Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whitehead, William
WHITEHEAD, WILLIAM (1715–1785), poet-laureate, was born at Cambridge early in 1715. He was baptised on 12 Feb. at St. Botolph's, in which parish his father carried on the trade of a baker, serving Pembroke Hall in that capacity. The elder Whitehead, while bestowing a liberal education on both his sons, is said to have been inclined to extravagance, and to have chiefly employed his time in ornamenting a plot of land near Grantchester, which long went under the name of Whitehead's Folly. Two years before his death his second son William, when fourteen years of age, through the patronage of Henry Bromley (afterwards Lord Montfort, and high steward of the university of Cambridge), obtained a nomination to Winchester College, where he remained till 1735. It was the period, as Whitehead afterwards sang (see his stanzas to the Rev. Dr. Lowth, in his Life of William of Wykeham), ‘when Bigg presided and when Burton taught.’ He is said to have acted the parts of Marcia in ‘Cato’ and of one of the women in the ‘Andria,’ and in 1733 to have gained one of the guinea prizes offered by Peterborough, on a visit to the school, for the best poem on a subject to be given out by his companion Pope, who chose Peterborough himself as the theme. This led to his being employed by Pope to translate into Latin the first epistle of the ‘Essay on Man;’ but this effort was not published, and Whitehead, although a competent scholar, never attained to distinction as a writer of Latin verse. In 1735, not commanding sufficient interest to secure election to New College, Oxford, he entered as a sizar at Clare Hall, Cambridge, with the aid of a small scholarship open to the orphan sons of tradesmen of the town. He graduated B.A. in 1739 and M.A. in 1743, and in 1742 was elected a fellow of his college. His irreproachable conduct, amiable manners, and growing reputation as a poet secured to him at Cambridge the friendship of many young men of a rank superior to his own, conspicuous among whom was Charles Townshend (1725–1767) [q. v.], to whom two of his early poems are addressed (ii. 171, 173). In his lines ‘On Friendship’ (ii. 129), justly praised by his biographer and according to him highly mended by Gray, Whitehead softened what the latter disliked as satirical touches; but though he was through life more or less dependent on his social superiors, his nature was not servile, and his lack of ambition was largely due to self-knowledge (see the lines, ii. 192, addressed in 1751 to his friend Wright). In 1745 Whitehead, at the request of the Earl of Jersey, undertook the private tuition of his surviving son, Viscount Villiers, then a boy of seven years of age—who afterwards as Lord Jersey, was reputed one of the most high bred as well as one of the most fashionable men of his age—and a young companion [see Villiers, George Bussy, fourth Earl]. He accordingly removed to London, and shortly afterwards abandoned his fellowship, as its retention would have obliged him to take orders.
At Cambridge Whitehead had published his first more important poetic efforts, which showed him to have deliberately formed his style as a writer of verse upon Pope, at a time when English poetical literature was at last on the very point of widening its range as to both form and subjects. His epistle ‘On the Danger of writing in Verse’ (1741) is elegant in versification and diction, and modest in tone—two merits which are rarely absent in Whitehead. It was rapidly followed by ‘Atys and Adrastus’ (from Herodotus); an ‘heroic epistle’ from ‘Ann Boleyn to Henry the Eighth,’ the reverse of original in treatment, but delicate in feeling; and a readable didactic essay on ‘Ridicule’ (1743), protesting against such as is excessive or misplaced. All these pieces, as well as the rather later ‘Hymn to the Nymph of Bristol Spring’ (1751), are in the heroic couplet.
Within these years Whitehead became well known in the world of letters and of the theatre, and on 24 Feb. 1750 Garrick (to whom he had addressed a very judicious compliment in verse, containing a characteristic hint as to the morals of the stage; Works, ii. 176) brought out at Drury Lane his tragedy of the ‘Roman Father.’ It is founded more or less on Corneille's ‘Horace;’ but it omits the part of Horatius's wife, sister to the Curiatii, and it seeks to centre the interest in Horatius's father, the character played by Garrick. Though it was a theatrical success, this tragedy is but a poor piece of literary work, and in execution one of the least adequate of Whitehead's performances. His second tragedy, ‘Creusa, Queen of Athens’ (first acted on 20 April 1754), a recast of the Euripidean ‘Ion,’ with the supernatural element omitted, is far superior to its predecessor in skilfulness of construction and in dignity of style, and deserves the high praise bestowed on it by Horace Walpole (to John Chute, Letters, ed. Cunningham, ii. 382) and by Mason. These constitute Whitehead's only essays in the tragic drama, unless there should be included in them the rather clever burlesque, ‘tragedy in the heroic taste,’ of ‘Fatal Constancy, or Love in Tears,’ spoken in monologue by the hero.
A parody with a more serious purpose is the city idyll, as it would perhaps be called in these days, of ‘The Sweepers,’ written in blank verse. In form Whitehead's versatility was remarkable, and about this time he produced a series of tales in (four-foot iambic) verse, something in the manner of Prior, but more nearly perhaps in that of La Fontaine, which possess decided merit of their kind. Such are ‘Variety, a Tale for Married People;’ ‘The Goat's Beard,’ a free expansion of one of Phædrus's fables, which playfully discusses the question of equality between the sexes; and others. These, with a number of vers de société and complimentary pieces, make up an agreeable variety of miscellaneous verse; and it would have been fortunate for Whitehead's posthumous fame had he not been called upon to put a pretentious top to so unpretending an edifice. He wrote little in prose—a disquisition, of no moment, on the shield of Æneas, and a light essay or two for insertion in ‘The World.’ In June 1754 he accompanied his pupil, Lord Villiers, and Lord Nuneham, the eldest son of the Earl of Harcourt, to Leipzig. A tour in Germany and Italy followed, and the travellers did not return to England till the autumn of 1756. The ‘Elegies’ in which Whitehead commemorated their visits to the mausoleum of Augustus and other places of interest have not permanently added to his poetic fame; but they were not inopportunely written. While still in Italy he had been appointed by the Duke of Newcastle, through the influence of Lady Jersey, to the ‘two genteel patent places usually united’ of secretary and registrar of the order of the Bath; and when, in December 1757, Colley Cibber passed away, the Duke of Devonshire, as lord chamberlain, offered to Whitehead the poet-laureateship, which had been previously refused by Gray [see Gray, Thomas]. The latter was to have been permitted to hold it as a sinecure; but Whitehead's muse was called upon in the usual way, and executed herself in a series of birthday odes extending over more than a quarter of a century, as well as of special effusions on occasions such as a peace or a royal marriage. A selection of the birthday odes is published in the poet's works, but cannot be said to call for posthumous criticism. In his own day the series at large was visited with much unfriendly comment. Johnson, who seems to have felt no particular gratitude to Whitehead for having helped to make the plan of his dictionary known to Chesterfield (Boswell, Life, ed. J. Birkbeck Hill, i. 184; see also Hawkins, Life, 2nd edit. 1787, p. 176), compared Cibber's birthday odes with Whitehead's, to the disadvantage of the latter; for ‘grand nonsense is insupportable’ (ib. i. 402). John Byrom [q. v.], the Lancashire poet, in 1758 coupled Whitehead's ‘Verses to the People of England’ with Akenside's ‘Appeal to the Country Gentlemen of England’ as illustrative of the jingoism of the hour (Poems of John Byrom, printed for the Chetham Soc., 1894, i. 459). Churchill, who had suddenly sprung into fame and was beginning to pour forth volume after volume of furious invective, in bk. iii. of ‘The Ghost’ (1762) apostrophised the laureate as ‘Dulness and Method's darling Son.’ Whitehead but once made a public reply to these and other attacks in ‘A Charge to the Poets’ (first printed in 1762), which introduces itself as a sort of sequel to his early poem on ‘The Danger of writing in Verse,’ and, in the humorous form of a charge from the laureate to his brother poets, very reasonably and very good-humouredly explains and defends his position. In ‘A Pathetic Apology for all Laureates, past, present, and to come,’ privately circulated among his friends, he put the matter still more plainly, and with the same modest bonhomie. And whether or not he actually cherished the design of replying to Churchill in a longer poem, he was wise enough never to carry it out, though the fragments which remain are in part generous as well as essentially just in spirit.
In the year in which Churchill had sought to write down the laureate dunce and fool, he had produced at Drury Lane on 10 Feb. his comedy of ‘The School for Lovers’ (1762), which has been erroneously supposed to belong to the species called sentimental comedy. The life of the play is to be found in the characters of Araminta and Modely, which are genuinely comic, while the former is also unmistakably attractive (cf. Genest, iv. 640). The success of this comedy (which was revived in 1775 and 1794) seems to have increased Garrick's confidence in Whitehead, who in the following years officiated as his ‘reader’ of plays. When in 1767 Garrick was hesitating as to the production of Goldsmith's ‘Good-natured Man,’ he proposed Whitehead, who for some time acted as reader of new plays for Drury Lane, to him as arbitrator in the difficulty—‘of all the manager's slights to the poet,’ according to the biographer of the latter, that which was ‘forgotten last’ (Forster, Life and Times of Oliver Goldsmith, 5th edit. 1871, ii. 41). On 6 Jan. 1770 Whitehead's ‘Trip to Scotland’ was performed at Drury Lane, which may be described as a farce ending like an extravaganza.
For many years after his return from the continent Whitehead remained the welcome household friend of Lords Jersey and Harcourt, and resided in the town house of the former, and in the summer at Middleton and at Nuneham, of which frequent mention is made in his verse, and where some lines by him on the gardener, Walter Clark, are stated as still to be seen in the grounds. After the death of Lord Jersey in 1769, and the accession to the title of his former pupil, Whitehead occupied apartments in London, but still kept up his intimacy with both families. In 1774 he collected his works in two volumes, under the title of ‘Plays and Poems.’ A tragedy, offered to Garrick, but never published; the first act of an ‘Œdipus;’ and one or two other dramatic fragments were found among his papers at the time of his death, which took place in Charles Street, Grosvenor Square, on 14 April 1785.
A complete edition of Whitehead's poems, with a good memoir by his friend William Mason (1724–1797) [q. v.], was published at York in 1788 (3 vols. 8vo). A half-length life-sized portrait of Whitehead was painted by R. Wilson (Cat. Guelph Exhib. No. 238). Another, painted by W. Doughty in 1776, was engraved by Collyer, and prefixed to vol. iii. of Mason's edition of Whitehead's ‘Works.’[Memoirs by Mason in collected edition of Whitehead's Poems, 3 vols. 1788; Chalmers's English Poets, vol. xvii.; Genest's Some Account of the English Stage, vols. iv. and v.; Doyle's Official Baronage.]