1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Joseph Warton

Alexander Chalmers, in Works of the English Poets (1810) 18:145-53.



DR. JOSEPH WARTON was born at the house of his maternal grandfather, the rev. Joseph Richardson, rector of Dunsford, in the year 1722. Except for a very short time that he was at New College school, he was educated by his father until he arrived at his fourteenth year. He was then admitted on the foundation of Winchester College, under the care of the present venerable Dr. Sandby, at that time the head of the school, and now chancellor of Norwich.

He had not been long at this excellent seminary before he exhibited considerable intellectual powers, and a laudable ambition to outstrip the common process of education. Collins, the poet, was one of his school-fellows, and in conjunction with him and another boy, young Warton sent three poetical pieces to the Gentleman's Magazine, of such merit as to be highly praised in that miscellany, but not, as his biographer supposes, by Dr. Johnson. A letter also to his sister, which Mr. Wooll has printed, exhibits very extraordinary proofs of fancy and observation in one so young.

In September 1740, being superannuated according to the laws of the school, he was removed from Winchester, and having no opportunity of a vacancy at New College, he went to Oriel. Here he applied to his studies, not only with diligence, but with that true taste for what is valuable, which rendered the finer discriminations of criticism habitual to his mind. During his leisure hours he completed several of his poems, among which his biographer enumerates the Enthusiast, or the Lover of Nature, the Dying Indian, and a prose satire entitled Ranelagh House. He appears likewise to have sketched an allegorical work of a more elaborate kind, which he did not find time or inclination to complete. On taking his bachelor's degree in 1744, he was ordained to his father's curacy at Basingstoke, and officiated in that church till February 1746: he next removed to the duty of Chelsea, whence, in order to complete his recovery from the small pox, he went to Chobham.

About this time he had became a correspondent in Dodsley's Museum, to which he contributed, as appears by his copy of that work now before me, Superstition, an ode, dated Chelsea, April 1746, and Stanzas written on taking the air after a long illness. In the preceding year, as noticed in his brother's life, he published by subscription, a volume of his father's poems, partly to do honour to his memory, but principally with the laudable purpose of paying what debts he left behind him, and of raising a little fund for himself and family. Whether this scheme answered his full expectations is uncertain, but he appears to have been encouraged by some of his father's opulent friends, and probably was no loser. The correspondence Mr. Wooll has published, shows with what prudence the two brothers husbanded their scanty provision, and with what affection they endeavoured to support and cheer each other while at school and college.

Owing to some disagreement with the parishioners of Chelsea, which had taken place before he left that curacy, he accepted the duty of Chawton and Droxford, but after a few months returned to Basingstoke. In 1747-8 he was presented by the duke of Bolton to the rectory of Winslade, and as this, although a living of small produce, was probably considered by him as the earnest of more valuable preferment, he immediately married Miss Daman, of that neighbourhood, to whom, his biographer informs us, he had been some time enthusiastically attached. In 1747, according to Mr. Wooll's account, he had published a volume of odes, in conjunction with Collins, but on consulting the literary registers of the time, it appears that each published a volume of poems in 1746, and in the same month. It cannot now be ascertained what degree of fame accrued to our author from this volume, but in the preface we find him avowing those sentiments on the nature of genuine poetry which he expanded more at large afterwards, and which were the foundation of what has since been termed "the school of the Wartons."

"The public," he says, "has been so much accustomed of late to didactic poetry alone, and essays on moral subjects, that any work, where the imagination is much indulged, will perhaps not be relished or regarded. The author therefore of these pieces is in some pain, lest certain austere critics should think them too fanciful or descriptive. But as he is convinced that the fashion of moralizing in verse has been carried too far, and as he looks upon invention and imagination to be the chief faculties of a poet, so he will be happy if the following Odes may he looked upon as an attempt to bring back poetry into its right channel." — In 1749 he published his ode to Mr. West.

In 1751, his patron the duke of Bolton invited him to be his companion in a tour to the south of France. For this, Mr. Wooll informs us, he had two motives, "the society of a man of learning and taste, and the accommodation of a protestant clergyman, who, immediately on the death of his dutchess, then in a confirmed dropsy, could marry him to the lady with whom he lived, and who was universally known and distinguished by the name of Polly Peachum."

Whichever of these motives predominated in the duke's mind, it is much to be regretted that our author so far forgot what was due to his character and profession as to accept the offer. But if any circumstance besides the consciousness of doing wrong, could embitter the remembrance of this solitary blemish in his public life, it was, that, after all, the only hopes which could justify his compliance were very ungraciously disappointed. For some reason or other, he was obliged to leave his patron, and come to England before the dutchess died, and when that event took place, and he solicited permission to return to the duke, he had the mortification to learn that the ceremony had been performed by Mr. Devisme, chaplain to the embassy at Turin.

Soon after his return to England, he published his edition of Virgil in English and Latin, the Aeneid translated by Pitt, and the Eclogues and Georgics by himself, who also contributed the notes on the whole. Into this publication, he introduced Warburton's Dissertation on the sixth Aeneid: a commentary on the character of Iapis by Atterbury, and on the shield of Aeneas by Whitehead, the laureat, originally published in Dodsley's Museum; and three Essays on Pastoral, Didactic and Epic Poetry written by himself. Much of this valuable work, begun in 1748-9, was printed when he was abroad, and the whole completed in 1753. It is unnecessary to add that his share in the translation, his notes, and especially his Essays, raised him to a very high reputation among the scholars and critics of his age. The second edition, which appeared a few years after, was much improved. In addition to the other honour, which resulted from this display of classical taste, the university of Oxford conferred upon him the degree of master of arts, by diploma, dated June 23, 1759. Such is Mr. Wooll's account, but it is evident from the date that his Essay likewise preceded this just mark of esteem.

During the year 1753, he was invited to assist in the Adventurer, which was begun by Hawkesworth, in 1752. The invitation came from his friend Dr. Johnson, who informed him that the literary partners wished to assign to him the province of criticism.

His contributions to the Adventurer amount to twenty-four papers. Of these a few are of the humourous cast, but the greater part consist of elegant criticism, not that of cold sagacity, but warm from the heart, and powerfully addressed to the finer feelings as well as to the judgment. His critical papers on Lear have never been exceeded for just taste and discrimination. His disposition lay in selecting, and illustrating those beauties of ancient and modern poetry, which, like the beauties of nature, strike and please many who are yet incapable of describing or analysing them. No. 101, on the blemishes in the Paradise Lost, is an example of the delicacy and impartiality with which writings of established fame ought to he examined. His observations on the Odyssey, in Nos. 75, 80, and 83, are original and judicious, but it may be doubted whether they have detached many scholars from the accustomed preference given to the Iliad. If any objection may be made to Dr. Warton's critical papers, it is that his Greek occurs too frequently in a work intended for domestic instruction. His style is always pure and perspicuous, but sometimes it may be discovered, without any other information, that "he kept company with Dr. Johnson." The first part of No. 139, if found detached, might have been attributed to that writer. It has all his manner, not merely "the contorsions of the sybil" but somewhat of the "inspiration."

About this time he appears to have meditated a history of the revival of literature. His first intention was to publish Select Epistles of Political, Erasmus, Grotius and others, with notes, but after some correspondence with his brother, who was to assist in the undertaking, it was laid aside, a circumstance much to he lamented, as few men were more extensively acquainted with literary history, or could have detailed it in a more pleasing form. At a subsequent period he again sketched a plan of nearly the same kind, which was likewise abandoned. Collins, some time before this, had published proposals for a History of the Revival of Learning, with a Life of Leo the Tenth, but probably no part was executed, or could indeed be reasonably expected, from one of his unhappy state of mind.

In 1754, our author was instituted to the living of Tunworth, on the presentation of the Jervoise family; and in 1755, on the resignation of the rev. Samuel Speed, he was elected second master of Winchester-school, with the management and advantages of a boarding house. In the following year, sir George Lyttelton, then advanced to the peerage, commenced the patronage of his nobility by bestowing a scarf on Mr. Warton. He had for some time enjoyed the familiar acquaintance of sir George, and assisted him in the revisal of his history of Henry II.

Amidst all these honours and employments, he now found leisure to complete the first volume of his celebrated Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope, which he dedicated to Dr. Young, but did not subscribe his name. Dodsley likewise, although the real publisher, thought proper to employ his deputy Mrs. Cooper on this occasion. The following passage from one of Dodsley's letters published by Mr. Wooll, will probably throw some light on his motive. "Your Essay is published, the price 5s. bound. I gave Mrs. Cooper directions about advertising, and have sent it to her this afternoon, to desire she will look after its being inserted in the evening papers. I have a pleasure in telling you that it is liked in general, and particularly by such as you would wish should like it. But you have surely not kept your secret: Johnson mentioned it to Mr. Hitch as yours. — Dr. Birch mentioned it to Garrick as yours. — And Dr. Akenside mentioned it as yours to me. — And many whom I cannot now think on have asked for it as, yours or your brother's. I have sold many of them in my own shop, and have dispersed and pushed it as much as I can: and have said more than I could have said if my name had been to it." The objections made to this admirable piece of criticism will be considered hereafter. In the mean time, they were powerful enough to damp the ardour of the essayist, who left his work in an imperfect state for the long space of twenty-six years.

In May 1766, he was advanced to the head mastership of Winchester school, a situation for which he was eminently qualified, and in which his shining abilities, urbanity of manners, and eminent success in producing scholars of distinguished talents, will be long and affectionately remembered. In consequence of this promotion he once more visited Oxford, and proceeded to the degree of bachelor and doctor in divinity. In 1772, he lost the wife of his early affection, by whom he had six children. The stroke was severe, but the necessity of providing a substitute for his children, and an intelligent and tender companion for himself, induced him in the following year to marry Miss Nicholas, daughter of Robert Nicholas, esq. a descendant of Dr. Nicholas, formerly warden of Winchester.

The tenour of his life was now even. During such times as he could spare from the school, and especially on the return of the Christmas vacation, he visited his friends in London, among whom were the whole of that class who composed Dr. Johnson's literary club, with some persons of rank by whom he was highly respected, but who appear to have remembered their old master in every thing but promotion. In 1782, he was indebted to his friend and correspondent Dr. Lowth, bishop of London, for a prebend of St. Paul's, and the living of Thorley in Hertfordshire, which, after some arrangements, he exchanged for Wickham. This year also he published his second and concluding volume of the Essay on Pope, and a new edition, with some alterations of the first.

In 1788, through the interest of lord Shannon, he obtained a prebend in Winchester cathedral, and through that of lord Malmesbury, the rectory of Easton, which, within the year, he was permitted to exchange for Upham. The amount of these preferments was considerable, but surely not beyond his merit, and it must be observed, they came late when his family could no longer expect the advantages of early income and economy. He was sixty years of age before he had any benefice, except the small livings of Wynslade and Tunworth, and nearly seventy before he enjoyed the remainder. The unequal distribution of ecclesiastic preferments would be a subject too delicate for discussion, if they were uniformly the rewards of ecclesiastical services, but as, among other reasons, they are bestowed on account of literary attainments, we may be allowed to wonder that Dr. Warton was not remunerated in an early period of life, when he stood almost at the head of English scholars, and when his talents, in their full vigour, would have dignified the highest stations.

In the year 1793, he came to a resolution to resign the mastership of Winchester. He was now beginning to feel that his time of life required more ease and relaxation than the duties of the school permitted, and his resolution was probably strengthened by some unpleasant proceedings at that period among the scholars. Accordingly he gave in his resignation on the twenty-third of July, and retired to his rectory at Wickham. A vote of thanks followed from the wardens, &c. of the school, for the encouragement he had given to genius and industry, the attention he had paid to the introduction of a correct taste in composition and classical learning, and the many and various services which he had conferred on the Wiccamical societies through the long course of years in which he filled the places of second and head master. These were not words of course, but truly felt by the addressers, although they form a very inadequate character of him as master.

During his retirement at Wickham, he was induced by a liberal offer from the booksellers of London, and more probably, by his love for the task, to superintend a new edition of Pope's Works, which he completed in 1797, in nine volumes octavo. That this was the most complete and best illustrated edition of Pope was generally allowed, but it had to contend with objections, some of which were not urged with the respect due to the veteran critic who had done so much to reform and refine the taste of his age. It was proper to object that he had introduced one or two pieces which ought never to have been published, but it was not so proper or necessary to object that he had given us his Essay cut down into notes. Besides that this was unavoidable, they who made the objection had not been very careful to compare the new with the old matter; they would have found upon a fair examination that his original illustrations were very numerous, and that no discovery respecting Pope's character or writings made since the edition of Warburton, was left untouched.

It has already been mentioned that he had once an intention of compiling a History of the Revival of Learning, and that he had abandoned it. About the year 1784, however, he issued proposals for a work which would probably have included much of his original purpose. This was to have been comprised in two quarto volumes, and to contain the History of Grecian, Roman, Italian, and French Poetry in four parts. 1. From Homer to Nonnus: II. From Ennius to Boetius: III. From Dante to Metastasio: IV. From W. de Lorris to Voltaire. This he announced as "preparing for the press." Probably his brother's death, and his desire to complete his History of English Poetry, diverted him from his own design: but it does not appear that he made any progress in either.

After the publication of Pope, be entered on an edition of Dryden, and about the year 1799, had completed two volumes with notes, which are now in the possession of his son, the rev. John Warton, who has undertaken to give them to the world. At this time the venerable author was attacked by an incurable disorder in his kidneys, which terminated his useful and honourable life on Feb. 23, 1800, in his seventy-eighth year. He left a widow, who died in 1806, a son and three daughters, the youngest by his second wife. He was interred in the same grave with his first wife, in the north aisle of Winchester cathedral: and the Wiccamists evinced their respect for his memory by an elegant monument by Flaxman, placed against the pillar next to the entrance of the choir on the south-side of the centre aisle.

In 1806, the rev. John Wooll, master of the school of Midhurst in Sussex, published Biographical Memoirs of Dr. Warton, with a Selection from his Poetry and a Literary Correspondence. From all these, the present sketch has been compiled, with some additional particulars gleaned from the literary journals of the times, and other sources of information.

The personal character of Dr. Warton continues to be the theme of praise with all who knew him. Without affectation of superior philosophy, he possessed an independent spirit, and amidst what would have been to others very bitter disappointments, he was never known to express the language of discontent or envy. As a husband and parent he displayed the tenderest feelings mixed with that prudence which implies sense as well as affection. His manners partook of what has been termed the old court: his address was polite and even elegant, but occasionally it had somewhat of measure and stateliness. Having left the university after a short residence, he mixed early with the world, sought and enjoyed the society of the fair sex, and tempered his studious habits with the tender and polite attentions necessary in promiscuous intercourse. In this respect there was a visible difference between him and his brother, whose manners were more careless and unpolished. In the more solid qualities of the heart, in true benevolence, kindness, hospitality, they approached very closely. Yet though their inclinations and pursuits were congenial, and each assisted the other in his undertakings, it may be questioned, whether at any time they could have exchanged occupations: with equal stores of literature, with equal refinement of taste, it may be questioned whether the author of the Essay on Pope could, have pursued the history of English poetry, or whether the historian of poetry could have written the papers we find in the Adventurer.

In conversation, Dr. Warton's talents appeared to great advantage. He was mirthful, argumentative, or communicative of observation and anecdote, as he found his company lean to the one or to the other. His memory was more richly stored with literary history than perhaps any man of his time, and his range was very extensive. He knew French and Italian literature most intimately; and when conversing on more common topics, his extempore sallies and opinions bore evidence of the same delicate taste and candour which appear in his writings.

His biographer has considered his literary character under the three heads of a poet, a critic, and an instructor, but it is as a critic principally that he will be known to posterity, and as one who, in the language of Johnson, has taught "how the brow of criticism may be smoothed, and how she may be enabled, with all her severity, to attract and to delight." A book, indeed, of more delightful variety than his Essay on Pope, has not yet appeared, nor one in which there is a more happy mixture of judgment and sensibility. It did not, however, flatter the current opinions on the rank of Pope among poets, and the author desisted from pursuing his subject for many years. Dr. Johnson said that this was owing "to his not having been able to persuade the world to be of his opinion as to Pope." This was probably the truth, but not the whole truth. Motives of a delicate nature are supposed to have had some share in inducing him to desist for a time. Warburton was yet alive, the executor of Pope and the guardian of his fame, and Warburton was no less the active and zealous friend, and correspondent of Thomas Warton: nor was it any secret that Warburton furnished Ruffhead with the materials for his life of Pope, the chief object of which was a rude and impotent attack on the Essay. Warburton died in 1779, and in 1782, Dr. Warton completed his Essay, and at length persuaded the world that he did not differ from the common opinion so much as was supposed. Still by pointing out what is not poetry, he gave unpardonable offence to those whose names appear among poets, but whom he has reduced to moralists, and versifiers.

In all this, however, our author produced no new doctrine. The severe arrangement of poets in his dedication to Young, which announced the principles he intended to apply to Pope and to the whole body of English poetry, was evidently taken from Phillips, the nephew of Milton. In the preface to the Theatrum of this writer, it is asserted that "wit, ingenuity and learning in verse, even elegancy itself, though that comes nearest, are one thing: true native poetry is another: in which there is a certain air and spirit, which, perhaps, the most learned and judicious in other arts do not perfectly apprehend: much less is it attainable by any art or study." On this text the whole of the Essay is founded, and whatever objections were raised to it, while that blind admiration of Pope which accompanied his long dictatorship continued in full force, it is now generally adopted as the test of poetical merit by the best critics, although the partialities which some entertain for individual poets may yet give rise to difference of opinion respecting the provinces of argument and feeling.

That Dr. Warton advanced no novel opinions is proved from Phillips's Preface; and Phillips, there is reason to suppose, may have been indebted to his uncle Milton for an idea of poetry so superior to what was entertained in his day. It has already been noticed, that the opinions of the two Wartons, "the learned brothers," as they have been justly styled, were congenial on most topics of literature, but perhaps in nothing more than their ideas of poetry, which both endeavoured to exemplify in their own productions, although with different effect. Dr. Warton was certainly, in point of invention, powers of description, and variety, greatly inferior to the laureat. The Enthusiast, the Dying Indian, the Revenge of America, and one or two of his odes, are not deficient in spirit, and enthusiasm, but the rest are more remarkable for a correct and faultless elegance than for any striking attribute of poetry. His Odes, which were coeval with those of Collins, most have, suffered greatly by comparison. So different is taste from execution, and so strikingly are we reminded of one of his assertions, that "in no polished nation, after criticism has been much studied, and the rules of writing established, has any very extraordinary work appeared." But while we are reminded of this by his own productions, it may yet be doubted whether what may be true when applied to an individual who has lived a life of criticism, will be equally true of a nation. Even among our living poets, we may find more than one who have given proofs that extraordinary poetry may yet be produced, and that the rules of writing are not so fixed, nor criticism so studied as to impede the progress of real genius. All that can be concluded respecting Dr. Warton is, that if his genius had been equal to his taste, if he could have produced what he appreciates with such exquisite skill in others, he would have undoubtedly been in poetry what he was in erudition and criticism.

As an instructor and divine, Mr. Wooll's opinion of him may be adopted with safety.

"His professional exertions united the qualities of criticism and instruction. When the higher classes read under him the Greek tragedians, orators, or poets, they received the benefit not only of direct and appropriate information, but of a pure, elegant lecture on classical taste. The spirit with which he commented on the prosopopaeia of Oedipus or Electra, the genuine elegance and accuracy with which he developed the animated rules and doctrines of his favourite Longinus, the insinuating but guarded praise he bestowed, the well-judged and proportionate encouragement he uniformly held out to the first dawning of genius, and the anxious assiduity with which he pointed out the paths to literary eminence, can never, I am confident, be forgotten by those who have hung with stedfast attention on his precepts, and enjoyed the advantage of his superior guidance. Zealous in his adherence to the church establishment, and exemplary in his attention to its ordinances and duties, he was at the same time a decided enemy to bigotry and intolerance. His style of preaching was unaffectedly earnest and impressive; and the dignified solemnity with which he read the Liturgy (particularly the Communion-Service) was remarkably awful. He had the most happy art of arresting the attention of youth on religious subjects. Every Wiccamical reader will recollect his inimitable commentaries on Grotius, on the Sunday evenings, and his discourse annually delivered in the school on Good Friday: the impressions made by them cannot be forgotten."