1920 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Ritson

Edmund Gosse, in "Joseph and Thomas Warton," Some Diversions of a Man of Letters (1920) 88.



The spirit of pendantry, so amiably mocked by the Wartons, took its revenge upon Thomas in the form of a barren demon named Joseph Ritson, who addressed to him in 1782 what he aptly called A Familiar Letter. There is hardly a more ferocious pamphlet in the whole history of literature. Ritson, who had the virulence of a hornet and the same insect's inability to produce honey of his own, was considered by the reactionaries to have "punched Tom Warton's historick body full of deadly holes." But his strictures were not really important. In marshalling some thousands of facts, Warton had made perhaps a couple of dozen mistakes, and Ritson advances these with a reiteration and a violence worthy of a maniac. Moreover, and this is the fate of angry pedants, he himself is often found to be as dustily incorrect as Warton when examined by modern lights. Ritson, who accuses Warton of "never having consulted or even seen" the books he quotes from, and of intentionally swindling the public, was in private life a vegetarian who is said to have turned his orphan nephew on to the streets because he caught him eating a mutton-chop. Ritson flung his arrows far and wide, for he called Dr. Samuel Johnson himself "that great luminary, or rather dark-lantern of literature."