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He was born at Stockton-on-Tees, of a Westmorland yeoman family. He was educated for the law, and settled in London as a conveyancer at the age of twenty-two. He devoted his spare time to literature, and in 1782 published an attack on Thomas Warton's History of English Poetry. The tone of his Observations, in which Warton was treated as a pretender, charged with cheating and lying to cover his ignorance, caused a 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 Ritsons delight. In 1783 Samuel Johnson and George Steevens were attacked 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).
Ritson 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. Sir Walter 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 his wife that he was threatened with being thrown out of the window.
Spelling was one of his eccentricities, his own name being an example: Ritson is short for Richardson. As early as 1796, Ritson showed signs of mental collapse, and on September 10 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.
- This entry incorporates public domain text originally from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.
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