Robert Potter (1721–1804)

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Rev. Robert Potter (1721 – 9 August 1804) was an English clergyman of the Church of England, translator, poet and pamphleteer.[1] He established the convention of using blank verse for Greek hexameters and rhymed verse for choruses. His 1777 English version of the plays of Aeschylus was the only one available for the next fifty years.


Potter was born in Podimore, Somerset, the third son of John Potter (fl. 1676–1723), a prebendary of Wells Cathedral. He studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and graduated BA in 1742, when he was also ordained. He married the daughter of Rev. Colman of Hardingham.[2] His children included a daughter Sarah, referred to in a letter.[3] He became curate of Reymerston and vicar of Melton Parva, but the combined emoluments of these were less than £50 a year. He later became curate of Scarning, Norfolk,[4] as well as master of Seckar's School there from 1761 to 1789, but spent much of his time writing and translating. Among his pupils was Jacob Mountain (1749–1825), the first Anglican bishop of Quebec.[5]

In 1788, Lewis Bagot, Bishop of Norwich, presented Potter as vicar to the combined parishes of Lowestoft and Kessingland, Suffolk, and as a prebendary of Norwich Cathedral, through the patronage of Lord Chancellor Lord Thurlow, who had attended Seckar's School.[6] According to one story, Thurlow and Potter had been schoolfellows at Seckar's, which seems unlikely as Potter was ten years his junior. For whatever reason, when Potter approached Thurlow to ask for a £10 subscription to his Sophocles translation, he received the valuable cathedral stall instead.[7]

Robert Potter died aged 83 in Lowestoft, Suffolk, and was buried in Lowestoft churchyard. There is a 1789 etching of a bewigged Potter in the National Portrait Gallery in London.[8]


Potter completed versions of the plays of Æschylus (1777), Euripides (1781–83) and Sophocles (1788) that remained in print through the 19th century. Of the three, the Æschylus was best known, as there were no other translations of the author available before the 1820s. His scheme of using blank verse for Greek hexameters and rhymed verse for the choruses was widely adopted by other translators. He also published copious poetry, some sermons, and some political pamphlets,[9] targeted, for instance, at the "pretended inspiration of the Methodists" (1758) and at the Poor Laws (1775).

It emerges from a letter from Sarah Burney to her sister Frances Burney on 1 August 1779 that Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale and their circle had a poor opinion of Potter's poetic abilities.[10] Potter, on the other hand, developed reservations about Johnson's literary judgement, which he expanded on a few years later.[11] Johnson may have described Potter's poetry as "verbiage", but Horace Walpole was welcoming: "There is a Mr. Potter too, I don't know who, that has published a translation of Aeschylus, and as far as I have looked is a good poet."[12]


  1. ^ David Stoker: Potter, Robert (1721–1804). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, September 2004). Retrieved 5 September 2010.
  2. ^ A General History of the County of Norfolk, Vol I., John Chambers (Norwich/London, 1829), p. 107n.
  3. ^ Norfolk Record Office, Le Neve Correspondence, MC 1/9 386 × 5 1783.
  4. ^ "Full text of "Norfolk lists from the reformation to the present time; comprising lists of lord lieutenants, baronets, high sheriffs, and members of Parliament, of the county of Norfolk; bishops, deans, chancellors, archdeacons, prebendaries, members of Parliament, mayors, sheriffs, recorders, & stewards, of the city of Norwich; members of Parliament and mayors of the boroughs of Yarmouth, Lynn, Thetford, and Castle Rising; also a list of persons connected with the county, of whom engraved portraits have been published, and a descriptive list of tradesmens' tokens & provincial halfpennies issued in the county of Norfolk"". Retrieved 2016-07-08. 
  5. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography. [1]. Retrieved 17 November 2013.
  6. ^  Lee, Sidney, ed. (1898). "Thurlow, Edward (1731–1806)". Dictionary of National Biography. 56. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  7. ^ A General History..., op. cit., Vol. II, p. 834.
  8. ^ "NPG D4981; Robert Potter – Portrait – National Portrait Gallery". Retrieved 8 July 2016. 
  9. ^ "Search Results | National Library of Australia". Retrieved 2016-07-08. 
  10. ^ The Early Diary of Frances Burney 1768–1778. Edited by Annie Raine Ellis (London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1913 [1889]), pp. 255–57.
  11. ^ Inquiry into some passages in Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Poets, particularly his observations on lyric poetry and the odes of Gray (London, 1783).
  12. ^ [2]. Retrieved 16 May 2010.

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