Henry Kirk White

This  youthful bard, whose premature death was so sincerely regretted by every admirer of genius, was the son of a butcher of Nottingham, England, and born March 21, 1788. He manifested an ardent love of reading in his infancy; this was, indeed, a passion to which everything else gave way. "I could fancy," says his eldest sister, "that I see him in his little chair, with a large book upon his knee, and my mother calling, 'Henry, my love, come to dinner,' which was repeated so often without being regarded, that she was obliged to change the tone of her voice, before she could rouse him."

When he was seven years old, he would creep unperceived into the kitchen, to teach the servant to read and write; and he continued this for some time before it was discovered that he had been thus laudably employed. He wrote a tale of a Swiss emigrant, which was probably his first composition, and gave it to this servant, being ashamed to show it to his mother. "The consciousness of genius," says his biographer, Mr. Southey, "is always, at first, accompanied by this diffidence; it is a sacred, solitary feeling. No forward child, however extraordinary the promise of his childhood, ever produced anything truly great."

When Henry was about eleven years old, he one day wrote a separate theme for every boy in his class, which consisted of about twelve or fourteen. The master said he had never known them write so well upon any subject before, and could not refrain from expressing his astonishment at the excellence of Henry's own composition.

At the age of thirteen, he wrote a poem, "On being confined to school one pleasant morning in spring," from which the following is an extract:

"How gladly would my soul forego
All that arithmeticians know,
Or stiff grammarians quaintly teach,
Or all that industry can reach,
To taste each morn of all the joys
That with the laughing sun arise;
And unconstrained to rove along
The bushy brakes and glens among;
And woo the muse's gentle power
In unfrequented rural bower;
But ah! such heaven-approaching joys
Will never greet my longing eyes;
Still will they cheat in vision fine,
Yet never but in fancy shine."

The parents of Henry were anxious to put him to some trade, and when he was nearly fourteen, he was placed at a stocking loom, with the view, at some future period, of getting a situation in a hosier's warehouse; but the youth did not conceive that nature had intended to doom him to spend seven years of his life in folding up stockings, and he remonstrated with his friends against the employment. His temper and tone of mind at this period, are displayed in the following extracts from his poems:

————"Men may rave,
And blame and censure me, that I don't tie
My ev'ry thought down to the desk, and spend
The morning of my life in adding figures
With accurate monotony; that so
The good things of this world may be my lot,
And I might taste the blessedness of wealth.
But oh! I was not made for money-getting."

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

————"For as still
I tried to cast, with school dexterity,
The interesting sums, my vagrant thoughts
Would quick revert to many a woodland haunt,
Which fond remembrance cherished; and the pen
Dropt from my senseless fingers, as I pictur'd
In my mind's eye, how on the shores of Trent
I erewhile wander'd with my early friends
In social intercourse."

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

"Yet still, oh contemplation! I do love
T' indulge thy solemn musings; still the same
With thee alone I know how to melt and weep,
In thee alone delighting. Why along
The dusty track of commerce should I toil,
When with an easy competence content,
I can alone be happy, where with thee
I may enjoy the loveliness of nature,
And loose the wings of Fancy? Thus alone
Can I partake of happiness on earth;
And to be happy here is man's chief end,
For, to be happy, he must needs be good."

Young White was soon removed from the loom to the office of a solicitor, which afforded a less obnoxious employment. He became a member of a literary society in Nottingham, and delivered an extempore lecture on genius, in which he displayed so much talent, that he received the unanimous thanks of the society, and they elected him their professor of literature.

At the age of fifteen, he gained a silver medal for a translation from Horace; and the following year, a pair of globes, for an imaginary tour from London to Edinburgh. He determined upon trying for this prize one evening when at tea with his family, and at supper, he read them his performance. In his seventeenth year, he published a small volume of poems which possessed considerable merit.

Soon after, he was sent to Cambridge, and entered Saint John's College, where he made the most rapid progress. But the intensity of his studies ruined his constitution, and he fell a victim to his ardent thirst for knowledge. He died October 19, 1806, leaving behind him several poems and letters, which gave earnest of the high rank he would have attained in the republic of letters, had his life been spared. His productions were published, with an interesting memoir, by Mr. Southey.