William Warburton Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.”