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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

§ 3. Epistola ad Millium

In 1689, when young Stillingfleet went to Oxford, Bentley went with him and became a member of the university. To him, one of the chief attractions of the place must have been the Bodleian library. Two years later appeared his first published work, the Epistola ad Millium.

The Sheldonian press was about to print a manuscript chronicle by a medieval writer named Joannes Malelas; and John Mill, famous for his critical edition of the New Testament, sent the proof-sheets of Malelas to Bentley, on condition that he should contribute something to the book. Of the published book, the last hundred pages are taken up by Bentley’s Latin letter. Of the many subjects discussed in the Epistola, the chief are the plays of the Attic dramatists and the lexicon of Hesychius. Bentley’s Epistola gave evidence of a knowledge which embraced all the known writers of antiquity and extended even to the unprinted MSS. of the Oxford libraries. But it showed more than this: Bentley was absolute master of his erudition and could apply it with the nicest precision to solve the problems presented by his author. The Greek texts which he quoted were often so corrupt as to be unintelligible; but, again and again, he restored meaning by emendations as certain as they are wonderful. For such work as this, he had one immense advantage over all his predecessors: he had learnt for himself the laws of Greek metre, which were very imperfectly understood even by such men as Grotius and Casaubon. The whole work bears, in the highest degree, the impress of conscious power. It was soon perceived by the few men in Europe who were competent to judge what Bentley had done that a star of the first magnitude had risen above the horizon.