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The Tremendous, Ferocious Bentley

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Richard Bentley, from the book Gallery of Portraits, 1833

Among the literary giants of eighteenth-century England Richard Bentley is less famous today than Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, or Edward Gibbon, but his reputation was huge at the time. Gibbon referred to him as “the tremendous Bentley.” Even before 1700, when he began, at the age of thirty-eight, a stormy tenure as master of Trinity College in Cambridge, he had already won public recognition in both classical studies and theological debate, and his reputation continued to grow until his death in 1742.

In the Dunciad Pope mercilessly mocked Bentley’s achievements as a critic, but Gibbon found in Bentley’s polemical style a model for his own Vindication of the notorious fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the Decline and Fall, on early Christianity. Through his prowess as an editor and critic of texts in Greek and Latin, Bentley not only reached the lofty level of scholars of the previous century, above all Joseph Scaliger, but got there by publishing his most devastating criticism in English rather than Latin, despite his impeccable command of Latin. His critical acumen and ferocious style, in scholarship, sermons, and pamphlets, outlasted his own century and ultimately inspired A.E. Housman in the twentieth to assume Bentley’s formidable mantle when he prepared his magisterial texts of Latin authors.

Bentley, born in 1662, took holy orders in 1690, after seven years as tutor to the son of the Reverend Edward Stillingfleet in London. By then he was already well embarked upon an audacious program of scholarly research on some of the most difficult and obscure texts from classical antiquity—the Greek lexicon of Hesychius, the Latin astronomical poem in five books by Manilius, and the Greek books of Philostratus, including the biography of the wonder-worker Apollonius of Tyana. Once established as a deacon of the Anglican Church, Bentley soon became an eloquent champion of orthodoxy in opposition to a growing chorus of dissidents and radical thinkers, and this led to his installation as the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1717.

In her new biography of Bentley, Kristine Louise Haugen is by no means the first to comment on the apparent incongruity of Bentley’s careers as a churchman and a scholar. For her, “Bentley the churchman and Bentley the scholar were two discernibly different creatures.” She has built her work, as she fully acknowledges, on the magnificent biography of Bentley that James Henry Monk published in 1830, and it is praise enough to say that her thorough and well-documented account supplements his without replacing it.

The greatest strength of Haugen’s book is its close attention to the scholarly achievements of Bentley. But she might have paid more attention to the phenomenal projects that Bentley had under way in the 1680s, when he was still in his twenties, and well before his public debut with the Letter to Mill of 1691, a groundbreaking work of scholarship published as an appendix to an edition of the work of the sixth-century-AD Byzantine historian John Malalas and addressed to the young scholar John Mill, who prepared the text. The new edition of Philostratus that Bentley was preparing in this period seems to have eluded Haugen altogether, even though his copious annotations survive, together with specimen sheets of a proposed printed text. His annotated copy of the lexicon of the fifth-century-AD Alexandrian scholar Hesychius is, as Haugen knows, in Trinity College, Cambridge. The annotations in his early hand illustrate just how far he had advanced in his work on this difficult Greek dictionary, to which he returned in later years.

As for the first-century-AD Latin poet Marcus Manilius, Bentley’s correspondence and his own public remarks in the following decade show that he had been contemplating publication of a new edition. The actual publication had to wait some five decades, but, as G.P. Goold, Manilius’ finest editor in recent times, observed in 1963, “Many indications conspire to suggest that the best part of the notes was executed in these early years.” It is hard to fathom how Haugen could claim, after surveying the youthful work on Hesychius, that Bentley “did not embark on any edition of Latin poetry until his Horace, begun in 1702.”

The Letter to Mill is so stupendous in its impact because it drew upon all the learning that Bentley had accumulated in the preceding decade, particularly an ongoing study of the fragments of Greek poetry, some of which were preserved in the Chronography of Malalas, which was the ostensible subject of the Letter to Mill. A few years later Bentley produced, in two versions (one short and one very long), his celebrated demonstration that the admired letters of a Sicilian ruler called Phalaris in the sixth century BC were neither authentic nor ancient. This Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris, in its second, longer form of 1699, remains as dazzling now as it was when it was written, even if Bentley, who always warmed to polemic, could not restrain himself from overkill. Gibbon wryly observed, “The Epistles of Phalaris have been pronounced spurious after a much fuller hearing than they deserved.”

Haugen continues the record of Bentley’s achievements across a broad spectrum, including his legendary edition of the poems of Horace that appeared in 1712 and a meticulous analysis of the impact of the archaic Greek letter digamma (F) on the hexameter verse of Homer. Bentley is sometimes wrongly credited with discovering the digamma, which had vanished from most Greek dialects some time before Homer’s epics were written down in the seventh century BC, but his insight into its effect on Homeric poetry was undoubtedly original. Bentley found that the digamma, when restored to certain portions of Homer’s text, would allow proper metrical scansion in lines that had not previously scanned correctly. He also launched a project to produce a new edition of the New Testament. He finally published, in 1739, a few years before he died, the edition of Manilius’ poem, the Astronomica, that he had come close to publishing over forty years before.

As an editor of an ancient author, Bentley was conscious of the need to consult the surviving manuscripts on which the text had to be based as well as previous printed editions with conjectures on passages that were “corrupt”—i.e., had been incorrectly altered. But he is best known today for his unshakable conviction that a truly gifted scholar, such as himself, could detect corruptions in a text even when the manuscripts were in agreement, and could intuit the correct reading both from the context and, perhaps more importantly, from an innate talent for divination. His doctrine is best known from his edition of Horace where he appeals to ratio et res ipsa (“reason and the thing in itself”) as the foundation of editing. This, he wrote, “count[s] for more than a hundred manuscripts, especially when the old Vatican manuscript agrees with me.” Haugen is certainly right when she says, “We are allowed to suspect that within the limits of the rhetoric, Bentley’s reason counts for more than manuscripts primarily because it is Bentley’s reason.”

In his Horace Bentley introduced corrections into the text of a poet whose work was very well known to students and cultivated readers of the age. Haugen thinks that familiarity with Horace was “a mark of social distinction,” and perhaps it was, but this does not warrant calling the poet “the archetypal master of the artfully expressed commonplace.” W.H. Auden is on record as saying that of all the ancient Roman poets Horace was the only one he really liked, and Auden knew a thing or two about lyric poetry.

What Bentley did for the poems of Horace was brilliant if not always persuasive, and one notorious example will suffice to illustrate this. In the third poem of the first book of Odes, the poet praises the courage of the world’s first seafarer, who confronted powerful winds, turbulent seas, and terrifying sea monsters with equanimity—siccis oculis (“dry-eyed”). Bentley argued at length that no human being would ever conceivably weep in the face of danger and therefore that the dry eyes of the primal seafarer were absurd. The text had to be emended to rectis oculis (“with eyes looking straight ahead”), for which Bentley provided ample parallels.

Arguments against Bentley’s emendation have been almost as bizarre as his own in support of it. In today’s standard commentary on the Odes, we read, with reference to this passage, “Ancient southerners showed their emotions much more freely than modern Englishmen (Elizabethans were different). In particular they were readier to scream during a storm.”1 But the shade of Bentley would ask even now, “Yes, but were they readier to weep?”

Haugen builds her story into a tragic finale with Bentley’s catastrophic 1732 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which the methods and critical judgment that had served him so well in treating classical texts ultimately proved disastrous in editing a masterpiece in his own language. Proceeding from the assumption that the blind Milton was traduced by an ignorant and intrusive editor who corrupted the text that the poet had dictated, Bentley imposed grotesque alterations upon Milton’s epic, as reviewers immediately noticed. He made one of his most infamous corrections by eliminating the words “darkness visible” (I.63), which “serv’d only to discover sights of woe,” because he found it impossible for darkness to discover sights of woe rather than cover and hide them. So Milton’s immortal darkness visible was replaced by Bentley’s absurd reading, “a transpicuous gloom.”

It remains a mystery to this day how Bentley could have gone so wrong. George Goold’s simple solution was that Bentley did not know the language and meter of English nearly so well as Latin, but that is clearly inadequate, as the foregoing examples illustrate. Haugen tries to address this conundrum by assessing the Milton and Manilius editions in parallel: “I read Bentley’s Manilius and his Paradise Lost against one another…because the two editions worked as multiple, and related, acts of positioning for Bentley as a scholar.” But that is no help. The Paradise Lost was an utter failure. By contrast, the Manilius edition is a work of genius, as any Latinist from the eighteenth century down to the present would agree, and its influence among the greatest practitioners of textual criticism in modern times has been enormous. In writing of Bentley, Housman asserted without hesitation, “His Manilius is a greater work than either the Horace or the Phalaris,” and in comparing Bentley with Scaliger, his predecessor in editing Manilius, he wrote, “Scaliger at the side of Bentley is no more than a marvellous boy.” He singled out Bentley’s “lucidity, his sanity, his just and simple and straightforward fashion of thought.” The editor of Paradise Lost is unrecognizable here.

To understand what happened we have to remember that the Manilius edition was ready for the printer before 1700. As late as 1724 Bentley’s nephew Thomas wrote him from Rome that he was looking forward to the publication of his uncle’s Manilius before his New Testament would appear. Meanwhile, another nephew, Richard, son of Bentley’s brother Joseph, was reading the proofs of the Milton edition in 1731 and wisely urged a halt to the publication. It is tempting to think that the reception of his Paradise Lost made Bentley realize how perceptive the young Richard had been.

  1. 1

    R.G.M. Nisbet and Margaret Hubbard, A Commentary on Horace: Odes Book 1 (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 51–52. 

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