Thomas Warton 1728-1790
English poet, critic, biographer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Warton's life and works. For additional information on his career, see LC, Volume 15.
Warton is best known as a critic whose writings, especially the three-volume History of English Poetry, from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century (1774-81?), were influential for their consideration of literary works in a broad historical context. Warton also wrote poetry, most notably The Pleasures of Melancholy (1747), an early work that exemplifies what commentators describe as the author's “Gothic” sensibility.
Warton was born on January 9, 1728, in Basingstoke, Hampshire, to Thomas Warton, the Elder, a poet and schoolmaster, and his wife, Elizabeth Richardson Warton. At the time, Warton the Elder was headmaster of Basingstoke Grammar School. Warton's elder brother, Joseph, also became a poet and academic and collaborated with his sibling on occasion. Warton received much of his early education from his father and in 1744 entered Trinity College, Oxford. It was at this time that Warton began writing poetry as a serious pursuit, producing, among other works, his famous The Pleasures of Melancholy. He also submitted several works to collections published by his brother and father, sometimes under their names. After earning his undergraduate degree in 1747, Warton remained at Oxford to continue his studies and became more involved in literary activities at the university. Warton earned his M.A. in 1750 and was elected a probationary fellow of Trinity College in 1752. He became a full fellow the following year. While continuing to work on his own poetry and fulfilling his academic duties, Warton also assembled several poetry anthologies as well editions and studies of the works of noted poets. One important study was Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser (1754). In 1756, Warton was elected as professor of poetry at Oxford, a position he held for ten years. In addition to the scholarly works Warton published during this period, he also wrote biographies, comic verse, and travel books. After his poetry professorship ended in 1766, Warton was given a bachelor of divinity degree the following year but was afterward passed over for significant positions at the university. For example, in 1776, although Warton was arguably the most respected fellow at Trinity, he was not chosen to serve as its president. By then, Warton was publishing the initial volumes of what many consider his most important work, The History of English Poetry. Primarily a literary historian and academic by this point in his life, he continued to write poetry that was highly regarded. In 1785, he was appointed poet laureate; the same year, he was elected Camden Professor of Ancient History at Oxford. In the last decade of his life, Warton acted as a mentor to many young poets. He died on May 21, 1790.
As David Fairer has written: “Warton's literary achievement was certainly many-sided: poet, literary historian, classical scholar, Gothic enthusiast, humorist, biographer, editor. He was a man in whom so many strands of cultural life of the eighteenth century met.” While Warton indeed produced a varied body of works, critics often emphasize a quality common to many of them that is generally described as “Gothic.” As applied to Warton's writings, the term Gothic signifies a profound sense of the influence of the past upon the present as well as a taste for gloomy natural landscapes, medieval architecture, and ruins. The dour imagery and pensive mood of The Pleasures of Melancholy, written when the author was only seventeen years old, well illustrates the Gothicism that many critics observe in much of Warton's work. A vivid sense of the past, especially the period of the Middle Ages, informed Warton's critical writings and distinguished them among literary criticism theretofore published in English. In Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser, Warton took on a new approach to critical study by demonstrating the manner in which the past was embodied in and influenced Edmund Spenser's epic poem, as well as placing it in the historical context of its own time. This idea was expanded in Warton's most ambitious project, The History of English Poetry, from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth. In the three volumes Warton completed—a fourth volume was published in its uncompleted form—he studied the history of England's literature from the Norman Conquest to his own day.
Many critics credit Warton with redefining literary criticism. From the time of its first publication, Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser was recognized as a benchmark in the history of English literature. Warton is believed to be the first to look at a work in relation to its time, cultural influences, and earlier literature. Critics note that Warton accomplished this on a greater scale in The History of English Poetry. Although commentators have often faulted this study as sometimes difficult to follow—in part because of its ambitiously all-inclusive but unsystematic scheme—and have discovered it to be riddled with errors of fact, it is nonetheless regarded as a seminal work in the history of English literary criticism. With this work, Warton helped define periods and styles in literature for the first time, an achievement that alone justifies his place among prominent writers of the eighteenth century.
The Pleasures of Melancholy: A Poem (poetry) 1747
A Description of the City, College, and Cathedral of Winchester (nonfiction) 1750; revised edition, 1760; third edition published as The Winchester Guide, 1796
The Triumph of Isis: A Poem. Occasioned by Isis: An Elegy (poetry) 1750
New-market, A Satire (poetry) 1751
Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser (criticism) 1754; revised and enlarged edition, 1762
A Description of the City, College, and Cathedral of Winchester (nonfiction) 1760
The Life and Literary Remains of Ralph Bathurst. 2 vols. (biography) 1761
A Companion to the Guide, and a Guide to the Companion: Being a Complete Supplement to All the Accounts of Oxford Hitherto Published (nonfiction) 1760; revised and enlarged edition, 1762?
The Life of Sir Thomas Pope (biography) 1772; expanded edition, 1780
*The History of English Poetry, from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century. 4 vols. (criticism) 1774-81?
Poems: A New Edition, with Additions (poetry) 1777; enlarged as Poems: A New Edition 1777; enlarged as Poems on Various Subjects of Thomas Warton: Now First Collected, 1791
An Enquiry into the Authenticity of...
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SOURCE: Rinaker, Clarissa. “Criticism: The Observations on the Fairie Queene of Spenser, 1754-1762.” In Thomas Warton: A Biographical and Critical Study, pp. 37-58. Urbana: University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, 1916.
[In the following excerpt, Rinaker regards Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser as an important work of English literary criticism for having revived interest in Edmund Spenser.]
The hand of the poet is as evident as that of the scholar in the Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser.1 Warton's love for Spenser and his poetical enthusiasm were here first turned to criticism, but of a sort unknown before. And the secret of the new quality is to be found in this poetical enthusiasm of the writer which enabled him to study the poem from its own point of view, not hampered by artificial, pseudo-classical standards of which the poet had known nothing, but with a sympathetic appreciation of his literary models, the spirit of his age, his heritage of romance and chivalry, and the whole many-coloured life of the middle ages. These things Warton was able to see and to reveal not with the eighteenth century prejudice against, and ignorance of, the Gothic, but with the understanding and long familiarity of the real lover of Spenser.
The result of Warton's combined poetical enthusiasm and scholarly study of Spenser...
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SOURCE: Pittock, Joan. “The Taste for the Gothic: Thomas Warton and the History of English Poetry.” In The Ascendancy of Taste: The Achievement of Joseph and Thomas Warton, pp. 176-214. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
[In the following essay, Pittock traces influences on “Gothic” poems by Warton and others and critiques his History of English Poetry.]
When [Samuel] Johnson's Dictionary appeared in 1755 it contained no reference to the word ‘Gothic’. Yet Horace Walpole had succumbed to the spell of Gothic architecture in building his castle at Strawberry Hill in 1750, and the vogue for Gothic as well as Chinese in design is attested by Robert Lloyd in his description of ‘The Cit's County Box’ (1757):
The traveller with amazement sees A temple, Gothic or Chinese, With many a bell or tawdry rag on And crested with a sprawling dragon, A ditch of water four foot wide … With angles, curves, and zig-zag lines …
The taste for the nebulously exotic, wild or fanciful could be localised to best effect for several reasons in those periods of history which might be thought to have produced Gothic buildings. When Walpole published his Castle of Otranto in 1764 he subtitled it ‘A Gothic Tale’. And as the Gothic novel developed in the work of Clara Reeve, Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe and ‘Monk’ Lewis it held...
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SOURCE: Rogers, Pat. “Thomas Warton and the Waxing of the Middle Ages.” In Medieval Literature and Antiquities: Studies in Honour of Basil Cottle, edited by Myra Stokes and T. L. Burton, pp. 175-86. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987.
[In the following essay, Rogers contends that Warton's History of English Poetry played a significant role in the codifying of historical eras in literature.]
In any age, Basil Cottle would have been a notable scholar. But it is only within the last century and a half that he could possibly have held a distinguished post in Medieval English. The prime reason for this has nothing to do with the belated appearance of departments of English within universities (Dr Cottle could, in any case, have survived happily under the aegis of ‘classical studies’ (to use an anachronistic form), such are his attainments in the ancient languages). But the middle ages, as a linguistic entity, were not fully to dawn until the nineteenth century. Prior to 1800, anyone who wished to specialize in, say, Middle English (not many did) would have had to describe himself or herself as a Goth of one kind or another.
The lexical history of terms such as ‘middle age’ and ‘medieval’ has been explored on a few occasions, although never for the purposes I shall adopt in this essay. When the original [Oxford English Dictionary; hereafter cited as OED]...
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SOURCE: Donatelli, Joseph M. P. “The Medieval Fictions of Thomas Warton and Thomas Percy.” University of Toronto Quarterly 60, No. 4 (summer 1991): 435-51.
[In the following essay, Donatelli argues that Warton and Percy were leaders in a movement that inspired a popular fascination with the Middle Ages.]
The enthusiasm for the culture of the Middle Ages during the latter half of the eighteenth century finds various forms of expression. Yet the visitors who flocked to Walpole's Strawberry Hill instead of Glastonbury Abbey, the readers who purchased Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry instead of Joseph Ritson's scholarly editions, and the antiquarians who preferred Matthew Prior's prettified and sentimental version of ‘The Nut-Brown Maid’ to the original remind us that the pseudo-medieval was often more attractive than the genuine article. For the past was invested with a significance that might prove offensive to contemporary beliefs, tastes, and values: a medieval building carried an objectionable taint of Catholicism,1 and medieval poems were considered to be ill-formed compositions of ‘wild fancy’ and ‘rude meter.’ These are but two of the qualities that offended an age which, as William Shenstone had repeatedly advised Thomas Percy, had little taste for ‘unadulterated antiquity.’2 One writer expressed this predilection when he declared...
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SOURCE: Rielly, Edward J. “Thomas Warton's Gothic Sensibility.” In Man and Nature/L'Homme et La Nature, 10 (1991): 147-58.
[In the following essay, Rielly illustrates how Warton's writings and other scholarly interests reveal his Gothic sensibility.]
Thomas Warton was an ardent antiquarian who contributed significantly to the late eighteenth century fusion of the antiquarian and the man of taste (the latter the discerning critic or editor whose successful enterprises depend on the former's diligence and judgment).1 Warton, of course, was also much more than an antiquarian, even more than an antiquarian of taste. He was a poet, literary historian, critic, and editor. This paper is concerned not only with Warton's antiquarianism, but also with what bound together Warton's many activities. This common, synthesizing link was his abiding love for the distant past, more specifically his Gothic sensibility; and virtually all of his interests, personal and professional, manifested that sensibility. His study of literature reflected this attitude, as in the famous passage from the first edition of Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser, in which he emphasized his conviction that an adequate understanding of earlier literature (which on the whole he much preferred to contemporary literature) depends on a careful study of the past:
In reading the...
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SOURCE: Griffin, Robert J. “The Eighteenth-Century Construction of Romanticism: Thomas Warton and the Pleasures of Melancholy.” ELH 59, no. 4 (winter 1992): 799-815.
[In the following essay, Griffin explores the idea that Warton is a romantic poet by analyzing his poem The Pleasures of Melancholy.]
The great merit of this writer appears to us to consist in the boldness and originality of his composition, and in the fortunate audacity with which he has carried the dominion of poetry into regions that had been considered as inaccessible to her ambition. The gradual refinement of taste had, for nearly a century, been weakening the force of original genius. Our poets had become timid and fastidious, and circumscribed themselves both in the choice and management of their subjects, by the observance of a limited number of models, who were thought to have exhausted all the legitimate resources of the art. ———was one of the first who crossed this enchanted circle; who reclaimed the natural liberty, and walked abroad in the open field of observation as freely as those by whom it was originally trodden. He passed from the imitation of poets to the imitation of nature.
This quotation expresses many of the essentials of the “romantic” version of literary history. The chain of associations—boldness, original genius, break from a refined taste,...
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SOURCE: Kolb, Gwin J. and Robert DeMaria, Jr. “Thomas Warton's Observations on the ‘Faerie Queene’ of Spenser, Samuel Johnson's ‘History of the English Language,’ and Warton's History of English Poetry: Reciprocal Indebtedness?” Philological Quarterly 74, no. 3 (1995): 327-35.
[In the following essay, Kolb and DeMaria analyze the relationship between Warton and Samuel Johnson, arguing that the two writers influenced and borrowed from each other.]
Several commentators have discussed in varying detail the long, sometimes troubled friendship of Samuel Johnson and Thomas Warton, which began in the early 1750s (when Johnson was in his forties and Warton in his twenties) and apparently lasted until the former's death in 1784; and the same investigators have usually treated some of the numerous literary relationships obtaining between the two men.1 But no one, so far as we are aware, has pointed out the possible connections between Warton's Observations on the “Faerie Queene” of Spenser (1754) and Johnson's “History of the English Language” (in his Dictionary of the English Language, 1755); and only one person has touched on the possible affiliations between Johnson's History and Warton's three-volume History of English Poetry (1774, 1778, 1781).2 In this article, we present the results of a fresh examination, which, while admittedly...
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SOURCE: Fairer, David. Introduction to The Correspondence of Thomas Warton, edited by David Fairer, pp. xvii-xxxvi. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Fairer describes Warton's importance as a literary figure.]
On the evening of 20 March 1776 Dr. Johnson and Boswell, who were on a visit to Oxford together, went round to Trinity College to call on Johnson's friend of over twenty years' standing, Thomas Warton: “We went to Mr. Thomas Warton of Trinity, whom I had long wished to see. We found him in a very elegant apartment ornamented with good prints, and with wax or spermaceti candles before him. All this surprised me, because I had heard that Tom kept low drunken company, and I expected to see a confused dusty room and a little, fat, laughing fellow. In place of which I found a good, sizable man, with most decent clothes and darkish periwig, one who might figure as a canon.”1 Caught between expectation and reality, Boswell finds Warton hard to pin down. The confused dusty room is obviously the place where The History of English Poetry was written; the little, fat, laughing fellow is Tom Warton of The Oxford Sausage; but instead Boswell seems to have found, in his elegant apartment, Professor Warton, the editor of Theocritus.
Warton's literary achievement was certainly many-sided: poet, literary historian, classical...
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Vance, John A. Joseph and Thomas Warton: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1983, 190 p.
Primary and secondary bibliography devoted to Warton's writings as well as those of his brother, Joseph.
Gilfillan, George. “The Life of Thomas Warton.” In The Poetical Works of Goldsmith, Collins, and T. Warton pp. 145-54. Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1854.
Overview of Warton's life and works.
Vance, John. “Samuel Johnson and Thomas Warton.” Biography 9, no. 2 (spring 1986): 95-111.
Analyzes the complex professional and personal relationship between Johnson and Warton.
Fairer, David. “Historical Criticism and the English Canon: A Spenserian Dispute in the 1750s.” Eighteenth-Century Life 24 (spring 2000): 43-64.
Uses Warton's Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser as part of a larger argument about the formation of the English literary canon.
Teich, Nathaniel. “A Comparative Approach to Periodization: Forms of Self-Consciousness in Warton's ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy’ and Keat's ‘Ode on Melancholy.’” In Proceedings of the Xth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association/Actes Du Xe...
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