From A Gallery or Eccentrics, by Morris Bishop, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1928; pp. 227-244.
WHO would delve into the lives of great men must reconcile himself, to his pain or delight, as his temper may be, to finding therein amid much sublimity many laxities, nay positive obliquities of character. While such studies may therefore be condemned as tending to degrade tender minds, they possess an indubitable charm for those of sturdier composition who love to sit in blameless solitude and instruct themselves, by great examples, of the antinomies of the human spirit.
Few lives of eminent men are more inspiring to wholesome reflection than that of Richard Porson. Commonly considered the greatest, with Bentley, of England’s Greek scholars, he was hardly less celebrated as among the greatest of England’s drunkards, at a period when such distinction was not lightly to be attained. In these days when the maleficence of the Drink Demon is commonly appreciated, we shall read with a certain wonder of an epic thirst somehow cohabitant with an ever-memorable scholarly mind. We shall, too, measure our civility with that of a hundred years since when we recall such compotations as that of Porson and the Rev. John Horne Tooke, the famous political reformer and philologist. A dispute arose on some subject, no doubt philological. Porson was called on for a toast, and said: “I will give you the man who is just the reverse of John Horne Tooke.” A spirited 228 rejoinder having been provoked, Porson threatened to “kick and cuff” his host. Tooke, so Mr. Stephens relates in his Memoirs, “after exhibiting his own brawny chest, sinewy arms, and muscular legs, to the best possible advantage, endeavoured to evince the prudence of deciding the question as to strength by recurring to a different species of combat. Accordingly, setting aside the port and sherry, then before them, he ordered a couple of quarts of brandy; and by the time the second bottle was half-emptied, the Greek fell vanquished under the table. On this, the victor at this new species of Olympic game, taking hold of his antagonist’s limbs in succession, exclaimed: ‘This is the foot that was to have kicked, and the hand that was to have cuffed me’; and then, drinking one glass more to the speedy recovery of his prostrate adversary, ordered ‘that great care should be taken of Mr. Professor Porson’; after which he withdrew to the adjacent apartment, where tea and coffee had been prepared, with the same seeming calmness as if nothing had occurred.” On another occasion one would say that Porson had the better of it. Mr. Maltby reports in his addendum to Samuel Rogers’ Table-Talk: “Horne Tooke told me that he once asked Porson to dine with him in Richmond Buildings, and as he knew that Porson had not been in bed for the three preceding nights, he expected to get rid of him at a tolerably early hour. Porson, however, kept Tooke up the whole night; and in the morning, the latter, in perfect despair, said, ‘Mr. Porson, I am engaged to meet a friend at breakfast at a coffee-house in Leicester Square.’ — ‘Oh,’ replied Porson, ‘I will go with you,’ and he accordingly did so. Soon after they reached the coffee-house, Tooke contrived 229 to slip out, and running home, ordered his servant not to let Porson in, even if he should attempt to batter down the door. ‘A man,’ observed Tooke, ‘who could sit up four nights successively might have sat up forty.’ ”
The renown of England’s deep drinkers was no new thing. We read in A Character of England, as it was lately presented in a letter to a Nobleman in France:1 “But all this my experience, particular address, and habitudes with the greatest of that nation has assured me that drink is not the pastime only of the inferiour and meretricious sort, since I find it a suppletory at all their entertainments to drink excessively, and that in their own houses before the ladies and the lacqueies; it is the afternoon diversion, whether for want of a better to employ the time, or affection to the drink, I know not; but I have found some persons of quality whom one could not safely visit after dinner without resolving to undergo this drink ordel, and endure the question; it is esteemed a piece of wit to make a man drunk, for which some willing insipid client or congiarie is a frequent and constant adjutant. Your Lordship may hence well imagine how heavy, dull, and insignificant the conversation is; loud, querulous, and impertinent.” Gemelli, at about this time, reports of the English: “They fill themselves extravagantly with several sorts of liquors, as beer and ale, aqua vitae, perry, mead, cider, mum, and usquebaugh, a violent burning drink.”2 Sir John Harrington’s account of the visit of King Christiern of Denmark to his brother 230 monarch, James the First of England, is recommended to the curious. Ere the welcome was half done, His Majesty of Denmark, attempting to dance with the Queen of Sheba, fell down and was carried to an inner chamber and there put to bed; meanwhile the court ladies who represented the cardinal virtues, only Charity acquitted herself of her part, as Faith and Hope were sick in the lower hall.
In these later times which we are now studying, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, William Pitt, Lord Chancellor Eldon, Lord Stowell and many less eminent were fond of emptying six bottles at a sitting. Philip Francis, the reputed author of the Letters of Junius, tells us that two of his friends finished between them one and a half gallons of champagne and burgundy.3 Lord Weymouth, Keeper of the Seals, was always drunk. The heir apparent, later to be George the Fourth, at this time set a mark few could emulate. He was commonly pictured as a “Voluptuary in the Agonies of Indigestion.” Wraxall tells in his Memoirs how the Prince, having been put to bed unconscious, nearly expired in his palace of Pall Mall, and was only saved for the throne by the prompt first aid of his servants.
With such examples to condone his weakness, and with Anacreon and the bibulous Greeks to urge upon him in the midst of his labors the charms of insobriety, Mr. Professor Porson is not to be too severely regarded for his dissipation of his powers. But let us have done with our moralizing and get to the recording of his life.
Richard Porson was born in the village of East Ruston, in Norfolk, on Christmas Day, 1759. His father 231 was a weaver; his mother, the daughter of a shoemaker. Though his parents had no education beyond that afforded in the village school, his father seems to have had a considerable knowledge of arithmetic, for he taught his son to extract the cube root without setting pencil to paper when the boy was but nine years old. From his earliest moments the child showed rare promise; he learned to make his letters almost as soon as he could speak. He soon attracted the attention of the village clergyman, Mr. Hewitt, and was by him given instruction in Latin and mathematics. An interesting glimpse of the life of the country clergy in the eighteenth century is given by Mr. Porson’s biographer.4 Mr. Hewitt had an income of less than two hundred pounds; on this stipend he educated five sons for the University. “It is yet related, among people of that neighborhood, that he was been seen roasting a turnip, like Curius Dentatus, for his supper, and rocking a cradle and reading a book at the same time.”
News of the boy’s promise was ere long bruited about, and a wealthy and benevolent gentleman, Mr. Norris of Witton Park, undertook to raise a fund by which he should be educated in a proper school and in the University. He was sent to Eton, and there distinguished himself, as one may imagine. “He was going up one day with the rest of his form, to say a lesson in Horace, but not being able to find his book at the time, took one which was thrust into his hand by another boy. He was called upon to construe, and went on with great accuracy, but the master observed that he did not seem to be looking at that part of the page in which the lesson was. He therefore took the book from his hand 232 to examine it, and found it to be an English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” He seems to have cherished little affection for his old school; he told Maltby that the only thing he recollected with pleasure of Eton was rat-hunting; he used to talk with delight of the rat-hunts in the Long Hall.
Porson was entered at Cambridge in 1778, and there applied himself with his accustomed industry, emerging as third senior optime, and obtaining the Craven University Scholarship and the first Chancellor’s medal. Some of the emendations he made in Theocritus and Virgil attracted wide attention and praise among the learned. He proposed to edit for the syndics of the Press a new edition of Aeschylus, but the project regrettably miscarried. Of the lighter side of his life not much has been recorded. In the philological discussions which occupied the evenings of Cambridge undergraduates of the period, he appears to have supported his views with more energy than urbanity, frequently threatening to split his opponents’ heads with a poker, an instrument which was always the favorite adjutant to this shafts of wit. “One evening an undergraduate distinguished for pugilism, seeing Porson catch hold of the poker, seized the tongs, observing that he could play at that game as well as Porson. Porson, looking in his face, said in a sneering tone, ‘If I should crack you skull, I believe I should find it empty.’ ‘And if I should crack yours,’ replied the other, ‘I believe I should find it full of maggots.’ ”
Indeed, throughout his life he preserved a rare vigor 233 in his dealings with the unlettered. Beloe, in his Recollections of a Literary Life, recalls that “a person of some literary pretensions, who either did not know Porson’s value, or neglected to show the estimate of it which it merited, at a dinner party, harassed, teazed, and tormented him, till at length he could endure it no longer, and rising from his chair, exclaimed with vehemence, ‘It is not in the power of thought to conceive, or words to express, the contempt I have for you, Mr. . . . .’ ” To this chronicler at least, the words still reverberate with all the majestic beauty of Milton.
Maltby, his old schoolfellow, avers that in this early part of his career, Porson accepted the position of tutor to a young gentleman in the Isle of Wight, but was soon forced to relinquish that office, in consequence of being found drunk in a turnip field. Porson’s biographer repels this accusation, on the best of circumstantial grounds.
After taking his degree, Porson vigorously prosecuted his literary career, with review of Schutz’s Aeschylus and of Brunck’s Aristophanes. He carried on a correspondence with Ruhnken, and earned the deep respect of that colossus of scholarship. Yet Porson displayed little reverence toward these masters, if the celebrated quatrain ascribed to him is authentic:
I went to Strasburg, and got drunk
With that most learn’d Professor Brunck;
I went to Wortz, and got more drunken
With that more learn’d Professor Ruhnken.
Mr. Porson continued to dazzle the learned world by his perspicacity in the elegant niceties of the Greek language, 234 by his notes on Toup’s emendations of Suidas, by his numerous reviews and commentaries, and especially by his great edition of the various plays of Euripides. For a fitting appreciation of his work the lettered reader is referred to the histories of classical scholarship.
A suitable reward for his fame was granted in his appointment to the professorship of Greek in Cambridge University in 1792. The salary attached to the post was, to be sure, but 40 l. per year. Though by present standards the professorship was ill paid, it must be recalled that the incumbent was under no obligation to visit Cambridge nor to deliver lectures. Porson indeed spoke only the one introductory lecture which was required. He had apparently some thought of continuing the series. When Mr. Maltby asked him why he had not done so, he replied, “Because I have thought better on it; whatever originality my lectures might have had, people would have cried out, ‘We knew all this before.’ ”
He was not a man to wear the yoke of business oxen. When in 1806 the London Institution was founded, Porson was appointed its Principal Librarian, with emoluments of 200 l. a year and a suite of chambers. Yet some time after the directors of the Institution united to write him a letter containing the cutting remark: “We only know you are our librarian by seeing your name attached to the receipts for your salary.”
Mr. Porson took a constant and active interest in current politics and the striking events of his times. In 1796 young Mr. Ireland imposed his Shakespeare forgeries upon the public, and succeeded in having his 235 “Vortigern and Rowena” produced at Drury Lane by Sheridan, with Kemble and Mrs. Jordan in the leading rôles. His Shakespeare received the authentication even of such scholars as Parr; Mr. James Boswell, it may be remembered, examined the papers, fell on his knees (holding a glass of warm brandy and water in his hand) and kissed the sheets with the ejaculation: “I now kiss the invaluable relics of our bard, and thank God that I have lived to witness their discovery.” Mr. Porson, invited to inspect the manuscripts, refused to sign a certificate to her genuineness, declaring that he was slow to subscribe to articles of faith. So great was his mistrust that he wrote a letter to the Morning Chronicle, alleging the discovery of some lost tragedies of Sophocles, and enclosing as a sample a stately Greek version of
Three children sliding on the ice
All on a summer’s day.
Of Porson’s many other ephemeral productions, his letters on the Orgies of Bacchus, which caused no inconsiderable scandal, of his controversies with Wakefield, Hermann, Dalzell, and others of the erudite, we shall not speak. We shall record rather certain remembrances of his life and character, for the work he did has long been built over by succeeding Grecians, while the man he was still lingers as a legend to stir our commiseration. His was one of those rare minds in which vigor combined with judgment and with delight in classic beauty. His mind made his body jealous; he was tortured by his understanding, and found relief from it only by clouding his lucidity with drink.
His memory was the wonder of his times. He stated 236 that he could repeat the whole of “Roderick Random,” although none ever cared to put him to the test. He recited in company the greater part of the “Rape of the Lock” with the various readings of the several editions, and a number of annotations. “Nothing,” says the author of the Scraps from Porson’s Rich Feast, “came amiss to his memory; he would set a child right in his two-penny fable-book, repeat the whole of the moral tale of the Dean of Badajos or a page of Athenaeus on cups, or Eutasthius on Homer.” Basil Montague related that Porson, in his presence, read a page or two of a book, and then repeated what he had read from memory. “That is very well,” said one of the company, “but could the Professor repeat it backwards?” Porson immediately began to repeat it backwards, and failed only in two words. “Porson called on a friend, who was reading Thucydides, and wished to consult him on the meaning of a word. Porson, hearing the word, repeated the passage. His friend asked how he knew it was that passage. ‘Because,’ said Porson, ‘the word occurs only twice in Thucydides, once on the right hand, and once on the left. I observed on which side you looked, and therefore knew the passage to which you referred.’ ”5 His was a cruel and torturing memory. He told Mrs. Edwards that “his memory was a source of misery to him, as he could never forget anything, even what he wished not to remember.” Who can wonder that he would fain wash away his memories in wine?
The natural cravings of his palate were encouraged by his taste for those gatherings where wit and learning frolicked on vine-leaf wings. His mode of life during 237 the winter of 1790-1791, which he spent with the learned Dr. Parr, are thus described by Dr. Johnstone: “He rose late, seldom walked out, and was employed in the library until dinner, reading and taking notes from books, but chiefly the latter. His notes were made in a small distinct text, of the most exquisite neat writing I have ever beheld. He was very silent, and, except to Parr, whom he often consulted, and to whose opinions he seemed to defer, he seldom spoke a word. His manners in a morning, indeed, were rather sullen, and his countenance gloomy. After dinner he began to relax, but was always under restraint with Parr and the ladies.
“At night, when he could collect the young men of the family together, and especially if Parr was absent from home, he was in his glory. The charms of his society were then irresistible. Many a midnight hour did I spend with him, listening with delight while he poured out torrents of various literature, the best sentences of the best writers, and sometimes the ludicrous beyond the gay; pages of Barrow, whole letters of Richardson, whole scenes of Foote; favourite pieces from the periodical press, and among them, I have heard recited the ‘Orgies of Bacchus.’
“His abode in the house became at last so tiresome to Mrs. Parr, that she insulted him in a manner which I shall not record.” Mr. Maltby, less squeamish than Dr. Johnstone, recalled that Mrs. Parr, a tidy housekeeper, made to Mr. Porson reference to the loathly duties of a college scout, to which she was constrained by his habits.
Lord Byron remembered Porson at Cambridge; he said, in a letter to Mr. Murray, “I can never recollect 238 him except as drunk or brutal, and generally both: I mean in an evening, for in the hall he dined at the Dean’s table, and I at the Vice-master’s. so that I was not near him; and he then and there appeared sober in his demeanour, nor did I ever hear of excess or outrage on his part in public, — commons, college, or chapel; but I have seen him in a private party of undergraduates, many of them freshmen or strangers, take up a poker to one of them, and heard him use language as blackguard as his action. I have seen Sheridan drunk, too, with all the world; but his intoxication was that of Bacchus, and Porson’s that of Silenus. . . . I saw him once go away in a rage, because nobody knew the name of the ‘Cobbler of Messina,’ insulting their ignorance with the most vulgar terms of reprobation. He was tolerated in this state amongst the young men for his talents, as the Turks think a madman inspired, and bear with him. He used to recite, or rather vomit, pages of all languages, and could hiccup Greek like a Helot; and certainly Sparta never shocked her children with a grosser exhibition than this man’s intoxication.”
Of his later life in London many anecdotes persist. For breakfast his favorite drink was porter; he had no taste for tea and coffee. One morning at Eton he met Dr. Goodall, the provost, going to church. He asked for Mrs. Goodall, and learned that she was at breakfast. “Very well, then; I’ll go and breakfast with her.” On his arrival at Mrs. Goodall’s, he was asked what beverage he would take, and answered, “Porter.” The sixth pot was being brought in from the tapster’s as Dr. Goodall returned from church.
After his day’s work he would repair to the Cider 239 Cellar, a tavern near Covent Garden, of which he was the acknowledged regent, or he would visit friends whose cellars were well furnished. Port was his favorite wine, and brandy, the drink of heroes, his choice for the serious hours of evening. He welcomed, however, all liquids, even drenching himself internally with water, if nothing else was before him. According to Samuel Rogers, “he would not scruple to return to the dining-room after the company had left it, pour into a tumbler the drops remaining in the wine-glasses, and drink off the omnium gatherum.” Mr. Maltby adds his testimony: “Porson would rather drink ink than not drink at all. He was sitting with a gentleman after dinner, in the chamber of a mutual friend, a Templar, who was then ill and confined to bed. A servant came into the room, sent thither by his master, for a bottle of embrocation which was on the chimney-piece. ‘I drank it an hour ago,’ said Porson. . . . When Hoppner the painter was residing in a cottage a few miles from London, Porson, one afternoon, unexpectedly arrived there. Hoppner said that he could not offer him dinner, as Mrs. Hoppner had gone to town, and had carried with her the key of the closet which contained the wine. Porson, however, declared that he would be content with a mutton-chop, and beer from the next ale-house; and accordingly stayed to dine. During the evening Porson said, ‘I am quite certain that Mrs. Hoppner keeps some nice bottle for her private drinking in her own bed-room; so, pray, try if you can lay your hands on it.’ His host assured him that Mrs. Hoppner had no such secret stores; but Porson insisting that a search should be made, a bottle was at last discovered in the lady’s apartment, to the surprise of Hoppner, and the 240 joy of Porson, who soon finished its contents, pronouncing it to be the best gin he had tasted for a long time. Next day Hoppner, somewhat out of temper, informed his wife that Porson had drunk every drop of her concealed dram. ‘Drunk every drop of it!’ cried she. ‘My God, it was spirits of wine for the lamp!’ ”6
When Dr. Burney was meditating an edition of Terentianus Maurus, he applied to Parr, suggesting that Porson might consult some books for him. Parr replied: “The books may be consulted, and Porson shall do it, and he will do it. I know his price when he bargains with me; two bottles instead of one; six pipes instead of two; burgundy instead of claret, liberty to sit till five in the morning instead of sneaking into bed at one; these are his terms.”
Nature marked him ere long with that visible sign wherewith the drinking man is signalled, conveniently enough, to other drinking men. Mr. Porson thus replied to an invitation from the eminent surgeon, Mr. Joy: “I should be happy to obey your obliging summons; I should equally approve of the commons, the company, and the conversation; but, for some time past, my face, or rather my nose, whether from good living or bad humours, has been growing into a great resemblance to honest Bardolph’s, or, to keep still on the list of honest fellows, of honest Richard Brinsley’s. I have therefore put myself under a regimen of abstinence till my poor nose recovers its quondam colour and compass; after which I shall be happy to attend your parties on the shortest notice.”
“He was generally ill-dressed and dirty,” says Mr. Maltby. “But I never saw him such a figure as he 241 was one day at Leigh and Sotheby’s auction-room; he evidently had been rolling in the kennel; and, on inquiry, I found that he was just come from a party (at Robert Heathcote’s, I believe), with whom he had been sitting up drinking for two nights.” Such was his appearance that he was turned out of a hotel to which he had come to be the guest of honor at a dinner, and the same indignity was meted to him at private houses. He was oblivious to the vesture of the body. When visiting friends for a few days he would encumber himself with no portmanteau, but would thrust a shirt in his pocket, saying, “Omnia mea mecum porto.” Having once been overtaken by a violent shower of rain, he came drenched to the skin to Beloe’s house. Warm and dry clothes were prepared for him, but Porson refused to change, taking three glasses of brandy instead. He sat in his wet garments the whole evening. “The exhalation, of course,” says Beloe, “was not the most agreeable; but he did not apparently suffer any subsequent inconvenience.”
On one occasion at least he submitted to the ritual of dress. Mr. Maltby met Porson one morning in Covent Garden, turning over the books on a bookstall. He was dressed in a pea-green coat. The two talked of books for a time; it was not till later that Mr. Maltby learned that Porson had been married that morning.
This was in November 1795. His wife was Mrs. Lunan, sister of Mr. Perry, the editor of the Morning chronicle. “One evening, as he was smoking his pipe with George Gordon at the Cider Cellar, he suddenly said, ‘Friend George, do you not think the widow Lunan an agreeable sort of personage as times go?’ Gordon said something in the affirmative. ‘In that 242 case,’ continued Porson, ‘you must meet me tomorrow morning at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields at eight o’clock.’ ” The marriage was there duly performed, but Porson, caught between the duties of a bridegroom and the habits of a scholar, gave evidence of the force of routine on behavior. After the incident at the bookstall above recorded, Professor and Mrs. Porson dined with Perry. Beloe informs us that the Professor spent the evening of his marriage “with a very learned friend, now a judge, without either communicating the circumstance of his change of condition, or attempting to stir till the hour prescribed by the family obliged him to depart.” He then adjourned to the Cider Cellar and there remained until eight the next morning.
In this oblivion of the accustomed ritual of the marriage day he surpassed even the great Budaeus, the polymath of undying fame, who studied for three hours on his wedding day, conceding eleven of his working hours to the nuptial business. Budaeus, we may remark by way of digression was a person of admirable regularity of habit. A serving maid, in great agitation, coming to inform him that the house was afire, he looked from his book to say, “Go tell your mistress. You know I leave all household matters in her hands.”7
Dr. Porson seems not to have been an ill husband. He retained the friendship of his wife’s brother, the editor of the Morning Chronicle. “She was amiable 243 and good-tempered,” says Colonel Gordon, “and the Professor treated her with all the kindness of which he was capable.” Yet she survived the marriage but a year and a half, dying of a decline in April 1797.
In the early part of 1808 the Professor’s powers began to fail. It would seem that the combination of drink and scholarly application, in either off which alone he might have indulged with impunity, at length sapped even his rugged constitution. In September of that year he was seized by an apoplectic fit in the Strand. He was carried to the workhouse, where medical assistance was given. As he was unable to speak, and as none had recognized him, an advertisement was inserted in the press, in which he was described as “a tall man, apparently about forty-five years of age, dressed in a blue coat and black breeches, and having in his pocket a gold watch, a trifling quantity of silver, and a memorandum-book, the leaves of which were filled chiefly with Greek lines written in pencil, and partly effaced; two or three lines of Latin, and an algebraical calculation; the Greek extracts being principally from ancient medical works.” Such was the baggage of a scholar. A friend, Mr. Savage, called for him and brought him back to the Institution of which he was librarian. On the way he gradually recovered some power of speech. On being left alone, he descended to the Library. There he chanced to meet Dr. Adam Clarke, who has left an account of these last hours. Dr. Clarke spoke of a stone with a Greek inscription, which was brought from Eleusis. Professor Porson expressing keen interest in it, Dr. Clarke returned with a facsimile a few days later. Porson regarded it with jubilation, for it indicated the existence 244 of the village Besa, and the proper method of writing it with a single Sigma, to distinguish it from a village called Bissa, in Locris. The conversation then turned on the possibility of the Greek Eta being aspirated like the English h, and other learned subjects. The Professor spoke and moved with the greatest difficulty; he spoke Greek still easily, but the effort to translate into English he found too painful. “The truth is, so imbued was his mind with Grecian literature that he thought, as well as spoke, in that language, and found it much more easy at this time, from the power of habit and association to pronounce Greek than to pronounce his mother tongue.”
When Dr. Clarke left him, the Professor, although scarce able to move, walked out to the African, or Cole’s Coffee House, in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill.. There he would have fallen, had not some gentlemen put him in a chair. He drank a glass of wine, and a little jelly with warm brandy and water. He was thus sufficiently revived to be brought back to the Institution, where, insensible, speechless, and sightless, he gradually expired.
1 1659. Somers Tracts. VII, 181. See also Edward Chamberlayne: Angliæ Notitiæ, or The Present State of England (1669), 38.
2 Edward Smith: Foreign Visitors in England, 176.
3 Trevelyan: Early History of Charles James Fox, 82.
4 J. S. Watson: Life of Richard Porson (1861).
5 Barker’s Anecdotes, II, 23.
6 Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers, p. 320.
7 One is reminded of an anecdote of Fédéric Morel the Younger, the eminent scholar-printer. As he was working on his Libanius, news was brought that his wife was very ill. “I have only two or three periods still to translate,” quoth he, “and then I shall come to her directly.” A second messenger coming with word that she was near expiring, “Two more words,” he cried, “and I shall be there as soon as you.” A third appeared solemnly to say that his wife was dead. “I am grieved indeed,” said Morel, “she was a very good woman,” and settled himself again to work. (Colomesiana, Amsterdam (1740), p. 433.)
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