The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 36. Henry Kirke White

In writing of another and, in a way, the most famous of Southey’s protégés, Henry Kirke White, one has to remember not merely that “Clio is a Muse,” but that, unlike some of her sisters, she has the duty of a female Minos or Rhadamanthus cast upon her. A very good young man, possessed of sound literary instincts, dying young, after a life not exactly unfortunate or unhappy, but, until nearly the last, not quite congenial and blameless always, he has been duly embalmed in two different but precious kinds of amber—Southey’s perfect prose and Byron’s fine verse-rhetoric. His biographer’s private letters to White’s brother increase the interest and sympathy which one is prepared to extend to the subject of so much good nature and good writing from such strikingly different quarters. But it is really impossible, after soberly reading Kirke White’s actual performances, to regard him—to quote Shelley once more—as even a competitor for the inheritance of unfulfilled renown. A hymn or two—The Star of Bethlehem and the (in modern hymnals) much altered Oft in danger, oft in woe—some smooth eighteenth century couplets and a prettyish lyric or so on non-sacred subjects are the best things that stand to his credit. It is, of course, perfectly true that he died at twenty, and that, at twenty, many great poets have done little or not at all better. But, to draw any reasonable probability of real poetry in future from this fact requires a logic and a calculus which the literary historian should respectfully decline to practise. For, if the fact of not having written good poetry up to the age of twenty were sufficient to constitute a claim to poetical rank, mankind at large might claim that position; and, even if the fact of the claim were limited to having actually written bad or indifferent verse before that age, the Corpus Poetarum would be insupportably enlarged.