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Gilbert Wakefield

At Cambridge Dyer met a fellow student, a scholarship boy at Jesus College called Gilbert Wakefield (Figure 8.3) (1756-1801), whose life story blends serious distinction as a prolific and sometimes brilliant classical scholar with the experience

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FIGURE 83 Gilbert Wakefield (1756—1801), reproduced by courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

of grim reprisals for his revolutionary views, and national infamy or celebrity, depending on political viewpoint. Unlike his rival as a Hellenist, Richard Porson (an originally working-class scholar discussed below, pp. 294-8), Wakefield’s support of radical democracy in the 1790s landed him in prison. Porson was sympathetic to his plight, even though they exchanged acrimonious scholarly assaults on one another. Wakefield would have more than merited a place in Chapter 13, ‘Seditious classicists’; he was powerfully associated in the public mind with the Dissenting movement, as a high-profile repudiator of Anglicanism, and as a famous critic of Anglican support of Pitt’s regime. But he was also central to the culture of Dissent through the Classics.

The son of a poor but educated Nottinghamshire parish priest, Wakefield was himself educated at Free Schools and excelled as a classicist at Cambridge. He was ordained, but curacies in Stockport and Liverpool turned him into a prison reformer, Abolitionist and Unitarian. He resigned as curate, had therefore to vacate his Cambridge Fellowship and then married and accepted a post at Warrington Academy. He taught alongside Aikin and Priestley until its closure, which was partly due to his political activism.39 He tried to make a living as a freelance tutor, and published both an edition of Virgil’s Georgies (1788) and the first of his three-part Silva Critica (1789, 1793, 1795), in which he proposed ‘the union of theological and classical learning; the illustration of the Scriptures by light borrowed from the philology of Greece and Rome’.40

He accepted the Welsh Unitarian Richard Price’s invitation to teach Classics at his New College, one of a cluster of Dissenting academies in Hackney, East London. New College was regarded as the most politically radical among them; Tom Paine was invited to be after-dinner speaker only weeks after he was charged with sedition for Rights of Man.4' Nevertheless, Wakefield fell out with Price. Increasingly maverick in his religious views, he refused to be identified as a regular Dissenter. He opposed public worship of any kind. Since he felt that classical literature contained ‘the true rudiments of all other science’ and was the subject on which ‘the greatest stress should be laid, in a system of liberal education’, he ‘inculcated’ this point ‘with an earnestness which probably appeared somewhat dictatorial to the conductors of the institution’.42

Wakefield continued living amongst the Dissenters of Hackney and produced a stream of editions of classical works, including Greek tragedies (1794), Horace (1794), Moschus (1795) and his respected three-volume Lucretius (1796-1799). Other publications were a translation of the New Testament and an autobiography. His notoriety grew with controversial theological tracts and his first public attack on Prime Minister Pitt, along with praise for the French revolution in The Spirit of Christianity (1794). The Treasury Solicitor filed the latter as suspicious alongside John Thelwall’s lectures on Roman history (see below pp. 276-7).43 Wakefield’s Reply to Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” (1795) added fuel to the flames. But the crunch came when he replied to the Bishop of Landaff’s treatise in support of Prime Minister Pitt’s proposal for an income tax,44 which he deplored as a means of raising funds for war with France.45 In his A Reply to

Some Parts of the Bishop of Landaff’s Address (1798) he drew on classical literature to explain the conflict between Pittite policy and Christian morality. Matthew Hiscock’s analysis shows that the classical references go far further; they cumulatively construct and embody an implicit call to revolution in Britain that would, stated explicitly, have exposed Wakefield to a charge of treason’,46 rather than the lesser charge of seditious libel. The Reply was published in three different editions, the third after Wakefield had received a barrister’s advice when prosecution proceedings had begun.

When Bishop Watson attempted to stir up patriotic zeal, asking, ‘When Hannibal is at the gates, who but a poltroon would listen to the timid counsels of neutrality?’ and claimed that he was confident that ‘hundreds of thousands of loyal and honest men are as ready as I am, to hazard every thing in defence of the country’,47 Wakefield replied that he would rather tend his study in peace, quoting Virgil’s Georgies, ‘Non res Romanae, perituraque regna’ (11.498). Not even ‘Roman affairs, and kingdoms bound to fall’ would move Wakefield from his books any more than Virgil’s idealised rustic from his garden.

Wakefield uses Virgil’s Aeneid, but also acerbically compares the Bishop with the warlike Ulysses of Euripides’ satyr-drama Cyclops (perhaps later inspiring Shelley to take note of this text), and suggests that, far from feeling bellicose, most ordinary Britons would find excuses, like Euripides’ satyrs, for refusing to fight the French: they had ‘made boastful profession of their readiness to assist the hero in burning the eye of Polyphemus, but miserably failed in the performance of their engagement’ when actually called upon:

“Do but see,” says one, (a city light horseman) “what a long way I am off! It is impossible for me to reach him.” - “Oh; what a sudden lameness has seized my poor leg!” says another (a supplementary militia-man): “Aye! and mine too!” says a third (a voluntary cavalier): “A most unaccountable spasm began to contract my feet, just as I was ready.” - “And these eyes of mine,” explains another (a provincial associator), “are full of ashes from some inexplicable cause or other.” - “The truth is,” said a fifth (a life-and-fortune man), “it is a generous compassion for our bones that suggests these excuses; but I am acquainted with a charm of Orpheus, a most admirable specific! which will teach the brand how to march at once of its own accord, and put out his eye!”48

Finally, Wakefield quotes the Whig Samuel Croxall’s version of Aesop’s fable of ‘The Sensible Ass’.49 An ass refuses to flee from his master’s supposed enemy when he learns that the enemy, unlike his master, has no intention of making him carry any panniers on his back.’11 To ensure that the allegory does not go unnoticed, Wakefield also quotes Croxall’s ‘application’ or moral:

This fable shews us, how much in the wrong the poorer sort of people most commonly are, when they are under any concern about the revolutions of a government. All the alteration, which they can feel is, perhaps, in the name of the sovereign, or some such important trifle; but they cannot well be poorer, or made to work harder than they did before

Just in case the relevance of the fable might be overlooked, Wakefield has reminded the reader that

within three miles of the house, where I am writing these pages, there is a much greater number of starving, miserable human beings, the hopeless victims of penury and distress, than on any equal portion of ground through the habitable globe.’2

Wakefield was prosecuted, along with his publishers Joseph Johnson (see above p. 169), Jeremiah Jordan and the bookseller John Cuthell. All were convicted. In his celebrated state trial, in front of a crowded courtroom, Wakefied conducted his own defence, taking the opportunity ‘to elaborate his views on the moral and political character of the government. He would be recognized if not acquitted’.53 He was sentenced to two years in Dorchester gaol.54 In prison he helped his poorer fellow prisoners, and conducted a substantial correspondence with Samuel Parr and with Fox, mostly on issues of classical scholarship,55 translated Dio Chrysostom and worked on a study of Greek metre published just after his release, and shortly before his death, under the title Notes Carceriae (1801).

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