Michael Atkinson, until recently a lynchpin of the Eton Classics Department, tells the story of one of the college’s old boys, the great classical scholar Richard Porson, who was as notable for his alcoholism and lack of cleanliness as for his intellectual brilliance.

RICHARD PORSON was born on Christmas Day, 1759, in the poor Nor­folk village of East Ruston. His father, Huggin Porson, was a weaver, and had married a shoemaker’s daughter, one Anne Palmer, from a neighbouring village. Huggin’s wife, like many of the poorer people in the eighteenth century, had apparently spent some time in service. There were seven children, of which Richard was the third, and though he was only forty-eight when he died, he outlived all but the eldest. Needless to say, the family was not well-off. One of his sisters started life in service, and one of his brothers became a schoolmaster — then, as now, an undervalued profession. Richard was sent to the village school and then to a Free School, at a nearby village, eking out his education by means of a few mathematical text books, which were lying around at home. His father, with Nor­folk bluntness, merely asked the schoolmaster to teach his son to write his name, all that was needed before an apprenticeship, he thought, into his own profession, the weaving trade. But, as so often, schoolmasters know better than parents. Impressed by his pupil’s quick­ness, particularly in mathematics, a subject in which Porson remained interested for the rest of his life, the village schoolmaster prevailed on the vicar of Ruston to take Porson at the age of eleven into his own home, where he was already educating his five sons, and to educate him free of charge. What his more mercenary father thought of this is unknown, though there would presumably have been little he could have done to counteract this ecclesiasti­cal patronage.

Porson remained two years with the vicar as a weekly border, until the vicar decided that it was time for him to go to a decent school. Accordingly, he got in touch with the local squire, one Mr Norris, well-known for his beneficence — Norris later founded the Divinity professorship at Cambridge — and introduced him to the young Porson. Nor­ris was not impressed at the first meeting and decided that more expert advice should be sought. Accordingly Porson was sent to Cam­bridge to meet the then professor of Greek, the Rev. James Lambert. Lambert was asked by one of his friends to make allowances for the awkwardness of manner of this `unwinning cub’.

Porson’s interview went well; Norris de­clared himself a willing backer, and a school had to be found. Charterhouse was their first choice, but Charterhouse was full. The Vicar of Ruston suggested Eton and Norris along with his landowning friends collected to­gether subscriptions and appointed the Presi­dent of the College of Physicians, Sir George Baker, himself an Old Etonian, as treasurer of the fund. Backed by the money of his ben­efactors, Porson entered College at Eton in August 1774, when he was nearly fifteen.

Eton in the eighteenth century was not particularly pleasant. Classes were large and remained so into the next century — in the 1820s Keate had 198 boys in one of his di­visions — and the regime was harsh. ‘Public school culture’, writes one social historian, ‘was that of their fathers in embryo: boys drank, gambled, rode, fought and gained precocious bi-sexual experience’. Henry Fielding has one of his characters in Joseph Andrews describe Public Schools as ‘the nurseries of all vice and immorality’. But there was, at least, some scholarship, even though Porson claimed to have been little influenced by it. He denied that he learnt anything at Eton that he had not learnt already, and said that all that he re­membered of his schooldays with pleasure was the practice of rat-hunting in Long Chamber, his dormitory in College: the skins of the tro­phies were hung above the fire-places. Provost Goodall, who was a school friend of  Porson’s, wrote, after his death, that the young scholar’s reputation did not seem justified by his aca­demic performance. He had made compara­tively little progress at Greek, and was by no means the best at Latin composition. What was noticeable was his incredible memory, much remarked on in later life. The story is told of how he was once put on to translate a piece of Latin but he had forgotten to bring his book: he asked his neighbour if he might borrow his, and, for a joke, his neighbour gave him the wrong one. Quite unaffected, Porson translated the whole of his assignment from memory. In an age where there were few tools of scholarship, the power to remember was a great asset, and Porson cultivated his natural talent assiduously. ‘I have made myself what I am by intense labour,’ he wrote later in his life: `sometimes, in order to impress a thing upon my memory, I have read it a dozen times, and transcribed it six.’ But a good memory was a double-edged weapon. His friends said that later on his memory was a source of misery to him, as he could never forget anything, even what he did not wish to remember.

Apart from a juvenile play, ‘Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire’ and a few copies of verses, nothing much remains from Porson’s time at Eton. We next hear of him in 1778 when at the age of 18 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a pensioner. His main benefactor, Norris, had by this time died, but Sir George Baker continued with his support. It is perhaps surprising that Porson did not proceed to King’s in the normal Etonian way, but instead to Trinity. Various reasons may be suggested. Perhaps his promise was not suf­ficiently strong — unlikely perhaps, in view of the continued support of his patrons, and the fact that he became a scholar of Trinity in 1780; a more probable reason is that hav­ing only entered Eton in his fifteenth year, he lacked the seniority to enable him to proceed immediately to King’s.

While at Cambridge, Porson won the Craven Prize in 1781 (his Greek iambics still survive) and in 1782 took his degree, in mathematics, as was the custom, passing out as third Senior Optime, the number of Wran­glers being eighteen. In the same year he won the Chancellor’s medal, and was elected, in October of 1782, as a fellow of Trinity, with a modest stipend of about £100 per year, free at last to devote himself to what had become his obsession, the study of Greek.

Though they still produced the occasional scholars, and were to produce one more, the two English universities were in a somewhat declining state. Oxford’s freshmen intake had fallen to fewer than 200 per year. In 1733, Christ’s at Cambridge had only three. The undergraduates were either the sons of the rich, or penurious scholars, many the sons of clergymen seeking admission to orders in the Anglican Church. Gibbon describes, viciously, the typical Oxford dons, men who ‘supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder; their days were filled by  a series of uniform employment: the chapel and the hall, the coffee house and the Common Room, till they retired weary and well-satisfied to a long slumber. From the toil of reading, or thinking, or writing they had long absolved their conscience. Their conversation stagnated in a round of college business, Tory politics, personal anecdotes and private scandal: their dull and deep potations excused the brisk intemperance of youth.’ Lord Chesterfiled called Cambridge ‘an illiberal seminary’.

It was in such a university that Porson found himself a fellow: Classical studies in Cambridge still fell under the shadow of the greatest of English classical scholars, Richard Bentley, the famous Master of Trinity who had died in 1742, at a ripe old age. Bentley’s reputation lay in his scholarly powers as a textual critic and in the literary-critical acumen which he had brought to bear on all areas to which he turned his attention. His first work was the Letter to Milll (Epistola ad Millium) published as an appendix to an obscure work of Byzantine historiography; in it he had astonished his contemporaries by the breadth of his knowledge and the force of his literary judgements. His colleagues had named him ‘novum idemque iam lucidum litteratae Britanniae sidus’ (the new and shining star of English letters). His next major classical work, the Dissertation on the Epsitles of Phalaris, made him famous throughout Europe. Extant among Classical literature is a collection of letters, supposed to have ben written, and, in Bentley’s time, generally believed to have been written by Phalaris, the fifth-century tyrant of Agrigentum in Sicily, the man who is credited with the roasting of his victims alive inside the famous brazen bull. Controversy had arisen in France and had spread to England about the literary merits of the ancients. Sir William Temple, an eminent statesman and in later life an essayist defending the ancients against the moderns, had maintained that the Epistles of Phalaris has ‘more race, more spirit, more force of wit and genius’ than any others he had ever seen. He strongly supported their genuineness. Bentley’s Dissertation, published in 1697, and referred to by Porson as ‘immortalis illa dissertatio’ – that immortal dissertation – was a masterly refutation of the commonly held belief in the letters’ value. Bentley’s attack ranged over chronology, language and history; its perspicuity and its scholarship marked Benley as one of Europe’s leading Hellenists.

Porson’s first and longest work, which did for Porson what the Dissertation had done for Bentley, was also an unmasking of forgery. In the vulgate text of the Bible, the seventh verse of chapter five of St John’s first epistle, reads as follows: ‘There are three witnesses in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Spirit, and these three are one: there are three witnesses on earth: the spirit, the water and blood.’ The authenticity of the verse about the ‘three heavenly witnesses’ had long been disputed. Erasmus had omitted it from the editio princeps of the Greek New Testament. Luther, among others, had denied its authenticity, considering it an interpolation by the orthodox to counter the claims of Arianism. Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall, followed the intellectual line. The pious Archdeacon of Chester, one Mr Travis, however, did not. In five letters to Gibbon, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1782, Travis put forward his defence of the verse’s authenticity — just as Sir William Temple nearly a century earlier had defended the authenticity of the letters of Phalaris.

Porson played the part of Bentley. In a series of letters, some of which were appar­ently written at Eton, when Porson was stay­ing with his friend Goodall, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1788-1789, and re­printed in book form in 1790 with additional material, Porson demolished the arguments on which the ‘three heavenly witnesses’ had relied, and with them the poor Archdeacon of Chester. Porson’s intellect was immedi­ately obvious, his style, though, vitriolic and abusive. The ‘letters’ have not the breadth of scholarship which was obvious in Bentley’s Dissertation, and perhaps Porson’s rhetorical flourishes suggest dissatisfaction with his the­ological subject: certainly he never returned to it. ‘I found that I should require fifty years reading,’ he once said, ‘to make myself thor­oughly acquainted with divinity, to satisfy my mind on all points, and therefore I gave it up. There are fellows who go into the pul­pit assuming everything and knowing noth­ing: but I would not do so.’ His attack on Travis showed self-indulgence. He dismissed him as ‘a servile copier’ and ‘a hardy asserter’ who could be ‘dismissed to the contempt of the learned and the reproaches of his own conscience’. However, Gibbon approved. Porson’s strictures, he wrote, ‘are founded in argument, enriched with learning and en­livened with wit, and his adversary neither deserves nor finds any quarter at his hands.’ Others were not so fulsome: the Letters to Travis was described as ‘such a book as the devil would write, if he could hold a pen’.

Nevertheless, the Letters to Travis established Porson as a man of outstanding scholarship and penetrating intellectual power. Though ‘t was the only large work he ever attempted, it helped to make Porson’s name respected among eighteenth-century intellectuals. But of course it was on his classical learning that his reputation has ultimately rested. The famous story of Porson in the stage coach, quoted by the eccentric Edith Sitwell in her book on English eccentrics, although, if true, dating probably to a later period in his life, illustrates his renown among his contemporaries. A young Oxonian once happened to be on a stage coach with Porson, and began, in his conversation to some ladies, to show off his knowledge of Greek, by quoting, as he thought, Sophocles. Porson, waking up, said that he could not recollect the quotation in Sophocles. Yes, said the young man, he was sure of it. Porson thereupon produced a copy of Sophocles and asked the student to find it. On being unable to, the student changed his tack: it was not Sophocles but Euripides. Porson rummaged his his greatcoat and produced a copy of Euripides. Stymied, the student took refuge in Aeschylus: that was what he had meant. From another pocket, an edition of Aeschylus was produced. By this time the freshman had had enough. ‘Stop the coach! Let me out, I say, let me out! There’s a fellow here has got the whole of the Bodleian Library in his pocket; let me out, I say, let me out; he must either be the devil or Porson himself!’

Much of our knowledge of Porson’s character comes from anecdotes of this sort, which rely on a rich vein of oral tradition. The eighteenth century was the age of the coffee house and conversation. Dr Johnson died in 1787 at about the same time as Porson was writing the Letters to Travis. Porson’s learning and his wit – notably in his polished attacks on Travis – endeared him to the rich and famous, and stories about him obtained a wide currency. The weaver’s son from Norfolk had an easy entrée into the houses of the great, where his good looks — at least in the early part of his life — and gift of repartee made him a welcome guest.

His fame and reputation spread, at home as well as abroad, fostered in classical circles by the publication in 1790 of an appendix to a work by Jonathan Toup called Emendationes in Suidam, Suidas (nowadays known as the Suda) being a tenth-century lexicon, largely derivative, but important for its preservation of lost poets and the scholia on them. ‘Here for the first time,’ writes Denys Page, Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, ‘Porson revealed his true quality as a classical scholar, in particular as a textual critic potentially of the first rank. Terse dictatorial notes, almost devoid of argument, but distinguished by a flair for accurate diagnosis and effective rem­edy. Not since Bentley’s time had coin of this quality been on the market.’

In 1792, Porson’s fellowship at Trinity expired. The College statutes laid down that seven years after taking their MA, fellows had to take Anglican orders and become or­dained. It had been known for some time that Porson had no intention of complying with the rule. Porson was a man of scrupulous intellectual honesty, and was unprepared to compromise his beliefs. However, two fellow­ships were open to laymen, and one of these happened to be vacant. Porson confidently expected to be elected. Dr Postlethwaite, however, the Master of Trinity at that time, gave the fellowship to one of his relatives instead of to Porson. Porson felt personally slighted and went to complain personally to Postlethwaite, whom he reduced to tears at Westminster School, where he was examining the scholars. Without a fellowship, Porson lost his stipend, and was reduced, so we are told, to living for a month off a single guinea. Once again his reputation saved him. His friends clubbed together and collected sub­scriptions with which to purchase for him an annuity. It was to be ‘a tribute of literary men to literature, which had been deserted by the University, or rather by its own college,’ wrote his close friend Matthew Raine, the headmas­ter of Charterhouse. The list of subscribers is still extant. The total sum collected was £1660.5s, to which Provost Goodall contrib­uted £26.5s, one pound five shillings more than Earl Spencer, but not as much as the headmaster of Charterhouse. The sum was sufficient to buy Porson an annuity of £100 per year. Porson accepted the gift on condi­tion that on his death the principal amount should return to the donors. When in fact he did die, the donors used the money to found the Porson Prize and the Porson Scholarship, both of which still exist at Cambridge.

Before he actually received the annuity, however, another post fell vacant at Cam­bridge which Porson accepted. In 1792, he was unanimously elected to the Regius Pro­fessorship of Greek. The job, still supported by its original salary of £40, which had re­mained unchanged ever since Henry VIII founded the chair, had by the eighteenth cen­tury become a sinecure, reserved for fellows of Trinity. The only duty the professor had was to examine for one or two prizes; no lec­tures were required, though Porson intended to give some (an intention subsequently un­fulfilled). His predecessors in the chair were not an inspiring group. In the last sixty years there had been William Taylor, ‘driven at last into the habit of private drinking’; William Fraigneau who ‘made an apology for Socrates an hour long in the Schools, and all the world, except Trinity College, brought in Socrates guilty’; William Cooke, of whom we are told that ‘his insanity must have detracted from his usefulness as a professor’. It was into such undistinguished company that Porson was elected, the first layman to hold the job and the last to do so before Jebb in the late nineteenth century. Porson’s snub by Postlethwaite still rankled, though, and his visits to Cambridge were rare; most of the time he resided at 5 Essex Court in the Middle Temple in London. It was there that his subsequent scholarly activity took place.

Porson’s reputation as a classical scholar is based on relatively little published work. As mentioned above, he had published his ap­pendix to Toup’s Emendationes in 1790. His most important contributions to learning, though, were editions of four plays of Euripi­des, the Hecuba, the Orestes, the Phoenissae and the Medea, published between 1797 and 1801, and his formulation in the preface to the second edition of the Hecuba in 1802 of the metrical law which still bears his name (Porson’s Law).

As an editor Porson’s greatest strengths were in the dry field of textual criticism. His pho­tographic memory enabled him to have a thorough knowledge of language, and his im­mense intellect — what his French contempo­rary de Villoison called his ankhinoia (shrewd­ness) and eustokhia (ability to hit the mark) — enabled him to see corruption in a text with almost unparalleled clarity. Work on the manuscript tradition of classical authors was still in its infancy in the eighteenth cen­tury. Bentley had had the audacity to say that `ratio et res ipsa centum codicibus potiora sunt’ (reason and context are preferable to a hundred manuscripts). Little distinction was made between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ manuscripts, and the scope for textual criticism was large. Textual emendation was obviously needed when the manuscripts themselves made no sense: but Porson’s strength was that he was able to detect corruption even behind appar­ent sense. Such men are few, and the brilliance of their textual criticism is hard to illustrate. Housman had this gift of ‘divinatio’ in Latin, but Denys Page can name no-one, in Porson’s chosen area of Attic drama, who has since in­herited his mantle.  To change apparent nonsense into obvious sense at a stroke, to exercise what de Villoison called ankhinoia produces what are known as palmary emendations. Some of  Porson’s conjectures have a logic and power which bring him into the front rank of clas­sical scholarship. He was a giant in his field; but it must be emphasised that his chosen field was a narrow one. The notes in his edi­tions are short and dry. In the preface to his Hecuba he excuses himself from dealing with matters of interpretation and illustration: ‘interpretandi et illustrandi labore, utilissimo sane, suspersedendum duxi’ (useful though it is, I thought I should avoid the labour of in­terpretation and illustration). In his Orestes, the guard drops as he explains the myth of Tantalus. But he finishes as follows: ‘nescio, benevole lector, an tuam patientiam hac nota legenda fatigaris; meam certe scribenda fatigavi’ (I fear, kind reader, that your patience may be exhausted by reading this note: mine certainly is by writing it.) The one example we have of Porsonian literary criticism is the address he gave to the electors and the general public on his election to the Regius Chair in 1792. His chosen subject was the plays of Euripides. The prelection oration was written in Latin in two days. The great nineteenth-century scholar Wilamowitz said of it that ‘in the face of such a trivial discussion of the po­etry of Euripides and the merits of the Hecuba the reader will rejoice that the great master of language never except here went outside the bounds of the linguistic’.

Brilliant, then, but narrow, such were his characteristics as a scholar. His great discov­ery in the field of Greek metre, subsequently canonised as Porson’s Law, might be simi­larly described. The law is first adumbrated in a note on line 343 of the Hecuba where Porson proposes that a line ending with the Greek words prosopon toumpalin (the last four syllables of which are scanned long, long, short, long, and in which the syllable before the word break [-pon] is long) should be emended to prosopon empalin; as a result of Porson’s emendation the syllable –pon before the word break becomes short. Porson merely remarks that in the last metron of an iambic trimester the rhythm long, long, short, long, with a break after the first syllable, is extrememly rare. Though his emendation made no difference to the sense (as toumpalin and empalin mean exactly the same), he said that it made a great difference in metre (‘nullo ad sensum discrimine, ad numeros maximo’). Between the first edition of the Hecuba and its second edition in 1802, the German scholar Gottfried Hermann published a treatise on metre disagreeing with Porson, and in 1802, in a supplementary preface, Porson wrote a learned and lengthy defence of his ‘law’. From that moment on, no-one could write Greek iambics or study Greek metre without being aware of Porson’s ‘law of the final cretic’. Interestingly, the iambics which he wrote as an undergraduate break the lae he subsequently discovered.

Again, brilliant but narrow. In none of Porson’s published works do you find the breadth of his great predecessor Bentley. Though he inherited Bentley’s skill as a textual critic, he was in fact only half of what his predecessor had been, in terms of Bentley’s interests. Bentleius redivivus he may have been, but he was only Bentleius dimidiatus.

From 1802 until his death in 1808 he published nothing more of note, though his Adversaria, a collection of critical emendations on various authors, collected and published after his death by his friends, suggest that he kept up his reading of ancient authors. Certainly he had great potential. James Diggle, the most recent editor of the Oxford Classical Text of Euripides, bemoans the fact that when he could have produced so much of value he in fact produced so little. The question is why.

The truth was that Porson was a hopeless drunkard and in the later years of his life his physical appearance and condition deteriorated markedly. Lines circulated about him: ‘I went to Frankfort, and got drunk/ with that most learn’d Professor Brunck./ I went to Würtz, where I got more drunken/ with that more learn’d Professor Runcken.’  Stories and anecdotes of his unsocial behavior abound, and it is difficult to guarantee the reality of some of what follows. However, there is rarely smoke without fire.

Heavy drinking was not unusual in the eighteenth century. Pitt the Younger was a six-bottle a day man: one Dr John Campbell could apparently cope with thirteen bottles of port. The third professor of history at Cambridge died from a drunken fall. Dr Johnson recalls that all the decent people in Lichfield got drunk every night and were not the worse thought of. But Porson’s drunkenness seems to have been of a higher order. Byron, who was at Cambridge from 1805 to 1807, saw Porson in his decline. ‘I have seen Sheridan drunk too,’ he writes, ‘with all the world; but his intoxication was that of Bacchus, and Porson’s that of Silenus. Of all the disgusting brutes, sulky, abusive and intolerable, Porson was the most bestial as far as the few times I saw him went. He was tolerated in this state amongst the young men for his talents, as the Turks think a madman is inspired and bear with him. He used to recite or rather vomit pages of all languages, and could hiccup Greek like a Helot; and certainly Sparta never shocked her children with a grosser exhibition than this man’s intoxication.’

When his drunkenness began is uncertain. It is said that in the earlier part of his life he accepted the situation of tutor to a young gentleman in the Isle of Wight, but was soon forced to relinquish the office, from having been found drunk in a ditch or a turnip field. He married in 1796, but his wife died five months later, and it may be that his loneli­ness and the smart he had received from Dr Postlethwaite of Trinity drove him closer and closer to the bottle. By the end of his life, so the anecdotalists tell us, he drank embroca­tion and eye-water and `Velno’s Vegetable Spirits’. The story is told of how once, when visiting a friend, he was informed that there was no drink available because the friend’s wife had gone off with the key to the cellar. Porson prevailed upon his host to search his wife’s bedroom, to find her own private bottle which the professor was sure she had. With some reluctance the host agreed and a bottle was produced, which Porson pronounced the best gin he had ever tasted. When the irate husband faced his wife with his discovery, she replied tartly that the liquid in the bottle, far from being gin, was spirits of wine for the lamp. Home Tooke said that Porson would rather drink ink than nothing at all. Even at Eton his friend Goodall had to suffer his excesses. Goodall once met him while on his way to Chapel. Porson asked whether Mrs Goodall was at home; Goodall replied that she was at breakfast. Thereupon, Porson went to join her. By the time Goodall returned from Chapel, Porson was downing his sixth pint of porter.

As time went on his habits began to take a toll on his body. One of Porson’s letters survives in which he refuses an invitation to dinner: ‘for some time past, my nose, wheth­er from good living or bad humour, has been growing into a great resemblance of hon­est Bardolph’s, or, to keep still on the list of honest fellows, of honest Richard Brinsley’s. I have therefore put myself under a regime of abstinence till my poor nose recovers its quondam colour and compass!’ He began, too, to take scant care of his appearance and personal hygiene. When his clothes were wet, the exhalation from them, says another anecdotalist, was not the most agreeable.

Besides drink, Porson was a heavy user of tobacco. ‘When smoking begins to go out of fashion, learning well begins to go out of fashion also’ is one of his obiter dicta. And his readiness to stay up all night, drinking, smoking and talking was legendary. Home Tooke, having once invited Porson to dinner, knowing that he had already been up for three whole nights running, and hoping that he might therefore be able to get rid of his guest reasonably early, had to throw the professor out in the small hours and barricade the door, with strict instructions to his servant not to admit him; for ‘a man, who could sit up four nights successively, could sit up forty’.

Exaggerated though many of the stories told about him may have been, there is no doubt that by the end of his life he was a sorry and sad figure. In 1806 he was appointed Li­brarian of the newly founded London Insti­tution, with a salary of £200, free rooms and a servant. For the first time in his life he was relatively wealthy. However, he performed his job badly. The Directors of the library complained that they only knew he was their librarian by seeing his name attached to the receipts for his salary. William Hazlitt recalls seeing him once at the London Institution. He was ‘dressed in an old rusty black coat with cobwebs hanging to the skirts of it, and with a large patch of coarse brown paper cov­ering the whole length of his nose, looking for all the world like a drunken carpenter, and talking to one of the proprietors with an air of suavity, approaching to condescension’.

His health gradually deteriorated. On September 19th 1808, he left his rooms to visit his brother-in-law in the Strand. On his way back, he was seized with an apoplectic fit and collapsed. Bystanders picked him up, but no-one knew who he was, and he was taken off to the nearest workhouse to spend the night. The next day, the workhouse au­thorities inserted a description of him in the papers. The advertisement still exists. He is described as ‘a tall man, apparently about forty-five years of age, dressed in a blue coat, 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 extract be­ing principally from ancient medical works.’ The under-librarian of the London Institu­tion, recognizing the description, collected the distinguished professor, and took him back to his rooms. Porson tried to resume his ordinary life, but his speech was impaired and he found great difficulty in moving and eating. He went out to dinner at his favourite coffee-house, but could eat nothing and had to be taken hack to his rooms again. There in his rooms, a few days after his collapse, he died. A death mask was taken from his face — which was later the exemplar for the bust which is reproduced at the foot of this article. His body was taken to Cambridge, and on October 3rd 1808 it was buried, close to Bentley’s, in the chapel of Trinity College.

`The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.’ Cer­tainly, this rings true of Porson; the stories of the drunken professor loom large in the anecdotal material of the time. But Porson had his followers, the school of Porsonian critics, who looked up to him as a genius, and published what they could of his note books after his death. Porson’s own evalua­tion of his life was modest: ‘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.’ His contem­poraries were on the whole tolerant of his personal habits. His disciple C.J. Blomfield said of him that he had two great qualities that are essential requisites in the formation of a great character — an utter contempt for money and a religious devotion to truth. Dobree, his successor as Regius Professor, wrote: ‘His character was simple, upright, noble and undaunted. In everything he was so eager for truth, so firmly devoted to honesty, that his friends were wont to regard him as a model of honesty and good faith. His contempt for money, honours, and what are commonly thought goods was utterly genuine, and he considered nothing in this world as his con­cern except the consciousness of right and the advancement of literature.’ Porson himself was very fond of quoting from the preface of Middleton’s Free Inquiry and its assertion of the value and dignity of scholarship. ‘I per­suade myself,’ wrote Middleton, ‘that the life and faculties of man, at the best but short and limited, cannot be employed more rationally or laudably than in the search of knowledge; and especially of that sort which relates to our duty and conduces to our happiness. In these inquiries, therefore, wherever I perceive any glimmering of truth before me, I readily pursue and endeavour to trace it to its source, without any reserve or caution of pushing the discovery too far, or opening too great a glare of it to the public. I look upon the discovery of anything which is there as a valuable acqui­sition to society; which cannot possibly hurt or obstruct the good effect of any other truth whatsoever; for they all partake of one com­mon essence and necessarily coincide with each other; and like the drops of rain which fall separately into the river, mix themselves at once with the stream, and strengthen the general current.’ Richard Porson certainly strengthened the general current.

Published by kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College.

 

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to articles index