Richard Porson

The most arresting example is Richard Porson (1759-1808), a weaver’s son from rural Norfolk (Figure 14.1). His mother, a cobbler’s daughter, was clever and literate and ensured he attended the village school regularly, followed at the age of nine by the Free School in the village of Happisborough. A local nobleman, impressed by the boy’s classical prowess, paid for his education to be continued at Eton.4 Porson did not enjoy the school, later saying that the only thing he remembered with pleasure was rat-hunting on winter evenings.5 He seems also, however, to have performed enthusiastically in musical burlesques there; he could recall them word-for-word in later life, and used to sing raucous Vauxhall songs in elegant society, incurring opprobrium thereby.6

Several other patrons financed Porson’s studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was elected a Fellow; at some point during this earliest part of his career, he took a position as private tutor to a gentleman’s son on the Isle of Wight, but was sacked ‘having been found drunk in a ditch or a turnip field.’7 In 1792, when it was decided that fellowships were no longer open to laymen, Porson declined


Richard Porson (1759—1808) Public Domain image digitised by Österreichische Nationalbibliothek—Austrian National Library

FIGURE 14.1 Richard Porson (1759—1808) Public Domain image digitised by Österreichische Nationalbibliothek—Austrian National Library.

to take holy orders and so lost his stipend. Unwillingness to take orders in fact took courage, since no great piety was required of the academic clergy at that time, and there was small chance of earning an adequate living outside schools or universities.8 Porson was proud, principled and politically radical, supporting the French Revolution in its early days, advocating parliamentary reform, attending the House of Commons debates in 1792 on the Birmingham riots’ and adamantly opposing Pitt’s government.10 Porson’s reputation consequently suffered at the hands of conservative critics such as De Quincey, who alleged incorrectly that Porson read no poetry at all ‘unless it were either political or obscene’.1

This working-class prodigy was responsible for what have been dismissed as ‘ephemeral productions’, but were, rather, clever uses of classical material to make political points.’2 In 1792 Porson published a satirical attack, later republished by Richard Carlile (on whom see Chapter 13, pp. 278-83), A New Catechism for the Use of the Swinish Multitude, Necessary to be Had in all Sties, (Figure 14.2) on Burke’s Reflections on the French revolution. Burke had claimed that learning had been



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FIGURE 14.2 Title page from Richard Porson s A New Catechism for the Swinish Multitude (1818), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection.

‘trodden down under the hoofs of the swinish multitude’: Porson’s swine portray their suffering under the Hog Drivers. It is a witty piece. Any doubt that its target is Burke disappears with the second question, ‘Did God make you a hog?’, to which the prescribed answer is ‘No; God made me man in his own image; the Right Honourable SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL made me a swine’.13 To the question whether the resolutions made by the ruling class hog-drivers can be read by the hogs, the answer is no, because scarcely one in 20 hogs can read. The questioner says, ‘They are written in Hog Latin, but that I took for granted you could understand’, to which the hogs retort (remarkably, given that the author is a Classics Professor), ‘Shameful aspersion on the hogs! The most inarticulate grunting of our tribe is sense and harmony compared to such jargon.’14 But all is not lost, because the questioner notices that the pigs’ spokesman talks sense, and asks ‘whence had you your information?’ The answer is ‘From a learned pig’, of which there are ‘many; and the number daily increases.’1’ Porson is aware of the democrats’ emphasis on working-class self-education. ‘The allegory is obvious enough, and so are the Jacobinical sentiments’.16

Porson also wrote some ‘Imitations of Horace’ in The Morning Chronicle in 1794. One published on 12th August was an imitation of Odes 1.14, which he turned into an attack on Pitt, a ‘cub that knows not stem from stern’.17 The third, on 13th September, on Ode 1.34, uses Horace’s problem that he had fought for the Republicans to comment on the contemporary clampdown on freedom of the press.18 Porson prefaces his Hymn of a New-Made Peer to his Creator, savaging Pitt’s additions to the peerage, with a quote from Athenaeus.19 He became embroiled in the trial of William Frend, Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, who was accused of attacking the established church; in three raucous, uncompromising letters signed ‘Mythologus’, entitled ‘Orgies of Bacchus’, Porson defended the principle of freedom of speech on religious and political matters, through ‘a learned though flippant account of the career of the god Bacchus, and the spread of his worship, written in terms that are clearly meant to suggest Christianity and its founder’.20 He also undermined the credibility of the chief prosecutor in the Vice-Chancellor’s court, Dr. Kipling, by wittily exposing Kipling’s ropey grasp of Latin in a Latin poem and epistle published in The Morning Chronicle.2' Porson was effectively using his own excellence at Classics to defend illegal political views against the mediocre scholarship of a defender of the establishment. No wonder that Person’s early biographers were so shocked by these texts that they assumed he was mentally unstable when he wrote them, advised that they be left unread, and even attempted to disguise one objectionable portion by translating it into Latin.22 The ultra-conservative Denys Page ignored them completely in his 1959 lecture, on the bicentennial of Person’s birth, to the International Congress of Classical Studies.23

From 1792 onwards, Porson was supported by an annuity raised from friends’ subscriptions. He is remembered for Porson’s Law, applied to Greek tragic metrics, alongside the Porson Greek typeface based on his own handwriting, as well as his acclaimed textual work on Greek drama. Yet his lack of social niceties, foul mouth and capacity for alcohol were notorious. He regularly passed out in company and fell asleep under the table.24 His antics shocked even Lord Byron who, in a letter of 1818, likened his behaviour to that of Silenus: ‘Of all the disgusting brutes, sulky, abusive, and intolerable, Porson was the most bestial’; when he thought people were ignorant, he insulted them ‘with the most vulgar terms of reprobation’. Byron elaborates this unlovely picture: ‘He used to recite, or rather vomit, pages of all languages, and could hiccup Greek like a helot’.25 Since Byron did not usually object to drunkenness, the language here—‘vulgar’ and ‘helot’— implies snobbery based on social class. Porson probably had what we would now call a photographic memory, which was a source of misery to him as ‘he could never forget anything, even that he wished not to remember’.26 Such memories no doubt included those of his own lowly upbringing. His dislocation from his class roots may have contributed to his alcoholism, which killed him in 1808.

One witness, T.S. Hughes, remembers an encounter with Porson at Cambridge in 1807 in which Porson’s conversation throws some more sympathetic light on the way his boorish conduct might have been born out of vestigial loyalty to the class into which he was born. Stories of the generosity or democratic fervour of ancient heroes out of Plutarch regularly reduced him to tears.27 He told Hughes that he had become a misanthrope from an excess of sensibility, which his sympathetic defence of the poor pigs in his Catechism would support. One day a ‘girl of the town’ came into his chambers ‘by mistake’. She ‘showed so much cleverness and ability in a long conversation with him, that he declared she might with proper cultivation have become another Aspasia’.28 He remained thoroughly indifferent to money and unimpressed by social status.29

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