Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Professor Porson's Porcine Passions

For A People’s History of Classics I’ve been researching the best British Greek scholar of the 18th century because he was born into a working-class family of weavers. Henry Stead and I’ve known about him for some time; our wonderful colleague Josephine Balmer wrote a short piece and a poem about him for the Classics and Class website. What I hadn’t previously appreciated was that he was both a radical democrat and obsessed with pigs. Nor that I have rather more in common with him than I realised.

In the context of the 1790s, radicalism and pigs were inseparable because Edmund Burke wrote in his reactionary Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) that revolution leads to the common people getting educated, which leads to intellectual culture being debauched, ‘cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude’. 

Our Swinish Multitude copyright Richard Poynder 
British humour being what it is, every self-respecting radical immediately embraced pigdom. (My family has collected our very own Swinish Multitude who study Greek in our garden). Journals and pamphlets were published called Hog’s Wash, Politics for the People, or a Salmagundy for Swine, Penny's Worth of Pig's Meat, A Rod for the Burkites by One of the Swinish Multitude, Husks for the Swine, Dedicated to the Swine of England, the Rabble of Scotland, and the Wretches of Ireland by one of the Herd and The Grunter's Ode. Shelley later put a chorus of pigs in his version of Oedipus, Swellfoot the Tyrant.

Porson, who had arisen from the sties of Norfolk, wrote the brilliant A New Catechism for the Use of the Swinish Multitude, Necessary to be Had in all Sties. To the question whether the resolutions made by the ruling class hog-drivers can be read by the hogs, the answer is no, because scarcely one in twenty hogs can read. The questioner says, ‘They are written in Hog Latin, but that I took for granted you could understand’, to which the hogs retort ‘Shameful aspersion on the hogs! The most inarticulate grunting of our tribe is sense and harmony compared to such jargon.’   But all is not lost, because the questioner notices that the pig talks sense, and asks ‘whence had you your information?’ The answer is ‘From a learned pig’, of which there are ‘many; and the number daily increases.’  

But Porson had enjoyed learned pigs even before the French revolution. Prodigious animals who knew Greek and Latin were a favourite stunt of travelling Georgian showmen. A Sapient Porker called Toby published an autobiography in 1817, and is reading Plutarch in the frontispiece.  

Porson wrote a Greek epigram for one in 1785, appending a humorous short article about him. It opens by calling the pig a ‘gentleman’: since Gentleman Pig professes ‘himself to be extremely learned, [he] will have no objection to find his merits set forth in a Greek quotation’. Porson then supplies the Greek, and an English translation which he claims he has procured from the equally famous Chien Savant, because ‘it is possible that the pig’s Greek may want rubbing up, owing to his having kept so much company with ladies.’  

             "A gentle pig this same, a pig of parts,
              And learned as F.R.S. or graduate in arts;
              His ancestors, 'tis true, could only squeak,
              But this has been at school--and in a month will speak".

After 1790, Porson wrote several other seditious diatribes, which have been erased from his record by his high-minded biographers including the ultra-right Sir Denys Page. 

Porson died after a fall on the Strand when he was drunk, which is a lesson to all of us at King’s College London. I’m of course not mentioning the midsummer’s night a couple of years ago when this Professor of Greek cracked her scalp open on the Strand after treating all her PhDs and Postdocs to a vinous symposium on the banks of the Thames. I’m not proud of this lapse in Aristotelian moderation (although I am of my ceramic swine collection) and don’t want to be seen to have that much in common with the intriguing Jacobin Professor.

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