The parting hour

Verses of Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L.) in suitably florid surroundings. The handwriting is Whitehead’s, as is probably the artwork.

GIRLS and young women peopled William Whitehead’s childhood, connections kept up when his family moved to Perth Amboy in 1823. The youngest child of his parents, William was the only son to relocate with them. Following the sudden death of a half-sister, a nomination to West Point secured for him was forfeited, and the promise of a military career withdrawn. “My father was unwilling to part with me,” he explained, “notwithstanding the tempting opportunity for my advancement.”1 In the wake of this decision, Whitehead entered into a more intense communion with females.

Three remarkable friendship albums, compiled between 1826 and 1830, testify to that intimacy. A miscellany of elegies, sonnets, odes, occasional prose pieces and quotations, carefully copied and sporadically embellished with drawings, these albums were shared within Whitehead’s circle and accompanied him from Perth Amboy as far as southernmost Florida.

The volumes show little effort at uniformity or system, although Whitehead numbered two of them, “Vol. 1st” and “Vol. 3.” (A fourth album, though numbered 2nd, comprises “Memorandums” of later travels, the sequel to another Vol. 1st now missing.) Whitehead, perhaps still aspiring to an army career or in a wry take on its abandonment, opened the first compendium of verse with the meddlesome counsels of Polonius, under the title “A Father’s advice to his Son on his going to travel.”2

The passage proves atypical of the albums, which incline to works of more recent vintage and greater sincerity. Such original compositions as they contain are still deeply imitative of poets then in fashion, and, considering the ages of their presumptive authors, quite mature in language, tone and subject matter. One of the earliest dated poems, added when Whitehead was 16, grieves the lost innocence of childhood:

How oft have I at even tide,
Stray’d along by the water side,
          And thought of days to come;
Then, I, a young and heedless boy
Had not a thought but what was joy,
          But ah! those days are gone.3

Except for lines copied by William and a single submission from his brother John, nothing can be identified as the work of a male companion; female contributors on the other hand, though anonymous or identified only by first names, initials or pseudonyms, are well represented. Many albums were certainly kept and passed around that no longer survive, some of which accommodated Whitehead’s writings as well. He credited Catharine S. Brinley, whose cousin Margaret Parker he would later marry, with this “application to reading, to composition, and other literary pursuits” that began with their first acquaintance in 1826, when he was sixteen and she twenty-four.4

Brinley was also an artist of some talent, her brush featured throughout the albums, as is her pen. Her influence and the expansion of William’s circle to include more young women produced an outpouring of writing, with much admiration and imitation invested in the works of female authors. Germaine de Staël and Anna Seward make momentary appearances, while Felicia Hemans occupies several pages; Whitehead copied her popular “Casabianca” (“The boy stood on the burning deck”) soon after its publication. The profusion of verse by poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon, known as L.E.L., suggests that she spoke best to the group’s sensibilities, even as her reputation in England began to sink beneath the weight of salacious rumors. Such poetry could be irredeemably sentimental but also unabashedly learned, and echoed an ongoing conversation about the potential of women’s creativity to shape contemporary literature and art.

In 1827 the Perth Amboy circle lost one of its own, 17-year-old Sarah Dundersdale, and memorialized her in verse, together with a sketch of a wide-eyed girl that she had left unfinished. Whitehead tinged the borders of the pages black as a token of mourning. He knew Sarah for only a brief time, but was the same age and was moved to write of her,

A sketch by Sarah Dundersdale, left unfinished at her death in 1827.

Born in a world where flowers of fairest hue,
          First fade away,
Herself a rose she lived–as roses do,
          But for a day.5

Whitehead’s hand naturally predominates in a collection of which he was the proprietor and custodian, and can be identified whether or not he signed “Will,” “Wm.” or the letter “W.” to a piece.  Even his transcriptions of others’ works are personally significant, not mere calligraphic exercises or literary trifles. As revealed by several dated entries that coincide with his early travels, Whitehead’s feelings at critical moments found a voice through poetry.

In October 1828, when Whitehead first sailed to Key West with his father’s hard-won permission, he adopted the lines of an unnamed littérateur to console a friend from whom he is about to be sundered:

Mourn not that we so soon must part,
Let not thy noble soul repine:
For absence ne’er will chill the heart
That throbs in unison with thine.6

He remained steadfast through his departure and outbound voyage, in verses whose refrain is borrowed from the exiled poet-hero Byron:

My native hills far in the west,
          Are fading from my sight
But I am here, the ocean’s guest:
          “My Native Land, Good Night!”
There’s naught before but wave on wave
          And o’er them lies my way:
My bounding bark their power doth brave
          With bold and gallant sway,
Then onward press, my gallant boat;
          I do not fear the sight;
And while that thou above them float,
          “My native land, good night!”7

Whitehead’s illustration for “My Native Land, Good Night!”

After a few weeks in the tropics, however, Whitehead had lost some of his mettle, finding himself a castaway on a remote island, bereft of his former companions:

Alas for me!–‘tis pity, too,
          As youth is still mine own,
That I should think as now I do,
          And know what I have known.

But still I to this earth must cling,
While brooks and trees and blossoms spring,
And while the sky, the rocks and sea,
Are such sweet, silent friends to me.8

With the year’s turning, he was reminded that time would never restore those carried off in the prime of life:

Oh many an eye that was beaming bright
          As this year from its slumber arose,
Was dimmed by anguish or sealed in night
          Ere it reached its dreary close;
And hearts that in gladness were blooming then
          Have withered–Oh!–never to bloom again.9

The new year, in fact, brought a likelihood of fresh bereavements:

Thus year by year, man’s race is run
And whose in this no mortal knows;
But many now it has begun
          Shall never see it close.10

As these dated verses show, by age eighteen Whitehead already felt an adult sense of loneliness and longing for “by-past times.” Yet, through the cultivation of female friendships, he had learned that literature can temper such sorrows, and his mindfulness of life’s brevity would translate to lifelong activity and congeniality, rather than despair.

His albums are laden with words of friendship and farewell, heroism and melancholy. But what vestiges do they harbor of romantic love, of longing for a union of more than minds or even hearts? The poetic choices of William and his circle are more likely to conceal than give expression to unspoken passions, as too much openness would be unsuitable in an album shared among friends. If, as one of his selections suggests, “there was but one / Whose heart beat quicker,”11 or for whom he felt an equivalent attraction, we’re not privileged to know.

Copyright © 2020-2023 Gregory J. Guderian
Images copyright © Key West Art & Historical Society

[1] “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 22 of the transcription contains the reference.

[2] From Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act I, scene 3, signed “W,” undated, Vol. 1, unnumbered page. Whitehead’s albums are now held by the Key West Art & Historical Society. Excerpts are reproduced here with permission.

[3] “Reflections,” unsigned, undated, Vol. 1, 49.

[4] “Childhood and youth” 18.

[5] Untitled translation of a stanza from “Consolation à M. du Périer” by François de Malherbe (“Mais elle était du monde, où les plus belles choses / Ont le pire destin, / Et rose elle a vécu ce que vivent les roses, / L’espace d’un matin.”), Vol. 1, unnumbered page.

[6] “To – – – ⅃∃,” unsigned, dated “Amboy Oct. 1828.” unnumbered volume, unnumbered page.

[7] “My Native Land, Good Night!” signed in pencil “WAW,” dated “Oct 16th 1828,” Vol. 3, unnumbered pages.

[8] Untitled, unsigned, dated “K.W. Dec. 1828,” unnumbered volume, unnumbered page.

[9] “The Thirty-first of December 1828,” unsigned, undated, unnumbered volume, unnumbered page.

[10] Untitled, unsigned, dated “Key West,” unnumbered volume, unnumbered page.

[11] “On Leaving Home,” signed “Will,” dated “Nov. 9th 1829,” Vol. 1, 94.


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