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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1843-1849 > Criticism

It is right to add Mr. Kip's conclusions from the entire interview, and his impressions regarding the natural and acquired powers of the great linguist.

And yet," he concludes, "all this conversation by no means satisfied me of the depth of the Cardinal's literary acquirements. There was nothing said which gave evidence of more than a superficial acquaintance with English literature ; the kind of knowledge which passes current in society, and which is necessarily picked up by one who meets so often with cultivated people of each country. His acquirements in words are certainly wonderful; but I could not help asking myself their use. I have never yet heard of their being of any practical benefit to the world during the long life of their possessor. He has never displayed anything philosophical in his character of mind; none of that power of combination which enables Schlegel to excel in all questions of philology, and gives him a talent for discriminating and a power of handling the resources of a language which have never been surpassed.

Perhaps the reader will be disposed to regard Mr. Kip's criticism as somewhat exigeant in its character ; and to think that, even taking his own report of his conversation with the Cardinal, and of the number and variety of the English and American writers, with whom, and with whose peculiar characteristics, he was acquainted—some of them, moreover—as for example, Lockhart's Spanish Ballads—a translation from a foreign language—most unlikely to attract a " superficial " foreigner, he was a little unreasonable in refusing " to be satisfied with the depth of the Cardinal's literary acquirements." For my part, I cannot help thinking this interview, even as recorded by Mr. Kip, one of the most astonishing incidents in the entire history of this extraordinary man. And I may add to what is here stated of his familiarity with the principal English authors, native and American, that, as I am informed by the Rev. Mr. Gray, of Glasgow, the Cardinal was also intimately acquainted . with the national literature of Scotland ; that he had read many of the works of Walter Scott and Burns ; and that he understood and was able to enjoy the Lowland Scottish dialect, which is one of the great charms of both.

Mr. Kip's impressions as to the Cardinal's want of skill in the science of language and of its philosphical bearing on history and ethnology, must be admitted to have more, foundation, and are shared by several of the scholars who visited him, especially those who cultivated ethnology as a particular study. 1 have reserved for this place a short notice of the Cardinal, which has been communicated to me by Baron Bunsen, and which, while it does ample justice to Mezzofanti's merits as a linguist, puts a very low estimate on his accomplishments as a philologer, and a critic. The reader will gather from much of what has been already said, that I am far from adopting this estimate in several of its particulars j
but Baron Bunsen's opinion upon any question of scholarship or criticism is too important to be overlooked.

I saw him first as Abate and Librarian at Bologna, in 1828, when travelling through Italy, with the Crown Prince (now King) of Prussia. When he came to Rome as head librarian to the Vatican, I have frequently had the pleasure of seeing him in my house, and in the Vatican. He was always amiable, humane, courteous, and spoke with equal fluency the different languages of Europe. His gentleness and modesty have often struck me. Once, when some misrepresentations of Lady Morgan in her book on Italy, were mentioned before him with very strong vituperation, 'Poor Lady Morgan!' he said, ' it is not yet given to her to see truth.' When complimented by an English lady upon his miraculous facility in acquiring languages, with the additional observation that Charles the Fifth had said, ' as many languages as a man knows, so many times he is a man,' he replied, ' Well, that ought rather to humble us; for it is essential to man to err, and therefore, such a man is the more liable to error, if Charles the Fifth's observation is true.'

On the other side, I must confess that I was always struck by the observation of an Italian who answered to the question: ' Non emiracolosodi vedere un uomoparlare quaranta duelingue?' replied, 'Si, senzadubbio; mapiu miracoloso ancora e di senlire che questo uomo in quaranta duelingue non dice niente.' A giant as a linguist, Mezzofanti certainly was a child as a philologer and philological critic.

He delighted in etymologies, and sometimes he mentioned new and striking ones, particularly as to the Romanic languages and their dialects. But he could not draw any philosophical or historical consequences from that circumstance, beyond the first self-evident elements. He had no idea of philosophical grammar. I have once seen his attempt at decyphering a Greek inscription, and never was there such a failure. Nor has he left or published anything worth notice.

I explain this by his ignorance of all realities. He remembered words and their sounds and significations almost instinctively; buthelived upon reminiscences: he never had an original thought. I understood from one of his learned colleagues, (a Roman Prelate,) that it was the same with his theology ; there was no acuteness in his divinity, although he knew well St. Thomas and other scholastics.

As to Biblical Criticism, he had no idea of it. His knowledge of Greek criticism too was very shallow.

In short, his linguistic talent was that of seizing sounds and accents, and the whole (so to say) idiom of a language, and reproducing them by a wonderful, but equally special, memory.

I do not think he had ever his equal in this respect.

But the cultivation of this power had absorbed all the rest.

Let it, however, never be forgotten that he was, according to all I have heard from him, a charitable, kind Christian, devout but not intolerant, and that his habitual meekness was not a cloak, but a real Christian habit and virtue. Honour be to his memory.

There is apart of this criticism which is unquestionably just : but there are also several of the views from which I am bound to dissent most strongly, and to which I shall have occasion to revert hereafter. Meanwhile, that the Cardinal paid more attention to these inquiries than Mr. Kip and M. Bunsen suppose, will appear from the testimony of the Abbe Gaume, author of the interesting work, " Les Trois Borne."

I had often met the illustrious philologer," says M. Gaunoe, " at the Propaganda, where he used to come to spend the afternoon. Kind, affable, modest, he mixed with the students, and spoke by turns Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Chinese, and twenty other languages, with a facility almost prodigious When I entered, I found him studying Bas-Breton, and I have no doubt that in a short time he will be able to exhibit it to the inhabitants of Vannes themselves. His eminence assured me of two points. The first is the fundamental unity of all languages. This unity is observable especially in the parts of speech, which are the same or nearly so in all languages. The second is the trinity of dialects in the primitive language;—a trinity corresponding with the three races of mankind. The Cardinal has satisfied himself that there are but three races sprung from one common stock, as there are but three languages or principal dialects of one primitive language ;—the Japhetic language and race; the Semitic language and race; and the Chamitic language and race. Thus the unity of the human kind and the trinity of races, which are established by all the monuments of history, are found also to be supported by the authority of the most extraordinary philologer that has even been known.

The Cardinal's testimony is the more important inasmuch as his linguistic acquirements are not confined to a superficial knowledge. Of the many languages which he possesses, there is not one in which he is not familiar with the every day words, common sayings, adages, and all that difficult nomenclature which constitutes the popular part of a language. One day he asked one of our friends to what province of France he belonged. ' To Burgundy ;' replied my friend. 'Oh!' said Mezzofanti, 'you have two Burgundian dialects ; which of them do you speak ?' ' I know,' replied our friend, ' the patois of Lower Burgundy.' Whereupon the Cardinal began to talk to him in Lower Burgundian, with a fluency which the vine-dressers of Nantes or Beaune might envy."

This curious familiarity with provincial patois, described by the Abbe Gaume, extended to the other provincial dialects of France. M. Manavit found him not only acquainted with the Tolosan dialect, but even not unread in its local literature. His library contains books in the dialects of Lorraine, Bearne, Franche Comte, and Dauphine. I have already mentioned his sneaking Provencal with Madame de Chaussegros ; and Dr. Grant, bishop of Southwark, told me that he was able, solely by the accent of the Abbe Carbry, to determine the precise place of bis nativity, Montauban.

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