1919 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Robert Potter

Lewis Bettany, "An Account of the Rev. Robert Potter" in Edward Jerningham and his Friends (1919) 325-31.



ROBERT POTTER, translator of the Greek tragedians, was born in 1721; but nothing seems to be known of his family or of his place of birth. He was educated at the Free School of Scarning, Norfolk, and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He graduated B.A. in 1741; but he deferred proceeding to the degree of M.A. till 1788, when he was made Canon of Norwich. For some years he was curate of Reymarston, Norfolk; from 1754 to 1758 he (or at any rate a Robert Potter) was rector of Crostwick in that county; and on June 1st, 1761, he was appointed to succeed his old master, the Rev. Joseph Brett, as curate of Scarning and master of the Free School there, a preferment in the gift of the Warner family. "When he went to take possession of the School House, he was opposed by a tumultuous assembly of the inhabitants, who were unwilling that Coe [a master who had been conducting the school for some time] should be removed; and it was not till a magistrate, Sir Armine Wodehouse, had read the Riot Act that Mr. Potter could enter into the premises" (Carthew's Hundred of Launditch). The acquaintance thus formed with the Wodehouses developed into an intimate friendship, which was only broken by Potter's death. The new curate followed Brett's example of keeping a good boarding-house, where he educated many pupils; but "he taught the village children by deputy," and, strangely enough, the parish clerk in his time was also a Robert Potter. At Scarning Potter remained for twenty-eight and a half years; visiting town occasionally to see his friends the Bacons and the Wodehouses, and to pay his respects to his somewhat forgetful patroness, Mrs. Montagu; meeting in London Dr. Johnson, who, all the circumstances considered, seems to have treated him very boorishly; and occupying his spare time in translating the tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. "He had been a schoolfellow of Lord Thurlow (says the author of the obituary notice of Potter contributed to The Gentleman's Magazine for August, 1804) and had constantly sent his publications to that great man, without ever soliciting a single favour from him. On receiving a copy of the Sophocles, however, his lordship wrote a short note to Mr. Potter, acknowledging the receipt of his books from time to time, and the pleasure they had afforded him, and requesting Mr. Potter's acceptance of a prebendal stall in the cathedral of Norwich." (Thurlow said "he did not like to promote him earlier for fear of making him indolent.") This second canonical stall Potter, needless to say, gladly accepted, and held till his death. But, if we are to believe the Recollections of "The Sexagenarian" (the Rev. William Beloe), the Lord Chancellor spoiled his kindness to Potter by a strange display of surly ungraciousness.

"Mr. Potter, on receiving notice of the favour intended for him, immediately came to town, to make personal acknowledgement of his gratitude. He called several times at Thurlow's house, but could never obtain admission. At length he appealed to his friend and neighbour, Sir John, afterwards Lord, Wodehouse, and begged of him to see the Chancellor in the House of Peers, and to ask when he might have the honour of waiting on his lordship, as he had been some days in town, and was anxious to return. Sir John accordingly did this, when the only answer he received was — 'Let him go home again; I want none of his Norfolk bows.'"

In the next year, on June 26th, 1789, Potter received from the Bishop of Norwich (Dr. Bagot) the unexpected and unapplied-for preferment to the vicarage of Lowestoft and to the rectory of Kessingland. He thereupon resigned the curacy of Scarning, finally removing from the village on November 30th, 1789. At Lowestoft and at Norwich he spent the remainder of his days. He was found dead in his bed at the former town on August 9th, 1804, having reached the goodly age of eighty-three. Potter married Elizabeth Colman, daughter of J. Colman, of Hardingham, by Elizabeth Howes. She died at Scarning in July, 1786, having given her husband a large family. Romney painted Potter in 1779, and gave him the portrait. As stated in Note 6 to Letter 28, he also painted Potter's son; but he delayed completing the portrait until ten months after the son's death. A strange case that of Potter! Introduced to Johnson, who snubbed him; patronised by Mrs. Montagu, who neglected him; given a prebend by Thurlow, who scorned his thanks; and painted by Romney, who wounded him by callous indifference. And the man, obviously, most likeable; simple in his manners, warm and steadfast in his friendships, unaffected in his piety, ardent in his attachment to classical studies, and gifted with a very merry and mellow sense of humour. No fool either, for all his piety, humour, and good humour.

The first edition of Potter's translation of Aeschylus appeared in 1777; and in 1778 the translator printed and presented to the subscribers some notes on the tragedies, which were suggested by Mrs. Montagu and inscribed to her. The first volume of his Euripides came out in 1781, with a dedication to the Dowager Duchess of Beaufort, and the second in 1783. His translation of Sophocles, inscribed to Georgiana, Dowager Countess Spencer, was published in 1788.

Potter was introduced to Dr. Johnson by Mrs. Montagu, his great literary patroness, and the following account is given of the meeting in Edmund Henry Barker's "Literary Anecdotes and Contemporary Reminiscences":—

"April 24th, 1814. Potter, the translator of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who was a tall man about 6 feet high, very handsome, with an aquiline nose, went up to London, and was introduced by Mrs. Montagu of Shakespearean celebrity to a party of blue-stockings. At length Dr. Johnson's name was announced. Mrs. Montagu, with all due form, took Mr. Potter by the hand, and introduced him to Dr. Johnson by saying, 'Dr. Johnson, Mr. Potter.' Dr. J. muttered out something like, 'Well, well.' Mrs. M. thought that. Dr. J. did not hear, and again said, 'Mr. Potter, Dr. Johnson.' Dr. Johnson in the same sort of tone repeated his mutterings. Mrs. M. was irritated at Dr. J.'s apparent neglect of what she said, and still supposing that he did not hear the name of Potter mentioned, again said, 'Dr. Johnson, Mr. Potter, the translator of Aeschylus.' Dr. J. then said, 'Well, Madam, and what then?' Dr. Parr thought that Dr. J. had, on the first entrance of Mr. Potter, seen something in his manner which he did not like. When Potter saw Dr. Parr after this circumstance, he, in the simplicity of his heart, said to him, 'Well, I have seen your friend, Dr. Johnson.' He described him as a very cold-hearted man, of heartless manners, and then himself told the story, and seemed quite unconscious of Dr. J.'s secret contempt for him. Dr. Parr said that by the Aeschylus Potter established his fame and lost some of it by the Euripides. Potter once told the Doctor that, as he had begun, he should finish the three tragedians. The Doctor replied that it was not very likely that one man should succeed in turning into English three poets of such opposite characters; and he reminded him how carelessly he had done the Euripides. When a part of the Sophocles was shown to him, Dr. Parr, who had nothing to say in its praise, adroitly and wittily turned the conversation, by saying that he liked no translation but from one bishopric to another; as he once did, when he was pestered by a silly prattler about the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. 'Come,' said he, 'Qui suspenderunt suspendantur.'"

I am afraid that this anecdote is somewhat of a cook-and-bull story. In the first place it is prima facie suspect, as having been communicated thirty-years after Johnson's death, and coming from Dr. Parr, who was a gossip and no friend to Johnson. Secondly, it tells half only of the story of the altercation, leaving the denouement to the reader's imagination. And thirdly, it represents Johnson not only as intolerably rude at a first introduction, rude, too, with no kind of provocation, but risking a quarrel with Mrs. Montagu on account of a man whom he had met at her house for the first time. Now Johnson, though he seems to have had more than a suspicion of her learning and rather to have disliked her personally, always wished to keep on good terms with Mrs. Montagu, on account of her position and assemblies. It was only after he attacked her friend Lyttelton in his "Lives of the English Poets," that he rather ruefully wondered whether she would invite him to her new house in Portman Square. For these reasons then I take Barker's anecdote with more than the proverbial grain of salt; though I don't for one moment doubt that a mutual repulsion prevented Johnson and Potter from becoming friends.

Potter is mentioned once only in Boswell's Life of Johnson.

"On Thursday, April 9th [1778], I dined with him [i.e. Johnson] at Sir Joshua Reynolds's, with the Bishop of St. Asaph (Dr. Shipley), Mr. Allan Ramsay, Mr. Gibbon, Mr. Cambridge, and Mr. Langton.... When we went to the drawing-room there was a rich assemblage. Besides the company who had been at dinner, there was Mr. Garrick, Mr. Harris of Salisbury, Dr. Percy, Dr. Burney, Honourable Mrs. Cholmondeley, Miss Hannah Moore, &c., &c. After wandering about in a kind of pleasing distraction for some time, I got into a corner with Johnson, Garrick, and Harris. GARRICK (to Harris): 'Pray, Sir, have you read Potter's Aeschylus?' HARRIS: 'Yes; and think it pretty.' GARRICK (to Johnson): 'And what think you, Sir, of it?' JOHNSON: 'I thought what I read of it verbiage; but upon Mr. Harris's recommendation I will read a play. (To Mr. Harris) — Don't prescribe two.' Mr. Harris suggested one, I do not remember which. JOHNSON: 'We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation. Translations are, in general, for people who cannot read the original.'"

I may remark that a recommendation given by Mr. Harris was scarcely one which was likely to be favourably received, or at least acted upon, by Johnson. The Doctor had but a poor opinion of the author of Hermes, or a Philosophical Inquiry concerning Universal Grammar. He called him "a coxcomb," and "a prig and a bad prig." On the other hand, Mrs. Harris seems to have held both Johnson and Boswell in little regard. Writing from Twickenham on April 20th, 1775, to her son, the future Earl of Malmesbury, at Berlin, she says:

"Tuesday, Dr. Johnson, his fellow-traveller through the Scotch Western Isles, Mr. Boswell, and Sir Joshua Reynolds dined here. I have long wished to be in company with this said Johnson. His conversation is the same as his writing; but [he has] a dreadful voice and manner. He is certainly amusing as a novelty; but [he] seems not possessed of any benevolence, is beyond all description awkward, and more beastly in his dress and person than anything I ever beheld. He feeds nastily and ferociously, and eats quantities most unthankfully. As to Boswell, he appears a low-bred kind of thing."

Now many persons may have thought that in her Anecdotes of Johnson, Mrs. Piozzi distinguished her former friend overmuch by his intolerable table-manners. This extract from Mrs. Harris's letter, strangely neglected by modern Johnsonians, shows, however, that the Doctor was "by merit raised to that bad eminence." The author of The Rambler was in fact as dirty an eater as the author of Travels through France and Italy was squeamish. And as the latter depicted anything offensive to the sight or to the smell with a gusto born of keen distress, it seems a pity that he never recorded his impressions of meeting the former at dinner. A sketch of Dr. Johnson feeding, drawn from the life by Dr. Smollett, would have made very piquant reading.

But to get back to Robert Potter and his version of Aeschylus, which Mr. Harris thought pretty, surely the strangest of eulogistic epithets to apply to a translation of so sublime a tragedian! Apparently Johnson was not impressed by the single play he read; for Susan, writing to Fanny Burney, on August 1st, 1779, says:—

"We arrived at Streatham at a very little past eleven. As a place, it surpassed all my expectations.... It is a little Paradise, I think.... I followed my father into the library.... There sat Mrs. Thrale and Dr. Johnson, the latter finishing his breakfast upon peaches.... Dr. Johnson interrupted Mrs. Thrale by telling my father Mrs. Thrale had desired Mr. Potter to translate some verses for him, which he (Dr. J.) had before undertaken to do. 'How so?' said my father. 'Why, Mr. Potter?' 'Nay, Sir I don't know. It was Mrs. Thrale's fancy.' Mrs. Thrale said she would go and fetch them.... Then came back Mrs. Thrale with the verses, which she had been copying out. I rose, and took a seat next Miss Thrale. However, she [i.e. Mrs. Thrale] made me return to that next Dr. Johnson, that he might hear what I had to say. 'But if I have nothing to say, Ma'am?' said I. 'Oh, never fear,' said she, laughing, 'I'll warrant you'll find something to talk about.' The verses were then given to my father. After he had read the first stanza, 'Why these are none of Potter's!' said he, 'these are worse than Potter. They beat him at his own weapons.' Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale laughed very much, and the verses proved to be the former's, and were composed, in a comical humour, the evening before, in derision of Potter. They are admirable. You will see them at Streatham, and perhaps procure a copy, which my father could not do. Dr. Johnson is afraid of having them spread about, as some other verses were he wrote in the same way to ridicule poor Dr. Percy; but Mrs. Thrale advised my father to make you attack Dr. Johnson about them, 'for she can do what she pleases with him.'" (The Early Diary of Frances Burney.)

Potter lacked Christian meekness sufficiently to enable him to take Johnson's treatment of him lying down. Admiring Gray, and friendly with Beattie, he resented, too, Johnson's very cavalier treatment of the former poet. And in 1783, he published An Inquiry into Some Passages in Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Most Eminent English poets, particularly his observations on Lyric Poetry and the Odes of Gray. Horace Walpole, who in 1778 had told Mason that Potter was "a good poet" and had "taste," and that he (Walpole) was "delighted" with his rendering of the "Prometheus," was rather dubious in his opinion of this manifesto. Writing to Mason on June 9th, 1783, he says:—

"The ... piece is a professed defence of Gray against Johnson, by Potter, the translator of Aeschylus. It is sensibly written, is civil to Johnson, and yet severe; but, though this is the declared intention, I have heard that the true object was to revenge [i.e. avenge] the attack on Lord Lyttelton at the instigation of Mrs. Montagu, who has her full share of incense, and who, with insipid Bishop Hurd, is pronounced the two best critics of this or any age. Were I Johnson, I had rather be criticised than flattered so fulsomely."

Potter returned to the attack in 1789, five years after Johnson's death, when he brought out The Art of Criticism, as exemplified in Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.

In addition to his translations of the Greek tragedians, and to his polemics on behalf of Gray, Potter published collections of his occasional verse. I have read few of his poems: what I have read seemed to me about as good as Hayley's or as Mason's, and far below the level of his translations of the lyrical or odic passages of the Greek tragedians.