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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

§ 9. Bentley’s Horace

In 1711 appeared his Horace. It was dedicated to Harley, the tory prime minister, of whose powerful aid Bentley was then sorely in need, at a critical stage in his battle with the college. Horace was the first Latin author whom Bentley had edited: till then, his published work had dealt mainly with Greek writers. The object aimed at was a complete revision of the text, and all accessible authorities were used for the purpose; but Bentley relied more upon his power of emendation than upon any MSS. His Horace presented over 700 unfamiliar readings; and these novelties, instead of being relegated to the foot of the page, were promoted to the text. All the old power and erudition were shown in the notes in which the editor sought to justify his innovations. The reader who is inclined to reject some change proposed turns to the note and finds it almost impossible to resist the dialectical force of the editor. But there are faults in this work which had not been conspicuous before in Bentley’s books—arrogance in asserting his own merits and a tendency to think more of exhibiting his own skill in argument than of discovering what his author really wrote. For the first time, too, he begins to force upon the author his own standards of taste, a fault which betrayed him later into the great literary blunder of his life. The book brought him much praise and as much criticism. The two are pleasantly combined in the language of Atterbury, now dean of Christ Church and on civil terms with Bentley, when he acknowledged the gift of a copy:

  • I am indebted to you, Sir, for the great pleasure and instruction I have received from that excellent performance; though at the same time I cannot but own to you the uneasyness I felt when I found how many things in Horace there were, which, after thirty years’ acquaintance with him, I did not understand.