An anecdote on the perils of being “learned” in public; and some others

Another anecdote from the collection of E.H. Barker:[1]

7. Professor Porson.

We have seldom read a better story, to say the least of it, than the following. As to the facts of it, we can only say that the statement rests on the authority of the author of Lacon, whence it is extracted.

Porson was once travelling in a stagecoach, when a young Oxonian, fresh from College, was amusing the ladies with a variety of talk, and amongst other things, with a quotation, as he said, from Sophocles. A Greek quotation, and in a coach too, roused our slumbering Professor from a kind of dog-sleep, in a snug corner of the vehicle. Shaking his ears, and rubbing his eyes, ‘I think, young gentleman,’ said he, ‘you favored us just now with a quotation from Sophocles; I do not happen to recollect it there. ‘ ‘Oh, Sir/ replied our tyro, ‘the quotation is word for word as I have repeated it, and in Sophocles too; but T suspect, Sir, that it is some time since you were at College. ‘ The Professor applying his hand to his great-coat, and taking out a small pocket-edition of Sophocles, quietly asked him if he would be kind enough to shew him the passage in question in that little book. After rummaging the leaves for some time, he replied, ‘On second thoughts, I now recollect that the passage is in Euripides.’ ‘Then perhaps, Sir,’ said the Professor, putting his hand again into his pocket, and handing him a similar edition of Euripides, ‘You will be so good as to find it for me in that little book. ‘ The young Oxonian returned to his task, but with no better success. The tittering of the ladies informed him that he had got into a hobble. At last, ‘Bless me, Sir,’ said he ‘how dull I am! I recollect now, yes, I perfectly remember that the passage is in Aeschylus.’ The inexorable Professor returned again to his inexhaustible pocket, and was in the act of handing him an Aeschylus, when our astonished freshman vociferated,— ‘Stop the coach, holloah, coachman, let me out I say, instantly — let me out! there’s a fellow here, has got the whole Bodleian Library in his pocket.’

I’m not quite sure where our sympathies should lie, mind you.  Do we sympathise more with the old scholar who finds himself rudely insulted by the impudence of a young snot who presumes everyone else is as ignorant as himself; or with the young man who was trying to impress the young ladies, and then was suddenly attacked for no good reason by a stranger?

The second volume of Barker’s Anecdotes is mainly devoted to rather dull stories about Porson, and so is of little interest.  I found only one other anecdote that is worth repeating:

22. Roman inscription.

In the ruins of a Roman building near the Baiae in Italy, the following Inscription was found on a large piece of marble, which has probably been the portal of a bath, or some apartment of pleasure:

    Balnea, vina, Venus, corrumpunt corpora nostras;
Sed vitam faciunt balnea, vina, Venus:

    Baths, women, wine, our health destroy,
And cut life’s scanty line;
But what has life or health of joy,
Without baths, women, wine?”

Proofs of the Enquiry into Homer’s Life and Writings, translated into English, London, 1748, 8vo. p. 41. Refer to the Enquiry itself, p. 109 or 110.[2]

If the inscription is genuine, it shows the limitations of pagan society.  For if wine, women and (Roman) baths are all that there is to life, then we are little better off than animals.

  1. [1]E.H. Barker, Literary reminiscences, vol. 2, 1852, p.4.
  2. [2]P.15.

6 thoughts on “An anecdote on the perils of being “learned” in public; and some others

  1. The first anecdote delights me !
    The second remembers me a 1947 french song : “cigarettes et whisky et p’tites pépées”
    “I know that tobacco is bad for the voice
    Alcohol is said to be not good for the liver
    And for the chicks, they gonna make us die
    All three together, there’s nothing better…”

    Nothing new under the sun….

  2. The first seconds of this date it to 1960, not 1947. I believe this is a French translation or adaptation of The Sons of the Pioneers’ 1947 hit “Cigareets and Whuskey and Wild, Wild Women” (note idiosyncratic spelling). Unless The Sons of the Pioneers (Roy Roger’s C&W group) translated it from the French.

  3. You must be right, Michael : it must be a 1957 (by Eddie Constantine) french adaptation of the american song. There was also a 1959 french movie thus entitled… 🙂

  4. I’ve been wondering about the first anecdote, which may give the impression of an elderly, even venerable Professor nonplussing the young fool (needless to say I sympathize with the former). But Richard Porson was quite young when he died (1759-1808), and in none of the portraits I can find of him does he look particularly decrepit. See the National Portrait Gallery:

    https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp03614/richard-porson

    Still, it’s a great story.

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