In something of a turning point in the history of criticism, in dedicating his Essay to Edward Young, Joseph Warton defines the "first class" of English poets as Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, writers whose virtues have not been adequately recognized: "For one person who can adequately relish, and enjoy a work of imagination, twenty are to be found who can taste and judge of, observations on familiar life, and the manners of the age. The satires of Ariosto are more read than the Orlando Furioso, or even Dante. Are there so many cordial admirers of Spenser and Milton, as of Hudibras; if we strike out of the number of supposed admirers, those who appear such out of fashion, and not of feeling?" (1782) 1:vi. The Essay was originally published anonymously. Not seen.
British romanticism can be viewed as an outgrowth of Warton's call for a "pure poetry" in contrast to Pope, though the matter was still being argued well into the nineteenth century. One of the better contributions to the debate was an anonymous 1822 essay in the European Magazine that helps to clarify what was at stake in opposing attitudes towards Spenser's legacy: "It appears, then, that the admirers of Spenser ought to be divided into two classes, those who admire him as a true copier of nature, and those who admire him only because he chiefly confined himself to romantic subjects, because he wrote in a certain stanza, and all the other arbitrary et ceteras which characterize the romantic school of poetry. The former of these classes admire Spenser because he is worthy of their admiration, and because he excelled in that species of poetry which he cultivated. Hence it is that no person admired Spenser more than Pope, though considered the model or founder of the classical school in England; but the defenders of the romantic school admire him because he has happened to fall in with their particular system, because he happened to write upon subjects to which they confine all excellence, and for many other reasons founded on their own crazy system of poetical pre-eminence" "On the Spenserian School of Poetry" 82 (November 1822) 439-40.
John Wooll: "It is clearly the prevalent impression on his mind, that Pope was not a poet of imagination and invention, but that he excelled in that species of poetry which was within the reach of his talent; and this species Dr. Warton very openly defines to be 'the art of making the most solid observations on human life, expressed with the utmost elegance and brevity, and decorated with a correct, smooth, and harmonious versification.' This idea he had taken up very early in life. In his satire entitled Ranelagh House, one of the first pieces of information the familiar spirit communicates to Philomides is, that 'Mr. Pope had taken his place in the Elysian fields, not amongst the poets, but the philosophers; and that he was more fond of Socrates' company than Homer's.' This volume produced within a few years, a Life of Pope by Mr. Ruffhead, a gentleman at the bar, written expressly to defeat the statements, and correct, as he terms them, the misrepresentations of Dr. Warton: a performance in which, it must be owned, censure becomes harsh, and at times trivially minute; whilst approbation half withheld, and reluctantly extorted, may be truly said to only "damn with faint praise'" Biographical Memoirs of Joseph Warton (1806) 34-35.
William Lisle Bowles: "It often however happens, that an age becomes too refined either for Poetry or Truth, and we know extravagant Philosophy is much more dangerous than romantic Poetry; it is for this reason that the mind often flies from vain and visionary systems of of licentious philosophy, to repose upon the ideas of virtue, the dignified consolations, the enchanting pictures, or the pathetic incidents which the Muse presents. Let me here be indulged in saying a word, concerning my master and friend. No one excelled him in pure critical taste, and an accurate appreciation of whatever was truly poetical. To his criticisms, and to those of his brother Thomas Warton, we are indebted, in some respects, for a juster idea of genuine poetic excellence; and though the present age be not that of romance or chivalry, it is by no means deficient in compositions that are fanciful, pathetic, and in some instances sublime" note in Works of Pope, ed. Bowles (1806) 1:290-91n.
Thomas Campbell: "The author of The Pursuits of Literature has pronounced it a common-place book; and Richardson, the novelist, used to call it a literary gossip: but a testimony in its favour, of more authority than any individual opinion, will be found in the popularity with which it continues to be read. It is very entertaining, and abounds with criticism of more research than Addison's, of more amenity than Hurd's or Warburton's, and of more insinuating tact than Johnson's. At the same time, while much ingenuity and many truths are scattered over the Essay, it is impossible to admire it as an entire theory, solid and consistent in all its parts. It is certainly setting out from unfortunate premises to begin his Remarks on Pope with grouping Dryden and Addison in the same class of poets; and to form a scale for estimating poetical genius, which would set Elijah Fenton in a higher sphere than Butler" Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 664.
Herbert E. Cory: "To call it, as [James Russell] Lowell does, 'The earliest public official declaration of war against the reigning mode' is to tempt the reader into a rather too exalted notion of Warton's spirit of revolt. To be sure, there is much talk about things that are 'romantic' and about things which have 'a pleasing wildness.' But the reverence for things 'elegant' and 'decorous' and the horror of 'impropriety' is even more frequently expressed. Certainly, at all events, Joseph Warton had an acute appreciation of Spenser. Apropos of an attack on Pope's Alley, he wrote a sustained panegyric on The Faerie Queene" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 162.
Oliver Elton: "The Essay on Man had been assailed by Crousaz; and Warburton, in defending it, and in editing the works of Pope (1751), had seized the occasion to emit a dogmatic and enormous panegyric. Joseph Warton was to restore the balance. He had already, in 1746, in the preface to his Odes, remarked that 'the fashion of moralizing in verse has been carried too far'; and he says in the first installment (1756) of his Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope: 'I revere the memory of Pope, I respect and honour his abilities; but I do not think him at the head of his profession. In other words, in that species of poetry wherein Pope excelled, he is superior to all mankind; I only say, that this species of poetry is not the most excellent one of the art....'" Survey of English Literature 1730-1780 (1928) 1:338.
Permit me to break into your retirement, the residence of virtue and literature, and to trouble you with a few reflections on the merits and real character of an admired author, and on other collateral subjects of criticism, that will naturally arise in the course of such an enquiry. No love of singularity, no affectation of paradoxical opinions, gave rise to the following work. I revere the memory of POPE, I respect and honour his abilities; but I do not think him at the head of his profession. In other words, in that species of poetry wherein POPE excelled, he is superior to all mankind: and I only say, that this species of poetry is not the most excellent one of the art.
We do not, it should seem, sufficiently attend to the difference there is, betwixt a MAN OF WIT, a MAN OF SENSE, and a TRUE POET. Donne and Swift were undoubtedly men of wit, and men of sense: but what traces have they left of PURE POETRY? It is remarkable, that Dryden says of Donne; He was the greatest wit, tho' not the greatest poet of this nation. Fontenelle and La Motte are entitled to the former character; but what can they urge to gain the latter? Which of these characters is the most valuable and useful, is entirely out of the question: all I plead for, is, to have their several provinces kept distinct from each other; and to impress on the reader, that a clear head, and acute understanding are not sufficient, alone, to make a POET; that the most solid observations on human life, expressed with the utmost elegance and brevity, are MORALITY, and not POETRY; that the EPISTLES of Boileau in RHYME, are no more poetical, than the CHARACTERS of La Bruyere in PROSE; and that it is a creative and glowing IMAGINATION, "acer spiritus ac vis," and that alone, that can stamp a writer with this exalted and very uncommon character, which so few possess, and of which so few can properly judge.
For one person who can adequately relish, and enjoy a work of imagination, twenty are to be found who can taste and judge of, observations on familiar life, and the manners of the age. The satires of Ariosto are more read than the Orlando Furioso, or even Dante. Are there so many cordial admirers of Spenser and Milton, as of Hudibras; if we strike out of the number of supposed admirers, those who appear such out of fashion, and not of feeling? Swift's rhapsody on poetry is far more popular than Akenside's noble ode to Lord Huntingdon. The EPISTLES on the Characters of men and women, and your sprightly Satires, my good friend, are more frequently perused, and quoted, than L'Allegro and Il Penseroso of Milton. Had you written only these Satires, you would indeed have gained the title of a man of wit, and a man of sense; but, I am confident, would not insist on being denominated a POET, MERELY on their account.
NON SATIS EST PURIS VERSUM PERSCRIBERE VERBIS.
It is amazing this matter should ever have been mistaken, when Horace has taken particular and repeated pains, to settle and adjust the opinion in question. He has more than once disclaimed all right and title to the name of POET, on the score of his ethic and satiric pieces.
—NEQUE ENIM CONCLUDERE VERSUM
DIXERIS ESSE SATIS—
are lines, often repeated, but whose meaning is not extended and weighed as it ought to be. Nothing can be more judicious than the method he prescribes, of trying whether any composition be essentially poetical or not; which is, to drop entirely the measures and numbers, and transpose and invert the order of the words: and in this unadorned manner to peruse the passage. If there be in it a true poetical spirit, all your inversions and transpositions will not disguise and extinguish it; but it will retain its lustre, like a diamond, unset, and thrown back into the rubbish of the mine. Let us make a little experiment on the following well-known lines; "Yes, you despise the man that is confined to books, who rails at human kind from his study; tho' what he learns, he speaks; and may perhaps advance some general maxims, or may be right by chance. The coxcomb bird, so grave and so talkative, that cries whore, knave, and cuckold, from his cage, tho' he rightly call many a passenger, you hold him no philosopher. And yet, such is the fate of all extremes, men may be read too much, as well as books. We grow more partial, for the sake of the observer, to observations which we our selves make; less so to written wisdom, because another's. Maxims are drawn from notions, and those from guess." What shall we say of this passage? — Why that it is most excellent sense, but just as poetical as the "Qui fit Maecenas" of the author who recommends this method of trial. Take ten lines of the Iliad, Paradise Lost, or even of the Georgics of Virgil, and see whether by any process of critical chymistry, you can lower and reduce them to the tameness of prose. You will find that they will appear like Ulysses in his disguise of rags, still a hero, tho' lodged in the cottage of the herdsman Eumaeus.
The Sublime and the Pathetic are the two chief nerves of all genuine poesy. What is there transcendently Sublime or Pathetic in POPE? In his works there is indeed, "nihil inane, nihil arcessitum; — puro tamen fonti quam magno flumini proprior;" as the excellent Quintilian remarks of Lysias. And because I am perhaps unwilling to speak out in plain English, I will adopt the following passage of Voltaire, which, in my opinion, as exactly characterizes POPE as it does his model Boileau, for whom it was originally designed. "INCAPABLE PEUT-ETRE DU SUBLIME QUI ELEVE L'AME, ET DU SENTIMENT QUI L'ATTENDRIT, MAIS FAIT POUR ECLAIRER CEUX A QUI LA NATURE ACCORDA L'UN ET L'AUTRE, LABORIEUX, IL DEVINT, ENFIN, LE POETE DE LA RAISON."
Our English poets may, I think, be disposed in four different classes and degrees. In the first class I would place our only three sublime and pathetic poets: SPENSER, SHAKESPEARE, MILTON. In the second class should be ranked such as possessed the true poetical genius in a more moderate degree, but who had noble talents for moral, ethical, and panegyrical poetry. At the head of these are DRYDEN, PRIOR, ADDISON, COWLEY, WALLER, GARTH, FENTON, GAY, DENHAM, PARNELL. In the third class may be placed, men of wit, of elegant taste, and lively fancy in describing familiar life, tho' not the higher scenes of poetry. Here may be numbered, BUTLER, SWIFT, ROCHESTER, DONNE, DORSET, OLDHAM. In the fourth class, the mere versifiers, however smooth and mellifluous some of them may be thought, should be disposed. Such as PITT, SANDYS, FAIRFAX, BROOME, BUCKINGHAM, LANSDOWN. This enumeration is not intended as a complete catalogue of writers, and in their proper order, but only to mark out briefly the different species of our celebrated authors. In which of these classes POPE deserves to be placed, the following work is intended to determine.
I am, DEAR SIR,
And faithful servant.