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A Phallic Knight – III

In the previous post in this series I outlined the publishing of Richard Payne Knight’s A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus and the ensuing scandal. For this post I’m going to look at some of Knight’s other works -and his later life – post-Discourse. My aim here is to highlight the wide range of Knight’s interests and show how he continued to express, in various ways, his antipathy to Christianity. I’ll get around to examining some of the background politics and social context in the next post.

In the first post in this series I mentioned that Knight had become an MP in 1780. In 1784 he became MP for Ludlow and he retained his seat until 1806. He was politically a Whig, but by all accounts was not very active as a member of parliament – his real interests lay elsewhere – in works such as an “Analytical Essay on the Greek Alphabet” (1791); a Prolegomena to an edition of Homer which appeared in the Classical Journal (1813) and his two didactic poems, “The Landscape” (1794) and “The Progress of Civil Society” (1796).

“The Landscape” is Knight’s contribution to the development of the Picturesque Movement – a theory of aesthetics which dominated the eighteenth and nineteenth century, giving rise to both landscaped country parks and urban parks. Knight, as both a patron of artists and architects, was passionately involved in the question of “taste” and the representation of the “natural”. Artists and philosophers such as Adam Smith, William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds debated principles of beauty and pleasure. Landscape gardening, for the elite class, came to represent a kind of utopian self-making (whilst of course these large-scale projects were made possible only by the restriction of public right of way and the enclosure of common land).

“The Landscape” attacked the style of landscape gardening which Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown had promoted, and instead advocated irregularity and diversity in the planting of parks and the design of country houses. It also shows traces of the anti-clerical elements found earlier in Discourse as Knight squarely lays the blame for the decline of art and knowledge from classical times on the Christian Church:

But gloomy Bigotry with prying eye,
Saw lurking fiends in every figure lie,
And damned heresy’s prolific root
Grow strong in learning, and from science shoot;
Whence fired with vengeance and fierce zeal it rose
To quench all lights that dared its own oppose.
(The Landscape, II, 428-433)

“The Landscape” ends with a lengthy comparison of revolutionary France to a stagnant pond at last freed to cascade downhill. Despite a footnote deploring the progress of the revolution so far, Knight’s political opponents pounced on this apparent linkage between picturesque composition and revolution.

“The Progress of Civil Society” (1796) also espoused views which were seen – particularly by Tories – as politically suspect. Knight professes, in his Preface, that he was bewildered by what ‘Christian Morality’ was as it seemed to mean something different at different times and places, adding: “I will not pretend to it, till its meaning is so far determined, that I may know whether I can justly pretend to it or not.” Knight’s assertion that Christian morality was little more than ‘presumptious ignorance’ caused a later critic to write: “This is the work of a man who writes after nine generations of his ancestors and countrymen who have had a free and open Bible in their hands, and who none the less puts the worship of Nature, and of her copyists, in the place of the worship of Nature’s God”. 1

Also, in a footnote to verse 150 Knight says: “Let me not be supposed to mean a condemnation of marriage; from which I have derived all the blessings and benefits of Civil Society; but merely of its indissolubility. There are many causes which ought to justify divorce, as well as that of adultery on the part of the woman; and I think it probable, that if other causes were admitted, this would be less frequent. Divorce is, I believe, as often the object, as well as the consequence, of adultery.”

In 1802 Knight was appointed to the “Committee of Taste” (chaired by Charles Long) which superintended the national monuments in St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1805 his Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste was published – passing rapidly into 3 editions. Taste gives some insights into Knight’s artistic enthusiasms and prejudices. He admires Shakespeare, Homer, and Fielding, for example, but had reservations – expressed as provocatively as possible – concerning the work of Milton:

“If we dip into the Iliad, we are immediately borne along by the enthusiastic vehemence of the poet’s diction, as it were by a torrent; and even in the Odyessy, the Aenid, or Jereusalem, we glide down the stream without labour or effort; but in Paradise Lost, we are perpetually tugging at the oar; and though we discover, at every turn, what fills us with astonishment and delight, the discovery is, nevertheless, a work of toil and exertion…”

In 1814 Knight became a trustee of the British Museum. A year later, he was drawn into controversy over the Elgin Marbles. The Marbles had been ‘acquired’ by Lord Elgin during his tenure as British Ambassador to Turkey, transported to England, and privately exhibited by Elgin in London. In 1815, it was suggested that the British Museum purchase the Marbles and a committee was formed to review evidence for their value, and to determine a purchase price. Whilst most of the sculptors and architects which gave evidence to the committee were effusive in their praise of the Marbles, Knight insisted that the Marbles were not Greek, but from the Roman period -from the time of Hadrian rather than Phidias. Knight’s views again led to attacks in the press – particularly the Quarterly Review and The Examiner – where he was lampooned for valuing a granite Eygptian scarab more highly than the Parthenon frieze. Knight published a pamphlet in defence of his views, but the Committe ignored him in favour of the professional artists.

An Inquiry into the Symbolic Language of Ancient Art and MythologyIn 1818 Knight published An Inquiry into the Symbolic Language of Ancient Art and Mythology This work revisits some of the themes Knight introduced in Discourse – albeit in a somewhat less inflammatory fashion. Inquiry develops Knight’s approach to comparative religion he traces common symbols such as the bull and the egg, across different forms of representation and cultures. It is a wide-ranging work, covering subjects such as animal symbolism, the signs of the Zodiac, planetary names for the days, and commonalities between ancient, primitive, contemporary and forms of worship:

“The Greeks usually represented the phallus alone, as a distinct symbol, the meaning of which seems to have been among the last discoveries revealed to the initiated. It was the same, in emblematical writing, as the Orphic epithet, Pan-genetor, universal generator, in which sense it is still employed by the Hindus. It has also been observed among the idols of the native Americans and ancient Scandinavians; nor do we think it the conjecture of an ingenious writer improbable who supposes that the maypole was a symbol of the same meaning, and the first of May a great phallic festival both among the ancient Britons and Hindus, it being celebrated with nearly the same rites in both countries.” 2

However, at the same time that Knight is keen to demonstrate the ubiquity of the phallic symbol he is equally concerned that this symbolism should not be misinterpreted:

“…it must be remembered that a free communication between the sexes was never reckoned criminal by the ancients, unless when injurious to the peace and pride of families; and as to the foul and unnatural debaucheries imputed to the Bacchanalian societies suppressed by the Romans, they were either mere calumnies, or abuses introduced by private persons, and never countenanced by public authority in any part of the world. … We do, indeed, sometimes find indications of unnatural lusts in ancient sculptures; but they were undoubtedly the works of private caprice; or similar compositions would have been found on coins; which they never are, except on the Spintriae of Tiberius, which were merely tickets of admission to the scenes of his private amusement.] 3

In a similar manner to Sir William Jones’ work (1784) “On the gods of Greece, Italy, and India” Knight drew comparisons between classical Greek and contemporary Indian deities (as indeed he had done in Discourse – see this post). Inquiry is considered by some scholars to be a more “mature” work than Discourse and does not seem to have had the same reception as the earlier work.

In 1823 Knight’s poem “Alfred” a “Romance in Rhyme” was published. The preface included a defence of Lord Byron and some reflections on the various forms of Christianity. Knight considered it extraordinary to believe in a god who creates “millions upon millions of his creatures” only to damn them to eternal torture.

Richard Payne Knight died on 23 April 1824 by “an apoplectic affection” according to the Gentleman’s Magazine – although according to Samuel Rogers he committed suicide by drinking prussic acid. His bequest to the British Museum – which included over 1100 drawings in addition to his collection of over 5,000 ancient coins, 100 gems and over 800 bronzes – was valued to be worth at least £30,000. Some of Knight’s phallic objects (together with those of his friend, Charles Townley) later ended up in the British Museum’s own “secret museum” which was officially founded in 1865. Edward Hawkins, Keeper of the Museum’s Department of Antiquities between 1826 to 1860 described Discourse as:

“Of this work it is impossible to speak in terms of reprobation sufficiently strong: it is a work too gross to mention: and it is quite impossible to quote the indignant but too descriptive language of the critics in their severe but just remarks on this disgusting production…”

More about Discourse and its re-emergence in the late nineteenth century in a future post.

Giancarlo Carabelli In the Image of Priapus (Duckworth, 1996)
Michael Clarke, Nicholas Penny (eds) The Arrogant Connosisseur: Richard Payne Knight 1751-1824 (Manchester University Press, 1982)
Edward Edwards Lives of the Founders of the British Museum (Trubner & Co., 1870)
Jocelyn Godwin The Theosophical Enlightenment (State University of New York, 1994)
Partha Mitta Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art (University of Chicago Press, 1992)
Martin Priestman Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Bruce Redford Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England (Getty Publications, 2008)
George S. Rousseau & Roy Porter Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment (Manchester University Press, 1987)
George S. Rousseau Perilous Enlightenment: Pre- and Post-Modern Discourses-Sexual, Historical (Mancheter University Press, 1991)

Online Books by Richard Payne Knight


  1. Edwards, 1870, p405.
  2. Inquiry, p52.
  3. Inquiry, p120.