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Butcher, Samuel Henry (DNB12)

BUTCHER, SAMUEL HENRY (1850–1910), scholar and man of letters, was born in Dublin on 16 April 1850. His father, Samuel Butcher [q.v.] , was then professor of ecclesiastical history in Trinity College. His mother was Mary Leahy, a member of a Kerry family. His early years were spent in Dublin, or at Ballymoney, co. Cork, where his father held a college living, and after 1866, when his father became bishop of Meath, at Ardbraccan, near Navan. His only brother, John George (b. 1853), is now a K.C. and M.P. for the city of York. His eldest sister, Elizabeth, became Lady Monteagle (d. 1908). He had three younger sisters—Mary Frances (Mrs. G. W. Prothero), Augusta (Mrs. Charles Crawley, d. 1899), and Eleanor, who died unmarried in 1894. Butcher was educated at home till the age of fourteen, when he went to Marlborough. His progress was rapid. In 1865 he won a senior scholarship. He also carried off many prizes for Latin and Greek composition, and ultimately became senior prefect. In later life he often acknowledged the debt he owed to the teaching of George Granville Bradley [q. v. Suppl. II], then headmaster. He also showed keenness in games, was a fair cricketer, and became captain of football. In 1869 he won an open scholarship for classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, and began residence at the university in the autumn of that year. His undergraduate career at Cambridge was one of unbroken success. In 1870 he won the Bell scholarship, in 1871 the Waddington scholarship, in 1871 and 1872 the Powis medal. In 1873 he graduated as senior classic, and was awarded a chancellor's medal. As an undergraduate he was the centre of a brilliant group of friends, and a member of the select society known as ‘The Apostles.’ In 1874 he was elected to a fellowship at Trinity.

Shortly after taking his degree he accepted from Dr. Hornby the offer of an assistant-mastership at Eton, and remained there for a year (1873–4). He then returned to Cambridge, and took up the post of lecturer in classics at his own college. There he might have remained, but for his engagement in 1875 to Rose, youngest daughter of Archbishop Trench [q. v.]. Under the existing statutes, a fellowship was forfeited by marriage. In this dilemma Dr. Bradley, then Master of University College, Oxford, offered him a tutorship at University, to the tenure of which a ‘married’ fellowship was attached. He therefore migrated to Oxford, and in 1876 married. At Oxford his teaching rapidly made its mark. His scholarship, at once brilliant and solid, his enthusiasm for the classics, his interest in the matter as well as the language of his authors, made his lectures both attractive and profitable. Among his pupils were J. W. Mackail, (Sir) Cecil Spring-Rice, and other men who later won distinction in various lines, and to whom he was a friend as well as a teacher. A university commission was appointed in 1877, and Butcher gained an acquaintance with academical problems which was highly useful to him in later years. In the promotion of female education he showed an active interest, and he was honorary secretary to the council of the association for the higher education of women at Oxford (1879–82). He also began to distinguish himself as an author. In 1879 he published, with Mr. Andrew Lang, a translation of the ‘Odyssey,’ which was at once recognised as the most successful prose reproduction of the original that had yet appeared. It combines great literary charm with delicate feeling for the subtleties of Greek; it is correct without being slavish; and has just enough archaic flavour, without an affectation of archaism. In the same year Butcher published an admirable little book on Demosthenes, which gives, in brief compass, the political conditions of the day and the peculiar methods and excellences of the orator's rhetoric.

These works, and his growing reputation as a scholar and a teacher, procured for him, in 1882, his appointment to the chair of Greek in the University of Edinburgh, rendered vacant by the retirement of Professor Blackie [q. v. Suppl. I]. He met at first some opposition as a southerner; but the charm of his character and the ability of his teaching soon overcame all obstacles. Popular among his students, with whom he was on much more intimate terms than is usual in Scottish universities, he speedily gained a leading rank in the senatus. In 1889 the Scottish universities bill became law; and a royal commission was nominated to draw up new statutes and reform the whole academical system in Scotland. The chairman of the commission was Lord Kinnear; and Butcher was chosen to represent the professorial body. The work of the commission, which was an executive and not merely (as usual) an advisory body, was peculiarly difficult and onerous, for two reasons. In the first place, the duty of the commissioners was to draw up for all the four Scottish universities not only statutes but ordinances or regulations. In the second place, the constitutions of the four universities had to be harmonised and, so far as possible, made identical. This laborious task lasted nearly eleven years, during which the commission held 251 meetings. Its general report was not issued until April 1900. It was generally recognised by the commissioners and by the academical body that Butcher's wide experience and varied culture, his industry, tact, and temper, were of the greatest value in determining the principles and working out the multitudinous details of a beneficent and far-reaching reform.

Meanwhile Butcher not only continued to discharge his professorial duties with energy and success but took an active part in Edinburgh society; and his house, graced by the social gifts and conversational powers of his wife, became a brilliant social centre. Among his closest friends were Professor and Mrs. W. Sellar (cf. Mrs. Sellar's Recollections, passim). In 1891 Butcher published a volume of essays and addresses, entitled 'Some Aspects of the Greek Genius,' mostly written or delivered during his residence in Edinburgh. These essays set forth, lucidly and attractively, the nature of the Greek mind, in some of its most striking and important aspects. From the point of view of scholarship, the most notable essay in the volume is that which analyses Aristotle's conception of fine art and poetry. This essay was the germ out of which grew Butcher's most important work, 'Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art' (1895). It contains a critical text and translation of the 'Poetics,' with a commentary which analyses and judges Aristotle's views on poetry and art, in the light of modern philosophy and achievement.

It was during his residence in Edinburgh that Butcher was first drawn into active connection with politics. The question of home rule became pressing, and he threw himself with decision and energy into the conflict. A man of liberal views but strong conservative instincts, he at once took a leading share in organising the unionist party in Edinburgh. Six years later, when, with Gladstone's return to power in 1892, the danger of home rule reappeared, he actively promoted the election of his friend Lord Wolmer (now second earl of Selborne) for West Edinburgh. In these contests he first showed his capacity for politics, and at once tested and improved his powers of speech.

In 1902 Mrs. Butcher died after a brief illness. This event loosened the ties which bound him to Edinburgh; and, having held his professorship long enough to earn a pension, he resigned in the following year. At a farewell dinner in January 1904 Mr. Arthur Balfour presided, and many speeches, made by distinguished persons, testified to the esteem and affection which he had won. He removed to London, taking a house (No. 6) in Tavistock Square, where he passed the remainder of his life. In 1904 he accepted an invitation to lecture at Harvard University and elsewhere in the United States. Some of his addresses he subsequently published in a volume entitled 'Harvard Lectures on Greek Subjects' (1904), a sort of sequel to 'Some Aspects of the Greek Genius.' Such leisure for literary work as Butcher subsequently enjoyed he spent on a critical edition of the speeches of Demosthenes, two volumes of which were published (1903, 1907), and in correcting and improving successive editions of the 'Poetics.'

Before leaving Edinburgh he had been nominated a member of the Royal Commission on University Education in Ireland (1901), of which Lord Robertson was chairman. In its discussions Butcher took a prominent part. Believing in the justice of the catholic demands, he aimed at satisfying the catholic authorities, without infringing the independence of Trinity College. He therefore aided the chairman in excluding that foundation from the discussion, while doing his utmost to elicit the exact views of catholic witnesses as to the extent of ecclesiastical control which they considered advisable. He also endeavoured to secure the attendance of the students of Maynooth in the new university. When, in 1903, the report appeared, it was found to be accompanied by eight 'reservations'; and the chairman himself dissented from the scheme. The report, therefore, produced no result.

Another royal commission was appointed to deal with the same subject in June 1906. Sir Edward Fry was chairman. Butcher was the only person who served on both this and the former commission. This time, Trinity College was expressly included in the purview of the commissioners, and its financial and other conditions were carefully examined ; but in their report (January 1907) the commissioners declared that, in their opinion, it was impossible to make that foundation available for the higher education of catholics. They therefore recommended the establishment in Dublin of a separate college. When Mr. Birrell's bill for the creation of a new university was introduced in parliament (31 March 1908), Butcher opposed the granting of indefinite powers of affiliation to the senate, but in vain. Although the scheme differed in many ways from what he desired, he accepted a place in the senate of the new university, and thenceforward took an active part in its proceedings.

In 1906, on the death of his old friend Sir Richard Jebb [q. v. Suppl. II], Butcher was chosen in his place to represent the University of Cambridge in parliament. His first speech was made on the Irish university bill, and produced a marked effect. It was an impassioned appeal to substitute for the existing royal university a real teaching university where the catholic Irish layman could obtain the education he desired. He spoke in the House of Commons comparatively seldom, and confined himself chiefly to educational and Irish questions; but he always displayed mastery of his subject, and the elegance and lucidity of his language, his clear voice and conciliatory manner, combined with deep feeling and evident sincerity of purpose, gained him a notable position.

In other directions also the last years of his life were full of activity. In 1903 he had been one of the principal founders of the English Classical Association. He acted as chairman of its council from that date onwards, and as president in 1907. He was specially instrumental in bringing about, through the agency of the association, a reform in the pronunciation of Latin which is now generally accepted in this country. Of the Irish Classical Association he was also the first president. He was a prominent member of the Hellenic Society and of the committee for the British school at Athens. He opposed the abolition of compulsory Greek at the older universities, but was willing to make certain concessions in favour of students specialising in other subjects. When the British Academy was founded in 1902 he was one of its original members, and became its president in 1909. In July 1908 he was appointed a trustee of the British Museum, and six months later became a member of the standing committee. On educational questions and appointments he was continually consulted, general confidence being placed in his judgment. Honours fell thick upon him. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford, Dublin, St. Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow. Manchester, and Harvard. He was a corresponding member of the American Academy. He received from the King of Greece, in 1910, the Order of the Redeemer. He was an honorary fellow both of University College, Oxford, and of Trinity College, Cambridge.

The multifarious labours in which he was engaged told eventually upon his health. Although naturally somewhat delicate in constitution, he generally bore all the appearance of a healthy man. He spent the summer vacation of 1910 at Danesfort, near Killarney, on a little property inherited from his father, where he loved to spend his holidays among his own people. His last public appearance was at the dinner in celebration of the completion of the eleventh edition of the 'Encyclopædia Britannica' on 21 Oct. 1910. Shortly afterwards he had an attack of internal hæmorrhage, which led to suffusion of blood on the brain. He died without issue in a nursing home in London on 29 Dec. 1910, and was buried in the Dean cemetery, Edinburgh, by the side of his wife.

Of middle height, well but rather slightly built, Butcher was remarkably handsome. His eyes were large, of a deep brown, and very brilliant. His hair was black and abundant, slightly grizzled towards the end of his life. His conversation was fluent, vivacious and energetic, but playful as well as vigorous, argumentative on occasion, but never overbearing. Generous to others, he was capable of fiery indignation against public or private wrongs. Withal he had a strong sense of humour, delighting especially in the sometimes unconscious wit of his countrymen. His character, like his descent, was a happy blend of what is best in the two nations to which he belonged of Irish charm, vivacity, and eloquence, with English energy, courage, and resolution. A portrait of him, in oils, by Mr. Sholto Douglas, is in the possession of Lord Monteagle.

His most important publications are:

  1. 'The Odyssey of Homer done into English Prose' (with Andrew Lang), 1879.
  2. 'Demosthenes' ('Classical Writers' series), 1881.
  3. 'Some Aspects of the Greek Genius,' 1891; republished with an additional chapter, 1893.
  4. 'Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, with a critical text and a translation of the Poetics,' 1895; revised editions, 1897, 1902: the text of the 'Poetics,' with notes and translations, was published separately in 1898.
  5. 'Greek Idealism in the Common Things of Life' (reprinted from the Journal of Education), 1901.
  6. 'Demosthenis Orationes' (Scriptorum classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis), 2 vols. Oxford, 1903, 1907.
  7. 'Harvard Lectures on Greek Subjects,' 1904; republished in 1911 with the title 'Harvard Lectures on the Originality of Greece.'

With his brother, Mr. J. G. Butcher, he edited (1877) his father's 'Ecclesiastical Calendar.' His published speeches comprise 'Irish Land Acts and their Operation' (Glasgow, 1887), and 'The Reign of Terror or the Rule of Law in Ireland' (1908).

[Obituary notices by Professor A. W. Verrall in the Classical Review (February 1911) and Professor W. Rhys Roberts in the Gryphon (February 1911); address by Lord Reay before the British Academy, 18 Jan. 1911; paper by Professor Verrall (Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. iv.); address by Professor Gilbert Murray before the Acad. Committee of the Royal Soc. of Literature, 10 April 1911; private information.]

G. W. P.