Robinson ELLIS (1834–1913)
St Mary Magdalen section: Row 8, Grave D61
A GREAT SCHOLAR / B.1834. D. 1913.
FELLOW OF TRINITY 1858. HON. FELLOW 1894. / CORPUS PROFESSOR OF LATIN 1893–1913.
See also the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for
classical scholar and Vice-President of Trinity College, Oxford
Robinson Ellis was born at Barming, near Maidstone, Kent on 5 September 1834, the son of James Ellis and his third wife, Caroline Robinson (whose maiden name evidently provided her first son’s forename).
Ellis’s father was the greatest hop-grower in England: in 1825 had 500 acres of hops around Barming, and at picking time used to employ 4,000 people for one month’s work.
At the time of the 1841 census James Ellis (70) and his wife Caroline (40) were living at Barming Place with Julia (11), who was probably a child from James’s earlier marriage, Robinson himself (6), Caroline (5), and Alfred (3); and the family had five servants. Near the end of that year their last child, Louisa, was born.
At the time of the 1851 census Robinson Ellis (16) was a boarder at Rugby School. His mother, now a widow of 50, was boarding with a joiner’s family at Stoke Damerel, near Plymouth, and Caroline (15) and Louisa (9) were with her.
On 30 November 1852 at the age of 17 Robinson Ellis was matriculated at the University of Oxford from Balliol College.
Ellis was awarded a First Class degree in Literae Humaniores in 1857, and was appointed a Fellow of Trinity College in 1858. Except for a partial absence between 1870 and 1876, he was to live at Trinity, unmarried, for the rest of his life.
At the time of the 1861 census Ellis (26) was staying during the university vacation with his mother and his sisters Caroline and Louisa at 4 Alexander Street, Paddington.
In 1870 Ellis was elected professor of Latin at University College, London. At the time of the 1871 census he was again staying with his mother, who was now aged 70 and living at 6 Lansdowne Place, St Pancras with Alfred (33), who was a general solicitor’s clerk, and Louisa (29).
Ellis was not successful, however, with the larger and less advanced classes in London, and in 1876 returned to Oxford. In 1879 he was elected Vice-President of Trinity College.
In Fifty-five Years at Oxford G. B. Grundy records that Ellis
had lived for a long time in a quiet little quadrangle in Trinity engaged on the works of obscure Latin authors which were not, I am afraid, of much interest to other Latin scholars in the University. His outward appearance was remarkable. He was a thin, tall figure with a pronounced stoop. His face was very thin and wrinkled, and adorned with a short, thin, straggling beard. He always wore a very ancient suit of black cloth whose sheen was mainly due to age, and a top hat which had the same characteristic. His feet were large, but his boots were so much larger that the toes of them turned up like the prow of a gondola. He was reputed to be a miser. So he was; but not in the sense that he accumulated money for the pleasure of so doing, but because he suffered from that monomania which sometimes leads men to imagine that their financial position is so unsound that they must exercise the greatest care to provide for the future.
Grundy also records examples of Ellis’s parsimony: “Four times a year, about a week before quarter-day, he wrote to the Bursar to beg him to be sure and pay his quarter’s salary punctually as he was very short of money”; and he claimed he could not afford more than five shillings for a Common Room subscription to a wedding present (and in the event did not even pay that). His wealth at death (£31,494 14s. 11d.) surprised even his own family.
Ellis never married, and Grundy wrote:
When Ellis had arrived at an advanced age without having shown the slightest sign of yielding to or noticing the attractions of the other sex, his friends were amazed when rumours went about that he had been seen walking more than once with two elderly spinsters who had recently come to live in Oxford. Someone in Trinity Common Room happened to mention that it was reported that these ladies were exceedingly well-off. Ellis, who was present and had been dozing, woke up and said, “Do you know, that is what I have been trying to discover.”
When the wife of the President of Trinity produced her first child, Ellis wrote: “My dear Woods, I must congratulate you on the recent event which took me quite by surprise. You no doubt were better informed.”
At the time of the 1881 census he was once again staying with his mother, now aged 80 and living at 8 Christ Church Road, Hampstead. She and his sisters Caroline (45) and Louisa (39) described themselves as gentlewomen, while his less successful brother Alfred (43) was still a copying clerk.
In 1883 Robinson Ellis was elected Reader in Latin.
Ellis’s mother Caroline died in Hampstead at the age of 87 near the beginning of 1888, but he still appears to have gone to London for the Easter vacation: at the time of the 1891 census he was staying at a boarding house at 16 Constantine Road, Hampstead. His brother Alfred (51) and sister Caroline (55) were lodging at 11 Christ Church Road, Hampstead in the house of a corn factor, while Louisa (49) was staying in a lodging house at Redinnick, Cornwall. In other vacations he stayed with one of his sisters, and Grundy writes:
I never heard Ellis make an unkind of ill-natured remark about anyone. The nearest approach to anything of the kind was when someone asked him where he had spent a certain vacation, and he said that he had spent it with the more tolerable of his two sisters.
In 1894 Ellis was elected Professor of Latin at Oxford, which meant that he became a Fellow of Corpus Christi College and had to resign his Vice-Presidency of Trinity; but he was made an Honorary Fellow there, and was allowed to keep his rooms.
Ellis died in 1913 following an operation:
† Robinson Ellis died at the Acland Home, Oxford at the age of 79 on 9 October 1913. His funeral service was conducted on 13 October at Trinity College Chapel by Dr Herbert Blakiston (President of the College), assisted by the Revd M. W. Patterson (Fellow of the College), and was followed by burial at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery (recorded in the parish register of St Mary Magdalen Church).
The following report on his funeral appeared in the Oxford Journal Illustrated on 15 October 1913:
The funeral took place on Monday. The first part of the service was conducted by the President of Trinity, assisted by the Rev. M. W. Patterson (Fellow of Trinity) in Trinity College Chapel. The chief mourners were Mr. D. S. M. Douglas, Mr. G. C. M. Douglas, Mr. K. M. Douglas, Admiral L. C. Keppel and Dr. H. F. Galpin. Amongst those also present were the Vice-Chancellor (Dr. T. B. Strong), the President of Corpus, the President of Magdalen, the Master of Balliol, the Provost of Oriel, the Warden of New College, the Principal of Hertford, the Rector of Lincoln, the Rector of Exeter, the Provost of Worcester, the Master of Pembroke, the President of St John’s, the Principal of Brasenose, the Master of University, and Professor Slater (representing the Classical Association), Sir James Murray (representing the President of the British Academy), the Poet Laureate (Dr. Robert Bridges), the Vice-President of Trinity (Mr. R. W. Raper), Mr. M. H. Green, Mr. D. H. Nagel (Fellows of Trinity), the Bishop of Oxford, the Bishop of Hereford, Professor Dicey, Dr. H. G. Woods (Hon. Fellows of Trinity), the Rev. M. W. Patterson (representing the Bishop of Exeter, Hon. Fellow of Trinity), Mr. A. E. Jolliffe, Mr. F. C. S. Schiller, Dr. G. B. Grundy, Professor Vinogradoff, Mr. R. W. Livingstone, Mr. W. Phelps, Professor J. A. Stewart (Fellows of Corpus), Mr. H. Le Blanc Lightfoot (Bursar of Corpus), Professor Sir William Osler, Bart., Professor Margoliouth, Professor Gilbert Murray, Professor Geldart, Professor Edgeworth, Professor J. A. Smith, Professor Eliot, Professor Ingram Bywater, Professor J. Cook Wilson, Mr. A. C. Clark (Deputy Corpus Professor of Latin Literature, the Senior and Junior Proctors, the Registrar of the University, the Keeper of the Archives (Mr. R. L. Poole), Bodley’s Librarian (Mr. F. Madan), the Sub-Warden of New College (Mr. H. L. Henderson), the Sub-Warden of Wadham (Mr. H. P. Richards), the Vice-President of St. John’s (Mr. W. H. Stevenson), Sir A. Hirtnel (Brasenose), Dr. A. J. Butler, Dr. H. Krebs, the Rev. Canon Ottley, Mr. Horace Hart, Mr. W. W. Fisher, Mr. H. P. Symonds, the Rev. E. M. Walker and Mr. J. S. Cotton (Queen’s), the Rev. P. J. Fear, the Rev. G. H. Bown, Mr. C. Cannan, Mr. J. L. Brierly (Trinity), Mr. S. G. Owen (Christ Church), Mr. E. S. Dodgson (Jesus), Mr. S. Ball, Mr. F. W. Hall, Mr. T. C. Snow (St. John’s), Mr. P. E. Matheson (New College), Mr. C. Grant Robertson (All Souls), Dr. G. A. Cooke, the Rev. G. C. Richards (Oriel), Dr. Varley Roberts, Mr. G. E. Underhill, Mr. A. L. F. Smith, Mr. C. Cookson (Magdalen), Mr. J. Wells (Wadham), Mr. A. S. Owen (Keble), etc. Mrs. Nettleship (widow of Professor Ellis’ predecessor), the Rev. C. T. Harley-Walker, Dr. Wood (Rector of Rotherfield Greys, senior ex-Fellow of Trinity), Mr. R. G. Routh (Headmaster of Bromsgrove School), and Judge Gent (ex-Fellow of Trinity) were unable to be present.
The service, which was of the simplest character, concluded with a rendering of Mendelssohn’s “Trauermarsch” on the organ by Mr. N. F. Smith.
The interment took place at St. Sepulchre’s Cemetery, the President of Trinity reading the committal sentences. The coffin bore the inscription:—
ROBINSON ELLIS, M.A.,
Died 9th October, 1913,
Aged 79 years.
There was a number of beautiful floral tributes.
The funeral arrangements were entrusted to the care of Messrs. Elliston and Cavell.
Three photographs of his funeral were printed in the same newspaper, showing: (1) Members of the University following the coffin to the burial; (2) Bearing the coffin through Trinity College gates after the service in its chapel; and (3) Dr T. Herbert Warren, President of Magdalen who attended the service.
The following obituary appeared in The Times on 10 October 1913:
DEATH OF PROFESSOR ELLIS: THE GREATEST ENGLISH LATINIST.
We much regret to announce the death of Professor Robinson Ellis, Corpus Professor of Latin in the University of Oxford, which occurred at 7.30 last night at the Acland Home, where he recently underwent an operation. His death removes a figure long familiar in Oxford and a most assiduously industrious scholar who had won for himself a position as a Latinist second to none living. He had lectured last term.
Robinson Ellis, the third son of James Ellis, was born at Barming, in Kent, in 1834. He was educated first at Elizabeth College, Guernsey, and afterwards at Rugby, whence he went up to Oxford as a scholar of Balliol in 1852. He took a first class in Moderations in 1854 and a first in Literae Humaniores in 1856, having won in 1855 the Ireland scholarship and the Chancellor’s prize for Latin verse, the subject being Israelitae Palaestinam occupantes. He added to these honours the Boden scholarship for Sanskrit in 1858, in which year he was elected to a Fellowship at Trinity College, and began his residence, which terminates with his death, in the set of rooms situated over the senior common-room and looking down upon the small enclosure of the Fellows’ garden adjoining the grounds of Balliol. Trinity was smaller than it is now; the new buildings had not been built; and there were fewer undergraduates. Ellis became a lecturer in philosophy in 1861 and vice-president in 1972. He was a classical moderator in 1861, 1862, and 1872. In 1870, his scholarship having become widely known by the publication three years before of the first instalment of his work on Catullus, he became Professor of Latin at University College, London, and he retained the chair for 10 years.
In 1883 he was appointed Reader in Latin at Oxford, and in 1893 he was elected to the Corpus Professorship, being the fourth holder of that office, his immediate predecessor being Henry Nettleship. His appointment necessitated his resigning his Fellowship at Trinity; but the college at once made him an honorary Fellow. He was deeply attached to Trinity and continued to take part in its social life, lecturing occasionally, and taking undergraduates in composition. Though living a good deal alone, he was by no means averse from the society of undergraduates, many of whom must have carried away with them pleasant recollections of private evening meals in his dimly lit rooms — for he suffered much from bad eyes — or of dinner parties in the old bursary, where he played the host to what was sometimes a rather oddly assorted company. He had travelled a good deal for the purposes of study; he was fond of hearing music; and his tall, bent, spare figure was for years a familiar sight as he walked in the Parks and elsewhere; but constant trouble with his eyes and health never very robust, added to the preoccupations of his work, had made him compulsorily much of a recluse.
Not a few of the best scholars, both in Greek and Latin, of Oxford during the 30 years which have elapsed since he returned as Reader, were attached to him not only by gratitude for his services but by the tie of personal friendship Amongst these may be counted such men as Mr. A. C. Clark, appointed the other day as his deputy, Mr. S. G. Owen, of Christ Church, Professor A. Housman, who, after holding for some time the chair which Professor Ellis had himself occupied in London, was elected to succeed Mayor at Cambridge, and Mr. D. A. Slater, Professor of Latin at Cardiff. He had a simplicity not always quite so unworldly, perhaps, as it appeared at first sight, and could say in his gentle way very pointed things, as, for instance, when he said, of a minor poet, very distinguished in other ways, that his verses might best be described by a parody of Gray:– “Beneath the great how far, but quite among the good!” or when he said to the present Poet Laureate that he was a great admirer of his poems because they contained so many unusual expressions. He had a high opinion of the scholarship of the present Prime Minister, to whom he wished on one occasion to award the Ireland Scholarship, differing from his colleagues. “I wanted to give it to him,” he said, “not because he was the abler man, though he was that, but because he was the better scholar.” He had a considerable knowledge of modern poetry. He was a friend as well as contemporary of Swinburne at Balliol.
SUBJECT OF STUDY.
Throughout his life Professor Ellis worked indefatigably, and his devotion to letters recalls some of the greatest names of the Renaissance. His first work, and for the general student his most directly useful work, will always be his monumental edition of and commentary on Catullus, an author who had fallen into comparative neglect and had not been edited with much discrimination since the time of Isaac Voss. Ellis put the criticism of Catullus on a new footing by his discovery and collation of the important Oxford manuscript. His edition may not be perhaps without certain faults; but these are defects not so much of industry and study as of logical decision: there is a certain indeterminateness in some of his conclusions, and his very wealth of erudition is occasionally a bar to a clear understanding of his position. It largely provoked Monro’s famous “Criticisms and Elucidations,” one of the finest pieces of classical criticism in the English language. A curious contribution to the literature of Catullus, which should not be forgotten, is his translation in the original metres, the dedication of which, as he was proud to recall, had been accepted by Tennyson. Though grotesque in places, it was an experiment well worth carrying through; it has the great merit of faithfulness; and by reproducing the metres Ellis certainly succeeded in creating an atmosphere which gives a far better idea of the original than the average verse translation.
With the exception of Catullus and perhaps the Minor Poems attributed to Virgil, which occupied his minute attention, most of Professor Ellis’s labours lay in a region rarely trodden. But for the textual problems which they offer there would be little particularly attractive in certain writers to the study of which he brought his wealth of learning. The “Ibis,” the Fables of Avianus, the “Noctes Manilianae,” the “Aetna,” and Velleius Paterculus, to mention no others, have their own value and their own importance. Manilius, an exceedingly obscure astrological poet, afforded Bentley a field for the display of his greatest talents; if he is now only a little less difficult and a little less obscure, he has always repaid the time spent upon him. The “Aetna”, a scientific poem on volcanoes, may still bristle with difficulties; but the labours of Munro and Ellis are not, therefore, in vain. In certain respects Ellis was a somewhat old-fashioned scholar – in the sense, that is, that he was trained in the pre-archaeological days – to whom a manuscript had more meaning than a potsherd and to whom recognition in an apparatus criticus was its own reward. He vigorously defended the free conjectural emendation of corrupt texts; his edition of the “Aetna,” indeed, was undertaken in no small measure to vindicate this right against a growing school holding the opposite view, and to reassert “a faculty which is competent to reject the impossible in language, syntax, or metre, however strongly it may be supported by early manuscript tradition, and however plausibly it may be shown to be quite explicable.” “What you would call explanations,” he once said, “I should call unwarrantable violations of the Latin language.
HIS LATIN VERSE.
No account of Professor Ellis’s work would be adequate without reference – here necessarily brief – to his powers as a writer of Latin and Greek verse. In this department of scholarship, which has long been a traditional pride of English scholars, he was supreme. He chose his subjects carefully; instinct and training told him to avoid the pitfall whereby many good composers have met with disaster, of attempting to translate ultra-modern or religious sentiment into the vehicle of ancient thought. A few admirable specimens of his verse will be found in the “Nova Anthologia Oxoniensis” which he edited with Mr. A. D. Godley; there is in his contributions something which puts them in a class by themselves. Catullus himself would hardly have disdained his hendecasyllables. Jowett used to say that he was the best composer among his pupils. Jowett, for whom he had a great regard, was always urging him to take up some magnum opus, and in particular to edit Lucan. When instead of doing so Ellis devoted his attention to lesser authors, Jowett said, “You seem to me to occupy yourself with the smallest parts of the smallest authors.” Ellis, when repeating this dictum, used to add, “The Master always had such a weakness for great men.”
Professor Ellis received many academical honours. In company with Munro, his rival in more than one department of study, he received in 1882 the LL.D. of Dublin University, and he was also a Fellow of the British Academy.
Another obituary was published in the Oxford Magazine, 1913–1914, pp. 25–6.
None of Ellis’s three full siblings married, so there are no collateral descendants.