1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Warton

Henry Francis Cary, "Lives of the Poets: Thomas Warton" London Magazine 4 (August 1821) 121-26.



The life of Thomas Warton, by Dr. Mant, now Bishop of Killaloe, prefixed to the edition of his poems published at Oxford, is drawn from sources so authentic, and detailed with so much exactness, that little remains to be added to the circumstances which it relates.

THOMAS WARTON was descended from a very respectable family in Yorkshire. His grandfather, Anthony Warton, was rector of a village in Hampshire; and his father was a fellow of Magdalen College, and Poetry Professor in the University of Oxford. His mother, daughter of Joseph Richardson, who was also a clergyman, gave birth to three children: — Joseph, of whom some account will hereafter be given, Thomas, and Jane. Thomas was born at Basingstoke, in 1728; and very early in life afforded promise of his future excellence. A letter, addressed to his sister from school when he was about nine years of age, containing an epigram on Leander, was preserved with affectionate regard by their brother, Dr. Warton. What school it was, that may claim the honour of contributing to the instruction of one who was afterwards so distinguished as a scholar, has not been recorded.

On the 16th of March, 1743, he was admitted a commoner of Trinity College, Oxford; and about two years after lost his father, — a volume of whose poems was, soon after his death, printed by subscription, by his eldest son Joseph, with two elegiac poems to h memory, one by the editor, the other by his daughter above-mentioned. The latter of these tributes is termed by Mr. Crowe, in a note to one of his eloquent Crewian Orations, — "Ode teinera, simplex, venusta," — "tender, simple, and beautiful."

In the course of this year he published, without his name, the Pleasures of Melancholy; having, perhaps, been influenced in the choice of a subject thus sombre, by the loss of his parent. In this poem, his imitations of Milton are so frequent and palpable, as to discover the timid flight of a young writer not daring to quit the track of his guide. Yet by some (as appears from the letters between Mrs. Carter and Miss Talbot) it was ascribed to Akenside. In 1746 was produced his Progress of Discontent, — a paraphrase on one of his own exercises, made at the desire of Dr. Huddesford, the head of his college.

His next effort attracted more general notice. In consequence of some disgrace which the University had incurred with Government, by its supposed attachment to the Stuart family, Mason had written his Isis, an Elegy; and in 1749, Warton was encouraged by Dr. Huddesford to publish an answer to it, with the title of the Triumph of Isis. It may naturally be supposed, that so spirited a defence of Oxford against the aspersions of her antagonist would be welcomed with ardour; and among other testimonies of approbation which it received, Dr. King, whose character is eulogized in the poem, coming into the bookseller's shop, and inquiring whether five guineas would be acceptable to the author, left for him an order for that sum. After an interval of twenty-eight years, his rival, Mason, was probably sincere in the opinion he gave, that Warton had much excelled him both "in poetical imagery, and in the correct flow of his versification."

He now became a contributor to a monthly miscellany called The Student; — in which, besides his Progress of Discontent, were inserted A Panegyric on Oxford Ale, a professed imitation of the Splendid Shilling; The Author confined to College; and A Version of the twenty-ninth Chapter of Job.

His two degrees having been taken at about the usual intervals, in 1751 he succeeded to a fellowship of his college, where he found a peaceful and unenvied retreat for the remainder of his days, without betraying any ambition of those dignities, which, to the indignation of Bishop Warburton, were not conferred upon him.

At this time appeared his Newmarket, a Satire; An Ode written for Music, performed in the University Theatre; and two copies of verses, one in Latin, the other in English, on the Death of Frederic, Prince of Wales.

In 1753, his Ode on the Approach of Summer, — The Pastoral, in the Manner of Spenser — (which has not much resemblance to that writer), and Verses inscribed on a beautiful Grotto, — were printed in the Union, a poetical miscellany, selected by him, and edited at Edinburgh.

The next year we find him employed in drawing up a body of statutes for the Radcliffe Library, by the desire of Dr. Huddesford, then Vice-Chancellor; in assisting Colman and Thornton in the Connoisseur; and in publishing his Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser, which he afterwards enlarged from one to two volumes. Johnson complimented him "for having shown to all, who should hereafter attempt the study of our ancient authors, the way to success, by directing them to the perusal of the books which their author had read;" a method of illustration which since, certainly, has not wanted imitators. Much of his time must have been now diverted from his favourite pursuits, by his engagement in the instruction of college pupils. During his excursions in the summer vacations, to different parts of England, he appears to have occupied himself in making remarks on such specimens of Gothic and Saxon architecture as came in his way. His manuscript on this subject was in the possession of his brother, since whose decease, unfortunately, it has not been discovered. Some incidental observations on our ancient buildings, introduced into his book on the Faerie Queene, are enough to make its regret the loss. The poetical reader would have been better pleased it, he had fulfilled an intention he had of translating the Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius.

Though it was not the lot of Warton to attain distinction in his clerical profession, yet literary honours, more congenial to his taste and habits, awaited him. In 1756, he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and faithfully performed the duties of his office, by recommending the purest models of antiquity in lectures which are said to have been "remarkable for elegance of diction, and justness of observation," and interspersed with translations from the Greek epigrammatists.

To Johnson he had already rendered a material service, by his exertions to procure him the degree of Master of Arts, by diploma; and he encreased the obligation, by contributing some notes to his edition of Shakspeare, and three papers to The Idler. The imputation cast on one, from whom such kindness had been received, of his "being the only man of genius without a heart," must have been rather the effect of spleen in Johnson, than the result of just observation; and if either these words, or the verses in ridicule of his poems—

Endless labour all along,
Endless labour to be wrong;
Trick'd in antique ruff and bonnet,
Ode, and elegy, and sonnet;

had been officiously repeated to Warton, we cannot much wonder at what is told, of his passing Johnson in a bookseller's shop without speaking, or at the tears which Johnson is related to have shed at that mark of alienation in his former friend.

A Description of Winchester, and a Burlesque on the Oxford Guides, or books professing to give an account of the University, both anonymous, are among the next publications attributed to his pen.

In 1758, he made a selection of Latin inscriptions in verse; and printed it, together with notes, under the title of Inscriptionum Romanarum Metricarum Delectus; and then first undertook, at the suggestion it is said of Judge Blackstone, the splendid edition of Theocritus, which made its appearance twelve years after. The papers left by Mr. St. Amand, formed the basis of this work to them were added some valuable criticisms by Toup; and though the arrangement of the whole may be justly charged with a want of clearness and order, and Mr. Gaisford has since employed much greater exactness and diligence in his edition of the same author, yet the praise of a most entertaining and delightful variety cannot be denied to the notes of Warton. In a dissertation on the Bucolic poetry of the Greeks, he shows that species of composition to have been derived from the ancient comedy; and exposes the dream of a golden age.

La bella eta dell' or unqua non venne,
Nacque da nostre menti
Entro il vago pensiero,
E nel nostro desio chiaro divenne.
Guidi.

The characters in Theocritus, are shown to he distinguished into three classes, — herdsmen, shepherds, and goatherds; the first of which was superior to the next, as that in its turn was to the third; and this distinction is proved to have been accurately observed, as to allusions and images. The discrimination osceins to have been overlooked by Virgil; in which instance, no less than in all the genuine graces of pastoral poetry, he is inferior to the Sicilian. The contempt with which Warton speaks of those eminent and unfortunate Greek scholars, who diffused the learning of their country over Europe, after the capture of Constantinople, and whom he has here termed "Graeculi famelici," is surely reprehensible. But for their labours, Britain might never have required an editor of Theocritus.

1760, he contributed to the Biographia Britannica a Life of Sir Thomas Pope, twice subsequently published, in a separate form, with considerable enlargements: in the two following years he wrote a Life of Dr. Bathurst, and in his capacity of Poetry Professor, composed Verses on the Death of George II., the Marriage of his Successor, and the Birth of the Heir Apparent, which, together with his Complaint of Cherwell, made a part of the Oxford Collections. Several of his humorous pieces were soon after (in 1764) published in the Oxford Sausage, the preface to which he also wrote; and in 1766, he edited the Greek Anthology of Cephalas. In 1767, he took the degree of Bachelor in Divinity; and in 1771, was chosen a Fellow of the Antiquarian Society; and on the nomination of the Earl of Litchfield, Chancellor of the University, was collated to the Rectory of Kiddington, Oxfordshire, a benefice of small value. Ten years after, he drew up a History of his Parish, and published it as a specimen of a Parochial History of Oxfordshire. Meanwhile, he was engaged in an undertaking, of higher interest to the national antiquities and literature. In illustrating the origin, and tracing the progress of our vernacular poetry, we had not kept pace with the industry of our continental neighbours. To supply this deficiency, a work had been projected by Pope, and was now contemplated, and indeed entered on, by Gray and Mason, in conjunction. We cannot but regret, that Gray relinquished the undertaking, as, he did, on hearing into whose hands it had fallen, since he would (as the late publication of his papers by Mr. Mathias has shown) have brought to the task a more accurate and extensive acquaintance with those foreign sources from whence our early writers derived much of their learning, and would, probably, have adopted a better method, and more precision in the general disposition of his materials. Yet there is no reason to complain of the way in which Warton has acquitted himself, as far as he has gone. His History of English Poetry is a rich mine, in which, if we have some trouble in separating the ore from the dross, there is much precious metal to reward our pains. The first Volume of this laborious work was published in 1774; two others followed, in 1778, and in 1781; and some progress had been made at his decease in printing the fourth. In 1777, he encreased the poetical treasure of his country by a volume of his own poems, of which there was a demand for three other editions before his death. In 1782, we find him presented by his college to the donative of Hill Farrance, in Somersetshire, and employed in publishing An Inquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems attributed to Thomas Rowley, and Verses on Sir Joshua Reynolds's painted window at New College: about the same time, probably, he was chosen a member of the Literary Club.

In 1785, he edited Milton's minor poems, with very copious illustrations; and in the year following, was elected to the Camden Professorship of History, mid was appointed to succeed Whitehead, as Poet Laureate. In his inaugural speech as Camden Professor, subjoined to the edition of his poetical works by Dr. Mant, he has shown that the public duties required at the first foundation of the Professorship, owing to the improvement in the course of academical studies, are rendered no longer necessary. From one who had already voluntarily done so much, it would have been ungracious to exact the performance of public labours not indispensably requisite. In the discharge of his function as Laureate, he still continued, as be had long ago professed himself to be, — "Too free in servile courtly phrase to fawn;" and had the wish been gratified, — expressed by himself before his appointment, or by Gibbon after it, — that the annual tribute might be dispensed with, we should have lost some of his best lyric effusions.

Till his sixty-second year, he had experienced no interruption to a vigorous state of health. Then a seizure of the gout compelled him to seek relief from the use of the Bath waters; and be returned from that place to college with the hope of a recovery from his complaint. But on the 20th of May, 1790, between ten and eleven o'clock at night, as he was sitting in the common room with two of the college fellows, and in higher spirits than usual, a paralytic affection deprived him of his speech. Some indistinct sounds only, in which it was thought the name of his friend, Mr. Price, the Librarian of the Bodleian, was heard, escaped him, and he expired on the day but one after. His funeral was honoured by the attendance of the Vice-Chancellor, and a numerous train of followers, to the ante-chapel of his college, where he is interred, with a very plain inscription to his memory.

His person was short and thick, though in the earlier part of his life he had been thought handsome. His face, latterly, became somewhat rubicund, and his utterance so confused, that Johnson compared it to the gobbling of a turkey. The portrait of him by Reynolds, besides the resemblance of the features, is particularly characterized by the manner in which the hand is drawn, so as to give it a great air of truth. He was negligent in his dress; and so little studious of appearances, that having dispatched his labours, while others were yet in bed, he might have been found, at the usual hours of study, loitering on the banks of his beloved Cherwell, or in the streets, following the drum and fife, a sound which was known to have irresistible attraction for his ears, — a spectator at a military parade, or even one amongst a crowd at a public execution. He retained to old age the amiable simplicity and unsuspecting frankness of boyhood: his affection for his brother, to whose society at Winchester he latterly retired from college, during the vacations in summer, does not seem ever to have suffered any abatement; and his manners were tranquil and unassuming. The same amenity and candour of disposition, which marked him in private life, pervade his writings, except on some few occasions, when his mind is too much under the influence of party feelings. This bias inclined him, not only to treat the character of Milton with a most undue asperity, but even to extenuate the atrocities committed under the government of Mary, and somewhat to depreciate the worth of those divines, whose attachment to the reformed religion led them to suffer death in her reign.

The writer of this paper has been told by an Italian, who was acquainted with Warton, that his favourite book in the Italian language (of which his knowledge was far from exact) was the Gerusalemme Liberata. Both the stately phrase, and the theme of that poem, were well suited to him.

Among the poets of the second class, he deserves a distinguished place. He is almost equally pleasing in his gayer, and in his more exalted moods. His mirth is without malice or indecency, and his seriousness without gloom.

In his lyrical pieces, if we seek in vain for the variety and music of Dryden, the tender and moral sublime of Gray, or the enthusiasm of Collins, yet we recognize an attention ever awake to the appearances of nature, and a mind stored with the images of classical and Gothic antiquity. Though his diction is rugged, it is like the cup in Pindar, which Telamon stretches out to Alcides, [Greek characters], rough with gold, and embost with curious imagery. A lover of the ancients would, perhaps, be offended, if the birthday ode, beginning

Within what fountain's craggy cell
Delights the goddess Health to dwell?

were compared, as to its subject, with that of the Theban bard, on the illness of Hiero, which opens with a wish that Chiron were yet living, in order that the poet might consult him on the case of the Syracusan monarch; and in its form, with that in which he asks of his native city, in whom of all her heroes she most delighted.

Among the odes, some of which might more properly he termed idylliums, The Hamlet is of uncommon beauty; the landscape is truly English, and has the truth and tenderness of Gainsborough's pencil. Those To a Friend on his leaving a Village in Hampshire, and the First of April, are entitled to similar praise. The Crusade, The Grave of King Arthur, and most of the odes composed for the court, are in a higher strain. In the Ode written at Vale Royal Abbey is a striking image, borrowed from some lent verses, written by Archbishop Markham, and printed in the second volume of that collection.

High o'er the trackless heath, at midnight seen,
No more the windows ranged in long may
(Where the tall shaft and fretted arch between
Thick ivy twines) the taper'd rites betray.
"Prodidit arcanas arcta fenestra faces."

His sonnets have been highly and deservedly commended by no less competent a judge than Mr. Coleridge. They are alone sufficient to prove (if any proof were wanting) that this form of composition is not unsuited to our language. One of our longest, as it is one of our most beautiful poems, the Faerie Queene, is written in a stanza which demands the continual recurrence of an equal number of rhymes; and the chief objection to our adopting the Sonnet is the paucity of our rhymes.

The Lines to Sir Joshua Reynolds are marked by the happy turn of the compliment, and by the strength and harmony of the versification, at least as far as the formal couplet measure will admit of those qualities. They need not fear a comparison with the verses addressed by Dryden to Kneller or by Pope to Jervas.

His Latin compositions are nearly as excellent as his English. The few hendecasyllables he has left, have more of the vigour of Catullus than those by Flaminio; but Flaminio excels him in delicacy. The Mons Catharinae contains nearly the same images as Gray's Ode on a Prospect of Eton College. In the word "cedrinae," which occurs in the verses on Trinity College Chapel, he has, we believe, erroneously made the penultimate long. Dr. Mant has observed another mistake in his use of the word "Tempe" as a feminine noun, in the lines translated from Akenside. When in his sports with his brother's scholars at Winchester he made their exercises for them, he used to ask the boy how many faults he would have: — one such would have been sufficient for a lad near the head of the school.

His style in prose, though marked by a character of magnificence, is at times stiff and encumbered. He is too fond of alliteration in prose as well as in verse; and the cadence of his sentences is too evidently laboured.