Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bentley, Richard (1662-1742)
BENTLEY, RICHARD (1662–1742), scholar and critic, was the son of Thomas Bentley by his second wife, Sarah Willie, and was born on 27 Jan. 1662 at Oulton, in the parish of Rothwell, near Wakefield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The Bentleys were yeomen of the richer sort. They had been somewhat impoverished by the civil war, in which Bentley's grandfather had served as a royalist captain; but his father still had a small estate at Woodlesford near Oulton. Bentley was called Richard after his maternal grandfather, Richard Willie, a well-to-do builder, it would seem, who is said to have held a major's commission on the king's side. Having learned the elements of Latin grammar from his mother, Bentley was sent first to a day school at Methley, near Oulton, and then, when he was about eleven, to the Wakefield grammar school. The head master at that time was John Baskervile, of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the school had a good repute. Among Bentley's younger contemporaries it could claim John Potter, the distinguished classical scholar, who, afterwards became archbishop of Canterbury. In his old age Bentley used to give vivid and humorous accounts of his school-days to his little grandson, Richard Cumberland. He would describe the peculiarities of his masters, and the unjust punishments which he sometimes endured for supposed neglect of his task, 'when the dunces,' he would say, 'could not discover that I was pondering it in my mind,and fixing it more firmly in my memory than if I had been bawling it out amongst the rest of my schoolfellows.'
When the boy was thirteen, his father died, leaving his small estate to a son of his first marriage; and, as Richard had his own way to make, his grandfather Willie decided that at the age of fourteen he should enter the university. It is a common error to suppose that this was an ordinary age at that period for beginning undergraduateship. The ordinary age, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, was already seventeen or eighteen; but, where special circumstances required it,exceptions were easily made, since there was then nothing in the nature of the previous examination (or 'little go'). A boy who matriculated at fourteen would have no university examination to pass until he was at least seventeen. Bentley's contemporary, William Wotton, was admitted at St. Catharine's when he was under ten ('infra decem annos,' as the book records); and it is not at all surprising that such a prodigy of precocity as Wotton should have became a bachelor of arts at the age of fourteen. On 24 May 1676 'Ricardus Bentley de Oulton' was enrolled at St. John's College, Cambridge, where certain scholarships founded by Sir Marmaduke Constable were reserved for natives of Yorkshire. St. John's College was then the largest in the university, and no other could have offered greater advantages. Like Isaac Newton at Trinity, and so many Cambridge worthies before and since, Bentley entered as a subsizar; he was presently elected to a Constable scholarship; but he never got a fellowship, because, when he took his degree, two fellowships of St. John's were already held by Yorkshiremen, and a third was not admissible. We know next to nothing about Bentley's undergraduate life at Cambridge. The sole literary relic of it is a jerky and pedantic set of English verses on the Gunpowder plot. There is no record of a competition for the Craven University scholarship (founded in 1647) between 1670 and 1681, so probably Bentley had no opportunity of trying for the chief classical prize then in existence. Logic, ethics, natural philosophy, and mathematics were the reigning studies. In these Bentley acquitted himself with high distinction. His place in the first class of his year (1680) was nominally sixth, but really third, since, according to a preposterous usage of the time, three of the degrees above his were merely honorary.
In 1682, while still a layman and a B.A., he was appointed by St. John's College to the mastership of Spalding school in Lincolnshire, which he held, however, only for a short time. About the end of the year he was chosen by Dr. Stillingfleet, then dean of St. Paul's and formerly a fellow of St. John's College, as tutor to his second son, James, Stillingfleet enjoyed the highest reputation as a learned defender of christianity against infidelity, and especially as a champion of the Anglican church against supposed perils bred of the Restoration. The general arift of his apologetics was historical, and his really wide researches in ecclesiastical history had led him to form one of the best private libraries in England. 'He was tall, graceful, and well-proportioned,' says a contemporary biographer; 'his countenance comely, fresh, and awful; in his conversation cheerful and discreet, obliging and very instructive.' Under his roof Bentley had the double advantage of access to a first-rate library and of intercourse with the best literary society in London. An ardent student of twenty-one could hardly have been more fortunate.
For the next six years (1683–9) Bentley lived in Dr. Stillingfleet's house. Some idea of the industry with which he used his opportunities may be derived from his own notice of one task which he had completed by 1686, i.e., within four years after he came into Stillingfleet's family. 'I wrote, before I was twenty-four years of age, a sort of Hexapla, a thick volume in quarto, in the first column of which I inserted every word of the Hebrew Bible alphabetically; and, in five other columns, all the various interpretations of those words in the Chaldee, Syriac, Vulgate, Latin, Septuagint, and Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, that occur in the whole Bible.' He was also engaged in critical studies of the New Testament. During these same years he was also working at the classics. It is characteristic of his early impulse to enlarge the domain of scholarship that he was already making lists, for his own use, of authors cited by the Greek and Latin grammarians.
Soon after the accession of William and Mary (1689) Stillingfleet became bishop of Worcester; and Bentley, having taken orders in 1690, was appointed his chaplain. In 1689 James Stillingfleet had entered Wadham College, Oxford, and Bentley, having accompanied his pupil thither, continued to reside at Oxford till near the end of 1690. The treasures of the Bodleian Library powerfully stimulated his enthusiasm for classical study. We find him forming vast projects, interesting by the enormous appetite for work which they imply in the mind that conceived them. He is also interested in some special studies, which he afterwards carried to fruitful results, and, above all, in the study of ancient metres — a province in which he afterwards excelled all predecessors. Hitherto Bentley had published nothing, and it was the urgency of a friend which caused his first appearance in print. In 1690 the curators of the Sheldonian Press resolved to print a Greek chronicle by a certain John of Antioch (of date uncertain between circ. 600 and 1000 A.D.), commonly called John Malelas ('John the Rhetor') — a chronological sketch of universal history down to 560 A.D.
Though of small intrinsic worth, the chronicle has some indirect value, as containing references to lost prose-writers and poets. Hence its interest for the seventeenth-century scholars who were labouring to reconstruct ancient chronology. Dr. John Mill, principal of St. Edmund Hall — well known by his edition of the New Testament — was to supervise the edition, and he consented that Bentley should see it before publication on condition of communicating any remarks that occurred to him. Bentley sent his remarks in the form of a Latin letter addressed to Mr. Mill. In June 1691 the 'Chronicle of Malelas' was published at the Sheldonian Press, with Bentley's 'Letter to Mill' in an appendix of ninety-eight pages. He corrects and illustrates the chronicler's references to the Greek and Latin classics in a series of brilliant criticisms, which range over almost the whole field of ancient literature. In those days there were no Smith's Dictionaries, there was no Liddell and Scott's Lexicon. Bentley was drawing on the stores of his own reading. The 'Letter to Mill' is a precocious masterpiece of accurate erudition and native acuteness. It is wonderful that it should have been written by a scholar of twenty-eight in the year 1690. The lively style, often combative or derisive, is already that which stamped Bentley's work through life. The chronicler, John Malelas, was, as Bentley shows, an incorrigible blunderer; and having convicted him of a gross mistake in geography, Bentley exclaims, 'Euge vero, & Ίωαννίδιον ('Good indeed, Johnny). Dr. Monk, Bentley's excellent biographer, thought that this was said to Dr. John Mill, and reproved it as 'an indecorum which neither the familiarity of friendship, nor the license of a dead language, can justify towards the dignified head of a house.' The slip was pointed out by a reviewer of Monk's first edition (1830), and is absent from the second (1833). The 'Letter to Mill' strongly impressed the continental scholars who read it. 'A new and already bright star' of English letters is the title with which Bentley was greeted by John George Graevius and Ezechiel Spanheim. Long after Bentley's death David Ruhnken spoke of the letter as showing its author's superiority to timid prejudice. 'Bentley shook off the servile yoke, and put forth that famous "Letter to Mill" — a wonderful monument of genius and learning, such as could have come only from the first critic of his time.'
In the year which followed the publication of the 'Letter to Mill,' Bentley found an opportunity of distinction in a different field. He was appointed to deliver the first course of Boyle Lectures. Robert Boyle (1627–1691), eminent for his studies in several branches of physical science, had bequeathed an annual stipend of 50l. 'for some divine, or preaching minister,' who should 'preach eight sermons in the year for proving the christian religion against notorious infidels, . . . not descending to any controversies that are among christians themselves.' John Evelyn, the author of the 'Sylva' and the 'Diary,' was one of the four trustees in whom the election was vested. 'We made choice of one Mr. Bentley,' he says, 'chaplain to the Bishop of Worcester.' Bentley took for his subject 'A Confutation of Atheism,' and delivered the first of his eight lectures from the pulpit of St. Martin's Church on 7 March 1692. In the first five discourses he argues the existence of a Deity from the human soul and body, and in the last three from 'the origin and frame of the world.' The last three have a peculiar interest. In 1692 five years had elapsed since Newton had given to the world, in his 'Principia,' the proofs of the law of gravitation; but, except with a select few, the Cartesian system was still in vogue. Bentley, in the sixth, seventh, and eighth of his 'Boyle Lectures,' takes up Newton's great discovery, and uses it to prove the existence of an intelligent and omnipotent Creator. Before printing the last two lectures, Bentley wished to be sure that his application of Newton's principles was such as Newton himself would approve. Newton was then living in Trinity College, Cambridge. The autographs of his four letters in reply to Bentley's inquiries are preserved in the library of the college. The first is dated 10 Dec. 1692, the last 25 Feb. 1693. 'When I wrote my treatise about our system,' Newton says to Bentley, 'I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity, and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose. But if I have done the public any service this way, it is due to nothing but industry and patient thought.' He confirms nearly all Bentley's arguments, but demurs to his concession that gravity may be essential and inherent to matter. 'Pray,' Newton writes, 'do not ascribe that notion to me; for the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know.' In a later letter Newton speaks more positively, and declares that the notion of gravity being inherent to matter seems to him an 'absurdity.' 'Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this agent be material or immaterial I have left to the consideration of my readers.' Taken as a whole, Bentley's 'Boyle Lectures' afford a signal proof of his vigorous ability in grasping a complex subject, and of his originality in treating it. The eagerly combative style of many passages reminds us that, in Bentley's view, 'atheism' was no abstract danger, but a foe everywhere present in 'taverns and coffee-houses, nay, Westminster Hall and the very churches.' The opponent against whom Bentley's arguments are more especially levelled is Hobbes, whom he regarded as an atheist in the disguise of a deist. In power of close and lively reasoning, in readiness of retort, and in aptness of illustration, the lectures exhibit Bentley as a master of controversy. Evelyn, who heard the second lecture, writes of it in his 'Diary' (4 April 1692), 'one of the most learned and convincing discourses I had ever heard.' The lectures were published in a Latin version at Berlin, and afterwards in a Dutch version at Utrecht.
In 1692 (the year of his Boyle lectureship) Bentley was appointed to a prebendal stall at Worcester; in 1694 he received his patent as keeper of the royal libraries, and was also elected a fellow of the Royal Society; and in 1695 he became a chaplain in ordinary to the king. Hitherto, since 1682, he had resided with Bishop Stillingfleet. It was early in 1696 that he took possession of the lodgings in St. James's Palace which were assigned to him as royal librarian. Here—as appears from a letter dated 21 Oct. 1697—a small group of friends were in the habit of meeting once or twice a week: John Evelyn, Sir Christopher Wren, John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Bentley. During these prosperous years Bentley accomplished at least one considerable task. He made a collection of the 'Fragments of Callimachus,' for an edition of the Greek poet which was published at Utrecht by John George Graevius in 1697. This collection may be regarded as the earliest example of a really critical method applied to such a work, Bentley was also active in procuring subscriptions for the renovation of the Cambridge University Press, and received authority to order new founts of type from Holland. Evelyn's 'Diary' (17 Aug. 1696) alludes to 'that noble presse which my worthy and most learned friend . . . is with greate charge and industrie erecting now at Cambridge.'
The famous controversy on the 'Letters of Phalaris' arose out of the discussion, so popular in the latter part of the seventeenth century, on the relative merits of ancients and moderns. Sir William Temple, in his essay on 'Ancient and Modern Learning' (1692), had maintained that the ancients surpassed the moderns in every branch of literature, science, and art. The 'Letters of Phalaris,' for instance, he said, 'have more race, more spirit, more force of wit and genius,' than any other letters in existence. 'I know several learned men (or that usually pass for such, under the name of critics) have not esteemed them genuine;' but genuine, Sir William added, they must be; 'such diversity of passions…could never be represented but by him that possessed them.' Such a panegyric, from a man of Temple's repute, drew attention to the 'Letters,' and in January 1695 an edition of them was published by a young Oxford man, the Hon. Charles Boyle, whom Dr. Aldrich, dean of Christ Church, had induced to undertake it. In the course of preparing his edition Boyle had desired to consult a manuscript which was in the king's library at St. James's, and had written to a bookseller in London to get it collated for him. Bentley, as soon as he was in charge of the library (May 1694), granted the loan of the manuscript for that purpose, and allowed ample time for the collation. The person employed as collator failed, however, to complete his task before the time appointed for returning the manuscript to the library, and the bookseller most unjustly represented to Boyle that Bentley had behaved churlishly in the matter. On the strength of the bookseller's story, and without inquiring from Bentley whether it was true, Boyle wrote in the preface to his book: 'I have also procured a collation, as far as Letter xl., of a manuscript in the Royal Library; the Librarian, with that courtesy which distinguishes him [pro singulari sua humanitate], refused me the further use of it.' The insolent bad taste of this reference to an eminent scholar was remarkable even in so young a man. Three weeks after the book had been printed Bentley happened to see a presentation copy. The bulk of the edition had not then been issued. It would still have been possible, then, to cancel the offensive statement. Bentley wrote that very evening to Boyle, explaining that the statement was incorrect, and giving the true facts. Boyle sent an evasive reply, and left the false statement in his preface unaltered. Some of Bentley's friends urged him to refute the slander publicly, but he remained silent. 'Out of a natural aversion to all quarrels and broils, and out of regard to the editor himself, I resolved to take no notice of it, but to let the matter drop.'
About two years later (1697) Bentley's old friend, William Wotton, brought out a second edition of his 'Reflections on Ancient and Modern Learning,' in which he had taken the part of the moderns against Temple. In fulfilment of a promise made to Wotton before Boyle's book had appeared, Bentley contributed an essay to this second edition. He pointed out that the 'Letters of Phalaris,' vaunted by Temple as the productions of a prince who lived about 600 B.C., were the clumsy forgeries of a Greek rhetorician of the christian era. While speaking of 'Phalaris,' he replied, as he was thoroughly justified in doing, to Boyle's calumny. He then proceeded to review Boyle's edition. This was really to break a fly on the wheel. Boyle had added to the Greek text only a short life of Phalaris, a Latin version evidently based on that of Naogeorgus (1558), and a few pages of miserably meagre and feeble notes. In criticising the book Bentley spoke of 'our editors,' as if, though Boyle's name alone stood on the title-page, it had been a joint production. This was the 'publick affront' which, as Boyle alleged, moved him to reply, The book popularly known as 'Boyle against Bentley' appeared in January 1698, under the title, 'Dr. Bentley's Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris and the Fables of Æsop, examin'd by the Honourable Charles Boyle, Esq.' To produce this skit several of Boyle's ablest Oxford friends had clubbed their resources. Francis Atterbury (then thirty-six) had, as he himself says, given half a year to it; and at least five other persons appear to have helped. The vulgarity of the insults which the Christ Church wits heap on the royal librarian makes the work a curiosity of literature. Twice over, for example, it is intimated that Bentley might have been bribed to prolong the time for which the manuscript had been lent to Boyle. Bentley's 'dogmatical air,' 'his ingenuity in transcribing and plundering notes and prefaces of Mr. Boyle,' 'his modesty and decency in contradicting great men,' are among the topics of this elegant composition. It is no excuse for Bentley, the Christ Church gentlemen declare, that 'he was born in some village remote from town, and bred among the peasantry while young;' for he had enjoyed an opportunity of acquiring some tincture of their own good breeding by having been 'tutor to a young gentleman.' The authors are anxious to guard against the suspicion that they had wasted much time on 'so trifling a subject' as scholarship; but to most readers this anxiety must appear superfluous. Then, as now, there was a wealthy 'world' to which the poor flippancy of this attack could seem intelligent and witty, since the intelligence and the wit were of their own level. Garth has pilloried himself for ever by the couplet in which he celebrated Boyle's supposed triumph:
So diamonds take a lustre from their foil,
And to a Bentley 'tis we owe a Boyle.
Temple's pompous voice was instantly uplifted in homage to 'the pleasant wit and the easiness of style' which his aristocratic young friend had crushed the plebeian pedant. On the whole, if Bentley had been a weak man, he would have had a bad time of it. Most of his fine acquaintances gave him the cold shoulder. He was a highly sensitive man, but he was also brave and strong. One day he happened to meet a friend who told him that he must not allow himself to lose heart. 'Indeed,' Bentley said, 'I am in no pain about the matter; for it is a maxim with me that no man was ever written out of reputation but by himself.' Bentley's reply to Boyle, an expansion of the essay in Wotton'a book, was written in something over seven months, during which the author had other and urgent duties. It appeared in March 1699, about fourteen months after Boyle's attack. The immortal 'Dissertation on the Letters of Phalaris' is not merely the most crushing blow that was ever dealt to insolent and aggressive sciolism. It rises high above the temporary arena in which Boyle's allies had displayed their incapacity, and takes rank as a permanent masterpiece of literature. To this character it has a threefold claim. It is the earliest model of a new criticism, which, by a scientific method, was to bring accurate philological knowledge into relation with historical research. It is a storehouse of exact and penetrating erudition, comprehending several monographs on special subjects, which to this day retain their intrinsic value. It is a monument of controversial genius; not of that which quibbles and hectors, but of that in which the keenest wit flashes around the strictest and most lucid argument.
As to the reception which the 'Dissertation' experienced, it has generally been assumed that Bentley's complete victory was immediately recognised. This is an error, as was shown for the first time in the biography of Bentley contributed to the 'English Men of Letters' series by Professor Jebb. Swift's 'Battle of the Books,' published with the 'Tale of a Tub' in 1704, implies the absence of any public sentiment which would feel Swift's pronouncement for Boyle to be absurd; but, putting this aside as purely popular satire, we have other evidence. 'A Short Review' of the controversy, by Atterbury, which crime out anonymously in 1701, says of Bentley: 'Common pilferers will still go on in their trade, even after they have suffer'd for it.' In 1749 a distinguished Cambridge scholar, Thomas Francklin, published a translation of the 'Letters of Phalaris,' in which he argued that Bentley's criticisms may touch special points, 'and yet the book be authentic ill the main, and an original still.' Nay, in 1804, after Tyrwhitt and Porson had borne testimony to the real state of the case, Bentley's own grandson, Richard Cumberland, used a half-apologetic tone in claiming the advantage for Bentley. This hesitation of judgment must seem to posterity the crowning distinction of the great scholar's work. It shows how immensely that work was in advance of its age. And it is comforting for all who have to strive against specious charlatanry: it shows that the truth, be it never so clear, may have to wait. But the better scholars knew, even then, that Bentley had won; and 'the applauses of his friends' (to which the incognito Atterbury alludes in 1701) soon turned to effect. The mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge, fell vacant towards the end of 1699—about eight months after the 'Dissertation' came out—by Dr. Mountague accepting the deanery of Durham. The nomination rested with William's six commissioners, viz., the two archbishops (Tenison and Sharp) and Bishops Lloyd, Burnet, Patrick, and Moore, Moore being the successor of Bentley's old patron, Stillingfleet, who had died in April 1699. They were unanimous in recommending Bentley, and he was appointed by the crown. He remained king's librarian; but henceforth his home was at Trinity College. On 1 Feb. 1700 Bentley was admitted master.
From 1700 to 1738 Bentley was at constant feud, more or less, with the fellows of the college. Yet during the whole of this period—from the thirty-eighth to the seventy-sixth year of his age—he carried on an almost unbroken series of literary works. A clear distinction must be drawn between his official and his domestic life. It would be a mistake to suppose that the external broils in which he was involved were his main occupations, or even that they very seriously interrupted his studies. He was a man of extraordinary nerve, with rare power of concentration. The college wars probably seem more important to us than, except at crises, they did to him. Briefly, the story is as follows. Between 1700 and 1709 the new master committed a number of petty encroachments on the privileges of the fellows, which excited extreme irritation. Early in 1710, at the instigation of Edmund Miller (a barrister fellow of the college), the fellows appealed to the Bishop of Ely (Moore) as general visitor, arguing that, under the 40th of the Elizabethan statutes for the college, Bentley was liable to be deprived of the mastership. After long delays Bentley was brought to trial before the bishop of Ely. Dr. Moore, at Ely House in London in 1714. The trial lasted six weeks, ending about 15 June. Before judgment could be given, Bishop Moore died, on 31 July. The next day, 1 Aug. 1714, London heard that Queen Anne was no more. Political excitement thrust lesser matters out of sight. After Dr. Moore's death the judgment which he had drafted was found among his papers: 'By this our definitive sentence, we remove Richard Bentley from his office of master of the college.'
For the next ten years (1714-24) Bentley ruled the college with practically despotic power, while the fellows, led by Miller down to 1719, made intermittent resistance. The most notable incident of the decade was in 1718, when Bentley was deprived of his degrees by the university. This was as a punishment for having failed to appear before the vice-chancellor's court, which had issued a decree for his arrest at the suit of Conyers Middleton. Middleton (the biographer of Cicero) had received a D.D. degree, and Bentley, as regius professor of divinity, had exacted a fee which Middleton sought to recover. On 26 March 1724 the university, under legal compulsion, restored Bentley's degrees.
Then came three years (1726-7) of comparative peace. And then followed a second ten years' war (1728-38), in which Dr. Colbatch, a senior fellow of Trinity, was the leader of the opposition. In 1733 being then seventy-one, Bentley was for the second time brought to trial at Ely House before the Bishop of Ely, Dr. Greene. On 27 April 1734 Bishop Greene sentenced Bentley to be deprived of the mastership. But an unexpected hitch occurred. The college statute prescribed that the master, if condemned, should be deprived by the agency of the vice-master. The vice-master, Dr. Hacket, was advised by Bentley's counsel to refrain from acting, and, on resigning in May 1734, he was succeeded as vice-master by Dr. Richard Walker a friend of Bentley's. During the next four years (1734-8) every moral and legal resource was vainly used in the hope of driving Dr. Walker into executing the sentence against Bentley. The master could not be deprived because the vice-master refused to deprive him, and no one else had the power to do so. Three different motions were made in the court of king's bench: (1) for a writ to compel Dr. Walker to act (2) for a writ to compel the Bishop of Ely to compel Dr. Walker to act; (3) for a writ to compel the Bishop of Ely to act. On 22 April 1738 the last of these applications was rejected. That day marks Bentley's final victory in the struggle dating from 1710. During the remaining four years of his life he was undisturbed in the mastership, although, in the view of those who accepted Bishop Greene's judgment, he had no longer a legal title to it.
Which side had been most to blame in this controversy, which lasted a year longer than the Peloponnesian War—Bentley or the fellows? We must first of all distinguish the legal from the moral bearings of the case. The contention of the fellows was that Bentley had incurred the penalty of deprivation because he had infringed the statutes. There seems to be no doubt that he had infringed them. That was the finding of a competent court, after a careful inquiry, both in 1714 and in 1733. From the moral point of view there was much in the temper and in the tactics of Bentley's adversaries on several occasions which cannot be excused. On the other hand, it was Bentley's arrogance which originally provoked the feud. The fellows were long-suffering: but his repeated acts of insolent absolutism at last forced them into active resistance. His conception of a college was higher than theirs: but that cannot palliate his infringement of their rights.
It must never be forgotten that Bentley's mastership of Trinity is memorable for other things than its troubles. He was the first master who established a proper competition for the great prizes of that illustrious college. The scholarships and fellowships had previously been given by purely oral examination. Bentley introduced written papers; he also made the award of scholarships to be annual instead of biennial, and admitted students of the first year to compete for them. He made Trinity College the earliest home of a Newtonian school by providing in it an observatory, under the direction of Newton's disciple and friend—destined to an early death—Roger Cotes. He fitted up a chemical laboratory in Trinity for Vigani of Verona, the professor of chemistry. He brought to Trinity the eminent orientalist, Sike of Bremen, afterwards professor of Hebrew. True to the spirit of the royal founder. Bentley wished Trinity College, to be indeed a house 'of all kinds of good letters;' and at a time when England's academic ideals were far from high, he did much to render it not only a great college, but also a miniature university.
The glimpses which we get of Bentley's domestic life are pleasing. They belong chiefly to his later years, being mainly due to the 'Memoirs' of his grandson, Richard Cumberland. In 1701 (the year after his installation at Trinity) he was married (in the chapel of Eton College) to Joanna, daughter of Sir John Bernard, of Brampton, Huntingdonshire. She bore him four children: Elizabeth, who married Humphrey Ridge, a gentleman of Hampshire; Joanna, who became the wife of Denison Cumberland, and mother of Richard, the author of the 'Memoirs;' William, who died in infancy; and Richard, the youngest (born in 1708), an accomplished but eccentric man, who achieved nothing signal in life. Of the home at Trinity Lodge, Richard Cumberland says that Bentley's 'establishment was respectable, and his table affluently and hospitably served.' Bentley usually breakfasted alone in his library, and was seldom visible till dinner-time. After evening prayers at ten, the family retired, and Bentley, 'habited in his dressing-gown,' would go back to his books. The children used to read the 'Spectator' aloud to him as each number came out, and he 'was so particularly amused by the character of Sir Roger de Coverley'—as his daughter Joanna told her son—'that he took his literary decease most seriously to heart.' 'His ordinary style of conversation was naturally lofty,' his grandson says, and by using 'thou' and 'thee' rather too much, he sometimes gave a dictatorial tone to his talk; but the native candour and inherent tenderness of his heart could not long be veiled from observation, for his feelings and affections were at once too impulsive to be long repressed, and he too careless of concealment to attempt at qualifying them.' Richard Cumberland, whose words these are, had often spent his school holidays at Trinity Lodge, and he attests his grandfather Bentley's unwearied good nature to himself and his little sister. 'I have broken in upon him many a time in his hours of study, when he would put his book aside, ring his hand-bell for his servant, and be led to his shelves to take down a picture-book for my amusement. I do not say that his good-nature always gained its object, as the pictures which his books generally supplied me with were anatomical drawings of dissected bodies . . . but he had nothing better to produce.' Once, and once only, Bentley reproved the boy 'for making a most outrageous noise' in the room over his library 'by playing at battledore and shuttlecock with Master Gooch, the bishop of Ely's son.' (The bishop, when vice-chancellor of Cambridge, had suspended Bentley's degrees.) 'And I have been at this sport, with his father,' he replied, 'but thine has been the more amusing game, so there's no harm done.' Bentley seems never to have cared for general society. At Cambridge, as formerly in London, his intercourse was chiefly with a small circle of friends, which latterly included the well-known scholars, Jeremiah Markland and John Taylor. We hear that, at the age of seventy, Bentley acquired the habit of smoking, and that he expressed his opinion of claret by saying that 'it would be port if it could.' Pope's allusion,
His hat, which never vail'd to human pride,
Walker with rev'rence took, and laid aside,
refers to a certain broad-brimmed hat which Cumberland remembered hanging on a peg at the back of Bentley's armchair—he sometimes wore it in his study to shade his eyes—and to a story about it, viz. that Bentley, being greatly irritated by a visitor, on an occasion when Dr. Richard Walker was present, exclaimed, 'Walker, my hat!' and left the room. The 'rev'rence' ascribed to Walker glances, of course, at his part in the affair of the mastership, when, being vice-master, he refused to deprive Bentley. Besides this well-known passage in the fourth book of the 'Dunciad' (published in 1742, some four months before Bentley's death), other attacks had been made on Bentley by Pope, viz., in the first edition of the 'Dunciad' (1728, where 'Bentley' was afterwards changed to 'Welsted'), in the 'Epistle to Arbuthnot' (1735), and in the epistle modelled on that of Horace to Augustus (1787). 'I talked against his "Homer," and the portentous cub never forgives'—that was Bentley's explanation of Pope's enmity, and beyond it all is conjecture. Warburton, too, was a persistent detractor from Bentley's merit. Envious disparagement of scholars by superficial writers on scholarly subjects was as natural then as it is now, and should be regarded as a form of reluctant homage.
'To the last hour of his life,' his grandson tells us, Bentley 'possessed his faculties firm and in their fullest vigour.' According to Markland, Bentley compared himself to 'an old trunk, which if you let it alone will last a long time; but if you jumble it by moving, will soon fall to pieces.' In 1739 he had a slight paralytic stroke, and thenceforth could not move easily without help, but that was the most serious result. In June 1742 he was able to examine for the Craven Scholarships, and helped to award one of them to Christopher Smart. Soon afterwards he was seized with pleuritic fever. On 14 July 1742 he died; the eightieth year of his life had been completed in the preceding January. He was buried in the chapel of Trinity College. A small square stone in the pavement, on the north side of the communion table, bears the words: 'H. S. E. Richardus Bentley, S.T.P.R. Obiit xiv. Jul. 1742. Ætatis 80.'
From 1700, when he took office at Trinity, down to 1738, Bentley's repose was seldom untroubled. He has himself spoken of 'official duties and harassing cares' as 'daily surging' around him. Yet his studies, it would seem, were rarely broken off. In 1709 his critical notes on the Tusculan Disputations appeared in the edition of 'John Davies.' In 1710 he wrote his emendations on Menander and Philemon. His 'Horace' was published at the end of 1711, a book in which we can feel what he says of it, that it was thrown off 'in the first impetus and glow' of his thoughts—rash and tasteless in many of its conjectures, marvellously acute in some others; on the whole, a signal proof of his learning, his ingenuity, and his argumentative power. Two years later (1713) his 'Remarks on a late Discourse of Free-thinking' (in reply to Anthony Collins) are noteworthy for a passage on the Homeric poems, endorsing the old tradition that they were first put together, from scattered lays, in the age of Pisistratus. Bentley cannot properly be regarded, however, as having anticipated F. A. Wolf's theory. Bentley meditated an edition of Homer, but left only manuscript notes on 'Iliad,' i.-vii. 54, with some slighter marginalia on the 'Iliad,' 'Odyssey,' and 'Hymns. The distinctive trait of his Homeric criticism was his perception that a letter, lost to the later Greek alphabet, is presupposed by Homeric metre at the beginning of certain words: this was the 'digamma,' in sound like our V. Bentley went too far in attempting a uniform restoration of this letter, and would have made some havoc in Homer's text; yet his discovery was, in itself, a brilliant one. His 'Terence' (1726) broke new ground in the treatment of the metrical questions raised by Latin comedy. His 'Manilius,' published in his seventy-seventh year (1739), is less valuable as a critical edition than for the learning and the acute remarks contained in many of the notes. In 1720 he had published 'Proposals' for printing an edition of the New Testament. His idea was to reconstruct from the oldest Latin manuscripts the text of the Latin 'Vulgate' as formed by Jerome (circ. 383. A.D.), and to compare this with our oldest Greek manuscripts. By this method Bentley believed that he could restore the Greek text as generally received by the church at the time of the Council of Nice (325 A.D.) For many years he kept this project in view. Why it was finally abandoned is unknown; a clearer insight into the difficulty of the task, and the pressure of external troubles, may both have contributed to that result. Here, as in other fields, Bentley was in advance of his time. The ripest New Testament criticism of this century has recognised the elements of value in his conception. The edition of 'Paradise Lost' (1732) proceeds on the supposition that the blind poet had employed an amanuensis, who made numerous involuntary mistakes, and an editor, who not only did likewise, but also deliberately interpolated bad verses of his own. It has the faults of Bentley's classical criticisms in a senile form, while, from the nature of the case, it can have none of their merits, though it often shows intellectual acuteness. Pope, in his copy of the book, wrote marks of approval opposite some of Bentley's improvements on Milton. Perhaps the chief reason for regretting Bentley's edition of 'Paradise Lost' is that it is apt to make us forget how well he has deserved of his native language. Dryden and Temple were the accepted masters of English prose in the first half of Bentley's life; in the latter half the canon was Addison. Bentley's English style has little in common with any phase of theirs: but it has much in common with the simple and racy vigour of the 'Pilgrim's Progress.' The stamp peculiar to it is the reflex of Bentley's character. In his case, if in any, the style is the man. It is keen and direct, for he sought to go straight to the truth. It often shows an ironical delight in homely images and phrases, for as a scholar he knew how easily charlatans take refuge in fine or vague writing. It is trenchant with a thoroughly English force, and humorous in a purely English vein.
The restoration of classical learning in Europe was effected by a few great scholars of various countries. Among these Bentley represents England, and he begins a new period. During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries such scholars as Poggio and Politian had been intent on the literary reproduction of ancient form, and with them Erasmus may be classed, though his scope was in some respects larger than theirs. In the second half of the sixteenth century Joseph Scaliger and Isaac Casaubon turned from the form to the matter of classical literature: Scaliger sought to reconstruct chronology, Casaubon, to regain the knowledge of ancient life. Then Bentley came, and saw that before the work could go further the basis itself must be made sound. The classical texts, teeming with errors, must be amended. Zealous for this task, he ranged widely through Greek and Latin literature. His genius is higher than any one of his books; his merit is larger than all of them together. The most important way in which his influence has worked has been by inspiring, by opening new perspectives, suggesting more scientific methods, throwing out ideas which have become fruitful in other minds. We must look at his life-work as a whole, remaining the time at which it was done, and feeling the impetus, the glow, which pervade it. Alike in textual criticism and in the 'higher criticism' of literature and history he set examples which have still a living force.
[Life of Bentley, by J. H. Monk, 2 vols. 8vo. 1833; Bentley's Works, ed. Dyce, 3 vols. 1836-38; Bentleii Critica Sacra, A. A. Ellis, 1862; list of other books in the preface to Bentley, by R. C. Jebb in English Men of Letters, 1882.]