The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/William Whitehead
To those who are giving to contemporaries some mention of an age that is past, and of names well-nigh forgotten, it is a hard task to judge how much it may be worth a struggle to save from the wreck of oblivion. If heroes have perished, because no song of poet hymned their daring deeds, has not the fame of poets themselves been oftentimes perilled by their biographers? William Mason, the author of "Caractacus," wrote a memoir of his friend Whitehead, which has been condemned by Boswell as a mere dry narrative of facts. The world has been content to forget the book and its subject; and but for the brief biographical notice of Mr. Campbell, how few would know anything of Colley Cibber's immediate successor. And yet the author of "The Roman Father," and of "Creusa" has much in his writings more worthy of perusal, much in his literary history more deserving of record, than many of the poetasters whose names the genius of Johnson has saved from that silent sentence of forgetfulness which time so sternly passes upon mediocrity.
It is as difficult not to regret, as it is easy to account for, this general ignorance of all save our greatest writers. The history of our literature is biographical. Its annals teach by examples. And so we speak of the age of Dryden, and of Pope, and of Johnson, as if the literature of each of the eras was represented by these men alone, and there was no work for others to do in it. The long line of light is shed through the dark centuries by the great stars. Where they shine at distant intervals the heaven is blacker, but need we close our eyes to the twinklings of those lesser fires, without whose ray the interspace were darkness?
W. Whitehead was born in the parish of St. Botolph's, in the town of Cambridge. He was the son of a baker, whose notoriety for worldly waste and mismanagement has been perpetuated by the nickname of "Whitehead's Folly" being given to a few acres of land, on which he expended large sums of money "in ornamenting rather than cultivating." Mr. Mason has penned an elaborate apology for the poet's humble parentage, and Mr. Campbell has ridiculed Mr. Mason for a defence so needless. William was the second son; his elder brother John was educated for the Church, and, by the interest of Lord Montfort, obtained the living of Penshore in the diocese of Worcester. The baker's taste for model farming so involved him, that he died considerably in debt; and the subject of this memoir, from the profits of his theatrical writings, most honourably discharged the claims of his creditors. Mr. Mason speaks of this conduct of his friend with exultation, and for once indulges a facetious vein in terming it "a rare instance of poetical justice."
Whitehead was at first sent to a school in Cambridge, and thence removed to Winchester. Mr. Mason quotes an account given of him by Dr. Balguy, who, as Canon of Winchester Cathedral, had enjoyed opportunities of procuring some information in reference to Whitehead's school career. He very early showed his taste for poetry, and is said to have written a comedy at sixteen. Through life he was a good reader and reciter of poetry, and early evinced some histrionic talent; for in the winter of 1732, he took a female part in the "Andrea" of Terence, and also gained much applause by his impersonation of Marcia in "Cato."
Some proof of his early poetical powers is given by an anecdote told of a visit of Pope to the school in 1733. The veteran satirist was staying at the Earl of Peterborough's, near Southampton, and was taken by his Lordship to Winchester to see the College. The Earl gave on the occasion ten guineas, to be disposed of in prizes to the boys, and Pope set as a subject for English verse "Peterborough." Whitehead was one of six who gained prizes.
His successful essays in verse were confined to his mother-tongue; for in Latin epigrams and verses he was deficient. We are told, however, that he was employed to translate into Latin the first epistle of the "Essay on Man." Next to his poetical and histrionic tastes, his school-days have been chiefly mentioned as the time when he formed some of those friendships with the great which were ultimately of much advantage to him. At Winchester he was the associate of Lord Drumlanrig, Sir Charles Douglas, Sir Robert Burdett, Sir Bryan Broughton, and other boys of patrician birth. For this, and his long residence in the house of Lord and Lady Jersey, he has not escaped the charge of toadyism. Mr. Macaulay has called him "the most successful tuft-hunter of his day." One of his biographers suggests that his delicacy of mind and body may have led him to such companions, in preference to boys of coarser habits. The apology is more amiable than sagacious. Though he may possibly have preferred such society, on grounds less culpable and more disinterested, there was doubtless a mixture of prudence and vanity in his selection of his friends. A boy of his parentage was flattered by the friendship of the great. And he lived in days when, unless a poor man had transcendent parts, he could not prosper without patronage.
"Principibus placiusse viris haud ultima laus est,"
was a line in those days much quoted, and very freely translated; and though Whitehead lived in what has been called called the transition age, from the protection of patrons to that of the public, many men will be found in that era, and later too, who, in dedications and elsewhere, have laid themselves open to the charge of toadyism, as much as ever he did. We should also remember, that a boy of such humble birth would scarcely have been received as an equal by the sons of gentlemen; and if he was to be a dependent at all, he doubtless preferred being so among the greatest.
In September, 1735, he stood among the candidates for New College, but was placed so low on the roll that he was not sent up. Being superannuated, he was compelled to leave Winchester. He returned to his mother at Cambridge, and now derived more advantage from his humble extraction, than from his own abilities, or his aristocratic school-friendships. Mr. Thomas Pyke, a baker at Cambridge, had founded some scholarships at Clare Hall. Whitehead's claim, as the orphan son of a man of the founder's vocation, was admitted, and he entered as a sizar. His career as an author commenced at the University; for as a student little is known of him, except that he was industrious and economical, and enjoyed the friendship of Hurd, Stebbing, Ogden, and other distinguished contemporaries. He wrote some verses in 1736, as did many other young men at both Universities, on the marriage of the Prince of Wales. But his first poem, which attracted any attention, was his epistle, "On the Danger of Writing Verse," which may indeed be said to point its own moral, and belongs to that class of composition of which Dr. Johnson has observed, that he would rather praise than read.
We hear, however, that it was generally admired, and that Pope himself spoke of it with commendation. Smooth verse of average merit, from a very young man at College, striving by his pen to supply his necessities, was not likely to provoke hostile criticism, especially when there was nothing in it bold, new, or heterodox, to jar against prevailing tastes and prejudices; and imitation is flattery so delicate and sincere, that Pope would doubtless encourage even a faint echo of his own matchless lines from an admirer and disciple.
In 1739 he took his Bachelor's degree. In 1742 he was elected a Fellow of his College, and the following year was made Master of Arts. It was now his intention to take orders. That he was about to embrace this profession with no higher motive than a wish to gain a competence, which might enable him to pursue his literary avocations, we have some reason to believe. He was actuated by no very high or holy impulse, for he speaks, in a fragment of verse to a friend, with great levity of his professional prospects:
"Whether in wide-spread scarf and rustling gown,
My borrow'd Rhetoric soothes the saints in Town,
Or makes in country pews soft matrons weep,
Gay damsels smile and tir'd Churchwardens sleep."
Before, however, he took this step, he was offered by Lord Jersey the place of domestic tutor to his son, Lord Villiers. He not only relinquished, at Lord Jersey's request, all idea of entering on the clerical profession, but he ultimately gave up his Fellowship, in order to keep his position in that family. After the publication of his poem, "On the Danger of Writing Verse," he was not idle with his pen, but gave to the world, in 1743, "Atys and Adrastus," "A Letter of Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII.," and "An Essay on Ridicule." There is a manifest improvement in all these on his first production. After all, however, he but feebly imitates Pope. Some who lack originality, seem to atone for it by the force of their language. By this they cheat the indiscriminating, and therefore the majority of readers, into admiration. But this showy talent, much at a premium in these days, Whitehead, in his poems, does not display. His thoughts are not original, and they are expressed in obscure, meagre, and sometimes ungrammatical language.
He now entered the family of Lord Jersey, and at this time he appears to have been a frequent habitué of theatres, and to have turned his thoughts to dramatic composition. His first production was a ballad farce, called "The Edinburgh Ball," in which the young Pretender is ridiculed. Had it ever seen the light, posterity might have been tempted to connect with this triumph over the fallen, his appointment to the laurel, but it was neither printed nor performed. He next employed himself on a tragedy, and produced "The Roman Father," in imitation of Corneille's "Les Horaces." Mr. Campbell observes "that Mason has employed a good deal of criticism to show that the piece would have been better if the artist had bestowed more pains upon it." It turns on the well-known story, told with such graphic power in the first book of Livy. Those who remember that beautiful narrative, will feel convinced that no drama could place it in a clearer or more picturesque light before them. In the tale itself there is not material for a five act play; and where Whitehead has added or altered, he has not improved.
The scene is laid at Rome. There are six dramatis personæ; only two women, Horatia and a confidential friend, Valencia. The armies are encamped opposite to each other. Horatia is full of apprehension for her lover, Curiatius, one of three twin Alban brethren, and distracted between her duty to her betrothed and her brother Horatius. Meanwhile, the encamped hosts lay aside their arms and conclude a truce, but as glory must have its victims, the contest is to lie between three of either army. The Horatii and Curiatii are represented as personal friends, and, during the truce, joking amicably in each other's tents. The lots are cast. The three twin brothers are to be arrayed against each other. News first reaches Horatia and her father that the Horatii are chosen as the champions of their country. He rejoices; she is full of fears for her brother. Next arrives the intelligence that the Curiatii are to do battle on the Alban side. The agony of Horatia may be well imagined and might have been finely described. The father arms his son Horatius, and sends him forth with prayers for victory. His sister supplicates him to decline the conflict. Its results are well known. After her lover's death, Horatia provokes her brother by her taunts until he draws his sword and wounds her; and these taunts are so violent that his conduct appears almost excusable. This is neither true to the story nor natural. There is something super-romantic in her wishing to die by the hand that had slain her lover, when that hand is her brother's. She, however, does not die by the wound inflicted; but, as Mr. Campbell tells us, directions are given in one edition, for stripping the bandages from off her wounds, and she perishes from loss of blood. This is assuredly a stage horror which Horace would have prescribed, as certainly as he did the banquets of Thyestes, or the butcheries of Medea.
There are very few lines in the play worthy of extract. It is tolerably well adapted for acting, but we may owe this to Garrick almost as much to the author, for when he accepted the play, he exercised his discretion very freely, and was unsparing in his use of the knife. On the stage it was fairly successful.
The following year, 1750, he published his "Hymn to the Bristol Spring," an imitation of some of the hymns of Homer and Callimachus. It is written in blank verse, and is better than the heroics he had given to the world while at Cambridge.
At the same time appeared "The Sweepers." This is a dismal attempt at a humorous poem in blank verse, into which is introduced a pathetic tale of seduction. A very beautiful maiden, who delights in the name of Lardella (one much better used in "The Rehearsal"), is a sweeper in Seven Dials. She aspires to a crossing in Whitehall, and having attained the object of her ambition, she there attracts the gaze of a licentious lordling, by whom she is ruined, deserted; and we are told that
"In bitterness of soul she cursed in vain:
Her proud betrayer, curs'd her fatal charms,
And perish'd in the streets from which she sprang."
There are, doubtless, seducers among the aristocracy; but Lardella's sad history, if not ludicrously improbable, is, at any rate, ludicrously told.
In addition to his dramatic and poetic compositions, he appears, at this time, to have written three papers for "The World." This periodical numbered among its contributors, Lord Chesterfield, Lord Bath, Sir Charles Hanbury, Horace Walpole, Soame Jennings, Mr. Cambridge, Mr. Coventry; its editor was Mr. Thomas Moore. The first of Whitehead's is humorous, and in ridicule of the prevalent taste of that day for Chinese articles of every kind. The second is on "Contemporary Romances," which he lashes severely for their shallow pretensions, their inaccuracy, and indecency. The third laments the effeminacy of the age.
Encouraged by the success of his former drama, he employed himself on one which very much exceeds it in merit. As in a former case, he had grounded his play on one written by another. So now, too timid to construct a new plot, he therefore took his subject from the "Ion" of Euripides; "and," as Mr. Campbell says, "with bold and sometimes interesting alterations." Whitehead himself says of it: "The subject of the following scenes is so ancient, so slightingly mentioned by the historians, and so fabulously treated by Euripides in his tragedy of 'Ion,' that the author thought himself at liberty to make the story his own. Some glaring circumstances he was obliged to adhere to, which he has endeavoured to render probable."
The "Ion," though it has incurred the critical censure of Schlegel for some improbabilities and repetitions, is one of the most beautiful of the dramas of Euripides. A short account of that play in connection with the "Creusa" of Whitehead, may not prove unacceptable to the reader—the coincidence of the name, and our admiration of it as perhaps the most beautiful classical drama in the language, will compel us also to pay a passing tribute to the "Ion" of Sir Thomas Talfourd. The story, as told by Euripides, runs thus:—Creusa, daughter of Erectheus, King of Athens, falls a victim to the licentious passion of Apollo, and bears a child, whose birth she conceals, and whom she exposes. He is, however, found, and brought up as servant to the god at the temple. After this, Creusa is married to Xuthus, a military stranger. They are childless, and go to the Oracle at Delphi to make inquiries (v. 66.):
ἡκουσι πρὸς μαντεἶ Ἀπόλλωνος τάδε,
ἔρωτι παίδων· Λοξίας δὲ τὴν τύχην
ἐς τοῦτ᾽ ἐλαύνει, κοὐ λέληθεν, ὡς δοκεῖ.
δώσει γὰρ εἰσελθόντι μαντεῖον τόδε
Ξούθῳ τὸν αὑτοῦ παῖδα, καὶ πεφυκέναι
κείνου σφε φήσει, μητρὸς ὡς ἐλθὼν δόμους
γνωσθῇ Κρεούσῃ, καὶ γάμοι τε Λοξίου
κρυπτοὶ γένωνται, παῖς . ἔχη τὰ πρόςφορα
"And here to Loxias' Oracle are come
Yearning for children. Nor doth God forget,
But helpeth on the matter to this end.
For when old Xuthus to the sacred shrine
Cometh, t'will give up to him his own son—
His origin revealing, so the youth
May hie him to his mother's home, and there
Be recognised by her—Apollo's loves
Be kept in sacred secresy—and Ion
Gain all things fitting his estate and birth."
When Creusa appears at the Oracle, Ion meets her, and asks her for what purpose she comes? She is reminded of the scene of her early amour with the god, and exclaims (v. 251.):
ὦ τλήμονες γυναῖκες, ὦ τολμήματα
Θεῶν· Τί δῆτα; ποῖ δίκην ἀνοίσομεν,
εῖ τῶν κρατούτων ἀδικίαις ὀλούμεθα;
"Woe! our ill-fated sex! O bold essays
Of Gods! What then! What hope of justice here,
When they, our masters, wrong us and we perish!"
She tells him the mission on which she and her husband have come.
ουδ᾽ ἔτεκες οὐδὲν πώποτ᾽, ἀλλ᾽ ἄτεκνος εἶ;
"Didst ne'er bear offspring, but art childless, say?"
She adroitly avoids the question:
Ὁ Φοῖβος οἶδε τὴν ἐμὴν ἀπαιδίαν.
"Apollo understands my childlessness."
The dialogue between them is pathetic and beautiful. He commiserates her condition, and she grieves over his parentless state, and total ignorance of his birth and origin, She relates to him the story of her amour with Apollo as if of a third person. Xuthus, meanwhile, consults the Oracle, and comes out and proclaims Ion as his son. He has been told so by the god; and the age of the youth so exactly agrees with a former gallantry of his, that he is convinced of it, and succeeds in persuading Ion. They rejoicingly embrace. Ion's feelings, at this crisis, are exquisitely described; and in some lines of genuine pathos and beauty, he compares his present happy and humble lot—
Θεῶν ἐν εὐχαῖς ἤ λογοισιν ἦ βροτῶν
ὑπηρετῶν χαίρουσιν, οὐ γοωμένοις.
"In prayers to Gods, or conversing with men,
Ministering to those who joy, not those who weep,"
with the dangers and pains of an elevated rank among those who are strangers to him, and to whom he is unknown. The son of a foreigner—the child of love, not of marriage—he dreads the aristocratic prejudices of the autocthonous Athenians. The chorus now tells Creusa that Xuthus had found a child of his own blood. She is filled with grief and jealousy. The Pædagogus, evidently introduced into the play to do this particular work, suggests to her that she should destroy Ion, and undertakes the murderous deed himself. How it fared with the prisoners and their intended victim, the narration of a messenger informs us. A banquet is given in the sacred precincts of the Temple. All around is grand and gorgeous. There are strewed about tapestries, on which are embroidered imitations of the spoils which Hercules bore off in triumph from the vanquished Amazons. Pictured, too, on them are these scenes:
In Heaven's wide concave, marshalling the stars,
And Helios driving down to the last ray
His steeds on, leading Hesperus in his rear,
And night, with robes of raven darkness, urged
The unyoked coursers of her radiant car,
While the stars glittering follow in her train,
The Pleiad gliding through the vault of Heaven.
Girt with his sword, Orion too was there,
The Bear within her golden orbit turned,
And the Moon's Orb above shot arrowy light
Through half the month."
They sit at the banquet. The old man orders larger goblets to be brought. He hands to his young lord the most capacious and richest cup, dropping into it the powerful drug Creusa had prepared. As a libation was being poured, some one uttered words of evil omen. Ion commands them all to empty their goblets on the earth. At that moment, a flock of doves came trooping in, and with their beaks sipped the spilled wine. The bird which tasted that which Ion had poured out is seized with convulsive shudderings, and dies.
So is the base design frustrated. He instantly accuses the Pædagogus, who admits that he is the instrument of the Queen's malice. Ion determines to take the life of Creusa. The Pythian priestess appears to him, and bids him go to Athens, bearing with him the ark or cradle in which she had received him as a foundling. When they meet—the son unconsciously seeking the life of his mother, who, in ignorance, had attempted his—she recognises the cradle, and he listens for some time incredulous to her declaration that she is his mother. She who was to have fallen by his hand is now embraced with tenderness, and she triumphantly exclaims:
ἄπαιδες οὔκετ᾽ ἐσμὲν, οὐδ᾽ ἄτεκνοι·
δῶμ᾽ ἑστιοῦται, γᾶ δ᾽ ἔχει τυράννους·
ἀνηβᾷ δ᾽ Ἐρεχθεὺς,
ὁ τε γηγενἐτας δόμος οὐκέτι νύκτας
δέρκεται, ἀελίου δ᾽ ἀναβλέπει λαμπάσιν.
"Childless no more, no more; our hearth again
Beams with domestic joy. Our land hath Kings;
Again Erectheus blooms.
Our ancient house no more looks forth in night,
But raiseth up its head in the sun's rays."
Minerva appears, and prophesies the future greatness of the descendants of Ion, and advises that Xuthus should not he undeceived about his supposed parentage to Ion. This fault of making gods and men conspire against Xuthus, the critics have justly condemned. It is the only blemish of a play in which many of the descriptions are exquisite, the situations dramatic, and the plot interesting.
Whitehead's "Creusa" lacks all the supernatural elements in the drama of Euripides, and is altogether tragic.
Ilyssus, the Ion of this play, is not a foundling, nor the child of heaven and earth. Nicander, the mortal lover of Creusa, had been privately married to her, and on the night that she bore him her first child, he was banished by her father, Erectheus, King of Athens. He took his new-born child with him, and to prevent pursuit, left some of his own clothes on the road, besmeared with blood. This produced a general belief that he and the child were dead. He retired to Delphi, entrusted the child to the priest and priestess of Apollo, and lived near, and acted the part of the supposed orphan's guardian, under the assumed name of Aletes. Ilyssus ministers in the temple. Meanwhile, at Athens, Creusa is married to a military stranger, Xuthus. Their marriage bed is unfruitful. Phorbas, an Athenian citizen, is sent to Delphi to inquire of the Oracle about this. Next comes Creusa herself. Her interview with her unknown son, Ilyssus, is manifestly imitated from Euripides, and very well described, She laments his friendless state. He tells her the priest and priestess have been parents to him, and, "more than all," that Aletes,
"The kindest, best good man; a neighbouring sage
Who has known better days, though now retir'd
To a small cottage on the mountain's brow,"
has been his guide, philosopher, and friend; that he has taught him
"To adore high Heaven,
And venerate on Earth, Heaven's image—truth!
To feel for other's woes, and bear my own
With manly resignation."
"The pure and holy character of the young Ilyssus," says Campbell, "is brought out, I have no hesitation to say, more interestingly than in Euripides by the display of his reverential gratitude to the Queen upon the first tenderness which she shows him, and by the agony of his ingenuous spirit on beholding it withdrawn."
Aletes influences the Oracle to declare that Ilyssus shall be the King of Athens. There is a rumour also that he is the son of Xuthus. At this, as in the "Ion," Creusa's love is turned into jealousy and hatred. Her confidante (the Pædagogus in "Ion,") suggests to her the murder of Ilyssus. She is at present irresolute, but at last consents, because taunted by her husband with the plebeian grave of her dead lover, Nicander. Meanwhile, Aletes meets Creusa, discloses himself to her, and tells her the history of Ilyssus soon enough to prevent the projected murder. Creusa rushes to the banquet just in time to save him; and after she has bound Xuthus and all present by an oath that Ilyssus shall be King of Athens, drinks off the fatal cup herself, and dies.
There is one scene of great beauty, in which Aletes counsels Ilyssus on his duties when placed on the throne of Athens.
Yet the tender friend
Who should direct me leaves me to myself.
Canst thou abandon me?
Would fate permit,
I would attend thee still. But, oh! Ilyssus,
Whate'er becomes of me, when thou shalt reach
That envied pinnacle of human greatness
Where faithful monitors but rarely follow,
Even then amidst the kindest smiles of fortune,
Forget not thou wert once distress'd and friendless.
Be strictly just, but yet, like Heaven, with mercy
Temper thy justice. From thy purged ear
Banish base flattery, and spurn the wretch
Who would persuade thee thou art more than man;
Weak, erring, selfish man, endued with power
To be the minister of public good.
If conquest charm thee, and the pride of war
Blaze on thy sight, remember thou art placed
The guardian of mankind, nor build thy fame
On rapines and on murders. Should soft peace
Invite to luxury, the pleasing bane
Of happy kingdoms, know from thy example,
The bliss and woe of nameless millions, springs
Their virtue or their vice. Nor think by laws
To curb licentious man; those laws alone
Can bend the headstrong many to their yoke,
Which make it present int'rest to obey them.
In discarding all supernatural aid, Whitehead has robbed the subject of much of its poetry. The power of fate and of the unseen world is removed, and Aletes influences the Pythian priestess to give a particular response. Now this treatment of the subject, though the play was meant for an English, and not a Greek audience, does not seem to be artistic. If the matter of the plot be drawn from Greek history or mythology, should it not be essentially Greek in plot, incident, thought, feeling, indeed, in everything but the language? Would an ancient dramatist have dared to represent the utterances from the tripod as influenced by such a man as Aletes?
These are the faults of a play which in the main is interesting and pleasing, and will well repay the labour of perusal. We named in connection with the "Creusa" of Whitehead, and the "Ion" of Euripides, the "Ion" of Sir Thomas Talfourd. It borrows only the name of the Greek drama. The plot is similar merely in one respect, that it turns much on what has been a favourite subject with many imaginative writers—the history of a foundling. But in this beautiful drama, the supernatural element is judiciously introduced. We are not shocked by the improbabilities of Greek mythology, or the amours of gods with women. On the other hand, it is not a Greek subject with English incidents.
Throughout the whole of the "Ion," we feel that we are on classic ground. Adrastrus, Ctesiphon, and Phocion are Greeks. Without the clumsy tediousness of a prologue, or the truistic platitudes of a chorus, the play is classical throughout, and such as an Englishman of genius, taste, and erudition would write on a Greek subject, avoiding equally the pedantry of Ben Jonson's tragedies, and the anglicisms of Whitehead. There is, throughout the "Ion," the overwhelming idea of a ruthless destiny, strong and sure in its accomplishment.
The Oracle has declared:
"Woe unto the babe!
Against the life which now begins, shall life
Lighted from thence be arm'd, and both soon quench'd,
End this great line in sorrow;"
and we feel that we are closed in by the adamantine walls of an immutable necessity.
"Creusa" was acted 1754. Garrick took the part of Aletes, Mrs. Pritchard that of Creusa. It was highly successful.
Soon after the exhibition of his play, Whitehead accompanied his noble pupil and Lord Nuneham, son of the Earl of Harcourt, on their travels. They passed through Flanders, resided some time at Rheims, and went thence to Leipsic, where it was their intention to study the Droit Publique, under Mascow. Their plan was frustrated, for they found the aged professor in his dotage, and quite incapable of lecturing. They therefore proceeded to Dresden, and visited some of the German Courts, spending the summer of 1755 at Hanover, when George II. paid his last visit to his Electorate. Here they met Mason, who had taken orders and was with Lord Holdernesse, the Secretary of State, as his domestic chaplain. They next visited Vienna, and passed on to Italy, crossed the Alps, and travelled in Switzerland, Germany and Holland, but did not visit France, on account of the declaration of war. During his absence, Whitehead corresponded with his friends and wrote some poems on subjects suggested by the scenes through which he passed. On his return, he published an ode to the Tiber, and several elegies on classical scenes and subjects. The ode has no line that is sublime in it. There are no thoughts that breathe—no words that burn. There is in it, and the other effusions, a level smoothness and affected classicality. Since "Childe Harold" has become a handbook for the continent, and Rogers and Sotheby have poetically journalized in Italy, we grow fastidious in judging verses on the "yellow Tiber," and the Coliseum. He published among them some lines to a sick friend, the perusal of which could by no means have accelerated his convalescence.
During his absence, Lady Jersey procured for him the office of Secretary and Registrar of the Order of the Bath. He must have merited, by his conscientious discharge of his duties as their son's tutor, and by his amiable and gentle manners, the affection of this noble family, to whose interest he also owes his appointment to the Laurel, and who insisted, after the education of Lord Villiers was completed, on his tutor being a constant inmate of their house. This plan Whitehead consented to for some time, and resided with them for fourteen years; but at the death of Lord Jersey, much against his pupil's wish, he went into private lodgings, but continued to spend his summers between Middleton and Nuneham. Horace Walpole, in a letter dated at the latter place August 3rd, 1775, writes, in giving an account of a stay he had been making there: "There was Mr. Whitehead the Laureat, too, who, I doubt, will be a little puzzled if he has no better a victory than the last against Cæsar's next birthday. There was a little too much of the Vertere funeribus triumphos for a complimentary ode in the last action."
Cibber died in 1757. The Laureateship was offered to Gray, but Pope, Swift, and the other wits had succeeded in making the office so ridiculous by their attacks on Cibber, that Gray, though fearful of giving offence to those by whom it was offered to him, shrunk from it almost with disgust. Mason, it is said, was passed by because in orders, but Eusden before and Warton afterwards were both clergymen. Through the advocacy of the Jerseys, Whitehead next received an offer of the rejected Laurel. It had been offered to Gray as a sinecure. The annual odes were to be dispensed with. Not so with Whitehead; and this has excited the surprise of Mason, who says, "the late King would readily have dispensed with hearing music for which he had no ear, and Poetry for which he had no taste." On this, Campbell remarks: "His wonder is quite misplaced. If the King had a taste for Poetry, he would have abolished the Laureate Odes. As he had not, they were continued."
This is a rather obvious sarcasm, but the remark is true enough. Literature would have lost but little that is good had Whitehead's forty-eight odes never been added to the stock of unreadable verse. "I remember, therefore," writes Mason, "that when my friend had accepted the laurel, without such permission, the best blossom that could have been annexed to its foliage, that I advised him to employ a deputy to write his annual odes, and reserve his own pen for certain great occasions that might occur, such as a peace or a marriage, and then to address his Royal Master with some studied ode or epistle, as Boileau and Racine had done in France for their pensions. And I also pointed out to him two or three needy poets of the day, who, for the reward of five or ten guineas, would write immediately under the eye of the musical composer (a humiliation which all that write for music in the present state of that art ought to submit to,) and who would cut their lines shorter or spin them out longer, in order to fit them to any given air; as the poetical subalterns whom Handel employed did with great obsequiousness, whenever the oratorio exigencies of their musical general required them to new-array the rank and file of their metres. This advice, given partly in jest, partly in earnest, was not attended to by my friend. He set himself to his periodical task, with the zeal of a person who wished to retrieve the honours of that laurel which came to him from the hand of Cibber in a very shrivelled or rather blasted state. But though his first ode was calculated, from the heroic genealogy which it contained, to be peculiarly acceptable to the monarch for whose birthday it was written, and though its poetical merit had the very just approbation of Mr. Gray and other good judges, it was little relished in general."
The Odes have provoked a censure from Dr. Johnson, who, speaking of Cibber's and those of his successor, observed "Cibber's familiar style was better than Whitehead's assumed one; grand nonsense is insupportable." Gibbon has, for an historical inaccuracy, severely criticised the first of them which he speaks of "as one of the annual odes which still adorn or disgrace the birthdays of our British Kings." In this composition, the poet attempts to trace the lineage of the House of Brunswick, and in doing so, Othbert is said to have dwelt in the Italian plain, and in his migration to have crossed the Julian Hills; the real state of the case being that he lived among the mountains of Tuscany, and afterwards passed over the Rhætian Alps. Historical inaccuracies in a laureate ode are no very grievous transgressions; but this and other mistakes which he enumerates, call forth from the severe and accurate historian this characteristic censure. "The poet may deviate from the truth of history, but every deviation ought to be compensated by the superior beauties of fancy and fiction."
The preferment to the office of Laureate is an epoch in Whitehead's life. From that moment he was fiercely assailed. On his appointment he received some congratulations, and among them from his friend Cambridge, who prophesies that he will be assailed, because of his elevation:
"Tis so, though we're surpris'd to hear it,
The Laurel is bestowed on merit.
How hush'd is every envious voice,
Confounded by so just a choice,
Though by prescriptive right prepar'd
To libel the selected bard."
We find that in a poem, called "Johnson's Laurel on the Contests of the Poets, London, 1785," the year of Whitehead's death, he is dismissed in one contemptuous and contemptible couplet—Mason, Hayley, Pratt, are described:
"Next Whitehead came, his worth a pinch of snuff,
But for a Laureate he was good enough."
His reputation did not suffer from some of the first attacks made on it, and he produced, in 1762, "The School for Lovers," a comedy, in five acts, which was accepted by Garrick, and performed at Drury Lane, 11th of February, 1762. The plan is taken from a play of Fontenelle's, called "Le Testament." The dedication is strange, and runs thus: "To the memory of Monsieur de Fontenelle this comedy is inscribed, by a lover of simplicity, the Author." Garrick played Sir John Dorilant, and Mrs. Clive, Mrs. Cibber, and Mrs. Yates took the three female characters. The dialogue is sprightly and elegant, and the plot clear and well-arranged; but it is all love, love ab ovo usque ad mala. It is a good sentimental comedy, and with such acting as Garrick's and Mrs. Cibber's was not unlikely to be successful.
In the same year he gave to the world his Charge to the poets. Coleridge in his "Biographia Literaria," says: "Whitehead, exerting the prerogative of his Laureateship, addressed to youthful poets a poetic charge which is perhaps the best, and certainly the most interesting of his works." Had Coleridge carefully compared the various compositions of the Laureate, he could scarcely have ranked this with any of his dramatic writings, and it is inferior to some of his other poems. As Laureate, he supposes himself standing in the position of a bishop to his poetic brethren, who are the inferior clergy. That this is heavy humour, will appear without reading the poem. But if examined, it will be found, notwithstanding the foregoing criticism of Coleridge, that the execution is scarcely superior to the design. It had, however, the effect of exciting the wrath and satire of Churchill. He who "blazed the comet of a season," could not brook Whitehead's seeming arrogance in venturing to teach him and others, simply because fortune had conferred on him the laurel. Churchill, therefore, in the third book of a poem which he published soon after, assailed Whitehead in an invocation, in which he distinguishes the Laureate from Paul Whitehead, a satirist who had been threatened with state prosecution for his fearless attacks on wickedness in high places.
"Come, Method, come in all thy pride,
Dulness and Whitehead by thy side;
Dulness and Method still are one,
And Whitehead is their darling son.
"Not he whose pen above control,
Struck terror to the guilty soul,
Made Folly tremble through her state,
And villains blush at being great;
Whilst he himself with steady face,
Disdaining modesty and grace,
Could blunder on through thick and thin,
Through every mean and servile sin,
Yet swear by Philip and by Paul,
He nobly scorn'd to blush at all.
"But he who in the Laureate chair,
By grace, not merit, planted there,
In awkward pomp is seen to sit,
And by his patent proves his wit;
For favours of the great we know,
Can wit as well as rank bestow,
And they who without one pretension,
Can get the fools a place or pension,
Must able be suppos'd of course
(If reason be allowed due course)
To gain such qualities and grace
As may equip them for the place.
"But he who measures as he goes,
A mongrel kind of tinkling prose,
And is too frugal to dispense
At once both poetry and sense;
Who, from amidst his slumbering guards
Deals out a charge to subject bards,
Where couplets after couplets creep,
Propitious to the reign of sleep;
Yet every word imprints an awe,
And all his dictates pass for law,
With beaux who simper all around,
And belles who die in every sound,
For in all things of this relation,
Men mostly judge from situation."
Churchill, who had built up the fame of Garrick on the ruin of other reputations in "The Rosciad," quite destroyed the modicum of fame Whitehead had gained. If compared with Dryden's attack on Shadwell, and Pope's on Cibber, they are far fairer than either, as a judgment on the man and his works. Nevertheless, the sarcasms are too savage and the censure more than was called for. The lines, however, did their work of destruction. It is said that, in consequence of the effect they produced on the small world of letters of those days, Garrick, who had previously accepted two tragedies and a comedy, refused another tragedy. What this play was, there is no evidence to show, unless it was a fragment of a drama called "Œdipus," afterwards finished by Mr. Mason. There is, however, no doubt that a farce called "A Trip to Scotland," which he offered to Garrick, was accepted only on the condition that it should be played without the authorship being revealed; nor until it was completely successful, was it known that this amusing little production was from the pen of the Laureate, now in his fifty-fifth year. It was acted at Drury Lane in January, 1770, and when afterwards published was dedicated to Garrick:
"The following little whimsical trifle cannot with propriety be addressed to any one but you. It was owing to your permission that it ever appeared upon the stage at all; and it is greatly indebted to the same friendly partiality, that it still continues to amuse the town. I take this public opportunity of thanking you for the trouble you have given yourself about so slight a thing, and with great pleasure subscribe myself,
"Your obliged and humble servant,
It is a clever little farce, the story founded on a runaway match. There is some broad humour in it; but the dialogue is not brilliant, and no punning is attempted. The Cupid is a postboy, and the farce differs from most others in this: that there are interludes, and the postboy Cupid is gifted with a supernatural power of changing the scenes and filling up the plot by rhyming narrative. Its having been accepted anonymously, shows clearly enough the wonderful effect of Churchill's satire. Whitehead, as Campbell has observed, was too amiable to reply. He could not have penned verses so bitter, but to the strength of his moral qualities, rather than a deficiency in intellectual power, his silence is to be attributed. What he thought of his brilliant antagonist may be guessed from this fragment, printed in the edition of his works published after his death:
"So from his common place, when Churchill strings
Into some motley form his damn'd good things,
The purple patches everywhere prevail,
But the poor work has neither head nor tail."
Elsewhere he writes:
"Churchill had strength of thought, had power to paint,
Nor felt from principles the least restraint,
From hell itself his characters he drew,
And christened them by ev'ry name he knew;
For 'twas from hearsay he picked up his tales,
Where false and true by accident prevails:
Hence I, though older far, have lived to see
Churchill forgot, an empty shade like me."
The following lines on the same subject were found by Mr. Mason:
"That I'm his foe, ev'n Churchill can't pretend,
But—thank my stars!—he proves I am no friend:
Yet, Churchill, could an honest wish succeed,
I'd prove myself to thee a friend indeed;
For had I power, like that which bends the spheres
To music never heard by mortal ears,
Where, in his system, sits the central sun,
And drags reluctant planets into tune;
So would I bridle thy eccentric soul,
In Reason's sober orbit bid it roll;
Spite of thyself would make thy rancour cease,
Preserve thy present fame and future peace,
And teach thy Muse no vulgar place to find,
In the full moral chorus of mankind."
In 1774 he collected his plays and poems, and published them in two volumes. His advertisement to the edition is as follows: "Most of the pieces contained in these volumes have already had their fate with the public; and would probably never have been collected in the manner in which they now appear, if the author had not imagined that his character as Laureate obliged him in some measure to revise and correct them. If in their present state they have any degree of real merit belonging to them, they will support themselves. If they are so unfortunate as to want it, they will naturally sink into the oblivion they deserve." This prophecy has well-nigh been fulfilled. English poetry abounds in so much that is good, that what is second-rate, is little likely to be read; but in most ages contemporary verse is read and praised which is very inferior to some laid on the shelf belonging to years gone by. Those who find time to read some of the meagre and mediocre verse of the day, would find more pathos and beauty in the dramas, and more good sense in the didactic poems of Whitehead, than they at present suppose.
In 1776 he published a story in octosyllables, called "Variety," a tale for married people, quoted by Campbell in his specimen of British poets. It is very nicely told. There is a song by him for Ranelagh, of which the first and the last stanzas are so applicable to modern Bloomerism that it must be quoted.
"Ye belles and ye flirts, and ye pert little things,
Who trip in this frolicksome round,
Pray tell me from whence this impertinence springs,
The sexes at once to confound?
What mean the cock'd hat and the masculine air,
With each motion designed to perplex?
Bright eyes were intended to languish, not stare,
And softness the test of your sex.
"The blushes of morn, and the mildness of May,
Are charms which no art can procure,
O, be but yourselves, and our homage we pay,
And your empire is solid and sure,
But if, Amazon-like, you attack your gallants,
And put us in fear of our lives,
You may do very well for sisters and aunts,
But, believe me, you'll never be wives."
He seems to have possessed some influence with Garrick, a man whose authority carried great weight in literary as well as dramatic matters.
Murphy, in his life of Garrick, expresses warm gratitude to the Laureate for his kind and equitable decision of a matter in which he was himself a principal. He had written a drama called "The Orphan of China," which he sent to Garrick. The play was refused. Murphy thought himself hardly treated, and commenced a paper war against the manager. Garrick made his complaint at Holland House. Fox asked Murphy why he had shown so much animosity. Murphy replied that to publicly assail Garrick was, because of his extreme sensitiveness, his only chance of success: that the fate of the "Orphan" depended on it. At Fox's request the play was sent to Holland House, and he and Horace Walpole read it together. On the following Sunday Garrick was a guest there, and Fox and Walpole quoted to him some lines from it. He was startled; he had not, as managers are said now-a-days to do, returned the play without reading it, but had undervalued its merits. He was now struck by the lines quoted, and begged for the play, which he took again under his consideration, and accepted. Soon after this a good-natured friend repeated to Mr. Garrick some angry and depreciatory remark which Murphy had made on him. The thin-skinned manager was furious, and again refused the play. The author made a firm stand, and declared he would not be trampled on. An interview took place, when it was arranged that the difference should be referred to the arbitration of Whitehead. He was then staying at Bath, and to this place the distressed "Orphan" was sent for its health. Whitehead would not consent to be the arbitrator of the whole difference, but agreed to give a candid opinion on the merits of the play. On reading it, he was so pleased that he went beyond his promise, and not only praised the drama, but said that the manager ought to accept it, and predicted that it would be a favourite with the public. This healed the breach, and the "Orphan" was re-accepted. Garrick, as was his custom, read it to the company, with his usual powerful intonation, giving every passage its full effect, but as he went on he suggested some emendation. In the fifth act he proposed a large alteration; Whitehead who was present, gave him the following delicate and witty reproof: "Mr. Garrick," said he, "there are so many beauties in this play, that for the sake of us who may hereafter write for the stage, I beg we may have no more." This specimen of Whitehead's conversational talent would make us suspect Boswell's judgment, when in speaking of Mason's "Life of Whitehead," he remarks: "I do not think it was quite necessary to attempt a depreciation of what is universally esteemed, because it was not to be found in the immediate object of the ingenious writer's pen; for, in truth, from a man so still and so tame, as to be contented to pass many years as the domestic companion of a superannuated lord and lady, conversation could no more be expected, than from a Chinese Mandarin on a chimney-place, or the fantastic figures on a gilt leather screen." Boswell's flunkeyism may have had some hero worship in it not to be found in Whitehead's; but after all, there is nothing very degrading in a man's continuing to reside in a family where he enjoyed a life of literary leisure, and was treated as a welcome guest and an esteemed friend.
It would seem that Boswell was, as usual, merely following the Doctor, who said: "Whitehead is but a little man to inscribe verses to players." Here we see Johnson's bile against Garrick showing itself. Whitehead had, as we have seen, dedicated his farce to him, and in some lines to the great actor he had written:
"A nation's taste depends on you,
Perhaps a nation's virtue too;
O, think how glorious 'twere to raise,
A Theatre to virtue's praise,
Where no indignant blush might rise,
Nor wit be taught to plead for vice.
But every young, attentive ear,
Imbibe the precepts living there.
And ev'ry inexperienced breast
There feel its own rude hints exprest,
And wakened by the glowing scene,
Unfold the worth that lurks within."
When Garrick revived "Every Man in his Humour," Whitehead was called on to write a prologue, which is to be found among his works. Garrick had been very successful as Abel Drugger in "The Alchymist," and determined on acting in another of Jonson's plays.
In 1777 Whitehead wrote "The Goat's Beard." After this he published nothing except his annual ode, which he never neglected. Indeed death, after many years of tranquil old age, passed in his lodging in London, and at the seat of his noble friends and patrons, overtook him while employed on a birthday ode. He had visited Lord Harcourt in the morning, and went to bed seemingly well, but expired next morning very suddenly, April 14th, 1785, in the seventieth year of his age. He was buried in South Audley Street Chapel.
- An anachronism, as it happens, for Ion was more ancient than the son of Jove and Alcmena.
- Paul Whitehead.
- There was no very warm affection between the Doctor and Mason. The latter concludes his Memoir of Whitehead by a sneering parody on the elevated style of the great Dr. Samuel: "Those readers who believe that I do not write immediately under his (namely, the bookseller's) pay, and who may have gathered from what they have already read that I am not so passionately enamoured of Dr. Johnson's biographical manner, as to take that for my model, have only to throw these pages aside, and wait till they are new-written by some one of his numerous disciples who may follow his master's example; and should more anecdotes than I furnish him with be wanting (as was the Doctor's case in his life of Mr. Gray), may make amends for it by those acid eructations of vituperative criticism, which are generated by unconcocted taste, and intellectual indigestion."