William Whitehead (poet)
A portrait of Whitehead by artist Benjamin Wilson.
|Born||baptized 12 February 1715
|Died||14 April 1785
Berkeley Square, London
|Resting place||Grosvenor Chapel|
|Education||Winchester College (1735)
Clare College, Cambridge
BA (1739); MA (1743)
|Notable work(s)||Creusa, Queen of Athens (1754)
The School for Lovers (1762)
He entered Clare College, Cambridge on a scholarship, and became a fellow in 1742. At Cambridge, Whitehead published an epistle On the Danger of writing Verse and some other poems, notably an heroic epistle, Ann Boleyn to Henry the Eighth (1743), and a didactic Essay on Ridicule, also (1743).
In 1745 Whitehead became the tutor of George Villiers, Viscount Villiers, son of William Villiers, 3rd Earl of Jersey, and took up his residence in London. There he produced two tragedies: The Roman Father and Creusa, Queen of Athens. The plots of these tragedies are based the Horace (1640) of Pierre Corneille, and the Ion (c. 414-412 BC) of Euripides.
After Thomas Gray refused the laureateship, it was passed to Whitehead, who was more acceptable at court as he was the travelling tutor of George Harcourt, Viscount Nuneham, son of Simon Harcourt, 1st Earl Harcourt, who was Governor to the Prince of Wales (later George III).
Poetry and plays
Much of Whitehead's work was well received: his tragedy The Roman Father was successfully produced by David Garrick in 1750, Creusa, Queen of Athens (1754) was also praised and his comedies The School for Lovers (1762) and The Trip to Scotland (1770) were successful.
After being appointed Poet Laureate, Whitehead defended the poetry of Laureates in a comic poem "A Pathetic Apology for All Laureates, Past, Present, And To Come". He was conscientious, and saw himself as a non-partisan representative for the whole country. Astonishingly for a political appointee, he appeared to see no requirement "to defend the King or support the government". Sadly, this reflects the idea that the Laureate's influence had weakened so much that the official poems were unlikely to influence opinions, even though the times were important politically, with rebellion in the American colonies and war in Europe.
For some 28 years in this post, he contented himself in writing the obligatory verse, avoiding flattery and domestic politics, and bolstering Britain’s place in world affairs. Indeed, he was the first laureate to see past court and party divisions and speak of the ‘spirit of England’. The odes Whitehead wrote in his capacity as Poet Laureate, however, were ridiculed. Charles Churchill attacked him in 1762, in the third book of The Ghost, as "the heir of Dullness and Method".
Whitehead's works were collected in two volumes in 1774. A third, including a memoir by William Mason, appeared posthumously in 1788. His plays are printed in Bell's British Theatre (vols. 3, 7, 20) and other collections, and his poems appear in Alexander Chalmers's Works of the English Poets (vol. 17) and similar compilations.
Poem – The Je Ne Sais Quoi
And Cælia has undone me;
The pleasing plague stole on me.
For there no graces revel;
Have rather been uncivil.
There's nothing more than common;
Like any other woman.
'Twas both perhaps, or neither;
Of Cælia altogether.
- "Whitehead, William". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- William Whitehead
- Poets Laureate of Great Britain
- Poem of the Day - December 15, 1998
- 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
- Chalmers' Works of the English Poets (vol. 17)
- Bell's British Theatre (vols. 3, 7, 20)