Page images
PDF
EPUB

REVEREND THOMAS WARTON.

THE life of an Oxford student affords but indifferent materials for the writer of biography. Undiversified by incident, it glides along as tranquilly as doth the tideless Isis through its level and unromantic but beautiful meadows. And for that inner life, which, in the meanest, is a romance and a mystery, who may depict it, even when himself is his hero? Those, therefore, who die and make no sign, can rarely awaken the interest of posterity; and insensibly their fame diminishes, until a few dates are all we have to tell the story of their lives and of their works.

Thomas Warton sprang from a family conspicuous for its literary attainments, and its hereditary loyalty. His ancestors were settled at Beverley in Yorkshire, one of whom was knighted by Charles I., and the family estate was confiscated for their attachment to the royal cause during the Civil War. His father was sometime Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, Professor of Poetry in that University, and Rector of Basingstoke in Hampshire, where the subject of this Memoir was born, in 1728. From his earliest years he displayed a studious

turn of mind; and a metrical translation of an epigram of Martial is extant which he wrote when he was about nine years old. old. In March 1743, when in his sixteenth year, he was entered at Trinity College, Oxford (on which foundation he was successively elected a scholar and fellow), passed there the remaining forty-seven years of his life, and now sleeps in the College Chapel.

While an undergraduate, he occasionally published some pieces anonymously; but in 1749, when in his 21st year, he first came forward openly as a poet, and the circumstances under which he made his debút, conspired to cover him with glory, or at least with applause. It should be remembered that the relative position of the Universities and the country was widely different then from what it is at present. Our material interests having advanced with such unparallelled rapidity, intellectual pursuits have lost that prominence they formerly possessed. They, too, have changed the theatre of their more active exercise; and the time has gone by when Oxford prescribed the canons of taste, and the decision of a London audience on the merits of a play was held liable to reversal by the Universities. The political views of the two great seats of learning were then matter of grave concern to the Government; and, Oxford being suspected of Jacobite tendencies, a foolish frolic of a party of students, gave great offence to the Court, and the Vice-Chancellor and some of the Heads of Houses were prosecuted in the Queen's Bench. man, and of the governmental tempting an occasion to inveigh against the rival University, and published a poem, named "Isis," in which that gentle river nymph thus wrathfully addresses the wine-bibbing students of Oxford.

Mason, a Cambridge faction, embraced so

"Hence! frontless crowds, that not content to fright
The blushing Cynthia from her throne of light,

Blast the fair face of day; and, madly bold,
To Freedom's foes infernal orgies hold."

Warton was solicited to write a reply, and published accordingly the "Triumph of Isis," in which, after a satirical sneer at the "venal sons of slavish Cam," he proceeds to the defence of his University with considerable dignity, recounts some of the great names that adorn her annals, and concludes with a panegyric on her reputed founder, King Alfred.

The following extracts will afford a specimen of the style of this piece

"Ye fretted pinnacles, ye fanes sublime,

Ye towers that wear the mossy vest of Time,
Ye massy piles of old munificence,

At once the pride of learning and defence;
Ye high-arched walks, where oft the whispers clear
Of harps unseen, have swept the poet's ear;
Ye temples dim, where pious duty pays,
Her holy hymns of ever-echoing praise;
Lo! your loved Isis, from the bordering vale,
With all a mother's fondness bids you hail!
Hail, Oxford, hail! of all that's good and great,
Of all that's fair, the guardian and the seat;
Nurse of each brave pursuit, each generous aim,
By truth exalted to the throne of fame!
Like Greece in science and in liberty,

As Athens learned, as Lacedæmon free."

Edward the Black Prince, who was a member of Queen's College, is thus referred to.

"Nor all the tasks of thoughtful peace engage,
"Tis thine to form the hero as the sage,

I see the sable-tinted Prince advance,

With lilies crown'd, the spoil of bleeding France,
Edward. The Muses in yon cloistered shade,
Bound on his maiden thigh the martial blade,
Bade him the steel for British Freedom draw,
And Oxford taught the deeds that Cressy saw."

At that time the Bachelors and Gentlemen Commoners of Trinity had a common room of their own.

It was

customary to elect annually from among themselves certain officers, and among others a poet-laureate, whose privilege it was to celebrate in verse their lady patroness for the year. The choice fell on Warton in the years. 1747 and 1748, and the verses he composed in that capacity are still preserved in the common room.

In 1750 he took the degree of Master of Arts, and the next year was elected a Fellow of his College.

He

As Oxford had now become his final home, he undertook an extensive course of study, which he pursued in a somewhat desultory and immethodical manner. drew up, at the request of the Head of his College, a body of Statutes for the Radcliffe Library, founded principally on the Bodleian and Savilian Statutes; and in 1754 he published his "Observations on Spenser's Faëry Queen," a work displaying great powers of criticism and extensive reading. He sent a copy of the book to Dr. Johnson, who returned him a complimentary letter, and it was the means of introducing him to the friendship of Warburton. By a note, in the second edition, upon the Ecclesiastical Architecture of England, he contributed materially to arouse that spirit of inquiry into the almost forgotten principles of Gothic art, which has since been so fervently prosecuted; and he meditated writing a comprehensive history of its progress in this country. In fact, he projected, at this time, several important works, which were never carried to completion. His pupils occupied much of his time, and though he published at intervals various short essays on subjects of classical and antiquarian interest, yet the learned ease of a University was not adapted to urge a man of his temperament to any long sustained and laborious effort.

In 1757 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and, by the advice of Sir W. Blackstone, then Fellow of All Souls, signalized the term of his office by a careful

edition of the works of Theocritus; he was likewise chosen a Fellow of the Royal Society, and towards the close of the same year was instituted to the Rectory of Cuddington, near Oxford. He busied himself in collecting. Notes for the edition of Shakspeare which Johnson was preparing, contributed some papers to the 'Idler," and became a member of the famous Literary Club. The intimacy between Johnson and Warton, at this time, was most cordial, though it afterwards gradually cooled. Their modes of life were different. Warton was methodical in his habits, rose early, took exercise at stated intervals; while Johnson's rugged training had inured him to irregularities of living which time at length rendered habitual. Differences of taste, likewise, contributed to widen the breach. Johnson thought little of Warton's poetical powers; while Warton, admiring Johnson's prodigious intellectual capacity, hesitated to give him credit for taste or scholarship. And thus, without any open rupture, their friendship degenerated into a feeling bordering closely upon dislike.

Warton testified his affection to his College by writing the Biography of Sir Thomas Pope, the founder, and of Dr. Bathurst, a munificent benefactor. A circumstance related in one of these works may serve to show on what a precarious tenure college fellowships were once held. Cuffe, Fellow of Trinity, a man of extraordinary endowments, but of a hilarious disposition, was dismissed the society for giving vent to a sprightly sally at the expense of the founder. Sir Thomas, it appears, when invited to any entertainment, indulged in the singular propensity of pocketing some of the plate on his departure. "Our friend," says Bathurst, "when upon a visit, would often carry away a silver cup under his gown, for the joke sake, sending it back the next day to laugh at his friend." Cuffe, being at a party one evening, in

« PreviousContinue »