All Scholars

PORSON, Richard

  • Image
  • Date of Birth: December 25, 1759
  • Born City: East Ruston, Norfolk
  • Born State/Country: England
  • Parents: Huggin Porson, a parish clerk, & wife.
  • Date of Death: September 19, 1808
  • Death City: Londoon
  • Death State/Country: England
  • Married: Mary Price, 1796
  • Education:

    Eton, 1778-82; M.A. Trinity College, Cambridge, 1785

  • Professional Experience:

    Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1782-92; Regius Prof. History, Cambridge, 1792; dismissed for refusal to take holy orders, 1792; priate scholar, London, 1792-1806; librarian, London Institution (later University of London, 1806-8.  

  • Publications:

    Books

    Items marked with an ** Appeared anonymously; those marked with a † are posthumous.

    Letters to Mr. Archdeacon Travis (London, 1790)Aeschylus, ed. Foulis (Glasgow, 1795); *Euripides Hecuba (London, 1797; 2d ed., 1802); *Euripides Orestes (London, 1798)*Euripides Phoenissae (London, 1799); Euripides Medea (Cambridge, 1801); *Aeschylus, Tragoediae Septem cum versione Latina (London, 1806);Adversaria, edJ. H. Monk and C. J. Blomfield (Cambridge, 1812);  †Tracts and Miscellaneous Criticisms, ed. Thomas Kidd (London, 1815); †Ricardi Porsoni Notae in Aristophanem, with a critical edition of Plutus, ed. P. P. Dobree (Cambridge, 1820).

    Other

    The Appendix to Toup’s Emendationes in Suidam (Oxford, 1790); Collation of the Harleian MS of the Odyssey in the Homer edition of T. Grenville, R. Porson, W. Cleaver, etc. (Oxford, 1800-1); Transcript of the Photius Lexicon, ed. P. P. Dobree (London, 1822).

  • Notes:

    “The study of Porson’s life and work is neither an easy nor a pleasant task” said Sir Denys Page in one of his most polished performances, a lecture delivered before the British Academy. Perhaps it would be better to say that the evaluation of Porson’s life and work is neither an easy nor a pleasant task; for the study of it has been made easy for us by an admiring circle of worshipers who treasured the words that dropped from his lips and collected the very scraps of paper he wrote on. The element of unpleasantness may be quickly disposed of: it resides principally in the distress any right-minded person must feel at watching a fine intelligence being undermined by alcoholism; though we may remark that Housman’s attempted witticism to the effect that Cambridge had seen many strange things—it had seen Wordsworth drunk and Porson sober—loses much of its force when we remember that Byron, no friend of Porson, tells us that he was never seen drunk on such relatively public occasions as dining in the full company of his colleagues.

    Our difficulties revolve around this one problem: how are we to reconcile the extravagantly favorable verdict passed on Porson by those who knew him personally and by posterity alike with the evidence of his intellectual abilities as we see it before our eyes today? The myth scents indestructible. In his own day Villoison, an honored name in Homeric studies, called Porson “le plus savant et le plus justement célèbre du pays où la Littérature grecque est le plus cultivée.” Twenty-five years after Porson’s death J. W. Donaldson delivered a Latin eulogy that contained the words “I say with the utmost emphasis that knowledge of the Greek language and the esoteric science of textual criticism has progressed further in the last thirty years than in the preceding thirty centuries put together, and this benefit is to be attributed, either solely or very largely, to the authoritative example set by Porson.” In 1867 H. L. Luard opined, “The great glory of Porson’s is his power of emendation—the one in which he far excelled all his predecessors, even Bentley.” In our own time a paper notable as much for the apparent total absence of proofreading as for the truculent iconoclasm of some of its judgments still sings in perfect harmony: “He possessed a genius for conjecture arguably as acute as Bentley’s and certainly better disciplined” (H. D. Jocelyn, Liverpool Classical Papers, no. 1). Trevelyan, with the distortion permitted to historians and Masters of Trinity, wrote, “Bentley is the king of English classical scholars, but Porson, in the estimation of those able to judge, holds the next place.”

    Porson’s own estimate of himself, reflected in his famous saying that he would be content if he was remembered in three hundred years’ time as someone who had done a good deal for the text of Euripides, besides being less extravagantly phrased, comes much closer to the truth. How close? Porson’s work was not confined to Greek tragedy, but neither was the work of his competitors who strove in the same battlefield. In the hopes of injecting a note of objectivity into estimates of Porson, I have, from “an excess of curiosity or even an abuse of leisure”—terms applied, as I discovered too late, by Page to his own limited exercise of comparing in the same way the records of Porson with those of Hermann and Elmsley—gone through the critical texts of Greek tragedy taken as standard today, i.e. Page for Aeschylus, Dawe for Sophocles, Diggle for Euripides volumes I and II, and Murray for volume III, noting down every place where a scholar is cited as proposing a conjecture either actually accepted by the editor into his text or deemed worthy of serious consideration for such an elevation. I have corrected false attributions where these are known to me, but it has to be said that there remains a certain gray area that makes it unlikely that anyone else who is misguided enough to attempt to duplicate my results will arrive at the same figures. 

    [For the tables, see Briggs & Calder, Classical Scholarship, (New York: Garland, 1990), pp. 378-90]

    Porson, it appears at once, did indeed do a good deal for the text of Euripides. Who was he, and where did he come from?

    This hero of Cambridge University folklore was a local lad, born in Norfolk; his father was a parish clerk and his mother the daughter of a shoemaker. He had two younger brothers, one of whom, according to Luard, died “of a decline” at the age of thirty-four and the other even more prematurely “of a rapid decline” at the age of twenty-two. Porson’s own health was never good; he suffered all his life from asthma, and the charitable may like to suppose some link between his illnesses and his weakness for the bottle. Besides these short-lived brothers there was a sister, with characteristics much like Richard’s (Watson: 392); she married a brewer.

    His earliest education was with a schoolmaster called Summers, and then with the curate of his village, a Mr. Hewitt, who had four sons who became Fellows of Colleges; a fifth died, no doubt of a decline, as an undergraduate. Later he came to the notice of Norris, the founder of a Cambridge divinity professorship, and when plans to get the boy into Charterhouse, the school that was later to produce Sir Richard Jebb (1841-1905), failed, he was sent to Eton. When Norris died three years later, Sir George Baker (1722-1809) arranged for financial provision to continue. The world of classical scholarship owes much to the enlightened patronage of those who, recognizing Porson’s academic promise, dipped into their own pockets to help him fulfill it. But to what extent the boy’s career at Eton justified their faith in him is unclear, for accounts vary. Reading between the lines as well as on them, we may conclude that he did not stand out among his contemporaries at school as a major intellectual force, though he was well liked on the social level. Eton’s reputation is secure enough for it to be able to ride with a pained smile the blow represented by Porson’s verdict on his time there: the only thing he remembered with pleasure, he said, were the rat hunts in the Long Chamber (the dormitory). From these days at the institution “where grateful science still adores / Her Henry’s holy shade” is preserved the “Tragi-Comi-Operatical Farce” he wrote, in which the author himself played Punch. At the end of Act 1, Punch delivers the patter:

    If a Master you have he’s the Plague of your Life 

    For with him you’ve nought but contention and strife:

    Go as fast as you can, he would have you go faster 

    Oh what a plague is a whimsical Master!

    We are not far here from Jack Point, a hundred years before his time.

    After Eton, Porson entered Trinity College, where he had already been introduced to the Professor of Greek. He won a number of University distinctions for classical undergraduates and was elected into a fellowship in 1782, which lapsed in 1791. “A lay-fellowship, to be sure, might have secured his services to the cause of Letters; but the disingenuous conduct of an individual withheld from him that resource” is how his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine put it. The individual was the Master.

    This episode rankled more than one might expect, for Porson was never one of those dreary dons who are tied by an invisible umbilical cord to their colleges; in fact, from the age of twenty-five onward he had chosen to make his home in London, in the Middle Temple, earning his living by journalism, much of it anonymous. But the unfortunate interlude that followed the expiry of his fellowship was not to last long, for at the age of thirty-three Porson was unanimously elected to the Chair of Greek, which carries with it the right to a Trinity fellowship. As Professor he had intended to break with tradition and deliver lectures, but in practice he undertook few duties beyond examining. Not for nothing did Denys Winstanley (1877-1947), a historian of the University, describe the Chair of Greek as a “sinecure of trifling value.” (Its value was in fact £40 a year, as compared with the £200 Porson was to receive after 1806, when he became Librarian—a negligent one at that—to the recently established London Institute, with his own rooms and servant provided.)

    Two things had drawn the attention of the learned world to Porson’s scholarship: his supplementary work on Joup’s edition of the medieval Greek lexicon known at the time as Suidas, and what remains to this day his masterpiece, the Letters to Archdeacon Travis. These first appeared individually in the Gentleman’s Magazine, and then, revised and collected, in book form. Everyone who mentions this book finds it necessary to add that it contains 400 pages, and so it does. But the pages are of small format, and the print is large. If the book came from a modern publishing house, it would not need to occupy more than 200 pages, for it is of some 80,000 words, the size of an average novel of today. Nor did it need to be so big. The topic itself did not merit such extensive discussion, and the style did not need to flow so amply, even in the eighteenth century; for what Porson is doing is, in essence, describing a family tree and adding copious comment, instead of drawing it and adding pithy footnotes. The embers of this family tree are manuscripts, and the point in question is whether the passage on the Three Heavenly Witnesses in Chapter V of St. John’s First Epistle (vv. 7-8) is authentic or spurious. Erasmus had mistakenly added it to the third edition of his authoritative text, believing it had some manuscript support. Isaac Newton was only one of those who had written to disprove its authenticity, and his contemporary at Trinity, the great classical scholar Richard Bentley (1662-1742), had delivered a public lecture on the subject. More recently Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) had treated the passage as spurious, and it was this that prompted Travis to write three letters to the Gentleman’s Magazine urging that it was authentic. Porson leapt to Gibbon’s defense, though not without a dig that must have made him wince. It comes in a sentence early in the book, a sentence too good to suppress here, for all that it has been quoted by others: “. . . he pleads eloquently for the rights of mankind, and the duty of toleration; nor does his humanity ever slumber, unless when women are ravished, or the Christians persecuted.” The very next sentence is almost as good. “Mr. Gibbon shews, it is true, so strong a dislike to Christianity, as visibly disqualifies him for that society, of which he has created Ammianus Marcellinus president.” After quoting Love’s Labour Lost to the effect that he “draws out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument”—a charge that applies to his own treatise all too often—Porson indulges himself to the point of saying of the man he plainly admired, and in support of whom he is writing, “. . . I should guess that these disgraceful obscenities were written by some debauchee, who having from age, or accident, or excess, survived the practice of lust, still indulged himself in the luxury of speculation.”

    If the point of the rapier was the right weapon with which to nick the flesh of the consummate historian and stylist (when Gibbon and Porson later met, the former mildly remarked, “I must think that occasionally, while praising me, you have mingled a little acid with the sweet”), the hapless Travis deserved cruder weapons and was belabored with the bludgeon. In one of his countless errors Travis had, by selective quotation, misrepresented the views of a certain Zoellner. “Let any man believe Mr. Travis hereafter when he talks of his own truth, candour, charity, and upright intentions, or when he is angry with others for their deficiency in those qualities. Whenever I hear such zealous sticklers for truth, they bring to my mind those undetected females who rail with all the bitterness and insolence of conscious virtue against the frailties of their less prudent sisters.” All good rollicking stuff, and there is plenty more where that came from. Those who have met with it during the course of their academic lives will particularly treasure the phrase “malignity under the mask of moderation.”

    In his Letters to Archdeacon Travis Porson was using a steamroller to crack a nut that informed opinion had agreed was cracked already. But he did more: he drove his steamroller over it repeatedly and from every possible angle; and with glee. It could all have been done with the concision that marks Porson’s prefaces and commentaries on Euripides, or his notes on Aristophanes and others. A few more paragraphs like the following would have done the trick: 

    In short, when we consider that these seven manuscripts of Stephens, on the one supposition give a reading which has never been found in any manuscript, Greek or Latin; that they destroy the antithesis between heaven and earth, which the context, if the verse were genuine would plainly demand; that Stephens often misplaced his marks; that no manuscript can now be found in the library to which Stephens returned his manuscripts that exhibits this reading; while on the other hand, if we only suppose a single semicircle wrong placed, we shall have a text agreeing with all the other Greek manuscripts, or at least with more than one hundred; when we add to this, that Wettstein found at Paris five manuscripts, which agreed with five of Stephens’s manuscripts in other places, but here contradicted his margin, none will hesitate to pronounce, that Stephens’s copies followed the herd, and omitted the seventh verse, except only those, who by a diligent perusal of Tertullian have adopted his maxims of reasoning, and measure the merits of their assent by the absurdity of the proposition to be believed.

    What was uppermost in Porson’s mind cannot have been the mere refutation of a textual error. Certainly, the destruction of humbug was always congenial to him. But the true reason for the Letters can only have been to establish Porson once and for all as England’s foremost Greek scholar. In achieving that end it was successful. To those of us who think of Porson as he wished to be thought of, as an editor of Euripides, the Letters come as a revelation. Their author gives the impression of knowing every page of the Christian fathers as if they were indexed and capable of flashing up before him on a computer screen whenever needed. And in a manner of speaking they were. Anecdotes from several different sources attest to what we should nowadays call his photographic memory, and to that memory was committed not only classical and post-classical Greek and Latin literature but a wealth of English and some French literature as well, to which his own writings contain a host of often fleeting allusions. The spectacle of a Porson entirely at home with Emanuel Caleas (mid-fourteenth century) and Joseph Bryennius (early fifteenth) is more daunting than Porson the emender of texts, and once we have witnessed it we feel no surprise at finding that the sale catalogue of Porson’s books, not including those bought in by Trinity for a thousand guineas, listed 1,391 items.

    The Letters and the work on Suidas secured election to the Cambridge Chair after the formality of the required public lecture. This was composed in two days and consists of an elegant Latin essay on Euripides. Porson’s own verdict at the end of his lecture is just: “What I promised at the outset I have performed—namely that I would not advance anything new or recondite.” The only signs of a scholar wrestling with his subject come when he tries to assess the difficulties Euripides caused for himself by having the action of his Hecuba take place now in Thrace, now in Troy. The expenditure of a mere two days exemplifies in practice the attitude that, on a more theoretical level, Porson expounded in the following words:

    I cannot indeed but think, that the judgement of the Public, upon the respective merits of the different classes of Criticks, is peculiarly partial and unjust.

    Those among them who assume the office of pointing out the beauties, and detecting the faults, of literary composition, are placed with the orator and historian in the highest ranks; whilst those, who undertake the more laborious task of washing away the rust and canker of time, and bringing back those forms and colours, which are the subject of criticism, to their original purity and brightness, are degraded with the index-maker and antiquary, among the pioneers of literature, whose business it is to clear the way for those who are capable of more splendid and honourable enterprises.

    But, nevertheless, if we examine the effects produced by those two classes of Criticks, we shall find that the first have been of no use whatever, and that the last have rendered the most important services to mankind. All persons of taste and understanding know, from their own feelings, when to approve, and disapprove, and therefore stand in no need of instructions from the Critick; and as for those who are destitute of such faculties, they can never be brought to use them; for no one can be taught to exert faculties which he does not possess. Every dunce may, indeed, be taught to repeat the jargon of criticism, which of all jargons is the worst, as it joins the tedious formality of methodical reasoning to the trite frivolity of common-place observation.

    Washing away the rust and canker of time gave Porson plenty to do, and most of his conjectural criticism was of this mechanical kind. None of his conjectures on tragedy exudes the quality of a laser-like mental penetration. One constantly feels that if Porson had not made a particular emendation that goes under his name, someone else would have soon enough. Fraenkel, in the preface to his three-volume edition of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, selects for praise the conjecture on line 1052 of the next play, The Offering at the Tomb; but many do not accept it. He mentions Agamemnon 850; but does it really require a genius to change “rout the disease of harm” to “repel the harm of the disease?” And thirdly, 1391-1392-—hardly more than a redivision of words, and even so not certainly right. M. L. Clarke in his biography of Porson also draws attention to Agamemnon 1391-1392 and adds two others. One is Euripides Helen 751, where for “at least nothing” Porson writes “Nor Helenos,” i.e., ούδ’ Ἕλενος for οὐδέν γε.This is not a feat of brilliant intuition or a scientific assessment of the likely corruption of word shapes or sounds. We have had the name of one prophet and now we need the name of another, and the immediately obvious candidate is Helenos, so in he goes, whether paleography approves or not. The other correction is much more impressive: at Ion 1115 the manuscripts throw in the sponge: “We have been fairly judged, and in the extremity of evil.” Some judicious redivision of letters, the diagnosis of a phonetic confusion, and a little bit of extra tweaking of the text will give us what Porson did give us: “You have got it right: you will not be among the last to have your share in misfortune”: (from ἐγνώσμεθ’ έξ ἴσου· κέν ὑστάτοις κακοῖς to Ἔγνως· μεθέξεις οὑκ ἐν ὑστάτοις κακοῦ.). Here for once is something for us to admire, but it was not often that Porson raised his head so high over the parapet. More than one critic has cited Euripides Medea 1015, where the manuscripts give: “Don’t worry: you are victorious, you too, by your children yet,” and Porson changed the nonsensical “You are victorious” to “You will be restored from exile”: (κρατεῖς changed to κάτει). But as Porson himself acknowledged—for he was always just to those to whom he owed a scholarly debt—the true sense had already been seen by his predecessor Samuel Musgrave (1732-80), and someone with Porson’s memory would have had no difficulty in recalling the mot juste, since a good deal of play is made with this particular word in this particular meaning by Aristophanes, one of his most favorite authors. For the most part this hero of English scholarship did little but restore the right dialects, switch little words to eliminate metrical abnormalities, and in general tidy things up. In this he is neither a novel nor an exceptional figure: Peter Elmsley (1774-1825), who was not even a Professor of Greek but of ancient history, was doing the same thing at the same time, and doing it more productively and with no less insight.

    There are times when Porson falls short of his objective. When reviewing Weston’s Hermesianax he comes to a passage in Theocritus (Id. 8.53), “May I not have golden talents” (i.e. of money), and expresses admiration for John Pierson’s “May I not have the talents of Croesus” (χρύσεια changed to Κροίσοιο). But why no word on Κροίσεια, giving the same sense, a slighter and more elegant change, made by John Jortin (1668-1770)? Why, when discussing a metrical problem in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, does Porson do everything except actually propose one form of “as” for another, when this would remove the difficulty? The corruption would be one more of a type he exemplifies in the very paragraph that discusses the line, but in the critical notes of today the credit for the actual alteration has to go to Wilamowitz, working a hundred years later. In his Letters to Archdeacon Travis, at one point Porson is faced with a Greek note saying that something had been “taken out” by Areios. He proposes “rubbed out,” i.e., for ἐξελήφθη read ἐξηλείφθη. But the normal Greek would be “ejected,” ἐξεβλήθη. More revealing than any of these is something in the preface to the first edition of Hecuba. He toys here with four different ways of emending a line in Sophocles’s Ajax. None is right, and in his second edition he has to take notice of the true reading, which in the meantime had been published from a manuscript by Gottfried Hermann (1772-1848). He covers his embarrassment with “I would not stop you accepting it” (Non equidem intercedam, quo minus hoc adoptes).

    Not infallible then; but with a quick eye for merit in others, even if he does sometimes exaggerate the differences between those he likes and those he does not. He goes out of his way more than once to praise Lodewijk Valckenaer (1715-85) and scorn J.C. Pauw (d. 1749), to extol Richard Dawes (1708-66) and depreciate Joshua Barnes (1654-1712). But when he is reading Elizabeth Weston’s (ca. 1581-1612) Hermesianax, his steadily lowering opinion of it does not mask from him the appeal of an emendation made on Xenophon: “They sat down just as they were” for “They sat down, as you would expect’’ or “as was probable, reasonable,” an expression that had occurred a few lines earlier. The change is from εἰκός to εῖχον, and deserves the approval Porson bestows on it. The standard editions of today ignore it, since for all the lip service paid to Porson, few actually read him; yet, if the experience of one editor of Sophocles is anything to go on, we ought to: the Adversaria would have saved him from two false attributions of conjectures, which are assigned there to the right authors. The last words of the following extract from a review of Dr. Edwards’s edition of Plutarch On the Education of Children reproach him from the grave:

    What! are we to give every man, who sets up for a critic, an unlimited right of correcting ancient books at his pleasure? Not at his pleasure, but in conformity to certain laws well known and established by the general consent of the learned. He may transgress or misapply these laws, but without disowning their authority. No critic in his senses ever yet declared his resolution to put into the text what at the time he thought a wrong reading; and if a man, after perusing the works of his author perhaps ten times as often as the generality of readers,—after diligently comparing MSS. and editions,—after examining what others have written relative to him professedly or accidentally,—after a constant perusal of other authors, with a special view to the elucidation of his own,—if, after all this, he must not be trusted with a discretionary power over the text, he never could be qualified to be an editor at all. Whatever editor (one, we mean, who aspires to that title,) republishes a book from an old edition, when the text might be improved from subsequent discoveries, while he hopes to show his modesty and religion, only exposes his indolence, his ignorance, or his superstition.

    A noble clarion call; yet it was not Porson, but Elmsley, who took the trouble to make use of what is the oldest and best manuscript of Aeschylus and Sophocles. It is noticeable, too, that many of Porson’s own writings teem with misprints, as if he had never troubled to correct the proofs.

    Porson put beyond doubt that Michel Fourmont’s (1690-1745) inscriptions were bogus, and in another place correctly argued that the Parian marble was genuine. Yet a man so methodical in the deployment of such technical evidence as the shapes of letters at particular times in particular places was content to believe that the tragic poets allowed themselves to elide the final iotas of dative cases, and to withhold credence from the frequent observance of the letter digamma by Homer, a letter absent from our written texts but pronounced at a formative time in the poems’ composition. This is the odder in that the discovery, if one may so call it, of the Homeric digamma was one of the feats of the scholar whom Porson esteemed above all others, Richard Bentley. But there is one triumph for which Porson’s methodical approach is still remembered today: his “Law” relating to the permissible length of the syllable preceding the last three syllables of the line in the iambic trimeter, the metre in which most of the speeches in Greek tragedy are written. It is true that anyone who spent a wet afternoon looking at the word divisions and the length of syllables in Euripides might very well come to suspect the existence of this law by tea-time; and it is true that laws of much greater subtlety have been discovered in profusion in more recent times. But honor is due to pioneers, and here at any rate Porson qualifies for that title.

    Whether he qualifies for the title of the founder of a school of critics is more doubtful, though as early as 1857 one had been fathered on him by F.A. Paley (1816-88): “It will hardly be denied that the Porsonian school of critics, much and justly as we admire their varied learning and ingenuity, have been the means of introducing into our Jschools a somewhat dull and dry kind of annotation useless to the mere beginner, often tiresome even to the advanced student, and fitted only for professed critics.” Whether of his “school” or not, those who knew him for the most part fell under his spell. A man who did not possess the highest intellectual gifts and what some now call charisma could never have inspired such feelings of veneration in the minds of such persons, formidable enough in their own right, as James Henry Monk (1784-1856), Charles James Blomfield (1786-1857), and Peter Paul Dobree (1782-1825). Their devotion outweighs the evidence of those who were stupid, like Travis, or who lacked the bond of a common professional interest, like Byron: “Of all the disgusting brutes, sulky, abusive and intolerable, Porson was the most bestial as far as the few times that I saw him went.... I saw him once go away in a rage because no one knew the name of the ‘Cobbler of Messina,’ insulting their ignorance with the most vulgar terms of reprobation. He was tolerated in this state amongst the young men for his talents, as the Turks think a madman inspired and bear with him. He used to recite or rather vomit pages of all languages....”

    Even such unflattering contributions as these to the hagiography of Porson help to ensure that he will be remembered. We are presented with a fascinating enigma: the “dull and dry” annotator of whom Paley speaks turns into the Mr. Hyde of Byron; the fastidious student of versification talks with bargees and with filles de joie who stray into his rooms; the scholar who is furious at being passed over for a fellowship prefers in any case to live in London; the man who enjoys conversation with his friends far into the night discourteously omits to acknowledge gifts of books from foreign scholars paying tribute to him. In Cambridge the legend lives still. Porson’s picture looks down on the fellows of Trinity at their dessert every evening; a copy of it is a few feet to the left of me as I type this chapter, part of a prize still awarded at Cambridge, funded by monies raised for him when he lost his fellowship. Two hundred of the three hundred years that Porson asked for have passed, and so far the verdict, right but for the wrong reasons, has not been overturned. The lumpish boy from the obscure village in Norfolk, who grew into an asthmatic alcoholic, valuing truth and honesty above all things, acquired a fame that went beyond the limits of his subject. It looks like going far beyond the limits of three centuries.

  • Sources:

    There is a mass of memoirs, anecdotes, etc., that can be found listed at the end of Jebb’s article on Porson in the DNB 16:154-163 and M. L. Clarke’s Porson (Cambridge, 1937). To these could be added notices in The Morning Chronicle, 6 October 1808, and The Courier, 7 October 1808, and William Norris, An Account of the Last Illness of Richard Porson (London, 1808).

    From more recent times we may cite:

    Brink, C. O. English Classical Scholarship: Historical Reflections on Bentley, Porson and Housman (Cambridge, 1986); Jocelyn, H. D. Liverpool Classical Papers, no. 1 (1988); Katz, S. A. “Even Classicists Are Odd.” CJ 43 (1947-8) 411-15. (Merely repeats old gossip.); D.L. Page, D. L. “Richard Porson (1759-1808).” A lecture given before the British Academy. PBA 45 (1959) 221-36; The Correspondence of Richard Porson M.A. Formerly Regius Professor of Greek in the University of Cambridge. Edited for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society by Henry Richards Luard M.A. (Cambridge, 1867).

    Readers with a taste for the macabre may like to know that one of Porson’s biographers, the Rev. J. S. Watson, murdered his wife and died in Parkhurst prison as a result—if the inquest verdict is to be believed—of striking his head on the floor after falling out of his hammock.

    Picture credit: Copperplate by William Holl, courtesy National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

  • Author: Roger D. Dawe