1802 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Warton

Richard Mant, Memoir in The Poetical Works of the late Thomas Warton [continued] (1802) 1:xciv-cxiv.



Of the personal character of Mr. Warton I am enabled to say nothing from my own observation. His death had happened some years before I came to the University; and although, whilst I was a scholar of the college, he was occasionally at Winchester, and very fond of being with the boys, he was principally known to the commoners in his brother's house. I was then also too young to have made any remarks on his character; and have therefore less cause to regret that I saw him so little. My recollection goes no farther than to give me an imperfect image of his person. But I have endeavoured to supply this defect from other sources.

I have already had occasion to mention the very kind communications furnished me by the Rev. Dr. Huntingford, the present learned Bishop of Gloucester, and Warden of Winchester College; from whom several detached pieces of information have been inserted in these memoirs. To the same gentleman I am indebted for the following sketch of Mr. Warton's character and conduct during his occasional visits at his brother's.

"As in the time of his vacation and residence at Winchester he was free from all restraint of academical life, Mr. Warton's real character could no where be better known than at this place.

"Unaffected as he was in all his sentiments and manners, he was pleased with the native simplicity of the young people educated by his brother, and frequently shewed them instances of kind condescension, which endeared him to the community of Winchester scholars.

"It is said 'Men of genius are melancholy;' omnes ingeniosos melancholicos. (Cic. Tusc. Disp. i. 33.) There certainly was in our Author a serious cast of mind, which makes him speak with particular delight of 'cloysters pale;' of 'the ruin'd abbey's moss-grown piles;' of 'the taper'd choir;' and 'sequester'd isles of the deep dome:' yet in his general intercourse there was nothing gloomy, but every thing cheerful. Indeed before the fastidious and disputatious he would sit reserved: but when in company with persons, who themselves were easy in their manners, 'Nemo, unquam urbanitate, nemo lepore, nemo suavitate conditior;' as Cicero, says of C. Julius (de Cl. Orator.): 'No one seasoned his discourse with more wit, humour, and pleasantry.' That he could be facetious we discern in his poems; and the versatility of his genius appears in that variety, by which they are diversified.

"A sense of conscious worth will naturally arise in a mind, which, being itself endowed with superior talents, reflects on its own powers and exertions, and compares them with inferior abilities, and less active endeavours. It is however the part of modesty never to let that self-consciousness so operate, as to occasion disgust by an appearance of vanity and presumption. Such modesty was predominant in Mr. Warton. For he was so far from ever making an ostentatious display of his great attainments, that, on the contrary, he would much more frequently conceal than shew them.

"He was fond of seeing and frequenting public sights. Yet those were very much mistaken in their opinion of him, who from this circumstance conceived he was therefore spending his time idly. There have been few men, whose minds were always at work so much as his. He would stand indeed among spectators, and perhaps at first view be engaged for a moment by what was exhibiting; but his thoughts were soon absorbed by some subject of consideration, which was then passing within himself; and those, who were acquainted with his looks, well knew, when his attention was turned to some literary contemplation.

"His practice was to rise at a moderate hour; and to read and write much in the course of every day. And this practice he would continue during the greater part of his long vacation; applying himself with a degree of industry, which far exceeded what was generally imagined, and was far more intense than what was exercised by many of those, who either in their ignorance presumed, or in their envy delighted, to depreciate his excellence.

"To the Chapel of the College he punctually resorted on stated days of public service; for, in his own language, he loved "The clear slow-dittied chaunt, or varied hymn:" And was strongly attached to the Church of England in all the offices of her Liturgy.

"From the whole of what was known of him at Winchester, through a period of nearly forty years, he is there recollected and beloved as a most amiable man, and considered as one of the chief literary characters of his age: equal to the best scholars in the elegant parts of classical learning; superior to the generality in literature of the modern kind; a Poet of fine fancy and masculine style; and a Critic of deep information, sound judgment, and correct taste."

The character of Mr. Warton in the Biographical Dictionary, drawn by one who was personally acquainted with him in the University, gives a more particular account of his habits, whilst resident in Oxford. "Such was the conduct and behaviour of Mr. Warton, as to render him truly amiable and respectable. By his friends he was beloved for his open and easy manners; and by the members of the University at large he was respected for his constant residence, strong attachment to Alma Mater, his studious pursuits, and high literary character. In all parties where the company accorded with his inclination, his conversation was easy and gay, enlivened with humour, enriched with anecdote, and pointed with wit. Among his peculiarities it may be mentioned, that he was fond of all military sights. He was averse to strangers, particularly those of a literary turn: and yet he took a great pleasure in encouraging the efforts of rising genius, and assisting the studious with his advice; as many of the young men of his College, who shared his affability, and honoured his talents, could testify. He was bred in the school of punsters; and made as many good puns as Barton and Leigh, the celebrated word-hunters of his day. Under the mask of indolence, no man was more busy: his mind was ever on the wing in search of some literary prey. Although at the accustomed hours of Oxford study, he was often seen sauntering about, and conversing with any friend he chanced to meet; yet, when others were wasting their mornings in sleep, he was indulging his meditations in his favourite walks, and courting the Muses. His situation in Oxford was perfectly congenial with his disposition; whether he indulged his sallies of pleasantry in the common-room, retired to his own study, or to the Bodleian Library, sauntered on the banks of his favourite Cherwell, or surveyed with the enthusiastic eye of taste the ancient gate-way of Magdalen College, and other specimens of Gothic architecture."

To these characters of Mr. Warton I will venture to add two or three other traits derived from different sources. When in Oxford he visited little: and though he was much attached to Wykehamists, and had a speaking acquaintance with almost all, who came off from Winchester, and was forward in paying them attentions when he met them in Trinity, he could seldom be prevailed on to dine in New College. A fellow of that Society, a particular favourite of Mr. Warton, has told me, that he repeatedly endeavoured to prevail on him, but without success.

Though he was, as hinted above, for the most part silent in company, his silence was not such as to throw a damp over the conversation, which he would show that he enjoyed, and would encourage by leading questions and remarks. And though he had none of the ostentation of talents or learning in his composition, and would never assume a superiority over others, or obtrude on them his opinion, yet when consulted by a friend on any subject of literature, he would communicate his advice most freely, at the fame time with modesty and gentleness. He was, as a friend of his once described him to me, the most under-bearing man existing. "I never knew," added the fame person, "any one who bore his faculties more meekly."

These qualities attended him throughout his life, and in all its occurrences. When engaged in literary controversy, he was liberal to his opponents: in common life he was fond of children, and young persons; humane to the brute creation; patient and charitable. A person, who was intimately acquainted with him for above forty years, professes to have witnessed frequent instances of his mildness and forbearance under much provocation, and never, during the whole of that time, to have seen him out of humour: the fame person has declared, from actual knowledge, that his income, which solely arose from his merit and literary labours, was in a great part spent in acts of beneficence, like himself, silent and sincere.

Such an assertion, and so supported, is sufficient to do away a remark of Dr. Johnson, that Warton was the only man of genius that he knew without a heart. A remark, which those, who are acquainted with the peculiarities of the great man that made it, may believe to possess more point than justice; and which they, who were best acquainted with the subject of it, know to be untrue. The gentleman, who communicated it to me, followed it up with an instance of kindness shown to himself on slender acquaintance by Mr. Warton, who, in order to accomplish it, was forced to commit some violence on his own inclinations, by laying himself under an obligation to a third person.

That he was not a man of strong passions I will readily believe. Twice indeed, in the course of his poems, he describes himself as being in love; but his sister, who was confidentially acquainted with him, could not tell me the object of his passion, which possibly was but feigned. To her however, to his brother, and to those of his family, whom I have the happiness of knowing, he was most tenderly endeared, and entertained for them a reciprocal affection. And more than one instance might be given of his being warmly attached to his Country; and also to his University, and his College. Doubtless also examples of kindness, similar to that which I have alluded to, might be mentioned; were it not that he shrunk from the display of his beneficence, as it is known that he did from that of his talents. But were not even a single testimony of his actual kindness to be known, who will persuade himself to believe that the Author of the Suicide wanted feeling?

It will be no serious imputation on the character of such a man to say, that he had his singularities and imperfections. Biographical justice requires that such things should be noticed; and a smile may perhaps be excited at the information, that the Historian of English Poetry was fond of drinking his ale and smoking his pipe with persons of mean rank and education: — that he partook of a weakness, which has been attributed to the Author of the Rambler, and believed in preternatural apparitions: — that, in his fondness for pleasantry and humour, he delighted in popular spectacles, especially when enlivened by the music of a drum: — and that such was his propensity to be present at public exhibitions, as to have induced him at a time, when he was desirous of not being discovered, to attend an execution in the dress of a carter.

The mention of such things may not be without its use, as it may give encouragement to persons of inferior talents and acquirements, by showing them, that are to be found even in those of the greatest. But before the man of strict decorum and propriety of conduct suffers himself on this account to exult in his fancied superiority over such an one as Mr. Warton, let him advert to the motives and complexion of the failings I have noticed; and reflect, that they proceeded not from any vicious or malignant propensity, and are no blemish on the moral character of him, who possessed them. Such a reflection may serve to repress inordinate censure: for not only may the man inclined to harsher judgment be induced to relax his severity, when he considers, that these failings were injurious to no one; but the man of good-nature may feel his kindness excited by the recollection, that they arose from simplicity and openness of heart.

It has been before remarked, that during his residence at Winchester he was fond of associating with his brother's scholars: indeed he entered so heartily into their sports and employments, as to have been occasionally involved in rather ludicrous incidents. Being engaged with them in some culinary occupation, and alarmed by the sudden approach of Dr. Warton, he has been known to conceal himself in some dark corner, and has been drawn out from his hiding place, to the no small astonishment and amusement of the Doctor, who had taken him for some great boy. He would assist the boys in making their exercises, generally contriving to accommodate his composition to the capacity of him whom he was assisting. "How many faults?" was a question, the answer to which regulated him: and a boy was perhaps as likely to be flogged for the verses of Mr. Warton, as for his own.

I remember that an anecdote used to be told, relating to this part of Mr. Warton's conduct, which is somewhat characteristic of both the brothers. Warton had given a boy an exercise; and the Doctor thinking it too good for the boy himself, and suspecting the truth, ordered him into his study after school, and sent for Mr. Warton. The exercise was read and approved: "And don't you think it worth half a crown, Mr. Warton?" said his brother: Mr. Warton assented: "Well then, you shall give the boy one." Our Author accordingly paid the half crown for his own verses, and the Doctor enjoyed the joke.

As to his person, I have been informed by one, who knew him well, but in whose judgment some allowance should perhaps be made for an amiable partiality, that in his youth he was eminently handsome; and that even in the latter part of his life, when he grew large, he was remarkably well-looking. His figure was not very prepossessing; and did not receive any great support from his dress, of which he was habitually negligent. The Editor of the Probationary Odes describes him as a little, thick, squat, red-faced man; and proceeds to say, that he first became known to his Majesty, who on his first appearance had given orders to one of the beef-eaters to dismiss him from the presence, by a certain hasty spasmotic mumbling, together with two or three prompt quotations from Virgil. The whole of this description was evidently designed for caricature. Dr. Johnson also, who was remarkable for describing his friends in terms not the most polished and delicate imaginable, would sometimes compare Mr. Warton's manner of speaking to the gobble of a Turkey-cock.

The Bishop of Gloucester has represented Mr. Warton as strongly attached to the Church of England in all the offices of her Liturgy: in his political opinions he was inclined to Toryism. The former attachment, mixed with a decided antipathy to Calvinistic doctrines and discipline, may have disposed him not only to regard choral service with fondness, but to have reprobated somewhat too severely the practice of popular psalmody in our churches: and the latter may have been the cause that he has sometimes marked with too harsh a censure the conduct and principles of Milton. In the mean time let it be remembered to his honour, that he has shown no servile spirit in his official odes, where flattery is too often indulged by prescription.

In the exercise of his profession as a divine, I do not understand that he was much distinguished. A retired village church is not a theatre likely to bring forward the abilities of its minister, and Mr. Warton had never any other kind of preferment. I have however been informed, that he gained some credit in the University by a Sermon on the 30th of January: and have myself seen a Latin Sermon of his composition, preached perhaps on his taking the degree of B.D. wherein he reviews the objections advanced against Christianity at its first promulgation, in a classical style, and a well-arranged and perspicuous method. But his abilities were for the most part employed in enquiries not theological: let us presume, innocently, inasmuch as they did not interfere with his practical duties; and beneficially, as they tended to promote the interests of general learning.

May I here hazard a remark, which I trust will not be deemed invidious, on the comparative labours and merit of our Author, and of one of his most celebrated contemporaries? Between Gray and Warton there existed more than a general resemblance of talents, pursuits, taste, and acquirements. They were both possessed of minds versatile, active, and vigorous: were both Men of Genius and Learning; Poets, classical Scholars, and Antiquaries. But with this resemblance, preserved even in some minute particulars, how different are the monuments of them, which remain! The Lyre is the only memorial of the mind of Gray, exquisite indeed, but still the only one; whilst many an emblem may be chosen to grace the monument, and record the abilities, of Warton. "Mille habet ornatus, mille decenter habet."

A short comparison of their studies and performances may not be altogether uninteresting.

Gray (as we have already seen) designed a History of English Poetry, and sketched a plan of it, and translated a few Odes for its illustration and embellishment, and made many elaborate disquisitions on relative topics: "he however soon found that a work of this kind, pursued on so very extensive a plan, would become almost endless;" and, partly on this account, relinquished his undertaking. Warton designed a history on the same subject, and advanced a very considerable way towards its completion.

Gray was a great admirer and observer of Gothic Architecture: in his study of it he "arrived at so very extraordinary a pitch of sagacity, as to be enabled to pronounce at first sight on the precise time when every particular part of any of our Cathedrals was erected;" and appears to have intended to compose some regular account of the characteristics of the several styles: but such an intention he never completed, and has given no more of his sentiments on the subject, than is contained in some occasional remarks in his letters, and some contributions to Bentham's History of Ely Cathedral. Warton was attached to the same study; at an early period of his life he threw together some interesting observations on it, and afterwards not only prosecuted his enquiries, but completed a systematic account of English Architecture.

Gray consumed great labour and time in illustrating Strabo and Plato, one or both of whom he perhaps entertained an intention of editing. He certainly left a great number of geographical disquisitions with a view to the former of these authors, and a quantity of critical and explanatory observations on the latter. But whatever were his views of publishing, he never proceeded any farther. Warton not only planned, but published, a magnificent edition of Theocritus.

"Amongst the books, which Gray bequeathed to Mason, is Henry Stephens's edition of the Anthologia, interleaved; in which he has transcribed several additional ones that he selected in his extensive reading, has inserted a great number of critical notes and emendations, and subjoined a copious index, in which every Epigram is arranged under the name of its respective Author." This work was never given to the public, and does not appear to have been ever intended for its benefit. Warton reedited Cephalas's Anthologia; and also published a similar compilation of Latin Inscriptions, selected and illustrated by himself.

Gray had an offer of the office of Poet-laureate, which he declined, probably because he thought that it was beneath him, or might interfere with his other employments; but after the refusal he engaged in no material work. Warton accepted it, not many years after; supported it with dignity, and pursued more than one laborious occupation, whilst he held it.

Gray was Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge; and in that capacity "sketched out an admirable plan for his Inauguration Speech," which he never completed; and repeatedly resolved to read lectures, which he never began. Warton was Professor of Ancient History in the University of Oxford; he delivered an excellent Inaugural Lecture in that capacity, though, like Gray, he never prosecuted his course. Yet here may a difference be remarked. During the period in which they respectively held their Professorships of History, Gray was not much engaged in other studies, but Warton was variously and seriously employed; and in the office of Poetry-Professor, which he had held some years earlier, it has already been shown, that he was by no means inefficient.

The contrast in other particulars is not so pointed. Gray never engaged in any work of biography, English philology, or topography; whilst Warton completed more than one in each of these departments; as the lives of Sir Thomas Pope and Dr. Bathurst; his Observations on Chatterton, on the Faerie Queene of Spenser, and his edition of the juvenile Poems of Milton; his description of Winchester, and History of Kiddington, not to mention his humorous jeu d'esprit on Oxford. The only branch of study, uncultivated by Warton, which occupied the mind of Gray, was Natural History, in which however he never digested and methodised his information; and the only species of composition, in which Gray has distinguished himself to the exclusion of Warton, is epistolary correspondence; a fortuitous species of composition, requiring no great strength of mind or seriousness of application.

Of the respective powers of these congenial minds, (congenial, I mean, in a literary view, for as to their social qualities they seem to have been widely different) there is hardly ground left us for comparison. The powers of one of them must be estimated principally from conjecture, and the account transmitted by his friend; the other has left us numerous testimonies, of his, from which may be discovered both his excellencies and imperfections. In one point alone do their works open a field in which their powers may be compared. I necessarily allude to their poetical compositions; nor shall partiality to my Author lead me to dispute, that the palm of superiority must here be adjudged to Gray.

But in making this concession, some reservation may not unfairly be claimed. It should be remembered, that the poems of Gray were uniformly composed on subjects chosen by himself; but that the subjects of some of the best of Warton's were imposed by the duty, and encumbered with the weight of an official station. Nor is this all: for it may farther be added, that in every point the superiority of Gray is far from manifest: that if Gray has more abstract poetry, Warton has more picturesque imagery; — if Gray has more fire, Warton yields not to him in grandeur; — if Gray more frequently strikes the imagination, Warton is not less successful in delighting it; — and that if, in the examination of individual pieces, Gray is allowed to be more perfect, Warton, in the general estimate, has certainly more variety. Not a poem of Gray's can be mentioned, but one of the same kind may be produced from Warton: but several of the poems of Warton are of such kinds as Gray has never attempted.

After all, whatever may have been their respective powers, from what has already appeared, there can be no doubt which was the more active in his exertions for the benefit of learning; nor can there in consequence be any, which is more deserving of general commendation. The "gem of purest ray serene," which is hidden in "the dark unfathom'd caves of the ocean," is surely less estimable than that which is disclosed to the public eye, and gives light and pleasure by its lustre.

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