1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Ritson

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 26: 236-37.



JOSEPH RITSON, a poetical critic and editor, was born Oct. 2, 1752, at Stockton-upon-Tees, in the county of Durham, and was bred to the profession of the law, which he practised chiefly in the conveyancing branch. In 1785 he purchased the office of high bailiff of the liberties of the Savoy, and retained it until his death. These seem the only particulars of Mr. Ritson's progress in his profession, which have been recorded by his friends. He became, however, far better known for his researches into the antiquities of English literature, particularly poetry; and these he was enabled to carry on for many years, by dint of memory and extraordinary industry. In recovering dates, assigning anonymous fragments to their authors, and those other minute particulars which are important to poetical antiquaries, Mr. Ritson had perhaps few superiors; but all he performed was disgraced by a harsh, rugged, and barren style, and an affectation of a new orthography, and yet more by the the contempt, approaching to malignity, with which he treated Mr. Warton, Mr. Malone, and his other contemporaries who had acquired any name in the world. Although not absolutely incapable of civility, his conversation partook much of the harshness of his writings; and giving the lie was not uncommon with him, even when the subject in dispute had nothing in it to excite passion. His wretched temper seems also to have been exasperated by the state of public affairs, his hatred of the reigning family, and his attachment to republicanism. Many instances might be given of his unhappy prejudices, but it appeared at last that the whole might be traced to a diseased mind, which was completely overthrown by insanity. When this became too visible to be neglected, he was removed to a receptacle for insane persons at Hoxton, where he died a few days after, Sept. 3, 1803, leaving many works which will prove useful and interesting to poetical antiquaries long after the peculiarities of his temper are forgotten. His first publication was an anonymous quarto pamphlet of Observations on the three volumes of Warton's History of English Poetry; one of the most illiberal productions that had then appeared. He wrote, also anonymously, three sets of remarks on the editors of Shakspeare: 1. On Mr. Steevens's edition, 1778, entitled Remarks, critical and illustrative, on the Text and Notes of the last editions of Shakspeare, 8vo; 2. The Quip modest, &c. on Mr. Reed's republication of that edition, particularly illiberal; 3. Cursory Criticisms, &c. on Mr. Malone's edition. He published also a select collection of English Songs, in 3 vols, 8vo. Ancient Songs, from the time of Henry III. to the Revolution, 8vo. The English Anthology, a selection of poetry, in 3 small octavo volumes. Robin Hood; a collection of all the ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, now extant, relative to that celebrated Outlaw. To which are added, Historical Anecdotes of his Life, 1795, 2 vols. 8vo. A collection of Scotch Songs, with the genuine Music, 2 vols. 12mo. Biographia Poetica: a Catalogue of English Poets of the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries; with a short Account of their Works. 1801, 12mo. He put his name to Ancient English Metrical Romances; selected and published by Joseph Ritson, 1802, 3 vols, 12mo. This last publication is perhaps the least interesting of the list.

His last work was, a Treatise on abstinence from animal food, in which he collected so many impious and extravagant sentiments, that he could not for some time find a publisher. His catastrophe, however, followed soon after publication, and the book was forgotten.