1836 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Richard Bentley

Hartley Coleridge, in "Richard Bentley" Worthies of Yorkshire and Lancashire (1836) 172.



His design of restoring Milton originated in 1731, and was completed on the first day of the following year, and is said to have been suggested by Queen Caroline. He executed it with his usual reckless audacity, and not without a portion of his usual ingenuity. But between Bentley editing Horace, and Bentley editing Milton, there is a wide difference. Of ancient poetic genius he perhaps knew as little as of English, — as little as any body else; but of the Greek and Latin languages he knew more than all men of his time, — of English language not much more than any tolerably educated woman. To English criticism, therefore, he brought his defects without his excellence. In commenting on the ancient classics, he brought so much collateral knowledge, and discovered so many acute analogies in defending his alterations, that his very errors were instructive. But for applying his "hook" to Milton he made no such amends. His acquaintance with early European literature was scanty; he was little, if at all, versed in modern foreign tongues. The romantic and allegorical compositions of the middle ages were out of his track of reading; nor was he deeply imbued with Hebrew lore, through which Milton derived his highest inspirations. Of the Rabbinical writings he probably knew absolutely nothing. He was therefore incompetent to the task of illustrating Milton, and had no particular aptitude for correcting him. Yet his egregious failure in this instance ought not to detract from the fair fame he earned in provinces more peculiarly his own.

As no conceivable errors of hand or press could justify such deviations from an established text, as he was determined to venture upon, he protected his mutatious excisions and interpolations by the hypothesis of a reviser or amanuensis, who had availed himself of Milton's blindness to do, what Dr. Bentley was then doing, to make alterations "ad libitum," and to publish his own forgery as the genuine production of the poet. This critical fiction of Bentley's has excited more more indignation than the case called for. No deception was produced, and none could have been intended. It was only an exorbitant piece of impudence.