Thursday, March 07, 2013


Porsona Non Grata

John Johnstone (1768-1836), "Memoirs," in The Works of Samuel Parr, LL.D. Prebendary of St. Paul's, Curate of Hatton, &c. with Memoirs of his Life and Writings and a Selection from his Correspondence, Vol. I (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1828), pp. 379-380:
Mr. Richard Porson remained at Hatton in the winter, 1790-1, collecting materials for future works, and enriching his mind with the stores of Parr's library, and of his conversation. He rose late, seldom walked out, and was employed in the library till dinner, reading and taking notes from books, but chiefly the latter. His notes were made in a small distinct text, of the most exquisitely neat writing I have ever beheld. He was very silent, and, except to Parr, whom he often consulted, and to whose opinions he seemed to defer, he seldom spoke a word. His manners in a morning, indeed, were rather sullen, and his countenance gloomy. After dinner he began to relax, but was always under restraint with Parr and the ladies.

At night, when he could collect the young men of the family together, and especially if Parr was absent from home, he was in his glory. The charms of his society were then irresistible. Many a midnight hour did I spend with him, listening with delight, while he poured out torrents of various literature—the best sentences of the best writers, and sometimes the ludicrous beyond the gay—pages of Barrow, whole letters of Richardson, whole scenes of Foote, favourite pieces from the periodical press, and, among them, I have heard recited "The Orgies of Bacchus."

His abode in the house became at last so tiresome to Mrs. Parr, that she insulted him in a manner which I shall not record. From this time the visits of Porson were not repeated at Hatton; and though there was no open breach of friendship on his part, there was no continuance of kindness, notwithstanding Dr. Parr's strenuous endeavours to secure his comforts and independence.
John Selby Watson (1804-1884), The Life of Richard Porson, M.A. Professor of Greek in the University of Cambridge from 1792 to 1808 (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861), pp. 92-93 (after quoting the above passage from Johnstone's memoirs of Parr):
As Dr. Johnstone does not choose to describe Mrs. Parr's insult, we may suppose that it was of a very gross character. She may indeed have fancied that she had reason for offering such an insult. But there are women who imagine that they may say, without censure, the most disagreeable things to any man, however great or good, of whom they conceive a dislike, or wish to be rid. As they are safe from personal chastisement, they venture to utter all the bitterness that may arise in their minds. Nothing is more disgraceful to the female sex than these cowardly attacks on men, often of great ability and merit, whom they know to be restrained by good sense, and gentlemanly forbearance towards the sex, from retaliation. No man can know, who has not experienced, how much mischief may be produced by the impertinent intrusions of a wife between her husband and his friends. Mrs. Parr was a woman of violent and overbearing temper, presumptuous and inconsiderate, and having little respect or kindness for any human being.

Mr. Maltby believed that Porson's offence was, in the words of Horace, Comminxit lectum potus, and that Mrs. Parr, in consequence, made some allusion in his hearing to the duties of college scouts.*

* Barker's Lit. Anecdotes, vol. ii. p. 14.
E.H. Barker (1788-1839), Literary Anecdotes and Contemporary Reminiscences of Professor Porson and Others, Vol. II (London: J.R. Smith, 1852), p. 14:
Mr. M. thinks that he occasionally used his bed for more than one purpose, and that Mrs. Parr probably intended by her device about the c.e s...s to mark her sense of this awkward occurrence.
Samuel Butler (1835-1902), The Life and Letters of Dr. Samuel Butler, Head-Master of Shrewsbury School 1798-1836, and Afterwards Bishop of Lichfield, Vol. I: Jan. 30, 1774-March 1, 1831 (London: John Murray, 1896), p. 57:
Through the kindness of Professor J.E.B. Mayor, who had the story from the late Rev. W.H. Luard, who had it from Dyce, who had it from E.H. Barker, I have learned that the insult consisted in Mrs. Parr's setting a close-stool for Porson at the dinner-table instead of a chair.
In short, Porson, during his stay with Parr, wet the bed, perhaps after an evening of heavy drinking. In a not very subtle reminder of his failure to control his bladder, Mrs. Parr seated him on a close-stool at table. Insulted, Porson left Parr's house for good.

Some people, I'm told, don't know what a close-stool is. The Oxford English Dictionary definition is euphemistic: "A chamber utensil enclosed in a stool or box." Julie L. Horan, The Porcelain God: A Social History of the Toilet (Secaucus: Carol Pub. Group, 1996), p. 202, is a little more explicit: "Dating from the Renaissance, the close-stool resembled a box with a lid opening to reveal a circular seat. Under the seat, a chamber pot was housed to collect the waste."

John Selby Watson's criticisms of "the female sex" in general and Mrs. Parr in particular are harsh, and we should remember that he later murdered his own wife.

I owe the title of this blog post to Solomon Katz, "Even Classicists Are Odd: Part II," Classical Journal 43.7 (April 1948) 411-415 (at 414):
His appearance made him, as one wit said, "Porsona non grata."
Here is Thomas Kirkby's portrait of Richard Porson, seated, but not in the chair provided by Mrs. Parr:

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