Friday, February 17, 2006


Richard Bentley

A few days ago, I quoted A.D. Godley's poem on textual criticism, which contains these lines:
There where Horace not ungently
Chaffs the very learned shade
  Of the Reverend Dr. Bentley.
The Reverend Dr. Bentley is Richard Bentley (1662-1742), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and editor of Horace (1711) and Milton's Paradise Lost (1732).

B.L. Ullman, in his 1935 Presidential Address to the American Philological Association, published in Classical Journal 31.7 (April 1936) 403-417 and entitled Horace and the Philologians, blasted Bentley for his unnecessary emendations in the texts of Horace and Milton:
In the case of Horace it is that much overrated scholar, Richard Bentley (did I hear a gasp?), who is to blame for so-called emendations that still disfigure the text, though many have been eliminated. He is also responsible for giving currency to readings of inferior manuscripts and to poor emendations of earlier scholars. How a scholar who emended Milton's Paradise Lost in some 800 passages can be treated with the awe and respect that are still accorded Bentley is one of the unsweet mysteries of the philological life. The lines of Milton on the manufacture of gunpowder in hell read:
Sulphorous and nitrous foam,
They found, they mingled, and with subtle art
Concocted . . . they reduced
This Bentley changed to
Sulphorous and nitrous foam,
They pound, they mingle, and with sooty chark
Concocted . . . they reduce
Five changes in less than three lines. His excuse is that you can't make gunpowder without charcoal (chark).

The last two lines of Paradise Lost speak of Adam and Eve:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
In Bentley's hands this became:
Then hand in hand with social steps their way
Through Eden took, with heav'nly comfort cheer'd.
Eight changes in two lines! Bentley's work on Horace is about as bad as that on Milton, but is not so easily proved wrong. His chief fault is that of applying the searing blast of inexorable logic to the poet's fragile flowers. His aim was not to emend corrupt manuscripts but to improve on the faltering Horace.


The fact of the matter is that Bentley was not the man to deal critically with a poet like Horace. He lacked a sense of humor, a fatal defect in a reader of the genial satirist who believed in ridentem dicere verum [Serm. 1.1.24], presenting a philosophy of life in a jesting manner. If Bentley had had a sense of humor he would not have given us so many chances to laugh at him. In the eighth satire Horace says that the witch Canidia's breath is more poisonous than African snakes [Serm. 2.8.95]. Bentley objects that the breath of African snakes cannot reach all the way to Rome! Another defect in Bentley is that he demanded too much scientific exactness of Horace. Because foxes don't eat grain, Bentley must emend Horace's fable [Epist. 1.7.29] so that it is a mouse instead of a fox that breaks into the bin. Bentley does not realize that the story is a much better one if a cunning fox is imprisoned by his greed. Again, he has no understanding of metaphors or other figures of speech. He is also too strict in his syntax, like the high-school teacher who thinks that only constructions found in Caesar are good Latin.
After all the criticism of Bentley for his high-handed treatment of Horace and especially Milton, I was surprised to find at least one of Bentley's emendations in Paradise Lost adopted by William G. Madsen in his Modern Library College Edition of the poem, at 7.451 ff.:
Let th'earth bring forth soul living in her kind,
Cattle and creeping things, and beast of th'earth,
Each in their kind.
where soul is Bentley's emendation of Fowle.

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