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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1841 to 1843 > English litterature

As to the extent of his acquaintance with English, literature, my own personal knowledge is very limited. His only allusion to the subject which I recollect, was a question which he put to me about the completion of Moore's History of Ireland. He expressed a strong feeling of regret that we had not some Irish History, as learned, as impartial, and as admirable in its style, as Lingard's History of England.

This is a point, however, on which we have the concurring testimony of a number of English visitors, extending over a period of nearly thirty years. The report of Mr. Harford in 1817, has been already quoted ; Dr. Cox of Southampton, spoke with high admiration of the Cardinal's powers as an English critic. Cardinal Wiseman assures me that " he often heard him speaking on English style, and criticizing our writers with great justness and accuracy. He certainly," adds the Cardinal, " knew the language and its literature far better than many an English gentleman;" With Mr. Henry G-rattan, then (in the year 1843,) member of Parliament for Meath, he held a long conversation on the English language and literature, especially its poets.

He spoke in English," says Mr. Grattan, " and with great rapidity. He talked of Mil ton, Pope, Gray, and Chaucer. Milton, he observed, was our English Homer, but he was formed by the study of Dante, and of the Prophets. On Gray's Elegy, and on Moore's Melodies, he dwelt with great delight; of the latter he repeated some passages, and admired them extremely. Chaucer, he said, was taken from Boccaccio. He added that Milton, besides his merit as an English poet, also wrote very pretty Italian poetry. Talking of French literature, he said that, properly speaking, the French have no poetry : 'they have too much poetry in their prose,' said he, ' and besides they want the heart that is necessary for genuine poetry.'

But the most extraordinary example of Mezzofanti's minute acquaintance with English literature that I have heard, has been communicated to me by Mr. Badeley, who found him quite familiar with an author so little read, even by Englishmen, as Hudibras!

The Cardinal," says Mr. Badeley, " received me most graciously; his first question was, ' Well, what language shall we talk ?' I said, 'Your eminence's English is doubtless far better than my Italian, and therefore we had better speak English.' He accordingly spoke English to me, in the most easy and natural manner, and the conversation soon turned upon the English language, and upon English literature; and his reference to some of our principal authors, Such as Milton, and others of that class, shewed me that he was well acquainted with them. We talked of translations, and I mentioned that the most extraordinary translation I had ever seen was that of Hudibras in French. He quits started with astonishment. Hudibras in French! impossible—it cannot be !' I assured him that it was so, and that I had the book. ' But how is it possible,' said he, ' to translate such a book ? The rhymes, the wit, the jokes, are the material points of the work—and it is impossible to translate these—you cannot give them in French !' I told him that, strange as it might seem, they were very admirably preserved in the translation, the measure and versification being the same, and the point and spirit of the original maintained with the utmost fidelity. He seemed quite lost in wonder, and almost incredulous—repeating several times, 'Hudibras in French! Hudibras in French ! Most extraordinary—I never heard of such a thing !' During the rest of our interview, he broke out occasionally with the same exclamations; and, as I took leave, he again asked me about the book. I said that it was rather scarce, as it had been published many years ago; but, that I had a copy, which I should be happy to send him, if he would do me the honour of accepting it. Unfortunately, on my return to England, before I could find any body to take charge of it for him, he died.

The very capacity to appreciate " the rhymes, the wit, the jokes," of Hudibras, in itself implies no common mastery of English. How few even among learned Englishmen, could similarly appreciate Berni, Pulci, Scarron, or Gresset, not to speak of the minor humourists of France or Italy !

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