Kirke White’s youthful poetry displays a technical mastery of the conventions of seventeenth and eighteenth-century landscape verse – how to organize a visual scene evocative of a mood; how make a generic landscape seem particular; how to vary syntax, rhythm and rhyme so the couplet form remains supple. It not only compares favourably with Wordsworth’s youthful rural verse but also bears comparison with his ‘retro’ landscape poems of the 1830s—also written in couplets. Here’s an example from the long poem that first won Kirke White the respect of Southey, Coleridge and Byron – Clifton Grove (1803) (text taken from my forthcoming edition of the Collected Poetry (Liverpool University Press, 2023)):
Lo! In the West, fast fades the lingering light,
And day’s last vestige takes its silent flight.
No more, is heard the Woodman’s measur’d stroke,
Which, with the dawn, from yonder dingle broke;
No more, hoarse clam’ring o’er the uplifted head,
The Crows assembling, seek their wind-rock’d bed;
Still’d is the Village hum—the Woodland sounds
Have ceas’d to echo o’er the dewy grounds,
And general silence reigns, save when below
The murmuring Trent is scarcely heard to flow;
And save when, swung by ’nighted Rustic late,
Oft, on its hinge, rebounds the jarring gate;
Or when the sheep-bell, in the distant vale,
Breathes its wild music on the downy gale.
Kirke White’s models for this kind of rural nocturne were Anne Finch, Thomas Gray and William Collins, while his narrator, a melancholy wanderer along the river bank, derives from James Beattie’s Minstrel and Thomas Warton’s riparian figures. But the eye for the kind of detail that makes the scene vivid – for example the rebounding gate – is his own; Kirke White is an original observer: he is enabled by the poetic tradition within which he works rather than cramped by it – a developer not an imitator.
Another nocturne, ‘A Description of a Summer’s Eve’ was first published in the posthumous collection that Southey edited in 1807. It is full of Kirke White’s keen interest in the goings-on to be found in the ordinary lives of the farm servants, and in this respect has something in common with Lyrical Ballads – just as it does in the use of colloquial rural English rather than poetic diction.
Down the sultry arc of day
The burning wheels have urged their way,
And Eve along the western skies
Sheds her intermingling dyes.
Down the deep, the miry lane,
Creaking comes the empty wain,
And Driver on the shaft-horse sits,
Whistling now and then by fits;
And oft, with his accustom’d call,
Urging on the sluggish Ball.
The barn is still, the master’s gone,
And Thresher puts his jacket on,
While Dick, upon the ladder tall,
Nails the dead kite to the wall.
Here comes shepherd Jack at last,
He has penned the sheep-cote fast,
For ’twas but two nights before,
A lamb was eaten on the moor:
His empty wallet Rover carries,
Nor for Jack, when near home, tarries.
With lolling tongue he runs to try,
If the horse-trough be not dry.
The milk is settled in the pans,
And supper messes in the cans;
In the hovel carts are wheeled,
And both the colts are drove a-field;
The horses are all bedded up,
And the ewe is with the tup.
The snare for Mister Fox is set,
The leaven laid, the thatching wet,
And Bess has slink’d away to talk
With Roger in the holly walk.
Now, on the settle all, but Bess,
Are set to eat their supper mess;
And little Tom and roguish Kate
Are swinging on the meadow-gate.
Now they chat of various things,
Of taxes, ministers, and kings,
Or else tell all the village news,
How madam did the ’squire refuse;
How parson on his tithes was bent,
And landlord oft distrain’d for rent.
Thus do they talk, till in the sky
The pale-ey’d moon is mounted high,
And from the alehouse drunken Ned
Had reel’d—then hasten all to bed.
The mistress sees that lazy Kate
The happing coal on kitchen grate
Has laid—while master goes throughout,
Sees shutters fast, the mastiff out,
The candles safe, the hearths all clear,
And nought from thieves or fire to fear;
Then both to bed together creep,
And join the general troop of sleep.
This is more than a mere list: Kirke White creates mini-dramas from the human (and animal) interactions he notices; he also shapes a narrative arc moving from outdoors to indoors, and frombusyness and noise to peace and quiet. This movement leaves the reader with emotional closure, while the picked-out incidents give the generic the vividness of the particular. It’s deeply aesthetically satisfying, in the way that Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream song is:
Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone.
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide:
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic: not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallow’d house:
I am sent with broom before, To sweep the dust behind the door.