The Poets Laureate: Thomas Warton

Years in office: 1785-1790

Who was he: Thomas Warton the younger (1728-1790) came from a distinguished family: his grandparents were both clergymen; his father Thomas Warton the elder was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford and later Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford; and his elder brother Joseph Warton (1722-1800) was also a poet, schoolmaster and curate.

Thomas was born in Basingstoke on January 9, 1728, and was a precocious child, translating Martial aged 9. He was educated at Trinity College, Oxford, and he went on to be a successful academic and historian of poetry as well as a talented minor poet. His early poetical works included The Pleasures of Melancholy (1745), Pastoral Eclogues (1745) and Progress of Discontent (1746). In 1749, he wrote The Triumph of Isis in defence of Oxford University, which had been accused of being a haven of Jacobite sentiment1. The following year he penned a description of the city of Winchester, which was later widely used as a guidebook. His other early work included "A Panegyric on Oxford Ale".

In 1751 he became a fellow at Trinity College, Oxford, and soon after wrote Newmarket, a Satire and poems in English and Latin on the death of Frederic, Prince of Wales. His first major work of literary criticism was Observations on the Faery Queen (1754); he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1756. His greatest academic achievement was the monumental History of English Poetry (1774-81), the first work of its kind, which greatly enhanced knowledge of early English verse. In 1785 he compiled a volume of John Milton's shorter poems with extensive notes by Warton.

As well as his renown as a poet, Warton was important in popularising medievalism in England through his writings on early poetry and history. Widely-read into the 19th century, he seems to have been a significant influence on William Blake2 and others of the Romantic poets, both in his subject matter and verse forms.

Non-laureate poems: Warton is best-known for his sonnets; although they seem to have been an influence on John Keats, they are often stronger on ideas and learning than on beauty of language or image. This is his sonnet "Written at Stonehenge" (published 1777):

Thou noblest monument of Albion's isle!
Whether by Merlin's aid, from Scythia's shore,
To Amber's fatal plain Pendragon bore,
Huge frame of giant-hands, the mighty pile
T' entomb his Britons slain by Hengist's guile:
Or Druid priests, sprinkled with human gore,
Taught 'mid thy massy maze their mystic lore:
Or Danish chiefs, enrich'd with savage spoil,
To Victory's idol vast, an unhewn shrine,
Rear'd the rude heap: or, in thy hallow'd round,
Repose the kings of Brutus' genuine line;
Or here those kings in solemn state were crown'd:
Studious to trace thy wondrous origine,
We muse on many an ancient tale renown'd.3

Warton's longer verse allowed him greater opportunity for reflection. His early The Pleasures of Melancholy (1745), written when he was just 17 (adolescent poetry on melancholy? hmm), returns to the blank verse of Milton, which had been eclipsed by the heroic couplet in the Restoration period; as well as its Miltonic influences, the poem has strong fore-echoes of William Wordsworth's poetry. This is an extract:

Beneath yon ruined abbey's moss-grown piles
Oft let me sit, at twilight hour of eve,
Where through some western window the pale moon
Pours her long-levelled rule of streaming light,
While sullen, sacred silence reigns around,
Save the lone screech-owl's note, who builds his bower
Amid the mouldering caverns dark and damp,
Or the calm breeze that rustles in the leaves
Of flaunting ivy, that with mantle green
Invests some wasted tower. Or let me tread
Its neighbouring walk of pines, where mused of old
The cloistered brothers: through the gloomy void
That far extends beneath their ample arch
As on I pace, religious horror wraps
My soul in dread repose. But when the world
Is clad in midnight's raven-coloured robe,
'Mid hollow charnel let me watch the flame
Of taper dim, shedding a livid glare
O'er the wan heaps, while airy voices talk
Along the glimmering walls, or ghostly shape,
At distance seen, invites with beckoning hand,
My lonesome steps through the far-winding vaults.
Nor undelightful is the solemn noon
Of night, when, haply wakeful, from my couch
I start: lo, all is motionless around!
Roars not the rushing wind; the sons of men
And every beast in mute oblivion lie;
All nature's hushed in silence and in sleep:
O then how fearful is it to reflect
That through the still globe's awful solitude
No being wakes but me! till stealing sleep
My drooping temples bathes in opiate dews.
Nor then let dreams, of wanton folly born,
My senses lead through flowery paths of joy:
But let the sacred genius of the night
Such mystic visions send as Spenser saw
When through bewildering Fancy's magic maze,
To the fell house of Busyrane, he led
Th' unshaken Britomart; or Milton knew,
When in abstracted thought he first conceived
All Heaven in tumult, and the seraphim
Come towering, armed in adamant and gold.4
His laureateship: Warton was by no means the worst writer to hold the position, and as a respected poet who was also knowledgeable about the verse of earlier times, he offers a good model of what a poet laureate should be. Sadly after only 5 years in office he died of a stroke on May 20, 1790, and was replaced by Henry James Pye, a political hack in the tradition of his predecessors. Warton is buried in the ante-chapel of Trinity College, Oxford.

Critics and enemies: Samuel Johnson seemed to pick up Pope's baton as scourge of the laureates (can you use a baton as a scourge? Probably.) Johnson wrote:

Endless labour all along,
Endless labour to be wrong;
Trick'd in antique ruff and bonnet,
Ode, and elegy, and sonnet;5
The early Victorian critic Henry Francis Cary is more charitable:
Among the poets of the second class, he deserves a distinguished place. He is almost equally pleasing in his gayer, and in his more exalted moods. His mirth is without malice or indecency, and his seriousness without gloom. In his lyrical pieces, if we seek in vain for the variety and music of Dryden, the tender and moral sublime of Gray, or the enthusiasm of Collins, yet we recognize an attention ever awake to the appearances of nature, and a mind stored with the images of classical and Gothic antiquity. 6

Could have been laureate: If they had wanted another playwright rather than a poet, Richard Brindsley Sheridan (1751-1816) was the best around. William Cowper (1731-1800) was a popular poet.

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  • 1 See: Judy Niessner, "Life of Thomas Warton, The Younger", 2001,$8
  • 2 Jim Rovira, "Blake’s significant reading included", Jim Rovira's website
  • 3 From Ernest Bernbaum, English Poets of the Eighteenth Century, 1918, Project Gutenberg E-Book #10161, online at
  • 4 Ibid.
  • 5 Quoted in Henry Francis Cary, Lives of the English Poets From Johnson to Kirke White, Designed as a Continuation of Johnson's Lives, ?1846 Project Gutenberg EBook #10660
  • 6 Cary, ibid.

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