Archive:Dictionary of National Biography
Sidney Lee, ed., Dictionary of National Biography (New York: The MacMillan Company; London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1900), vol. LXI, pages 142-143.
WHITNEY, GEOFFREY (1548?-1601?), poet, the son of a father of the same name, was born at, or near, Coole Pilate, a township in the parish of Acton, four miles from Nantwich in Cheshire, in or about 1548. His family, probably sprung from the Whitneys of Whitney in Herefordshire, had been settled on a small estate at Coole Pilate since 1388. Educated at the neighbouring school of Audlem, he afterwards proceeded to Oxford, and then for a longer period to Magdalene College, Cambridge; but he seems to have left the university without a degree. Having adopted the legal profession, he became in time under-bailiff of Great Yarmouth. He held this post in 1580 (how much earlier is not evident), retaining it till 1586. In 1584 the Earl of Leicester, high steward of the borough, made an unsuccessful attempt to procure the understewardship for Whitney, but the place was give to John Stubbs [q.v.] After some litigation with the corporation, by which he seems to have been badly treated, the dispute was settled by a payment to the poet of 45l. (MANSHIP, Yarmouth, vol. ii.)
During his residence at Yarmouth Whitney appears to have had much intercourse with the Netherlands, and to have made the acquaintance of many scholars there. On the termination of his connection with the town, he proceeded to Leyden, 'where he was in great esteem among his countrymen for his ingenuity.' On 1 March 1586 he became a student in its newly founded university, and later in the year he brought out at Plantin's press his 'Choice of Emblems,' the book which has preserved his name from oblivion. Of the duration of his sojourn on the continent there is no evidence. He subsequently returned to England, and resided in the neighbourhood of his birthplace. At Ryles (or Royals) Green, near Combermere Abbey, he made his will on 11 Sept. 1600, which was proved on 28 May 1601. He seems to have died unmarried.
Whitney's reputation depends upon his celebrated work, entitled 'A Choice of Emblemes and other Devises, for the moste parte gathered out of sundrie writers, Englished and moralised, and divers newly devised, by Geffrey Whitney. A worke adorned with varietie of matter, both pleasant and profitable: wherein those that please maye finde to fit their fancies: Because herein, by the office of the eie and the eare, the minde maye reape dooble-delighte throughe holsome preceptes, shadowed with pleasant devises: both fit for the vertuous, to their incoraging; and for the wicked, for their admonishing and amendment' (2 pts., Leyden, 1586, 4to). The book was dedicated to the Earl of Leicester from London on 28 Nov. 1585 with an epistle to the reader dated Leyden 4 May 1586. The author speaks as if this were a second edition; if so, the first was written only, and not printed. His emblems, 248 in number, generally one or more stanzas of six lines (a quatrain followed by a couplet), have a device or woodcut prefixed, with an appropriate motto. Being addressed either to his kinsmen or friends, or to some eminent contemporary, they furnish notices of persons, places, and things not elsewhere readily to be met with. Of the devices twenty-three only are original, while twenty-three are suggested by and 202 identical with, those of Alciati, Paradin, Sambucus, Junius, and Faerni. The work was the first of its kind to present to Englishmen an adequate example of the emblem books that had issued from the great continental presses; and it was mainly from it, as a representative book of the greater part of emblem literature which had preceded it, that Shakespeare gained the knowledge which he evidently possessed of the great foreign emblematists of the sixteenth century. Whitney's verses are often of great merit, and always manifest a pure mind and extensive learning.
The only other works which can be positively assigned to Whitney are: 1. 'An Account in Latin of a Visit to Scratby Island, off Great Yarmouth,' 1580, a translation of which is printed in Manship's 'History of Great Yarmouth.' 2. Some verses in Dousa's 'Odae Britannicae,' Leyden, 1586, 4to.
Isabella Whitney, a sister of the poet, was likewise a writer of verses. Her principal work, 'A Sweet Nosegay, or Pleasant Posye, contayning a Hundred and Ten Phylosophicall Flowers,' appeared in 1573.
[Green's facsimile reprint of the Choice of Emblems, 1866, and the same writer's Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers; Melville's Family of Whitney; Wood's Athenae Oxon. i. 527; Ritson's Bibl. Anglo-Poetica; Corser's Collectanea; Cooper's Athenae Catabr. ii. 23-4.] F.S. [The Rev. F. Sanders].