White was born in Nottingham, the son of a butcher, a trade for which he was himself intended. However, he was greatly attracted to book-learning. By age seven, he was giving reading lessons (unbeknownst to the rest of the family, being offered after the household were abed) to a family servant. After being briefly apprenticed to a stocking-weaver, he was articled to a lawyer, George Coldham. While in this position, he excelled in studying Latin and Greek. Seeing the results of White's diligent studies, his master offered to release him from his contract if he had sufficient means to go to college. He received encouragement from Capel Lofft, the friend of Robert Bloomfield, and published in 1803 Clifton Grove, a Sketch in Verse, with other Poems, dedicated to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The book was violently attacked in the Monthly Review (February 1804), but White was rewarded with a kind letter from Robert Southey.
Through the efforts of his friends, he was able to enter St John's College, Cambridge, having spent a year beforehand with a private tutor, the Rev Lorenzo Grainger at Winteringham, Lincolnshire. Close application to study induced a serious illness, consumption was the disease, according to Sir Harris Nicholas memoir, to which he ultimately became a victim, and to which White made many allusions in his poems and letters. Fears were also entertained for his sanity, but he went into residence at Cambridge, with a view to taking holy orders, in the autumn of 1805. The strain of continuous study proved fatal. He was buried in the church of All Saints Jewry, Cambridge, which stood opposite the gates of St John's College, but has since been demolished. The genuine piety of his religious verses secured a place in popular hymnology for some of his hymns, in particular the still popular 'O Lord, another day is flown'. Much of his fame was due to sympathy inspired by his early death; but Lord Byron agreed with Southey about the young man's promise. Robert Southey said of him 'he could not rest satisfied till he had formed his principles upon the basis of Christianity.
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