Custom seems to require that the life of an Author should be followed by a critical examination of his works. I shall then scarcely expose myself to a charge of presumption, if I venture some remarks on the works of Warton, though I am conscious that a proper judgment on their merits cannot be formed without considerable previous information on the subjects of them; and the subjects of some of them are not a little abstruse and uncommon.
The works of Warton may be considered under the heads of biography, topography, classical and English criticism, history, and poetry. The loss of his work on Gothic Architecture precludes the necessity of considering him specifically as an Antiquary, though he frequently appears in that character in most of the departments above mentioned.
As a biographer he is not, nor indeed is he likely to be, much celebrated. Sir Thomas Pope and Dr. Bathurst were not of sufficient importance, either as political or literary characters, for narratives of their lives to excite general interest; however gratifying such narratives may be to members of the University of Oxford, particularly to those, who are connected with Trinity College. Warton was aware of this defect in his subjects; and has accordingly endeavored to supply it by the interspersion of collateral matter. The life of Bathurst is diversified with anecdotes of several learned men, who were his contemporaries: and that of Pope exhibits an interesting, and partly original, narrative of particulars connected with the persecutions and private life of Queen Elisabeth, the custody of whom was committed to him by Queen Mary. Nor should it be omitted that it contains a judicious summary of the state of learning in England, about the time of the foundation of Trinity College, together with several curious anecdotes of contemporary manners. But such digressions, although amusing and interesting in themselves, detract from the proper merit of the works; they divert the attention from that, which is the principal, and should be the prominent, object of the piece, to its appendages; and are as censurable as a landscape or a building would be, if introduced into the most striking part of a picture, in which the business of the painter was to delineate a portrait. "Pars minima est ipsa puella sui." When we have allowed however for this defect in his plan, we ought not to deny him the praise of industry and sagacity in the execution of it; nor to deprive him of the higher commendation, that he was content to sink his own reputation in endeavours to gratify the feelings of his society, and to raise a monument to his benefactors.
His topographical researches do not appear to have been extensive; and his publications on such subjects were neither numerous nor large.
The description of Winchester, which was designed principally for local use, is drawn up with sufficient minuteness and accuracy, and contains several curious particulars collected from original records, relating to the antiquities of the place; though, the work being an early production of its Author, the conjectural remarks on architecture are not always happy.
His History of Kiddington, which (had he not been so well employed in other enquiries) might make us reasonably regret that he did not prosecute this study, is an admirable specimen of parochial history. Without neglecting the natural productions and curiosities of the country, which form so marked a feature in Plott's History, he unites with them other topics of interesting enquiry. The Church and other remains of ancient architecture and sculpture; the division of the property, and the families among whom it was distributed; together with the events and rude monuments, which constitute the military history of the place, are in their turn noticed: on all which topics, but especially on the last, the particular information brought forward is interwoven with some that is more general.
As a classical scholar, we might presume that he possessed an elegant taste from his choice of the poets, whom he edited; but he has farther shown it in the conduct of his editions.
From that of Cephalas's Anthology indeed he can claim little praise but from the choice of his author, as he has added to Reiske's nothing but the preface, which, though chiefly narrative, is however written with elegance and perspicuity; distinguishing features of all his Latin prose compositions.
In his publication of Latin Metrical Inscriptions he deserves greater credit; not only as the plan is in some degree original, and the epigrams are selected by himself from a farrago of uninteresting materials, but also on account of the judgment, with which he discriminates between the flippancy and point of the modern epigrammatists of Martial's school, and the chastised and simple grace of the Greek, and earlier Latin, models.
His greatest work in this department is clearly his edition of Theocritus: to which the chief objection appears to be, that he has not sufficiently exerted his critical acumen in improving the text. Yet he has not been remiss in attempts to explain his author by the aid of the scholiasts and other commentators: and he brings his learning to bear on the subject by explaining allusions to the more obscure customs and mythology of the ancients; and his taste, by developing the beauties of Theocritus, and comparing him with other poets. The prefixed dissertation, is ingenious, and in some parts original; and his reasons for preferring Theocritus, as a pastoral poet, to Virgil are decisive. Let me add, that the illustration, with which he concludes the parallel and the dissertation, is not unworthy of Cicero or Quintilian: which I particularly notice, as it is a species of ornament, with which the critical works of Warton, as well as of those two celebrated Romans, are not unfrequently embellished. Another example of it occurs towards the conclusion of his Camden Oration, which ought to be mentioned in this general estimate of his works, and to be applauded for the distinct characters which it exhibits of the most famous Greek and Latin historians, and especially for its masterly delineation of Tacitus.
Under the head of English criticism we must rank his Enquiry into the Authenticity of Rowley's Poems; his Observations on Spenser's Faerie Queene; and his edition of Milton's Juvenile Poems.
The first of these, in which he rests his argument on internal evidence, evinces great persipicuity and discernment, and is, agreeably to Dr. Warton's opinion, decisive against the antiquity of the poems in question: at least as far as arguments of that presumptive kind can be decisive.
As a commentator on English poetry, in which character he appears in the two last of these publications, he possesses the singular merit of having been the first to illustrate his authors by an examination of the works, with which they had been principally conversant. In the former of the two, his remarks on the stanza and versification of Spenser, on Spenser's imitations of Chaucer and Ariosto, and those which relate to the poem considered by itself, display an elegant taste, and a discriminative judgment, though they lie not so much out of the beaten track of criticism. But the great merit of this work consists in its illustration of the more obscure sources, from which Spenser drew; its detection of the fabulous legends, which he copied; its developement of the reasons, which induced Spenser to adapt his plan to the extravagance of romance, rather than to the correcter model of the classics; and its exposition and examination of that attachment to allegoric poetry, which prevailed at, and before, the time of Spenser. Such enquiries as these must naturally occasion the display of a good deal of "such reading as is never read." But the critic is not open to a fair charge of pedantry, if by such a display he explains and illustrates the poet, on whom he comments: nor, again, is he fairly chargeable with malignity, although he ventures to censure the extravagance of an Italian poet on a comparison with the less fanciful beauties of the ancients; or to point out with judgment and candour the occasional defects of his author, rather than detail a profuse panegyric on his excellences.
He proceeded on the same general principle, taken up (as I have before observed) at a very early period, in his edition of Milton. Bishop Newton, who was himself a good classical scholar, and the various other commentators, who preceded Warton in the same walk, had been accustomed to trace Milton in his imitations of the Greek, Latin, and Italian poets; but whilst they were contented with illustrating him from these, to whom they also added Shakspere, the Faerie Queene of Spenser, and a few occasional passages from Chaucer, they appear to have been hardly aware, that with a consummate knowledge of these languages he united a no less intimate acquaintance with the authors of his own country; and that the Ilissus, the Tibur, and the Arno did not alienate his affections from his native Thames. This circumstance in the studies of Milton was noticed, and (if I mistake not) first acted upon, by Warton. For the employment he was singularly qualified: to him "the treasures of the Gothic Library" had long been familiarly known, and his general attainments were the same in kind, if not in degree, with those of the great poet, whom he undertook to explain.
To this mode of illustration he added another, almost equally new, but attended with considerable difficulty; because the sources of information are neither easily discovered; nor, when discovered, always to be arrived at. "These pieces (as Warton observes) contain several curious circumstances of Milton's early life, situations, friendships, and connections, which are often so transiently or implicitly noticed, as to need examination and enlargement." In pursuing this track, he has collected much interesting information; and has not only illustrated the poems, which were the immediate cause of his researches, but has at the fame time, through them, given light to the future biographer of Milton, and to the historian of the state of literature and manners during his time.
In another view also his labours are of more extensive use, than as they merely respect the poems he was editing. "By the adduction and juxta-position of passages, universally gleaned both from the poetry and prose of Milton, Warton has ascertained his favourite words, and shown the peculiarities of his phraseology: and has thus made some of the notes, which particularly relate to the smaller poems, to have a more general effect, and to be applicable to all Milton's writings."
Scarcely any writer can be more disgusting than a commentator who fills his pages with an ostentatious profusion of useless notes, and, under the pretence of illustrating or doing honour to his author, but with the real intention of displaying his own ingenuity, incumbers him with the multitude and weight of his trappings. There may be some, who with an appearance of reason will object, that Warton in his edition of Milton seems to have carried his principle too far, and to have swelled his notes with extraneous matter. His commentary is indeed copious and full; but it contains so much interesting information, both of a general and particular nature; it is conducted with so much taste and elegance; and especially it contributes to make our great poet so much better understood, to explain what is difficult, and to enhance the beauty of what is clear, that to me at least it is "a perpetual feast of nectar'd sweets, where no crude surfeit reigns."
Let it however be allowed, that he may have been occasionally induced to bring forward a beautiful passage, where it was not absolutely necessary, by a hope of enticing his readers to a farther acquaintance with our valuable, but neglected, poets; such as William Browne, the Fletchers, Drayton, Fairfax, and Spenser; and above all, the truly Homeric Chaucer: an error, which, if it be an error, may claim indulgence, whilst the motive of it is deserving of praise.
At the same time I do not wish to deny or conceal, that this work is occasionally defective: that there are readers, to whom the illustrations may appear to be sometimes unnecessarily and tediously prolix; and the remarks now and then frivolous and uninteresting; and that he has in one or two instances been guilty of an oversight, of which a remarkable example occurs in the note on the twenty-second verse of "Mansus," where he attributes the life of Homer to Plutarch instead of Herodotus, and describes Mycale as a mountain in Boeotia instead of Asia Minor.
But before I entirely quit the character of Warton as an English critic, let me observe, that in this publication he has very happily met the censures of Dr. Johnson, especially on Lycidas and Comus. It has been remarked, and with some degree of contempt, that there are persons, who can prefer the school of the Wartons to that of Johnson. I might lay myself open to a charge of impertinence, were I on this occasion to descant on the excellence of my late amiable and elegant master: and well might I feel that I was acting an unbecoming part, were I to speak otherwise than with reverence of the masculine powers of the great English moralist. But great as were the powers of Johnson, and eminently qualified, as he was, to deliver the oracles of reason, he seems to have possessed little of that finer feeling, and of that lively and active admiration of the works of nature, which are requisite for the enjoyment, as well as for the composition, of true poetry. Fortunately for me in the present case, as far as any competition may be supposed to exist between Johnson and T. Warton for the palm of critical superiority, the latter is supported by a powerful advocate: and his school may surely without absurdity be preferred by a lover of Milton, whose early poems he has edited with all the fondness of an ardent admirer; has established their excellence against invidious comparison, and vindicated their beauties from ungrounded censure; whilst of the same poems the former has declared in general terms, "that though they make no promise of Paradise Lost, they have this evidence of genius, that they have a cast original and unborrowed: but that their peculiarity is not excellence, and if they differ from the verses of others, they differ for the worse:" and specifically of the Sonnets, that "they deserve not any particular criticism, for of the best it can only be said that they are not bad; and perhaps only the eighth and twenty-first are entitled to this slender commendation:" of Comus, that "it is a drama in the epic style, inelegantly splendid, and tediously instructive:" and of Lycidas, that surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known the author." Of these poems indeed we could hardly expect an admirer in one, who thought Fleet-street more delightful than Tempe: — but who can persuade himself to be a follower of that critic, who is not enchanted with Lycidas and Comus?
The History of English Poetry is the most solid basis of our Author's reputation. It has been before remarked, that he judiciously preferred the plan, on which he has proceeded, to that proposed by Pope, Gray, and Mason: but there may be room to doubt of his judgment in not commencing his history at an earlier period. As one advantage of his plan was that it marked the progression of our language, an enquiry into Saxon poetry would surely not have been irrelevant to his subject: which appears to have been the opinion of a late elegant writer, who has thought proper to begin an historical sketch of our poetry at an earlier period than Warton.
Throughout his work he has employed indefatigable diligence and minute research in collecting materials; indeed it has been observed, that "he has shown more solicitude in collecting, than perspicuity and accuracy in arranging them. Hence," continues the same critic, "his history has been found so dry and oppressive as to subdue the eagerness of the generality of readers; and hence nearly one fourth of the second volume is filled with errata and amendments to the first." [Author's note: Life by Anderson. The remark here quoted, as well as several others in the same critique, are borrowed without acknowledgment from an article in the tenth volume of the Monthly Review Enlarged. Rev. for March, 1793. In the following observations on Warton's poems, two or three remarks from the same critique are noticed.]
The history is certainly not free from inaccuracies, and indeed it would be astonishing if it were. But the latter of these remarks, which was advanced somewhat incautiously by one writer, and repeated without examination by another, is much too comprehensive. The second volume contains 544 pages; forty-six of these, making a little more than one twelfth, instead of nearly one fourth, of the second volume, are filled with additions and emendations (not errata and amendments) to the first.
The former remark is founded apparently on a misconception of the nature of the work in question, and on a mistake in charging the writer with what is incident to his subject. If the eagerness of the generality of readers is subdued in their progress through the History of English Poetry, it should be remembered that a work abounding in disquisition, a species of writing to which the people are unused, and replete with quotations in language and metre with which the people are unacquainted, can hardly look for extensive popularity: in its very nature it cannot be expected to "please the million: it must be caviare to the general." If such a work is sometimes dry and oppressive even to readers of a superior class, it should be remembered, that enquiries concerning the obscure writers of a barbarous age promise no great entertainment; and, inasmuch as they are necessary to the main object, fix the charge of dryness upon the subject rather than the author; who, on the other hand, is deserving of commendation for relieving the unavoidable weight of his subject by the general tenor of his style and manner, by lively remarks and amusing anecdotes.
And this consideration should influence the judgment formed on the digressions, which he occasionally introduces; as for instance, on the rise of the Mysteries in the second volume, and on Dante's Inferno in the third. For let it be allowed that they are excrescences, yet they bring with them their own excuse, when it is considered that they are to a reader what mountains are to a traveller; they retard his progress perhaps, but prevent the irksomeness, which is experienced in proceeding over an uninterrupted plain.
It is this also, which contributes to give such a relish to the abundant and various information, which these volumes contain, relating to ancient manners. Not that such information is to be deemed in any degree digressive: the poetry and manners of a nation are intimately connected; their histories then must also be blended, and reflect light on each other.
Where scope is given for the exertion of the historian's powers, he is not backward in exerting them, and in vindicating to himself a higher than the mere mechanical distinction of research and accuracy. He then shows that, as an antiquary, he possesses not only industry in collecting materials, but sagacity and perspicuity in using them: that, as a critic, he can analyse the principles of compositions, can distinguish their characteristic features, and appreciate their merits: and, what, as an historian, is his peculiar province, that from the comparison and combination of single facts he can draw general remarks and conclusions; and can trace the progress of the mind, not merely as exemplified in the confined exertions of an individual, but in a succession of ages, and in the pursuits and acquirements of a people. As proofs, amongst others which might be given, of this assertion, I would refer to the characters of Chaucer in the first volume, and of Lord Surrey in the third; to the Dissertations prefixed to the work; and to the surveys of the revival of learning and of the poetry of Queen Elisabeth's age, which respectively close the second and third volumes.
On the prose style of Warton may be added a few words, which are applicable to his other works, and especially to the History of English Poetry. His expressions are select and forcible, and his sentences animated. He has frequent comparisons and allusions, which not only embellish his thoughts, but at the same time illustrate them. He abounds in figurative language, but without losing sight of simplicity; and is, perhaps, as much as any modern English author, remarkable for uniting, without affectation and without an appearance of art and labour, the excellences of a style at once perspicuous, ornamented, vigorous, and musical.
In remarking on the poetry of Warton, as it is that department of his works, with which I am more particularly engaged, I may be excused for speaking more at length.
In his VERSIFICATION, especially in the common English pentameter, he displays more strength than elegance. He seldom betrays weakness, but I doubt whether he is always graceful.
Though he has avoided the point and antithesis of Pope, like him he seems not to have known, at least not much to have practised, that harmony of period which results from the natural and unaffected ease, the variety of pause, the mixture of simple and ornamented, of weaker and more nervous lines, and the many other peculiarities, which, though they are to be found in some of his predecessors, eminently characterise the periods of Dryden. He generally terminates the sense with a couplet, and rests his pauses on the even feet, most commonly on the fourth syllable: a practice which will be readily observed and objected to by a reader of a musical ear, accustomed to that melody of verse, which has been carried to its extent by Milton, and by Dryden as far as it can be carried in rhime. Throughout his pentameters he has but one triplet and scarcely an Alexandrine. He seems to have copied Dryden, perhaps not always judiciously, in one respect; in terminating a verse with a trisyllable, which will hardly bear the accent, where it will then of necessity be, on the last syllable; and in making the verse so formed the leading verse of the couplet. Thus in the Triumph of Isis,
Like Greece in science and in liberty,
As Athens learn'd, as Lacedaemon free.
And in Verses to Sir Joshua Reynolds,
With arts unknown before to reconcile
The willing Graces to the Gothic pile.
I suspect however that he had never made Dryden much the object of his study.
But the same defect as to the music of his versification appears in his blank verse, which was hardly to have been expected in so fond an admirer, and so diligent a reader, of Milton. The happiest pause in blank verse, when occasionally introduced, and of which Milton perfectly knew the secret, is on the eighth syllable: a pause which Warton has very rarely adopted. Yet after all nothing was to be done without considerable practice; and in blank verse the practice of Warton was not great. He has written only two poems in that metre; of which the former was composed in his 17th year, when he could not have had time for practice; and the latter but a few years after. Possibly he was aware of his want of success, and gave up the attempt.
In another species of poetical composition, practice made him more successful. In his earlier laureate Odes the lines are often rugged, the construction harsh, and the rhimes awkwardly disposed: faults which he corrected as he advanced; till he at length attained a very fair degree of lyrical harmony: though he has in that respect never equalled his friend Collins's Ode on the Passions, much less Dryden's Alexander's Feast.
These remarks on the defects of Warton's versification must not however be understood as extending to the Suicide, or his several Odes in the eight-syllable verse. To the latter metre, which indeed neither requires nor admits so great a variety and compass of tone, he seems to have paid the greatest attention, and has very well succeeded in it. His poems in this metre are uniformly sweet; nor do I in this point of view know any poem in the English language superior to the Inscription in a Hermitage, or the Hamlet.
It has indeed been objected to his versification in this metre, that "the frequent mixture of regular trochaics of seven syllables, and iambics of eight, seems a defect." It is allowed that he is supported in this practice by the authority of Milton and Gray, in the same metre; and it may be added, without reference to the interchange of measures in the Greek lyric poetry, that in our pentameter, which is strictly an iambic Measure, we not only admit spondaic, but dactylic, anapestic, and trochaic feet. The cause of all which indulgences may be found in the pleasure derived from variety. But perhaps it is less a matter of authority or of reason, than of taste and feeling: and for myself I must confess that the mixture of trochaic verses complained of appears to merit not only indulgence, but approbation. Sometimes they have an appropriate force and beauty; as when the Minstrels in the Crusade burst forth abruptly with menaces on their enemies:
Syrian Virgins, wail and weep,
English Richard ploughs the deep, &c.
or when the tripping motion of May, one of the attendants of Summer, is described.
But who is she that bears thy train,
Pacing light the velvet plain?
But I will not multiply instances of this beauty, which may easily be observed by the reader.
Alliteration, when introduced sparingly and with discretion, is not only tolerable, but pleasing and productive of good effect. But, like all other figures of speech, it satiates by being often repeated; and, as much ass any figure, betrays design. It is certainly too frequent in Warton; and, even in the examination of individual instances, will be found not always happily introduced. Warton probably adopted the practice from Spenser, than whom no one of our poets more frequently uses it; and whom (as is observed in the notes on the Suicide) he obviously imitated in that poem, in which he has perhaps more alliteration than in any other.
His PHRASEOLOGY is distinguished from that of his contemporary poets by rather a frequent introduction of antiquated expressions, derived no doubt from the fondness with which he "spelt the fabling rime." This peculiarity has been represented as a blemish. Dr. Johnson ridiculed it (according to Mad. Plozzi) in the following lines:
Wheresoe'er I turn my view,
All is strange, yet nothing new:
Endless labour all along,
Endless labour to be wrong;
Phrase that Time has flung away,
Uncouth words in disarray,
Trick'd in antique ruff and bonnet,
Ode, and elegy, and sonnet.
And another critic has remarked, that the use of old words, in a poem not called an imitation of some old bard, seems a studied imperfection: such are the words "aye," "eld," "murky," "watchet," "hue." I shall not avail myself of what he subjoins, namely, that the word "watchet" is used by Dryden; for I allow it to be probably so obsolete at present, as to be unintelligible to the generality of readers. There is however no single word in the English language to express exactly the same thing. Nor shall I endeavour to extenuate the charge brought against our Poet, by observing that, of the other words cited above, "eld" is used by Akenside; "aye" is frequently to be met with in various modern writers; "murky" is hardly obsolete, certainly not unintelligible; and "hue" is still retained amongst us even in common conversation. Such a defence must be ineffectual, for other words, confessedly out of use, might be brought from his poems. Nor shall I justify the practice, by asking why old English expressions may not be revived, and introduced anew into the language, at least as well as modern French or Anglicised Latin. The practice, if it be wrong, is not to be defended by an appeal to other practices, perhaps of no less questionable propriety.
For my own part I cannot allow the justice of the censure. If the poet cannot find in common use, words, which willfully convey the image of his mind; or if words in common use do occur to him, but such as, though they may fully convey his meaning are destitute of poetical beauty and propriety (for poetry has always been allowed to speak in language removed from that of the vulgar); in either case he must look farther, and invent or revive others; and he may surely as well revive those that are old, as invent new. Horace considered it as a natural event in the revolutions of a language, that many obsolete terms would be restored to use; and he contends for the privilege, to which he and the other poets of his time were entitled, of contributing to that change. And it does not seem reasonable to suppose, that Horace would have denied to an English poet, what he claimed for those of Rome. Quintilian maintains the same privilege for the orator, and extends it much farther in the case of the poet: and he remarks with no less truth than elegance, that words acquire a dignity from antiquity, and sprinkle over a composition, as time does over paintings, a mellowness inimitable by art. It is this practice, which makes the language of Milton more venerable than that of his contemporary, Dryden.
What has been said will perhaps be allowed as an argument for the propriety of the practice in question; of the arguments for its impropriety I confess I am not aware; nor of the reasonableness of marking, as a fit object of ridicule or censure, an English poet, because he has occasionally enriched his own compositions, and through them the language of his country, with expressions drawn from the neglected though "pure well-heads of English undefil'd."
But every excellence is liable to abuse. Let me not then, in contending for the general principle, be understood as defending the practice to whatever extravagance it may be prosecuted; or as altogether denying that antiquated expressions have been sometimes used by our poet, where they were neither necessary to convey his meaning, nor conducive to perspicuity or elegance.
I do not remember that he has introduced into his poetry many words absolutely new; but he has formed several new combinations of words already in use: a practice, as well as the former, recommended by Horace and Quintilian, and followed by Milton and the best Greek poets. A single word, thus compounded, has sometimes the effect of a long description. "Silver-axled," "agate-axled," "nectar-trickling," "magic-temper'd," "violet-woven," "woodbine-mantled," "lofty-window'd, are instances of not unpleasing combination. He is sometimes less happy in this way. "Gladsome-glistering," which may be noticed also as a disagreeable example of alliteration, is, as a combination, inelegant and harsh.
In his humorous poems he is sometimes very successful in giving to a word a ludicrous signification, very different from that in which it is commonly used. As when in the "Panegyric oil Oxford Ale" he speaks of a "material breakfast;" and in "Newmarket," of a "laconic boot."
He seems to have a fondness for certain particular terms, and to have taken almost every opportunity of using them. This might lead to a suspicion that he had a poverty of ideas, which however was not the case. In a note on the Pleasures of Melancholy, v. 175. are instances of his repeated use of one word, which is in every individual instance connected with an image different from that contained in the others.
A similar remark will hold as to his imitations of Milton. His diction is perpetually Miltonic; but it will be found on examination to be connected with sentiments and ideas different from those with which it is connected in his original, and to represent images of his own. But of this I shall presently have occasion to speak more particularly.
Minute strictures on little grammatical inaccuracies have at least this use, that they show to poets, that they do not offend without being noticed. I shall therefore just remark, that Warton has now and then been guilty of a solecism, in using the past participle of the passive voice, instead of the preterite tense of the active; and that he has once, and, I believe, but once, used indiscriminately the pronouns "thee" and "you." Such inaccuracies, if they occur seldom, though not overlooked, may be pardoned; particularly as they are found in some of the most correct compositions of Pope, perhaps the most correct poet of the nation.
To what has been thus particularly observed of the language of Warton, may be added that it is in general select and poetical: indeed his prevailing fault seems to be, that he sometimes appears to aim too much at departing from common terms and formularies, and forgets that art loses its effect, unless it is concealed. But though, in consequence of this, his style is sometimes stiff and constrained, and though it has now and then a redundant expression, it certainly merits the general commendation of perspicuity, elegance, and strength.
It is not my intention in this place to examine every one of our Author's poems minutely, and the nature of this work precludes the necessity of it. Those, which naturally fall under the fame general character, may be considered together; and those, which are not so reducible, must in consequence be considered by themselves: but it is my particular wish to examine them all, with the view of drawing from them a few general remarks on the genius of the poet.
In considering the works of any Author, it is but fair to make allowances for the productions of very early years. Warton stands in need of no great allowance for his first production, for few persons would attribute "the Pleasures of Melancholy" to a boy in his 17th year. The youth of the Author is however discernible in its luxuriance and want of compression. It has been characterised as "a beautiful Miltonic poem, abounding with bold metaphors and highly-coloured pictures." It points out also the propensities of the Author at a very early age; and shows that he was then partial to the "taper'd choir" and scenes of awful and solemn grandeur; and, in conformity with such propensities, he was then (as his brother, I believe, afterwards described him) "of the school of Spenser and Milton, rather than that of Pope."
"The Triumph of Isis" is an instance of the readiness with which Warton could apply himself to the treatment of an occasional subject: it was called for by a voluntary effusion from a man of genius, and has the merit of being at least equal to that which provoked it. Mason had, as we have seen, the liberality to say, that in poetical imagery and the correct flow of its versification he thought it greatly excelled his own. It is also distinguished by a firm and manly tone of indignation. Like all other party-productions, this must have lost a considerable share of its interest with the reader. To the general reader indeed it must have been at all times less interesting than to an Oxford man: and even an Oxford man will now perhaps feel himself little interested in seeing his University defended from an imputation, to which the circumstances of the times no longer leave her open. No stronger proof of this can be given, than that the poem is frequently read without its being known, or perhaps enquired, for whom the character of Dr. King was intended; and yet the very lines which contain that character were at first the most admired in the poem. The Poet however is not to be blamed for a fault incident to his subject; when it is considered that the subject was in some measure imposed upon him. And indeed, though some parts of the poem have unavoidably become less interesting, others of a more general character still retain their charms. The passage from v. 149 to the end cannot fail of being enjoyed as long as it shall be read; and the whole of that passage, particularly the apostrophe in the first paragraph, breathes the true spirit of poetry.
To avoid with decency common-place compliments, when writing officially on the common-place topics of a royal birth, marriage, or death, is a task of no small difficulty. Warton has succeeded in the task not only with decency, but with dignity and spirit. Of the three poems, which he wrote as Poetry-Professor, to which may be added the Elegy on the Death of Frederic, the Verses on the King's Marriage are the most elegant, and most distinguished for their delicacy of compliment: though they have less poetical imagery than those on the Birth of the Prince of Wales, and less dignity than those on the Death of George the Second. To these last it may be objected, that, pregnant as they are with independent sentiments, and rich in appropriate classical allusion, they have less concern with the King, on whose death they were written, than with the distinguished patriot, to whom they are addressed: an objection, which will hardly be removed by observing that the lustre of the Minister is reflected on the Monarch. Let me add however, that the Poet's judgment appears in the Elegy on Frederic. If we consider the circumstances of the times, it may be allowed, that to have celebrated the Prince's political character might not have been advisable: but to a compliment on his domestic virtues, and on his patronage of men of letters, no one could with propriety object; for no one perhaps could deny that it was merited.
The English Inscriptions are elegant and pleasing; but that, which is said to be written in a Hermitage, is especially distinguished, and particularly by the exquisite stroke at the conclusion of the fourth stanza.
To say of the version from Job, that it is nervous and spirited, is not much to commend it; for it could not easily have been otherwise. But the paraphrase of the whole of the book by Young, which was poetically imagined and suitably executed, may well preclude all farther attempts of the same kind.
In the Pastoral, which professes to be at once a translation from Theocritus and an imitation of Spenser, the thoughts of the Greek are ingeniously adapted to the language and manner of the English poet.
The Odes translated from Horace, in imitation of Milton's attempt, are perhaps not inferior to that which they imitate. But English lyric poetry can hardly support itself without rhyme: possibly one cause of this is its want of a variety of feet; which want is compensated in our heroic blank verse, by full and swelling periods, where a perpetual recurrence of the same species of foot, and even the harshness of the language itself, are relieved by a variety of pause.
The Monody at Stratford, the Odes to Sleep, to Upton, and at Vale-royal Abbey, the Complaint of Cherwell, and the Ode entitled Morning, would not contribute much towards establishing the fame of a poet, nor add much to it when established. The Complaint of Cherwell is however a pleasing pastoral; Mason called it, in his letter to the Author, "the delicate Complaint of Cherwell." The Monody, by no means a contemptible production, contains one image of a more sublime and terrible nature, than our poet usually supplies. I mean in the 18th and four following verses, particularly the two last of them, which I never read without having my attention forcibly drawn to the last scene in the Electra of Sophocles, than which I do not know a finer subject for a deeply-moving tragic painting. The Ode at Valeroyal Abbey, the best of these six poems, though it is certainly heavy, and occasionally commonplace, contains some less hackneyed reflections on the benefits derived to modern times from monastic institutions, and some fine touches of Gothic painting. Every subject, connected with the ages of Chivalry and Romance, with Gothic manners and Gothic arts, was contemplated with peculiar fondness by Warton.
The "Verses to Sir Joshua Reynolds" are an admirable specimen of his excellence in this way; though the paragraph beginning with the 41st verse will show, that he was well qualified to discern and enjoy the softer and more chastised beauties of Grecian art. It is difficult to say which is preferable, the description of a Gothic cathedral in the beginning of the poem, or that of the New College window in the last-mentioned paragraph. Each possesses that merit which might be expected from its more immediate subject, and will be preferred accordingly as the mind of the reader is more alive to scenes of solemnity and magnificence, or to those of elegance and grace.
There is somewhat of grotesque in the rude grandeur of the middle ages, which would hardly escape a man of the humorous propensities of our Author, and which he has transfused into one part of this poem with touches of delicate humour not unworthy of Addison; and has thereby contributed to make it one of the most characteristic of his performances, as it displays the poet, the antiquarian, the man of classical taste, and the man of humour.
It was a bold undertaking to venture on a subject, which had employed the genius of two of our most eminent poets, one certainly a judge, and the other a practitioner, in the art of painting; and which had produced from them two of the most elegant and finished pieces in the language; I mean the Epistle of Dryden to Sir Godfrey Kneller, and that of Pope to Jervas. But as the attempt was bold, the event is not disgraceful to our Poet. The peculiarities in his subject preclude general comparison. Whilst Dryden is naturally enough led to give some account of the origin and progress of painting, and Pope to express his eagerness to visit its principal schools, Warton is with equal propriety engaged in delineating his Gothic scenery. In some parts however there is room for comparison; and I do not think that the 45th and fifteen following verses yield in correctness of drawing, or in warm and appropriate colouring, to any in Pope or Dryden. His poem has one advantage, perhaps in some measure incident to the subject, that it is more entire than either of the others: no part of it can be transposed or taken away without injury to the whole. It is also more perfect than the others; it has none of the fanciful conceit of Dryden's, nor of the smartness and point of Pope's. Let me add, by the way, that Pope's conclusion is more especially in this bad taste; but that Dryden's has as much felicity both of thought and expression as any lines in the language.
In the delineation of the same or of similar scenes, we may expect to find features of general resemblance. But Nature is not so perpetually the same as to exclude variety of description, nor are the beauties of Nature so restricted, as for those even in a single prospect to be comprehended or remarked by the eye of an individual. Hence the poet derives his power of selecting some from amongst a variety of images, and of bringing forward to notice others, which may have been before either slightly touched on, or entirely overlooked. Instances of both these cases occur in almost every page of our Author's descriptive poems; and mark him for one who wrote from an attentive survey of the works of Nature, and not merely from the descriptions of others; of one who, in the language of his favourite Milton.
Forth issuing on a summer's morn to breathe,
Among the pleasant villages and farms
Adjoin'd, from each thing met conceiv'd delight,
The smell of grain, or tedded grass, or kine,
Or dairy', each rural sight, each rural sound.
Not that he disdained imitation; for his imitations of other poets are frequent; but there is generally an originality even in those of his descriptions which are formed by imitation; and as he does not borrow through poverty, so what he borrows he makes his own, by the addition and interweaving of circumstances not to be found in his archetype. And so evident does this appear to me, that I have been surprised to see it remarked, that, "in his descriptive poetry, Milton was not only his model in respect of language and versification, but of ideas." To the former part of the remark I will readily accede, but cannot to the latter, at least in its full extent. That he sometimes imitates the ideas of Milton is sufficiently obvious; and the elegant remark of the critic is then just, that "his imitations of Milton, like the pictures of Raphael copied by Giulio Romano, are perfectly copied:" but I cannot allow that the whole of one of the most Miltonic of his poems, the Ode on the Approach of Summer, much less that the remaining part of his descriptive poetry, is copied or modelled from any one. There seems to me indeed to be one point, in which there is but little resemblance between the descriptions of Warton and of Milton (at least in his L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, for to those poems the allusion seems chiefly to be made). The delineations of Milton in these poems are seldom, so clearly marked, as that a painter might be able to copy from them. But neither Claude nor Ruysdale ever painted a more glowing or a more distinct picture, than are many of the descriptions of Warton.
And this leads me to remark, that, together with the faculty of selecting from a variety of images, and of developing others, which are new and uncommon, he possessed in an eminent degree that of representing them so clearly and accurately, as to make them appear rather pictures than descriptions; rather works of the pencil than of the pen. It has been beautifully remarked by a critic of eminent taste and learning, that the ancients have very little of the picturesque in their descriptive poetry. "They have no Thomsons, for they had no Claudes." Without attending then to the ancients, I would observe, that Warton in his delineations of nature may be compared with the best modern poets in the same line, and will by no means sink in the comparison. For being an attentive observer of nature, objects were clearly impressed upon his imagination; and as the more clear is the perception, which the mind has of any object, the more clearly in general will they be described, he shares with Thomson, the great master of the art, the praise of truth and distinctness; and is sometimes more picturesque, because he is more simple and select, even than Thomson himself.
It is to be regretted however that the descriptive poetry of Warton is so purely descriptive that it has so few touches of manners or passions, such as are found in the Georgics of Virgil; so little of moral reflection, such as gives a relish to that exquisite piece of Dyer, which makes us lament that he has written no more of the same kind; and so little of religious reflection, such as particularly recommends Thomson's Seasons, and which a contemplation of the works of Nature seems peculiarly calculated to inspire. "The unexpected insertion of such reflections," says Dr. Warton, with singular felicity of illustration, "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."
This circumstance would probably have considerable influence on my decision, were I called on to place the several descriptive poems of our Author in their order of merit. Of the Hamlet, the First of April, the Ode to a Friend, and that on the Approach of Summer, the Hamlet would stand first, and the first of April last; though not one of the others excels, or perhaps equals, the latter in variety of natural and appropriate imagery.
This likewise gives its greatest effect to that which is at present the most known, and will always deserve to be the most popular of Warton's poems, "The Suicide:" where an appeal is made not only to the fancy, but to the heart; where the most striking poetical imagery is not only clothed in the most expressive diction, but heightened by the tenderest sentiments; and all conspire to promote the noblest purposes; to comfort the miserable, and to restrain the vicious, by enforcing the dictates of religion. The great excellence of this poem may not unreasonably excite regret that it is not perfect. I have before remarked, that it has too much alliteration; and to this may be added, that it is too allegorical. Particularly the last part of the 14th stanza is made obscure by the figurativeness of its language; even had it not produced this effect, the allegory would have been objectionable. A sentiment truly dignified does not want any pomp of language to support it. I may mention here the additional spirit given to this Ode by its dramatic form; a merit which it has in common with the two which follow.
"The Crusade" and "the Grave of Arthur" are perhaps the most poetical of our Author's poems. They are imitative in that sense, in which alone Aristotle seems to consider poetry as strictly imitative; namely, when the poet takes upon him the character of some other person, and acts and speaks accordingly: whence, though the dramatic poet is not the only imitator, he alone is uniformly so; and others only become so when they give their works a dramatic turn, by assuming another character. And this is done by Warton in the odes before us; and nothing certainly gives so much animation to any species of poetry, or is in consequence more adapted to the lyric.
In these odes too, the geographical parts are well managed, and the manners of chivalry well depictured. But the Author should be particularly commended for the choice of his subjects, and for "celebrating domestic exploits," or more strictly perhaps domestic traditions; for no Englishman, certainly no poetical Englishman, can hear with indifference of
In fable or romance of Uther's son;
or of what resounds, in scarcely less romantic history, of the achievements of "English Richard."
Of the two odes, "the Crusade" is certainly superior to the other both in invention and execution. The plan is formed by the poet himself; whereas that of the other is exactly what had been chalked out by Camden and Drayton. The execution also is more animated, for there is in it nothing superfluous or redundant; and this can hardly be said of the other, which contains more prolix description: a material fault in lyric poetry. It may be questioned besides, whether the conclusion of the "Grave of Arthur" might not have been shortened with effect; and whether the discovery is not represented as having too powerful an influence on Henry.
The Sonnet, a species of poetry, foreign to the genius of the English language, and singularly liable to stiffness, was not very suitable to the talents of a man, whose prevailing fault was a want of ease. Warton's sonnets however have as much merit as sonnets usually have. Two of them, those to Wynslade and the River Lodon, have been frequently spoken of with approbation. They are certainly superior to the others; it may be, because they show more of the genuine feelings of the Author.
His less serious pieces are deserving of commendation, though not equally so: but they all share in this common praise, that they have humour and pleasantry without licentiousness. "The Panegyric on Oxford Ale" is inferior to Philips's "Splendid Shilling," of which it is an imitation, rather because it is not the original, than on account of any defect in the execution. "The Progress of Discontent" is an exquisite picture of human life, exemplified in an individual instance: Dr. Warton has pronounced it in his opinion "the best imitation of Swift that has yet appeared." A decision so well founded, as to avert from him any imputation of prejudice. "Newmarket," the only satire, which our Poet has written, is remarkable for its vein of severe and manly indignation: nor do I think that it can be deemed inferior to the best satirical compositions of Pope or Young. The apostrophe to Greece, with which it concludes, being in so much higher a strain, might on that account be objectionable, did it not arise so naturally out of the subject.
The Ode for Music might well be dispensed with; it has little of poetry to recommend either its thoughts or expressions; and the introduction of Minerva (to say the best of it) is puerile.
The Laureate Odes are the most striking testimony of the strength of Warton's poetical genius. Intangled in the difficulties of a perpetually-recurring subject, he is like Milton's
—lion pawing to get free
His hinder parts.
One circumstance indeed was favourable to him. Though he rejected indiscriminate panegyric with a manly spirit of independence, to have avoided all celebration of his royal Master would have been an unworthy dereliction of what is considered the duty of his office. Fortunately he was enabled to perform this duty without any prostitution of his Muse; and to descant with sincerity on the personal character of his Sovereign; on his domestic virtues, his patronage of the useful and liberal arts; his encouragement of maritime discoveries; and his paternal regard for his people.
But these personal virtues would not have furnished constant argument for the laureate odes of Warton; and even the genius of Pindar, when engaged in the same kind of panegyrical composition, sought for matter in collateral topics. Warton proceeded on the same plan; and his odes are distinguished not only by the manliness of their sentiments, but by the felicity of their classical allusions, and the richness of their Gothic imagery.
In the Ode for the New Year 1786, the application of a most delightful thought in Homer and Pindar to the circumstances of his own country was singularly happy; and the Ode for the Birth-day in the same year, wherein he characterises the Poets laureate (if I may use the expression) of Greece, is inferior only to that of the following year, in which he does the same with the Poets laureate of England. The latter ode is perhaps superior on the whole; though there is no part of it written in such exquisite taste, or with so much apparent interest in the subject, as the character of Theocritus, his favourite pastoral poet, in the former; unless indeed it is the character of his no less favourite romantic poet, Spenser, in the latter.
"We have formerly observed," says a critic, whom, as I have once or twice had occasion to dissent from, I now quote with approbation and pleasure, "that our Bard was particularly happy in descriptive poetry; and he has since, in his official odes as Poet Laureate, rendered it just and necessary to extend this praise to his felicity in Gothic painting: for which he probably qualified himself by his study of Chaucer, Spenser, and other old authors, who have described the feats of knights and barons bold, and who
In sage and solemn tunes have sung
Of turneys and of trophies hung.
The Odes for 1787 and 1788, while the Bard had no splendid foreign or domestic events to celebrate, nor any calamities to deplore, abound with Gothic pictures and embellishments, which give that kind of mellowness to these poems, that time confers on medals and productions of the pencil." A happy illustration, and the same with that which I have above remarked to be given by Quintilian of the effect produced by the adoption of antiquated words. With respect to these four odes, or rather the three last of them, I am unwilling even seemingly to depreciate the others, by declaring a preference for either. I cannot however but add, that the opening of that on Windsor Castle shows the grandest and most vigorous conception.
The two last odes are in a different style: the last in particular, which contains a eulogy on the principal mineral springs in England, blended with two or three fabulous or historical allusions, which Drayton perhaps supplied him with, contains also more glowing description than any of his former poems: and being composed but a few days before his death, proves that his fancy was still warm and active.
It has been already intimated that our Poet resembles Pindar in the selection of his topics; let me here add, that he displays a Pindaric boldness and fire in his execution. But as these and similar expressions are often used, perhaps without any determinate meaning, it seems advisable to mention, for the sake of precision, that by a Pindaric boldness and fire I would understand manliness of sentiment, grand and lofty imagery, glowing words, and a highly-wrought and metaphorical style: qualities, more truly Pindaric than those which some persons seem to think constitute an imitation of Pindar; such as irregular metre, sudden and unconnected transitions, and obscure and confused thoughts. Warton however has more of Pindar's majesty, than of his enthusiasm; which latter has been carried perhaps to its greatest extent in the English language by nature in Dryden's "Alexander's Feast," and by art in "The Bard" of Gray.
Of the Latin poems of Warton little need be said; as the judgment of his brother concerning them has never been disputed, that they are written with "a true classical Purity, Elegance, and Simplicity." The Author (to use another expression of the Doctor's) seems to have thought in Latin.
His model was evidently Virgil; though in the opening of the verses on the rebuilding of Trinity College Chapel, he appears to wish for the Ovidian Graces of Bathurst. This was undoubtedly the most arduous of his Latin poems, and displays the greatest knowledge and command of the language; but it is at the fame time much less calculated to create general interest than Mons Catharinae. The number of readers interested in the one subject is comparatively small: but every one is alive to whatever awakens the feelings, and recalls the sports and employments, of youth.
The two hendecasyllaba entitled "In Horto script." and "Apud Hortum jucundissimum Wintoniae," are worthy of the hand of Flaminius and the Epitaph on Mrs. Serle, and that in the Inscriptionum Delectus" which begins "O dulcis puer," have all the delicacy and tenderness of the purest Greek models; and are such as might have proceeded from Meleager or Callimachus, had they written in the language of Catullus.
A modern writer of an ancient language is always liable to inaccuracies. We are however surprised at finding in such a man as Warton, mistakes of so glaring a kind as that of making "Tempe" a noun feminine of the singular number.
If these observations are just, it may be concluded, by way of general remark, that, notwithstanding his blemishes, for blemishes he undoubtedly had, Warton is entitled to claim no mean rank amongst the poets of his country: that he displays great facility and variety of powers; that his style is forcible and ornamented; his thoughts lofty and dignified; his imagery in his descriptive poetry select, new, and distinct; in his lyric poetry, gorgeous and magnificent; that in his less serious pieces he has the humour, without the grossness, of Swift; that in his Latin compositions he shows a true classical taste and feeling; and that, in all his poems, though he abounds in imitations of his predecessors, his imitations are not servile, and that what he borrows he makes his own.
In one department he is not only unequalled, but original and unprecedented: I mean in applying to modern poetry the embellishment of Gothic manners and Gothic arts; the tournaments and festivals, the poetry, music, painting, and architecture of "elder days." Nor can I here refrain from repeating, that, though engaged in the service, his talents were never prostituted to the undue praise, of royalty: nor from adding as a topic of incidental applause, that, though he wanders in the mazes of fancy, he may always be resorted to as supplying at least an harmless amusement; and that with Milton and Gray, whom he resembled in various other points, he shares also this moral commendation, that his laurels, like theirs, are untainted by impurity, and that he has uniformly written (to use the words of another unsullied bard [Author's note: Sylvester's Du Bartas])
Verse that a Virgin without blush may read.