Thomas Warton Criticism - Essay

Clarissa Rinaker (essay date 1916)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 was that he produced in the Observations on the Faerie Queene the first important piece of modern historical criticism in the field of English literature. By the variety of its new tenets and the definitiveness of its revolt against the pseudo-classical criticism by rule, it marks the beginning of a new school. Out of the turmoil of the quarrel between the ‘ancients’ and the ‘moderns’ the pseudo-classical compromise had emerged. The ‘moderns’, by admitting and apologizing for a degree of barbarity and uncouthness in even their greatest poets, had established their right to a secure and reputable place in the assembly of immortals, although on the very questionable ground of conformity with the ancients and by submitting to be judged by rules which had not determined their development. It was thus by comparisons with the ancients that Dryden had found Spenser's verse harmonious but his design imperfect;2 it was in the light of the classical rules for epic poetry that Addison had praised Paradise Lost,3 and that Steele had wished an ‘Encomium of Spencer’4 also.

Impossible as was the task of reconciling literature partly romantic and modern with classical and ancient standards, the critics of a rationalistic age did not hesitate to accomplish it; common sense was the pseudo-classical handmaiden that justified the rules, methodized nature, standardized critical taste, and restrained the ‘Enthusiastick Spirit’ and the je ne sais quoi of the school of taste. The task was a hard one, and the pseudo-classical position dangerous and ultimately untenable. A more extended study of literary history—innocuously begun by Rymer5—and an enlightened freedom from prejudice would show at the same time the inadequacy of the rules and the possibility of arriving at sounder critical standards.

These are the two principal gifts that Thomas Warton had with which he revolutionized criticism: intelligent independence to throw off the bondage of the rules, and broad knowledge to supply material for juster criteria. When he said, ‘It is absurd to think of judging either Ariosto or Spenser by precepts which they did not attend to,’6 he not merely asserted their right to be judged by Gothic or ‘romantic’, as opposed to pseudo-classical, standards, but sounded the death-knell of criticism by rule, and the bugle-note of the modern school. When, in the same critical work, and even more impressively in two later ones,7 he brought to bear upon the subject in hand a rich store of ideas and illustrations drawn from many literatures—Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and English in its obscure as well as its more familiar eras,—he rendered an even more important service on the side of constructive criticism.

Warton's Observations is connected not only with the history of critical theory in the eighteenth century but also with what is called the Spenserian revival. It was partly the culmination of one of several related movements tending toward the restoration of the older English classics. While Chaucer was slowly winning a small circle of appreciators; Shakespeare, from ignorantly apologetic admiration and garbled staging, through serious study and intelligent comprehension, was coming into his own; and Milton was attaining a vogue that left its mark on the new poetry; the Spenserian revival was simultaneously preparing to exert an even greater influence. Although Spenser was never without a select circle of readers, that circle was small and coldly critical during the pseudo-classical period when his principal charm was that which his moral afforded readers who held that the purpose of poetry was to instruct. Most readers assented to Jonson's dictum that Spenser ‘writ no language’ without attending to the caveat that followed, ‘Yet I would have him read for his matter.’ The difficulties of his language, the tiresomeness of his stanza,8 the unclassical imperfection of his design, and the extravagance of the adventures too often obscured even the beauty of his moral. Therefore it was after a pretty general neglect of his poetry that the eighteenth century saw a species of Spenserian imitation arise which showed to what low ebb the study of Spenser had sunk. The first of these imitators either ignorantly fancied that any arrangement of from six to ten iambic pentameter lines capped with an Alexandrine, with distinctly Popeian cadence and a sprinkling of ‘I ween’, ‘I weet’ and ‘whilom’ by way of antiquated diction, could pass for Spenserian verse,9 or followed the letter of the stanza closely enough, but failed to take their model seriously, and misapplied it to vulgar burlesque, social and political satire, and mere moralizing.10 Their ignorance of the poet whom they professed to imitate is marked. Often they knew him only through Prior's imitations; usually their attempts at antiquated diction betray them.11 Occasionally, as in the case of Shenstone, a study of Spenser followed imitation of him, and led to a new attitude, changes in the imitation, and finally, apparently, to an admiration that he neither understood nor cared to admit.12

Of course by far the best of the Spenserian imitators was James Thomson, whose work was the first to rise above the merely imitative and to have an independent value as creative poetry. Although his Advertisement and a few burlesque touches throughout the poem are evidence of the influence of the Schoolmistress and of the prevailing attitude toward Spenser, Thomson went further than mere external imitation and reproduced something of the melody and atmosphere of the Fairy Queen. Thus poetical enthusiasm began the Spenserian revival; it remained for a great critical enthusiasm to vindicate the source of this inspiration and to establish it on the firm basis of scholarly study and intelligent appreciation.

The first attempt at anything like an extended criticism of the Fairy Queen was in the two essays On Allegorical Poetry and Remarks on the Fairy Queen which prefaced John Hughes's edition of Spenser's works in 1715, the first eighteenth century edition.13 Steele, in the 540th Spectator, three years before, had desired an ‘Encomium of Spencer’, ‘that charming author’, like Addison's Milton papers, but nothing further than his own meagre hints was forthcoming. And Hughes's attitude, like that of the imitators, was wholly apologetic.

Hughes seems almost to have caught a glimpse of the promised land when he refused to examine the Fairy Queen by the classical rules for epic poetry, saying: ‘As it is plain the Author never design'd it by those Rules, I think it ought rather to be consider'd as a Poem of a particular kind, describing in a Series of Allegorical Adventures or Episodes the most noted Virtues and Vices: to compare it therefore with the Models of Antiquity, wou'd be like drawing a Parallel between the Roman and the Gothick Architecture.’14 At first sight one is inclined to think this very near to Warton's revolutionary dictum, but the bungling way in which he spoiled the effect of this striking statement by preparing in advance a set of pseudo-classical and misfit standards to apply as he exposed the unsuitability of the old, merely by the substitution of allegory for epic, shows that he was a true pseudo-classicist after all. He could not, nor would, throw off his allegiance to the ancients. If the Fairy Queen could not be considered as an epic, it could be judged as an allegory, the rules of which, though not described by the ancients, were easily determinable. And in attempting to set forth the rules for allegorical poetry, he tried to conform to the spirit of the classical critics as he understood it, and to illustrate his subject by examples from classical poets. Nevertheless he felt some reluctance in introducing a subject which was ‘something out of the way, and not expressly treated upon by those who have laid down Rules for the Art of Poetry.’15 Hughes's ideas of what should constitute successful allegory were therefore embodied in his Essay on Allegorical Poetry, by the uncertain light of which the critic hoped ‘not only to discover many Beauties in the Fairy Queen, but likewise to excuse some of its Irregularities.’16

Hughes did not, however, yield to the spell of ‘magic Spenser's wildly-warbled song.’ While he admitted that his fable gave ‘the greatest Scope to that Range of Fancy which was so remarkably his Talent’17 and that his plan, though not well chosen, was at least well executed and adapted to his talent, he apologized for and excused both fable and plan on the score of the Italian models which he followed, and the remnants of the ‘old Gothic Chivalry’ which yet survived. The only praise he could give the poem was wholly pseudo-classical,—for the moral and didactic bent which the poet had contrived to give the allegory,18 and for some fine passages where the author ‘rises above himself’ and imitates the ancients.19 In spite of his statement that the Fairy Queen was not to be examined by the strict rules of epic poetry, he could not free himself from that bondage, and the most of his essay is taken up with a discussion of the poem in the light of the rules. Moreover Hughes was but ill-equipped for his task; he failed even to realize that a great field of literary history must be thoroughly explored before the task of elucidating Spenser could be intelligently undertaken, and that genuine enthusiasm for the poet could alone arouse much interest in him. These are the reasons why nearly forty years elapsed before the edition was reprinted, and why it failed to give a tremendous impetus to the Spenserian revival. Yet, notwithstanding its defects, it is extremely important that Hughes should have undertaken at all the editing of so neglected a poet.20 It is a straw that points the direction of the wind.

The next attempt at Spenserian criticism was a small volume of Remarks on Spenser's Poems and on Milton's Paradise Regained, published anonymously in 1734, and soon recognized as the work of Dr. Jortin, a classical scholar of some repute. This is practically valueless as a piece of criticism. But Jortin was at least partly conscious of his failure and of a reason for it, though he was more anxious to have the exact text determined by a ‘collation of Editions, and by comparing the Author with himself’ than to furnish an interpretive criticism; and he acknowledged himself unwilling to bestow the necessary time and application for the work,21—a gratifying acknowledgement of the fact that no valuable work could be done in this field without special preparation for it.

And when Thomas Warton was able to bring this special preparation for the first time to the study of the Fairy Queen, he produced a revolution in criticism. Freed from the tyranny of the rules by the perception of their limitations, he substituted untried avenues of approach and juster standards of criticism, and revealed beauties which could never have been discovered with the old restrictions. That he should be without trace of pseudo-classicism is something we cannot expect; but that his general critical method and principles are ultimately irreconcilable with even the most generous interpretation of that term is a conclusion one cannot escape after a careful study of the Observations on the Fairy Queen.

Briefly, the causes of Warton's superiority over all previous critics of Spenser, the reasons why he became through this piece of critical writing the founder of a new kind of criticism, are four. First, he recognized the inadequacy of the classical rules, as interpreted by Boileau and other modern commentators, as standards for judging modern literature, and declared his independence of them and his intention of following new methods based upon the belief that the author's purpose is at least as important a subject for critical study as the critic's theories and that imagination is as important a factor in creative literature as reason. Second, he introduced the modern historical method of criticism by recognizing that no work of art could be independently judged, isolated from the conditions under which it was produced, without reference to the influences which determined its character, and without considering its relation to other literatures. In taking this broad view of his subject, Warton was, of course, recognizing the necessity for a comparative study of literature. In the third place, and as a consequence of this independence and this greater breadth of view, Warton understood more fully than his contemporaries the true relation between classical and modern literature, understood that the English writers of the boasted Augustan age, in renouncing their heritage from the middle ages, had deprived themselves of the qualities which alone could have redeemed their desiccated pseudo-classicism. And last, Warton made a place in criticism for the reader's spontaneous delight and enthusiasm.

Few critics of the eighteenth century recognized any difference between their own rules and practice and those of the ancients, or saw the need for modern standards for judging modern poems. Just here comes the important and irreparable break between Warton and his contemporaries. While Hughes and the rest attempted to justify Spenser by pointing out conformities to the rules22 where they existed or might be fancied, and condemned his practice when they failed to find any, Warton was at some pains to show that Hughes failed and that such critics must fail because their critical method was wrong.23 He pointed out that the Fairy Queen cannot be judged by rule, that the ‘plan and conduct’ of Spenser's poem ‘is highly exceptionable’, ‘is confused and irregular’, and has ‘no general unity’;24 it fails completely when examined by the rules. To Warton this clearly showed the existence of another standard of criticism—not the Aristotelian, but the poet's: Spenser had not tried to write like Homer, but like Ariosto; his standard was romantic, not classical; and he was to be judged by what he tried to do.

Warton's declaration of independence of pseudo-classical criticism was a conscious revolt; yet it was one to which he made some effort to win the assent of his contemporaries by conceding that Spenser's frequent extravagances25 did violate the rules approved by an age that took pride in its critical taste. His desire to engage their interest, however, neither succeeded in that purpose nor persuaded him that those rules were properly applied to poems written in ignorance of them. There is no uncertainty, no compromise with pseudo-classical criticism in the flat defiance, ‘it is absurd to think of judging either Ariosto or Spenser by precepts which they did not attend to.’26

Having thus condemned the accepted standards as inadequate for a just criticism of the Fairy Queen, Warton's next purpose was to find those by which it could be properly judged: not the rules of which the poet was ignorant, but the literature with which he was familiar. He recognized quite clearly a distinction between a classical and a romantic poet, and accounted for it by a difference of circumstances. Warton's even then extensive knowledge of the neglected periods of earlier English literature gave him a power that most of his contemporaries lacked and enabled him to see that Spenser's peculiarities were those of his age, that the ‘knights and damsels, the tournaments and enchantments, of Spenser’ were not oddities but the familiar and admired features of romance, a prevailing literary form of the age, and that ‘the fashion of the times’ determined Spenser's purpose of becoming a ‘romantic Poet.’27

Warton determined therefore not only to judge but to praise Spenser as a romantic28 poet. He found that as the characteristic appeal of pseudo-classical poetry was to the intellect, to the reason, romantic poetry addressed itself to the feelings, to the imagination. Its excellence, therefore, consisted not in design and proportion, but in interest and variety of detail. The poet's business was ‘to engage the fancy, and interest the attention by bold and striking images, in the formation, and the disposition of which, little labour or art was applied. The various and marvelous were the chief sources of delight’.29 Hence Spenser had ransacked ‘reality and romance’, ‘truth and fiction’ to adorn his ‘fairy structure’, and Warton revelled in the result, in its very formlessness and richness, which he thought preferable, in a romantic poem, to exactness. ‘Exactness in his poem,’ he said, ‘would have been like the cornice which a painter introduced in the grotto of Calypso. Spenser's beauties are like the flowers in Paradise.’30

When beauties thus transcend nature, delight goes beyond reason. Warton did not shrink from the logical result of giving rein to imagination; he was willing to recognize the romantic quest for beauties beyond the reach of art, to sacrifice reason and ‘nature methodiz'd’ in an exaltation of a higher quality which rewarded the reader with a higher kind of enjoyment. ‘If the Fairy Queen,’ he said, ‘be destitute of that arrangement and æconomy which epic severity requires, yet we scarcely regret the loss of these, while their place is so amply supplied by something which more powerfully attracts us: something which engages the affections, the feelings of the heart, rather than the cold approbation of the head. If there be any poem whose graces please, because they are situated beyond the reach of art, and where the force and faculties of creative imagination31 delight, because they are unassisted and unrestrained by those of deliberate judgment, it is this. In reading Spenser, if the critic is not satisfied, yet the reader is transported.’32

When Warton thus made a place for transport in a critical discourse, he had parted company with his contemporaries and opened the way for the whole romantic exaltation of feeling. He had turned from Dr. Johnson, who condemned ‘all power of fancy over reason’ as a ‘degree of insanity’,33 and faced toward Blake, who exalted the imagination and called reason the only evil.34 Every propriety of Queen Anne criticism had now been violated. Not satisfied with condemning all previous Spenserian criticism as all but nonsense, Warton dared to place the uncritical reader's delight above the critic's deliberate disapproval, and then to commend that enthusiasm and the beauties that aroused it. In repudiating the pseudo-classical rules, Warton enunciated two revolutionary dicta: there are other critical standards than those of Boileau and the ancients (save the mark!); there are other poetical beauties than those of Pope and ‘nature methodiz'd.’

Revolutionary as he was in his enjoyment of Spenser's fable, Warton had not at the time he wrote the Observations freed himself from the pseudo-classical theories of versification and he agreed with his predecessors in his discussion of this subject. Altough he did not feel the nineteenth century romanticist's enthusiasm for Spenser's versification, he was nevertheless sufficiently the poet to appreciate and to enjoy his success with it. ‘It is indeed surprising,’ he said, ‘that Spenser should execute a poem of uncommon length, with so much spirit and ease, laden as he was with so many shackles, and embarrassed with so complicated a bondage of riming. … His sense and sound are equally flowing and uninterrupted.’35 Similarly, with respect to language, we neither expect nor find enthusiasm. Warton thought Jonson ‘perhaps unreasonable,’36 and found the origin of his language in the language of his age, as he found the origin of his design in its romances. Long acquaintance enabled him to read the Fairy Queen with ease; he denied that Spenser's language was either so affected or so obsolete as it was generally supposed, and asserted that ‘For many stanzas together we may frequently read him with as much facility as we can the same number of lines in Shakespeare.’37 In his approval and appreciation of Spenser's moral purpose Warton was, of course, nearer to his pseudo-classical predecessors than to his romantic followers; however, without relinquishing that prime virtue of the old school, the solidity which comes from well-established principles, he attained to new virtues, greater catholicity of taste and flexibility of judgment.

In seeking in the literature of and before the sixteenth century and in the manners and customs of the ‘spacious times of great Elizabeth’ for the explanation of Spenser's poem—so far as explanation of genius is possible—Warton was, as has been said, laying the foundations of modern historical criticism. Some slight progress had been made in this direction before, but without important results. Warton was by no means original in recognizing Spenser's debt to the Italian romances which were so popular in his day, and to Ariosto in particular. And many critics agreed that he was ‘led by the prevailing notions of his age to write an irregular and romantic poem.’ They, however, regarded his age as one of barbarity and ignorance of the rules, and its literature as unworthy of study and destitute of intrinsic value. No critic before Warton had realized the importance of supplementing an absolute by an historical criticism, of reconstructing, so far as possible, a poet's environment and the conditions under which he worked, in order to judge his poetry. ‘In reading the works of a poet who lived in a remote age,’ he said, ‘it is necessary that we should look back upon the customs and manners which prevailed in that age. We should endeavour to place ourselves in the writer's situation and circumstances. Hence we shall become better enabled to discover how his turn of thinking, and manner of composing, were influenced by familiar appearances and established objects, which are utterly different from those with which we are at present surrounded.’38 And, realizing that the neglect of these details was fatal to good criticism, that the ‘commentator39 whose critical enquiries are employed on Spenser, Jonson, and the rest of our elder poets, will in vain give specimens of his classical erudition, unless, at the same time,...

(The entire section is 9918 words.)

Joan Pittock (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 15626 words.)

Pat Rogers (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 5345 words.)

Joseph M. P. Donatelli (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 7758 words.)

Edward J. Rielly (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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,...

(The entire section is 4511 words.)

Robert J. Griffin (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 6822 words.)

Gwin J. Kolb and Robert DeMaria, Jr. (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 3422 words.)

David Fairer (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 9527 words.)