Born in 1715 and died in 1785, William Whitehead was an English poet and playwright. He wrote several plays based on ancient Greek models, including Creusa, Queen of Athens in 1754 and School for Lovers. Whitehead was appointed poet laureate in 1757. Although his light verse had been admired, the more grandiose works that he was required to write as laureate were ridiculed.

His poem The Je ne scai quoi is rather lovely, which means "I don't know what" in French.

The Poets Laureate: William Whitehead

Years in office: 1757-1785

Who was he: Most of the 18th Century poets laureate were primarily playwrights, and Whitehead (1715-1785) followed in that tradition. He was born in Cambridge and attended Winchester College thanks to the patronage of Henry Bromley, later Lord Montfort; thence he proceeded to Clare Hall, Cambridge, where he became a fellow in 1742. His father was a baker, but must have been a wealthy man, as he devoted substantial resources to building an ornamental structure on his land near Grantchester which became known as Whitehead's Folly.

In his youth Whitehead's verse included "On the Danger of writing Verse", a heroic epistle "Ann Boleyn to Henry the Eighth" (1743), and a didactic poem "On Ridicule" (1743). In 1745 he moved to London as tutor to Viscount Villiers, son of the Earl of Jersey, a career change which comes as no surprise owing to the didactic nature of most of his verse.

Most of his works for the stage were based on Greek or Roman themes. His tragedies included The Roman Father (premiered 1750) based on Corneille's Horace, and Creusa, Queen of Athens (1754) based on Euripides's Ion. In comedy he wrote School for Lovers (1762) and a farce The Trip to Scotland (1770). His plays are reputed to be a little dull, but not terrible; and he must have had a good knowledge of drama since the great actor David Garrick employed him as his reader of plays.

Whitehead continued to write verse, such as "The Sweepers", "Variety", "The Goat's Beard", and "The Je Ne Scai Quoi". His collected plays and poems were published in 1774. His light verse is entertaining, while his more serious philosophical poems contain interesting ideas and are well-constructed even if they sometimes are lacking in truly poetic imagination.

Getting the job: Whitehead depended on patronage from an early age, and spent most of his life living in other people's houses. This skill for attracting supporters, coupled with his literary abilities, led to his selection in 1757 as George II's laureate, a position he held through the majority of George III's reign and such important events as the American War of Independence. I like to think of him as the Andrew Motion of the 18th century, a sincere and decent man of modest skills determined to serve his country with the talents he has been given.

Non-laureate verse: "On Ridicule" (1743) is a critical reflection on satire, and can be seen as part of the same debate as Alexander Pope's An Epistle to Arbuthnot; this is an excerpt:

Our mirthful age, to all extremes a prey,
Even, courts the lash, and laughs her pains away,
Declining worth imperial wit supplies,
And Momus triumphs, while Astraea flies.
No truth so sacred, banter cannot hit,
No fool so stupid but he aims at wit.
Even those whose breasts ne'er planned one virtuous deed,
Nor raised a thought beyond the earth they tread:
Even those can censure, those can dare deride
A Bacon's avarice, or a Tully's pride;
'Tis dangerous too, in these licentious times,
Howe'er severe the smile, to sport with crimes.
Vices when ridiculed, experience says,
First lose that horror which they ought to raise,
Grow by degrees approved, and almost aim at praise.1
"The Enthusiast" is an interesting poem in the history of the literature of sensibility. It describes conflicting desires to quit the world and embrace solitude but also exemplifies a love of humanity. It expresses 18th century beliefs about the importance of the passions in human affairs and the essentially social nature of humanity, as can be seen in this extract:

I stop, I gaze; in accents rude,
To thee, serenest Solitude,
Bursts forth th' unbidden lay;
'Begone vile world! the learned, the wise,
The great, the busy, I despise,
And pity even the gay.

'These, these are joys alone, I cry,
'Tis here, divine Philosophy,
Thou deign'st to fix thy throne!
Here contemplation points the road
Through nature's charms to nature's God!
These, these are joys alone!

'Adieu, ye vain low-thoughted cares,
Ye human hopes, and human fears,
Ye pleasures and ye pains!'
While thus I spake, o'er all my soul
A philosophic calmness stole,
A stoic stillness reigns.

The tyrant passions all subside,
Fear, anger, pity, shame, and pride,
No more my bosom move;
Yet still I felt, or seemed to feel
A kind of visionary zeal
Of universal love.

When lo! a voice, a voice I hear!
'Twas Reason whispered in my ear
These monitory strains;
'What mean'st thou, man? wouldst thou unbind
The ties which constitute thy kind,
The pleasures and the pains?


'Art thou not man, and dar'st thou find
A bliss which leans not to mankind?
Presumptuous thought and vain
Each bliss unshared is unenjoyed,
Each power is weak unless employed
Some social good to gain.2

See also: "The Je Ne Scai Quoi"

Laureate verse: He produced a large volume of laureate verse, at least one poem a year, and was less uncritically obedient than his predecessors. In response to his critics he wrote A Pathetic Apology for all Laureates, Past, Present, and to Come, which complains about the ephemerality of the laureate's occasional verse compared to everyone else's:

The Laureat's odes are sung but once,
And then not heard - while your renown
For half a season stuns the town...3

His laureateship: Despite his successful career as a playwright and his talent for verse, his official work was considered dull and ponderous.4 Plainly a decent man who believed in using his poems to educate the reader, he was upset by the abuse he received; indeed, in "On Ridicule", written long before he became laureate, he criticises satire and any laughter at people's flaws. As a peaceable and sensitive man, he seems ill-fitted for public office.

Critics and enemies: Following Colley Cibber's reign, the laureateship was an object of ridicule, although laureate-baiter Alexander Pope had died in 1744.

Could have been laureate: The laureateship was declined by Thomas Gray (1716-1771), a leading figure in the poetry of sensibility, who would go on to greatly influence the Romantics. Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) was a far better playwright of the time, and not a bad poet.

<< Colley Cibber | The Poets Laureate | Thomas Warton >>

  • 1 Taken from Ernest Bernbaum (ed), English Poets of the Eighteenth Century, 1918, a Project Gutenberg eBook #10161,
  • 2 Ibid.
  • 3 Quoted in John Stringer, "Poets of the Week: The Poets Laureate", MediaDrome, 2000,
  • 4 "William Whitehead", Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911,

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