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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XIII. Scholars and Antiquaries

§ 12. Bentley and Paradise Lost

Of the other work of Bentley’s old age, it can only be said that few reputations except his own could have survived it. When the prince regent proposed that Jane Austen should write a romance to glorify the august house of Coburg, she had the good sense to decline the task; it is a pity that Bentley was not equally wise, when queen Caroline expressed her wish that he should edit Milton. The queen may have supposed that he would illustrate Milton’s language from Homer and Vergil; but Bentley preferred to revise the text of Paradise Lost. It was a task for which he was ill equipped. His turn of mind was prosaic. He thought more of correctness than of poetry, and was quick to find “vitious construction” or “absonous numbers” where Milton rises above the laws of critics. And, though he occasionally quotes from Ariosto and Tasso, from Chaucer and Spenser, he was not really familiar with the poetry and romance which had helped to nourish the youth of Milton.

Starting from the known fact that Milton, being then blind, could not write down his verses or read his proof-sheets, Bentley discovered a large number of what he took to be errors of the amanuensis or of the printer. Next, he invented a hypothesis that some friend, employed by Milton as “editor,” abused his trust by inserting in the poem many passages, and some long ones, of his own composition. Bentley professed to correct the misprints and to detect the spurious passages. Further, in very many places he frankly abandons all pretence of recovering Milton’s text and corrects the poet himself. The book was published in 1732, shortly before Bentley’s second trial before the bishop of Ely. The corrections were printed in the margin in italics; the insertions of the imaginary editor were enclosed between brackets and were also printed in italics; the notes at the foot of the page seek to justify the corrections and excisions.

This strange production cannot be excused on the ground that Bentley was in his dotage. The notes show that his mind was still working with the old vigour. But his undoubted superiority in a different field had apparently persuaded him that he would prove equally successful in an unfamiliar enterprise. He has generally a sort of prosaic logic on his side, and sometimes he has more. A very favourable specimen of his notes will be found on Paradise Lost, VI, 332, where Milton speaks of a “stream of nectarous humour” issuing from Satan’s wound. Bentley notes that nectar was the drink of the gods; next he shows conclusively that Milton is translating a line in Homer, which says that the blood of the gods is ichor; and he ends by saying that Milton wrote “ichorous humour.” This is a notable criticism: if Milton did not write “ichorous,” he certainly should have written it. But Bentley’s very next note is typical of the perversity which runs through the whole commentary. On the line,

  • And with fierce ensigns pierc’d the deep array
  • the note is as follows:
  • Another Blunder again, though not quite so vile as the last. Why are Ensigns, the Colours, called fierce; the tamest things in the whole Battle? And how could they pierce an Array that are never used for striking? The Author gave it,
  • And with fierce Onset pierc’d the deep array.
  • The book was read with amazement; and, while some made fun of the author, others wrote serious refutations. It is probable, however, that the taste of that age did not resent the outrage as keenly as we might suppose. It is a remarkable fact that, on the margin of his own copy, Pope signified his approval of many of the new readings, though, in his published poems, he attacked Bentley repeatedly for his treatment of Milton. Pope’s hostility may have been partly inherited from Atterbury and Swift. He had a grievance of his own as well, if the story be true that Bentley said to him of his translation of Homer: “a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” When Bentley was asked, late in life, why Pope assailed him, he said: “I talked against his Homer, and the portentous cub never forgives.”

    Bentley wrote one piece of English verse which is preserved in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Johnson praised the verses highly on one occasion and recited them “with his usual energy.” He added: “they are the forcible verses of a man of strong mind but not accustomed to write verse; for there is some uncouthness in the expression.” The verses describe the arduous labours and scanty rewards of a scholar’s life; and Johnson’s praise and his blame are alike just.