Thomas Warton Critical Essays

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.