Henry Kirke White by Thomas Barber

Henry Kirke White (1785-1806). Portrait by Thomas Barber (1771-1843). Courtesy Wikimedia Commonss.

Henry Kirke White (March 21, 1785 - October 19, 1806) was an English poet, who died at a young age.



White was the son of a butcher at Nottingham. At first working for his father, next for a stocking weaver, he was afterwards placed in the office of an attorney. Some contributions to a newspaper introduced him to the notice of Capel Lofft, a patron of promising youths, by whose help he brought out a vol. of poems, which fell into the hands of Southey, who wrote to him. Thereafter friends raised a fund to send him to Cambridge, where he gave brilliant promise. Overwork, however, undermined a constitution originally delicate, and he died at 21. Southey wrote a short memoir page 404of him with some additional poems. His chief poem was the Christiad, a fragment. His best known production is the hymn, "Much in sorrow, oft in Woe."[1]


White was born in Nottingham on 21 March 1785, the son of a butcher. His mother, whose name was Neville, came of a Staffordshire family, and at one time kept a boarding-school for girls.[2]

After receiving an elementary education at small private schools, he was at the age of 14 put to work at a stocking loom. But he chafed against such employment. He developed literary tastes, and began writing poetry. He joined a literary society and showed promise as an orator. Within a year he obtained more congenial employment with a firm of lawyers at Nottingham.[2]

His parents could not afford to pay a premium, and he was accordingly compelled to serve 2 years before being articled. He signed his articles in 1802. His employers noticed his promise, and advised him to study Latin. In 10 months he could read Horace "with tolerable facility," and had begun Greek. Soon afterwards he acquired some knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, and read many books on natural science.[3]

He continued his poetic endeavors, and contributed to the Monthly Preceptor, a periodical which offered prizes to youthful writers. Subsequently he sent poems and essays to the Monthly Mirror, in which his work attracted the favourable notice of one of the proprietors, Thomas Hill (1760–1840) [q. v.], and of Capel Lofft.[3]

White now developed a strong evangelical piety. He read with appreciation Scott's Force of Truth, and made up his mind to go to Cambridge and take holy orders. With a view to raising some of the needful funds, he, with the sanguineness of youth, prepared in 1802 a volume of poems for the press. The Duchess of Devonshire accepted the dedication, and the volume appeared in 1803 under the title of Clifton Grove: A sketch in verse; with other poems, by Henry Kirke White of Nottingham.[3]

A reviewer in the Monthly Review for February 1804 justly and courteously said that the boyish verse was not distinctive. White sent a letter of complaint to the editor, and the reviewer next month replied in a kindly tone that he adhered to his 1st opinion. Meanwhile the book came under the notice of Robert Southey, who exaggerated its literary value, and encouraged White to regard himself as a victim of the critic's malignity. Thenceforth Southey deeply interested himself in White's career (Southey, Correspondence, ii. 91).[3]

The volume of poems was not a financial success, and White, compelled to look elsewhere for assistance to enable him to enter the university, obtained an introduction through his employer at Nottingham to Charles Simeon of King's College, Cambridge. Simeon was impressed by White's piety, and procured him a sizarship at St. John's. Wilberforce and other sympathisers guaranteed him a small supplementary income, and he quit his legal employment in 1804 to spend a year preparing for the university with a clergyman named Grainger of Winteringham, Lincolnshire. There overwork injured his health, which had already shown signs of weakness.[3]

In October 1805 he entered St John's College, Cambridge, and at once distinguished himself in classics. At the general college examination at the end of the 1st term, and again at the end of the summer term of 1806, he came out 1st of his year. But his health was failing, and consumption threatened. The college provided a tutor for him in mathematics during the long vacation of 1806. His health proved unequal to the strain. At the beginning of the October term he completely broke down, and he died in his college rooms.[3]


In the preface to Clifton Grove (1803), White confessed that the verses came from a very youthful pen. The work was of modest merit; the title poem showed the influence of Goldsmith's Deserted Village.[3]

White left in manuscript a mass of unpublished verse and prose. His relatives placed it in Southey's hands, and Southey compiled from it The Remains of Henry Kirke White … with an Account of his Life, which he published in 2 volumes in 1807. The volume contained "Clifton Grove" and many poems written by White in childhood, together with a series of hymns and a fragment of an epic on the life of Christ called The Christiad, which death prevented White from completing. Waller's lyric ‘Go, Lovely Rose,’ was reprinted with a new concluding stanza by White. The chief contribution in prose was a series of 12 essays on religious and philosophic topics called "Melancholy Hours." In the prefatory memoir Southey emphasised the pathos of White's short career, and wrote with enthusiasm of his poetic genius. The Remains was well received, and passed through 10 editions by 1823. The work was often reprinted subsequently both in England and America. It was published for the first time in America at Boston in 1829.[3]

Many early readers of the Remains shared Southey's high opinion of White's literary merits. In 1809 Byron wrote sympathetically in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers:

Unhappy White! while life was in its spring
And thy young muse just shook her joyous wing,
The spoiler came; and all thy promise fair
Has sought the grave, to sleep for ever there.
'Twas thine own genius gave the final blow
And helped to plant the wound that laid thee low.[3]

Byron also wrote of White to Dallas on 27 Aug. 1811: "Setting aside his bigotry, he surely ranks next Chatterton. It is astonishing how little he was known; and at Cambridge no one thought or heard of such a man till his death rendered all notice useless. For my own part I should have been proud of such an acquaintance; his very prejudices were respectable."[3]

But Southey's charitable judgment, which Byron echoed, has not stood the test of time. White's verse shows every mark of immaturity. In thought and expression it lacks vigour and originality. A promise of weirdness in an early and prophetic lyric, "A Dance of Consumptives" (from an unfinished Eccentric Drama), was not fulfilled in his later compositions. The metrical dexterity which is shown in the addition to Waller's "Go, Lovely Rose," is not beyond a mediocre capacity. Such popularity as White's work has enjoyed is to be attributed to the pathetic brevity of his career and to the fervour of the evangelical piety which inspired the greater part of his verse and prose.[3]

Critical introductionEdit

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 20 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 White’s 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,
  Night’s watchman hurries down.
                        The pious man,
In this bad world, when mists and couchant storms
Hide Heaven’s 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 earth’s fair breast, that sea whose nether face
To grovelling mortals frowns and darkens all;
But on whose billowy back, from man concealed,
The glaring sunbeam plays.

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.

Of Kirk White’s shorter poems his lines “To Love” have been perhaps most frequently quoted, though they can scarcely be said to rise above the level of valentine verse.

Kirk White’s was a life of disappointment. It began with high hopes and bright anticipations, which it exhausted 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.”[4]


In 1819 a tablet to his memory, with a medallion by Francis Chantrey and an inscription by Professor William Smyth, was placed above his grave in All Saints' Church, Cambridge, at the expense of a young American admirer, Francis Boott of Boston (subsequently well known in England as a botanist). The original model of Chantrey's medallion is in the National Portrait Gallery.[3]

The museum at Nottingham possesses 2 portraits of White, one (in profile) by T. Barber, and another by J. Hoppner, R.A. There is a third (anonymous) portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.[3]

10 of White's hymns were included by Dr. W.B. Collyer in his Supplement to Dr. Watts's Psalms and Hymns, London, 1812, and are still in common use.[3]

The house in which he is said to have been born is still pointed out in Exchange Alley, Nottingham; the lower portion remains a butcher's shop, while the upper portion is a tavern with the sign of "The Kirke White."[2]



Collected editionsEdit

  • Remains; with an account of his life (edited by Robert Southey). (2 volumes), London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharp, et al, 1807; 5th edition, 1811; 10th edition (3 volumes), London : Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown, 1823; Boston: Timothy Bedlington, 1823; New York: Garland, 1977. Volume I,Volume II
  • Complete Works (edited by Robert Southey). Boston: Lyman, Thurston, 1829.
  • Life, with Correspondence(edited by Seeley). London, Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, 1856.
  • Poems, Letters, and Prose Fragments (edited by John Drinkwater). London: Routledge / New York: Dutton, 1907.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[5]

Poems by Henry Kirke WhiteEdit

  1. To Love

See alsoEdit


  • PD-icon.svg Lee, Sidney (1900) "White, Henry Kirke" in Lee, Sidney Dictionary of National Biography 61 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 48-50 . Wikisource, Web, Jan. 8, 2017.


  1. John William Cousin, "White, Henry Kirke," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 403-404. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 18, 2018.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Lee, 48.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 Lee, 49.
  4. from Alfred H. Miles, Critical and Biographical Essay: Henry Kirk White (1785–1806), The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century, London: Routledge / New York: Dutton, 1907., Web, Jan. 8, 2017.
  5. Search results = au:Henry Kirke White, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 8, 2017.

External linksEdit

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