Get Bent! (ley)

Dynamic and divisive figures like Bentley are apt to leave in their wake a mass of biographical recollection neatly divided into hagiography and hate. Though the average person may be surprised to learn that some of the most bitterly partisan divisions outside of politics can be found within the realm of scholarship, there is a long tradition of scholarly work serving as the basis of personal animus, and there are few scholars whose work ignited as much passionate controversy in the broader literary world as did Richard Bentley. While famous among Classical scholars, Bentley is largely forgotten to the broader intellectual world, except to those who recall him as the butt of the joke in Pope’s Dunciad and Swift’s Battle of the Books. Our man Bentley, a graduate of St. John’s College, Oxford, spent much of the 1680s in the household of Edward Stillingfleet before rolling on to the scholarly scene in the 1690s with two works which display what Gibbon would call “a stock of erudition which would have puzzled a doctor.”

Bentley’s Letter to Mill and Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris represent apparently epochal moments in the history of English Classical scholarship, and they were certainly important. Yet there is a temptation to regard Bentley’s work as wholly sui generis, if for no other reason than because his towering genius and the fame accruing to him for his polemical savagery place him so high in the pantheon of English scholarship that his predecessors have been largely effaced from memory. (Indeed, so strong is this tendency, that C.O. Brink’s volume on English Classical scholarship was entitled Bentley, Porson, Housman – not because there were no other English Classical scholars, but rather because these three are so manifestly preeminent as to force the rest into the unenviable position of ambient historical noise.) One may compare Bentley’s reputation with that of his contemporary, Isaac Newton. While Newton, too, was working within a tradition of scientific work laid out before him, the singularity of his individual achievement led to the elision of his predecessors.

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In her study Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment, Kristine Louise Haugen positions Bentley within a well-established set of scholarly work in 17th century England. A chapter on Restoration Cambridge lays the ground for understanding Bentley’s development by analyzing the work of Thomas Stanley, John Pearson, and Thomas Gale. Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy, a scholarly engagement with Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers, sought to augment and correct the biographies which Laertius wrote. Much of the value of this work is attributed to Stanley’s extensive compilation of chronological and biographical material supplemental to Diogenes. Stanley also produced the “first large-scale edition of a classical poet ever published” with his Aeschylus. Stanley was not endowed with the same keen power for textual criticism which characterized Bentley, and Haugen notes that it is his preoccupation with and commentary upon the more strictly literary qualities of the text which set him apart from Bentley, whose own process inclined toward commenting only upon textual problems in need of remedy.

While Thomas Stanley played the literary gentleman, John Pearson was the polemical scholar whose edition of the philosopher Hierocles dove into the weeds of commentary upon pseudo-Pythagorean verses with a hint of polemical fire. Haugen paints Pearson as something like a Mr. Casaubon (not the scholar, but the character from Middlemarch), who “evidently never hit on the reigning ideas that could have turned his masses of notes into a meaningful narrative or a decisive editorial procedure.” [p.30] Pearson was also the author of the Vindication of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, which set a precedent for Bentley in its striving to find a way to blend scholarship and polemic.

The methods of Thomas Gale approach more closely to the methodical rigor of Bentley. Gale composed a series of comments and notes upon the Library of Apollodorus. Haugen devotes some pages to explicating Gale’s methods by analyzing his approach to the corruptions at Apollodorus 1.9.26. Gale’s approach drew on comparative analysis between passages in Apollodorus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Hesychius, Strabo, and a scholiast in order to restore Apollodorus’ text. She notes the parallel between the method of comparative reading in Gale’s work and that in Bentley’s Horace of 1711, and demonstrates that Bentley’s approach, though it was both criticized and ridiculed, simply represented the employment of an established scholarly procedure. Bentley’s fault was in offending the sensibilities of 18th century literary gentlemen, for whom the received text was regarded as canon passed down to them from their school days, and reinforced through a series of endless and ostentatious quotations in periodical publication.

Bentley’s major works can be separated into roughly three periods: the polemical works on obscure books (Letter to Mill and Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris) in the 1690’s; the scholarly analysis of canonical literature (Horace, New Testament, Terence, and the discovery of digamma in the works of Homer); and his preoccupation with the figure of the meddling editor (in his edition of Manilius, and in the much maligned edition of Paradise Lost).

Bentley’s intellectual development was fostered by privileged patronage. For all that has been made about “Bentley’s idexes”, it is worth noting that one cannot embark profitably on the project of indexing unless one has access to books. In 1682, Bentley became the tutor to James Stillingfleet, the younger son of Edward Stillingfleet. This position involved more than simply educating young James. Bentley was a member of the household, and served as an all-purpose toady for Stillingfleet: amanuensis, ghost writer, and procurer of books. In this last function, it serves to note that Bentley was charged with purchasing volumes for Stillingfleet’s library, a task which on some occasions led to the acquisition of rare or useful classical books. Moreover, Bentley’s position also meant that he had access to the whole of Stillingfleet’s library, and it would be hard to overstate the effect which access to such a treasury would have had on Bentley’s later stock of erudition. Later, owing in part to the boost in life granted him by Stillingfleet’s patronage, Bentley was made Keeper of the Royal Library in 1693. We are perhaps liable now to underestimate the value of access to information in light of the relative cheapness of both books and information today. While Bentley was undoubtedly endowed with a remarkably acute intellect, one must concede that he would not have become the colossus of English classical scholarship were it not for the patronage of the rich and powerful.

Bentley rolled on to the public scholarly scene in 1691 with his Letter to Mill, which is ostensibly intended as commentary upon Mill’s edition of the Byzantine historian John Malalas. The story goes that Bentley wanted to see the edition before its publication, and Mill agreed to let him take a look in exchange for penning a commentary essay on it. The text of Malalas as it stood offered fertile ground for Bentley’s intellect, and what was supposed to be simply some “remarks” morphed into a full blown essay, focused in large part on Greek drama. Haugen judges that the “Letter to Mill was largely the work of an autodidact, with all of the freedoms and some of the deficiencies that this implies.” [p.82] Yet it is perhaps this very sense of freedom which makes Bentley’s scholarship so novel and invigorating.

The Battle of the Books (or The Quarrel Between Ancients and Moderns) has been forgotten by the public at large, perhaps because the debate has been so firmly settled on the side of modernity, but it was still capable of exciting tempers at the end of the 17th century, and served as the foundation for Bentley’s famous Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris. The epistles were literary forgeries (or playful literary exercises) written in the persona of Phalaris, the tyrant of Akragas, who cooked his enemies inside a brazen bull which he kept at his court. Many astute readers had long seen that the Epistles were not actually written by the tyrant himself, but that did not prevent Sir William Temple from blundering his way into citing them as proof for his claim that the achievements of antiquity far surpassed those of the modern world. Temple described the Epistles as having “more Race, more Spirit, more Force of Wit and Genius than any others I have ever seen, either antient or modern.” William Wotton, one of Bentley’s friends, penned a response to Temple arguing for the superiority of modern achievement, and published it along with the 78 page first edition of the Dissertation, composed by Bentley, which showed that the Epistles were neither original, nor as ancient as Temple had supposed. This led to a counterattack by Francis Atterbury, which in turn drove Bentley to publish a substantially enlarged, 540 page edition of the Dissertation. Unsurprisingly, the second edition of the Dissertation was far more diffuse and digressive than the first, and it does more than simply prove its point about the Epistles – it provides commentary upon and solutions to a wide range of textual and chronographic problems which are tangentially related to issues suggested by the Epistles themselves.

The expanded Dissertation makes for a tough read, but Haugen does an admirable job of summarizing the key arguments and conclusions, with helpful notes on Bentley’s method of scholarly exposition. It is unlikely that readers today would take sufficient interest in the controversy to read through Bentley’s work, and even a Classical scholar can be forgiven for feeling somewhat stupefied when confronted with the sheer mass of intimidating erudition which Bentley drew up for the book. Yet, the expanded edition was written and published with remarkable haste (released only one year after Atterbury’s attack), suggesting that this was all material which Bentley had ready in the chamber. Nevertheless, the literary world found the massive display of erudition distasteful, and served as the basis for the ridicule which Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope leveled against Bentley in The Battle of the Books and The Dunciad. Moreover, the 1699 publication of the Dissertation marks the end of Bentley’s publication in the realm of the rarefied and minutely obscure, as he ceased after this point to write on forgotten Greek works, and turned his attention to something a bit more canonical.

Bentley’s edition of Horace, published in 1712, exposed him to broader public notice than his earlier works on account of Horace’s widespread popularity as a gentleman’s reading material. The broad popularity and canonical status of that poet meant that many of Bentley’s contemporaries had learned Horace by heart in their school days. Thus, when Bentley produced a triple decker quarto edition of Horace consisting of over 700 pages (more than 400 of which were devoted to his notes and commentary), it is not surprising that Horace’s drawing room readers were disconcerted and even offended by Bentley’s apparent audacity. Much of the impetus for the publication came from Bentley’s position at the head of Cambridge University Press, which was busily engaged in the project of releasing ‘editions’ – that is, collected volumes of a single author’s work – in an effort to catch up with the rival Oxford University Press.

Haugen spends some time examining Bentley’s method in emending the text of Horace, which marked a departure from the scholarly practice of the Letter and the Dissertation. In each of those works, Bentley was offering broader scholarly commentary on particular issues, not trying to correct the problems of a single text. And so, where his previous publications relied heavily on the marshalling of masses of erudition, Bentley relied far more on his own innate critical and aesthetic genius to produce the conjectures in his edition of Horace. This could on occasion produce the right result, but Bentley’s enthusiasm for emendation (Haugen notes that nearly every page of Bentley’s text features some deviation from the received text) suggests that he got a bit carried away by his own critical spirit. As such, Bentley’s edition of Horace, while surely a work of critical genius in its own right, is nevertheless remembered today more for the interest of its methods and arguments than for its textual soundness.

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Bentley’s later work is still suffused with his characteristic critical acuity and deep erudition, but there is something less immediately gratifying about the metrical arcana of his edition of Terence, or the marked emphasis on manuscript work (as contrasted to conjectural enthusiasm in his Horace) found in his New Testament work. Haugen’s chapter Vi Commodavi provides a clear and readable account of Bentley’s metrical expertise and its bearing on his edition of Terence, but it is hard to imagine a reader waking up early to peruse these pages unless they are already captivated by the subject of meter. While the documentation and explication of Bentley’s later work are all just as thoroughgoing as in earlier chapters, it is Bentley’s work itself which lacks the potent polemical interest of the early publications. Perhaps it is because we see here Bentley the scholar, while the Letter and the Dissertation presented us with Bentley the bumptious genius.

Of course, no study of Bentley would be complete without a treatment of his most embarrassing mistake: his edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The publication of critical editions of English poets was not wholly unexampled, as is clear from Pope’s own critical edition of Shakespeare, but Bentley’s mangling of Milton was ill-conceived, and may be more responsible for the posthumous ridicule which he received than were the attacks leveled against him by Pope and Swift. Bentley thought that he detected errors in Milton’s epic which had been introduced intentionally by a shadowy and malicious figure known as the Editor. Having postulated the existence of this literary villain, Bentley could then frame his conjectural emendation of Paradise Lost as a restoration of Milton’s true intent, and not an attempt to correct Milton’s diction by the standards of Bentleian genius.

In her discussion of this colossal wreck of abortive scholarship, Haugen draws the connection between Bentley’s anti-editorial crusade in his Milton to a similar impulse characterizing his edition of the Roman astronomical poet, Manilius. Although he had begun his edition of Manilius decades before its publication in 1739, it is characterized more by the preoccupation with evil interpolators found in his Milton (1732) than it is with the broad scholarship which had interested him in the 1680s-1690s. “At the same time, it is quite possible that the Paradise Lost edition stood behind the final form of Bentley’s Manilius, centrally devoted as both editions were to exposing the work of spectacularly active interpolators.” [p.212]

Haugen’s study of Bentley is engaging, and one could easily spend months reading it to mine a full history of 17th and 18th century English scholarship from its pages. Certainly, it does not have the same racy and gossipy quality which can be found in Jebb’s or Monk’s biographies. The latter two gentlemen were certainly concerned with Bentley’s scholarship, and addressed the intellectual side of his life, but they were also far more keen to include extensive details about Bentley’s disastrously pugnacious life as the head of Trinity College. In eschewing the more gossipy (though exceptionally entertaining) bits of Bentley’s life and focusing in such detail both on the development of Bentley’s intellect and the history of his intellectual milieu stemming from the work of scholars in Restoration era Cambridge, Haugen has provided an essential volume for anyone who has anything more than a passing interest in the history of scholarship.


One thought on “Get Bent! (ley)

  1. A great book length treatment of the battle of the books is, well, “The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age” by Joseph M. Levine.

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