Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/White, Henry Kirke

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946847Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 61 — White, Henry Kirke1900Sidney Lee

WHITE, HENRY KIRKE (1785–1806), poetaster, born in Nottingham on 21 March 1785, was son of a butcher. His mother, whose name was Neville, came of a Staffordshire family, and at one time kept a boarding-school for girls. The house in which Henry is said to have been born is still pointed out in Exchange Alley, Nottingham; the lower portion remains a butcher's shop, the upper portion is a tavern with the sign of ‘The Kirke White.’

After receiving an elementary education at small private schools, he was at the age of fourteen put to work at a stocking loom. But he chafed against such employment. He developed literary tastes, and began writing poetry. He joined a literary society and showed promise as an orator. Within a year he obtained more congenial employment with a firm of lawyers at Nottingham. His parents could not afford to pay a premium, and he was accordingly compelled to serve two years before being articled. He signed his articles in 1802. His employers noticed his promise, and advised him to study Latin. In ten months he could read Horace ‘with tolerable facility,’ and had begun Greek. Soon afterwards he acquired some knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, and read many books on natural science. He continued his poetic endeavours, and contributed to the ‘Monthly Preceptor’—a periodical which offered prizes to youthful writers. Subsequently he sent poems and essays to the ‘Monthly Mirror,’ in which his work attracted the favourable notice of one of the proprietors, Thomas Hill (1760–1840) [q. v.], and of Capel Lofft. White now developed a strong evangelical piety. He read with appreciation Scott's ‘Force of Truth,’ and made up his mind to go to Cambridge and take holy orders. With a view to raising some of the needful funds, he, with the sanguineness of youth, prepared in 1802 a volume of poems for the press. The Duchess of Devonshire accepted the dedication, and the volume appeared in 1803 under the title of ‘Clifton Grove, a sketch in verse, with other poems, by Henry Kirke White of Nottingham.’ In the preface White confessed that the verses came from a very youthful pen. The work was of modest merit; the title poem showed the influence of Goldsmith's ‘Deserted Village,’ and a reviewer in the ‘Monthly Review’ for February 1804 justly and courteously said that the boyish verse was not distinctive. White sent a letter of complaint to the editor, and the reviewer next month replied in a kindly tone that he adhered to his first opinion. Meanwhile the book came under the notice of Southey, who exaggerated its literary value, and encouraged White to regard himself as a victim of the critic's malignity. Thenceforth Southey deeply interested himself in White's career (Southey, Correspondence, ii. 91). The volume of poems was not a pecuniary success, and White, compelled to look elsewhere for assistance to enable him to enter the university, obtained an introduction through his employer at Nottingham to Charles Simeon of King's College, Cambridge. Simeon was impressed by White's piety, and procured him a sizarship at St. John's; Wilberforce and other sympathisers guaranteed him a small supplementary income, and he quitted his legal employment in 1804 to spend a year in preparation for the university with a clergyman named Grainger of Winteringham, Lincolnshire. There overwork injured his health, which had already shown signs of weakness.

In October 1805 he entered St. John's College, and at once distinguished himself in classics. At the general college examination at the end of the first term, and again at the end of the summer term of 1806, he came out first of his year. But his health was failing, and consumption threatened. The college provided a tutor for him in mathematics during the long vacation of 1806. His health proved unequal to the strain. At the beginning of the October term he completely broke down, and he died in his college rooms on 19 Oct. 1806. In 1819 a tablet to his memory, with a medallion by Chantrey and an inscription by Professor William Smyth, was placed above his grave in All Saints' Church, Cambridge, at the expense of a young American admirer, Francis Boott [q. v.] of Boston, subsequently well known in England as a botanist. The original model of Chantrey's medallion is in the National Portrait Gallery. The museum at Nottingham possesses two portraits of White, one (in profile) by T. Barber, and another by J. Hoppner, R.A. There is a third (anonymous) portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.

White left in manuscript a mass of unpublished verse and prose. His relatives placed it in Southey's hands, and Southey compiled from it ‘The Remains of Henry Kirke White … with an Account of his Life,’ which he published in two volumes in 1807. The volume contained ‘Clifton Grove’ and many poems written by White in childhood, together with a series of hymns and a fragment of an epic on the life of Christ called ‘The Christiad,’ which death prevented White from completing. Waller's lyric ‘Go, lovely Rose,’ was reprinted with a new concluding stanza by White. The chief contribution in prose was a series of twelve essays on religious and philosophic topics called ‘Melancholy Hours.’ In the prefatory memoir Southey emphasised the pathos of White's short career, and wrote with enthusiasm of his poetic genius. The ‘Remains’ was well received, and passed through ten editions by 1823. The work was often reprinted subsequently both in England and America. It was published for the first time in America at Boston in 1829. Ten of White's hymns were included by Dr. W. B. Collyer in his ‘Supplement to Dr. Watts's Psalms and Hymns,’ London, 1812, and are still in common use.

Many early readers of the ‘Remains’ shared Southey's high opinion of White's literary merits. In 1809 Byron wrote sympathetically in his ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers:’

Unhappy White! while life was in its spring
And thy young muse just shook her joyous wing,
The spoiler came; and all thy promise fair
Has sought the grave, to sleep for ever there.
'Twas thine own genius gave the final blow
And helped to plant the wound that laid thee low.

Byron also wrote of White to Dallas on 27 Aug. 1811: ‘Setting aside his bigotry, he surely ranks next Chatterton. It is astonishing how little he was known; and at Cambridge no one thought or heard of such a man till his death rendered all notice useless. For my own part I should have been proud of such an acquaintance; his very prejudices were respectable.’ But Southey's charitable judgment, which Byron echoed, has not stood the test of time. White's verse shows every mark of immaturity. In thought and expression it lacks vigour and originality. A promise of weirdness in an early and prophetic lyric, ‘A Dance of Consumptives’ (from an unfinished ‘Eccentric Drama’), was not fulfilled in his later compositions. The metrical dexterity which is shown in the addition to Waller's ‘Go, lovely Rose,’ is not beyond a mediocre capacity. Such popularity as White's work has enjoyed is to be attributed to the pathetic brevity of his career and to the fervour of the evangelical piety which inspired the greater part of his verse and prose.

[Southey's Memoir prefixed to Remains, 1807; Brown's Nottinghamshire Worthies, pp. 283–99; Julian's Dict. of Hymnology.]

S. L.