Donaldson, John William (DNB00)
|←Donaldson, John (d.1865)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 15
Donaldson, John William
DONALDSON, JOHN WILLIAM, D.D. (1811–1861), philologist, born in London on 7 June 1811, was second son of Stuart Donaldson, Australian merchant, and brother of Sir Stuart Donaldson [q. v.] His grandfather, Hay Donaldson, was town clerk of Haddington, and his mother was Betty, daughter of John Cundale of Snab Green, Arkholme, Lancashire. He was educated privately, and at fourteen was articled to his uncle, a solicitor. In 1830, while in his uncle's office, he went up for an examination at University College, London, and gained the first prize in Greek. His ability attracted the attention of the examiner, George Long, by whose advice he was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1831. He soon gained a scholarship, and in 1834 was second in the classical tripos (Dr. Kennedy being first) and senior optime. He was elected fellow and tutor of Trinity, and up to his marriage in 1840 devoted himself to lecturing, teaching, and making himself master of the results of German philology. The fruits of his studies appeared in 1839, when he published his ‘New Cratylus, or Contributions towards a more accurate knowledge of the Greek Language,’ ‘the only complete treatise on inflected language then in existence either in England or on the continent.’ ‘This work,’ said his biographer in the ‘Athenæum,’ ‘marks an era in English scholarship, and was the first attempt to present in a systematic form to the English student the philological literature of the continent, or to point out the great importance of comparative philology in exploring the grammatical forms of the Greek language.’ ‘It is,’ says the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ ‘mainly founded on the comparative grammar of Bopp, but a large part of it is original, and it is but just to observe that the great German's grammar was not completed till ten years after the first edition of the “Cratylus.”’ In 1844 appeared ‘Varronianus,’ defined by the author in the preface to the third edition as ‘an attempt to discuss the comparative philology of the Latin language on the broad basis of general ethnography.’ It involved him in a violent controversy with Professor T. H. Key, who accused him of plagiarism. ‘It is enough to state,’ says the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ ‘that though the obligations of Donaldson to Key ought in the first instance to have been more explicitly acknowledged, yet the strictures of the latter were needlessly sweeping and aggressive.’
In 1840 Donaldson married firstly Eleanor, daughter of Sir John Mortlock, banker at Cambridge, and thus losing his fellowship took pupils for a time at Winfrith in Dor- setshire. In 1841 he was appointed head-master of King Edward's School, Bury St. Edmunds, an appointment unfortunate for the institution and for himself. He was deficient in judgment and administrative power, and the school declined under him, notwithstanding his efforts to obtain reputation by the publication of Latin and Greek grammars, which met with little acceptance beyond the sphere of his personal influence and involved him in controversy. They were probably too scientific for school use, and his conviction of the defects of standard grammars had been expressed with indiscreet candour. He also edited Pindar's ‘Epinician Odes’ and the ‘Antigone’ of Sophocles. The best side of his activity at Bury St. Edmunds was the wholesome intellectual influence he exerted on the town, where he greatly improved the Athenæum and raised the level of intellectual culture in general. In 1855 he resigned the head-mastership, partly, it is possible, on account of the clamour excited by the recent publication of ‘Jashar; Fragmenta Archetypa Carminum Hebraicorum; collegit, ordinavit, restituit J. G. Donaldson,’ which appeared at the end of 1854. In this remarkable work he endeavoured to show that fragments of a book of Jashar are to be found throughout the Old Testament Scriptures up to the time of Solomon, that the book was compiled in the reign of that monarch, and that its remains constitute ‘the religious marrow of the scriptures.’ Professor Aldis Wright praised the ingenuity of the theory; Thomas Love Peacock declared that it was of itself a sufficient proof of Donaldson's genius; but it seems to have been generally felt that it rests far too absolutely on hazardous speculation. Publication in a learned language did not protect Donaldson from attacks manifestly inspired by the odium theologicum; but this could not be said of the unfavourable judgment of Ewald, unseemly as was the arrogance with which it was expressed. Donaldson replied to Ewald and his English critics in a strain of great asperity, and in 1857 fully explained his theological position in his ‘Christian Orthodoxy reconciled with the conclusions of Modern Biblical Learning.’ The scope of this treatise is perhaps best indicated by the title of one of its subsections, ‘Conservatism implies a timely concession of the untenable.’ But the author's notions of the untenable differed widely from those of nine-tenths of the religious world, and his transcendental orthodoxy was not easily distinguishable from scepticism. After resigning his head-mastership he took up his residence at Cambridge, where he obtained the highest reputation as a tutor. It was expected that a university professorship would have been conferred upon him had he lived, and he was elected one of the classical examiners of the university of London. He availed himself of his comparative leisure to prepare new and improved editions of his ‘New Cratylus,’ ‘Varronianus,’ ‘Jashar,’ and ‘Greek Grammar;’ he also wrote a valuable disquisition on English ethnography in the Cambridge Essays, and the article ‘Philology’ in the eighth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica;’ and (1858) completed K. O. Müller's unfinished ‘History of Greek Literature.’ He began a Greek dictionary, which was to have been the great work of his life. Unfortunately he worked far too hard, both as author and teacher. When advised to take six months' rest he replied that this would cost him 1,500l. The neglect of the advice proved fatal. On coming to town in January 1861 he found himself unable to conduct the university examination, and on 10 Feb. he died at his mother's house, killed by overwork.
Donaldson was a most brilliant man. ‘He is,’ said Peacock, ‘not merely an accomplished scholar, he has genius, taste, and judgment. He can feel poetry, relish wit and humour, penetrate philosophy, appreciate eloquence, and develope the intimate relation which the political, moral, and social condition of every age and country bears to its respective and distinctive literature.’ This encomium refers to Donaldson's purely literary exertions. Judgment too often forsook him in his speculations, and taste in his controversies. He theorised far too boldly from insufficient data, and put forward as certainties views which should only have been advanced as suggestions. In biblical criticism more especially he can only be regarded as a brilliant amateur. He had, nevertheless, the gift of illuminating a subject; nothing is trite or dull in his hands, and his style is full of character. As a man he was greatly beloved by his friends, who included Thirlwall, Hepworth Thompson, and others among the most eminent of his day. The most important personal notices of him occur in the diary of Crabb Robinson, who speaks enthusiastically of the charm of his conversation and the liberality of his way of thinking, ‘such brilliancy and depth combined.’ ‘It is really,’ he characteristically remarks, ‘a great advantage to have such a man to show to one's friends.’
In addition to the works already enumerated Donaldson was part author of ‘The Theatre of the Greeks,’ the first three editions of which were published under the name of the original writer, Buckham, but which was so completely remodelled by Donaldson as to have borne his name in all later editions, and to be invariably spoken of as his. It is a useful work, and went through eight editions between 1827 and 1875. Donaldson wrote (1847) ‘A Vindication of Protestant Principles’ under the pseudonym of ‘Phileleutherus Anglicanus,’ and was also author of ‘The Three Treacherous Dealers’ (1854), an allegory on confirmation, of two ballads of no great merit, of several controversial pamphlets, and of some minor grammatical works. He contributed extensively to the ‘Penny Cyclopædia,’ and was the writer of the review of ‘Bunsen's Egypt’ in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for July 1846, and of several essays in ‘Fraser's Magazine.’[Gent. Mag. 3rd ser. vol. x.; Athenæum, 16 Feb. 1861; Bury Post, 19 Feb. 1861; Encyclopædia Britannica, ninth edition; T. L. Peacock in Fraser's Magazine, vol. lix.; Crabb Robinson's Diary, vol. ii.; private information.]