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Thomas Warton

Thomas WartonAKA Thomas Wain Warton

Born: 9-Jan-1728
Birthplace: Basingstoke, Hampshire, England
Died: 21-May-1790
Location of death: Oxford, Oxfordshire, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Poet

Nationality: England
Executive summary: English Poet Laureate, 1785-90

English poet-laureate and historian of poetry, the younger son of Thomas Warton, was born at Basingstoke on the 9th of January 1728. He was still more precocious as a poet than his brother -- translated one of Martial's epigrams at nine, and wrote The Pleasures of Melancholy at seventeen -- and he showed exactly the same bent, Milton and Spenser being his favorite poets, though he "did not fail to cultivate his mind with the soft thrillings of the tragic muse" of Shakespeare.

In a poem written in 1745 he shows the delight in Gothic churches and ruined castles which inspired so much of his subsequent work in romantic revival. Most of Warton's poetry, humorous and serious -- and the humorous mock-heroic was better within his powers than serious verse -- was written before the age of twenty-three, when he took his M.A. degree and became a fellow of his college (Trinity, Oxford). He did not altogether abandon verse; his sonnets, especially, which are the best of his poems, were written later. But his main energies were given to omnivorous poetical reading and criticism. He was the first to turn to literary account the medieval treasures of the Bodleian Library. It was through him, in fact, that the medieval spirit which always lingered in Oxford first began to stir after its long inaction, and to claim an influence in the modern world. Warton, like his brother, entered the church, and held one after another, various livings, but he did not marry. He gave little attention to his clerical duties, and Oxford always remained his home. In 1749 he published an heroic poem in praise of Oxford, The Triumph of Isis. He was a very easy and convivial as well as a very learned don, with a taste for pothouses and crowds as well as dim aisles and romances in manuscript and black letter. The first proof that he gave of his extraordinarily wide scholarship was in his Observations on the Poetry of Spenser (1754). Three years later he was appointed professor of poetry, and held the office for ten years, sending round, according to the story, at the beginning of term to inquire whether anybody wished him to lecture. The first volume of his monumental work, The History of English Poetry, appeared twenty years later, in 1774, the second volume in 1778, and the third in 1781. A work of such enormous labor and research could proceed but slowly, and it was no wonder that Warton flagged in the execution of it, and stopped to refresh himself with annotating (1785) the minor poems of Milton, pouring out in this delightful work the accumulated suggestions of forty years.

In 1785 he became Camden professor of history, and was made poet-laureate in the same year. Among his minor works were an edition of Theocritus, a selection of Latin and Greek inscriptions, the humorous Oxford Companion to the Guide and Guide to the Companion (1762); The Oxford Sausage (1764); an edition of Theocritus (1770); lives of Sir Thomas Pope and Ralph Bathurst, college benefactors; a History of the Antiquities of Kiddington Parish, of which he held the living (1781); and an Inquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems attributed to Thomas Rowley (1782). His busy and convivial life was ended by a paralytic stroke in May 1790.

Warton's poems were first collected in 1777, and he was engaged at the time of his death on a corrected edition, which appeared in 1791, with a memoir by his friend and admirer, Richard Mant. They were edited in 1822 for the British Poets, by S. W. Singer.

The History of English Poetry from the close of the 11th to the Commencement of the 18th Century, to which are prefixed two Dissertations: I. On the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe; II. On the Introduction of Learning into England (1774-81) was only brought down to the close of the 16th century. It was criticized by J. Ritson in 1782 in A Familiar Letter to the Author. A new edition came out in 1824, with an elaborate introduction by the editor, Richard Price, who added to the text comments and emendations from Joseph Ritson, Francis Douce, George Ashby, Thomas Park and himself. Another edition of this, stated to be "further improved by the corrections and additions of several eminent antiquaries", appeared in 1840. In 1871 the book was subjected to a radical revision by Mr. W. C. Hazlitt. He cut out passages in which Warton had been led into gross errors by misreading his authorities or relying on false information, and supplied within brackets information on authors or works omitted. Warton's matter, which was somewhat scattered, although he worked on a chronological plan, was in some cases rearranged and the mass of profuse and often contradictory notes was cut down, although new information was added by the editor and_ his associates, Sir Frederick Madden, Thomas Wright, W. Aldis Wright, W. W. Skeat, Richard Morris and F. J. Furnivall. When all criticism has been allowed for the inaccuracies of Warton's work, and the unsatisfactory nature of his general plan, the fact remains that his book is still indispensable to the student of English poetry. Moreover, much that may seem commonplace in his criticism was entirely fresh and even revolutionary in his own day. Warton directed the attention of readers to early English literature, and, in view of the want of texts, rendered inestimable service by transcribing large extracts from early writers. Of the poets of the 16th century he was an extremely sympathetic critic and has not been superseded.

Father: Thomas Warton the Elder (b. circa 1688, d. 1745)

    High School: Winchester College, Winchester, Hampshire
    University: MA, Trinity College, Oxford University
    Professor: Poetry, Oxford University (1757-)

    UK Poet Laureate 1785-90
    Literary Club


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