William Warburton Essay - Critical Essays

Warburton, William


William Warburton 1698-1779

English essayist, editor, translator, and critic.

Warburton was one of the most prominent writers of the mid-eighteenth century, famous as a man of impressive intellect and learning. He authored several historical and religious treatises, was well known for his literary criticism, and served as the editor of the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.

Biographical Information

Warburton was born on December 24, 1698, in Newark, Nottinghamshire, to George Warburton and Elizabeth Hobman Warburton. He initially studied law, following in the footsteps of both his father and his grandfather, but gave up the profession and began studying for a career in the Anglican Church. He was ordained in 1727 and by that time had produced his first publication, a translated collection of Latin poems and prose pieces, and soon completed his second book, a philosophical treatise. He was granted a living in Brant Broughton in Lincolnshire, where he resided for the next eighteen years, sharing the rectory with his mother and sisters. He was well versed in both classical and romance languages and developed a widespread reputation as an avid reader of history, theology, and philosophy. In 1736 Warburton anonymously published The Alliance between Church and State, a controversial treatise that made him well known throughout the literary community. He followed this work two years later with his most important work, The Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated. Warburton was becoming famous for both the depth and breadth of his knowledge, as these works demonstrated his familiarity with a wide range of subjects, including scientific theories, theology, and literary, social, and religious history. His work was highly controversial, however, and while some admired the scope of his learning and imagination, others were critical; Warburton became embroiled in bitter debates with his detractors, which seriously damaged his reputation.

During this same period, Warburton was entering another literary controversy, this time on behalf of Alexander Pope, whose Essay on Man was being attacked on religious and moral grounds. His defense of Pope's work resulted in a lifelong relationship with Pope as friend, editor, and literary executor. The influential political and literary figures Warburton met through Pope led to his marriage in 1746 to Gertrude Tucker, and his appointment as Bishop of Gloucester in 1760. In addition to editing Pope's complete works in 1751, Warburton also produced the 1747 edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, another highly controversial work. He maintained a lively correspondence, and, in some cases, collaborative relationships with other contemporary writers as well, among them Richard Hurd, Charles Jarvis, and Samuel Richardson. The loss of his only child at the age of nineteen in 1775 so devastated Warburton that he never recovered either physically or mentally and died four years later, naming Hurd as his literary executor.

Major Works

Warburton's first major publication, A Critical and Philosophical Inquiry into the Causes of Prodigies and Miracle, as Related by Historians (1727), attempted to bring together the often competing principles of religious revelation and scientific discovery. His next treatise, The Alliance between Church and State, defended the notion of a state-supported church at a time when the Church of England faced opposition from religious dissenters and hostility from Parliament. In 1738 Warburton published part one of The Divine Legation of Moses, his most famous work, in which he explored the connections between religious faith and personal morality. The work stirred debate in both England and France; Denis Diderot is said to have appropriated sections of it for inclusion in the Encyclopédie, without acknowledging Warburton as the source. In 1740 Warburton published A Vindication of Mr. Pope's Essay on Man, defending the religious orthodoxy of Pope's work, and in 1751, as Pope's literary executor, produced The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq. In Nine Volumes Complete, the text on which his reputation has rested to the present day.

Critical Reception

In his own time, Warburton's work was controversial, and although many considered him a genius, his arrogance and contempt for his detractors affected the critical reception of his later work. A. W. Evans has reported that “most critics of The Divine Legation of Moses have condemned its paradoxical character and its arrogant and abusive tone,” although Evans argues this charge more accurately applies to later editions of the text when Warburton was responding to what he considered unfair criticism of the original. In 1812 the anonymous reviewer of Hurd's edition of Warburton's works praised The Divine Legation as a highly original and imaginative text, but derided Warburton's work as a literary critic, claiming that he “was incomparably the worst critic in his mother tongue.” According to the reviewer, Warburton “exposed himself to the derision of far inferior judges by mistaking the sense of passages, in which he would have been corrected by shepherds and plowmen.” Stephen J. Curry has also studied Warburton's literary criticism, but concludes that he was far ahead of his time in emphasizing the imagination of the writer and in his use of historical material in explicating literary works. Thus Warburton, according to Curry, achieved “a new form of literary criticism.” Robert M. Ryley has also viewed Warburton as a pioneer and has gone so far as to suggest that his critical method anticipated New Criticism. “William Warburton,” claims Ryley, “was an execrable critic, but he was sometimes execrable in an almost twentieth-century way.”

Although Warburton's 1747 edition of the complete works of Shakespeare was generally reviled, and even parodied, in its time, Irene G. Dash has praised his commentary on The Winter's Tale, maintaining that he broke new critical ground by including character analysis in the notes and that he was especially attentive to the nuances of Shakespeare's language. Acknowledging some of the many shortcomings of Warburton's notes—such as “unnecessary tampering with the text”—Dash insists that Warburton was nonetheless “responsible for endowing the play with new life.” Melvyn New has reminded modern readers that Warburton's stature in his own time was far different from what it is currently: “Today we are likely to consider Warburton as the proverbial dwarf on the shoulders of Shakespeare and Pope … but in 1759, when a literary dwarf named Laurence Sterne contemplated the easiest way to fame and fortune, the perch that occurred to him was the shoulders of William Warburton.”

Principal Works

Miscellaneous Translations, in Prose and Verse, from Roman Poets, Orators, and Historians [translator] (poetry, prose fragments) 1724

A Critical and Philosophical Inquiry into the Causes of Prodigies and Miracle, as related by Historians (essay) 1727

The Alliance between Church and State, or, The necessity and Equity of an Established Religion and a Test-law demonstrated (essay) 1736

The Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated, on the Principles of a Religious Deist, from the Omission of the Doctrine of a Future State of Reward and Punishment in the Jewish Dispensation (treatise) 1738

A Vindication of the Author of the Divine Legation of Moses, &c., from the Aspersions of the Country Clergyman's Letter in The Weekly Miscellany of February 24, 1737 (essay) 1738

A Vindication of Mr. Pope's Essay on Man, from the Misrepresentations of Mr. De Crousaz, Professor of Philosophy and Mathematicks in the University of Lausaunne (letters) 1740

The Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated, on the Principles of a Religious Deist, from the Omission of the Doctrine of a Future State of Reward and Punishment in the Jewish Dispensation. The Second Volume, in Two Parts (treatise) 1741

A Critical and Philosophical Commentary on Mr. Pope's Essay on Man (essay) 1742

Remarks on Several Occasional Reflections (essay) 1744

The Works of Shakespeare in Eight Volumes. The Genuine Text (Collated with all the former Editions, and then corrected and emended) is here settled: Being restored from the Blunders of the first Editors, and the Interpolations of the two Last: With a Comment and Notes. Critical and Explanatory. By Mr. Pope and Mr. Warburton [editor, with Alexander Pope] (plays, poetry) 1747

Julian, or A Discourse Concerning the Earthquake and Fiery Eruption, which defeated that Emperor's Attempt to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem (essay) 1750

The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq. In Nine Volumes Complete. With his last Corrections, Additions, and Improvements; As they were delivered to the Editor a little before his Death: Together with the Commentaries and Notes of Mr. Warburton [editor] (poetry, essays, criticism) 1751

The Works of the Right Reverend William Warburton, Lord Bishop of Gloucester 7 vols. (essays, treatises, poetry) 1788


Quarterly Review (essay date June 1812)

SOURCE: Review of The Works of the Right Rev. William Warburton, D.D. Lord Bishop of Gloucester. A New Edition. To which is prefixed, a Discourse by way of General Preface; containing some Account of the Life, Writings, and Character of the Author. Quarterly Review 7 (June 1812): 382-407.

[In the following review of Richard Hurd's edition of Warburton's complete works, the anonymous reviewer discusses the highlights of Warburton's life and his principal publications.]

The learned and celebrated author of these volumes died in the year 1779. In 1788 a magnificent edition of his works, of which only 250 copies were printed, issued from the press of Mr. Nichols;...

(The entire section is 12087 words.)

A. W. Evans (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: Evans, A. W. “Conyers Middleton—‘The Divine Legation of Moses’—Webster's Attack.” In Warburton and the Warburtonians: A Study in Some Eighteenth-Century Controversies, pp. 48-70. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.

[In the following excerpt, Evans examines the friendship between Warburton and Middleton and the controversy surrounding Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses.]

By the publication of the Alliance, Warburton had made a successful entry into the world of letters, and was now in a position to bring himself before the notice of men of acknowledged learning and distinction. One of these was Conyers Middleton, then chief librarian at...

(The entire section is 7846 words.)

William Darby Templeman (essay date November 1953)

SOURCE: Templeman, William Darby. “Warburton and Brown Continue the Battle Over Ridicule.” Huntington Library Quarterly 17, no. 1 (November 1953): 17-36.

[In the following essay, Templeman recounts Warburton's part in the eighteenth-century critical controversy concerning the use of ridicule.]

William Warburton had been Bishop of Gloucester for nineteen years when he died in 1779 at the age of eighty-one. Usually thought of now primarily as an editor of Shakespeare (8 vols., 1747) and Pope (9 vols., 1751), and not very successful with either, he deserves higher recognition. He was Pope's friend and literary executor. No less a person than Edward Gibbon called him...

(The entire section is 8189 words.)

Clifton Cherpack (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Cherpack, Clifton. “Warburton and the Encyclopédie.” Comparative Literature 7 (1955): 226-39.

[In the following essay, Cherpack examines Warburton's contributions to Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie, most of which were unacknowledged by the work's editors.]

One of the most vexing aspects of the systematic investigation of the Encyclopédie is the question of ultimate sources. Allusions to the problem abound; and, although much has been done in this vein since le P. Berthier had the pleasure of pointing out the eclectic redaction embodied in the first volume, the sources of many important articles, and, consequently, their function in the...

(The entire section is 6391 words.)

Robert W. Rogers (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Rogers, Robert W. “Warburton and the Later Satiric Mode.” In The Major Satires of Alexander Pope, pp. 94-114. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1955.

[In the following excerpt, Rogers explores Warburton's relationship with Alexander Pope and considers his influence on Pope's later works.]

Judged in terms of creativity, Pope's last years were not a period of great accomplishment; they were largely devoted to the preparation and ordering of final versions of his poems. The important achievement of these years was a recasting of the Dunciad; but Pope also brought out his letters to Swift and prepared the Memoirs of Scriblerus for...

(The entire section is 11397 words.)

R. W. Greaves (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Greaves, R. W. “The Working of the Alliance: A Comment on Warburton.” In Essays in Modern English Church History: In Memory of Norman Sykes, edited by G. V. Bennett and J. D. Walsh, pp. 163-80. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1966.

[In the following excerpt, Greaves discusses Warburton's essay The Alliance of Church and State.]

That rumbustious ecclesiastical and literary controversialist, William Warburton, while yet an obscure country priest residing upon his cure, and but thirty-eight years of age, produced in 1736 one of the most remarkable and influential books of the century; closely, subtly and plausibly argued, and in language which was...

(The entire section is 6447 words.)

Stephen J. Curry (essay date October 1967)

SOURCE: Curry, Stephen J. “The Literary Criticism of William Warburton.” English Studies 48, no. 5 (October 1967): 398-408.

[In the following essay, Curry compares Warburton's status as an important eighteenth-century literary critic with his diminished reputation in the twentieth century.]

The literary criticism of William Warburton came when the great Augustan critics had died, before the later period of Johnson, Reynolds, Hurd, and the Wartons had yet begun. These decades of the 1730's through the 1750's are valuable for the great advances in philosophy by Hume and others—studies which were later to change critical thought permanently; yet the literary...

(The entire section is 5961 words.)

Irene G. Dash (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Dash, Irene G. “A Glimpse of the Sublime in Warburton's Edition of The Winter's Tale.Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 159-74.

[In the following essay, Dash compares Warburton's commentary on The Winter's Tale with those of his predecessors, claiming that Warburton applied the principles of Longinus's theories of the sublime to the play.]

Ironically, William Warburton, the acerbic bishop of whom John Nichols wrote, “In his youth he was a member of the debating society. It was a skill he never lost,” was the first editor of Shakespeare's Works to stress the beauties of the pastoral passages in The Winter's Tale.1...

(The entire section is 6086 words.)

Melvyn New (essay date spring 1981-82)

SOURCE: New, Melvyn. “Sterne, Warburton, and the Burden of Exuberant Wit.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 15, no. 3 (spring 1981-82): 245-74.

[In the following essay, New assesses the relationship between Warburton and Laurence Sterne, maintaining that for Sterne, Warburton was the quintessential prude against whom his satire was primarily directed.]

Victimized by our own taxonomies, we have grown accustomed to the notion that with Pope's death in 1744 and Swift's the year after, Samuel Johnson took center stage and the “Age of Johnson,” as we label it in our literary histories and course catalogues, was suddenly at hand. Thus, were we to guess whose career in the...

(The entire section is 13295 words.)

Stephen Taylor (essay date April 1992)

SOURCE: Taylor, Stephen. “William Warburton and the Alliance of Church and State.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 43, no. 2 (April 1992): 271-86.

[In the following essay, Taylor refutes the common critical belief that Warburton's pamphlet The Alliance between Church and State reflected the standard opinion held by most contemporary clerics.]

In January 1736 an anonymous pamphlet appeared under the title, The Alliance between Church and State, or the Necessity of an Established Religion, and a Test Law demonstrated.1 Its author was William Warburton, a well-to-do but still comparatively obscure country clergyman.2 Although this...

(The entire section is 8088 words.)

Bernice W. Kliman (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Kliman, Bernice W. “Samuel Johnson and Tonson's 1745 Shakespeare: Warburton, Anonymity, and the Shakespeare Wars.” In Reading Readings: Essays on Shakespeare Editing in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Joanna Gondris, pp. 299-317. Madison N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Kliman examines Warburton's role in the eighteenth-century competition among various literary figures to provide the definitive edition of Shakespeare's plays.]

Conjectures being the very stuff of eighteenth-century Shakespeare editing, perhaps one of my own will not be amiss. I would like to advance the idea that bookseller Jacob Tonson hired...

(The entire section is 9071 words.)

Further Reading


Brumfitt, J. H. “Voltaire and Warburton.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 18 (1961): 35-56.

Explores the relationship between Voltaire and Warburton, claiming that Warburton's influence on Voltaire was considerable.

Doherty, F. M. “Sterne and Warburton: Another Look.” British Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies 1 (1978): 20-30.

Claims that Laurence Sterne was an admirer of Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses.

Knapp, Elise F. “Community Property: The Case for Warburton's 1751 Edition of Pope.” SEL 26, no. 3 (summer 1986): 455-68.


(The entire section is 350 words.)