Henry Kirke White in Lincs

Winteringham Local History and Genealogy

Henry Kirke White in Lincolnshire, from the book “Bygone Lincolnshire”

Kirke White in Lincolnshire

BY ALFRED LISHMAN.

THE village of Winteringham has many
attractions for the lover of nature and for
the antiquary. Pleasantly situated on the slope
of the Lincolnshire Hills, commanding a fine
view of the Humber and of the Yorkshire Wolds
beyond, surrounded by a pleasant undulating
country, dotted here and there with comfortable
farmsteads indicative of the fertile nature of the
soil, and rejoicing in pure water and bracing air,
it seems a delightful retreat for the wearied brain-
worker anxious for a rest

"Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife."

Winteringham, too, has some claim to be con-
sidered classic ground, for it was here that the
young Nottingham poet, Henry Kirke White,
retired, after a youth of chequered fortune, during
which, under the most adverse circumstances, he
had, by indomitable perseverance, laid the founda-



KIRKE WHITE IN LINCOLNSHIRE. 221

tion of an almost incredibly thorough and varied
education, which, after a year's study under the
good parson of Winteringham, enabled him to
carry off the highest honours open to him at the
university. During his early years at Notting-
ham Henry had spent his days in uncongenial
occupations, and had devoted his nights to intense
study. His recreations had consisted principally
in solitary walks by the river Trent, or in the
woods about Nottingham, and in the productions
of his poetic fancy, nor can the claims of genius
be denied to his youthful muse. His poetical and
epistolary remains show everywhere marks of
literary finish, and they also display the graces of
a mind tender towards friends, intensely sincere
in its search into divine revelation, and unweary-
ingly solicitous for the bodily, mental, and spiritual
welfare of those with whom he came in contact.
Nature had intended him for a divine, but circum-
stances had made of him, first, a butcher's boy,
second, a hosier's apprentice, and lastly, an articled
clerk in a solicitor's office. It was to his own
self-denial and steadfast application, combined
with his remarkable talents, and supplemented by
the advice and assistance of a few friends who
had been attracted by his poetical writings, that



222 BYGONE LINCOLNSHIRE.

he owed his emancipation from these surroundings.
When seventeen years old he published a volume
called " Clifton Grove, and other Poems," and it
was probably to this book that he owed his
introduction to Mr. Simeon, of King's College,
Cambridge, who became his steadfast friend,
procured him a sizarship at the university,
furnished him, as long as necessary, with an
annuity of 30 to assist in paying his college
expenses, and advised him to pass a year of pre-
liminary study under the Rev. Lorenzo Grainger,
at Winteringham. This year was probably the
happiest period of Henry's life. Surrounded by
a refined home-circle, and living on terms of
mutual respect with his tutor, looking forward to
the sacred calling on which he had set his heart,
able to give a liberal portion of his time to his
beloved books, and also able to devote a portion
of it to needed recreation, buoyed up by a well-
founded belief in his own talents, he must have
found Winteringham a peaceful and happy home.
In one of his first letters from there he says,
"We are safely and comfortably settled in the
parsonage at Winteringham. The house is most
delightfully situated, close by the church, at a
distance from the village, with delightful gardens



KIRKE WHITE IN LINCOLNSHIRE. 223

behind and the Humber before. The family is
very agreeable, and the style in which we live
very superior. Mr. Grainger is not only a learned
man, but the best pastor and the most pleasing
domestic man I ever met with." And in another
letter he describes Winteringham as being
" Indeed a delightful place, the trees are in
full verdure, the crops are browning the fields,
and my former walks are become dry under foot.
The opening vista from our churchyard, over the
Humber to the hills and receding vales of York-
shire, assumes a thousand new aspects. I some-
times watch it at evening when the sun is just
gilding the summits of the hills, and the lowlands
are beginning to take a browner hue. The
showers partially falling in the distance, while all
is serene above me ; the swelling sail rapidly fall-
ing down the river ; and the villages, woods, and
villas on the opposite bank sometimes render the
scene quite enchanting to me." A glimpse of his
character is given after the poet's death by Mr.
Grainger, who says : " During his residence in
my family, his conduct was highly becoming, and
suitable to a Christian profession. He was mild
and inoffensive, modest, unassuming, and affec-
tionate. He attended, with great cheerfulness, a



224 BYGONE LINCOLNSHIRE.

Sunday School which I was endeavouring to
establish in the village, and was at considerable
pains in the instruction of the children ; and I
have repeatedly observed that he was most pleased
and most edified with such of my sermons and
addresses to my people as were most close, plain,
and familiar. When we parted we parted with
mutual regret ; and by us his name will long be
remembered with affection and delight."

While at Winteringham, he wrote methodically
to his mother, for whom he had a touching affec-
tion, and to whom he probably owed the bent of
his mind. In his letters to his mother, the poet
always shows great solicitude in hiding his illness
for fear of causing her uneasiness. He had caught
cold, had been almost compelled to drink wine
and take riding exercise, but he says, " Don't
make yourself in the least uneasy about this, I
pray, as I am quite recovered and not at all
apprehensive of any consequences. I have no
cough, nor any symptom which might indicate an
affection of the lungs. I read very little at
present." He wrote from the Winteringham
parsonage delightful letters to his brothers Neville
and James letters full of deep feeling and affec-
tionate regard ; he also maintained a corres-



KIRKE WHITE IN LINCOLNSHIRE. 225

pondence with literary and other friends .whom
he had known at Nottingham.,

White was a true poet, and it would have
materially added to his happiness at Wintering-
ham if he had allowed himself some indulgence in
the delights of the poetic muse. But he fancied
himself bound in honour to devote all his time
and energy to the preparation for the career he
had chosen. His stay at Winteringham is un-
happily, therefore, nearly barren of poetry. That
he felt the want of this resource is shown in his
letter to his friend Mr. Serjeant Rough, of the
Midland Circuit. This letter was written after
the poet had passed through the winter season,
and there is nothing surprising in his reference to
the swamps and ague fens^ so different in style
from his spring and summer impressions of the
place. He says : " My poor neglected muse has
lain absolutely unnoticed by me for the last four
months, during which period I have been digging
in the mines of Scapula for Greek roots ; and,
instead of drinking, with eager delight, the
beauties of Virgil, have been cutting and drying
his phrases for future use. The place where I
live is on the banks of the Humber ; here no
Sicilian river, but rough, with cold winds, and



226 BYGONE LINCOLNSHIRE.

bordered with killing swamps. What with
neglect, and what with the climate, so congenial
to rural meditation, I fear my good genius,
who was wont to visit me with nightly visions,
' in woods and brakes and by the river's marge/
is now dying of a fen-ague ; and I shall thus
probably emerge from my retreat, not a hair-
brained son of imagination, but a sedate, black-
lettered book-worm, with a head like an etymo-
logicon magnum"

The leisure time, which was rather imposed
upon him by the solicitude of his friends than
enjoyed for his own satisfaction, was spent by
the poet, while at Winteringham, in rides, in
long walks, and in excursions on the Humber.
Two of these last rose almost to the dignity of
adventure, and must have imposed too great a
strain upon the debilitated frame of the poet,
wasted by midnight vigils, and overwrought by
his too anxious mind. On one occasion, with a
friend, he embarked in a small boat for Hull
a distance of thirteen miles. This, to a man in
good and robust health, well acquainted with the
tide-seasons, and familiar with the peculiar
shore-currents, would have been no very serious
undertaking. But the two young gentlemen



KIRKE WHITE IN LINCOLNSHIRE. 227

miscalculated the tide, and, after great exertions,
found themselves stranded off Hull, their strength
exhausted, and destitute of provisions. The poet,
however, waded on shore, procured food on credit
at an inn where he was known, and then waded
back to the boat. Continuing the account in
White's own words : " On our return," he says,
" a most placid and calm day was converted into
a cloudy one, and we had a brisk gale in our
teeth. Knowing we were quite safe, we struck
across from Hull to Barton, and when we were
off Hazel Whelps, a place which is always rough,
we had some tremendous swells, which we
weathered admirably ; and (barring our getting
on the wrong side of the bank, owing to the
deceitful appearance of the coast), we had a
prosperous voyage home, having rowed twenty-
six miles in less than five hours."

The other occasion on which he tested the
humour of old Humber was when, with two
friends, he set off in a small boat up the estuary
towards the fine expanse of water formed by the
junction of the Ouse and the Trent. At low
water vast islands of loose and shifting sands
are exposed, which stretch for miles in every
direction. Here Kirke and his two friends found



228 BYGONE LINCOLNSHIRE.

themselves with their boat , aground, and were
obliged to remain six hours " exposed to a heavy
rain, high wind, and piercing cold until the tide
rose." They were eventually relieved by another
boat ; and White assured his anxious relations
that no evil consequences ensued, owing to their
using every exertion possible to keep warmth in
their bodies.

Another incident, though trifling in itself, is
worth recording, as it gives us an insight into
the serious character of the poet, and, as it affords
a good specimen of his epistolary style, I will
give it in his own words : " I sailed from Hull
to Barton the day before yesterday, on a rough
and windy day, in a vessel filled with a marching
regiment of soldiers ; the band played finely, and
I was enjoying the many pleasing emotions which
the water, sky, winds, and musical instruments
excited, when my thoughts were suddenly called
away to more melancholy subjects. A girl,
genteelly dressed, and with a countenance which,
for its loveliness, a painter might have copied
from Hebe, with a loud laugh seized me by the
greatcoat, and asked me to lend it to her. She
was one of those unhappy creatures who depend
on the brutal and licentious for a bitter livelihood,



KIEKE WHITE IN LINCOLNSHIRE. 229

and was now following in the train of one of
the officers. I was greatly affected by her
appearance and situation, and more so by that
of another female who was with her, and who,
with less beauty, had a wild sorrowfulness in her
face, which showed she knew her situation. This
incident, apparently trifling, induced a train of
reflections which occupied me fully during a walk
of six or seven miles to our parsonage. At first
I wished that I had fortune to erect an asylum
for all the miserable and destitute ; ... and there
was a soldier's wife with a wan and haggard face
and a little infant in her arms, whom I would
have wished to place in it. I then grew out
of humour with the world, because it was so
unfeeling and so miserable, and because there
was no cure for its miseries ; and I wished for
a lodging in the wilderness where I might hear
no more of wrongs, affliction, or vice ; but, after
all my speculations, I found there was a reason
for these things in the gospel of Jesus Christ,
and that to those who sought it there was also
a cure. So I banished my vain meditations, and,
knowing that God's providence is better able to
direct the affairs of men than our wisdom, I
leave them in his hands," There are not many



230 BYGONE LINCOLNSHIRE.

youths of twenty who, from such an incident,
would carry a mental argument, through such
steps to such a conclusion.

Our poet seems to have adhered strictly to
his resolve to forego the muses during his stay
at Winteringham until the last month, when the
divine afflatus was aroused by his looking
through his manuscripts to find a piece suitable
for insertion in a collection of poetical pieces,
which a friend of his was bringing out. How
much pleasure he had formerly derived from
his sweet communion with the nine, and how
great a trial it had been to forego it, may be
seen from this poem addressed to " Poesy."

"Yes, my stray steps have wander'd, wander'd far
From thee, and long, heart-soothing Poesy !.
And many a flower, which in the passing time
My heart hath register'd, nipp'd by the chill
Of undeserv'd neglect, hath shrunk and died.
Heart-soothing Poesy ! Though thou hast ceas'd
To hover o'er the many-voiced strings
Of my long-silent lyre, yet thou canst still
Call the warm tear from its thrice-hallow'd cell,
And with recalled images of bliss
Warm my reluctant heart. Yes, I would throw,
Once more would throw, a quick and hurried hand
O'er the responding chords. It hath not ceas'd
It cannot, will not cease ; the heavenly warmth
Plays round my heart, and mantles o'er my cheek ;
Still, though unbidden, plays. Fair Poesy !
The summer and the spring, the wind and rain,



KIRKE WHITE IN LINCOLNSHIRE. 231

Sunshine and storm, with various interchange,

Have mark'd full many a day, and week, and month,

Since, by dark wood, or hamlet far retir'd,

Spell-struck, with thee I loiter'd. Sorceress !

I cannot burst thy bonds ! It is but lift

Thy blue eyes to that deep-bespangled vault,

Wreathe thy enchanted tresses round thine arm,

And mutter some obscure and charmed rhyme,

And I could follow thee, on thy night's work,

Up to the regions of thrice-chasten'd fire,

Or, in the caverns of the ocean flood,

Thrid the light mazes of thy volant foot.

Yet other duties call me, and mine ear

Must turn away from the high minstrelsy

Of thy soul-trancing harp, unwillingly

Must turn away; there are severer strains

(And surely they are sweet as ever smote

The ear of spirit, from this mortal coil

Releas'd and disembodied), there are strains

Forbid to all, save those whom solemn thought,

Through the probation of revolving years,

And mighty converse with the spirit of truth,

Have purg'd and purified. To these my soul

Aspireth ; and to this sublimer end

I gird myself, and climb the toilsome steep

With patient expectation. Yea, sometimes

Foretaste of bliss rewards me ; and sometimes

Spirits unseen upon my footsteps wait,

And minister strange music, which doth seem

Now near, now distant, now on high, now low,

Then swelling from all sides, with bliss complete

And full fruition filling all the soul.

Surely such ministry, though rare, may soothe

The steep ascent, and cheat the lassitude

Of toil; and but that my fond heart

Reverts to day-dreams of the summer gone,

When, by clear fountain or embower'd brake,

I lay, a listless muser, prizing, far



232 BYGONE LINCOLNSHIRE

"Above all other lore, the poet's theme;
But for such recollections I could brace
My stubborn spirit for the arduous path
Of science, unregretting ; eye afar
Philosophy upon her steepest height,
And, with bold step and resolute attempt,
Pursue her to the innermost recess,
Where thron'd in light she sits, the Queen of Truth."

In the autumn of 1805, Henry severed his
connection with Winteringham, and was entered
as a sizar at St. John's College, Cambridge. The
position of a sizar had vastly improved since the
time, sixty years before, when Goldsmith entered
upon his career of misery and servitude as a
sizar at Trinity College, Dublin. Goldsmith had
to perform menial offices, such as a footman would
have disdained ; he was looked down upon by
his richer fellow-students, and was bullied by a
ferocious tutor. Henry had no such trials to
endure. From the first his superior talents were
recognised, and he was treated with marked
respect. Everything was done that could be
done by zealous friends, in and out of the univer-
sity, to make smooth the path of his academical
progress. He found himself facile princeps
in some of the most important branches of study,
but this consideration did not prevent him from
devoting himself with fatal ardour to the work



KIRKE WHITE IN LINCOLNSHIRE. 233

which he had undertaken. He carried off the
highest honours which were open to him, and
easily distanced many competitors who had en-
joyed the advantages of a public school training.
South ey, his sympathetic biographer, says of
his university standing : " Never, perhaps, had
any young man, in so short a time, excited
such expectations ; every university honour was
thought to be within his reach ; he was set down
as a medallist, and expected to take a senior
wrangler's degree."

It does not, however, lie within the scope, of
this paper to follow him in detail through his
brief career at St. John's. Suffice it to say that
his unreasonable exertions there \vere far too
great a strain upon his originally weak, and now
debilitated, constitution. He seems to have burst
a blood vessel, and he never recovered from the
shock; with fatal rapidity his weakness increased,
and he expired on Sunday, October 19th, 1806,
aged twenty-one years. By his death the church
lost the promise of a pious and lettered divine, and
English literature lost a poet who might have
made upon the sacred poetry of the nineteenth
century an impression similar to that which
George Herbert made two hundred years earlier.



234 BYGONE LINCOLNSHIRE.

Southey, with pious care, collected the literary
remains of the poet, and edited them with
peculiar pains. No writer was ever more sin-
cerely mourned, and very numerous were the
tributary verses to his memory. No sketch of
the poet's life w T ould be complete which did
not include Byron's noble lines, and with them
I shall conclude this attempt to recall to Lincoln-
shire people the brief connection of Henry Kirke
White with the village of Winteringham :

" 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-destroyed her favourite son !
Yes ! she too much indulg'd thy fond pursuit !
She sowed the seeds, but Death has reaped the fruit.
'Twas thine own Genius gave the final blow,
And helped to plant the wound that laid thee low :
So the struck eagle, stretch 'd upon the plain,
No more through rolling clouds to soar again,
Viewed his own feather on the fatal dart,
And winged the shaft that quivered in his heart :
Keen were his pangs, but keener far to feel ;
He nurs'd the pinion which impell'd the steel,
While the same plumage that had warm'd his nest,
Drank the last life-drop of his bleeding breast."
 

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