« PreviousContinue »
Edinburgh Ball, in which the young Pretender is held up to ridicule. This, however, was never performed, or printed. He then began a regular tragedy, The Roman Father, which was produced on the stage in 1750. He appears to have viewed the difficulties of a first attempt with a wary eye, and had the precaution to make himself known to the public by the Lines addressed to Dr. Hoadley. Those to Mr. Garrick, ou his becoming joint patentee of Drury Lane theatre, would probably improve his interest with one whose excessive tenderness of reputation was among the few blemishes in his character.
It is not necessary to expatiate on the merits of The Roman Father, as dramatic pieces are excluded from this collection. It still retains its place on the stage, and has been the choice of many new performers who wished to impress the audience with a favourable opinion of their powers, and of some old ones who are less afraid of modern than of ancient tragedy, of declamation than of passion. Mr. Mason has bestowed a critical discussion upon it, but evidently with a view to throw out reflections on Irene, which Johnson never highly valued; and on Garrick, whom he accused of a tyrannical use of the pruning knife. To this, however, he confesses that Whitehead submitted with the bumblest deference, nor was it a deference which dishonoured either his pride or his taste. He avowedly wrote for stage-effect, and who could so properly judge of that as Garrick ?
The next production of our author was The Hymn to the Nymph of the Bristol Spring, in 1751, “ written in the manner of those classical addresses to heathen divinities of which the hymns of Homer and Callimachus are the architypes.” This must be allowed to be a very favourable specimen of his powers in Blank verse, and has much of poetical fancy and ornament. The Sweepers, a ludicrous attempt in blank verse, would, in Mr. Mason's opinion, have received more applause than it has hitherto done, had the taste of the generality of readers been founded more on their own feelings than on mere prescription and authority. It appears to me, however, to be defective in plan: there is an effort at humour in the commencement, of which the effect is painfully interrupted by the miseries of a female sweeper taken into keeping, and passing to ruin through the various stages of prostitution.
About this time, if I mistake not, for Mr. Mason has not given the precise date, he wrote the beautiful stanzas on Friendship, which that gentleman thinks one of his best and most finished compositions. What gives it a peculiar charm is, that it comes from the heart, and appeals with success to the experience of every man who has imagined what friendship should be, or known what it is. The celebrated Gray, according to Mr. Mason's account, “ disapproved the general sentiment which it conveyed, for he said it would furnish the unfeeling and capricious with apologies for their defects, and that it ought to be entitled A Satire on Friendship.” Mr. Mason repeated this opinion to the author who, in consequence, made a considerable addition to the concluding part of the piece. “Still, however, as the exceptionable stanzas remained, which contained an apology for what Mr. Gray thought no apology ought to be made, he continued unsatisfied, and persisted in saying, that it had a bad tendency, and the more so, because the sentiments which he thought objectionable were so poetically and finely expressed."
This is a singular anecdote; how far Gray was right in his opinion may be left to the consideration of the reader, who is to remember that the subject of these verses is school-boy friendship. Some instances of its instability Whitehead may have experi
enced, and the name of Charles Townsend is mentioned as one who forgot him when he became a statesman. But it is certain that he had less to complain of, in this respect, than most young men of higher pretensions, for he retained the greater part of his youthful friendships to the last, and was, indeed, a debtor to friendship for almost all he had. What Gray seems to be afraid of, is Whitehead's admission that the decay of friendship may be mutual, and from causes for which neither party is seriously to blame.
The subject of this poem is not indirectly connected with the verses which he wrote about this time (1751) to the Rev. Mr. Wright, who had blamed him for leading what his friends thought a dependent life, and for not taking orders, or entering upon some regular profession. For this there was certainly some plea. He had resigned his fellowship in 1746, about a year after he became one of lord Jersey's family, and with that, every prospect of advantage from his college. He had now remained five years in this family, and had attained the age of thirty-six, without any support, but what depended on the liberality of his employer, or the sale of his poems. It was not therefore very unreasonable in his friend to suggest, that he had attained the age at which men in general have determined their course of life, and that his present situation must be one of two things, either dependent or precarious.
In the verses just mentioned, Whitehead endeavours to vindicate his conduct, and will, I apprehend, be found to vindicate it like one too much enamoured of present ease to look forward to probable disappointment. He is content with dependence, because he has made it easy to himself; his present condition is quiet and contentment, and what can his future be more? thus ingeniously shifting the subject from a question of dependence or independence, to that of ambition and bustle. But although this will not apply generally, such was his temper or his treatment that it proved a sufficient apology in his own case. Throughout a long life, he never had cause to repent of the confidence he placed in his noble friends, who continued to heap favours upon him in the most delicate manner, and without receiving, as far as we know, any of those laumiliating or disgraceful returns which degrade genius and endanger virtue.
The poems now enumerated, and a few others of the lighter kind, he published in 1754 in one volume, and about the same time produced his second tragedy, Creusa, which had not the success of The Roman Father, although Mr. Mason seems inclined to give it the preference. But it ought not to be forgot that, with the profits arising from these theatrical productions, our author honourably discharged his father's debts.
About this time, lord Jersey determined that his son should complete his education abroad, and the late lord Harcourt having the same intentions concerning his eldest son lord viscount Nuneham, a young nobleman of nearly the same age, Mr. Whitehead was appointed governor to both, and gladly embraced so favourable an opportunity of enlarging his views by foreign travel. Leipsic was the place where they were destined to pass the winter of 1754, in order to attend the lectures of professor Mascow on the Droit publique. They set off in June, and resided the rest of the summer at Rheims, that they might habituate themselves to the French language, and then passed seven months at Leipsic, with little satisfaction or advantage, for they found the once celebrated Mascow in a state of dotage, without being quite incapacitated from reading his former lectures.
In the following spring, they visited the German courts, proceeded to Vienna, and thence to Italy. On their return homeward, they crossed the Alps, and passed through Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, being prevented from visiting France by the decla
ration of war, and landed at Harwich in September 1756. During this tour, Whitehead wrote those Elegies and Odes which relate to subjects inspired on classic ground, and in which he attempts picturesque imagery with more felicity than in any of his former pieces. He had, indeed, in this tour, every thing before bis eyes which demanded grandeur of conception and elevation of language. He beheld the objects which had animated poets in all ages, and his mind appears to have felt all that local emotion can produce.
Mr. Mason complains that these Elegies were not popular, and states various objections made to them; he does not add by whom: but takes care to inform us that the poet bore his fate contentedly, because he was no longer under the necessity of adapting himself to the public taste in order to become a popular writer. He had received while yet in Italy two genteel patent places, usually united, the badges of secretary and registrar of the order of the Bath, and two years after, on the death of old Cibber, he was appointed poet laureat.
This last place was offered to Gray, by Mr. Mason's mediation, and an apology was made for passing over Mr. Mason himself, “ that being in orders, he was thought, merely on that account, less eligible for the office than a layman'." Mr. Masou says, he was glad to hear this reason assigned, and did not think it a weak one. It appears, however, that a higher respect was paid to Gray than to Whitehead, in the offer of the appointment. Gray was to hold it as a sinecure, but Whitehead was expected to do the duties of the laureat. In this dilemma, if it may be so called, Mr. Mason endeavoured to relieve his friend by an expedient not very promising. He advised him to employ a deputy to write his annual odes, and reserve his own pen for certain great occasions, as a peace, or a royal marriage ; and he pointed out to him two or three needy poets who, for a reward of five or ten guineas, would be humble enough to write under the eye of the musical composer.
Whitehead bad more confidence in his powers, or more respect for his royal patron, than to take this advice, and set himself to compose his annual Odes with the zeal that he employed on his voluntary effusions. But although he had little to fear from the fame of his predecessor, he was not allowed to enjoy all the benefits of comparison. His Odes were confessedly superior to those of Cibber, but the office itself, under Cibber's possession, had become so ridiculous, that it was no easy task to restore it to some degree of public respect. Whitehead, however, was perhaps the man of all others, his contemporaries, who could perform this with most ease to himself. Attacked as he was, in every way, by “the little fry" of the poetical profession, he was never provoked into retaliation, and bore even the more dangerous abuse of Churchill, with a real or apparent indifference, which to that turbulent libeller must have been truly mortifying. He was not, however, insensible of the inconvenience, to say the least, of a situation which obliges a man to write two poems yearly upon the same subjects, and with this feeling wrote The Pathetic Apology for all Laureats; which, from the motto, he appears to have intended to reach that quarter where only redress could be obtained, but it was not published until after his death.
For some years after his return to England, he lived almost entirely in the house of the earl of Jersey, no longer as a tutor to his son, but as a companion of amiable manners and accomplishments, whom the good sense of that nobleman and his lady preferred to be the partner of their familiar and undisguised intimacy, and placed at their table
"This office was held from 1716 to 1730 by Eusden, a clergyman. C.
as one not unworthy to sit with guests of whatever rank. The earl and countess were now advanced in years, and his biographer informs us, that Whitehead“ willingly devoted the principal part of his time to the amusement of his patron and patroness, which it will not be doubted by those, who know with what unassuming ease, and pleasing sallies of wit, he enlivened his conversation, must have made their hours of sickness or pain pass away with much more serenity.” The father of lord Nuneham also gave him a general invitation to his table in town, and to his delightful seat in the country, and the two young lords, during the whole of his life, bestowed upon him every mark of affection and respect.
During this placid enjoyment of high life, he produced The School for Lovers, a comedy, which was performed at Drury Lane in the year 1762. In the advertisement prefixed to it, he acknowledges his obligations to a small dramatic piece written by M. de Fontenelle. This comedy was not unsuccessful, but was written on a plan so very different from all that is called comedy, that the critics were at a loss where to place it, Mr. Mason, who will not allow it to be classed among the sentimental, assigns it a very high station among the small list of our genteel comedies.
In the same year, he published his Charge to the Poets, in which, as laureat, he humorously assumes the dignified mode of a bishop giving his visitatorial instructions to his clergy. He is said to have designed this as a continuation of The Dangers of writing Verse. There seems, however, no very close connection, while as a poem it is far superior, not only in elegance and harmony of verse, but in the alternation of serious advice and genuine humour, the whole chastened by candour for his brethren, and a kindly wish to protect them from the fastidiousness of criticism, as well as to heal the mutual animosities of the genus irritabile.
In this laudable attempt, he had not even the happiness to conciliate those whose cause he pleaded. Churchill, from this time, attacked him whenever he attacked any, but Whitehead disdained to reply, and only adverted to the animosity of that poet in a few lines which he wrote towards the close of his life, and which appear to be part of some longer poem. They have already been noticed in the Life of Churchill, and are vow added among the fragments copied from Mr. Mason's Memoirs.
One consequence of Churchill's animosity, neither silence nor resentment could avert. Churchill, at this time, had possession of the town, and made some characters unpopular merely by joining them with others who were really so. Garrick was so frightened at the abuse he threw out against Whitehead, that he would not venture to bring out a tragedy which the latter offered to bim. Such is Mr. Masou's account, but if it was likely to succeed, why was it not produced when Churchill and his animosities were forgotten? Why amidst all the revolutions of the stage, some of which have not been un, favourable to much worse pieces than Whitehead would have written, does it yet remain iu manuscript ?
The story, however, may be true; for when, in 1770, he offered his Trip to Scotland, a farce, to Mr. Garrick, he conditioned that it should be produced without the name of the author. The secret was accordingly preserved both in acting and publishing, and the farce was performed and read for a considerable time, without a suspicion that the grave author of The School for Lovers had relaxed into the broad mirth and ludicrous improbabilities of farce.
In 1774, he collected his poems and dramatic pieces together, with the few exceptions already noticed, and published them in two volumes under the title of Plays and Poems, concluding with the Charge to the Poets, as a farewell to the Muses. He had, however, so
much leisure, and so many of those incitements which a poet and a moralist cannot easily resist, that he still continued to employ his pen, and proved that it was by no means worn out. In 1776 he published Variety, a Tale for married People, a light, pleasing poem, in the manner of Gay, which speedily ran through five editions. His Goat's Beard (in 1777) was less familiar and less popular, but is not inferior in moral tendency and just satire on degenerated manners. It produced an attack, entitled Ass's Ears, a Fable, addressed to the Author of the Goat's Beard, in which the office of laureat is denied to men of genius, and judged worthy to be held only by such poets as Shadwell and Cibber.
The Goat's Beard was the last of Whitehead's publications. He left in manuscript the tragedy already mentioned, which Garrick was afraid to perform ; the name Mr. Mason conceals, but informs us that the characters are noble, and the story domestic. He left also the first act of an Edipus; the beginning, and an imperfect plan of a tragedy founded òn king Edward the Second's resignation of his crown to his son, and of another composed of Spanish and Moorish characters; and a few small poetical pieces, some of which Mr. Mason printed in the volume to which he prefixed his Memoirs, in 1788. They are now before the reader in one series, with a poem which Whitehead published in 1758, but omitted in his edition of 1770. It has the humble title of Verses to the People of England, whom he endeavours to excite to revenge their country's wrongs by a more spirited support of the war. The stanza is perhaps too short for the dignity of the subject, but it gives a rapidity to some glowing and vigorous sentiments. Mr. Mason has not noticed this piece, of which he could not be ignorant, as it was published with the author's name. Perhaps it appeared to disadvantage by a comparison with Akenside's Ode to the Country Gentlemen of England, published at the same time.
After he had taken leave of the public as an author, except in his official productions, he continued to enjoy the society of his friends for some years, highly respected for the intelligence of his conversation and the suavity of his manners. His death, which took place on April 14, 1785, was sudden. In the spring of that year he was contined at home for some weeks by a cold and cough which affected his breast, but occasioned so little interruption to his wonted amusements of reading and writing, that when lord Harcourt visited him the morning before he died, he found him revising for the press a paper which his lordship conjectured to be the birth-day ode. At noon finding himself disinclined to taste the dinner his servant brought up, he desired to lean upon
his arm from the table to his bed, and in that moment he expired, in the seventieth year of his age. He was interred in South Audley Street chapel.
Unless, with Mr. Mason, we conclude that where Whitehead was unsuccessful, the public was to blame, it will not be easy to prove his right to a very high station among English poets. Yet perhaps be did not so often fall short from a defect of genius, as from a timidity which inclined him to listen too frequently to the corrections of his friends, and to believe that what was first written could never be the best. Although destitute neither of invention nor ease, he repressed both by adhering, like his biographer, to certain standards of taste which the age would not accept, and like him too, consoled himself in the hope of some distant era when his superior worth should be acknowledged.
As a prose writer he has given proofs of classical taste and reading in his Observations on the Shield of Æneas, originally published in Dodsley's Museum, and afterwards annexed to Warton's Virgil; and of genuine and delicate humour in three papers of The World, No. 12, 19, and 58. These he reprinted in the edition of his works, published in 1774.