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In submitting to the Public the following Memoirs of Dr. Bentley's life, I wish to explain, as briefly as possible, my views in undertaking this work, and the materials which I have possessed for its execution.
My desire to see a distinct account of this illustrious scholar originated a long time ago, several years, indeed, before the idea occurred to me of becoming his biographer myself. In the course of my classical reading, I had frequently remarked how much the writings of Dr. Bentley were influenced by the circumstances of his personal history. And while resident at Cambridge, in the society of which he had been the Head, I was continually struck with the manner in which the history of both College and University was connected, and sometimes identified, with the singular particulars of his life for above forty years. But all the narratives of his story, which are to be found in print, were taken from the account given in the Biographia Britannica: although that article appeared in 1748, within six years after Dr. Bentley's death, the writer, who is stated to have been the Rev. Mr. Hinton, had little knowledge of the principal facts of his life, and sought no opportunities of consulting those who were better informed respecting them : his stock of materials consisted of a few of the numerous pamphlets written on the occasions of the quarrel with the University and the dispute in Trinity College; but the information which he collected from them was not sufficient to give him a distinct idea of those transactions, and his narrative is of course confused and unsatisfactory : all the events of the last twenty years of Dr. Bentley's life are despatched in a few lines, and those few
A second edition of the Biographia was published by Kippis about thirty years after the first; but the article upon Bentley was reprinted with almost all its mistakes : certain additions, indeed, were appended to it, the greater part of which, coming from a very partial quarter, were not calculated to give a more correct view of the life or character of this distinguished personage. Several attempts have been subsequently made, in different periodical works and compilations, to digest that confused heap of materials into a regular shape; some of those articles, having been written by scholars, exhibit a much more correct view of Bentley's publications and literary merits; but for his personal history, they have done little more than retail the narrative of Mr. Hinton, with all its errors and misconceptions : in the meantime, it has been generally remarked, that a satisfactory Memoir of Bentley’s life was a desideratum in English literature.
Perceiving that it was impracticable for any one to give a faithful or distinct account of his career, without a full examination of the records, registers, and correspondence found in the archives of the University, and of Trinity College, I long wished that some person who had leisure for such a work, and whose station gave him access to those depositories, would elucidate this curious period of academical history: and it was only from despair of seeing the task accomplished by other hands, that I resolved to undertake it myself.
My object in this work may be considered threefold : first, to give a full and impartial view of Bentley's life and character ; secondly, a sketch of literary history during the period in which he flourished; and, thirdly, an account of what is worthy of notice in the annals of the College and University, for the first forty years of the eighteenth century. It happens that these three subjects naturally combine and blend themselves into the same narrative.
In the detail of events, it has been my constant
to represent every transaction in its true colours, and to give a candid and unbiassed view of the conduct of every person concerned. Having spared no pains in investigating the truth, by reference to authentic documents, and by comparison of opposite accounts from different parties, I am in hopes that I have generally succeeded in giving a faithful representation of the facts : but while I endeavour to do justice to Dr. Bentley, it is frequently necessary to exhibit his conduct in an unfavourable light, and such
as reflects no credit upon his character, station, or profession. In so doing I shall of course expose myself to the censure of persons, who condemn all attempts to record the errors and frailties of illustrious characters, and would wish biography to be employed upon those subjects only which can be proposed as models for imitation. Anticipating objections of this nature, I may as well make my reply to them at
In the first place, I cannot acknowledge the justice or expediency of confining biography within the limits just mentioned; since I deem the discovery of truth paramount to all other considerations, and think that an important and useful moral may be drawn from the failings of persons gifted with high intellectual endowments. But waiving this question, it is right to state, that my publication is not the means of first bringing to light the defects in Dr. Bentley's character. The numerous pamphlets which treat of his behaviour at different periods of his life, are in greater request than any other tracts that I am acquainted with : many of these pieces, particularly the effusions of Conyers Middleton, which have been reprinted among his works, represent his conduct in the worst and most flagrant colours, and abound with exaggerations and misstatements produced by temporary excitement and virulent hostility. The present narrative, while it disguises nothing, will be the means of vindicating Bentley from unjust aspersions, and of giving a distinct and fair view of his conduct, instead of representations distorted and overcharged by personal animosity.
Soon after 1 had formed the design of this work,
two unexpected and important sources of information presented themselves. ' In the first place, a collection of Bentley's correspondence with the greatest scholars of his time, for about half a century, was discovered in Trinity Lodge, at the death of the late Master, along with several other papers of great importance in his history. Secondly, the manuscripts of Dr. Colbatch and others of Bentley's prosecutors, having been carefully preserved by two or three successive possessors, at length fell into the hands of an attorney at Cambridge, and on his death were sold by his son along with his books to a small second-hand book-shop: at that moment, when in the last stage of its journey to the grocer's or pastry-cook’s, the whole collection was accidentally seen and rescued from its fate by two members of Trinity College. This large mass of papers comprehends the correspondence of Colbatch with many distinguished characters, of which the letters of Conyers Middleton relative to his quarrels with Bentley form an interesting part; and the various controversies which agitated the University of Cambridge and Trinity College for nearly thirty years, are here elucidated by the most satisfactory authorities—the records of different courts, briefs for counsel, and the evidence of witnesses on the opposite sides. Without the last-mentioned documents, it would have been impossible to have given a distinct or connected account of those extraordinary and complicated transactions.
Of my other unpublished sources of information the principal are, the documents, relative both to