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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

But relinquished the design to Warton


"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.


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