Porson, Richard (DNB00)
PORSON, RICHARD (1759–1808), Greek scholar, was born on 25 Dec. 1759 at East Ruston, near North Walsham, Norfolk, where his father, Huggin Porson, was parish clerk; his mother, Anne, was the daughter of a shoemaker named Palmer in the neighbouring village of Bacton. Richard was the second of four children, having two brothers and a sister Elizabeth (1756–1842). He was sent first to the village school of Bacton, and thence, after a short stay, to the village school of Happisburgh, where the master, Summers—to whom Porson was always grateful—grounded him in Latin and mathematics. The boy showed an extraordinary memory, and was especially remarkable for his rapid proficiency in arithmetic. His father meant to put him to the loom, and meanwhile took a keen interest in his education, making him say over every evening the lessons learned during the day. When Porson had been three years with Summers, and was eleven years old, his rare promise attracted the notice of the Rev. T. Hewitt (curate of the parish which included East Ruston and Bacton), who undertook to educate him along with his own sons, keeping him at his house at Bacton during the week, and sending him home for Sundays. For nearly two years Porson was taught by Hewitt, continuing his Latin and mathematical studies, and beginning Greek. In 1773, when the boy was thirteen, Mr. Norris of Witton Park, moved by Hewitt, sent him to be examined at Cambridge, with a view to deciding whether he ought to be prepared for the university. The examiners were James Lambert [q. v.], the regius professor of Greek; Thomas Postlethwaite [q. v.] and William Collier, tutors of Trinity College; and George Atwood [q. v.], the mathematician. Their report determined Mr. Norris to send Porson to some great public school. It was desired to place him on the foundation of the Charterhouse, but the governors, to whom application was made, had promised their nominations for the next vacancies; and, eventually, in August 1774, he was entered on the foundation of Eton College. At Eton he stayed about four years. The chief source of information concerning his school-life there is the evidence given, after his death, by one of his former schoolfellows, Dr. Joseph Goodall, provost of Eton, who was examined before a committee of the House of Commons on the state of education in the country, and was asked, among other things, why ‘the late Professor Porson’ was not elected to a scholarship at King's College, Cambridge. The answer to that question was, in brief, that he had entered the school too late. When he came to Eton he knew but little of Latin prosody, and had not made much progress in Greek. His compositions, though correct, ‘fell far short of excellence.’ ‘He always undervalued school exercises, and generally wrote his exercises fair at once, without study.’ ‘Still, we all looked up to him,’ says Goodall, ‘in consequence of his great abilities and variety of information.’ It is said that once in school he construed Horace from memory, a mischievous boy having thrust some other book into his hand. He wrote two plays to be acted in the Long Chamber, one of which, called ‘Out of the Frying-pan into the Fire,’ exists in manuscript in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge; it is full of rollicking fun, but nowhere rises above schoolboy level. While at Eton he had a serious illness, due to the formation of an imposthume in the lungs, which permanently affected his health, and caused him to be frequently troubled by asthma. In 1777 his benefactor, Mr. Norris, died. This loss threatened to mar Porson's career; but Sir George Baker, then president of the College of Physicians, generously started a fund to provide for his maintenance at the university, and, as Dr. Goodall tells us, ‘contributions were readily supplied by Etonians.’
Porson was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, on 28 March 1778, and commenced residence there in the following October. He was then eighteen. Thus far he had been distinguished rather by great natural gifts than by special excellence in scholarship. While he was at Eton the head-master, Dr. Jonathan Davies [q. v.], had given him as a prize the edition of Longinus by Jonathan Toup [q. v.] This book is said to have been the first which excited his interest in critical studies. His systematic pursuit of those studies began in his undergraduate days at Cambridge. He had a distinguished career there. In 1780 he was elected a scholar of Trinity College. In December 1781 he gained the Craven University scholarship. A copy of seventeen Greek iambics which he wrote on that occasion is extant; it is without accents, and is curious as exhibiting, besides some other defects, three breaches of the canon respecting the ‘pause’ which Porson afterwards enunciated. In 1782 he took his degree of B.A. with mathematical honours, being third ‘senior optime’ (i.e. third in the second class of the tripos), and shortly afterwards won the first of the two chancellor's medals for classics. In the same year he was elected a fellow of Trinity College, while still a junior bachelor, though, under the rule which then existed, men of that standing were not ordinarily allowed to be candidates. He took the degree of M.A. in 1785.
The story of the great scholar's life is mainly that of his studies, but clearness will be served by postponing a survey of his writings to a sketch of the external facts of his career.
From 1783 onwards Porson contributed articles on classical subjects to several periodicals, but the work which first made his name widely known was the series of ‘Letters to Travis’ (1788–9). These ‘Letters’ were the outcome of theological studies in which he had engaged for the purpose of determining whether he should take holy orders. He decided in the negative, on grounds which he thus stated to his intimate friend, William Maltby [q. v.]: ‘I found that I should require about fifty years' reading to make myself thoroughly acquainted with divinity—to satisfy my mind on all points.’ The decision was a momentous one for him. He had no regular source of income except his fellowship (then about 100l. a year), and, under the statutes of Trinity College, a fellow was then required to be in priest's orders within seven years from his M.A. degree, unless he held one of the two fellowships reserved for laymen. Porson, having become M.A. in 1785, reached that limit in 1792. A lay fellowship was then vacant, and would, according to custom, have been given to Porson, the senior lay fellow, but the nomination rested with Dr. Postlethwaite, the master. Porson formally applied for it; but the master, in reply, wrote advising him to take orders, and gave the lay fellowship to John Heys, a nephew of his own. The appointment of Heys is recorded in the ‘Conclusion Book’ of Trinity College, under the date of 4 July 1792. In the summer of 1792 Porson, who was then living in London, called on Dr. Postlethwaite at Westminster, where he was staying with the dean (Dr. Vincent), for the purpose of examining for the Westminster scholarships. The interview was a painful one. Porson said that he came to announce the approaching vacancy in his fellowship, since he could not take orders. Dr. Postlethwaite expressed surprise at that resolve. Porson indignantly rejoined that, if he had intended to take orders, he would not have applied for a lay fellowship. To the end of his days Porson believed that in this matter he had suffered a cruel wrong; and the belief was shared by several of his friends. Dr. Charles Burney, writing in December 1792 to Dr. Samuel Parr, mentions that Porson (referring to his studies) had been saying how hard it was, ‘when a man's spirit had once been broken, to renovate it.’ Having lost his fellowship, Porson was now (to use his own phrase) ‘a gentleman in London with sixpence in his pocket.’ At this time, as he afterwards told his nephew, Hawes, he was indeed in the greatest straits, and was compelled, by stinting himself of food, to make a guinea last a month. Meanwhile some of his friends and admirers privately raised a fund for the purpose of buying him an annuity. A letter from Dr. Matthew Raine (of Charterhouse) to Dr. Parr shows the good feeling of the subscribers. Porson was given to understand that ‘this was a tribute of literary men to literature,’ and a protest against such treatment as he had recently experienced. The amount eventually secured to him was about 100l. a year. He accepted it on condition that the principal sum of which he was to receive the interest should be vested in trustees, and returned, at his death, to the donors. After his decease, the donors, or their representatives, having declined to receive back their gifts, the residue of the fund was applied to establishing the Porson prize and the Porson scholarship in the university of Cambridge.
Porson had now taken rooms at Essex Court in the Temple. His fellowship was vacated in July 1792. Shortly afterwards William Cooke [see under Cooke, William, d. 1780], regius professor of Greek at Cambridge, resigned that post. Dr. Postlethwaite (the master of Trinity) wrote to Porson urging him to become a candidate. Porson was under the impression that he would be required to sign the Thirty-nine Articles, and wrote to Postlethwaite, 6 Oct. 1792: ‘The same reason which hindered me from keeping my fellowship by the method you obligingly pointed out to me would, I am greatly afraid, prevent me from being Greek professor.’ On learning, however, that no such test was exacted, he resolved to stand. He delivered before the seven electors a Latin prelection on Euripides (which he had written in two days), and, having been unanimously elected, was admitted professor on 2 Nov. 1792. The only stipend then attached to the office was the 40l. a year with which Henry VIII had endowed it in 1540. The distinction conferred on the chair by its first occupant, Sir John Cheke, had been maintained by several of his successors, such as James Duport, Isaac Barrow, and Walter Taylor. But latterly the Greek professors had ceased to lecture. Porson, at the time of his election, certainly intended to become an active teacher. But he never fulfilled his intention. It has been said that he could not obtain rooms in his college for the purpose. This is improbable, though some temporary difficulty on that score may have discouraged him. When his friend Maltby asked him why he had not lectured, he said, ‘Because I have thought better on it; whatever originality my lectures might have had, people would have cried out, “We knew all this before.”’ Some such feeling was, no doubt, one cause; another, probably, was the indolence which grew upon him (in regard to everything except private study). And in those days there was no stimulus at the universities to spur a reluctant man into lecturing. But if he did nothing in that way, at any rate he served the true purpose of his chair, as few have served it, by writings which advanced the knowledge of his subject.
After his election to the professorship, Porson continued to live in London at the Temple, making occasional visits to Cambridge, where it was his duty to take part in certain classical examinations. He also went sometimes to Eton or to Norfolk; but he disliked travelling. In his chambers at the Temple he must have worked very hard, though probably by fits and starts rather than continuously. ‘One morning,’ says Maltby, ‘I went to call upon him there, and, having inquired at his barber's close by if Mr. Porson was at home, was answered, “Yes; but he has seen no one for two days.” I, however, proceeded to his chamber, and knocked at the door more than once. He would not open it, and I came downstairs. As I was recrossing the court, Porson, who had perceived that I was the visitor, opened the window and stopped me.’ The work in which Porson was then absorbed was the collation of the Harleian manuscript of the Odyssey for the Grenville Homer, published in 1801. His society was much sought by men of letters, and somewhat by lion-hunters; but to the latter, however distinguished they might be, he had a strong aversion. Among his intimate friends was James Perry [q. v.], the editor of the ‘Morning Chronicle.’ In November 1796 Porson married Perry's sister, Mrs. Lunan; their union seems to have been a happy one, but it was brief, for Mrs. Porson died of a decline on 12 April 1797. [The year of the marriage is given as 1795 by some authorities, but H. R. Luard, Cambridge Essays, 1857, p. 154, is right in giving 1796.] During the few months of his married life Porson lived at 11 Lancaster Court, but after his wife's death he went back to his chambers at the Temple in Essex Court. The six years 1797–1802 were busy; they saw the publication of the four plays of Euripides which he edited. About 1802 a London firm of publishers offered him a large sum for an edition of Aristophanes. A letter preserved among the Porson MSS. in the library of Trinity College proves that even as late as 1805 such a work was still expected from him. Dean Gaisford had found in the Bodleian Library ‘a very complete and full index verborum to Aristophanes,’ and on 29 Oct. 1805 he writes to Porson offering to send him the book, ‘that if it should suit your purpose, it might be subjoined to your edition, which we look for with much eagerness and solicitude.’ But, during the last five or six years of his life, Porson's health was not such as to admit of close or sustained application to study. He now suffered severely from his old trouble of asthma, and habits had grown upon him which were wholly incompatible with steady labour. In 1805 the London Institution was founded; it was then in the Old Jewry, whence it was afterwards removed to Finsbury Circus. The managers elected Porson to the post of principal librarian, with a salary of 200l. a year and a set of rooms (No. 8 Old Jewry), an appointment which was notified to him on 23 April by Richard Sharp (‘Conversation Sharp’), one of the electors. ‘I am sincerely rejoiced,’ Sharp writes, ‘in the prospect of those benefits which the institution is likely to derive from your reputation and talents, and of the comforts which I hope that you will find in your connection with us.’ The managers afterwards complained (and justly in the opinion of some of Porson's friends) that his attendance was irregular, and that he did nothing to enlarge the library; but in one respect, at least, he made a good librarian—he was always ready to give information to the numerous callers at his rooms in the Institution who came to consult him on matters of ancient or modern literature.
Early in 1808 his wonderful memory began to show signs of failure, and later in the year he suffered from intermittent fever. In September he complained of feeling thoroughly ill, with sensations like those of ague. On Monday morning, 19 Sept., he called at the house of his brother-in-law, Perry, in Lancaster Court, Strand, and, not finding him at home, went on towards Charing Cross. At the corner of Northumberland Street he was seized with apoplexy, and was taken to the workhouse in St. Martin's Lane. He could not speak, and the people there had no clue to his identity; they therefore sent an advertisement to the ‘British Press,’ which described him as ‘a tall man, apparently about forty-five years of age, dressed in a blue coat and black breeches, and having in his pocket a gold watch, a trifling quantity of silver, and a memorandum-book, the leaves of which were filled chiefly with Greek lines written in pencil, and partly effaced; two or three lines of Latin, and an algebraical calculation; the Greek extracts being principally from ancient medical works.’ Next morning (20 Sept.) this was seen by James Savage, the under-librarian of the London Institution, who went to St. Martin's Lane and brought Porson home. As they drove from Charing Cross to the Old Jewry, Porson chatted with his usual animation, showing much concern about the great fire which had destroyed Covent Garden Theatre the day before. On reaching the Institution, he breakfasted on green tea (his favourite kind) and toast, and was well enough to have a long talk with Dr. Adam Clarke in the library, about a stone with a Greek inscription which had just been found in the kitchen of a London house. Later in the day he went to Cole's Coffee-house in St. Michael's Alley, Cornhill. There he had another fit, and was brought back to the Old Jewry and put to bed. This was on Tuesday afternoon, 20 Sept. His brother-in-law Perry was sent for, and showed him the greatest kindness to the end. He sank gradually during the week, and died at midnight on Sunday, 25 Sept. 1808, in the forty-ninth year of his age. On 4 Oct. he was buried in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, the funeral service being read by the master, Dr. Mansel. Many Trinity men have heard the veteran geologist, Professor Adam Sedgwick, tell how he chanced to come into Cambridge from the country on that day, without knowing that it had been fixed for the funeral, and how, anxious to join in honouring the memory of the great scholar, he borrowed a black coat from a friend, and took his place in the long procession which followed the coffin from the college hall through the great court. Porson's tomb is at the foot of Newton's statue in the ante-chapel, near the place where two other scholars who, like him, died prematurely—Dobree and John Wordsworth—were afterwards laid. Bentley rests at the eastern end of the same chapel. Celebrity and eccentricity combined to make Porson the subject of countless stories, many of which were exaggerated or apocryphal; but there remains enough of trustworthy testimony to supply a tolerably clear picture of the man. His personal appearance is described in Pryse Lockhart Gordon's ‘Personal Memoirs’ (i. 288). He was tall—nearly six feet in stature; the head was a very fine one, with an expansive forehead, over which ‘his shining brown hair’ was sometimes combed straight forward; the nose was Roman, and rather long; the eyes ‘keen and penetrating,’ and shaded with long lashes. ‘His mouth was full of expression; and altogether his countenance indicated deep thought.’ There are two portraits of him at Cambridge; one by Hoppner (in the university library), the original of a well-known engraving; another, by Kirkby, in the master's lodge at Trinity College. Two busts of him also exist: one by Chantrey, which, in the opinion of his nephew, Siday Hawes (the writer of the article ‘Porson’ in Knight's ‘English Encyclopædia’), was not a good likeness; and another—which the same authority commends as excellent—by Ganganelli, from a cast of the head and face taken after death. The engraving prefixed to Porson's ‘Adversaria’ (1812) is from Ganganelli's bust. His ‘gala costume,’ according to Mr. Gordon, was ‘a smart blue coat, white vest, black satin nether garments and silk stockings, with a shirt ruffled at the wrists.’ But, according to Maltby, ‘he was generally ill-dressed and dirty.’ Dr. Raine, indeed, said that he had known Porson to be refused admittance by servants at the houses of his friends. Dr. Davis, a physician at Bath, once took Porson to a ball at the assembly rooms there, and introduced him to the Rev. R. Warner, who has described the horror felt by the master of the ceremonies at the strange figure ‘with lank, uncombed locks, a loose neckcloth, and wrinkled stockings.’ It was in vain that Warner tried to explain what a great man was there (Warner, Literary Recollections, ii. 6).
As a companion, Porson seems to have been delightful when he felt at home and liked the people to whom he was talking. ‘In company,’ says Thomas Kidd, ‘R. P. was the gentlest being I ever met with; his conversation was engaging and delightful; it was at once animated by force of reasoning, and adorned with all the graces and embellishments of wit.’ Gilbert Wakefield, on the other hand—who, at least after 1797, disliked Porson—assigns three reasons why their intercourse had not been more frequent: viz. Porson's ‘inattention to times and seasons,’ which made him an inconvenient guest; his ‘immoderate drinking;’ and ‘the uninteresting insipidity of his conversation.’ The last charge means, probably, that Porson stubbornly refused to be communicative in Wakefield's company. A less prejudiced witness, William Beloe [q. v.], says of Porson that, ‘except where he was exceedingly intimate, his elocution was perplexed and embarrassed.’ But Dr. John Johnstone, the biographer of Dr. Parr, has described what Porson's talk could be like when he felt no such restraint. They met at Parr's house in the winter of 1790–1. Porson was rather gloomy in the morning, more genial after dinner, and ‘in his glory’ at night. ‘The charms of his society were then irresistible. Many a midnight hour did I spend with him, listening with delight while he poured out torrents of various literature, the best sentences of the best writers, and sometimes the ludicrous beyond the gay; pages of Barrow, whole letters of Richardson, whole scenes of Foote, favourite pieces from the periodical press.’ His memory was marvellous, not only for its tenacity, but also for its readiness; whatever it contained he could produce at the right moment. He was once at a party given by Dr. Charles Burney at Hammersmith, when the guests were examining some old newspapers which gave a detailed account of the execution of Charles I. One of the company remarked that some of the particulars there given had not been mentioned, he thought, by Hume or Rapin. Porson forthwith repeated a long passage from Rapin in which these circumstances were duly recorded. Rogers once took him to an evening party, where he was introduced ‘to several women of fashion,’ ‘who were very anxious to see the great Grecian. How do you suppose he entertained them? Chiefly by reciting an immense quantity of old forgotten Vauxhall songs.’ As a rule, Porson declined invitations of this nature. ‘They invite me merely out of curiosity,’ he once said, ‘and, after they have satisfied it, would like to kick me downstairs.’ One day Sir James Mackintosh, with whom he was dining, asked him to go with him the next day to dinner at Holland House, to meet Fox, who wished to be introduced to him. Porson seemed to assent, but the next morning made some excuse for not going. He was a proud man, of high spirit, who resented the faintest suspicion of patronage; and he also disliked the restraints of formal society. With regard to his too frequent intemperance, the facts appear to be as follows. It was not believed by his friends that he drank to excess when he was alone. He could, and often did (even in his later years), observe abstinence for a longer or shorter period. But from boyhood he had been subject to insomnia; this often drove him to seek society at night, and to sit up late; and in those days that easily led to drinking. A craving was gradually developed in him, which at last became essentially a disease. His best friends did their utmost to protect him from it, and some of them could succeed; but he was not always with them, and, in less judicious company, he would sometimes prolong his carouse through a whole night. Byron's account of him is to the effect that his demeanour in public was sober and decorous, but that in the evenings, in college rooms, it was sometimes the reverse. It should be remembered that these recollections refer to the years 1805–8 (in which Byron was an undergraduate), when Porson's health was broken, and when his infirmity was seen at its worst (cf. Luard, Correspondence of Porson, p. 133). That the baneful habit limited Porson's work and shortened his days is unhappily as little doubtful as are the splendour of his gifts and the rare vigour of constitution with which he must have been originally endowed.
The most salient feature of Porson's character is well marked by Bishop Turton in his ‘Vindication’ (1815). ‘There is one quality of mind in which it may be confidently maintained that Mr. Porson had no superior—I mean the most pure and inflexible love of truth. Under the influence of this principle he was cautious, and patient, and persevering in his researches, and scrupulously accurate in stating facts as he found them. All who were intimate with him bear witness to this noble part of his character, and his works confirm the testimony of his friends.’ It might be added that the irony which pervades so much of Porson's writings, and the fierce satire which he could occasionally wield, were intimately connected with this love of accuracy and of candour. They were the weapons which he employed where he discovered the absence of those qualities. He was a man of warm and keen feelings, a staunch friend, and also a good hater. In the course of life he had suffered, or believed himself to have suffered, some wrongs and many slights. These, acting on his sensitive temperament, tinged it with cynicism, or even with bitterness. He once described himself (in 1807) as a man who had become ‘a misanthrope from a morbid excess of sensibility.’ In this, however, he was less than just to himself. He was, indeed, easily estranged, even from old acquaintances, by words or acts which offended him. But his native disposition was most benevolent. To those who consulted him on matters of scholarship he was liberal of his aid. Stephen Weston says ‘he told you all you wanted to know in a plain and direct manner, without any attempt to display his own superiority, but merely to inform you.’ Nor was his liberality confined to the imparting of his knowledge. Small though his means were, the strict economy which he practised enabled him to spare something for the needs of others: he was ‘most generous (as his nephew, Mr. Siday Hawes, testifies) to the three orphan children of his brother Henry.’ There is a letter of his extant—written in 1802—when his own income was something under 140l. to his great friend Dr. Martin Davy (master of Caius)—asking him to help in a subscription on behalf of some one whom he calls ‘the poor poet.’ He was free from vanity. ‘I have made myself what I am,’ he once said, ‘by intense labour; sometimes, in order to impress a thing upon my memory, I have read it a dozen times, and transcribed it six.’ And, though he could be rough at times, he was not arrogant; never sought to impose his own authority, but always anticipated the demand for proof. His capacity for great bursts of industry was combined with chronic indolence in certain directions. He had a rooted dislike to composition; and though, under pressure, he could write with fair rapidity, he seldom wrote with ease—unless, perhaps, in some of his lighter effusions. This reluctance was extended to letter-writing; even his nearest relatives had cause to complain of his silence. In the case of some distinguished scholars, his failure to answer letters was inexcusable. Gail, of the Collège de France, sends him books, with a most courteous letter, in 1799, and a year later writes again, expressing a fear that the parcel must have miscarried, and sending other copies. Eichstädt, of Jena, had a precisely similar experience in 1801–2, aggravated by the fact that the book which he sent (vol. i. of his ‘Diodorus’) was actually dedicated to Porson, in conjunction with Koraës, Wolff, and Wyttenbach. The same kind of indolence unfitted him for routine duties of any sort. In his later life he was also averse to travelling. ‘He hated moving,’ says Maltby, ‘and would not even accompany me to Paris.’ Long years passed without his once going from London to Norfolk to see his relatives; though he was a good son and a good brother, and, when his father became seriously ill, hastened down to stay with his sister. The sluggish elements which were thus mingled with the strenuous in his nature indisposed him for any exertion beyond the range of his chosen and favourite pursuits. As he cared nothing for money, so he cared little for reputation, at least in the popular sense; the only applause which he valued was that of scholars who satisfied his fastidious judgment. He worked with a clear consciousness of the limits within which he could work best. Rogers mentions that some one asked Porson why he did not produce more original work, and he replied, ‘I doubt if I could produce any original work which would command the attention of posterity. I can be known only by my notes; and I am quite satisfied if, three hundred years hence, it shall be said that one Porson lived towards the close of the eighteenth century, who did a good deal for the text of Euripides.’
All Porson's principal writings are comprised in the short period from his twenty-fourth to his forty-fourth year (1783–1803). The last five years of his life (1804–8), when his health was failing, are represented only by a very few private letters; though some of the notes in his books may be of that time. His earliest work appeared in a publication called ‘Maty's Review’ [see Maty, Paul Henry], which existed from 1782 to 1787. To this review he contributed, in 1783, a short paper on Schutz's Æschylus, and a more elaborate one on Brunck's Aristophanes; in 1784 a notice of the book in which Stephen Weston dealt with the fragments of the elegiac poet Hermesianax, and a few pages on G. I. Huntingford's defence of his Greek verses (‘Apology for the Monostrophics’). Comparatively slight though these articles are, they give glimpses of his critical power; one fragment of Hermesianax, in particular, (ap. Athen. p. 599A, vv. 90 ff.) is brilliantly restored. In 1786, when Hutchinson's edition of the ‘Anabasis’ was being reprinted, he added some notes to it (pp. xli–lix), with a short preface. During these early years, Porson's thoughts were turned especially towards Æschylus. It had already been announced in ‘Maty's Review’ (for March and October 1783) that ‘a scholar of Cambridge was preparing a new edition of Stanley's Æschylus, to which he proposed to add his own notes, and would be glad of any communications on the subject, either from Englishmen or foreigners.’ The syndics of the Cambridge University Press were then contemplating a new edition of Æschylus, and offered the editorship to Porson; who, however, declined it, on finding that Stanley's text was to be followed, and that all Pauw's notes were to be included. He was anxious to be sent to Florence to collate the Medicean (or ‘Laurentian’) manuscript of Æschylus—the oldest and best—and offered to perform the mission at small cost; but the proposal was rejected, one of the syndics remarking that Porson might ‘collect’ his manuscripts at home. It was always characteristic of Porson to vary his graver studies by occasional writings of a light or humorous kind. One of the earliest examples, and perhaps the best, is a series of three letters to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (August, September, October 1787) on the ‘Life’ of Johnson by Sir John Hawkins—an ironical panegyric, in which Hawkins's pompous style is parodied. The ‘Fragment’—in which Sir John is supposed to relate what passed between himself and Johnson's negro servant about the deceased Doctor's watch—is equal to anything in Thackeray. It was in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ too, for 1788 and 1789, that Porson published his first important work, the ‘Letters to Travis.’ Archdeacon George Travis, in his ‘Letters to Gibbon,’ had defended the genuineness of the text 1 St. John v. 7 (the three heavenly witnesses), to which Gibbon (ch. 37, note 120) had referred as being an interpolation. The best critics, from Erasmus to Bentley, had been of Gibbon's opinion. Porson, in his ‘Letters to Travis,’ reviews the history of the disputed text in detail, and proves its spuriousness with conclusive force. His merit here is not originality, but critical thoroughness, luminous method, and sound reasoning. Travis receives no mercy; but his book deserved none. Porson was an admirer of Swift and of ‘Junius.’ In these ‘Letters’ he occasionally reminds us of both. ‘To peruse such a mass of sophistry,’ he said, ‘without sometimes giving way to laughter, and sometimes to indignation, was, to me at least, impossible.’ The collected ‘Letters to Travis’ were published in 1790. In the preface is Porson's well-known estimate of Gibbon, whose style he criticises, while fully appreciating the monumental greatness of his work. One of the results of Porson's labours was that an old lady, who had meant to leave him a large sum, on being informed that he had ‘attacked Christianity,’ cut down the legacy. In 1789, while the ‘Letters to Travis’ were in progress, Porson found leisure to write an article in the ‘Monthly Review,’ defending the genuineness of the ‘Parian Chronicle’ against certain objections raised by the Rev. J. Robertson. A new edition of Toup's ‘Emendationes in Suidam’ came forth from the Oxford Press in 1790, with notes and a preface by Porson (which he had written in 1787). This was the work which first made his powers widely known among scholars. The three years 1788–90 may thus be said to be those in which his high reputation—to be raised still higher afterwards—was definitely established.
In 1793 he wrote for the ‘Monthly Review’ a notice of an edition, by Dr. T. Edwards, of the Plutarchic tract on education; and in 1794 a notice of an essay on the Greek alphabet, by R. Payne Knight. The London edition of Heyne's Virgil (4 vols. 1793) appeared with a short preface by Porson, who had undertaken to correct the press. He was blamed for the numerous misprints; but a writer in the ‘Museum Criticum’ (i. 395) says, ‘he has been heard to declare that the booksellers, after they had obtained permission to use his name, never paid the slightest attention to his corrections.’ In 1795 a folio Æschylus was issued from the Foulis Press at Glasgow, with some corrections in the text. These were Porson's; but the book appeared without his name, and without his knowledge. He had sent a text, thus far corrected, to Glasgow, in order that an edition of Æschylus for a London firm might be printed from it; and this edition (in 2 vols. 8vo) was actually printed in 1794, though published only in 1806, still without his name. This partly corrected text was the first step towards the edition of Æschylus which he had meditated, but which he never completed.
In 1796 Samuel Ireland [q. v.] was publishing the Shakespearean papers forged by his son, W. H. Ireland: Kemble acted for Sheridan at Drury Lane in ‘Vortigern and Rowena,’ and shortly afterwards Malone exposed the fraud. Porson wrote a letter to the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ signed ‘S. England,’ setting forth how a learned friend of his had found ‘some of the lost tragedies of Sophocles’ in an old trunk. As a specimen he gives twelve Greek iambic verses (a translation of ‘Three children sliding on the ice’). Among his other contributions to the ‘Morning Chronicle’ at this period, the best are ‘The Imitations of Horace’ (1797), political satires of much caustic humour, on the war with France, the panic as to the spread of revolutionary principles, &c., couched in the form of free translations from the Odes, introduced by letters in prose. In 1797 his edition of the ‘Hecuba’ of Euripides was published in London, without his name. The preface (of sixteen pages) states that the book is meant chiefly for young students, and then deals with certain points as to the mode of writing Greek words, and as to metre. The notes are short, and all ‘critical.’ Gilbert Wakefield, angry at not finding himself mentioned, attacked the book in a feebly furious pamphlet (‘Diatribe Extemporalis’). Godfrey Hermann was then a young man of twenty-five. In 1796 (the year in which he brought out the first edition of his treatise on Greek metres) he had written to Porson, asking for help in obtaining access to the manuscripts of Plautus in England; a request which Heyne supported by a letter from Göttingen. Nothing could be more courteous or appreciative than the terms in which young Hermann wrote to Porson (the letter is in the library of Trinity College); but he was now nettled by Porson's differences from him on some metrical points; and when, after editing the ‘Nubes’ in 1799, he brought out a ‘Hecuba’ of his own in 1800, he criticised the English edition with a severity and in a tone which were quite unwarrantable. There are tacit allusions to Hermann (as to some other critics) in Porson's subsequent writings, and once at least (on ‘Medea,’ v. 675) he censures him by name. As Blomfield observed, traces of the variance between these two great scholars may be seen in the attitude of Hermann's pupils, such as Seidler and Reisig, towards Porson. The ‘Hecuba’ was followed in the next year (1798) by the ‘Orestes,’ and in 1799 by the ‘Phœnissæ.’ Both these plays, like the first, were published in London, and anonymously. But the fourth and last play which Porson edited—the ‘Medea’—came out at the Cambridge Press, and with his name, in 1801. The ‘Grenville’ Homer, published in the same year at the Clarendon Press, had appended to it Porson's collation of the Harleian manuscript of the Odyssey (Harl. MS. 5674 in the British Museum). In 1802 he published a second edition of the ‘Hecuba,’ with many additions to the notes, and with the famous ‘Supplement’ to the preface, in which he states and illustrates certain rules of iambic and trochaic verse, including the rule respecting the ‘pause’ (‘canon Porsonianus’). This ‘Supplement’ may be regarded as, on the whole, his finest single piece of criticism. Here his published work on Euripides ended. A transcript by Porson of the ‘Hippolytus,’ vv. 176–266, with corrections of the text, was in J. H. Monk's hands when he edited that play (1811). As appears from the notes on Euripides in Porson's ‘Adversaria’ (pp. 217 ff.), the ‘Supplices’ was another piece on which he had done a good deal of work; but there is no reason to think that, after publishing the four plays, he had brought any fifth near to readiness for the press. His original purpose, no doubt, had been to give a complete Euripides (preface to the ‘Hecuba,’ p. xiii); but after 1802 his health was unequal to such a task. The ‘Monthly Review’ for October 1802 contained a curious letter, so characteristic of Porson as to deserve mention. Having discovered an oversight in one of his own notes (on ‘Hecuba’ 782), he wrote to the ‘Review,’ signing himself ‘John Nic. Dawes,’ and instructively correcting ‘Mr. Porson's’ blunder. His choice of the pseudonym was suggested by the fact that the eminent critic Richard Dawes had once pointed out the similar oversight of another scholar (Dawes, Misc. Crit. p. 216). On 13 Jan. 1803 Porson presented to the Society of Antiquaries his restoration of the last twenty-six lines of the Greek inscription on the Rosetta stone, with a Latin translation. It is printed in the transactions of the society (Archæologia, vol. xvi. art. xxvii.).
After Porson's death his literary remains were published in the following works: 1. ‘Ricardi Porsoni Adversaria,’ 1812. His notes and emendations on Athenæus and various Greek poets, edited by Monk and Blomfield. 2. His ‘Tracts and Miscellaneous Criticisms,’ 1815, collected by Thomas Kidd. 3. ‘Aristophanica,’ 1820. His notes and emendations on Aristophanes, edited by Peter Paul Dobree. 4. His notes on Pausanias, printed at the end of Gaisford's ‘Lectiones Platonicæ,’ 1820. 5. ‘The Lexicon of Photius,’ printed from Porson's transcript of a manuscript presented to Trinity College by Roger Gale (‘Codex Galeanus’), edited by P. P. Dobree, 1822, 2 vols. 6. Porson's Notes on Suidas, in the appendix to Gaisford's edition, 1834. 7. ‘Porson's Correspondence,’ edited for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, by H. R. Luard, fellow of Trinity College and registrary of the university, 1867. A collection of sixty-eight letters written or received by Porson (1783–1808), including letters from eminent scholars at home and abroad. Few men, probably, have ever had so distinguished a series of literary executors.
Porson's papers in the library of Trinity College were arranged in 1859 by Dr. Luard, and are bound in several volumes, to each of which a table of contents is prefixed. The collection includes: (1) The originals of many of the letters printed in the ‘Correspondence.’ (2) Porson's transcript of the Lexicon of Photius, from the Gale MS. This was the second copy which he made, the first having been destroyed in a fire at Perry's house in 1797. It consists of 108 leaves, written on one side only, in double columns. (3) Porson's transcripts of the ‘Medea’ and the ‘Phœnissæ.’ These, with the Photius, are truly marvels of calligraphy. The so-called ‘Porson’ type was cut from this manuscript of the ‘Medea.’ 4. Scattered notes on various ancient authors, written in copy-books, in a hand so minute that forty or fifty notes, on miscellaneous subjects, are sometimes crowded into one small page. A collation of the Aldine Æschylus is especially remarkable as an example of his smallest writing: it might be compared to diamond type. Besides Porson's papers, the college library possesses also about 274 of his books, almost all of which contain short notes or memoranda written by him in the margins or on blank leaves. The notes, edited by Monk, Blomfield, and Dobree, were taken mainly from the papers, but partly also from the books.
Textual criticism was the work to which Porson's genius was mainly devoted. His success in it was due primarily to native acumen, aided—in a degree perhaps unequalled—by a marvellous memory, richly stored, accurate, and prompt. His emendations are found to rest both on a wide and exact knowledge of classical Greek, and on a wonderful command of passages which illustrate his point. He relied comparatively little on mere ‘divination,’ and usually abstained from conjecture where he felt that the remedy must remain purely conjectural. His lifelong love of mathematics has left a clear impress on his criticism; we see it in his precision and in his close reasoning. Very many of his emendations are such as at once appear certain or highly probable. Bentley's cogent logic sometimes (as in his Horace) renders a textual change plausible, while our instinct rebels; Porson, as a rule, merely states his correction, briefly gives his proofs, and convinces. His famous note on the ‘Medea,’ vv. 139 f., where he disengages a series of poetical fragments from prose texts, is a striking example of his method, and has been said also to give some idea of the way in which his talk on such subjects used to flow. Athenæus, so rich in quotations from the poets, afforded a field in which Porson did more, perhaps, than all former critics put together. He definitely advanced Greek scholarship in three principal respects: (1) by remarks on countless points of Greek idiom and usage; (2) by adding to the knowledge of metre, and especially of the iambic trimeter; (3) by emendation of texts. Then, as a master of precise and lucid phrase, alike in Latin and in English, he supplied models of compact and pointed criticism. A racy vigour and humour often animate his treatment of technical details. He could be trenchantly severe, when he saw cause; but his habitual weapon was irony, sometimes veiled, sometimes frankly keen, always polished, and usually genial. Regarding the correction of texts as the most valuable office of the critic, he lamented that, in popular estimation, it stood below ‘literary’ criticism, which he very unduly depreciated (Kidd, Tracts, p. 108). He admitted the utility of explanatory and illustrative comment (Præf. ad Hec.), but he never wrote it. Textual criticism can seldom, however, neglect interpretation without incurring a nemesis. Porson (speaking of Heyne) once said, ‘An eagle does not catch flies, and the higher criticism is sometimes so intent on subject-matter [rebus] that it neglects words’—which is true; but there is the converse danger; and, in cases where Porson's emendations do not command assent, it is sometimes because the larger context condemns them. He had much humour, but little imagination. In all that concerns diction, he was an acute judge of style, for prose and verse alike; but it may be doubted whether his taste in poetry was equally sure; in his Latin discourse on Euripides, he is far less than just to Sophocles; and a passage in the ‘Tempest’ (‘The cloud-capped towers,’ &c.) was ranked by him beneath similar but very inferior lines in ‘Darius,’ a tragedy by Sir William Alexander, lord Stirling [q. v.] His range of reading was a wide one. Among his favourite English authors were Barrow, Swift, Richardson, Smollett, and Foote; Shakespeare, whom he knew thoroughly; Milton, whom he wished to vindicate from Johnson's injustice; Dryden, and (in a special degree) Pope. He had read many French writers, and some Italian. From almost every book that he loved he could quote pages.
Porson's place in the history of scholarship may be concisely indicated. Bentley had been a brilliant textual critic, and also (as in his ‘Phalaris’) a pioneer of the higher criticism. The emendation of texts was the line in which he was followed by our chief classical scholars of the eighteenth century, such as John Taylor, Markland, Dawes, Toup, Tyrwhitt, Heath, Musgrave. Now, Porson's work in this field had a finish, an exactness, and a convincing power which tended to raise the general estimate of all such work as a discipline for the mind. Porson did much to create that ideal of scholarship which prevailed at Cambridge, and widely in England, for more than fifty years after his death; an ideal which owed its influence largely to the belief in its educational value. On the other hand, he lived before the study of manuscripts and of their relations to each other had become systematic. Hence his work necessarily lacked one element of scientific value, viz. a constant regard to the relative weight of different witnesses for a text. A time came, therefore, when the type of criticism which he represents was felt to be, though excellent in itself, yet, from the scientific point of view, incomplete; while its limitation to the linguistic side of scholarship made it appear, from the educational point of view, less satisfactory than it had once been deemed. There was a reaction—one-sided at first—against the Porsonian school; but already the forces of a larger and maturer view are reacting against the reaction. And no vicissitudes in the tendencies of classical study can ever obscure the fame of Porson. He brought extraordinary gifts and absolute fidelity to his chosen province, leaving work most important in its positive and permanent result, but remarkable above all for its quality—the quality given to it by his individual genius, by that powerful and penetrating mind, at once brilliant and patient, serious and sportive by turns, but in every mood devoted, with a scrupulous loyalty, to the search for truth.[Gent. Mag. Sept. and Oct. 1808; Narrative of the last Illness and Death of R. Porson, by Dr. Adam Clarke, London, 1808 (there is also an account by James Savage, the under-librarian of the London Institution, to whom Clarke owed several particulars); A Short Account of the late Mr. Porson, London, 1808: reissued in 1814 with a new preface and a piece entitled Temachē, &c., or Scraps from Porson's Rich Feast, by Stephen Weston (of little value); Imperfect Outline of the Life of R. Porson, by T. Kidd (prefixed to the Tracts, &c., London, 1815); The Sexagenarian, by the Rev. W. Beloe, London, 1817, vol. i. (not always trustworthy); A Vindication of the Literary Character of the late Professor Porson, by Crito Cantabrigiensis (Dr. T. Turton, bishop of Ely), Cambridge, 1829; Parriana, by E. H. Barker, vol. ii., London, 1829; Porsoniana (by Barker), including several articles from periodicals of Porson's day, with Dr. Young's memoir of him (from a former edition of the Encycl. Brit.), London, 1852; Maltby's Porsoniana in Dyce's Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers, London, 1856; a short article on Porson in Knight's English Encyclopædia (1857) which is of interest, especially in regard to matters concerning his family, as being the work of his nephew, Mr. Siday Hawes; Porson, in Cambridge Essays, London, 1857, by H. R. Luard (excellent); Life of Porson, by the Rev. John Selby Watson, London, 1861; Porson's Correspondence, edited for the Cambr. Antiq. Soc. by H. R. Luard, Cambridge, 1867; Porson in Encycl. Brit. 9th edit., Edinburgh, 1885, by H. R. Luard.]