In this painting of "The Club," a well-known 18th-century literary society, Thomas Warton is seen in private conversation with Oliver Goldsmith (far right), while an unmistakable Samuel Johnson (with Boswell behind him) holds forth before the artist Joshua Reynolds, the actor David Garrick, the writer Edmund Burke, and several others. (Painting, originally titled "A literary party at Sir Joshua Reynolds's," by D. George Thompson)

Five years the Poet Laureate of England (1785-90), Thomas Warton was one of those 19th century authors who contributed to the rise of the Gothic element in English literature while also being one of the first great literary historians in the language. His monumental The History of English Poetry from the close of the 11th to the Commencement of the 18th Century, to which are prefixed two Dissertations: I. On the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe; II. On the Introduction of Learning into England (1774-81) only ever reached the 16th century in its analysis, but it was nevetheless a work that helped to establish literary history as a legitimate subject of study and interpretation. An 1871 version of this work, edited by W. C. Hazlitt (the son of William Hazlitt) became the standard edition.

Warton’s “The Pleasures of Melancholy,” published when he was only 17 years old, had the greatest direct impact on the Romantic poets who would follow him, and contributed, not only to the Graveyard School of poetry, but also to the so-called Cult of Melancholy that characterized so much late 18th- and early 19th-century verse. His adolescent verses focused on the natural world in a way that was a clear anticipation of the nature-poetry that was to come. The poem opens with “howling winds” and “beating rain,” moves through the “laughing scenes / Of purple spring,” and a “ruin’d abbeys moss-grown piles,” toward “caverns dark and damp” and “flow’ry paths of joy.” It ends amid “daedal landscapes” of “palmy groves,” “vine-clad hills,” and “thick-wove laurel shades,” where “flits the twilight loving bat at eve,” and “the deaf adder wreaths her spotted train,” leading to “a mossy grot” near “a hollow glade,” and the close shelter of” an “oaken bower.” So even praising a sublime version of “Melancholy,” the poet is well on his way toward the landscape celebrations of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats.

Warton’s father had been a professor of poetry at Oxford about whose work little was known until the middle of the 18th century. His brother, Joseph, was the author of a proto-Romantic poem The Enthusiast; or the Lover of Nature, a response to his own dissatisfaction with so much neoclassical poetry. Thomas, the Younger, praised the poetry of Thomas Gray and was a close friend of Samuel Johnson.

 

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