Sunday, February 12, 2012


Kristine Louise Haugen, Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA; London:: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 333. ISBN 9780674058712. $39.95.

Reviewed by Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp (

Version at BMCR home site


This intellectual biography of one of the most fascinating figures in the history of textual editing and of classical scholarship is a genuine pleasure to read. Although it is generally chronological, the book is by no means an attempt to replace the ambitious biography by J. H. Monk (two volumes in 1830 and 1833). Instead, Haugen's book places Richard Bentley firmly in the intellectual and cultural context of his time: the biography carefully studies each of his important contributions, while at the same time presenting itself as an excellent example of the best of contemporary scholarship. The study began as a 2001 doctoral dissertation, but it has been made completely up to date: it includes a reference to Jean-Louis Quantin's The Church of England and Christian Antiquity of 2009.

If some of us today still know Richard Bentley, whom Haugen in the introduction calls a perfect example of "that much discussed creature, the Enlightenment man" (5), it is either in the context of the history of English literature as the target of serious satire by the giants in that genre, Jonathan Swift (in his Battle of the Books) and Alexander Pope (in Dunciad Variorum), or as the editor who massacred Paradise Lost or in the history of classical studies as the brilliant rediscoverer of the digamma and, according to Sebastiano Timpanaro in La genesi del metodo del Lachmann, the precursor of all serious critical and historical textual study. People interested in the history of Cambridge University may also know him as the administrator from hell, who as master of his College for more than forty years "abused his power at Trinity along a spectrum that ranged from misrule to a positive reign of terror" (125). But for Kristine Louise Haugen, Bentley was first and foremost a scholar and critic of an entirely new kind, one who attempted to bridge the gap that separated scholarship and criticism, expertise and taste.

She opens the book by describing the world of classical learning before Bentley came on the scene, especially the careers of the scholars Thomas Stanley, John Pearson and Thomas Gale, all three active in Cambridge. Before the Restoration, Cambridge had a reputation for dissent, so under the new régime, ambitious Anglican churchmen came in and took over most of the colleges, bringing with them their experience of historical scholarship in Holland and elsewhere on the continent. Haugen writes that for the first time English scholars began "to resemble their late humanist counterparts elsewhere in northern Europe" (15), scholars such as Isaac Vossius and Henri de Valois. Thomas Stanley continued Joseph Scaliger's meticulous work on chronology in his own history of Greek philosophy. In his edition of Aeschylus his emendations and notes were based on a whole number of annotated manuscripts and print copies that helped him connect to the web of the international humanist republic of letters. The cases of John Pearson and Thomas Gale are particularly interesting because both were actively involved in the religious and political controversies of the day, while at the same time publishing extremely erudite studies and editions that were part of a European-wide conversation about the study of ancient texts.

This was the university environment in which the young Richard Bentley came of age, but we only get our first glimpses of him in the documents when he had moved to London. Haugen tells us about the beginning of Bentley's career in the church and his life as a young intellectual in the particularly vibrant London world of books and learning, where he met John Evelyn and Isaac Vossius and where he also, as Haugen shows, developed the scholarly habits which would stand him in such good stead for the rest of his writing career. It was this series of careful and detailed studies that found a first outlet in the Letter to Mill full of erudite philological findings. This contribution to the literary controversy of the day was written in the condescending tone characteristic of Bentley which Haugen, in a characteristically elegant phrase, describes as elevating his style to "a febrile, even opprobrious intensity" (97). She also shows how Bentley's youthful stylistic bravura was based on lots of hard and tedious work: having carefully studied Bentley's annotated books and manuscripts, she is able to demonstrate the systematic nature of the critic's notes and marginalia, a horde of materials that he could and would return to again and again.

Having been chosen to give the first series of the Boyle lectures, attacking all "wholesale rejectors of religion" (101), Bentley turned the honor into an occasion to demonstrate his skills as a churchman defending Anglican orthodoxy, which helped him to get the patronage of John Evelyn. But this was but an interlude in his career and Bentley now embarked on Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris his contribution to the Battle of the Books, the English querelle des anciens et des modernes that would turn him into the victim of Swift and Pope. Haugen shows the technical difficulties facing Bentley in having to attack the authenticity of the Phalaris letters, which Sir William Temple had given as proof of ancient superiority. He was taking part in a controversy in English, but his arguments could only be extremely technical. Bentley ended up bringing out a revised edition of the book that contained even more copious examples of his most superior knowledge and taste.

Equally outspoken was the Cambridge master in his edition of Horace: most of the English critics of an earlier generation had restricted their attention to the works of minor or later authors, but Bentley brazenly took one of the most popular classical authors of his time and thereby knowingly invaded the territory of the genteel set. The Master of Trinity used this occasion to aggressively make the case for the art of emendation which, in England, had been restricted to Greek texts and which he now claimed was a typically Enlightenment art of reason, much more ratio et res ipsa in fact, than a hundred manuscripts. But at the same time Haugen shows that beyond his domestic audience, Bentley was establishing his credentials as a member of the Dutch school of Vossius and Heinsius. Through his Horace edition, he created a new space for himself and by doing so, he showed that it was possible to be a philological scholar and a highly public (and controversial) figure. Haugen shows that for all of Bentley's bluster, his arguments were always built on the solid philological groundwork that he had built early in his career and that he continued until the end of his life, with lots of projects left unfinished, or, in the case of his edition of the Iliad, lost in a fire.

Readers of this journal will be most interested in the minute discussions of some of Bentley's notes and emendations. As in the best work by Anthony Grafton, Haugen works on the primary documents, in this case, the copies of the books and manuscripts that Bentley consulted, annotated, shared and, in some cases, stole (or at least never returned to their rightful owners). This careful study of the primary documents can only be effective against the background of an astonishing amount of prior knowledge, not just about the immediate context of Bentley's time, but also of the many diverse and difficult problems that he chose to study, even that most arcane subject of classical studies, meter. Haugen also tackles the rediscovery of the digamma: she first gives us the full history of a lost letter that seems never to have been so lost at all. She also shows in detail where Bentley picked up on the old discussions and how he very early on began to collect Greek forms with the digamma, which to some extent he considered as his own discovery, despite the fact that he knew that he had been anticipated by a number of others. In the end his edition of Homer (with its discussion of the digamma) never materialized, but he still managed to achieve "the indistinct grandeur" (182) that this discovery gave him by having his friends and enemies make it public, without ever publishing the details himself.

Despite being an Anglican clergyman all his life, Bentley only seems to have returned to religious problems when a lucrative professorship of theology was thought to become available: he felt he had to show some kind of religious interest. In a pseudonymous 1713 tract against the freethinker Anthony Collins he had hinted at a plan to edit the New Testament with a list of emendations, and some years later he tried to solicit subscriptions. That project too never materialized but Haugen shows in the extant materials how the normally aggressive emendator was careful to stress that in the case of the sacred writings there was no room for conjecture. At the same time Bentley quixotically wanted to print both the Greek and Latin texts, which he was convinced matched perfectly in their word order (and Haugen shows that he did not hesitate to emend the Latin version to make them match). Bentley's editorial efforts are placed in the context of both the Trinitarian controversies and the attack against religious orthodoxy on historical grounds.

Haugen spends relatively little time on Bentley's one misguided project, his attempt to rescue the text of Milton's Paradise Lost from an editor who had, in his view, managed to destroy the poem. In her conclusion, she tries to assess Bentley's role and importance as the classical scholar who replaced Joseph Scaliger and who became, with Isaac Newton, "a distinguished specimen of Enlightenment man" (230). Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment is a remarkably measured monument to a man who tried to bring classical scholarship to a wider readership. If we can be allowed one minor quibble with this book, we must deplore the publisher's decision not to include a general bibliography, making the eager reader's life unnecessarily more complicated. Starting with the provocative title of the introduction ("What Was A Scholar?"), Haugen writes extremely well: clearly, concisely and wittily. In the penultimate sentence of the conclusion she ascribes to Bentley the ambition to reach beyond a public of specialists: "The enterprise of setting serious humanistic scholarship before a wider audience remains an active and important aim today" (245). At this particular enterprise, Bentley himself may have partly failed (not for want of trying), but in this book Kristine Louise Haugen has succeeded most admirably.

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