Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Richard Bentley (16621742)
[Richard Bentley was born in 1662: educated at Wakefield Grammar School, whence he proceeded to St. Johns College, Cambridge, at the age of fourteen: and after taking his degree became tutor in the family of Stillingfleet, then Dean of St. Pauls. He took orders in 1690, and in 1691 wrote his Latin letter to Dr. Mill, on the Chronicle of Malelas, which marked him out as the first scholar of his day. In this and the following year he delivered the first course of the Boyle lectures in defence of Christianity, and in its preparation, mastered, with singular power, the leading points in Newtons system. He was appointed keeper of the Royal Libraries in 1694, and after being concerned in the controversy between Temple and Boyle on the one side and Wotton on the other, in regard to the so-called Letters of Phalaris, he was appointed Master of Trinity, Cambridge, in 1699. His career there was one long struggle between himself and the Fellows. In 1711 he published his Horace: in 1726 his Terence: and in 1732 a critical edition of Paradise Lost. He died in 1742.]
BENTLEYS title to fame is based on his work as a grammarian, a commentator, and a critic: but notwithstanding singular aberrations of taste (which are seen chiefly in his emendations on Horace and Milton), his work in that field is so consummate, and it so completely out-distanced that of all his contemporaries, that it has gained for him an indisputable place in our literary annals. As a scholar, his chief work was a critical emendation of the classical texts. His aim was not so much to catch the beauties of form as to attain to rigid and logical accuracy. To this end he furnished himself, by enormous industry, with an apparatus of knowledge to which none of his contemporaries could pretend; and he was able to apply this with all the vigour of a mind singularly alert and elastic, and a most incisive logical faculty. For the slovenly scholarship which thought it was enough to catch something of the spirit and motive underlying the masterpieces of classical antiquity, he had no tolerance and no patience: and his controversial methods are often rough and merciless, but always lively, vigorous, and masterful. They are seen at their best in the Dissertation upon Phalaris, which was his contribution to the controversy on the merits of ancients and moderns: and in his Remarks on the Discourse of Free-thinking (by Collinsthe luckless sceptic who found himself the butt at once of Swifts sarcasm and of Bentleys argument).
Bentley, like some of the scholars of an earlier age, prompted perhaps by the desire to avoid any classical pedantry, affected a style which was homely and colloquial even to the verge of vulgarity. He was accused by his opponents of descending to low and mean ways of speech, and the accusation is not entirely unjust. But as Professor Jebb says, his style is thoroughly individual: it is, in fact, the man (His English) has the tone of a strong mind which goes straight to the truth: it is pointed with the sarcasm of one whose own knowledge is thorough and exact, but who is accustomed to find imposture wrapped up in fine or vague words, and takes an ironical delight in using the very homeliest images and phrases, which accurately fit the matter in hand.