THOMAS WARTON, son of a clergyman, was born at his father's vicarage of Basingstoke, in Hampshire, in the year 1728. He was for some time placed at Basingstoke School, and from his earliest years discovered a fondness for reading, and a taste for poetry. In March, 1743, he was admitted a commoner of Trinity College, Oxford, and was soon after elected a scholar. In 1745, he seems to have furnished one or two pieces to Dodsley's Museum; but his first detached publication was his Pleasures of Melancholy, of which the original copy is said to differ materially from that he afterwards inserted in his works. In 1749, at which time he had taken his bachelor's degree, he was encouraged by the head of his college, Dr. Huddesford, to publish his Triumph of Isis; occasioned by the appearance of Mason's Isis, in which the loyalty of the Oxonians was called in question, in consequence of a riot by some of the students. This publication gained him great reputation, and Mason acknowledged its superiority to his own. In 1750, he contributed a few pieces to The Student, or Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany, amongst which his Progress of Discontent particularly added to his fame. His talents now began to be generally acknowledged in his university, and he was appointed to hold the office of poet laureate, in the common room of Trinity College.
In the year last-mentioned, he graduated M.A.; and succeeded to a fellowship in 1751, in which year he published Newmarket, a satire; An Ode to Music; and Verses on the Death of Frederick, Prince of Wales; which were inserted in the Oxford collection, under the assumed name of John Whetham. In 1753, he published a collection of poems, at Edinburgh; and about a year afterwards, he printed his Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser, a work by which he established his character as an acute critic, and opened that new field of criticism and illustration, in which Steevens, Malone, Reed, Todd, and others, have figured so conspicuously. On the resignation of Professor Hawkins, in 1757, he was elected professor of poetry, which office he held for the ten years to which it is limited; and during this period, he increased his reputation by the elegance and originality of his lectures. In the year 1760, he printed a humorous piece, entitled A Companion to the Guide, and a Guide to the Companion, which quickly passed through three editions, and a fourth appeared in 1806. In 1767, he took the degree of B.D.; in 1771, he was elected a F.R.S.; and in the October of the same year, he was instituted to the small living of Kiddington, in Oxfordshire. In 1774, he published the first volume of the most important of all his works, his History of English Poetry; a second volume appeared in 1778, and a third in 1781. This was to have been succeeded by a fourth, and from the research, judgment and taste displayed in the three first, it is to be regretted that he did not carry his whole design into execution.
He had for some time been making collections for a parochial History of Oxfordshire; and, as a specimen, he printed a few copies of the History of Kiddington, which were distributed amongst his friends; but, in 1782, an edition was offered to the public. Sometime afterwards, he was promoted to a donative in Somersetshire; and in 1785, he succeeded the present Lord Stowell as Camden professor of history, and also succeeded Whitehead in the office of poet laureate. An attack of the gout rendered his removal to Bath necessary, in 1789; and in May of the following year, he died at Oxford, from the effects of paralysis; and was buried with academical honours, in the chapel of Trinity College.
He is described as having been of a temper habitually calm, and of a disposition gentle, friendly, and forgiving; although Mr. Mant, who prefixed his life to a posthumous edition of his poems, affirms that Dr. Johnson said of him, "he was the only man of genius that he knew without a heart." He is also charged, but upon no very clear grounds, with having been a lover of low company, and that he disgraced his character by a constant association with humble tradesmen, mechanics, or peasants.
In addition to the works already mentioned, he wrote Numbers Thirty-three, Ninety-three, and Ninety-six of The Idler; a Description of the City of Winchester; an edition of Theocritus; the Life and Literary Remains of Dr. Ralph Bathurst; Life of Sir T. Pope; An Inquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems attributed to Rowley; and an edition of the smaller poems of Milton, with curious and valuable notes. In 1802, his Poetical Works, with an account of his life above alluded to, appeared, in two volumes, octavo; but his reputation rests principally on his History of English Poetry, an edition of which, in four octavo volumes, with notes and index, was published a few years ago.