Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 46.djvu/168

There was a problem when proofreading this page.


sight in one of his own notes (on ‘Hecuba’ 782), he wrote to the ‘Review,’ signing himself ‘John Nic. Dawes,’ and instructively correcting ‘Mr. Porson's’ blunder. His choice of the pseudonym was suggested by the fact that the eminent critic Richard Dawes had once pointed out the similar oversight of another scholar (Dawes, Misc. Crit. p. 216). On 13 Jan. 1803 Porson presented to the Society of Antiquaries his restoration of the last twenty-six lines of the Greek inscription on the Rosetta stone, with a Latin translation. It is printed in the transactions of the society (Archæologia, vol. xvi. art. xxvii.).

After Porson's death his literary remains were published in the following works: 1. ‘Ricardi Porsoni Adversaria,’ 1812. His notes and emendations on Athenæus and various Greek poets, edited by Monk and Blomfield. 2. His ‘Tracts and Miscellaneous Criticisms,’ 1815, collected by Thomas Kidd. 3. ‘Aristophanica,’ 1820. His notes and emendations on Aristophanes, edited by Peter Paul Dobree. 4. His notes on Pausanias, printed at the end of Gaisford's ‘Lectiones Platonicæ,’ 1820. 5. ‘The Lexicon of Photius,’ printed from Porson's transcript of a manuscript presented to Trinity College by Roger Gale (‘Codex Galeanus’), edited by P. P. Dobree, 1822, 2 vols. 6. Porson's Notes on Suidas, in the appendix to Gaisford's edition, 1834. 7. ‘Porson's Correspondence,’ edited for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, by H. R. Luard, fellow of Trinity College and registrary of the university, 1867. A collection of sixty-eight letters written or received by Porson (1783–1808), including letters from eminent scholars at home and abroad. Few men, probably, have ever had so distinguished a series of literary executors.

Porson's papers in the library of Trinity College were arranged in 1859 by Dr. Luard, and are bound in several volumes, to each of which a table of contents is prefixed. The collection includes: (1) The originals of many of the letters printed in the ‘Correspondence.’ (2) Porson's transcript of the Lexicon of Photius, from the Gale MS. This was the second copy which he made, the first having been destroyed in a fire at Perry's house in 1797. It consists of 108 leaves, written on one side only, in double columns. (3) Porson's transcripts of the ‘Medea’ and the ‘Phœnissæ.’ These, with the Photius, are truly marvels of calligraphy. The so-called ‘Porson’ type was cut from this manuscript of the ‘Medea.’ 4. Scattered notes on various ancient authors, written in copy-books, in a hand so minute that forty or fifty notes, on miscellaneous subjects, are sometimes crowded into one small page. A collation of the Aldine Æschylus is especially remarkable as an example of his smallest writing: it might be compared to diamond type. Besides Porson's papers, the college library possesses also about 274 of his books, almost all of which contain short notes or memoranda written by him in the margins or on blank leaves. The notes, edited by Monk, Blomfield, and Dobree, were taken mainly from the papers, but partly also from the books.

Textual criticism was the work to which Porson's genius was mainly devoted. His success in it was due primarily to native acumen, aided—in a degree perhaps unequalled—by a marvellous memory, richly stored, accurate, and prompt. His emendations are found to rest both on a wide and exact knowledge of classical Greek, and on a wonderful command of passages which illustrate his point. He relied comparatively little on mere ‘divination,’ and usually abstained from conjecture where he felt that the remedy must remain purely conjectural. His lifelong love of mathematics has left a clear impress on his criticism; we see it in his precision and in his close reasoning. Very many of his emendations are such as at once appear certain or highly probable. Bentley's cogent logic sometimes (as in his Horace) renders a textual change plausible, while our instinct rebels; Porson, as a rule, merely states his correction, briefly gives his proofs, and convinces. His famous note on the ‘Medea,’ vv. 139 f., where he disengages a series of poetical fragments from prose texts, is a striking example of his method, and has been said also to give some idea of the way in which his talk on such subjects used to flow. Athenæus, so rich in quotations from the poets, afforded a field in which Porson did more, perhaps, than all former critics put together. He definitely advanced Greek scholarship in three principal respects: (1) by remarks on countless points of Greek idiom and usage; (2) by adding to the knowledge of metre, and especially of the iambic trimeter; (3) by emendation of texts. Then, as a master of precise and lucid phrase, alike in Latin and in English, he supplied models of compact and pointed criticism. A racy vigour and humour often animate his treatment of technical details. He could be trenchantly severe, when he saw cause; but his habitual weapon was irony, sometimes veiled, sometimes frankly keen, always polished, and usually genial. Regarding the correction of texts as the most valuable office of the critic, he lamented that, in popular estimation, it