1735 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Vision of Solomon.

Poems by William Whitehead, Esq. late Poet Laureat, and Register and Secretary to the most honourable Order of the Bath. Vol. III. To which are prefixed, Memoirs of his Life and Writings. By W. Mason, M.A.

William Whitehead


Eight Prior stanzas, written at Winchester College and posthumously published half a century later in William Mason's memoir of the poet. In a variation on Prodicus's Choice of Hercules, an angel presents Solomon a choice between Power, Wealth, Fame, and Pleasure; the king, of course, chooses Wisdom. For an explanation of the literary doctrine underlying this kind of sacred poetry, see the John Husbands's preface to A Collection of Miscellany Poems (1731).

If William Whitehead's poem is a slight thing (though well executed) it is of particular interest as an early exercise in English composition. Winchester College may have been the first of the Anglican schools to make a regular practice of assigning English verses, though just when this began is difficult to say — William Collins wrote his even-more-precious Oriental Eclogues at Winchester, and certainly it was a regular business when Joseph Warton taught there. By the time Wordsworth and Coleridge were in grammar school half a century later all the schools seem to have been teaching English composition, and several non-occasional collections were actually published.

William Mason: "I take it from a small MS. collection of his school poems, which, at the time, he thought the best worthy of preservation.... The critical reader will find a striking similarity between this poem and Dr. Lowth's version of the Apologue of Prodicus, published by Mr. Spence in his Polymetis. I have heard that the judgement of Hercules was originally a school exercise, though it undoubtedly afterwards received much revision, an advantage the other never obtained from its author. I give it, however (excepting only the change of a few epithets) exactly as I found it Which of the two were written first by these two contemporary sons of William of Wickham, perhaps there are some of their brethren yet living able to determine. I have only to add, that from this specimen the reader will probably be led to admit, as a truth, what I insinuated in a former page, that if the young poet had cultivated this more free manner of Stanza, he would have excelled in it" Poems (1788) 18.

Critical Review: "We shall transcribe some lines from one of Mr. Whitehead's first productions: we wish the epithets had not been changed.... In these lines, however, there is a precision and neatness, which make us think that they have undergone more than one correction" 65 (March 1788) 179.

Town and Country Magazine: "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" "Sketch of William Whitehead" 20 (April 1788) 177.

William Lyon Phelps: "The next Spenserian imitation to be considered was written by William Whitehead (1715-1785), afterwards poet-laureate — one of the dullest of the dull poets of the eighteenth century. He wrote the 'Vision of Solomon' when at school, probably about the year 1730. It is a short poem, written in the ten-line stanza, on Prior's model. It is not at all remarkable for poetic merit. Whitehead also wrote two odes to his friend Charles Townsend, written in a six-lined stanza. These were probably done at a comparatively early age" Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement (1893) 56.

After its belated publication, The Vision of Solomon seems to have acquired a degree of popularity, being several times reprinted. Whitehead later remembered his years at Winchester School with affection: "So let me still with filial love pursue | The nurse and parent of my infant thought, | From whence the colour of my life I drew | When Bigg presided, and when Burton taught" "Verses to Dr. Lowth, on his second Edition of the Life of William of Wykeham" Newcastle General Magazine 13 (May 1759) 243.

Compare Samuel Ogden's 1761 verses in the Cambridge Gratulatio volume celebrating the marriage of George III — Ogden had befriended Whitehead at Cambridge treats the same subject as in this yet unpublished poem. Ogden's untitled poem may have been written by Whitehead; such things were known to happen.



'Twas night, and sleep with gently-waving wand,
Sat softly brooding o'er that monarch's brow,
Whose waking nod could Judah's realms command,
Or deal destruction to the frighted foe,
Great David's son — But at this tranquil hour,
No dreams of state disturb'd his peaceful bed,
To nobler heights his thoughts unfetter'd soar,
And brighter visions hover round his head.
Let meaner kings by mortals guard their state:
Around his sacred couch aerial legates wait.

"Hail, best belov'd"! Superior to the rest
One bending Angel cry'd with heav'nly voice,
"Earth, seas, and air stand to thy view confest,
And God's own mandate ratifies thy choice.
Chuse then from these — say, shall thy pow'r extend
Where suns scarce warm this earth's remotest shore?
Shall India's Lords beneath thy sceptre bend,
Whilst their black troops stand silent and adore?
To thee, sole Lord, shall earth her stores unfold,
Pour all her flame with gems to thee, and mines that gold?

"Shall Ocean's waves, obedient to thy call,
As erst to Moses, rang'd in order stand,
"While crouds once more admire the floating wall,
And treasures open on the glitt'ring sand?
"Or shall Fame's breath inspire each softer air,
Thee Just and Good to distant worlds resound,
While Peace, fair goddess, leads the smiling year,
Swells the glad grain, and spreads the harvest round,
Bids Jordan's extend its azure pride,
Pleas'd with reflected fruits that tremble in the tide?"

The Cherub spoke — when POWER majestic rose,
A Tyrian tinctur'd robe she dragg'd behind,
Whose artful folds at ev'ry turn disclose
Sceptres and crowns that flutter'd in the wind.
Gigantic Phantom! in her face appear'd
Terrific charms, too fierce for mortal eyes;
Aw'd and amaz'd her very smiles we fear'd,
As tho' storms lurk'd beneath the smooth disguise!
But when she frowns, tremendous thunders roar,
Stern Desolation reigns, and kingdoms float in gore.

Her WEALTH succeeds — and scarce his tott'ring head
Sustains the glitt'ring ore's incumbent weight
O'er his old limbs were tatter'd garments spread,
A well-fix'd staff directs his feeble feet.
Thus mean himself appear'd, but all around
What crouds unnumber'd hail the passing seer!
POWER, as he came, bow'd lowly to the ground,
And own'd with rev'rence a superiour there.
"Rise, David's son, thy utmost wish extend,
See to thy sceptre WEALTH, the world's great monarch, bend."

FAME next approach'd, whose clarion's martial sound
Bids conqu'ring laurels flourish ever green,
And gentle PEACE with olive chaplets crown'd,
And PLENTY goddess of the sylvan scene;
These PLEASURE join'd, loose flow'd her radiant hair,
Her flying fingers touch'd the trembling lyre,
"Come Mirth," she sung, "your blooming wreaths prepare,
Come gay Delight, and ever-young Desire,
Let days, let years, in downy circles move
Sacred to sprightly Joy, and all-subduing Love."

The mingled train advanc'd; to close the rear,
As lost in thought, appear'd a pensive maid,
Bright was her aspect, lovely yet severe,
In virgin white her decent limbs array'd,
She mov'd in sober state; on either side
A beauteous handmaid friendly aid bestow'd,
Fair VIRTUE here, her view from earth to guide;
There CONTEMPTATION rais'd her golden rod.
Hail, WISDOM hail! I see and bless the sight,
First-born of heav'n, pure source of intellectual light.

On her the monarch fix'd his eager eyes,
On her alone, regardless of the croud,
"Let vulgar souls (he cry'd) yon trifles prize,
Mortals that dare of mis'ry to be proud,
Hence then: I burn for more ingenuous charms,
Nature's true beauties with more lustre shine;
Then take me, WISDOM, take me to thy arms,
O snatch me from myself, and make me thine.
All heav'n calls good, or man felicity,
Peace, Plenty, Health, Content, are all compriz'd in thee."

[pp. 19-24]