Warton, Thomas (1728-1790) (DNB00)

WARTON, THOMAS (1728–1790), historian of English poetry, born at Basingstoke on 9 Jan. 1727–8, and baptised there on the 25th, was younger son of Thomas Warton the elder [q. v.], vicar of Basingstoke. Joseph Warton [q. v.] was his elder brother. Warton's education was directed by his father until he was sixteen, when he entered Trinity College, Oxford, matriculating in the university on 16 March 1743–4. He graduated B.A. in 1747, and, after taking holy orders, engaged in tutorial work in the college. He graduated M.A. in 1750, succeeded to a fellowship next year, and in 1767 proceeded to the degree of B.D. Throughout his life Warton remained a college don, and, although he read and wrote extensively until his death, he never claimed to be a professional man of letters. He often represented to his friends that his functions as a tutor left him little time for regular literary work. But, as a matter of fact, he did not regard his tutorial obligations very seriously. Lord Eldon wrote of him: ‘Poor Tom Warton! He was a tutor at Trinity; at the beginning of every term he used to send to his pupils to know whether they would wish to attend lecture that term’ (Twiss, Eldon, iii. 302). His vacations were invariably spent in archæological tours, during which he examined old churches and ruined castles. He thus acquired a thorough knowledge and affection for Gothic architecture, which few of his contemporaries regarded as of any account.

From a precociously early age Warton attempted English verse. At nine he sent his sister a verse translation of an epigram of Martial. A collection of ‘Five Pastoral Eclogues’ which is said to have been published in 1745 was placed by his friends to his credit. In the same year he wrote ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy,’ which was published anonymously two years later. It was little more than a cento of passages from Milton and Spenser, but evidenced that appreciation of sixteenth and seventeenth century poetry which was characteristic of almost all he wrote. In 1749 he made a wide academic reputation by the publication of ‘The Triumph of Isis,’ an heroic poem in praise of Oxford, with some account of the celebrated persons educated there and appreciative notices of its specimens of Gothic architecture. It was written by way of reply to William Mason's ‘Isis,’ published in 1746, which cast aspersions on the academic society of Oxford, chiefly on the ground of its Jacobite leanings. Warton at the time inclined to the Jacobite opinions for which his father had made himself notorious in the university. Mason magnanimously admitted the superior merits of the rival poem, but in later life he and his friend Horace Walpole rarely lost an opportunity of depreciating Warton's literary work. Warton soon issued another poem entitled ‘Newmarket, a Satire’ (London, 1751), and a collection of verses by himself (under the pseudonym of ‘A Gentleman from Aberdeen’) and others, called ‘The Union, or Select Scotch and English pieces’ (Edinburgh, 1753).

In accordance with the spirit of his ‘Triumph of Isis,’ Warton encouraged at Oxford—largely by his genial example—all manner of literary effort among resident members of the university. He was for two successive years poet-laureate to the common-room of his college. He contributed poetry to ‘The Student,’ an Oxford monthly miscellany of literature, of which nineteen numbers appeared between 31 Jan. 1750 and 3 July 1751. For the ‘Encænia’ of July 1751 he wrote and published an ode which Dr. William Hayes [q. v.] set to music. The Oxford collections of poems of 1751, 1761, and 1762 contain verse by him. In 1760 he brought out anonymously a good-humoured satire on the conventional guide-books to Oxford in ‘A Companion to the Guide, and a Guide to the Companion, being a Complete Supplement to all the Accounts of Oxford hitherto published. … The whole interspersed with Original Anecdotes and Interesting Discoveries, occasionally resulting from the subject, and embellished with perspective Views and Elevations neatly engraved’ (2nd ed. corrected and enlarged, London, n.d. [1762?], 8vo; another ed. 1806). But Warton's most amusing contribution to academic literature was his anthology of Oxford wit, which he edited anonymously under the ugly title of ‘The Oxford Sausage; or Select Poetical Pieces written by the most celebrated Wits of the University of Oxford’ (London, 1764, 8vo; 1772, 8vo; 1814, 8vo; 1815, 12mo; and 1822, 12mo); some pieces by Cambridge men were included. In a more serious spirit he devoted himself to the history of his own college, and published learned biographies of two distinguished members of the foundation. ‘The Life and Literary Remains of Ralph Bathurst … President of Trinity College in Oxford,’ was published in London in 1761, 8vo, and an article originally contributed to the ‘Biographia Britannica’ in 1760 reappeared subsequently as a substantial volume called ‘The Life of Sir Thomas Pope, founder of Trinity College, Oxford, chiefly compiled from Original Evidences, with an Appendix of Papers never before printed’ (1st edit. London, 1772, 8vo; 2nd edit., corrected and enlarged, London, 1780, 8vo). This exhaustive biography of Sir Thomas Pope ‘resuscitated,’ in the opinion of Horace Walpole, ‘more nothings and more nobodies than Birch's “Life of Tillotson.”’ It comprised numerous extracts from valuable historical manuscripts at the British Museum and the Bodleian Libraries, several of which were forwarded to Warton by Francis Wise [q. v.], but there is unhappily reason to believe that some of the documents alleged to date from the sixteenth century were forgeries of recent years. Although a strong case has been made against Warton in the matter, his general character renders it improbable that he was himself the author of the fabrications. He was more probably the dupe of a less principled antiquary (cf. Engl. Hist. Review, xi. pp. 282 et seq., art. ‘Thomas Warton and Machyn's Diary,’ by the Rev. H. E. D. Blakiston).

Meanwhile Warton pursued his study of early English literature, and in 1754 he published ‘Observations on the Faery Queen of Spenser,’ which established his reputation as a critic of exceptional learning. A second edition in two volumes, corrected and enlarged, appeared in 1762. The work abounded in illustrative parallels from other poets, and embodied the results of much reading in mediæval romance and archæological research. The book won immediately the warm approval of Dr. Johnson. ‘You have shown,’ Johnson wrote to Warton on 16 July 1754, ‘to all who shall hereafter attempt the study of our ancient authors the way to success by directing them to the perusal of the books those authors had read.’ The correspondence thus opened led to a long friendship, which, although interrupted by dissimilarity of literary taste, was only finally dissolved by death. Warton entertained Johnson on his visit to Oxford in the summer of 1754, and obtained for him the degree of M.A. in February 1755. Warburton was as enthusiastic an admirer as Johnson of Warton's ‘Observations,’ but Warton's work was acutely, if savagely, criticised by William Huggins in ‘The Observer Observed.’ With characteristic versatility Warton then turned from English literature to the classics, and set about a translation of Apollonius Rhodius. Johnson encouraged him to persevere in this and other literary labours, and not to fritter away his time on college tuition, saunters in the parks, and long sittings in hall and the coffee-houses. But the Apollonius Rhodius was never completed. He amiably abandoned it to devote his leisure to finding subscribers for Johnson's ‘Shakespeare,’ to which he contributed a few notes, and he wrote at Johnson's request numbers 33, 93, and 96 of Johnson's ‘Idler’ (1758–9). He is also said to have sent occasional papers to ‘The Connoisseur’ ‘The World,’ and ‘The Adventurer,’ but these have not been identified (Drake, Essays, ii. 194).

In 1757 Warton was elected professor of poetry at Oxford. He held the post for two successive terms of five years each. His lectures, which were delivered in Latin, were confined to classical topics. Only one of them was printed. It was entitled ‘De Poesi Græcorum Bucolica,’ and was included in Warton's edition of Theocritus. While holding the professorship he seems to have almost abandoned his study of English literature for the Latin and Greek classics. In 1758 he published a selection of Latin metrical inscriptions (‘Inscriptionum Romanarum Metricarum Delectus’); and eight years later he reprinted, with an original Latin preface, a similar collection of Greek inscriptions, known as Cephalas' ‘Anthologiæ Græcæ.’ In 1770 appeared from the Clarendon Press Warton's elegant edition of Theocritus, with some notes by Jonathan Toup [q. v.] The book met with approbation at home, but its scholarship was deemed by continental scholars to be defective; in England it was superseded by the editions of Thomas Gaisford in his ‘Poetæ Græci Minores’ (1814–20), and of Christopher Wordsworth (1844).

On 7 Dec. 1767 Warton took his degree of B.D., in 1771 he was elected a fellow of the London Society of Antiquaries, and on 22 Oct. of that year he was appointed to the small living of Kiddington in Oxfordshire.

Meanwhile Warton had embarked on his great venture of a history of English poetry. Pope had contemplated such a work, and prepared an elaborate plan, which his biographer, Owen Ruffhead, printed. Gray, about 1761, also sketched out a history of English poetry, but he likewise never got beyond a preliminary sketch. In 1768 Gray wrote that he had long since dropped his design, ‘especially after he heard that it was already in the hands of a person [i.e. Warton] well qualified to do it justice, both by his taste and his researches into antiquity.’ Warton sent his first volume to press in 1769. Many months later, on 15 April 1770, Gray, acting on the suggestion of Hurd, sent Warton his skeleton plan, in which the poets were dealt with not chronologically, but in groups according to their critical affinities (Gray, Works, i. 53, iii. 365). Warton's work was then far advanced on more or less strictly chronological lines, and he made no change in his scheme after reading Gray's notes. Warton's history owes nothing to Gray.

In 1774 the first volume of Warton's history of English poetry appeared under the title of ‘History of English Poetry from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century; to which are prefixed Two Dissertations: 1. On the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe; 2. On the Introduction of Learning into England.’ The second volume appeared in 1778; and the third in 1781, preceded by an additional dissertation on the ‘Gesta Romanorum.’ This volume brought the history down to the end of Queen Elizabeth's age. The fourth volume, which would have carried the topic as far as Pope, though repeatedly promised, never appeared. Another edition, edited by Richard Price (1790–1833) [q. v.], appeared in 1824, with numerous notes from the writings of Ritson, Douce, Ashby, Park, and others, and the work was re-edited by Mr. W. C. Hazlitt in 1874, when Warton's text was ruthlessly abbreviated or extended in an ill-advised attempt to bring its information up to the latest level of philological research.

At the outset Warton's great undertaking was cautiously received. In so massive a collection of facts and dates errors were inevitable. Warton's arrangement of his material was not flawless. Digressions were very numerous. His translation of old French and English was often faulty. In 1782 Ritson attacked him on the last score with a good deal of bitterness, and Warton, while contemptuously refusing to notice the censures of the ‘black-letter dog,’ was conscious that much of the attack was justified. Horace Walpole found the work unentertaining, and Mason echoed that opinion. Subsequently Sir Walter Scott, impressed by its deficiencies of plan, viewed it as ‘an immense commonplace book of memoirs to serve for’ a history; and Hallam deprecated enthusiastic eulogy. On the other hand, Gibbon described it as illustrating ‘the taste of a poet and the minute diligence of an antiquarian,’ while Christopher North wrote appreciatively of the volumes as ‘a mine.’ But, however critics have differed in the past, the whole work is now seen to be impregnated by an intellectual vigour which reconciles the educated reader to almost all its irregularities and defects. Even the mediæval expert of the present day, who finds that much of Warton's information is superannuated and that many of his generalisations have been disproved by later discoveries, realises that nowhere else has he at his command so well furnished an armoury of facts and dates about obscure writers; while for the student of sixteenth-century literature, Warton's results have been at many points developed, but have not as a whole been superseded. His style is unaffected and invariably clear. He never forgot that he was the historian and not the critic of the literature of which he treated. He handled with due precision the bibliographical side of his subject, and extended equal thoroughness of investigation to every variety of literary effort. No literary history discloses more comprehensive learning in classical and foreign literature, as well as in that of Great Britain.

Warton never completed his great ‘History,’ and, after the appearance of the third volume in 1781, he dissipated his energies in other laborious, but less useful, literary undertakings. In that year he wrote, for private circulation, a model history of his parish of Kiddington as ‘a specimen of a history of Oxfordshire.’ It was published in 1783, and reissued in 1815. In 1782 he issued a pamphlet on the Chatterton and Rowley controversy, strongly supporting the theory that the poems were modern forgeries. The title ran: ‘An Enquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems attributed to Thomas Rowley, in which the Arguments of the Dean of Exeter [i.e. Jeremiah Milles] and Mr. Bryant are examined’ (London, 1782, 8vo; a second edition, corrected, London, 1782, 8vo).

Warton's literary work secured for him in his later life an honoured place in London literary society, to which Johnson had years before introduced him. The cordiality of his early relations with Johnson was not continuously maintained, and they occasionally caused one another much irritation. The doctor always cherished affection for Warton, but in a frolicsome mood he parodied his friend's poetry with a freedom that Warton found it difficult to excuse. Warton showed his resentment by often treating Johnson with a coolness which once led Johnson to say of him that he was the only man of genius known to him who had no heart. But in 1776 Johnson revisited him at Oxford in Boswell's company, and all went happily. In 1782 Warton was admitted into the Literary Club, and was popular with its chief members. Verses on Sir Joshua Reynolds's painted window at New College, written and published in the same year, elicited a warm letter of gratitude from the painter. The poem is notable for its enthusiastic praise of Gothic architecture. In 1785 Warton was elected Camden professor of history at Oxford, and his inaugural lecture was printed by his biographer, Mant. Shortly afterwards, on the death of William Whitehead (14 April 1785), he was created poet-laureate. On the publication of Warton's first official ode in honour of the king's birthday, a clever squib appeared, entitled ‘Probationary Odes for the Laureateship.’ The volume adumbrated the ‘Rejected Addresses’ of the brothers Smith. Warton, who was described as ‘a little, thick, squat, red-faced man,’ was handled with especial rigour, and his genuine ‘birthday’ ode was quoted verbatim as signally characteristic of the ludicrous tameness incident to the compositions of laureated poetasters. Similar odes proceeded from Warton's pen until his death, and none of them retrieved his poetic reputation in the sight of discerning critics.

In another path of literature he was yet to win a deserved triumph. In 1785 he published what was intended to be the first of a series of volumes—an edition of Milton's early poems. The title ran: ‘Poems upon several occasions, English, Italian, and Latin, with Translations, by John Milton, viz. Lycidas, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Arcades, Comus, Odes, Sonnets, Miscellanies, English Psalms, Elegiarum liber, Epigrammatum liber, Sylvarum liber. With Notes, Critical and Explanatory, and other Illustrations,’ London, 1785. This is one of Warton's best works. It is described by Professor Masson as the best critical edition of Milton's minor works ever produced. The second volume was to have contained ‘Paradise Regained’ and ‘Samson Agonistes,’ but Warton died before it was finished. Suffering from an attack of gout he went to Bath early in 1790, and returned to Oxford thinking himself cured; but on 20 May 1790 he was seized in the common-room of his college with a paralytic stroke, and died on the following day. He was buried in the ante-chapel of the college. The chair in which he is said to have been taken ill is preserved in the old library of the college.

Warton's name is a landmark in the history of English literature. His great history exerted a signal influence on its contemporary currents. Together with Percy's ‘Reliques’ it helped to awaken an interest in mediæval and Elizabethan poetry. By familiarising his contemporaries with the imaginative temper and romantic subject-matter of the poetry that was anterior to the eighteenth century, Warton's work helped to divert the stream of English verse from the formal and classical channels to which the prestige of Pope had for many years consigned it. As a poet, too, Warton left his impress on the course of English literature. His verse gained considerable vogue in its day. A collection was first published in 1777, and reached a fourth edition in 1789. At the time of his death he was preparing a new and corrected edition of his poems. The volume appeared as ‘The Poems on various Subjects of Thomas Warton, B.D., late Fellow of Trinity College, Professor of Poetry and Camden Professor of History at Oxford, and Poet-Laureat. Now first collected,’ London, 1791, 8vo. Another edition, edited, with a memoir, by Richard Mant, appeared at Oxford in 1802, 2 vols., and this was frequently reprinted in collected editions of the English poets. Warton on occasion showed full command of Pope's style and metre, but most of his verse is imitative of Milton and Spenser. Dr. Johnson contemptuously wrote of Warton's poetry that it consisted entirely of

    Phrase that time hath flung away,
    Uncouth words in disarray,
    Trick'd in antique ruff and bonnet,
    Ode and elegy and sonnet.

But, Johnson's scorn notwithstanding, Warton was an apt disciple of his sixteenth and seventeenth century masters, and as the reviver of the sonnet, which had been very rarely essayed in England since Milton, he was himself the master of many pupils who bettered his instruction. His sonnets treat side by side of the charms of antiquity and the charms of nature. A sonnet written on a flyleaf of Dugdale's ‘Monasticon’ is followed at a near interval by another on the ‘River Lodon.’ The versification was often uncouth, but Warton's sincere admiration for nature and antiquity alike, though not expressed in his sonnets or elsewhere with much subtlety, arrested attention in his own time by its novelty, and lent distinction to his poetic achievements. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb were appreciative readers of Warton. Christopher North said with much justice ‘the gods had made him poetical, but not a poet.’

North added that ‘Tom Warton was the finest fellow that ever breathed.’ In person he was, in middle life, unattractive, being, according to the most truthful observers, a fat little man, with a thick utterance resembling the gobble of a turkey-cock. With his love of scholarly study he combined somewhat slovenly habits and a taste for unrefined amusements. He delighted in the society of the Oxford watermen, and shocked the susceptibilities of his fellow-dons by often appearing in the Watermen's company on the river with a pipe in his mouth. He enjoyed drinking beer, especially in taverns, and, although he was the life and soul of his college common-room, was never quite at home in the intellectual salons of London. Miss Burney wrote of a meeting with him in 1783: ‘He looks unformed in his manners and awkward in his gestures. He joined not one word in the general talk’ (Mme. D'Arblay, Diary, ii. 237). When he visited his brother at Winchester College he is said to have indulged in all manner of boyish pranks with undignified amiability, and, owing to his bulk, with ludicrous awkwardness.

A fine portrait of Warton, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, is in the common-room of Trinity College, Oxford. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784. There is a good mezzotint by Hodges. An engraving by Holl is prefixed to Mant's ‘Memoir,’ and another, by W. P. Sherlock, is published in Nichols's ‘Literary Illustrations’ (iv. 738).

In 1855 James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, Thomas Wright, and others, formed in Warton's honour a Warton Club for the publication of contributions to literary history, but the club was dissolved next year after issuing four volumes. Besides the works mentioned, Warton published ‘A Description of the City, College, and Cathedral of Winchester. Exhibiting a Complete and Comprehensive Detail of their Antiquities and Present State. The whole illustrated with several Curious and Authentic Particulars collected from a Manuscript of Anthony Wood, preserved in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford; the College and Cathedral Registers, and other Original Authorities, never before published,’ London, n.d. [1750], 12mo. Some of Warton's notes were utilised in the well-illustrated volumes called ‘Essays on Gothic Architecture, by the Rev. T. Warton, Rev. J. Bentham, Captain Grose, and the Rev. J. Milner,’ London, 1800, 8vo. An unpublished manuscript by Warton, entitled ‘Observations, Critical and Historical, on Churches, Monasteries, Castles, and other Monuments of Antiquity in various Counties of England and Wales,’ supplies records of his vacation tours between 1759 and 1773. The manuscript is now the property of Miss M. S. Lee of Church Manor, Bishop's Stortford, and was described by Henry Boyle Lee in the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ for June 1865 (pp. 733 sqq.).

[Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, and Lit. Illustrations; Memoir, by Richard Mant, prefixed to the collected edition of Warton's Poems, 1802; Nathan Drake's Essays, 1810, ii. 166–219; Horace Walpole's Corresp. ed. Cunningham; Dennis's Studies in English Literature; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Birkbeck Hill; Austin and Ralph's Lives of the Poet-Laureates, pp. 316–32; Cornhill Mag. June 1865; Blakiston's History of Trinity College, Oxford, 1898, pp. 193 sq.; E. R. Wharton's manuscript history of Wharton and Warton families in Bodleian Library.]

S. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.275
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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436 ii 19f.e. Warton, Thomas (1728-1790): for Royle Lee read Boyle Lee