Joseph Ritson - Encyclopedia

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JOSEPH RITSON (1752-1803), English antiquary, was born at Stockton-on-Tees, of a Westmorland yeoman family, on the 2nd of October 1752. He was educated for the law, and settled in London as a conveyancer when twenty-two. He devoted his spare time to literature, and in 1782 published an attack on Warton's History of English Poetry. The fierce and insulting tone of his Observations, in which Warton was treated as a showy pretender, and charged with cheating and lying to cover his ignorance, made a great sensation in literary circles. In nearly all the small points with which he dealt Ritson was in the right, and his corrections have since been adopted, but the unjustly bitter language of his criticisms roused great anger at the time, much, it would appear, to Ritson's delight. In 1783 Johnson and Steevens were assailed in the same bitter fashion as Warton for their text. of Shakespeare. Bishop Percy was next subjected to a furious onslaught in the preface to a collection of Ancient Songs (printed 1787, dated 1790, published 1792). The only thing that can be said in extenuation of Ritson's unmatchable acrimony is that he spared no pains himself to ensure accuracy in the texts of old songs, ballads and metrical romances which he edited. His collection of the Robin Hood ballads is perhaps his greatest single achievement. Scott, who admired his industry and accuracy in spite of his temper, was almost the only man who could get on with him. On one occasion, when he called in Scott's absence, he spoke so rudely to Mrs Scott that Leyden, who was present, threatened to "thraw his neck" and throw him out of the window. Spelling was one of his eccentricities, his own name being an example: Ritson is short pronunciation for Richardson. As early as 1796 Ritson showed signs of mental collapse, and on the 10th of September 1803 he became completely insane, barricaded himself in his chambers at Gray's Inn, made a bonfire of manuscripts, and was finally forcibly removed to Hoxton, where he died on the 23rd of the month.

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