Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Warner, William
WARNER, WILLIAM (1558?–1609), poet, born in London about 1558, was educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, but did not take a degree. According to Wood he was ‘more a friend to poetry, history, and romance than to logic and philosophy.’ Settling in London, he followed the profession of an attorney, and, while acquiring some reputation in the court of common pleas, managed to secure a more prominent position as a man of letters. He was acquainted with Marlowe and other writers of his day in London; Drayton claimed him as an old friend. Henry Carey, first lord Hunsdon, lord chamberlain [q. v.], and his son George, second lord Hunsdon, who was also lord chamberlain, proved encouraging patrons. Warner died suddenly on 9 March 1608–9 at Amwell in Hertfordshire, and was buried there. The entry in the parish register runs: ‘1608–9. Master William Warner, a man of good yeares and of honest reputation; by profession an attornye of the common pleas, author of “Albion's England,” diynge suddenly in the night in his bedde without any former complaynt of sicknesse on Thursday night, beinge the 9th daye of March; was buried the Saturday following, and lyeth in the church at the corner under the stone of Walter Ffader.’
Tanner mentions that an English translation of the ‘Novelle’ of Bandello was issued by a writer who only used his initials ‘W. W.’ in 1580. No such work is now known, but it may possibly be a first venture by Warner in the field of romance (cf. Warton, Hist. of English Poetry, 1824, iv. 312).
Warner's earliest extant publication is a collection of tales in prose, somewhat in the manner of Heliodorus's ‘Æthiopica,’ entitled ‘Pan his Syrinx, or Pipe, compact of seuen Reedes; including in one, seuen Tragical and Comicall Arguments, with their diuers Notes not impertinent. Whereby, in effect, of all thinges is touched, in few, something of the vayne, wanton, proud, and inconstant course of the World. Neither, herein, to somewhat praiseworthie, is prayse wanting. By William Warner. At London, by Thomas Purfoote’ , 4to. This was dedicated to Sir George Carey (afterwards second Lord Hunsdon). The seven tales are entitled respectively: ‘Arbaces,’ ‘Thetis,’ ‘Belopares,’ ‘Pheone,’ ‘Deipyrus,’ ‘Aphrodite,’ and ‘Opheltes.’ Another edition, in 1597, bore the title ‘Syrinx, or a Seauenfold Historie, handled with Varietie of pleasant and profitable both comicall and tragicall argument. Newly perused and amended by the first Author, W. Warner,’ London, 1597, 4to. This edition is dedicated to George Carey, second lord Hunsdon.
Warner also translated several plays of Plautus, but of these only one was published. This was ‘Menæchmi. A pleasant … Comedie, taken out of … Plautus … Written in English by W. W. London, by T. Creede,’ 1595, 4to (without pagination). Shakespeare's ‘Comedy of Errors,’ which was probably composed in 1592, owes much to Plautus's ‘Menæchmi,’ and Shakespeare may have had access to Warner's translation before it was published. It was reprinted in John Nichols's ‘Six Old Plays,’ 1779, i. 109 seq., and in J. P. Collier's ‘Shakespeare's Library,’ 1844 (new edit. by W. C. Hazlitt, 1875, pt. ii. vol. i. 1 et seq.).
Warner's chief work and his earliest experiment in verse was a long episodic poem in fourteen-syllable lines, which in its original shape treated of legendary or imaginary incidents in British history from the time of Noah till the arrival in England of William the Conqueror, but was continued in successive editions until it reached the reign of James I. In its episodic design it somewhat resembled Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses.’ Historical traditions are mingled with fictitious fabliaux with curious freedom. The first edition in four books—now a volume of the utmost rarity—appeared in 1586, under the title ‘Albion's England. Or Historical Map of the same Island: prosecuted from the Lives and Acts and Labors of Saturne, Jupiter, Hercules, and Æneas: Originalles of the Bruton, and the Englishman, and occasion of the Brutons their first aryvall in Albion. Containing the same Historie vnto the Tribute to the Romaines, Entrie of the Saxones, Invasion by the Danes, and Conquest by the Normaines. With Historicall Intermixtures, Inuention, and Varietie profitably, briefly and pleasantly, performed in Verse and Prose by William Warner. London, by George Robinson for Thomas Cadman,’ 1586, 4to (black letter). Thomas Cadman obtained a license for printing the book on 7 Nov. 1586 (Arber, Stationers' Reg. ii. 458), but a pirate-publisher, Roger Ward, had been detected setting the manuscript in type in the previous October (Ames, Typogr. Antiq. ed. Herbert, p. 1190). Warner dedicated the original edition of ‘Albion's England’ to Henry Carey, first lord Hunsdon. At the close of the volume is a prose ‘Breviate of the true historie of Aeneas,’ which reappeared in all later editions except the second. The work was brought down to the accession of Henry VII in the second edition, which included six books, and was called ‘The First and Second parts of Albion's England. The former reuised and corrected, and the latter newly continued and added, containing an Historical Map,’ London, 1589, 4to. A folding woodcut, exhibiting the lineages of Lancaster and York, forms the frontispiece in some copies. A third edition further extended the work to nine books, and concluded with the accession of Queen Elizabeth; this edition bore the title ‘Albion's England; the Third time Corrected and Augmented. Containing an History of the same Countrey and Kingdome, from the Originals of the inhabitants of the same. With the chief Alterations and Accidents therein happening, until her nowe Majesties most blessed Raigne. …,’ London, 1592, 4to. Of later editions (all in quarto) a fourth, ‘now revised and newly inlarged,’ appeared in 1596 in twelve books, with a folding pictorial plate of the genealogy of Lancaster and York inserted opposite page 161 (some title-pages bear the date 1597), and a fifth edition, with the addition of a thirteenth book and a prose ‘Epitome of the whole Historie of England,’ was issued in 1602. ‘A Continuance of Albion's England, by the first Author, W. W.,’ supplied three additional books (xiv, xv, xvi) in 1606. Finally a new edition, ‘with the most chief Alterations and Accidents … in the … Raigne of … King James. … Newly revised and enlarged. With a new epitome of the whole Historie of England,’ was issued, after Warner's death, in 1612. Here the books number sixteen, and the chapters one hundred and seven with the two prose appendices (the ‘Breviate’ and the ‘Epitome’).
‘Albion's England’ in its own day gained a very high reputation, which was largely due to the author's patriotic aims and sentiment. But his style, although wordy and prosaic, is unpretentious, and his narrative, which bears little trace of a study of Italian romance, and lacks the languor of current Italian fiction, occasionally develops an original vigour and dignity which partially justify the eulogies of the writer's contemporaries. Thomas Nash in his preface to Greene's ‘Menaphon’ (1589), after mentioning the greatest of English poets, remarked, ‘As poetry has been honoured in those before-mentioned professors, so it hath not been any whit disparaged by William Warner's absolute Albions.’ Meres in his ‘Palladis Tamia’ (1598) associated Warner with Spenser as one of the two chief English heroic poets. As a lyric poet he classed him with Spenser, Daniel, Drayton, and Breton. Meres added, ‘I have heard him termed of the best wits of both our universities, our English Homer. As Euripides is the most sententious among Greek poets, so is Warner among our English poets.’ Drayton, after eulogising Sidney, wrote in his ‘Epistle of Poets’—
Then Warner, though his lines were not so trimmed
Nor yet his Poem so exactly limn'd
And neatly jointed but the Criticke may
Easily reproove him; yet thus let me say
For my old friend; some passages there be
In him which, I protest, have taken me
With almost wonder; so fine, cleere, new,
As yet they have bin equalled by few.
Many extracts figured in ‘England's Parnassus,’ 1600.
The finest passage in ‘Albion's England’ recites the pastoral story of ‘Argentile and Curan.’ The tale was doubtless of Warner's invention, but it resembles the topic of the thirteenth-century poem called ‘Havelock the Dane.’ Warner's story has secured through adaptations a longer tenure of fame than the rest of the poem. It was plagiarised without acknowledgment by William Webster in a poem in six-line stanzas, entitled ‘The most pleasant and delightful Historie of Curan, a Prince of Danske, and the fayre Princesse Argentile’ (London, 1617, 4to). Warner's tale also formed the plot of the ‘Thracian Wonder,’ a play attributed to John Webster and William Rowley (London, 1661, 4to). It was subsequently converted into a ballad entitled ‘The Two Young Princes on Salisbury Plain,’ published in ‘A Collection of Old Ballads’ (3 vols. 1726–38, 12mo). Percy with much enthusiasm quoted it, as well as another of Warner's invented legends, ‘The Patient Countess,’ in his ‘Reliques of Ancient Poetry’ (1765), and William Mason based on it his ‘Legendary Drama of Five Acts, written on the Old English Model’ (Poems, 1786, vol. iii.). Warner's admirers of the present century have been few. In 1801 George Ellis quoted for ‘their singularity’ three extracts in his ‘Specimens of the Early English Poets’ (ii. 267 et seq.). The whole poem was reprinted in Chalmers's ‘Collection of the English Poets’ (1810). Charles Lamb wrote to Harrison Ainsworth on 9 Dec. 1823: ‘I have read Warner['s ‘Albion's England’] with great pleasure. What an elaborate piece of alliteration and antithesis! Why, it must have been a labour far above the most difficult versification. There is a fine simile or picture of Semiramis arming to repel a siege’ (Letters of Charles Lamb, ed. Ainger, ii. 93).[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, vol. i.; Corser's Collectanea; Hazlitt's Bibliographical Collections; Hallam's Lit. Hist. of Europe, 5th ed. 1873, i. 36n. ii. 128; Ritson's Bibliographia Anglo-Poetica; Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry, ed. Wheatley, i. 298, ii. 252; Hunter's Chorus Vatum in Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 24492, ff. 227–32.]