1902 Encyclopedia > Richard Porson

Richard Porson
English classical scholar

RICHARD PORSON (1759-1808), in some respects the greatest of modern Greek scholars, was born on Christmas Day 1759 at East Ruston, near North Walsham, in Norfolk, the eldest son of Mr Huggin Porson, parish clerk of the place. His mother was the daughter of a shoemaker named Palmer, of the neighbouring village of Bacton. He was sent first to the village school at Bacton, kept by Mr John Woodrow, and afterwards to that of Happisburgh, kept by Mr Summers. Here his extraordinary powers of memory and aptitude for arithmetic were soon discovered ; his skill in penmanship, which attended him through life, was very much due to the care of Mr Summers, who became early impressed with his abilities, and long afterwards stated that during fifty years of scholastic life he had never come across boys so clever as Porson and his two brothers. He was well grounded in Latin by Mr Summers, remaining with him three years. His father also took great pains with his education, making him repeat at night the lessons he had learned in the day. He would frequently repeat without making a mistake a lesson which he had learned one or two years before and had never seen in the interval. For books he had only what his father's cottage supplied—a book or two of arithmetic, Greenwood's England, Jewell's Apology, an odd volume of Chambers's Cyclopaedia picked up from a wrecked coaster, and eight or ten volumes of the Universal Magazine.

The brilliant promise of the parish clerk's son naturally became known to the clergyman; and when he was eleven years old the Rev. T. Hewitt, the curate of East Ruston; and two neighbouring villages, took charge of his educa-tion, keeping him and one of his brothers at his house at Bacton during the week, and sending them home for the Sunday. Mr Hewitt taught him with his own boys, taking him through the ordinary Latin authors, Caesar, Terence, Ovid, and Virgil; before this he had made such progress in mathematics as to be able to solve questions out of the Ladies' Diary. In addition to this Mr Hewitt brought him under the notice of Mr Norris of Witton Park, who : sent him to Cambridge and had him examined by Professor JLambert, the two tutors of Trinity, Postlethwaite and Collier, and the well-known mathematician Atwood, then assistant tutor; the result was so favourable a report of his knowledge and abilities that Mr Norris determined to provide for his education so as to fit him for the university.

'This was in 1773. It was found impossible to get him into Charterhouse, and he was entered on the foundation of Eton in August 1774.

Of his Eton life Porson had not very pleasant recollections, but he was a popular boy among his schoolfellows; ;and two dramas he wrote for performance in the Long-Chamber are still remembered. His marvellous memory was of course noticed; but at first he seems to have somewhat disappointed the expectations of his friends, as his composition was weak, and his ignorance of quantity kept him behind several of his inferiors. He went to Eton too late to have any chance of succeeding to a scholarship at King's College. In 1777 he suffered a great loss from the death of his patron Mr Norris; but contributions from Etonians to aid in the funds for his maintenance at the university were readily supplied, and he found a successor to Mr Norris in Sir George Baker, the well-known physician, who was at that time president of the college of physicians. And chiefly through his means Porson was entered of Trinity College, Cambridge, as a pensioner on 28th March 1778, and commenced his residence there soon afterwards, matriculating in April of that year. It is said that what first biassed his mind towards critical researches was the gift of a copy of Toup's Longinus by Dr Davies, the headmaster of Eton, for a good exercise; but it was Bentley and Dawes to whom he looked as his immediate masters. His critical career was begun systematically while an undergraduate ; and it was doubtless during the period of his residence at Cambridge that his marvellous stores of learning were laid up for future use. He became a scholar of Trinity College in 1780, won the Craven university scholarship in 1781, and took his degree of B.A. in 1782, as third senior op time, obtaining soon afterwards the first chancellor's medal for classical studies. The same year he was elected Fellow of Trinity College, a very unusual thing for a junior bachelor of arts, as the junior bachelors were very rarely allowed to be candidates for fellowships, a regulation which lasted from 1667 when Isaac Newton was elected till 1818 when Connop Thirliwall became a fellow. Porson graduated M.A. in 1785.

Having thus early secured his independence, he turned i his thoughts to publication. . The first occasion of his appearing in print was in a short notice of Schutz's Aeschylus in Maty's Review, written in 1783. This review contains several other essays by his hand ; especially may be men-tioned the reviews of Brunck's Aristophanes (an admirable specimen of clear and vigorous English, and containing a very able summary of the Greek comic poet's chief excel-lences and defects), Weston's Hermesianax, and Huntingford's Apology for the Monostrophics. But it was to the tragedians, and especially to Aeschylus, that his mind was then. chiefly directed. He began a correspondence with David Ruhnken, the veteran scholar of Leyden, requesting to be favoured with any fragments of Aeschylus that Ruhnken had come across in his collection of inedited lexicons and grammarians, and sending him, as a proof that he was not undertaking a task for which he was unequal, some specimens of his critical powers, and especially of his restoration of a very corrupt passage in the Supplices (673-677) by the help of a nearly equally corrupt passage of Plutarch's Eroticus. As the syndics of the Cambridge press were proposing to re-edit Stanley's Aeschylus, the editorship was offered to Porson; but he declined to undertake it on the conditions laid down, namely, of reprinting Stanley's corrupt text and incorporating all the variorum notes, however worthless. He was especially anxious that the Medicean MS. at Florence should be collated for the new edition, and offered to undertake the collation at an expense not greater than it would have cost if done by a person on the spot; but the syndics refused the offer, the vice-chancellor (then Mr Torkington, master of Clare Hall) observing that Mr Porson might collect his MSS. at home.

In 1786, a new edition of Hutchinson's Anabasis of Xenophon being called for, Porson was requested by the publisher to supply a few notes, which he did in conjunction with the Rev. W. Whiter, editor of the Etymologicon universale. These give the first specimen of that neat and terse style of Latin notes in which he was afterwards to appear without a rival. They also show already his intimate acquaintance with his two favourite authors, Plato and Athenaeus, and a familiarity with Eustathius's commentary on Homer.

The next year, 1787, the Notae breves ad Toupii Emendationes in Suidam were written, though they did not appear till 1790 in the new edition of Toup's book published at Oxford. These first made Porson's name known as a scholar of the first rank, and carried his fame beyond England. The letters he received from Heyne and Hermann, still preserved in the library of Trinity College, and written before his Euripides was published, afford a sufficient proof of this. In his notes he does not hesitate to point out the errors of Toup and others; at .the same time he speaks of Toup's book as "opus illud aureum," and states that his writing the notes at all is due to the admiration he had for it. They contain some very brilliant emendations of various authors; but the necessity of having Toup's own notes with them has prevented their ever being reprinted in a separate form.

During this year, in the Gentleman's Magazine, he wrote the three letters on Hawkins's Life of Johnson which have been reprinted by Mr Kidd in his Tracts and Criticisms of Porson, and in the volume of Porson's Correspondence. They are admirable specimens of the dry humour so characteristic of the writer, and afford also proofs of his intimate acquaintance with Shakespeare and the other English dramatists and poets. In the same periodical, in the course of the years 1788 and 1789, appeared the Letters to Archdeacon Travis, on the spurious verse 1 John v. 7 (collected in 1790 into a volume), which must be considered to have settled the question as to the spurious-ness of the verse for ever. Gibbon's verdict on the book, that it was " the most acute and accurate piece of criticism since the days of Bentley," may be considered as some-what partial, as it was in defence of him that Porson had entered the field against Travis. But in the very masterly sketch of Gibbon's work and style in the pre-face Porson does not write in a merely flattering tone. It is to be wished that on such a subject the tone of levity had been modified. But Porson says in his preface that he could treat the subject in no other manner, if he treated it at all: "To peruse such a mass of falsehood and sophistry and to write remarks upon it, without sometimes giving way to laughter and sometimes to indignation, was, to me at least, impossible." Travis has no mercy shown him, but he certainly deserved none. One is equally struck with the thorough grasp Porson displays of his subject, the amount of his miscellaneous learning, and the humour that pervades the whole. But it was then the unpopular side : the publisher is said to have lost money by the book ; and one of his early friends, Mrs Turner of Norwich, cut down a legacy she had left Porson to £30 on being told that he had written what was described to her as a book against Christianity.

During the years that followed he continued to contribute to the leading reviews, writing in the Monthly Review the articles on Robertson's Parian Chronicle, Edwards's Plutarch, and Payne Knight's Essay on the Greek Alphabet. He gave assistance to Beloe in one or two articles in the British Critick, and probably wrote also in the Analytical Review and the Critical Review.

In the year 1792 his fellowship was no longer tenable by a layman ; and, rather than undertake duties for which he felt himself unfit, and which involved subscription to the Articles (though he had no difficulty as to signing a statement as to his conformity with the liturgy of the Church of England when elected Greek professor), he determined not to take holy orders, which would have enabled him to remain a fellow, and thus deprived him-self of his only means of subsistence. He might have been retained in the society by being appointed to a lay fellowship, one of the two permanent lay fellowships which the statutes then permitted falling vacant just in time. It is said that this had been promised him, and it was certainly the custom in the college always to appoint the senior among the existing laymen, who otherwise would vacate his fellowship. But the master (Dr Postlethwaite), who had the nomination, used his privilege to nominate a younger man (John Heys), a nephew of his own, and thus Porson was turned adrift without any means of support. A subscription was, however, got up among his friends to provide an annuity to keep him from actual want ; Mr Cracherode, Mr Cleaver Banks, Dr Burney, and Dr Parr took the lead, and enough was collected to produce about £100 a year. He accepted it only on the condition that he should receive the interest during his lifetime, and that the principal, placed in the hands of trustees, should be returned to the donors at his death. When this occurred they or their survivors refused to receive the money, and the Porson prize at Cambridge was founded with this sum to perpetuate his name.

After the loss of his fellowship he continued chiefly to reside in London, having chambers in Essex Court, Temple, —occasionally visiting his friends, such as Dr Goodall at Eton and Dr Parr at Hatton. It was at Dr Goodall's house that the Letters to Travis were written, and at one period of his life he spent a great deal of time at Hatton. While there he would generally spend his mornings in the library, and for the most part in silence ; but in the evenings, especially if Parr were away, he would collect the young men of the house about him, and pour forth from the rich stores of his memory torrents of every kind of literature—"pages of Barrow, whole letters of Richardson, whole scenes of Foote, favourite pieces from the periodical press." The charms of his society are described as being then irresistible. "Nothing," said one of his friends, "could be more gratifying than a tête-à-tête with him ; his recitations from Shakespeare, and his ingenious etymologies and dissertations on the roots of the English language were a high treat." " Nothing," says another, " came amiss to his memory ; he would set a child right in his twopenny fable-book, repeat the whole of the moral tale of the Dean of Badajos, or a page of Athenaeus on cups, or Eustathius on Homer." An anecdote is told of his repeating the Rape of the Lock, making observations, as he went on, and noting the various readings; of whichi one of the company said, " Had it been taken down fronu his mouth and published, it would have made the best, edition of that poem yet in existence."

In 1792 the Greek professorship at Cambridge became'' vacant by the resignation of Mr Cooke. To this Porsoni was elected without opposition, and he continued to hold it till his death. The duties then consisted in taking a. part in the examinations for the university scholarships; and classical medals. It was said he wished to give-lectures; but lecturing was not in fashion in those days,, and he did far more to advance the knowledge and study of the Greek language by his publications than he could: have done by any amount of lecturing. It must be re-membered that the emoluments of the professorship were only £40 a year. The authors on which his time was. chiefly spent were the tragedians, Aristophanes, Athenaeus,. and the lexicons of Suidas, Hesychius, and Photius. This last he twice transcribed (the first transcript having been destroyed by a fire at Perry's house, which deprived the world of much valuable matter that he had written on the margins of his books) from the original among the Gale MSS. in the library of Trinity College. Of the brilliancy and accuracy of his emendations on Aristophanes, the fragments of the other comic poets, and the lexicographers he had a pleasing proof on one occasion when he found how often in Aristophanes he had been anticipated by Bentley, and on another when Schow's collation of the unique MS. of Aesychius appeared and proved him right in " an incredible number " of instances.

In 1795 there appeared from Foulis's press at Glasgow an edition of Aeschylus in folio, printed with the same types as the Glasgow Homer, without a word of preface or anything to give a elue to the editor. Many new read-ings were inserted in the text with an asterisk affixed,, while an obelus was used to mark many others as corrupt.. It was at once recognized as Porson's work; he had superintended the printing of a small edition in two vols. 8vo, but this was kept back by the printer and not issued till 1806, still without the editor's name. There are corrections of many more passages in this edition than in the folio ; and, though the text cannot be considered as what would have-gone forth if with his name and sanction, yet more is done for the text of Aeschylus than had been accomplished by any preceding editor. It has formed the substratum for all subsequent editions. It was printed from a copy of Pauw's edition corrected, which is still preserved in the library of Trinity College.

Soon after this, in 1797, appeared the first instalment of what was intended to be a complete edition of Euripides, —an edition of the Hecuba. In the preface he pointed out the correct method of writing several words previously incorrectly written, and gave some speci-mens of his powers on the subject of Greek metres. The notes are very short, almost entirely critical; but so great a range of learn-ing, combined with such felicity of emendation whenever a corrupt passage was encountered, is displayed that there was never any doubt as to the quarter whence the new edition had proceeded. He expressly avoided the office of interpreter in his notes, which may well be wondered at on recollecting how admirably he did translate when he condescended to that branch of an editor's duties: " si quis erat locus Anglice exhibendus," says Dobree, " turn vero omnes in stuporem dabat."

His work, however, did not escape attack ; Gilbert "Wakefield had already published a Tragoediarum delectus; and, conceiving himself to be slighted, as there was no mention of his . '.hours in the new Sécula, he wrote a "diatribe extemporalis " against it, a tract which for bad taste, bad Latin, and bad criticism it would not be easy to match. And Gottfried Hermann of Leipsic, then a very young man, who had also written a work on Greek metres, which "Dr Elmsley has styled "a book of which too much ill cannot easily be said," issued an edition of the Hecuba, in which Porson's theories were openly attacked. Porson at first took no notice of either, but went on quietly with his Euripides, publishing the Orestes in 1798, 'the Phoenissm in 1799, and the Medea in 1801, the last printed at ithe Cambridge press, and with the editor's name on the title-page. But there are many allusions to his antagonists in the notes on such (points as the final v, the use of accents, &c. ; and on v. 675 of the Medea he holds up Hermann by name to scorn in caustic and taunting language. And it is more than probable that to Hermann's attack we owe the most perfect of his works, the supplement to the preface to the Hecuba, prefixed to the second edition published at Cambridge in 1802. Porson's dislike of composition made him indolent, but he came forward now in his own defence, and probably oof all the pieces of minute criticism that have appeared on those subjects the first place must be given to this. The beauty of the style, the steps by which the reader is carried on from one point to another, and the richness of illustration make it one of the most entertaining of diatribes. The metrical laws promulgated are laid down clearly, illustrated with an ample number of examples, and those that militate against them brought together and corrected, so that what had been beyond the reach of the ablest scholars of preceding times is made clear to the merest tyro. It is here that the laws of the iambic metre are fully explained, and the theory oof the pause stated and proved, which had been only alluded to in the first edition. A third edition of the Hecuba appeared in 1808, and he left corrected copies of the other plays, of which new editions appeared soon after his death; but these four plays were all that was accomplished of the projected edition of the poet. Porson lived six years after the second edition of the Hecuba was published, but his natural indolence and procrastination led him to put off carrying on the work till death put a stop to this and all other literary projects. He found time, however, to execute his collation of the Harleian MS. of the Odyssey, published in the Grenville Homer in 1801, and to present to the Society of Antiquaries his wonderful conjectural restoration of the Rosetta stone.

In 1806, when the London Institution was founded (then in the Old Jewry, since removed to Finsbury Circus), he was appointed principal librarian with a salary of £200 a year and a suite of rooms; and thus his latter years were made easy as far as money was concerned.

Among his most intimate friends was Perry, the editor of the Morning Chronicle; and this friendship was cemented by his marriage with Perry's sister, Mrs Lunan, in November 1796. The marriage was a happy one for the short time it lasted, as Porson became more attentive to times and seasons, and would have been weaned from his habits of drinking; but she sank in a decline a few months after her marriage (12th April 1797), and he returned to his chambers in the Temple and his old habits. Perry's friendship was of great value to him in many ways; but it induced him to spend too much of his time in writing for 'the Morning Chronicle; indeed he was even accused of " giving up to Perry what was meant for mankind," and the existence of some of the papers he wrote there can be only deplored.

For some months before his death he had appeared to be failing: his great memory was not what it had been, and he had some symptoms of intermittent fever; but on 19th September 1808 he was seized in the street with a fit of apoplexy, and after partially recovering sank on the 25th of that month at the comparatively early age of forty-nine. He was buried in Trinity College, close to the statue of Newton, at the opposite end of the chapel to where rest the remains of Bentley.

His library was divided into two parts, one of which was sold by auction; the other, containing the transcript of the Gale Photius, his books with MS. notes, and some letters from foreign scholars, was bought by Trinity College for 1000 guineas. His note-books were found to contain, in the words of Bishop Blomfield, "a rich treasure of criticism in every branch of classical literature—everything carefully and correctly written and sometimes rewritten— quite fit to meet the public eye, without any diminution or addition." They have been carefully rearranged of late years, and illustrate among other things his extraordinary penmanship and power of minute and accurate writing. Much still remains unpublished, though much has been given to the world. Monk, his successor as Greek professor, and Blomfield (both afterwards bishops) edited the Adversaria, consisting of the notes on Athenseus and the Greek poets, and his prelection on Euripides; Dobree, afterwards Greek professor, the notes on Aristophanes and the lexicon of Photius. Besides these, from other sources, Professor Gaisford edited his notes on Pausanias and Suidas, and Mr Kidd collected his scattered reviews. And, when Bishop Burgess attacked his literary character on the score of his Letters to Travis, Professor Turton (afterwards Bishop of Ely) came forward with a vindication.

In claiming for Porson the very high place he has always occupied among Greek scholars, it is with those who went before him that he must be compared, if we would judge fairly of the advances he made in the knowledge of the language. In learning he was superior to Valckenaer, in accuracy to Bentley. It must be remembered that in his day the science of comparative philology had scarcely any existence ; even the comparative value of MSS. was scarcely considered in editing an ancient author. With many editors MSS. were treated as of pretty much the same value, whether they were really from the hand of a trustworthy scribe, or what Bentley calls "scrub manuscripts" or "scoundrel copies." Thus, if we are to find fault with Porson's way of editing, it is that he does not make sufficient difference between the MSS. he uses, or point out the relative value of the early copies whether in MS. or print. Thus he collates very minutely Lascaris's edition of the Medea, mentioning even misprints in the text, rather from its rarity and costliness than from its intrinsic value. And his wonderful quickness at emendation has sometimes led him into error, which greater investigation into MSS. would have avoided ; thus, in his note on Eur., Phoen., 1373, an error, perhaps a misprint (____ for ____), in the first edition of the scholiast on Sophocles has led him into an emendation of v. 339 of the Trachinim which clearly will not stand. But his most brilliant emendations, such as some of those on Athenauis, on the Supplices of Aeschylus, or, to take one single instance, that on Eur., Helen., 751 (______; see Maltby's Thesaurus, p. 299), are such as convince the reader of their absolute certainty ; and this power was possessed by Porson to a degree no one else has ever attained. No doubt his mathematical training had something to do with this ; frequently the process may be seen by which the truth has been reached.

A few words are called for on his general character. No one ever more loved truth for its own sake ; few have sacrificed more rather than violate their consciences, and this at a time when a high standard in this respect was not common. In spite of his failings, few have had warmer friends ; no one more willingly communicated his knowledge and gave help to others ; scarcely a book appeared in his time or for some years after his death on the subjects to which he devoted his life without acknowledging assistance from him. And, if it be remembered that his life was a continued struggle against poverty and slight and ill-health, rather than complain that he did little, we should wonder how he accomplished so much.

The chief sources for Porson's life will he found in the memoirs in the Gentleman's Magazine for September and October 1808, and other periodicals of the time (mostly reprinted in Barker's Porsoniana, London, 1852); Dr Young's memoir in former editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica (reprinted ibid, and in his works); Weston's (utterly worthless) Short Account of the late Mr Richard Porson, London, 1808, reissued with a new preface and title-page in 1814 ; Dr Clarke's narrative of his last illness and death, London, 1808 (reprinted in the Classical Journal); Kidd's " Imperfect outline of the life of R. P.," prefixed to his collection of the Tracts and Criticisms; Beloe's Sexagenarian (not trustworthy), vol. i., London, 1817 ; Barker's Parriana, vol. ii., London, 1829 ; Maltby's "Porsoniana," published by Dyce in the volume of Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers, London, 1856; a life in the Cambridge Essays for 1857 by H. R. Luard ; and a lengthy life by J. S. Watson, London, 1861.

The dates of Porson's published works are as follows: Notae in Xenophontis Anabasin, 1786 ; Appendix to Toup, 1790 ; Letters to Travis, 1790; Aeschylus, 1795, 1806 ; Euripides, 1797-1802 ; collation of the Harleian MS. of the Odyssey, 1801; Adversaria (Monk and Blomfield), 1812; Tracts and Criticisms (Kidd), 1815 ; Aristophanica (Dobree), 1820; Notae in Pausaniam (Gaisford), 1820; Photii Lexicon (Dobree), 1822 ; Notae in Suidam (Gaisford), 1834 ; Correspondence (Luard, edited for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society), 1867. Dr Turton's vindication appeared in 1827. (H. R. L.)

The above article was written by: Rev. H. R. Luard, D.D.

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