The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVI. Webster

§ 2. His Knowledge of Literature

He loved literature undoubtedly. He had been educated, both at school and at college, upon the old classical system, and it is obvious that he always retained his knowledge of Latin: in fact, he was a good Latin scholar. There is no evidence that he was a good Greek scholar or even kept up the Greek of his youth. He knew the history of Greece and Rome and much of modern history, but he was not a student of history, and this he realized. It is also apparent that he was fond of pure literature, and he never forgot at least the eighteenth century poets who were the standard poets of his youth. The story of his dispute with Rufus Choate over a quotation illustrates not his knowledge of Pope, which is unimportant, but his love of literature, which is significant. At a most exciting moment in the trial of a case very famous in its day, Webster was observed to write a few words upon a slip of paper and pass it to Choate. The spectators thought something very vital to the case was going on, but what Webster wrote was this:

  • Lo! where Mæotis sleeps and softly flows
  • The freezing Tanais through a waste of snows.
  • Choate wrote “wrong” on the slip and then:
  • Lo! where Mæotis sleeps and hardly flows
  • The freezing Tanais through a waste of snows.
  • Webster wrote “right” against his version and offered a bet. The volume of Pope containing The Dunciad was sent for, and it appeared that Choate was right. Webster wrote the words “Spurious Edition” on the book, and the consultation between the two great lawyers ended.