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GILBERT WHITE was the eldest son of John White, of Selborne, Esq. and of Anna, the daughter of the Rev. Thomas Holt, rector of Streatham in Surrey. He was born at Selborne, on July 18, 1720, and received his school education at Basingstoke, under the Rev. Thomas Warton, vicar of that place, and father of those two distinguished literary characters, Dr Joseph Warton, master of Winchester school, and Mr Thomas Warton, poetry professor at Oxford. He was admitted at Oriel College, Oxford, in December, 1739, and took his degree of Bachelor of Arts in June, 1743. In March, 1744, he was elected Fellow of his College. He became Master of Arts in October, 1746, and was admitted one of the senior Proctors of the University in April, 1752. Being of an unambitious temper, and strongly attached to the charms of rural scenery, he early fixed his residence in his native village, where he spent the greater part of
his life in literary occupations, and especially in the study of Nature. This he followed with patient assiduity, and a mind ever open to the lessons of piety and benevolence, which such a study is so well calculated to afford. Though several occasions offered of settling upon a college living, he could never persuade himself to quit the beloved spot, which was indeed a peculiarly happy situation for an observer. Thus his days passed tranquil and serene, with scarcely any other vicissitudes than those of the seasons, till they closed at a mature age, on June 26, 1793.
The above short sketch was prefixed to the edition of Mr White's work published after his death, by his friend Dr Aiken of Warrington. It is abundantly meagre, but except the many pleasing allusions to himself throughout his letters, it contains all that the public have ever known of our author's personal history. An enthusiastic admirer of his, who lately visited the village of Selborne, thus sums up his account:
66 Of Gilbert White himself, I could collect few personal reminiscences; and all that an old dame, who had nursed several of the family, could tell me of the philosophical old bachelor was, that · he was a still, quiet body,' and that there wasn't a bit of harm in him, I'll assure ye, sir : there was'nt indeed.'”
Mr White is principally known to the world by his Natural History of Selborne, which, although purporting to be but the description of the natural objects of a single parish, is, nevertheless, a book of general interest, embracing, in its details, varied and extensive inquiries into the phenomena of Nature. It originated in a series of letters, written to Thomas Pennant, Esq. and the Honourable Daines Barrington,-gentlemen of high literary and scientific acquirements in their day,— the former, the well-known author of the British Zoology, History of Quadrupeds, Tour in Scotland, and many other esteemed works.
The Natural History of Selborne was first published in quarto, in 1789, along with what Mr White considered as essential in parochial history, namely, its Antiquities. This last, however, although of sufficient local interest, can offer few attractions to the general reader.
The originality and instructive details of his chief work soon commanded general attention, and attracted even continental notice ; and, we believe, it was translated into more than one foreign language. We know that a translation of it was printed in Germany, so early as 1792, and published at Berlin in that year.
This work is written in an unconnected form, without any attempt at scientific arrangement, with which, however, Mr White shews himself well acquainted ; and the minute exactness of his facts -- the good taste displayed in their selection--and the elegance and liveliness with which they are described, -render this one of the most amusing books of the kind ever published, and it has gained for the author a high and just reputation.
Mr White's long series of observations were skilfully and attentively repeated, and have tended greatly to enlarge and correct our knowledge of those departments of natural history of which he has treated. He may be esteemed a worthy successor to Ray and Derham; while his remarks, being almost exclusively original, are, in some measure, even better entitled to our attention than the writings of these celebrated naturalists.
It has been thought proper to insert in the present edition the author's Poems, partly on account of their intrinsic merit, which is not inconsiderable, but principally because they are upon local subjects, and therefore naturally connected with the present work. They are also valuable and appropriate, as illustrating the author's strong attachment to the study of Nature.
EDINBURGH, January 25, 1833.