Upwardly mobile Edinburgh professors
Porson once wrote a fractious letter complaining about the criticisms of his edition of Hecuba (1797) published in a review by a more contented working-class Greek prodigy, Andrew Dalzel (1742-1806).30 Dalzel was a carpenter’s son who rose to be a leading Edinburgh intellectual. He was born on the Newliston estate in Linlithgowshire; his father died when he was still small, but his talent for languages was spotted at parochial school.31 Thence he progressed, helped by a friendly local Laird, to Edinburgh University. By 1779 he had succeeded to the Chair of Greek, which he held for over 30 years (Figure 14.3). In 1785
FIGURE 14.3 Andrew Dalzel (1742-1806), reproduced from C.N. Innes, Memoir of Andrew Dalzel: Professor of Greek in the University of Edinburgh (1861), reproduced from a copy in Hall’s personal collection.
he received the additional appointment of University Librarian. Dalzel turned Greek Studies at the University around; it had dwindled to almost nothing under his predecessor. He soon had over a hundred students enrolled. He was proud of the standards of learning they achieved, contrasting them with those at Oxford and Cambridge, where ‘dissipation, idleness, drinking, and gambling’ predominated. ‘The English Universities are huge masses of magnificence and form, but ill-calculated to promote the cause of science or of liberal inquiry.’32
Dalzel’s Analecta Graeca Minora was used across Britain, in schools as well as universities, reprinted for decades and made his name popular throughout the world of Classics.33 His lectures on the ancient Greeks were published after his death by his son John.34 In the manuscript which was transcribed, Dalzel wrote trenchantly that the category ‘the vulgar’ was class-blind: it included ‘not only the artisan and the peasant, but also such of the opulent as have made no use of the advantages of education’.35At Edinburgh University, where he studied Classics from the age of 12, Walter Scott recalls incurring the irritation of Dalzel by an essay placing Homer behind Ariosto in poetic merit.36 But when it came to poetry in the English language, Dalzel abhorred the ignorance of many classically educated men; in his lectures he attempted to give his students ‘a faint view of the beauties of English authors’.37
When Robert Burns arrived in Edinburgh, Dalzel wrote enthusiastically, ‘We have got a poet in town just now, whom everybody is taking notice of—a ploughman from Ayrshire—a man of unquestionable genius.’38 He praises many English-language works, including the Epigoniad of William Wilkie (see pp. 335-6), in which he says there are some ‘sublime’ passages, such as the death of Hercules in Book VII. Dalzel quoted more than a hundred lines from the Epigoniad in the final lecture of his series on epic.39 A strength of the lectures is Dalzel’s interest in what would now be called ‘Classical Reception’; he repeatedly refers to the impact that the ancient Greeks had on previous generations of moderns—Thomas More’s Utopia, Harrington’s Oceania and Milton, whose love for the Greeks meant that he ‘suffered himself to be transported, too far indeed, with a passion for popular government’.40
For Dalzel, unlike Porson, was no critic of the British ruling class. He was friends with Edmund Burke, and much admired him.41 He was dismayed that there were radicals, whom he calls ‘violent politicians’, in the Edinburgh Royal Society who had voted against allowing Burke membership.42 His letters suggest that the Edinburgh sedition trials (on which see pp. 275-7) passed him by altogether. His meticulously detailed History of the University of Edinburgh is almost eerily apolitical in its recitation of the names of staff and introduction of courses during the revolutions of the 17th century.43 He even concluded his lecture course on ancient constitutional history with a eulogy of the British constitution, which avoided, he said, the vices of extreme monarchy, aristocracy and democracy alike.44 But he wholeheartedly believed, and stressed in the first lecture that young men heard in his course on ancient Greece, that the point of a classical education was to learnto think and to act as men conscious of the dignity of your nature, and who scorn to be trampled on by tyrants, under whatever veil they may pretend to cover their authority. You will learn from the Greeks, that the service of rulers is due to the commonwealth, and that millions of human creatures were never designed by God and nature to be subservient to the lawless caprice of a despotic lord.4’
Dalzel was an inspirational teacher, even getting his students to perform an English-language version of Theocritus’ Idyll on the Women of Syracuse in class.46 He was also exceptionally hardworking, teaching two two-hour classes daily. The first inculcated the Greek language through engagement with Lucian, Homer, Xenophon, Anacreon and the New Testament. The second class, which was itself divided into groups depending on level of linguistic attainment, focussed on Thucydides, Herodotus and Demosthenes, supplemented by more Homer, some tragedy and Theocritus. Dalzel also gave two lectures a week on ‘the history, government, manners, the poetry and eloquence’ of the ancient Greeks.
His student Lord Henry Cockburn recalled him as
a general exciter of boys’ minds ... Mild, affectionate, simple, an absolute enthusiast about learning particularly classical, and especially Greek; with an innocence of soul and of manner which imparted an air of honest kindliness to whatever he said or did, and a slow, soft formal voice, he was a great favourite with all boys, and all good men. Never was a voyager, out in quest of new islands, more delighted in finding one, than he was in discovering any good quality in any humble youth.47
But the tenor of Dalzel’s aesthetic views emerges from his censorious dismissal of the comedies of Aristophanes at the end of his lecture on comedy:
they are so full of ribaldry and buffoonery, that I can scarcely recommend them to your perusal, unless on account of the Attic Greek in which they are written ... . He was malignant and satirical, and at the same time had a gaiety of wit which recommended him to the mob. The comedies of Aristophanes, then, ought to be considered as abuses of this sort of composition.48
But the prim and conservative Dalzel remained sympathetic to the class into which he was born. Nobody was surprised when he hired as his assistant a poverty-stricken youth from Berwickshire, working as a gardener. In 1806, George Dunbar (1774—1851) succeeded Dalzel in the chair, a post which he was to hold for nearly half a century, but he remained fascinated by plants and was an enthusiastic member of the Caledonian Horticultural Society. Dunbar could never have entered the university without the kind financial support of a neighbouring landowner and, after graduation, he only survived as a classicist by working as tutor in the family of Lord Provost Fettes. Dunbar was retiring, and avoided public life and politics, but he was also hardworking and productive. His admirable A Concise General History of the Early Grecian States (1824) consists of 112 fluently written pages covering literature and philosophy, as well as history.49 Its surprises include high praise of Aristotelian ethics (which were then out of fashion) and the hope that more people would study them.50 He could be describing his own career when applauding the Athenian democracy, which ‘possessed this advantage above all others, that it gave free access to every man, however mean his birth or moderate his fortune, to rise by the force of his talents to the highest situation in the state’.51 He also published an impressive set of exercises in Greek syntax and idioms which he perfected by practising them out on his own students and publishing revised editions according to his direct pedagogical experience.52 He believed passionately that study of Greek helped in the appreciation of literature in any language; like his predecessor and mentor Dalzel, he used poetry in English extensively in his teaching.’3
Both Dalzel and Dunbar must have been keenly aware of Alexander Murray (1775-1813), the sickly son of an impoverished Galloway shepherd, whose childhood was spent in a room adjacent to the four moorland cattle which constituted his father’s ‘entire wealth’,’4 yet who became Professor of Oriental Languages at their university. It was quickly apparent that Murray wasn’t to follow in his father’s footsteps; his eyesight was so poor that he couldn’t see the flock he was charged to herd.’5 (Figure 14.4) After just a few months of formal schooling in rural Galloway, Murray embarked on his astounding programme of self-education in the late 1780s before his precocity was spotted by his parish Minister, and local patrons clubbed together to support his formal education at school; he responded by translating some lectures by German scholars on Roman authors, which he failed to get published, but in the course of visiting publishers in Dumfries in 1794, he received friendly advice from Robert Burns.56 His tuition at Edinburgh University, which he attended from the age of 18, was paid for by the institution in consideration of his outstanding performance in the entrance examination, especially his command of Homer, Horace, the Hebrew psalms and French.’7 Lord Cockburn remembered him as a fellow-student, ‘a little shivering creature, gentle, studious, timid, and reserved’.’8 By this time he already knew French, Latin, Hebrew, Greek and German, and had somehow picked up a smattering of Arabic, Abyssinian, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon. He was regarded as having an ‘almost miraculous or supernatural genius for languages’.59 After graduation, he entered the Church of Scotland and served in the parish ofUrr.
As a youth he had written poetry, including ‘a fictions and satirical narrative of the life of Homer’, whom he ‘represented as a beggar’ and a ‘Battle of the Flies’, imitating Homer’s Battle of the Frogs and Mice.60 He read prolifically, including L’Estrange’s Josephus, Plutarch’s Lives and Robert Burns.61 Murray supported himself in his teens and as an undergraduate by teaching children of
FIGURE 14.4 Portrait of Joseph Wright and other wool-sorters reproduced from Elizabeth Mary Wright, The Life of Joseph Wright. London: OUP. 1932, from copy in Halls personal collection.
isolated communities, like his own, ‘the three Rs’ as a tutor, and teaching himself Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French.62 He borrowed and bought (when cheap enough) whatever books he could lay his hands on. He received, for example, from a farmer in Glentrool, a copy of Plutarch's Lives and a bilingual edition (Greek and Latin) of Homer’s Iliad from a lead miner at Palnure. He purchased a stout Latin Dictionary (Is 6d) from an old man in Minnigaff, and was gifted a Hebrew lexicon by a distant cousin.63
In his autobiographical writing, Murray reflected on a time when his 12-year-old self got hold of a copy of Thomas Salmon’s Geographical and Historical Grammar. This book contained the Lord’s Prayer in several languages. He recalled how much he had enjoyed and benefited from poring over those translations as a boy.64 It is perhaps no wonder, considering the odd conglomeration of obscure and arcane texts at his disposal, that on growing up Murray should fix his attention on the acquisition and comparison of languages. By the end of his life it is reported that he knew most (if not all) of the European languages, ancient, modern and numerous Oriental languages. His reputation became international.
Despite his liberal views on religious tolerance and universal education,65 when it came to class politics, like Dalzel, he was regarded by the conservative establishment as unimpeachably apolitical. In 1810 he was asked by the Marquis Wellesley, then Foreign Secretary, to translate a letter from the Ras of Abyssinia to the Prince Regent. On this account Wellesley’s successor, Castlereagh himself, wrote a letter recommending that Murray be appointed to the Chair of Oriental Languages at Edinburgh in 1812.66
In the same year, Murray completed work on his magnum opus, History of the European Languages: Researches into the Affinities of the Teutonic, Greek, Celtic, Slavonic, and Indian Nations. He finished the book one year before his early death, and four years before the German philologist Franz Bopp (regarded as the founding father of Indo-European Studies) published his influential comparative grammar.67 As early as 1808, Murray had provocatively written that ‘Greek and Latin are only dialects of a language much more simple, regular, and ancient which forms the basis of almost all the tongues of Europe and ... of Sanskrit itself’.68 But Murray’s book did not see print before 1823, and so his pioneering contribution to Comparative Linguistics has been somewhat overlooked. But the scale of the two 19th-century monuments erected to his memory, one near his birthplace on the A712 between Newton Stewart and New Galloway, and the other in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Churchyard, reveals the respect that his outstanding intellectual gifts had won.69