Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 20. His History of English Poetry

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

X. The Literary Influence of the Middle Ages

§ 20. His History of English Poetry

The History of English Poetry (in three volumes, 1774, 1778, 1781) was severely criticised; not only, as by Ritson, for inaccuracy, but, even more severely, for incoherence. Scott is merciless on this head:

  • As for the late laureate, it is well known that he never could follow a clue of any kind. With a head abounding in multifarious lore, and a mind unquestionably imbued with true poetic fire, he wielded that most fatal of all implements to its possessor, a pen so scaturient and unretentive, that we think he must have been often astonished not only at the extent of his lucubrations, but at their total and absolute want of connection with the subject he had assigned to himself.
  • This does not make allowance enough, either for the difficulties of Warton’s explorations or for the various purposes of literary history. Warton certainly had no gift for historical construction. But the art of Gibbon is not required for every history, and the history of literature can spare a coherent plan, so long as the historian provides such plenty of samples as Warton always gives. Obviously, in literature, the separate facts may be interesting and intelligible, while the bare facts of political history can but rarely be such. The relation of book to book is not like the relation of one battle to another in the same war, or of one political act to the other events of a king’s reign. In literary history, desultory reading and writing need not be senseless or useless; and Warton’s work has and retains an interest and value which will outlast many ingenious writings of critics more thoroughly disciplined. Further, his biographer Mant has ground for his opinion (contrary to Scott’s) that Warton

  • can trace the progress of the mind, not merely as exemplified in the confined exertions of an individual, but in a succession of ages, and in the pursuits and acquirements of a people.
  • There is more reasoning and more coherence in Warton’s history than Scott allows.