Page images
PDF
EPUB

picture as would shock, not only his own subjects, but the rest of the civilised world, why the trembling anxiety for concealment, why the morbid dread of publicity in every form, why the inflexible and vigilant prohibition of public discussion, why the censorship of the press, or the quasi-censorship of the press, enforced by threats, or friendly hints, more effectual even than a preliminary revision, which characterise a despotism? If the acts of a despotic Government will bear the light, why are they studiously shrouded in impenetrable darkness ? According to the maxims of the Criminal Law, concealment is evidence of guilt. If all the acts of a despotic Government were fully known, the scandals and brawls of a free Government would appear mere blemishes in comparison with the abominations which would be brought to light.

There is a saying of Napoleon, which is as shallow as most of his other sayings on political subjects, that in twenty years Europe would be either Cossack or Republican. This doctrine has not (as is natural) been lost on so congenial a spirit as the Emperor Nicholas ; and he has converted it into a general denunciation of all governments in which an hereditary king is controlled by a representative chamber.

M. de Custine, in his excellent work on Russia, represents the Emperor as having, in a conversation with himself, made the following remark:

• I can understand republicanism,- it is a plain and straight• forward form of government, or, at least, it might be so; I can understand absolute monarchy, for I am myself the head of

such an order of things; but I cannot understand a represent• ative monarchy; it is the government of lies, fraud, and core ruption; and I would rather fall back even upon China than ever adopt it.'*

It is natural that the Emperor Nicholas should consider all constitutional restraints upon the will of the hereditary chief of a State as pernicious, and that he should proscribe them by his imperial anathema. Experience has, however, proved that a constitutional monarchy is a far more solid, durable, and substantial form of government than an absolute monarchy; and that a political opposition, though it may be an institution highly distasteful to a reigning despot, is a necessary condition for freedom and political progress.

* Russia (Lond. 1854), p. 135.

[ocr errors]

Art. II.- 1. Esquisse Historique sur le Cardinal Mezzofanti.

Par A. MANAVIT. Paris : 1853. 2. On the extraordinary Powers of Cardinal Mezzofanti as a

Linguist. By Thomas Watts, Esq. [Proceedings of the

Philological Society. January 23, 1852.] London : 1852. 3. Catalogo della Libreria dell' Eminentissimo Cardinal Giuseppe

Mezzofanti. Compilato per ordine di lingue, da Filippo Boni

fazi, Librajo Romano. Roma: 1851. THE

He Poet Ennius, if we believe the account of Aulus Gellius,

was no little vain of his attainments as a linguist, and used to boast that he had three hearts, because he was able to speak in

three tongues, the Greek, the Latin, and the Oscan.' What would the good old Father' have said, if he had had Cardinal Mezzofanti for his theme? It would be a curious physiological problem to determine what degree of physical development in the comparative scale suggested by his quaint illustration, should be taken to represent the faculty of language as it existed in this most wonderful linguist.

Uufortunately, the materials for a complete and satisfactory estimate of his character and attainments are scanty and difficult of access. The printed materials are for the most part mere sketches, vague, declamatory, and often of very doubtful authenticity. M. Manavit's essay, the most recent and most ambitious of them all, is extremely meagre and barren of details; nor does it even attempt anything like a philosophical analysis of the nature or the extent of the Cardinal's acquirements, considered ethnologically. Mr. Watts' short but able and scholarlike paper read before the Philological Society, although it is far more valuable in this respect, and is exceedingly interesting as a collection of the fragmentary notices of Mezzofanti published by tourists and others during the several stages of his career, yet could not, from its very form, be expected to contain tuli particulars of his personal history. And, strange as it may seem, nothing deserving the name of a memoir, much less of a regular biography, has as yet appeared in Italy. It was understood for some time after the Cardinal's death, that his friend and successor in the charge of the Vatican Library, M. Laureani, was engaged in the preparation of an authentic memoir; and it is probable that this expectation (which has unhappily been frustrated by M. Laureani’s death) may have deterred others from undertaking the task. Probably, too, the unsettled condition of affairs in Rome at the time of Mezzofanti's

death, which occurred during the residence of the Papal Court at Gaeta, may have withdrawn public attention from what, in ordinary times, would have been a most memorable event. But, whatever may have been the occasion of this seemingly unaccountable neglect, we regret to say, that, with the exception of two or three slight and unsatisfactory notices in the newspapers and critical journals of the time, the literature of his native country,—of Bologna, the place of his birth; of Modena, Florence and Naples, with all which he had long maintained the closest scientific, literary, and friendly relations; above all of Rome, where, for the last twenty years of his life, he was one of the most prominent notabilities, — has not as yet produced a single record in any degree worthy of so distinguished a name.

The interest, however, which attaches to such career as that of Cardinal Mezzofanti is a thing entirely apart from the associations of friendship or of country. In one department of liberal study it is entirely without a parallel, and may well be regarded as among the most curious chapters in the annals of the human mind. It is impossible not to feel, that, independently of the interest which must attach to the personal history of any man rising to literary eminence in the face of great difficulties, there is something in the very notion of Mezzofanti's peculiar accomplishment so completely without example, as not only to deserve a permanent record, but even to invite a minute and careful philosophical investigation. It will be easily understood, therefore, that we take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the publication of the Esquisse of M. Manavit, less for its own intrinsic value, than as a means of bringing the whole subject under the notice of our readers; availing ourselves not only of the materials collected by him and by Mr. Watts, but also of much additional information, partly gleaned from the Italian and German critical journals, partly derived from personal knowledge, and from other private, but perfectly credible sources. We have included among our materials the catalogue of his limited, but exceedingly curious library. In itself it is a singularly inaccurate and unskilful compilation, and abounds with the strangest and most amusing blunders. But it is sufficiently correct to be employed as we propose;

on a principle similar to that on which geologists undertake, from the vegetable remains of the several geological periods, to arrange and classify the various grades of animal life which prevailed in each, and even to describe the structure and the habits by which they were respectively distinguished. It is true that in many cases the estimate of a man's attainments derived from a consideration of the books which he has collected, would be fallacious in the last degree. There are but too many who collect books for the mere collection sake, and with no higher or more practical object than that of placing them upon their shelves. But every one who knew Cardinal Mezzofanti, knows well that it was not so with him. The library which he hoarded his modest means to accumulate, was no idle show-room. It was the bona fide workshop in which he pursued his extraordinary vocation; and it may safely be taken as some gauge or measure of his linguistic attainments ;-imperfect and inadequate it is true, because some of the languages or dialects with which he was familiar possess no printed literature at all, but, at least as far as it goes, perfectly trustworthy and reliable.

There is no branch of scholarship which has left fewer traces in literature, or has received a more scanty measure of justice from history, than the faculty of language. Viewed in the light of a curious but unpractical pursuit, it is admired for a time, and, perhaps, enjoys an exaggerated popularity; but it passes away like a nine days' wonder, and seldom finds a permanent record. Hence, while the literature of every country abounds with memoirs of distinguished poets, philosophers, and historians, few, even among professed antiquarians, have directed their attention to the history of eminent linguists, whether in ancient or in modern times. We had hoped that the case of Cardinal Mezzofanti, by suggesting the necessity of a comparison with other distinguished linguists, would have furnished to some of his biographers an occasion for the compilation of some such memoir; but it would seem as if the Cardinal's attainments have been considered by them all as completely beyond all idea of competition, and as if, in the eyes of his admirers, his fame had effectually eclipsed that of all his predecessors in the same department of study.

And yet, on the other hand, in order to form a true estimate of the actual extent of Mezzofanti's accomplishment, it is absolutely necessary to compare it with what others had done before him. It is impossible to judge accurately of his proportions, while he stands in the solitary eminence which he has hitherto occupied. In the sketch of his life, therefore, which we propose, we have thought that it might not be uninteresting to prefix to the actual examination of his unquestionably extraordinary acquirements, a brief summary notice of the most eminent linguists of our own and foreign countries. The subject, it is true, is one which demands a far more detailed investigation than is consistent with the limits of a paper like the present. But it is one for which the reader will look in vain to the ordinary repositories of curious information. Neither

in the miscellaneous learning of writers like Bayle and Gibbon, nor in the professional historians of the curiosities of literature, like Feyjoo or Disraeli, nor even in the pages of the philologists themselves, like Adelung, Pallas, or Vater, shall we find any detailed notice of a subject, which, nevertheless, must have deeply interested them all. We are far from professing or expecting to supply the want; but we may at least hope to draw to the subject the attention of others, who enjoy more leisure and opportunity for the investigation.

It would not appear that among the ancients the faculty of language was often cultivated to any remarkable extent. The single prominent instance which is recorded that of Mithridates, King of Pontus — is so extraordinary as to distance all competition; and neither the great collectors of the curiosities

of classic literature,' Aulus Gellius and Athenæus, nor Valerius Maximus, its diligent anecdotist, nor Pliny, whose industry has left no department in nature, letters, or art unexplored, alludes to a single linguist, for whom we would not venture to find a dozen rivals among the couriers or valets-deplace to be met with any morning in the Place Vendôme, or at Leicester Square. The only contrast whom Gellius places in opposition to Mithridates, is the poet Ennius, whose attainments comprised, as we have seen, but three languages, Greek, Latin, and Oscan.* Valerius Maximus, in his celebrated chapter De Studio et Industria,' produces in the department of languages nothing more wonderful than Cato, who studied Greek literature in his old age, Themistocles, who acquired a knowledge of Persian during his exile, in order to recommend himself to Xerxes, and Publius Crassus, who was so familiar with Greek in all its five dialects, that he always gave his decrees as Prætor in the native dialects of the various suitors at his tribunal. † And Pliny speaks of the case of Mithridates in such terms as to make it plain that he considered it not alone unprecedented in degree, but even beyond any parallel at all worthy of being recorded. $

But if the case of Mithridates be a solitary one, the marvellous character of the accomplishment as it existed in him may well make compensation for the rarity of its occurrence. According to Aulus Gellius, he was thoroughly conversant' (percalluit) with the languages of all the nations (twenty-five in number) over which his rule extended. The other writers who relate

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

* Aul. Gellius, xvii. 17.

Valer. Maximus, viii. 7.
| Hist. Nat. vii. 24., and again xxv. 2.

« PreviousContinue »