1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Richard Bentley

John Holland, "Richard Bentley, D.D." Poets of Yorkshire; comprising Sketches of the Lives, and Specimens of the Writings of those Children of Song (1845) 62-63.



Although coming but very slightly within the denomination of a "Yorkshire poet," as applied to the design of this work, I should be loth to omit all mention of a name which stands among the most eminent of his age for poetical criticism and editorship, as well as for classical erudition and general learning. Richard Bentley, the illustrious descendent of an old Yorkshire family, was born at Oulton, near Wakefield, January 27, 1662. The rudiments of his education were communicated in a school near home; and at a very early age he was admitted to St. John's College, Cambridge. Having in due course entered into holy orders, he was the first who preached the lecture founded by Mr. Boyle; his eight powerful discourses on Atheism being justly celebrated. He was afterwards presented to the Mastership of Trinity College, and filled various other stations of importance in the University, including that of Regius Professor of Divinity: his learning, however, being, in many respects, more conspicuous than his urbanity. Besides works in divinity, and editions of or disquisitions on Latin and Greek authors, all characterised by the scholar-like acumen which distinguished the opponent of Boyle on the genuineness of the Epistles of Phalaris, he published an edition of Milton, with notes. It is in reference to his bold and arbitrary opinions on the text of "Paradise Lost," especially, as well as for the generally trenchant style of his criticisms, that Pope had bestowed on him the enduring appellation of "Slashing Bentley." This celebrated scholar and critic died in 1742; a highly interesting memoir of his life and writings appeared in 1833, from the pen of Dr. Monk, Bishop of Gloucester. It is to that work I am indebted for the following extract: — "I am not aware," says Dr. Monk, "that any of Bentley's Latin verses written at this period, (i.e. during his residence at St. John's College), have been preserved; but we have little cause to regret their loss, as he was not endowed with a poetical vein, and it is evident from his subsequent productions of that kind, that he never acquired facility or elegance in their composition; an accomplishment, indeed, hardly to be expected from a boy who quits school at the age of fourteen. The only specimen which I possess of his College exercises, is an English Ode 'On the Papists' Conspiracy of Gunpowder,' written in stanzas of ten lines; it is principally curious, as showing that a taste still prevailed for the forced conceits and far fetched quibbles which mark the poetical school of Cowley. The following is a specimen of the style in which he combines his wit and learning:—

Such devilish deeds to Angli done!
Such black designs on Albion!
Transmarine fruit; sure 't could not grow
From soil quite contrary, and people too.
He that its history doth tell,
Must not have goose but Harpy's quill;
No Heliconian aid must wish,
But th' iron whip of Nemesis;
'Tis that must now make Pegasus to go,
And scorn St. Peter's church at Rome below.

And he thus compares the operations of the Papists with the persecutions of the Christians under Nero:—

'Tis true, the Christians they did tear,
Sewed in the skins of wolf and bear;
But now ye butcher all the rest
Like wolves in shape of Christians drest.
We do not wish that you should bear
Our kings in splendid triumph here,
Elijah-like, the skies to pass;
No Phaethon in Britain was.
Our sins are not so foul as to require
The Roman purgatory fire,
To make a senate-house a pile,
And senate a burnt off'ring for the isle."