Joseph Warton

Joseph Warton (1722-1800). Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), 1777. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Rev. Joseph Warton (April 1722 - 23 February 1800) was an English poet, academic, and literary critic.



Warton, son of Rev. Thomas Warton, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, was educated at Basingstoke School, (of which his father was headmaster), Winchester, and Oxford. He took orders, held various benefices, and became headmaster of Winchester College, and prebendary of Winchester and of St. Paul's. He published miscellaneous verses, 2 volumes of Odes (1744 and 1746), in which he displayed a then unusual feeling for nature, and revolted against the critical rules of Pope and his followers. He was a good classical scholar, and made an approved translation of the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil. He and his brother Thomas were friends of Johnson, and members of the Literary Club. His last work of importance was an Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope, of which the 1st volume appeared in 1757, and the 2nd in 1782, and which gave an impulse to the romantic movement in English literature. He also edited Pope's works, and had begun an edition of Dryden when he died.[1]

Youth and educationEdit

Warton was born at Dunsfold, Surrey, in 1722, at the vicarage of his mother's father, Joseph Richardson, being baptised on 22 April. He was the elder son of Thomas Warton, the Oxford Professor of Poetry. Thomas Warton, the historian of English poetry, was his younger brother.[2]

Joseph received his earliest instruction at the grammar school of Basingstoke, of which his father was headmaster; Gilbert White was a schoolfellow. In 1735 Warton was elected a scholar of Winchester, and formed a lasting friendship with another schoolfellow who afterwards attained distinction, poet William Collins. Collins, Warton, and a boy named Tomkins wrote verses in rivalry, and a poem by each was published in the Gentleman's Magazine in October 1739. A complimentary notice of these efforts appeared in the next number of the magazine, and was assigned by Wooll, Warton's biographer, to Dr. Johnson.[2]

Like Collins, Warton failed to obtain election from Winchester to New College, Oxford, and on 16 Jan. 1739-40 he matriculated from Oriel College, Oxford, going into residence the following September. He graduated with a B.A. on 13 March 1743-4.[2]

Early poetryEdit

In 1744 Warton published a first volume of verse, entitled Ode on Reading West's Pindar. It included, with other poems, a long piece in blank verse called "The Enthusiast, or the Lover of Nature." Here he avowed an unfashionable love of nature and of natural scenery and sentiment. Gray at once commended the poem as "all pure description" (Gray, Works, ed. Gosse, ii. 121).[2]

In December 1746 Warton published a second volume of 17 Odes on Various Subjects, most of which he had penned while an undergraduate. In the preface he warned his readers against identifying the true subject-matter of poetry with the moral and didactic themes to which, under Pope's sway, writers of verse at the time confined their efforts.[2]

Warton's friend Collins issued his volume of odes simultaneously. Gray wrote on 27 December 1746 of the odd coincidence that two unknown men had published at the same instant collections of odes: "Each is the half of a considerable man, and one the counterpart of the other. The first [i.e. Warton] has but little invention, very poetical choice of expression, and a good ear. The second [i.e. Collins] a fine fancy, modelled upon the antique, a bad ear, great variety of words, and images with no choice at all. They both deserve to last some years, but will not" (ib. ii. 160). Warton's work was fairly successful, but Collins's proved a dismal failure. Posterity has reversed the contemporary judgment.[2]

Church careerEdit

Taking holy orders immediately after graduation, Warton acted as curate to his father at Basingstoke until his father's death on 10 Sept. 1745. Subsequently he served a curacy at Chelsea, but after an attack of small-pox returned to Basingstoke.[2]

In 1748 Charles Paulet (or Powlett), 3rd duke of Bolton, conferred on Warton the rectory of Winslade,[2] and he married his first wife, Mary (Daman) of Winslade, who died on 5 Oct. 1772. Warton had three sons and three daughters by his first wife. His sons — Joseph (born 1750), Thomas (1754-1787), and John (born 1756) — took holy orders.[3]

In April 1751 he accompanied the duke of Bolton on a short tour in the south of France under peculiar and not very creditable circumstances. The duke's wife was believed to be at the point of death, and the duke required the attendance of a chaplain on his travels so that he might be married without loss of time to his mistress, Lavinia Fenton, as soon as the duchess had breathed her last.[2]

The duchess lingered on beyond expectation, and Warton returned home in September without presiding over the duke's second nuptials, with the result that he lost the chances of preferment that the duke had destined for the parson who performed the ceremony.[4]

On settling again in England he worked hard at a new edition of Virgil's works in both Latin and English (4 volumes, 1753, 8vo). He himself translated the Eclogues and Georgics, and he reprinted Christopher Pitt's rendering of the Aeneid. Warton employed Dryden's heroic meter, and directly challenged comparison with that robust translator. He proved more accurate, but was less vivacious, and his scholarship was far from perfect. Of higher interest were Warton's appended essays on pastoral, didactic, and epic poetry, his life of Virgil, and his notes. The publication greatly extended Warton's reputation in literary circles.[4]

On 8 March 1753 Dr. Johnson wrote to invite him to contribute to the ‘Adventurer,’ with the result that in the 3 following years Warton sent 24 essays to that periodical. They dealt chiefly with literary criticism. Five treat with no little insight of Shakespeare's Tempest and Lear (Nos. 93, 97, 113, 116, and 122). In 1753 he also wrote on "Simplicity of Taste" in the World (No. 26).[4]

In 1754 he became rector of Tunworth, but next year, despairing of substantial preferment in the church, he entered on a new career, that of schoolmaster.[4]

Master of WinchesterEdit

In 1755 Warton was appointed usher, or second master, at his old school, Winchester College. On 23 June 1759 the university of Oxford conferred on him by diploma the degree of M.A. In 1766 he was promoted to the headmastership of Winchester, and on 15 Jan. 1768 he proceeded at Oxford to the degrees of B.D. and D.D.[4]

He remained a schoolmaster for 38 years. As a teacher Warton achieved little success. He was neither an exact scholar nor a disciplinarian. Thrice in his headmastership the boys openly mutinied against him, and inflicted on him ludicrous humiliations. The third insurrection took place in the summer of 1793, and, after ingloriously suppressing it, Warton prudently resigned his post.[4]

His easy good nature secured for him the warm affection of many of his pupils, among whom his favourites were William Lisle Bowles and Richard Mant. Although the educational fame of the school did not grow during his régime, his social and literary reputation gave his office increased dignity and importance. In 1778 George III visited the college, and Warton's private guests on the occasion included Sir Joshua Reynolds and Garrick (Adams, Wykehamica, pp. 134–153; Kirby, Annals of Winchester, pp. 404 seq.; Winchester College, 1393–1893, by Old Wykehamists, 1893, 8vo).[4]

While at Winchester he found little time for literary pursuits. In 1756 he brought out the first volume — dedicated to Dr. Young—of his notable Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, in which he adversely criticised the classical or "correct" tendencies of contemporary poetry as opposed to the romantic and imaginative tendency of Elizabethan poetry. The volume was favourably noticed by Johnson in the Literary Magazine, reached a 3rd edition in 1763, and was translated into German. It had been begun before Warton went to Winchester, and the long interval of 25 years elapsed before the second volume of the Essay appeared in 1782.[4]

Meanwhile Warton had meditated without result a history of the revival of letters in the 15th century, based on the correspondence of Politian, Erasmus, Grotius, and others, and in 1784, emulating the example of his brother Thomas, the historian of English poetry, he announced that two quarto volumes of a history of Grecian, Roman, Italian, and French poetry were in the press, but nothing further was heard of that design.[4]

In literary societyEdit

In middle life and old age Warton was a familiar figure in the literary society of the metropolis. For many years he was on terms of more or less intimacy with Dr. Johnson, Burke, Garrick, Reynolds, Lowth, Bishop Percy, and John Nichols. In 1761 he advised "Single-speech" Hamilton to make Burke his secretary. When Burke and Hamilton parted in 1765, Warton advised Hamilton to let Robert Chambers fill Burke's place. Chambers declined Hamilton's invitation, and Warton seems to have suggested Johnson, who did some literary work for Hamilton in 1765 (Boswell, i. 519).[4]

Warton was, according to Madame D'Arblay, a voluble and ecstatic talker on all subjects in general society, often hugging his auditors in the heat of his argument (Diary, ii. 236). His rapturous gesticulations were not to the taste of Dr. Johnson, who "would take" them ‘off’ among his closer friends "with the strongest humour" (D'Arblay, Memoirs of Dr. Burney, ii. 82).[4]

There was never complete sympathy between Johnson and Warton. About 1766 a quarrel took place between them at Sir Joshua Reynolds's house. Johnson told Warton that he was not used to contradiction, and Warton retorted that it would be better if he were. But although they caused each other frequent irritation, there was no permanent breach in the relations of the 2 men.[4]

In December, 1773, he married his second wife, Charlotte, second daughter of William Nicholas, who survived him and died in 1809. He had an only daughter, Harriot Elizabeth, by his second marriage.[3]

In 1776 he signed the round-robin asking Johnson to rewrite in English his Latin epitaph on Goldsmith (Boswell, iii. 83). Johnson, on seeing Warton's signature, declared his wonder that "Joe Warton, a scholar by profession, should be such a fool" (ib. 84 n.) But by humbler men of letters Warton's opinion was highly valued. Cowper was overwhelmed by his approbation. "The poet,’ he wrote, ‘who pleases a man like that has nothing left to wish for."[3]

Later yearsEdit

Some clerical preferment was conferred on Warton while he was still at Winchester. He was appointed by his friend Bishop Lowth prebendary of London in 1782, and Pitt, the prime minister, conferred on him a prebendal stall at Winchester in 1788. In 1783, too, Lowth presented him to the vicarage of Chorley, Hertfordshire, which he soon exchanged for that of Wickham, Hampshire; and in 1790 he was instituted to the rectory of Easton, which he at once exchanged for that of Upham, also in Hampshire. The livings of Upham and Wickham he held for life.[3]

To Wickham he retired on leaving Winchester in 1793. There he devoted himself anew to literature. He thought of completing the History of English Poetry of his brother, whose death in 1790 greatly depressed him, but he occupied himself mainly with an edition of Pope's Works, which appeared in 1797 in 9 octavo volumes. Warton's remuneration amounted to £500 (Nichols, Lit. Illustr. vii. 30). On the ground that he included two compositions of somewhat flagrant indecency — "the fourteenth chapter of Scriblerus" and the "Second Satire of Horace" — Warton was castigated with unwarranted severity by Mathias in his Pursuits of Literature.[3]

Subsequently he began an edition of the Works of Dryden, which he did not live to finish. He died at Wickham on 23 Feb. 1800, and was buried beside his first wife in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral.[3]


Warton deserves remembrance as a learned and sagacious critic. He was a literary, not a philological, scholar. His verse, although it indicates a true appreciation of natural scenery, is artificial and constrained in expression.[3]

He was well equipped for the role of literary historian, but his great designs in that field never passed far beyond the stage of preliminary meditation. It was as a leader of the revolution which overtook literary criticism in England in the 18th century that his chief work was done. In the preface to his volume of odes of 1746 he made a firm stand against the prevailing tendency of English poetry. He was convinced, he wrote, "that the fashion of moralising in verse had been carried too far." The true "faculties of the poet" were "invention and imagination."[3]

Warton's Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope was doubtless suggested by resentment of Warburton's ponderous and polemical notes on Pope's philosophical views. Warton was more sensible than Warburton of the felicities of Pope's style, but his main object was to prove that "correctness," which had long been held to be the only test of poetry, was no test at all. The genuine spirit of poetry was to be found not in the moral essays of Pope and his didactic disciples, but in the less finished and less regular productions of writers of the temper of the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans. Edmund Spenser was, in his opinion, Pope's superior. From want of force of character, Warton never gained a first place among his contemporaries, but he claims the regard of students of literature for the new direction which he impressed on English poetical criticism.[3]

Warton's edition of Pope, produced at the close of his life in 1797, supplies many notes that are superfluous, and almost all of them are needlessly verbose, but the book abounds in personal reminiscence and anecdote as well as in cultured and varied learning. Warton's edition has been superseded by that of Elwin and Courthope, but in literary flavour it has not, in the opinion of so good a judge as Mark Pattison, been excelled.[3]

After his death some of his notes appeared in an edition of Dryden's poetical works, undertaken by his younger son, John (1811, 4 volumes, 8vo).[3] John Warton proposed to follow this by selections from the correspondence of his father and uncle Thomas; but these were never issued.[5]

A 1st volume of selections from Warton's poetry and correspondence appeared in 1806 under the editorship of an old Winchester pupil, John Wooll, who supplied a long biographical preface, abounding in stilted eulogy. Wooll's promise of a second volume was not fulfilled.[5]


In 1773 Warton was elected a member of the Literary Club.[3]

His former pupil, Richard Mant, published a pamphlet of verses to his memory.[3]

A monument to Warton's memory by John Flaxman (1755-1826) was erected, at the expense of Old Wykehamists, in the south aisle of Winchester Cathedral.[3]

A portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds is in the University Gallery in the Taylorian building at Oxford; a replica is at Winchester College. An engraving by R. Cardon was prepared for Wooll's Memoirs (1806).[3]



  • Fashion: An epistolary satire to a friend. London: R. Dodsley, 1742.
  • The Enthusiast; or, The lover of nature: A poem. London: R. Dodsley, 1744.
  • Odes on Various Subjects. London: R. Dodsley, 1746.
  • An Ode: Occasioned by reading Mr West's translation of Pindar. London: W. Owen, 1749.
  • An Ode to Evening; translated into Latin verse. London: W. Owen, 1749.
  • Ode to Fancy Oxford, UK: 1785.
  • Poetical Works (edited by Thomas Park). London: J. Sharpe, 1805.
  • The Poems of Dr. Joseph Warton. London: Johnson, 1810.
  • The Three Wartons: A choice of their verse (with Thomas Warton the elder & Thomas Warton; edited by Eric Partridge). London, Scholartis Press, 1927; Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.


  • Ranelagh House: A satire in prose. London: W. Owen, 1747.


  • An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope. London: M. Cooper, 1756; London: R. & J. Dodsley, 1762; Dublin: Peter Wilson, 1764; London: J. Dodsley, 1772
    • enlarged & corrected, (2 volumes), London: J Dodsley, 1782; New York: Garland, 1974.

Collected editionsEdit

  • Biographical Memoirs; to which are added, A selection of his works; and, A literary correspondence between eminent persons. London: Luke Hansard, for T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1806; Farnborough, UK: Gregg, 1969.


  • Virgil, Eclogues & Georgics, in The Works, in Latin and English.


  • Thomas Warton Sr, *Poems on Several Occasions. London: R. Manby & H.S. Cox, 1748; New York: Facsimile Text Society, 1930.
  • Virgil, The Works, in Latin and English. (4 volumes), London: R. Dodsley, 1753.
  • Sir Philip Sidney, Defense of Poetry / Ben Jonson, Observations on Poetry and Eloquence, from the Discoveries. London, G.G.J. & J. Robinson, 1787.
  • Alexander Pope, Works. (9 volumes), London: B. Law, et al, 1797.
  • John Dryden, Poetical Works (edited with John Warton). (4 volumes), London: F.C. & J. Rivington, 1811.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[6]

See alsoEdit

Joseph Warton- Verses On A Butterfly

Joseph Warton- Verses On A Butterfly.wmv

Ode to Music - Joseph Warton

Ode to Music - Joseph Warton


PD-icon.svg Lee, Sidney (1899) "Warton, Joseph" in Lee, Sidney Dictionary of National Biography 59 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 428-431 . Wikisource, Web, Jan. 3, 2017.


  1. John William Cousin, "Warton, Joseph," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 396. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 16, 2018.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Lee, 428.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 Lee, 430.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 Lee, 429.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lee, 431.
  6. Search results = au:Joseph Warton, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 3, 2017.

External links Edit

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