1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Ritson

William Godwin, "Biographical Sketch of Ritson" in The Monthly Mirror (May 1805) 291-94.



JOSEPH RITSON was born October 2. 1752, at Stockton-upon-Tees, in the county of Durham, and was bred to the profession of the law. He was greatly distinguished for the acuteness of his judgment, and the profoundness of his researches, in the characters of a consulting barrister and a conveyancer. But his literary enquiries were by no means confined within the limits of his profession; and he was, perhaps, the most successful of those persons by whom the investigation of old English literature and antiquities was cultivated in the latter part of the eighteenth century. His memory was so tenacious, that nothing he ever stored there was obliterated: the most astonishing labours and indefatigable enquiries were to him amusement; and his penetration and judgment were so exact, that it is difficult, in his voluminous publications, to detect a single error of fact or of inference.

It is to be regretted that his style, and the mode in which he communicated his discoveries to the public, were by no means such as to adorn his discoveries. The language of his writings is harsh, rugged, and barren; and his publications are further disfigured by the affected singularity of their orthography. But this, though it hindered them from obtaining that general success to which, by their essential merits, they were entitled, does not prevent them from being, to the learned and the studious, invaluable repositories of the science of which they treat. Mr. Ritson was fully sensible of the superiority he possessed in those points of learning which had engaged his attention, and was not accustomed to express himself on these subjects, with any degree of diffidence and reserve. Conscious of his own general exemption from error, he had no forbearance for the errors and misapprehensions of others. The style in which he attacked Malone, Warton, and other contemporary critics, was remarked for a greater degree of rudeness, bitterness, and insult, than is perhaps to be found in any other controversialist. — He set somewhat too high a value on his own favourite pursuits, and defended his dogmas in a very magisterial tone. It was a favourite maxim of his that literary forgery was a crime, not less deserving the gallows, than the forgery which deprived a man of his property; and he expressed himself respecting those persons who, whether gravely or by way of amusement, gave into practices of this sort, with a fierceness of resentment which was very surprising to those who did not, enter into his particular habits of thinking. Yet Mr. Ritson was not less uncommonly modest on all other subjects, than peremptory on those which he had industriously investigated; and was at all times forward to confess his ignorance of the learned languages, of the philosophy of mind, and the graces of composition; and ready to bow to the authority of those whom he deemed his superiors in these particulars. To the attainments which he has made in knowledge, Mr. Ritson added many excellent virtues of the heart. He was liberal in the disposition of his income, and ever ready to relieve merit in distress. He had great ingenuousness and integrity of disposition, never employing himself in any sort of pretence. or imposition, practising rigidly in his conduct, the moral judgments of his understanding, and constantly abstaining from the commission of every thing he felt to be wrong. — One singular proof of this is, that having convinced himself that the use of animal food was a cruel and unjustifiable proceeding, he for more than twenty years adhered to the strictest abstinence in this respect.

The admirable sincerity of his character was also shewn in many other particulars. Having amply studied the laws and constitution of his country, he was on principle an enemy to the succession of the house of Hanover; and, without any prejudices of education to urge him, became a Jacobite from reasoning, at a time when the race of Jacobites, by descent, was nearly extinct in this country. — This unfortunate singularity he however discarded about the period of the French revolution, and till his death remained firmly attached to the principles of republicanism. Mr. Ritson purchased, about the year 1785, the office of high bailiff of the liberties of the Savoy. In this situation it was his singular fortune to be connected with Mr. Reeve. — Mr. Reeve was high steward of the Savoy, and, for his political conduct, was regarded with no less antipathy by Mr. Ritson, than Malone and Warton for their literary misdemeanors. — Mr. Reeve, a few years ago resigned his office of high steward; and it was a favourite opinion of Mr. Ritson, that he, by his hostilities, had driven him from his station.

Whether it were owing to the original feebleness of his constitution, to the singular severity of his diet, or to the not inferior severity of his literary application, Mr. Ritson exhibited, at the age of fifty, every mark of caducity and premature decay. His memory failed him; his temper daily increased in moroseness, and his conversation betrayed tokens of dotage. He was seized with repeated attacks of the palsy, and the last attack having fallen upon the brain, produced a delirium, and terminated his existence in a fortnight. One further singularity in this extraordinary man is, that, after having laboured so incessantly for the information of the world, he expressed a desire that he might be forgotten. He made it his particular request that no stone might be placed over his grave, and added a hope that nothing, good or ill, might be said of his memory. Justice to his attainments and his virtues, and a desire to gratify the honest curiosity of the public, have, in the writer of these lines, overpowered the whimsical caprice of the deceased, whom the writer had long the honour to call his friend. The following is probably an accurate list of Mr. Ritson's publications: 1. Observations on Johnson's mid Steeven's Edition of Shakspeare. — 2. Quiss Modest, in Defence of ditto. — 3. Cursory Criticisms on Malone's Edition of Shakspeare. — 4. Observations on Warton's History of English Poetry. — 5. Descent of the Crown of England, in a large sheet. — 6. Spartan Manual. — 7. Digest of the Proceedings of the Savoy Court. — 8. Office of Constable explained. — 9. Jurisdiction of the Court Leet. — 10. A Collection of English Songs, 3 vols. — 11. Ditto, Scottish Songs, 2 vols. — 12. English Anthology, 3 vols. — 13. Minot's Poems, 2 vols. — 14. Metrical Romances, 3 vols. — 15. Bibliographia Poetica; and, 16. Treatise on Abstinence from Animal Food. — Mr. Ritson had further projected an edition of Shakspeare, and there are many valuable notes from his pen in the latest editions of that author. He also proposed to publish several etymological works, together with a treatise, in which his peculiar System of orthography was to be vindicated and established. His manuscript collections were extremely numerous; and it is an irreparable loss to the public that he committed the chief part of them to the flames, at the commencement of the delirium which terminated his existence.