Richard Porson, the Devil, and the Vanity of Ornamental Learning

“Porson was once travelling in a stage-coach, when a young Oxonian, fresh from college, was amusing the ladies with a variety of small talk, to which he added a quotation, as he said, from Sophocles. A Greek quotation, and in a stage-coach too, roused our professor, who, in a dog-sleep, was slumbering in one corner of the vehicle. Rubbing his eyes, ‘I think, young gentleman,’ said Porson, ‘you just now favoured us with a quotation from Sophocles; I don’t happen to recollect it there.’ ‘Oh? Sir,’ replied the Oxonian, ‘the quotation is word for word as I repeated it, and in Sophocles too; but I suspect, Sir, it is some time since you were at college.’ Porson, applying his hand to his great coat, took out a small pocket edition of Sophocles, and handed it to our tyro, saying he should be much obliged if he would show him the passage in that little book. Having rummaged the pages for some time, ‘Upon second thoughts,’ said the Oxonian, ‘I now recollect ’tis in Euripides.’—’Then,’ said the professor, putting his hand into his pocket, and handing him a similar edition of that author, ‘perhaps you will be so good as to find it for me in that little book.’—He returned again to his task, but with no better success, muttering to himself—’Curse me if ever I quote Greek again in a coach.’ The ladies tittered: at last, ‘Bless me, Sir,’ said he, ‘how dull I am! I recollect now,—yes, yes, I perfectly remember, the passage is in Aeschylus.’ This inexorable professor applied again to his inexhaustable pocket, and was in the act of handing an Aeschylus to the astonished freshman, when he vociferated—’Stop the coach,—hollo,—coachman let me out, I say,—instantly let me out; there’s a fellow here has got the whole Bodleian Library in his pocket; let me out, I say—let me out, he must be Porson or the Devil!’”

-Facetiae Cantabrigienses pp 133-4, (London: William Cole, 1825)

4 thoughts on “Richard Porson, the Devil, and the Vanity of Ornamental Learning

    1. I’m glad that you liked it! This is certainly one of my favorite anecdotes about Classical scholars.

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