The peculiar tastes and pursuits of the antiquary frequently give him a strong individuality, which, with a little exaggeration, may produce caricature. He seldom appears in the pages of the novelist or dramatist in other than a ridiculous light, being depicted generally either as a foolish collector of despicable trifles, or a half-witted good-natured twaddler. That all this is unjust, will be readily conceded in the present day, when archæological studies have become ‘fashionable,’ and soirees are given in rooms filled with antiquities as an extra attraction. Among the numerous antiquaries, who, by their labours, have rendered important services to the literature of their country, none has surpassed Joseph Ritson, who was himself an excellent example of the painstaking and enthusiastic scholar, but unfortunately disfigured by eccentricity and irritability, which ‘point a moral’ in his otherwise useful career.
Ritson was born October 2, 1752, at Stockton-upon-Tees, Durham, and was bred to the legal profession; he ultimately came to London, entered Gray’s Inn, and was called to the bar by the society there in 1789. He appears to have restricted himself to chamber-practice, and to have neglected in a great degree that calling also, that he might indulge in the more congenial study of our older poets. In his readings at the Bodleian Library and elsewhere, he quietly garnered a multitude of facts — a scrupulous accuracy regarding which was one of his distinguishing characteristics, and an absence of it in any work was deemed by him as little inferior to a moral delinquency. His first appearance in the literary arena , was an attack on Warton’s History of English Poetry, in which he proved himself a most formidable antagonist. His ‘observations’ were printed in a quarto pamphlet in 1782, uniform with Warton’s volumes, because, as he remarks with a grim jocularity, ‘they are extremely proper to be bound up with that celebrated work.’ The boldness of his invective, and the accuracy of his objections, at once stamped him as no contemptible critic. But he was unfortunately wanting in temper and charity — errors were crimes with him and treated accordingly. No better illustration of his mode of criticism could be given than the passage on the death of Marlow, who died in a fray, from a wound given by his own dagger turned against him by his adversary. Warton, in describing the wound, says it was in his bosom. Ritson at once fires up because he finds no authority for the exact spot, and thus addresses Warton: ‘Your propensity to corruption and falsehood seems so natural, that I have been sometimes tempted to believe you often substitute a lie in the place of a fact without knowing it. How else you came to tell us that Marlow was stabbed in the bosom I cannot conceive.’ In other instances, Ritson had more justice on his side, and really combated serious error, for Warton by no means understood old English as well as he did; thus, when the sultan of Damascus is described at riding to attack Richard Cœur de Lion, the romance tells us,
‘ a faucon brode in hand he bare;’
which means, that he came with a broad falchion or sabre. Warton, unfortunately, interprets the import of the passage to be that the sultan carried a falcon on his fist, to shew his contempt for Richard. Ritson, upon this, bursts forth into unmeasured invective: ‘such un-paralleled ignorance, such matchless effrontery, is not, Mr Warton, in my humble opinion, worthy of anything but castigation and contempt.’ To Dr Percy and his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, he is no whit more civil; and in subsequent publications, he continued his attacks, until the good bishop heartily regretted ever having concocted a work that has given, and will continue to give, pleasure to thousands, and has aided in spreading a knowledge of the beauties of our old ballad-poetry, before comparatively unknown. Percy, unfortunately, worked from an ill-written and imperfect manuscript, and he did not scruple to draw upon his own invention to supply what was wanting. This was a crime not to be forgiven in the eyes of Ritson, who would have walked from London to Oxford to collate a manuscript, or correct an error. Percy desired to make his work popular, an object in which he certainly succeeded, but Ritson’s attacks embittered his triumph; and were carried by the antiquary so far, as to needlessly annoy the worthy prelate, for he ultimately denied the existence of the manuscript from which Percy professed to have obtained his originals. Ritson had no patience for looseness of diction or assertion; and an amusing anecdote of this is given by Sir Walter Scott, who was intimate with him. He had visited Sir Walter at his cottage near Lasswade, and, in the course of conversation, spoke of the remains of the Roman Wall in the border counties as not above a foot or two in height, on the authority of some friend at Hexham. Sir Walter assured him, that near Gilsland ‘it was high enough for the fall to break a man’s neck.’ Ritson took a formal note, visited the spot afterwards, and then wrote to say he had tested the assertion and found it accurate. ‘I immediately saw,’ says Sir Walter, ‘what a risk I had been in, for you may believe I had no idea of being taken quite so literally.’
Ritson’s Select Collection of English Songs appeared in 1783, and in after-years he published a series of volumes on our Robin-Hood ballads, and ancient popular literature. These were far superior in character to anything of the kind that had before appeared in the literary world, being remarkable alike for their erudition and accuracy. His volumes are elegantly printed, and the few illustrations in them are among the most graceful productions of the pencil of Stothard. It is sad to remember that Ritson lost money by those admirable works. He was too painstaking and accurate for general appreciation, and the public could read easier the books of looser compilation. His last days were clouded by further pecuniary losses, arising from unfortunate speculations, and being obliged to sell his books, he naturally became more irritable than ever. His opinions underwent important changes, and from being a decided Jacobite he became a liberal in the widest sense of the French Revolution, whose heroes he worshiped, and whose unfortunate religious ideas he also adopted.
Sir Walter Scott said of Ritson, "he had a honesty of principle about him, which, if it went to ridiculous extremities, was still respectable from the soundness of the foundation. I don’t believe the world could have made Ritson say the thing he did not think." Surtees adds, "that excessive aspiration after absolute and exact verity, I verily believe, was one cause of that unfortunate asperity with which he treated some most respectable contemporaries." In Ritson, then, we may study the evil effects of a narrowed view of truth itself, when combined with an irritable temper. Hated as a critic, while respected as a scholar, he rendered himself unnecessarily an object of dislike and aversion, whilst with a little more suavity he might have fulfilled his mission equally well. To him we are undoubtedly indebted for a more exact rendering of our ancient authors, which has guarded them from that loose editorship which was Ritson’s abomination. His name and works, therefore, take an important place in the literary history. His personal errors, and their consequences, should also be a warning to such critics as needlessly turn their pens to poniards and their ink to gall.