The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Reverend Thomas Warton


The life of an Oxford student affords but indifferent materials for the writer of biography. Undiversified by incident, it glides along as tranquilly as doth the tideless Isis through its level and unromantic but beautiful meadows. And for that inner life, which, in the meanest, is a romance and a mystery, who may depict it, even when himself is his hero? Those, therefore, who die and make no sign, can rarely awaken the interest of posterity; and insensibly their fame diminishes, until a few dates are all we have to tell the story of their lives and of their works.

Thomas Warton sprang from a family conspicuous for its literary attainments, and its hereditary loyalty. His ancestors were settled at Beverley in Yorkshire, one of whom was knighted by Charles I., and the family estate was confiscated for their attachment to the royal cause during the Civil War. His father was sometime Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, Professor of Poetry in that University, and Rector of Basingstoke in Hampshire, where the subject of this Memoir was born, in 1728. From his earliest years he displayed a studious turn of mind; and a metrical translation of an epigram of Martial is extant which he wrote when he was about nine years old. In March 1743, when in his sixteenth year, he was entered at Trinity College, Oxford (on which foundation he was successively elected a scholar and fellow), passed there the remaining forty-seven years of his life, and now sleeps in the College Chapel.

While an undergraduate, he occasionally published some pieces anonymously; but in 1749, when in his 21st year, he first came forward openly as a poet, and the circumstances under which he made his debût, conspired to cover him with glory, or at least with applause. It should be remembered that the relative position of the Universities and the country was widely different then from what it is at present. Our material interests having advanced with such unparallelled rapidity, intellectual pursuits have lost that prominence they formerly possessed. They, too, have changed the theatre of their more active exercise; and the time has gone by when Oxford prescribed the canons of taste, and the decision of a London audience on the merits of a play was held liable to reversal by the Universities. The political views of the two great seats of learning were then matter of grave concern to the Government; and, Oxford being suspected of Jacobite tendencies, a foolish frolic of a party of students, gave great offence to the Court, and the Vice-Chancellor and some of the Heads of Houses were prosecuted in the Queen's Bench. Mason, a Cambridge man, and of the governmental faction, embraced so tempting an occasion to inveigh against the rival University, and published a poem, named "Isis," in which that gentle river nymph thus wrathfully addresses the wine-bibbing students of Oxford.

"Hence! frontless crowds, that not content to fright
The blushing Cynthia from her throne of light,

Blast the fair face of day; and, madly bold,
To Freedom's foes infernal orgies hold."

Warton was solicited to write a reply, and published accordingly the "Triumph of Isis," in which, after a satirical sneer at the "venal sons of slavish Cam," he proceeds to the defence of his University with considerable dignity, recounts some of the great names that adorn her annals, and concludes with a panegyric on her reputed founder, King Alfred.

The following extracts will afford a specimen of the style of this piece—

"Ye fretted pinnacles, ye fanes sublime,
Ye towers that wear the mossy vest of Time,
Ye massy piles of old munificence,
At once the pride of learning and defence;
Ye high-arched walks, where oft the whispers clear
Of harps unseen, have swept the poet's ear;
Ye temples dim, where pious duty pays,
Her holy hymns of ever-echoing praise;
Lo! your loved Isis, from the bordering vale,
With all a mother's fondness bids you hail!
Hail, Oxford, hail! of all that's good and great,
Of all that's fair, the guardian and the seat;
Nurse of each brave pursuit, each generous aim,
By truth exalted to the throne of fame!
Like Greece in science and in liberty,
As Athens learned, as Lacedæmon free."

Edward the Black Prince, who was a member of Queen's College, is thus referred to.

"Nor all the tasks of thoughtful peace engage,
'Tis thine to form the hero as the sage,
I see the sable-tinted Prince advance,
With lilies crown'd, the spoil of bleeding France,
Edward. The Muses in yon cloistered shade,
Bound on his maiden thigh the martial blade,
Bade him the steel for British Freedom draw,
And Oxford taught the deeds that Cressy saw."

At that time the Bachelors and Gentlemen Commoners of Trinity had a common room of their own. It was customary to elect annually from among themselves certain officers, and among others a poet-laureate, whose privilege it was to celebrate in verse their lady patroness for the year. The choice fell on Warton in the years 1747 and 1748, and the verses he composed in that capacity are still preserved in the common room.

In 1750 he took the degree of Master of Arts, and the next year was elected a Fellow of his College.

As Oxford had now become his final home, he undertook an extensive course of study, which he pursued in a somewhat desultory and immethodical manner. He drew up, at the request of the Head of his College, a body of Statutes for the Radcliffe Library, founded principally on the Bodleian and Savilian Statutes; and in 1754 he published his "Observations on Spenser's Faëry Queen," a work displaying great powers of criticism and extensive reading. He sent a copy of the book to Dr. Johnson, who returned him a complimentary letter, and it was the means of introducing him to the friendship of Warburton. By a note, in the second edition, upon the Ecclesiastical Architecture of England, he contributed materially to arouse that spirit of inquiry into the almost forgotten principles of Gothic art, which has since been so fervently prosecuted; and he meditated writing a comprehensive history of its progress in this country. In fact, he projected, at this time, several important works, which were never carried to completion. His pupils occupied much of his time, and though he published at intervals various short essays on subjects of classical and antiquarian interest, yet the learned ease of a University was not adapted to urge a man of his temperament to any long sustained and laborious effort.

In 1757 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and, by the advice of Sir W. Blackstone, then Fellow of All Souls, signalized the term of his office by a careful edition of the works of Theocritus; he was likewise chosen a Fellow of the Royal Society, and towards the close of the same year was instituted to the Rectory of Cuddington, near Oxford. He busied himself in collecting Notes for the edition of Shakspeare which Johnson was preparing, contributed some papers to the "Idler," and became a member of the famous Literary Club. The intimacy between Johnson and Warton, at this time, was most cordial, though it afterwards gradually cooled. Their modes of life were different. Warton was methodical in his habits, rose early, took exercise at stated intervals; while Johnson's rugged training had inured him to irregularities of living which time at length rendered habitual. Differences of taste, likewise, contributed to widen the breach. Johnson thought little of Warton's poetical powers; while Warton, admiring Johnson's prodigious intellectual capacity, hesitated to give him credit for taste or scholarship. And thus, without any open rupture, their friendship degenerated into a feeling bordering closely upon dislike.

Warton testified his affection to his College by writing the Biography of Sir Thomas Pope, the founder, and of Dr. Bathurst, a munificent benefactor. A circumstance related in one of these works may serve to show on what a precarious tenure college fellowships were once held. Cuffe, Fellow of Trinity, a man of extraordinary endowments, but of a hilarious disposition, was dismissed the society for giving vent to a sprightly sally at the expense of the founder. Sir Thomas, it appears, when invited to any entertainment, indulged in the singular propensity of pocketing some of the plate on his departure. "Our friend," says Bathurst, "when upon a visit, would often carry away a silver cup under his gown, for the joke sake, sending it back the next day to laugh at his friend." Cuffe, being at a party one evening, in another college, in a moment of thoughtlessness, exclaimed, "This is a beggarly college indeed, the plate that our founder stole would build another as good." For this irreverent exclamation, Cuffe was formally deprived of his fellowship, sacrificed for a jest to the outraged memory of the joke-loving Sir Thomas; and Warton, with amusing gravity, justifies the expulsion, because "he wantonly converted one of his practical jokes, a species of humour not uncommon among our festive ancestors, into a petty larceny."[1]

An incident in the life of Bathurst may excite a smile. No college in Oxford suffered more severely in the Civil Wars than Balliol. After the Restoration, Trinity, which had been more fortunate, soon recovered itself, but the blackened walls of Balliol remained for years a picture of desolation, and a sad memento of the fury of factious animosity. One side of the building looks into the gardens of Trinity, and Bathurst, then head of his college, a discreet and grave divine, was observed in his garden one afternoon, wreaking his wrath on the shattered remains of his once proud rival, "throwing stones at the windows with much satisfaction, as if happy to contribute his share in completing the appearance of its ruin." This extraordinary act, Warton calmly styles "a striking instance of zeal for his college."

In 1764, was published "The Oxford Sausage, or Select Poetical Pieces written by the most celebrated wits of the University of Oxford," to which our poet was one of the principal contributors.

His studies having been mainly directed to the early English writers, an extensive and interesting field of research at that time comparatively neglected; he, this year, gave to the world the first volume of his "History of English Poetry," a valuable production which, though convicted of some inaccuracies, at once filled a void and occupied a position in English literature which succeeding and rival publications have only tended to confirm. A second and third volume were published, at intervals of four and three years, bringing the work down to the reign of Elizabeth; but a fourth and fifth volume, which were to continue the history to the eighteenth century were never composed. The somewhat abrupt termination of the design has been regretted as the effect of indolence. It might have been, the author felt a growing incapacity for the task.

Warton was a scholar and an antiquarian. To such a man, old books, written in an obsolete style, afforded positive pleasure. The difficulties that deterred ordinary readers were a fascination to him and who so capable as he to estimate the worth of those antique effusions, and to assign them their deserved position in the scale of literary merit? But when the language had undergone a significant transmutation, and other principles were at work, and other faculties were needful for the task, Warton, whose mind was discursive rather than reflective, estimating justly, and therefore mistrusting his own powers, may purposely have abstained from the completion of a design, the end of which would have heen so disproportionate to the commencement. The studious omission of all mention of the dramatic writers which, in a history of the literature of the Elizabethan age, is like performing the play of "Hamlet," with the part of Hamlet omitted, would seem to countenance this hypothesis.

Architecture and topography having always been favourite subjects of study with him, he now meditated a congenial work, "The History of his favourite county, Oxfordshire," of which the description of his own parish was sent forth as a specimen. He took a prominent part in the controversy respecting the Chatterton papers, proving their spuriousness from internal evidence with singular sagacity and acuteness; and on the death of Whitehead, in 1785, he accepted the office of Poet-Laureate.

The Laureates, like Falstaff, have been a fruitful occasion of wit in other men; and a jeu d'esprit appeared on the occasion, entitled "Probationary Odes," a copy of which was forwarded to Warton by the editor. All the pieces in the book were burlesques but one, and that solitary exception was Warton's own, the one he had just written in the year of his appointment. It happened to be about the worst composition that ever proceeded from his pen, and the heartless humourist had inserted it verbatim, as if it was itself a burlesque in its inimitable bathos.

He lived, however, to vindicate his office and reputation; and we must go back to the time of Dryden to find any birthday odes comparable to his in merit. On the resignation of Lord Stowell as Camden Professor of History, he was appointed his successor; nearly twenty years before, he had been a candidate for the professorship of modern history, but was put aside for Vivian, fellow of Balliol. A consolatory letter of Warburton is extant, in which that distinguished divine applauds his fortitude under the disappointment, and delicately informs him that his successful rival was suffering from an internal disease, which would most probably soon prove fatal!

The last work of importance on which he was engaged was the fulfilment of a design he had meditated nearly half a century, an edition of the minor and then but little known poems of Milton. His principal object in this publication was, as he himself declares, "to explain his author's allusions, to illustrate or to vindicate his beauties, to point out his imitations both of others and of himself, to elucidate his obsolete diction, and by the adduction and juxta-position of parallels universally gleaned both from his poetry and his prose, to ascertain his favourite words, and to show the peculiarities of his phraseology."

The sale of the book was unusually rapid, and he was meditating a new and more complete edition of his own poems, when the summons arrived which suspended all his labours. His end was painfully sudden. For sixty-two years he had enjoyed unbroken health, when he was seized by a severe attack of the gout. He went to Bath for medical aid, and returned, as he thought, restored; but those who knew him, beheld at once that a fatal change had passed over him. On Thursday, the 20th of May, 1790, he went as usual, after Hall, into the common room, and, always jocular among friends, it was remarked that evening, that he was more than ordinarily cheerful. Between ten and eleven, he was struck with paralysis, and by two o'clock the next day he was no more. His elder and only brother, Joseph, head master of Winchester School, with whom he had generally spent the long vacation, hastened to Oxford, but arrived too late to witness the closing scene. He was buried on the 27th, with the highest academical pomp, the Vice-Chancellor, the Heads of Houses, and the Proctors, at their own request, attending his funeral.

The influence of Warton upon English literature has been great; greater than at the first glance we should imagine; not from any peculiar force of mind stamping its impress on his own age, and giving a direction to the thinkings of posterity; but from his opportune appearance, and the accidental bent of his studies. Himself a traveller in unaccustomed regions of research, he pointed out the way to that wide field of romantic literature which had become almost a shadowy land to his contemporaries, and told of the exuberance and strength of our earlier writers, to those whose tastes had been formed on the faultless classicalism of the era of Anne. Spenser and Milton were his favourite authors through life. His affection for them never wavered. His first prose work was a tribute to Spenser, his last important occupation an edition of the lesser poems of Milton. His fondness for these two authors cramped his own freedom of expression, as his ideas conformed too readily to turns of phraseology which constant study had rendered so familiar.

The ingenious author of "Hermes" distinguishes three species of criticism: philosophical, historical, and corrective; and places the writings of Warton under the second category. Without attempting to analyse the principles of art, he contents himself with examining their outward form and expression, and is occupied solely with the subordinate though useful labour of explaining obsolete words and phrases, and of applying his historical learning to the elucidation of obscure allusions.

As a poet, he possessed imagination, fancy, and copiousness, but he never attempted to touch the heart or to stir the passions. His diction is characterized by a rough vigour, which compensates, by its perspicuity and force for its want of grace and harmony. His allusions and illustrations are apt and frequent. His descriptions of natural scenery picturesque and impressive, but they are redolent of the dust of the library, rather than of the pure breezes of Heaven. He was throughout the poet of the closet. There was a constraint and an artificiality in all his movements. His life vibrated between Oxford and Winchester, the associations of those two ancient and interesting cities were in unison with his predilections; and while meditating his measured music, his eye wandered from the distant mountain to linger on the old cathedral. When he transferred his impressions to the page, he trusted too little to his own powers of originality. He endeavoured to describe, as he fancied, his favourite Spenser or Milton would have done; and thus, though his genius was too great to allow him to sink into the mere copyist or imitator, he fell short of the position his powers justify us in thinking he might otherwise have attained. Yet his intimate knowledge of the customs of the middle ages, gives at times a variety to his page that looks like life, and we can almost catch the fluttering of that gorgeous mantle which Sir Walter Scott afterwards wore with such natural ease and grace.

To his principal work the "History of English Poetry," it is unnecessary to make further reference. It has found a permanent place in every English library. Its extensive and varied research, its perspicuous style, and the complete mastery of the subject discernible throughout, have rendered it a text-book to the student of our older literature. The labour necessary for such a work must have been long and severe. He had to grope his way through the dark bye-paths of a forgotten land, without any ancillary aid. He had first to discover the quarry, and then hew out his materials. The light which recent historians have thrown upon those times, and the present more domestic tendency of general study, unfits us to appreciate the magnitude and merit of the task; and it would be an interesting inquiry, how far the example of Warton has excited the ambition of more recent aspirants to attempt for the history what he has done for the literature of this country.

In person, Warton was at one time short, slim, and handsome; but, as he advanced in years, attained that rotundity of figure, which was the prevailing type of a resident fellow in the past century, and of which a few scattered specimens remain to shame the more wearied workers of a different age. Though silent and shy in company, he was all mirth and hilarity among his associates an inveterate punster, when such word-bandying gave the reputation of wit; the life of the common room; without a tincture of vulgar pretension, but always ready to communicate the results of his application when the conversation turned upon his peculiar studies. His manners, however, were not graceful, he was negligent in his dress; and Johnson, with expressive coarseness, compared his manner of speaking to the gobble of a turkey-cock. Though fond of society, and enjoying an extensive circle of acquaintance, he seldom visited beyond the walls of his College. He rose early, devoted a portion of every day to study, and under the guise of indolence, whether sauntering by the Cherwell, or lounging in the Bodleian, his mind was ever active, methodising and classifying the acquirements of the morning's labour.

Biography, which usually delineates imaginary beings and not men, has not disdained in this instance to record that the Poet-Laureate had some tastes not entirely in unison with his position and functions. He enjoyed his ale, his pipe, and his jest, with persons of mean condition; and would convulse the tap-room with the sportive sallies that had previously enlivened the common room. He was inordinately attached to sight-seeing, a taste shared by the late eloquent and accomplished Lord Stowell; and once descended to disguise himself as a carter, to witness some public exhibition at London. In heart he was a boy to the last, and a universal favourite at Winchester. "How many faults?" was his question to an indolent urchin asking him to do his exercise, and according to the answer so the work was done; while the chance of a flogging was as great for what Warton had written as for what the tyro might have performed himself. On one occasion, a boy's ambition or fear overcame his judgment, and the exercise was above his average efforts. The Doctor suspecting the cheat, ordered the delinquent into his study, and sent for his brother. When Warton arrived, the exercise was read before him, and he affected to think most highly of its merit. "Don't you think it worth half-a-crown, Mr. Warton?" said the Doctor. Warton thought the boy really deserved such a recompense. "Well then, you give him one," was the reply; and Warton paid the half-crown for his own verses; his brother inwardly chuckling at the joke.

He was once busily employed in the kitchen helping some of the boys to cook some abstracted viands. Suddenly the Doctor's tread was heard upon the stairs; every one decamped, and the irate dignitary searching for the culprits, drew from an obscure hiding-place—his own brother.

These simple traits will give a better idea of the character of the man than the most laboured analysis. In conclusion we select the following odes as illustrative of the Laureate's style.

JUNE 4, 1787.


The noblest bards of Albion's choir
Have struck of old this festal lyre.
Ere Science, struggling oft in vain,
Had dared to break her Gothic chain.
Victorious Edward gave the vernal bough,
Of Britain's bay to bloom on Chaucer's brow:
Fired with the gift, he changed to sounds sublime
His Norman minstrelsy's discordant chime;
In tones majestic hence he told
The banquet of Cambuscan bold;
And oft he sang (howe'er the rhyme
Has moulder'd to the touch of time)
His martial master's knightly board,
And Arthur's ancient rites restored;
The prince in sable steel that sternly frown'd,
And Gallia's captive King, and Cressy's wreath renown'd.


Won from the shepherd's simple meed,
The whispers wild of Mulla's reed,
Sage Spenser wak'd his lofty lay,
To grace Eliza's golden sway;
O'er the proud theme new lustre to diffuse,
He chose the gorgeous allegoric muse,
And call'd to life old Uther's elfin tale,
And rov'd through many a necromantic vale,
Pourtraying chiefs that knew to tame
The goblin's ire, the dragon's flame,
To pierce the dark enchanted hall,
Where Virtue sat in lonely thrall.
From fabling Fancy's inmost store
A rich, romantic robe he bore;
A veil with visionary trappings hung,
And o'er his virgin-queen the fairy texture flung.


At length the matchless Dryden came,
To light the Muses' clearer flame;
To lofty numbers grace to lend,
And strength with melody to blend;
To triumph in the bold career of song,
And roll the unwearied energy along.
Does the mean incense of promiscuous praise,
Does servile fear disgrace his regal bays?
I spurn his panegyric strings,
His partial homage tuned to kings!
Be mine, to catch his manlier chord,
That paints th' impassion'd Persian lord,
By glory fir'd, to pity su'd,
Roused to revenge, by love subdued;
And still, with transport new, the strains to trace,
That chant the Theban fair, and Tancred's deadly vase.


Had these blest bards been call'd to pay
The vows of this auspicious day,
Each had confess'd a fairer throne,
A mightier sovereign than his own!
Chaucer had made his hero-monarch yield
The martial fame of Cressy's well-fought field
To peaceful prowess, and the conquests calm,
That braid the sceptre with the patriot's palm:
His chaplets of fantastic bloom,
His colorings warm from Fiction's loom
Spenser had cast in scorn away,
And deck'd with truth alone the lay;
All real here, the Bard had seen,
The glories of his pictur'd Queen!
The tuneful Dryden had not flatter'd here,
His lyre had blameless been, his tribute all sincere.



Rude was the pile, and massy proof,
That first uprear'd its haughty roof
On Windsor's brow sublime, in warlike state
The Norman tyrant's jealous hand
The giant fabric proudly plann'd:
With recent victory elate,
On this majestic steep, he cried,
A regal fortress threatening wide,
Shall spread my terrors to the distant hills;
Its formidable shade shall throw
Far o'er the broad expanse below,
Where winds yon mighty flood, and amply fills
With flowery verdure, or with golden grain,
The fairest fields thar deck my new domain.
And London's towers, that reach the watchman's eye,
Shall see with conscious awe my bulwark climb the sky.


Unchang'd, through many a hardy race,
Stood the rough dome in sullen grace;
Still on its angry front defiance frown'd,
Though monarchs kept their state within,
Still murmur'd with the martial din,
The gloomy gateway's arch profound,
And armed forms, in airy rows,
Bent o'er the battlements their bows,
And blood-stained banners crown'd its hostile head;
And oft its hoary ramparts wore
The rugged scars of conflict sore;
What time, pavilion'd on the neighbouring mead,
The indignant Barons ranged in bright array
Their feudal bands, to curb despotic sway;
And leagued a Briton's birth-right to restore
From John's reluctant grasp, the roll of Freedom bore.


When, lo! the King,[2] that wreath'd his shield
With lilies pluck'd on Cressy's field,
Heaved from its base the mouldering Norman frame!
New glory cloth'd the exulting steep,
The portals tower'd with ampler sweet;
And Valour's soften'd Genius came,
Here held his pomp, and trail'd the pall
Of triumph through the trophied hall;
And War was clad awhile in gorgeous weeds;
Amid the martial pageantries,
While Beauty's glance adjudg'd the prize,
And beam'd sweet influence on heroic deeds.
Nor long, ere Henry's[3] holy zeal, to breathe
A milder charm upon the scene beneath,
Rear'd in the watery glade his classic shrine,

And call'd his stripling quire to woo the willing Nine.


To this imperial seat to lend
Its pride supreme, and nobly blend
British magnificence with Attic art.
Proud Castle, to thy banner'd bowers,
Lo! Picture bids her glowing powers
Their bold historic groups impart:
She bids the illuminated pane,
Along thy lofty-vaulted fane,
Shed the dim blaze of radiance richly clear.
Still may such arts of Peace engage
Their Patron's care! But should the rage
Of war to battle rouse the new-born year,
Britain, arise, and wake the slumbering fire;
Vindictive dart thy quick-rekindling ire!
Or, armed to strike, in mercy spare the foe,
And lift thy thundering hand, and then withhold the blow!

  1. Poor Cuffe! his joviality had a sad termination:

    "Doctus eras Græce felixque tibi fuit Alpha
    At fuit infelix Omega Cuffe tuum."

    One of the best Greek scholars of his day, a wit, an author, and the friend of Camden, he was tried for his life and hanged at Tyburn. Arraigned as a culprit, he had to endure the unfeeling insolence of Coke, and when he was no more, Lord Bacon stooped to blacken his memory; his only apparent crime was, that he had been secretary to the unfortunate Earl of Essex. The following has been handed down as the speech he delivered at the place of execution, which, though its authenticity cannot be precisely determined, merits preservation for its nervous brevity, and an energy so characteristic of its reputed author: "I am here adjudged to die for acting an act never plotted, for plotting a plot never acted. Justice will have her course; accusers must be heard; greatness will have the victory. Scholars and martialists (though learning and valour should have the pre-eminence) in England must die like dogs, and be hanged. To mislike this, were but folly; to dislike it, but time lost; to alter it, impossible. But to endure it, is manly; and to scorn it, magnanimity. The Queen is displeased, the Lawyers injurious, and Death terrible. But I crave pardon of the Queen; forgive the Lawyers and the world; desire to be forgiven, and welcome Death." He died on the 30th of March, 1601.

  2. Edward III.
  3. Henry VI, Founder of Eton College.