Joseph Warton Essay - Critical Essays

Warton, Joseph


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.

Principal Works

Fashion, An Epistolary Satire (poetry) 1742

Ranelagh House (novel) 1744

The Enthusiast: or, the Lover of Nature (poem) 1744

“The Dying Indian” (poem) 1744

Odes on Various Subjects (poetry) 1746

The Works of Virgil 4 vols. [editor, translator, and critic] (poetry, criticism) 1753

An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope (criticism) 1756


William Lyon Phelps (essay date 1893)

SOURCE: Phelps, William Lyon. The Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement: A Study in Eighteenth Century Literature, pp. 89-93. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1893.

[In the following excerpt, Phelps argues that Joseph Warton is amongst the earliest Romantic writers, and reads selections from his poetry.]

Joseph Warton (1722-1800) is one of the most important names in the history of English Romanticism.1

From the start his sympathy was wholly with the new movement. He sprang enthusiastically into the ranks, burning his bridges in the most reckless manner. In his prose writings he showed himself to be what few men were at that time—a...

(The entire section is 1213 words.)

Edmund Gosse (essay date 1915)

SOURCE: Gosse, Edmund. “Two Pioneers of Romanticism: Joseph and Thomas Warton.” In Proceedings of the British Academy: 1915-1916, pp. 145-63. Nendeln/Liechtenstein, Germany: Kraus Reprint, 1976.

[In the following lecture, originally presented in 1915, Gosse examines what Thomas and Joseph Warton found stimulating in poetry available during their childhood and what they disapproved of in the popular contemporary verse of their adulthoods. The critic offers close readings of several of their works, including Joseph Warton's The Enthusiast and his Essay on Pope.]

The origins of the Romantic Movement in literature have been examined so closely and so often that...

(The entire section is 8218 words.)

William Darnall MacClintock (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: MacClintock, William Darnall. “The Essay on Pope: Origin, Significance, Reception.” In his Joseph Warton's Essay on Pope: A History of the Five Editions, pp. 3-33. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1933.

[In the following excerpt, MacClintock provides an extensive examination of Joseph Warton's Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, discussing its composition, the process of its publication, and its reception by and significance to contemporary literary studies and popular literary tastes.]


Historians of culture agree that an...

(The entire section is 8750 words.)

Philip Mahone Griffith (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Griffith, Philip Mahone. “Joseph Warton's Criticism of Shakespeare.” TSE: Tulane Studies in English 14 (1965): 17-27.

[In the following essay, Griffith explores Joseph Warton's criticism of Shakespeare, which appeared in the form of five essays in the Adventurer, arguing that Warton's criticism is representative of the contemporary trends in Shakespearean criticism.]

Joseph Warton's five papers on Shakespeare, contributed to the Adventurer between September 25, 1753, and January 5, 1754, have received perhaps more persistent notice from literary historians than any other essays in the entire journal. Like most of Warton's literary criticism,...

(The entire section is 4814 words.)

Joan Pittock (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Pittock, Joan. “Joseph Warton and his Second Volume of the Essay on Pope.Review of English Studies 18, no. 71 (August 1967): 264-73.

[In the following essay, Pittock considers the reasons for the 26 year gap between the first and second editions of Joseph Warton's influential Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope.]

Many suggestions have been put forward by critics of Joseph Warton to account for his long delay in issuing the second volume of his Essay on Pope. While Johnson attributed the non-appearance of the second volume to Warton's disappointment at the reception of the first, Chalmers accounted for the twenty-six-year gap by...

(The entire section is 4427 words.)

Philip Mahone Griffith (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Griffith, Philip Mahone. “A Short View of Joseph Warton's Criticism of Milton.” In Papers on Milton, edited by Philip Mahone Griffith and Lester F. Zimmerman, pp. 25-35. Tulsa, Oklahoma: The University of Tulsa, 1969.

[In the following essay, Griffith briefly examines Joseph Warton's life and his brother's influence on his critical interpretation of Milton.]

Joseph Warton (1722-1800) was the son of the Rev. Thomas Warton (1688-1745), Professor of Poetry at Oxford and pre-romantic poet, and the elder brother of Thomas Warton the Younger, also Professor of Poetry at Oxford and historian of English poetry. Joseph added greatly to his family's distinction by...

(The entire section is 4055 words.)

David B. Morris (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Morris, David B. “Joseph Warton's Figure of Virtue: Poetic Indirection in The Enthusiast.Philological Quarterly 50 (1971): 678-83.

[In the following essay, Morris examines Warton's use of his translation of Virgil in his poem The Enthusiast for the significance of departing virtue on his conception of nature and imagination.]

Toward the end of Joseph Warton's youthful, bookish poem The Enthusiast or The Lover of Nature (1744), the poet suddenly encounters a train of “awful forms.”1 Sharp-eyed Philosophy, virgin Solitude, and hoary Wisdom pass by; then the parade of abstractions concludes with the figures of Virtue and...

(The entire section is 2195 words.)

Joan Pittock (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Pittock, Joan. “Poetry Versus Good Sense: Joseph Warton and the Reaction Against Pope.” In her The Ascendancy of Taste: The Achievement of Joseph and Thomas Warton, pp. 122-66. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

[In the following excerpt, Pittock considers Joseph Warton's poetic style, his critical theories, and his seminal work on Pope, its influence on his contemporaries, and its influence on subsequent generations of writers and literary critics.]


In chapter i of Biographia Literaria Coleridge considers the relevance of poetry to his own development. He explicitly relates his awareness of true poetry to the work of...

(The entire section is 15151 words.)

Joan Pittock (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Pittock, Joan. Introduction to Odes on Various Subjects (1746) by Joseph Warton, pp. v-xiv. Delmar, New York: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1977.

[In the following essay, Pittock examines Joseph Warton's Odes on Various Subjects, its composition and publishing history, and the influence of Warton's brother Thomas, who contributed in part to the publication, and his friend William Collins, who also wrote a collection of odes.]

An advertisement in the London Evening Post for Saturday, 29 November 1746 announced the imminent publication of Odes on Various Subjects by Joseph Warton, A.B. of Oriel College, Oxon. The publisher was Robert...

(The entire section is 2600 words.)

Edward J. Rielly (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Rielly, Edward J. “Joseph Warton, ‘Genuine Poesy,’ and the American Indian: The Search for a Poetic Ideal.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 40, no. 1-2 (1986): 35-47.

[In the following essay, Rielly considers Joseph Warton's aesthetic ideals of the sublime and the pathetic, and connects his poetic theory to the Native American Indian, who, in Warton's mind represented the primitivism that belongs to true and natural poetry.]

The poetic world of the mid-eighteenth century was still heavily mimetic, with the poet looking in a variety of places for a poetic model to imitate or an ideal to champion. At the same time, the primitive urge, so...

(The entire section is 5159 words.)

Hugh Reid (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Reid, Hugh. “The Printing of Joseph Warton's Odes.Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America 84, no. 2 (June 1990): 151-56.

[In the following excerpt, Reid looks at Joseph Warton's Odes and argues that while some considered that the volume went into a second edition a sign of its poetic merit, there were other factors motivating the second edition.]

In literary history Joseph Warton is chiefly remembered for his Essay on Pope, the first volume of which was published only twelve years after the poet's death and which began a reexamination and reevaluation of Pope's works. Its publication marks a convenient place from which to view...

(The entire section is 2326 words.)

Trevor Ross (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Ross, Trevor. “‘Pure Poetry’: Cultural Capital and the Rejection of Classicism.” Modern Language Quarterly 58, no. 4 (December 1997): 437-57.

[In the following essay, Ross employs Pierre Bourdieu's economic theories to argue that the anti-classicist revolution set in motion by Joseph Warton's Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope is an attempt to define the function of culture, or the cultural field, whose autonomy had been increasingly driven by politics and economic exchange at the expense of poetics and art.]

Less than a decade after his death, Alexander Pope's preeminence in the English canon began to be challenged by polemicists hoping to...

(The entire section is 8035 words.)

Further Reading


Vance, John A. Joseph and Thomas Warton: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983, 190 p.

Annotated bibliography on criticism of Joseph and Thomas Warton's works.


Partridge, Eric. “A Glance at the Wartons.” In his The Three Wartons: A Choice of their Verse, pp. 9-18. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1927.

Biographical sketch of Thomas Warton, senior, and his sons Joseph and Thomas.


Fairer, David. “The Writing and Printing of Joseph Warton's Essay on Pope.” In...

(The entire section is 245 words.)