Page images

have led to a false and exaggerated estimate of his acquirements. But even allowing all reasonable abatement on this score, he must be regarded as well worthy a high rank in the list of those who have made themselves a name by their linguistic attainments.

The celebrated Rabbinical scholar, William Postel, although less brilliant than Pico, appears to have been but little inferior to him in the extent and variety of his acquirements as a linguist. He was born at Doleric in 1510, and was one of the many scholars attracted to the French Court by the munificent patronage of Francis I. He was sent to the East by that monarch on a literary mission similar to that undertaken recently under the auspices of Louis Philippe and M. de Villemain, his Minister of Public Instruction, to collect and bring home Greek and Oriental MSS. On his return he was appointed Professor of Mathematics and also of Oriental Languages in the College de France; but the wild and visionary character of his mind appears to have been quite unsuited to any settled pursuit. He offered himself soon afterwards to the newly founded society of the Jesuits, from whom, however, he soon separated. After many wanderings in France, Italy, and Germany, he undertook a second expedition to the East, whence he returned wilder and more visionary than ever; and although his enthusiasm and eloquence attracted many followers, his subsequent career was but a succession of difficulties and embroilments, until eventually he was placed under surveillance in the Monastery of St. Martin des Champs, close to Paris, where he died in 1581. Postel's attainments in languages, living and dead, are well known to have been very extraordinary ; but it is difficult to form an exact estimate of his powers as a speaker. He is said to have been able to converse in most of the living languages, and he himself used to boast that he could go round the entire world without ever requiring the aid of an interpreter.

A celebrity as a linguist equally distinguished, and even more unamiable, than Postel's, is that of his countryman and contemporary, the younger of the two Scaligers. The personal history of Joseph Justus Scaliger is too well known to be repeated at much length here. He was born at Agen in 1544, and made his school studies at Bordeaux, where he was only remarkable for his exceeding dulness, having spent three years in a painfully laborious attempt to master the first rudiments of the Latin language. These clouds of the morning, however, were but the prelude of a brilliant day. His after successes were proportionately rapid and complete. The stories which are told of him seem almost legendary. He is said to have read the entire


Iliad and Odyssey in twenty-one days, and to have run through the Greek Dramatists and Lyric Poets in four months. He was but seventeen years old when he produced his Edipus. At the same age he was able to speak Hebrew with all the fluency of a Rabbi. His application to study was unremitting, and his powers of endurance are described as beyond all example. He himself tells, that even in the darkness of the night, when he awoke from his brief slumbers, he was able (so powerful was his vision) to read without lighting his lainp!* After a brilliant career at Paris, he was invited to occupy the chair of Belles Lettres at Leyden, where the best part of his life was spent. Like most eminent linguists, Scaliger possessed the faculty of memory in an extraordinary degree. He could repeat eighty couplets of poetry after a single reading: he knew by heart every line of his own composition, and it was said of him that he never forgot anything which he once knew. But with all his gifts and all his acconiplishments, he contrived to render himself an object of general dislike, or at least of general disesteem. His vanity was insufferable; and it was of that peculiarly offensive kind which is only gratified at the expense of the depreciation of others. His life was a series of literary quarrels; and in the whole annals of literary polemics, there are none with which, for acrimony, virulence, and ferocity of vituperation, they may not compete. And hence, although there is hardly a subject, literary, antiquarian, philological, or critical, on which he has not written, and (for his age) written well, there are few, nevertheless, who have exercised less influence upon contemporary opinions. Scaliger spoke thirteen languages, which are enumerated in the following lines of Du Bartas. The classification is ludicrously unscientific.

Scaliger, merveille de notre age,
Soleil des savants, qui parle elegamment
Hebreu, Greçois, Romain, Espagnol, Allemand,
Francois, Italien, Nubien, Arabique,

Syriaque, Persian, Anglois, Chaldaique.' In his case it is difficult, as in most others, to ascertain the degree of his familiarity with each of these. To Du Bartas's poetical epithet elegamment, of course no importance is to be attached; and it would perhaps be equally unsafe to rely on the depreciatory representations of his literary antagonists. One

Strange and apocryphal as this anecdote may seem, it is told seriously by Scaliger himself, who adds that the same extraordinary power was possessed also by Jerome Cardan and by his father. See the curious article in Moreri, voce • Scaliger.'

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

thing, at least, is certain, that he himself made the most of the accomplishment. He was not the man to hide his light from any overweening delicacy. The malicious wits of his own day used to say, that there could be no doubt as to his powers in one particular department of each language-its Billingsgate vocabulary. There was not one, they said, of the thirteen languages to which he laid claim, in which he was not perfectly qualified to scold, whatever his acquaintance with it in other respects might be.

With these men, however, the study of languages formed almost the business of life; but it was not so with their brilliant contemporary, the · Admirable Crichton,' who, notwithstanding the universality of his reputation, became equally eminent in this particular branch. There is not an accomplishinent which he did not possess in its greatest perfection --- from the most abstruse departments of scholarship, philosophy, and divinity, down to the mere physical gifts and graces of the musician, the athlete, the swordsman, and the cavalier. Many of the details which are told of him are doubtless exaggerated, and perhaps legendary; but Tytler has shown that the substance of his history, prodigious as it seems, is perfectly reliable. As regards the particular subject of our present inquiry, one account states that, when he was but sixteen years old, he spoke ten languages. Another informs us that, at the age of twenty, the number of languages of which he was master exactly equalled the number of his years. But the most tangible data which we possess are drawn from his celebrated thesis in the University of Paris, in which he undertook to dispute in any of twelve languages-Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, English, Gernian, Flemish and Slavonic. We are inclined to believe that Crichton's acquirements extended at least so far as this. It might seem that a vague challenge to dispute in any one out of such a number of foreign tongues was an empty and unsubstantial boast, and a mere exhibition of vanity, perfectly safe from the danger of exposure. But it is clear that Crichton's challenge was not so unpractical as this. He not only specified the languages of his challenge, but there is not one of those that he selected which was not represented in the University of Paris at the time, not only sufficiently to test the proficiency of the daring disputant, but to secure his ignominious exposure, if there were grounds to suspect him of charlatanism or imposture.

One of the scholars engaged in the compilation of Walton's Polyglot, Andrew Müller, has left a reputation less marvellous, but possibly more solid. He was born at Greiffenhagen in Pomerania, but settled in England, where he had a large share in the great work just named. He was perhaps the first European scholar, who, without actually visiting China, acquired a mastery of its language; and he is certainly one of the first who deserted the track of the old philologers, and attempted the comparative study of languages on principles approaching to those which modern science has made familiar. But, although a most laborious man and a voluminous writer, Müller's views were visionary and unpractical. He professed to have devised a plan of teaching, so complete, that by adopting it a perfect knowledge of Chinese could be acquired in half a year, and so simple, that it could be applied to the instruction of persons of the most ordinary capacity. We have never seen any detailed account of the number of languages to which he actually laid claim, but Haller states that he spoke no less than twenty.

It is scarcely allowable to introduce in such companionship the more humble pretensions of a scholar already named as the compiler of one of the collections of the Lord's Prayer, John Chamberlayne, who is said to have been acquainted with, and perhaps to have spoken, ten languages. The celebrated Roman Catholic controversialist, Eusebius Renaudot *, approaches nearer to competition. He possessed a thorough knowledge of seventeen languages, in the greater number of which he was able to converse with fluency. We may also add to our list the Spanish ex-Jesuit, Padre Hervaz, already referred to; especially as he occupied during the last years of his life an office which Mezzofanti has since made remarkable— that of Librarian of the Vatican collection. His voluminous publications evince not only a literal acquaintance with a prodigious number of languages, but a critical knowledge of their structures and their affinities. But in the absence of any detailed memoir, we are unable to ascertain how far this familiarity extended to the spoken languages themselves.

It would be easy to extend this list much farther were we to include in it the minor celebrities of the department. But examples of more than average attainments have become so numerous in our own generation, that it would be wearisome to descend lower in the scale. We must therefore pass by many whose pretensions stood sufficiently high in their day; -- even

* He is the author of the fourth and fifth volumes of the celebrated work, Perpetuité de la Foi sur l’Eucharistie. The first three volumes are by the well-known Jansenist leaders, Anthony Arnauld and Nicole.



[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

royallinguists like Charles V., Catherine of Russia, and, above all, that strange combination of eccentricity and genius, Christina of Sweden, who was mistress of no less than eight languages. There are others, too, whose fame, as resting upon apocryphal or insufficient testimony, does not bear the ordeal of criticism. When the pretension to familiarity with languages reaches a certain point, it is in most cases easily maintained, and even extended, by the difficulty of applying any satisfactory test. An amusing example is mentioned in the second volume of Baron von Zach's • Correspondance Astronomique 'of a certain Père Weitenauer, who, in the literary circles of the Tyrolese capital, Innspruck, had the reputation of speaking ‘from eighteen to two dozen dif• ferent languages, and who claimed to have invented a plan according to which languages could be acquired with perfect facility at the rate of from twenty-four hours to a month each. I was complaisant enough,' says the traveller, whose report is cited in the Correspondance,'' to believe this, as I had believed what the

old historians tell of Mithridates speaking the languages of the 'twenty-two nations who were subject to his sway. Accordingly • I went to see this rival of the king of Pontus; and, by way of • trial, I addressed him in German. He answered me in a • Tyrolese patois, so discordant and unintelligible, that I con*cluded that German was not one of the tongues to which this • rare genius laid claim. I tried him, therefore, in French and

Italian; but I think it must have been in Hebrew that he replied, • for I could not understand a single word of his answer. We have found more than one Père Weitenauer among the names which figure as celebrities in the popularly received catalogues of eminent linguists.

It is with the most unexceptionable of these, however-those whose fame rest upon the most unsuspected testimony- that we have to contrast the subject of our present notice. And whatever absolute judgment we may form of the actual extent of his own attainments, it is impossible to hesitate as to the relative estimate at which we must arrive. In the variety, in the extent, in the exactness, in the readiness, and in the completeness of his knowledge of languages, Mezzofanti immeasurably transcends them all.

GIUSEPPE GASPARDO MEZZOFANTI was the son of an humble carpenter, and was born at Bologna, September 17. 1774.

He was sent to one of the charity schools of his native city, and was destined by his father to follow his own trade, at which it is said that he actually worked in his early boyhood. According to one

[ocr errors]

* Correspondance Astronomique, tome ii. p. 514.

« PreviousContinue »