White, Henry Kirke


b Cheapside, Nottingham 1785, d Cambridge 1806. His extraordinary talent was recognised early by his first teacher Mrs Garrington, who taught him between the ages of 3 and 5. He was given the best education his parents John and Mary could afford; his father was a butcher, and they had other children to consider as well. At 6 he began to learn maths at a school run by John Blanchard, a local clergyman. His delight was in reading, and by the age of 7 he would creep into the kitchen to teach the family servant to read and write. He began composing verse at 13; he gently satirised his teachers in some ‘School Lampoons’ which have not survived, and wrote some lines ‘On being confined to school one pleasant morning in Spring’, which have. His mother opened a ‘School for Young Ladies’ in order to provide more income for Henry, but at 14 he was obliged to start work in the hosiery trade. But he said that he could not bear the thought of spending 7 years of his life ‘in shining and folding up stockings’ (cf Gadsby, and composers Gardiner and Matthews!), and more verse emerged: ‘But O! I was not made for money-getting…’. A year later he joined a firm of solicitors, to whom he became articled at 17.

About this time he read Thomas Scott’s The Force of Truth, part autobiographical, part evangelistic; this led to his conversion in a hectic year in which he taught himself Lat, Gk, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and the rudiments of chemistry, electricity and astronomy. In 1803 his Clifton Grove, and Other Poems, was published; the title piece is a 490-line poem in rhyming couplets, followed by more than 600 blank-verse lines of a fine but unfinished piece Time. The first one breathes the spirit of Cowper (whose death he also commemorated in verse) and shows touches of Thos Gray or (even more recent) of Wordsworth, in its sensitivity to nature’s beauty, inward reflectiveness and also, like much of his other verse, a foreboding of death, often melancholy, even morbid: ‘…here waste the little remnant of my days’. The second poem is not the only one with some almost Miltonic lines; he also wrote to comic effect, but more common was the mood of ‘Consumption! silent cheater of the eye’, or ‘Fifty years hence, and who will hear of Henry?’. Many verses are a blend of stylised or classical archaism and intensely personal feeling weighed down with mournful adjectives, sickly tapers and dying screams.

HKW practised music and drawing, showing such outstanding and diverse talent that in 1804 he was released from his legal articles to enter St John’s Coll, Cambridge, soon winning an additional scholarship. Encouraged by such evangelical leaders as Charles Simeon and the youthful Henry Martyn, he prepared for ordination with more than usual discipline and devotion, not to mention his private self-examination, self-criticism, and anxiety about his increasing deafness. He set himself strict times for prayer after rising at 6.0, a daily 2-hour walk, and to drink tea only once a week. Many evenings were spent in sick-visiting. He became seriously weakened by overwork, and two visits to London for medical help did nothing to prevent the onset of tuberculosis complicated by other ailments; he died in his college rooms at the age of 21. His talent has been compared to that of other short-lived poets such as Keats, the very different Thos Chatterton, and Michael Bruce, qv. Byron, Josiah Conder, Wm B Collyer (qv) and some 8 other authors wrote verses in his memory; Coleridge admired his work, and in 1807 his greatest advocate Robert Southey, who had encouraged him from the first and later became an unhappy Poet Laureate, wrote a warmly affirming 40-page biography as a preface to White’s collected verse, to which several letters are added. Many of these are solemnly didactic (for a young man), some addressed to his mother and brothers, a few in Latin. He commends poetry, painting and music, but has no time for ballrooms, theatres, concerts or card-playing; and he believed that ‘It is a sign that a man’s heart is not right with God, when he finds fault with the Liturgy!’.

‘Chatterton is the only youthful poet whom he does not leave far behind him’—RS. Among his other verse is a paraphrase of most of Ps 22 and a strong ‘personal testimony’ text about the Bethlehem star (which is Christ), When marshalled on the nightly plain. Stevens’ Selection of Hymns included 2 more, but the one hymn for which he is known has been much reprinted and much altered, as here; see notes. No.886*.

Hymns and songs by White, Henry Kirke

Number Hymn Name
886 Christian soldiers, onward go