WILLIAM WARNER, an old English poet, is called by Phillips, "a good honest plain writer of moral rules and precepts, in that old-fashioned kind of seven-footed verse, which yet sometimes is in use, though in different manner, that is to say, divided into two. He may be reckoned with several other writers of the same time, i.e. Queen Elizabeth's reign: who, though inferior to Sidney, Spenser, Drayton, and Daniel, yet have been thought by some not unworthy to be remembered and quoted: namely George Gascoigne, Thomas Hudson, John Markham, Thomas Achely, John Weever, Charles Middleton, George Turberville, Henry Constable, sir Edward Dyer, Thomas Churchyard, Charles Fitzgeoffry."
William Warner was a native of Oxfordshire, and born, as Mr. Ellis is inclined to think, about 1558, which supposes him to have published his first work at the age of twenty-five. He was educated at Oxford, but spent his time in the flowery paths of poetry, history, and romance, in preference to the dry pursuits of logic and philosophy, and departed without a degree to the metropolis, where he soon became distinguished among the minor poets. It is said, that in the latter part of his life, he was retained in the service of Henry Carey, lord Hunsdon, to whom he dedicates his poem. Mr. Ritson adds to this account, that by his dedications to Henry and George, successive barons of Hunsdon, he appears to have been patronized by, or in some mariner connected with, that family.
In the fourth edition of Percy's Ballads, we find the following extract from the parish register of Amwell, in Hertfordshire, communicated by Mr. Hoole, although first given by Scott, in his poem of "Amwell," edit. 1776. "1608-1609 — Master William Warner, a man of good yeares and of honest reputation; by his profession an atturnye of the Common Pleas; author of Albion's England, diynge suddenly in the night in his bedde, without any former complaynt or sicknesse, on Thursday-night beeinge the ninth day of March, was buried the Saturday following, and lyeth in the church at the corner, under the stone of Walter Ffader."
His "Albion's England" was his principal work; and was not only a favourite with his own age, but has received very high praise from the critics of our own time. It is an epitome of the British history, and, according to the editor of the "Muses Library," Mrs. Cooper, is written with great learning, sense, and spirit; in some places fine to an extraordinary degree, of which an instance is given in the story of Argentill and Curan, a tale which, Mrs. Cooper adds, is full of beautiful incidents, in the romantic taste, extremely affecting, rich in ornament, wonderfully various in style, and in short one of the most beautiful pastorals she ever met with. To this opinion, high as it is, Dr. Percy thinks nothing can be objected, unless perhaps an affected quaintness in some of his expressions, and an indelicacy in some of his pastoral images. Warner's contemporaries ranked him on a level with Spenser, and called him the Homer and Virgil of their age. But Dr. Percy remarks, that he rather resembled Ovid, whose Metamorphosis he seems to have taken for a model, having deduced a perpetual poem from the deluge down to the reign of queen Elizabeth, full of lively digressions and entertaining episodes. And though he is sometimes harsh, affected, and indelicate, he often displays a most charming and pathetic simplicity.
He was numbered in his own time among the refiners of the English tongue, which "by his pen was much enriched and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments, and resplendent habiliments." Such is the opinion of Meres, in his "Wit's Treasury;" but the progress Warner made in refining the English tongue was certainly very inconsiderable. He owed his simplicity to his taste; but he had not the courage to abandon the uncouth and quaint expressions so peculiar to his time, and to shew that wit, and point might exist without them. His style, however, was then thought elegant, and such was his power of pleasing, that "Albion's England" superseded that very popular work "the Mirror of Magistrates."
Warner was a writer of prose. His work was entitled "Syrinx, or a seavenfold Historie, handled with varietie of pleasant and profitable, both comical and tragical argument," printed in 1597. Warton calls it a novel, or rather a suite of stories, much in the style of the adventures of Heliodorus's Ethiopic romance. He appears also to have translated Plautus's "Menaechmi," published in 1595. Ritson informs us, that by an entry in the Stationers' book, on the 17th of October, 1586, "The Wardens, upon serche of Roger Ward's house, dyd find there in printing, a book in verse, intytled 'England's Albion, beinge in English, and not aucthorised to be printed, which he had been forbidden to prynte, aswell by the L. archb. of Canterbuye, as also by the said wardens at his own house;' and forasmuch as he had done this 'contrary to the late decrees of the hon. court of Starre-chamber, the said wardens seised three heaps of the said England's Albion.'" Why this work was prohibited, except for the indelicacies already noticed, is not very apparent. We know that bishop Hall's satires incurred the displeasure of the guardians of the press at no long distance from this time.
Mr. Headley, who has extracted many beauties from Warner, says, that his tales, though often tedious, and not unfrequently indelicate, abound with all the unaffected incident and artless ease of the best old ballads, without their cant and puerility. The pastoral pieces that occur, are superior to all the eclogues in our language, those of Collins only excepted. He also quotes Drayton's lines on Warner, which the reader will find in his piece of "Poets and Poesy."