• Date of Birth: August 10, 1825
  • Born City: Boston, Lincolnshire
  • Born State/Country: England
  • Parents: The Rev. Richard, curate, Chapel-of-Ease, Boston, & Jane Thirkill C.
  • Date of Death: October 13, 1869
  • Death City: Boston, Lancashire
  • Death State/Country: England
  • Education:

    Rugby School, 1838-43; University College Oxford, 1843-4; Ireland and Hertford scholar, 1846; B.A. (first class), 1847; M.A., 1850 demyship, Magdalen Coll., 1844-6; Eldon Law Fellow, 1849.

  • Professional Experience:

    Secretary, Oxford Union, 1845; President, 1846; Librarian, 1847; lay fellow, University College, Oxford, 1848; first Corpus Professor of Latin, 1854-69; fellow, Corpus Christi, 1856-69. 

  • Publications:

    The Agamemnon of Aeschylus with a translation into English Verse and Notes (1848); Epistola critica de quibusdam Aeschyli Sophoclis Euripidis fragmenta (Oxford, 1852); Testimony to the Royal Commission on Oxford University, 1852, repr. as Appendix II in H. Nettleship, “On the Present Relations between Classical Research and Classical Education in England,” in Essays on the Endowment of Research (1876) 274-8; The Choephoroe of Aeschylus (1857); P. Vergili Maronis opera: The Works of Virgil with a Commentary, 3 vols. (1858-71; 5th ed., vol. 1 rev. F. Haverfield, 1898;); The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace Translated into English Verse (1863); Publi Vergili Maronis opera, Cambridge Greek and Latin Texts (Cambridge, 1865); The Aeneid of Virgil Translated into English Verse (1866; 7th ed., 1885); The Satires, Epistles, and Art of Poetry of Horace (ed. & trans.) (1870); Miscellaneous Writings of John Conington, Late Corpus Professor of Latin in the University of Oxford, ed. J.A. Symonds, 2 vols. (London, 1872); The Satires of A. Persius Flaccus with a Translation and Commentary, ed. H. Nettleship (Oxford, 1872; 3rd rev. ed., 1893; repr. Bristol, 1998).

  • Notes:

    Conington was a prodigious student who “knew his letters” at fourteen months and read at three years of age. At the age of eight he compared various editions of Virgil and was able to recite 1000 lines of Virgil to his father. At Rugby under the praeposter system of Dr. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) he was on entry placed in the fifth form and was selected an Exhibitor for three consecutive years, placing first in his class “by 1,300 marks.” (Memoir, xiii) He had lttle taste for the history and philosophy program at Oxford and might have preferred Cambridge, where his father wanted him to go, and the Porsonian tradition there, but Conington chose Oxford where he won the Chancellor’s prizes for Latin verse (1847), English essay (1848), and Latin essay (1849). At a time when the tradition of textual editing in England, strong from Bentley through Porson, Dr. Arnold had been a proponent of German scientific textual scholarship and following his stint at Magdalen he spent the summer of 1847 in Dresden with a side visit to Leipzig in hopes of learning from the leading textual editor of the time, Gottfried Hermann (1772-1848). Perhaps inspired by his meeting with Hermann (made awkward by the fact that neither knew the other’s language and had to converse in Latin), Conington published a text and translation of the Agamemnon while still a student. 

    Upon his graduation, his employment prospects were dismal: Oxford had no professorship of Latin and Thomas Gaisford (1779-1855) was professor of Greek. Conington pursued his early intentions of going into public service, which he had nurtured through service to the Oxford Union. Awarded the Eldon Law Fellowship in 1849, he read law at the Inns of Court for and began to contribute to the Morning Chronicle on the subject of University Reform in 1849-50. After six months he returned to University College with a classics fellowship, and continued his interest in the proper balance of research and teaching at his university. He was squarely on the side of increasing the amount of research produced by British classicists and expressed his views fully in testimony before the Royal Commission on Oxford in 1852. When he lost his candidacy for the Greek Professorship at Edinburgh to J.S. Blackie (1809-95), who said he was “exchanging Latin for Greek, copper for gold,” Conington made the opposite switch and devoted himself to Latin. Shortly thereafter in 1854 he joined the High Anglican Church in 1854, thereby losing the support of the University’s liberal reformers.    

    Following his youthful edition of the Agamemnon Conington published his edition of the Choephoroi, of which Hugh Lloyd-Jones (1922-2009) said that “Conington’s Choephoroi marks him out as the best Greek scholar in Oxford at the death of Gaisford…it is doubtful whether any of his work in Latin is its equal.” Conington had assembled notes for an edition of the Supplices but in 1852 agreed instead to co-edit Virgil with his friend the historian and journalist Goldwin Smith (1823-1910) and two years later was (somewhat surprisingly for a Hellenist) named the first professor of Latin. Smith quickly withdrew after being named secretary of the Royal Commission in 1854 and Conington worked on this editio maior, the work by which he was, pace Lloyd-Jones, best remembered a century after his death. He clearly did not have the enthusiasm for Virgil that he had for Aeschylus, but he was alive to the smallest intricacies of the poet’s style and grew to admire him. He completed the first volume in 1858, the second in 1864, and the third, posthumously, completed by his student Henry Nettleship (1839-93). His attention to nuance and ancient modes of thought were characteristic subjects of his lectures in which he urged students to subject each line and each word to the utmost scrutiny as a means of understanding the differences between ancient and modern expression and thought. Despite his admiration for Hermann and German scholarship, there is little of contemporary German work on Virgil referenced or reported in his commentary. He was a skilled translator both in prose (Persius & Virgil) and verse: he finished P.S. Worsley’s (1835-66) translation of the Iliad in octets reminiscent of Spenser, Scott, and Byron (the Spenserian stanza came to him more readily that the Scott) after himself translating the Odyssey(1861), his version of the Aeneid in the octosyllables of Sir Walter Scott was enormously popular and often reprinted. His practice was to memorize a passage and then work out his rendition in his head at odd hours. Of his verse translation of Horace, Sandys quotes the first chair of Latin at Cambridge, H.A.J. Munro (1819-85): “on the whole perhaps the best and most successful translation of a Classic that exists in the English language.”  

    His early death at age 44 prevented him seeing the realization of his dreams of reform following the 1854 Act, the publication of the final volume of his Virgil and his prose translation of the Aeneid (printed in the second volume of Miscellaneous Writings) and his Persius edition.

  • Sources:

    C.O. Brink, English Classical Scholarship: Historical Reflections on Bentley, Porson, and Housman (Cambridge, 1986) 139-41; M.L. Clarke, Classical Education in Britain, 1500-1900 (Cambridge, 1959) 115-16; E. Fraenkel, Aeschylus Agamemnon, 3 vols, (Oxford, 1950) 1:51-2; Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Blood for the Ghosts (1982) 15-16; P.G.N. Naiditch, “Classical Studies in Nineteenth-Century Britain” 140 n. 51; Sandys, 3:422-3, 434-5; H.J.S. Smith, “Memoir,” in Miscellaneous Writings of John Conington…, ix-lxxi; W. Tuckwell, Reminiscences of Oxford (1900).

  • Author: Ward Briggs