1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Whitehead

Thomas Humphry Ward, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:337.



William Whitehead, who must not be confused with his clever and disreputable namesake, Paul Whitehead, the poet of the orgies of Medmenham, succeeded Cibber in the laureateship when Gray declined that doubtful honour. He was the perpetual butt of the satire of Churchill, who, as Campbell says, "completely killed his poetical character!" Indeed his poetry is for the most part tame and conventional enough; yet here and there he emerges from the rock of Georgian poetasters and becomes noticeable. Variety, a Tale for Married People, which is too long for quotation, is an excellent story in verse — with a moral, of course, as a "conte" should have — told in a light and sowing style not unworthy of Gay. The Enthusiast, an Ode, is here given, because of the admirable way in which it epitomises the debate — it is a perennial debate, but the eighteenth century took one side and we take the other — between Nature and Society.

O bards, that call to bank and glen,
Ye bid me go to Nature to be healed;
And lo! a purer fount is here revealed,
My lady nature dwells in hearts of men:

—when the modern poet writes in this way, we note him as breaking the poetical concert of our age. But the doctrine is one which the poets of Pope's century were for ever enforcing; even Cowper, antithesis to Pope as he was, enforced it; and this little ode of Whitehead's is so happy a rendering of their argument that it is worthy of being rescued from the oblivion which has almost overwhelmed its author.