Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Thomas Warton (17281790)
[Thomas Warton was the son of Thomas Warton, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and was born in 1728. In 1743 he was admitted to Trinity College, Oxford, of which college he was afterwards Fellow. His earliest attempts were occasional poems, some on episodes of Oxford life, others on romantic themes, and others again of a somewhat ponderous humour; but these poetic efforts posterity has long since forgotten, although some of them are not without a certain force. He also contributed three numbers to Johnsons periodical, the Idler. But his real literary achievement was in the character of literary historian and commentator. His first effort in this kind was his Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser (1754), which opened a new vein of literary research; and his greatest the History of English Poetry, published between 1774 and 1781. He was appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1757, and held the Laureateship from 1785 till his death in 1790. A later edition was issued in 1824; another in 1840. A more modern edition was issued in 1871 by W. C. Hazlitt, and is an outstanding example of how a book ought not to be edited.]
WARTONS History of English Poetry was the first, and, in spite of obvious faults, remains, in some respects, the greatest, of English books of its class. It was distinctly typical of the age, the chief characteristics of which were a learning comprehensive rather than exact or specialised, a boldness of speculation that was often reckless, and a courage in striking out lines of its own, instead of repeating the accepted maxims of any school. Many of Wartons theories may be combated. His references were often inexact, and he was inaccurate in details. His plan was cumbrous, and its execution was amorphous. His digressions break the unity of the work, and it is hard for his reader to grasp the intention and main object of the book. His industry often failed and borrowed something of the slovenly good nature and uncouth roughness of character which made him the butt of his friends though it did not alienate their affection. But on the other hand his learning and his reading were enormous: his memory was laden with a vast amount of matter which he could apply aptly for illustration and for comparison. We feel ourselves at all times under the guidance of a strong, acute, and fearless mind, which refuses to be bound by any conventions, and which steers its way boldly through regions which were before unexplored. It is impossible to claim for him any very subtle or delicate critical faculty, but as we read we come every now and again to passages of wonderful vigour, which sound strange when we go back to Warton after a course of the dull school-book treatment which has been accorded to English literature in our more modern handbooks. The minute and carping scholarship of Ritson was able to detect inaccuracies; but it is with a certain sympathy that we learn that Warton good-humouredly dismissed his critic with the epithet of a black-lettered dog. Later commentators would have little difficulty in pointing out other flaws, but they have not succeeded in reproducing anything like the grasp and originality with which Warton wielded the vast subject which he essayed. There is something attractive even in the lawless vagrancy of his digressions, and it is in these that some of his most pointed and vigorous passages are to be found. A typical instance of his digressions is that upon Dante, to which he is led by an examination of Sackvilles Induction to the Mirrour for Magistrates. The digression shows a knowledge of Dante, and a power of citing apt and illustrative passages, which were rare in his age, but it also epitomises the critical taste and ideas of that age. He dwells with force and vigour, but with what to the taste of our own day would seem undue persistency, on the errors and extravagances of the Commedia. The instinctive impression which Dantes genius made, almost unconsciously, upon the genius of Milton, is absent; but Warton nevertheless sees clearly enough that even the extravagances border on sublimity. There is a certain raciness in the introduction of a paraphrase by Voltaire of an episode in the Inferno. He will not allow himself to be blinded to the faults by the sublimity. The fantastic and lurid colouring of mediævalism, the overcrowded canvas, the heavy pall of legendary superstition, impressed Wartons age more than the tragic loneliness of Dantes genius, or his majestic sadness at the burden of human fate. But in the passage with which the digression concludes (which is quoted below) we have an expression, in clear and vigorous language, of some points of contrast which Warton strikes out upon the anvil of his own mind, and receives from no conventional mould.
Whatever may be his inaccuracy in detail, and however assailable may be some of his theories, Warton deserves the credit of making the first attempt to analyse the differences between the romantic and the classical spirit, and of tracing chronologically their influence upon modern literature. If it was not his to solve all the questions that arise about his subject, he was at least the first to understand and set forth the problems that had to be dealt with. He undertook a task too great, perhaps, for any man, and left it incomplete. His scholarship too was extensive rather than exact, and his account of the growth of English poetry is often inaccurate as well as incomplete. But not the less indubitable is the debt we owe to him, and not the less does he stand superior in power and grasp to all those who have attempted to follow him in the same inquiry. His later editors have overwhelmed him with a heap of annotations, and have not even refrained from pruning and correcting his text. The proper method would be to preserve his work as he left it, to suffer it to mark an epoch in our literary history, and to supplement it, if any one feels equal to the task, by a work of equal vigour and originality, enhanced by such achievements of exact scholarship as another century may have added. The latest editor justifies his treatment of Warton by that which has been found expedient in the case of Blackstones Commentaries, heedless of the fact that a literary estimate is scarcely to be dealt with like a legal compendium, and that the phases of poetical genius present no very close analogy to the growth of English law. One hardly knows whether to admire most the insolence of such treatment of a classic, or the ineptitude of such a defence of it.
Wartons style has no very special characteristics, and he does not conform to any marked convention in the structure of his sentences. But it is at all times forcible, clear, and free from pedantry; and he unquestionably added something to the resources of English prose, in being the first to treat literary questions from the historical point of view. His digressions may cause his history to lag, but they unquestionably contain much lively reading.