While these distinctions were being accumulated upon Bentley, his energy was making itself felt in many and various directions. He had official apartments in St James’s Palace, and his first care was the royal library. He made great efforts to retrieve this collection from the dilapidated condition into which it had been allowed to fall. He employed the mediation of the earl of Marlborough to beg the grant of some additional rooms in the palace for the books. The rooms were granted, but Marlborough characteristically kept them for himself. Bentley enforced the law against the publishers, and thus added to the library nearly 1000 volumes which they had neglected to deliver. He was commissioned by the university of Cambridge to obtain Greek and Latin founts for their classical books, and accordingly he had cast in Holland those beautiful types which appear in the Cambridge books of that date. He assisted Evelyn in his Numismata. All Bentley’s literary appearances at this time were of this accidental character. We do not find him settling down to the steady execution of any of the great projects with which he had started. He designed, indeed, in 1694 an edition of Philostratus, but readily abandoned it to G. Olearius, (Öhlschläger), “to the joy,” says F. A. Wolf, “of Olearius and of no one else.” He supplied Graevius with collations of Cicero, and Joshua Barnes with a warning as to the spuriousness of the Epistles of Euripides, which was thrown away upon that blunderer, who printed the epistles and declared that no one could doubt their genuineness but a man perfrictae frontis aut judicii imminuti. Bentley supplied to Graevius’s Callimachus a masterly collection of the fragments with notes, published at Utrecht in 1697.
The Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris, the work on which Bentley’s fame in great part rests, originated in the same casual way. William Wotton, being about to bring out in 1697 a second edition of his book on Ancient and Modern Learning, claimed of Bentley the fulfilment of an old promise to write a paper exposing the spuriousness of the Epistles of Phalaris. This paper was resented as an insult by the Christ Church editor of Phalaris, Charles Boyle, afterwards earl of Orrery, who in getting the MS. in the royal library collated for his edition (1695) had had a little quarrel with Bentley. Assisted by his college friends, particularly Atterbury, Boyle wrote a reply, “a tissue,” says Dr Alexander Dyce (in his edition of Bentley’s Works, 1836-1838), “of superficial learning, ingenious sophistry, dexterous malice and happy raillery.” The reply was hailed by the public as crushing and went immediately into a second edition. It was incumbent on Bentley to rejoin. This he did (1699) in what Porson styles “that immortal dissertation,” to which no answer was or could be given, although the truth of its conclusions was not immediately recognized. (See Phalaris.)
In the year 1700 Bentley received that main preferment which, says De Quincey, “was at once his reward and his scourge for the rest of his life.” The six commissioners of ecclesiastical patronage unanimously recommended Bentley to the crown for the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge. This college, the most splendid foundation in the university of Cambridge, and in the scientific and literary reputation of its fellows the most eminent society in either university, had in 1700 greatly fallen from its high estate. It was not that it was more degraded than the other colleges, but its former lustre made the abuse of endowments in its case more conspicuous. The eclipse had taken place during the reaction which followed 1660, and was owing to causes which were not peculiar to Trinity, but which influenced the nation at large. The names of John Pearson and Isaac Barrow, and, greater than either, that of Newton, adorn the college annals of this period. But these were quite exceptional men. They had not inspired the rank and file of fellows of Trinity with any of their own love for learning or science. Indolent and easy-going clerics, without duties, without a pursuit or any consciousness of the obligation of endowments, they haunted the college for the pleasant life and the good things they found there, creating sinecure offices in each other’s favour, jobbing the scholarships and making the audits mutually pleasant. Any excuse served for a banquet at the cost of “the house,” and the celibacy imposed by the statutes was made as tolerable as the decorum of a respectable position permitted. To such a society Bentley came, obnoxious as a St John’s man and an intruder, unwelcome as a man of learning whose interests lay outside the walls of the college. Bentley replied to their concealed dislike with open contempt, and proceeded to ride roughshod over their little arrangements. He inaugurated many beneficial reforms in college usages and discipline, executed extensive improvements in the buildings, and generally used his eminent station for the promotion of the interests of learning both in the college and in the university. But this energy was accompanied by a domineering temper, an overweening contempt for the feelings and even for the rights of others, and an unscrupulous use of means when a good end could be obtained. Bentley, at the summit of classical learning, disdained to associate with men whom he regarded as illiterate priests. He treated them with contumely, while he was diverting their income to public purposes. The continued drain upon their purses—on one occasion the whole dividend of the year was absorbed by the rebuilding of the chapel—was the grievance which at last roused the fellows to make a resolute stand. After ten years of stubborn but ineffectual resistance within the college, they had recourse in 1710 to the last remedy—an appeal to the visitor, the bishop of Ely (Dr Moore). Their petition is an ill-drawn invective, full of general complaints and not alleging any special delinquency. Bentley’s reply (The Present State of Trinity College, &c., 1710) is in his most crushing style. The fellows amended their petition and put in a fresh charge, in which they articled fifty-four separate breaches of the statutes as having been committed by the master. Bentley, called upon to answer, demurred to the bishop of Ely’s jurisdiction, alleging that the crown was visitor. He backed his application by a dedication of his Horace to the lord treasurer (Harley). The crown lawyers decided the point against him; the case was heard (1714) and a sentence of ejection from the mastership ordered to be drawn up, but before it was executed the bishop of Ely died and the process lapsed. The feud, however, still went on in various forms. In 1718 Bentley was deprived by the university of his degrees, as a punishment for failing to appear in the vice-chancellor’s court in a civil suit; and it was not till 1724 that the law compelled the university to restore them. In 1733 he was again brought to trial before the bishop of Ely (Dr Greene) by the fellows of Trinity and was sentenced to deprivation, but the college statutes required the sentence to be exercised by the vice-master (Dr Walker), who was Bentley’s friend and refused to act. In vain were attempts made to compel the execution of the sentence, and though the feud was kept up till 1738 or 1740 (about thirty years in all) Bentley remained undisturbed.
During the period of his mastership, with the exception of the first two years, Bentley pursued his studies uninterruptedly, although the results in the shape of published works seem incommensurable. In 1709 he contributed a critical appendix to John Davies’s edition of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. In the following year he published his emendations on the Plutus and Nubes of Aristophanes, and on the fragments of Menander and Philemon. The last came out under the name of “Phileleutherus Lipsiensis,” which he made use of two years later in his Remarks on a late Discourse of Freethinking, a reply to Anthony Collins the deist. For this he received the thanks of the university, in recognition of the service thereby rendered to the church and clergy. His Horace, long contemplated and in the end written in very great haste and brought out to propitiate public opinion at a critical period of the Trinity quarrel, appeared in 1711. In the preface he declared his intention of confining his attention to criticism and correction of the text, and ignoring exegesis. Some of his 700 or 800 emendations have been accepted, but the majority of them are now rejected as unnecessary and prosaic, although the learning and ingenuity shown in their support are remarkable. In 1716, in a letter to Dr Wake, archbishop of Canterbury, he announced his design of preparing a critical edition of the New Testament. During the next four years, assisted by J. J. Wetstein, an eminent biblical critic, who claimed to have been the first to suggest the idea to Bentley, he collected materials for the work, and in 1720 published