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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1817 to 1820 > Lord Byron

Mr. Rose was mistaken in supposing that Mezzofanti at this time was but thirty-six years old. He was in reality forty-three; but the testimony which he bears to his " general accomplishments and information" will be found to be confirmed by very many succeeding travellers.

It was earlier in the same year, probably in June, on his return from Rome to Venice, Note 1 that Lord Byron first saw Mezzofanti. The extract given by Moore from his Journal, in which he describes the impressions made upon him by their intercourse has no date attached ; but as he also alludes to Mezzofanti as among " the great names of Italy " in the Dedication of the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold, which is dated January, 2nd, 1818, it would seem likely that he had met him at least before that date. Note 2

Flung o'er all that's warm and bright, The winter of an icy creed.

" Alas !" he one day said to M. Manavit, " that desolating scepticism which had long oppressed his soul, was not natural to such a mind. Sooner or later he would have awakened from it. And then it only remained for him to open the most glorious page in his Childe Harold's adventurous Pilgrimage that in which, reviewing all his doubts, his struggles, and his sorrows, and laying bare the deep wounds of his haughty soul, he should have sought rest from them all in the peaceful bosom of the faith of his fathers."Note 3

Such a feeling as this on the part of Mezzofanti gives a melancholy interest to the well-known passage, half laughing, half admiring, in which Byron records his recollections of the great linguist.

"In general," he says, " I do not draw well with literary men not that I dislike them ; but I never knew what to say to them, after I have praised their last publication. There are several exceptions, to be sure ; but then they have either been men of the world, such as Scott and Moore, or visionaries out of it, such as Shelley.; but your literary every-day man and I never met well in company; especially your foreigners, whom I never could abide, except Giordani, (I really can't name any other.) I don't remember a man amongst them whom I ever wished to see twice, except perhaps Mezzophanti, who is a monster of languages, the Briareus of parts of speech, a walking polyglot, and more ; who ought to have existed at the time of the

Tower of Babel, as universal interpreter. Note 4 He is, in deed, a marvel unassuming also. I tried him in all the tongues in which I knew a single oath or adjuration to the gods, against post-boys, savages, Tartars, boatmen, sailors, pilots, gondoliers, muleteers, camel-drivers, vetturini, post-masters, post-houses, post, everything; and egad ! he astounded me even to my English."

The Abbe Gaume adds, in reference to the last of these languages, an anecdote still current in Rome, though doubtless a mere exaggerationf Note 5 of the real story; viz., that, " when Byron had exhausted his vocabulary of English slang, Mezzofanti quietly asked : ' And is that all ?'

' I can go no further.' replied the noble poet, ' unless I coin words for the purpose.'

' Pardon me, my Lord,' rejoined Mezzofanti; and proceeded to repeat for him a variety of the refinements of London slang, till then unknown to his visitor's rich vocabulary !" Note 6

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Note 1
See Life, IV., p. 32. He had not visited Bologna in the interval.

Note 2
Perhaps it might be inferred from the false spelling of the name -the use of ph for f (a blunder which violates so fundamental a rule of Italian orthography as to betray a mere tyro in the study) that this passage was penned soon after Byron's arrival in Italy. But Byron's orthography was never a standard.

Note 3
Manavit, p. 106.

Note 4
" Life and Works, IV., 262-3. It may be worth while to note this curious and characteristic passsage, as 'an example of what Byron has been so often charged with—unacknowledged, (and per¬haps unconscious) plagiarisms from authors or works which are but little known. The idea of " a universal interpreter at the time of the tower of Babel," is copied literally from Pope's metrical version of the second satire of Dr. Donne, to the hero of which the same illustration is applied, in exactly the same way.

"Thus othfers' talents having nicely shown,

He came by sure transition to his own

Till I cried out: 'You prove yourself so able,

Pity you was not druggerman [dragoman] at Babel !

For had they found a linguist half so good,

I make no question but the Tower had stood."

Note 5
Yet not without foundation in fact. My friend Mr. James E. , Doyle, was assured by the late Dr. Charles It. Walsh (an English • surgeon of great ability, who fell a victim to his exertions as an ' officer of the Board of Health, during the last cholera in London), ,that he once heard Mezzofanti " doing" the slang of a London cabman in great perfection.

Note 6
Gaunie, "Les Troia Rome," II., p. 415.

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