Publishing, classics, mood swings

Porsoniana by William Maltby, edited by Alexander Dyce


These anecdotes were appended to Recollections of the Table Talk of Samuel Rogers (1856), the editor of which, Alexander Dyce, attributes them to his conversations with William Maltby (1763–1854). A good many of them are quite pointless and unfunny; and there is in fact little that is flattering to Porson with regard to intelligence and taste. There is much that is suggestive of an autistic tendency (Asperger).

Appended here are also Porson’s appearances in Samuel Rogers’ Table-talks taken from the same book. The pagination, added within brackets, refers to the following text.



The following anecdotes of Porson[1] were communicated to me, in conversation, at various times, by the late Mr. William Maltby,—the schoolfellow, and, throughout life, the most confidential friend of Mr. Rogers.

In his youth Mr. Maltby was entered at Cambridge, and resided there for some time: he, however, left the university without taking a degree. He afterwards practised as a solicitor in London. On the decease of Porson, he obtained an employment more suited to his tastes and habits than the profession of the law:—in 1809 he succeeded that celebrated man as Principal Librarian to the London Institution; and, during the long period of his holding the office, he greatly improved the library by the numerous judicious purchases which were made at his [294] suggestion. In 1834 he was superannuated from all duty: but he still continued to occupy apartments in the Institution; and there he died, towards the close of his ninetieth year, January 5th, 1854.

In Greek and Latin Mr. Maltby was what is called a fair scholar: he was well read in Italian; his acquaintance with French and English literature was most extensive and accurate; in a knowledge of bibliography he has been surpassed by few: and the wonder was (as Mr. Rogers used frequently to observe) that, with all his devotion to study, and with all his admiration of the makers of books, he should never have come before the public in the character of an author.




I first saw Porson at the sale of Toup’s library in 1784, and was introduced to him soon after. I was on the most intimate terms with him for the last twenty years of his life. In spite of all his faults and failings, it was impossible not to admire his integrity and his love of truth.

Porson declared that he learned nothing while a schoolboy at Eton. “Before I went there,” he said, “I could nearly repeat by heart all the books which we used to read in the schools.” The only thing in his Eton course which he recollected with pleasure was—rat-hunting! he used to talk with delight of the rat-hunts in the Long Hall.

[296] During the earlier part of his career, he accepted the situation of tutor to a young gentleman in the Isle of Wight; but he was soon forced to relinquish that office, in consequence of having been found drunk in a ditch or a turnip-field.

The two persons to whom Porson had the greatest obligations were Sir George Baker, and Dr. Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph. Sir George once ventured to chide him for his irregularities—a liberty which Porson resented, and never forgave,[2] though he owed Sir George so much.

Porter was his favourite beverage at breakfast. One Sunday morning meeting Dr. Goodall (Provost of Eton), he said, “Where are you going?” “To church.” “Where is Mrs. Goodall?” “At breakfast.” “Very well; I’ll go and breakfast with her.” Porson accordingly presented himself before Mrs. Goodall; and being asked what he chose to take, he said “porter.” It was sent for, pot after pot; and the sixth pot was just being carried into the house when Dr. Goodall returned from church.

[297] At one period of his life he was in such straitened circumstances, that he would go without dinner for a couple of days. However, when a dinner came in his way, he would eat very heartily (mutton was his favourite dish), and lay in, as he used to say, a stock of provisions. He has subsisted for three weeks upon a guinea.

Sometimes, at a later period, when he was able enough to pay for a dinner, he chose, in a fit of abstinence, to go without one. I have asked him to stay and dine with me; and he has replied, “Thank you, no; I dined yesterday.”

At dinner, and after it, he preferred port to any other wine. He disliked both tea and coffee. Porson would sit up drinking all night, without seeming to feel any bad effects from it. 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 [298] Leicester Square.” “Oh,” replied Porson, “I will go with you;” and he accordingly did so. Soon after they had reached the coffee-house, Tooke contrived to slip out, and running home, ordered his servant not to let Mr. 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.”[3]

Tooke used to say that “Porson would drink ink rather than not drink at all.” Indeed, he would drink any thing. He was sitting with a gentleman, after dinner, in the chambers 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 [299] cottage a few miles from London, Porson, one afternoon, unexpectedly arrived there. Hoppner said that he could not offer him dinner, as Mrs. H. 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 alehouse; and accordingly staid 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 bedroom; so pray, try if you can lay your hands on it.” His host assured him that Mrs. H. 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 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!”

A brother of Bishop Maltby invited Porson and myself to spend the evening at his house, and [300] secretly requested me to take Porson away, if possible, before the morning hours. Accordingly, at twelve o’clock I held up my watch to Porson, saying, “I think it is now full time for us to go home;” and the host, of course, not pressing us to remain longer, away we went. “When we got into the street, Porson’s indignation burst forth; “I hate,” he said, “to be turned out of doors like a dog.”

At the house of the same gentleman I introduced Cogan to Porson, saying, “This is Mr. Cogan,[4] who is passionately fond of what you have devoted yourself to,—Greek.” Porson replied, “If Mr. Cogan is passionately fond of Greek, he must be content to dine on bread and cheese for the remainder of his life.”

Gurney (the Baron) had chambers in Essex Court, Temple, under Porson’s. One night (or rather, morning) Gurney was awakened by a tremendous thump in the chambers above. Porson had just come home dead drunk, and had fallen on the floor. Having extinguished his candle in the [301] fall, he presently staggered down stairs to relight it; and Gurney heard him keep dodging and poking with the candle at the stair-case lamp for about five minutes, and all the while very lustily cursing the nature of things.

Porson was fond of smoking, and said that when smoking began to go out of fashion, learning began to go out of fashion also.

He was generally ill-dressed and dirty. But I never saw him such a figure as he 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.

One forenoon I met Porson in Covent Garden, dressed in a pea-green coat: he had been married[5] that morning, as I afterwards learned from Raine, for he himself said nothing about it. He was carrying a copy of Le Moyen de Parvenir, which he had just purchased off a stall; and holding it up, [302] he called out jokingly, “These are the sort of books
to buy!”

“I was occupied two years,” said Porson, “in composing the Letters to Travis: I received thirty pounds for them from Egerton; and I am glad to find that he lost sixteen by the publication.” He once talked of writing an Appendix to that work. —In his later years he used to regret that he had devoted so much time to the study of theology.

Soon after the Letters to Travis were published, Gibbon wrote a note to Porson, requesting the pleasure of his acquaintance. Porson accordingly called upon the great historian, who received him with all kindness and respect. In the course of conversation Gibbon said, “Mr. Porson, I feel truly indebted to you for the Letters to Travis, though I must think that occasionally, while praising me, you have mingled a little acid with the sweet. If ever you should take the trouble to read my History over again, I should be much obliged and honoured by any remarks on it which might suggest themselves to you.” Porson was highly flattered by Gibbon’s having requested this interview, and loved to talk of it. He thought the Decline and Fall beyond all comparison [303] the greatest literary production of the eighteenth century, and was in the habit of repeating long passages from it. Yet I have heard him say that “there could not be a better exercise for a schoolboy than to turn a page of it into English.”

When the Letters to Travis first appeared, Rennell said to me, “It is just such a book as the devil would write, if he could hold a pen.”

As soon as Gibbon’s Autobiography and Miscellaneous Works came out, they were eagerly devoured both by Porson and myself. Neither of us could afford to purchase the quarto edition; so we bought the Dublin reprint in octavo.

There was no cordiality between Porson and Jacob Bryant, for they thought very differently not only on the subject of Troy, but on most other subjects. Bryant used to abuse Porson behind his back; and one day, when he was violently attacking his character, the Bishop of Salisbury, Dr. Douglas, said to him, “Mr. Bryant, you are speaking of a great man; and you should remember, sir, that even the greatest men are not without their failings.” Cleaver Banks, who was present on that occasion, remarked to me, “I shall always think [304] well of the Bishop for his generous defence of our friend.”

Porson was sometimes very rude in society. My relation, Dr. Maltby (Bishop of Durham), once invited him to meet Paley at dinner. Paley arrived first. When Porson (who had never before seen him) came into the room, he seated himself in an armchair, and looking very hard at Paley, said, “I am entitled to this chair, being president of a society for the discovery of truth, of which I happen at present to be the only member.” These words were levelled at certain political opinions broached in Paley’s works.

I have often wondered that Porson did not get into scrapes in those days, when it was so dangerous to express violent political feelings: he would think nothing of toasting “Jack Cade” at a tavern, when he was half-seas-over.

One day after dinner, at Clayton Jennings’s house, Captain Ash, who was always ready to warble, burst out, as usual, with a song. Now, Porson hated singing after dinner; and, while Ash was in the middle of his song, an ass happening to bray in the street, Porson interrupted the Captain with, “Sir, you have a rival.”

[305] He used frequently to regret that he had not gone to America in his youth and settled there. I said, “What would you have done without books?” He answered, “I should have done without them.”

At one time he had some thoughts of taking orders, and studied divinity for a year or two. “But,” said he, “I found that I should require about fifty years’ reading to make myself thoroughly acquainted with it—to satisfy my mind on all points, and therefore I gave it up. There are fellows who go into a pulpit, assuming every thing, and knowing nothing: but I would not do so.”

He said that every man ought to marry once. I observed that every man could not afford to maintain a family. “Oh,” replied he, “pap is cheap.”

He insisted that all men are born with abilities nearly equal. “Any one,” he would say, “might become quite as good a critic as I am, if he would only take the trouble to make himself so. I have made myself what I am by intense labour: sometimes, in order to impress a thing upon my memory, I have read it a dozen times, and transcribed it six.”[6]

[306] He once had occasion to travel to Norwich. When the coach arrived there, he was beset by several porters, one offering to carry his portmanteau to his lodging for eighteen-pence, another for a shilling, another for ninepence: upon which, Porson shouldered the portmanteau, and marching off with it, said very gravely to the porters, “Gentlemen, I leave you to settle this dispute among yourselves.” When, however, he went to stay with a friend for only a couple of days or so, he did not encumber himself with a portmanteau: he would merely take a shirt in his pocket, saying, “Omnia mea mecum porto.”

The time he wasted in writing notes on the margins of books—I mean, in writing them with such beauty of penmanship that they rivalled print—was truly lamentable.[7] And yet he used those very [307] books most cruelly, whether they were his own, or belonging to others: he would let them lie about his room, covered with dust and all sorts of dirt. He said that “he possessed more bad copies of good books than any private gentleman in England.”

When he lived in Essex Court, Temple, he would shut himself up for three or four days together, admitting no visitors to his chambers. One morning I went to call upon him there; and having inquired at his barber’s close by “if Mr. Porson was at home,” was answered “Yes, but he has seen no one for two days.” I, however, proceeded to his chambers, and knocked at the door more than once. He would not open it, and I came down stairs. As I was recrossing the court, Porson, who had perceived that I was the visitor, opened the window, and stopped me. He was then busy about the Grenville Homer, for which he collated the Harleian Ms. of the Odyssey. His labours on that work were rewarded with [308] £50 and a large-paper copy. I thought the payment too small, but Burney considered it as sufficient.

I told him one day that the examiners for the Cambridge University scholarship had just been greatly puzzled to find out which of the candidates was the best scholar. “Indeed!” said Porson: “I wish I had been there; I would have put a question or two which would have quickly settled the point.”

Postlethwaite[8] having come to London to attend the Westminster Examination, Porson called upon him, when the following dialogue (which I wrote down from Porson’s dictation) took place between them. Porson. “I am come, sir, to inform you that my fellowship will become vacant in a few weeks, in order that you may appoint my successor.” Postle. “But, Mr. Porson, you do not mean to leave us?” Porson. “It is not I who leave you, but you who dismiss me. You have done me every injury in your power. But I am not come to complain or expostulate.” Postle. “I did not know, Mr. Porson, you
were so resolved.” Porson. “You could not conceive, sir, that I should have applied for a lay-fellowship [309] to the detriment of some more scrupulous man, if it had been my intention to take orders.”

In 1792, Postlethwaite wrote a letter to Porson informing him that the Greek Professorship at Cambridge had fallen vacant. Here is an exact copy of
Porson’s answer:[9]

Sir,—When I first received the favour of your letter, I must own that I felt rather vexation and chagrin than hope and satisfaction. I had looked upon myself so completely in the light of an outcast from Alma Mater, that I had made up my mind to have no farther connexion with the place. The prospect you held out to me gave me more uneasiness than pleasure. When I was younger than I now am, and my disposition more sanguine than it is at present, I was in daily expectation of Mr. Cooke’s resignation, and I flattered myself with the hope of succeeding to the honour he was going to quit. As hope and ambition are great castle-builders, I had laid a scheme, partly, as I was willing to think, for the joint credit, partly for the mutual advantage, of[310] myself and the University. I had projected a plan of reading lectures, and I persuaded myself that I should easily obtain a grace permitting me to exact a certain sum from every person who attended. But seven years’ waiting will tire out the most patient temper; and all my ambition of this sort was long ago laid asleep. The sudden news of the vacant professorship put me in mind of poor Jacob, who, having served seven years in hopes of being rewarded with Rachel, awoke, and behold it was Leah!

Such, sir, I confess, were the first ideas that took possession of my mind. But after a little reflection, I resolved to refer a matter of this importance to my friends. This circumstance has caused the delay, for which I ought before now to have apologised. My friends unanimously exhorted me to embrace the good fortune which they conceived to be within my grasp. Their advice, therefore, joined to the expectation I had entertained of doing some small good by my exertions in the employment, together with the pardonable vanity which the honour annexed to the office inspired, determined me: and I was on the point of troubling you, sir, and the other electors with notice of my intentions to profess [311] myself a candidate, when an objection, which had escaped me in the hurry of my thoughts, now occurred to my recollection.

The same reason which hindered me from keeping my fellowship by the method you obligingly pointed out to me, would, I am greatly afraid, prevent me from being Greek Professor. Whatever concern this may give me for myself, it gives me none for the public. I trust there are at least twenty or thirty in the University equally able and willing to undertake the office; possessed, many, of talents superior to mine, and all of a more complying conscience. This I speak upon the supposition that the next Greek Professor will be compelled to read lectures: but if the place remains a sinecure, the number of qualified persons will be greatly increased. And though it were even granted, that my industry and attention might possibly produce some benefit to the interests of learning and the credit of the University, that trifling gain would be as much exceeded by keeping the Professorship a sinecure, and bestowing it on a sound believer, as temporal considerations are outweighed by spiritual. Having only a strong persuasion, not an absolute [312] certainty, that such a subscription is required of the Professor elect,—if I am mistaken, I hereby offer myself as a candidate; but if I am right in my opinion, I shall beg of you to order my name to be erased from the boards, and I shall esteem it a favour conferred on, sir,

Your obliged humble servant,

R. Porson.

Essex Court, Temple, 6th October, 1792.

When he was first elected Greek Professor,[10] he assured me that he intended to give public lectures in that capacity. I afterwards asked him why he had not given them. 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.”

I was with him one day when he bought Drakenborch’s Livy; and I said, “Do you mean to read through all the notes in these seven quarto volumes?” “I buy it at least,” he answered, “in [313] the hope of doing so some time or other: there is no doubt a deal of valuable information to be found in the notes; and I shall endeavour to collect that information. Indeed, I should like to publish a volume of the curious things which I have gathered in the course of my studies; but people would only say of it, We knew all this before.”

Porson had no very high opinion of Parr, and could not endure his metaphysics. One evening, Parr was beginning a regular harangue on the origin of evil, when Porson stopped him short by asking “what was the use of it?”—Porson, who shrunk on all occasions from praise of himself, was only annoyed by the eulogies which Parr lavished upon him in print. When Parr published the Remarks on Combe’s Statement, in which Porson is termed “a giant in literature,”[11] &c, Porson said, “How should Dr. Parr be able to take the measure of a giant?”

[314] Parr was evidently afraid of Porson,—of his intellectual powers. I might say too that Horne Tooke had a dread of Porson; but it was only the dread of being insulted by some rude speech from Porson in his drunkenness. Porson thought highly both of Tooke’s natural endowments and of his acquirements. “I have learned many valuable things from Tooke,” was what he frequently said; “yet I don’t always believe Tooke’s assertions,” was sometimes his remark.—(I knew Parr intimately. I once dined at Dilly’s with Parr, Priestley, Cumberland, and some other distinguished people. Cumberland, who belonged to the family of the Blandishes, bepraised Priestley to his face, and after he had left the party, spoke of him very disparagingly. This excited Parr’s extremest wrath. When I met him a few days after, he said, “Only think of Mr. Cumberland! that he should have presumed to talk before me,—before me, sir,—in such terms of my friend Dr. Priestley! Pray, sir, let Mr. Dilly know my opinion of Mr. Cumberland,—that his ignorance is equalled only by his impertinence, and that both are exceeded by his malice.”—Parr hated Dr. Horsley to such a degree that he never mentioned him [315] by any other name than the fiend.—Parr once said to Barker, “You have read a great deal, you have thought very little, and you know nothing.”)

One day Porson went down to Greenwich to borrow a book from Burney; and finding that Burney was out, he stepped into his library, pocketed the volume, and set off again for London. Soon after, Burney came home; and, offended at the liberty Porson had taken, pursued him in a chaise, and recovered the book. Porson talked to me of this affair with some bitterness: “Did Burney suppose,” he said, “that I meant to play his old tricks’?” (alluding to a well-known circumstance in the earlier part of Burney’s history).

I believe, with you, that Burney was indebted to Porson for many of those remarks on various niceties of Greek which he has given as his own in different publications, Porson once said to me, “A certain gentleman” (evidently meaning Burney) “has just been with me; and he brought me a long string of questions, every one of which I answered off-hand. Really, before people become schoolmasters, they ought to get up their Greek thoroughly, for they never learn any thing more of it [316] afterwards.”—I one day asked Burney for his opinion of Porson as a scholar. Burney replied, “I think my friend Dick’s acquaintance with the Greek dramatists quite marvellous; but he was just as well acquainted with them at the age of thirty as he is now: he has not improved in Greek since he added brandy-and-water to his potations, and took to novel-reading.” Porson would sometimes read nothing but novels for a fortnight together.

Porson felt much respect for Gilbert Wakefield’s integrity, but very little for his learning. When Wakefield put forth the Diatribe Extemporalis[12] on Porson’s edition of the Hecuba, Porson said, “if Wakefield goes on at this rate, he will tempt me to examine his Silva Critica. I hope that we shall not meet; for a violent quarrel would be the consequence.”—(Wakefield was a very agreeable and entertaining companion. “My Lucretius,” he once [317] said to me, “is my most perfect publication,—it is, in fact, Lucretius Restitutus.”[13] He was a great walker; he has walked as much as forty miles in one day; and I believe that his death was partly brought on by excessive walking, after his long confinement in Dorchester gaol. What offended Wakefield at Porson was, that Porson had made no mention of him in his notes. Now, Porson told Burney expressly, that out of pure kindness he had forborne to mention Wakefield; for he could not have cited any of his emendations without the severest censure.)

Dr. Raine, Dr. Davy, Cleaver Banks, and perhaps I may add myself, were the persons with whom Porson maintained the greatest intimacy.

Banks once invited Porson (about a year before his death) to dine with him at an hotel at the west end of London; but the dinner passed away without the expected guest having made his appearance. Afterwards, on Banks’s asking him why he had not kept his engagement, Porson replied (without entering into further particulars) that “he had come!” [318] and Banks could only conjecture, that the waiters, seeing Porson’s shabby dress, and not knowing who he was, had offered him some insult, which had made him indignantly return home.

“I hear,” said I to Porson, “that you are to dine to-day at Holland House.” “Who told you so?” asked he.—I replied, “Mackintosh.” “But I certainly shall not go,” continued Porson: “they invite me merely out of curiosity; and, after they have satisfied it, they would like to kick me down stairs.” I then informed him that Fox was coming from St. Anne’s Hill to Holland House for the express purpose of being introduced to him: but he persisted in his resolution; and dined quietly with Rogers and myself at Rogers’s chambers in the Temple. Many years afterwards, Lord Holland mentioned to Rogers that his uncle (Fox) had been greatly disappointed at not meeting Porson on that occasion.

Porson disliked Mackintosh; they differed in politics, and their reading had little in common.

One day Porson took up in my room a nicely bound copy of the Polycraticon (by John of Salisbury), and having dipped into it, said, “I must read this through;” so he carried it off. About a month [319] had elapsed, when calling at his chambers, I happened to see my beautiful book lying on the floor and covered with dust. This vexed me; and I mentioned the circumstance to Mr. Maltby (an elder brother of the Bishop of Durham), who repeated to Porson what I had said. A day or two after, I dined with Porson at Rogers’s: he swallowed a good deal of wine; and then began in a loud voice an indirect attack on me,—“There are certain people who complain that I use their books roughly,” &c. &c. I was quite silent; and when he found that I would not take any notice of his tirade, he dropped the subject.

When Porson was told that Pretyman[14] had been left a large estate by a person who had seen him only once, he said, “It would not have happened, if the person had seen him twice.”

Meeting me one day at a booksale, Porson said, “That * * * the Bishop of Lincoln (Tomline) has just passed me in the street, and he shrunk from my eye like a wild animal. What do you think he has had the impudence to assert? Not long ago, he [320] came to me, and, after informing me that Lord Elgin was appointed ambassador to the Porte, he asked me if I knew any one who was competent to examine the Greek manuscripts at Constantinople: I replied that I did not: and he now tells everybody that I refused the proposal of government that I should go there to examine those manuscripts!”—I do not believe that Porson would have gone to Constantinople, if he had had the offer. He hated moving; and would not even accompany me to Paris. When I was going thither, he charged me with a message to Villoison.

When Porson first met Perry after the fire in the house of the latter at Merton, he immediately inquired “if any lives had been lost?” Perry replied “No.” “Well,” said Porson, “then I shall not complain, though I have lost the labours of my life.” His transcript[15] of the Cambridge Photius, which was burnt in that fire, he afterwards replaced by patiently making a second transcript; but his numerous notes on Aristophanes, which had also been consumed, were irrecoverably gone.

[321] He used to call Bishop Porteus “Bishop Proteus” (as one who had changed his opinions from liberal to illiberal).

For the scholarship of that amiable man Bishop Burgess he felt a contempt which he was unable to conceal. He was once on a visit at Oxford in company with Cleaver Banks, where, during a supper-party, he gave great offence by talking of Burgess with any thing but respect. At the same supper-party, too, he offended Professor Holmes:[16] taking up an oyster which happened to be gaping, he exclaimed, Quid dignum tanto feret hic professor hiatu?[17] (substituting “professor” for “promissor”).

Porson, having good reason to believe that Matthias was the author of the Pursuits of Literature, used always to call him “the Pursuer of Literature.”

It was amusing to see Kidd in Porson’s company: he bowed down before Porson with the veneration due to some being of a superior nature, and seemed absolutely to swallow every word that dropped from his mouth. Porson acknowledged (and he was slow to praise) that Kidd was a very pretty scholar.”

Out of respect to the memory of Markland, Porson [322] went to see the house near Dorking, where he had spent his later years and where he died.

I need hardly say that he thought Tyrwhitt an admirable critic.

A gentleman who had heard that Bentley was born in the north, said to Porson, “Wasn’t he a Scotchman?” —“No, sir,” replied Porson; “Bentley was a Greek scholar.”

He said, “Pearson would have been a first-rate critic in Greek, if he had not muddled his brains with divinity.”

He had a high opinion of Coray as a scholar, and advised me by all means to purchase his Hippocrates.[18]

He liked Larcher’s translation of Herodotus, and, indeed, all Larcher’s pieces. At his recommendation I bought Larcher’s Mémoire sur Venus. He was a great reader of translations, and never wrote a note on any passage of an ancient author without first carefully looking how it had been rendered by the different translators.

Porson, of course, did not value the Latin writers so much as the Greek; but still he used to read many [323] of the former with great care, particularly Cicero, of whose Tusculan Disputations he was very fond.

For all modern Greek and Latin poetry he had the profoundest contempt. When Herbert published the Musæ Etonenses, Porson said, after looking over one of the volumes, “Here is trash, fit only to be put behind the fire.”

His favourite authors in Greek (as, I believe, every body knows) were the tragedians and Aristophanes; he had them almost by heart.

He confessed to me and the present Bishop of Durham (Maltby), that he knew comparatively little of Thucydides—that, when he read him, he was obliged to mark with a pencil, in almost every page, passages which he did not understand.

He dabbled a good deal in Galen.

He cared less about Lucian than, considering the subjects of that writer, you might suppose; the fact was, he did not relish such late Greek.

He sent Thomas Taylor[19] several emendations of [324] Plato’s text for his translation of that philosopher; but Taylor, from his ignorance of the Greek language, was unable to use them.

[325] A gentleman who, at the age of forty, wished to commence the study of Greek, asked Porson, with what books he ought to begin? Porson answered, “With one only — Scapula’s Lexicon; read it through from the first page to the last.” Of the editions of that work Porson most valued the Geneva one: he said that he had found in it several things which were not in the other editions.

He recommended Gesner’s Thesaurus in preference to all Latin dictionaries.

He read a vast number of French works, and used to say, “If I had a son, I should endeavour to make him familiar with French and English authors, rather than with the classics. Greek and Latin are only luxuries.”

Of Italian, I apprehend, he knew little or nothing.

[326] He delighted in Milton. “If I live,” he exclaimed, “I will write an essay to show the world how unjustly Milton has been treated by Johnson.” (George Steevens told me that Johnson said to him, “In my Life of Milton I have spoken of the Paradise Lost, not so much from my own convictions of its merit, as in compliance with the taste of the multitude.” A very old gentleman, who had known Johnson intimately, assured me that the bent of his mind was decidedly towards scepticism; that he was literally afraid to examine his own thoughts on religious matters; and that hence partly arose his hatred of Hume and other such writers.—Dr. Gosset (as he himself told me) once dined with Johnson and a few others at Dr. Musgrave’s (the editor of Euripides). During dinner, while Musgrave was holding forth very agreeably on some subject, Johnson suddenly interrupted him with, “Sir, you talk like a fool.” A dead silence ensued; and Johnson, perceiving that his rude speech had occasioned it, turned to Musgrave, and said, “Sir, I fear I have hurt your feelings.” “Dr. Johnson,” replied Musgrave, “I feel only for you.” I have often heard Mrs. Carter say, that, rude as Johnson might [327] occasionally be to others, both male and female, he had invariably treated her with gentleness and kindness. She perfectly adored his memory: and she used to read his Tour to the Hebrides once every year, thinking it, as I do, one of his best works.)

Porson was passionately fond of Swift’s Tale of a Tub, and whenever he saw a copy of it on a stall, he would purchase it. He could repeat by heart a quantity of Swift’s verses.

His admiration of Pope was extreme. I have seen the tears roll down his cheeks while he was repeating Pope’s lines To the Earl of Oxford, prefixed to Parnell’s Poems (and, indeed, I have seen him weep, while repeating other favourite passages,—the chorus in the Hercules Furens of Euripides, ἁ νεότας μοι φίλον, ἄχθος &c.) He thought Pope’s Homer, in the finest passages of the poem, superior to Cowper’s. One forenoon, while he was going over Pope’s villa at Twickenham, in company with Rogers and myself, he said, “Oh, how I should like to pass the remainder of my days in a house which was the abode of a man so deservedly celebrated!”

He was fond of Foote’s plays, and would often recite scenes from them.

[328] Junius was one of his favourite authors; he had many passages of him by heart.

He greatly admired and used often to repeat the following passage from the Preface to Middleton’s Free Inquiry:

I persuade myself that the life and faculties of man, at the best but short and limited, cannot be employed more rationally or laudably than in the search of knowledge; and especially of that sort which relates to our duty and conduces to our happiness. In these inquiries, therefore, wherever I perceive any glimmering of truth before me, I readily pursue and endeavour to trace it to its source, without any reserve or caution of pushing the discovery too far, or opening too great a glare of it to the public. I look upon the discovery of anything which is true as a valuable acquisition to society; which cannot possibly hurt or obstruct the good effect of any other truth whatsoever; for they all partake of one common essence, and necessarily coincide with each other; and like the drops of rain, which fall separately into the river, mix themselves at once with the stream, and strengthen the general current.

He liked Moore’s Fables for the Female Sex, and [329] I have heard him repeat the one which is entitled “The Female Seducers.”[20]

At a booksale, the auctioneer having put up Wilkes’s edition of Theophrastus, and praised it highly, Porson exclaimed, “Pooh, pooh, it is like its editor—of no character.” (I was very intimate with Wilkes. He felt excessively angry at the account given of him in Gibbon’s “Journal”—in the quarto edition of his Miscell. Works, i. 100—and said to me that “Gibbon must have been drunk when he wrote that passage.” The fact is, Lord Sheffield printed in the quarto edition only part of what Gibbon had written about Wilkes: if the whole of it had appeared there, as it afterwards did in the octavo edition, I have no doubt that Wilkes would have called out Lord Sheffield.)

Porson would often carry in his pocket a volume of A Cordial for Low Spirits.[21]

[330] On returning from a visit to the Lakes, I told Porson that Southey had said to me, “My Madoc has brought me in a mere trifle; but that poem will be a valuable possession to my family.” Porson answered, “Madoc will be read—when Homer and Virgil are forgotten” (a bon-mot which reached Lord Byron, and which his lordship spoilt[22]).

He disliked reading folios, “because,” said he, “we meet with so few mile-stones” (i. e. we have such long intervals between the turning over of the leaves).

The last book he ever purchased was Watson’s Horace; the last author he ever read was Pausanias.

When asked why he had written so little, Porson replied, “I doubt if I could produce any original work which would command the attention of posterity. I can be known only by my notes: and I am quite satisfied if, three hundred years hence, it shall [331] be said that ‘one Porson lived towards the close of the eighteenth century, who did a good deal for the text of Euripides.’”

The Letters on the Orgies of Bacchus, signed “Mythologus,” are undoubtedly by Porson. Kidd says that “his mind must have been overclouded”[23] at the time he wrote those Letters: which is not true; his mind was then in its soundest and most vigorous state. They show plainly enough what his opinions were. When any one said to him, “Why don’t you speak out more plainly on matters of religion?” he would answer, “No, no; I shall take care not to give mine enemies a hold upon me.” The New Catechism for the use of the Swinish Multitude (which Carlisle of Fleet Street reprinted) was also certainly by Porson. I transcribed it from a copy in his own handwriting.[24]

It is not known who wrote Six more Letters to [332] Granville Sharp, which, according to the title-page, are by Gregory Blunt. They were very generally attributed to Porson; and I have been in a bookseller’s shop with him, when a person has come in, and asked for “Mr. Porson’s remarks on Sharp.” I do not believe that he was the author of them; but I have little doubt that he gave some assistance to the author, particularly in the notes. He always praised the work, and recommended it to his friends.[25]

I have often heard him repeat the following lines, which, I presume, were his own composition:[26]

Poetis nos lætamur tribus,
Pye, Petro Pindar, parvo Pybus:
Si ulterius ire pergis,
Adde his Sir James Bland Burges.”

Porson thought meanly of the medical science, [333] and hated consulting physicians. He once said to me, “I have been staying with Dr. Davy at Cambridge: I was unwell, and he prevailed upon me to call in a physician, who took my money, and did me no good.”

During the earlier part of our acquaintance, I have heard him boast that he had not the slightest dread of death—declaring that he despised fabulæ aniles, and quoting Epicharmus (from Cicero[27]), &c. He was once holding forth in this strain, when Dr. Babington said to him, “Let me tell you, Porson, that I have known several persons who, though, when in perfect health, they talked as you do now, were yet dreadfully alarmed when death was really near them.”

A man of such habits as Porson was little fitted for the office of Librarian to the London Institution. He was very irregular in his attendance there; he never troubled himself about the purchase of books which ought to have been added to the library; and he would frequently come home dead-drunk long after midnight. I have good reason to believe that, had he lived, he would have been [334] requested to give up the office—in other words, he would have been dismissed. I once read a letter which he received from the Directors of the Institution, and which contained, among other severe things, this cutting remark—“We only know that you are our Librarian by seeing your name attached to the receipts for your salary.” His intimate friend, Dr. Raine, was one of those who signed that letter; and Raine, speaking of it to me, said, “Porson well deserved it.” As Librarian to the Institution, he had £200 a-year, apartments rent-free, and the use of a servant. Yet he was eternally railing at the Directors, calling them “mercantile and mean beyond merchandize and meanness.”

During the two last years of his life I could perceive that he was not a little shaken; and it is really wonderful, when we consider his drinking, and his total disregard of hours, that he lived so long as he did. He told me that he had had an affection of the lungs from his boyhood.


[1]Notices of Porson have already occurred in this volume: see pp. 79, 134, 217, 218, 219.—Ed. [These notes are reproduced below.]

[2] This seems to account for the statement in Beloe’s Sexagenarian (i. 234), viz. that Porson “all at once ceased to go to Sir George Baker’s house, and from what motive Sir George always avowed himself ignorant.”—Ed.

[3] In Stephens’s Memoirs of Home Tooke, vol. ii. 315, is an account of Porson’s rudeness to Tooke while dining with him one day at Wimbledon, and of Tooke’s silencing and triumphing over him by making him dead drunk with brandy; on which occasion “some expressions of a disagreeable nature are said to have occurred at table.”—At that dinner Tooke (as he told Mr. Maltby) asked Porson for a toast; and Porson replied, “I will give you—the man who is in all respects the very reverse of John Home Tooke.”—Ed.

[4] Not the Bath physician and author Thomas Cogan,—but Eliezer Cogan, a dissenting clergyman who kept a school at Walthamstow, and published Moschi Idyllia tria with Latin notes, some Sermons, &c.

[5] “In 1795, R. P. married Mrs. Lunan, who sunk under a decline in 1797.” Kidd’s Life of Porson, p. xv. She was sister to Perry, editor of The Morning Chronicle.—Ed.

[6] But he was certainly gifted by nature with most extraordinary powers of memory. Dr. Downie, of Aberdeen, told me that, during a visit to London, he heard Porson declare that he could repeat Smollett’s Roderick Random from beginning to end:—and Mr. Richard Heber assured me that soon after the appearance of the Essay on Irish Bulls (the joint production of Edgeworth and his daughter), Porson used, when somewhat tipsy, to recite whole pages of it verbatim with great delight.—Ed.

[7] Such was his rage for calligraphy, that he once offerred to letter the backs of some of Mr. Richard Heber’s vellum-bound classics. “No,” said Heber, “I won’t let you do that: but I shall be most thankful if you will write into an Athenæus some of those excellent emendations which i have heard from you in conversation.” Heber accordingly sent to him Brunck’s interleaved copy of that author (Casaubon’s edition); which Porson enriched with many notes. These notes were afterwards published in his Adversaria. The Athenæus is now in my possession.—Ed.

[8] Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.—Ed.

[9] This letter has been already printed; but in publications that are very little known.—Ed.

[10] In 1793, by an unanimous vote of the seven electors.—According to the printed accounts of Porson, he was prevented from giving lectures by the want of rooms for that purpose.—Ed.

[11] “But Mr. Porson, the re-publisher of Heyne’s Virgil, is a giant in literature, a prodigy in intellect, a critic, whose mighty achievements leave imitation panting at a distance behind them, and whose stupendous powers strike down all the restless and aspiring suggestions of rivalry into silent admiration and passive awe.” p. 13. This tract is not reprinted entire in the ed. of Parr’s Works. —Ed.

[12] On the publication of Porson’s Hecuba, Wakefield, in great agitation, asked Mr. Evans (the now retired bookseller) who was its editor? “Can you have any doubts?” replied Evans; “Mr. Porson, of course.”—“But,” said Wakefield, “i want proof,—positive proof.” “Well, then,” replied Evans, “I saw Mr. Porson present a large-paper copy to Mr. Cracherode, and heard him acknowledge himself the editor.” Wakefield immediately went home, and composed the Diatribe.—Ed.

[13] He sadly deceived himself: see the judgment passed on it by Lachmann in his recent admirable edition of Lucretius.—Ed.

[14] Then Bishop of Lincoln. A valuable estate was bequeathed to him by Marmaduke Tomline (a gentleman with whom he had no relationship or connection), on condition of his taking the name of Tomline.—Ed.

[15] Two beautifully written fragments of it (scorched to a deep brown) are in my possession.—Ed.

[16] The then Professor of Poetry.—Ed.

[17] Horace, Ars Poet. 138.—Ed.

[18] i. e. The Treatise of Hippocrates on Airs, Waters, and Places (in Greek and French), 2 vols.—Ed.

[19] With that remarkable person, Thomas Taylor, I was well acquainted. In Greek verbal scholarship he was no doubt very deficient (he was entirely self-taught); but in a knowledge of the matter of Plato, of Aristotle, of the commentators on Aristotle (themselves a library), of Proclus, of Plotinus, &c, he has never, I presume, been equalled by any Englishman. That he endeavoured to carry into practice the precepts of the ancient philosophers is sufficiently notorious: that he did so to the last hour of his existence I myself had a proof; the day before he died, i went to see him; and to my inquiry “how he was?” he answered, “i have passed a dreadful night of pain—but you remember what Posidonius said to Pompey” (about pain being no evil).

Chalmers, in his Biog. Dict., expresses his regret that he can tell so little about Floyer Sydenham, the excellent translator of Plato, and remarks that he “deserves a fuller account.” i give the following particulars concerning him on the authority of Taylor, who when a young man was intimate with Sydenham, and who, let me add, had a scrupulous regard to truth in whatever he stated.—Sydenham was originally a clergyman with a living of about £800 per annum; but, having fallen in love with a young lady whose father objected to his addresses because he was in the church, he threw up his living, and had recourse to the law as a profession. After all, it appears, he did not marry the fair one for whose sake he had sacrificed so much. Having made no progress at the bar, he entered the naval service, went abroad, endured many hardships, and finally worked his way back to England as a common sailor. He was far from young when he first applied himself to the study of Plato. During his later years Taylor became acquainted with him. On their first meeting, Sydenham shook Taylor cordially by the hand, and said he reckoned himself truly fortunate in having at last met with a real Platonist—deeply regretting his own want of familiarity with Proclus and Plotinus. He at that time lodged at the house of a statuary in the Strand. He was in very distressed circumstances; and regularly received two guineas a month from Harris (the author of Hermes). He used to dine at a neighbouring eating-house, where he had run up a bill of £40. This debt, as well as several other debts, he was unable to pay; and his acquaintances refused to discharge his bills, though they consented to maintain him during his abode in the Fleet-prison, where he was about to be confined. The night preceding the day on which he was to be carried to gaol he was found dead—having undoubtedly (as Taylor asserted) put an end to his existence. For some time before his death he had been partially insane: as he went up and down stairs, he fancied turkeys were gobbling at him, &c.—Ed.

[20] This now-forgotten poem was once very popular. Speaking of Dr. Mudge, “i remember,” said Northcote, “his once reading Moore’s fable of The Female Seducers with such feeling and sweetness that every one was delighted, and Dr. Mudge himself was so much affected that he burst into tears in the middle of it.” Hazlitt’s Conversations of Northcote, p. 89. At present Moore is only recollected as the author of The Gamester.—Ed.

[21] As the Cordial for Low Spirits, in three volumes, is now little read, I may mention that it is a very curious collection of controversial pieces, &c, some of which were written by Thomas Gordon (author of The Independent Whig), who edited the work. Its heterodoxy did not render it the less acceptable to Porson.—Ed.

[22] “Joan of Arc was marvellous enough; but Thalaba was one of those poems ‘which,’ in the words of Porson, ‘will be read when Homer and Virgil are forgotten—but—not till then.’” Note on English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.—Ed.

[23] Porson’s Tracts, p. xxxiii. note. The object of these Letters (originally printed in The Morning Chronicle, and reprinted in The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1797) is to point out, or rather to insinuate, the resemblance between the history of Bacchus and that of our Saviour. However they may shock the reader, at least they can do him no harm; the whole being quite as absurd as it is profane.—Ed.

[24] A gentleman informed me that Porson presented to him a copy of the Catechism—a printed copy.—Ed.

[25] These Six more Letters form a sort of supplement to a publication by the late Dr. Christopher Wordsworth, entitled Six letters to Granville Sharp, Esq., respecting his Remarks on the Uses of the Definitive Article in the Greek Text of the New Testament, 1802. In the “Advertisement” to Who wrote ΕΙΚΩΝ ΒΑΣΙΛΙΚΗ, &c., 1824, Dr. Wordsworth states that Porson “assured him privately” that the Six more Letters were not from his pen.—Ed.

[26] They are printed by Dubois, but very incorrectly, in his satire on Sir John Carr, My Pocket-Book, &c., p. 91.—Ed.

[27] Tusc. i. 8.—Ed.


[Porsoniana by Samuel Rogers (see above)]


Porson said that “Pitt carefully considered his sentences before he uttered them; but that Fox threw himself into the middle of his, and left it to God Almighty to get him out again.”[*]


There is no doubt that Matthias wrote The Pursuits of Literature; and a dull poem it is, though the notes are rather piquant.


In one of the notes was a statement that Beloe had received help from Porson in translating Alciphron. Porson accordingly went to Beloe, and said, “As you know that I did not help you, pray, write to Matthias and desire him to alter that note.” In a subsequent edition the note was altered.


When Porson dined with me, I used to keep him within bounds; but I frequently met him at various houses where he got completely drunk. Ho 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.[†]


I once took him to an evening party at William Spencer’s, where he was introduced to several women of fashion, Lady Crewe, &c, who were very anxious to see the great Grecian. How do you suppose he entertained them? Chiefly by reciting an immense quantity of old forgotten Vauxhall songs. He was far from sober, and at last talked so oddly, that they all retired from him, except Lady Crewe, who boldly kept her ground. I recollect her saying to him, “Mr. Porson, that joke you have borrowed from Joe Miller,” and his rather angry reply, “Madam, it is not in Joe Miller; you will not find it either in the preface or in the body of that work, no, nor in the index.” I brought him home as far as Piccadilly, where, I am sorry to add, I left him sick in the middle of the street.

When any one told Porson that he intended to publish a book, Porson would say, “Remember that two parties must agree on that point,—you and the reader.”

I asked him what time it would take him to translate The Iliad literally and correctly into English prose. He answered, “At least ten years.”

He used to say that something may be pleaded[219] as a sort of excuse for the wickedness of the worst characters in Shakespeare. For instance, Iago is tortured by suspicions that Othello has been too intimate with his wife; Richard the Third, the murderer of children, has been bitterly taunted by one of the young princes, &c.

“If I had a carriage,” said Porson, “and if I saw a well-dressed person on the road, I would always invite him in, and learn of him what I could.” Such was his love of knowledge!

He was fond of repeating these lines, and wrote them out for me;

“What[‡] fools are mankind,
And how strangely inclin’d,
To come from all places
With horses and chaises,
By day and by dark,
To the falls of Lanark!
For, good people, after all,
What is a water-fall ?
It cornes roaring and grumbling,
And leaping and tumbling,
And hopping and skipping,
And foaming and dripping;
[220] And struggling and toiling,
And bubbling and boiling;
And beating and jumping,
And bellowing and thumping.
I have much more to say upon
Both Linn and Bonniton;
But the trunks are tied on,
And I must be gone.”

These lines evidently suggested to Southey his playful verses on The Cataract of Lodore.

[*] Porson was thinking of Sterne. “I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.” Tristram Shandy, vol. v. 192, ed. 1775.—Ed.

[†] Mr. Maltby (see notice prefixed to the Porsoniana in this vol.), who was present when Mr. Rogers told the above anecdote, said, “I have seen Porson do so.”—Ed.

[‡] From Garnett’s Tour in Scotland, vol. ii. 227. They were found in an album kept at the inn at Lanark.—Ed.



Ash, 304.


Baker, Sir George, 296.

Banks, 303, 317, 318, 321.

Barker, 315.

Bentley, 322.

Bryant, 303.

Burgess, 321.

Burney, 307, 315, 316.

Byron, Lord, 330.

CARTER, Mrs., 326.

Cogan, 300.

Coray, 322.

Cumberland, 314.

Davy, 317, 333.

Douglas, 303.

Egerton, 302.

Elgin, Lord, 320.

Fox, 318.

GIBBON, 302, 303.

Goodall, 296.

Gosset, 326.

Gurney, 300, 301.


Herbert, 323.

Holland, Lord, 318.

Holmes, 321.

Hoppner, 298, 299.

Horsley, 314.


Johnson, 326.

KIDD, 321.


MACKINTOSH, Sir James, 318.

Maltby, William, passim.

Maltby, Bishop, 304, 323.

Maltby, Mr. brother to the Bishop, 299, 319.

Markland, 322.

Matthias, 321.

Musgrave, 326.

PALEY, 304.

Parr, 313, 314, 315.

Pearson, 322.

Perry, 320.

Porson, Richard, passim.

Porteus, 321.


Postlethwaite, 308, 309.

Pretyman (afterwards Tomline), 319.

Priestley, 314.

RAINE, 301, 317.

Rogers, 318, 319.

SHEFFIELD, Lord, 329.

Shipley, 296.

Southey, 330.

Stephens, 326.

TAYLOR, 323.

Tooke, 297, 298, 314.

Tyrwhitt, 322.


WAKEFIELD, 316, 317.

Wilkes, 329.


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