Literary Allusions: The Pleasing Plague

In chapter 30 of Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford tells his sister, Mary, of his intention of marrying Fanny Price.

“Yes, Mary,” was Henry’s concluding assurance. “I am fairly caught. You know with what idle designs I began; but this is the end of them. I have, I flatter myself, made no inconsiderable progress in her affections; but my own are entirely fixed.”

“Lucky, lucky girl!” cried Mary, as soon as she could speak; “what a match for her! My dearest Henry, this must be my first feeling; but my second, which you shall have as sincerely, is, that I approve your choice from my soul, and foresee your happiness as heartily as I wish and desire it. You will have a sweet little wife; all gratitude and devotion. Exactly what you deserve. What an amazing match for her! Mrs. Norris often talks of her luck; what will she say now? The delight of all the family, indeed! And she has some true friends in it! How they will rejoice! But tell me all about it! Talk to me for ever. When did you begin to think seriously about her?”

Nothing could be more impossible than to answer such a question, though nothing could be more agreeable than to have it asked. “How the pleasing plague had stolen on him” he could not say … (Mansfield Park, Ch. XXX)

Mr. Crawford is quoting the last line of the first verse of this poem by William Whitehead:

The Je Ne Scai Quoi. 1

A Song.

Yes, I’m in love, I feel it now,
    And Cælia has undone me;
And yet I’ll swear I can’t tell how
    The pleasing plague stole on me.

‘Tis not her face which love creates,
    For there no Graces revel;
‘Tis not her shape, for there the Fates
    Have rather been uncivil.

‘Tis not her air, for sure in that
    There’s nothing more than common;
And all her sense is only chat,
    Like any other woman.Her voice, her touch might give th’ alarm—
    ‘Twas both perhaps, or neither;
In short, ’twas that provoking charm
    Of Cælia altogether.

This charming little poem is by the little-known poet and playwright William Whitehead (1715 – April 14, 1785). He is probably best remembered now for his comedy School for Lovers. William Whitehead was born in 1715 (he was baptized on February 12, 1715) in Cambridge, the second son of a baker. His father was a spendthrift, who spent much time and money on a piece of land which came to be known as Whitehead’s Folly. He left debts behind him when he died, which William paid off. Through the patronage of Henry Bromley, at the age of fourteen he went to Winchester College. In 1735, he entered Clare College, Cambridge on a scholarship and as a sizer.2 He became a fellow of Clare Hall in 1742. While there he wrote “The Danger of Writing Verse” (first printed in the year 1741), as well as some other poems, including Ann Boleyn to Henry the Eighth (1743), and Essay on Ridicule (1743).

In 1745, Whitehead became tutor to the Viscount Villiers, the son of the Earl of Jersey, and began living in London. There he wrote two tragedies: The Roman Father (1750, based on Corneille’s Horace) and Creusa, Queen of Athens (1754, based on Ion of Euripides). The Roman Father was well-received and probably the work he was best known for in his day. In June 1754 he went abroad with Viscount Villiers and Viscount Nuneham (son to Earl Harcourt) as tutor to both young men. They travelled in France, Germany, and Italy, returning to England in the autumn of 1765.

Sometime ca. 1755, due to the interest of Lady Jersey, Whitehead was made secretary and registrar of the Order of the Bath.3 In 1757, after Thomas Gray (author of ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, a poem which contains the lines Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desert air, stanza 14, lines 55-56, and Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, stanza 19, line 73) refused the position, Whitehead was offered and accepted the position of Poet Laureate.4 While Poet Laureate, he wrote the humorous poem “A Pathetic Apology for all Laureates, past, present, and to come”. Unfortunately, upon becoming Poet Laureate, Whitehead was subjected to much criticism, especially from Charles Churchill, who did much damage to Whitehead’s poetical character. In 1762, in the third book of The Ghost, Churchill described Whitehead as “the heir of Dullness and Method”.

In 1762, Whitehead wrote a successful comedy, the School for Lovers. It was well-received, but his reputation continued to go downhill. Whitehead made no reply to his critics, and even wrote verses complimenting Churchill. In 1770, Whitehead’s farce The Trip to Scotland was performed, but, due to the contempt he was held in, only on condition that its author be concealed. The play was well-received by the public. Also applauded was his poem “Variety”, which he published anonymously due to his poor reputation. Other works by Whitehead include a burlesque poem The Sweepers, the poem “The Goat’s Beard”, &c. In his Specimens of the British Poets, Vol. VII, Thomas Campbell wrote that Whitehead “certainly wrote too many insipid things; but a tolerable selection might be made from his works, that would discover his talents to be no legitimate object of contempt”.5

After his return to England, Whitehead continued to live with his patrons on the invitation of Lord Jersey, but from 1769 until his death he lived in London. In 1774, he collected his Plays and Poems, which were published in two volumes. Thomas Campbell writes that his “health began to decline about his seventieth year, and in 1785 he was carried off by a complaint in his chest. His death was sudden, and his peaceable life was closed without a groan.” 6

For further reading:

Google Books has available for free Whitefield’s School for Lovers, Creusa, Queen of Athens, a volume of some of his poems (containing also The Roman Father), and other works by him. They also have volume vii of Thomas Campbell’s Specimens of the British Poets, of which pages 1-29 are devoted to a short biography of William Whitehead (one of the sources which I used in writing this article), as well as his poem “Variety: A Tale for Married People” and an excerpt from his tragedy of Creusa.

Several websites were useful to me in compiling this post. The Wikipedia article on William Whitehead includes the text of The Je Ne Scai Quoi. English Poetry 1579-1830 has some good information on William Whitehead, as well as the text to several of his poems.

Footnotes:

1 The title of this little poem is French and translates as “The I don’t know what”. Je ne sais quoi [ˌ zh ə nə sā ˈkwä] is a French phrase, literally translated as “I don’t know what”, used to describe that certain, undefinable something, “an intangible quality”, the “I don’t know what it is” that “makes something or someone distinctive or attractive” (see Wiktionary on the phrase). For those who are interested, the French verb “to know” is savoir, the first person present indicative form of which is saisju sais = “I know”. Obviously the word in the title of the poem differs from the current French word. Apparently the verb savoir used to be spelled sçavoir, with sçai or sçay being the je form. This was changed in the 19th century. (See this page on the poem.)

2 A student who receives assistance in return for performing certain duties.

3 The Most Honourable Order of the Bath is a British order of chivalry found in 1725 by King George I. (For more information see http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Order_of_the_Bath and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Bath.)

4 In Britain, a poet laureate is the title of a poet appointed by the monarch. For more information see the Wikipedia article. William Whitehead was Poet Laureate 1757-1785. He was preceded in the position by Colley Cibber, and succeeded by Thomas Warton. Some well-know poets were Poets Laureate of Great Britain, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who held the position 1850-1892. A list of past poets laureate can be found here.

5 Thomas Campbell, Specimens of the British Poets, Vol. VII (London: Printed by Thomas Davison, Whitefriars, 1819), pp. 11-12.

6 Ibid., p. 12.

The illustrations in this post are of, first, Mr. Crawford and Miss Crawford, played by Robert Burbage and Jackie Smith-Wood in the 1983 version of ‘Mansfield Park’, second, William Whitehead, an engraving by William Ensom, and, third, William Whitehead, a painting by Benjamin Wilson. The two latter portraits can be found here on the online National Portrait Gallery.

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