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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1841 to 1843 > Polyglot recitation

Mezzofanti's handwriting in Italian : Click to enlarge picture
Mezzofanti's handwriting in Italian
The exercises of the evening, besides a Latin proem and an epilogue in Italian, comprised forty-eight recitations on " the Illumination of the Gentiles ;" but, as these included several varieties of Latin and Italian versification, the total number of languages represented in the Academy was only forty-two. The Latin proem was delivered by a young Irish student from the centre of the platform; the other speakers delivering their parts from the places assigned to them by the programme. Most of the languages were spoken by natives of the several countries where they prevail; and, where no native representative could be found, a student remarkable for his proficiency in the language was selected instead. It thus happened that the Hebrew psalm was recited by a Dutchman; the Spanish ode fell to a native of Stockholm ; and the soft measures of the Italian terzine and anacreontics were committed to the tender mercies of two youths from beyond the Tweed !

With those of the odes which I was in some degree able to follow, the Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, and German, I was much pleased. They appeared to me remarkably simple, elegant, and in good taste. But for the rest, it would be idle to attempt to convey an idea of the strange effect produced by the rapid succession of unknown sounds, uttered with every diversity of intonation, accompanied by every variety of gesture, and running through every interval in the musical scale, from " syllables which breathe of the soft south," to the

Harsh northern whistling, grunting, guttural, That we're obliged to hiss, and spit, and sputter all.

Some of the recitations were singularly soft and harmonious; some came, even upon an un-instructed ear, with a force and dignity, almost independent of the sense which they conveyed ; some on the contrary, especially when taken in connexion with the gestures and intonation of the reciter, were indescribably ludicrous. Among the former was the Syriac ode, recited by Joseph Churi, a youth since known in English literature. Among the latter, the most curious were a Chinese Eclogue, and a Peguan Dialogue. The speakers in both cases were natives, and I was assured by a gentleman who was present at the exercise, and who had visited China more than once, that their recitation was a perfect reproduction of the tone and manner of the native theatre of China.

Throughout the entire proceedings Cardinal Mezzofanti was a most attentive, and evidently an anxious listener. Every one of the young aspirants to public favour was personally and familiarly known to him. Many of the pieces, moreover, upon these occasions, were his own composition, or at least revised by him ; and thus, besides his paternal anxiety for the success of his young friends, he generally had somewhat of the interest of an author in the literary part of the performance. It was plain, too, that, for the young speakers themselves, his Eminence was, in his turn, the principal object of consideration ; and it was amusing to observe, in the case of one of the oriental recitations, that the speaker almost appeared to forget the presence of the general auditory, and to address himself entirely to the spot where Cardinal Mezzofanti sate.

At the close of the exercises, as soon as the interesting assemblage of the platform broke up, a motley group was speedily formed around the good-natured Cardinal, to hear his criticisms, or to receive his congratulations on the performance ; and I then was witness for the first time of what I saw on more than one subsequent occasion—the almost inconceivable versatility of his wonderful faculty, and his power of flying from language to language with the rapidity of thought itself, as he was addressed in each in succession ;—hardly ever hesitating, or ever con-founding a word or interchanging a construction. Most of the members of the polyglot group which thus crowded around him and plied him with this linguistic fusilade, were of course unknown to me ; but I particularly noticed among the busiest of the questioners, the Chinese youths who had taken part in their native eclogue, and a strange, mercurial, monkey-like, but evidently most intelligent lad, whom I afterwards recognized as one of the speakers in the Peguan Dialogue. I was gratified, too, to see a gap which I had observed in the programme of the exercises—the omission of the Eussian language—supplied by his Eminence in this curious after-performance. A Russian gentleman, who had sate near me during the evening, now joined the group assembled around the Cardinal, and good-humouredly complained of the oversight. His Eminence, without a moment's thought, replied to him in Russian ;—in which language a lengthened conversation ensued between them, with every evidence of ease and fluency on the part of the Cardinal. Although I have never since learned the name of this traveller, I noted the circumstance with peculiar interest at the time, because he had already established a claim upon my remembrance, by selecting (without knowing me as an Irishman,) among all the recitations of the evening, as especially harmonious and expressive in its sounds, the Irish Ode; which had been" delivered with great character and effect by a young student of the County Mayo.

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