Wakefield, Gilbert (DNB00)

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WAKEFIELD, GILBERT (1756–1801), scholar and controversial writer, born on 22 Feb. 1756 in the parsonage-house of St. Nicholas, Nottingham, was the third son of George Wakefield, for seventeen years rector of that parish, and subsequently for nine years vicar of Kingston-on-Thames, where he died in 1776. He was descended paternally from the Wakefields of Stakenhill, Derbyshire, and maternally from the families of Coke and Russell. At seven years old he began Latin at the free school—now the high school—of Nottingham; and at thirteen, on the removal of his father and family to Kingston, he was sent to the free school of that town, of which Richard Wooddeson [see under Woodeson, Richard] was the master. In 1772 Wakefield obtained a scholarship at Jesus College, Cambridge, where his father also had been educated. He had a distinguished university career. He found algebra ‘odious beyond conception,’ but learned enough of it to graduate B.A. as second wrangler in 1776; and in the same year he won one of the chancellor's medals, at that time, and until the institution of the classical tripos in 1824, the highest honour obtainable in classics. He was immediately elected fellow of his college. In the following year, and again in 1778, he won the second of the members' prizes for a Latin essay.

Early in 1778 Wakefield was ordained deacon. From a belief that he undertook the responsibility without sufficient knowledge, Wakefield afterwards characterised his ordination as ‘the most disingenuous action of my whole life, utterly incapable of palliation or apology.’ His clerical life was short but hard-working. He was curate for a few months to Mr. Watson, rector of Stockport, and for a few months more held a curacy in Liverpool, where he interested himself on behalf of the prisoners almost daily brought in by privateers, and endeavoured to rouse public opinion against the slave trade, of which Liverpool was the headquarters. By this time Wakefield had repaired his ignorance of theology and was an ardent student of it. His studies led him gradually to the adoption of Arian or unitarian doctrines, and necessarily involved the resignation of his curacy. In March 1779 he married Anne Watson, the niece of his former rector, and vacated his fellowship. He had not taken priest's orders, nor, as he could no longer subscribe to the articles of the church, could he proceed to the M.A. degree. Neither at this time nor at any other did he formally connect himself with any dissenting body. He held firmly to revealed religion, and described himself in general terms as ‘a genuine votary of a crucified Saviour, who looks for a Better Country, and feels himself impelled to a bold and open profession of the practical principles of Love, Peace, and Liberty to the whole human race.’

Being now without employment, Wakefield accepted in 1779 an invitation to become classical tutor in Warrington Academy, a college founded in 1757 on liberal religious and political principles. He held the office with distinction until 1783, when the academy was dissolved. Joseph Priestley [q. v.] , William Enfield [q. v.] , and John Aikin (1713–1780) [q. v.] were among his fellow-tutors. While at Warrington he read Hebrew assiduously, and published in 1781 and 1782 respectively translations of the First Epistle to the Thessalonians and of St. Matthew's Gospel, which were intended as part of a translation of the entire New Testament.

From Warrington Wakefield removed in 1783 to Bramcote, a village near Nottingham, with the view of taking private pupils; then to Richmond in Surrey, with the same object; and then to his native Nottingham. His pupils, however, were not numerous; and, though he continued his studies, a painful affection of his arm debarred him for some time from literary work. He published in 1788 an edition of the ‘Georgics,’ and in 1789 the first part of his well-known ‘Silva Critica,’ the design of which was ‘the union of theological and classical learning; the illustration of the Scriptures by light borrowed from the philology of Greece and Rome.’ The first three parts of the work were issued by the Cambridge University Press; the other two were published in London in 1793 and 1795 respectively. In 1790 he left Nottingham, and became classical tutor in the newly established dissenting college in Hackney. He resigned the appointment, however, in the following year, partly because he was dissatisfied with the system of the college, and partly because of his objection to public worship. He defended this singular opinion in ‘An Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship’ (London, 1791, 4to). The next few years, during which he continued to reside at Hackney, were devoted entirely to scholarship and controversy. He finished his ‘Silva Critica,’ and produced his ‘Tragœdiarum Delectus’ (London, 1794, 2 vols. 8vo), containing the ‘Hercules Furens,’ ‘Alcestis,’ and ‘Ion’ of Euripides, the ‘Trachiniæ’ and ‘Philoctetes’ of Sophocles, and the ‘Eumenides’ of Æschylus. In these years he also edited Horace (1794), and Moschus (1795), and finally Lucretius (1796–9, 3 vols.). On the last work his reputation as a scholar mainly rests. He completed his translation of the New Testament in 1792; a second edition appeared three years later, and another in 1820. During the same period (1792–7) he also wrote not merely an autobiography and several controversial tracts and pamphlets, but a work on the ‘Evidences of Christianity’ (1793), a ‘Defence of Revealed Religion,’ and a ‘Reply to Thomas Paine's “Age of Reason”’ (1795).

Wakefield's political opinions grew more extreme with his years, and he was ever ready and anxious to uphold them at all costs. He was so completely swayed by the impulse of the moment as to be constitutionally incapable of second thoughts. Henry Crabb Robinson [q. v.] , who knew him, describes him as a political fanatic. ‘He had the pale complexion and mild features of a saint, was a most gentle creature in domestic life, and a very amiable man; but, when he took part in political or religious controversy, his pen was dipped in gall.’ John Aikin, his older and more intimate friend, the son of his colleague at Warrington, says of him: ‘He had long upon principle been an enemy to war, thinking it absolutely incompatible, unless as a measure of direct defence, with Christian morality, and especially detesting it when employed to usurp upon the rights of mankind and overthrow the plans of liberty. He thought it bore this character when it was waged against the principles of the French revolution, an event which in its commencements he, in common with many other philanthropists, hailed as the promise of a much improved state of human affairs.’ He hated Pitt, and says, after a visit to the House of Commons in 1792: ‘No words can describe the amazement excited in me by the exhibition of the minister, Mr. Pitt. … Such a bellowing vociferation, such an impudent attempt to screen the imbecility of argument under a fictitious passion, and a volley of empty sounds, sunk him ten times deeper than before, even in my opinion.’ In 1795 he wrote to Dr. Parr: ‘I regard the present system of government in this country, civil and ecclesiastical, as that bond of iniquity which must be loosed before social happiness can be secured, and which I am sure natural causes will loose in a very short period indeed.’ With an impetuous temper, and with opinions such as these, it was inevitable that Wakefield should incur a prosecution for seditious libel.

In 1798 Richard Watson (1737–1816) [q. v.] , bishop of Llandaff, wrote an ‘Address to the People of Great Britain,’ an ordinary party tract in defence of Pitt and the war and the new ‘tax upon income.’ Wakefield instantly published a ‘Reply,’ which, as he says, ‘was never written over twice, and was finished for the press in the compass of a single day.’ The ‘Reply’ was a remarkable tour de force of mingled eloquence and enthusiasm. Wakefield contended that the poor and the labouring classes would lose nothing by a French invasion, and declared that if the French came they would ‘find him at his post among the illustrious dead.’ It also contained charges of corruption against the civil and ecclesiastical system of the day, and detailed numerous accusations against the bishop of Llandaff as an absentee and pluralist. A prosecution followed of Wakefield, his publisher (Cuthell), and his printer, and all three were convicted. After the conviction of the printer and publisher Wakefield was tried separately in February 1799. Erskine offered to defend him for nothing, Wakefield having exhausted his means in paying the expenses of his publisher; but the offer was declined, and he defended himself in an able and outspoken address. On conviction he was released on bail, and a few weeks later he appeared for judgment, and again addressed the court. No judgment, however, was then delivered, and he was committed to the king's bench prison, where Fox, Lord Holland, and the Duke of Bedford, and others of his political and private friends visited him. In May he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Dorchester gaol, and to give security for good behaviour for five years. On his conviction Fox wrote to him as follows: ‘The liberty of the press I consider as virtually destroyed by the proceedings against Johnson and Jordan, and what has happened to you I cannot but lament therefore the more, as the sufferings of a man whom I esteem in a cause that is no more.’ In May 1799 Wakefield was taken to Dorchester gaol, where his family, who had removed to Dorchester were allowed to visit him frequently; and his confinement, thanks to influential friends, was rendered fairly supportable. A long correspondence, since published, passed between him and Fox, chiefly on matters of scholarship. The large sum of money (5,000l.) that was raised for him by his friends and sympathisers—for Wakefield was never rich—relieved him and his family of pecuniary anxiety. He devoted part of his time to the poorer prisoners and part to literature. The Greek dictionary did not progress, but he wrote constantly to Fox, and sometimes to Parr; translated select essays of Dio Chrysostom, and prepared a work on Greek metres, which was published, under the title of ‘Noctes Carcerariæ’ (London, 1801, 4to), shortly after his release. On this happy event, 29 May 1801, he returned to Hackney, and projected a series of lectures on Virgil. He died at Hackney of typhus fever on 9 Sept. 1801, and was buried near the east end of St. Mary Magdalene's Church, Richmond. The church contains a marble tablet erected to his memory by his brother, Thomas Wakefield, B.A., ‘minister of this parish.’ An engraved portrait is prefixed to his ‘Life.’ He left a widow (who died in 1819), four sons (one of whom served in the Peninsular war), and two daughters.

Wakefield was a man of singular humanity, hating cruelty of all kinds, and sensitive to the misery of others. He abandoned his favourite sports as soon as he conceived that they involved cruelty, and vainly attempted to persuade Fox to do the same. Ἀλήθειαν κὰι ἐλευθερίαν was the motto of his bookplate, and of his life. He holds a distinct position in the history of English scholarship. As a scholar, he had decided merits and conspicuous defects. He had abundance of good taste, extensive general knowledge, and great industry; but these qualifications were counterbalanced by the excessive haste and temerity of his conclusions. His reputation would be higher if he had been a severer critic of himself. He measured swords with Porson with a light heart, and when Porson published his ‘Hecuba’ in 1797, Wakefield immediately assailed the work in a ‘Diatribe Extemporalis.’ The result was a more or less discourteous controversy, which went on simmering in Porson's notes to the ‘Orestes’ and in the second edition of the ‘Hecuba;’ and an estrangement followed. Porson revenged himself by his famous toast, ‘Gilbert Wakefield: what's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba;’ by threatening to examine ‘Silva Critica;’ and by reviewing Wakefield's ‘Lucretius’ in the ‘British Critic’ (May 1801). Wakefield held a strong opinion of the inutility of Greek accents, in which view he was supported, as against Porson, by Brunck and Elmsley. Porson declared, after Wakefield's death, that ‘he was as violent against Greek accents as he was against the Trinity.’

Wakefield's best known works are the ‘Silva Critica’ and the edition of ‘Lucretius,’ both of which show him alike at his best and his worst. The former is a medley of critical and illustrative comment on classical passages, acute, ingenious, and widely informed, but here and there disfigured by serious blunders that a little thought would have corrected. It was his chief fault as a scholar that he carried his love of emendation to an absurd degree, and fairly justified Porson's remark that ‘no author escaped his rage for correction.’ ‘Lucretius,’ although Wakefield's greatest work, was published at a loss. The first edition is somewhat rare in consequence of the destruction of many copies by a fire at the printer's warehouse. It is in three sumptuous quarto volumes. Wakefield was a graceful writer of Latin verses, and published a small volume of them in his Cambridge days. His youthful translation of Gray's ‘Elegy’ was discussed in ‘Macmillan's Magazine,’ February 1875.

Among Wakefield's other works, many of which were short tracts and pamphlets, were: 1. ‘An Essay on Inspiration,’ Warrington, 1781. 2. ‘The Poems of Mr. Gray, with Notes,’ London, 1781. 3. ‘The Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion,’ London, 1789. 4. ‘An Examination of Thomas Paine's “Age of Reason,”’ London, 1794. 5. ‘The Spirit of Christianity compared with the Spirit of the Times,’ London, 1794. 6. Pope's ‘Iliad and Odyssey, with Notes,’ London, 1796.

[Memoirs of the Life of Gilbert Wakefield; Aikin's Biographical Dictionary; Fox's Memoirs; Sketch of Gilbert Wakefield by M. E. Martin; Crabb Robinson's Diary; State Trials; Gilbert Wakefield's Pamphlet and Address to the Judges; Gent. Mag.; Watson's Life of Porson; Baker's St. John's College, Cambridge; Munro's Lucretius.]

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