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BORN 1715.-DIED 1785.
WILLIAM WHITEHEAD was born in Cambridge. “ It would be vain,” says his biographer, Mason, the poet, “to conceal that he was of low extraction; “ because the secret has been more than once “ divulged by those who gain what they think an “ honest livelihood by publishing the lives of the “ living; and it would be injurious to his memory; « because his having risen much above the level of “ his origin bespeaks an intrinsic merit, which mere “ ancestry can never confer. Let it then be rather « boasted than whispered, that he was the son of a “ baker.” This is really making too much of a small thing. Every day certainly witnesses more wonderful events, than the son of a tradesman rising to the honours of a poet laureate, and the post of a traveling tutor. Why Mason should speak of the secret of his extraction being divulged, is difficult to conceive; unless we suppose that Whitehead was weak enough to have wished to conceal it; a suspicion, however, which it is not fair to indulge, when we look to the general respectability of his personal character, and to the honest pride which he evinced, in voluntarily discharging his father's debts. But, with all respect for Whitehead, be it observed, that
the annals of " Baking” can boast of much more illustrious individuals having sprung from the loins of its professors.
His father, however, was a man of taste and expenditure, much above the pitch of a baker. He spent most of his time in ornamenting a piece of ground, near Grantchester, which still goes by the name of Whitehead's Folly; and he left debts behind him at his death, that would have done honour to the prodigality of a poet. In consequence of his father dying in such circumstances, young Whitehead's education was accomplished with great difficulty, by the strictest economy on his own part, and the assistance of his mother, whose discharge of duty to him he has gratefully recorded. At the age of fourteen, he was put to Winchester school, upon the foundation. He was there distinguished by his love of reading, and by his facility in the production of English verse; and, before he was sixteen, he had written an entire comedy. When the Earl of Peterborough, accompanied by Pope, visited Winchester school, in the year 1733, he gave ten guineas, to be distributed in prizes among the boys. Pope prescribed the subject, which was · Peterborough,' and young Whitehead was one of the six who shared the prize money. It would appear that Pope had distinguished him on this occasion, as the reputation of his notice was afterwards of advantage to Whitehead when he went to the university. He also gained some applause at Winchester for his powers of act. ing, in the part of Marcia, in Cato. He was a graceful reciter; and is said to have been very handsome in his youth. Even his likeness, which is given in Mason's edition of his works, though it was taken when he was advanced in years, has an elegant and prepossessing countenance. It was observed, that his school friendships were usually contracted with youths superior to himself in station. Without knowing his individual associates, it is impossible to say whether vanity, worldly prudence, or a taste for refined manners, predominated in this choice; but it is observable, that he made his way to prosperity by such friendships, and he seems to have early felt that he had the power of acquiring them. At Winchester he was school-tutor to Mr. Wallop, afterwards Lord Lymington, son to the Earl of Portsmouth,
At the election to New College, in 1735, he was treated with some injustice, being placed too low in the roll of candidates; and was obliged to leave Winchester, without obtaining from thencé a presentation to either university. He, however, obtained a scholarship at Clare-hall, Cambridge, from the very circumstance of that low extraction for which Mason apologizes. Being the orphan son of a baker, in Cambridge, he was thought the best entitled to be put on the foundation of Pyke, who had been of that trade and town. His scholarship was worth only four shillings a week: and he was admitted as a sizer; but the inferiority of his station did not prevent his introduction to the best society; and, before he left the university, he made himself known by several publications, particularly by his “ Essay on the Danger of writing Verse.” Having obtained a fellowship, and a master's degree, he was on the point of taking orders, when his intention was prevented, in consequence of his being invited by the Earl of Jersey to be the domestic tutor of his son, Viscount Villiers. This situation was made peculiarly agreeable to him, by the kindness of the Jersey family, and by the abundant leisure which it afforded him, to pursue his studies, as well as to enjoy public amusements. From frequenting the theatre, he was led to attempt dramatic composition. His first effort was a little farce, on the subject of the Pretender, which has never been published. In 1750 he brought upon the stage a regular tragedy, the “ Roman Father,” an imitation of Corneille's Horace. Mason has employed a good deal of criticism on this drama, to prove something analogous to the connoisseur's remark in Goldsmith, “ that the piece would have “ been better, if the artist had bestowed more pains “ upon it.” It is acknowledged, at the same time, by his biographer, that the Roman Father was long enough in its author's hands to receive many alterations ; but these had not been for the better. It was put through the mangle of Garrick's criticism ; and he, according to Mason, was a lover of no beauties in a play, but those which gave an opportunity for the display of his own powers of representing sudden and strong effects of passion. This remark of Mason accords with Johnson's complaint of Garrick's projected innovations in his own tragedy; “ that fellow," he said, “ wants me to make Ma“ homet mad, that he may have an opportunity of “ tossing his hands, and kicking his heels." For the faults of the piece, however, it is but circuitous and conjectural justice to make Garrick responsible ; and, among those faults, the mode of the heroine's death is not the slightest. After Corneille's heroine has been stabbed by her brother, she appears no more upon the stage. The piece, to be sure, drags heavily after this event; for, in fact, its interest is concluded. Whitehead endeavours to conquer this difficulty, by keeping her alive, after she has been wounded, in order to have a conference with her father, which she terminates by tearing the bandages off her wounds, and then expires. But the effect of her death by this process, is more disagreeable than even the tedium of Corneille's fifth act. It inspires us with a sore physical shuddering, instead of tragic commiseration!
In 1754 he brought out, at Drury Lane, his tragedy of “ Creusa," a play which, though seldom read, and never acted, is by no means destitute of
1 The directions for tearing of the bandages are given in Mason's edition of Whitehead's Works. I observe that in later editions of the play they are omitted; but still, with this improved attention to humanity, the heroine protracts her dying scene too long.