Mr. Whitehead was son of a baker at Cambridge, and the artificer of his own fortune. He was removed from a school at Cambridge very early to Winchester; in which seminary he was very much distinguished for early effusions of genius: but by the force of superior interest of his juvenile coadjutors, continued so low on the roll that it was scarcely possible for him to succeed to New College.
His epistle to sir Bryan Boughton, though written probably after his being disappointed of a removal to New College, expresses no degree of contentment in his situation which he retained through life, and which impresses a pleasing character on several of his poetical pieces where he speaks of himself.
His prize verses have but little merit, if we deduct from them that of mere easy versification, which he seems to have acquired by sedulously imitating Mr. Pope's manner.
Neither his fancy nor judgment seem to have risen in any degree equal to what in common progress might have been expected from a mind which, in a very few years after, exhibited both these so strikingly. His efforts of wit were also equally feeble: and, on the whole, it is wonderful that his schoolmaster should speak of any of his productions with rapture; for among the many pieces written at that period, there appears to be but one that seems to indicate the future poet.
This would probably not have been the case, had he taken the versification of Spenser, Fairfax, Milton, and poets similar to them, for his model, rather than the close and condensed couplets of Pope; for, in that way of writing, his fancy would have developed itself earlier, and, perhaps, have obtained greater strength and powers of exertion. But though he had had read Spenser in his childhood with avidity, and was fully capable of catching his manner, yet the fashion of the time lead him to exercise himself in that mode of versification which was then esteemed the best; for then those writers, who may be deemed of the Italian school, were in no request.
Whitehead, on the death of his father, returned to Cambridge, and was admitted a sizar of Clare-hall. At this place he formed those literary connections which were the first steps to his fame and fortune; it was from this retreat he was drawn to become the tutor of lord Jersey and Mr. Stevens, and in this capacity with the above noble lord and lord Harcourt, he travelled through France and Italy.
On his return with them to England, he was appointed poet-laureat, and resided with his noble pupils, particularly lord Jersey, in the enjoyment of calmness and retirement, producing his poems, "not urged by hunger or request of friends, but with ease and leisure."
Whitehead was of a placable disposition — his nature mild and unoffending; but we need not appreciate a characters which critics have already decided on. His poems have rather polished neatness than sublimity, more of delicacy than invention. In poetic fire he was not deficient; and if he had not corrected with much coolness, he might have been admired for the occasional splendour as well as the more steady illumination.