1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Richard Bentley

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:660.



DR. RICHARD BENTLEY (1662-1742) was perhaps the greatest classical scholar that England has produced. He was educated at Cambridge, and became chaplain to Stillingfieet, bishop of Worcester. He was afterwards appointed preacher of the lecture instituted by Boyle for the defence of Christianity, and delivered a series of discourses against atheism. In these Bentley introduced the discoveries of Newton as illustrations of his argument, and the lectures were highly popular. His next public appearance was in the famous controversy with the Honourable Charles Boyle, Earl of Orrery, relative to the genuineness of the Greek epistles of Phalaris. This controversy we have already spoken of in our section on Sir William Temple. Most of the wits and scholars of that period joined with Boyle against Bentley; but he triumphantly established his position that the epistles are spurious, while the poignancy of his wit and sarcasm, and the sagacity evinced in his conjectural emendations, were unequalled among his Oxford opponents. Bentley was afterwards made master of Trinity college, Cambridge; and in 1716 he was also appointed regius professor of divinity. His next literary performances were an edition of Horace, and editions of Terence and Phaedrus. The talent he had displayed in making emendations on the classics, tempted him, in an "evil hour," to edit Milton's Paradise Lost in the same spirit. The critic was then advanced in years, and had lost some portion of his critical sagacity and discernment, while it is doubtful if he could ever have entered into the loftier conceptions and sublime flights of the English poet. His edition was a decided failure.

Some of his emendations destroy the happiest and choicest expressions of the poet. The sublime line, "No light, but rather darkness visible," Bentley renders, "No light, but rather a transpicuous gloom." Another fine Miltonic passage—

Our torments also may in length of time
Become our elements,

is reduced into prose as follows:—

Then, as 'twas well observed, our torments may
Become our elements.

Such a critic could never have possessed poetical sensibility, however extensive and minute might be his verbal knowledge of the classics. Bentley died at Cambridge in 1742. He seems to have been the impersonation of a combative spirit. His college life was spent in continual war with all who were officially connected with him. He is said one day, on finding his son reading a novel, to have remarked "Why read a book that you cannot quote?" — a saying which affords an amusing illustration of the nature and object of his literary studies.