Joseph Warton Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Joseph Warton 1722-1800

British critic, poet, translator, and essayist.

A notable figure in the history of English literary criticism, Joseph Warton challenged the prevalent Eighteenth Century sentiment that Alexander Pope and his classicism represented the highest form of poetics. Warton's controversial Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope (1756), which espoused a theory of poetics that informed the Romantic Movement, is recognized as both a significant piece of literary criticism and an important document that strongly impacted English literary criticism.

Biographical Information

Born in 1722, Warton was one of three Wartons to make his mark on the face of English literary studies. His father, Reverand Thomas Warton (1688-1745) was a minor pre-romantic poet and Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and his younger brother, Thomas, was also a poet and literary critic. There is little mention of one brother without mention of the other as well. Their study of poetry began in their youth, studying the ancients and the work of Shakespeare and Milton. When he came of age, Warton was educated at Winchester and at Oriel College, Oxford. After graduation, he took religious orders in 1743 and became his father's curate. Consistently from his youth Warton engaged in literary study and translation, and wrote poetry, essays, and satires, some of which were published in periodicals, and others of which made their way into his later publications. In 1748, Joseph and his sister Jane put together a collection of their father's poetry, Poems on Several Occasions, which they published by subscription. He included at least one of his own poems in this collection; however, neither his poetry nor his father's met with any great popular or critical success. He published his own Odes on Various Subjects in 1744 (with a second edition in 1746), where much of his evolving pre-Romantic theory on poetics can be seen in the strong interest in nature, passionate emotion, and self-expression. His poetic sensibility was in discord with Pope's social vision and poetic didacticism, a conflict that would become the cornerstone of Warton's work. In the late 1740s, Warton became engaged in editing and translating the works of Virgil, which he later published in 1753. He would continue his work on Virgil and published a second edition of this collection in 1758. While his poetry and satires met very modest reception, with the publishing of his Essays on the Writings and Genius of Pope, Warton established himself as a significant literary critic. In this work, he argued against Pope's poetry as preeminent in the English literary canon, and called for Pope's undeniable technical genius to take second place to the poets of nature, emotion, passion, and the sublime, including Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton. This pre-Romantic, or as some argue, Romantic sentiment, jarred the English literary scene. Warton furthered his theory of poetics in numerous essays on English literature, many of which were published in his close friend Samuel Johnson's periodical, The Adventurer. While engaged in his critical studies, Warton also served as headmaster of Winchester from 1766-1793. Here he influenced some of the thinkers who would comprise the early Romantic movement, including his student and one-day poet William Lisle Bowles. Warton saw the literary revolution that his Essay on Pope helped set in motion come to fruition in 1798 with Wordsworth's successful publication of Lyrical Ballads. When Warton died in 1800, the popular taste for wit, technique, and moral didacticism embodied by Pope had been surpassed by the Romantic imagination.

Major Works

Of Warton's poetry, his most significant contribution is The Enthusiast: or, The Lover of Nature (1744). A poem with classical motifs and allusions to Virgil, it chronicles the poet's encounter with personifications of Philosophy, Solitude, Wisdom, Virtue, and Innocence. A poem of natural description, it is a passionate assertion of the primacy of nature over artifice. In it, Warton's theory of poesy, which takes more solid form in his criticism, is attempted in artistic form. While his talent as a poet is not acclaimed, his poetry, including The Enthusiast, demonstrates his ideal in action. Warton contributed significantly to eighteenth-century literary criticism, commenting on the works of Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, and his contemporaries, but his most important work was Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope. In this work, he doesn't deny Pope's talent, but he questions Pope's poetic imagination and creativity. He argues against moral and didactic sentiment in classicist verse because, despite their beauty, they exclude self-revelation and natural emotion. Both Joseph in his Essay on Pope, and his brother in his own literary criticism, argue that poetry in its truest form is an effusion of feeling and emotion, foreshadowing the tenets of Romanticism, on nature, love, and reckless abandon. Such tenets were solidified in the works of poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley nearly fifty years later. Twenty-six years passed between the first publication of Warton's Essay on Pope and the second edition, a lapse in time some argue resulted from the original backlash against his revolutionary argument. The publication saw several more editions during the course of Warton's life, and his interest in Pope's works culminated in the publication in 1797 of a nine-volume collection of the poet's works.

Critical Reception

The bulk of Warton criticism centers on his Essay on Pope, both for the theories it sets forth and for the impact it had on English literary culture. His significance to the beginnings of the Romantic movement has been recognized by nineteenth-century critic William Lyons Phelps, and in the early twentieth century by Edmund Gosse. Joan Pittock is among the foremost Warton scholars, providing commentary on his poetry, his life, and the publishing history and significance of his Essay on Pope. Other critics, including Phillip Mahone Griffith, have explored Warton's criticism on poets such as Milton and Shakespeare.