Joseph Warton's essay on Pope was the manifesto of "pure poetry" in the eighteenth century: "For one person who can adequately relish and enjoy a work of imagination, twenty are to be found who can taste and judge of observations on familiar life and the manners of the age.... Are there so many cordial admirers of Spenser and Milton as of Hudibras . . .?" (1782) 1:vi. Warton had been made second master at Winchester in 1755. Not seen.
Warton's relatively low estimation of Pope was novel (or at least the grounds of his opinion), though within two generations it would become the norm among persons with pretensions to taste, as in Robert Southey's remark that "The age from Dryden to Pope is the worst age of English poetry" Life and Works of Cowper (1835-37) 2:138. Leigh Hunt appears to have been reading Warton's Essay shortly before he went to prison; see Eleanor M. Gates, Leigh Hunt: A Life in Letters (1999) 27.
Critical Review: "It breathes the spirit of true criticism, unbiassed by sordid prejudice or partiality. — It abounds in judicious remarks, delivered with an air of candor and liberality. — It cotains a great number of curious and entertaining anecdotes of literature, and is fraught with a world of erudition, perhaps too ostentatiously displayed" 1 (1756) 227.
James Grainger: "Doe not the Critic pronounce too rashly, when he makes the principal merit of Pope's pastorals to consist in their correct and musical versification; and in giving the first specimen of that harmony in English verse, which has rendered, says he, every moderate rhymer melodious: — we wish we could have said, it had produced that effect on certain modern translators. As the critic takes every opportunity of digressing, is it not astonishing, that he passes over, in silence, those distinguished pastoral writers, Philips and Gay?" Monthly Review 14 (June 1756) 544.
A Lady: "This I can with pleasure recommend to your notice. It abounds with judicious remarks delivered with an air of Candor and Liberality, contains a great number of curious and entertaining Anecdotes of Literature, and is fraught with a world of erudition" New and Elegant Amusements for the Ladies of Great Britain (1772) 123.
Samuel Egerton Brydges: "He did not put his name to it, nor did he communicate the information to many of his literary friends; but it was immediately known to be his. Richardson, I think, calls it an amusing piece of literary gossip. Richardson, though a genius, was not a man of literature; or he never could have called it 'gossip.' The critical observations are almost always just, original, and happily expressed; and discover a variety of learning, and an activity of mind, which are entitled to admiration. It is true that his method is often abrupt and desultory: but it is dullness, or ignorance, alone, which mistakes formality of arrangement, and the imposition of a philosophic manner, for depth of thought, and novelty of instruction" Censura Literaria 3 (1807) 190.
George Saintsbury: "Warton's Essay on Pope — vaguely famous as a daring act of iconoclasm, and really important as a document in the Romantic Revolt — almost literally anticipates the jest of a hundred years later on another document, about 'chalking up 'No Popery!' and then running away.' It also shows the uncertainty of standpoint which is quite pardonable and indeed inevitable in these early reformers. To us it is exceedingly unlucky that Warton should at page ii. of his Preface ask, 'What traces has Donne of pure poetry?' Yet when we come immediately afterwards to the (for the time) bold and very nearly true statement that Boileau is no more poetical than La Bruyere, we see that Warton was thinking only of the satirist, not of the author of The Anniversaries and the 'Bracelet' poems" History of English Criticism (1911) 259.
Herbert E. Cory: "It is practically as critics only that the Wartons have achieved any permanence. Here they have been scarcely awarded the high position they should occupy. Joseph Warton's magnum opus is the famous Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1756). To call it, as Lowell does, 'The earliest public official declaration of war against the reigning mode" is to tempt the reader into a rather too exalted notion of Warton's spirit of revolt. To be sure, there is much talk about things that are 'Romantic' and about things which have 'a pleasing wildness.' But the reverence for things 'elegant' and 'decorous' and the horror of 'impropriety' is even more frequently expressed. Certainly, at all events, Joseph Warton had an acute appreciation of Spenser. Apropos of an attack on Pope's Alley, he wrote a sustained panegyric on The Faerie Queene. Like the Augustans, he praised the allegorical 'living figures whose attitudes and behaviour Spenser has minutely drawn with so much clearness and truth, that we behold them with our eyes, as plainly as we do on the ceiling of the banqueting-house.' He quotes several examples, concluding with the picture of Jealousy, and cries out with contagious enthusiasm: 'Here all is in life and motion; hero we behold the true Poet or Maker; this is creation; it is here, might we cry out to Spenser, it is here that you display to us, that you make us feel the sure effects of genuine poetry'" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 162.
Edmund Gosse: "His Essay on Pope, though written with such studied moderation that we may, in a hasty reading, regard it almost as a eulogy, was so shocking to the prejudices of the hour that it was received with universal disfavour, and twenty-six years passed before the author had the moral courage to pursue it to a conclusion" "Joseph and Thomas Warton" in Some Diversions of a Man of Letters (1920) 81.
Joseph Warton's second volume, a subject of intense interest in the republic of letters, was withheld until 1782. Byron's copy of the 1806 edition was sold at the 1816 auction of his books; his copy of Pope's works edited by Warton, along with another edition of the Essay, was sold at the 1827 sale; see A. N. L. Munby, Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons (1971) 1:227, 244, 246.
It is somewhat strange that in the pastorals of a young poet there should not be found a single rural image that is new, but this, I am afraid, is the case in the PASTORALS before us. The ideas of Theocritus, Virgil, and Spenser are, indeed, here exhibited in language equally mellifluous and pure, but the descriptions and sentiments are trite and common....
These gothic charms are, in truth, more striking to the imagination than the classical. The magicians of Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser, have more powerful spells, than those of Apollonius, Seneca, and Lucan. The inchanted forest of Ismeno is more awfully and tremendously poetical, than even the Grove, which Caesar orders to be cut down, in Lucan, l. iii. 400, which was so full of terrors, that, at noon day or midnight, the Priest himself dared not approach it....
[(1782) 1:2-3. 1:401-02n]
London: M. Cooper, 1756.
xii, 334 pp.; 8vo.
Reprinted 1762, 1764, 1772, 1782 (2) Vol. 2, 1782 (2) 1806; excerpts in Elledge (1961) 2:717-63.
Facsimile of 1782 edition, 2 vols (New York: Garland, 1970).
Microforms: The Eighteenth Century; Reel 3768, No. 04.
Beers, Romanticism in the 18th Century (1899) 213-20; Cory, "Critics of Spenser" UC Pub. in Mod. Philology 2 (1911) 162; Bohme, Spenser's literarisches Nachleben (1911) 191-92; Frushell, Spenser in the Early 18th Century (1999) 137-38.
Critical Review 1 (1756) 226-40; Gentleman's Magazine 26 (May, June 1756) 249-51, 305-07; Monthly Review 15-15 (June-July 1756) 528-54; 52-78.
Pope's "Essay on Criticism" is a didactic poem in heroic couplets, begun, perhaps, as early as 1705, and published, anonymously, in 1711. The poetic essay was a relatively new genre, and the "Essay" itself was Pope's most ambitious work to that time. It was in part an attempt on Pope's part to identify and refine his own positions as poet and critic, and his response to an ongoing critical debate which centered on the question of whether poetry should be "natural" or written according to predetermined "artificial" rules inherited from the classical past.
The poem commences with a discussion of the rules of taste which ought to govern poetry, and which enable a critic to make sound critical judgements. In it Pope comments, too, upon the authority which ought properly to be accorded to the classical authors who dealt with the subject; and concludes (in an apparent attempt to reconcile the opinions of the advocates and opponents of rules) that the rules of the ancients are in fact identical with the rules of Nature: poetry and painting, that is, like religion and morality, actually reflect natural law. The "Essay on Criticism," then, is deliberately ambiguous: Pope seems, on the one hand, to admit that rules are necessary for the production of and criticism of poetry, but he also notes the existence of mysterious, apparently irrational qualities — "Nameless Graces," identified by terms such as "Happiness" and "Lucky Licence" — with which Nature is endowed, and which permit the true poetic genius, possessed of adequate "taste," to appear to transcend those same rules. The critic, of course, if he is to appreciate that genius, must possess similar gifts. True Art, in other words, imitates Nature, and Nature tolerates and indeed encourages felicitous irregularities which are in reality (because Nature and the physical universe are creations of God) aspects of the divine order of things which is eternally beyond human comprehension. Only God, the infinite intellect, the purely rational being, can appreciate the harmony of the universe, but the intelligent and educated critic can appreciate poetic harmonies which echo those in nature. Because his intellect and his reason are limited, however, and because his opinions are inevitably subjective, he finds it helpful or necessary to employ rules which are interpretations of the ancient principles of nature to guide him — though he should never be totally dependent upon them. We should note, in passing, that in "The Essay on Criticism" Pope is frequently concerned with "wit" — the word occurs once, on average, in every sixteen lines of the poem. What does he mean by it?
Pope then proceeds to discuss the laws by which a critic should be guided — insisting, as any good poet would, that critics exist to serve poets, not to attack them. He then provides, by way of example, instances of critics who had erred in one fashion or another. What, in Pope's opinion (here as elsewhere in his work) is the deadliest critical sin — a sin which is itself a reflection of a greater sin? All of his erring critics, each in their own way, betray the same fatal flaw.
The final section of the poem discusses the moral qualities and virtues inherent in the ideal critic, who is also the ideal man — and who, Pope laments, no longer exists in the degenerate world of the early eighteenth century.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000