Page images


THE reign in which sir John Cheke might be said to have florished, is that of Henry VIII. But as his only composition in English was written in the third year of the present reign, he could not have been assigned with propriety to the preceding.

He was born at Cambridge, in 1514; and admitted at the age of seventeen into St. John's college, where he early distinguished himself for his proficiency in the learned languages, particularly Greek. After taking his degrees in arts, he was chosen Greek lecturer in his own college. To this office, no salary was annexed; but in the year 1540, Henry VIII. founded a Greek professorship at Cambridge, of which Cheke was elected the first professor, when only twenty-six years of age. He had also the honour of being chosen university



In 1544, he was appointed preceptor to prince Edward, jointly with Sir Anthony Cook; and at the same time was made canon of the newly-founded college of Christ-church, Oxford. Edward on his accession rewarded his tutor, for the assiduous care he had shewn him in his education, with a pension of a hundred marks, as likewise with a grant of several lands and manors; and moreover, caused him to be elected provost of King's College, Cambridge. In 1550, he was appointed chief gentleman of the king's privy chamber; and the year following, his majesty conferred on him the honour of knighthood, with a grant of considerable value. He was soon after made chamberlain of the exchequer for life; in 1553, constituted clerk of the council; and not long after, one of the secretaries of state, and a privy-counsellor.

Sir John was a zealous protestant; in consequence of which, he was severely persecuted by the bigotted Mary, twice imprisoned in the Tower, stript of his whole substance, and ultimately reduced to the terrifying dilemma - Either turn or burn." His religious zeal was not proof against this fiery ordeal, and he recanted. His property was now restored;

but his recantation was followed by such bitterness of remorse, that he survived it but a short time, dying in 1557, at the early age of forty-three.

The period in which Cheke florished is highly interesting to letters. He, in conjunction with his friend and cotemporary Smith, was the great instrument of the diffusion of classical and philological learning. Ancient literature had already begun to dawn; it had not yet advanced into the clear and steady light of day. The efforts of these men contributed greatly to accelerate its progress; and were effectual in deciding the taste of the age. Cheke and Smith were first incited to the pursuit of Grecian literature by the reputation and example of Dr. John Redman, of St. John's College (afterwards dean of Westminster), who was elected lady Margaret's professor of divinity about the year 1538. Redman had studied at the university of Paris, and returned to his own country accomplished in the two learned languages; and the high consideration he obtained, on this account, conspiring with their curiosity and ardour in study, produced that emulation which eventually rendered them his masters in learning. They hence


abandoned the idle disputations of the schools, with the metaphysic subtleties of the schoolmen, for the more delightful and profitable study of the Grecian and Roman classics.

One of the great objects of their literary labours was the introduction of a more rational method of pronouncing Greek; or rather, to restore what they conceived to be the original pronunciation of that language. It may not be unacceptable to the philological student to be informed, what the changes were which they proposed to introduce, as stated in his Life by Strype.

At this period, the Greek language had only begun to be studied even in our universities; and its pronunciation had been vitiated by the corrupt channels through which it had been conveyed to us. In particular, the received method of sounding the vowels and diphthongs, and also some of the consonants, was such that it was frequently impossible to distinguish different words by difference of sound. Thus was pronounced as ε, o and & as, and no and u, were both sounded as ιωτα or j. Some of the consonants were differently pronounced, according as they were differently


situated in a word. Thus 7 after v was sounded as a soft and r after μ was pronounced as our d. The letter x was pronounced as our ch, and ẞ as our v consonant. With a very little reflection on the subject, it was not difficult to conclude, that such a method of pronunciation was totally destructive of all that beauty of the Greek language, which arises from variety of sound, and that such therefore could not have been the pronunciation of the Greeks.

These scruples formed the subjects of frequent conversations between Cheke and Smith (who was also public reader of Greek in his own college), and they determined upon an innovation. They seem to have been led to the improvement in question, by their feeling, while lecturing in their respective colleges, the necessity of varying the sound as the vowels varied, in order to render the language intelligible, as well as harmonious to the ear. At the commencement of their doubts, they had not seen the book of Erasmus on the subject; but having procured it, together with Terentianus de Literis et Syllabis, they began their work of reformation; at the same time consulting those Grecian writers (particularly Aristopha

« PreviousContinue »