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.