Man Who Knew Too Much

09 25 richard porsonToday I am celebrating the life of Richard Porson, an amazingly talented classical scholar and insatiable drinker. He was born in 1759 and died on this day in 1808. His last meal was wine, jelly and brandy.

As a child he was found to have the most amazing capacity for learning. For example he could work out the cube root of a number in his head when he was nine. Porson was educated first by a local clergyman then at Eton where he excelled in languages. He had a truly excellent memory. In one lesson he managed to give a very good translation of a passage by Horace, even though he had forgotten his text book and was looking instead at Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He wasn’t particularly keen on his school though. The thing he remembered most fondly was rat hunting in the Long Hall.

After Eton he went on to study classical literature at Trinity College, Cambridge where he attracted attention and praise for his work on the texts of Theocritus and Virgil. His first appointment post-university seems to have been as tutor to a young gentleman on the Isle of Wight. Porson was forced up give to his post though, after being found drunk in a turnip field.

He became well known for his work in Greek translation, particularly an edition of the plays of Euripides and in 1792 he was appointed Professor of Greek at Cambridge. It was not a well paid job, but oddly involved no obligation to lecture or even visit the university. He was also appointed Principal Librarian of the London Institution, but no one saw much of him there either.

His excellent memory was both a blessing and a curse. Once a friend asked him about the meaning of a particular Greek word in a work by Thucydides. When he mentioned the word, Porson repeated the relevant passage from memory. His friend was amazed and wanted to know how he guessed which part he was looking at. Porson replied that the word occurred only twice in the work, once on the left hand page, once on the right. He had seen which side of the page his friend was looking at and remembered and repeated the passage. An astounding feat, but he found himself unable to forget anything, not even the things he didn’t want to remember. Possibly that was why he took to drink, in the hope of forgetting.

Porson really took to drink in a big way. Lord Byron remembered him as being constantly inebriated. After attending a dinner party, he would go back into the dining room when everyone had finished eating, tip all the remaining dregs of alcohol into one glass and drink it. A friend remarked that he would rather drink ink than not drink at all. On one occasion, he was dining at the house of a friend who was ill in bed. When the friend’s servant was sent to fetch a bottle of embrocation that was on the mantelpiece, he was told by Porson.: “I drank it a hour ago.” On another, he went to dine with a Mr Hoppner, but when he arrived was told that Mrs Hoppner had gone out, taking with her the key to the wine cellar. He settled instead for sending out for beer from a local alehouse. Later in the evening though, he said he was quite sure that Mrs Hoppner must have a little something tucked away for her own private drinking, perhaps in her bedroom? Mr Hoppner was quite indignant and was sure that his wife had no such thing. But Porson was insistent, a search was made and a tiny bottle of liquid found. Porson drank it and declared it to be the best gin he had drunk in a long time. Hoppner was pretty upset and told his wife the next day how his friend had found her secret stash and drunk every drop. “Every drop?” she exclaimed “My God, it was spirits of wine for the lamp.” This probably says as much about the general quality of gin in eighteenth century London as it does about his drinking habits.

His friend, a Mr Maltby, described him as: “generally ill-dressed and dirty.” and looking as if he: “had been rolling in a kennel.” whereas in fact, he had just spent two days at a party. I think of him as being a bit like this. His drinking got gradually worse until in 1808 he was seized by an apoplectic fit and collapsed in the Strand. He couldn’t speak and no one knew who he was. He was taken to the workhouse and an advertisement was placed in the paper describing his clothes and the contents of his pockets: a gold watch and a note book, mostly full of Greek medical notes with some Latin and Algebra. A colleague recognised his description and came to fetch him back to the library where he worked. There he recovered a little over the next few days and was able to speak, though more easily in Greek than in English. His last visitor was a Doctor Clarke with whom he spoke about Greek literature and then ,even though he was barely able to walk, accompanied his friend to a nearby coffee house where he had a last meal of wine, jelly and warm brandy and died shortly after returning home.

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