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SPIRIT OF THE MAGAZINES.
FROM AIKIN'S ATHENEUM.
MEMOIRS OF PROFESSOR PORSON. RICHARD PORSON was born at East Ruston, in Norfolk, on Christmas day, 1759 ; so that he was only in his forty-ninth year. Every thing about this most eminent scholar, and particularly the circumstances which laid the foundation of that most inestimable memory, by which he was enabled to store his mind with all the riches of literature, ancient and modern, will become truly interesting to the world. He owed the blessing to the care and judgment of his father, Mr. Huggin Porson, who was parish clerk of East Ruston ; and who, though in humble life, and without the ad. vantages himself of early education, laid the basis of his son's unparalleled acquirements. From the ea liest dawn of intellect, Mr. Porson began the task of fixing the attention of his children, three sons and a daughter; and he had taught Richard, bis eldest son, all the common rules of arithmetick, without the use of a book or slate, pen or pencil, up to the cube root, before he was nine years of age. The memory was thus incessantly exercised; and by this early habit of working a question in arithmetick by the mind only, he acquired such a talent of close and intense thinking, and such a power of arranging every operation that occupied his thought, as in process of time to render the most difficult problems, which, to other men required the assistance of written figures, easy to the retentive faculties of his memory. He was initiated in letters by a process equally efficacious. His father taught him to read and write at one and the same time. He drew the form of the letter either with chalk on a board, or with the finger in sand; and Richard was made at once to understand and imitate the impression. As soon as he could speak, he could trace the letters; and this exercise delighting his fancy, an ardour of imitating whatever was put before him was excited to such a degree, that the walls of the house were covered with characters, which attracted notice, from their neatness and fidelity of delineation. At nine of
age, he and his youngest brother, Thomas, were sent to the village school, kept by a Mr. Summers, a plain but most intelligent and worthy man ; who, having had the misfortune in infancy to cripple his left hand, was educated for the purpose of teaching, and he discharged his duties with the most exemplary attention. He professed nothing beyond English, writing and arithmetick, with the rudiments of Latin He was a good accountant, and an excellent writing master. He perfected the professor in that delightful talent of writing, in which he so peculiarly excelled; but which, we are doubtful whether it was to be considered as an advantage or a detriment to him in his progress through life. It certainly had a censiderable influence on his habits, and made him devote many precious moments to copying, which might have been better employed in composition. It has been the means, however, of enriching his library with annotations, in a text the most beautiful, and with such perfect imitation of the original
manuscript or printing, as to embellish every work which his erudition enabled him to elucidate. He continued under Mr. Summers for three years; and every evening, during that time, he had to repeat by heart, to his father, the lessons and tasks of the day; and this, not in a loose or desultory manner, but in the rigorous order in which whatever he had been occupied about had been done; and thus, again, the process of recollection was cherished and strengthened, so as to become a quality of his mind. It was impossible that such a youth should remain unnoticed, even in a place so thinly. peopled, and so obscure, as the parish of East Ruston. The Rev. Mr. Hewitt heard of his extraordinary propensities to study; his gift of attention to whatever was taught him; and the wonderful fidelity with which he retained whatever he had acquired. He took him and his brother Thomas under his care, and instructed them in the classicks. The progress of both was great, but that of Richard was most extraordinary. It became the topick" of astonishment beyond the district, and when he had reached his fourteenth year, had engaged the notice of all the gentlemen in the vicinity. Among others, he was mentioned as a prodigy to an opulent and liberal man, the late Mr. Norris, who, after having put the youth under an examination of the severest kind, and from which an ordinary boy would have shrunk dismayed, sent him to Eton. This happened in the month of August, 1774, when he was in his fifteenth year; and in that great seminary, he, almost from the commencement of his career, displayed such a superiority of intellect, such facility of acquirement, such quickness of perception, and such a talent of bringing forward to his purpose all that he had ever read, that the upper boys took him into their society, and promoted the cultivation of his mind by their lessons, as well, probably, as by imposing upon him the performance of their own exercises. He was courted by them as the never failing resource in every difficulty; and in all the playful excur. sions of the imagination, in their frolicks, as well as in their serious tasks, Porson was the constant adviser and support. He used to dwell on this lively part of his youth with peculiar complacency; and we have heard him repeat a drama, which he wrote for exhibition in their long chamber, and other compositions, both of seriousness and drollery, with a zest that the recollection of his enjoyment at the time, never failed to revive in him. We fear, however, that at this early age, his constitution received a shock, which was soon after aggravated by the death of his worthy patron. An imposthume formed on his lungs, and he was threatened by a consumption. But it fortunately broke, and he recovered his health, though his frame was weakened.
The death of Mr. Norris was the source of severe mortification to him ; for though, by the kindness of some eminent and liberal persons he was continued at Eton, he felt the loss he had sustained in the most poignant degree. But we do not mean, this day at least, to do more than trace the dates of his progress to the professor's chair. He was entered of Trinity college towards the end of 1777; and, his character having gone before him to the university, he was, from the first, regarded as a youth, whose extraordinary endowments would keep up and extend the reputation of the unrivalled society into which he had entered. Nor did he disappoint the hopes that had been formed of him. In every branch of study to which he applied himself, his course was so rapid as to astonish every competent observer. By accidents, which in a more detailed biographical article will be explained, he was drawn first to read in mathematicks, in which, from his early exercises, he was so eminently calculated to shine, but from which he drew no benefit; and then, by the prospect of a scholarship, which, however, did not become
vacant till long after he sat down to the classicks. In this pursuit, he soon acquired undisputed preeminence. He got the medal of course, and was elected a fellow in 1781. In 1785, he took his degree of master of arts; but, long before the period had elapsed when he must either enter into holy orders, or surrender his fellowship, he had, after the most grave and deliberate investigation, to which he had brought all that acute gift of examina. tion that has been made so perceptible in his letters to Mr. Archdeacon Travis, made up his mind on the subject of subscription.. We are sure that his determination cost him many painful and laborious days and months of study. His heart and mind were deeply penetrated by the purest senti. ments of religion; and it was a memorable, and most estimable feature of his character, that in no moment the most unguarded, when that ardour of discussion which alone led him to indulgence, had elevated his spirits, was he ever known to utter a single expression of discontent at the establishment, of derision of those who thought differently from himself, much less of profane. ness or impiety. He was truly and actively pious; but it was of an order that admitted not of shackles. So early as 1788, he had made up his mind to surrender his fellowship, though, with an enfeebled constitution, he had nothing to depend upon, but acquirements that are very unprofitable to their
A lay fellowship, to be sure, might have secured his sewices to the cause of letters; but the disingenuous conduct of an individual withheld from him that resource. In 1791 his fellowship ceased, and he was thrown upon the world without a profession, his feelings wounded by the mortifications he had suffered, and with a constitution little qualified to encounter the bustle of the world. Some private friends however, stept in; and, soon after, he was elected Greek professor of Cambridge, by a unanimous vote of the seven electors. The distinction of this appointment was grateful to him. The salary is but forty pounds a year. It was his earnest wish, how. ever, to have made it an active and efficient office, and it was his determination to give an annual course of lectures in the college, if rooms had been assigned him for the purpose. These lectures, as he designed, and had, in truth, made preparations for them, would have been invaluable ; for he would have found occasion to elucidate the languages in general, and to have displayed their relations, their differences, their near and remote connexions, their changes, their structure, their principles of etymology, and their causes of corruption. If any one man was qualified for this gigantick task, it was Mr. Professor Porson; and if his wishes had not been counteracted, we know that he would have undertaken the labour.
From this time, instead of lectures, he turned his thoughts to publication. His letters to Mr. Archdeacon Travis, as has been truly said, put the controversy on the disputed text to rest; and, indeed, it was the peculiar felicity of his mind, that whatever he undertook to elucidate, he fixed for ever in the light.
In 1795, he married Mrs. Lunan, the sister of Mr. Perry, of this paper, but who sunk under a decline in 1797; and, from that time, the professor himself was so incessantly afflicted with a spasmodick asthma, as to interrupt him in every study lo which he applied himself. Whether his sedentary habits served to bring it on, we know not; but certainly very few men had accustomed themselves to such patient and continued toil. He had undertaken to make out and copy the almost obliterated manuscript of the invaluable Lexicon of Photius, which he had borrowed from the library of Trinity college. And this he had, with unparalleled difficulty, just completed, when the beautiful copy, which had cost him ten months of incessant toil, was burnt in the house of Mr. Perry, at Merton. · The original,
being a unique, intrusted to him by his college, he carried with him wherever he went; and he was fortunately absent from Merton on the morning of the fire Unruffled by the loss, he sat down without a murmur, and made a second copy, as beautiful as the first. It is extant in his library, and is quite ready for the press. Of the plays of Euripides, which he pub. lished, the learned world has pronounced its judgment, and we reserve for another occasion, an account of this and his other literary labours. It may be pleasant for our readers, however, to know, that he has left an Orestes quite ready for the press.
On the establishment of the London institution, the managers manifested their own discernment and love of letters, by selecting him to be their principal librarian, an appointment for which he was peculiarly qualified, and if time and health had been allowed him, he would have made their library truly valuable. His own, which he has been gradually collecting for thirty years, he has enriched by annotations of such value and importance to literature, that we hope and trust, the whole will be placed in his own college, that it may for ever be within the reach of those whom his example may arouse to similar pursuits, though they may despair of reaching equal attainments.
We have said, that we should feel it our duty to correct some of the misstatements that have gone forth, as to his habits of life, and as to the circumstances of his death; but we have scarcely left ourselves room, after this hasty sketch, written since our return from paying the last duties of inconsolable friendship to his remains, to perform the task Mr. Porson, as we have stated before, has, for the last eleven years, been the incessant victim of spasmodick asthma, during the agony of which he never went to bed, and in which he was forced to abstain from all sustenance. This greatly debilitated his body; and, about a month ago, he was afflicted by an intermittent fever. He had an unfortunate objection to medical advice, and he resorted to his usual remedy of abstinence; but on Monday, the nineteenth ult. he suffered an apoplectick stroke, from which he recovered only to endure a second attack the next day. He languished to the Sunday night, and expired without a struggle. The body was opened by his medical attendants, and they have given a report, ascribing his death “ to the effused lymph in and upon the brain, which they believe to have been the effect of recent inflammation. The heart was sound, and the pericranium contained the usual quantity of lymph. The left lung had adhesions to the pleura, and bore the marks of former inflammation The right lung was in a perfect sound state.” This is signed by Dr. Babington, Sir William Blizard, Mr. Norris, Mr. Blizard, and Mr. Upton. In refutation of an idle falsehood about the form of his skull, they add, “that it was thinner than usual, and of hard consistence.”
Mr. Porson has left a sister living, an amiable and accomplished woman. She is the wife of Siday Hawes, Esq. of Coltishall, in Norfolk. They have five children. Their eldest son is entired at Bennet college, Cambridge. Henry, the second brother of the professor, was settled on a farm in Essex, and died young, leaving three children. His brother Thomas kept a board. ing school at Fakenham, was an excellent scholar, and died in 1792, without issue ; and his father, Mr. Huggin Porson, died in October, 806, in his 78th year. His mother died in 1784, aged 57. These few particulars may satisfy, for the time, the impatience of all those who knew his incomparable talents, but who were unacquainted with his private history. We shall hereafter speak of the character of his mind, and of the various attainmente in which he had no rival.
THE most remarkable among the intellectual powers of Richard Porson, was unquestionably that of memory. It was at once obvious to every one who had the good fortune to be in his company; and it never ceased to excite the admiration of those who had most frequently an opportunity of conversing with him. Every thing he had read, and what was there worthy, or, indeed, unworthy of literary notice, which he had not read ?* appeared to be present to his mind, with uncommon precision. Whensoever a subject connected with English, French, Latin, or. Greek poetry was started, he would recite some brilliant and striking passage, at considerable length, in the words of the author. And in the latter language more especially, which was his favourite study, he was so completely master, not only of the words of the author in question, but of every circumstance relating to the words, that he would expatiate upon the various readings, and the points of grammar and criticism connected with them, in such a manner, as to produce the effect of a complete and well digested Variorum Commentary. We remember to have heard him relate one or two incidents which occurred at different, although both early, periods of his life, which will illustrate this quality of his mind far better than any laboured detail.
When he was very young, perhaps at the time when he was under the care of Mr. Summers, returning to his father's cottage, he lost his way, and found shelter in the house of a little farmer, whose son, somewhat older than Porson, had just quitted school. With this boy Porson was to sleep; but, instead of betaking himself to his slumbers, he began questioning his companion concerning what he had learned at school. He found him a most admirable arithmetician, and passed the night in proposing questions, which the other answered to his satisfaction as well as surprise ; for at last he found him capable of multiplying nine figures by nine in his head, an operation which was quite familiar to our young professor.
When at Eton, as he was going to his tutor's, to construe a Horace lesson, preparatory to the business of school, one of the senior boys took Porson's Horace from him, and thrust into his hands some English book. The tutor called upon Porson to construe, and the other boys were much amused in considering the figure he would make in this emergency, Porson, however, who had Horace by heart before he went to Eton, knowing where the lesson was to begin, begati without hesitation,
Mercuri facunde, nepos Atlantis : and went on regularly, first reciting the Latin, and then giving the Latin and English, as if he had really had the author before him. The tutor, perceiving some symptoms of astonishment as well as mirth amongst the other boys, suspected that there was soinething unusual in the affair, and inquired what edition of Horace Porson had in his hand. “ I learned the lesson from the Delphin," replied his pupil, avoiding a direct answer “ That is very odd,” replied the other, “ for you seeir to be reading in a different side of the page from myself. Let me see your book” The truth was of
Upon this subject we have been favoured with the following observations from the respectable writer, to whom we are already so greatly indebted for the knowledge of many interesting particulars.
It was one of the peculiar traits of his mind that it rejected no aliment. He was equally well read in Joe Miller, and the Fathers, as in Greek literature. And in the very lowest, as well as highest branches of human learning, his memory was equally retentive. In his power over figures, though he was at an early age diverted from mathematicks, Vír. P. never knew his equal. His quickness in bringing out the result of a most intricate and manifold calculation by mental working, was magical. He had formed for himself a species of short hand in figures, if we may use the term, that had the most astonishing brcvity and truth.