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LIFE OF WHITEHEAD,
BY MR. CHALMERS.
ILLIAM WHITEHEAD was born at Cambridge in the beginning of the year 1715. His father was a baker in St. Botolph's parish, and at one time must have been a man of some property or some interest, as he bestowed a liberal education on his eldest son, John, who after entering into the church, held the living of Pershore, in the diocese of Worcester. He would probably have been enabled to extend the same care to William, his second son, had he not died when the boy was at school, and left his widow involved in debts contracted by extravagance or folly. A few acres of land, near Grandchester, on which he expended considerable sums of money, without, it would appear, expecting much return, is yet known by the name of Whitehead's Folly.
William received the first rudiments of education at some common school in Cambridge, and at the age of fourteen was removed to Winchester, having obtained a nomination into that college by the interest of Mr. Bromley, afterward lord Montfort. Of his behaviour while at school his biographer, Mr. Mason, received the following account from Dr. Balguy.
“ He was always of a delicate turn, and though obliged to go to the hills with the other boys, spent his time there in reading either plays or poetry; and was also particularly fond of the Atalantis, and all other books of private history or character. He very early exhibited his taste for poetry; for while other boys were contented with showing up twelve or fourteen lines, he would fill half a sheet, but always with English verse. This Dr. Burton, the master, at first discouraged; but, after some time, he was so much charmed, that he spoke of them with rapture. When he was sixteen he wrote a whole comedy.
“ In the winter of the year 1732, he is said to have acted a female part in the Andria, under Dr. Burton's direction. Of this there is some doubt : but it is certain that he acted Marcia, in the tragedy of Cato, with much applause.
“ In the year 1733, the earl of Peterborough, having Mr. Pope at his house · near Southampton, carried him to Winchester to show him the college, school, &c, The earl gave ten guineas to be disposed of in prizes amongst the boys, and Mr. Pope set them a subject to write upon, viz. PETERBOROUGH. Prizes of a guinea each were given
to six of the boys, of whom Whitehead was one. The remaining sum was laid out for other boys in subscriptions to Pine's Horace, then about to be published.
“ He never excelled in writing epigrams, por did he make any considerable figure in Latin verse, though he understood the classics very well, and had a good memory. He was, however, employed to trauslate into Latin the first epistle of the Essay on Man: and the translation is still extant in his own hand. Dobson's success in translating Prior's Solomon had put this project into Mr. Pope's head, and he set various persons to work
“ His school friendships were usually contracted either with noblemen, or gentlemen of large fortune, such as lord Drumlanrig, sir Charles Douglas, sir Robert Burdett, Mr. Tryon, and Mr. Munday of Leicestershire. The choice of these persons was imputed by some of his schoolfellows to vanity, by others to prudence; but might it not be owing to his delicacy, as this would make him easily disgusted with the coarser manners of ordinary boys ? He was school-tutor to Mr. Wallop, afterwards lord Lymington, son to the late earl of Portsmouth, and father to the present earl. He enjoyed, for some little time, a lucrative place in the college, that of preposter of the hall.
“ At the election in September, 1735, he was treated with singular injustice; for, through the force of superior interest, he was placed so low on the roll, that it was scarce possible for him to succeed to New College. Being now superannuate, he left Winchester of course, deriving no other advantage from the college than a good education: this, however, he had ingenuity enough to acknowledge, with gratitude, in a poem prefixed to the second edition of Dr. Lowth's Life of William of Wickham."
In all this there is nothing extraordinary; nor can the partiality of his biographer conceal that, among the early efforts of his Muse, there is not one which seems to indicate the future poet, although he is anxious to attribute this to his baving followed the example of Pope, rather than of Spenser, Fairfax, and Milton. The Vision of Solomon, however, which he copied from Whitehead's juvenile manuscripts, and is reprinted in the present edition, is entitled to considerable praise. Even when a school-boy he had attentively studied the various manners of the best authors, and in the course of his poetical life, attained no small felicity in exhibiting specimens of almost every kind of stanza.
Although he lost his father before he had resided at Winchester above two years, yet by his own frugality, and such assistance as his mother, a very amiable, prudent, and exemplary woman, could give him, he was enabled to remain at school until the election for New College, in which we have seen he was disappointed. Two months after, he returned to Cambridge, where he was indebted to his extraction, low as Mr. Mason thinks it, for what laid the foundation of his future success in life. The circumstance of his being the orphan' son of a baker gave him an unexceptionable claim to one of the scholarships founded at Clarehall by Mr. Thomas Pyke, who had followed that trade in Cambridge. His mother accordingly admitted him a sizer in this college, under the tuition of Messrs. Curling, Goddard, and Hopkinson, Nov. 26, 1735. After every allowance is made for the superior value of money in his time, it will remain a remarkable proof of his poverty and economy, that this scholarship, which amounted only to four shillings a week, was in his circumstances a desirable object.
He brought some little reputation with him to college, and his poetical attempts when at school, with the notice Mr. Pope had taken of him, would probably secure him from the neglect attached to inferiority of rank. But it is more to his honour, that by his amiable manners, and intelligent conversation, he recommended himself to the special
notice of some very distinguished contemporaries, of Dr. Powell, Balguy, Ogden, Stebbing, and Hurd, who not only admitted him to an occasional intercourse, but to an intimacy and respect which continued through the various scenes of their lives. In such society his morals and industry had every encouragement which the best example could give, and he soon surmounted the prejudices which vulgar minds might have indulged on the recollection of his birth and poverty.
When the marriage of the prince of Wales in 1736, and the birth of his son, the present king, called for the gratulatory praises of the universities, Whitehead wrote some verses on these subjects, which he inserted in the first collection of his poems, published in 1754, but omitted from the second in 1774. They are restored, however, to the present edition, as they have been reprinted in some subsequent collections ; nor can there be much danger to the reputation of a poet in telling the world that his earliest efforts were not his best.
The production with which, in Mr. Mason's opinion, he commenced a poet, was his epistle On the Danger of Writing in Verse. This, we are told, obtained general admiration, and was highly approved by Pope, But that it is “one of the most happy imitations extant of Pope's preceptive manner,” is a praise which seems to come from Mr. Mason's friendship, rather than his judgment. The subject is but slightly touched, and the sentiments are often obscure. It is not very easy to arrange the following words in any order that can make sense.
Will it avail, that, unmatur’d by years,
Nor are the following much more intelligible:
Thus grateful France does Richlieu's worth proclaim,
Why “ times to come” should celebrate Anna's reign, “ in spite of British liberty and laws” is not easily discovered, although they may be allowed to forget “party rage," and what is tamely called “ human flaws." The finest passage and happiest imitation of Pope, is that in which he condemns the licentiousness of certain poets.
The tale of Atys and Adrastus, his next publication, is altogether superior to the former. It is elegant, pathetic, and enriched with some beautiful imagery.
The Epistle of Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII. which followed, will not be thought to rank very high among productions of this kind. “ The truth is,” says Mr. Mason, Pope's Eloisa to Abelard is such a chef d'æuvre, that nothing of the kind can be relished after it.” Our critic has, however, done no credit to Whitehead, by this insinuation of rivalship, and yet less to himself by following it with a petulant attack on Dr. Johnson. In bis eagerness to injure the reputation of a man so much his superior, and with whom, it is said, he never exchanged an angry word, he would exclude sympathy from the charms which attract in the Eloisa, and at the expence of taste and feeling, passes a clumsy sarcasm on papistical machinery,
The Essay on Ridicule was published in 1743. It is by far the best of his didactic pieces, and one upon which, his biographer thinks, he bestowed great pains.“ His own natural candour led him to admit the use of this excellent (though frequently misdirected) weapon of the mind with more restrictions than, perhaps, any person will submit to, who has the power of employing it successfully.” The justice of this observation is proved by almost universal experience. Pope and Swift at this time were striking instances of the abuse of a talent which, moderated by candour, and by respect for what ought to be above all ridicule and all levity, might contribute more powerfully to sink vice into contempt than any other means that can be employed.
This poem is not now printed as it came from the pen of the author on its first publication. Some lines at the conclusion are omitted, in which he was afraid he had authorized too free a use of ridicule; and the names of Lucian and Cervantes, whom he held as legitimate models, are omitted, that honour being reserved for Addison only.
His next essay was the short epistle to the Earl of Ashburnham on Nobility. His biographer is silent concerning it, because it was not inserted in either of the editions of his works, nor can he assign the reason, although it does not appear to be very obscure. With much excellent advice, there is a mixture of democratic reflection on hereditary titles, and insinuations respecting
....... such seeming inconsistent things
which he might think somewhat uncourtly in the collected works of one who had become the companion of lords, and the poet laureat.
In the publication of the poems now enumerated, while at college, Mr. Mason informs us, that he was less eager for poetical fame tban desirous of obtaining a maintenance by the labours of his pen, that he might be less burthensome to his mother. With this laudable view, he practised the strictest economy, and pursued his studies with 'exemplary diligence. Whether his inclination led him to any particular branch of science, we are not told. In 1739 he took his degree of bachelor of arts, and in 1742 was elected a fellow of his college. In 1743, be was admitted master of arts, and appears about this time to have had an intention to take orders. Some lines which he wrote to a friend, and which are reprinted among the additional fragments to his works in this edition, treat this intention with a levity unbecoming that, which, if not serious, is the worst of all hypocrisy. He was prevented, however, from indulging any thoughts of the church by an incident which determined the tenour of his future life.
William, third earl of Jersey, was at this time making inquiries after a proper person to be private tutor to his second son, the late earl, and Whitehead was recommended by Mr. commissioner Graves, as a person qualified for this important charge. Mr. Whitehead accepted the offer, as his fellowship would not necessarily be vacated by it, and in the summer of
45 removed to the earl's house in town, where he was received upon the most liberal footing. A young friend of the family, afterwards general Stephens, was also put under his care, as a companion to the young nobleman in his studies, and a spur to his emulation.
Placed thus in a situation, where he could spare some hours from the instruction of his pupils, he became a frequenter of the theatre, which lead been his favourite amusement long before he had an opportunity of witnessing the superiority of the London performers. Immediately on his coming to town, he had written a little ballad farce, entitled The