1753
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The World 26 [On Simplicity.]

The World No. 26 (28 June 1753) 154-59.

Rev. Joseph Warton


Writing anonymously, Joseph Warton descants on the importance of "simplicity" in taste, and by extension, to morals.

Simplicity is perhaps the most important and most elusive term in eighteenth-century Spenser criticism. Warton does not discuss it in the sense of naivete which Shenstone applied to Spenser, but in terms of simplicity of design. This was certainly not a quality of Spenser's art, nor did eighteenth-century critics, John Upton aside, have much to say in favor of Spenser's sense of design. While John Hughes had described the Faerie Queene as exhibiting an alternative, Gothic, scheme, Warton (at least in this essay) condemns the Gothic for its lack of simplicity, quoting some lines from Mark Akenside's Ode to the Earl of Huntingdon (1748) to buttress his point: "It is of equal consequence to observe SIMPLICITY in architecture as in painting. A multiplicity of minute ornaments; a vast variety of angles and cavities; clusters of little columns, and a crowd of windows, are what distinguishes MEANNESS of MANNER in building from GREATNESS; that is, the Gothic from the Grecian; in which every decoration arises from necessity and use, and every pillar has something to support" p. 156.

Even so, Warton's essay on Simplicity does evoke some of the qualities contemporaries admired in Spenser, like the "browner cast" found in paintings by old masters, and the tunefulness of "the works of Corelli among the modern-ancients." Warton associates Simplicity with Grecian art in particular, and it is plain that William Collins and both Wartons regarded Spenser as something of an honorary Greek, in contrast to the French taste with its Roman models. If it has nothing to say about Spenser, Warton's essay serves as an admirable gloss to his friend Collins's Ode to Simplicity.

Edward Moore to Joseph Warton: "I need not tell you how The World goes. I suppose you have heard from Dodsley that he prints 2,500 weekly. When will you have leisure, and when will you have inclination to lend me a little assistance? or, in the school phrase, to lend me a little sense? I believe this is not the most elegant epistle that ever was written; but you will excuse it, I hope, when I tell you that I am writing in a corner of a room where there are two card-tables, and where there is as much noise as at the first night of a new play. But to my request. A critical paper or two will be of great service to me; for, though I am in great reputation, I am rather more complimented for my manner than matter. With a little of your help, I may be able to do great things" 17 February 1753; in British Essayists (1856) 22:59-60.

Joseph Warton: "The successors of the Spectator, even those that have been most popular, seem to have been unfortunate in the Titles they assumed. Who would suppose that the Rambler ('il Vagabondo,' as the Italian translator termed it) was a series of the gravest and most moral Essays? The Adventurer, it seems, alluded to its being a kind of Knight Errantry to attack the Vices and Follies of Men. The Connoisseur, though you would naturally expect it from the title, yet contained nothing that related to the fine Arts. The World was an appropriated and happy title, because it pointed out the chief design of touching on the topics of the day, and the living manners of the times. And this significant title was given to it, by the sensible Publisher of it, Mr. Robert Dodsley, at a meeting of several of the author's friends, who universally gave the preference to his proposal against their own" in Works of Alexander Pope, ed. Warton (1797) 9:60n.

George Birkbeck Hill: "The World, by Adam Fitz-Adam, Jan. 1753 to Dec. 1765. The editor was Edward Moore. Among the contributors were the Earls of Chesterfield and Corke, Horace Walpole, R. O. Cambridge, and Soame Jenyns" Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791); ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 1:299n.

Ralph Straus: "The first number of Johnson's Rambler had been published on March 20th, 1750, on which day the Tatler Revived; or the Christian Philosopher and Politician made its appearance. A year later the notorious quack, 'Sir' John Hill, whose attack upon Dodsley will appear in a little, founded the widely read Inspector, a rather remarkable daily production which he seems to have conducted almost unassisted for two years. Then, in Jan. 1752, Henry Fielding had projected the Covent Garden Journal, and in October the first number of the Gray's Inn Journal had been issued by the future dramatist Arthur Murphy, then only twenty-one, under the assumed name of Charles Ranger, Esq., who imitating the Spectator, had introduced himself as one of a 'club of originals.' Most of these papers enjoyed but a short life, yet it seems as though they had fired Dodsley's ambition. And so the World was projected — a weekly sheet, well printed upon a folio page of good paper, which should maintain Addison's best traditions of essay-writing, and at the same time eschew too ponderous a style and too didactic a treatment" Robert Dodsley (1910) 184-85.




SIMPLICITY is with justice esteemed a supreme excellence in all the performances of art, because by this quality they more nearly resemble the productions of nature: and the productions of nature have ever been accounted nobler, and of a higher order, in proportion to their SIMPLICITY. Hence arises (if the ladies will permit me to philosophize a moment) the superior excellence of spirit to matter, which is evidently a combination of many particles; whereas the first is pure, uncompounded, and indivisible.

But let us descend from lofty speculations, and useless metaphysics, into common life and familiar arts, in order more fully to display the beauties of a JUST SIMPLICITY, to which the present age seems not to pay a proper regard in various instances.

Nothing can be more tiresome and nauseous to a virtuoso of a true judgment and a just eye in painting, than the gaudy glitter of florid colours, and a vast profusion of light, unsubdued by shade, and undiversified with teints of a browner cast. It is recorded, that some of the capital pieces of Apelles were wrought in four colours only. This excellent artist invented also a kind of darkening varnish, that might temper and chastise all dazzling splendor and unnecessary glare, and might give, as Pliny expresses it, a modesty and austerity to his works. Those who have been unaccustomed to the best models, are usually at first more delighted with the productions of the Flemish than the Italian school; and prefer Reubens to Raphael, till they feel, by experience, that luscious and gay colouring defeats the very end of the art, by turning the attention from its principal excellences; that is, from TRUTH, SIMPLICITY, and DESIGN.

If these observations are rightly founded, what shall we say of the taste and judgment of those who spend their lives and their fortunes in collecting pieces, where neither perspective, nor proportion, nor conformity to nature, are thought of or observed; I mean the extravagant lovers and purchasers of CHINA, and INDIAN screens. I saw a sensible foreigner astonished at a late auction, with the exorbitant prices given for these SPLENDID DEFORMITIES, as he called them, while an exquisite painting of Guido passed unnoticed, and was set aside, as unfashionable lumber. Happy should I think myself to be able to convince the fair connoisseurs that make the greatest part of Mr. Langford's audiences, that no genuine beauty is to be found in whimsical and grotesque figures, the monstrous offspring of wild imagination, undirected by nature and truth.

It is of equal consequence to observe SIMPLICITY in architecture as in painting. A multiplicity of minute ornaments; a vast variety of angles and cavities; clusters of little columns, and a crowd of windows, are what distinguishes MEANNESS of MANNER in building from GREATNESS; that is, the Gothic from the Grecian; in which every decoration arises from necessity and use, and every pillar has something to support.

Mark how the dread PANTHEON stands,
Amid the domes of modern hands!
Amid the toys of idle state,
How SIMPLY, how severely great!

says the celebrated author of the ode to lord Huntingdon. Nothing, therefore, offends me more than to behold the revival of this barbarous taste, in several villa's, temples, and pleasure-houses, that disgrace the neighbourhood of this metropolis. Nay, sometimes in the front of the same edifice to find a Grecian plan adulterated and defiled by the unnatural and impure mixture of Gothic whimsies.

Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne.
HOR. [ARS POET. 4].

Whoever considers the latest importations of music and musicians from Italy, will be convinced that the modern masters of that country have lost that beautiful SIMPLICITY, which is generally the ornament of every musical composition, and which really dignified those of their predecessors. They have introduced so many intricate divisions, wild variations, and useless repetitions, without any apparent necessity arising either from the words or from any other incident, that the chief ambition of the Composer seems to be rather to surprize the ear than to please the judgment; and that of the Performer to show his execution rather than his expression. It is from these motives that the hearer is often confounded, but not delighted, with sudden and unnatural transitions from the key, and returns to it as unnatural as the transitions themselves; while Pathos, the soul of music, is either unknown or totally neglected. Those who have studied the works of Corelli among the modern-ancients, and Handel, in the present age, know, that the most affecting passages of the former owe their excellence to SIMPLICITY alone; and that the latter understands it as well, and attends to it as much, though he knows when to introduce, with propriety, those niceties and refinements, which, for want of that propriety, we condemn in others.

In every species of writing, whether we consider style or sentiment, SIMPLICITY is a beauty. The perfection of language, says the great father of criticism, consists in its being perspicuous but not low. A redundancy of metaphors, a heap of sounding and florid epithets, remote allusions, sudden flashes of wit, lively and epigrammatic turns, dazzle the imaginations and captivate the minds of vulgar readers, who are apt to think the SIMPLE manner unanimated and dull, for want of being acquainted with the models of the great antique. Xenophon among the Greeks, and Caesar among the Romans, are at once the purest and most simple, as well as the most elegant writers, any age or nation can produce. "Nudi enim sunt, recti, et venusti, omni ornatu orationis, tanquam veste, detracto." Among ourselves, no writer has, perhaps, made so happy and judicious a mixture of plain and figurative terms as Addison, who was the first that banished from the English, as Boileau from the French, every species of bad eloquence and false wit, and opened the gates of the Temple of Taste, to his fellow-citizens.

It seems to be the fate of polished nations to degenerate and depart from a SIMPLICITY of sentiment. For when the first and most obvious thoughts have been preoccupied by former writers, their successors, by straining to be original and new, abound in far-fetched sentiments and forced conceits. Some late instances in men of genius, for none but these are capable of committing this fault, give occasion to us to deprecate this event. I must add, under this head, that simplicity of fable is an indispensable quality in every legitimate drama. We are too much enamoured with what is called intrigue, business and bustle, in our plays. We are disgusted with the thinness, that is, the unity of a plot. We must enrich it with episodes or under-characters; and we never consider, how much our attention is diverted and destroyed by different objects, and our pity divided and weakened by an intricate multiplicity of events and of persons. The Athenians therefore, who could relish so SIMPLE a plot as that of the Philoctetes of Sophocles, had certainly either more patience or more good sense, (I will not determine which) than my present countrymen.

If we raise our thoughts to a subject of more importance than writing, I mean dress; even in this sublime science, SIMPLICITY should ever be regarded. It might be thought presumption in me to censure any part of Miss * * * *'s dress, last night at Ranelagh; yet I could not help condemning that profusion of ornament, which violated and destroyed the unity and [Greek characters; "beauty"], (a tecknical term borrowed from the toilette) of so accomplished a figure.

To finish my panegyric on SIMPLICITY in a manner that I know is agreeable to my fair readers, I mean with a stroke of morality, I would observe, that if this quality was venerated as it ought to be, it would at once banish from the earth all artifice and treachery, double-dealing, and deceit. Let it therefore be established, as a maxim, That SIMPLICITY is of equal importance, in MORALS and in TASTE.


[pp. 154-59]