Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Conington, John
CONINGTON, JOHN (1825–1869), classical scholar, born 10 Aug. 1825, was the eldest son of the Rev. Richard Conington of Boston in Lincolnshire. In 1836 he was sent to the grammar school at Beverley, and two years afterwards to Rugby, where he was placed in the house of G. E. L. Cotton [q. v.], afterwards successively head-master of Marlborough College and bishop of Calcutta. On 30 June 1843 Conington matriculated at University College, Oxford, but immediately afterwards obtained a demyship at Magdalen. He went into residence in October 1843, and in the Lent term of the following year carried off the Hertford and Ireland university scholarships. Having but little prospect of a lay fellowship at Magdalen, and having determined not to take holy orders, he returned in 1846 to University College, where he was elected to a scholarship. In December 1846 he obtained a first class in the school of ‘litteræ humaniores.’ In 1847 he won the chancellor's prize for Latin verse, and in 1848 that for an English essay. In the same year he was elected to a fellowship at University, and obtained the chancellor's prize for a Latin essay in 1849.
He was a layman, and to all appearance cut off from any hope of an academical career. He determined, therefore, to try his chances at the bar, and accordingly in 1849 applied for and obtained the Eldon law scholarship. As Eldon scholar he was required to keep his terms regularly at the Inns of Court, and devote himself bonâ fide to the study of law. Finding residence in London and the study of law insupportable, Conington resigned the Eldon after six months and returned to Oxford. After more than three years of a somewhat unsettled existence, he was, in 1854, elected to fill the newly founded chair of the Latin language and literature. This professorship he held until he died at his native town, Boston, after a few days' illness, on 23 Oct. 1869.
Some of Conington's earliest and unpublished writings seem to show that he had the ordinary ambition of a clever Englishman to make a figure in the world. Literature was, no doubt, his real love, yet he never ceased to keep his eye upon public affairs, and was even supposed to have all through his life a secret but forlorn hope of one day becoming a member of parliament. But the bias of his intellect was peculiar, and necessarily drove him away from public life to books. He combined with a fondness for books, and especially for poetry, an extraordinary verbal memory. Before he was eight years old he repeated to his father a thousand lines of Virgil. At the age of thirteen, when at Beverley school, he wrote a poem on the Witch of Endor, and spent 1l. 15s. on a copy of Sotheby's ‘Homer.’
Before leaving Rugby in 1843 (aged 18) Conington felt a strong inclination to go to Oxford. He was probably attracted by the prospect of an active and exciting intellectual life. It is curious that his judgment, which he did not follow, drew him in the direction of Cambridge. Cambridge, he thought, insisted upon a valuable preparatory training, whereas ‘Oxford men, without any such preparation, which they affect to despise, proceed to speculate on great moral questions before they have first practised themselves with lower and less dangerous studies. And this, I look upon it, is the cause of the theological novelties at Oxford.’ To Oxford, however, he went, and read with the eminent scholar Linwood, who had the same passion for Greek plays as his pupil, and something of the same powers of memory. After his brilliant success in gaining the Hertford and the Ireland in one term Conington betook himself to the ordinary course of Oxford reading, the central point of which was the, study of ancient history and philosophy. For history and metaphysics Conington had little taste; for Aristotle and Plato he hardly cared at all.
His interest in religious and moral questions was much deeper, and for the discussion of these he then, as always, had a strong taste. He took an active part in the debates of the Union Society, of which he was secretary in 1845, president in 1846, and librarian in 1847. These debates were at that time, says Professor Smith, ‘in great favour, and it was quite the fashion to attend them. … Conington had some personal difficulties to contend against, among which his near sight, and an occasional hesitation in speaking, were not the least. But, in spite of them, he soon established for himself a good position with his audience, and obtained as much control over them as any of his contemporaries. There was sense and sound reasoning even in his most unprepared speeches, and he always, in speaking no less than in writing, had at his command a copious supply of polished language. His delivery was never free from embarrassment; but notwithstanding this there was something fine and classical in his way of speaking.’ That he should have been touched by the enthusiasm of the Anglican movement, and with another enthusiasm sometimes combined with it, that of political radicalism, during these years is only natural. He was indeed, for a few years after he took his degree, considered by the Oxford tory party as a dangerous innovator. Others saw a little further. ‘Conington,’ some one is reported to have said, ‘write about the working classes! They are only a large generalisation from his scout.’
In the summer of 1847 he went to Dresden with his friends, Mr. Goldwin Smith and Mr. Philpot, and had an interview at Leipzig with Godfrey Hermann. He did not visit Germany again, nor did his stay there produce any appreciable intellectual result. While in London (1849–1850) he contributed regularly to the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ in which he wrote the articles relating to university reform. He probably wrote on the same subject in other periodicals between 1850 and 1854, when the scheme of the Oxford University commission came into operation. Certainly he threw his whole force into the movement of reform. The opening of close fellowships, the restriction of the number of clerical fellowships, the foundation of new professorships, the augmentation of the number and value of scholarships, the new power given to congregation; all these measures had his warm approval. When, some years later, the liberals went on to move for the repeal of all religious tests, Conington was willing to relax the test, but only within the limits of received christianity. This attitude caused some estrangement between Conington and the liberal party in Oxford. Nothing, however, discouraged him from taking an active part, whenever an opportunity was open to him, in university business.
The beginning of his career as a scholar was full of brilliant promise. He had always a special fondness for the Greek tragedians, and especially for Æschylus, whose plays he knew by heart. In his twenty-fourth year he edited the ‘Agamemnon’ with a spirited verse translation and notes (1848). The notes, though slight, contained one brilliant emendation, λέοντος ίνιν for λέοντα σίνιν (v. 696). Conington was in later years very severe upon this little book; but it was for a long time, and very justly, popular with clever undergraduates. In his ‘Epistola Critica,’ addressed to Gaisford (1852), he proposed emendations in the fragments of Æschylus, some of which have been accepted as certain by later editors. In a paper in the ‘Rheinisches Museum’ of 1861, subsequently expanded into an article for the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ and now printed in both forms in his ‘Miscellaneous Writings,’ he exploded the spurious second part of the ‘Fables of Babrius,’ the manuscript of which had, in 1857, been sold as genuine to the British Museum, and had imposed upon Sir George Lewis.
In 1852 he began, in conjunction with Mr. Goldwin Smith, his edition of ‘Virgil.’ Mr. Goldwin Smith was soon obliged, by the pressure of his occupations as secretary to the university commission, to give up the work. Conington was occupied upon it, with various interruptions, for the rest of his life.
In 1857 he published an admirable edition of the ‘Choëphoroe’ of Æschylus. In this work a growing caution and distrust of conjectural emendation may be observed. This habit of mind was strengthened as he worked upon ‘Virgil.’ He formed the conviction that the text of Virgil was exceptionally well established by manuscript evidence, and, as a rule, regarded with something like horror any attempt to depart from the fourth-century copies. It is true that the manuscripts and ancient commentators on Virgil preserve so many variants that the chances of modern conjecture helping the text are very small. There is also much in Virgil's style which is peculiar to himself, and which suggests that, in the ruined state of Latin literature, we have lost the data for understanding him. But Conington was wrong if he supposed that the text of Virgil is certainly established. This it is not, and in all likelihood never will be, if it be the fact, as it probably is, that the numerous ancient manuscripts are derived from one copy, itself full of corrections, and in many places corrupted by glosses, as the text of a widely read poet was certain in the course of time to become.
Conington's general view of the study of ancient literature cannot be better expressed than in the language of his own inaugural lecture (Miscellaneous Writings, i. 220): ‘The way to study Latin literature is to study the authors who gave it its characters; the way to study those authors is to study them individually in their individual works, and to study each work, so far as may be, in its minutest details. … The peculiar training which is sought from the study of literature is only to be obtained, in anything like its true fulness, by attending, not merely to each paragraph and each sentence, but to each word, not merely to the general force of an expression, but to the various constituents which make up the effect produced by it on a thoroughly intelligent reader.’
Width of knowledge, however, and largeness of conception, as well as minuteness of observation, are essential to the making of a true student of ancient literature. Conington, without any useful result, chose to limit the range of his classical reading. For Cicero, Cæsar, and Livy he did not care much, nor had he any great sympathy even with Lucretius.
The edition of ‘Virgil,’ as originally conceived and executed by him, was a characteristic monument both of his strength and his weakness. The essays introductory to the ‘Bucolics,’ ‘Georgics,’ and ‘Æneid’ are careful and solid, if not exhaustive, pieces of literary criticism. They abound in delicate perceptions, and unquestionably opened up new aspects of Virgil's poetical genius. The commentary was full of ability, subtle analysis, and solid sense. But, unlike his contemporary Munro, at Cambridge, Conington was contented with a side view of the advances which were being made in Latin scholarship on the continent, and showed at the same time a curious indifference to points of history and antiquities.
It must, however, be said that the general feeling in Oxford, and indeed in England, at this time, was singularly apathetic in regard to such matters. The party of progress in Oxford took more interest in reforms of organisation than in the advancement of knowledge. Conington from circumstances and temperament was essentially one of them. He was anxious always to address the general public, and to interest it in what interested himself. But, making all these deductions, there can be no doubt that during the fifteen years of his professorship Conington based the study of Latin in Oxford on a new foundation. Not only by his written works, but by the sympathetic contact which he was careful to keep up with the most promising undergraduates, he gave a powerful stimulus to the progress of learning and literary culture in England.
Conington had always had a great love for translation, believing strongly in its efficacy as a means of bringing out the meaning of the original. Haupt remarked that ‘translation was the death of understanding,’ meaning that it is very seldom that a modern word is an exact equivalent for a Greek or Latin one. But Conington had his own theory of translation. Inaccurate he could not be, but he would add something in the English which was not strictly in the Latin, in order to produce the effect which he thought the Latin suggested. Early in the years of his professoriate he had translated Persius, for the benefit of his class, into prose; and he did the same with Virgil while lecturing and commenting on that author, reading his rendering book by book in the form of public lectures. During the last six years of his life he devoted himself much more seriously to translation than he had ever done before. In 1863 he published a verse translation of the ‘Odes of Horace,’ and in 1866 the ‘Æneid’ in the ballad metre of Scott. In the same year the death of his friend Mr. Worsley, the author of the admirable ‘Odyssey’ in Spenserian measure, turned his attention to a new field. Worsley had completed a version of the first twelve books of the ‘Iliad,’ and Conington, with the full approval of his dying friend, undertook to finish the work. The completed ‘Iliad’ was published in 1868, and in 1869, almost at the time of Conington's death, appeared the ‘Satires,’ ‘Epistles,’ and ‘Ars Poetica’ of Horace, done into the Popian couplet.
These translations were, as a rule, executed with great rapidity. Conington learnt long passages by heart, and often translated them at odd moments, during walks or in bed, only transcribing them when ready for press. He had great rhetorical facility, and his translations always show vigour, ability, and ready command of good English, often, too, much feeling for poetry; but he was not a poet, and the creative touch is wanting in his work. Again, he wrote too quickly for perfection, and was content to leave unexpunged a good deal of prosy and commonplace English.
Of these versions, the ballad translation of the ‘Æneid,’ a very questionable though very clever tour de force, was by far the most popular. The ‘Odes of Horace’ won the approval of many men of taste and scholarship; but probably the best, the most finished, and most poetical was the last, the ‘Satires’ and ‘Epistles’ of Horace. Taken as a whole, there can be no doubt that these translations increased the public interest in Latin literature.
The translations formed the most attractive part of his professorial lectures; but they were far from being the most valuable part of his instruction to those who wished to learn. His most important courses were upon Persius, on Plautus, on Virgil, and on Latin prose and verse. His ‘Persius’ was published after his death by the Clarendon Press (1872). In the learning and analytic power of his commentaries the students found stores of information and ample matter for thought. His lectures on Latin verse deserve special notice on account of the thoroughness of their method. He always began with an analysis of the piece of English set, comparing it sentence by sentence with any passages of the Latin classics which occurred to him as similar either in spirit or expression, and taking special care to point out anything modern or unclassical, and to show the nearest approximation to it which was likely to have occurred to a Roman poet. The remainder of the hour he took up with reading out and criticising a selection of the best pieces sent in by the pupils; the whole concluding with a dictation of his own rendering. The last part of the lecture, though dry, was serviceable; but the pre-eminently original and suggestive portion was the preliminary analysis. To a student fresh from school it was a new light to have set before him, by one whose memory was stored with reminiscences of the best Latin and English literature, and who touched all poetry with an innate tact and sense of its meaning, a comparison in detail between modern and ancient poetical feeling and modes of utterance.
The ‘public lectures,’ two of which are exacted by statute annually from the Latin professor, were, in his hands, either literary essays on Latin authors, or prose translations of Virgil. Most of them have long been before the world, either in his published editions of ‘Virgil’ and ‘Persius,’ or in the collection of his ‘Miscellaneous Writings.’ One of the best, perhaps, is the comparison of the style of Lucretius and Catullus with that of Virgil and Horace, 1867 (Miscellaneous Writings, i. 256).
After his appointment to the professorship he seldom left the field of Latin literature. His edition of the ‘Choëphoroe’ (1857) had no doubt, in great part, been written before 1854; for the rest, all that need be mentioned here is the essay on Pope (Oxford Essays, 1858), and some slighter papers in the ‘Contemporary Review’ in 1868, reprinted in the first volume of the ‘Miscellaneous Writings.’ He had intended, after finishing his ‘Virgil,’ to write a ‘History of the Latin Poetry of the Silver Age.’ Two of his public lectures, one on Statius, the other on the tragedies of Seneca, may perhaps be regarded as preliminary studies for this work. He had also hopes of one day undertaking an edition of Tacitus, on whose English translators he once gave an interesting public lecture.
But all these plans were extinguished by his premature death, which robbed Oxford of a lofty character and an imposing personality. For Conington was a man whose personality impressed itself on those who knew him in a way which those who did not would find it hard to realise. His flow of conversation, his most characteristic humour, enhanced by a slight hesitation in utterance, his transparent sincerity and childlike simplicity, made him a delightful companion. One or two quaint peculiarities heightened the general impression. His numerous friends were classed according to degrees of intimacy; and to each of those who had been promoted to the inner circle a certain day in the week was allotted for an afternoon walk. To miss this engagement on short (still more without any) notice was a high crime and misdemeanor. The reading parties, on which, during part of the long vacation, he used to gather a few promising men, were great events. Conington, who was very short-sighted, had hardly any appreciation of the wonders or beauties of nature. Of the comet of 1858 he said that he did not think ‘that phenomenon ought to be encouraged.’ This characteristic trait drew from him a great deal of humour at his own expense. There was, indeed, a kind of sublime detachment in the way in which, while his young friends would be earnestly expatiating on the beauties of a country, Conington would tramp vigorously along the high road, refusing to be allured by any blandishments to the right hand or the left.
The real secret of his influence in Oxford lay in his unbounded powers of sympathy, his desire of making friends, and his singleminded determination to be of use to all the students whom he had any reasonable hope of benefiting. All this won him many devoted friends and pupils, not a few of whom were without any special interest in his own pursuits, and perhaps disagreed with his opinions. But again, behind this there was a moral dignity and seriousness in him which was rooted in a deeply religious nature. His speculative religious opinions were for the greater part of his life those of an evangelical christian. Criticism of an illustrative or exegetical kind he was always ready to welcome, but he had no sympathy with rationalism. He seems in 1854 to have gone through a mental and moral crisis, in which what before had been an intellectual assent was transformed into an absorbing practical conviction. The result of this was that Conington was not only what is commonly described as ‘a good christian man,’ but that he set himself to mould all details of conduct and observance according to his belief. Thus his natural simplicity and warm affections were deepened into an invincible goodness, which was, perhaps, of all his characteristics, that which was the most superficially obvious to those with whom he came into contact. When he died, it was felt that Oxford had lost a man unlike others, of remarkable powers, who set himself a noble and disinterested work in life, and never abandoned it.
[Memoir by Professor H. J. S. Smith, prefixed to the Miscellaneous Writings of John Conington; personal knowledge.]