Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles
Henry Kirk White (17851806)
HENRY KIRK WHITE was born at Nottingham, on the 21st of March, 1785. He was privately educated, and at fifteen years of age entered the office of Messrs. Coldham & Enfield, Town Clerks and Attorneys of Nottingham, with a view to following the profession of the law. While here, he became the subject of deep religious impressions, and determined, if means could be found to support him at a university, to abandon the law for the Church. He worked very hard and bore many disappointments in the pursuit of his object, but in October 1805 he was enabled to take up his residence at St. Johns College, Cambridge, where he devoted himself exhaustively to his studies. At the end of the term he was pronounced, upon examination, the first man of his year; but his constitution proved unequal to the strain put upon it, and on the 19th of October, 1806, he died.
Few men have owed more in the way of reputation to their misfortunes than Kirk White. His continual struggles against adverse circumstances in the pursuit of knowledge, together with the amiability of his disposition and the piety of his life, secured for him many friends, who, in their admiration for his character, discovered evidence of Genius in his verse which those uninfluenced by his personality are unable to detect. It would of course be absurd to look for maturity in the work of a youth of twenty years, but Genius could scarcely have written as much as this youth wrote without betraying itself, however crudely, in some thought or phrase of obvious originality or latent power. Kirk Whites poems display no such evidence as we expect to find in the work of Genius, however young. He lacked originality and imagination; and while unable to invent new forms of beauty, showed no freshness in his views of old forms of truth. He had ambition, but he had nothing to say, nor was there anything felicitous in his manner of saying nothing. Among the Fragments, gathered from the backs of old mathematical papers, there are one or two which are calculated to excite expectation, but it may be doubted whether he would ever have justified the claims made on his behalf even if Time had dealt more gently with him. The following are instances:
Lo! on the eastern summit, clad in gray,
Morn, like a horseman girt for travel, comes,
And from his tower of mist,
Nights watchman hurries down.
The pious man,
In this bad world, when mists and couchant storms
Hide Heavens fine circlet, springs aloft in faith
Above the clouds that threat him, to the fields
Of ether, where the day is never veiled
With intervening vapours, and looks down
Serene upon the troublous sea, that hides
The earths fair breast, that sea whose nether face
According to Southey, who edited his Remains, The Christiad was the poem which Kirk White had most at heart, and upon which he bestowed the most pains. It was never completed, but enough was written to show that the poet lacked the power necessary to the treatment of such a theme. A melancholy interest attaches to the final stanzas, which were found by Southey written in a different book.
Thus far have I pursued my solemn theme
With self-rewarding toil thus far have sung
Of God-like deeds, far loftier than beseem
The Lyre which I in early days have strung:
And now my spirits faint, and I have hung
The shell, that solaced me in saddest hour,
On the dark cypress! and the strings which rung
With Jesus praise, their harpings now are oer,
Or, when the breeze comes by, moan and are heard no more.
And must the harp of Judah sleep again?
Shall I no more re-animate the lay?
Oh! Thou who visitest the sons of men,
Thou who dost listen when the humble pray,
One little space prolong my mournful day!
One little lapse suspend Thy last decree!
I am a youthful traveller in the way,
And this slight boon would consecrate to Thee,
Ere I with Death shake hands, and smile that I am free.
Kirk Whites was a life of disappointment. It began with high hopes and bright anticipations, which it exhausted itself in its efforts to realise without success. Trained in such a school, it is perhaps natural that one of his best poems should be his ode On Disappointment, given here.