Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment

August 25, 2011

When J.H. Monk published his great Life of Richard Bentley in 1830, he could count on his readers' general knowledge of the scholarship he discussed. That knowledge has been largely lost, and in Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment, Kristine Louise Haugen is brilliantly successful in restoring and augmenting it. She has read extensively in the 16th- and 17th-century writings that influenced Bentley, in writings by his scholarly contemporaries of the early 18th century, and in modern studies of the period. All this material she has brought together in a lucid, well-argued discourse.

Haugen's introductory question, "What was a scholar?", initiates a detailed discussion of the university and clerical milieu in which Bentley's career originated, in Cambridge, and after that in London and Oxford. She shows how Bentley's publications moved from a typically English historical study of Hellenistic Greek in his Letter to John Mill and Dissertations upon the Epistles of Phalaris, to a typically continental textual study of poetry in his Latin editions of Horace, Terence and Manilius, and the notoriously interventionist Paradise Lost. This was also a move from the confines of academic professionalism into the public world of polite learning, signalled by the decision to publish his Dissertations in English rather than Latin.

Bentley has always been controversial. For A.E. Housman he was "the greatest scholar that England or perhaps Europe ever bred"; for others he was ill-mannered and devious in his writings, and above all as master of Trinity College, Cambridge (with which Haugen deals briefly). In foregrounding the influences on Bentley, Haugen tends to obscure his originality; so her passages of praise stand out. Her comment on his Horace could hardly be bettered: that Bentley's conjectures "ensured his edition's enduring fame. Leaving aside his crowing over his personal ingenium, they show an unsurpassed linguistic facility and, often, a legitimately aesthetic sensibility that demands respect whether they are accepted or not." She often refers to "Bentley's undisputed mastery of literary form in the shape of ancient poetic meters" and offers helpful illustrations of them.

The book's brief conclusion does not really do justice to the richness of preceding chapters. The cursory account of Bentley's influence - with no mention of Jeremiah Markland or Richard Porson - throws the emphasis back on to Bentley's predecessors and his dependence on them. Haugen rejects the established view that Bentley pioneered historical scholarship, not recognising that his readers had objected to precisely that. In Dr Bentley's Dissertations Examined, his Oxford opponents declared that Sir William Temple, who naively believed in the authenticity of Phalaris' letters, "has written to Kings, and They to Him: and this has qualified him to judge how Kings should write". Bentley disrupted that easy commerce with antiquity by demonstrating the impossibility of Phalaris using the Attic dialect (along with other anachronisms), as if, mocked his Examiners, he could "assign to every Greek Writer his proper Age and Period, meerly by the Thread and Colour of his Style".

In alienating past from present, Bentley boastfully set himself up as the privileged interpreter between them. Haugen finds it "hard to gauge real contemporary reactions to Bentley's Dissertations" and passes quickly over the responses of the polite world. In fact, the Examiners agree with her that Bentley's writing is in a sense all about himself, and that he is less original than he claims. They deserve closer reading, as does Jonathan Swift's Tale of a Tub, with its chronically inconsistent narrator, a modern Grub Street author not unlike the Bentley that Haugen sees in her more adverse observations.

Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment

By Kristine Louise Haugen. Harvard University Press. 344pp, £29.95. ISBN 9780674058712. Published 28 April 2011

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