European Scholar

JEBB, Richard Claverhouse

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1841-08-27
  • Born City: Dundee
  • Born State/Country: Scotland
  • Parents: Robert, an Irish barrister, & Harriett Horsley J.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1905-12-09
  • Death City: Cambridge
  • Death State/Country: England
  • Married: Caroline Lane Reynolds, August 18, 1874
  • Education:

    St. Columba's School, Dublin, 1853-5; Charterhouse School, 1855-8; A.B., Trinity College, Cambridge, 1862; Porson Scholar; Craven Scholar; Senior Classic; D. Lutt., Wales, 1902.

  • Professional Experience:

    Fellow & tutor, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1863-75; public orator, 1869-75; prof. Greek, Glasgow, 1875-89; Regius Prof. Greek, Cambridge, 1889-1905; MP for Cambridge U., 1891; knighted, 1900; fell., British Academy, 1902; Order of Merit, 1905.

  • Publications:


    The Electra of Sophocles: Catena Classicorum (London, Oxford, and Cambridge, 1867); The Ajax of Sophocles: Catena Classicorum (London, Oxford, and Cambridge, 1868); Theophrastus, Characters (London, 1870; revised version by J. E. Sandys, 1909); Translations into Greek and Latin Verse (Cambridge, 1873; 2d ed. (enlarged), 1907); The Attic Orators from Antiphon to Isaeus (London, 1876; 2d ed., 1893); Translations, with H. Jackson and W. E. Currey (Cambridge, 1878). (Greek and Latin, verse and prose, into and out of English.); Xenophon Anabasis III (Glasgow, 1879); Scriptores Graeci (London, 1880). (Selections from The Attic Orators.); Bentley (London, 1882); Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus (Cambridge, 1883; 2d ed., 1887; 3d ed., 1893); Facsimile of the Laurentian MS of Sophocles, with an introduction by E. M. Thompson and Jebb (London, 1885); Introduction to Homer (Glasgow, 1886); Sophocles Oedipus Coloneus (Cambridge, 1889); Sophocles Philoctetes (Cambridge, 1890; 2d ed., 1900); Sophocles Antigone (Cambridge, 1891; 2d ed., 1900); Sophocles Trachiniae (Cambridge, 1892); The Growth and Influence of Classical Greek Poetry (London, 1893). (Turnbull Lectures given at the Johns Hopkins University.); Sophocles Electra(Cambridge, 1894); Sophocles Ajax (Cambridge, 1896); Sophocles, Text of the Seven Plays (Cambridge, 1897); Sophocles Antigone: Catena Classicorum (Cambridge, 1900); Translation of Sophocles (Cambridge, 1904); Bacchylides. (Cambridge, 1906); Bacchylides (Cambridge, 1906). (Text only.); Aristotle Rhetoric (Cambridge, 1909). (Translation.)

    Articles (Collected)

    Essays and Addresses. Cambridge, 1907. This work includes: 1. The Genius of Sophocles; 2. Pindar; 3. The Age of Pericles; 4. Ancient Organs of Public Opinion; 5. Lucian; 6. Delos; 7. Caesar (review of Froude); 8. Erasmus; 9. The Speeches of Thucydides; 10. Suidas on the Change ascribed to Sophocles in regard to Trilogies; 11. Samuel Johnson; 12. Humanism in Education; 13. On Present Tendencies in Classical Studies; 14. The Influence of the Greek Mind on Modern Life; 15. The Work of the Universities for the Nation, Past and Present; 16. An Address delivered at the Mason College; 17. University Education and National Life.

    Besides these there also exist pamphlets relating to a dispute with Mahaffy, speeches delivered by the Public Orator (1875), and the Glasgow Inaugural Lecture of the same year; the address to Bologna University (1888) and a speech at the annual meeting of the central committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (1892); a lecture on Macaulay (Cambridge, 1900); two lectures on Modern Greece (1901) and Milton’s Areopagitica, privately printed in 1872, published in a fuller version (Cambridge, 1918); and a number of more ephemeral productions.

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    My dear Uncle,

    I have got a nice set of tools amongst which there is a saw half a yard long.

    Such is the first recorded written sentence of Richard Claverhouse Jebb. He was six years old at the time. We see him losing no time in getting to grips with essentials, appreciative of the good things in life, and with an English style capable of combining a note of wonder (“half a yard” is not, except to mathematicians, the same as one foot, six inches) with an awareness of a limitless potential for evil if a useful instrument (like conjectural criticism?) should fall into the wrong hands. This little boy grew up to become a Knight, a holder of the Order of Merit; a member of Parliament, a founding father of the Cambridge Philological Society, the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, the British School at Athens, and the British Academy; and the recipient of numerous honorary degrees from Universities abroad as well as at home. If ever there was a figure of the establishment it was Sir Richard.

    Yet the little boy with the unimpeachable English style, who in another letter speaks of a universal human tragedy with the same economy—“I go to school next Wednesday. It cannot be helped”—an economy that was to become one of the hallmarks of his commentaries, was not extinguished in the later, graver figure whose words were reported in 1893 in such respectful terms as, “The foremost scholar in England urged the paramount importance of an essentially unremunerative branch of learning.” Much of his private correspondence is preserved, and from it we form a picture quite different from that of the public figure whose portrait has recently been taken out of store to gaze with some hauteur on those who dine in the Master’s Lodge of Trinity College. Those who see the Victorian old duffer on the wall are unaware that he was suffering from hay fever at the time the portrait was painted; nor do they know that Jebb’s own comment on it was, “I wish he had made me a more cheerful and spirited-looking chappy.”

    Richard was one of four children of an Irish barrister and the daughter of a clergyman. He was born very much on the right side of the tracks, for the Jebb family had distinguished itself from the reign of Queen Elizabeth onward, particularly in the literary life of the eighteenth century. He was educated at Charterhouse and entered Trinity. It made quite an impression on him. “Have you ever seen our hall at Trinity during feeding time? If you have not, I will assist your imagination. Fancy a vast hall, traversed lengthwise by narrow tables. Fancy these tables crowded to excess with British youths in every stage of starvation or repletion: some, with the stony look of despairing hunger; some, in whose faces despair has not yet frozen boiling indignation; some, whose countenances express ungrateful content and the peace that is engendered by unctuous pudding. Between these tables, where haggard misery is the neighbour of stolid fatness, fancy a dense tide of slovenly men and dirty old women pushing, wrangling, struggling, for hacked and gory joints, upsetting gravy, dripping dishes, always in a hurry, never attending to one, but always doing to everybody.” It is all quite different now, of course.

    In his undergraduate career Jebb emerged effortlessly as the best student in his subject. His Latin verses, we are told, “extracted tears from the venerable eyes of Dr. Jeremie,” and he maintained that healthy dislike of his subject that is the mark of the true professional: “For years everything conspired to make me think that Greek and Latin were the end of existence. This miserable illusion disappeared when I came up here, and yet I know that my pretensions to any ability whatever rest solely on proficiency in these wretched Classics, which I now almost detest. What I yearn for is a start in the serious business of life, and emancipation from these utterly barren studies. . . .” His widow records that “there had been talk about his going into the Church” but, in her superb phrase, “the claims of an eager vitality were clamouring in his ears too insistently for self-abnegation.” He fell passionately in love, but the girl did not reciprocate his feelings. Is it sympathy or satisfaction that we hear in his widow’s comment that this was “in the long run an unmixed benefit, keeping him clear of love affairs through the years when a man is most apt to act rashly”?

    The letters from these early years at Cambridge are a delight to read; it is clear that Jebb had all the qualities it takes to become a novelist. He speaks of “a group of unmistakeable townsmen carefully got up and smoking questionable cigars” and “mighty Dons in blameless black.” A sermon by Archbishop [Richard] Whately [1787-1863] impressed him but did not blind him: “It seemed as if his Mind had come down by train to preach without noticing it had not put on its best Body.” This edge to his writing extended into scholarly comment too, when he speaks of “consuls, who, to judge from their universal incapacity, must have been chosen by the Senate of the time simply in the educational interests of posterity.” Whether this style rubbed off on his wife, the widow of an American general, or whether she was a kindred spirit, it is impossible to say, but it was in fact Lady Caroline, not Sir Richard, whose testimonial to another scholar reads “Dr. [John Stuart] Blackie [1809-95] was an accomplished and amiable man, blessed with a fortunate want of sensitiveness.”

    From 1863 to 1875 Jebb was one of the classics dons of Trinity, and then, not without much misgiving, he decided to accept the chair of Greek at Glasgow, returning to Cambridge each summer. There is conflicting evidence on Jebb’s qualities as a lecturer, but there are at least two enthusiastic testimonials to his teaching as occupant of the Glasgow chair. “I have no hesitation in saying that he was by far the best teacher I ever knew, and that he made his subject real and inspiring as few are able to do.” So the Rev. Dr. Denney, who notes, however, that “he could not in any sense fraternise with his pupils.” Another clergyman, John Walker, wrote of “your influence over my own mind. My experience is not singular in this; I have heard it expressed very strongly by many others who have been as fortunate as myself in coming through the Greek class in the years they did.” A different view was expressed by someone else, describing Jebb’s temper as short, bursts of it sweeping the classroom like a storm. We shall not at this distance of time be able to recover a true picture of Jebb the lecturer, but there is one anecdote that bears repetition. John Veitch used to lecture on logic and rhetoric in the room over the one in which the Greek class was held. On one occasion his lecture reached an excited finish and his audience stamped in appreciation across the room and down the stairs. Jebb looked up and observed: “Gentlemen, I fear that my premises will not support Professor Veitch’s conclusions.” Various books and articles by Jebb appeared during this period. His Selections from the Attic Orators, written, it is said, in a single month, is still in use today. But of Jebb’s early works the most startling is one composed before the time of the Glasgow Chair. It is a translation into the metres of Pindar’s Fourth Pythian of Browning’s “Abt Vogler.” It was apparently worked out in his mind during a single walk. It is not flawless, and in fact one line is deficient of two syllables. But it is of amazingly high quality. Tyrrell, in his “Memoir of Jebb” in the Proceedings of the British Academy, remarked that it was, to him at any rate, far clearer in the Greek than in the English. It shows an intimate understanding of Pindaric style that makes one bitterly regret that Jebb never lived to write the full commentary he hoped to do on this author. The Bacchylides is no substitute, for it has necessarily been overtaken by recent advances, and, in any case, as Jebb sighed, “One does wish that the man were just a little better.” In 1889 Jebb returned to Cambridge as Professor of Greek. The first volume of the seven that comment individually on the plays of Sophocles had appeared two years earlier. Sophoclis sui interpreti exquisitissimo says the memorial brass in the chapel of Trinity College, and that is how he is, and always will be, remembered. If we tried a word-association test on classical scholars, asking them whose name came immediately to mind in connection with major Greek authors, we would get a huge diversity of answers for Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus, Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle and the rest. But for Sophocles there is, at any rate in the English-speaking world, only one answer, for Jebb’s commentaries, dated and flawed in some respects as they may be, remain the yardstick by which all subsequent ones are measured. For a hundred years or so the only criterion of merit for an editor of Sophocles is how far short of Jebb’s his performance falls.

    This reservation, “in the English-speaking world,” is a necessary one, for although Jebb was at pains to acquaint himself with the work of German scholars, the compliment was not reciprocated as heartily as it might have been. [Georg] Kaibel’s [1849-1901] overpraised Elektra, published not so long after Jebb’s edition, shows hardly any awareness of the English scholar at all. The loss is Kaibel’s. Continental scholarship may have regarded with amusement Jebb’s adherence to the superseded metrical theories of J. H. H. Schmidt [1830-1913] when treating the choral passages, and certainly Sir Richard was never a textual critic to set the heart racing. But as the “exquisite interpreter” he has no equal. Perhaps those whose mastery of the English language was incomplete were never able to realize just how exquisite. Wilamowitz partially sensed this deficiency in his fellow countrymen:“With us Sir R. Jebb is known essentially as a commentator on Sophocles, and that too less than he deserves.” When he mysteriously added later that “scholarly production was not his field” (“wissenschaftliche Produktion nicht sein Feld war”) we have to interpret that remark in the light of others that accompany it. Jebb was not the founder of a method, opening up new avenues of research, surrounded by a faithful clique whose advancement depended on making themselves useful to the great man. He was not a German professor.

    It is regrettable that, in his own country, those whose command of Sophoclean Greek has never been put to the test have embarked on a campaign of denigration. C. O. Brink [1907-94] speaks of his “tasteful floating” by comparison with Housman, and H. D. Jocelyn [1933-2000] takes his cue and refers to “the superficiality of his [own] scholarship.” When it comes to those areas where Housman and Jebb came into direct conflict over matters of Sophoclean interpretation, anyone who wishes to observe the difference can turn to the pages of pedantic ranting that lead often to conclusions which no person in his right mind would accept in Housman’s article on Oedipus at Colonus (=Classical Papers 1:181-208) and compare them with Jebb’s own cool concision on the same topics.

    Of course, fashions change. It is hard for us to believe today that Jebb’s translations were once admired as models. Though they never descend to the mindless level of W. S. Barrett’s [1914-2001] exposition of Euripides Hippolytus, lines 545-554: “The Oichalian filly unyoked abed, manless before and unwed, she yoked from Eurytos’ house and like a running Naiad or a bacchant, amid blood, amid smoke, in a bloody bridal gave her, did the Cyprian, to Alkmene’s child; oh, unhappy in your bridal” (the vintage is 1963), they do nevertheless often provoke a smile today. A few samples from the inexhaustible supply must suffice: “Why is the sailor trafficking with thee about me in these dark whispers?” “In sooth, that is the meed; yet lucre hath oft ruined men through their hopes.” “Then do not thou, my son, at pleasure’s beck, dethrone thy reason for a woman’s sake." “If I am to nurture mine own kindred in naughtiness, needs must I bear with it in aliens.” “Then wottest thou of having noted yon man in these parts?” The enlightened teacher of classics today will do all he can to steer his pupils away from this kind of thing, as from [Walter] Headlam’s [1866-1908] translation of Aeschylus Agamemnon: “Such is the boasting; though brim-full of truth, unseemly, surely for a noble dame to trumpet” (lines 613-614), a nervous oscillation between the language of the King James Bible and that of Damon Runyon.

    Sophocles’ own diction would not have sounded anything but archaic even to the audiences who first heard the plays, and the simple test of Jebb’s admittedly often hilarious versions is, Can you do better? Very often they reveal nuances that it would be ponderous to explain in the running commentary: in a sense they are a running commentary, and in the places where, as sometimes happens, translation and notes are at variance, it is more usually the translation that has best captured the truth. If Jebb says “she stood not on denial of aught” the reader may be confident that the original Greek says something grander than “She did not deny anything.” Some disrespectful young persons of Trinity College were observed to fall about on finding Oedipus ask the question “Say, am I vile?” But the original does have something, not identical with, but still corresponding with the “say”; and the “vile” is not there to represent the Greek adjective, the ordinary word for “bad” but imparts the nuance of the verb, which means “be” in the sense of “be by nature, by birth.” Jebb has got it exactly right. The translations achieve the perplexing feat of being both horrendously awful and superbly right at one and the same time.

    In the list of Great Emenders given in the entry on Richard Porson, Jebb’s name appears low on the list, and only for Sophocles. Even so, he scores twice as many points as A. C. Pearson [1861-1935], a Cambridge Greek professor of this century whose three-volume edition of the Sophocles fragments, continuing Jebb’s work, is itself a formidable work of technical scholarship. But what distinguishes Jebb from other textual critics is this: the emenders of texts, considered as a special class of human being, are distinguished by the attitude “Of course I am right; it is just that you are too stupid to see it.” Jebb took an entirely different line. Of the thirty-two readings that have survived the envious scrutiny of the Teubner editor, a quarter are directly repudiated by Jebb himself, and many of the others are mentioned as the merest possibilities. Jebb knew better than anyone when to stay his hand. As Verrall put it in a first-rate evaluation of his work, printed as an Appendix to the Life and Letters, he was not the dupe of his own cleverness.

    This restraint may seem a negative virtue, but we shall only appreciate its true value properly if we remember that, at the time Jebb was working, conjectural criticism was at full flood. As the speed with which a man could draw a gun enhanced his prestige among certain communities in the New World, so in the Old the standing of a classical scholar was often determined by the number of notches he could carve onto his texts of ancient-authors. It required much sanity and courage to blow the whistle on a game that was getting out of hand. What particularly aroused Jebb’s ire was the wanton excision of lines held to be interpolated. “It is to be regretted,” he wrote icily, “when a habit of mind such as might be fostered by the habitual composition of telegrams is applied to the textual criticism of poetry,—or, indeed, of prose.” In his Preface to Oedipus at Colonus his creed is set out at greater length:

    The detection of spurious work has come down from a past age as a traditional exercise for a scholar’s acuteness. In Germany, where scholarship is a crowded profession, involving the severest competition, every competitor is naturally and rightly anxious to prove his originality; and, if the Greek drama is his subject, one of the time-honoured modes of doing this is to discover interpolations. Thenceforth he is a man with a view, and has earned a mention; he is the critic who holds that such or such verses are spurious. English copiers of this fashion are not wanting. It is, however, high time to recognize the fact that the principal classical texts are no longer such as they were found by the scholarship of the sixteenth, or even of the last century. They no longer teem with those rank overgrowths of corruption in which the earlier critics found such ample material. The purification of these texts, though still incomplete, has now reached such a point that, if any real advance is to be made, reserve and delicacy of judgment must be cultivated. Interpretation—of the spirit, as well as of the letter—has a twofold office to perform. It has to aid and control the process of emendation. It has also to defend the text against wanton defacement or mutilation.

    ... It may be permissible to observe, since the practice of classical composition has been subject in late years to some ignorant and silly disparagement, that not a few of the conjectures which we sometimes see put forward are such as could not have been suggested, if their proposers had profited, even a little, by the discipline of Greek verse composition. It is earnestly to be hoped that the day will never come when that exercise,—duly reserved for those to whom it is congenial,—shall cease to have a place among the studies which belong to the English conception of classical scholarship. ... It helps to educate an instinct which will usually refrain from change where no change is required.

    Those who are unable to savor to the full the delights of Jebb’s own translations into various Greek metres of famous passages of English poetry would do best to turn, after the Sophocles commentaries, to the Essays and Addresses. Oddly enough, the weakest is precisely the one on Sophocles. It may be an early work, or it may be that the Society for Afternoon Lectures on Literature and Art of Dublin, before whom it was delivered, did not bring out the best in him; not but what we learn from another source, of other lectures, “He gave us of his best: a smaller man might have thought us hardly worth the trouble.” The Pindar essay is a comprehensive account, useful today as a compendium of everything that you need to know about Pindar unless you are taking a highly specialized examination. The review of [James Anthony] Froude’s [1818-94] Caesar [1879]  shows us Jebb in an unusual light, as a destructive critic capable of lashing out in unexpected directions, as when he says of Burke, “He first elicits the damning eloquence of facts, and then overlays it with the rhetoric of denunciation.” He punctures Mommsen and accuses Froude at one point of “spanning an impassable gulf with a bridge of cobwebs.” The Erasmus lecture also has an edge to it. Erasmus’ true name was Gerhard Gerhardson: “It was a singular fortune for a master of literary style to be designated by two words which mean the same thing, and are both wrong.” In his Thucydides paper Jebb anticipates a famous book by Cornford: “It might not be difficult, with a little adroitness, to represent Thucydides as a conscious dramatic artist throughout his work; and an ingenious writer has actually shown how his History may be conceived as a tragedy cast into five acts” (i.e. [Hermann] Ulrici [1806-84],Charakteristik der antiken Historiographie).

    The Delos article shows that Jebb had the same keen interest in archaeology that Sir Denys Page had, and in Ancient Organs of Public Opinion we get a passage that might almost have been written by Sir Denys himself:

    Any one who reads the column of Answers to Correspondents in a prudently conducted journal will recognise the principal types of oracle. In truth, the Delphic oracle bore a strong resemblance to a serious newspaper managed by a cautious editorial committee with no principles in particular. In editing an oracle, it was then, as it still is, of primary importance not to make bad mistakes. The Delphian editors were not infallible; but, when a blunder had been made, they often showed considerable resource. Thus, when Croesus had been utterly ruined, he begged his conqueror to grant him one luxury—to allow him to send to Delphi, and ask Apollo whether it was his usual practice to treat his benefactors in this way. Apollo replied that, in point of fact, he had done everything he could; he had personally requested the Fates to put off the affair for a generation; but they would only grant a delay of three years. Instead of showing annoyance, Croesus ought to be grateful for having been ruined three years later than he ought to have been.

    In the later pages of the collection we see more of Jebb, the man of affairs. In Life and Letters too we begin to lose sight of Jebb the scholar as Jebb the public figure begins to take over. We cannot be sure if he thought his correspondents would bemore interested in his political doings than in his academic work, or whether he genuinely believed that what he did as a member of Parliament and member of countless commissions was more important than putting down on paper his thoughts on Sophocles. He may have deluded himself. By all accounts he was not a good extempore speaker in the House of Commons, though outside it, delivering a set piece, he could be magnificent: the speech he made at the inauguration of the Memorial Cloister at Charterhouse in 1903 survives. We must make allowances for the spirit of the times and local loyalties that we may not ourselves share. Once we do, we shall find the speech a perfectly judged piece, which its audience must have found deeply moving. No student of the classics can read it without forming in his mind a tacit comparison with the famous funeral oration put into the mouth of Pericles by Thucydides, and it requires no great imagination to suppose that in Jebb’s mind too it was present as a model.

    Sir Richard Jebb cannot be assessed as one in the great tradition of classical philologists. He stands to the side of it, apart, a restrained and dignified figure, his warm and boyish humor kept for his family and friends. Classical literature was for him not material on which to practise a brand of pyrotechnics. Someone once said that the difference between Heifetz and Kreisler was that every time Heifetz came on stage it was with the determination to prove once again that he was the greatest violinist in the world; Kreisler came as one to play for a circle of friends. Jebb was a Kreisler.

  • Sources:

    Mary Reed Bobbitt, With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (London, 1960); J.D. Duff, “Jebb, Sir Richard Claverhouse,” DNB Supplement 1901-1911: 366-9 (With the accompanying bibliography.); A.S.F. Gow, Letters from Cambridge(London, 1945) 240. (Highly uncomplimentary remarks on Jebb’s lecturing style.); Caroline Jebb, Life and Letters of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (Cambridge, 1907); Gwen Raverat, Period Piece (London, 1952). (Interesting sidelights, especially on Lady Caroline.); R.Y. Tyrrell, “Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb 1841-1905,” PBA 2 (1905-6) 443-8.

  • Author: Roger D. Dawe