Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Cory, William Johnson

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

CORY, WILLIAM JOHNSON (1823–1892), poet and master at Eton, was the second son of Charles Johnson of Torrington, Devonshire, and was born there on 9 Jan. 1823. His mother, Theresa, daughter of the Rev. Peter Wellington Furse of Halsdon, was a great-niece of Sir Joshua Reynolds. His elder brother, Charles Wellington Johnson (1821-1900), assumed his mother's surname of Furse; he was well known from 1894 till his death (on 2 Aug. 1900) as canon and archdeacon of Westminster. William Johnson received his education at Eton, where he was elected king's scholar in 1831, and Newcastle scholar in 1841, and at King's College, Cambridge, where he was elected to a scholarship on 23 Feb. 1842. In 1843 he gained the chancellor's medal, 'won by a casting vote,' for an English poem on Plato. In 1844 he won the Craven scholarship, succeeded to a fellowship at King's in February 1845, graduated B.A., and in September of the same year was appointed an assistant master at Eton, where he remained for upwards of twenty-six years. 'He will long be remembered as the most brilliant Eton tutor of his day,' says Mr. G. W. Prothero in his memoir of Henry Bradshaw. Among his pupils were Lord Rosebery and Sir F. Pollock. Between 1861 and 1865 Johnson took a leading part in the throwing open of King's College, Cambridge, previously an exclusive foundation, and in the introduction of mathematics and natural science into its course of study. He led the way to the creation of an exhibition fund by the gift of 400l., to which he afterwards made many additions.

In 1872 Johnson, who had two years previously inherited an estate at Halsdon, assumed the name of Cory and retired from Eton, resigning also his fellowship at King's. In 1878 he went for his health to Madeira, where he married, in August 1878, Rosa Caroline, daughter of George de Carteret Guille, rector of Little Torrington, Devonshire. He spent four years entirely in Madeira, and on his return in September 1882 settled at Hampstead, where he devoted much time to giving oral classical instruction to ladies, for his own sake as well as theirs. 'Women,' he says, 'are as divining rods to me; they relish everything that is taught.' He died on 11 June 1892, and was buried at Hampstead on 16 June. He left a son, Andrew Cory, born in July 1879.

Cory has a permanent and exceptional place among English lyrists as the singer of the affection of a teacher for his pupils. The first edition of his ‘Ionica,’ published anonymously in 1858, at first neglected, soon came to be sought and hoarded, and is now among the most prized of modern editiones principes. A new enlarged edition was reissued in 1891. In such pieces as 'Anteros' and ‘Mimnermus in Church’ emotional glow and pathetic tenderness are blended with indescribable charm. In the poems written subsequently, and published along with the original ‘Ionica’ in 1891, Cory has forsaken his ground of vantage, and appears as merely the elegant and melodious versifier. He practised Latin and Greek verse composition with consummate taste and skill; the original verses which accompany his ‘Lucretilis,’ a technical ‘introduction to the art of writing Latin lyric verses’ (2 parts, Eton, 1871), were pronounced by H. A. J. Munro ‘the best and most Horatian Sapphics and Alcaics since Horace ceased to write.' 'Iophon' (1873) was a similar manual for Greek iambics; and 'Nuces' (1869–70), a series of lessons on the new Latin primer. He defended verse composition in a paper, contributed to the 'Essays on a Liberal Education,' edited by F. W. Farrar; and the Etonian system in general in two pamphlets on 'Eton Reform' published in 1861 in reply to the strictures of 'Pater-familias' (Matthew James Higgins [q. v.]) in the Cornhill Magazine, and of Sir J. T. Coleridge. His 'Guide to Modern English History' from 1815 to 1835, published after his return from Madeira, is a very remarkable book, composed in a singularly concise and pregnant style, almost every sentence embodying a criticism or some view or suggestion of marked originality. The author's very merits, nevertheless, render him an unsafe guide to follow implicitly, his obiter dicta are not supported by reasoning or authority; as a critic of men and events he is as valuable as he is racy and entertaining. It was intended to have been continued, but remained incomplete. The book, however, which would most contribute to preserve his memory were it better known, is the 'Extracts from the Letters and Journals of William Cory,' printed for subscribers at the Oxford University Press, with a good portrait, in 1897. It would not be easy to find a more charming volume of its class, whether in point of expression or of feeling; and the amiability and self-devotion of which the reader might otherwise tire are relieved by an originality amounting to eccentricity, finding vent in paradoxical but suggestive disparagement of Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, and the middle ages. The extracts cover nearly the whole of the writer's life.

[Extracts from the Letters and Journals of William Cory, selected and arranged by F. W. Cornish; Miles's Poets and Poetry of the Century.]

R. G.