To the Romantic poets, Henry Kirke White was the prime example of the role that Keats was later to play – the boy genius whose brilliant promise, realized in fragments, was cut short by the very sensitivity that had made his writing so precocious. Dead at twenty-one, Kirke White was admired by Coleridge and Wordsworth; Shelley and Keats borrowed from him: in the 1820s their early deaths would be interpreted in his image. To some, Kirke White had been, as Keats was later said to be, brought to the grave by a cruel review. Others, like Byron, thought him to have been killed by his devotion to learning:
Unhappy White! while life was in its spring,
And thy young muse just waved her joyous wing,
The spoiler came; and all thy promise fair
Has sought the grave, to sleep for ever there.
Oh! what a noble heart was here undone,
When Science’ self destroy’d her favourite son!
Yes, she too much indulged thy fond pursuit;
She sow’d the seeds, but Death has reap’d the fruit.
’Twas thine own genius gave the final blow,
And help’d to plant the wound that laid thee low.
(English Bards and Scotch Reviewers)
Byron was responding to the Life of Kirke White that Southey included in his 1807 posthumous edition – the publication that made Kirke White’s reputation. There, Southey declared ‘Many of his poems indicate that he thought himself in danger of consumption; he was not aware that he was generating or fostering in himself another disease, little less dreadful, and which threatens intellect as well as life’. This was to portray Kirke White in the image Southey had helped create of Chatterton – an image behind Wordsworth’s lines ‘We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness’. This nervous breakdown was produced, Southey showed, when Kirke White, a poor boy at Cambridge, tried to prove himself by excelling in the exams. Ferocious round-the-clock studying led to ‘dreadful palpitations—. . . nights of sleeplessness and horror, and . . . spirits depressed to the very depth of wretchedness, so that he went from one acquaintance to another, imploring society, even as a starving beggar intreats for food’. To ram his point home, Southey published letters in which Kirke White confessed that ‘My mind preys upon itself’ . . . ‘I am well and lively in the morning, and overwhelmed with nervous horrors in the evening’. Kirke White, in short, was depicted as a Romantic martyr to his will to lift himself from poverty and obscurity by scholarship and poetry.
It was consumption (TB) that killed Kirke White, as it later killed Keats. But it was worsened by the years of sleep deprivation that he had imposed on himself as he tried to study his way into the professional classes and so avoid a life of poverty in his father’s trade – butchery – or in stocking-loom weaving, the main industry of his home town, Nottingham. Kirke White’s course divided his parents: it was resisted by his father but aided by his mother, who became a schoolmistress and wished her sons to get ahead. Beginning to write verse in his early teens while a schoolboy, he continued while working at a stocking loom and, from 1800 while articled to the Nottingham lawyer’s firm of George Coldham. He also taught himself Latin and Greek in this period. In 1803, aged seventeen, he published Clifton Grove, a Sketch in Verse, with other Poems, hoping to raise money to enable him to take a place at Cambridge; in 1804, beset by increasing deafness, he retired from work at the law office to Wilford, then a small village on the banks of the River Trent. There, he composed more poetry. With the support of Charles Simeon, the evangelical Cambridge don, he then obtained the chance of a sizarship (scholarship) at St John’s College, but first spent a year in Winteringham, a small village near the River Humber, being tutored in classical studies by the Revd Lorenzo Grainger. In autumn 1805 he took up his place at St John’s, living as economically as possible and embarking on the punishing regime of study for college and university examinations that precipitated collapse in his physical and mental health. Despite periods of rest intended to restore him, he died in his college room on 19 October 1806. The following year Southey, having been approached by Kirke White’s brother Henry Neville White, published The Remains of Henry Kirke White … with an Account of his Life (2 vols, 1807). The success of this edition gradually made Kirke White an exemplar for the next generation of poets who shared with him their youth and, in some cases, their labouring or lower middle-class background.