Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/121

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107
PORSON


Here his extraordinary powers of memory and aptitude for arithmetic were soon discovered; his skill in penmanship, which attended him through life, was due to the care of Summers, who became early impressed with his abilities, and long afterwards stated that during fifty years of scholastic life he had never come across boys so clever as Porson and his two brothers. He was well grounded in Latin by Summers, remaining with him for three years. His father also took pains with his education, making him repeat at night the lessons he had learned in the day. He would frequently repeat without making a mistake a lesson which he had learned one or two years before and had never seen in the interval. For books he had only what his father's cottage supplied-a book or two of arithmetic, Greenwood's England, ]ewell's Apology, and an odd volume of Cha1nber's Cyclopaedta picked up from a wrecked coaster, and eight or ten volumes of the Universal lllagazine. .

When Porson was eleven years old the Rev. T. Hewitt, the curate of East Ruston and two neighbouring villages, took charge of his education. Mr Hewitt taught him with his own boys, taking him through the ordinary Latin authors, Caesar, Terence, Ovid and Virgil; before this he had made such progress in mathematics as to be able to solve questions out of the Ladies' Diary. In addition to this Hewitt brought him under the notice of Mr Norris of Witton Park, who sent him to Cambridge and had him examined by Professor Lambert, the two tutors of Trinity, Postlethwaite and Collier, and the well-known mathematician Atwood, then assistant tutor; the result was so favourable a report of his knowledge and abilities that Mr Norris determined to provide for his education so as to Ht him for the university. This was in 1775. It was found impossible to get him into Charterhouse, and he was entered on the foundation of Eton in August 1774. Of his Eton life Porson had no very pleasant recollections, but he was popular among his schoolfellows; and two dramas he wrote for performance in the Long Chamber were remembered many years later. His marvellous memory was of course noticed; but at first he seems to have somewhat disappointed the expectations of his friends, as his composition was weak, and his ignorance of quantity kept him behind several of his inferiors. He went to Eton too late to have any chance of succeeding to a scholarship at King's College. In 1777 he suffered a great loss from the death of his patron Mr Norris; but contributions from Etonians to aid in the funds for his maintenance at the university were rapidly supplied, and he found a successor to Norris in Sir George Baker, the physician, at that time president of the college of physicians. Chiefly through his means Porson was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, as a pensioner on the 28th of March 1778, matriculating in April. It is said that what first biassed his mind towards critical researches was the gift of a copy of Toup's Longinns by Dr Davies, the head master of Eton, for a good exercise; but it was Bentley and Richard Dawes to whom he looked as his immediate masters. His critical career was begun systematically while an undergraduate. He became a scholar of Trinity in 1780, won the Craven university scholarship in 1781, and took his degree of B.A. in 1782, as third senior Jptime, obtaining soon afterwards the first chancellor's medal for classical studies. The same year he was elected Fellow of Trinity, a very unusual thing for a junior bachelor of arts, as the junior bachelors were rarely allowed to be candidates for fellowships, a regulation which lasted from 1667 when Isaac Newton was elected till 1818 when Connop Thirlwall became a fellow. Porson graduated M.A. in 1785. Having thus early secured his independence, he turned his thoughts to publication. The first occasion of his appearing in print was in a short notice of Schtitz's Aeschylns in Maty's Review, written in 1783. This review contains several other essays by his hand; especially may be mentioned the reviews of R. F. Brunck's Aristophanes (containing an able summary of the poet's chief excellencies and defects), Weston's Hermesianax, and Huntingford's Apology for the Monostrophics. But it was to the tragedians, and especially to Aeschylus, that his mind was then chiefly directed. He began a correspondence with David Ruhnken, the veteran scholar of Leiden, requesting to be favoured with any fragments of Aeschylus that Ruhnken had come across in his collection of inedited lexicons and grammarians, and sending him, as a proof that he was not undertaking a task for which he was unequal, some specimens of his critical powers, and especially of his restoration of a very corrupt passage in the Snppltces (673-677) by the help of a nearly equally Corrupt passage of Plutarch's Erottcus. As the syndics of the Cambridge press were proposing to re-edit Thomas Stanley's Aeschylns, the editorship was offered to Porson; but he declined to undertake it on the conditions laid down, namely, of reprinting Stanley's corrupt text and incorporating all the variorum notes, however worthless. He was especially anxious that the Medicean MS. at Florence should be collated for the new edition, and offered to undertake the collation at an expense not greater than it would have cost if done by a person on the spot; but the syndics refused the offer, the vice-chancellor (Mr Torkington, master of Clare Hall) observing that Porson might collect his MSS. at home.

In 1786, a new edition of Hutchinson's Anabasis of Xenophon being called for, Porson was requested by the publisher to supply a few notes, which he did in conjunction with the Rev. W. Whiter, editor of the Etyntologicon universal. These give the first specimen of that neat and terse style of Latin notes in which he was afterwards without a rival. They also show his intimate acquaintance with his two favourite authors, Plato and Athenaeus, and a familiarity with Eustathius's commentary on Homer. V

In 1787 the Notae breves ad Tonpii emendation es in Suidam were written, though they did not appear till 1790 in the new edition of Toup's book published at Oxford. These first made Porson's name known as a scholar of the first rank, and carried his fame beyond England. The letters he received from Christian G. Heyne and G. Hermann preserved in the library of Trinity College, and written before his Euripides was published, afford proof of this. In his notes he points out the errors of Toup and others; at the same time he speaks of Toup's book as “opus illud aureum, ” and states that his writing the notes at all is due to the admiration he had for it. They contain some brilliant emendations of 'various authors; but the necessity of having Toup's own notes with them has prevented their ever being reprinted in a separate form.

During this year, in the Gentleman's M agazine, he wrote the three letters on Hawkins's Life of Johnson which have been reprinted by Mr Kidd in his Tracts and Critioisrns of Porson, and in a volume of Porson's Correspondence. They are admirable specimens of the dry humour so characteristic of the writer, and prove his intimate acquaintance with Shakespeare and the other English dramatists and poets. In the same periodical, in the course of 1788 and 1789, appeared the Letters to Archdeacon T ravis, on the spurious verse I John 11. 7 (collected in 1790 into a volume), which must be considered to have settled the question. Gibbon's verdict on the book, that it was “ the most acute and accurate piece of criticism since the days of Bentley, ” may be considered as somewhat partial, as it was in defence of him that Porson had entered the field against Travis. But in the masterly sketch of Gibbon's work and style in the preface Porson does not write in a merely flattering tone. It is to be wished that on such a subject the tone of levity had been modified. But Porson says in his preface that he could treat the subject in no other manner, if he treated it at all: “ To peruse such a mass of falsehood and sophistry and to write remarks upon it, without sometimes giving way to laughter and sometimes to indignation, was, to me at least, impossible.” Travis has no mercy shown him, but he certainly deserved none. One is equally struck with the thorough grasp Porson displays of his subject, the amount of his miscellaneous learning, and the humour that pervades the whole. But it was then the unpopular side: the publisher is said to have lost money by the book; and one of his early friends, Mrs Turner of Norwich, cut down a legacy she had left Porson to £30 on being told that he had written what was described to her as a book against Christianity.