September 25

1808 The Death of a Classicist

Richard Porson was born on Christmas Day in 1759 to a working-class English family but his brilliance and remarkable memory attracted sponsors who paid for his education at Eton and Cambridge. He soon developed a reputation as a keen scholar of the classics, publishing editions of Aeschylus, Xenophon and Aristophanes. Porson lost his teaching position at Cambridge because he was not in holy orders but his supporters pooled together enough money to give him a comfortable annuity. In 1792 he became Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, a position with few duties and less remuneration but in 1806 he was made librarian of the London Institution which came with a handsome salary.

Porson was an engaging conversationalist, though his excessive drinking and lack of personal hygiene were often remarked on. In 1808 he died of a stroke. Chambers has an anecdote to illustrate Porson’s unconventional behaviour:

The circumstances connected with Porson’s marriage are rather curious. He was very intimate with Mr. Perry, the editor of the Morning Chronicle, for whom his sister, Mrs. Lunan, a widow, kept house. One night the professor was seated in his favourite haunt, the Cider Cellars in Maiden Lane, smoking a pipe with a friend, when he suddenly turned to the latter and said: ‘Friend George, do you not think the widow Lunan an agreeable sort of personage, as times go?’ The party addressed replied that she might be so.

‘In that case,’ replied Porson, ‘you must meet me at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields at eight o’clock to-morrow morning,’ and thereupon withdrew after having called for and paid his reckoning. His friend was somewhat puzzled, but knowing that Porson generally meant what he said, resolved to obey the summons, and accordingly next morning presented himself at the appointed hour at the church, where he found Porson, with Mrs. Lunan and a female friend, and a parson in full canonicals for the solemnisation of matrimony. The service was quickly got through, and thereupon the party quitted the sacred building, the bride and bridegroom going each different ways with their respective friends.

The oddity of the affair did not end here. Porson had proposed to Mrs. Lunan some time before, but had insisted on her keeping it a secret from her brother; and now that the ceremony was completed, seemed as determined as ever that nothing should be said of the marriage, having apparently also made no preparations for taking his bride home. His friend, who had acted as groomsman, then insisted that Mr. Perry should be informed of the occurrence; and Porson, after some opposition, consenting, the two walked together to the residence of the worthy editor, in Lancaster Court, where, after some explanation, an arrangement was effected, including the preparation of a wedding-dinner, and the securing of apartments for the newly-married couple.

After dinner, Porson, instead of remaining to enjoy the society of his bride, sallied forth to the house of a friend, and after remaining there till a late hour, proceeded to the Cider Cellars, where he sat till eight o’clock next morning! Not-withstanding what may well be called this most unprecedented treatment of a wife on her wedding-day, it is said that during the year and a half that the marriage subsisted, Porson acted the part of a kind and attentive husband, and had his wife lived, there is great reason to believe that she might have weaned him in time from his objectionable habits.

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