Of the biography of this fine old poet, little has descended to posterity. He is supposed to have been born about the year 1558; and that he died at Amwell in Hertfordshire, and was by profession an attorney, are two of the principal facts which, by an appeal to the parish register of Amwell, have been clearly ascertained. In a note to his poem on this village, Mr. Scott first communicated this curious document: — "1608-1609. Master William Warner, a man of good yeares, and of honest reputation: by his profession an atturney of the Common Pleas: author of Albion's England, dyinge suddenly in the night in his bedde, without any former complaynt or sicknesse, on Thursday night, beeinge the 9th day of March: was buried the Saturday following, and lyeth in the church at the corner, under the stone of Gwalter Fader."
The lines which gave occasion to this extract form a pleasing tribute to the memory of the bard:
He, who in verse his Country's story told,
Here dwelt awhile; perchance here sketch'd the scene
Where his fair Argentile, from crowded courts
For pride self-banish'd, in sequester'd shades
Sojourn'd disguis'd, and met the slighted youth
Who long had sought her love — the gentle bard
Sleeps here, by Fame forgotten.
The words in Italics which close this passage, were not at the time they were written correctly true, for Warner had then been a subject of great and judicious praise, both to Mrs. Cooper and Dr. Percy; and since the era of Scott, he has been imitated, reedited, and liberally applauded. He is conjectured to have been a native of Warwickshire, to have been educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and to have left the University without a degree, for the purpose of cultivating his poetical genius in the metropolis. His Albion's England, on which his fame is founded, was first printed in 1586, when the poet was probably about eight and twenty. It underwent six subsequent editions during the author's life-time, namely, in 1589, 1592, 1596, 1597, 1602, and 1606.
This extensive poetic history, which is deduced from the deluge to the reign of Elizabeth, is distributed into twelve books, and contains seventy-seven chapters; it is dedicated to Henry Cary, Lord Hudson, under whose patronage and protection Warner appears to have spent the latter portion of his life. Such was the popularity of Albion's England, that it threw into the shade what had formerly been the favourite collection, the Mirror for Magistrates; Warner was ranked by his contemporaries, says Dr. Percy, on a level with Spenser; they were called the Homer and Virgil of their age; and Meres, speaking of the English tongue, declares, that by his (Warner's) pen, it "was much enriched and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and resplendent habiliments." Less hyperbolical, and, therefore, more judicious praise was allotted him by Drayton, who, after noticing his incorrectnesses, adds with a liberal spirit—
—yet thus let me say
For my old friend, some passages there be
In him, which I protest have taken me
With almost wonder, so fine, so clear, and new,
As yet they have been equalled by few;
a decision which subsequent criticism has confirmed.
One of his most pleasing episodes, "Argentile and Curan," was inserted by Mrs. Cooper in her Muses' Library, who justly terms it "a tale full of beautiful incidents, in the romantic taste, extremely affecting, rich in ornament, wonderfully various in stile, and, in short, one of the most beautiful pastorals I ever met with." This was again republished by Percy in his Reliques, and finally honoured by Mason in the third volume of his Poems, 1796, where it forms a "Legendary Drama in five acts, written on the old English model." Ritson, Headley, and Ellis have furnished us with additional extracts, and at length Albion's England has found its place in the body of our English Poetry through the taste and exertions of Mr. Chalmers.
Ease, simplicity, and pathos are the leading virtues of Warner's muse. He eminently excelled in depicting rural and pastoral life, and in developing those simple and touching emotions which pervade the innocent and artless bosom. His vices were those of his age, and may be included under the heads of indelicacy, inequality, and quaintness; these expunged, his finer parts strongly interest our affections, and endear to us the memory of the good old bard.