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Ch. 6: The School of Warton

In the progress of our inquiries, hitherto, we have met with little that can be called romantic in the narrowest sense. Though the literary movement had already begun to take a retrospective turn, few distinctly mediaeval elements were yet in evidence. Neither the literature of the monk nor the literature of the knight had suffered resurrection. It was not until about 1760 that writers began to gravitate decidedly toward the Middle Ages. The first peculiarly mediaeval type that contrived to secure a foothold in eighteenth-century literature was the hermit, a figure which seems to have had a natural attraction, not only for romanticizing poets like Shenstone and Collins, but for the whole generation of verse writers from Parnell to Goldsmith, Percy and Beattie—each of whom composed a "Hermit"—and even for the authors of "Rasselas" and "Tom Jones," in whose fictions he becomes a stock character, as a fountain of wisdom and of moral precepts.[1]

A literary movement which reverts to the past for its inspiration is necessarily also a learned movement. Antiquarian scholarship must lead the way. The picture of an extinct society has to be pieced together from the fragments at hand, and this involves special research. So long as this special knowledge remains the exclusive possession of professional antiquaries like Gough, Hearne, Bentham, Perry, Grose,[2] it bears no fruit in creative literature. It produces only local histories, surveys of cathedrals and of sepulchral monuments, books about Druidic remains, Roman walls and coins, etc., etc. It was only when men of imagination and of elegant tastes were enlisted in such pursuits that the dry stick of antiquarianism put forth blossoms. The poets, of course, had to make studies of their own, to decipher manuscripts, learn Old English, visit ruins, collect ballads and ancient armor, familiarize themselves with terms of heraldry, architecture, chivalry, ecclesiology and feudal law, and in other such ways inform and stimulate their imaginations. It was many years before the joint labors of scholars and poets had reconstructed an image of medieval society, sharp enough in outline and brilliant enough in color to impress itself upon the general public. Scott, indeed, was the first to popularize romance; mainly, no doubt, because of the greater power and fervor of his imagination; but also, in part, because an ampler store of materials had been already accumulated when he began work. He had fed on Percy's "Reliques" in boyhood; through Coleridge, his verse derives from Chatterton; and the line of Gothic romances which starts with "The Castle of Otranto" is remotely responsible for "Ivanhoe" and "The Talisman." But Scott too was, like Percy and Walpole, a virtuoso and collector; and the vast apparatus of notes and introductory matter in his metrical tales, and in the Waverley novels, shows how necessary it was for the romantic poet to be his own antiquary.

As was to be expected, the zeal of the first romanticists was not always a zeal according to knowledge, and the picture of the Middle Age which they painted was more of a caricature than a portrait. A large share of medieval literature was inaccessible to the general reader. Much of it was still in manuscript. Much more of it was in old and rare printed copies, broadsides and black-letter folios, the treasure of great libraries and of jealously hoarded private collections. Much was in dialects little understood-forgotten forms of speech-Old French, Middle High German, Old Norse, medieval Latin, the ancient Erse and Cymric tongues, Anglo-Saxon. There was an almost total lack of apparatus for the study of this literature. Helps were needed in the shape of modern reprints of scarce texts, bibliographies, critical editions, translations, literary histories and manuals, glossaries of archaic words, dictionaries and grammars of obsolete languages. These were gradually supplied by working specialists in different fields of investigation. Every side of medieval life has received illustration in its turn. Works like Tyrwhitt's edition of Chaucer (1775-78); the collections of mediaeval romances by Ellis (1805), Ritson (1802), and Weber (1810); Nares' and Halliwell's "Archaic Glossary" (1822-46), Carter's "Specimens of Ancient Sculpture and Paintings" (1780-94), Scott's "Demonology and Witchcraft" (1830), Hallam's "Middle Ages" (1818), Meyrick's "Ancient Armour" (1824), Lady Guest's "Mabinogion" (1838), the publications of numberless individual scholars and of learned societies like the Camden, the Spenser, the Percy, the Chaucer, the Early English Text, the Roxburgh Club,—to mention only English examples, taken at random and separated from each other by wide intervals of time,—are instances of the labors by which mediaeval life has been made familiar to all who might choose to make acquaintance with it.

The history of romanticism, after the impulse had once been given, is little else than a record or the steps by which, one after another, new features of that vast and complicated scheme of things which we loosely call the Middle Ages were brought to light and made available as literary material. The picture was constantly having fresh details added to it, nor is there any reason to believe that it is finished yet. Some of the finest pieces of mediaeval work have only within the last few years been brought to the attention of the general reader; e.g., the charming old French story in prose and verse, "Aucassin et Nicolete," and the fourteenth-century English poem, "The Perle." The future holds still other phases of romanticism in reserve; the Middle Age seems likely to be as inexhaustible in novel sources of inspiration as classical antiquity has already proved to be. The past belongs to the poet no less than the present, and a great part of the literature of every generation will always be retrospective. The tastes and preferences of the individual artist will continue to find a wide field for selection in the rich quarry of Christian and feudal Europe.

It is not a little odd that the book which first aroused, in modern Europe, an interest in Norse mythology should have been written by a Frenchman. This was the "Introduction à l'Histoire de Dannemarc," published in 1755 by Paul Henri Mallet, a native of Geneva and sometime professor of Belles Lettres in the Royal University at Copenhagen. The work included also a translation of the first part of the Younger Edda, with an abstract of the second part and of the Elder Edda, and versions of several Runic poems. It was translated into English, in 1770, by Thomas Percy, the editor of the "Reliques," under the title, "Northern Antiquities; or a Description of the Manners, Customs, Religion, and Laws of the ancient Danes." A German translation had appeared a few years earlier and had inspired the Schleswig-Holsteiner, Heinrich Wilhem von Gerstenberg, to compose his "Gedicht eines Skalden," which introduced the old Icelandic mythology into German poetry in 1766. Percy had published independently in 1763 "Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, translated from the Icelandic Language."

Gray did not wait for the English translation of Mallet's book. In a letter to Mason, dated in 1758, and inclosing some criticisims on the latter's "Caractacus" (then in MS.), he wrote, "I am pleased with the Gothic Elysium. Do you think I am ignorant about either that, or the hell before, or the twilight.[3] I have been there and have seen it all in Mallet's 'Introduction to the History of Denmark' (it is in French), and many other places." It is a far cry from Mallet's "System of Runic Mythology" to William Morris' "Sigurd the Volsung" (1877), but to Mallet belongs the credit of first exciting that interest in Scandinavian antiquity which has enriched the prose and poetry not only of England but of Europe in general. Gray refers to him in his notes on "The Descent of Odin," and his work continued to be popular authority on its subject for at least half a century. Scott cites it in his annotations on "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" (1805).

Gray's studies in Runic literature took shape in "The Fatal Sisters" and "The Descent of Odin," written in 1761, published in 1768. These were paraphrases of two poems which Gray found in the "De Causis Contemnendae Mortis" (Copenhagen, 1689) of Thomas Bartholin, a Danish physician of the seventeenth century. The first of them describes the Valkyrie weaving the fates of the Danish and Irish warriors in the battle of Clontarf, fought in the eleventh century between Sigurd, Earl of Orkney, and Brian, King of Dublin; the second narrates the descent of Odin to Niflheimer, to inquire of Hela concerning the doom of Balder.[4] Gray had designed these for the introductory chapter of his projected history of English poetry. He calls them imitations, which in fact they are, rather than literal renderings. In spite of a tinge of eighteenth-century diction, and of one or two Shaksperian and Miltonic phrases, the translator succeeded fairly well in reproducing the wild air of his originals. His biographer, Mr. Gosse, promises that "the student will not fail . . . in the Gothic picturesqueness of 'The Descent of Odin,' to detect notes and phrases of a more delicate originality than are to be found even in his more famous writings; and will dwell with peculiar pleasure on those passages in which Gray freed himself of the trammels of an artificial and conventional taste, and prophesied of the new romantic age that was coming."

Celtic antiquity shared with Gothic in this newly around interest. Here too, as in the phrase about "the stormy Hebrides," "Lycidas" seems to have furnished the spark that kindled the imaginations of the poets.

"Where were ye, nymphs, when the remorseless deep
Closed o'er the head of your loved Lycidas?
For neither were ye playing on the steep
Where your old bards, the famous Druids lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream."

Joseph Warton quotes this passage twice in his "Essay on Pope" (Vol I., pp. 7 and 356, 5th ed.), once to assert its superiority to a passage in Pope's "Pastorals": "The mention of places remarkably romantic, the supposed habitation of Druids, bards and wizards, is far more pleasing to the imagination, than the obvious introduction of Cam and Isis." Another time, to illustrate the following suggestion: "I have frequently wondered that our modern writers have made so little use of the druidical times and the traditions of the old bards. . . Milton, we see, was sensible of the force of such imagery, as we may gather from this short but exquisite passage." As further illustrations of the poetic capabilities of similar themes, Warton gives a stanza from Gray's "Bard" and some lines from Gilbert West's "Institution of the Order of the Garter" which describe the ghosts of the Druids hovering about their ruined altars at Stonehenge:

"—Mysterious rows
Of rude enormous obelisks, that rise
Orb within orb, stupendous monuments
Of artless architecture, such as now
Oft-times amaze the wandering traveler,
By the pale moon discerned on Sarum's plain."

He then inserts two stanzas, in the Latin of Hickes' "Thesaurus," of an old Runic ode preserved by Olaus Wormius (Ole Worm) and adds an observation upon the Scandinavian heroes and their contempt of death. Druids and bards now begin to abound. Collins' "Ode on the Death of Mr. Thomson," e.g., commences with the line

"In yonder grave a Druid lies."

In his "Ode to Liberty," he alludes to the tradition that Mona, the druidic stronghold, was long covered with an enchantment of mist—work of an angry mermaid:

"Mona, once hid from those who search the main,
Where thousand elfin shapes abide."

In Thomas Warton's "Pleasures of Melancholy," Contemplation is fabled to have been discovered, when a babe, by a Druid

"Far in a hollow glade of Mona's woods,"

and borne by him to his oaken bower, where she

"—loved to lie Oft deeply listening to the rapid roar Of wood-hung Menai, stream of druids old."

Mason's "Caractacus" (1759) was a dramatic poem on the Greek model, with a chorus of British bards, and a principal Druid for choragus. The scene is the sacred grove in Mona. Mason got up with much care the description of druidic rites, such as the preparation of the adder-stone and the cutting of the mistletoe with a gold sickle, from Latin authorities like Pliny, Tacitus, Lucan, Strabo, and Suetonius. Joseph Warton commends highly the chorus on "Death" in this piece, as well as the chorus of bards at the end of West's "Institution of the Garter." For the materials of his "Bard" Gray had to go no farther than historians and chroniclers such as Camden, Higden, and Matthew of Westminster, to all of whom he refers. Following a now discredited tradition, he represents the last survivor of the Welsh poetic guild, seated, harp in hand, upon a crag on the side of Snowdon, and denouncing judgment on Edward I, for the murder of his brothers in song.

But in 1764 Gray was incited, by the publication of Dr. Evans' "Specimens,"[5] to attempt a few translations from the Welsh. The most considerable of these was "The Triumphs of Owen," published among Gray's collected poems in 1768. This celebrates the victory over the confederate fleets of Ireland, Denmark, and Normandy, won about 1160 by a prince of North Wales, Owen Ap Griffin, "the dragon son on Mona." The other fragments are brief but spirited versions of bardic songs in praise of fallen heroes: "Caràdoc," "Conan," and "The Death of Hoel." They were printed posthumously, though doubtless composed in 1764.

The scholarship of the day was not always accurate in discriminating between ancient systems of religion, and Gray, in his letters to Mason in 1758, when "Caractacus" was still in the works, takes him to task for mixing the Gothic and Celtic mythologies. He instructs him that Woden and his Valhalla belong to "the doctrine of the Scalds, not of the Bards"; but admits that, "in that scarcity of Celtic ideas we labor under," it might be permissible to borrow from the Edda, "dropping, however, all mention of Woden and his Valkyrian virgins," and "without entering too minutely on particulars"; or "still better, to graft any wild picturesque fable, absolutely of one's own invention, upon the Druid stock." But Gray had not scrupled to mix mythologies in "The Bard," thereby incurring Dr. Johnson's censure. "The weaving of the winding sheet he borrowed, as he owns, from the northern bards; but their texture, however, was very properly the work of female powers, as the art of spinning the thread of life in another mythology. Theft is always dangerous: Gray has made weavers of the slaughtered bards, by a fiction outrageous and incongruous."[6] Indeed Mallet himself had a very confused notion of the relation of the Celtic to the Teutonic race. He speaks constantly of the old Scandinavians as Celts. Percy points out the difference, in the preface to his translation, and makes the necessary correction in the text, where the word Celtic occurs—usually by substituting "Gothic and Celtic" for the "Celtic" of the original. Mason made his contribution to Runic literature, "Song of Harold the Valiant," a rather insipid versification of a passage from the "Knytlinga Saga," which had been rendered by Bartholin into Latin, from him into French by Mallet, and from Mallet into English prose by Percy. Mason designed it for insertion in the introduction to Gray's abortive history of English poetry.

The true pioneers of the mediaeval revival were the Warton brothers. "The school of Warton" was a term employed, not without disparaging implications, by critics who had no liking for antique minstrelsy. Joseph and Thomas Warton were the sons of Thomas Warton, vicar of Basingstoke, who had been a fellow of Magdalen and Professor of Poetry at Oxford; which latter position was afterward filled by the younger of his two sons. It is interesting to note that a volume of verse by Thomas Warton, Sr., posthumously printed in 1748, includes a Spenserian imitation and translations of two passages from the "Song of Ragner Lodbrog," an eleventh-century Viking, after the Latin version quoted by Sir Wm. Temple in his essay "Of Heroic Virtue";[7] so that the romantic leanings of the Warton brothers seem to be an instance of heredity. Joseph was educated at Winchester,—where Collins was his schoolfellow—and both of the brothers at Oxford. Joseph afterward became headmaster of Winchester, and lived till 1800, surviving his younger brother ten years. Thomas was always identified with Oxford, where he resided for forty-seven years. He was appointed, in 1785, Camden Professor of History in the university, but gave no lectures. In the same year he was chosen to succeed Whitehead, as Poet Laureate. Both brothers were men of a genial, social temper. Joseph was a man of some elegance; he was fond of the company of young ladies, went into general society, and had a certain renown as a drawing-room wit and diner-out. He used to spend his Christmas vacations in London, where he was a member of Johnson's literary club. Thomas, on the contrary, who waxed fat and indolent in college cloisters, until Johnson compared him to a turkey cock, was careless in his personal habits and averse to polite society. He was the life of a common room at Oxford, romped with the schoolboys when he visited Dr. Warton at Winchester, and was said to have a hankering after pipes and ale and the broad mirth of the taproom. Both Wartons had an odd passion for military parades; and Thomas—who was a believer in ghosts—used secretly to attend hangings. They were also remarkably harmonious in their tastes and intellectual pursuits, eager students of old English poetry, Gothic architecture, and British antiquities. So far as enthusiasm, fine critical taste, and elegant scholarship can make men poets, the Wartons were poets. But their work was quite unoriginal. Many of their poems can be taken to pieces and assigned, almost line by line and phrase by phrase, to Milton, Thomson, Spenser, Shakspere, Gray. They had all of our romantic poet Longfellow's dangerous gifts of sympathy and receptivity, without a tenth part of his technical skill, or any of his real originality as an artist. Like Longfellow, they loved the rich and mellow atmosphere of the historic past:

"Tales that have the rime of age,
And chronicles of eld."

The closing lines of Thomas Warton's sonnet "Written in a Blank Leaf of Dugdale's Monasticon"[8]—a favorite with Charles Lamb—might have been written by Longfellow:

"Nor rough nor barren are the winding ways
Of hoar Antiquity, but strewn with flowers."

Joseph Warton's pretensions, as a poet, are much less than his younger brother's. Much of Thomas Warton's poetry, such as his facetiae in the "Oxford Sausage" and his "Triumph of Isis," had an academic flavor. These we may pass over, as foreign to our present inquiries. So, too, with most of his annual laureate odes, "On his Majesty's Birthday," etc. Yet even these official and rather perfunctory performances testify to his fondness for what Scott calls "the memorials of our forefathers' piety or splendor." Thus, in the birthday odes for 1787-88, and the New Year ode for 1787, he pays a tribute to the ancient minstrels and to early laureates like Chaucer and Spenser, and celebrates "the Druid harp" sounding "through the gloom profound of forests hoar"; the fanes and castles built by the Normans; and the

"—bright hall where Odin's Gothic throne
With the broad blaze of brandished falchions shone."

But the most purely romantic of Thomas Warton's poems are "The Crusade" and "The Grave of King Arthur." The former is the song which

"The lion heart Plantagenet
Sang, looking through his prison-bars,"

when the minstrel Blondel came wandering in search of his captive king. The latter describes how Henry II., on his way to Ireland, was feasted at Cilgarran Castle, where the Welsh bards sang to him of the death of Arthur and his burial in Glastonbury Abbey. The following passage anticipates Scott:

"Illumining the vaulted roof,
A thousand torches flamed aloof;
From many cups, with golden gleam,
Sparkled the red metheglin's stream:
To grace the gorgeous festival,
Along the lofty-windowed hall
The storied tapestry was hung;
With minstrelsy the rafters rung
Of harps that with reflected light
From the proud gallery glittered bright:
While gifted bards, a rival throng,
From distant Mona, nurse of song,
From Teivi fringed with umbrage brown,
From Elvy's vale and Cader's crown,
From many a shaggy precipice
That shades Ierne's hoarse abyss,
And many a sunless solitude
Of Radnor's inmost mountains rude,
To crown the banquet's solemn close
Themes of British glory chose."

Here is much of Scott's skill in the poetic manipulation of place-names, e.g.,

"Day set on Norham's castled steep,
And Tweed's fair river, broad and deep,
And Cheviot's mountains lone"—

names which leave a far-resounding romantic rumble behind them. Another passage in Warton's poem brings us a long way on toward Tennyson's "Wild Tintagel by the Cornish sea" and his "island valley of Avilion."

"O'er Cornwall's cliffs the tempest roared:
High the screaming sea-mew soared:
In Tintaggel's topmost tower
Darkness fell the sleety shower:
Round the rough castle shrilly sung
The whirling blast, and wildly flung
On each tall rampart's thundering side
The surges of the tumbling tide,
When Arthur ranged his red-cross ranks
On conscious Camlan's crimsoned banks:
By Mordred's faithless guile decreed
Beneath a Saxon spear to bleed.
Yet in vain a Paynim foe
Armed with fate the mightly blow;
For when he fell, an elfin queen,
All in secret and unseen,
O'er the fainting hero threw
Her mantle of ambrosial blue,
And bade her spirits bear him far,
In Merlin's agate-axled car,
To her green isle's enameled steep
Far in the navel of the deep."

Other poems of Thomas Warton touching upon his favorite studies are the "Ode Sent to Mr. Upton, on his Edition of the Faery Queene," the "Monody Written near Stratford-upon-Avon," the sonnets, "Written at Stonehenge," "To Mr. Gray," and "On King Arthur's Round Table," and the humorous epistle which he attributes to Thomas Hearne, the antiquary, denouncing the bishops for their recent order that fast-prayers should be printed in modern type instead of black letter, and pronouncing a curse upon the author of "The Companion to the Oxford Guide Book" for his disrespectful remarks about antiquaries.

"May'st thou pore in vain
For dubious doorways! May revengeful moths
Thy ledgers eat! May chronologic spouts
Retain no cipher legible! May crypts
Lurk undiscovered! Nor may'st thou spell the names
Of saints in storied windows, nor the dates
Of bells discover, nor the genuine site
Of abbots' pantries!"

Warton was a classical scholar and, like most of the forerunners of the romantic school, was a trifle shame-faced over his Gothic heresies. Sir Joshua Reynolds had supplied a painted window of classical design for New College, Oxford; and Warton, in some complimentary verses, professes that those "portraitures of Attic art" have won him back to the true taste;[9] and prophesies that henceforth angels, apostles, saints, miracles, martyrdoms, and tales of legendary lore shall—

"No more the sacred window's round disgrace,
But yield to Grecian groups the shining space. . .
Thy powerful hand has broke the Gothic chain,
And brought my bosom back to truth again. . .
For long, enamoured of a barbarous age,
A faithless truant to the classic page—
Long have I loved to catch the simple chime
Of minstrel harps, and spell the fabling rime;
To view the festive rites, the knightly play,
That decked heroic Albion's elder day;
To mark the mouldering halls of barons bold,
And the rough castle, cast in giant mould;
With Gothic manners, Gothic arts explore,
And muse on the magnificence of yore.
But chief, enraptured have I loved to roam,
A lingering votary, the vaulted dome,
Where the tall shafts, that mount in massy pride,
Their mingling branches shoot from side to side;
Where elfin sculptors, with fantastic clew,
O'er the long roof their wild embroidery drew;
Where Superstition, with capricious hand,
In many a maze, the wreathëd window planned,
With hues romantic tinged the gorgeous pane,
To fill with holy light the wondrous fane."[10]

The application of the word "romantic," in this passage, to the mediaeval art of glass-staining is significant. The revival of the art in our own day is due to the influence of the latest English school of romantic poetry and painting, and especially to William Morris. Warton's biographers track his passion for antiquity to the impression left upon his mind by a visit to Windsor Castle, when he was a boy. He used to spend his summers in wandering through abbeys and cathedrals. He kept notes of his observations and is known to have begun a work on Gothic architecture, no trace of which, however, was found among his manuscripts. The Bodleian Library was one of his haunts, and he was frequently seen "surveying with quiet and rapt earnestness the ancient gateway of Magdalen College." He delighted in illuminated manuscripts and black-letter folios. In his "Observations on the Faëry Queene"[11] he introduces a digression of twenty pages on Gothic architecture, and speaks lovingly of a "very curious and beautiful folio manuscript of the history of Arthur and his knights in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, written on vellum, with illuminated initials and head-pieces, in which we see the fashion of ancient armour, building, manner of tilting and other particulars."

Another very characteristic poem of Warton's is the "Ode Written at Vale-Royal Abbey in Cheshire," a monastery of Cistercian monks, founded by Edward I. This piece is saturated with romantic feeling and written in the stanza and manner of Gray's "Elegy," as will appear from a pair of stanzas, taken at random:

"By the slow clock, in stately-measured chime,
That from the messy tower tremendous tolled,
No more the plowman counts the tedious time,
Nor distant shepherd pens the twilight fold.

"High o'er the trackless heath at midnight seen,
No more the windows, ranged in array
(Where the tall shaft and fretted nook between
Thick ivy twines), the tapered rites betray."

It is a note of Warton's period that, though Fancy and the Muse survey the ruins of the abbey with pensive regret, "severer Reason"—the real eighteenth-century divinity—"scans the scene with philosophic ken," and—being a Protestant—reflects that, after all, the monastic houses were "Superstition's shrine" and their demolition was a good thing for Science and Religion.

The greatest service, however, that Thomas Warton rendered to the studies that he loved was his "History of English Poetry from the Twelfth to the Close of the Sixteenth Century." This was in three volumes, published respectively in 1774, 1777, and 1781. The fragment of a fourth volume was issued in 1790. A revised edition in four volumes was published in 1824, under the editorship of Richard Price, corrected, augmented, and annotated by Ritson, Douce, Park, Ashby, and the editor himself. In 1871 appeared a new revision (also in four volumes) edited by W. Carew Hazlitt, with many additions, by the editor and by well-known English scholars like Madden, Skeat, Furnivall, Morris, and Thomas and Aldis Wright. It should never be forgotten, in estimating the value of Warton's work, that he was a forerunner in this field. Much of his learning is out of date, and the modern editors of his history—Price and Hazlitt—seem to the discouraged reader to be chiefly engaged, in their footnotes and bracketed interpellations, in taking back statements that Warton had made in the text. The leading position, e.g., of his preliminary dissertation, "Of the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe"—deriving it from the Spanish Arabs—has long since been discredited. But Warton's learning was wide, if not exact; and it was not dry learning, but quickened by the spirit of a genuine man of letters. Therefore, in spite of its obsoleteness in matters of fact, his history remains readable, as a body of descriptive criticism, or a continuous literary essay. The best way to read it is to read it as it was written—in the original edition—disregarding the apparatus of notes, which modern scholars have accumulated about it, but remembering that it is no longer an authority and probably needs correcting on every page. Read thus, it is a thoroughly delightful book, "a classic in its way," as Lowell has said. Southey, too, affirmed that its publication formed an epoch in literary history; and that, with Percy's "Reliques," it had promoted, beyond any other work, the "growth of a better taste than had prevailed for the hundred years preceding."

Gray had schemed a history of English poetry, but relinquished the design
to Warton, to whom he communicated an outline of his own plan. The
"Observations on English Metre" and the essay on the poet Lydgate, among
Gray's prose remains, are apparently portions of this projected work.

Lowell, furthermore, pronounces Joseph Warton's "Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope" (1756) "the earliest public official declaration of war against the reigning mode." The new school had its critics, as well as its poets, and the Wartons were more effective in the former capacity. The war thus opened was by no means as internecine as that waged by the French classicists and romanticists of 1830. It has never been possible to get up a very serious conflict in England, upon merely aesthetic grounds. Yet the same opposition existed. Warton's biographer tells us that the strictures made upon his essay were "powerful enough to damp the ardor of the essayist, who left his work in an imperfect state for the long space of twenty-six years," i.e., till 1782, when he published the second volume.

Both Wartons were personal friends of Dr. Johnson; they were members of the Literary Club and contributors to the Idler and the Adventurer. Thomas interested himself to get Johnson the Master's degree from Oxford, where the doctor made him a visit. Some correspondence between them is given in Boswell. Johnson maintained in public a respectful attitude toward the critical and historical work of the Wartons; but he had no sympathy with their antiquarian enthusiasm or their liking for old English poetry. In private he ridiculed Thomas' verses, and summed them up in the manner ensuing:

"Whereso'er I turn my view,
All is strange yet nothing new;
Endless labor all along,
Endless labor to be wrong;
Phrase that time has flung away,
Uncouth words in disarray,
Tricked in antique ruff and bonnet,
Ode and elegy and sonnet."

And although he added, "Remember that I love the fellow dearly, for all I laugh at him," this saving clause failed to soothe the poet's indignant breast, when he heard that the doctor had ridiculed his lines. An estrangement resulted which Johnson is said to have spoken of even with tears, saying "that Tom Warton was the only man of genius he ever knew who wanted a heart."

Goldsmith, too, belonged to the conservative party, though Mr. Perry[12] detects romantic touches in "The Deserted Village," such as the line,

"Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe,"


"On Torno's cliffs or Pambamarca's side."

In his "Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning" (1759) Goldsmith pronounces the age one of literary decay; he deplores the vogue of blank verse—which he calls an "erroneous innovation"—and the "disgusting solemnity of manner" that it has brought into fashion. He complains of the revival of old plays upon the stage. "Old pieces are revived, and scarcely any new ones admitted. . . The public are again obliged to ruminate over those ashes of absurdity which were disgusting to our ancestors even in an age of ignorance. . . What must be done? Only sit down contented, cry up all that comes before us and advance even the absurdities of Shakspere. Let the reader suspend his censure; I admire the beauties of this great father of our stage as much as they deserve, but could wish, for the honor of our country, and for his own too, that many of his scenes were forgotten. A man blind of one eye should always be painted in profile. Let the spectator who assists at any of these new revived pieces only ask himself whether he would approve such a performance, if written by a modern poet. I fear he will find that much of his applause proceeds merely from the sound of a name and an empty veneration for antiquity. In fact, the revival of those pieces of forced humor, far-fetched conceit and unnatural hyperbole which have been ascribed to Shakspere, is rather gibbeting than raising a statue to his memory."

The words that I have italicized make it evident that what Goldsmith was really finding fault with was the restoration of the original text of Shakspere's plays, in place of the garbled versions that had hitherto been acted. This restoration was largely due to Garrick, but Goldsmith's language implies that the reform was demanded by public opinion and by the increasing "veneration for antiquity." The next passage shows that the new school had its claque, which rallied to the support of the old British drama as the French romanticists did, nearly a century later, to the support of Victor Hugo's melodrames.[13]

"What strange vamped comedies, farcical tragedies, or what shall I call them—speaking pantomimes have we not of late seen?. . . The piece pleases our critics because it talks Old English; and it pleases the galleries because it has ribaldry. . . A prologue generally precedes the piece, to inform us that it was composed by Shakspere or old Ben, or somebody else who took them for his model. A face of iron could not have the assurance to avow dislike; the theater has its partisans who understand the force of combinations trained up to vociferation, clapping of hands and clattering of sticks; and though a man might have strength sufficient to overcome a lion in single combat, he may run the risk of being devoured by an army of ants."

Goldsmith returned to the charge in "The Vicar of Wakefield" (1766), where Dr. Primrose, inquiring of the two London dames, "who were the present theatrical writers in vogue, who were the Drydens and Otways of the day," is surprised to learn that Dryden and Rowe are quite out of fashion, that taste has gone back a whole century, and that "Fletcher, Ben Jonson and all the plays of Shakspere are the only things that go down." "How," cries the good vicar, "is it possible the present age can be pleased with that antiquated dialect, that obsolete humor, those overcharged characters which abound in the works you mention?" Goldsmith's disgust with this affectation finds further vent in his "Life of Parnell" (1770). "He [Parnell] appears to me to be the last of that great school that had modeled itself upon the ancients, and taught English poetry to resemble what the generality of mankind have allowed to excel. . . His productions bear no resemblance to those tawdry things which it has, for some time, been the fashion to admire. . . His poetical language is not less correct than his subjects are pleasing. He found it at that period in which it was brought to its highest pitch of refinement; and ever since his time, it has been gradually debasing. It is, indeed, amazing, after what has been done by Dryden, Addison, and Pope, to improve and harmonize our native tongue, that their successors should have taken so much pains to involve it into pristine barbarity. These misguided innovators have not been content with restoring antiquated words and phrases, but have indulged themselves in the most licentious transpositions and the harshest constructions; vainly imagining that, the more their writings are unlike prose, the more they resemble poetry. They have adopted a language of their own, and call upon mankind for admiration. All those who do not understand them are silent; and those who make out their meaning are willing to praise, to show they understand." This last sentence is a hit at the alleged obscurity of Gray's and Mason's odes.

To illustrate the growth of a retrospective habit in literature Mr. Perry[14] quotes at length from an essay "On the Prevailing Taste for the Old English Poets," by Vicesimus Knox, sometimes master of Tunbridge school, editor of "Elegant Extracts" and honorary doctor of the University of Pennsylvania. Knox's essays were written while he was an Oxford undergraduate, and published collectively in 1777. By this time the romantic movement was in full swing. "The Castle of Otranto" and Percy's "Reliques" had been out more than ten years; many of the Rowley poems were in print; and in this very year, Tyrwhitt issued a complete edition of them, and Warton published the second volume of his "History of English Poetry." Chatterton and Percy are both mentioned by Knox.

"The antiquarian spirit," he writes, "which was once confined to inquiries concerning the manners, the buildings, the records, and the coins of the ages that preceded us, has now extended itself to those poetical compositions which were popular among our forefathers, but which have gradually sunk into oblivion through the decay of language and the prevalence of a correct and polished taste. Books printed in the black letter are sought for with the same avidity with which the English antiquary peruses a monumental inscription, or treasures up a Saxon piece of money. The popular ballad, composed by some illiterate minstrel, and which has been handed down by tradition for several centuries, is rescued from the hands of the vulgar, to obtain a place in the collection of the man of taste. Verses which, a few years past, were thought worthy the attention of children only, or of the lowest and rudest orders, are now admired for that artless simplicity which once obtained the name of coarseness and vulgarity." Early English poetry, continues the essayist, "has had its day, and the antiquary must not despise us if we cannot peruse it with patience. He who delights in all such reading as is never read, may derive some pleasure from the singularity of his taste, but he ought still to respect the judgment of mankind, which has consigned to oblivion the works which he admires. While he pores unmolested on Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, and Occleve, let him not censure our obstinacy in adhering to Homer, Virgil, Milton, and Pope. . . Notwithstanding the incontrovertible merit of many of our ancient relics of poetry, I believe it may be doubted whether any one of them would be tolerated as the production of a modern poet. As a good imitation of the ancient manner, it would find its admirers; but, considered independently, as an original, it would be thought a careless, vulgar, inartificial composition. There are few who do not read Dr. Percy's own pieces, and those of other late writers, with more pleasure than the oldest ballad in the collection of that ingenious writer." Mr. Percy quotes another paper of Knox in which he divides the admirers of English poetry into two parties: "On one side are the lovers and imitators of Spenser and Milton; and on the other, those of Dryden, Boileau, and Pope"; in modern phrase, the romanticists and the classicists.

Joseph Warton's "Essay on Pope" was an attempt to fix its subject's rank among English poets. Following the discursive method of Thomas Warton's "Observations on the Faerie Queen," it was likewise an elaborate commentary on all of Pope's poems seriatim. Every point was illustrated with abundant learning, and there were digressions amounting to independent essays on collateral topics: one, e.g., on Chaucer, one on early French Metrical romances; another on Gothic architecture: another on the new school of landscape gardening, in which Walpole's essay and Mason's poem are quoted with approval, and mention is made of the Leasowes. The book was dedicated to Young; and when the second volume was published in 1782, the first was reissued in a revised form and introduced by a letter to the author from Tyrwhitt, who writes that, under the shelter of Warton's authority, "one may perhaps venture to avow an opinion that poetry is not confined to rhyming couplets, and that its greatest powers are not displayed in prologues and epilogues."

The modern reader will be apt to think Warton's estimate of Pope quite high enough. He places him, to be sure, in the second rank of poets, below Spenser, Shakspere, and Milton, yet next to Milton and above Dryden; and he calls the reign of Queen Anne the great age of English poetry. Yet if it be recollected that the essay was published only twelve years after Pope's death, and at a time when he was still commonly held to be, if not the greatest poet, at least the greatest artist in verse, that England had ever produced, it will be seen that Warton's opinions might well be thought revolutionary, and his challenge to the critics a bold one. These opinions can be best exhibited by quoting a few passages from his book, not consecutive, but taken here and there as best suits the purpose.

"The sublime and the pathetic are the two chief nerves of all genuine poesy. What is there transcendently sublime or pathetic in Pope?. . . He early left the more poetical provinces of his art, to become a moral, didactic, and satiric poet. . . And because I am, perhaps, unwilling to speak out in plain English, I will adopt the following passage of Voltaire, which, in my opinion, as exactly characteristizes Pope as it does his model, Boileau, for whom it was originally designed. 'Incapable peut-être du sublime qui élève l'áme, et du sentiment qui l'attendrit, mais fait pour éclairer ceux à qui la nature accorda l'un et l'autre; laborieux, sévère, précis, pur, harmonieux, il devint enfin le poëte de la Raison.'. . . A clear head and acute understanding are not sufficient alone to make a poet; the most solid observations on human life, expressed with the utmost elegance and brevity, are morality and not poetry. . . It is a creative and glowing imagination, acer spiritus ac vis, and that alone, that can stamp a writer with this exalted and very uncommon character."

Warton believes that Pope's projected epic on Brutus, the legendary found of Britain, "would have more resembled the 'Henriade' than the 'Iliad,' or even the 'Gierusalemme Liberata'; that it would have appeared (if this scheme had been executed) how much, and for what reasons, the man that is skillful in painting modern life, and the most secret foibles and follies of his contemporaries, is, THEREFORE, disqualified for representing the ages of heroism, and that simple life which alone epic poetry can gracefully describe. . . Wit and satire are transitory and perishable, but nature and passion are eternal." The largest portion of Pope's work, says the author's closing summary, "is of the didactic, moral, and satiric kind; and consequently not of the most poetic species of poetry; when it is manifest that good sense and judgment were his characteristical excellencies, rather than fancy and invention. . . He stuck to describing modern manners; but those manners, because they are familiar, uniform, artificial, and polished, are in their very nature, unfit for any lofty effort of the Muse. He gradually became one of the most correct, even, and exact poets that ever wrote. . . Whatever poetical enthusiasm he actually possessed, he withheld and stifled. The perusal of him affects not our minds with such strong emotions as we feel from Homer and Milton; so that no man of a true poetical spirit is master of himself while he reads them. . . He who would think the 'Faerie Queene,' 'Palamon and Arcite,' the 'Tempest' or 'Comus,' childish and romantic might relish Pope. Surely it is no narrow and niggardly encomium to say, he is the great poet of Reason, the first of ethical authors in verse."

To illustrate Pope's inferiority in the poetry of nature and passion, Warton quotes freely by way of contrast, not only from Spenser and Milton, but from such contemporaries of his own as Thomson, Akenside, Gray, Collins, Dyer, Mason, West, Shenstone, and Bedingfield. He complains that Pope's "Pastorals" contains no new image of nature, and his "Windsor Forest" no local color; while "the scenes of Thomson are frequently as wild and romantic as those of Salvator Rosa, varied with precipices and torrents and 'castled cliffs' and deep valleys, with piny mountains and the gloomiest caverns." "When Gray published his exquisite ode on Eton College . . . little notice was taken of it; but I suppose no critic can be found that will not place it far above Pope's 'Pastorals.'"

A few additional passages will serve to show that this critic's literary principles, in general, were consciously and polemically romantic. Thus he pleads for the mot précis—that shibboleth of the nineteenth-century romanticists—for "natural, little circumstances" against "those who are fond of generalities"; for the "lively painting of Spenser and Shakspere," as contrasted with the lack of picturesqueness and imagery in Voltaire's "Henriade." He praises "the fashion that has lately obtained, in all the nations of Europe, of republishing and illustrating their old poets."[15] Again, commenting upon Pope's well-known triplet,

"Waller was smooth, but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full-resounding line,
The long majestic march and energy divine!"

he exclaims: "What! Did Milton contribute nothing to the harmony and extent of our language?. . . Surely his verses vary and resound as much, and display as much majesty and energy, as any that can be found in Dryden. And we will venture to say that he that studies Milton attentively, will gain a truer taste for genuine poetry than he that forms himself on French writers and their followers." Elsewhere he expresses a preference for blank verse over rhyme, in long poems on subjects of a dignified kind.[16]

"It is perpetually the nauseous cant of the French critics, and of their advocates and pupils, that the English writers are generally incorrect. If correctness implies an absence of petty faults, this perhaps may be granted; if it means that, because their tragedians have avoided the irregularities of Shakspere, and have observed a juster economy in their fables, therefore the 'Athalia,' for instance, is preferable to 'Lear,' the notion is groundless and absurd. Though the 'Henriade' should be allowed to be free from any very gross absurdities, yet who will dare to rank it with the 'Paradise Lost'?. . . In our own country the rules of the drama were never more completely understood than at present; yet what uninteresting, though faultless, tragedies have we lately seen!. . . Whether or no the natural powers be not confined and debilitated by that timidity and caution which is occasioned by a rigid regard to the dictates of art; or whether that philosophical, that geometrical and systematical spirit so much in vogue, which has spread itself from the sciences even into polite literature, by consulting only reason, has not diminished and destroyed sentiment, and made our poets write from and to the head rather than the heart; or whether, lastly, when just models, from which the rules have necessarily been drawn, have once appeared, succeeding writers, by vainly and ambitiously striving to surpass those . . . do not become stiff and forced." One of these uninteresting, though faultless tragedies was "Cato," which Warton pronounces a "sententious and declamatory drama" filled with "pompous Roman sentiments," but wanting action and pathos. He censures the tameness of Addison's "Letter from Italy."[17] "With what flatness and unfeelingness has he spoken of statuary and painting! Raphael never received a more phlegmatic eulogy." He refers on the other hand to Gray's account of his journey to the Grande Chartreuse,[18] as worthy of comparison with one of the finest passages in the "Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard."

This mention of Addison recalls a very instructive letter of Gray on the subject of poetic style.[19] The romanticists loved a rich diction, and the passage might be taken as an anticipatory defense of himself against Wordsworth's strictures in the preface to the "Lyrical Ballads." "The language of the age," wrote Gray, "is never the language of poetry, except among the French, whose verse . . . differs in nothing from prose. Our poetry has a language peculiar to itself; to which almost everyone that has written has added something, by enriching it with foreign idioms and derivatives; nay, sometimes words of their own composition or invention. Shakspere and Milton have been great creators in this way . . . our language has an undoubted right to words of an hundred years old, provided antiquity have not rendered them unintelligible. In truth Shakspere's language is one of his principal beauties; and he has no less advantage over your Addisons and Rowes in this, than in those other great excellencies you mention. Every word in him is a picture." He then quotes a passage from "Richard III.," and continues, "Pray put me the following lines into the tongue of our modern dramatics. To me they appear untranslatable, and if this be the case, our language is greatly degenerated."

Warton further protests against the view which ascribed the introduction of true taste in literature to the French. "Shakspere and Milton imitated the Italians and not the French." He recommends also the reintroduction of the preternatural into poetry. There are some, he says, who think that poetry has suffered by becoming too rational, deserting fairyland, and laying aside "descriptions of magic and enchantment," and he quotes, à propos of this the famous stanza about the Hebrides in "The Castle of Indolence."[20] The false refinement of the French has made them incapable of enjoying "the terrible graces of our irregular Shakspere, especially in his scenes of magic and incantations. These Gothic charms are in truth more striking to the imagination than the classical. The magicians of Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser have more powerful spells than those of Apollonius, Seneca, and Lucan. The enchanted forest of Ismeni is more awfully and tremendously poetical than even the grove which Caesar orders to be cut down in Lucan (i. iii. 400), which was so full of terrors that, at noonday or midnight, the priest himself dared not approach it—

"'Dreading the demon of the grove to meet.'

"Who that sees the sable plumes waving on the prodigious helmet in the
Castle of Otranto, and the gigantic arm on the top of the great
staircase, is not more affected than with the paintings of Ovid and
Apuleius? What a group of dreadful images do we meet with in the Edda!
The Runic poetry abounds in them. Such is Gray's thrilling Ode on the
'Descent of Odin.'"

Warton predicts that Pope's fame as a poet will ultimately rest on his "Windsor Forest," his "Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard," and "The Rape of the Lock." To this prophecy time has already, in part, given the lie. Warton preferred "Windsor Forest" and "Eloisa" to the "Moral Essays" because they belonged to a higher kind of poetry. Posterity likes the "Moral Essays" better because they are better of their kind. They were the natural fruit of Pope's genius and of his time, while the others were artificial. We can go to Wordsworth for nature, to Byron for passion, and to a score of poets for both, but Pope remains unrivaled in his peculiar field. In other words, we value what is characteristic in the artist; the one thing which he does best, the precise thing which he can do and no one else can. But Warton's mistake is significant of the changing literary standards of his age; and his essay is one proof out of many that the English romantic movement was not entirely without self-conscious aims, but had its critical formulas and its programme, just as Queen Anne classicism had.


[1] Dr. Johnson had his laugh at this popular person:

"'Hermit hoar, in solemn cell
Wearing out life's evening gray,
Strike thy bosom, sage, and tell
What is bliss, and which the way?'

"Thus I spoke, and speaking sighed,
Scarce suppressed the starting tear:
When the hoary sage replied,
'Come, my lad, and drink some beer.'"

[2] "Grose's Antiquities of Scotland" was published in 1791, and Burns wrote "Tam o'Shanter" to accompany the picture of Kirk Alloway in this work. See his poem, "On the late Captain Grose's Peregrinations through Scotland."

[3] "Ragnarök," or "Götterdämmerung," the twilight of the Gods

[4] For a full discussion of Gray's sources and of his knowledge of Old Norse, the reader should consult the appendix by Professor G. L. Kittredge to Professor W. L. Phelps' "Selections from Gray" (1894, pp. xl-1.) Professor Kittredge concludes that Gray had but a slight knowledge of Norse, that he followed the Latin of Bartholin in his renderings; and that he probably also made use of such authorities as Torfaeus' "Orcades" (1697), Ole Worm's "Literatura Runica" (Copenhagen, 1636), Dr. George Hickes' monumental "Thesaurus" (Oxford, 1705), and Robert Sheringham's "De Anglorum Gentis Origine Disceptatio" (1716). Dryden's "Miscellany Poems" (1716) has a verse translation, "The Waking of Angantyr," from the English prose of Hickes, of a portion of the "Hervarar Saga." Professor Kittredge refers to Sir William Temple's essays "Of Poetry" and "Of Heroic Virtue." "Nichols' Anecdotes" (I. 116) mentions, as published in 1715, "The Rudiments of Grammar for the English Saxon Tongue; with an Apology for the study of Northern Antiquities." This was by Mrs. Elizabeth Elstob, and was addressed to Hickes, the compiler of the "Thesaurus."

[5] "Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards, translated into English," by Rev. Evan Evans, 1764. The specimens were ten in number. The translations were in English prose. The originals were printed from a copy which Davies, the author of the Welsh dictionary, had made of an ancient vellum MS. thought to be of the time of Edward II, Edward III, and Henry V. The book included a Latin "Dissertatio de Bardis," together with notes, appendices, etc. The preface makes mention of Macpherson's recently published Ossianic poems.

[6] "Life of Gray."

[7] See Phelps' "English Romantic Movement," pp. 73, 141-42.

[8] Wm Dugdale published his "Monasticon Anglicanum," a history of English religious houses, in three parts, in 1655-62-73. It was accompanied with illustrations of the costumes worn by the ancient religious orders, and with architectural views. The latter, says Eastlake, were rude and unsatisfactory, but interesting to modern students, as "preserving representations of buildings, or portions of buildings, no longer in existence; as, for instance, the campanile, or detached belfry of Salisbury, since removed, and the spire of Lincoln, destroyed in 1547."

[9] "Verses on Sir Joshua Reynolds' Painted Window." Cf. Poe, "To Helen":

"On desperate seas long wont to roam
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome."

[10] This apology should be compared with Scott's verse epistle to Wm Ereskine, prefixed to the third canto of "Marmion."

"For me, thus nurtured, dost thou ask
The classic poet's well-conned task?" etc.

Scott spoke of himself in Warton's exact language, as a "truant to the classic page."

[11] See ante, pp. 99-101_._

[12] "Eighteenth Century Literature," p. 397.

[13] Lowell mentions the publication of Dodsley's "Old Plays," (1744) as, like Percy's "Reliques," a symptom of the return of the past. Essay on "Gray."

[14] "Eighteenth Century Literature," pp. 401-03.

[15] It is curious, however, to find Warton describing Villon as "a pert and insipid ballad-monger, whose thoughts and diction were as low and illiberal as his life," Vol. II. p. 338 (Fifth Edition, 1806).

[16] Warton quotes the follow bathetic opening of a "Poem in Praise of Blank Verse" by Aaron Hill, "one of the very first persons who took notice of Thomson, on the publication of 'Winter'":

"Up from Rhyme's poppied vale! And ride the storm
That thunders in blank verse!"
—Vol. II. p. 186.

[17] See ante, p. 57.

[18] See ante, p. 181.

[19] To Richard West, April, 1742.

[20] See ante, p. 94.

Henry Augustin Beers

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