Mark Pattison and Scholarly Misery

“The common cause is overmuch study; too much learning hath made thee mad.”
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

We scholars are all miserable, but from the historical list of sad sacks, none seems sadder than Mark Pattison. His name is much forgotten outside of academic circles and close readers of Middlemarch, and it is that oblivion which renders his case even more affecting. Perhaps he was just born to be miserable, but I think that one could make the case that Pattison read himself into his misery. The early pages of Pattison’s Memoirs reveal his youthful obsession with reading. Assuming that it is not mere backward telescoping, Pattison suggests that his bibliomania was, apart from a withdrawn self-loathing, the most consistent part of his character.

I had read much more than most boys of my age, but I did not seem to understand anything. […] I read enormously. Constable’s Miscellany, Murray’s Family Library, the publications of the Useful Knowledge Society, were coming out at that time; we took them all, and I read them. I read ten times as much as I remembered; what is more odd, I read far more than I ever took in the sense of as I read it. I think the mechanical act of perusal must have given me a sort of pleasure. Books, as books, irrespective of their contents, were my delight. […] I was already marked out for the life of a student, yet little that was in the books I read seemed to find its way into my mind. [Memoirs, pp. 37-8]

Pattison seems to have sensed from an early age that it was a scholar’s life which awaited him. Earlier in his youth, he had dreamt of an academic life [Memoirs p. 10], but feared that an affliction of the eyes would prevent him from achieving this goal. This malady led Pattison to refrain from reading at night, though he was still able to partake in literary and academic pleasure by listening to his father’s recitation. Eventually, the young Pattison was taken to an oculist in London, who determined that he suffered from an affliction of the eyelids, and need not fear for the loss of his sight altogether.

The young Pattison’s anxiety for his eyesight was perhaps not unwarranted if he had already begun to read sufficiently to internalize the stock type of the half-blind scholar. Milton, one of his literary idols, famously went blind from a course of heroic reading. Edward Gibbon writes in his autobiography that he too abstained from biblio-lucubration out of a concern for his eyesight: “[I]t is happy for my eyes and my health, that my temperate ardour has never been seduced to trespass on the hours of the night.”

Gibbon’s abstention from reading at night is not his only similarity to Pattison in this field, as both men seem to have regretted the mode in which they read in youth. Though they had been unregenerate bookworms as children, as adults they lamented the lack of scientific or programmatic reading:

It was now that I regretted the early years which had been wasted in sickness or idleness, or mere idle reading; that I condemned the perverse method of our schoolmasters, who, by first teaching the mother-language, might descend with so much ease and perspicuity to the origin and etymology of a derivative idiom. In the nineteenth year of my age I determined to supply this defect; and the lessons of Pavilliard again contributed to smooth the entrance of the way, the Greek alphabet, the grammar, and the pronunciation according to the French accent. At my earnest request we presumed to open the Iliad; and I had the pleasure of beholding, though darkly and through a glass, the true image of Homer, whom I had long since admired in an English dress. After my tutor had left me to myself, I worked my way through about half the Iliad, and afterwards interpreted alone a large portion of Xenophon and Herodotus. But my ardour, destitute of aid and emulation, was gradually cooled, and, from the barren task of searching words in a lexicon, I withdrew to the free and familiar conversation of Virgil and Tacitus. Yet in my residence at Lausanne I had laid a solid foundation, which enabled me, in a more propitious season, to prosecute the study of Grecian literature. [Gibbon Memoirs of My Life]

This echoes Pattison’s lament that his early perusal of books was pleasurable but unprofitable. Of course, it would be hard properly to estimate the value which may have accrued to them later, as intellectuals, from this widely discursive mode of reading. Samuel Johnson ardently advocated reading solely from inclination, yet even he felt the need at various points in his life to draw up mathematical plans of systematic reading, which his biographer Boswell notes typically remained incomplete.

Gibbon’s stock of reading serves as Pattison’s comparison point for his own youthful study in the Memoirs. He notes that at fifteen, Gibbon had read far more broadly in history than he (Pattison) had read by eighteen. A modern reader, to whom it may be surprising that teenagers would be applying any substantial time to systematic reading of history, may find the difference of those three years to be a trifling thing when compared to the amount of study which these men later undertook. Moreover, this is a sentiment penned by an old man reflecting upon his stock of teenage erudition as set against another who had long been dead. Pattison had a sense of competition in him, and it played out on the field of learning. Something rankled Pattison, even in his advanced age, about the fact that he was behind in his studies before they even formally began. Reading, and the effort to catch up on the accumulation of erudition, were afterward to serve as the central motivational strand in Pattison’s life.

As a way of palliating his apparent loss in the field of study to the young Gibbon, Pattison writes:

As, however, to mere Greek and Latin, I had covered a surface vastly more extensive than even the best of the ordinary sixth form boy. I had read Sallust through, about a dozen speeches of Cicero, twenty books of Livy, Vergil through, Horace through, Juvenal through, Persius through, Caesar through, Terence through; in Greek, the Gospels and Acts, Xenophon’s Anabasis, Herodotus, Thucydides, some six or seven Orations of Demosthenes, Homer’s Iliad, Pindar, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Porson’s four plays of Euripides, seven plays of Aristophanes – all these not in scraps, but through. They had not been well read…” [Memoirs, 62]

Reading an author through is meant to inform the reader that Pattison did not simply read isolated excerpts from these works, as was (and still is) the fashion in ancient language instruction. Most of this early reading takes place with a lexicon or commentary in hand, and in the initial stages can be quite tedious and time consuming. Having not received a traditional formal education, Pattison’s reading at this point is impressive. Yet, while this is meant to set Pattison’s skill over and above that of the average student, he nevertheless cannot refrain from highlighting his own perceived failure to read the texts well. Moreover, this reading had done nothing for him personally, beyond giving him an “empirical familiarity with the languages, an enlarged vocabulary, and an idea of various and contrasted styles.” [Memoirs, 63] Yet, at such an age, what more could Pattison want? Had he truly bought into the Classical Education sales pitch that reading these works instills in one a sense of elegance, humanity, and knowledge of the world? More than anything, Pattison’s lamentations on his youthful buffet-style intellectualism reflect an ingrained habit of self-loathing. Satisfaction was ever out of his grasp, and after a lifetime of disappointment, he was unwilling to allow that his youth was anything but the seed of his future failures. Discussing his failure to advance socially during his first year at Oriel, Pattison writes, “As it was, my weakness of character was such that I came to the conclusion in the end that the fault or defect, whatever it might be, was in me.” [Memoirs, p. 47]

During the period in which he was beginning to prepare for his degree examination, Pattison’s chief problem lay in his inability to conceive of the proper system on which to make his way through the books. “What I had no power of conceiving was, how the books were to be studied so as to acquire the power of answering the questions upon them.” [Memoirs, p. 119] Throughout the Memoirs, Pattison laments the nature of the Oxford tutorial and examination system, which fostered superficial reading and a hasty cramming of facts and pre-digested interpretations of texts designed to make a sufficiently good show for the examiners. This is not wholly different from the dominant mode in education today, which most strongly emphasizes the acquisition of sufficient knowledge for success on standardized exams, but gives the student very little in the way of what could properly be termed education. Though Pattison on various occasions criticized this system, he nevertheless found himself forced to contribute to it as a cog in the relentless machinery of grinding. Lionel A. Tollemache relates:

Pattison was coaching an undergraduate in the Ethics. The pupil, perplexed by Aristotle’s reasoning, embarrassed his teacher by his importunate desire to understand it. At last Pattison said tartly: “Never mind understanding it, only get it up.” The pupil was naturally hurt by this unpleasant rebuke; which, however, probably meant that the time was short, and that, if the pupil insisted on discussing first principles, instead of merely learning the answers which would satisfy the examiners, he might be disappointed in his degree, as Pattison himself had been. [Recollections, p. 53]

As interpreted by Tollemache, it is Pattison’s own profound sense of disappointment which served to make these governing and formative decisions in his life. Much the same is often said of A.E. Housman, whose apparent coldness and savagery has been attributed by many biographers to his initial academic failure at Oxford and his amatory failure with Moses Jackson.

In his youth, Pattison was not the cloistered pedant which his ardour for reading and his life dedicated to study might suggest. During his first Long Vacation, he returned to his family seat in Hauxwell, where,

What was really of most use to me this vacation was the free air of the fields and moors, and the long solitary rambles during whole days, in which Nature insensibly penetrated the recesses of the soul, without my having yet become, as I afterwards became, passionate for the poetry of Wordsworth and of country life. [Memoirs, p. 110]

Walking, and especially extended country walking, was very much en vogue in Victorian England. Perhaps the most famous example of this fashion among the literati is Dickens, who was said to have regularly walked 20 miles a day. But this was not mere walking, it was rambling, and the hint of ecological paganism betrayed by the capitalization of Nature reflects the Wordsworthian spirit of the age. Nature as opposed to the ugly industrial and commercial life of the cities, or Nature as opposed to the relentless grind and cram of the university. Pattison’s early discovery of a joy in rustic and natural amusements would serve him in good stead following his loss in his first struggle for the Rectorship of Lincoln College, after which he withdrew frequently for periods of restorative rustication in Scotland and in Germany.

Disappointing as were his social adventures during his first terms at Oriel, Pattison learned a salutary lesson on the nature of professorial knowledge and authority from G.A. Denison, who “had a reputation as a scholar.”

When we went in to Denison, some one or two members of the class (a large one) did their piece well; to my flat amazement most of them stumbled over the easiest lines. When we came to the first lyrics,Φοῖβ’; ἀδικεῖς αὖ τιμὰς ἐνέρων, the tutor put the question, “What metre is this?” It went the round, no one had any idea; it came to me, and I remember the trembling excitement with which I answered, “Anapestic dimeter.” So much information was not far to fetch, for Monk had a note on the metre of the passage, and most of the class had Monk, but they had not read the Latin note. Denison gave me a look as much as to say, ‘Who the devil are you?’ He had evidently not been accustomed in his class to meet with such profound learning. I do not remember in the whole course of the term that Denison made a single remark on the two plays, Alcestis and Hippolytus, that did not come from Monk’s notes. [Memoirs, 65]

That is, what separated Pattison from his peers was the fact that he had read. Monk’s notes were the wellspring of all of Denison’s erudition, and in reading them, Pattison was able to achieve some parity with the professional scholar. One can detect the note of savage mockery in the comment, “He had evidently not been accustomed in his class to meet with such profound learning.” Yet, while it reinforced Pattison’s belief that reading was the key to real knowledge, this discovery nevertheless brought with it a new wave of disappointment. “In less than a week I was entirely disillusioned as to what I was to learn in an Oxford lecture room.” [Memoirs, 66] While reflecting on the rise of Oriel College in the 19th century, Pattison reflects upon the deficiencies of the university, where “A very little literature, and a modicum of classical reading, went a long way.” [Memoirs, 69]

Much of Pattison’s history of and attitude toward reading can be gleaned from his biography of Isaac Casaubon. Bibliomania and an obsession with reading may be considered marks of the scholar more generally, but it was Casaubon’s singular focus on spending as much time as possible in reading which serves as one of the points at which Pattison is able to anchor a projection of his own personality and concerns upon his biographical subject. He attempts to palliate Casaubon’s vexation with his wife at interrupting his studies by writing,

But over and above Casaubon’s constitutional fretfulness, we must make allowance for the irritability engendered by a life of hard reading against time. Casaubon thought every moment lost in which he was not acquiring knowledge. He resented intrusion as a cruel injury. To take up his time was to rob him of his only property. Casaubon’s imagination was impressed in a painful degree with the truth of the dictum ‘ars longa, vita brevis.’ [Isaac Casaubon, pp.28-29]

As it stands, this apology for Casaubon is at the same time a defense of himself. The scholar is reflected in the patchwork of classical allusion deftly woven together in this paragraph. The notion that all time is wasted which is not spent in reading is borrowed from Pliny, and the idea that time is one’s only property is taken from Seneca. The final thread in the allusive fabric is given by the old tag that art is long but life is short, quoted from Horace. Casaubon the obsessive reader is the paragon of the old scholarly ideal, entirely lost amidst his books. Just as figures like Machiavelli and Keats engaged in ritualistic sartorial preparation for their literary labors, so too would Casaubon comb his hair in preparation for the eminently serious business of communing with the ancients. The most heroic example of his scholastic fortitude is the result of his autopsy, which revealed that his bladder had been monstrously swollen as a result of denying the calls of nature during his protracted periods of reading and writing. Casaubon’s devotion to the life of the mind was enough to put Didymus Chalchenteros (Brazen Guts) to shame.

Pattison finds more similarities with his subject in Casaubon’s attachment to thoroughness in research. While it is true that the bibliography for any given subject was far more manageable in the 16th century than in the 19th (and certainly less unwieldy than in the 21st), this was counterbalanced by the comparative difficulty in obtaining books. Despite their relative inability, Pattison writes that Casaubon took no half-measures in his research:

From Casaubon’s commentaries we see that the style of his work demanded nothing less than a complete collection of classical remains. He wants to found his remarks, not on this or that passage, but on a complete induction. It seems easy for Bentley to say ‘Astypalaea of Crete does not once occur in ancient authors.’ But a lifetime is behind this negation. [Isaac Casaubon, p. 34]

This same bibliographic thoroughness can be glimpsed in Pattison’s advice to a friend that he would be prepared for writing after twenty years of reading everything on his subject. Recounting the primarily theological reading which he was doing in 1845, Pattison says that he was at that time meditating upon writing Medieval and monastic history, “with several other things, each of them a task for a life.” [Memoirs pp. 185-186] Yet it is unclear whether this relentless requisition of scholarly data was an innate characteristic of Pattison’s, or something which he learned through his own intense study of the great scholars of the past.

As noted above, Casaubon resented interruption to his reading, and complains frequently in his diary about visits of his friends, pithily rendered in Latin as amici inimici (“My friends are my enemies.”) Pattison, too, was inclined to think that friendship was a dangerous thing, writing after a weeklong visit from a friend, “These visits of friends were then, as they are now, fatal to study.” [Memoirs, p.118] Like a thoroughgoing introvert, Pattison insists on the necessity of solitude, and chafes at the attentions of another unnamed friend at Hauxwell because the very presence of another person disrupts Pattison’s ability to focus. Here too he finds a parallel between his own case and that of Casaubon, who wrote in a letter [Ep. 213] Otium et quietem altam studia haec postulant, “these studies require leisure and deep tranquility.” [Also see Ep. 1023 Ea molimur in literis quae animi tranquilitatem desiderant.]

Pattison’s recollections of his vacations in 1833 and 1834 make for grim reading. While it is true that his Memoirs as a whole are suffused with sorrow and lamentation, there does seem to be something particularly depressing about a man complaining, decades later, that in his vacation, “There was more industry, more work, but as mistakenly laid out.” [Memoirs, p.136] Though he spent time on the necessary philosophical studies in addition to reading Herodotus, Pindar, and Thucydides in Greek along with Livy and Vergil in Latin, he notes that he “wasted time over outlying classics, which did not form part of the degree list.”

Surely, at the time that Pattison wrote these memoirs in the fading light of his senescence, the use or misuse of his vacations from Oxford was of little lingering practical consequence. Yet the fact that Pattison dwells so obsessively, as an old man, on each of the periods during which he either read less than he hoped or got less from his reading than his older self would deem appropriate suggests that these were registered in Pattison’s mind as serious failures which he was unable to get over. By his own confession, Pattison was never able to enjoy any satisfaction in the things which he did, but it may be that he traced his perceived failures in later life to his insufficient application to books at this time. A man in this frame of mind is eminently suited to sympathize with a scholar like Casaubon, who was engaged in “hard reading against time.” Even the formulation of the phrase reading against time suggests that the most important faculty which death deprives us of is the faculty of study. Thus, toward the end of his life, Pattison was perhaps more conscious than ever that he was reading against time, and could not help but regret that he had not applied himself more diligently to it in earlier life. Pattison is nevertheless sensible of the dangers of excessive reading, noting that “…accumulated learning stifles the mental powers…” [Memoirs, 78] This comment was of course written late in Pattison’s life, when it seems that accumulated learning through incessant application to his books had prevented Pattison not only from producing much scholarship of his own, but also from much interpersonal human experience.

The written word occupied such primacy of place in Pattison’s consciousness that he was not only “always reading something” [Memoirs, p. 117], but even had his first quarrel with his father through a combination of a disagreement concerning finances and the father’s concern about Pattison’s reading. [Memoirs, p. 111] Part of this centered upon an essay which Pattison’s father edited for his son, but in the main seems to have stemmed from Pattison’s eagerness to be done with a series of lessons in Tacitus which his father wanted to conduct with him:

Besides this instance of bad taste and bad temper I was restive over the Tacitus readings. My father expected me at a fixed hour every morning to read the Annals with him. It was true he could not be of any use to me, as he knew little of the language and nothing at all of the history. But it was the only thing he required of me, and I ought to have complied with a good grace, instead of coming unwillingly and finding excuses for shirking altogether. [Memoirs, p. 113]

For as long as he could remember, Pattison wanted to be a scholar. Naturally, such a man was able to say of his young self as he enrolled in Oriel, “I had come up all eagerness to learn.” [Memoirs 53] The following paragraph of his Memoirs reads “I was soon disillusioned.” Pattison’s disappointment in his education is a function of his unreasonable expectations (perhaps fostered by romantic ideals which he had developed in his autodidactic reading) and the tendency to scathing criticism which was occasionally directed to people other than himself. Of the group of young men with whom he roomed, he wrote that they had “no souls” and that they had “no inner life, no capacity of being moved by poetry, by natural beauty, who are never haunted by the ideal, or baffled by philosophical perplexities.” [Memoirs p.52] Haunted by the ideal is perhaps the best was to describe Pattison’s mental and spiritual life. So potent was the image of the ideal in his mind, and so pale an imitation of it did he experience in the outside world, it is no wonder that Pattison retreated inward to the life of pure intellection. Such a man may make a savage critic, though he may be prevented by this very spirit of criticism against the standard of the ideal from making any attempts at creative production himself. Here, Pattison’s case is paralleled by that of the Renaissance humanist Niccolo Niccoli, who was perhaps the foremost expert on Latin style in his time, and on that account never published anything in Latin: his knowledge was so great and the ideal so difficult to achieve that he felt palpably the likelihood of disastrous failure.

We know so much about Pattison’s reading because he kept both a commonplace book and a diary of his reading from his early youth. He himself points out that he had begun this project of recording his reading before he learned that his biographical subject, Isaac Casaubon, did the same thing. As a result, most of the memories in the Memoirs which are not anchored by specific pivotal moments in his academic career are anchored instead by a recollection of what Pattison was reading at the time. This was the sum total of his life. Not only did Pattison keep a log of his reading, he also formulated a systematic plan for his reading life:

As soon as I found myself settled at Hauxwell with a box of books, I laid out for myself a plan of reading. I have this scheme before me now, for in July 1833 I began a student’s diary on the same plan as I have kept up, with intervals, to the present date (December 1883). This diary only exceptionally mentions what I do, or see, or hear, it deals with what I read or write. […] My plan of study, allowing for a tone of pedantry which cannot be avoided when such things are written down, is not in itself a bad one. But looking at it as the road to Oxford honours, it has the fatal defect of requiring too much time. It is a scheme of self-education, rather than of the hand-to-mouth requirements of an examination. My scheme required years for its realisation; I may say that I have been all my life occupied in carrying out and developing the ideal that I conceived in July 1833, more than fifty years ago. [Memoirs, pp.119-120]

Here we see most clearly the Mr. Casaubon of Middlemarch, the pedantic bookworm buried under the mass of material being stockpiled for a work of erudition. Of course, it may be that Pattison was still engaged upon the task of reading according to his initial plan because the scheme of self-improvement and education is an infinite task, but Pattison himself also highlights his comparatively sluggish pace: “Neither then nor at any time since have I been able to read in an hour the same number of pages that other men can.” [Memoirs, pp.123-124]

Philology, as Nietzsche noted, is the art of slow reading. Anyone who has spent time learning ancient languages knows that meaningful reading fluency in them takes substantial time to develop for several reasons: the antiquity (and thus fundamental foreignness) of the languages themselves; the absence of native speakers from whom to gain immersive fluency/the wholly artificial way in which they are learned; most of what the student will read consists of extremely rarefied “masterpiece” literature, which was designed in many cases to challenge even native users of the language. As such, early training in ancient languages can, if embraced, foster a slow and meticulous mode of reading. Further, all ancient literature is beset by textual difficulties of some sort. When one reads an English translation of a Greek tragedy, it is easy enough to assume that the text is simply the text. But many portions of ancient texts are either corrupt in minor ways (which escape all but the most minute notice), or are so bad as to render some passages entirely senseless. Much of the scientific apparatus of philology was developed specifically for the purpose of solving these difficulties and making the text yield some sense.

Pattison was afforded training in the classical languages. From his own account, it seems that it fell short of the lofty standard set by scientific German philology at the time, but he nevertheless learned something of critical method and analysis of the text. His comment about his slowness in working through texts seems to suggest a kind of methodical reading. Yet, for all of that, Pattison was not a particularly good reader. Anthony Grafton has noted Pattison’s “inability to quote a document accurately, his ineptitude at establishing dates, and his incompetence at summarizing plain German accurately in English have led me to wonder whether he deserves the authority he still enjoys in the English-speaking world.” [American Scholar, Vol. 52, No. 2] Grafton wrote this scathing indictment of Pattison nearly forty years ago, and it is not clear that Pattison today enjoys much “authority,” even in scholarly circles.

Pattison’s inability to achieve any meaningful scholarly feat was well summarized by Housman’s comment [that Pattison had surveyed the whole of human existence and turned away in revulsion]. It seems that it was Pattison’s insistence on surveying all relevant material which kept him from producing anything of his own. Where Housman sees in Pattison a nausea induced by the horrors of human existence, others may see a kind of scholarship so meticulous and exacting that it never gets off the ground. Pattison boasted that he lived his entire life for study, and we learn from a friend that,

“He suggested that I should edit Selden’s Table Talk. The preparation was to be, first to get the contents practically by heart, then to read the whole printed literature of Selden’s day, and of the generation before him. In twenty years he promised me that I should be prepared for the work. He put the thing before me in so unattractive a way that I never did it or anything else worth doing. I consider the ruin of my misspent life very largely due to that conversation.” That this severe judgment on the Rector may not be taken too literally, I will quote from the same letter, “He was one of the best friends I ever had. He was not in the least donnish when one came to know him.” [quoted in Tollemarche, Recollections of Pattison p.5]

Pattison’s devotion to reading puts him in company with his biographical subject and spiritual inspiration, Isaac Casaubon, who constantly complains in his diary that he has spent insufficient time with his books. Amici adhuc libris silentibus. Ita vita perit. “My friends are still here, and my books remain silent. Thus my life is wasted.” Elsewhere, Casaubon remarks Amici inimici, “My friends are my enemies,” because they have kept him from his reading. Elsewhere in his biography of Casaubon, Pattison notes that “Research is infinite.” [IC, p. 54] A.D. Nuttall, in his Dead from the Waist Down, examines at length the identification of Pattison with the Mr. Casaubon of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. While traditionally the ascription is thought to be based on Pattison’s apparent later sexlessness and possibly loveless marriage, there is much to be said for basing the identification on Pattison’s endless amassing of material with no discharge.

Pattison’s devotion to the life of study and reading for its own sake brought him into sharp opposition with Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol College. Logan Pearsall Smith recounts a conversation which he had with Jowett on the topic of Pattison’s university ideals:

This ideal of endowment for research was particularly shocking to Benjamin Jowett, the great inventor of the tutorial system which it threatened. I remember once, when staying with him at Malvern, inadvertently pronouncing the ill-omened word. “Research!” the Master exclaimed. “Research!” he said. “A mere excuse for idleness; it has never achieved, and will never achieve any results of the slightest value.”

Jowett’s haughty dismissal of research would be well received by a modern day university administrator. Indeed, the disdain for apparently idle study is the prevailing mode not just among the administrative class, but contemporary society more broadly, which has come increasingly to expect concrete physical or pecuniary results issuing from labor of all kinds, and which fancies that it sees through the mystic veil of erudition now that access to knowledge has been entirely democratized by the search engine. But Jowett’s attitude reflects his own limitations. True, there was an old college rhyme composed upon the professor’s erudition:

Here come I, my name is Jowett.

All there is to know I know it.

I am Master of this College,

What I don’t know isn’t knowledge!

Yet, this rhyme is surely more reflective of Jowett’s magisterial air as observed from below by his pupils, and not a meaningful reflection upon either the breadth or depth of his scholarship. Today, both Jowett and Pattison are largely forgotten, but Jowett can claim a greater degree of posthumous fame thanks to his still-readable translations of Plato. Jowett’s high-minded ideals for a broadly humanist university may seem inspirational today, but Jowett’s scholarship earned the scorn of A.E. Housman:

The Regius Professor of Greek throughout Housman’s time was Jowett, and from the single lecture of Jowett’s which he attended, Housman came away disgusted by the Professor’s disregard for the niceties of scholarship. [A.S.F. Gow, A.E. Housman: A Sketch (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press) p.5]

If Jowett seems to strive after an early Renaissance ideal of forming a Ciceronian man of learning, taste, and action, then Pattison hearkens back to the impossibly knowledgeable scholars of the age of erudition in the 16th – 17th centuries. Pattison wished to write a biography of Joseph Scaliger, but found himself unequal to the task. Turning instead to Isaac Casaubon (to whom alone Scaliger said he must yield), Pattison wrote his largest and most comprehensive work of scholarship. This age of erudition seems to have ended with the generation of Richard Bentley and Leibniz, supplanted by the free-thinking of the Enlightenment, which scorned the amassing of knowledge and citations from written works in favor of a notion of scientific and philosophical progress.

As should be sufficiently clear by now, Pattison found a genial subject in Casaubon because so much of his own personality and experience could be mapped so readily onto that of his subject. Both men exist only in their writings now, though both are entirely forgotten by the educated public. Because Pattison is the authority on Casaubon, and because they share a kind of spiritual kinship, it can be difficult to determine at times from their writings alone where Casaubon ends and Pattison begins, down to the abiding sense of failure which each of them felt toward their ambitious projects. As such, it will be useful to examine the figure of Isaac Casaubon in order better to understand the man on whom he exerted such influence over the distance of centuries.

Casaubon and Scaliger lived at the close of the Renaissance. Historically, we think of this as the Early Modern Period, but intellectually, it can be termed the Age of Erudition. Pattison sums up the spirit of the age:

The creative period is past, the accumulative is set in. The prophet is departed, and in his place we have the priest of the book. Casaubon knows so much of ancient lore, that not only his faculties, but his spirits are oppressed by the knowledge. He can neither create nor enjoy; he groans under his load. The scholar of 1500 gambols in the free air of classical poetry, as in an atmosphere of joy. The scholar of 1600 has a century of compilation behind him, and ‘drags at each remove a lengthening chain.’ [IC, P. 110]

Though much of Pattison’s biography of Casaubon is taken up with religious and theological controversy, the preeminent obsession throughout the book remains Casaubon’s reading. Indeed, Pattison sees Casaubon’s reading as his defining characteristic: “Casaubon, indeed, was what he was by his incessant reading, seconded by capacious memory.” [IC, p.104] Memory takes second place to the continuous application to books, and the faculty of critical thought is elided entirely. Perhaps the scholar seems an anachronism in the modern world, where even the most poorly educated person has access to an infinite wealth of instant information. All of the information there was in Casaubon’s day was, however, largely unsifted and unsystematized. A more original thinker may have chafed at the sheer amount of data collection in which scholars like Casaubon engaged, but the freewheeling adventures of human reason undertaken in the Enlightenment were in large part made possible by the tedious act of collection, systematization, and indexing which the scholars of the late 16th and early 17th centuries completed.

Pattison attributes Casaubon’s preeminence as a scholar to his reading habits, yet in the biography as elsewhere, he himself acknowledges the dangers of reading to excess. “The use he made of the library was one, which no librarian ought to make – it was to read the books.” [IC, p. 104] Reading the books may seem innocent enough, but the nature of Casaubon’s reading meant that this would constitute an enormous distraction from his duties as a librarian and from his other scholarly work.

One can see the figure of Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon in the Casaubon recorded by Pattison. After presenting a detailed list of Casaubon’s projected editions, commentaries, and other works, Pattison writes,

Of all these schemes, and of others not a few, hardly any traces remain among the papers, because hardly anything was ever put on paper. He deceived himself into thinking that he had made progress in writing, when the material was heaped up only in his memory. He got at last the habit of putting by any topic as it came up, with the remark, “this we have discussed elsewhere at length.” The distinction between what he had read, what he had noted down, and what he had printed, became obliterated in his mind. [IC p.433]

Elsewhere, Pattison suggests that Casaubon found writing unpalatable because of the “necessity pressing on his mind, that his criticism, if it were to be worth anything, should exhaust the authorities.” [IC, p. 421] We hear again echoes of Pattison’s advice to spend twenty years in research before publishing. Both Casaubon and Pattison found themselves wholly oppressed by the project of conducting thorough and complete research. “When he had written, he was dissatisfied with the result.” [IC p.422] This is virtually indistinguishable from Pattison’s remarks in his Memoirs that he is never fully satisfied with anything that he has done. He adds, “It is better to write nothing than to produce incomplete work. And research is always incomplete.” [IC, p. 422]

For one who read as prodigiously as Casaubon, the fact that research remained ever incomplete seems astounding. Here was a man who rose early every day and tried whenever possible to read the whole day through. Throughout his Ephemerides, Casaubon rejoices on days when he has been afforded the luxury of uninterrupted reading, and laments when friends or business have taken him away from his books.

After six hours’ reading and writing at this pace in the library, there must be recreation. This he takes, on his return to the deanery, by more reading, but of a lighter sort, such as Wake’s ‘Rex Platonicus,’ or by taking lessons in rabbinical hebrew [sic] from a young man of that persuasion. [IC p.365]

One must not think of this as reading in the relaxed or recreational sense which most people understand today. Rather,

“Reading is not an amusement filling the languid pauses between the hours of action; it is the one pursuit engrossing all the hours and the whole mind.” [IC, p.436]

If Casaubon was reading this much, why did he feel the need to do so much more before publishing? One may be tempted to accept Pattison’s explanation that every project requires just a bit more research before being ready to ply pen to paper, and this perfectionist impulse is no doubt some part of the reason. Yet it also sounds like rationalization. Today, scholars and other professional writers are well aware of the temptations and pitfalls which beset their work: one cannot even innocently turn on the computer to use a word processor without some temptation to check e-mail or see the latest on social media. Distractions and other modes of procrastination may have been in shorter supply in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the urge which underlies doing something for a few minutes before sitting down to the serious task of production must have been just as strong. Casaubon, and Pattison after him, must have found something particularly salutary and gratifying in the very act of reading, doing the research, satisfying one’s own curiosity. Each of them shows signs of being deeply introverted and more attracted to the pure pleasure of reading and research than the accolades or gratification of vanity which may result from publication.

In short, it seems that for Casaubon and Pattison alike, research was an end in itself. “Learning is research,” Pattison writes [IC p.453], and,

To the great, the fashionable, the gay, and the busy, the grammarian is a poor pedant, and no famous man. The approbation of our fellows may be a powerful motive of conduct. It is powerful to generate devotion to their service. It is not powerful enough to sustain a life of research. No other extrinsic motive is so. The one only motive which can support the daily energy called for in the solitary student’s life, is the desire to know. [IC, 437]

Pattison explains that Casaubon was a man torn between his Classical reading and texts of theological or ecclesiastical import. This had in particular to do with his unique position as Royal Librarian in Paris. Casaubon had been granted a pension by king Henri IV, and it was understood that the primary purpose of this pension was not to compensate him for any specific labors which he might undertake (valued as those might be), but rather, to entice him from the Calvinist to the Catholic faith. Ultimately, these efforts at pecuniary persuasion failed, and the learned Jesuits of Paris in particular realized that they would have to try a different approach with an erudite man like Casaubon: they would have to engage him in the field of a learned controversy. Having announced that he would be susceptible to conversion if reading in theological and patristic texts would validate it, he began a course of ecclesiastical reading which took considerable time away from his Classical projects. One cannot wholly understand Casaubon without understanding the religious conflict of his time and place, with much of his productive work being undertaken in times still riven by the conflict between Catholics and Protestants brought to something of a head in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. [IC, 186-187]

Consequently, Pattison spends much of his time in the book explicating the religious conflict of the time and Casaubon’s place within it. He concludes that this turned Casaubon into a man “of divided interest” [186], but this could just as easily be said of Pattison himself. As an old man, Pattison laments the “hours I wasted over religious books…” [Autobiography 173] Casaubon took up residence in Paris in 1559, and was for eleven years pressed for his conversion to Catholicism until he went to London in 1610. These invitations to conversion were lamentable distractions to his work, but they also served to change the nature of his studies. Pattison notes that, beginning with Casaubon’s employment as librarian, he would relax from laboring upon his edition of Polybius by spending some time in “controversial reading” [IC p.186]. Pattison suggests that this can be attributed to a certain “double mindedness” in Casaubon, tearing him between the study of pagan and Christian antiquity, and between “the biblical and the ecclesiastical” fanaticism.

Casaubon’s involvement in religious controversy is paralleled in Pattison’s life. In 1838, Pattison found himself drawn to the Tractarian movement [p. 172] under the influence of Newman. Just as Casaubon was in some measure tempted away from his Huguenot upbringing during his years in Paris (1600-1610), so too was Pattison drawn toward the Catholic faith in the 30’s. In both cases, it may be argued that the refusal of conversion hampered their worldly advancement for some time, though this may have been beneficial on the whole to the cause of their studies.

Pattison, like Housman after him, loved to pass judgment upon other scholars, and seems to have enjoyed a remarkable capacity for sizing up the work of others, even though he was not himself the most productive of the laborers in Academus’ garden. Casaubon’s contemporaries rated him highly. Thus, Scaliger says that he yielded in his study of Greek to Casaubon alone, and felt that he himself was the only person capable of appreciating Casaubon’s work. [IC, p. 238] “For whom should he write, now Scaliger was not there to read?” [IC, p. 238-239] Yet Pattison, with the advantage of centuries, is able to identify the shortcomings in Casaubon’s scholarship readily enough, noting especially his deficiency in Greek composition. Moreover, as Casaubon himself acknowledged, his limits were in great measure fixed by a lack of easy access to the requisite books. [IC, p.361] What does constant reading avail a man who cannot read everything he needs? Similarly, Ladislaw notes in Middlemarch that Mr. Casaubon could have spared himself many a learned investigation if he only knew German. An entire fount of erudition lay untapped, effectively hamstringing the effort of the diligent accumulator of facts.

And it is as an accumulator of facts that he achieved his fame. Casaubon’s mind was amply furnished with erudition, but he made no serious efforts at textual criticism. Though he had access to variant manuscripts for the authors on whom he worked, he nevertheless avoided getting bogged down in the finer points of evaluating the texts. “As he wanted to read, not to collate, new material was what he looked out for…” [IC, p. 363] That is, Casaubon was not interested in “settling hoti’s business” [Browning, Death of a Grammarian] but of stocking his own mind. His scholarship was of a fundamentally selfish type: geared not toward the production of knowledge or the advancement of classical understanding, but to the creation of the learned man. Few people outside of scholarly circles have even heard of Isaac Casaubon, and even within them, there are few who read anything which he wrote. It is tempting, therefore, to suppose that he produced little as a scholar, but this is to misunderstand the product of his learning. His mind itself was the product, and he was ever in the process of improving it further. The old tag nulla dies sine linea became with Casaubon nulla dies sine lectione. Thus, Casaubon was renowned among the greatest scholars of his generation who could recognize in him the vast stock of accumulated learning which had taken a lifetime to acquire, but the product of all of his labors ceased to exist when he succumbed to illness in 1614.

As was Isaac Casaubon’s learning, so too was Mark Pattison’s. He was a fantastically learned man, and this was recognized by his contemporaries, but he too has been largely forgotten. Indeed, his biography of Casaubon and the fashionable identification of Pattison with the Mr. Casaubon of Middlemarch are his chief claims upon modern attention, and these admittedly count for very little. Having retreated within himself to a world of isolated but self-improving erudition, Pattison produced very little scholarship because he was too busy making himself a scholar. Pattison criticizes Richard Kilbye, an English contemporary of Casaubon who was also a Rector of Lincoln College, by describing him as, “a fair specimen of the academical professor of his time; with some reading, but without learning or even the conception of it as a whole…” [IC, p.367] Pattison’s conception of the ideal scholar was the model against whom he criticized all living claimants to the title. Yet it was that vision which kept him ever engaged in the pursuit of unattainable perfection, and a life of perpetual and apparently unproductive disappointment.

MacDonald, Alexander, 1839-1921; Mark Pattison (1813-1884), Rector (1861-1884)

4 thoughts on “Mark Pattison and Scholarly Misery

    1. Thanks, man! This started as what I had intended to turn into a full-blown book on scholarly misery and failure.

  1. Wonderful little essay Erik!
    Umberto Eco defined a polymath as “someone who is interested in everything and nothing else.”
    Simon Winchester in his “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” prefaces Chap. 2 with the OED’s entry for “polymath.” Burton used the term in his Anat. Mel.,1621; M. Pattison in 1855.
    I acquired the wonderful recent edition of Burton a few months ago. And I just happen to have an 1889 edition of Pattison’s “Essays” (along with his “Memoirs,” “IC,” Tollemache, “Love in a Cool Climate,” “Dead from the Waist Down,” etc., etc. Pattison used the term (“polymaths”) to characterize Peter Daniel Huet in Chap. VIII, p. 290, of the Essays: “It will be seen that he belongs to the class of which German writers on the History of Literature have denominated ‘Polymaths.’ (Pattison goes on to impugn Huet’s Latin or the Jesuits. “His Latin is Jesuit-Latin–faultless, fluent, and perfectly clear. Yet with these merits…it is not pleasant reading from its want of character and its insipidity. … [T]he nature of Jesuit education is faithfully reflected in the smooth monotony of their Latin” (p. 291).)
    However, and this is my point, Huet dubs the pleasures of the [Aristotelian] contemplative life, the pleasures of the mind as “pleasures more vivid, exciting, and elevating than any others” in the passage that Pattison quotes on page 292 of his essay. The essay is available on the site.
    Pattison however does not provide a reference to the passage he quotes from Huet and I’ve not been able to find it. It’s perhaps in “Memoirs of the life of Peter Daniel Huet, Bishop of Avranches, written by himself / translated from the original latin, with copious notes, biographical and critical, by John Aiken,” but I can’t find it.

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