Doctor Joseph Warton, son to the vicar of Basingstoke, and elder brother to the historian of English poetry, was born in the house of his maternal grandfather, the Rev. Joseph Richardson, rector of Dunsfield, in Surrey. He was chiefly educated at home by his father, Dr. Warton, till his fourteenth year, when he was admitted on the foundation of Winchester College. He was there the schoolfellow and intimate of Collins, the poet; and in conjunction with him and another youth, whose name was Tomkyns, he sent to the Gentleman's Magazine three pieces of poetry, which were highly commended in that miscellany. In 1740, being superannuated, he left Winchester school, and having missed a presentation to New College, Oxford, was entered a commoner at that of Oriel. At the university he composed his two poems, The Enthusiast, and The Dying Indian, and a satirical prose sketch, in imitation of Le Sage, entitled Ranelagh, which his editor, Mr. Wooll, has inserted in the volume that contains his life, letters, and poems. Having taken the degree of bachelor of arts at Oxford, in 1744, he was ordained on his father's curacy at Basingstoke. At the end of two years, he removed from thence to do duty at Chelsea, where he caught the small-pox. Having left that place, for change of air, he did not return to it, on account of some disagreement with the parishioners, but officiated for a few months at Chawton and Droxford, and then resumed his residence at Basingstoke. In the same year, 1746, he published a volume of his odes, in the preface to which he expressed a hope that they would be regarded as a fair attempt to bring poetry back from the moralizing and didactic taste of the age, to the truer channels of fancy and description. Collins, our author's immortal contemporary, also published his odes in the same month of the same year. He realised, with the hand of genius, that idea of highly personified and picturesque composition, which Warton contemplated with the eye of taste. But Collins's works were ushered in with no manifesto of a design to regenerate the taste of the age, with no pretensions of erecting a new or recovered standard of excellence.
In 1748 our author was presented by the Duke of Bolton to the rectory of Winslade, when he immediately married a lady of that neighbourhood, Miss Daman, to whom he had been for some time attached. He had not been long settled in his living, when he was invited by his patron to accompany him to the south of France. The Duchess of Bolton was then in a confirmed dropsy, and his Grace, anticipating her death, wished to have a protestant clergyman with him on the Continent, who might marry him, on the first intelligence of his consort's death, to the lady with whom he lived, and who was universally known by the name of Polly Peachum. Dr. Warton complied with this proposal, to which (as his circumstances were narrow) it must be hoped that his poverty consented rather than his will. "To those (says Mr. Wooll) who have enjoyed the rich and varied treasures of Dr. Warton's conversation, who have been dazzled by the brilliancy of his wit, and instructed by the acuteness of his understanding, I need not suggest how truly enviable was the journey which his fellow-travellers accomplished through the French provinces to Montauban." It may be doubted, however, if the French provinces were exactly the scene, where his fellow-travellers were most likely to be instructed by the acuteness of Dr. Warton's observations; as he was unable to speak the language of the country, and could have no information from foreigners, except what he could now and then extort from the barbarous Latin of some Irish friar. He was himself so far from being delighted or edified by his pilgrimage, that for private reasons, (as his biographer states), and from impatience of being restored to his family, he returned home, without having accomplished the object for which the Duke had taken him abroad. He set out for Bordeaux in a courier's cart; but being dreadfully jolted in that vehicle, he quitted it, and, having joined some carriers in Brittany, came home by way of St. Maloes. A month after his return to England, the Duchess of Bolton died; and our author, imagining that his patron would, possibly, have the decency to remain a widower for a few weeks, wrote to his Grace, offering to join him immediately. But the Duke had no mind to delay his nuptials; he was joined to Polly by a protestant clergyman, who was found upon the spot; and our author thus missed the reward of the only action of his life which can be said to throw a blemish on his respectable memory.
In the year 1748-9 he had begun, and in 1753 he finished and published, an edition of Virgil in English and Latin. To this work Warburton contributed a dissertation on the sixth book of the Aeneid; Atterbury furnished a commentary on the character of Iapis; and the laureate Whitehead, another on the shield of Aeneas. Many of the notes were taken from the best commentators on Virgil, particularly Catrou and Segrais: some were supplied by Mr. Spence; and others, relating to the soil, climate, and customs of Italy, by Mr. Holdsworth, who had resided for many years in that country. For the English of the Aeneid, he adopted the translation by Pitt. The life of Virgil, with three essays on pastoral, didactic, and epic poetry, and a poetical version of the Eclogues and Georgics, constituted his own part of the work. This translation may, in many instances, be found more faithful and concise than Dryden's; but it wants that elastic and idiomatic freedom, by which Dryden reconciles us to his faults; and exhibits rather the diligence of a scholar than the spirit of a poet. Dr. Harewood, in his view of the classics, accuses the Latin text of incorrectness. Shortly after the appearance of his Virgil, he took a share in the periodical paper, The Adventurer, and contributed twenty-four numbers, which have been generally esteemed the most valuable in the work.
In 1754 he was instituted to the living of Tunworth, on the presentation of the Jervoise family; and in 1755 was elected second master of Winchester School, with the management and advantage of a boarding-house. In the following year Lord Lyttelton, who had submitted a part of his History of Henry II. to his revisal, bestowed a scarf upon him. He found leisure, at this period, to commence his Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope, which he dedicated to Young, without subscribing his name. But he was soon, and it would appear with his own tacit permission, generally pronounced to be its author. Twenty-six years, however, elapsed before he ventured to complete it. Dr. Johnson said, that this was owing to his not having been able to bring the public to be of his opinion as to Pope. Another reason has been assigned for his inactivity. Warburton, the guardian of Pope's fame, was still alive; and he was the zealous and useful friend of our author's brother. The prelate died in 1779, and in 1782 Dr. Warton published his extended and finished Essay. If the supposition that he abstained from embroiling himself by the question about Pope with Warburton be true, it will at least impress us with an idea of his patience; for it was no secret that Ruffhead was supplied by Warburton with materials for a life of Pope, in which he attacked Dr. Warton with abundant severity; but in which he entangled himself more than his adversary, in the coarse-spun ropes of his special pleading. The Essay, for a time, raised up to him another enemy, to whom his conduct has even an air of submissiveness. In commenting on a line of Pope, he hazarded a remark on Hogarth's propensity to intermix the ludicrous with attempts at the sublime. Hogarth revengefully introduced Dr. Warton's works into one of his satirical pieces, and vowed to bear him eternal enmity. Their mutual friends, however, interfered, and the artist was pacified. Dr. Warton, in the next edition, altered his just animadversion on Hogarth into an ill-merited compliment.
By delaying to re-publish his Essay on Pope, he ultimately obtained a more dispassionate hearing from the public for the work in its finished state. In the mean time, he enriched it with additions, digested from the reading of half a lifetime. The author of The Pursuits of Literature has pronounced it a common-place book; and Richardson, the novelist, used to call it a literary gossip: but a testimony in its favour, of more authority than any individual opinion, will be found in the popularity with which it continues to be read. It is very entertaining, and abounds with criticism of more research than Addison's, of more amenity than Hurd's or Warburton's, and of more insinuating tact than Johnson's. At the same time, while much ingenuity and many truths are scattered over the Essay, it is impossible to admire it as an entire theory, solid and consistent in all its parts. It is certainly setting out from unfortunate premises to begin his Remarks on Pope with grouping Dryden and Addison in the same class of poets; and to form a scale for estimating poetical genius, which would set Elijah Fenton in a higher sphere than Butler. He places Pope, in the scale of our poets, next to Milton, and above Dryden; yet he applies to him the exact character which Voltaire gives to the heartless Boileau — that of a writer, "perhaps, incapable of the sublime which elevates, or of the feeling which affects the soul." With all this, he tells us, that our poetry and our language are everlastingly indebted to Pope: he attributes genuine tenderness to the Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady; a strong degree of passion to the Epistle of Eloise, invention and fancy to The Rape of the Lock, and a picturesque conception to some parts of Windsor Forest, which he pronounces worthy of the pencil of Rubens or Julio Romano. There is something like April weather in these transitions.
In May 1766, he was advanced to the headmastership of Winchester School. In consequence of this promotion, he once more visited Oxford, and proceeded to the degree of bachelor and doctor in divinity. After a union of twenty years, he lost his first wife, by whom he had six children; but his family and his professional situation requiring a domestic partner, he had been only a year a widower, when he married a Miss Nicholas, of Winchester.
He now visited London more frequently than before. The circle of his friends, in the metropolis, comprehended all the members of Burke's and Johnson's Literary Club. With Johnson himself he was for a long time on intimate terms: but their friendship suffered a breach which was never closed, in consequence of an argument, which took place between them, during an evening spent at the house of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The concluding words of their conversation are reported, by one who was present, to have been these: Johnson said, "Sir, I am not accustomed to be contradicted." Warton replied, "Better, sir, for yourself and your friends if you were: our respect could not be increased, but our love might."
In 1782 he was indebted to his friend, Dr. Lowth, bishop of London, for a prebend of St. Paul's, and the living of Thorley in Hertfordshire, which, after some arrangements, he exchanged for that of Wickham. His ecclesiastical preferments came too late in life to place him in that state of leisure and independence which might have enabled him to devote his best years to literature, instead of the drudgery of a school. One great project, which he announced, but never fulfilled, namely, A General History of Learning, was, in all probability, prevented by the pressure of his daily occupations. In 1788, through the interest of Lord Shannon, he obtained a prebend of Winchester; and, through the interest of Lord Malmsbury, was appointed to the rectory of Euston, which he was afterwards allowed to exchange for that of Upham. In 1793 he resigned the fatigues of his mastership of Winchester; and having received, from the superintendants of the institution, a vote of well-earned thanks, for his long and meritorious services, he went to live at his rectory of Wickham.
During his retirement at that place, he was induced, by a liberal offer of the booksellers, to superintend an edition of Pope, which he published in 1797. It was objected to this edition, that it contained only his Essay on Pope, cut down into notes; his biographer, however, repels the objection, by alleging that it contains a considerable portion of new matter. In his zeal to present everything that could be traced to the pen of Pope, he introduced two pieces of indelicate humour, The Double Mistress, and the second satire of Horace. For the insertion of those pieces, he received a censure in the Pursuits of Literature, which, considering his grey hairs and services in the literary world, was unbecoming, and which my individual partiality for Mr. Matthias makes me wish that I had not to record.
As a critic, Dr. Warton is distinguished by his love of the fanciful and romantic. He examined our poetry at a period when it appeared to him that versified observations on familiar life and manners had usurped the honours which were exclusively due to the bold and inventive powers of imagination. He conceived, also, that the charm of description in poetry was not sufficiently appreciated in his own day: not that the age could be said to be without descriptive writers; but because, as he apprehended, the tyranny of Pope's reputation had placed moral and didactic verse in too pre-eminent a light. He, therefore, strongly urged the principle, "that the most solid observations on life, expressed with the utmost brevity and elegance, are morality, and not poetry." Without examining how far this principle applies exactly to the character of Pope, whom he himself owns not to have been without pathos and imagination, I think his proposition is so worded, as to be liable to lead to a most unsound distinction between morality and poetry. If by "the most solid observations on life" are meant only those which relate to its prudential management and plain concerns, it is certainly true, that these cannot be made poetical, by the utmost brevity or elegance of expression. It is also true, that even the nobler tenets of morality are comparatively less interesting, in an insulated and didactic shape, than when they are blended with strong imitations of life, where passion, character, and situation bring them deeply home to our attention. Fiction is on this account so far the soul of poetry, that, without its aid as a vehicle, poetry can only give us morality in an abstract and (comparatively) uninteresting shape. But why does Fiction please us? surely not because it is false, but because it seems to be true; because it spreads a wider field, and a more brilliant crowd of objects to our moral perceptions, than reality affords. Morality (in a high sense of the term, and not speaking of it as a dry science) is the essence of poetry. We fly from the injustice of this world to the poetical justice of Fiction, where our sense of right and wrong is either satisfied, or where our sympathy, at least, reposes with less disappointment and distraction, than on the characters of life itself. Fiction, we may indeed be told, carries us into "a world of gayer tinct and grace," the laws of which are not to be judged by solid observations on the real world.
But this is not the case, for moral truth is still the light of poetry, and fiction is only the refracting atmosphere which diffuses it; and the laws of moral truth are as essential to poetry, as those of physical truth (Anatomy and Optics, for instance) are to painting. Allegory, narration, and the drama make their best appeal to the ethics of the human heart. It is therefore unsafe to draw a marked distinction between morality and poetry; or to speak of "solid observations on life" as of things in their nature unpoetical; for we do meet in poetry with observations on life, which, for the charm of their solid truth, we should exchange with reluctance for the most ingenious touches of fancy.