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IN an age advanced to the highest degree of refinement, that species of curiosity commences, which is busied in contemplating the progress of social life, in displaying the gradations of science, and in tracing the transitions from barbarism to civility.
That these speculations should become the favourite pursuits, and the fashionable topics, of such a period, is extremely natural. We look back on the savage condition of our ancestors with the triumph of superiority; we are pleased to mark the steps by which we have been raised from rudeness to elegance : and our reflections on this subject are accompanied with a conscious pride, arising in great measure from a tacit comparison of the infinite disproportion between the feeble efforts of remote ages, and our present improvements in knowledge.
In the mean time, the manners, monuments, customs, practices, and opinions of antiquity, by forming so strong a contrast with those of our own times, and
by exhibiting human nature and human inventions in new lights, in unexpected appearances, and in various forms, are objects which forcibly strike a feeling imagination.
Nor does this spectacle afford nothing more than a fruitless gratification to the fancy. It teaches us to set a just estimation on our own acquisitions; and encourages us to cherish that cultivation, which is so closely connected with the existence and the exercise of every social virtue.
On these principles, to develope the dawnings of genius, and to pursue the progress of our national poetry, from a rude origin and obscure beginnings, to its perfection in a polished age, must prove an interesting and instructive investigation. But a history of poetry, for another reason, yet on the same principles, must be more especially productive of entertainment and utility. I mean, as it is an art, whose object is human society: as it has the peculiar merit, in its operations on that object, of faithfully recording the features of the times, and of preserving the most picturesque and expressive representations of manners : and, because the first monuments of composition in every nation are those of the poet, as it possesses the additional advantage of transmitting to posterity genuine delineations of life in its simplest stages. Let me add, that anecdotes of the rudiments of a favourite art will always be particularly pleasing. The more early specimens of poetry must ever amuse, in pro
portion to the pleasure which we receive from its finished productions,
Much however depends on the execution of such a design®, and my readers are to decide in what degree I have done justice to so specious and promising a disquisition. Yet a few more words will not be perhaps improper, in vindication, or rather in explanation, of the manner in which my work has been conducted. I am sure I do not mean, nor can I pretend, to apologise for its defects.
I have chose to exhibit the history of our poetry in a chronological series: not distributing my matter into detached articles, of periodical divisions, or of general heads. Yet I have not always adhered so scrupulously to the regularity of annals, but that I have often deviated into incidental digressions; and have sometimes stopped in the course of my career, for the sake of recapitulation, for the purpose of collecting scattered notices into a single and uniform point of view, for the more exact inspection of a topic which required a separate consideration, or for a comparative survey of the poetry of other nations.
A few years ago, Mr. Mason, with that liberality * [Ritson has observed that “The errare: since it may be considered History of English Poetry stands as one of the highest testimonies to high in public estimation; that the the merits of Mr. Warton's elabosubject is equally curious, interest- rate and multifarious publication, ing and abstruse; and that he should that Ritson himself, in his lynx-eyed have experienced satisfaction in find- scrutiny, has detected little more ing the work entirely free from error." than what a liberal and candid mind Obs. p. 2. This was penned, alas! would have communicated to the with a selfish disregard to that ur- historian as a mere table of errata. bane moral maxim humanum est -PARK.]
which ever accompanies true genius, gave me an authentic copy of Mr. Pope's scheme of a History of English Poetry, in which our poets were classed under their supposed respective schools. The late lamented Mr. Gray had also projected a work of this kind, and translated some Runic odes for its illustration, now published; but soon relinquishing the prosecution of a design, which would have detained him from his own noble inventions, he most obligingly condescended to favour me with the substance of his plan, which I found to be that of Mr. POPE", considerably enlarged, extended, and improved.
It is vanity in me to have mentioned these communications. But I am apprehensive my vanity will justly be thought much greater, when it shall appear, that in giving the history of English poetry, I have rejected the ideas of men who are its most distinguished ornaments. To confess the real truth, upon examination and experiment, I soon discovered their mode of treating my subject, plausible as it is, and brilliant in theory, to be attended with difficulties and inconveniencies, and productive of embarrassment both to the reader and the writer. Like other ingenious systems,
[See Pope's plan for a History mistakes in the classification of our of English Poetry, with another English poets by Pope; and Dr. formed upon it by Gray, together Warton made a new arrangement with a letter to Warton in the Gent. of them into four different classes Mag. for 1783. It has also been and degrees, because he thought we inserted by Mr. Mant and Mr. A. do not sufficiently attend to the difChalmers in their Lives of Warton. ference between a man of wit, a man Mr. Malone, in vol. 3. of Dryden's of sense, and a true poet. Ded. to Prose Works, pointed out several Essay on Pope.-PARK.]
it sacrificed much useful intelligence to the observance of arrangement; and in the place of that satisfaction which results from a clearness and a fulness of information, seemed only to substitute the merit of disposition, and the praise of contrivance. The constraint imposed by a mechanical attention to this distribution, appeared to me to destroy that free exertion of research with which such a history ought to be executed, and not easily reconcileable with that complication, variety, and extent of materials, which it ought to comprehend.
The method I have pursued, on one account at least, seems preferable to all others. My performance, in its present form, exhibits without transposition the gradual improvements of our poetry, at the same time that it uniformly represents the progression of our language.
Some perhaps will be of opinion, that these annals ought to have commenced with a view of the Saxon poetry. But besides that a legitimate illustration of that jejune and intricate subject would have almost doubled my labour, that the Saxon language is familiar only to a few learned antiquaries, that our Saxon poems are for the most part little more than religious rhapsodies, and that scarce any compositions remain marked with the native images of that people in their pagan state', every reader that reflects but for a mo
· [This subject has since been very which the antiquarian reader is reably and learnedly illustrated by the ferred.-PARK. pen of Mr. Sharon Turner, in his * [To evince the unhappy tenHistory of the Anglo-Saxons, to dency of Ritson's criticisms on Mr.