Thomas Warton was descended from an ancient family, whose residence was at Beverly, in Yorkshire. One of his ancestors was knighted in the civil wars, for his adherence to Charles I.; but by the failure of the same cause, the estate of the family was confiscated, and they were unable to maintain the rank of gentry. The toryism of the historian of English poetry was, therefore, hereditary. His father was fellow of Magdalen college, Oxford; professor of poetry in that university; and vicar of Basingstoke, in Hants, and of Cobham, in Surrey. At the age of sixteen, our author was admitted a commoner of Trinity college, Oxford, of which he continued a member, and an ornament, for forty-seven years. His first poetical appearance in print has been traced to five eclogues in blank verse; the scenes of which are laid among the shepherds, oppressed by the wars in Germany. They appeared in Pearch's Supplement to Dodsley's Collection of Fugitive Pieces. Warton disavowed those eclogues in his riper years. They are not discreditable to him as the verses of a boy; but it was a superfluous offering to the public, to subjoin them to his other works, in Mr. Chalmers' edition of the British Poets. His poem, The Pleasures of Melancholy, was written not long after. As the composition of a youth, it is entitled to a very indulgent consideration; and perhaps it gives promise of a sensibility, which his subsequent poetry did not fulfill. It was professedly written in his seventeenth, but published in his nineteenth year, so that it must be considered as testifying to the state of his genius at the latter period; for until his work had passed through the press, he would continue to improve it. In the year 1749, he published his Triumph of Isis, in answer to Mason's poetical attack on the loyalty of Oxford. The best passage in this piece, beginning with the lines,
Ye fretted pinnacles, ye fanes sublime,
towers, that wear the mossy vest of time,
discovers that fondness for the beauties of architecture, which was an absolute passion in the breast of Warton. Joseph Warton relates, that, at an early period of their youth, his brother and he were taken by their father to see Windsor Castle. Old Dr. Warton complained, that whilst the rest of the company expressed delight at the magnificent spectacle, Thomas made no remarks; but Joseph Warton justly observes, that the silence of his brother was only a proof of the depth of his pleasure; that he was really absorbed in the enjoyment of the sight: and that his subsequent fondness for "castle imagery," he believed, might be traced to the impression which he then received from Windsor Castle.
In 1750 he took the degree of a master of arts; and in the following year succeeded to a fellowship. In 1754 he published his Observations on Spenser's Faery Queen, in a single volume, which he afterward expanded into two volumes, in the edition of 1762. In this work he minutely analyses the Classic and Romantic sources of Spenser's fiction; and so far enables us to estimate the power of the poet's genius, that we can compare the scattered ore of his fanciful materials, with their transmuted appearance in the Faery Queen. This work, probably, contributed to his appointment to the professorship of poetry, in the university, in 1757, which he held, according to custom, for ten years. While possessed of that chair, he delivered a course of lectures on poetry, in which he introduced his translations from the Greek Anthology, as well as the substance of his remarks on the Bucolic poetry of the Greeks, which were afterward published in his edition of Theocritus. In 1758 he assisted Dr. Johnson in the Idler, with Nos. 33, 93, and 96. About the same time, he published, without name or date, A Description of the City, College, and Cathedral of Winchester, and a humorous account of Oxford, intended to burlesque the popular description of that place, entitled, A Companion to the Guide, or a Guide to the Companion. He also published anonymously in 1758, A Selection of Latin Metrical Inscriptions.
Warton's clerical profession forms no very prominent part of his history. He had an indistinct and hurried articulation, which was peculiarly unfavourable to pulpit oratory. His ambition was directed to other objects than preferment in the church, and he was above solicitation. After having served the curacy of Woodstock for nine years, as well as his avocations would permit, he was appointed, in 1774, to the small living of Kiddington, in Oxfordshire; and, in 1785, to the donative of Hill Farrance, in Somersetshire, by his own college.
The great work to which the studies of his life were subservient, was his History of English Poetry, and undertaking which had been successively projected by Pope and Gray. Those writers had suggested the imposing plan of arranging the British Poets, not by their chronological succession, but their different schools. Warton deliberately relinquished this scheme; because he felt that it was impracticable, except in a very vague and general manner. Poetry is of too spiritual a nature, to admit of its authors being exactly grouped, by a Linnaean system of classification. Striking resemblances and distinctions will, no doubt, be found among poets; but the shades of variety and gradation are so infinite, that to bring every composer within a given line of resemblance, would require a new language in the philosophy of taste. Warton, therefore, adopted the simpler idea of tracing our poetry by its chronological progress. The work is certainly provokingly digressive, in many places, and those who have subsequently examined the same subject have often complained of its inaccuracies; but the chief cause of these inaccuracies was that boldness and extent of research, which makes the work so useful and entertaining. Those who detected his mistakes have been, in no small degree, indebted to him for their power of detecting them. The first volume of his History appeared in 1774; the second in 1778; and the third in 1781. Of the fourth volume only a few sheets were printed; and the account of our poetry, which he meant to have extended to the last century, was continued only to the reign of Elizabeth.
In the year 1785, he was appointed to the Camden Professorship of History, in which situation he delivered only one inaugural dissertation. In the same year, upon the death of Whitehead, he received the laureateship. His odes were subjected to the ridicule of the Rolliad; but his head filled the laurel with more learning than it had encompassed for 100 years.
In his sixty-second year, after a life of uninterrupted good health, he was attacked by the gout; went to Bath for a cure, and returned, as he imagined, perfectly recovered; but his appearance betrayed that his constitution had received a fatal shock. At the close of an evening, which he had spent with more than ordinary cheerfulness, in the common-hall of his college, he was seized with a paralytic stroke, and expired on the following day.
Some amusing eccentricities of his character are mentioned by the writer of his life, (Dr. Mant,) which the last editor of the British Poets blames that biographer for introducing. I am far from joining in his censure. It is a miserable system of biography, that would never allow us to smile at the foibles and peculiarities of its subject. The historian of English poetry would sometimes forget his own dignity, so far as to drink ale, and smoke tobacco with men of vulgar condition; either wishing, as some have gravely alleged, to study undisguised and unlettered human nature, or, which is more probable, to enjoy a heartier laugh, and broader humour than could be found in polite society. He was also passionately fond (not critical, but) of military reviews and delighted in martial music. The same strength of association which made him enjoy the sound of "the spirit-stirring drum," led him to be a constant and curious explorer of the architectural monuments of chivalrous times; and during his summer excursions into the country, he always committed to paper the remarks which he had made on ancient buildings. During his visits to his brother, Dr. J. Warton, the reverend professor became an associate and confidant in all the sports of the schoolboys. When engaged with them in some culinary occupation, and when alarmed by the sudden approach of the master, he has been known to hide himself in a dark corner of the kitchen; and has been dragged from thence by the Doctor, who had taken him for some great boy. He also used to help the boys in their exercises, generally putting in as many faults as would disguise the assistance.
Every Englishman who values the literature of his country, must feel himself obliged to Warton as a poetical antiquary. As a poet, he is ranked by his brother Joseph in the school of Spenser and Milton; but this classification can only be admitted with a full understanding of the immense distance between him and his great masters. He had, indeed, "spelt the fabled rhyme;" he abounds in allusions to the romantic subjects of Spenser, and he is a sedulous imitator of the rich lyrical manner of Milton: but of the tenderness and peculiar harmony of Spenser he has caught nothing; and in his resemblance to Milton, his is the heir of his phraseology more than of his spirit. His imitation of manner, however, is not confined to Milton. His style often exhibits a composite order of poetical architecture. In his verses to Sir Joshua Reynolds, for instance, he blends the point and succinctness of Pope, with the richness of the elder and more fanciful school. It is one of his happiest compositions; and, in this case, the intermixture of styles has no unpleasing effect. In others, he often tastelessly and elaborately unites his affectation of antiquity, with the case-hardened graces of modern polish.
If we judge of him by the character of the majority of his pieces, I believe that fifty out of sixty of them are such, that we should not be anxious to give them a second perusal. From that proportion of his works, I conceive that an unprejudiced reader would pronounce him a a florid, unaffecting describer, whose images are plentifully scattered, but without selection or relief. To confine our view, however, to some seven or eight of his happier pieces, we shall find, in these, a considerable degree of graphic power, of fancy, and animation. His Verses to Sir Joshua Reynolds are splendid and spirited. There is also a softness and sweetness in his ode entitled The Hamlet, which is the more welcome, for being rare in his productions; and his Crusade, and Grave of Arthur, have a genuine air of martial and minstrel enthusiasm. Those pieces exhibit, to the best advantage, the most striking feature of his poetical character, which was a fondness for the recollections of chivalry, and a minute intimacy of imagination with its gorgeous residences, and imposing spectacles. The spirit of chivalry, he may indeed be said, to have revived in the poetry of modern times. His memory was richly stored with all the materials for description that can be got from books: and he seems not to have been without an original enthusiasm for those objects which excite strong associations of regard and wonder. Whether he would have ever looked with interest on a shepherd's cottage, if he had not found it described by Virgil or Theocritus, may be fairly doubted; but objects of terror, splendour, and magnificence, are evidently congenial to his fancy. He is very impressive in sketching the appearance of an ancient Gothic castle, in the following lines:
High o'er the trackless heath, at midnight seen,
No more the windows, ranged in long array,
(Where the tall shaft and fretted nook between
Thick ivy twines) the taper'd rites betray.
His memory was stored with an uncommon portion of that knowledge which supplies materials for picturesque description; and his universal acquaintance with our poets supplied him with expression, so as to answer the full demand of his original ideas. Of his poetic invention, in the fair sense of the word, of his depth of sensibility, or of his powers of reflection, it is not so easy to say any thing favourable.