1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Whitehead, William

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WHITEHEAD, WILLIAM (1715-1785), English poet-laureate, son of a baker, was born at Cambridge, and baptized on the 12th of February 1715. His father had extravagant tastes, and spent large sums in ornamenting a piece of land near Grantchester, afterwards known as "Whitehead's Folly." William was his second son, and through the patronage of Henry Bromley, afterwards Lord Montfort, was admitted to Winchester College. In 1735 he entered Clare Hall, Cambridge, as a sizar, and became a fellow in 1742. At Cambridge Whitehead published an epistle "On the Danger of writing Verse"[1] and some other poems, notably an heroic epistle, Ann Boleyn to Henry the Eighth (1743), and a didactic Essay on Ridicule (1743). In 1745 he became tutor to Viscount Villiers, son of the earl of Jersey, and took up his residence in London. He produced two tragedies: The Roman Father (Drury Lane, 24th of February 1750), and Creusa, Queen of Athens (Drury Lane, 20th of April 1754). The plots are based respectively on the Horace of Corneille, and the Ion of Euripides. In June 1754 he went abroad with Lord Villiers, and his companion Viscount Nuneham, son of Earl Harcourt, only returning to England in the autumn of 1756. In 1757 he was appointed poet-laureate in succession to Cibber, and proceeded to write annual effusions in the royal honour. That he was not altogether happy in his position, which was discredited by the fierce attacks made on his predecessor, Colley Cibber, appears from "A Pathetic Apology for all Laureates, past, present and to come." Charles Churchill attacked him in 1762, in the third book of The Ghost, as the heir of Dullness and Method. In the same year, Whitehead produced his most successful work in the comedy of the School for Lovers, produced at Drury Lane on the 10th of February. This success encouraged David Garrick to make him his 'reader' of plays. Whitehead's farce, The Trip to Scotland, was performed on the 6th of January 1770. He collected his Plays and Poems in 1774. He had for some time, after his return from the Continent, resided in the houses of his patrons, but from 1769 he lived in London, where he died on the 14th of April, 1785. Beside the works already mentioned, Whitehead wrote a burlesque poem, The Sweepers, a number of verse contes, of which "Variety" and "The Goat's Beard" are good examples, and much occasional and official verse.

See memoirs by his friend William Mason, prefixed to a complete edition of his poems (York, 1788). His plays are printed in Bell's British Theatre (vols. 3, 7, 20) and other collections, and his poems appear in Chalmers's Works of the English Poets (vol. 17) and similar compilations.

  1. Printed in A Collection of Poems by several Hands (vol. ii., 1748).