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Warton, Thomas

An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age

Warton, Thomas 


poet, antiquarian, and literary historian. Along with his brother Joseph (1722–1800), Warton by his researches into the history of English *poetry [29], made an important contribution to the developing *Gothic taste for medieval and Renaissance literature and the revival of interest in associated forms such as *romances and *ballads [see *antiquarianism, 35].

Warton spent most of his life in Oxford, where he was professor of poetry (1757–67), and professor of history from 1785. He collected a famous miscellany of university verse as The Oxford Sausage (1764). The two editions of his Observations on the Faerie Queen (1754; enlarged 1762) were important in the revival of *Spenser's reputation. His subsequent antiquarian researches culminated in the three-volume History of English Literature, 1100–1603 (1774–81), often regarded as the first example of English literary *historiography. Whereas Samuel *Johnson's Lives of the Poets (1779–81) ignored English literature prior to the mid-seventeenth century, Warton's History was dominated by an antiquarian relish for the ‘warmth of fancy’ found in earlier literature. A projected fourth volume of the History was never completed, perhaps because of Joseph *Ritson's criticisms in 1782 of Warton's scholarly methods. That same year Warton involved himself in the controversy over the Rowley poems, declaring Thomas *Chatterton to be their real author.

Although he celebrated the vigour and intensity of early English poetry, Warton's tastes were informed by a confidence that eighteenth-century Europe had ‘advanced to the highest degree of refinement’. His own poetry certainly does not aspire to the Gothic grandeur he valued in his antiquarian researches. His appointment as poet laureate in 1785 was greeted with derision in the *satirical Probationary Odes published with Criticism on the Rolliad.

Jon Mee

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