1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Warton

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:99-100.



The Wartons, like the Beaumonts, were a poetical race. Thomas, the historian of English poetry was the second son of Dr. Warton of Magdalen college, Oxford, who was twice chosen Professor of Poetry by his university, and who wrote some pleasing verses, half scholastic and half sentimental. A sonnet by the elder Warton is worthy being transcribed, for its strong family likeness:—

[Written after seeing Windsor Castle.]
From beauteous Windsor's high and storied halls,
Where Edward's chiefs start from the glowing walls,
To nay low cot from ivory beds of state,
Pleased I return unenvious of the great.
So the bee ranges o'er the varied scenes
Of corn, of heaths, of fallows, and of greens,
Pervades the thicket, soars above the hill,
Or murmurs to the meadow's murmuring rill:
Now haunts old hollowed oaks, deserted cells,
Now seeks the low vale lily's silver bells;
Sips the warm fragrance of the greenhouse bowers,
And tastes the myrtle and the citron's flowers;
At length returning to the wonted comb,
Prefers to all his little straw-built home.

The poetry-professor died in 1745. His tastes, his love of poetry, and of the university, were continued by his son Thomas, born in 1728. At sixteen, Thomas Warton was entered of Trinity college. He began early to write verses, and his "Pleasures of Melancholy," published when he was nineteen, gave promise of excellence which his riper productions did not fulfil. Having taken his degree, Warton obtained a fellowship, and in 1757 was appointed Professor of Poetry. He was also curate of Woodstock, and rector of Kiddington, a small living near Oxford. The even tenor of his life was only varied by his occasional publications, one of which was an elaborate Essay on Spenser's Faery Queen: He also edited the minor poems of Milton, an edition which Leigh Hunt says is a wilderness of sweets, and is the only one in which a true lover of the original can pardon an exuberance of annotation. Some of the notes are highly poetical, while others display Warton's taste for antiquities, for architecture, superstition, and his intimate acquaintance with the old Elizabethan writers. A still more important work, the "History of English Poetry," forms the basis of his reputation. In this history Warton poured out in profusion the treasures of a full mind. His antiquarian lore, his love of antique manners, and his chivalrous feelings, found appropriate exercise in tracing the stream of our poetry from its first fountain-springs, down to the luxuriant reign of Elizabeth, which he justly styled "the most poetical age of our annals." Pope and Gray had planned schemes of a history of English poetry, in which the authors were to be arranged according to their style and merits. Warton adopted the chronological arrangement, as giving freer exertion for research, and as enabling him to exhibit, without transposition, the gradual improvements of our poetry, and the progression of our language. The untiring industry and learning of the poet-historian accumulated a mass of materials equally valuable and curious. His work is a vast store-house of facts connected with our early literature; and if he sometimes wanders from his subject, or overlays it with extraneous details, it should be remembered, as his latest editor, Mr. Price, remarks, that new matter was constantly arising, and that Warton "was the first adventurer in the extensive region through which he journied, and into which the usual pioneers of literature had scarcely penetrated." It is to be regretted that Warton's plan excluded the drama, which forms so rich a source of our early imaginative literature; but this defect has been partly supplied by Mr. Collier's Annals of the Stage. On the death of Whitehead in 1785, Warton was appointed poet-laureate. His learning gave dignity to an office usually held in small esteem, and which in our day has been wisely converted into a sinecure. The same year he was made Camden Professor of History. While pursuing his antiquarian and literary researches, Warton was attacked with gout, and his enfeebled health yielded to a stroke of paralysis in 1790. Notwithstanding the classic stiffness of his poetry, and his full-blown academical honours, Warton appears to have been an easy companionable man, who delighted to unbend in common society, and especially with boys. "During his visits to his brother Dr. J. Warton (master of Winchester school), the reverend professor became an associate and confidant in all the sports of the schoolboys. When engaged with them in some culinary occupation, and when alarmed by the sudden approach of the master, he has been known to hide himself in a dark corner of the kitchen; and has been dragged from thence by the doctor, who had taken him for some great boy He also used to help the boys in their exercises generally putting in as many faults as would disguise the assistance" [author's note: Vide Campbell's Specimens, second edition, p. 620]. If there was little dignity in this, there was something better — a kindliness of disposition and freshness of feeling which all would wish to retain.

The poetry of Warton is deficient in natural expression and general interest, but some of his longer pieces, by their martial spirit and Gothic fancy, are calculated to awaken a stirring and romantic enthusiasm. Hazlitt considered some of his sonnets the finest in the language, and they seem to have caught the fancy of Coleridge and Bowles.