He was born at East Ruston, near North Walsham, in Norfolk, the eldest son of Huggin Person, parish clerk. His mother was the daughter of a shoemaker from the neighbouring village of Bacton. He was sent first to the village school at Bacton, kept by John Woodrow, and afterwards to that of Happisburgh kept by Mr Summers, where his extraordinary powers of memory and aptitude for arithmetic were soon discovered. His literary skill was partly due to the efforts of Summers, who long afterwards stated that during fifty years of scholastic life he had never come across boys so clever as Porson and his two brothers. He was well grounded in Latin by Summers, remaining with him for three years. His father also took pains with his education, making him repeat at night the lessons he had learned in the day. He would frequently repeat without making a mistake a lesson which he had learned one or two years before and had never seen in the interval. For books he had only what his father's cottage supplied -- a book or two of arithmetic, John Greenwood's England, Jewell's Apology, and an odd volume of Chambers' Cyclopaedia picked up from a wrecked coaster, and eight or ten volumes of the Universal Magazine.
When Porson was eleven, the curate of East Ruston took charge of his education. Mr Hewitt taught him with his own boys, taking him through Julius Caesar, Terence, Ovid and Virgil; he had already made great progress in mathematics. In addition, Hewitt brought him under the notice of Mr Norris of Witton Park, who sent him to Cambridge to be examined by Professor Lambert, the two tutors of Trinity College, Cambridge, Postlethwaite and Collier, and the well-known mathematician George Atwood, then assistant tutor; the result was so favourable that Mr Norris determined to provide for his education. This was in 1773. It was impossible to get him into Charterhouse School, and he was entered at Eton College in August 1774.
Porson did not care for Eton, but he was popular there; and two dramas he wrote for performance in the Long Chamber were remembered many years later. His marvellous memory was noticed; but he seems to have disappointed the expectations of his friends, as his composition was weak, and he fell behind several of his inferiors through small gaps in his knowledge. He went to Eton too late to have any chance of succeeding to a scholarship at King's College, Cambridge. In 1777 his patron, Mr Norris, died; but contributions from Etonians helped fund his maintenance at the university, and he found a successor to Norris in Sir George Baker, the physician, at that time president of the college of physicians. Chiefly through his means Porson was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, as a pensioner on 28 March 1778, matriculating in April. It is said that what first biased his mind towards literary criticism was the gift of a copy of Jonathan Toup's Longinus by the head master of Eton; but it was Richard Bentley and Richard Dawes to whom he looked as his immediate masters. He became a scholar of Trinity in 1780, won the Craven university scholarship in 1781, and took his degree of B.A. in 1782, as third senior prime, obtaining soon afterwards the first chancellor's medal for classical studies. The same year he was elected Fellow of Trinity, a very unusual thing for junior bachelor of arts, as the junior bachelors were rarely allowed to be candidates for fellowships, a regulation which lasted from 1667 when Isaac Newton was elected till 1818 when Connop Thirlwall became a fellow. Porson graduated M.A. in 1785.
Having secured his independence, he turned his thoughts to publication. His first appearance in print was in a short notice of Schlitz's Aeschylus in Maty. Review, written in 1783. This review contains several other essays by his hand; especially may be mentioned the review of RF Brunck's Aristophanes (containing an able summary of the poet's chief excellencies and defects), Weston's Hermesianax, and Huntingford's Apology for the Monostrophics. But it was to the tragedians, and especially to Aeschylus, that his mind was then chiefly directed. He began a correspondence with David Ruhnken, the veteran scholar of Leiden, requesting to be favoured with any fragments of Aeschylus that Ruhnken had come across in his collection of inedited lexicons and grammarians, and sending him, as a proof that he was not undertaking a task for which he was unequal, some specimens of his critical powers, and especially of his restoration of a very corrupt passage in the Supplices (673–677) by the help of a nearly equally corrupt passage of Plutarch's Eroticus.
As the Cambridge press was proposing to re-edit Thomas Stanley's Aeschylus, the editorship was offered to Porson; but he declined to undertake it on the conditions laid down, namely, of reprinting Stanley's corrupt text and incorporating all the variorum notes. He was especially anxious that the Medicean manuscript at Florence should be collated for the new edition, and offered to undertake the collation at an expense not greater than it would have cost if done by a person on the spot; but the syndics refused the offer, the vice-chancellor (Mr Torkington, master of Clare Hall) observing that Porson might collect his manuscripts at home.
In 1786, a new edition of Hutchinson's Anabasis of Xenophon was called for, and Porson was asked by the publisher to supply notes, which he did in conjunction with the Rev. W Whiter, editor of the Etymologicon universale. These are a good example of the neat and terse style of Latin notes he practised. They also show his intimate acquaintance with his two favourite authors, Plato and Athenaeus, and a familiarity with Eustathius Macrembolites's commentary on Homer.
The following year Porson wrote his Notae breves ad Tonpii emendationes in Suidam, though this treatise did not appear till 1790 in the new edition of Toup's book published at Oxford. These first made Porson's name known as a scholar of the first rank, and carried his fame beyond England. The letters he received from Christian G. Heyne and G Hermann preserved in the library of Trinity College, and written before his Euripides was published, afford proof of this. In his notes he points out the errors of Toup and others; at the same time he speaks of Toup's book as "opus illud aureum," and states that his writing the notes at all is due to the admiration he had for it. They contain some brilliant emendations of various authors; but the necessity of having Toup's own notes with them has prevented their ever being reprinted in a separate form.
During 1787 he wrote three letters on Hawkins's Life of Johnson for the Gentleman's Magazine, which have been reprinted by Thomas Kidd in his Tracts and Criticisms of Porson, and in a volume of Porson's Correspondence. They are admirable specimens of the dry humour so characteristic of the writer, and prove his intimate acquaintance with Shakespeare and the other English dramatists and poets. In the same periodical, in the course of 1788 and 1789, appeared the Letters to Archdeacon Travis, on the spurious verse 1 John 5:7 (collected in 1790 into a volume), which must be considered to have settled the question.
Gibbon's verdict on the book, that it was "the most acute and accurate piece of criticism since the days of Bentley," may be considered as somewhat partial, as it was in defence of him that Porson had entered the field against Travis. But in the masterly sketch of Gibbon's work and style in the preface Porson does not write in a merely flattering tone. It is to be wished that on such a subject the tone of levity had been modified. But Porson says in his preface that he could treat the subject in no other manner, if he treated it at all: "To peruse such a mass of falsehood and sophistry and to write remarks upon it, without sometimes giving way to laughter and sometimes to indignation, was, to me at least, impossible." Travis has no mercy shown him, but he certainly deserved none. One is equally struck with the thorough grasp Porson displays of his subject, the amount of his miscellaneous learning, and the humour that pervades the whole. But it was then the unpopular side: the publisher is said to have lost money by the book; and one of his early friends, Mrs Turner of Norwich, cut down a legacy she had left Porson to £30 on being told that he had written what was described to her as a book against Christianity.
During the years that followed Porson continued to contribute to the leading reviews, writing in the Monthly Review the articles on Robertson's Parian Chronicle, Edwards's Plutarch, and R Payne Knight's Essay on the Greek Alphabet. He gave assistance to William Beloe in one or two articles in the British Critick, and probably wrote also in the Analytical Review and the Critical Review.
In 1792 his fellowship was no longer tenable by a layman; and, rather than undertake duties for which he felt himself unfit, and which involved subscription to the Articles (though he had no difficulty as to signing a statement as to his conformity with the liturgy of the Church of England when elected Greek professor), he determined not to take holy orders, which would have enabled him to remain a fellow, and thus deprived himself of his only means of subsistence. He might have been retained in the society by being appointed to a lay fellowship, one of the two permanent lay fellowships which the statutes then permitted falling vacant just in time. It is said that this had been promised him, and it was certainly the custom in the college always to appoint the senior among the existing laymen, who otherwise would vacate his fellowship. But the master (Dr Postlethwaite), who had the nomination, used his privilege to nominate a younger man (John Heys), a nephew of his own, and thus Porson was turned adrift without any means of support. A subscription was, however, got up among his friends to provide an annuity to keep him from actual want; Cracherode, Cleaver Banks, Burney and Parr took the lead, and enough was collected to produce about £100 a year. He accepted it only on the condition that he should receive the interest during his lifetime, and that the principal, placed in the hands of trustees, should be returned to the donors at his death. When this occurred they or their survivors refused to receive the money, and it was with part of this sum that, in 1816, the Porson prize was founded to perpetuate his name at Cambridge. The remainder was devoted to the foundation of the Porson scholarship in the same university. This scholarship was first awarded in 1855.
After the loss of his fellowship he continued chiefly to reside in London, having chambers in Essex Court, Temple -- occasionally visiting his friends, such as Dr Goodall at Eton and Dr Samuel Parr at Hatton. It was at Dr Goodall's house that the Letters to Travis were written, and at one period of his life he spent a great deal of time at Hatton. While there he would generally spend his mornings in the library, and for the most part in silence; but in the evenings, especially if Parr were away, he would collect the young men of the house about him, and pour forth from memory torrents of every kind of literature. The charms of his society are described as being then irresistible. In 1792 the Greek professorship at Cambridge became vacant by the resignation of Mr Cooke. To this Porson was elected without opposition, and he continued to hold it till his death. The duties then consisted in taking a part in the examinations for the university scholarships and classical medals. It was said he wished to give lectures; but lecturing was not in fashion in those days, and he did far more to advance the knowledge and study of the Greek language by his publications than he could have done by any amount of lecturing. It must be remembered that the emoluments of the professorship were only £40 a year.
The authors on which his time was chiefly spent were the tragedians, Aristophanes, Athenaeus, and the lexicons of Suidas, Hesychius and Photius. This last he twice transcribed (the first transcript having been destroyed by a fire at Perry's house, which deprived the world of much valuable matter that he had written on the margins of his books) from the original among the Gale manuscripts in the library of Trinity College. Of the brilliancy and accuracy of his emendations on Aristophanes the fragments of the other comic poets, and the lexicographer he had a pleasing proof on one occasion when he found how often in Aristophanes he had been anticipated by Bentley, and on another when Schow's collation of the unique manuscripts of Hesychius appeared and proved him right in "an incredible number" of instances. In 1795 there appeared from Foulis's press at Glasgow an edition of Aeschylus in folio, printed with the same type as the Glasgow Homer, without a word of preface or anything to give a clue to the editor. Many new readings were inserted in the text with an asterisk affixed, while an obelus was used to mark many others as corrupt. It was at once recognized as Porson's work; he had superintended the printing of a small edition in two vols. 8vo, but this was kept back by the printer and not issued till 1806, still without the editor's name. There are corrections of many more passages in this edition than in the folio; and, though the text cannot be considered as what would have gone forth if with his name and sanction, yet more is done for the text of Aeschylus than had been accomplished by any preceding editor. It has formed the substratum for all subsequent editions. It was printed from a copy of Pauw's edition corrected, which is preserved in the library of Trinity College.
Soon after this, in 1797, appeared the first instalment of what was intended to be a complete edition of Euripides -- an edition of the Hecuba.
In the preface he pointed out the correct method of writing several words previously incorrectly written, and gave some specimens of his powers on the subject of Greek metres. The notes are very short, almost entirely critical; but so great a range of learning, combined with such felicity of emendation whenever a corrupt passage was encountered, is displayed that there was never any doubt as to the quarter whence the new edition had proceeded. He avoided the office of interpreter in his notes, which may well be wondered at on recollecting how admirably he did translate when he condescended to that branch of an editor's duties.
His work, however, did not escape attack; Gilbert Wakefield had already published a Tragoediarum delectus; and, conceiving himself to be slighted, as there was no mention of his labours in the new Hecuba, he wrote a diatribe extemporalis against it, a tract which for bad taste, bad Latin and bad criticism it would not be easy to match. Gottfried Hermann of Leipzig, then a very young man, who had also written a work on Greek metres, which Dr Elmsley has styled "a book of which too much ill cannot easily be said," issued an edition of the Hecuba, in which Porson's theories were openly attacked. Porson at first took no notice of either, but went on quietly with his Euripides, publishing the Orestes in 1798, the Phoenissae in 1799 and the Medea in 1801, the last printed at the Cambridge press, and with the editor's name on the title-page. But there are many allusions to his antagonists in the notes on such points as the final v, the use of accents, etc.; and on v. 675 of the Medea he holds up Hermann by name to scorn in caustic and taunting language. And it is more than probable that to Hermann's attack we owe the most perfect of his works, the supplement to the preface to the Hecuba, prefixed to the second edition published at Cambridge in 1802.
The metrical laws promulgated are laid down clearly, illustrated with an ample number of examples, and those that militate against them brought together and corrected, so that what had been beyond the reach of the ablest scholars of preceding times is made clear to the tyro. The laws of the iambic metre are fully explained, and the theory of the pause stated and proved, which had been only alluded to in the first edition. A third edition of the Hecuba appeared in 1808, and he left corrected copies of the other plays, of which new editions appeared soon after his death; but these four plays were all that was accomplished of the projected edition of the poet. Porson lived six years after the second edition of the Hecuba was published, but his natural indolence and procrastination led him to put off the work. He found time, however, to execute his collation of the Harleian manuscript of the Odyssey, published in the Grenville Homer in 1801, and to present to the Society of Antiquaries his wonderful conjectural restoration of the Rosetta stone.
In 1806, when the London Institution was founded in the Old Jewry, he was appointed principal librarian with a salary of £200 a year and a suite of rooms; and thus his latter years were made easy as far as money was concerned.
Among his most intimate friends was Perry, the editor of the Morning Chronicle; and this friendship was cemented by his marriage with Perry's sister, Mrs Lunan, in November 1796. The marriage was a happy one for the short time it lasted, as Porson became more attentive to times and seasons, and would have been weaned from his habits of drinking; but she sank in a decline a few months after her marriage (12 April 1797), and he returned to his chambers in the Temple and his old habits. Perry's friendship was of great value to him in many ways; but it induced him to spend too much of his time in writing for the Morning Chronicle; indeed he was even accused of ?giving up to Perry what was meant for mankind,? and the existence of some of the papers he wrote there can be only deplored.
For some months before his death he had appeared to be failing: his memory was not what it had been, and he had some symptoms of intermittent fever; but on 19 September 1808 he was seized in the street with a fit of apoplexy, and after partially recovering died on the 25th. He was buried in Trinity College, close to the statue of Newton, at the opposite end of the chapel to where rest the remains of Bentley.
In learning Porson was superior to Valckenaer, in accuracy to Bentley. It must be remembered that in his day the science of comparative philology had scarcely any existence; even the comparative value of manuscripts was scarcely considered in editing an ancient author. With many editors manuscripts were treated as of much the same value, whether they were really from the hand of a trustworthy scribe, or what Bentley calls "scrub manuscripts," or "scoundrel copies." Thus, if we are to find fault with Porson's way of editing, it is that he does not make sufficient difference between the manuscripts he uses, or point out the relative value of the early copies whether in manuscript or print. Thus he collates minutely Lascaris's edition of the Medea, mentioning even misprints in the text, rather from its rarity and costliness than from its intrinsic value. And his wonderful quickness at emendation has sometimes led him into error, which greater investigation into manuscripts would have avoided; thus, in his note on Eur., Phoen.. 1373 an error, perhaps a misprint (κε for με), in the first edition of the scholiast on Sophocles has led him into an emendation of v. 339 of the Trachiniae which clearly will not stand. But his most brilliant emendations, such as some of those on Athenaeus, on the Supplices of Aeschylus, or, to take one single instance, that on Eur. Helen. 751 (οὐδ' Ἕλενος for οὐδέν γε; see Maltby's Thesaurus, p. 299), are such as convince the reader of their absolute certainty; and this power was possessed by Porson to a degree no one else has ever attained. No doubt his mathematical training had something to do with this; frequently the process may be seen by which the truth has been reached.
A few words are called for on his general character. No one ever more loved truth for its own sake; few have sacrificed more rather than violate their consciences, and this at a time when a high standard in this respect was not common. In spite of his failings, few have had warmer friends; no one more willingly communicated his knowledge and gave help to others; scarcely a book appeared in his time or for some years after his death on the subjects to which he devoted his life without acknowledging assistance from him. And, if it be remembered that his life was a continued struggle against poverty and slight and ill-health, rather than complain that he did little, we should wonder how he accomplished so much.
His library was divided into two parts, one of which was sold by auction; the other, containing the transcript of the Gale Photius, his books with his notes, and some letters from foreign scholars, was bought by Trinity College for 1000 guineas. His notebooks were found to contain, in the words of Bishop Blomfield, "a rich treasure of criticism in every branch of classical literature—everything carefully and correctly written and sometimes rewritten—quite fit to meet the public eye, without any diminution or addition." They have been carefully rearranged, and illustrate among other things his extraordinary penmanship and power of minute and accurate writing. Much remains unpublished. J. H. Monk, his successor as Greek professor, and C. J. Blomfield (both afterwards bishops) edited the Adversaria, consisting of the notes on Athenaeus and the Greek poets, and his prelection on Euripides; PP Dobree, afterwards Greek professor, the notes on Aristophanes and the lexicon of Photius. Besides these, from other sources, Professor T Gaisford edited his notes on Pausanias and Suidas, and Mr Kidd collected his scattered reviews. And, when Bishop Burgess attacked his literary character on the score of his Letters to Travis, Professor Turton (afterwards Bishop of Ely) came forward with a vindication.
The dates of Porson's published works are as follows:
Dr. Turton's vindication appeared in 1827.