Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

WHITE, HENRY KIRKE (1785-1806)

WHITE, HENRY KIRKE (1785-1806), English poet, was born at Nottingham, the son of a butcher, on the 21st of March 1785. He was destined at first for his fatherʼs trade, but after a short apprenticeship to a stocking-weaver, was eventually articled to a lawyer. Meanwhile he studied hard, and his master offered to release him from his contract if he had sufficient means to go to college. He received encouragement from Capel Lofft, the friend of Robert Bloomfield, and published in 1803 Clifton Grove, a Sketch in Verse, with other Poems, dedicated to Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire. The book was violently attacked in the Monthly Review (February 1804), but White was in some degree compensated by a kind letter from Robert Southey. Through the efforts of his friends, he was entered as a sizar at St Johnʼs College, Cambridge, spending a year beforehand with a private tutor. Close application to study induced a serious illness, and fears were entertained for his sanity, but he went into residence at Cambridge, with a view to taking holy orders, in the autumn of 1805. The strain of continuous study proved fatal, and he died on the 19th of October 1806. He was buried in the church of All Saints, Cambridge. The genuine piety of his religious verses secured a place in popular hymnology for some of his hymns. Much of his fame was due to sympathy inspired by his early death, but it is noteworthy that Byron agreed with Southey in forming a high estimate of the young manʼs promise.

His Remains, with his letters and an account of his life, were edited (3 vols., 1807-1822) by Robert Southey. See prefatory notices by Sir Harris Nicolas to his Poetical Works (new ed., 1866) in the Aldine Edition of the British poets; by H. K. Swann in the volume of selections (1897) in the Canterbury Poets; and by John Drinkwater to the edition in the Musesʼ Library. See also J. T. Godfrey and J. Ward, The Homes and Haunts of Henry Kirke White (1908).

[contributor not given]

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

WHITE, HENRY KIRKE (1785-1806) by Tim Fulford

The Encyclopædia Britannica XI entry for Henry Kirke White reflects a then recent, and rapid, decline in the reputation of one of the ten most purchased poets of the entire nineteenth century. In the 1880s, Robert Browning paid tribute to him; while in America he was a formative influence on William Cullen Bryant and was remembered with respect by the elderly Walter Whitman. It was only in the twentieth century, when institutionalised literary critics established an exclusive canon, that he was left unread—eclipsed by John Keats, a poet who had once stood in his shadow.

Henry Kirke White
Henry Kirke White, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

To the Romantics and Victorians, Kirke White defined the role of boy genius whose brilliant promise, realized in fragments, was cut short by the very sensitivity that had made his writing so precocious. A prodigy whose subject was his own onrushing demise, Kirke White was dead, in 1806, aged only twenty-one. In the following years, he was admired by Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth, while Percy Shelley and Keats borrowed from him: in the 1820s, their early deaths would be interpreted in his image. To some, Kirke White had been, as Keats was later said to be, brought to the grave by a cruel review. Others, like Lord Byron, thought him to have been killed by his devotion to learning:

    Unhappy White! while life was in its spring,
And thy young muse just waved her joyous wing,
The spoiler came; and all thy promise fair
Has sought the grave, to sleep for ever there.
Oh! what a noble heart was here undone,
When Science’ self destroy’d her favourite son!
Yes, she too much indulged thy fond pursuit;
She sow’d the seeds, but Death has reap’d the fruit.
’Twas thine own genius gave the final blow,
And help’d to plant the wound that laid thee low.
(English Bards and Scotch Reviewers)

Byron here is responding to the Life of Kirke White that Robert Southey included in his 1807 posthumous edition—the publication that made Kirke White’s reputation. There, Southey declared, Many of his poems indicate that he thought himself in danger of consumption; he was not aware that he was generating or fostering in himself another disease, little less dreadful, and which threatens intellect as well as life. This was to portray Kirke White in the image Southey had helped create of Thomas Chatterton—an image behind Wordsworth’s lines We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness. This nervous breakdown was produced, Southey showed, when Kirke White, a poor boy at Cambridge, tried to prove himself by excelling in the exams. Ferocious round-the-clock studying led to dreadful palpitations—. . . nights of sleeplessness and horror, and . . . spirits depressed to the very depth of wretchedness, so that he went from one acquaintance to another, imploring society, even as a starving beggar intreats for food. Kirke White, in short, was depicted as a Romantic martyr to his will to lift himself from poverty and obscurity by scholarship and poetry.

It was consumption (TB) that killed Kirke White, as it later killed Keats. But it was worsened by the years of sleep deprivation that he had imposed on himself as he tried to study his way into the professional classes and so avoid a life of poverty in his father’s trade—butchery—or in stocking-loom weaving, the main industry of his home town, Nottingham.

Kirke White’s course divided his parents: it was resisted by his father but aided by his mother, who became a schoolmistress and wished her sons to get ahead. Beginning to write verse in his early teens while a schoolboy, he continued while working at a stocking loom and, from 1800, while articled to the Nottingham lawyer’s firm of George Coldham. He also taught himself Latin and Greek in this period. In 1803, aged seventeen, he published Clifton Grove, a Sketch in Verse, with other Poems, hoping to raise money to enable him to take a place at Cambridge. A condescending review of this volume in in the Monthly Review (February 1804), led Southey to approach Kirke White offering his help. With this help, and with the support of Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce, the leading evangelicals, Kirke White then obtained the chance of a scholarship at St John’s College, but first spent a year being privately tutored in classical studies. In autumn 1805, he took up his place at St John’s, living as economically as possible and embarking on the punishing regime of study for university examinations that precipitated collapse in his physical and mental health. Despite periods of rest intended to restore him, he died in his college room on 19 October 1806.

The following year Southey, having been approached by Kirke White’s brother Henry Neville White, published The Remains of Henry Kirke White . . . with an Account of his Life (2 vols, 1807). This edition—which incorporated an emotionally-engaging biography of the poet—was so successful that, in 1824, it was pirated by publishers exploiting a loophole in the new copyright law. It then went through forty-three editions in the next 75 years, meaning total sales must have been between 60000 and 100000 copies. While most of the editions appeared before 1850, twenty appeared between 1850 and 1900—the last in 1897: Kirke White remained a popular poet throughout the century. Only in the twentieth century did production flag—the British Library catalogue lists just two editions between 1900 and 1939, the last in 1925.

What kind of poet was Kirke White? Like other labouring-class poets, he was first presented, in Clifton Grove, as a poet of rural simplicity and rustic retirement—not a farmworker, however, like John Clare and Robert Bloomfield, but a lonely contemplative in the manner of Thomas Gray and James Beattie. But Kirke White was no effete poseur: if his rural poems include the sorts of winsome song that filled literary magazines, they also feature earthy ballads based on rustic speech and observational landscapes finding human drama in the trivial incidents of cottagers’ lives—just the features that critics objected to in Wordsworth’s contributions to Lyrical Ballads.

But Kirke White was never just—or even principally—a rural poet. He was also a fine comic poet whose humorous take on himself revealed the bathetically mundane material conditions that underlaid the bardic claim to genius. He satirized the law profession in which he toiled as a solicitor’s clerk; he wrote radical ballads mocking the corruption of the parliamentary election. Most of all, though, he wrote the kind of self-conscious reflection on himself that critics have tended to view as the criterion of High Romanticism—the Greater Romantic Lyric. Interiorised monologues that recollect childhood memories in the face of temporal lapse are redolent of Wordsworth’s Prelude project (they are in Miltonic or Cowperian blank verse). Odes to Contemplation and to Time place the solitary poet’s consciousness at the centre of a struggle to retain identity in a world seen to be hastening towards death. In sonnets, too, Kirke White stages a battle to assert self-control in the face of a teeming world that is indifferent to an oncoming demise of which he is painfully aware. In these poems the themes and verbal means developed in Keats’s sonnets can be traced—not least in the allusions to Greek mythology and the interest in poppied narcosis. Kirke White called the reverie state induced by poetry high romance the very phrase Keats used for it in his sonnet When I have fears that I may cease to be. First, Kirke White:

When high romance o’er every wood and stream,
Dark lustre shed, my infant mind to fire;
Spell-struck, and fill’d with many a wondering dream,
First in the groves I woke the pensive lyre.
All there was mystery then, the gust that woke
The midnight echo was a spirit’s dirge,
And unseen fairies would the moon invoke,
To their light morrice by the restless surge.
Now to my sober’d thought with life’s false smiles,
Too much * * *
The vagrant Fancy spreads no more her wiles,
And dark forebodings now my bosom fill.

Now Keats:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

If Keats’s faery power also echoes Kirke White’s unseen faeries, so does the sonnet’s stance vis-a-vis nature, poetry and time—and so does its narrative arc from a when that is a suspended present to a now of particular sequential events in time. Evidently, Keats learned from Kirke White to use the sonnet form to dramatize a dreaming selfhood dispersed into various spirits of nature that then awakes from poetic reverie into a consciousness of isolation and morbidity.

There are other borrowings too: it was Kirke White who first used the figure of Endymion to narrate loss in love, and loss of a unity with the spirit of nature that is available only in trance or dream. Shelley, meanwhile, adopted Kirke White’s motif of a savage contemplating, from a vantage point in the future, an already-ruined London (in Peter Bell the Third). In doing so, Shelley pays homage to what was Kirke White’s unique achievement: the proleptic imagining of a future in which death—his own death and the death of civilisation—has already occurred and is retrospectively mourned.

to Top