A Poet Of Sad Vigils by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

There are many ways of sitting down to an evening vigil. Unquestionably the pleasantest is to fortify the soul with a pot of tea, plenty of tobacco, and a few chapters of Jane Austen. And if the adorable Miss Austen is not to hand, my second choice perhaps would be the literary remains of a sad, poor, and forgotten young man who was a contemporary of hers.

I say “forgotten,” and I think it is just; save for his beautiful hymn “The Star of Bethlehem,” who nowadays ever hears of Henry Kirke White? But on the drawing-room tables of our grandmothers’ girlhood the plump volume, edited with a fulsome memoir by Southey, held honourable place near the conch shell from the Pacific and the souvenirs of the Crystal Palace. Mr. Southey, in his thirty years’ laureateship, made the fame of several young versifiers, and deemed that in introducing poor White’s remains to the polite world he was laying the first lucifer to a bonfire that would gloriously crackle for posterity. No less than Chatterton was the worthy laureate’s estimate of his young foundling; but alas! Chatterton and Kirke White both seem thinnish gruel to us; and even Southey himself is down among the pinch hitters. Literary prognosis is a parlous sport.

The generation that gave us Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Lamb, Jane Austen, Hazlitt, De Quincey, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, leaves us little time for Kirke White considered purely as a literary man. His verses are grotesquely stilted, the obvious conjunction of biliousness and overstudy, and adapted to the taste of an era when the word female was still used as a substantive. But they are highly entertaining to read because they so faithfully mirror the backwash of romanticism. They are so thoroughly unhealthy, so morbid, so pallid with moonlight, so indentured by the ayenbite of inwit, that it is hard to believe that Henry’s father was a butcher and should presumably have reared him on plenty of sound beefsteak and blood gravy. If only Miss Julia Lathrop or Dr. Anna Howard Shaw could have been Henry’s mother, he might have lived to write poems on the abolition of slavery in America. But as a matter of fact, he was done to death by the brutal tutors of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and perished at the age of twenty-one, in 1806. As a poet, let him pass; but the story of his life breathes a sweet and honourable fragrance, and is comely to ponder in the midnight hours. As Southey said, there is nothing to be recorded but what is honourable to him; nothing to be regretted but that one so ripe for heaven should so soon have been removed from the world.

He was born in Nottingham, March 21, 1785, of honest tradesman parents; his origin reminds one inevitably of that of Keats. From his earliest years he was studious in temper, and could with difficulty be drawn from his books, even at mealtimes. At the age of seven he wrote a story of a Swiss emigrant and gave it to the servant, being too bashful to show it to his mother. Southey’s comment on this is “The consciousness of genius is always accompanied with this diffidence; it is a sacred, solitary feeling.”

His schooling was not long; and while it lasted part of Henry’s time was employed in carrying his father’s deliveries of chops and rumps to the prosperous of Nottingham. At fourteen his parents made an effort to start him in line for business by placing him in a stocking factory. The work was wholly uncongenial, and shortly afterward he was employed in the office of a busy firm of lawyers. He spent twelve hours a day in the office and then an hour more in the evening was put upon Latin and Greek. Even such recreation hours as the miserable youth found were dismally employed in declining nouns and conjugating verbs. In a little garret at the top of the house he began to collect his books; even his supper of bread and milk was carried up to him there, for he refused to eat with his family for fear of interrupting his studies. It is a deplorable picture: the fumes of the hearty butcher’s evening meal ascend the stair in vain, Henry is reading “Blackstone” and “The Wealth of Nations.” If it were Udolpho or Conan Doyle that held him, there were some excuse. The sad life of Henry is the truest indictment of overstudy that I know. No one, after reading Southey’s memoir, will overload his brain again.

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At the age of fifteen we find the boy writing to his older brother Neville: “I have made a firm resolution never to spend above one hour at this amusement [novel reading]. I have been obliged to enter into this resolution in consequence of a vitiated taste acquired by reading romances.” He is human enough to add, however, that “after long and fatiguing researches in ‘Blackstone’ or ‘Coke,’ ‘Tom Jones’ or ‘Robinson Crusoe’ afford a pleasing and necessary relaxation. Of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ I shall observe that it is allowed to be the best novel for youth in the English language.”

The older brother to whom these comments were addressed was living in London, apparently a fairly successful man of business. Henry permitted himself to indulge his pedagogical and ministerial instincts for the benefit and improvement of his kinsman. They seem to have carried on a mutual recrimination in their letters: Neville was inclined to belittle the divine calling of poets in their teens; while Henry deplored his brother’s unwillingness to write at length and upon serious and “instructive” topics. Alas, the ill-starred young man had a mania for self-improvement. If our great-grandparents were all like that what an age it had been for the Scranton correspondence courses! “What is requisite to make one’s correspondence valuable?” asks Henry. “I answer, sound sense.” (The italics are his own.) “You have better natural abilities than many youth,” he tells his light-hearted brother, “but it is with regret I see that you will not give yourself the trouble of writing a good letter. My friend, you never found any art, however trivial, that did not require some application at first.” He begs the astounded Neville to fill his letters with his opinions of the books he reads. “You have no idea how beneficial this would be to yourself.” Does one not know immediately that Henry is destined to an early grave?

Henry’s native sweetness was further impaired by a number of prizes won in magazine competitions. A silver medal and a pair of twelve-inch globes shortly became his for meritorious contributions to the Monthly Mirror. He was also admitted a member of a famous literary society then existing in Nottingham, and although the youngest of the sodality he promptly announced that he proposed to deliver them a lecture. With mingled curiosity and dismay the gathering assembled at the appointed time, and the inspired youth harangued them for two hours on the subject of Genius. The devil, or his agent in Nottingham, had marked Henry for destruction.

In such a career there can be no doubt as to the next step. He published a book of poems. His verses, dealing with such topics as Consumption, Despair, Lullaby of a Female Convict to Her Child the Night Previous to Execution, Lines Spoken by a Lover at the Grave of His Mistress, The Eve of Death, and Sonnet Addressed by a Female Lunatic to a Lady, had been warmly welcomed by the politest magazines of the time. To wish to publish them in more permanent form was natural; but the unfortunate young man conceived the thought that the venture might even be a profitable one. He had found himself troubled with deafness, which threatened to annul his industry in the law; moreover, his spirit was canting seriously toward devotional matters, and thoughts of a college career and then the church were lively in his mind.

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The winter of 1802-3 was busily passed in preparing his manuscript for the printer. Probably never before or since, until the Rev. John Franklin Bair of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, set about garnering his collected works into that volume which is the delight of the wicked, has a human heart mulled over indifferent verses with so honest a pleasure and such unabated certainty of immortality. The first two details to be attended to were the printing of what were modestly termed Proposals–i.e., advertisements of the projected volume, calling for pledges of subscription–and, still more important, securing the permission of some prominent person to accept a dedication of the book. The jolly old days of literary patronage were then in the sere and saffron, but it was still esteemed an aid to the sale of a volume if it might be dedicated to some marquis of Carabas. Accordingly the manuscript was despatched to London, and Neville, the philistine brother, was called upon to leave it at the residence of the Duchess of Devonshire. A very humble letter from honest Henry accompanied it, begging leave of her Grace to dedicate his “trifling effusions” to her.

Henry’s letters to Neville while his book was in preparation are very entertaining, as those of minor poets always are under such circumstances. Henry was convinced that at least 350 copies would be sold in Nottingham. He writes in exultation that he has already got twenty-three orders even before his “proposals” are ready:

“I have got twenty-three, without making the affair public at all, among my immediate acquaintance: and mind, I neither solicit nor draw the conversation to the subject, but a rumour has got abroad, and has been received more favourably than I expected.”

But the matter of the dedication unfortunately lagged far behind the poet’s hopes. After the manuscript was left at the house of her Grace of Devonshire there followed what the Ancient Mariner so feelingly calls a weary time. Poor Henry in Nottingham hung upon the postman’s heels, but no word arrived from the duchess. She was known to be assaulted from all sides by such applications: indeed her mail seems to have been very nearly as large as that of Mary Pickford or Theda Bara. Then, to his unspeakable anxiety, the miserable and fermenting Henry learned that all parcels sent to the duchess, unless marked with a password known only to her particular correspondents, were thrown into a closet by her porter to be reclaimed at convenience, or not at all. “I am ruined,” cried Henry in agony; and the worthy Neville paid several unsuccessful visits to Devonshire House in the attempt to retrieve the manuscript. Finally, after waiting four hours in the servants’ hall, he succeeded. Even then undaunted, this long-suffering older brother made one more try in the poet’s behalf: he obtained a letter of introduction to the duchess, and called on her in person, wisely leaving the manuscript at home; and with the complaisance of the great the lady readily acquiesced in Henry’s modest request. Her name was duly inscribed on the proper page of the little volume, and in course of time the customary morocco-bound copy reached her. Alas, she took no notice of it, and Mr. Southey surmises that “Involved as she was in an endless round of miserable follies, it is probable that she never opened the book.”

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“Clifton Grove” was the title Henry gave the book, published in 1803.

It is not necessary to take the poems in this little volume more seriously than any seventeen-year-old ejaculations. It is easy to see what Henry’s reading had been–Milton, Collins, and Gray, evidently. His unconscious borrowings from Milton do him great credit, as showing how thoroughly he appreciated good poetry. It seeped into his mind and became part of his own outpourings. Il Penseroso gushes to the surface of poor Henry’s song every few lines; precious twigs and shreds of Milton flow merrily down the current of his thought. And yet smile as we may, every now and then friend Henry puts something over. One of his poems is a curious foretaste of what Keats was doing ten years later. Every now and then one pauses to think that this lad, once his youthful vapours were over, might have done great things. And as he says in his quaint little preface, “the unpremeditated effusions of a boy, from his thirteenth year, employed, not in the acquisition of literary information, but in the more active business of life, must not be expected to exhibit any considerable portion of the correctness of a Virgil, or the vigorous compression of a Horace.”

The publishing game was new to Henry, and the slings and arrows found an unshielded heart. When the first copies of his poor little book came home from the printer he was prostrated to find several misprints. He nearly swooned, but seizing a pen he carefully corrected all the copies. After writing earnest and very polite letters to all the reviewers he dispatched copies to the leading periodicals, and sat down in the sure hope of rapid fame. How bitter was his chagrin when the Monthly Review for February, 1804, came out with a rather disparaging comment: in particular the critic took umbrage at his having put boy to rhyme with sky, and added, referring to Henry’s hopes of a college course, “If Mr. White should be instructed by alma mater, he will, doubtless, produce better sense and better rhymes.”

The review was by no means unjust: it said what any disinterested opinion must have confirmed, that the youth’s ambitions were excellent, but that neither he, nor indeed any two-footed singer, is likely to be an immortal poet by seventeen. But Henry’s sensitive soul had been so inflated by the honest pride of his friends that he could only see gross and callous malignity and conspiracy in the criticism. His theology, his health, his peace of mind, were all overthrown. As a matter of fact, however (as Southey remarks), it was the very brusqueness of this review that laid the foundation of his reputation. The circumstance aroused Southey’s interest in the young man’s efforts to raise himself above his level in the world and it was the laureate who after Henry’s death edited his letters and literary remains, and gave him to us as we have him. Southey tells us that after the young man’s death he and Coleridge looked over his papers with great emotion, and were amazed at the fervour of his industry and ambition.

Alas, we must hurry the narrative, on which one would gladly linger. The life of this sad and high-minded anchorite has a strong fascination for me. Melancholy had marked him for her own: he himself always felt that he had not a long span before him. Hindered by deafness, threatened with consumption, and a deadlier enemy yet–epilepsy–his frail and uneasy spirit had full right to distrust its tenement. The summer of 1804 he spent partly at Wilford, a little village near Nottingham where he took lodgings. His employers very kindly gave him a generous holiday to recruit; but his old habits of excessive study seized him again. He had, for the time, given up hope of being able to attend the university, and accordingly thought it all the more necessary to do well at the law. Night after night he would read till two or three in the morning, lie down fully dressed on his bed, and rise again to work at five or six. His mother, who was living with him in his retreat, used to go upstairs to put out his candle and see that he went to bed; but Henry, so docile in other matters, in this was unconquerable. When he heard his mother’s step on the stair he would extinguish the taper and feign sleep; but after she had retired he would light it again and resume his reading. Perhaps the best things he wrote were composed in this period of extreme depression. The “Ode on Disappointment,” and some of his sonnets, breathe a quiet dignity of resignation to sorrow that is very touching and even worthy of respect as poetry. He never escaped the cliche and the bathetic, but this is a fair example of his midnight musings at their highest pitch:–

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Gently, most gently, on thy victim’s head,
Consumption, lay thine hand. Let me decay,
Like the expiring lamp, unseen, away,
And softly go to slumber with the dead.
And if ’tis true what holy men have said,
That strains angelic oft foretell the day
Of death, to those good men who fall thy prey,
O let the aerial music round my bed,
Dissolving sad in dying symphony,
Whisper the solemn warning in mine ear;
That I may bid my weeping friends good-bye,
Ere I depart upon my journey drear:
And smiling faintly on the painful past,
Compose my decent head, and breathe my last.

But in spite of depression and ill health, he was really happy at Wilford, a village in the elbow of a deep gully on the Trent, and near his well-beloved Clifton Woods. On the banks of the stream he would sit for hours in a maze of dreams, or wander among the trees on summer nights, awed by the sublime beauty of the lightning, and heedless of drenched and muddy clothes.

Later in the summer it was determined that he should go to college after all; and by the generosity of a number of friends (including Neville who promised twenty pounds annually) he was able to enter himself for St. John’s College, Cambridge. In the autumn he left his legal employers, who were very sorry to lose him, and took up quarters with a clergyman in Lincolnshire (Winteringham) under whom he pursued his studies for a year, to prepare himself thoroughly for college. His letters during this period are mostly of a religious tinge, enlivened only by a mishap while boating on the Humber when he was stranded for six hours on a sand-bank. He had become quite convinced that his calling was the ministry. The proper observance of the Sabbath by his younger brothers and sisters weighed on his mind, and he frequently wrote home on this topic.

In October, 1805, we find him settled at last in his rooms at St. John’s, the college that is always dear to us as the academic home of two very different undergraduates–William Wordsworth and Samuel Butler. His rooms were in the rearmost court, near the cloisters, and overlooking the famous Bridge of Sighs. His letters give us a pleasant picture of his quiet rambles through the town, his solitary cups of tea as he sat by the fire, and his disappointment in not being able to hear his lecturers on account of his deafness. Most entertaining to any one at all familiar with the life of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges is his account of the thievery of his “gyp” (the manservant who makes the bed, cares for the rooms, and attends to the wants of the students). Poor Henry’s tea, sugar, and handkerchiefs began to vanish in the traditional way; but he was practical enough to buy a large padlock for his coal bin.

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But Henry’s innocent satisfaction in having at last attained the haven of his desires was not long of duration. In spite of ill health, his tutors constrained him to enter for a scholarship examination in December, and when the unfortunate fellow pleaded physical inability, they dosed him with “strong medicines” to enable him to face the examiners. After the ordeal he was so unstrung that he hurried off to London to spend Christmas with his aunt.

The account of his year at college is very pitiful. His tutors were, according to their lights, very kind; they relieved him as far as possible from financial worries, but they did not have sense enough to restrain him from incessant study. Even on his rambles he was always at work memorizing Greek plays, mathematical theorems, or what not. In a memorandum found in his desk his life was thus planned: “Rise at half-past five. Devotions and walk till seven. Chapel and breakfast till eight. Study and lectures till one. Four and a half clear reading. Walk and dinner, and chapel to six. Six to nine reading. Nine to ten, devotions. Bed at ten.”

In the summer of 1806 his examiners ranked him the best man of his year, and in mistaken kindness the college decided to grant him the unusual compliment of keeping him in college through the vacation with a special mathematical tutor, gratis, to work with him, mathematics being considered his weakness. As his only chance of health lay in complete rest during the holiday, this plan of spending the summer in study was simply a death sentence. In July, while at work on logarithm tables, he was overtaken by a sudden fainting fit, evidently of an epileptic nature. The malady gained strength, aided by the weakness of his heart and lungs, and he died on October 19, 1806.

Poor Henry! Surely no gentler, more innocent soul ever lived. His letters are a golden treasury of earnest and solemn speculation. Perhaps once a twelve-month he displays a sad little vein of pleasantry, but not for long. Probably the light-hearted undergraduates about him found him a very prosy, shabby, and mournful young man, but if one may judge by the outburst of tributary verses published after his death he was universally admired and respected. Let us close the story by a quotation from a tribute paid him by a lady versifier:

If worth, if genius, to the world are dear,
To Henry’s shade devote no common tear.
His worth on no precarious tenure hung,
From genuine piety his virtues sprung:
If pure benevolence, if steady sense,
Can to the feeling heart delight dispense;
If all the highest efforts of the mind,
Exalted, noble, elegant, refined,
Call for fond sympathy’s heartfelt regret,
Ye sons of genius, pay the mournful debt!

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