‘The Colloquial Readiness of a Vulgar Mechanic’

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship Vol. II

Joshua Barnes (1654 — 17 12), of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, began his literary career by producing a fanciful little volume written in English, but interspersed with Greek verses, called Gerania or ‘News from the Pygmies’ (1675) Elected Fellow of Emmanuel three years later, he became Professor of Greek at Cambridge in 1695. In the previous year he had edited the whole of Euripides in a single folio volume, an edition reprinted at Leipzig and Oxford. This was followed by his Anacreon (1705), which attained a second edition. Finally he embarked on an edition of Homer, for which he failed to find a publisher. Its publication in 1710-1 was only made possible by his persuading his wife, who had inherited a small fortune from her first husband, that the real author of the Homeric poems was Solomon. With all its imperfections, it has been recognised as a work of greater utility than any of its predecessors, and ninety years elapsed before any distinctly superior edition appeared. The editor’s facility in writing and in speaking Greek was remarkable. When the Greek archbishop of Philippopolis visited Cambridge in 1701, Barnes, at the request of the Vice-Chancellor, presented him for an honorary degree in a Greek speech that is ‘still preserved’. In the preface to his poem on Esther, he tells us that he found it easier to write his annotations in Greek than in Latin, or in English. There was nothing, however trivial, that he could not turn into Greek. Bentley, who fully acknowledged his ‘singular industry’ and ‘most diffuse reading’, used to say that he understood about as much Greek ‘as an Athenian blacksmith’, presumably implying that he had rather the ‘colloquial readiness of a vulgar mechanic’ than the erudition, taste and judgement of a scholar. In the year after the publication of his Homer he died, and was buried at Hemingford Abbot in Huntingdonshire. Greek Anacreontics were written for his monument, but a Cambridge wit suggested a terser epitaph describing him as felicis memoriae, expectans judicium. Barnes, in his edition of Euripides, had accepted the ‘Epistles of Euripides’ as the genuine writings of the poet; Dodwell, in his treatise De Cyclis Veterum, had followed the data presented by the ‘Epistles of Phalaris’ in determining certain points of chronology. The errors of both were happily corrected when the spuriousness of the Epistles of Phalaris and of Euripides was conclusively proved by Bentley, who is the foremost representative of the next period of Scholarship.”



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