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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Gilbert White (1720–1793)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE ‘NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE,’ written by Gilbert White, an English clergyman of the eighteenth century, belongs to literature rather than to science, because of its poetical spirit of intimacy with the living world, making knowledge as much the fruit of intuition as of intellectual research. Like Thoreau’s works, it springs from the heart of its author; lacking all the severity of a scientific treatise, warm instead with the humanity that feels itself close to all happy living things.  1
  White of Selborne was, however, a naturalist of no mean rank; although his field of research was limited, including only the parishes in the South of England to which he ministered, and of which Selborne furnished him the greater part of the material for his famous book. In a letter to Thomas Pennant, he thus describes the geography of this parish, every inch of whose ground he knew and loved:—
          “The parish of Selborne lies in the extreme eastern corner of the county of Hampshire, bordering on the county of Sussex, and not far from the county of Surrey; it is about fifty miles southwest of London, in latitude 51°, and near midway between the towns of Alton and Petersfield. Being very large and extensive, it abuts on twelve parishes, two of which are in Sussex,—viz., Trotton and Rogate. If you begin from the south, and proceed westward, the adjacent parishes are Emshot, Newton Valence, Faringdon, Harteley-Mandent, Great Wardleham, Kingsley, Hedleigh, Bramshot, Trotton, Rogate, Lysse, and Greatham. The soils of this district are almost as various and diversified as the views and aspects. The high part to the southwest consists of a vast hill of chalk, rising three hundred feet above the village; and is divided into a sheep-down, the high wood, and a long hanging wood called the Hanger. The covert of this eminence is altogether beech; the most lovely of all forest trees, whether we consider its smooth rind or bark, its glossy foliage, or graceful pendulous boughs. The down or sheep-walk is a pleasant park-like spot of about one mile by half that space, jutting out on the verge of the hill country, where it begins to break down into the plains, and commanding a very engaging view; being an assemblage of hill, dale, woodlands, heath, and water.”
  2
  In this parish of Selborne, Gilbert White was born in 1720; was educated at Basingstoke, under Warton the father of the poet, and at Oriel College, Oxford, where he obtained a fellowship in 1744. He removed to a country curacy in 1753, but returned to Selborne again in 1755. In 1758 he obtained a sinecure living from his college; became curate of Faringdon, remaining there until 1784; when he again assumed the charge of Selborne Church, and ministered there until his death in 1793.  3
  From his youth he had shown the strongest love for natural history,—a passion shared by his brothers: one of whom, Benjamin, retired from trade to devote himself to natural and physical science, and besides contributing papers to the Royal Society, became a publisher of works of natural history; another brother, John, vicar of Gibraltar, wrote a natural history of the rock and its neighborhood. Their fame, however, is overshadowed by that of the author of the ‘Natural History of Selborne.’ The scientific value of this book is not inconsiderable. It is a storehouse of the knowledge patiently acquired by a man who was watchful of each phenomenon of nature; whose methods of gaining information were essentially modern, because they aimed at complete accuracy attained by personal research. But the charm of this record, not only of days but of hours in Selborne, lies not in its merits as a circumstantial history of the natural phenomena of an English parish, but in its spirit of loving intimacy with the out-of-door world. The book is fragrant with the wandering airs of the fields and woods. Each chapter is a ramble in rural England. It is a home-like work, because it tells of things that keen eyes might see from the cottage window, or perhaps no farther than the garden dial, or the graves in the ancient church-yard. White noted many curious things of birds and field-mice, of bats and frogs and insects, on his strolls through the village lanes. His humble neighbors must have caught some of his enthusiasm for natural knowledge; for mention is often made of their bringing to him curious scraps of information, the results of their observations in his behalf.  4
  “A shepherd saw, as he thought, some white larks on a down above my house this winter: were not these the Emberiza nivalis, the snowflake of the Brit. Zoöl.? No doubt they were.”  5
  “As a neighbor was lately plowing in a dry chalky field, far removed from any water, he turned out a water-rat, that was curiously laid up in an hybernaculum artificially formed of grass and leaves. At one end of the burrow lay about a gallon of potatoes, regularly stowed, on which it was to have supported itself for the winter.”  6
  It was upon the birds of his district that the attention of White seems to have been chiefly centered. He knew the times of their appearance in spring and summer so accurately, that he is able to make out chronological lists which tell the day and almost the hour of their coming. He heads the list of the summer birds of passage with the wryneck, which comes in the middle of March, and has a harsh note; with the smallest willow wren, which appears on the 23d of the same month, and “chirps till September”; some have “a sweet wild note,” some “a sweet plaintive note”; last of all is the fly-catcher, who arrives on May 12th, and is “a very mute bird.” He also makes a list of those birds who continue in full song until after midsummer, and of those who have ceased to sing before midsummer. To these he gives their Latin as well as their English names. His quaint scholarship shows itself in scattered Latin quotations bearing upon his subject; sometimes in happy lines from the old English poets; sometimes in a verse from the Bible, as when he uses the words of Job, in speaking of the cuckoo’s cruelty to its young:—
    “She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers:
  “Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding.”
  7
  The ‘Natural History of Selborne’ is chiefly embodied in White’s letters to Thomas Pennant. He corresponded also with Barrington, with Lightfoot, with Sir Joseph Banks, and other noted naturalists. The style of the book is simple, scholarly, and not without a homely beauty of its own. One of the most restful figures in the restless and artificial eighteenth century is this of Gilbert White: living his serene life near to the heart of nature, writing of what he saw to sympathetic friends, accumulating for himself a long and quiet fame. His grave is in Selborne church-yard, amid the scenes with which he was associated in so loving an intimacy.  8
 
 
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