Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 46.djvu/161

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


Eton he stayed about four years. The chief source of information concerning his school-life there is the evidence given, after his death, by one of his former schoolfellows, Dr. Joseph Goodall, provost of Eton, who was examined before a committee of the House of Commons on the state of education in the country, and was asked, among other things, why ‘the late Professor Porson’ was not elected to a scholarship at King's College, Cambridge. The answer to that question was, in brief, that he had entered the school too late. When he came to Eton he knew but little of Latin prosody, and had not made much progress in Greek. His compositions, though correct, ‘fell far short of excellence.’ ‘He always undervalued school exercises, and generally wrote his exercises fair at once, without study.’ ‘Still, we all looked up to him,’ says Goodall, ‘in consequence of his great abilities and variety of information.’ It is said that once in school he construed Horace from memory, a mischievous boy having thrust some other book into his hand. He wrote two plays to be acted in the Long Chamber, one of which, called ‘Out of the Frying-pan into the Fire,’ exists in manuscript in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge; it is full of rollicking fun, but nowhere rises above schoolboy level. While at Eton he had a serious illness, due to the formation of an imposthume in the lungs, which permanently affected his health, and caused him to be frequently troubled by asthma. In 1777 his benefactor, Mr. Norris, died. This loss threatened to mar Porson's career; but Sir George Baker, then president of the College of Physicians, generously started a fund to provide for his maintenance at the university, and, as Dr. Goodall tells us, ‘contributions were readily supplied by Etonians.’

Porson was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, on 28 March 1778, and commenced residence there in the following October. He was then eighteen. Thus far he had been distinguished rather by great natural gifts than by special excellence in scholarship. While he was at Eton the head-master, Dr. Jonathan Davies [q. v.], had given him as a prize the edition of Longinus by Jonathan Toup [q. v.] This book is said to have been the first which excited his interest in critical studies. His systematic pursuit of those studies began in his undergraduate days at Cambridge. He had a distinguished career there. In 1780 he was elected a scholar of Trinity College. In December 1781 he gained the Craven University scholarship. A copy of seventeen Greek iambics which he wrote on that occasion is extant; it is without accents, and is curious as exhibiting, besides some other defects, three breaches of the canon respecting the ‘pause’ which Porson afterwards enunciated. In 1782 he took his degree of B.A. with mathematical honours, being third ‘senior optime’ (i.e. third in the second class of the tripos), and shortly afterwards won the first of the two chancellor's medals for classics. In the same year he was elected a fellow of Trinity College, while still a junior bachelor, though, under the rule which then existed, men of that standing were not ordinarily allowed to be candidates. He took the degree of M.A. in 1785.

The story of the great scholar's life is mainly that of his studies, but clearness will be served by postponing a survey of his writings to a sketch of the external facts of his career.

From 1783 onwards Porson contributed articles on classical subjects to several periodicals, but the work which first made his name widely known was the series of ‘Letters to Travis’ (1788–9). These ‘Letters’ were the outcome of theological studies in which he had engaged for the purpose of determining whether he should take holy orders. He decided in the negative, on grounds which he thus stated to his intimate friend, William Maltby [q. v.]: ‘I found that I should require about fifty years' reading to make myself thoroughly acquainted with divinity—to satisfy my mind on all points.’ The decision was a momentous one for him. He had no regular source of income except his fellowship (then about 100l. a year), and, under the statutes of Trinity College, a fellow was then required to be in priest's orders within seven years from his M.A. degree, unless he held one of the two fellowships reserved for laymen. Porson, having become M.A. in 1785, reached that limit in 1792. A lay fellowship was then vacant, and would, according to custom, have been given to Porson, the senior lay fellow, but the nomination rested with Dr. Postlethwaite, the master. Porson formally applied for it; but the master, in reply, wrote advising him to take orders, and gave the lay fellowship to John Heys, a nephew of his own. The appointment of Heys is recorded in the ‘Conclusion Book’ of Trinity College, under the date of 4 July 1792. In the summer of 1792 Porson, who was then living in London, called on Dr. Postlethwaite at Westminster, where he was staying with the dean (Dr. Vincent), for the purpose of examining for the Westminster scholarships. The interview was a painful one. Porson said that he came to announce the approaching vacancy in his