Any pushy, worldly man or woman of letters would like to find and befriend a Thomas Warton. The great 18th-century editor of Shakespeare, Edmond Malone, certainly recognised his usefulness. Malone, single-minded in his pursuit of standards of textual scholarship that would trump preceding editors of Shakespeare, knew that his friendship with Warton was uniquely helpful. Warton would know things, or know where to find them out. Man for minutiae that he was, Malone respected erudition, when it did not threaten him. Warton was one of his resources on the march to vicarious immortality.
One day in 1785, Malone writes to say that he has seen that Warton mentions the peculiarly rare 1596 edition of Venus and Adonis in his recent edition of Milton’s minor poetry. ‘I imagine that it is in your possession. If that should be the case, I shall be extremely obliged to you, if you lend it to me for a few days.’ (Malone had previously had to base his text of the poem on a later edition.) The book duly wings its way to London on the coach from Oxford, where Warton was a fellow of Trinity College. The accompanying letter recalls that it was ‘picked up’, apparently for sixpence, ‘in a petty shop at Salisbury, where books, baccon, red-herrings and old iron, were exposed to sale’. Warton thinks that they are sharing the odd discoveries of fellow antiquarians. It is one of his likeable qualities that he does not see that Malone, dedicated to possessing the Bard, is never so whimsical.
Another time, Warton is staying at the Hampshire home of a friend and, browsing in his ‘study of old fashioned Books’, comes upon ‘A Description of the Queens (Elisabeth) Entertainment in Progresse, at Lord Hartford’s at Elvetham in Hantsshire’, published in 1591. He spots that it includes a presentation to the Queen by ‘Auberon (Oberon) the fairie King’, and duly writes to Malone to tell him all about it. ‘I leave the inferences, if any, to you.’ Sure enough, the content of Warton’s letter turns up (unacknowledged) in Malone’s essay on the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays in his hugely influential edition of 1790 – this chronology being one of his important pioneering labours. Warton’s country vacation has turned up a neat piece of evidence to support Malone’s dating (1592) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The rummager among old books has done his bit again.
Warton may have been Camden Professor of History at Oxford when he knew Malone, but he seems to have been quite happy in his role as under-labourer. He is often sent scuttling off to the Bodleian by his ambitious ‘friend’. He seems to relish being asked, say, to compare different editions of a book that just might refer to a 17th-century actor whom Malone wishes to mention in the ‘Essay on the Stage’ attached to his edition of Shakespeare. ‘I went through with some Curiosity, but nothing occurred of any value or consequence,’ he tells Malone cheerfully. Always ‘curious’ (one of his favourite words for both himself and what he finds) about anything old, always intrigued to pursue an allusion, Warton is both Malone’s éminence grise and his unpaid research assistant. A typical letter from Malone asks where he might find a particular prologue by Sir John Denham, wonders whether Warton has come across any mention of ‘Marocco’ (a famous acrobatic horse exhibited around Europe in the 1590s), enquires about any use of ‘the pun on Ajax and A-jakes previous to Sir John Harrington’s book on that subject in 1596’, requests ‘a clew to any of the poets alluded to by Spenser in his Colin Clout’s Come Home Again’ and, for good measure, asks Warton to go through ‘the Stationers’ Books’ to find if there is an entry for ‘Shakespeare’s Passionate Pilgrim’ before 1612.
It was Malone whose scholarship was to survive, many of its bits and pieces preserved for ever in the amber of Shakespeare’s works. Warton may have been eminent in his own day – Professor of Poetry, and later of History, at Oxford, Poet Laureate, author of the first, and once much admired, History of English Poetry – but his learning was destined to a common obscurity. From David Fairer’s lovingly edited collection of the letters written by and to him, he emerges as the all-knowing but unworldly prof, likeable as the sharp-toothed Malone could never be and recognisable even in our age of Research Assessment Exercises. He would labour as enthusiastically on a Life of Sir Thomas Pope, founder of Trinity College, Oxford or a Parochial History of Oxfordshire as on the works still mentioned in the small print of literary history: his Observations on the Faerie Queene or the History of English Poetry. Malone, capping the slow 18th-century transformation of Shakespeare from ‘rude’ experimenter to national poet, directed his energies where they mattered.
Warton is not quite forgotten. Since 1973, there has been a Thomas Warton Professorship of English at Oxford. Although a belated commemoration, it fits Warton’s devotion to Oxford: its buildings, its traditions, its arcane academic politics. A bachelor don, he entered Trinity in 1744, at the age of 16, and spent the rest of his life there, dying of a paralytic stroke in the college Common Room in 1790. The final letter in Fairer’s collection, written to Charles Burney, contains Warton’s appropriate last words: ‘Mr Warton presents Compliments to Mr Burney, and reminds him that Dinner is at a quarter before Three.’ What will seem serenity to anyone else is described by Warton, in a letter to his sister-in-law, as ‘the hurry & Bustle’ of college life. Yet, as plotted in Fairer’s wonderful, rich, Wartonian footnotes, even Warton’s academic rivalries could not quite excite him, and his own manoeuvrings for advancement appear engagingly ineffectual and simply lazy. Oxford was, above all, where he could enjoy his antiquarian researches. ‘What you call Rambling Learning,’ he writes to a fellow editor of Theocritus, ‘is to me very agreeable, and very fairly allowable.’
Warton first made a name for himself with the poetry that he produced in his late teens and early twenties, especially his blank-verse The Pleasures of Melancholy (1747), written when he was 17. This poetry is easy to conflate with that of his elder brother, Joseph Warton, whose most successful work, The Enthusiast: or, The Lover of Nature (1744-8) is The Pleasures of Melancholy by daylight. Thomas muses in ‘mould’ring caverns’: Joseph grows ‘pensive’ in a ‘secret grot’. ‘The Wartons’ have seemed even more like a collective author because the brothers’ father, also called Thomas and also Professor of Poetry at Oxford, had his poems posthumously published by his sons at just the same time that these works were appearing. Joseph and Thomas junior secretly contributed 19 of their own compositions to what would otherwise have been a thin collection, devised to pay off their father’s debts. The warm letters between the brothers in this volume confirm both this impression of collaborative endeavour and the sense of Thomas Warton’s loveable dustiness, in contrast to Joseph’s interests in current taste.
As his friend Samuel Johnson recognised, Thomas Warton’s poetic experiments were a branch of his antiquarianism. In his Life of Johnson, Boswell recalls defending the ‘strange’ diction and syntax of Warton’s poems by explaining to his mentor that these were ‘owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry’. ‘What is that to the purpose, sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking much drink, the matter is not mended,’ replied Johnson, who said that he loved Warton but laughed at his verse. Warton’s intoxication was there in his scholarship. In 1754 he published his Observations on the Faerie Queene, the first product of his hours in Oxford libraries. In a typical year, Fairer tells us in his Introduction, one ninth of all orders for books and manuscripts in the Bodleian were placed by Thomas Warton. At a time when Oxford’s greatest library did not itself know what it possessed, Warton went to the archive to dig things up. ‘I have searched in vain for Marlowes Dido with the Elegy among Tanner’s Books, which are squeezed into a most incommodious room, covered with dust, unclassed, and without a catalogue,’ he wrote to Malone, who had sent him source-hunting again. In the library, too, he was a rummager – a literary archaeologist.
One can see this in his Observations, which was full of discoveries about Spenser’s sources and analogues for his stories. Its publication drew Warton into correspondence with other influential enthusiasts for the antique – notably, Richard Hurd, Thomas Percy and Horace Walpole, who hoped he would visit Strawberry Hill, where he would find ‘some miniatures of scenes which I am pleased to find you love ... You might play at fancying yourself in a Castle described by Spenser.’ Thomas Percy, working away on his own Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, became a particularly favoured accomplice to what Warton called his excursions ‘into Fairy-Land’. Percy contributed a large number of the amendments to the second edition of the Observations; and Warton, in his turn, was happy enough to share in Percy’s endless speculations about the genealogies of old verses. Fairer calls the correspondence between the two men ‘extensive’; much of it, clearly absorbing to the correspondents themselves, consists of unreadable minutiae.
Warton had what Fairer calls a ‘fascination for sources and foundations’ in common with these correspondents. Scholarship was, above all, the search for origins – wittily parodied in The Castle of Otranto and Walpole’s own little castle at Strawberry Hill. In the years that followed the Observations, this fascination led Warton to compose a history of Winchester, where his brother lived, the Life and Literary Remains of Ralph Bathurst, who had built the reputation and some of the fabric of Trinity College, and an edition of Theocritus. This was not an academic committed to popularity. His letters are full of the odd things thrown up by his excavations: not just books, but coins, paintings, fragments of architecture. In his literary researches, the interest in origins led him eventually to his most substantial project, the History of English Poetry, suggested to him by Richard Hurd in a letter of 1762, and researched during the 1760s and early 1770s. His friend William Warburton called it ‘your great and original work’, and ‘original’ it was in every sense. It was the first such account, though both Pope and Gray had drawn up plans for one. And it was an account that went back to origins, tracing, as its Preface says, ‘the transitions from barbarism to civility’.
Officially, Warton’s History set out to celebrate progress and enlightenment. ‘We look back on the savage condition of our ancestors with the triumph of superiority,’ says its first paragraph, without wryness. Delving into the past should show a polite age its achievements. Surveying the development of poetry, Warton says, should teach us ‘to set a just estimation on our own acquisitions; and encourage us to cherish that cultivation, which is so closely connected with the existence and the exercise of every social virtue’. Yet this is not quite what he seems to believe. He follows Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762) in seeing imagination decline with the growth of civilisation. The first volume of the History ends with the lesson that ‘as knowledge and learning encrease, poetry begins to deal less in imagination.’ It was his version of Hurd’s more plaintive conclusion that, although his culture had learnt ‘a great deal of good sense ... What we have lost, is a world of fine fabling.’
It took a certain confidence in progress to write a History that began at the Norman Conquest and gave detailed attention to centuries that were blank in the minds of even some of Warton’s more learned contemporaries. Yet the romance with the past to which Warton is drawn runs counter to this confidence. We might have learnt to value ‘truth and reason’, but these can overwhelm and destroy ‘those spectres of illusive fancy, so pleasing to the imagination, which delight to hover in the gloom of ignorance and superstition’. He could not but regret that poets no longer had access to the fables of chivalry or folk legend that had once been their material. He produced, therefore, a History that, far from being ‘one of the lasting honours of our Island’, as Warburton called it in one of his letters to Warton, was in fact a just representation of the peculiar ambivalence of his age. Progress was good, and not to be questioned, but it brought decline.
The third and last volume of the History was published in 1781. It acquired sufficient authority to provoke that sure symptom of critical respectability in the late 18th century, a furious assault from Joseph Ritson – guerrilla fighter of literary scholarship. In among its compendious bric-à-brac of learning Ritson, dedicated to an ideal of the popular roots of poetic tradition, could find plenty of mistakes (‘numerous errors, falsities and plagiarisms’) to devalue this ‘easy and elegant’ work. Ritson’s antagonism was a little mad, but he was right in sensing that this donnish antiquarian had become the representative of a ruling culture. (Several of Warton’s main correspondents – Johnson, Steevens, Malone – got the same treatment from Ritson.) The badge of this authority was the award of the Laureateship in 1785, in his late fifties. In his last years, Warton wrote a learned exposure of Thomas Chatterton, while referring to him as a ‘prodigy of genius’ (the romance of the antique, even the bogus antique, again). He had turned once more to his own poetry and to his cultivation of protégés whose poetry would reverse the decline into refinement.
Warton’s work was too well suited to its times to survive them. Yet perhaps his History of English Poetry, at least, has had a legacy. As can be seen in his letters, Warton learned a kind of historicism from his antiquarian pursuits which was passed on. The poetry of the past seemed rooted in its times, and, in order to appreciate (or emulate) it, the critical reader had to learn to put aside the very sense of ‘superiority’ of which Warton seems so sure at the beginning of his History. Warton’s work is, as Fairer says, ‘continually reaching back through its footnotes and digressions to a world that has been lost’. The best age of poetry is not that of Dryden and Pope, as it was for Johnson, but of the Elizabethans, where reason and imagination existed together. It is Johnson’s criticism, and name, that has survived, of course, but Fairer uses this collection of letters to argue that ‘the period 1740-90 was, if anything, more truly the Age of Warton than the Age of Johnson.’ If this is true, it might also be a reason why Warton is forgotten. The achievement of this superb edition is not so much to reinstate him as ‘a significant literary figure’, as it hopes, but to show why his prominence could only be temporary.