Rev. Joseph Warton

Henry Francis Cary, "Lives of the Poets: Joseph Warton" London Magazine 5 (March 1822) 264-69.

The Memoirs of Joseph Warton, by Dr. Wooll, the present Head-master of Rugby school, is a book which, although it contains a faithful representation of his life and character by one who had been his pupil, and though it is enriched with a collection of letters between some of the men most distinguished in literature during his time, is yet so much less known than it deserves, that in speaking of it to Mr. Hayley, who had been intimate with Warton, and to whom some of the letters are addressed, I found him ignorant of its contents. It will supply me with much of what I have to relate concerning the subject of it.

There is no instance in this country of two brothers having been equally celebrated for their skill in poetry with Joseph and Thomas Warton. What has been already told of the parentage of the one renders it unnecessary to say more in this respect of the other. He was born at Dunsfold, in Surrey, under the roof of his maternal grandfather, in the beginning of 1722. Like his brother, he experienced the care of an affectionate parent, who did the utmost his scanty means would allow to educate them both as scholars; but with this difference, that Joseph being three-and-twenty years old at the time of Mr. Warton's decease, whereas Thomas was but seventeen, was more capable of appreciating, as it deserved, the tenderness of such a father. To what has been before said of this estimable man, I have to add, that his poems, of which I had once a cursory new, appeared to me to merit more notice than they have obtained; and that his version of Fracastorio's pathetic lamentation on the death of his two sons particularly engaged my attention. "Suavis adeo poeta ac doctus," is the testimony borne to him by one who will himself have higher claims of the same kind on posterity.

Having been some time at New College school, but principally taught by his father till he was fourteen years old, Joseph was then admitted on the foundation of Winchester, under Dr. Sandby. Here, together with two of his school-fellows, of whom Collins was one, he became a contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine. Johnson, who then assisted in editing that miscellany, had sagacity enough to distinguish, from the rest, a few lines that were sent by Collins, which, though not remarkable for excellence, ought now to take their place among his other poems.

In 1740, Warton being superannuated at Winchester, was entered of Oriel College, Oxford; and taking his bachelor's degree, in 1744, was ordained to his father's curacy at Basingstoke. Having lost his father about a year after, he removed to the curacy of Chelsea, in February, 1746. Near this time, I suppose a letter, that is without date of time or place, to have been written to his brother. As it informs us of some particulars relating to Collins, of whom it is to be wished that more were known, I am tempted to transcribe it.

"Dear TOM,—

You will wonder to see my name in an advertisement next week, so I thought I would apprize you of it. The case was this. Collins met me in Surrey, at Guildford races, when I wrote out for him my Odes, and he likewise communicated some of his to me: and being both in very high spirits, we took courage, resolved to join our forces and to publish them immediately. I flatter myself that I shall lose no honour by this publication, because I believe these Odes, as they now stand, are infinitely the best things I ever wrote. You will see a very pretty one of Collins's, on the Death of Colonel Ross before Tournay. It is addressed to a lady who was Ross's intimate acquaintance, and who, by the way, is Miss Bett Goddard. Collins is not to publish the Odes unless he gets ten guineas for them.

I returned from Milford last night, where I left Collins with my mother and sister, and he sets out to-day for London. I must now tell you, that I have sent him I, our imitation of Horace's Blandusian Fountain, to be printed amongst ours, and which you shall own or not as you think proper. I would not have done this without your consent, but because I think it very poetically and correctly done, and will get you honour.

* * * * * *

You will let me know what the Oxford critics say. Adieu, dear Tom. I am your most affectionate brother,


On this Dr. Wooll founds a conjecture, that Warton published a volume of poems conjointly with his brother and Collins; but adds, that after a diligent search he had not been able to discover it. I think it more likely that the design was abandoned. However this may be, it is certain that he himself published a volume of Odes in 1746, of which, as I learn from a note to the present Bishop of Killaloe's verses to his memory, a second edition appeared in the following year. To complete his recovery from the small-pox, which he had taken at Chelsea, he went, in May 1746, to Chobham; and then, after officiating for a few months at Chawton and Droxford, returned to his first curacy of Basingstoke. In the next year he was presented by the Duke of Bolton to the rectory of Wynslade, by which preferment he was enabled immediately to marry a young lady in that neighbourhood, of the name of Daman, to whom he had been long attached. Of the country adjacent to Wynslade, Thomas Warton has given a very pleasing description in one of his sonnets, and in an Ode sent to a friend on his leaving a favourite village in Hampshire. Both were written on the occasion of his brother's absence, who had gone in the train of the Duke of Bolton to France. One motive, on which he went, would not now be thought quite creditable to a clergyman. It was that he might be at hand to join the Duke in marriage to his mistress, as soon as the Duchess, who was far gone in a dropsy, should be no more. Warton set out reluctantly, but with the hope that he might benefit his family by compliance. He had not been away five months, when the impatience for home came on him so strongly, that he quitted Montaubon, where the Duke was residing, and made his way towards England by such conveyances as he could meet with; at one time in a courier's cart; at another, in the company of carriers who were travelling in Brittany. Thus he scrambled on to Bourdeaux, and till he reached St. Malo's, where he took ship and landed at Southampton. When he had been returned a month before the Duchess died. He then asked permission to go back, and perform the marriage ceremony; but the chaplain of the embassy at Turin was already on his way for that purpose.

He was now once more at Wynslade, restored to a domestic life, and the uninterrupted pursuit of his studies. Before going abroad, he had published (in 1749) his Ode on West's translation of Pindar; and after his return, employed himself in writing papers, chiefly on subjects of criticism, for the Adventurer, and in preparing for the press an edition of Virgil, which (in 1753) he published, together with Pitt's translation of the Aeneid, his own of the Eclogues and Georgics, his notes on the whole, and several essays. The book has been found useful for schools; and was thought at the time to do him so much credit, that it obtained for him the degree of Master of Arts by diploma from the University of Oxford, and no doubt was instrumental in recommending him to the place of second master of Winchester School, to which he was appointed in 1755. In the meantime he had been presented by the Jervoise family to the rectory of Tunworth, and resided for a short time at that place.

In 1756, appeared the first volume of his Essay on the genius and writings of Pope, dedicated to Young. The name of the author was to have been concealed, but he does not seem to have kept his own secret very carefully, for it was immediately spoken of as his by Akenside, Johnson, and Dr. Birch. The second volume did not follow till after an interval of twenty-six years. The information contained in this essay, which is better known than his other writings, is such as the recollection of a scholar, conversant in polite literature, might easily have supplied. He does not, like his brother, ransack the stores of antiquity for what has been forgotten, but deserves to be recalled; nor, like Hurd, exercise, on common materials, a refinement that gives the air of novelty to that with which we have been long familiar. He relaxes, as Johnson said of him, the brow of criticism into a smile. Though no longer in his desk and gown, he is still the benevolent and condescending instructor of youth; a writer, more capable of amusing and tempting onwards, by some pleasant anticipations, one who is a novice in letters, than of satisfying the demands of those already initiated. He deserves some praise for having been one of the first who attempted to moderate the extravagant admiration for Pope, whom he considered as the poet of reason rather than of fancy; and to disengage us from the trammels of the French school. Some of those who followed have ventured much further, with success; but it was something to have broken the ice. I do not know that he published anything else while he remained at Winchester, except an edition of Sir Philip Sydney's Defence of Poesy, and Observations on Eloquence and Poetry from the Discoveries of Ben Jonson, in l787. His literary exertions, and the attention he paid to the duties of his school, did not go unrewarded. In 1766 he was advanced to the Head-mastership of Winchester, and took his two degrees in divinity; in 1782, Bishop Lowth gave him a prebend of St. Paul's, and the rectory of Chorley, which he was allowed to exchange for Wickham, in Hants; in 1788, through the intervention of Lord Shannon with Mr. Pitt, he obtained a prebend of Winchester; and soon after, at the solicitation of Lord Malmesbury, was presented by the Bishop of that diocese to the rectory of Easton, which, in the course of a twelvemonth, he exchanged for Upham.

In his domestic relations, he enjoyed as much happiness as prudence and affection could ensure him, but not unembittered by those disastrous accidents to which every father of a family is exposed. Some years after his marriage (1763) his letters to his brother discover him struggling under his anguish for the loss of a favourite daughter, who had died under inoculation, but striving to conceal his feelings for the sake of a wife whom he tenderly loved. In 1772, this wife was also taken from him, leaving him with six children. His second son, Thomas, fellow of New College, a man on whom the poetic spirit of the Wartons had descended, was found by him, one day when he returned from the college prayers, sitting in the chair in which he had left him after dinner, without life. It was the termination of a disease under which he had long laboured. This happened in 1786; and before he had space to recover the blow, in four years after, his brother died. In 1773, he had solaced himself by a second marriage with Miss Nicholas, the daughter of Robert Nicholas, Esq. In both his matrimonial connexions, his sister described him as having been eminently fortunate.

The latter part of his life was spent in retirement and tranquillity. In 1793, he resigned the mastership of Winchester, and settled himself on his living of Wickham. He had intended to finish his brother's History of English Poetry, which wanted another volume to complete it; and might now have found time enough to accomplish the task. But an obstacle presented itself, by which it is likely that he was discouraged from proceeding. The description given by Daniel Prince, a respectable old bookseller at Oxford, of the state in which his brother's rooms were found at his decease, and of the fate that befell his manuscripts and his property, may be edifying to some future fellow of a college, who shall employ himself in similar pursuits. "Poor Thomas Warton's papers were in a sad litter, and his brother Joe has made matters worse by confusedly cramming all together, sending them to Winchester, &c. Mr. Warton could not give so much as his old clothes; his very shoes, stockings, and wigs, laid about in abundance. Where could his money go? It must lay in paper among his papers, or be laid in a book; he could not, nor did not spend it; and his brother, on that score, is greatly disappointed."

A republication of Pope's Works, with notes, offered him an easier occupation than the digesting of those scattered materials for the History of Poetry which he had thus assisted in disarranging. He was probably glad to escape from inaction, and set himself to parcel out his Essay into comments for this edition; which, in 1797, was published in nine volumes. His indiscretion, in adding to it some of Pope's productions which had been before excluded, has been most bitterly censured. That it would have been better to let them remain where they were can scarcely be questioned. But I should be more willing to regard the insertion of them as proof of his own simplicity, in suspecting no harm from what he had himself found to be harmless than of any design to communicate injury to others. A long life, passed without blame, and in the faithful discharge of arduous duties, ought to have secured him from this misconstruction at its close. After all, the pieces objected to are such as are more offensive to good manners than dangerous to morality. There are some other of Pope's writings, more likely to inflame the passions, which yet no one scruples to read; and Dr. Wooll has suggested that it was inconsistent to set up the writer as a teacher of virtue, and in the same breath to condemn his editor as a pander to vice.

He bestowed on his censurers no more consideration than they deserved, and went on to prepare an edition of Dryden for the press. Two volumes, with his notes, were completed, when his labours were finally broken off by a painful disease. His malady was an affection of the kidneys, which continued to harass him for some months, and ended in a fatal paralysis on the twenty-third of February, 1800, in the seventy-eighth year of his age.

He was interred in the cathedral at Winchester, where, by the contributions of his former scholars, a monument, executed by Mr. Flaxman, was raised to his memory, of a design so elegant, as the tomb of a poet has not often been honoured with. It is inscribed with the following epitaph.

Josephus Warton, S.T.P.
Hujus Ecclesiae
Scolae Wintoniensis
Per annos fere triginta
Poeta servidus, facilis, expolitus:
Criticus eruditus, perspicax, elegans:
Obiit XXIIIo. Feb. M.D.CCC.
Hoc qualecunque
Pietatis monumentum
Praeceptori optimo,
Wiccamici sui

In the frankness of his disposition he appears to have resembled his brother, but with more liveliness and more love of general society. I have heard, that in the carelessness of colloquial freedom, he was apt to commit himself by hasty and undigested observations. As he did not aim at being very oracular himself, so he was unusually tolerant of ignorance in others. Of this, a diverting instance is recorded by Dr. Wooll: meeting in company with a lady who was a kinswoman of Pope's, he eagerly availed himself of the occasion offered for learning some new particulars concerning one by whom so much of his time and thoughts had been engaged. "Pray, Sir," began the lady, "did not you write a book about my cousin Pope?" "Yes, Madam;" was the reply. "They tell me 'twas vastly clever. He wrote a great many plays, did not he?" was the next question. "I never heard but of one attempt, Madam;" said Warton, beginning perhaps to expect some discovery, when his hopes were suddenly crushed by an "Oh! no," from the lady, "I beg your pardon, Sir. That was Mr. Shakspeare. I always confound them." He had the good breeding to conceal his disappointment, and to take a courteous leave of the kinswoman of Pope.

He was regarded with great affection by those whom he had educated. The opinions of a man so long experienced in the characters of children, and in the best methods of instruction, are on these subjects entitled to much notice. "He knew," says his Biographer and pupil, a that the human mind developed itself progressively, but not always in the same consistent degrees, or at periods uniformly similar. He conjectured, therefore, that the most probable method of ensuring some valuable improvement to the generality of boys was not to exact what the generality are incapable of performing. As a remedy for inaccurate construction, arising either from apparent idleness or inability, he highly approved, and sedulously imposed, translation. Modesty, timidity, or many other constitutional impediments, may prevent a boy from displaying before his master, and in the front of his class, those talents of which privacy, and a relief from these embarrassments, will often give proof. These sentiments were confirmed by that most infallible test, experience; as he declared (within a few years of his death) that "the best scholars he had sent into the world were those whom, whilst second master, he had thus habituated to translation, and given a capacity of comparing and associating the idiom of the dead languages with their own."

It is pleasant to observe the impression which men, who have engrossed to themselves the attention of posterity, have made on one another, when chance has brought them together. Of Mason, whom he fell in with at York, he tells his brother, that "he is the most easy, best natured, agreeable man he ever met with." In the next year, he met with Goldsmith, and observed of him, "that of all solemn coxcombs, he was the first, yet sensible; and that he affected to use Johnson's hard words in conversation "

Soon after the first volume of his Essay on Pope had been published, Lyttelton, then newly raised to the peerage, gave him his scarf, and submitted some of his writings, before they were printed, to his inspection.

Harris, the author of Hermes, and Lowth, were others in whose friendship he might justly have prided himself.

He was one of the few that did not shrink from a collision with Johnson; who could so ill endure a shock of this kind, that on one occasion he cried out impatiently, "Sir, I am not used to contradiction." "It would be better for yourself and your friends, Sir, if you were;" was the natural retort. Their common friends interfered, to prevent a ruder altercation.

Like Johnson, he delighted in London, where he regularly indulged himself by passing the holidays at Christmas. His fondness for everything relating to a military life was a propensity that he shared with his brother; and while the one might have been seen following a drum and fife at Oxford, the other, by the sprightliness of his conversation, had drawn a circle of red coats about him at the St. James's Coffee House, where he frequently breakfasted. Both of them were members of the Literary Club, set on foot by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

This gaiety of temper did not hinder him from discharging his clerical office in a becoming manner. "His style of preaching," we are told by Mr. Wooll, "was unaffectedly earnest and impressive; and the dignified solemnity with which he read the Liturgy, particularly the Communion Service, was remarkably awful."

His reputation as a critic and a scholar has preserved his poetry from neglect. Of his Odes, that to Fancy, written when he was very young, is one that least disappoints us by a want of poetic feeling. Yet if we compare it with that by Collins, on the Poetical Character, we shall see of how much higher beauty the same subject was capable. In the Ode to Evening, he has again tried his strength with Collins. There are some images of rural life in it that have the appearance of being drawn from nature, and which therefore please.

Hail, meek-eyed maiden, clad in sober grey,
Whose soft approach the weary woodman loves,
As homeward bent to kiss his prattling babes,
He jocund whistles through the twilight groves.

* * * * *

To the deep wood the clamorous rooks repair,
Skims the swallow o'er the watery scene,
And from the sheep-cotes, and fresh-furrow'd field,
Stout ploughmen meet to wrestle on the green.

The swain that artless sings on yonder rock,
His nibbling sheep and lengthening shadow spies;
Pleased with the cool, the calm, refreshful hour,
And the hoarse hummings of unnumber'd flies.

But these pretty stanzas are interrupted by the mention of Phoebus, the Dryads, old Sylvan, and Pan. The Ode to Content is in the same metre as his school-fellow's Ode to Evening; but in the numbers, it is very inferior both to that and to Mrs. Barbauld's Ode to Spring.

In his Dying Indian, he has produced a few lines of extraordinary force and pathos. The rest of his poems, in blank verse, are for the most part of an indifferent structure.

In his Translations from Virgil, he will probably be found to excel Dryden as much in correctness, as he falls short of him in animation and harmony.

When his Odes were first published, Gray perceived the author to be devoid of invention, but praised him for a very poetical choice of expression, and for a good ear, and even thus perhaps a little over-rated his powers. But our lyric poetry was not then what it has since been made by Gray himself, the younger Warton, Mason, Russell, and one or two writers now living.

If he had enjoyed more leisure, it is probable that he might have written better; for he was solicitous not to lose any distinction to be acquired by his poetry; and took care to reclaim a copy of humorous verses, entitled, an Epistle from Thomas Hearne, which had been attributed by mistake to his brother, among whose poems it is still printed.