Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 12.djvu/21

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Conington
Conington
16

with Godfrey Hermann. He did not visit Germany again, nor did his stay there produce any appreciable intellectual result. While in London (1849–1850) he contributed regularly to the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ in which he wrote the articles relating to university reform. He probably wrote on the same subject in other periodicals between 1850 and 1854, when the scheme of the Oxford University commission came into operation. Certainly he threw his whole force into the movement of reform. The opening of close fellowships, the restriction of the number of clerical fellowships, the foundation of new professorships, the augmentation of the number and value of scholarships, the new power given to congregation; all these measures had his warm approval. When, some years later, the liberals went on to move for the repeal of all religious tests, Conington was willing to relax the test, but only within the limits of received christianity. This attitude caused some estrangement between Conington and the liberal party in Oxford. Nothing, however, discouraged him from taking an active part, whenever an opportunity was open to him, in university business.

The beginning of his career as a scholar was full of brilliant promise. He had always a special fondness for the Greek tragedians, and especially for Æschylus, whose plays he knew by heart. In his twenty-fourth year he edited the ‘Agamemnon’ with a spirited verse translation and notes (1848). The notes, though slight, contained one brilliant emendation, λέοντος ίνιν for λέοντα σίνιν (v. 696). Conington was in later years very severe upon this little book; but it was for a long time, and very justly, popular with clever undergraduates. In his ‘Epistola Critica,’ addressed to Gaisford (1852), he proposed emendations in the fragments of Æschylus, some of which have been accepted as certain by later editors. In a paper in the ‘Rheinisches Museum’ of 1861, subsequently expanded into an article for the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ and now printed in both forms in his ‘Miscellaneous Writings,’ he exploded the spurious second part of the ‘Fables of Babrius,’ the manuscript of which had, in 1857, been sold as genuine to the British Museum, and had imposed upon Sir George Lewis.

In 1852 he began, in conjunction with Mr. Goldwin Smith, his edition of ‘Virgil.’ Mr. Goldwin Smith was soon obliged, by the pressure of his occupations as secretary to the university commission, to give up the work. Conington was occupied upon it, with various interruptions, for the rest of his life.

In 1857 he published an admirable edition of the ‘Choëphoroe’ of Æschylus. In this work a growing caution and distrust of conjectural emendation may be observed. This habit of mind was strengthened as he worked upon ‘Virgil.’ He formed the conviction that the text of Virgil was exceptionally well established by manuscript evidence, and, as a rule, regarded with something like horror any attempt to depart from the fourth-century copies. It is true that the manuscripts and ancient commentators on Virgil preserve so many variants that the chances of modern conjecture helping the text are very small. There is also much in Virgil's style which is peculiar to himself, and which suggests that, in the ruined state of Latin literature, we have lost the data for understanding him. But Conington was wrong if he supposed that the text of Virgil is certainly established. This it is not, and in all likelihood never will be, if it be the fact, as it probably is, that the numerous ancient manuscripts are derived from one copy, itself full of corrections, and in many places corrupted by glosses, as the text of a widely read poet was certain in the course of time to become.

Conington's general view of the study of ancient literature cannot be better expressed than in the language of his own inaugural lecture (Miscellaneous Writings, i. 220): ‘The way to study Latin literature is to study the authors who gave it its characters; the way to study those authors is to study them individually in their individual works, and to study each work, so far as may be, in its minutest details. … The peculiar training which is sought from the study of literature is only to be obtained, in anything like its true fulness, by attending, not merely to each paragraph and each sentence, but to each word, not merely to the general force of an expression, but to the various constituents which make up the effect produced by it on a thoroughly intelligent reader.’

Width of knowledge, however, and largeness of conception, as well as minuteness of observation, are essential to the making of a true student of ancient literature. Conington, without any useful result, chose to limit the range of his classical reading. For Cicero, Cæsar, and Livy he did not care much, nor had he any great sympathy even with Lucretius.

The edition of ‘Virgil,’ as originally conceived and executed by him, was a characteristic monument both of his strength and his weakness. The essays introductory to the ‘Bucolics,’ ‘Georgics,’ and ‘Æneid’ are careful and solid, if not exhaustive, pieces of literary criticism. They abound in delicate perceptions, and unquestionably opened up