Blunderers and Blockheads


Bust of Richard Bentley, Louis-François Roubiliac 

From London Review of Books:

Many years ago, when there were still second-hand bookshops in which to skulk, I found a leather-bound volume with ‘BENTLEY’S HORACE’ on its spine. It was only twenty quid, so I dropped into the standard routine for bagging a bargain. You’d toy with a few other things, then take the one you really wanted to the desk with some gesture that said, ‘Oh well, I might as well pick up this old thing too.’ I hoped the volume was going to be Richard Bentley’s 1711 edition of Horace, which is full of his sometimes inspired and sometimes not so inspired conjectural emendations. When I got it home I found it was an English translation of Bentley’s notes on Horace’s Odes, along with ‘Notes upon Notes Done in the Bentleian Stile and Manner’, which the hack publisher Bernard Lintott produced in 1712 to cash in on the fame of Bentley’s Horace.

Bentley’s notes were translated in a way that deliberately exaggerated the crabby vigour and indecorum of his style: ‘Since then I was satisfy’d, that Horace did not write this, but that it was foisted in by the Crew of Librarians, I began to cast about.’ The ‘Notes upon Notes’ were intended to draw attention to Bentley’s extreme arrogance, so when he defended a reading in Horace’s Odes, the anonymous ‘Bentleian’ annotator added this gloss:

The Dr. having called together an Assembly of Criticks, by the Names and Titles of most Learned, most Accurate, most Ingenious, most Judicious, most Illustrious, and so forth, tells them when they are met, that they are a company of Blunderers and Blockheads, and that there is a Commentator in the World, one Dr. B, more Learned, Accurate, Ingenious, Judicious and Illustrious than all of them put together.

This representation of Bentley as a figure of overweening arrogance was one which I, like most students of English literature, was primed to accept. In The Dunciad in Four Books (1742), Pope described Bentley as the ‘mighty Scholiast, whose unweary’d pains/ Made Horace dull, and humbled Milton’s strains.’ Pope added notes to The Dunciad, and indeed notes upon notes, in the Bentleian manner. The gem is the note to the lines ‘a Sage appears,/By his broad shoulders known, and length of ears.’ The annotator solemnly cites a string of critics who have unthinkingly accepted the received reading of the text, which he claims ‘proceeded originally from the inadvertency of some Transcriber’, and concludes: ‘A very little Sagacity (which all these Gentlemen therefore wanted) will restore to us the true sense of the Poet, thus, By his broad shoulders known, and length of years.’ The Bentleian textual critic-annotator revels in his own false modesty. His restoration of the ‘true’ reading proves beyond all doubt that he could not recognise an ass by the length of its ears.

Bentley was, however, no ass.

From Pinocchio, Walt Disney Pictures, 1940 

“Pissing on Idiots”, Colin Burrow, London Review of Books