1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Kirke White

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 31:307-401.



HENRY KIRKE WHITE, an amiable and ingenious poet untimely snatched from the world, was the second son of John and Mary White, and was born at Nottingham, March 21, 1785. From his third until his fifth year he learned to read at the school of a Mrs. Garrington, who had the good sense to perceive his extraordinary capacity, and spoke of what it promised with confidence. At a very early age his love of reading was decidedly manifested, and was a passion to which every thing else gave way. When about six years old, he was placed under the rev. John Blanchard, who kept at that time the best school in Nottingham, and here he learned writing, arithmetic, and French. When he was about eleven, he one day wrote a separate theme for every boy in the class, which consisted of about twelve or fourteen. The master said he had never known them write so well upon any subject before, and could not refrain from expressing his astonishment at young White's. It was considered as a great thing for him to be at so good a school, yet there were some circumstances which rendered it less advantageous to him than it might have been. Mrs. White had not yet overcome her husband's intention of breeding him up to his own business (that of a butcher), and by an arrangement which took up too much of his time, one whole day in the week, and his leisure hours on the others, were employed in carrying the butcher's basket. Some differences at length arose between his father and Mr. Blanchard, in consequence of which Henry was removed. It is remarkable that one of the ushers, when he came to receive the money due for tuition, represented to Mrs. White, either from stupidity or malice, what an incorrigible son she had, and that it was impossible to make the lad do any thing. This unfavourable impression, however, was soon removed by a Mr. Shipley, under whose care he was next placed, and who having discovered that he was a boy of quick perception, and very admirable talents, came with joy to relieve the anxiety and painful suspicions of his family. But while his school-masters were complaining that they could make nothing of him, he discovered what nature had made him, and wrote satires upon them. These pieces were never shewn to any, except his, most particular friends, who say that they were pointed and severe, and it appears that he afterwards destroyed them.

About this time his mother was induced, by the advice of several friends, to open a lady's boarding and day-school at Nottingham, her eldest daughter having previously been a teacher in one for some time. In this she succeeded beyond her most sanguine expectations, and Henry's home comforts were thus materially increased, though his family being still unable to give him an education suited to his talents, it was determined to breed him up to the hosiery trade. He was accordingly placed, at the age of fourteen, in a stocking-loom; but to this he had the greatest aversion, and his repeated remonstrances at length convinced his mother that he had a mind destined for nobler pursuits than the shining and folding up of stockings. He was consequently fixed in the office of Messrs. Coldham and Enfield, attornies and town-clerks of Nottingham. As no premium could be given with him he was engaged to serve two years before he was articled, so that though he entered this office when he was fifteen, he was not articled till the commencement of 1802. He now, at the suggestion of his employers, acquired at his leisure hours some knowledge of Latin and of Greek. He also made himself a tolerable Italian scholar, add gained some acquaintance with both the Spanish and Portuguese. Among his occasional pursuits also were chemistry, astronomy, electricity, and music; but the law was his first object, to which his papers shew he had applied himself with such industry, as to make it wonderful that he could have found time, busied as his days were, for any thing else.

At a very early age, indeed soon after he was taken from school, he was ambitious of being admitted a member of a literary society then existing at Nottingham, but was objected to on account of his youth. After repeated attempts, and repeated failures, he succeeded in his wish, through the exertions of some of his friends; and in a very short time, to the great surprise of the society, proposed to give them a lecture, and the society, probably from curiosity, acceded to the proposal. The next evening they assembled, when he lectured upon genius, and spoke extempore for above two hours, in such a manner, that he received the unanimous thanks of the society, and they elected him their professor of literature. There are certain courts at Nottingham in which it is necessary for am attorney to plead; and be wished to qualify himself for an eloquent speaker, as well as a sound lawyer.

Although assiduous in the study of his profession, he began now to be ambitious of an university education, that he might fit himself for the church. This did not proceed from any dislike to his profession, but a deafness, to which he had always been subject, and which appeared to grow progressively worse, and threatened to preclude all possibility of advancement. Another reason is assigned by his biographer, that his opinions, which had at one time inclined to Deism, had now taken a strong devotional turn. He had about this time written several poems in some of the literary journals, which were much admired by men of acknowledged taste, and their encouragement induced him to prepare a little volume of them for the press. It was his hope that this publication might either by the success of its sale, or the notice which it might excite, afford the means to prosecute his studies at college. It appeared accordingly in 1803.

The success of this volume appears to have been by no means adequate to its merits, and the author met with many other impediments and disappointments before his object was attained. At length Mr. Dashwood, a clergyman then residing at Nottingham, obtained for him an introduction to Mr. Simeon, of King's college, Cambridge; and with this he was induced to go to Cambridge, his masters having previously consented to give up the remainder of his time. Mr. Simeon, from the recommendation which he received, and from the conversation he had with him, promised to procure for him a sizar's place at St. John's college, and, with the additional aid of a friend, to supply him with £30 annually. His brother, Neville White, promised twenty; and his mother, it was hoped, would be able to allow fifteen or twenty more. With this, it was thought, he could go through college.

He quitted his employers in October 1804. Mr. Simeon had advised him to "degrade" for a year, and place himself, during that time, under some scholar. He went accordingly to the rev. Mr. Grainger, of Winteringham, in Lincolnshire, and there, notwithstanding all the intreaties of his friends, pursued such an unintermitting course of study as greatly injured his delicate and already undermined constitution. He frequently at this time studied fourteen hours a day; the progress which he made in twelve months was indeed astonishing; for when he went to Cambridge he was immediately as much distinguished for his classical knowledge as his genius; but the seeds of death were in him, and the place to which he had so long looked with hope, served unhappily as a hot-house to ripen them. During his first term, one of the university scholarships became vacant, and Henry, young as he was in college, and almost self-taught, was advised by those who were best able to estimate his chance of success, to offer himself as a competitor for it. He passed the whole term in preparing for this, but his strength sunk under the intenseness of his studies, and he was compelled to decline; and this was not the only misfortune. The general college examination came on; he was utterly unprepared to meet it; and believed that a failure here would have ruined his prospects for ever. He had only about a fortnight to read what other men had been the whole term reading. Once more he exerted himself beyond what his shattered health could bear: the disorder returned, and he went to his tutor Mr. Catton with tears in his eyes, and told him that he could not go into the hall to be examined. Mr. Catton, however, thought his success here of so much importance, that he exhorted him, with all possible earnestness, to hold out the six days of the examination. Strong medicines were given him, to enable him to support it, and he was pronounced the first man of his year. But life was the price which he was to pay for such honours as this. As he succeeded in gaining approbation, he became farther stimulated to studious exertions far beyond his strength, and when he returned to college in 1806, he was no longer a subject for medicine. His mind also was worn out, and it was the opinion of his medical attendants, that if be had recovered, his intellect would have been affected. In this state he died, Oct. 19, 1806, in the twenty-first year of his age.

Some notice of a young man, so extraordinary for genius and piety, could not be omitted in a work of this kind; yet with the best materials in our hands (his life by Mr. Southey) we found it impossible to give any abridgment that would, or indeed ought to be satisfactory. The present imperfect sketch, however, will not be wholly useless, if it detect but one reader ignorant of such a publication as "The Remains of Henry Kirke White." We can otherwise have no occasion to recommend what has got such hold of the public mind, that after five or six large editions, there is still an encreasing demand. It is perhaps the most interesting biographical, epistolary, and poetical collection that has appeared for many years, and while it excites the warmest emotions of pity and sympathy, is equally calculated to convey instruction of the highest order.