1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Kirke White

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 23-24.



I am very willing to admit that something of the interest attachable to the name of Kirk White may be traced to the entrancing piece of biography prefixed to his Remains by Southey; but, assuredly, not all. During late years an attempt has been made to underrate the young poet, apparently from the feeling that he had received more than his due modicum of praise. This is, in my opinion, alike ungenerous and unjust; and it is a depreciation in which I cannot conscientiously concur; for, depend upon it, the poetry which has commanded the sympathies of a very large circle of readers through half a century cannot be destitute of some rare merit. No such permanent temple of fame, as that which Kirke White has reared, was ever built on sand. He possessed the poetical temperament in a higher measure than any other English poet who has immaturely died, except Chatterton, Keats, and, perhaps, Michael Bruce; and, from utter juvenility, so steady was his upward progress towards excellence, that, when we turn from Clifton Grove, to the fragmentary Christiad, it is impossible to predicate what achievement could have been beyond his maturer grasp. His verses To an Early Primrose would not have disgraced Collins; and his lyric on the Herb Rosemary has a melody and melancholy flow peculiarly his own. Most of his compositions, it must be confessed, were almost necessarily unequal or imperfect; but they are seldom poor, either in conception, language, or imagery. On the contrary, his imagination not seldom approaches the great, as in his Shipwrecked Solitary's Song to the Night; in several passages of his unfinished poem, entitled Time; in his Thanatos, and Athanatos; and his Churchyard song of the Consumptives. It is curious that so much of his verse should have been devoted to the scenery and sounds of night; and from this circumstance it derives much of its characteristic melancholy, solemnity, and wildness. To say that his versification is correct and fluent, and that he had pleasing powers of fancy and description, is saying what is true, but by no means saying enough. Added to these qualifications, he exhibited at least the blossoms of far higher endowments, which could scarcely have failed maturing into correspondent fruit. Many detached passages could be pointed out, which indicate that the torch of his inspiration was certainly kindled at the inner shrine; but it was darkly destined that his fair dawn was to have no meridian; and with a heart full of youthful promise, and of lofty aspirations — devoted to the noblest and purest objects of humanity — he died while his feet were yet on the threshold of manhood. Three, at least, of the great magnates of literature lamented his fate, and were loud in his praises. On examining his posthumous papers, Coleridge and Southey alike expressed their astonishment at so much genius united to so much industry; and Byron, in a truculent satire, wherein almost nobody was spared, truth-stricken, suspended the lash, to scatter flowers liberally on his early grave.