1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Warton

Samuel Egerton Brydges, "Thomas Warton" Censura Literaria 4 (1807) 84-93, 274-84.



The author, of whom I now propose to give an account, was a man of singular endowments, and great simplicity of character.

Thomas Warton was a native of Basingstoke in Hampshire, and born in 1728. His father, who was vicar of that parish, was also a poet, and had been formerly Poetry Professor at Oxford A posthumous volume of his Poems was edited by his son, the Rev. Joseph Warton, in 1748, three years after his death.

Thomas Warton was educated under his father at Basingstoke, and at a very early period became a member of the University of Oxford, where he soon distinguished himself by his poetical talents. The Pleasures of Melancholy, the Progress of Discontent, and Newmarket, a Satire, were all very early compositions.

These three poems in three various styles of composition discover his extraordinary youthful acquirements, and the great versatility of his talents. And to these may be added in still another manner the Triumph of Isis, 1749, in answer to Mason's Elegy; a composition, which considered as an exercise on a subject not chosen by himself, deserves high praise, for its harmony of numbers, and striking command of language and sentiment. Perhaps, though well calculated for popularity, it is not one of those, compositions, on which either he himself or an acute critic would wish to place his claims to genius.

The recluse and uniform life of a Fellow of a College affords but little matter to descant upon. Yet it may offer many pleasures, and if not much enriched by diversity of action, may command a great variety of mental enjoyments. It has indeed been too often found, that in this mode of life, intellectual cultivation has not been in proportion to the opportunity it yielded; and that

—the vain hours unsocial Sloth beguil'd,
While the still cloisters gate Oblivion lock'd;
And thro' the chambers pale to slumbers mild
Wan Indolence her drowsy cradle rock'd.

Experience proves that there is a certain degree of difficulties, which animates the mind, and that perfect ease and quiet are not favourable to literary exertion.

Exemption from the cares of the world, respectable station, convenient apartments, a luxurious and social table, even rich libraries, and quiet and beautiful walks, have not often cherished that mental abstraction, and still less that mental energy, by which sublime or even ingenious works have been produced.

Thomas Warton surmounted the torpor incident to his situation. But his compositions are certainly not characterized by passion. They are rich in the splendour of diction, and in the images of the fancy — but few, if any of them, seem to have been produced under the influence of violent agitation. I think there is little of the "Thoughts that breathe and words that burn."

Poetical composition was far from being the sole, and perhaps not the primary, literary occupation of this author. He early distinguished himself as a critic in our old English literature, particularly on the works of Spenser; and his habits of elegant composition, his command of language, his extensive erudition, his powers of reflection, and the ingenuity of his inferences, raised him at once to an eminence in this department, which no successor has since risen to dispute with him. His Observations on the Fairy Queen was first published in 1753, in his 26th year, and corrected and enlarged into 2 vols. 12mo. 1762.

But he was not so immersed in black-letter studies, as to be forgetful of his classical attainments. In 1758 he published Inscriptionum Metricarum Delectus, cum notulis, 4to.

Two years afterwards he contributed the Life of Sir Thos. Pope to the Biographia Britannica, which he augmented into an 8vo. volume, 1770. Sir Thos. Pope was the founder of his College of Trinity; and this memorial must be considered as an offering of gratitude to a benefactor. The subject afforded but little to interest general curiosity, and it required all the riches and all the art of the writer to surround it with splendour. But this Warton has effected. He has brought forward many curious circumstances hitherto buried among the lumber of voluminous and forgotten historians; and by the perspicuity of his arrangement, the vivacity of his language, and the justness of his remarks, exhibited a narrative, in which they, who are fond of inquiring into the manners and characters of past times, will find their attention deeply engaged.

—The piercing eye explores
New manners, and the pomp of elder days,
Whence culls the pensive bard his pictur'd stores!
Nor rough, nor barren are the winding ways
Of hoar antiquity, but strown with flowers.

In 1770, his 43d year, he published from the Clarendon press his celebrated edition of Theocritus in two volumes, 4to. of which, though it has not escaped attacks, several learned men have spoken in very high terms. His Prefixed Dissertation, on the Bucolics of the Greeks, has been generally praised as an elegant and ingenious composition. I doubt whether he does not betray some awkwardness of Latin phraseology, which considering the variety of his pursuits will not appear at all wonderful.

From this time he must have been deeply engaged in preparing his History of English Poetry, of which the first vol. appeared in 1774, his 47th year. The second volume was-published in 1778, and the third in 1781.

In 1777, as if to procure an interval of relief from his severer labours, he amused himself by printing a selection of his poems, of which very few had hitherto been made public. Many, which had for years been scattered about in various collections, though known to be his, he for some reason refrained from introducing in this little volume.

The world, I believe, received this publication rather coldly. The Spenserian or Miltonic cast of language or rhythm, the crowded imagery, the descriptive or allegorical turn, of most of the poems, were what Dr. Johnson (then possessed, without a rival, of the chair of criticism,) set all the energy of his invective, and the powers of his coarse ridicule, to decry. And the public, always glad to find an authority for their want of taste or of fancy, eagerly followed his example.

It is said that Dr. Johnson in the latter part of his life expressed his chagrin at some appearance of alienation in his friends the Wartons. But how unreasonable he must have been to expect otherwise! Who can hear ridicule on a favourite pursuit? And still less, unjust ridicule? No taste could have been more dissimilar, than that of Johnson and the Wartons! No minds formed in more opposite moulds! The Wartons were classical scholars of the highest order, embued with all the enthusiasm, and all the prejudices if you will, of Greece and Rome, heightened by the romantic effusions of the ages of chivalry, by the sublimities of Dante and Milton, the wildness of Ariosto and Spenser, the beauties of Tasso and Petrarch. Johnson was a severe moralist, who, thinking merely from the sources of his own mind, endeavoured to banish all which he deemed the useless and unsubstantial eccentricities of the mind, He loved the "Truth severe," but he could not bear to see it — "in fairy fiction drest."

How could such discordant tempers agree? Whenever they met, they must have parted with disgust. At least this must have been the case with the Wartons, whose quiet and unobtrusive manners rendered them unfit to cope with the vociferation and domineering spirit of Johnson, who often mistook the silence produced by rudeness for a proof of victory. To be overpowered by effrontery and noise, when we are confident that the force of argument is with us, is a provocation which few can bear!

Warton, who, even amid the seducing indolence of a college, constantly indulged the activity of his excursive intellect in some new subject of research, found time to relieve the toils of his history by drawing up a specimen of parochial topography, in an account of Kiddinglon in Oxfordshire, 1781, of which he was vicar. It is an admirable model for works of this nature, and discovers all that curious research in a new department of antiquities, for which he had already shewn such talents in a more flowery and inviting branch.

He also engaged in the Rowleian controversy, in a manner, which totally put an end to the question in the opinion of all rational and unprejudiced inquirers.

In 1785 he gave anew edition of the Juvenile Poems of Milton, 8vo. This was a grateful present to the public: another editor equally qualified for this task could not have been found in the literary world. The critic's favourite course of reading from his earliest years, his innate propensities, the structure of his mind, and the habitual course of his thoughts, all contributed to make him a congenial commentator on these beautiful poems. There are many who have blamed what they denominate the excess of his illustrations. They conceive that the imitations and allusions which he has traced are sometimes fanciful, and sometimes too trivial for notice But there is nothing, to which the ingenuity of envy and detraction cannot find plausible objections.

In this year he was, on the death of Whitehead, appointed Poet Laureat; and for the five succeeding years, (at the end of which, on May 21, 1790, he terminated his useful life,) he produced his two annual Odes; compositions, which, written as a task on trite and constantly recurring subjects, must not be examined with too much severity, but which, much more often than could be expected, display the richness of his poetical vein.

In these constant and various employments passed the life of Thomas Warton. And surely as far as a life of calmness and equability, unmingled with those domestic endearments, which, if they involve the most bitter sufferings, add the highest zest to human pleasures, can be happy, it must have been happy! All the luxuries of mental entertainment were at his command: libraries richly stored, and the silence of academic bowers, were ready to feed the curiosity of his mind, constantly awake to literary research. Freed from those anxious cares for the provision of the day, which have embittered the existence of too many men of genius, he could ruminate undisturbed upon the visions of his fancy, or pursue, without the compunctions visitings of prudence, the airy and unrecompensed investigations of a romantic spirit. With him if

No children ran to lisp their sire's return,
Nor climb'd his knees the envied kiss to share,

he had none to reproach him for his neglect of worldly ambition, and his sacrifice to the unprofitable worship of the Muse.

Warton must be considered as one, who much employed himself in investigating the curiosities of literature. His pursuits therefore and his productions were of a less popular kind than those, which consisted of less research. Those minute facts, those pictures of manners, sentiments, and language, which he loved to discover and communicate, require minds of more than common cultivation to appreciate them. While therefore the simple productions of Goldsmith made instantly their way among all ranks of people, and the unadorned energy of his sentiments and imagery found an echo in every bosom, the more laboured and highly wrought compositions of Warton, illuminated by a richly cultivated fancy, and polished by all the artifices of style, were little relished by the generality of readers.

The manners of Warton are said to have been in an eminent degree unaffected. They discovered without disguise the habits and propensities of his character. Independent in his pursuits, quiet, inobtrusive, and ungoaded by vanity, and little accustomed to the collision of promiscuous society, he is said to have been silent and reserved in mixed companies; but, where he was familiar, to have opened all the powers of his mind, his vast fund of erudition) his brilliant fancy, and the chearful attractions of irresistible humour.

He has been blamed by those, who think wisdom consists in stateliness of manner and pomposity of dress, for a neglect of the little forms of life, and of those punctilious ceremonies by which they consider the dignity of station to be preserved. He is also said to have been fond of low company, a fault, which certainly did not become a man of his high qualities; but which perhaps had some affinity with his excellencies. It is probable, that disgusted with those formalities which depressed the freedom of his thoughts, and the ebullitions of his humour, he might seek companions in those, among whom the superiority of his station enabled him to indulge without restraint the ease and eccentricities of his mind. He might also hope to find more simplicity, energy, and originality of character in the lower classes. It is reported that he was often seen amongst the watermen of the Isis (or the Cherwell) enjoying the luxurious movement of the boat, and the freshness of the river breezes, or perhaps smoking his pipe, in solemn abstraction, or quaffing the favourite beverage, on which he has written a panegyric with such happy humour!...

I have given a sketch of the life of this author, and am now called upon to enter into some criticism on his writings.

The Suicide is a noble poem: and of an higher tone than most of the compositions of this author. There is indeed an occasional quaintness of language, an alliteration better avoided, and a roughness arising from a crowd of consonants, which Dr. Johnson would have severely censured. There are few finer stanzas in the body of English poetry than the following:

Full oft, unknowing and unknown,
He wore his endless noons alone
Amid the autumnal wood;
Oft was he wont in hasty fit
Abrupt the social board to quit,
And gaze with eager glance upon the tumbling flood.
Beckoning the wretch to torments new,
Despair for ever in his view,
A spectre pale appear'd;
While, as the shades of eve arose,
And brought the day's unwelcome close,
More horrible and huge her giant shape she rear'd.

It has been said, that all this writer's poems are cast in the mould of some gifted predecessor. No remark can have less foundation. I cannot recollect the previous existence of the mould, in which The Suicide was formed. But what model have the Ode on Leaving a Favourite Village, The First of April, the Crusade, and The Grave of King Arthur followed? In The Hamlet, every image is drawn directly from actual observation; and at once combines the charms of poetry with the accuracy of a naturalist. It possesses also a simplicity and harmony of diction at once original and appropriate, which adds to its uncommon excellence. The favourite village was Wynslade, at the back of Hackwood Park, in Hants, where the poet's brother Joseph Warton then resided. Of that country the scenery introduced in this ode is an exact description:

The bard who rapture found
From every rural sight and sound;
Whose genius warm and judgment chaste
No charm of genuine nature past;
Who felt the Muse's purest, fires;

was his brother, who well deserved the character, and who was at that time travelling with Charles Duke of Bolton.

Nearly similar praise is deserved by the First of April. It opens indeed with some awkwardness of expression, but it deals in no common-place description and trite hereditary imagery. The season of the year, and the appearances in vegetation which it produces, are delineated with the most exquisite exactness, and with the happiest selection of circumstances. But perhaps as it has less intermixture of a moral cast than the former ode, its attraction is both less striking, and less permanent.

The Hamlet also is a poem of the same stamp, containing a diminutive picture of rural happiness, finished with inimitable beauty, and without a rival among the various attempts which our poets have made upon congenial subjects. It is worth remarking, that the charming paragraph of ten lines beginning "Their little sons," was first introduced in the second of he two editions of 1777.

The Crusade, and the Grave of King Arthur, breathe a spirit of chivalry, and a splendour of romantic fancy, well adapted to their subjects.

But the verses on Sir Joshua Reynolds's Painted Window, were the latest voluntary offering which Warton made to the Muse. They exhibit, in an uncommon degree, the variety of his powers. They have all the harmony and polish of Pope, with infinitely more ease, energy, command of language, and brilliance of imagination.

He begins with a most happy description of his own propensities:

Ah, stay thy treacherous hand; forbear to trace
Those faultless forms of elegance and grace!
Ah, cease to spread the bright transparent mass,
With Titian's pencil, o'er the speaking glass:
Nor steal, by strokes of art, with truth combin'd,
The fond illusions of my wayward mind!
For, long enamour'd of a barbarous age,
A faithless truant to the classic page;
Long have I lov'd to catch the simple chime
Of minstrel-harps, and spell the fabling rime;
To view the festive rites, the knightly play,
That deck'd heroic Albion's elder day;
To mark the mouldering halls of barons bold,
And the rough castle, cast in giant mould;
With gothic manners, gothic arts explore,
And muse on the magnificence of yore.

He proceeds to assert his attachment to gothic architecture, which he describes, in eighteen lines, with wonderful beauty and force. The whole concludes with the following vigorous paragraph:

Reynolds, 'tis thine, from the broad window's height,
To add new lustre to religious light:
Not of its pomp to strip this ancient shrine;
But bid that pomp with purer radiance shine:
With arts unknown before, to reconcile
The willing graces to the gothic pile!

Perhaps Warton has not displayed what may properly, be called invention in his poetry. But invention is a term so indefinitely used, that till we agree on some precise ideas regarding it, it seems hardly fair to admit such an assertion. In one sense he certainly possesses this power: the images of his descriptive poetry are either new in themselves, or in their combination Dr. Aikin has long ago remarked, that many of his descriptions possess all the accuracy of the naturalist. The circumstances in vernal scenery, which he has delineated with so vivid a pencil, are not the result of a memory stored with poetical phrases derived from his predecessors, but of a minute and most attentive observer of nature.

I shall insert one of his poems entire, though well known, as it is short; it is perhaps a specimen of his best manner, and is indeed a very beautiful and finished composition.

Inscription in a Hermitage at Ansley Hall in Warwickshire.
1.
Beneath this stony roof reclin'd,
I sooth to peace my pensive mind;
And while, to shade toy lowly cave,
Embowering elms their umbrage wave;
And while the maple dish is mine,
The beechen cup, unstain'd with wine,
I scorn the gay licentious crowd,
Nor heed the toys that deck the proud.

2.
Within my limits lone and still
The blackbird pipes in artless trill;
Fast by my couch, congenial guest,
The wren has wove her mossy nest;
From busy scenes, and brighter skies
To lurk with innocence she flies;
Here hopes in safe repose to dwell,
Nor aught suspects the sylvan cell.

3.
At morn I take my custom'd round,
To mark how buds yon shrubby mound;
And every opening primrose count,
That trimly paints my blooming mount;
And o'er the sculptures quaint and rude,
That grace my gloomy solitude,
I teach in winding wreaths to stray
Fantastic ivy's gadding spray.

4.
At eve, within yon studious nook
I ope my brass-embossed book,
Pourtray'd with many a holy deed
Of martyrs, crown'd with heavenly meed:
Then, as my taper waxes dim,
Chaunt, ere I sleep, my measur'd hymn,
And at the close the gleams behold
Of parting wings bedropt with gold.

5.
While such pure joys my bliss create,
Who but would smile at guilty state?
Who but would wish his holy lot
In calm Oblivion's humble grot?
Who but would cast his pomp away
To take my staff and amice gray?
And to the world's tumultuous stage
Prefer the blameless hermitage?

But Warton could write in the familiar style, as well as in that, which Mr. Southey, I think, calls "the Ornate." The Progress of Discontent, is an exquisite poem; and very truly pronounced by his brother, Dr. Joseph Warton, to be the best imitation of Swift that has appeared. It ends with a touching moral, very happily expressed:

Oh! trifling bead, and fickle heart!
Chagrin'd at whatsoe'er thou art;
A dupe to follies yet untry'd,
And sick of pleasures scarce enjoy'd!
Each prize possess'd, thy transport ceases,
And in pursuit alone it pleases.

The Pleasures of Melancholy, written as it was in 1745, in his seventeenth year, is a very extraordinary performance; and exhibits a command of language, and copiousness of phraseology, which prove both wonderful attainments, and great power of mind. It was at this time that the school of Pope was giving way: addresses to the head rather than to the heart, or the fancy; moral axioms, and witty observations, expressed in harmonious numbers, and with epigrammatic terseness; the "limae labor," all the artifices of a highly polished style, and the graces of finished composition, which had long usurped the place of the more sterling beauties of imagination and sentiment, began first to be lessened in the public estimation by the appearance of Thomson's Seasons, a work which constituted a new era in our poetry. Then arose a constellation of youths of genius, of a more wild and picturesque school — Gray, and Collins, and Joseph Warton, and Akenside. In this school grew up Thomas Warton. He says himself in this very poem,

Thro' Pope's soft song tho' all the Graces breathe,
And happiest art adorn his Attic page;
Yet does my mind with sweeter transport glow,
As at the root of mossy trunk reclin'd,
In magic Spenser's wildly warbled song
I see deserted Una wander wide
Thro' wasteful solitudes, and lurid heaths,
Weary, forlorn; than when the fated fair
Upon the bosom bright of silver Thames
Launches in all the lustre of brocade,
Amid the splendours of the laughing sun.
The gay description palls upon the sense,
And coldly strikes the mind with feeble bliss.

Joseph Warton, in the Advertisement to his own Odes, 1746, says, "The public 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 and descriptive. But as he is convinced that the fashion of moralizing in verse has been carried too far, and as he looks upon imagination and invention to be the chief faculties of a poet, so he will be happy, if the following Odes may be looked upon, as an attempt to bring back poetry into its right channel."

It may be curious to compare the coincidence of opinion on this subject between Thomas Warton, and a celebrated predecessor, and celebrated successor.

In the preface of Edw. Phillips's Theatrum Poetarum, supposed to be written by Milton, is the following passage:

"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 spirit and air, which perhaps the most learned and judicious in other arts do not perfectly comprehend."

In the preface to Milton's Juvenile Poems, 1785, T. Warton says, "Wit and rhyme, sentiment and satire, polished numbers, sparkling couplets, and pointed periods, having kept undisturbed possession of our poetry, till late in the eighteenth century, would not easily give way to fiction and fancy, to picturesque description, and romantic imagery."

Mr. Southey, in the preface to his Specimens of Later English Poets, just published, says, speaking of the time of Dryden, "The writers of this and the succeeding generation, understood their own character better than it has been understood by their successors; they called themselves wits instead of poets, and wits they were; the difference is not in degree, but in kind. They succeeded in what they aimed at; in satire and in panegyric, in ridiculing an enemy, and in flattering a friend; in turning a song, and in complimenting a lady; in pointing an epigram, and in telling a lewd tale: in these branches of literary art, the Birmingham trade of verse, they have rarely been surpassed. Give them what praise you will, as versifiers, as wits, as reasoners, I wish not to detract a point from it; but versification, and wit, and reason, do not constitute poetry. The time, which is elapsed from the days of Dryden to those of Pope, is the dark age of English poetry."

It now became the fashion to furnish food for the fancy, and pile images upon images, without perhaps, at all times, sufficiently attending to the construction of the language, or the harmony of the rhythm. An instance of this occurs in the very, opening of Warton's poem on "Melancholy," already cited: for the sentences are involved, and the meaning at first obscured by this defect, though the images are striking and highly picturesque. The following descriptive passage, commencing at the 42d verse, deserves high praise:

—When the world
Is clad in Midnight's raven-colour'd robe,
'Mid hollow charnel let me watch the flame
Of taper dim, shedding a livid glare
O'er the wan heaps; while airy voices talk
Along the glimmering walls; or ghostly shape
At distance seen invites, with beckoning hand,
My lonesome steps thro' the far-winding vaults.
Nor undelightful is the solemn noon
Of night, when haply wakeful from my couch
I start: lo! all is motionless around!
Roars not the rushing wind; the sons of men,
And every beast, in mute oblivion lie;
All nature's hush'd in silence and in sleep
O then how fearful is it to reflect,
That thro' the still globe's awful solitude
No being wakes but me! till stealing sleep
My drooping temples bathes in opiate dews.
Nor then let dreams, of wanton folly born,
My senses lead thro' flowery paths of joy;
But let the sacred genius of the night
Such mystic visions send, as Spenser saw,
When thro' bewild'ring Fancy's magic maze,
To the fell house of Busyrane, he led
Th' unshaken Britomart; or Milton knew
When in abstracted thought he first conceiv'd
All heaven in tumult, and the Seraphim
Came tow'ring, arm'd in adamant and gold.

But if Warton thought less highly of "sentiment and satire, of polished numbers, and sparkling couplets," it was not from inability to excel in that style. His Newmarket a satire, published in 1751, is a decisive proof of his talent in that sort of composition, and forms a complete contrast to most of his other poems. The description of the old family seat, a prey "to gamesters, prostitutes, and grooms," is highly beautiful.

In short, if we consider the genius and learning of Thomas Warton; if we contemplate him as a poet, a scholar, a critic, an antiquary, and a writer of prose, ages may pass away before his equal shall arise.