MR. WARTON was descended from an ancient and honourable family of Beverley, in Yorkshire. His father was fellow of Magdalene College, Oxford, poetry professor in that university, and afterwards vicar of Basingstoke, Hants, and Chobbam, Surrey: He married Elizabeth, daughter of the late Joseph Richardson, rector of Dunsford, Surrey, and had by her three children: Joseph, the late head master of Winchester school; Thomas, the subject of this memoir, and Jane, a daughter, now living. He died in 1746, and is buried under the rails of the altar of his church at Basingstoke, with an inscription on a tablet near it, written by his sons. They afterwards published a volume of his poems, by subscription, chiefly with a view to pay the few debts he left behind, and supply his children with some assistance in the progress of their education. Whether the success of this volume was equal to their hopes, is uncertain, but the poems acquired no reputation.
Thomas was born at Basingstoke, in 1728, and from his earliest years discovered a fondness for reading, and a taste for poetry. In his ninth year, he sent to his sister the following translation from the Latin of Martial.
When bold Leander sought his distant fair,
(Nor could the sea a braver burthen bear)
Thus to the swelling waves he spoke his woe,
"Drown me on my return — but spare me as I go."
This curiosity is authenticated by the letter in which he sent it, still in the possession of his sister. It bears date "from the school, Nov. 7, 1737." His biographer, Mr. Mant, says, that he continued under the care of his father until his removal to Oxford, but I have been informed that he was placed for some time at Basingstoke school.
In March 1743, in his sixteenth year, he was admitted a commoner of Trinity College, and soon after was elected a scholar. How much he was ever attached to that college, his writings, and a residence of forty-seven years with very few intervals, sufficiently show. In 1745, he published five pastoral eclogues, which are now added to his other poems; they are authenticated by Mr. Isaac Reed's copy, purchased at his late sale. About the same time, he sent one or two articles to Dodsley's Museum, to which his brother was likewise a contributor; his next detached publication was The Pleasures of Melancholy, of which the first copy is now in my possession, and differs considerably, particularly in the introductory part, from that published in his collection of poems. On the appearance of Mason's Isis, reflecting on the loyalty of Oxford, which a foolish riot among some students had brought into question, Mr. Warton, encouraged by Dr. Huddesford, the president of Trinity, published in 1749, The Triumph of Isis, in which he retaliated on the sons of Cam in no very courtly strains. The poem, however, discovered beauties of a more unmixed kind, which pointed him out as a youth of great promise. It is remarkable, that although he omitted this piece in an edition of his poems printed in 1777, he restored it in that of 1779: this is said to have been done at Mason's suggestion, who was candid enough to own that it greatly excelled his own elegy, both in poetical imagery and correct flow of versification; but Mason appears to have forgot that his personal share in the contest was but trifling, and that it contained a libel on the university of Cambridge, which ought not to have been perpetuated.
In 1750, our author contributed a few small pieces to the Student, or Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany, then published by Newbery. Among these was the Progress of Discontent, which had been written in 1716, and was founded on a copy of Latin, verses, a weekly exercise, much applauded by Dr. Huddesford, and at his desire, paraphrased into English verse. In this state Dr. Warton preferred it to any imitation of Swift he had ever seen. His talents were now generally acknowledged, and in 1747 and 1748, he held the office of poet laureate, conferred upon him according to. an ancient practice in the common room of Trinity College. The duty of this office was to celebrate the lady chosen by the same authority, as the lady patroness, and Warton performed his task, on an appointed day, crowned with a wreath of laurel. The verses, which Mr. Mant says are still to be seen in the common room, are written in an elegant and flowing style, but have not been thought worthy of transcription.
In 1750, he took his master's degree, and in 1751 succeeded to a fellowship. In this last year he published his excellent satire, entitled Newmarket; An Ode to Music, performed at the theatre; and Verses on the death of Frederick prince of Wales, which he inserted in the Oxford collection, under the fictitious name of John Whetham, a practice not uncommon. In 1753 appeared at Edinburgh, The Union, or Select Scots and English Poems; Mr. Warton was the editor of this small volume, in which he inserted his Triumph of Isis and other pieces, particularly the Ode on the approach of Summer, and the Pastoral in the manner of Spenser, which is said to be written by a gentleman formerly of the university of Aberdeen. Why he should make use of such a deception, cannot now be discovered.
About the year 1754, he drew up from the Bodleian and Savilian statutes, a body of statutes for the Radcliffe library. In the same year, he published his Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser, in one volume octavo, but afterwards enlarged and published in two volumes, 1762. By this work he not only established his character as an acute critic, but opened to the world at large that new and important field of criticism and illustration which has since been so ably cultivated by Steevens, Malone, Reed, Todd, and other commentators on our ancient poets.
Soon after the appearance of the Observations, it was attacked in an abusive pamphlet, entitled The Observer Observed, written by Huggins, the author of a very indifferent translation of Aristotle. Huggins had engaged Mr. Warton in this translation, but when he read what Warton asserted of the inferiority of Aristotle to Spenser, he immediately cancelled his share of the translation, and published this angry pamphlet. Mr. Warton, who was now in his thirty-sixth year, had employed fully half that time in an unwearied perusal of the old English poets, and such contemporary writers as could throw light on their obscurities. The Observations on Spenser must have evidently been the result of much industry, and various reading, aided by a happy memory.
In 1757, on the resignation of Mr. Hawkins, of Pembroke College, our author was elected professor of poetry, which office, according to the usual practice, he held for ten years. His lectures were elegant and original. The translations from the Greek anthologies, now a part of his collected poems, were first introduced in them, and his Dissertatio de Poesi Bucolica Graecorum, which he afterwards enlarged and prefixed to his edition of Theocritus, was also a part of the same course. During the publication of the Idler, he sent to Dr. Johnson, with whom he had long been intimate, numbers, 33, 93, and 96, of that paper. His biographer, however, is mistaken in supposing that he contributed any paper to the Connoisseur. His being invited by Colman and Thornton to engage in a periodical publication, has no relation to the Connoisseur. It was Moore, the editor of the World, who projected a Magazine soon after the conclusion of that paper, and told the two Wartons, that "he wanted a dull plodding fellow of one of the universities, who understood Latin and Greek!" Mr. Bedingfield, one of Dodsley's poets, and Gataker, the surgeon, were to be concerned in this Magazine, but Moore's death prevented the execution of the scheme.
In 1760 he published, but without his name, A Description of the City, College, and Cathedral of Winchester, 12mo. From his own copy, in my possession, he appears to have been preparing a new edition about the year 1771, which was perhaps, prevented by a History of Winchester published soon after in two volumes, a more showy work, but far more inaccurate. In the same year (1760) he published a piece of exquisite humour, entitled, A Companion to the Guide, and a Guide to the Companion, being a complete Supplement to all the accounts of Oxford hitherto published. This passed through three editions in a very short time, but for some years has been ranked among scarce books. A more scarce work, however, is his Inscriptionum Romanarum Metricarum Delectus, 4to, which ought to have been noticed under the year 1758. The design of this collection was to present the reader with some of the best Roman epigrams and inscriptions, taken from the Elegantiae antiquorum marmorum, from Mazochius, Smetius, Gruterus, and other learned men. It contains, likewise, a few modern epigrams, one by Dr. Jortin, and five by himself, on the model of the antique, the whole illustrated with various readings and notes.
About the year 1760 he wrote, for the Biographia Britannica, the Life of Sir Thomas Pope, which he republished in 8vo, 1772, and again in 1780, with very considerable additions and improvements: and in 1761, he published the Life and Literary Remains of Dr. Bathurst. In the same year, and in 1762, he contributed to the Oxford collections, verses on the royal marriage, and on the birth of the prince of Wales, and an ode entitled the Complaint of Cherwell, under the name of John Chichester, brother to the earl of Donegal. His next publication was the Oxford Sausage, or Select Pieces, written by the most celebrated Wits of the University of Oxford. The preface and several of the poems are undoubtedly his, and the latter are authenticated by his adding them afterwards to his avowed productions. In 1766, he superintended an edition from the Clarendon press of Cephalus' Anthology, to which he prefixed a very curious and learned preface. In this he announced his edition of Theocritus, which made its appearance in two volumes 4to, 1770, a most correct and splendid, although not absolutely faultless, work, that extended his fame to the continent.
In 1767 he took his degree of B.D. and in 1771 was elected a fellow of the Antiquarian Society: in October of the same year he was instituted to the small living of Kiddington, in Oxfordshire, on the presentation of George Henry, earl of Litchfield, then chancellor of the university, a nobleman whose memory he afterwards honoured by an epitaph.
In 1774 he published the first volume of his History of English Poetry, the most important of all his works, and to the completion of which the studies of his whole life appear to have been bent. How much it is to he regretted that he did not live to complete his plan, every student in ancient literature must he deeply sensible. He intended to have carried the history down to the commencement of the eighteenth century. A second volume accordingly appeared in 1778, and a third in 1781, after which he probably relaxed from his pursuit, as at the period of his death in 1790, a few sheets only of the fourth volume were printed, and no part left in a state for printing. His original intention was to have comprised the whole in two or three volumes, but it is now evident, and he probably soon became aware, that five would have scarcely been sufficient, if he continued to write on the same scale, and to deviate occasionally into notices of manners, laws, customs, &c. that had either a remote or an immediate connection with his principal subjects: what his reasons were for discontinuing his labours cannot now be ascertained. It is well known to every writer that a work of great magnitude requires temporary relaxation, or a change of employment, and may admit of both without injury: but he might probably find that it was now less easy to return with spirit to his magnum opus, than in the days of more vigour and activity. It is certain that he wished the public to think that he was making his usual progress, for in 1785, when he published Milton's Juvenile Poems, he announced the speedy publication of the fourth volume of the history, of which from that time to his death ten sheets only were finished. His brother, Dr. Joseph, was long supposed to be engaged in completing this fourth volume. In one of his letters lately published by Mr. Wooll, and dated 1792, he says, "At any leisure I get busied in finishing the last volume of Mr. Warton's History of Poetry, which I have engaged to do — for the booksellers are clamorous to have the book finished (though the ground I am to go over is so beaten) that it may be a complete work." Yet on his death in 1800 it did not appear that he had made any progress.
Mr. Warton's biographer has traced the origin of this work to Pope, who, according to Ruffhead, had sketched a plan of a history of poetry, dividing the poets into classes or schools, but Ruffhead's list of poets is grossly erroneous. Gray, however, Mr. Mason informs us, had meditated a history of English poetry, in which Mason was to assist him. Their design was to introduce specimens of the Provencal poetry, and of the Scaldic, British, and Saxon, as preliminary to what first deserved to be called English poetry, about the time of Chaucer, from whence their history, properly so called, was to commence. Gray, however, was deterred by the magnitude of the undertaking, and being informed that Warton was employed on a similar design, more, readily relinquished his own.
Such is Mr. Mant's account, who adds (in p. cxxvi.) that Warton "judiciously preferred the plan on which he had proceeded, to that proposed by Pope, Gray and Mason." It appears to me, however, that Warton had made considerable progress on, his own plan, before he knew any thing of Gray's, and that when he heard of the latter, and perhaps at the same time of its being relinquished, he thought proper, which he might then do without indelicacy, to apply to Gray through the medium of Dr. Hurd, requesting that he would communicate any fragments, or sketches of his design. Mr. Gray, in answer to this application, sent the following letter.
"15th April 1770, Pembroke Hall.
Our friend Dr. Hurd having long ago desired me in your name to communicate any fragments, or sketches of a design I once had to give a history of English poetry, you may well think, me rude or negligent, when you see me hesitating for so many months before I comply with your, request, and yet (believe me) few of your friends have been better pleased than I to find this subject (surely neither unentertaining nor unuseful) had fallen into hands so likely to do it justice. few have felt a higher esteem for your talents, your taste and industry: in truth the only cause of my delay has been a sort of diffidence, that would not let me send you any thing so short, so slight, and so imperfect, as the few materials I had begun to collect, or the observations I had made on them. A sketch of the division and arrangement of the subjects, however, I venture to transcribe, and would wish to know whether it corresponds in any thing with your own plan, for I am told your first volume is already in the press.
INTRODUCTION. — On the poetry of the Galic (or Celtic) nations, as far back as it can be traced.
On that of the Goths: its introduction into these islands by the Saxons and Danes, and its duration. On the origin of rhyme among the Franks, the Saxons, and Provencaux: some account of the Latin rhyming poetry from its early origin down to the 15th century.
P. 1. — On the school of Provence, which rose about the year 1100, and was soon followed by the French and Italians: their heroic poetry, or romances in verse, allegories, fabliaux, syrvientes, comedies, farces, canzoni, sonnets, balades, madrigals, sestines, &c. Of their imitators the French, and of the first Italian school (commonly called the Sicilian) about the year 1200, brought to perfection by Dante, Petrarch, Boccace, and others.
State of poetry in England from the Conquest (1066) or rather from Henry II's time (1154) to the reign of Edward the 3rd (1327).
P. 2. — On Chaucer, who first introduced the manner of the Provencaux, improved by the Italians, into our country; his character and merits at large; the different kinds in which he excelled. Gower, Occlave, Lydgate, Hawes, G. Douglas, Lindsay, Bellenden, Dunbar, &c.
P. 3. — Second Italian school (of Ariosto, Tasso, &c.) an improvement on the first, occasioned by the revival of letters in the end of the 15th century. The lyric poetry of this and the former age introduced from Italy by lord Surrey, sir T. Wyat, Bryan, lord Vaux, &c. in the beginning of the 16th century.
Spenser, his character, subject of his poem allegoric and romantic, of Provencal invention: but his manner of creating it borrowed from the second Italian school. Drayton, Fairfax, Phin. Fletcher, Golding, Phaer, &c. this school ends in Milton.
A third Italian school, full of conceit, begun in Q. Elizabeth's reign, continued under James, and Charles the first, by Donne, Crashaw, Cleveland, carried to its height by Cowley, and ends perhaps in Sprat.
P. 4. — School of France, introduced after the Restoration. Waller, Dryden, Addison, Prior and Pope, which has continued down to our own times.
You will observe that my idea was in some measure taken from a scribbled paper of Pope, of which (I believe) you have a copy. You will also see that I have excluded dramatic poetry entirely, which if you have taken in, it will at least double the bulk and labour of your book."—
Mr. Mant, very naturally desirous of accounting for Warton's having deviated from Gray's plan, transcribes a part of the preface to the history. Perhaps, however, the reader will be better pleased with Mr. Warton's answer to the above letter, which has never yet appeared, and is now transcribed from his own copy,
I am infinitely obliged to you for the favour of your letter.
Your Plan for the History of English Poetry is admirably constructed, and much improved from an idea of Pope, which Mr. Mason obligingly sent me by application from our friend Dr. Hurd. I regret that a writer of your consummate taste should not have executed it.
Although I have not followed this plan, yet it is of great service to me, and throws much light on many of my periods, by giving connected views and details. I begin with such an introduction, or general dissertation, as you had intended: viz. on the Northern Poetry, with its introduction into England by the Danes and Saxons, and its duration. I then begin my History at the conquest, which I write chronologically in sections; and continue, as matter successively offers itself, in a series of regular annals, down to and beyond the Restoration. I think with you that dramatic poetry is detached from the idea of my work, that it requires a separate consideration, and will swell the size of my book beyond all bounds. One of my sections, a very large one, is entirely on Chaucer, and exactly fills your title of Part Second. In the course of my annals, I consider collaterally the poetry of different nations as influencing our own. What I have at present finished ends with the section on Chaucer, and will almost make my first volume: for I design two volumes in quarto. This first volume will soon be in the press. I should have said before, that although I proceed chronologically, yet I often stand still to give some general view, as perhaps of a particular species of poetry, &c. and even anticipate sometimes for this purpose. These views often form one section: yet are interwoven into the tenour of the work, without interrupting my historical series. In this respect, some of my sections have the effect, of your parts or divisions—.
I cannot take my leave without declaring, that my strongest incitement to prosecute the History of English Poetry is the pleasing hope of being approved by you; whose true genius I so justly venerate, and whose genuine poetry has ever given me such sincere. pleasure. I am, sir, &c.
Winchester College, April 20, 1770."
It is almost needless to say that the progress of Warton's History afforded the highest gratification to every learned and elegant mind. Ritson, however, whose learning appears to have been dear to him only as it administered to his illiberality, attacked our author in a pamphlet, entitled Observations on the three first volumes of the History of English Poetry, in a familiar Letter to the Author, 1782. In this, while he pointed out some real inaccuracies, for which he might have received the thanks of the historian, his chief object seems to have been to violate, by low scurrility and personal acrimony, every principle of liberal criticism, and of that decorous interchange of respect which men of learning, not otherwise acquainted, preserve between one another. What could have provoked all this can be known only to those who have dipped into a heart rendered callous by a contempt for every thing sacred and social.
In 1777, Mr. Warton published a collection of his poems, but omitting some which had appeared before: a second edition followed in 1778, a third in 1779, and a fourth in 1789. The omissions in all these are now restored.
In 1781 he seems to have diverted his mind to a plan as arduous as his History of Poetry. He had been for some time making collections for a Parochial History, or as it is more usually called, a County History of Oxfordshire. As a specimen, he printed a few copies of the History of the parish of Kiddington, which were given to his friends, but in 1782 an edition was offered to the public. Topography had long formed one of his favourite studies, and the acuteness with which he had investigated the progress of ancient architecture, gave him undoubtedly high claims to the honours of an antiquary, but as he stood pledged for the completion of his poetical history, it is to be regretted that he should have begun at this advanced period of life to indulge the prospect of an undertaking which he never could complete.
In 1782 he took an active part in the Chattertonian controversy, by publishing an Enquiry into the authenticity of the Poems attributed to Thomas Rowley. He had already introduced the question into his history, and now more decidedly gave his opinion that these poems were the fabrication of Chatterton. The same year, he published his verses on sir Joshua Reynolds's painted window in New College chapel. This produced a letter to him from sir Joshua, in which, with a pardonable vanity, if it at all deserve that appellation, he expresses a wish that his name had appeared in the verses. In a second edition, Warton complied with a wish so flattering to himself by implying the duration of his poetry, and REYNOLDS was substituted for the word ARTIST.
In this year also he was presented by his college to the donative of Hill Farrance, in Somersetshire, and about the same time became a member of the Literary Club, composed of those friends of Dr. Johnson whose conversations form so interesting a part of his life by Boswell. In 1785, he was chosen Camden professor of history on the resignation of Dr. (now sir William) Scott. By the letters added to Wooll's life of his brother, we find that our author was making interest for the professorship of modern history in 1768, when Vivian was preferred. Warburton on this occasion sent him a letter, complimenting him on the heroic manner in which he bore his disappointment, and informing, him, as a piece of consolation, that Vivian had an ulcer in his bladder, which was likely to prove fatal in a short time! — As Camden professor, he delivered an inaugural lecture, ingenious, learned, and full of promise, but, says his biographer, "he suffered the rostrum to grow cold while it was in his possession."
The office of poet laureate was accepted by him this year, as it was offered at the express desire of his majesty, and he filled it with credit to himself and to the place. Whitehead, his immediate predecessor, had the misfortune to succeed Cibber, and could with difficulty make the public look seriously on the periodical labours of the laureate, yet by perseverance he contrived to restore some degree of respect to the office. Warton succeeded yet better by varying the accustomed modes of address, and by recalling the mind to gothic periods and splendid events. The facetious authors, indeed, of the Probationary Odes, (a set of political satires) took some freedom with his name, but they seemed to be aware that another Cibber would have suited their purpose better; and Warton, who possessed a large share of humour, and a quick sense of ridicule, was not to be offended because he had for once been "the occasion of wit in other men."
His last publication was an edition of the Juvenile Poems of Milton, with notes, the object of which was "to explain his author's allusions, to illustrate or to vindicate his beauties, to point out his imitations, both of others and of himself, to elucidate his obsolete diction, and by the adduction and juxtaposition of parallels gleaned both from his poetry and prose, to ascertain his favourite words, and to show the peculiarities of his phraseology." The first edition of this work appeared in 1785, and the second in 1791, a short time after his death. It appears that he had prepared the alterations and additions for the press some time before. It was indeed ready for the press in 1789, and probably begun about that time, but was not completed until after his death, when the task of correcting the sheets devolved upon his brother. His intention was to extend his plan to a second volume, containing the Paradise Regained and Sampson Agonistes, and he left notes on both. He had the proof sheets of the first edition printed only on one side, which he carefully bound. They are now in my possession, and demonstrate what pains he took in avoiding errours, and altering expressions which appeared on a second review to be weak or improper. The second edition of Milton was enriched by Dr. Charles Burney's learned remarks on the Greek verses, and by some observations on the other poems by Warburton, which were communicated to the editor by Dr. Hurd. At the time of our author's death, a new edition of his poems was also preparing for publication.
His death was somewhat sudden. Until his sixty-second year, he enjoyed vigorous and uninterrupted health. On being seized with the gout, he went to Bath, from which he returned recovered, in his own opinion, but it was evident to his friends that his constitution had received a fatal shock. On Thursday, May 20, 1790, he passed the evening in the common room, and was for some time more cheerful than usual. Between ten and eleven o'clock he was suddenly seized with a paralytic stroke, and expired next day about two o'clock. On the 27th his remains were interred in the ante-chapel of Trinity College, with the highest academical honours; the ceremony being attended, not only by the members of his own college, but by the vice-chancellor, heads of houses, and proctors. His grave is marked by a plain inscription which enumerates his preferments, with his age, and the date of his death.
To these particulars, some of which have been taken from Mr. Mant's life of Warton, prefixed to an edition of his poems, published in 1802, it may now be on another authority, that from April 1755 to April 1771, he served the curacy of Woodstock, except during the long vacations, and although his pulpit oratory does not appear to have ever entitled him to particular notice, many are still alive who speak of him with more regard and affection than of any person who ever officiated there.
Mr. Warton's personal character has been drawn at great length by Mr. Mant, and seems to have no defects but what are incident to men who have passed their days in retirement from polished life. A few peculiarities are recorded which might perhaps have been omitted without injury to the portrait. Some of them seem to be given upon doubtful authority, and others are not strictly speaking characteristic, because not habitual, or, if habitual, are too insignificant for notice. It is of as little consequence to know that Mr. Warton smoked tobacco, as that Gibbon took snuff, and Johnson preserved the chips of oranges. It has been said, however, that Mr. Warton was a lover of low company, a more serious charge, if it could be substantiated. But what low company means is not always very obvious. It is not asserted that Warton disgraced his character by a constant association with low company, and that he should have occasionally amused himself with the manners and conversation of humble tradesmen, mechanics, or peasants, was surely no great crime in one whose researches imposed in some degree the necessity of studying mankind in all ranks, and who, in the illustration of our ancient poets, had evidently profited by becoming acquainted with the conversation of the modern vulgar.
In literary company he is said to have been rather silent, but this, his surviving friends can recollect, was only where the company consisted of a majority of strangers; and a man who has a reputation to guard will not lightly enter into conversation before he knows something of those with whom he is to converse. In the company of his friends, among whom he could reckon the learned, the polite, and the gay, no man was more communicative, more social in his habits and conversation, or descended more frequently from the grave interchange of sentiment, to a mere play of wit.
His temper was habitually calm. His disposition gentle, friendly, and forgiving. His resentments, where he could be supposed to have any, were expressed rather in the language of jocularity than anger. Mr. Mant has given as a report what it were to be wished he had omitted, that Dr. Johnson said of Warton, "he was the only man of genius that he knew without a heart." It is highly improbable that Johnson, who loved and practised truth and justice, should say this of one with whom he had exchanged so many acts of personal and literary friendship. It is to be regretted, indeed, that towards the end of Johnson's life, there was a coolness between him and the Wartons, but if it be true that he wept on the recollection of his past friendship, it is very unlikely that he would have characterised Mr. Warton in the manner reported. Whatever was the cause of the abatement of their intimacy, Mr. Warton discovered no resentment when he communicated so many pleasing anecdotes of Johnson to Mr. Boswell, nor when he came to discuss the merits of Milton in opposition to the opinions of that eminent critic. Dr. Warton, indeed, as may be seen in his notes on Pope, mixed somewhat more asperity with his review of Johnson's sentiments.
Instances of Warton's tenderness of heart, affectionate regard for children, and general humanity, have been accumulated by all who knew him. Nor is this wonderful, for he knew nothing of one quality which ever keeps the heart shut. He had no avarice, no ambition to acquire the superiority which wealth is supposed to confer. For many years he lived on his maintenance from college, and front the profits of a small living, with the occasional fruits of his labour as a teacher or as a writer. It cannot be doubted that as he had been tutor to the son of the prime minister, (lord North) and to the sons of other persons of rank, he might reasonably have expected higher preferment. But it happens with preferment more generally than the world suspects, that what is not asked is not given. Warton had a mind above servile submission, yet he would have asked where asking is a matter of course, had not his contented indolence, or perhaps the dread of a refusal, induced him to sit down with the emoluments which cost neither trouble or anxiety. What he got by his writings could not be much. However excellent in themselves, they were not calculated for quick and extensive sale, and it is said he sold the copy-right of his History of Poetry for less than four hundred pounds.
In the exercise of his profession as a divine, Mr. Mant has not heard that he was much distinguished. He went through the routine of parochial duty in a respectful manner, but a hurried mode of speaking, partly owing to habit and partly to a natural impediment, prevented his being heard with advantage. It is a more serious objection, that he has, particularly in his notes on Milton, expressed opinions on religious topics, the consequence of which he had not deliberately considered. He hated Puritans and Calvinists, but does not seem to have understood very clearly that his own church, and every pure church, has many doctrines in common with them. His opinions on psalmody, and on the observation of Sunday, are particularly objectionable.
As a contributor to the literature of his country few men stand higher than Warton. He was the first who taught the true method of acquiring a taste for the excellencies of our ancient poets, and of rescuing their writing's from obscurity and oblivion. In this respect he is the father of the school of commentators, and if some have, in certain instances, excelled their master, they ought to recollect to whom they are indebted for directing them to the paths of research. Of Warton it may be said as of Addison, "He is now despised by some who perhaps would never have seen his defects, but by the lights which he afforded them." His erudition was extensive, and his industry must have been at one time incessant. The references in his History of Poetry only, indicate a course of various reading, collation and transcription, to which the common life of man seems insufficient. He was one of those scholars who have happily rescued the study of antiquities from the reproaches of the frivolous or indolent. Amidst the most rugged tracks of ancient lore, he produces cultivated spots, flowery paths, and gay prospects. Many of the digressions that have been censured in his history, appear to have been contrived for this purpose, and the relief which his own mind demanded, he thought would not be unacceptable to his fellow-travellers.
To the industry which he employed in all his literary undertakings, there can be no doubt he was indebted for much of that placid temper and contentment which distinguished him as a resident member of the university. The miseries of indolence are known only to those who have no regular pursuit, nothing in view, however easy or arduous, nothing by which time may be shortened by occupation, and occupation rendered easy by habit. To all this waste of time and talent, Warton was a stranger. During the long vacation, indeed, he generally resided with his brother at Winchester, but even this was a change of place rather than of occupation. There he found libraries, scholars and critics, and could still indulge his delight in "cloysters pale," "the tapered choir," and "sequestered isles of the deep dome;" and there as well as at home, he continued his researches, and enjoyed solitude or society in such proportions as suited his immediate inclination.
Yet as he pursued an untried path, and was the founder of his own studies, it cannot be a matter of great surprise, if he failed in conducting them with due method. To this it was owing that the emendations and additions to his first and second volumes are so numerous as to have been made the ground of a serious charge against his diligence and accuracy. But had he lived to complete the work, he could have no doubt offered such excuses as must have been readily accepted by every reflecting mind. If we admit the magnitude of the undertaking, which evidently exceeded his own idea when he fondly hoped that it might have been finished in two or three volumes; if we consider the vast number of books he had to consult for matters apparently trifling, but really important; that he had the duties of a clergyman and tutor to perform while engaged in this work, and above all, that his friends were assisting him, often too late, with additional illustrations or references, it will not appear highly censurable that he dismissed his volumes capable of improvement. From his own copy of the first volume of his History, and of his edition of Milton, both now before me, it appears that he corrected with fastidious care, and was extremely anxious to render his style what we now find it, perspicuous, vigorous, and occasionally ornamented. His corrections, however, are often written in an indistinct hand, and this perhaps occasioned fresh errours which he had not an opportunity to correct. He had not found out the secret, which appears to be yet a secret to most writers, the danger and inconvenience of sending unfinished works to the press. This was not the practice of our eminent historians. Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon completed every line of their volumes before they began to print. But whoever attempts to feed the press from day to day, will soon find his stores exhausted, and himself obliged to furnish a hasty, crude copy, which, if he is afterwards ashamed of it, he finds it too late to withdraw, and not very easy to mend. — With all its faults, however, this history will ever remain a monument of learning, taste, and judgment, such as few men in any nation have been able to produce.
His poetry, as well as that of his brother, has been the occasion of some difference of opinion among the critics, and the school of Warton, as it is called, has not of late been always mentioned with the respect it deserves. Among the characteristics of our author's poetry, however, his style may be considered as manly and energetic, but seldom varied by the graces of simplicity. His habits of thought led him to commence all his poems in a style pompous and swelling: his ideas often ran on the imaginary days of gothic grandeur, and mighty achievement; and where such subjects were to be treated, as in his Triumph of Isis, and in his Laureat Odes, no man could have clothed them in language more appropriate.
The Triumph of Isis was written in his twenty-first year, and exhibits the same beauties and faults which are to be found in his mature productions. Among these last, is a redundancy of epithet, which is more frequently a proof of labour than of taste. The Pleasures of Melancholy appears to me to be a more genuine specimen of early talent. He was only in his seventeenth year, when his mind was so richly stored with striking and elegant imagery.
In general, he seems to have taken Milton for his model, and throughout his poems we find expressions borrowed with as much freedom from Milton, as he has proved that Milton borrowed from others. One piece only, Newmarket, is an imitation of Pope, and is certainly one of the finest satires in our language. In this he has not only adopted the versification of Pope, and emulated his wit and point, but many of his lines are parodies on what he recollected in Pope's Satires. This freedom of borrowing, however, seems so generally allowed, that it can form no higher objection against Warton, than against Pope, Gray, and others of acknowledged eminence. We cannot be surprised that the memory of such a student as Warton, should be familiar with the choicest language of poetry, and that he should often adopt it unconscious of its being the property of another.
The frequent use of alliteration is a more striking defect. It is wonderful, that he who had an ear for music, could tolerate such lines as
Issues to clothe in gladsome glist'ring green
The genial globe—
or, "The due clock swinging slow with sweepy swing," which, by the way, is a parody on a more expressive line, "Swinging slow with sullen roar."
These however are strictures which ought not to interfere with the general merit of Warton, as a poet of original genius. His descriptive pieces, had he written nothing else, would have proved his claim to that title. Nothing can be wore natural, just, or delightful, than his pictures of rural life. The first of April, and the Approach of Summer, have seldom been rivalled, and cannot perhaps be excelled. The only objection which some critics have started is, that his descriptions are not varied by reflection. He gives an exquisite landscape, but does not always express the feelings it creates. His brother, speaking of Thomson, observes, that the unexpected insertion of reflections, "imparts to us the same pleasure that we feel, when, in wandering through a wilderness or grove, we suddenly behold in the turning of the walk a statue of some Virtue or Muse." Yet in Warton's descriptive poetry, it is no small merit to have produced so much effect, so many exquisite pictures without this aid.
The Suicide perhaps deserves a yet higher character, rising to the sublime by gradations which speak to every imagination. It has indeed been objected that it is imperfect, and too allegorical. It appeals, however, so forcibly to the heart, awakens so many important reflections, and contains so happy a mixture of terrour and consolation, that it seems difficult to lay it down without unmixed admiration. The Crusade and the Grave of Arthur, are likewise specimens of genuine poetical taste, acting on materials that are difficult to manage. Both in invention and execution, these odes may rank among the finest of their species in our language.
Warton has afforded many proofs of an exquisite relish for humour in his Panegyric on Oxford Ale, the Progress of Discontent, and other pieces classed under that denomination. His success in these productions leads once more to the remark that few men have combined so many qualities of mind, a taste for the sublime and the pathetic, the gay and humorous, the pursuits of the antiquary, and the pleasures of amusement, the labours of research, and the play of imagination.
Upon the whole, it may be allowed, that as a poet, he is original, various and elegant, but that in most of his pieces he discovers the taste that results from a studied train of thought, rather than the wild and enraptured strains that arise from passion, inspired on the moment, ungovernable in their progress, and grand even in their wanderings. Still he deserves to he classed among the revivers of genuine poetry, by preferring "fiction and fancy, picturesque description and romantic imagery," to "wit and elegance, sentiment and satire, sparkling couplets, and pointed periods."