Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cleasby, Richard

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CLEASBY, RICHARD (1797–1847), philologist, brother of Sir Anthony Cleasby [q. v.], and eldest son of Stephen Cleasby, was born on 30 Nov. 1797. He was educated at a private school, and for some years assisted his father in his business, but in 1824 gave up trade and proceeded to the continent to devote himself to the study of philosophy and literature. After spending four years principally in Italy and Germany, he returned for a winter's term at the university of Edinburgh, repaired again to the continent, and, after much roaming, settled down in 1830 at Munich to study philosophy under Schelling and old German under Schmeller and Massmann. Philology gradually encroached on philosophy, and his excursions into almost every district of Germany, to which he devoted all the time he could spare from his studies, procured him an extraordinary knowledge of German dialects. A liver complaint, which he had contracted in Italy, compelled him to frequently resort to Carlsbad, and he occasionally revisited England for a brief period. His first visit to Denmark and Sweden was in May 1834, and he became gradually more and more attracted by Scandinavian subjects. In 1839 he collated the 'Codex Argenteus' at Upsala, and in January 1840, 'to get an unaccountable and most scandalous blank filled up,' he formed the plan of his 'Icelandic-English Dictionary.' The work was fairly commenced in April, and continued to be the chief interest of the too short remainder of a life greatly tried by family and business cares and attacks of rheumatism and liver complaint, threatening to end in paralysis. He oscillated incessantly between England, the German baths, and Copenhagen, where he had amanuenses continually at work, some of whom occasionally travelled with him. In the summer of 1847 his health grew worse, and on 6 Oct. he died of an attack of typhoid fever, not at first considered serious. The poetical vocabulary, prepared under his direction by Dr. Egilsson, was ready for publication in 1846. In the following year Cleasby caused five words to be set up in type as specimens of the prose dictionary. Nothing else appeared to exist in a state fit for print, and arrangements were made for the completion of the work at Copenhagen. 'Mr. Cleasby's heirs,' says Dean Liddell, 'paid a considerable sum of money to certain persons; but in 1854 came a demand for more money, and as it seemed doubtful whether the work was likely to be finished in any reasonable time, and on any reasonable terms, it was determined that the whole of the manuscripts should be sent to London.' Cleasby's own manuscript materials, however, were retained, and the transcripts made after his death proved so unsatisfactory that the whole work had to be done over again. In 1864 the task was undertaken by Mr. Gudbrand Vigfusson, an Icelander, and, at the instance of Sir G. W. Dasent, defrayed by a grant from the delegates of the Clarendon Press. The work, a noble monument of industry and scholarship, was eventually completed in 1873, and published with a preface by Dean Liddell, and an introduction and memoir of Cleasby by Sir G. W. Dasent. Cleasby's own autographic materials, eventually given up, arrived too late to be used, and proved in every respect superior to the transcripts which had cost so much time and money. 'The dictionary as it now stands,' says Dasent, ' is far more the work of Vigfusson than of Cleasby;' but while many men would have been competent to make good the deficiencies and amend the imperfections of Cleasby's unfinished labours, there was perhaps not another who, with every temptation to lead a life of leisure and amusement, would have voluntarily, from pure philological and literary enthusiasm, have engaged in an undertaking so arduous and expensive. The value of his work to his own country, as well as to Iceland, is ably pointed out in an article in the 'Edinburgh Review,' vol. cxl., by Mr. Henry Reeve. The specimens of his correspondence given in Dasent's 'Memoirs' exhibit him in the light of a sensible and amiable man, with strong family affections.

[Dasent's Memoirs prefixed to Cleasby and Vigfusson's Icelandic-English Dictionary; Edinburgh Review, vol. cxl.]

R. G.