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Art. V.- The Life of Richard Porson, M. A., Professor of
Greek in the University of Cambridge from 1792 to 1808. By
the Rev. John SELBY WATSON, M.A. London: 1861. The age is past for the public in general to take a strong in
terest in the labours of classical scholars. Modern literature has, in the present century, inevitably, and perhaps rightfully, supplanted its elder brother. We still pronounce with reverence the names of the orators, poets, and philosophers of Greece and Rome, but our sympathy is with the moderns, who, being of the time, speak directly to it upon subjects that concern us more nearly than the woes of · Thebes and Pelops' line,' or the peril of Athens from the Macedonian. We use the classical writers as the Roman soldiers used the weapons assigned them for drill; modern writers as the same soldiers used their actual weapons in battle. The former are the more massive, and therefore the better suited for bracing and making pliant the sinews, but the latter are the effective instruments for combat, easier to lift, lighter to handle, and better adapted for offence and defence.
The time, however, is not remote from us, in which to be a first-rate Greek or Latin scholar was also a first-rate testimonial for employment in church and state. The man who could write Ovidian elegies on the birth, the marriage, or death of kings, or treat in Ciceronian prose of what the Turk or what the Pope intended, or correct the text of Æschylus or Polybius, was deemed to have passed his competitive examination. The great Henry angled for Joseph Scaliger and caught Isaac Casaubon for his Royal Library at Paris, after negotiations nearly as prolix as would now suffice for a commercial treaty. Queen Christina appointed Hugo Grotius her envoy to France and drew to her arctic zone that master of erudition Claudius Salmasius, and that professor of ancient graces Meibomius - even him who professed to understand what nobody before or since has understood, the music of the Greeks, and who performed, in the presence of the Queen and courtiers, the Pyrrhic dance, attired in a Spartan kilt and cuirass, with the thermometer probably below zero. But the Astræa of scholarship, no less than of justice, has now quitted the earth. Even to have edited a Greek play no longer leads up to the episcopal bench ; indeed, if we may judge by some recent appointments, barbarians have a better chance than Greeks of wearing aprons and lawn sleeves. The graceful Iambics of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the classical accomplishments of the Home Secretary, still attest the vitality of English scholarship, and do honour to our Universities; but these statesmen owe their political eminence to parliamentary oratory and modern political science.
Had learning in his day been considered the proper discipline for a cabinet minister, no man would have had a better chance of office than Richard Bentley. He had not indeed the spirit of wisdom or of meekness, but he possessed beyond his fellows the spirit of government. We must send Bentley,'Bishop Stillingfleet is reported to have said, 'to rule the turbulent fellows of *Trinity. If anybody can do it he is the man, for I am sure that ' he has ruled my family ever since he entered it.' However this may have been, Bentley, when he came to his realm in Trinity College, showed no prentice hand in winning the humble and bending the necks of the proud. Nor were Miller and Colbatch, or ‘fiddling Conyers'--with which title Bentley saddled no less a person than Dr. Conyers Middleton, the biographer of Cicero, by any means contemptible adversaries. To Bentley - though Miller was an expert lawyer, and Colbatch and Middleton were well-trained casuists — they and the turbulent fellows' of Trinity, though doubly exasperated by the master's attacks on their purses and their privileges, succumbed. He was really invincible, and the gods fought on his side.' Fortune, it may be said, highly favoured him, inasmuch as obstacles vanished at the very moment when it was most important for Bentley that they should do so. Yet although ministers changed, and the Bishop of Ely and Queen Anne were even obliging enough to die at the most critical moment of the contest, and by so changing or dying released Bentley from the toils into which, after repeatedly breaking the nets, he had been at last forced by the hunters, yet not to Fortune entirely belongs the credit of his escape or of his final triumph. Indeed he was never so dangerous as when he was apparently defeated. His plans were so skilfully laid ; his vigilance was so unceasing; his activity was so portentous - a very répas of activity, as Cicero said of Cæsar
- his vis inertie, when sullen resistance was needed, so strong; he was so complete a bully, he was so adroit a courtier, that he might justly attribute to his own right hand his final victory.
But for the community of their pursuits, Richard Porson, whose history we are now briefly to survey, belonged to a different order of men from this the elder brood of scholastic Titans. Neither king nor minister made, or hearkened to proposals to make, him even a gentleman-usher or a poor knight of Windsor. Yet Porson fairly earned, and fully deserved, the reputation he had in life, and holds to the present moment; and that he was by universal consent, as well as by Dr. Parr's admission, the first Greek scholar in Europe,' was not his only nor his most conspicuous merit. Why we esteem him so highly, in spite of one notorious vice and some coarseness of nature, we shall attempt to show in the following sketch of him.
There have been many sketches, contemporary and posthumous, of Richard Porson; and he has been attacked and defended by more than one bishop, and by several continental and English scholars. The book now before us
throws into some kind of order the several particulars concerning him which have hitherto been suffered, for the most part, to lie scattered and unconnected, and to combine with them any additional information regarding him that might be discoverable.' Mr. Watson has performed his task, on the whole, carefully and conscientiously; and, though he is neither a graceful nor a lively writer, he has perhaps told us all that can or need be told of one whose life was almost as incoherent as Horace's imaginary picture of a human head set on a horse's shoulders.
Mr. Watson needed some judicious friend to counsel him in more than one chapter of his book. He is
He is prone to indulge in solemn platitudes and the 'genre ennuyeux' of writing, that style which Voltaire pronounced the only one that was entirely bad. He opens his narrative with remarks on biography which seem inspired by the spirit of Sir John Hawkins himself. Even the Tract Society, in its memoirs of pattern men, does not prose more tediously than our biographer in his prefatory remarks.
We have also to complain that Mr. Watson has done Porson a two-fold wrong:
first, by translating some of his excellent Latin into indifferent English, and then by doing or having done into indifferent Latin some of his excellent English. Now no one, we imagine, who is not to some extent clerkly, will take up this book for amusement; and every one who is clerkly will be able to construe easily a few pages of as perspicuous Latin as was ever penned by a modern hand. For transposing a few lines from the Orgies of Bacchus under the
obscurity of a learned language,' we can see no possible pretext. Out of a pulpit, the passage is as free from objection as a paragraph from the Whole Duty of Man.
We now come to a graver offence. If the anathema against those who have been beforehand with us in the utterance of a jest or maxim be just, much more should those who mar a tale in telling it be abominable and excommunicate. Now this is Mr. Watson's crime in the following striking, and in some less grave instances :
On the eve of the publication of the Diatribe,' [Gilbert Wakefield's Diatribe extemporalis in Euripidis Hecubam Londini nuper publicatam 1797,], ‘Porson is said to have been at a club to which he belonged, consisting of seven members and a president: when, in the course of the evening, the president proposed that each of the members should toast a friend, accompanying his name with a suitable quotation from Shakspeare. When Porson's turn came, he said, “ I'll give you my friend, Gilbert Wakefield. What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba.""
'Spectatum admissi risum teneatis?' Yes, good sir, we can hardly afford you even a well-bred simper for this version of the story. In the main, your account of the Lex Convivalis of the evening is correct. A name was to be given and a quotation from Shakspeare tacked to it by each of the guests. But even an ordinary man and a Christian,' such man having recently edited the Hecuba of Euripides,' might without any cudgelling of his brain have hit upon a passage familiar, • lippis tonsoribus atque,' — might, we say, provided only he were there and then commonly sober, or, at least, not particularly drunk. But Porson in that place and hour was particularly drunk, and what is more, he was prostrate, and his friends esteemed him as one dead. So the president was passing on to the next member of this jovial octad, when Porson exclaimed, • It is my turn,-Gilbert Wakefield.' Good, Mr. Professor, but not enough: quote, if you please, as well as name: our law, like that of the Medes and Persians, altereth not.' • What's • Hic, hic, huc-Hecuba to him or he to Hic, hic, huc Hecuba,' roared the indignant Professor— Bacchi plenus,' indeed, but not so full as to be emptied of his ever-ready wit and faithful memory
It is no reproach to Mr. Watson to have known nothing personally of Walter Whiter, whom he twice mentions in his book. But it is some reproach to him, while collecting old things and new on such a theme, not to have been more curious about this individual. Mr. Watson leads no one to suppose that Whiter was more than a common acquaintance of Porson's,- the fact being that he was Porson's most intimate friend, and a scholar whom he, usually so chary of praise, marked and noted as a ripe and good one.
Among the persons to whom Mr. Watson expresses his acknowledgments for assistance in his work is the Rev. C. W. Whiter, rector of Clown, Derbyshire, nephew of Walter. From him, unless we are mistaken, the biographer might have heard anecdotes of Porson that would have greatly benefited and enlivened his pages.
As Mr. Watson has been incurious about this fidus Achates of his hero, we will take the freedom to enlighten the reader on this matter: more especially as Porson's friend and gossip had very substantial merits of his own.
First, let us hear what Mr. Watson is good enough to tell, — One fellow-collegian of Porson's, with whom he was very intimate, was Walter Whiter, afterwards rector of Hardingham, and well known to classical scholars. He would go into • Whiter's rooms, open whatever book Whiter would allow him
to take, and, with any pen he could find on the table, write notes on the margin in the neatest of hands.' These annotations, by the way, were made years after Mr. Watson's apparent chronology of them; for in 1778-9-80 Whiter and Porson were reading for their degrees, whereas the notes were written after the one had become Fellow of Clare Hall, and the other of Trinity College. Mr. Whiter's nephew possesses a copy of «« Athenæus" that belonged to his uncle, in which are many “annotations written by Porson with the greatest distinctness, though the paper is porous.'
Porson opened' much beside the books which Whiter would allow him to take' in his friend's garret,- his heart, his wallet of learning, and bottles without number. For although Whiter avoided the excesses of his friend, he was one of those who love to hear the chimes at midnight, and could imbibe old Greek and old wine in as full measure as Dr. Parr himself. His and Porson's studies for a while ran parallel; and some of the articles contributed by Whiter to the Monthly Review, one especially, on Plutarch's "Moralia,' in which he defends Euripides against all maligners, ancient or modern, have a Porsonian flavour both in scholarship and style. Like Porson also, he was deeply read in English and French literature, and, had he kept within these bounds or remained constant to Greek, his first love, the friends might have been described as similes 'if not as 'pares.' But Whiter, we think, in an evil hour for the permanence of his reputation, wandered into the devious tracts of Comparative Philology, formed crude theories about the origin of language, and scattered over three quarto volumes—the new Etymologicon Magnum-powers which, if concentrated on Euripides or Shakspeare, might have seated him, if a little below Porson, far above Steevens, Farmer, and Malone. His specimen of a Commentary on Shakspeare is a "liber aureus,' and fully entitled him to the epithet of Dorceus, the sharp-sighted, conferred on him by the author of the Pursuits of Literature.' Among the quantity of rubbish shot by the commentators upon the unhappy bard, this thin octavo shines like the gem which the cock found and spurned. He was less happy in a later attempt to prove that doctors and nurses slay more people than pestilence