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Ann Boleyn To Henry The Eighth: An Epistle by William Whitehead (1743)

December 19, 2012

William Whitehead was twenty-eight years old and a fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge, when he wrote this dramatic monologue based on the probably spurious letter supposedly written by Anne Boleyn after her imprisonment. Dedicated to a “Mrs. Wright, of Romely, in Derbyshire”, it appears to have been a wedding present of sorts. As the poet advises her in his dedicatory verse:

Accept, fair Bride, to make your Joys compleat
The pictur’d Sorrows of the Fair and Great;
Whose Sighs shall echo thro’ your favour’d Groves,
And hail your happier Lot, and humbler Loves.

Mrs. Wright may have enjoyed the poem, but it seems that others were able to resist its charms: in The Early Letters of Bishop Richard Hurd, 1739-1762, Hurd informs his friend Edward Macro that “Mr. Whitehead’s Epistle from Anne Boleyn to H:8 I have seen …. If I may own my opinion of it to a friend, it is too spiritless, too void of Passion, too heavily imagin’d, to bear any comparison with the lovely, tho’ itself perhaps inaccurate Model on which it is form’d. But I’ll say no more: you are already too severe on the Author, in believing, as you say, that he will never now shine as a Poet.” (p. 108) Macro was too severe, as it turned out, as Whitehead went on to write better if not immortal verses and eventually become Poet Laureate, though that was something of a double-edged honour in the days when poets laureate were expected to turn out laudatory odes for aggressively uninspiring royal personages. Still, it’s further than most poetry-minded academics go. You can read some of Whitehead’s poetry online, but Ann Boleyn to Henry The Eighth is not among the selections I’ve found. So here it is — too slight to merit a full entry, but an Anne Boleyn-inspired fiction nonetheless, and the only one I’ve found in which Anne even briefly wishes that she might die a sudden natural death if that’s the only way to prevent Henry from becoming an uxoricide. This transcript was made from a copy “Printed for R. DODSLEY at Tully’s Head in Pall-Mall, And Sold by M. COOPER at the Globe, Pater-Noster Row, 1743. Price One Shilling.” Spelling and italics are those of the original.


William Whitehead

If sighs could soften, or Distress cou’d move
Obdurate Hearts, and Bosoms dead to Love,
Already sure these Tears had ceas’d to flow,
And Henry’s Smiles reliev’d his Anna’s Woe.
Yet still I write, still breathe a fruitless Prayer,
The last fond Effort of extream Despair.
As some poor Ship-wreck’d Wretch, forever lost,
In strong Delusion grasps the less’ning Coast,
Thinks it still near, howe’er the Billows drive,
And but with Life resigns the Hopes to live.
You bid me live; but oh how dire the Means!
Virtue starts back, and conscious Pride disdains.
Confess my Crime? – what Crime shall I confess?
In what lewd Terms the nausous Falshood dress?
A vile Adultress! – Heav’n defend my Fame!
Condemn’d for acting what I fear’d to name.
Blast the foul Wretch, whose impious Tongue cou’d dare
With Sounds like those to wound the Royal Ear.
To wound? Alas! They only pleas’d too well,
And cruel Henry smil’d when Anna fell.
Why was I rais’d, why bad to shine on high
A pageant Queen, an earthly Deity?
This Flower of Beauty, small, and void of Art,
Too weak to fix a mighty Sovereign’s Heart,
In Life’s low Vale its humbler Charms had spread,
While Storms roll’d harmless o’er its sheltered Head:
Had found, perhaps, a kinder Gath’rer’s Hand,
Grown to his Breast, and by his Care sustain’d
Had bloom’d a while, then, gradual in Decay,
Grac’d with a Tear had calmly pass’d away.
Yet, when thus rais’d, I taught my chaste Desires
To know their Lord, and burn with equal Fires.
Why then these Bonds? Is this that regal State
The Fair expects whom Henry bids be great?
Are these lone Walls, and never-varied Scenes
The envied Mansion of Britannia’s Queens?
Where distant Sounds in hollow Murmurs die,
Where moss-grown Tow’rs obstruct the trav’ling Eye,
Where o’er dim Suns eternal Damps prevail,
Where Health ne’er enters wafted by the Gale.
Where Night’s black Horrors breathe a deeper Shade,
And Death more dire in double Pomp array’d.
How curs’d the Wretch, to such sad Scenes confin’d,
If Guilt’s dread Scorpions lash his tortur’d Mind,
When injur’d Innocence is taught to fear,
And Coward Virtue weeps and trembles here!
Nay ev’n when Sleep shou’d ev’ry Care allay,
And softly steal th’imprisoned Soul away,
Quick to my Thoughts excursive Fancy brings
Long visionary Trains of Martyr’d Kings.
There pious +Henry recent from the Blow,
There ill-starr’d* Edward lifts his Infant Brow.
Unhappy Prince! Thy weak defenseless Age
Might soften Rocks, or sooth the Tiger’s Rage;
But not on these thy harder Fates depend,
Man, Man pursues, and Murder is his End.
Such may my Child, such dire Protectors find,
Thro’ Av’rice cruel, thro’ Ambition blind.
No kind Condolance in her utmost Need,
Her Friends all banish’d, and her Parent dead!
O hear me, Henry, Husband, Father, hear,
If e’er those Names were gracious in thy Ear,
Since I must die (and so thy Ease requires,
For Love admits not of divided Fires)
O to thy Babe they tend’rest Cares extend,
As Parent cherish, and as King defend!
Transfer’d to her, with Transport I resign
Thy faithless Heart – if e’er that Heart was mine.
Nor may Remorse thy guilty Cheek inflame,
When the fond Prattler lisps her Mother’s Name;
No Tear start conscious when she meets your Eye,
No Heart-felt Pang extort th’unwilling Sigh,
Lest she shou’d find, and strong is Nature’s Call,
I fell untimely, and lament my Fall;
Forget that Duty which high Heav’n commands,
And meet strict Justice from a Father’s Hands.
No, rather say what Malice can invent,
My Crimes enormous, small my Punishment.
Yet will I view from yon securer Shore
Life, Virtue, Love too lost, and weep no more,
Whilst in your Breasts the Bonds of Union grow,
And undisturb’d the Streams of Duty flow.
Yet can I tamely court the lifted Steel,
Nor Honour’s Wounds with strong Resentment feel?
Ye Powers! That Thought improves ev’n Terrors King,
Adds Horrors to his Brow, and Torments to his Sting.
No, try me, Prince, each Word, each Action weigh,
My Rage cou’d dictate, or my Fears betray;
Each Sigh, each Smile, each distant Hint that hung
On broken Sounds of an unmeaning Tongue.
Recount each Glance of these unguarded Eyes,
The Seats where Passion void of Reason lies;
In those clear Mirrors every Thought appears;
Tell all their Frailties – Oh explain their Tears.
Yet know that Faith such vain Attempts derides,
Which Honour strengthens, and which Prudence guides.
Bright from your Ordeal shall my Virtues shine,
Nor Emma’s Name be more rever’d than mine.
Then try me, Prince; but ah! Let Truth prevail,
And Justice only hold the equal Scale.
Ah! Let not those the fatal Sentence give,
Whom Brothels blush to own, yet Courts receive;
Base, vulgar Souls – and shall such Wretches raise
A Queen’s Concern? To fear them were to priase.
Yet oh (dread Thought!) oh must I, must I say
Henry commands, and these constrain’d obey?
Too well I know his faithless Bosom pants
For Charms, alas! Which hapless Anna wants.
Yet once those Charms this faded Face cou’d boast,
Too cheaply yielded, and too quickly lost.
Will she, O think, whom now your Snares pursue,
Will she forever please, be ever new?
Or must she, Meteor like, a while be great,
Then weeping fall, and share thy Anna’s Fate?
Misguided Maid! Who now perhaps has form’d
In Transport melting, with Ambition warm’d,
Long future Greatness in extatic Schemes,
Loose plans of wild Delight, and golden Dreams.
Alas! She knows not how with swift Decay
Those visionary Glories fleet away,
Else might the Thought each flatt’ring Hope destroy,
Each budding Embryo of uncertain Joy.
Alas! She knows not the sad Time will come,
When Henry’s Eyes to other Nymphs shall roam:
When she shall vainly sigh, plead, tremble, rave,
And drop, perhaps, a Tear on Anna’s Grave.
Else wou’d she sooner trust the Wintry Sea,
Rocks, Desarts, Monsters – any thing but Thee;
Thee, whom Deceit inspires, whose every Breath
Sooths to Despair, and every Smile is Death.
Fool that I was! I saw my rising Fame,
Gild the sad Ruins of a nobler Name,
For me the Force of sacred Ties disown’d,
A Realm insulted, and a Queen dethron’d.
Yet, fondly wild, by Love, by Fortune led,
Excus’d the Crime, and shar’d the guilty Bed.
With specious Reason lull’d each rising Care,
And hugg’d Destruction in a Form so fair.
‘Tis just, yet Powers, no longer I complain,
Vain be my Tears, my boasted Virtues vain;
Let Rage, let Flames this destin’d Wretch pursue,
That begs to die, — but begs that Death from you.
Ah! why must Henry the dread Mandate seal?
Why must his Hand uninjur’d point the Steel?
Say, for you search the Images that roll
In deep Recesses of the inmost Soul,
Say, did ye e’er amid those Numbers find
One Wish disloyal, or one Thought unkind?
Then snatch me, blast me, let the Light’nings Wing
Avert this Stroke, and save the guilty King.
Let not my Blood, by lawless Passion shed,
Draw down Heav’n’s Vengeance on his sacred Head,
But Nature’s Power prevent the dire Decree,
And my lov’d Lord without a Crime be free.
Still, still I live, Heav’n hears not what I say,
Or turns, like Henry, from my Pray’rs away.
Rejected, lost, O whither shall I fly,
I fear not Death, yet dread the Means to die.
To thee, O God, to thee again I come,
The Sinner’s Refuge, and the Wretch’s Home.
Since such thy Will, farewel my blasted Fame,
Let foul Detraction seize my injur’d Name,
No Pang, no Fear, no fond Concern I’ll know,
Nay smile in Death, tho’ Henry gives the Blow.
Shall see at last my injur’d Cause prevail,
When pitying Angels hear the mournful Tale.
— And must thy Wife, by Heav’n’s severe Command,
Before his Throne thy sad accuser stand?
O Henry chain my Tongue, thy Guilt atone,
Prevent my Suff’rings, – ah! Prevent thy own.
Or hear me Heav’n, since Henry’s still unkind,
With strong Repentance touch his guilty Mind,
(Thy subtler Flames, fair Piety, shall move
That flinty Heart, howe’er averse to Love.)
And oh! When Anguish tears his lab’ring Soul,
Thro’ his rack’d Breast when keenest Horrors roll,
When weeping, grov’ling in the Dust he lies
An humbled Wretch, a bleeding Sacrifice,
Then let me bear, (’tis all my Griefs shall claim,
For Life’s lost Honours, and polluted Fame)
Then let me bear thy Mandate from on high,
With kind Forgiveness let his Anna fly,
From every Pang the much-loved Suff’rer free,
And breathe that Mercy he denies to me.


+Henry VI
*Edward V both murder’d in the Tower. [Footnote in the original].

From → Book Overviews

  1. Brown Line permalink

    I can only wonder what Pope or Dryden could have done with this material.

    • sonetka permalink

      Whitehead actually seems to have been inspired by Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard” but wasn’t able to live up to it. Pope’s and Dryden’s takes would certainly have been interesting, but seeing as they were both Catholics, or at least raised as such, I doubt either one would have bothered to spend much time elevating the Wet-Nurse Of Heresy, as Chapuys once called her.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Anne Boleyn To King Henry VIII: An Epistle by Elizabeth Tollet (before 1754) |
  2. Two Epistles: Whitehead And Tollet |

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