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  Thomas Warton (1728–1790), by Charles Howard Hodges, pubd 1784 (after Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784) Thomas Warton (1728–1790), by Charles Howard Hodges, pubd 1784 (after Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784)
Warton, Thomas (1728–1790), poet and historian, was born in Basingstoke, Hampshire, on 9 January 1728, and baptized there on the 25th. He was the younger son of , vicar of Basingstoke, and Elizabeth (1691–1762), daughter of Joseph Richardson, rector of Dunsfold, Surrey, and younger brother of and . Warton was educated at home by his father until 16 March 1744, when he entered Trinity College, Oxford, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. He graduated BA (1747) and MA (1750), and was elected a probationary fellow of Trinity on 25 May 1752 and perpetual fellow on 6 June 1753.

Early career

Warton's poetic career began while he was an undergraduate at Trinity. Five Pastoral Eclogues was published anonymously by Dodsley in 1745. His first poem for Dodsley's Museum, ‘Inscription in a Grotto’, appeared on 11 October 1746. In April 1747 Dodsley published Warton's first major poem, ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy’ (although the poem had been written two years earlier). When Joseph Warton published his Odes on Various Subjects (1746) the volume contained two poems by Thomas, ‘To a Fountain’ and ‘To a Gentleman upon his Travels thro' Italy’. This borrowing early illustrated the brothers' practice of helping each other with their work, a practice which culminated in 1748 when Thomas Warton the elder's Poems on Several Occasions was published. Thomas Warton the elder had died on 10 September 1745 and, in an attempt to raise money to cover debts which he had left, Joseph suggested putting together a volume of their father's poems and selling them by subscription. Both sons, however, contributed poems (anonymously) and both edited heavily (Joseph particularly) many of the remaining poems by Thomas Warton the elder. The volume, which many considered to be indicative of the nature and style of poetry to come, established a reputation for Thomas Warton the elder which was undeserved. All the forward-reaching poems were by the brothers. Thomas Warton changed style and adumbrated a different aspect of his later work when he published Newmarket, a Satire (1751), and contributed to (under the pseudonym of ‘a Gentleman from Aberdeen’) and edited The Union, or, Select Scots and English Poems (1753), a miscellany containing works by William Collins, Thomas Gray, Warton's brother Joseph, Mark Akenside, and Samuel Johnson.

As early as June 1753 Warton committed himself to writing a critical work on Spenser. Observations on the ‘Fairy Queen’ of Spenser was published by Dodsley in March 1754 and was well received. ‘You have shown’, Johnson wrote to Warton on 16 July 1754, ‘to all who shall hereafter attempt the study of our ancient authours the way to success, by directing them to the perusal of the books which those authours had read’ (Oxford, Trinity College, archives). The work was not universally admired. William Huggins took exception to what Warton said about Ariosto and published (anonymously) The Observer Observ'd, or, Remarks on … Observations of the ‘Faerie Queene’ of Spenser (1756). But this was the exception. In the second edition (2 vols., 1762) Warton added commentaries on Gothic architecture, medieval poets, and romances, and on the historical method of criticizing Spenser. The quality and influence of the work was such that a critic in 1911 called it ‘the best book ever written about Spenser’ (H. E. Cory, The Critics of Spenser, 1911).

Oxford poetry and prose

As a response to William Mason's poem Isis: an Elegy (1749) Warton published The Triumph of Isis (1750), a poem praising Oxford's architecture, graduates, and history. The poem soon went into three editions and gained for the young author some early fame and status in the university. For the Encaenia of July 1751 Warton wrote an ode which William Hayes set to music.

While he was a serious scholar and poet, there was another side to Warton, that of the humorist and satirist. Early on in his time at Trinity he had been elected laureate of the bachelors' common room and in this role had written ‘Verses on Miss C—s [Cotes] and Miss W—t [Wilmot]’, published anonymously in July 1749 but written previously as separate poems. He further illustrated this aspect of his personality with ‘A Panegyric on Oxford Ale’ and ‘The Pleasures of being out of Debt’ which appeared on 31 March 1750 in The Student, an Oxford miscellany that appeared between 31 January 1750 and 3 July 1751. Both of these poems seem to have been inspired by personal experience. Warton published various other pieces of this ilk, including a number in Jackson's Oxford Journal, where he contributed ‘The Oxford Newsman's Verses, 1760’, and where he also wrote the annual verses for 1767, 1768, 1770, and 1771. In addition Warton wrote further items for The Student. His satire on Oxford guidebooks, A companion to the guide and a guide to the companion, being a complete supplement to all the accounts of Oxford hitherto published, appeared in 1760. Feeling a need to collect works by Oxford wits, Warton also contributed to and edited (anonymously) the amusing The Oxford Sausage, or, Select Poetical Pieces Written by the Most Celebrated Wits of the University of Oxford (1764).

Although much of Warton's writing about Oxford was satiric and humorous, he did write a number of more scholarly works on the subject, most notably biographies of men associated with Trinity College: Ralph Bathurst, a president of Trinity who was responsible for increasing the college's reputation and the building of the college chapel, and Sir Thomas Pope, the founder of the college, the latter piece originating in an article Warton wrote for Biographia Britannica (1760). In 1757 Warton was unanimously elected professor of poetry at Oxford, a post he held for two successive terms of five years each. Only one of his lectures, De poesi Graecorum bucolica, was printed and this was included in Warton's edition of Theocritus (1770). He did, though, publish other such works, including metrical inscriptions in Latin, ‘Inscriptionum Romanarum metricarum delectus’ (1758) and similar inscriptions in Greek (with a Latin preface), ‘Anthologae Graecae’ (1766).

Some time in the early 1750s Warton met Samuel Johnson, probably through his brother Joseph, and in 1754 Johnson stayed at Kettell Hall, Trinity College. He and Warton visited some local ruins and Warton introduced Johnson to a number of his friends, including Francis Wise, the Radclivian librarian. Altogether Warton and Johnson spent five weeks together and developed a lifelong friendship. Subsequently Warton helped in the campaign to get an MA degree for Johnson. The friendship stayed relatively strong until Johnson's death; there were however periods of coolness, perhaps resulting from Johnson's mockery of Warton's poetry, although hints of the coolness and its causes can be seen much earlier. Thomas wrote to Joseph in April 1755 about Johnson's dictionary: ‘you may plainly perceive strokes of laxity and indolence. They are two most unwieldy volumes … I fear his preface will disgust, by the expression of consciousness of superiority, and of his contempt of patronage’ (Wooll, 230–31). Johnson was aware of Warton's feelings. ‘Professors forget their friends’, he wrote to Warton, partially as a tease in reference to Warton's new professorship, but partially it seems from a sense that it was true (21 June 1757, Oxford, Trinity College, archives). Johnson asked Warton to provide some notes for his Shakespeare and nineteen of these appeared in the appendix to the 1765 edition. Forty-nine appeared in the Oxford edition of 1770–71. Later editors, including Steevens and Malone, used these notes in their editions. However, Warton was unhappy with Johnson's Lives where Johnson criticized Milton and Gray and the tradition of historical criticism which Warton stood for.

On 7 December 1767 Warton took the degree of BD. In 1771 he was elected a fellow of the London Society of Antiquaries, and that year he was appointed to the small living of Kiddington, Oxfordshire; he later wrote a history of the parish. After his brother was appointed usher (assistant master) at Winchester College, and especially after Joseph became headmaster in 1766, Warton spent time there each year, studying the landscape and enjoying rambles to various local attractions. His sense of humour displayed itself often when he joined in pranks with the schoolboys (occasionally writing their exercises with just enough errors to avoid suspicion), behaviour which some thought rather below an Oxford don.

The History of English Poetry

Warton probably started thinking in the early 1750s about what was to become his greatest project, but the serious writing of The history of English poetry, from the close of the eleventh to the commencement of the eighteenth century did not begin until 1769. Volume 1 appeared in 1774; volume 2 in 1778, and volume 3 in 1781. Warton decided on a chronological method in looking at the history of poetry. The work is, at times, obscure, and turgid. Warton's lists of manuscripts, his digressions, and his frequent quotations from long-lost poets often make the reading of the History heavy going. However, many of these quotations provided readers with the only accessible text of the poems and as such proved invaluable in creating an interest in the poetry of the past. Most contemporaries had great respect for the History, but not all. Joseph Ritson published a rather eccentric criticism of the work in 1782. His Observations of the First Three Volumes of the ‘History of English Poetry’ points out many errors of fact, misinterpretations, and other ‘falsehoods’. But Ritson's views were in the minority. Most agreed with the writer in the Gentleman's Magazine who wrote, commenting on volume 3: ‘This volume, like the former, does equal credit to Mr. Warton's taste, judgment, and erudition, and makes us impatiently desirous of more’ (GM, 1st ser., 51, 1781, 230). The ‘more’ never appeared although Warton did begin work on volume 4. Why volume 4 never appeared has not been determined. It may be because at this time Warton became interested in producing an edition of Milton, but a comment by Samuel Deane in 1794 may provide a more accurate reason and also some insight into Warton's personality: ‘Often have I regretted that the late Mr. Warton was too indolent to complete his proposed History … I have always understood that he wanted a spur to take pen in hand’ (Nicholls, Illustrations, 6.633–4). Although by later standards of accuracy and inclusion the work would be considered unacceptable, it really is remarkable considering the time of its creation and the materials Warton had to work with. And the History has had far-reaching effects. Early in the next century Sir Walter Scott called it an ‘immense commonplace book … from the perusal of which we rise, our fancy delighted with beautiful imagery, and with the happy analysis of ancient tale and song’ (Edinburgh Review, 7 April 1804, 153). The History, despite its density and its digressions, cleared the way for later historians and gave legitimacy both to the study of early English poetry and to the historical method of doing so.

In 1777 Thomas Tyrwhitt's edition of the poems of Thomas Rowley began a controversy which, because of its concern with the authenticity of poems allegedly from the fifteenth century, naturally drew in the historian of English poetry. Initially Warton had felt that the poems were spurious and said so in a letter to Percy (25 January 1776) ‘I owe, I lean to the side of the forgery’ (BL, Add. MS 32329, fols. 83–4). In his History (2.139–64) Warton concluded, after examining internal evidence, spelling, and diction, that the poems were not from the fifteenth century. ‘It is with regret that I find myself obligated to pronounce the Rowlie poems to be spurious’ (2.164). He enlarged on this opinion later in An Enquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems Attributed to Thomas Rowley (1782). In this he admitted that he had made some errors in the History, but he concluded, firmly and convincingly, that the poems were forgeries; his opinion was taken as the final word and as accurate, and was corroborated by W. W. Skeat's edition of Chatterton which appeared in 1871.

In 1785 Warton issued an edition of Milton's shorter poems which received praises in the Critical Review, the Monthly Review, and the Gentleman's Magazine. Warton contemplated a second edition which was to include Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes and by 1789 had revised the 1785 edition with hopes that volume 2 would be out by April 1790. All the notes for the second volume were lost after Warton's death, so that all that appeared was the revised edition of volume 1 in 1791. The edition is considered by many to be the best eighteenth-century edition of Milton and some of Warton's comments give an indication of his beliefs. He censured Milton for his politics and believed that Milton lost his sight and wasted his poetic genius working for the parliamentary cause. It is nevertheless clear that Warton admired Milton's work, even to the point of defending him against the strictures of his old friend Johnson. In a letter to Richard Hurd after Johnson's death, Warton says that Milton ‘has been depreciated by Dr. Johnson, a specious and popular writer, without taste’ (6 April 1785, Hartlebury Castle, Hurd Library, bound MSS V, Warton 9).

Poet laureate

Although he had spent much of his time writing criticism, Warton continued to write poetry and his first volume of collected poems was published in 1777. The volume was quite popular and went into a number of editions. Warton's Verses on Sir Joshua Reynolds's Painted Window at New College (1782) was much admired by Reynolds and other contemporaries. Warton the poet reflected the many facets of Warton the man. Many of his poems, especially ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy’, show the influence of Milton, while many others demonstrate Warton's love of nature (‘The First of April’, ‘On the Approach of Summer’) and of the past (‘The Grave of King Arthur’). His revival of the sonnet form was particularly important and had a lasting effect, while his satire and humorous pieces may still be read with pleasure. His poetry, written over many years, is some of the best of the period 1745–90. He had a particular influence over a number of old Wykehamists who studied at Trinity College. William Lisle Bowles, Henry Headley, and Thomas Russell all became poets after the Warton fashion. Bowles in particular was influenced by Warton and his 1789 volume of sonnets had in turn a great influence on Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth (S. T. Coleridge, Biographia literaria, 1817, chap. 1). Southey commented in 1825: ‘If any man may be called the father of the present race, it is Thomas Warton’ (Quarterly Review, 31, 1824–5, 289).

Largely through the influence and intercession of Reynolds, Warton was made poet laureate upon the death of William Whitehead in 1785. Warton's first official poem as laureate, an ode on the king's birthday, was somewhat hurried and perhaps his weakest work as laureate, and occasioned a satirical look at the laureateship, the Probationary Odes. This was a volume of poems written by a number of supposed candidates for the laureateship. As part of the satire, included in the volume were actual poems by Warton. He nevertheless took the incident in good part and did not feel any rancour towards the perpetrators, allegedly Richard Tickell and Joseph Richardson.

On 5 March 1782 Warton was admitted into the Literary Club, and although it is not certain how many meetings he was able to attend in London, he was a popular, and respected, member. He had, however, already known and corresponded with many of the members including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Percy, and Edmond Malone. In 1785 Warton was elected Camden professor of history at Oxford; his inaugural lecture was printed by his biographer, Richard Mant. During his lifetime Warton held a number of preferments after being ordained a priest on 10 March 1754. On 27 April 1755 he became curate of Woodstock, Oxfordshire, a post he held until 3 April 1774. He was appointed chaplain to the Royal Lancashire regiment, stationed in Winchester, on 24 July 1762. Lord Lichfield gave him the living of Kiddington, Oxfordshire, in October 1771, and Trinity College gave him the perpetual curacy of Hill Farrance, Somerset, in August 1782.

Warton generally enjoyed good health, but gout forced him to spend some time in Bath during 1788. In the winter of 1789–90 Warton and brother Joseph attended meetings of the Literary Club in London but at the beginning of May Thomas suffered a small stroke which affected one of his hands and on 20 May he suffered a paralytic stroke in the senior common room at Trinity College, Oxford, and died the following day. He was unmarried. Warton was buried in the ante-chapel of Trinity on 27 May. The chair in which he is said to have been taken ill is preserved in the old library of the college. At his death all his effects, including his papers, were passed to his brother Joseph who kept them until his own death in 1800.

Jane Warton was to defend Thomas's character from some of what she perceived as criticism in Mant's memoir prefixed to his edition of Warton's poems.
That Mr. Warton was totally free from pride, is certain; and that he might occasionally have drunk ale with inferior persons is possible; but, in my long acquaintance with him, I never knew that he was fond of, or kept low company.
She defends what others had criticized earlier: ‘Mr. Warton was above the middle size, well made, stout, but never large, till latter in life, with a most pleasing countenance.’ Concerning his manner of speaking she says: ‘There was, indeed, sometimes a quickness in his manner, from the fulness of his mind; but I never heard it was thought a defect’ (GM, 1st ser., 1803, 329–32, 396).

One modern critic has called the years from 1740 to 1790 more truly the ‘Age of Warton than the Age of Johnson’ (Fairer, Correspondence, xix). This is an accurate assessment. Warton's literary work really involved three kinds of literary history, beginning with his edition of Spenser, followed by his History of English Poetry, and culminating in his edition of Milton. All these, each in its own way, was a new examining of English poetry and provided a new validation for it. His indirect yet important contributions to Shakespearian scholarship changed that discipline for ever. His poetry, particularly the sonnets, influenced later generations. His antiquarianism, demonstrated in various digressions and other works, lent a credibility to that area of study. All of this makes Thomas Warton a difficult character to assess. He was more at ease with Oxford bargemen or drinking ale in a public tavern than he was as poet laureate or attending meetings of the Literary Club or in the palaces of the great, where he was often shy and retiring. He was a serious scholar whose critical methods and serious analysis of Spenser, Milton, and early English poetry were influential and admired, but at the same time he was a poet and writer of humour and satire. He enjoyed and revelled in the study and writing of history, yet he embarrassed his brother at Winchester by playing pranks with the boys. A multifaceted personality whose large amount of work and whose character were influential in his time and later, Warton was a writer whose importance was truly recognized only well after his death. An annual lecture on English poetry, given in tribute to Warton, has been organized by the British Academy since 1910.

Hugh Reid


The correspondence of Thomas Warton, ed. D. Fairer (1995) · J. Vance, Joseph and Thomas Warton: an annotated bibliography (1983) · J. Vance, Joseph and Thomas Warton (1983) · R. Mant, The poetical works of Thomas Warton (1802) · BL, Murray collection, Add. MSS 42560–42561 · Swann papers, Bodl. Oxf., Trinity College · Winchester College, Fellows' Library, Warton papers · H. Reid, ‘The printing of Joseph Warton's Odes’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 84 (1990), 151–7 · H. Reid, ‘The letters of Joseph Warton’, PhD diss., U. Lond., 1987 · D. Fairer, ‘The poems of Thomas Warton the elder?’, Review of English Studies, new ser., 26 (1975), 287–300, 395–406 · D. Fairer, ‘The poems of Thomas Warton the elder? A postscript’, Review of English Studies, new ser., 29 (1978), 61–5 · Biographical memoirs of the late Rev Joseph Warton, ed. J. Wooll (1806) · DNB


BL, corresp., Add. MSS 42560–42561, Egerton MS 24000 · BL, memorandum book and diary, Add. MS 11139 · BL, heavily annotated copies of Spenser's Faerie queene and Prosopopoeia · Bodl. Oxf., corresp., literary MSS, and papers, deps. b 220–221, c 547–550, 635–643, d 483–487, 586–683, e 245, 276–295, 305, f 43 · JRL, notebook · Trinity College, Oxford, archives · Yale U., Beinecke L., papers |  BL, letters to Edmond Malone, Add. MS 30375 · BL, letters to Thomas Percy, Add. MS 32329 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lord Guilford, MSS North d 14, 17 · Bodl. Oxf., Lee papers, MS Don. c. 75


C. H. Hodges, engraving, pubd 1784 (after J. Reynolds, 1784), NPG [see illus.] · J. Reynolds, oils, c.1784, Trinity College, Oxford · W. Holl, engraving (after J. Reynolds), repro. in Mant, Poetical works of Thomas Warton · W. P. Sherlock, engraving (after J. Reynolds), repro. in Nichols, Illustrations, vol. 4

Wealth at death  

papers and effects to Joseph Warton: Correspondence of Thomas Warton, ed. Fairer