Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whitehead, Paul

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

WHITEHEAD, PAUL (1710–1774), satirist, was born on 6 Feb. 1710 in Castle Yard, Holborn, where his father was a prosperous tailor. After attending a school at Hitchin he was apprenticed to a mercer in the city, but, showing little disposition for business, took chambers in the Temple as a law student. He was, however, obliged, apparently for a series of years, to transfer his residence to the neighbouring Fleet prison, having backed a bill which the theatrical manager Charles Fleetwood had failed to meet. From prison Whitehead is said to have put forth his first literary efforts in the shape of political squibs. His first more elaborate production, ‘State Dunces,’ a satire in heroic couplets, was published in 1733. It was inscribed to Pope, the first of whose ‘Imitations of Horace’ dates from the same year, and whose ‘Dunciad’ had appeared in 1728. Pope's rhythm, together with certain other characteristics of his satirical verse, is perhaps as successfully reproduced by Whitehead as by any contemporary writer; but he is altogether lacking in concentration and in anything like seriousness of purpose. The chief ‘State Dunce’ is Walpole (Appius); others are Francis Hare [q. v.], bishop of Chichester, and the whig historian James Ralph [q. v.] The poem, which provoked an answer under the title of ‘A Friendly Epistle,’ was sold to Dodsley for 10l. (Boswell in Life, ed. Birkbeck Hill, i. 124–5, records Johnson's refusal to accept a smaller sum for his ‘London’ in 1738, on the ground that he ‘would not take less than Paul Whitehead,’ and adds an absurd apology for Johnson's ‘prejudice’ against him).

In 1735 Whitehead married Anna, the only daughter of Sir Swinnerton Dyer, bart., of Spains Hall, Essex. By this time he may be concluded to have been out of the Fleet, unless indeed his marriage provided him with the means of quitting it. In 1739 he published ‘Manners,’ the satirical poem so highly thought of by Boswell, but considered by Johnson a ‘poor performance’ (Boswell, Life, v. 116). The manuscript is preserved in British Museum Additional MS. 25277, ff. 117–20. It cannot be said to exhibit any advance upon its predecessor, nor can its clamorous vituperation—

    Shall Pope alone the plenteous harvest have,
    And I not glean one straggling fool or knave?—

be held to be dignified by its pretence of proceeding from a patriot whose hopes are centred in Frederick, prince of Wales. The personalities in this satire led to the author being summoned, with his publisher, before the bar of the House of Lords; but Whitehead absconded [see Dodsley, Robert]. Whether or not the action of the lords had been intended as a warning to Pope, whose two ‘Dialogues,’ 1738 (Epilogue to the Satires), had done their utmost to make the existing political tension unbearable, it at least sufficed to muzzle Whitehead for the moment. He continued, however, to make himself generally useful to the opposition. Thus in 1741 Horace Walpole mentions him as ordering a supper for eight patriots who had tried in vain to beat up a mob on the occasion of Admiral Vernon's birthday (Letters, ed. Cunningham, i. 92). His next publication, ‘The Gymnasiad’ (1744), is a harmless mock heroic in three short books or cantos, with ‘Prolegomena’ by Scriblerus Tertius, and ‘Notes Variorum,’ in ridicule of the pugilistic fancy of the day, and dedicated to John Broughton, one of the most celebrated ‘Sons of Hockley and fierce Brickstreet breed.’ In 1747 he published his last would-be political satire, ‘Honour,’ in which Liberty is introduced as prepared to follow Virtue in quitting these shores, unless specially detained by ‘Stanhope’ (Chesterfield). About the same time he is stated to have edited the ‘Apology for the Conduct of Mrs. Teresia Constantia Phillips’ [q. v.], first published in 3 vols. in 1748.

Whitehead had now become a paid hanger-on of the ‘Prince's friends,’ and in the Westminster election of 1749 was engaged to compose advertisements, handbills, and the like for their candidate, Sir George Vandeput. When a supporter of the opposition candidate, Alexander Murray (d. 1777) [q. v.], was sent to Newgate and detained there for a considerable period on the charge of having headed a riot, Whitehead composed a pamphlet on his case, which appealed to the indignation of the people of Great Britain as well as of the electors of Westminster. (See extracts ap. E. Thompson; and cf. Lord Orford's Memoirs of the Reign of George II, ed. Lord Holland, s.d. 28 June 1751). In 1751 the prince died, and in 1755 Whitehead published his ‘Epistle to Dr. Thompson,’ a physician of dissolute habits, who had quarrelled with the treatment adopted by the prince's physicians in his last illness, and whom Whitehead, from whatever motive, strives to justify by indiscriminate abuse of the ‘college.’ A pamphlet published by him in defence of Admiral Byng (1757) is said by Hawkins to be written in a defiant strain, as if an acquittal were certain.

Within these years, or those immediately following, falls the deepest degradation of Whitehead's life. His political intimacy with Sir Francis Dashwood (afterwards Lord Le Despenser) and other politicians, and the facility of his literary talents, made him an acceptable member of the dissipated circle calling themselves the ‘monks of Medmenham Abbey,’ and he was appointed secretary and steward of their order of ill fame. He had to suffer severely in consequence, for the scalp-hunting satire of Churchill found in him a victim entirely to its taste. In three of Churchill's satires he was branded as a ‘disgrace on manhood’ (The Conference, 1763), as ‘the aged Paul’ who chalks the score of the blasphemous revellers behind the door (The Candidate, 1764), and as the type of the ‘kept bard’ (Independence, 1764). The times were not squeamish, and Churchill's testimony was not respected; but the charges were unanswerable, and Whitehead is remembered for little else. He had, however, at the time, been rewarded for his services by being appointed, through Sir Francis Dashwood, probably during his chancellorship of the exchequer in Lord Bute's ministry (1762–3), to a ‘deputy treasurership of the chamber,’ as one of his biographers calls it, worth 800l. a year. This enabled him to enlarge the cottage on Twickenham Common where he had for some years resided (in 1755 Horace Walpole mentions him as one of the celebrities of the locality; see Letters, ii. 447). In his ‘Epistle to Dr. Thompson’ he describes, quite in Pope's Horatian vein, the modest comforts of his retirement, and he appears to have been popular both in the country, where he was known for his kindliness, and in London society, where among his friends were Hogarth and Hayman, and the actor and dramatist William Havard [q. v.] Sir John Hawkins, however, says that ‘in his conversation there was little to praise; it was desultory, vociferous, and profane. He had contracted a habit of swearing in his younger years, which he retained to his latest.’ He published very little in his later years—a pamphlet on Covent Garden stage disputes is mentioned in 1768—but he wrote a few songs for his friend the actor Beard and others. On 20 Dec. 1774 he died in his lodgings in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, having during the course of a protracted illness burnt all his manuscripts within his reach. In his will he left his heart to his patron, Lord Le Despenser, by whose orders it was buried in the mausoleum at High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, amid solemnities which under the circumstances might, like the bequest itself, have been pretermitted. A collection of his ‘Poems and Miscellaneous Compositions,’ with a life by Captain Edward Thompson, which is dedicated to Lord Le Despenser, and written in a strain of turgid and senseless flattery, appeared at London in 1777 (4to). His portrait, painted by Gainsborough, was engraved by Collyer in 1776, and prefixed to the 1777 edition of Whitehead's ‘Poems’ (Bromley, p. 896).

[Captain Edward Thompson's Life in Poems, 1777; Sir John Hawkins's Life of Samuel Johnson, 1787, 2nd edit. pp. 330 sqq.; Chalmers's English Poets, vol. xvi.]

A. W. W.