1782
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope. Volume the Second.

An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope. Volume the Second.

Rev. Joseph Warton


Joseph Warton's concluding stricture on Alexander Pope's place in the canon of English poets is one of the great set-pieces in romantic criticism: "He who would think the Fairy Queen, Palamon and Arcite, the Tempest, or Comus childish and romantic might relish Pope" 2:409. As one might expect, Joseph Warton has little use for Pope's The Alley, discussed 2:30ff. Pope's poem implicitly compares Spenser's descriptions to Dutch genre paintings; by contrast Warton compares Spenser to Rubens, a suggestion that would become a topic in later criticism.

European Magazine: "In enumerating the imitations of Spencer, we think he might have mentioned some others, which had appeared when this part of the work was printed, besides the three he has noticed. Since that period, however, two imitations of that author have been published, which are every way entitled to praise. We mean The Minstrel, by Dr. Beattie, and St. Martyn, by Mr. Mickle" 1 (February 1782) 130.

Elizabeth Montagu: "Pray have you read Dr. Warton's second volume on the writings etc. of Mr. Pope. The depth of judgment and learning, the candor of his observations, make this work the most perfect contrast of Johnson's criticism that can be imagined. The Muses guided the pen of Dr. Warton, the furies the porcupine quill of Johnson" 1782; in Reginald Blunt, Mrs. Montagu (1923) 2:118.

William Hayley: "I rejoice that the amiable Critic has at length obliged the public with the conclusion of his most engaging and ingenious work: he has the singular talent to instruct and to please even those readers who are most ready to revolt from the opinion which he endeavours to establish; and he has in some degree atoned for that excess of severity which his first volume discovered, and which sunk the reputation of Pope in the eyes of many, who judge not for themselves, even far below that mortifying level to which he meant to reduce it" Essay on Epic Poetry (1782) 135.

Thomas Green: "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" 16 April 1800; Extracts from the Diary of a Lover of Literature (1810) 215.

European Magazine: "In 1756 he gave the world the first Volume of his Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope; a work which appeared to be not intended to add to the celebrity of that poet, and which gave great offence to Bishop Warburton. It was, however, well received by the public, and the conclusion of it impatiently expected. After twenty-six years of delay, the second Volume appeared in 1782. In this he spoke more favourably of Mr. Pope than he had done in the former Volume; and in the advertisement prefixed, says, 'he flatters himself that no observations in this work can be so perversely misinterpreted and interpreted and tortured as to make him insinuate, contrary to his opinion and inclination, that Pope was not a great poet; he only says and thinks he was not the greatest.' Both these Volumes have been several times reprinted" 37 (March 1800) 201.

Nathan Drake: "Now it happens, that the tendency of the work, especially of the first volume, and the result inferred from the whole, are greatly at variance. It would appear, that when Mr. Warton commenced his Essay he entertained a much lower estimate of Pope's poetical talents than when, after a lapse of twenty-eight years, he began his second volume. Such indeed was the strain of depreciation which distinguished the early part of his critical labours, that the admirers of Pope were hurt and indignant at the probability of their favourite being reduced greatly below the station to which, in their opinion, he had a just claim. How were they surprized, therefore, when, at the conclusion of the Essay, they found its author answering his own question in the following manner. 'Where then, according to the question proposed at the beginning of this Essay, shall we with justice be authorized to place our admired Pope? Not, assuredly, in the same rank with Spencer, Shakspeare, and Milton; however justly we may applaud the Eloisa and Rape of the Lock; but, considering the correctness, elegance, and utility of his works, the weight of sentiment, and the knowledge of man they contain, we may venture to assign him a place, next to Milton, and just above Dryden. Yet, to bring our minds steadily to make this decision, we must forget, for a moment, the divine Music Ode of Dryden; and may perhaps then be compelled to confess, that though Dryden be the greater genius, yet Pope is the better artist'" in Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 2:131-32.

William Lisle Bowles: "Nothing can exceed Pope's powers of description, as displayed in this game of Cards. His mock-heroic paintings of the Kings, their ensigns, and characters, are inimitable. Warton in his Essay, speaking of Windsor Forest, says, descriptive Poetry was by no means the shining talent of Pope. Of rural objects Pope was not an able describer, as he could not be an accurate observer; but in descriptions of scenes taken from artificial Life, his powers are very manifest. This distinction should always be attended to, in estimating Pope's poetical character" note in Works of Pope, ed. Bowles (1806) 1:327n.

Alexander Chalmers: "A book, indeed, of more delightful variety than his Essay on Pope, has not yet appeared, nor one in which there is a more happy mixture of judgment and sensibility. It did not, however, flatter the current opinions on the rank of Pope among poets, and the author desisted from pursuing his subject for many years. Dr. Johnson said that this was owing 'to his not having been able to persuade the world to be of his opinion as to Pope.' This was probably the truth, but not the whole truth. Motives of a delicate nature are supposed to have had some share in inducing him to desist for a time. Warburton was yet alive, the executor of Pope and the guardian of his fame, and Warburton was no less the active and zealous friend, and correspondent of Thomas Warton: nor was it any secret that Warburton furnished Ruffhead with the materials for his life of Pope, the chief object of which was a rude and impotent attack on the Essay. Warburton died in 1779, and in 1782, Dr. Warton completed his Essay, and at length persuaded the world that he did not differ from the common opinion so much as was supposed" Works of the English Poets (1810) 18:151.

Thomas Campbell: "By delaying to re-publish his Essay on Pope, he ultimately obtained a more dispassionate hearing from the public for the work in its finished state. In the mean time, he enriched it with additions, digested from the reading of half a lifetime. 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" Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 665.

Henry Francis Cary: "The information contained in this essay, which is better known than his other writings, is such as the recollection of a scholar, conversant in polite literature, might easily have supplied. He does not, like his brother, ransack the stores of antiquity for what has been forgotten, but deserves to be recalled; nor, like Hurd, exercise, on common materials, a refinement that gives the air of novelty to that with which we have been long familiar. He relaxes, as Johnson said of him, the brow of criticism into a smile. Though no longer in his desk and gown, he is still the benevolent and condescending instructor of youth; a writer, more capable of amusing and tempting onwards, by some pleasant anticipations, one who is a novice in letters, than of satisfying the demands of those already initiated" "Joseph Warton" in London Magazine 5 (March 1822) 266.

John Wilson: "Old Joe maunders when he ssays, 'he that was unacquainted with Spenser, and was to form his ideas of the turn and manner of his genius from this piece, would undoubtedly suppose that he abounded in filthy images, and excelled in describing the lower scenes of life.' Let all such blockheads suppose what they choose. Pope — says Roscoe — 'was well aware as any one of the superlative beauties and merits of Spenser, whose works he assiduously studied, both in his early and riper years; but it was not his intention in these few lines to give a serious imitation of him. All that he attempted was to show how exactly he could apply the language and manner of Spenser to low and burlesque subjects; and in this he has completely succeeded. To compare these lines, as Dr. Warton has done, with those more extensive and highly-finished productions, the Castle of Indolence by Thomson, and the Minstrel by Beattie, is manifestly unjust' — and stupidly absurd" "North's Specimens of the British Critics" Blackwood's Magazine 58 (July 1845) 120.

Henry A. Beers: "Joseph Warton's Essay on Pope was an attempt to fix its subject's rank among English poets. Following the discursive method of Thomas Warton's Observations on the Faerie Queene, it was likewise an elaborate commentary on all of Pope's poems seriatim. Every point was illustrated with abundant learning, and there were digressions amounting to independent essays on collateral topics: one, e.g. on Chaucer, one on early French metrical romances; another on Gothic architecture: another on the new school of landscape gardening, in which Walpole's essay and Mason's poem are quoted with approval, and mention is made of the Leasowes. The book was dedicated to Young; and when the second volume was published in 1782, the first was reissued in a revised form and introduced by a letter to the author from Tyrwhitt, who writes that, under the shelter of Warton's authority, 'one may perhaps venture to avow an opinion that poetry is not confined to rhyming couplets, and that its greatest powers are not displayed in prologues and epilogues" A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century (1899) 212-13.

Herbert E. Cory: "For those who have any temptation to suspect that the criticisms of Johnson and others on Spenserian imitations implied any hostility to Spenser, it may be well to note that Warton looked askance at the practice. 'It has been fashionable of late to imitate Spenser; but the likeness of most of these copies hath consisted rather in using a few of the ancient expressions than in catching his real manner. Some, however, have been executed with happiness, and with attention to that simplicity, that tenderness of sentiment, and those little touches of nature, that constitute Spenser's character.' It is to be observed that this is only the usual Augustan criticism of Spenser and that these are the very points which have too often been culpably forgotten by romantic critics to our own day" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 162-63.




The first of these Imitations [of English Poets] is of Chaucer; as it paints neither characters nor manners like his original, as it is the only piece of our author's works that is loose and indecent, and as therefore I wish it had been omitted in the present edition, I shall speak no more of it.

The Imitation of Spenser is the second; it is a description of an alley of fishwomen. He that was unaquainted with Spenser, and was to form his ideas of the turn and manner of this piece, would undoubtedly suppose that he abounded in filthy images, and excelled in describing the lower scenes of life. But the characteristics of this sweet and amiable allegorical poet, are, not only strong and circumstantial imagery, but tender and pathetic feeling, a most melodious flow of versification, and a certain pleasing melancholy in his sentiments, the constant companion of an elegant taste, that casts a delicacy and grace over all his compositions. To imitate Spenser on a subject that does not partake of pathos, is not giving a true representation of him, for he seems to be more awake and alive to all the softnesses of nature, than almost any writer I can recollect. There is an assemblage of disgusting and disagreeable sounds in the following stanza of POPE, which one is almost tempted to think, if it were possible, had been contrived as a contrast, or rather burlesque, of a most exquisite stanza in the FAERY QUEEN.

The snappish cur, (the passengers annoy)
Close at my heel with yelping treble flies;
The whimp'ring girl, and hoarser-screaming boy,
Join to the yelping treble, shrilling cries;
The scolding quean to louder notes doth rise,
And her full pipes those shrilling cries confound;
To her full pipes the grunting hog replies;
The grunting hogs alarm the neighbours round,
And curs, girls, boys, in the deep base are drown'd.

The very turn of these numbers, bears the closest resemblance with the following, which are of themselves a complete concert of the most delicious music.

The joyous birds shrouded in chearful shade,
Their notes unto the voice attempred sweet;
Th' angelical, soft trembling voices made
To th' instruments divine respondence meet;
The silver-sounding instruments did meet
With the base murmure of the water's fall;
The water's fall with difference discreet,
Now soft, now loud unto the wind did call;
The gentle warbling wind low answered to all.
Book II. Canto 12. Stanza 71.

These images, one would have thought, were peculiarly calculated to have struck the fancy of our young imitator with so much admiration, as not to have suffered him to make a kind of travesty of them.

The next stanza of POPE represents some allegorical figures, of which his original was so fond.

Hard by a sty, beneath a roof of thatch
Dwelt OBLOQUY, who in her early days,
Baskets of fish at Billinsgate did watch,
Cod, whiting, oyster, mackarel, sprat or plaice
There earn'd she speech from tongues that never cease.
SLANDER beside her, like a magpie chatters,
With ENVY (spitting cat) dread foe to peace;
Like a curs'd cur, MALICE before her clatters,
And vexing every wight, tears cloaths and all to tatters.

But these personages of Obloquy, Slander, Envy and Malice, are not marked with any distinct attributes, they are not those living figures, whose attitudes and behaviour Spenser has minutely drawn with so much clearness and truth, that we behold them with our eyes, as plainly as we do on the cieling of the banquetting-house. For in truth the pencil of Spenser is as powerful as that of Rubens, his brother allegorist; which two artists resembled each other in many respects, but Spenser had more grace, and was as warm a colourist. Among the multitude of objects delineated with the utmost force, which we might select on this occasion, let us stop and take one attentive look at the allegorical figures that rise to our view in the following lines;

By that way's side there sate infernal Pain,
And fast beside him sat tumultuous Strife;
The one, in hand an iron whip did strain,
The other brandished a bloody knife,
And both did gnash their teeth, and both did threaten life.
Book II. c. 21.

22.
But gnawing Jealousie, out of their sight
Sitting alone his bitter lips did bite;
And trembling Feare still to and fro did flie,
And found no place where safe he shroud him might.
Lamenting Sorrow did in darknesse lie,
And Shame his ugly face did hide from living eye.

To shew the richness of his fancy, he has given us another picture of Jealousy, conceived with equal strength in a succeeding book.

Into that cave he creepes, and thenceforth there
Resolv'd to build his baleful mansion
In dreary darkness, and continual feare
Of that rock's fall; which ever and anon
Threats with huge ruin him to fall upon,
That he dare never sleep, but that one eye
Still ope he keeps for that occasion;
Ne ever rests he in tranquillity,
The roaring billows beat his bowre so boisterously.
Book iii. c. 11.

Here all is life and motion; here we behold the true Poet or MAKER; this is creation; it is here, "might we cry out to Spenser," it is here that you display to us, that you make us feel the sure effects of genuine poetry, [Greek passage: when ectasy or passion makes you appear to see what you are describing and enables you to make your audience see it]. Longinus.

It has been fashionable of late to imitate Spenser, but the likeness of most of these copies hath consisted rather in using a few of his ancient expressions, than in catching his real manner. Some however have been executed with happiness, and with attention to the simplicity, that tenderness of sentiment, and those little touches of nature that constitute Spenser's character. I have a peculiar pleasure in mentioning two of them, The SCHOOL-MISTRESS, by Mr. Shenstone, and the EDUCATION OF ACHILLES, by Mr. Bedingfield. To these must be added that exquisite piece of wild and romantic imagery, Thomson's Castle of Indolence; the first canto of which in particular, is marvellously pleasing, and the stanzas have a greater flow and freedom than his blank verse [and also Dr. Beattie's charming Minstrel — note]....

It was the vigorous and creative imagination of MILTON, superior to the prejudices of his time, that exhibited in his EDEN, the first hints and outlines of what a beautiful garden should be; for even his beloved ARIOSTO and TASSO, in their luxuriant pictures of the gardens of ALCINA and ARMIDA, shewed they were not free from the unnatural and narrow taste of their countrymen; and even his master, SPENSER, has an artificial fountain in the midst of his bowre of bliss....

Thus have I endeavoured to give a critical account, with freedom, but it is hoped with impartiality, of each of POPE's works; by which review it will appear, that the largest portion of them is of the didactic, moral, and satyric kind; and consequently, not of the most poetic species of poetry; whence it is manifest, that good sense and judgment were his characteristical excellencies, rather than fancy and invention; not that the author of the Rape of the Lock, and Eloisa, can be thought to want imagination, but because his imagination was not his predominant talent, because he indulged it not, and because he gave not so many proofs of this talent as of the other. This turn of mind led him to admire French models; he studied Boileau attentively; formed himself upon him, as Milton formed himself upon the Grecian and Italian sons of Fancy. He stuck to describing modern manners; but those manners, because they are familiar, uniform, artificial, and polished, are, in their very nature, unfit for any lofty effort of the Muse. He gradually became one of the most correct, even, and exact poets that ever wrote; polishing his pieces with a care and assiduity, that no business or avocation ever interrupted: so that if he does not frequently ravish and transport his reader, yet he does not disgust him with unexpected inequalities and absurd improprieties. Whatever poetical enthusiasm he actually possessed, he witheld and stifled. The perusal of him affects not our minds with such strong emotions as we feel from Homer and Milton; so that no man of a true poetical spirit, is master of himself while he reads them. Hence, he is a writer fit for universal perusal; adapted to all ages and stations; for the old and the young; the man of business and the scholar. He who would think the Faery Queen, Palamon and Arcite, the Tempest or Comus, childish and romantic, might relish POPE. Surely it is no narrow and niggardly encomium to say he is the great Poet of Reason, the First of Ethical authors in verse. And this species of writing is, after all, the surest road to an extensive reputation. It lies more level to the general capacities of men, than the higher flights of more genuine poetry. We all remember when even a Churchill was more in vogue than a Gray. He that treats of fashionable follies, and the topics of the day, that describes present persons and recent events, finds may readers, whose understandings and whose passions he gratifies. The name of Chesterfield on one hand, and of Walpole on the other, failed not to make a poem bought up and talked of. And it cannot be doubted, that the Odes of Horace which celebrated, and the satires which ridiculed, well-known and real characters at Rome, were more eagerly read, and more frequently cited, than the Aeneid and the Georgic of Virgil.

Where then, according to the question proposed at the beginning of this Essay, shall we with justice be authorized to place our admired POPE? Not, assuredly, in the same rank with Spencer, Shakespeare, and Milton; however we may applaud the Eloisa and Rape of the Lock; but, considering the correctness, elegance, and utility of his works, the weight of sentiment, and the knowledge of man they contain, we may venture to assign him a place, next to Milton, and just above Dryden. Yet, to bring our minds steadily to make this decision, we must forget, for a moment, the divine Music Ode of Dryden; and may perhaps then be compelled to confess, that though Dryden be the greater genius, yet Pope is the better artist.

The preference here given to POPE, above other modern English poets, it must be remembered, is founded on the exellencies of his works in general, and taken all together; for there are parts and passages in other modern authors, in Young and in Thomson, for instance, equal to any of POPE; and he has written nothing in a strain so truly sublime, as the Bard of Gray.


[2:30-37, 183, 408-11]