A dedicated life:
Ireland's greatest Virgilian

by J. A. Richmond

University College,

If one looks at the 'highly selective list' of commentaries in the bibliography to S. J. Harrison's edition of Vergil Aeneid 10, (Oxford 1991), a reference will be found to 'J. Henry, Aeneidea, 4 vols. (London 1873-92): splendidly rhetorical, often misguided, often perceptive.' Other Virgilian editors also testify to the lasting importance of James Henry?s work in one of the most intensively cultivated fields of classical studies: R. D. Williams (1973) - '... students of Virgil owe a great debt both for his instruction and the pleasure which his commentary gives to its readers. ... he is ... in some sense a part of English literature;' R. G. Austin (1955)
'fascinating and exasperating by turns;' A. L. Irvine (1924)
'his book is unique among classical commentaries;' Henry Nettleship (1883)
'It would ... be unpardonable ... to pass over without mention the singular genius for interpretation, the racy humour and unflagging vivacity, the strong good sense, the wide reading and observation, which ... commend Dr. Henry?s commentary ... :' John Conington (1876, on Henry?s earlier set of comments)
'there is freshness and originality in every page: a large number of the views are at once novel and sound.'

Others than editors praise his studies: G. N. Knauer (1964) refers to Henry?s abundance of highly stimulating observations; W. F. J. Knight?s view (1966) is that his commentary 'will always be valuable.' In an unpublished lecture R. J. Getty summed up: 'a commentary which has no equal for its wealth of learning, its thorough knowledge of ancient and modern literature, its wit and its general interest; ... its great length fails to commend it to a less leisured age.' The great commentary was no original intention of Henry?s: he wished merely to translate the Aeneid, but decided that commentators had not explained the aesthetics of the work, and that that task could not be done until the interpretation was taken in hand, and that the interpretation required an examination of the manuscripts dispersed through Europe. For thirty-one years he and his surviving daughter devoted their lives to Virgil, leaving an incomplete but imperishable scholarly edifice behind them.

It would be unprofitable to speculate on who was the greatest classical scholar that Ireland ever produced: I think it fair to say that Henry was one of the greatest, great in his merits though not without his faults, and indisputably the most individual. In recent years there have appeared two brief biographies of Henry (see the Bibliography at the end of this article). I shall give a brief sketch of the life of Dr. Henry, once a Dublin celebrity (as the sub-editor of an anonymous obituary described him), now very little known in his native city, and indicate some new data for his next biographer.

James Henry was born in 1798 as the elder son of a prosperous linen draper at 15 College Green. His grandfather, James Henry, lived near Dublin at Dalkey Lodge, a house dating from the seventeenth century - the oldest house, its owner told me, in Dalkey after the Castles. The family were Presbyterians and had connexions with Banbridge in County Down, and with the Quaker settlement of Ballitore, Co. Kildare, famous for its school, at which Edmund Burke was educated. James attended school under a tyrannical master, Joseph Hutton, Unitarian minister (of Eustace Street Meeting House and later of Fairfield, Glasnevin, a house now demolished, but fondly remembered by a later resident, Oliver St John Gogarty), and claims to have excelled his classmates in both studies and games. Certainly he never seemed to lack confidence in later life. He took both a Classics and a Medical degree in Trinity College. There his tutor was Dr. Daniel Mooney, who is amusingly depicted in Charles Lever?s novel, Charles O?Malley, as rather a bumbling academic.

Once qualified as a doctor, Henry raised eyebrows by his plain speaking, independent habits and idiosyncrasies. Other physicians charged a fee of a guinea for their visits: Henry thought neither he nor any of his contemporaries was worth so much and charged only five shillings; others wrote prescriptions to be dispensed by apothecaries: he employed one to make up medicines, which he supplied his patients without charge. He insisted on payment in silver, and refused to give change for gold. As he advanced in his profession, he became successively Licenciate, Fellow and Vice-President of the College of Physicians, and finally, when he presented a thesis on Miliary Fever (written, of course, in Latin), M. D. in 1832. He carried out some medical experiments, and published an article in The Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal in 1834.

A stream of pamphlets and Letters to the Editor poured from his pen denouncing what he considered abuses: the Temperance Movement, the Mendicity Institution, the newly established Dublin Metropolitan Police, the effects of the Act of Union, the penal system, police reliance on informers, the barbarities of militarism, drunkenness, doctors who prescribed purgings: all these topics were the subjects of dogmatic, witty, and fluent treatment in the years 1830 - 1842. In 1826 he had married Ann Jane Patton, and lost two infant daughters in 1827 and 1828. A third daughter, Katharine Olivia, was born in 1830.

Already as a young boy of eleven years he was so much in love with Virgil?s poetry that he spent a birthday half-crown on an edition of that poet. In 1841 he determined to translate the Aeneid. The death of his beloved mother in 1845 made him heir to a comfortable fortune, and he ceased medical practice so that he could whole-heartedly devote himself to working on the epic. He was now free to go to examine the manuscripts of Virgil, a task on which Otto Ribbeck was also engaged. Ribbeck?s epoch-making first edition was to appear in 1859-66.

He had published a translation of the first two books of the Aeneid in Dublin in September 1845, but although his translation of the first six books was printed in 1853, he never completed that work. In 1846 James went with his wife and daughter to Hamburg, where it seems there were family friends, and travelled south through Germany to Lake Garda. He visited Virgilian scholars and libraries on the way. It was near Riva at Lake Garda that his wife died in March 1849, leaving Henry with his daughter of eighteen years, Katharine Olivia, who henceforward devoted herself to her father and his Virgilian studies. The pair then travelled on foot from library to library transcribing from the manuscripts the passages where the text differed and accumulating a mass of papers. Henry had a love of poetry, of scenery and especially of flowers. From time to time he gathered the poems he had written himself and had them privately printed for distribution to his friends. Two of the poems are long descriptions of journeys he made and are attractive reading. Some seventeen times the pair crossed the Alps, sometimes through deep snow.

In the course of this wandering the Henrys met a variety of personages: Virgilian Scholars (Peerlkamp, Wagner, Forbiger, Comparetti) nobility (Baron Moll, custodian of Napoleon?s son, and, at one meal, the Countess of Arco, Countess Fugger, and Baroness Fiorio), ecclesiastics (Bishop of Mindo, half-brother of Canova, the sculptor, Brunati, rector of the seminary at Trent, Pastor Haase of Dresden), librarians (Klemm of Dresden, Angelo Mai of the Vatican), exiles (Louisa Bartolini, née Grace), poets (Julius Schanz, B. Carneri), and a host of inn-keepers, pharmacists, peasants, gypsies, and all the variety of fellow travellers on the road. Henry frequently drew on this varied experience to illustrate the Aeneid.

All this time they were reading a very wide range of classical authors, writing and seeing through the press countless poems and a few pamphlets (on classical subjects and current topics that aroused Henry?s indignation), amassing reports on more than a hundred manuscripts and composing the comments that were to be gathered in the great commentary on the Aeneid that he planned. At the end of each poem and comment Henry indicated the place and date of composition, and these clues are useful to trace both the development of his ideas and the course of his travels.

Henry was thought to be a curious figure, and there survives an engraved portrait made when he was aged 56: white thinning hair, a full grizzled beard, sunken eyes and cheeks give an impression of venerable age; his finely domed head and keen, perceptive eye suggest wisdom; the firm, straight nose hints at determination. He wore a fur coat and a large neck cloth of variegated pattern, as may be seen in the engraving. It does not show the 'wide-awake' hat he wore on his travels. The engraving served as a frontispiece to his My Book (1853) and to some copies of some of his poetic works; photographic reproductions of it are prefixed to the biographies of 1976 and 1985 (see Bibliography)

When they returned to Dublin in 1869, they lived at Dalkey Lodge with Henry?s brother, Thomas Elder, and sister-in-law, and were often to be seen working in the library of Trinity College. By 1872 the first fascicle of the great commentary, entitled Aeneidea, was ready for the press and was dedicated on 10th October 1872 to the daughter ('...ever beside me, at home and abroad, at the desk alike and in the public library, suggesting, correcting, advising, assisting, and cheering me on with all an affectionate daughter?s zeal, solicitude, and devotion ...'). Alas! to her father?s overwhelming grief she died prematurely on the following 11th December, and the book did not appear until the following year. Henry continued to work at his commentary, resigned to approaching death, constantly thinking and talking of his daughter, and enjoying good health until May 1876. He died on 14th July following.

The posthumous volumes of the commentary were published (from the manuscript still preserved in the library of Trinity College Dublin) in 1878 (ii), 1889 (iii, iv), and provided with an index volume (v) in 1892. Without the index the whole occupies more than 3,000 pages, and is noticeably less full on the later books of the Aeneid. In the first volume the amplitude of treatment is astonishing: at times long sentences wind on for several pages of close argument and illustration; the positions held are sometimes penetrating in insight, sometimes quite wrong-headed, but always argued with fairness and full consideration of differing view points.

A constant freshness, enthusiasm and zest enliven the lengthy discussions, and an individual, vehement and vivacious style makes the work quite unlike any other known to me, and carries the reader ever onward. An excess of typographical resource used to clarify the complex argument was smoothed down by the posthumous editors. It is hard to believe that in these hurried days many can read it from beginning to end: it is, however, handy to consult and very useful, and when once opened not easily soon to be closed again. Brief quotation can no more give an idea of the overwhelming and dominating power of the book, than a pail of sea-water may recall the stormy breakers of the Atlantic.

Fuller accounts and bibliographical information about Henry may be found in the brief monograph I published in 1976, and the short book issued by Professor J. B. Lyons in 1985 (both listed in the Bibliography at the end). These works complement each other to some degree, as Prof. Lyons brings medical expertise to his subject. In the time since they appeared, I have obtained by the kindness of my friends and of Henry?s admirers some new information set out below. My colleague, Hilary Richardson, very generously presented me with the fine collection of Henry?s publications gathered by her late father, Professor L.J.D. Richardson of Dublin and Cardiff. My late friend, David Evans of University College Dublin, put me in touch with Christopher Ricks, editor of the New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, (Oxford 1987), who has included eight of Henry's poems, and believes Henry had merits often overlooked. To all I am very grateful.


My friend, Malcolm Latham, informed me that in Summer 1978, when travelling in the French Alps (between St. Martin-Vésubie [Alpes-Maritimes] and Sisteron [Basses Alpes], if his recollection is correct), he noticed the name JAMES HENRY carved prominently and neatly in large capitals on a roadside rock-face at the highest point of a pass. It is tempting to date this graffito to the period between October 1860 (when Henry ate poppy-seeds at Botzen in the Tyrol) and December 18th, 1860 (when he was at Perpignan near the Franco-Spanish border). Of course, the name may have been carved by someone else.


Mr. Ian Jackson, the learned Californian bookseller, drew my attention to a passage in A. H. Sayce's Reminiscences, 129. There it is said that Henry told J. P. Mahaffy of his intention to bring out a fresh volume on Virgil, and asked whether Mahaffy thought it would be advisable for Henry to draw in it a comparison between Christianity and Paganism. 'In favour of which?' said Mahaffy. 'Of Paganism, of course,' was the reply. 'Then,' answered Mahaffy, 'I would advise you to say nothing about it.'

From the Cornhill Magazine he sent me a passage from 'Pages from a Private Diary' (of which the author was H. C. Beeching, Mr. Jackson informs me); there an anecdote is recounted that on his deathbed what troubled Henry most was the view he had previously expressed about Dido: 'with his last gasp he said ?Dido was never married to Sichaeus.?'

Finally, he informed me that the Japanese town of Jeddo, to which Henry refers in his pamphlet British Legations (1861) is that now known as Tokyo. (The older name is given as Yedo on the map of Japan in the atlas over which I pored for long hours as a child.)


Professor Scevola Mariotti drew my attention to an article by Elisa Frontali Milani, grand-daughter of Domenico Comparetti, the Virgilian scholar, 'Gli anni giovanili di Domenico Comparetti,' which contains, inter alia, a brief set of Comparetti's notes entitled 'Diario', covering the period 1855 - 1859. In these we read how he was introduced by Fausto Lasinio (1831 - 1914), a Semitic scholar, to Dr. James Henry and his daughter, two individuals as learned as they were odd. Henry, thinking that Comparetti, as a pharmacist, should know all about the native plants of Italy, so plied him with questions, that he sought refuge from his embarrassment by putting Henry in contact with a Professor Sanguinetti. Comparetti gives the date of the arrival of Henry in Rome as 20th October 1857, but claims to have made his acquaintance in September 1857.

The elegant young Italian (22 years of age when they met) thought that 'Caterina' would not have been bad-looking, had the hardships of her foot-travelling not somewhat emaciated her, though they did not change her beautiful complexion. She was taller than her father, and thin, with a retroussé nose; she too was very learned, knew Greek and Latin, spoke German and Italian better than her father, and, in short, was 'una perfetta blue stocking.' In February 1858 she told him she was 28 years of age.

The Henrys disliked Rome very much: their curious dress attracted rogues, and, as in the days of Juvenal, the night was made hideous by the constant din. Comparetti thought their artistic views were singular, especially their dislike of Michelangelo, but notes with approval that, although they had discarded their Presbyterian religious background, they showed by precept and practice that integrity and civility need not be based on religious ?silliness.?

Comparetti mentions that he had many discussions with them on the interpretation of Virgil, and in particular on the word nimbo (Aen. 2. 616) defended by Comparetti with a reference to Iliad 18 (v. 205, I assume; Geymonat cites 15, 308) and to representations of the gods in Etruscan and Pompeian art. It is notable that Henry does not remark on this evidence in his long discussion on the passage in his Aeneidea. There he accepts the variant reported by Servius and adopted by Ribbeck, though not by more recent editors: limbo.

We learn that the Henrys kept most exact journals of all that occurred to them, not excepting Comparetti's visits. They left Rome on foot at half-past nine on the morning of 11th March 1858, and were accompanied by him for three miles from the city.


Mr. C. Eric Barrington, a representative of the family into which Henry's brother, Thomas Elder, married, lives in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, and I was introduced to him by my neighbour, the late Mr. D. Boyd. Mr. Barrington showed me the burial register of the private cemetery at Glendruid, and two privately printed works: one, The Barrington Family, the other, Extracts from the Diary of Edward Barrington of Fassaroe.

From the former work I discovered that there were two Richard Manliffe Barringtons: the elder, who lived from 1829 to 1847, and his younger half-brother who lived from 1849 to 1915, and was named after the deceased by a custom not unusual in Victorian times, when family pride in names was strong, and premature death common.

I was kindly entrusted with the Diary for study, and found it a fascinating document for its insight into the social life of the times. I append here a few quotations and references relative to James Henry and his brother. In a 'Memoir' (Diary, 17) we read of Edward Barrington's three able gifted friends, Richard D. Webb, James Haughton, and Dr. Henry, 'a Dublin physician till he retired, very clever, but rather eccentric, author of Commentaries on Virgil &c. The diary narrates ?July 15th, 1876 - Heard of the death of Dr. Henry. It gives another warning to me, and brings many bygone scenes and thoughts to my memory. Sunday 16th. Read Dr. Henry's 'Thalia Pilasa' [sic], and then went to Dalkey.... I sat by myself in the room with the dead. I saw him, and took leave of him on Monday last. His last words to me were. 'God bless you'. I have lost one of the few with whom I could sympathize, or rather who could sympathize with me on religious subjects.? It is well to mention that as regards religion our father had very independent and broad-minded views.'

On Saturday, June 28th, 1828, Barrington records driving 'in the gig' with Dr. Henry who had been attending his son, John, who was very ill. On August 5th following: 'Dined with George Downes at Dr. Henry's, and arranged with him (Dr. Henry) to examine Arthur [Barrington's brother] next evening respecting his capabilities to enter College next October. Anxious to get information relative to the College course of instruction.' On the following evening 'Arthur and I called on Henry, who spent considerable time questioning Arthur, and though he found his answers ready, and in general correct, yet, having so much of the necessary reading to go through still, he was of opinion he should not enter for another year; his age is now between sixteen and seventeen. Arthur himself was anxious to read without assistance for a few months, and then go over the same again with a tutor.'

In 1831 on January 16th John King called over after tea about Henry's letter to the Mendicity Institution, which Barrington was trying to persuade King to insert in the Dublin newspaper Saunders's NewsLetter. For a week in March 1833 Dr. Henry was attending Barrington for a severe feverish attack. In the following month Barrington was in London, where he records several meetings with Thomas Elder Henry.

In March 1834 five of the Barrington children had measles, and Dr. Henry, Dr. Gamble, and a surgeon, Mr. Kevin, were consulted about Johnnie. On February 10th, 1835, the infant Charlie, 'who had got a swelled neck, and was very heavy and unwell' was taken to see Dr. Henry, and in May there was a consultation about Sarah, who was prescribed a great deal of repose and freedom from anxiety. On July 4th, 1836 'Manliffe called, sorrowful enough, and told us Drs. Henry and Harvey had just been to Glendruid, and gave no hope of Selina.' Three days later: 'Visited Aunt Gough, and there met Mr. [Thomas] Keightl[e]y, the author of ?Outlines of History [1830],? and formerly tutor to my sisters' [a detail that may be added to the life of Keightley in the Dictionary of National Biography].

On November 24th 1837 'Thomas Henry called to acquaint me with his intentions respecting my sister Eliza. I told him I thought well of him, and stated that as both parties had arrived at years of discretion, it was unnecessary for me to say much for or against, except that I was afraid that he was hardly in a state to be able to support a wife....' The wedding took place at Glendruid on December 30th, and the bride and bridegroom were visited there by Barrington accompanied by Sarah and Margaret on the following day. On Sunday, January 7th, 1838, 'Our dinner was not till past five.' The bride, groom and eleven other guests attended. 'All seemed to pass off pretty well,' recorded the host, 'They left about ten o'clock in fine moonlight.' Several subsequent festive occasions with the Thomas Henrys are detailed. On 28th June 1845, 'I spent an evening at Glendruid, and had some conference with T. E. Henry and Manliffe about the cemetery [no doubt the private burial ground at Glendruid near Cabinteely, in which they all now lie].'

On 26th June 1847 'Called to pay Mrs Evans, formerly Bessie Henry, a visit; she returned [to London] from Hamburg last night.' This clue tends to explain why on the Continental tour in 1846 the Henrys had arrived from London at Hamburg. 'Bessie' was presumably an Elizabeth, and hence not the B. I. Henry who was the sister of James and Thomas. Scholars will rejoice in the entry for September 4th, 1859: 'Francis drove us to the Ballitore Meeting [of the Quakers], after which we visited nearly all the Friends there. I was particularly desirous of seeing old Richard Shackleton [great-grandson of Abraham Shackleton, who was founder of the famous Ballitore School, and teacher of Edmund Burke], and found him at seventy-nine in pretty good health and spirits, with his old love for the classics unabated.'

Finally we may read that on June 18th, 1876 he 'went to see Eliza at Dalkey.... Dr. Henry I did not see, but from Thomas's report he is rather worse.'

(I may be permitted a brief digression to note two remarkable members of the Barrington family. Charles Barrington [1834 - 1901] was the first [in 1858] to scale the Eiger in Switzerland; according to family tradition, as he approached the summit, he drew a pistol from his pocket and informed his guide that, if he attempted to move to the summit first, his brains would be blown out. Amy Barrington [1857 - 1942] spent her working life in the Galton Laboratory in London. Happening to be in Canada at the time of the gold rush [1896] she went to the Klondike to see it for herself, and when she retired from the laboratory she visited the headwaters of the Amazon in search of rare plants.)


In the last page (861) of the second volume of the Aeneidea Henry, after making an argument that pagan literature inspired St. Augustine, apostrophises his reader: 'Go now, reader, and with a rich and noble lord (rich and noble still, for riches and nobility are not the treasures which utilitarianism and puritanism throw away) fling thy classical library into the lake.' The clue to understanding this passage seems to be afforded by the following extract which I came upon by chance when viewing books at an auction. Referring to the so-called Second Reformation, which began in Ireland in 1827, it is taken from M. F. C[usack]?s An Illustrated History of Ireland: from the Earliest Period, 571: 'One noble lord, to show his reverence for that book [the Bible], and to convince his tenantry of the estimation in which he held it, flung every volume of his library into the lake of his demesne, and with the Bible in his hand, which commanded him to feed the hungry, refused to feed them unless they complied with his commands.'

Lines 13 - 16 of Henry's ' Epilogue to my Aeneidea':

'Ye had a mother once
But she is gone before,
And gathered to the ghosts
Upon that silent shore ...'
may echo the words of Charles Lamb's 'Hester': 'My sprightly neighbour! gone before
To that unknown and silent shore,
Shall we not meet ...?' In line 19 of these verses the word 'how' should be substituted for the 'that' I mistakenly printed in 1976 (p. 58).

Henry in the Account of the ... Police of the City of Canton (Dublin 1840) may have chosen Canton as his scene because of the appearance in 1805 of John Wilson Croker's anonymous Intercepted Letter from Canton, a satirical sketch of Dublin Society.

An item that has been overlooked in lists of Henry's works (the fullest catalogue may be found in Lyons's Scholar and Sceptic, 78-80, but a few items that had already been mentioned in the text are omitted in error) is 'Photographie und Tischrücken Erfindungen des Altertums,' in which Henry tries to convince the reader that the modern invention of photography had been anticipated in the time of Domitian, and that the use of tables by the spiritualists of his day was the revival of a classical practice.

Mrs Sheila Astbury, of the Library of University College, Dublin, drew my attention to an unattributed press cutting she found pasted to the endpapers of one of Henry's works, referring to his death 'some weeks ago.' It is a précis of the obituary in the Academy (August 12th, 1876), but adds the names of a few of Henry's fellow-students who were distinguished in later life, and concludes: 'For some years past Dr. Henry and his daughter were amongst the most constant habitues of the reading-room of the College Library. Their rows of books on the table, their silent and steady industry, and the old doctor's kindly face and white hairs, were amongst the most familiar features of the place.'


The Barrington Family (privately printed.)

Barrington, Edward, Extracts from the Diary of Edward Barrington of Fassaroe, Bray, Co. Wicklow; with a memoir by his daughter, Selina Ffennell; edited by his daughter Amy Barrington (for private circulation). Dublin: Printed at the University Press, by Ponsonby and Gibbs 1916.

[Beeching, H. C.], 'Pages from a Private Diary.' Cornhill Magazine 76 (1897), 409.

C[usack,] M[ary] F., An Illustrated History of Ireland: from the Earliest Period. London 1868.

Henry, J., Aeneidea, 5 vols. London - Dublin - Meissen, 1873 - 1892.

, 'Photographie und Tischrücken Erfindungen des Altertums.' Neue Jahrbücher für Philologie und Pädagogik 93 (1866), 642-646.

----, 'Die sog. Augusteische Virgilhandschrift' Jahrbücher für Klassische Philologie herausgegeben von A. Fleckeisen 13 (1867), 419-423

Lyons, J. B., Scholar and Sceptic: The Career of James Henry, M.D. 1798 - 1876. Dublin 1985.

Milani, Elisa Frontali, 'Gli anni giovanili di Domenico Comparetti, 1848 - 1859.' Belfagor 24 (1969), 203-217.

Richmond, J., James Henry of Dublin: Physician, Versifier, Pamphleteer, Wanderer, and Classical Scholar. Dublin 1976.

Sayce, A. H., Reminiscences. London 1923.

Tyrrell, R. Y., Latin Poetry, London [1895], 314-319.

COPYRIGHT: All material published in Classics Ireland is copyright. Responsibility for, and ownership of, copyright remains with the author of each article.
© Classical Association of Ireland
www.classicalassociation.com : www.classicsireland.com