Pissing on Idiots

Colin Burrow

  • Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment by Kristine Louise Haugen
    Harvard, 333 pp, £29.95, April 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 05871 2

Many years ago, when there were still second-hand bookshops in which to skulk, I found a leather-bound volume with ‘BENTLEY’S HORACE’ on its spine. It was only twenty quid, so I dropped into the standard routine for bagging a bargain. You’d toy with a few other things, then take the one you really wanted to the desk with some gesture that said, ‘Oh well, I might as well pick up this old thing too.’ I hoped the volume was going to be Richard Bentley’s 1711 edition of Horace, which is full of his sometimes inspired and sometimes not so inspired conjectural emendations. When I got it home I found it was an English translation of Bentley’s notes on Horace’s Odes, along with ‘Notes upon Notes Done in the Bentleian Stile and Manner’, which the hack publisher Bernard Lintott produced in 1712 to cash in on the fame of Bentley’s Horace.

Bentley’s notes were translated in a way that deliberately exaggerated the crabby vigour and indecorum of his style: ‘Since then I was satisfy’d, that Horace did not write this, but that it was foisted in by the Crew of Librarians, I began to cast about.’ The ‘Notes upon Notes’ were intended to draw attention to Bentley’s extreme arrogance, so when he defended a reading in Horace’s Odes, the anonymous ‘Bentleian’ annotator added this gloss:

The Dr. having called together an Assembly of Criticks, by the Names and Titles of most Learned, most Accurate, most Ingenious, most Judicious, most Illustrious, and so forth, tells them when they are met, that they are a company of Blunderers and Blockheads, and that there is a Commentator in the World, one Dr. B, more Learned, Accurate, Ingenious, Judicious and Illustrious than all of them put together.

This representation of Bentley as a figure of overweening arrogance was one which I, like most students of English literature, was primed to accept. In The Dunciad in Four Books (1742), Pope described Bentley as the ‘mighty Scholiast, whose unweary’d pains/ Made Horace dull, and humbled Milton’s strains.’ Pope added notes to The Dunciad, and indeed notes upon notes, in the Bentleian manner. The gem is the note to the lines ‘a Sage appears,/By his broad shoulders known, and length of ears.’ The annotator solemnly cites a string of critics who have unthinkingly accepted the received reading of the text, which he claims ‘proceeded originally from the inadvertency of some Transcriber’, and concludes: ‘A very little Sagacity (which all these Gentlemen therefore wanted) will restore to us the true sense of the Poet, thus, By his broad shoulders known, and length of years.’ The Bentleian textual critic-annotator revels in his own false modesty. His restoration of the ‘true’ reading proves beyond all doubt that he could not recognise an ass by the length of its ears.

Bentley was, however, no ass. Despite his Yorkshire accent, his Whiggish politics and his grammar-school background, he became master of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1700, when he was only 38. He did many good works. He provided an observatory and a laboratory for the college, and helped create the Backs by draining and replanting fenny pastures. But as an academic politician he was a disaster. He attempted to annex the fellows’ bowling green to the master’s garden. Then he made his colleagues donate their dividend towards repairing the chapel. He also tried to readjust the annual distribution of the college’s income so that he received not just the lion’s but the leviathan’s share. He ejected two fellows from their posts. To quash opposition he had a go at closing down the combination room in which the plots against him were hatched. The fellows took their master first to the college visitor (the Bishop of Ely, who was supposed to arbitrate in these kinds of dispute) and then repeatedly to court. His more colourful biographers dwell on other scandals too: when a gun was discharged into the study of the master of Caius (next door to Trinity) it was surely unthinkable that the master of Trinity could have pulled the trigger. Or was it? Thomas Gooch, the Tory master of Caius, had in his capacity as vice-chancellor tried to strip Bentley of his degrees.

Among all this brouhaha Bentley managed to establish a reputation as the most learned classical scholar in England. Early in his career, after a stint as tutor to the son of the preacher and scholar Edward Stillingfleet, he intervened in the so-called Battle of the Books. This was, roughly speaking, an argument between the ‘ancients’, who claimed that ‘the oldest Books we have are still in their kind the best’, and the ‘moderns’, who thought that literature and learning might have improved since antiquity. Bentley’s part in this scholarly war was a drily destructive Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris (1697). This attacked Swift’s patron Sir William Temple, who had unwisely claimed that a set of letters purporting to be by the Sicilian tyrant Phalaris (who lived in the sixth century BC) were among the earliest surviving Greek texts. Bentley grinds through the epistles, showing that the customs they record and much of their vocabulary must date from centuries after Phalaris. He began to hone his own distinctive style, that of an infinitely learned man whose spirit was entirely untainted by generosity: ‘A strange piece of stupidity, or else contempt of his Readers,’ he growled, ‘to pretend to assume the garb and person of Phalaris, and yet knowingly to put words in his mouth, not heard of till a whole Century after him.’

Kristine Haugen’s Bentley is a different beast. He is not the tyrant of Trinity, or the dunce of all dunces, but the man who connected English classical scholarship to the European republic of letters. She regards him as the heir of Joseph Scaliger, himself a master of vast learning and of a prose style that could bring water to the eyes of his adversaries. Her early chapters show how much Bentley owed to the classical editors who preceded him in Cambridge, Thomas Stanley and Thomas Gale. Otherwise, she tends to treat the English dimensions of Bentley’s career as a sideshow. Her main objective is to explain how Bentley could be simultaneously one of the greatest classical scholars of his age and the object of so much mockery. His problem, she argues, was that he was among the first to present to a wider public the methods of philologically informed textual criticism. He ‘aimed at a totally new kind of convergence between scholarship and polite literary culture, akin to that in Renaissance Italy or 17th-century France’. But polite English readers could not understand why he cited Suidas (a Byzantine encyclopedist) so often, or why he focused such critical vigour on a single letter in a received text, let alone why he devoted so much time to texts of little literary merit, such as the Astronomica of Manilius. Pope, she argues, responded jealously to Bentley’s new method of close textual attention: his ‘attacks on Bentley … were in large part defensive manoeuvres designed to neutralise Bentley, and claim the critical laurel for Pope himself’.

Not the least of Haugen’s many virtues is her ability to describe extremely technical debates clearly. It is hard to imagine better descriptions of Bentley’s role in the recovery of the digamma (the archaic Greek character which can sometimes be used to make sense of Homer’s metre), of his attitudes towards the Johannine comma (the principal biblical source text for the doctrine of the Trinity, long suspected to be a forgery), or the highly contentious question of the metre of Terence. Bentley emerges as the grandfather of all driven dons: he built up a circle of disciples, revamped the Cambridge University Press and sought ever more ambitious ‘projects’ to sell to his patrons and to the public, which would confirm him as a ‘public intellectual’. His real significance, she claims, was to have stirred English literary criticism out of the doldrums of stodgy Aristotelianism, and to have encouraged ‘close reading, the signature method of English study in the 20th century’.

Haugen’s argument, like many correctives to orthodoxy, may go a little far. The price of embedding Bentley in European traditions of classical scholarship is to downgrade his complex role in English literary culture. Many English responses to Bentley undoubtedly arose from hostility to his ungentlemanly background and to his politics, but they were also a result of genuine problems in Bentley’s rhetoric and his methods of emendation. Many of these problems came to a head in 1732, with the publication of his edition of Paradise Lost. Bentley claimed that an amanuensis had introduced many errors, absurdities and interpolations into Milton’s poem, which, in the absence of any manuscript versions, could be cleansed of them only by the ‘Sagacity, and happy Conjecture’ of the critic. Presented with a text ‘polluted with such monstrous Faults, as are beyond Example in any other printed Book’, he aimed to bring about ‘a Restoration of the Genuine Milton’. Haugen argues that Bentley’s treatment of Milton was the direct offshoot of his great edition of the Astronomica, whose text Scaliger had argued was shot through with later interpolations. This may not be the whole story, since there is good evidence that Bentley had been thinking about emending Milton for decades. Nonetheless, the edition of Paradise Lost was the real test of Bentley’s literary ear. His emendations to its final lines give a taste of how radically he corrupted Milton in order to relieve him of corruption. The tentative paradoxes of Milton’s ending (‘They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their solitary way’) become ‘Then hand in hand with Social steps their way/ Through Eden took, With Heav’nly Comfort cheer’d.’ The edition had, as they say, mixed reviews.

This was largely because Bentley’s treatment of Paradise Lost exposed in acute form and in the vernacular the problems intrinsic to conjectural emendation. His method was founded on two techniques which were on a collision course. Much of the time Bentley assumes that a poet’s language is special and that flat or dull phrases are the result of scribes making it conform to normal usage. The conjectural editor therefore can act as a kind of inspired genius, who by changing a letter, or two or three, reveals the true reading that a scribe has dulled. As Bentley said of one of his conjectural emendations to Manilius: ‘If you are just, you will attribute it to the author himself, not to me.’ At other times, though, the conjectural editor works in more or less the opposite direction. If a reading looks odd, Bentley uses his knowledge of the grammatical, stylistic and metrical conventions of the text to ‘restore’ a reading that the norms of speech would require. This means he will prefer the obvious phrase ‘length of years’ to the deliberately unusual ‘length of ears’, and will take the abnormality of the latter as a mark of corruption rather than poetic skill. This is why Pope made Bentley say in The Dunciad ‘Turn what they will to Verse, their toil is vain,/Critics like me shall make it prose again’.

And this is also why Bentley’s Milton was the graveyard of his method. As both Christopher Ricks and William Empson recognised, Bentley had a remarkable ability to spot the poetically dazzling in Milton. The trouble was he would then emend it away. When Milton’s devils smelt gold from ore, Milton says they ‘scumm’d the bullion dross’. Most readers would realise that Milton is producing a paradox which suggests that gold is no more than dross. Bentley adds a note to this line, a note so much in the Bentleian manner that it sounds like self-parody: ‘A strange Blunder to pass through all the Editions. Who ever heard of Bullion Dross? Bullion is the purified Ore, Dross is the Scum and Refuse of it. The Author gave it, Severing each kind, and scum’d FROM Bullion Dross.’ In editing Paradise Lost Bentley revealed himself not as a simple dunce, but as a brilliant dunce.

Even if he did not have the ear of a close reader, he certainly did make and mark major changes to the tenor of English classical scholarship. Editions of classical texts by English scholars in the earlier 17th century were generally poor affairs, by continental standards. Thomas Farnaby, who edited Seneca’s plays, and John Bond, the editor of Horace, were both schoolmasters and aimed to produce editions which explained what poets meant in terms that could be understood by grammar school and university students. The generation of scholars around Bentley brought about huge advances in the ways classical texts were edited and emended, and set classical scholarship on the trail that would lead to Karl Lachmann’s work on manuscript traditions in the early 19th century. But there was a price. It brought into the heart of classical study a focus on textual detail that is the direct ancestor not of the New Criticism, as Haugen suggests, but of A.E. Housman and a body of classicists who regarded the discovery and emendation of mangled texts – ideally texts that existed only in fragments – as the highest task of scholarship. For these men literary criticism was for the vulgar or the dim. As William King put it in his Dialogues of the Dead (1699): ‘It is not a Criticks business to read Marbles, but out of Broken pieces to guess at ’em, and then positively to restore ’em.’

The treatment of classical texts as fragments to be restored and explained was one of the primary impulses behind the earliest humanistic discoveries of works from the classical past. But Bentley’s generation made it an end in itself, and they combined it with a new editorial style. He and his followers were determined to show that they were scholars rather than schoolmasters or moralists. As a result they tended to separate their critical method from all the reasons earlier humanists such as Erasmus might have given for reading classical poetry – a desire to develop a style of expression which was tied to moral excellence, a wish to imitate the works of a classical author, even a love of beauty. They also disguised the patient and often very dull labour of the scholar beneath a savage rhetorical style. That unhealthy bond between the driest kinds of learning and the sharpest kinds of style may (who knows?) persist in some of the darker corners of the academy today. Certainly when Housman praised Bentley’s edition of Manilius he indulged to the full his own version of the Bentleian style:

If a man will comprehend the richness and variety of the universe, and inspire his mind with a due measure of wonder and awe, he must contemplate the human intellect not only on its heights of genius but in its abysses of ineptitude; and it might be fruitlessly debated to the end of time whether Richard Bentley or Elias Stoeber was the more marvellous work of the creator: Elias Stoeber, whose reprint of Bentley’s text, with a commentary intended to confute it, saw the light in 1767 at Strasbourg, a city still famous for its geese … Stoeber’s mind, though that is no name to call it by, was one which turned as unswervingly to the false, the meaningless, the unmetrical and the ungrammatical, as the needle to the pole.

Gibbon and Johnson underlie the shape of Housman’s sentences, and give his prose a civilised cruelty Bentley never quite mastered. But the spirit of Bentley is also there. The scholar’s mind encompasses the full majesty of the universe, its heights, its depths. It does not shrink from detail, deigning even to know that Strasbourg is famous for foie gras. The scholar uses that infinite knowledge to achieve the two great ends of scholarship: to emend classical texts and to piss on idiots. Bentley probably does not lie beneath the foundations of 20th-century literary criticism, but he did help to create the least humane offshoot of humanistic study: the voice of the scholarly editor.