1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Joseph Warton

Thomas Green, 16 April 1799; Extracts from the Diary of a Lover of Literature (1810) 213-15.



Finished a perusal of Warton's Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope. Invention, he regards as the characteristic of a Poet; and therefore looks upon Burnet (the cosmogonist — not the Bishop), and Addison in his prose works, as displaying a truly poetic, ie, creative genius: Pope, though an excellent improver, he esteems no great original inventor; and rests his pretensions to immortal fame as a poet (as he afterwards narrows those of Dryden to his Fables) on his Windsor Forest, the Rape of the Lock, and Eloisa's Epistle to Abelard — observing, that wit and satire, are transitory and perishable; but nature and passion, eternal. — The fine arts, he thinks (p. 182.), — poetry, painting, music — naturally flourish in the luxury of monarchy; but the sciences, eloquence, history, and philosophy, demand the freedom of a republic to raise them to their full vigour and growth. I doubt exceedingly whether this distinction can be sustained either by reason or experience. At first glance, I should suppose, that such productions as most powerfully agitated strong. feeling, would be most in request, and most likely to be supplied, in a republic; those which administered gratification to a delicate and refined taste, in a monarchy: — but this is a very hasty view of the subject. — In enquiring into the causes, why genius declines as taste improves, he asks, at the close of the 3d. sect., "whether that philosophical, that geometrical and systematical spirit, so much in vogue, which has spread itself from the sciences even into polite literature, by consulting only reason, has not diminished and destroyed sentiment; and made our poets write from and to the head, rather than the heart?" This is just, as far as it goes: but why, as knowledge, civilization, and refinement, advance, reason should thus encroach upon sentiment, is not so obvious. Partly, no doubt, it arises from the dissipation of those illusions by which, in times less knowing, sensibility was excited and cherished; partly, from the difficulty with which a fastidious taste can be satisfied by what remains to be presented to it from the regions of imagination: but much, I think, must be ascribed to the discovery, that in a settled and quiescent state of things — a state rather of speculation than action — we are far more uniformly and steadily accessible to what is addressed to our reason, than our feelings; to be gratified with what is rational, than to be amused with what is pleasing, or touched with what is moving. Nature and passion, it is true, are eternal; and just representations of them will ever continue to delight: but addresses to our understanding, we find, are more constant, and sure, and appretiable in their effects; and they accordingly rise, with the progress of society, in our esteem. — The use, the force, and the excellence, Warton observes (sect. 10.) of language — an excellence essential to poetry — consists in raising clear, complete, and circumstantial images; and thus turning readers into spectators: the prevailing fault in poets, is the dwelling in generalities; and Homer was fortunate in writing before general and abstract terms were invented. Tacitus, on this occasion, he calls a great Poet; and soon afterwards pronounces Pain's-Hill, and Persefield, fine examples of practical poetry; and Brown, a great painter: — vivid and forcible expressions. — Of Pope's Preface to the Iliad, he speaks in very different terms Vol. 1, p. 115; and Vol. 2, p. 475: a change of opinion, which may in some measure be explained by the length of time which elapsed between the publication of these Volumes. — He sums up and concludes, with ascribing to Pope, in a tone more subdued (I think) than that with which he started, the characteristic excellence of Judgment rather than Invention. — The multifarious erudition and exquisite taste which Warton displays in his critiques, the various productions he takes occasion to perstringe in his progress through Pope's Works, and the curious anecdotes with which he occasionally seasons his remarks, render this Essay one of the most interesting and delightful compositions in the English language.