge of Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, and even applied himself to the acquisition of some of the sciences. His habits of study and application were unremitting. A London magazine, called the Monthly Preceptor, having proposed prize themes for the youth of both sexes, Henry became a candidate, and while only in his fifteenth year, obtained a silver medal for a translation from Horace; and the following year a pair of twelve-inch globes for an imaginary tour from London to Edinburgh. He next became a correspondent in the Monthly Mirror, and was introduced to the acquaintance of Mr. Capel Lofft and of Mr. Hill, the proprietor of the above periodical. Their encourage ment induced him to prepare a volume of poems for the press, which appeared in 1803. The longest piece in the collection is a descriptive poem in the style of Goldsmith, entitled Clifton Grove, which shows a remarkable proficiency in smooth and elegant versification and language. In his preface to the volume, Henry had stated that the poems were the production of a youth of seventeen, published for the purpose of facilitating his future studies, and enabling him "to pursue those inclinations which might one day place him in an honourable station in the scale of society." Such a declaration should have disarmed the severity of criticism; but the volume was contemptuously noticed in the Monthly Review, and Henry felt the most exquisite pain from the unjust and ungenerous critique. Fortunately the volume fell into the hands of Mr. Southey, who wrote to the young poet to encourage him, and other friends sprung up to succour his genius and procure for him what was the darling object of his ambition, admission to the university of Cambridge. His opinions for some time inclined to deism, without any taint of immorality; but a fellow-student put into his hands Scott's "Force of Truth," and he soon became a decided convert to the spirit and doctrines of Christianity. He resolved upon devoting his life to the promulgation of them, and the Rev. Mr. Simson, Cambridge, procured for him a sizarship at St John's college. This benevolent clergyman further promised, with the aid of a friend, to supply him with £30 annually, and his own family were to furnish the remainder necessary for him to go through college. Poetry was now abandoned for severer studies. He competed for one of the university scholarships, and at the end of the term was pronounced the first man of his year. "Twice he distinguished himself in the following year, being again pronounced first at the great college examination, and also one of the three best theme writers, between whom the examiners could not decide. The college offered him, at their expense, a private tutor in mathematics during the long vacation; and Mr. Catton (his tutor), by procuring for him exhibitions to the amount of £66 per annum, enabled him to give up the pecuniary assistance which he had received from Mr. Simeon and other friends" [author's note: Southey's Memoir prefixed to Remains of H. K. White]. This distinction was purchased at the sacrifice of health and life. "Were I," he said, "to paint Fame crowning an under graduate after the senate-house examination, I would represent him as concealing a death's head under the mask of beauty." He went to London to recruit his shattered nerves and spirits; but on his return to college, he was so completely ill that no power of medicine could save him. He died on the 19th of October 1806. Mr. Southey continued his regard for White after his untimely death. He wrote a sketch of his life and edited his Remains, which proved to he highly popular, passing through a great number of editions. A tablet to Henry's memory, with a medallion by Chantrey, was placed in All Saints' church, Cambridge, by a young American gentleman, Mr. Francis Boot of Boston, and bearing the following inscription — so expressive of the tenderness and regret universally felt towards the poet — by Professor Smyth:—

Warm with fond hope and learning's sacred flame,
To Granta's bowers the youthful poet came;
Unconquered powers the immortal mind displayed,
But worn with anxious thought, the frame decayed.
Pale o'er his lamp, and in his cell retired,
The martyr student faded and expired.
Oh! genius, taste, and piety sincere,
Too early lost midst studies too severe!
Foremost to mourn was generous Southey seen,
He told the tale, and showed what White had been;
Nor told in vain. Far o'er the Atlantic wave
A wanderer came, and sought the poet's grave:
On yon low stone he saw his lonely name,
And raised this fund memorial to his fame.

Byron has also consecrated some beautiful lines to the memory of White. Mr. Southey considers that the death of the young poet is to be lamented as a loss to English literature. To society, and particularly to the church, it was a greater misfortune. The poetry of Henry was all written before his twentieth year, and hence should not be severely judged. If compared, however, with the strains of Cowley or Chatterton at an earlier age, it will be seen to be inferior in this, that no indications are given of great future genius. There are no seeds or traces of grand conceptions and designs, no fragments of wild original imagination, as in the "marvellous boy" of Bristol. His poetry is fluent and correct, distinguished by a plaintive tenderness and reflection, and pleasing powers of fancy and description. Whether force and originality would have come with manhood and learning, is a point which, notwithstanding the example of Byron (a very different mind), may fairly he doubted. It is enough, however, for Henry Kirke White to have afforded one of the finest examples on record of youthful talent and perseverance devoted to the purest and noblest objects.