1902 Encyclopedia > Gilbert White

Gilbert White
English clergyman and naturalist

GILBERT WHITE, (1720-1793), the natural historian of Selborne, was born on 18th July 1720 in the little Hampshire village which his writings have rendered so familiar to all lovers of either books or nature. He was educated at Basingstoke under Warton, father of the poet, and subsequently at Oriel College, Oxford, where he obtained a fellowship (1744). Entering upon a country curacy in 1753, he returned to Selborne in 1755, where he seems soon to have discontinued his ministrations. He obtained a sinecure living from his college in 1758; but after his father's death in the same year he became curate of the neighbouring parish of Faringdon, and repeatedly declined valuable livings elsewhere, until 1784, when he returned to the curacy of Selborne, and there ministered until his death on 26th June 1793. He was never married.

His daily life was practically unbroken by any great changes or incidents ; for nearly half a century his pastoral duties, his watchful country walks, the assiduous care of his garden, and the scrupulous posting of his calendar of observations made up the essentials of a full and delightful life, but hardly of a biography. At most we can only fill up the portrait by reference to the tinge of simple old-fashioned scholarship, which on its historic side made him an eager searcher for antiquities and among old records, and on its poetic occasionally stirred him to an excursion as far as that gentlest slope of Parnassus inhabited by the descriptive muse. Hence we are thrown back upon that correspondence with brother naturalists which has raised his life and its influence so far beyond the common-place. His strong naturalist tendencies are not, however, properly to be realized without a glance at the history of his younger brothers. The eldest, Thomas, retired from trade to devote himself to natural and physical science, and contributed many papers to the Royal Society, of which he was a fellow. The next, Benjamin, became the publisher of most of the leading works of natural history wdiich appeared during his lifetime, including that of his brother. The third, John, became vicar of Gibraltar, where he accumulated much material for a work on the natural history of the rock and its neighbourhood, and carried on a scientific correspondence, not only with his eldest brother, but with Linnaeus. The youngest, Henry, who died soon after entering the church, is mentioned as having engaged in meteorological observations. The sister's son, Samuel Barker, also became in time one of White's most valued correspondents. With other naturalists, too, he had intimate relations: with Pennant and Daines Barrington he was in constant correspondence, often too with the botanist Lightfoot, and sometimes with Sir Joseph Banks and others, while Chandler and other antiquaries kept alive his historic zeal. At first he was content to furnish information from which the works of Pennant and Barrington largely profited ; but gradually the ambition of separate authorship developed from a suggestion thrown out by the latter of these writers in 1770. The next year White sketched to Pennant the project of " a natural history of my native parish, an annus historico-naturalis, comprising a journal for a whole year, and illustrated with large notes and observations. Such a beginning might induce more able naturalists to write the history of various districts and might in time occasion the production of a work so much to be wished for. a full and complete natural history of these kingdoms." Yet the famous Natural History of Selborne did not appear until 1789. It was well received from the beginning.

To be a typical parish natural history so far as completeness or order is concerned, it has of course no pretensions; batches of letters, an essay on antiquities, a naturalist's calendar, and miscellaneous jottings of all kinds are but the unsystematized material of the work proper, which was never written. Yet it is largely to this very piecemeal character that its popularity has been due. The style has the simple, yet fresh and graphic, directness of all good letter writing, and there is no lack of passages of keen observation, and even shrewd interpretation. White not only notes the homes and ways, the times and seasons, of plants and animals,—comparing, for instance, the different ways in which the squirrel, the field-mouse, and the nuthatch eat their hazel-nuts,—or watches the migrations of birds, which were then only beginning to be properly recorded or understood, but he knows more than any other observer until Darwin about the habits and the usefulness of the earth-worms, and is as certain as the latest physicists that plants distil dew and do not merely condense it. The book is also interesting as having appeared on the borderland between the mediaeval and the modern school of natural history, avoiding the uncritical blundering of the old Encyclopaedists, without entering on the technical and analytic character of the opening age of separate monographs. Moreover, as the first book which raised natural history into the region of literature, much as the Compleat Angler did for that gentle art, we must affiliate to it the more finished products of later writers like Thoreau or Jefferies. Yet, while these are essential merits of the book, its endearing charm lies deeper, in the sweet and kindly personality of the author, who on his rambles gathers no spoil, but watches the birds and field-mice without disturbing them from their nests, and quietly plants an acorn where he thinks an oak is wanted, or sows beech-nuts in what is now a stately row. He overflows with anecdotes, seldom indeed gets beyond the anecdotal stage, yet from this all study of nature must begin ; and he sees everywhere intelligence and beauty, love and sociality, where a later view of nature insists primarily on mere adaptation of interests or purely competitive struggles. The encyclopaedic interest in nature, although in White's day culminating in the monumental synthesis of Buffon, was also disappearing before the analytic specialism inaugurated by Linnaeus; yet the catholic interests of the simple naturalist of Selborne fully reappear a century later in the greater naturalist of Down.

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