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[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 Johnson's 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.]
WARTON'S 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 Warton's 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 goodhumouredly 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 originalty 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 Sackville's 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 Dante's 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 Warton's age more than the tragic loneliness of Dante's 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 Blackstone's 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.
Warton's 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.
HERE, however, chivalry existed in its rudiments. Under the feudal establishments, which were soon afterwards erected in Europe, it received new vigour, and was invested with the formalities of a regular institution. The nature and circumstances of that peculiar model of government were highly favourable to this strange spirit of fantastic heroism ; which, however unmeaning and ridiculous it may seem, had the most serious and salutary consequences in assisting the general growth of refinement and the progression of civilisation, in forming the manners of Europe, in inculcating the principles of honour, and in teaching modes of decorum. The genius of the feudal policy was perfectly martial. A numerous nobility, formed into separate principalities, affecting independence, and mutually jealous of their privileges and honours, necessarily lived in a state of hostility. This situation rendered personal strength and courage the most requisite and essential accomplishments. And hence, even in time of peace, they had no conception of any diversions or public ceremonies but such as were of the military kind. Yet, as the courts of these petty princes were thronged with ladies of the most eminent distinction and quality, the ruling passion for war was tempered with courtesy. The prize of contending champions was adjudged by the ladies ; who did not think it inconsistent to be present or to preside at the bloody spectacles of the times; and who, themselves, seem to have contracted an unnatural and unbecoming ferocity, while they softened the manners of those valorous knights who fought for their approbation. The high notions of a noble descent, which arose from the condition of the feudal constitution, and the ambition of forming an alliance with powerful and opulent families, cherished this romantic system. It was hard to obtain the fair feudatory who was the object of universal adoration. Not only the splendour of birth, but the magnificent castle surrounded with
embattled walls, guarded with massy towers, and crowned with lofty pinnacles, served to inflame the imagination, and to create an attachment to some illustrious heiress, whose point of honour it was to be chaste and inaccessible. And the difficulty of success on these occasions seems in great measure to have given rise to that sentimental love of romance, which acquiesced in a distant respectful admiration, and did not aspire to possession. The want of an uniform administration of justice, the general disorder, and state of universal anarchy, which naturally sprung from the principles of feudal policy, presented perpetual opportunities of checking the oppressions of arbitrary lords, of delivering captives injuriously detained in the baronial castles, of punishing robbers, of succouring the distressed, and of avenging the impotent and the unarmed, who were every moment exposed to the most licentious insults and injuries. The violence and injustice of the times gave birth to valour and humanity. These acts conferred a lustre and an importance on the character of men professing arms, who made force the substitute of law. In the meantime, the crusades, so pregnant with enterprise, heightened the habits of this warlike fanaticism; and when these foreign expeditions were ended, in which the hermits and pilgrims of Palestine had been defended, nothing remained to employ the activity of adventurers but the protection of innocence at home. Chivalry by degrees was consecrated by religion, whose authority tinctured every passion, and was engrafted into every institution of the superstitious ages ; and at length composed that singular picture of manners, in which the love of a god and of the ladies were reconciled, the saint and the hero were blended, and charity and revenge, zeal and gallantry, devotion and valour, were united.
(From the History of English Poetry.)
CHAUCER'S HOUSE OF FAME
THE hall was filled with the writers of ancient tales and romances, whose subjects and names were too numerous to be recounted. In the meantime crowds from every nation and of every condition filled the hall, and each presented his claim to the queen. A messenger is dispatched to summon Æolus from his cave in Thrace ; who is ordered to bring his two clarions