1836 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Kirke White

Robert Aris Willmott, "Kirke White and the Johnians" Conversations at Cambridge (1836) 47-49.



Even while I am writing these lines, news has been brought to me of another mind become dark, of another victim at the shrine of Science. Surely there can be no introduction more solemn or affectingly appropriate to a memorial of Kirke White than this tolling, as it were, over another departed intellect. It is to be deeply lamented that Mr. Southey, in that memoir in which he has embalmed the virtues of the youthful scholar, should, either from tenderness to the living, or any other motive, have neglected to expose the fearful results of that high-pressure system, under which the faculties of White were crushed and annihilated. Were I to consult my own feelings, I too should indulge in a similar silence; but the alarming and increasing magnitude of the evil imperatively demands attention. The accusing voice ascends not alone from one grave; the cry of lamentation is not confined to a single hearth; it is not one mother who calls in vain for her absent son! The academical life of Kirke White, even viewed through the affectionate narrative of his biographer, was only a prolonged preparation for a sacrifice. The Death's Head is always visible under the mask. Anything more heart-rending than the sufferings of this gifted Martyr is not to be found in the pages of romance. We read, "of dreadful palpitations, of nights of sleeplessness; so that he went from one acquaintance to another, imploring society, even as a starving beggar entreats for food." Alas! that we should have his own authority for adding, that he sought for it in vain. In another letter he says, "While I am here I am wretched; the slightest application makes me faint." And again, "I am not an invalid; my mind preys upon its self." But throughout this season of mental torture the mistaken kindness of his friends was urging him forward; the worn-out energies were stimulated into a momentary and unnatural brightness, the fire was blown into a vivid but quickly-dying flame. He, too, as if deceived by the anticipation of others, began to dream of a "quiet passage," where his mother might pass the summer months with him. She, alas, knew not of his sufferings; for true love in its own afflictions is always dumb. Yet during all this period, Death was, we may say, sitting with him in his chamber; and every morning that broke upon his weary spirit, found him nearer the end of his journey. Melancholy as was the issue of his unhappy career, it would have been incalculably more wretched if he had survived. The intellect was perfectly exhausted, — the very waters of the mental life were dried up; and the creature of lofty impulses, of rare and poetical genius, of the tenderest sensibilities, of the most disinterested piety, would have dragged out an existence of dreary barrenness, — a tree in its early May, dead at the top!