1788
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. William Whitehead.

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.

Rev. William Mason


William Mason comments on the inadequacy of William Whitehead's training at Winchester College in the 1730s, where he was taught to imitate Pope rather than Spenser, Fairfax, and Milton. The passage continues with a discussion of childhood prodigies, after which Mason prints Whitehead's Spenserian "Vision of Solomon."

The memoirs of William Whitehead proved much less successful that Mason's earlier memoir of Thomas Gray — apart from the different quality of their poetry, Whitehead was simply not a particularly interesting subject for biography.

Robert Potter to Edward Jerningham: "Happy had it been for [Mason's] fame had he died when Gray died. What can he make of the Life of Whitehead? I loved the man; but of the poet this deponent saith not. Peace to his gentle shade, and advise thy biographer to employ his talents in writing an elegy on a tom-tit! " 23 March 1787; in Lewis Bettany, Edward Jerningham and his Friends (1919) 357-58.

Charles Burney: "Though, as a poet, the late worthy Laureat was far above mediocrity, yet neither his genius nor his writings were of that brilliant or interesting kind, which could long occupy the public attention, without some addition stimulus to awaken and keep it in action. His ingenious friend, Mr. Mason, has furnished this stimulus; for beside his own poetical reputation, the agreeable manner in which he presented to us the Life of Mr. Gray, made us hope for a similar entertainment from his biographical talents on the present occasion. We have, however, been somewhat disappointed; for, exclusive of the different manner in which the two lives are written, and deduction being made for the inferiority of reputation, and the few prominent features in the character of the late Laureat, Mr. Mason seems to have made his friend's Life a vehicle for the abuse of Dr. Johnson, though the writer and Mr. Whitehead never had any public or private difference, or collision, — that hath reached our knowledge" Monthly Review 78 (March 1788) 177.

James Boswell: "That the conversation of a celebrated man, if his talents have been exerted in conversation, will best display his character is, I trust, too well established in the judgment of mankind, to be at all shaken by a sneering observation of Mr. Mason, in his Memoirs of Mr. William Whitehead, in which there is literally no Life, but a mere dry narrative of facts" Life of Johnson (1791) ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 1:36.

Henry Francis Cary: "In 1788 appeared also his [William Mason's] Memoirs of William Whitehead, attached to the posthumous works of that writer; a piece of biography, as little to be compared in interest to the former [life of Gray] as Whitehead himself can be compared to Gray" Lives of the Poets (1822 ca.; 1846) 202.

Robert Southey: "Gray and Mason are among the writers who, by raising the tone of poetry, contributed to excite a taste for something better than the school of Pope. In one of his first poems, Mason had, in a puerile fiction, ranked Chaucer and Milton below Pope, which is like comparing a garden shrub with the oaks of the forest. But he would have maintained no such absurdity in his riper years, for Mason lived to perceive and correct both his errors of opinion, and his faults of style" Life and Works of Cowper (1835-37) 2:177.




His prize-verses, already mentioned, 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 appear to have risen, in any degree, equal to what, in common progress, might be expected from a mind, which, a very few years after, exhibited both these qualities so strikingly. His efforts at wit also were now equally feeble; and, on the whole, I am led to wonder that his school-master should speak of any of his productions with rapture; for among the many pieces written at that period, which I have perused, I find only one [Vision of Solomon] that seems to indicate the future poet.

This, however, I think, would not have been the case, had he taken the versifiction 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 read Spenser in his childhood with avidity, and was fully capable, as I shall show presently, of catching his manner, yet the fashion of the time led him to exercise himself in that mode of versification which was then (almost exclusively of all others) esteemed the best: for those writers which may be called of the Italian school, were in no request, as Mr. T. Warton has well observed in the very judicious preface to his late edition of the Juvenile Poems of Milton.

This excellent critic, in order to point out the cause why those poems were so long disregarded, there says, in terms which may severally be applied to the manners of Cowley and Waller, Dryden and Pope, that "wit and rhyme, sentiment and satire, polished numbers, sparkling couplets, and pointed periods, had long kept undisturbed possession of our poetry, and would not easily give way to fiction and fancy, to picturesque description and romantic imagery;" but that, towards the middle of the present century, when Milton's Juvenile Poems began "to have their claims to praise adjusted, and their reputation extended by such respectable names as Jortin, Warburton, and, and Hurd;" and "while the Paradise Lost was acquiring more numerous readers, the manly melodies of blank verse, which, after its revival by Philips, had been long neglected, caught the public ear: And the whole of Milton's works associating their respective powers as one common interest, jointly and reciprocally co-operated in diffusing and forming just ideas of a more perfect species of poetry. A visible revolution succeeded in the general cast and character of the national composition. Our versification contracted a new colouring, a new structure, and phraseology, and the school of Milton rose in emulation of the school of Pope."

It so fortuned that Mr. Whitehead began to write verse just before the period here spoken of, and had even become an author before Collins, Akenside, Gray, and some others had struck into that species of composition to which the writer (who, with his brother, was of the same school) alludes. This, therefore, accounts for his chusing to accomodate himself to the then general taste, which, perhaps, had he bgun a few years later, he would not have done; but which, at the time, might be perfectly prudent, in order to procure a more favourable reception of his productions. His circumstances did not permit him to venture on a new experiment at the out-set.


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