Richard Porson: Scholar of a Different Class

David Butterfield

What does it mean to be a “working-class” Classicist? In 2021, it’s easy enough to understand what it means to be a financially indigent scholar, or to be part of the first generation to enter into the world of higher education. But to pin down a “working class” identity that transcends time and space meaningfully is far easier said than done. And I certainly don’t seek to attempt that here. But tracing the life-course of individuals, and restoring colour to monochrome biographical sketches, can often reveal how socioeconomic circumstances inevitably impinge upon lives as lived.

To move from these vague abstractions to a concrete example, let’s look at the life of a man born on Christmas Day, whose wondrous abilities drew him from a quiet rural life into the bustling hubbub of urbane society, which keenly anticipated the revelation of his long-awaited promise – until it all ended in a disastrous, tragic, early death. For on 19 September, 1808, a figure found “senseless” on the streets of London was promptly turned into St Martin’s Workhouse. As to his person:

Image taken from the Star, 20 Sep. 1808.

Even in cosmopolitan London at the dawn of the Regency, this sketch could in fact describe only one person. One Porson, that is. Within the week this man was dead. But the life he had lived over the previous 48 years was truly astonishing: the tale, at least to this teller, is as inspiring as it is depressing.

Richard Porson, Thomas Kirkby, c. 1808 (Trinity College, Cambridge, UK).

Norfolk and Chance

Not a lot goes in East Ruston, a small village in a far-flung corner of Norfolk, England. But in 1759 the splendidly named Huggin Porson, a worsted-wool worker, and his wife Anne, a cobbler’s daughter, welcomed into the world on Christmas day a boy, Richard. It was Anne who taught the lad to read: although there were only six or seven books in their cottage (one of which volumes was salvaged from a nearby shipwreck), she had memorised reams of Shakespeare and Milton in the service of a vicar who noticed her voracious appetite for literature. But the family needs all its members to work; only when spinning yarn could the young Richard pursue his twin passions of reading and arithmetical sums.

“There was no path leading from a weaver’s cottage in Norfolk to the Regius Chair of Greek at Cambridge.” These words of Sir Denys Page – a man who had come to sit on that same chair by a rather less bumpy route – are something of an understatement. In actuality, the next decade of Porson’s life is so remarkable that it’s worth spending a moment piecing together what exactly happened.

After his first spell at school ended within six weeks because of rough treatment, the ten-year-old Porson headed to a school at Happisburgh, newly set up by an enterprising young teacher, Robert Summers. Porson’s father had turned up with the simple request that his son be trained “to make his own name”: once he had the skill of writing he could head to the loom. Summers had rather different ideas: on seeing the boy’s promise in maths, literature and Latin, he raised the bar and made contact with his former teacher, the local vicar Thomas Hewitt.

In due course, at eleven, Porson was taken in, along with his younger brother Thomas, to be tutored gratis with Hewitt’s sons throughout the week. His progress was formidable. Word spread, and the ears of a local gentleman – John Norris of Witton Park – pricked up. After some enquiries across East Anglia, it was decided to pack Porson off to be examined by someone who could really weigh his promise – the Regius Professor of Cambridge, James Lambert.

By this point Porson was well advanced in Latin but had not progressed in Greek beyond learning the endings of verbs. Fingers were crossed: in the words of his sponsor’s letter, Porson was an “unwinning cub” whose “awkward manners” needed some forbearance. The exam went well, and a place was sought for Porson at Charterhouse in London; when that proved impossible, Eton emerged to be an easier option.

Cambridge viewed from “the Backs” in the mid-eighteenth century; the Wren Library of Trinity College stands to the left of King’s Chapel, which dominates the city (S. & N. Buck, 1743).

Eton Trifles / Cambridge Rivals

From August 1774, Porson spent almost four years at Eton, supported by the philanthropy of Norris.[1] But Porson was rather diffident about the experience: in his own words, he “learned nothing” at Eton, and struggled to fit in. We hear how another boy wouldn’t even lend him his copy of Shakespeare, so Porson tried by night to pick the lock and read a book he had never held before. In a cohort that had the siblings of the future Duke of Wellington and Viscount Nelson, it is little surprise that this well-heeled crowd “thought nothing of the Norfolk boy”.

Perhaps to his patrons’ alarm, Porson did not emerge to be a star pupil, for he did not excel at the art that mattered most – Greek and Latin verse composition. Instead, what he remembered with most happiness were the rat hunts – chasing, trapping, skinning, and then drinking the win.

In all Porson’s time at the school the most important thing to happen to him was receiving as a leaving prize Jonathan Toup’s edition of Longinus (1778) – the figure then credited with that remarkable literary treatise On the Sublime. This book’s intricate and technical analysis of a tricky Ancient Greek author, with 35 years of meticulous preparation behind it, opened Porson’s eyes to what was possible in the world of philological criticism, if both patience and precision are applied.

Porson headed to Cambridge in 1778, but was not sent along the elite route to King’s College; instead he had to make do with Trinity. His undergraduate years there are opaque, but term by term his standing rose, and within a few years he was in the very van of the cohort. In 1782, he had shown such promise that he was elected a Fellow of Trinity, even though the rules typically forbade “junior bachelors” from standing.[2] Once elected to this post, Porson finally had time to breathe and to survey the hills he could climb if he chose. Most transformative of all was discovering the work of Richard Bentley, who had ended his epoch-making Classical career as the tyrannically contrarian Master of Trinity (1700–42). Bentley’s path may have inspired Porson in particular: not just because of the brilliance of the scholarship it ended up reaching, but also because of the humble origins from where it began – a Yorkshire cottage illuminated by a self-taught mother. What Porson saw was revelatory: “When I was seventeen, I thought I knew everything; as soon as I was twenty-four, and had read Bentley, I found I knew nothing.”

Fired to make his own mark, by the age of 23 Porson was somehow sending emendations to scholars on the continent, including the great Dutchman David Ruhnken (1723–98). In the prime years of his fellowship, Porson found himself on the path to edit the tragic poet Aeschylus, whose poems had not been given much love and care for some generations. It was clear to Porson that he needed to collate (i.e. take the readings of) the celebrated Laurentian manuscript of Aeschylus in Florence, the tenth-century manuscript that stands as the oldest source for the play’s text; not to do so would be to render the project pointless. But the syndics of Cambridge University Press would not finance what they took to be a self-indulgent endeavour, advising him instead to “collect” such manuscripts (a very different, not to say impossible, matter!) at home.

This rebuff seems to have soured the spirit of Cambridge for Porson, perhaps permanently. Not only did his mind drift away from Aeschylus, but he himself drifted away to London. By the age of 25 he was settled in Essex Court, in the beating heart of the city, and was kept busy by friends through anonymous journalistic work – writing that satisfied his urge to prick the pomposity and bombast of belles-lettres dandies. His private passion for literature, poetry and prose, ancient and modern, high-brow and mass-market, Latin, English, French, Italian was voracious and omnivorous.[3] Yet his chief devotion to Greek literature could not be shaken from him by the self-serving folly of his alma mater.

Richard Porson (as a married man), John Hoppner, 1797 (Old Schools, University of Cambridge, UK).

Faith – in Principle

To the surprise of many friends, Porson’s first substantive entry into the public sphere concerned a particularly hot topic: the “Johannine Comma”. This is the contested phrase that explicitly stipulates the three heavenly witnesses at 1 John 7-8. The suspect text is given in italics below (from the King James Version):

For there are three that beare record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that beare witnesse in earth,[4] the Spirit, and the Water, and the Blood, and these three agree in one.

Porson’s rejection of these words, which are attested in only a small proportion of Greek and Latin manuscripts, was not a novel move. In fact, titanic figures such as Desiderius Erasmus, Isaac Newton and Edward Gibbon had already expressed their strong belief that this phrase was an explanatory gloss that had been wrongly incorporated into the text. The last of these men had dismissed the veracity of the phrase in his Decline and Fall, only for one George Travis, then Archdeacon of Chester, to leap to the Comma’s defence. His Letters to Gibbon made up for their flaws in logic and evidence by sheer passion and conviction.

Porson saw that he could make his mark – and indeed emulate one of the most remarkable books written in English, Bentley’s Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris (1697), which banished for eternity the prospect that these letters were actually written by the Sicilian tyrant they ventriloquised. Porson’s Letters to Travis, fired off to the Monthly Review in 1788–9 and ripping to shreds each of the archdeacon’s specious arguments, are a tour de force both in method and in mirth. To adopt the image of a later Trinity Hellenist who was rarely given to praise, Roger Dawe (1935–2017), the book’s modus operandi was to use a steamroller to crack a nut that had been already cracked, and then to reverse and drive and reverse over it repeatedly until everyone else had shuffled off home.

On every page Porson rang the bell for evidence-led argument, chastising the mumpsimus-addled inertia of contemporary conservatives. He summarised the spirit of the age: “It is much easier to go on believing everything that we hear or read, than to undergo the labour of enquiry, or the pain of suspense.” This may sound like something of a homily from our man Porson. But he writes with such levity and charm between the hammer-blows of argument. As he had to confess, “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.” Indeed, in a world such as this, difficile est saturam non scribere.

As evidence that Porson had found his voice in the world of letters, he ventured in the introduction of that work to critique Gibbon’s monumental Decline and Fall – a book he very much admired, even if he joked privately that it would be a good exercise for a schoolboy to turn a page of it into English. His cursory assessment has become one of the most famous book reviews in history. A couple of excerpts suffice to give the flavour:

Introduction to Letters to Travis (London, 1790) xxviii–xxxi (excerpts).

The great man, impressed by Porson’s contribution to their shared cause, invited the 30-year-old to meet him. Gibbon could not hold back from remarking on this occasion, “I must think that occasionally, while praising me, you have mingled a little acid with the sweet.” Well, quite.

Yet there was, almost certainly, another motive for Porson’s entering this debate how and when he did: to firm up his views on religion. For a cloud was on the horizon: Fellows of Trinity were required to take Holy Orders within seven years of receiving their Master of Arts degree. In other words, if by 1791 Porson had not subscribed to the 39 Articles of Faith (of Anglican Christianity), he would be turned out of his academic post for good. This, as a man of principle, Porson found he simply could not do. As he later told a friend:

I found that I should require about fifty years’ reading 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 a pulpit assuming everything, and knowing nothing; but I would not do so.

Although Porson would not play the game that those around him did – of swearing to the Articles and taking the wage, with fingers crossed all the while – there was a possible route of escape: two lay Fellowships existed at Trinity that were free from this requirement. Although they were notionally restricted to the fields of Law and Medicine, the Master – Thomas Postlethwaite, who had in fact helped examine the boy two decades earlier – had promised Porson one of them. But, when push came to shove, Postlethwaite let the forces of nepotism prevail: he gave the post to one John Heys, his nephew. Having poured forth his seething anger to the trembling Master, Porson left Cambridge with no post and no salary. This proved to be the watershed moment of his life.

Head of Job, William Blake, c. 1825 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK).

Paradise Restored?

For many a turbulent night Porson repeated the harrowing verses of Job 7, or lay awake wishing for “a large pearl”. Without any formal stipend, and with no possibility of any family support, he was reduced to dire straits. But Porson’s charm and brilliance had already opened doors: his London friends rallied round to help – aware that, as one put it, “it was difficult to do him any material good, but by stealth.” In a matter of weeks the remarkable sum of £1660.5s (some £250k in modern terms) was drummed up. Although touched by this gesture, Porson would only accept the interest from it, providing him a small but serviceable annuity of £100. His strict condition for doing so was that, on his death, the principal amount should return to the generous donors.

To make ends meet, Porson increased his journalistic output, which now revealed a more satirical and political edge. Writing for the Morning Chronicle in particular, he was able to channel some of his growing frustrations – whether mocking the myopia of contemporary religious dogma by comparing the life of Christ to that of Bacchus, or satirising the anti-revolutionary staidness of English intellectuals, or mocking Pitt the Younger’s Tory place-men in the House of Lords. Porson’s politics were at the popular end of Radical Whiggism, tinged with a streak of rebellion. As such, he could hardly respect the creation of Lords by royal whim, one of whom is made to sing:

Late, while I lay a senseless mass,

As dull as peasant, ox, or ass.

   Unworthy note and name,

Methought thy fiat reached mine ear,

“Let Mr. Scrub become a peer,”

   And Scrub a peer became.

For better or worse, Porson’s period of journalistic abandon was relatively short-lived. For in October 1792, he was unanimously elected to the Regius Greek Professorship in Cambridge, without any other competitor choosing to come forward. In a couple of nights, he scribbled out the elegant Latin ‘Praelection’ he was expected to give, which set the virtues of Euripides against those of his Attic counterparts. As he confessed to a close friend about this composition, he would “tip them the stuff; but whether they will twig it I cannot determine.” More remarkable was his decision to remain in London: the Regius Professor had (and still has) an automatic right to a Fellowship at Trinity, but Porson decided against the prospect, and for the rest of his life set foot in Cambridge only once a year to fulfil his duties as an examiner.

So no lectures were given, and no pupils were taken, but this was the custom of the day. For, truth be told, the Regius Professorship of Greek was a relatively undistinguished chair before Porson sat on it. A few names still resonate – those of Thomas Gale and Thomas Francklin, for instance – but with little more than a low hum. In fact, Cambridge – and England in general – were not then significant players in Greek studies. In the post-Bentley era, one might find reason to mention Richard Dawes, Jonathan Toup or Jeremiah Markland, but the big beasts roamed on the continent: Lodewijck Caspar Valckenaer, Johann Jacob, Reiske, Daniel Wyttenbach, Christian Gottlob Heyne, David Ruhnken, and Friedrich Augustus Wolf, before the rise of one far greater. In featureless fenland, then, Porson had ample space in which to achieve something that counted, but there were not many around him who would be competent to judge it.

The coats of arms granted for the five Regius Professorships founded by Henry VIII in 1540 for Physick (Medicine), Law, Divinity, Hebrew, and Greek (Cambridge University Library, ARMS2).

Powers of “Divination”

Porson’s skills are easy to summarise, but impossible to deconstruct. He combined an intimate knowledge of Attic Greek language and style with an uncanny ability to intuit the author’s original text, which had become lost beneath layers of corruption over generations of imperfect manuscript copies. Part of his prowess was hard won by hard work; the other part simply cannot be taught. As the adage goes, criticus nascitur, non fit: the critic is born, not made. Well, although this claim has never been disproved, Porson took a rather humbler pose: “Any one might become quite as good a critic as I am, if he would only make the trouble to make himself so.”

The texts of Greek tragedy and comedy were Porson’s primary focus. He sought to clarify what these playwrights wrote, thus clearing the ground for others to interpret or enjoy them as they wished.[5] For his part, he recused himself from literary criticism on the ground of practicality: “I have decided to keep clear of the task of interpreting and illustrating [i.e. with parallel passages from other authors], though it be most useful, partly to stop this small book growing into an actual book.”[6]

Instead, Porson’s great contribution to the Attic dramatists was to perform leaps of the mind that brought light and truth to passages that had long limped in the shadows. Just to give two famous examples, consider line 1115 of Euripides’ Ion, which the sole authoritative manuscript (L) offers up as

ἐγνώσμεθ᾿ ἐξ ἴσου· κἐν ὑστάτοις κακοῖς

The attendant, searching for her mistress Creusa, has been asked by the chorus leader whether the chorus has failed by not keeping secret murderous plans. But the response of the attendant as given above is meaningless: “We know it equally; and amidst the utmost evils (?!)” Porson saw that, by the change of just one letter – in fact just one stroke of ink – four different words could emerge, bringing with them the perfect sense, in which the chorus are told that they are complicit:

ἔγνως· μεθέξεις οὐκ

“You’ve got it: you will not share…”

And with a tweak of the last word’s form, the line becomes

ἔγνως; μεθέξεις οὐκ ἐν ὑστάτοις κακοῦ.

“You know it: you won’t be among the last to share in the woe.”

Let us turn to a second renowned example, at line 1015 of Medea. All the manuscripts give the tutor’s words as follows:

θάρσει· κρατεῖς τοι καὶ σὺ πρὸς τέκνων ἔτι.

But what sort of comfort is it to Medea, downcast at the prospect of enforced exile, for the tutor to say: “Take heart: you’re still in control at the hands of your children?” There is no control, and the children are out of her control. The comment is as wrong as it is cruel. But whittle down the verb in question from κρατεῖς to κάτει and perfect sense emerges: “Take heart: you’ll still be brought back from exile by your children.” As proof of this emendation’s truth, Medea states grimly in the following line, “I will bring back/down” (κατάξω) others before I do myself – ambiguously meaning both a return from exile and a descent into the world of the dead. The correction restores Euripides’ verbal brilliance before our eyes.

The opening of Euripides’ Phoenissae (Phoenician Women), written in his own hand (Trinity College Cambridge R.4.62a).

In a period of unusually concentrated activity, Porson published four plays of Euripides: Hecuba (1797), Orestes (1798), Phoenissae (1799) and Medea (1801). Only the last was published under his name, but all had the pointed dedication in usum studiosae juventutis (“for the use of diligent youngsters”). The last of these involved the famous “supplement” to the preface that set out the new discovery that would become known as “Porson’s Law” – a poetic practice that had a major effect on how playwrights constructed their iambic verse. To modern eyes this feature is plain to see on any page of Greek tragedy. But, as with all his most ingenious emendations, the fact was that no-one had the eyes to see it before Porson.[7]

The Rosetta Stone (British Museum, London).

Among the many other spheres where Porson’s emendatory powers found concrete results was the Rosetta Stone. This famous monolith, used to repair a fort by a Mamluk Sultan in the 15th century, had been discovered by the invading French force 300 years later, and duly handed over to Britain after the Capitulation of Alexandria (1801). The following year it could be scrutinised at the British Museum: here Porson’s pains to decipher and restore its triple text (of Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic and Ancient Greek) were so frequent and intense that the guards nicknamed him Judge Blackstone. Porson duly presented his suggestions to the Society of Antiquaries in 1803, many of which have not been bettered.[8]

Porson’s restorations to the bottom-right corner of the Rosetta Stone.

Despite all the praise, past and present, that Porson’s textual conjectures won, it is important to retain some perspective. Perhaps no critic has been keener to put Porson in his proper place than Roger Dawe, who sat down for many a rainy day, tallying how often various critics were mentioned for successful or credible emendations in the standard critical editions of his (and still our) day. The top fifteen scored as follows:

Scores on the Dawe’s reckoning for Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (from his essay on Porson in W.W. Briggs and W.M. Calder (ed.), Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia (Garland, New York, 1990) 378).

So Gottfried Hermann (1772–1848), Porson’s younger contemporary and a man of yet greater intellect, o’ertops them all, like Bentley’s digamma. But two considerations remain: Porson restricted his formal efforts to Euripides, and only edited four plays, whereas the prolific Hermann edited all nineteen that survive, as well as all fourteen plays surviving from Aeschylus and Sophocles; many of Porson’s emendations emerge en passant from tentative marginalia, chaotic notebooks and disparate scraps of paper. Second, as Denys Page observed, “You will look long to find a bad conjecture by Porson.” It takes not just great mental agility but great self-discipline to make many conjectures but few that are not good. It is for each reader to decide how much this matters. A ready analogy springs to mind from the world of popular music: is a band who releases three great albums and nothing else more artistically successful than the band that release four great records but six dire ones to boot?

Home Truths

For all his recognised brilliance, Porson’s career – whether private or public – did not bring home much money. Even the greatest Classical chair in the land, the Regius Professorship, provided only £40 per annum. As Porson later warned an aspiring Hellenist, “If Mr Cogan is passionately fond of Greek, he must be content to dine on bread and cheese for the remainder of his life.” In his lower moments, Porson would even express regret that he had not headed out to America as a youth (certainly he was a quiet supporter of the Revolution). Asked what he would have done without books, he told the truth in his typically matter-of-fact manner: “I should have done without them.”

Porson kept his emotions to himself, and his rare and irregular letters only occasionally give us a glimpse of his head and his heart. To what degree he was affected by the death of his mother in his mid-twenties, or of both his brothers in his mid-thirties, we cannot say.[9] The only certain event in his personal life is his secret marriage, in 1796, to Mary Lunan, a much-admired woman from Aberdeen, who had divorced her husband by Scottish law. Mary had become known to Porson as the sister of James Perry (a tactical rebrand of Pirie), editor of his favourite paper, the Chronicle. Anecdotes abound about this unexpected union: apparently Porson said to a pal one evening in his usual drinking club: “Friend George, do you think the widow Lunan an agreeable sort of personage, as times go?” On receipt of the nod, Porson went off and married her the next morning – only to return to the self-same club for the wedding night itself (sans la belle dame, merci).[10] Yet this newfound happiness was not to last, as Mary was dead within five months.

In this context of private grief, we must now face the most infamous aspect of Porson’s life: as one admirer gently put it, he was “addicted in no trifling way to the vice of drinking”. Friends concluded that bouts of ill health and unhappiness at Eton had led Porson to drink away his teenage insomnia. Allegedly, when he returned to that school later in life and met the Provost who was heading to Chapel, Porson decided instead to take breakfast with the Provost’s wife. By the time the husband had returned from the morning service, his guest had sunk six pints of porter.

Whatever happened during his years ensconced in Trinity, the company would have done nothing to keep his drinking consumption at low ebb. And once Porson was free to do as he pleased in London, without being gated into his accommodation come 11 o’clock (as was the Cambridge way), he could drink through night and dawn. “Devil Dick” was known to get his kicks in the Cider Cellar, a club off Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. Here and elsewhere the tales of his drinking are legion. Did he really routinely write the Greek verses for a boy at Westminster who had privileged access to that school’s ale cellar? Did he really drink lamp fuel under the wild-eyed delusion that it was “the good stuff” hidden away in his host’s bedroom? Whatever the level of exaggeration in these widely circulated tales, it is certainly true that he ate irregularly, often turning down dinners with the excuse that he “ate yesterday”; he certainly didn’t have time for tea or coffee; and he certainly did have ample room for beer, cider, port and brandy.

Beer Street, William Hogarth, 1751.

It is an alarming sign when even the likes of Lord Byron can tut-tut: free to talk ill of the dead, the poet did not hold back on this score:

I never can recollect him except as drunk or brutal, and generally both… Of all the disgusting brutes, sulky, abusive, and intolerable, Porson was the most bestial… 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.[11]

For his part, Porson seemed unshaken by such doings; even when he was mistaken for a vagrant by his dress, or when his nose became permanently in need of a brown-paper modesty veil (either because of a fall or alcohol trauma), he was quick to laugh off such absurdities. And though he never went abroad, he seems to have amused himself with forging such fancies as:

I went to Strasbourg,[12] and got drunk
with that most learned Professor Brunck.
I went to Würtz, where I got more drunken
with that more learned Professor Runcken.

Most of the time, he managed to find company that could and would laugh along. But, songs sung and toasts toasted, when Porson found himself at home, there was no-one who had his back.

Gin Lane, William Hogarth, 1751.

Forgetting to Forget

Like many who toil at the top of their field, Porson hated flattery and praise. It was enough to know that others quietly knew. But given his rare talents, and his party-piece performances, he was greatly in demand in London society. For the fashionable cadre of London society, Porson did not want to play the game; very often he refused invitations, even from the grandest hosts. When offered an audience with Charles James Fox – perhaps the most talented politician never to have been Prime Minister, and a man who channelled much of Porson’s Whig spirit – he dodged the fate of “being stared at”: “they invite me merely out of curiosity; and, after they have satisfied it, they would like to kick me down stairs.”

Unquestionably, Porson was far more comfortable among the sundry townsfolk who tumbled down the stair-ladder of the Cider Cellar. This was where the man was truly in his element, leading conversation that was stuffed to the gills with literary play, raucous wit and impromptu song. The young and the old, rather than those of Porson’s age and professional standing, seemed especially welcome in his midst: perhaps these were the necessary conditions to allow him space to be something over and above Professor Porson. Whatever the motivation, conscious or unconscious, only those who thrive in such a restless environment of give-and-take could agree with Porson’s straight-faced lament that “when smoking began to go out of fashion, learning began to go out of fashion also.”

Mutton-chops on Maiden Lane, Thomas Rowlandson, c. 1800; was Porson present somewhere out of the limelight?

It was here that his uncanny powers of memory came into full voice: one person heard him declaim an ode of Pindar in Greek, and then a whole act of Samuel Foote’s farce The Mayor of Garratt (1763), each without error. Even when half-seas-over, Porson could be presented briefly with a book, read a couple of pages from memory, and then do so backwards – almost without error. The tale is told that he could intuit what passage of Thucydides a friend was reading when asked about the meaning of a particular word: it so happened that this term was used only twice by the historian, and Porson recalled that in the edition his friend was holding these two instances fell on recto and verso pages, so deduced the passage by seeing whether his gaze fell to the left or right. Such anecdotes are almost unlimited.

These feats, whether true or half-true, suggest the relative triviality of a photographic memory. But Porson’s own words on the topic are both more revealing and more impressive: “I have made myself what I am by intense labour. Sometimes, in order to impress a thing upon my memory, I have read it a dozen times, and transcribed it six.” Conscious of his slow start to learning, and his shortcomings in the Eton syllabus, Porson’s subsequent years had been filled with immense intellectual effort.

In his later life, Porson’s memory would become only more important. While staying at his friend Perry’s house in Merton, south London, in 1797, a major fire destroyed many of his own notebooks and papers: not only were several years’ work on the text of Aristophanes reduced to ashes, but also his entire transcription of Trinity College’s Gale manuscript of the Greek lexicographer Photius. Stoically, Porson sat down again, for week on end, to make the whole transcription afresh, but he no longer trusted his critical thoughts to writing as he once had. Instead, many of his ideas and emendations were consigned to the memory of his brain – from where most would never see the light of day again. This decision is all the more remarkable, given how much Porson’s meticulous penmanship – in which he evidently took some therapeutic as well as aesthetic pleasure – won public plaudits. Any of his little scraps of Greek and Latin notes reveal the care with which he always wrote, even if one occasionally detects the challenges posed by other forces:

In due course, Porson allowed the Cambridge University Press in 1806 to cut a new Greek type on the basis of his own hand. This “Porson Greek” has been the staple of that academic press for many (though sadly not all) of its books, and several others have adopted its elegant clarity over the last two centuries.

The first book printed in the typeface “struck according to Porson’s desires” (ad Porsoni mentem cusos): C.J. Blomfield’s edition of the <pseudo->Aeschylean Prometheus Vinctus (Prometheus Bound) (Cambridge UP, 1810).

With but a Whimper

Since 1801, the world had been waiting patiently for Porson’s Euripides series to continue. But nothing more came. Perhaps, his admirers thought, the professor is working to publish the remaining plays en masse? Perhaps not: it seemed he was doing nothing of the sort, or in fact nothing much else at all. There are bursts of activity here and there, but nothing that made an impression worthy of the man.

His health in decline, and his finances apparently unstable, Porson was given a position in 1806 that was almost a sinecure. Appointed as librarian to the newly founded London Institution, which sought to provide an education for religious dissenters in the city, he was able to draw £200 a year for overseeing the purchase and receipt of new books – a task as onerous or uneventful as he could ordain. Unsurprisingly, things did not work out: as one of the governors complained, “We only know you are our librarian by seeing your name attached to the receipts for your salary.” Porson meanwhile muttered in private that these hawk-eyed officials were “mercantile and mean beyond merchandise and meanness”. In a fascinating letter that survives from a time when Porson is manifestly in the firing line, he pushes back against the charge of derelicting his duties. Perhaps his employers relented somewhat, as one of his more pathetic requests – that his letters of thanks for books donated to the Institution be pre-printed with spaces left for him to add only the relevant details – was evidently granted:

The dispute soon ended, as on 25 September 1808, he died. His body – unhappily autopsied by the phrenologically curious – was conveyed back to Trinity, Cambridge. He was buried at the feet of Newton beneath a simple stone, watched over by a simple plaque. What Richard Bentley said of the mathematician Roger Cotes (1682–1716), so many fairly repeat of Porson: “pauca quidem ingenii sui pignora reliquit, sed egregia, sed admiranda” (“few indeed were the proofs of his intellect that he left behind, but they are outstanding and marvellous”). What Porson said of himself is perhaps more poignant:

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.

Today, Porson’s name is remembered in the city that both fostered and hindered his genius by a prize in Greek verse competed for by few, by a scholarship of token value whose meaning is almost entirely forgotten, and by a road where the houses only open their doors to millionaires. As to the Porson family, the surname died out in a generation, and the school where Summers first saw Richard’s promise has been lost to the ever-encroaching erosion of the Happisburgh coast (whose merciless and unfeeling progress heads this piece).

In a memorial to Porson’s sister (Elizabeth Hawes, 1756–1842), which praised her charitable relief work, the author recalled “the hardships of her early life” in East Ruston,  and observed that she had “both seen and felt” what the “sufferings of the poor” were, for this was “the class from which she sprang”. Porson had been there too and, in a sense, had never left. Even when his financial issues were allayed, he never felt comfortable in the circles to which his intellectual attainments expected him to thrive. One of his very last recorded sentences after his collapse in the street, opaque in meaning but repeated a dozen or more times at a whisper, was about money: “The gentleman said it was a lucrative piece of business, and I think so too.” Understandably, many an eyebrow was raised when, on his death, Porson emerged to have £900 to his name: he had, it seems, come to live very far within his means. This money, and that of his long-suffering patrons, was repurposed to support Classics students at Cambridge.

Richard Porson, as sketched around 1808.

What Lessons Learned?

While we now live in a society that is less keen to romanticise alcoholism, it is still common for external viewers to peer through rose-tinted windows into the lives of a longed-for working class. But to deal in idealised generalisations is to lose sight of real individuals. To trade off airy notions of “working-class identity” over such a vast distance of time, let alone to trademark them, is far more revealing of modern-day crises of meaning and purpose than it is of any obscured truths about the past. 

Porson’s life-path is unique, and much too unusual to make any inference easy. But it does show that, where merit and philanthropic support align, the outcomes can be spectacular. By turns, however, without the scope for large-scale social mobility, and the societal acceptance that would inevitably evolve in such an environment, the personal outcomes can be disastrous.

“Meritocracy” has recently become a contested word; and, rather unusually, some of its most ardent critics decry it from within that very system. Those who are duty bound to teach to an exam syllabus, or admit the most deserving students to university programmes, are inevitably committed to a hierarchy of academic merit, one that is assumed to be both measurable and valuable. This, to be sure, is nothing to be ashamed of: so long as there is widescale agreement that the “merit” does indeed merit merit, and so long as systems exist for those with such merit to show it and have it fairly judged, there is no fairer arrangement for organising a skills-driven society.

And yet, all the while, those who continue to take wages in jobs to which they believe themselves especially entitled continue to talk down meritocracy and its iniquities. Their words are confident, and often strident; sawing the bough on which one sits doubtless affords the short-term thrill of transgression. Yet these same words denouncing the viability of “academic merit” come across as unintelligible to the generation beneath them which so keenly seeks out success to make its own. For this generation was promised ladders, and shown many a diagram of how these simple devices work, but the reality emerges to be days spent tripping over ladders that have somehow been pushed, and finding void and inanity where others have somehow been pulled from where they belong.

This is not the place to revisit the questions of what role private education should or should not have in a healthy society. But it is a place where I wish to record two facts: first, the history of education in Britain is exceptionally complicated, and any generalisation about an institution or a period of time is likely to over-simplify, especially when the transformative role of scholarships and bursaries and philanthropic support is set in a human context. Is Porson really just another Old Etonian? Second, to form a moral judgment about any given child who has attended a particular school at the behest of his or her parents strikes me as straightforwardly repugnant. Is Porson, or is the Porson family, morally vicious for following the path opened up for the lad with promise? If he is, just who are you to say?

A close friend of Porson observed that he took care “never to speak evil of the moral character of any man”. One can still meet such people in the world, but rarely so in academia. Perhaps here or there in the humanities we can point to a noble few who set their research, and that of their colleagues, apart from the frailties of the human condition, and the fallibility of every political system under the sun. In such censorious times as we have come to know, it can help to believe that, against some garage wall, or in some car boot out Wymondham way, the lost portrait of Porson that once hung on the walls of the Cider Cellar still gazes upon such a disparate band of scholars and breaks into what only a few of his professional contemporaries ever saw: a smile.

David Butterfield is a Fellow in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Roger Dawe once pointed to the corner of his Trinity office and asked him if he would like to sit in Porson’s chair. There was only one proper answer.

Further Reading

Porson has had an unusual mix of biographers: after the mixture of adulation and anecdote had faded away, John Selby Watson worked up a detailed narrative of Porson’s life (1861), available freely online, before the violent and cryptic murder of his wife detained him for life; M.L. Clarke’s more digestible and fast-flowing survey (Richard Porson: A Biographical Essay, Cambridge UP, 1937) is less easy to obtain than it should be. Denys Page’s British Academy lecture on Richard Porson, published in 1960, bears close reading; the more idiosyncratic account of his pupil, Roger Dawe (1990), is reproduced here, with a convenient bibliography of his works, both living and posthumous. Paul Naiditch published in 2011 his painstaking reconstruction of Porson’s library, which was divided between Trinity and, via the auction house, the world at large (The Library of Richard Porson, Xlibris, Bloomington, IN). The majority of Porson’s known letters were reprinted by H.R. Luard (Cambridge, 1867), and can be read here. For Classical scholars, the very best introduction to what Porson did is to read his Euripidean notes: the famous notes on Medea 1 (διαπτᾶσθαι) and 139–40 are a fine place to start. But for the very best sense of the man as a whole, you need to dive into the amazing gallimaufry of Tracts and Miscellaneous Criticisms (London, 1815) piously and painstakingly compiled from Porson’s disiecta membra by the man who didn’t flinch to name his son Richard Bentley Porson Kidd.


1 After Norris died in 1777, Porson was supported – at the instance of Anne Townshend, wife of the 3rd Viscount – by various well-wishers, led by Sir George Baker, President of the College of Physicians.
2 For the period between the election of Isaac Newton in 1677 and Connop Thirlwall in 1818 there were only three exceptions to this practice, and one was Richard Bentley, son of the master Richard Bentley.
3 Those noticing an omission of one language in particular may feel cause to raise their eyebrows. But Porson was said to have held that “Life is too short to learn German”!
4 The Latin is: in caelo: Pater, Verbum, et Spiritus Sanctus: et hi tres unum sunt. Et tres sunt, qui testimonium dant in terra.
5 Porson was always chary of the argot of literary criticism. He cited with approval the reproof of Richard Payne Knight: “every dunce may indeed be taught to repeat the jargon of criticism, which of all jargons is the worst, as it joins the tedious formality of methodical reasoning to the trite frivolity of common-place observation.” (from the barnstorming preface to his Analytic Essay on the Greek Alphabet, London, 1791); it is telling that Roger Dawe wrongly ascribed these words (1990, 384) to Porson himself.
6 “interpretandi et illustrandi labore, utilisimo sane, supersedendum duxi, partim ne libellus in librum excresceret,” Preface to Hecuba (London, 1797) xvii.
7 For more on this law – or rather strong tendency – you could try the sixth handout on Greek and Latin metre available here.
8 For whatever reason, these critical notes were not published until 1812.
9 Three other brothers had already died during Porson’s first seven years of his life.
10 The letter survives in which Porson confesses to his sister what had happened a month earlier, without any of his family’s knowledge.
11 Letter to John Murray from Venice, 20 Feb. 1818; Byron’s own bitterness towards Porson and his legacy is well evidenced by a passage in his ‘Thoughts suggested by a college examination’ (1806) on the unbalanced interests of the academic community: “Yet prizing Bentley’s, Brunck’s, or Porson’s note, / More than the verse on which the critic wrote.”
12 Although Brunck was indeed based here, both Frankfurt and Antwerp occasionally crop up in its stead.