THOMAS WARTON, younger brother of the preceding, a distinguished poet, and a historian of poetry, was born at Basingstoke in 1728. He was educated under his father till 1743, when he was admitted a commoner of Trinity college, Oxford. Here he exercised his poetical talent to so much advantage, that, on the appearance of Mason's Elegy of Isis, which severely reflected on the disloyalty of Oxford at that period, he was encouraged by Dr. Huddesford, president of his college, to vindicate the cause of his university. This task he performed with great applause, by writing, in his twenty-first year, The Triumph of Isis, a piece of much spirit and fancy, in which he retaliated upon the bard of Cam, by satirising the courtly venality then supposed to distinguish the rival university. His Progress of Discontent, published in 1750, exhibited to great advantage his powers in the familiar style, and his talent for humour, with a knowledge of human life, extraordinary at his early age, especially if composed, as it is said, for a college exercise in 1746. In 1750 he took the degree of M.A., and in the following year became a fellow of his college.
His spirited satire, entitled Newmarket, and pointed against the ruinous passion for the turf; his Ode for Music; and his Verses on the Death of the Prince of Wales, were written about this time; and, in 1753, he was the editor of a small collection of poems, under the title of The Union, which was printed at Edinburgh, and contained several of his own performances. In 1754 he made himself known by Observations on Spenser's Faery Queen, in one volume, afterwards enlarged to two; a work well received by the public, and which made a considerable addition to his literary reputation. So high was his character in the University, that in 1757 he was elected to the office of its poetry professor, which he held for the usual period of ten years, and rendered respectable by the erudition and taste displayed in his lectures.
It does not appear necessary in this place to particularize all the prose compositions which, whether grave or humorous, fell at this time from his pen; but it may be mentioned that verse continued occasionally to occupy his thoughts, and that having lamented the death of George II., in some lines addressed to Mr. Pitt, he continued the courtly strain in poems on the marriage of George III., and on the birth of the Prince of Wales, both printed in the university collection. In 1770 he gave an edition, in two volumes 4to., of the Greek poet Theocritus, which gave him celebrity in other countries besides his own. At what time he first employed himself with the history of English poetry, we are not informed, but in 1774 he had so far proceeded in the work as to publish the first volume in 4to. He afterwards printed a second in 1778, and a third in 1781; but his labour now became tiresome to himself, and the great compass which he had allotted to his plan was so irksome, that an unfinished fourth volume was all that be added to it.
The place of Camden professor of history, vacant by the resignation of Sir William Scott, was the close of his professional exertions; but soon after another engagement required his attention. By His Majesty's express desire, the post of poet laureat was offered to him, and accepted, and he determined to use his best endeavours for rendering it respectable. Varying the monotony of anniversary court compliment by topics better adapted to poetical description, he improved the style of the laureate odes, though his lyric strains underwent some ridicule on that account.
His concluding publication was an edition of the juvenile poems of Milton, of which the first volume made its appearance in 1785, and the second in 1790, a short time before his death. His constitution now began to give way. In his sixty-second year an attack of the gout shattered his frame, and was succeeded in May, 1790, by a paralytic seizure, which carried him off, at his lodgings in Oxford. His remains were interred, with every academical honour, in the chapel of Trinity college.
The pieces of Thomas Warton are very various in subject, and none of them long, whence he must only rank among the minor poets; but scarcely one of that tribe has noted with finer observation the minute circumstances in rural nature that afford pleasure in description, or has derived from the regions of fiction more animated and picturesque scenery.