Page images
PDF
EPUB

much attention about this period among the learned visitors of his father and Boje. In the conversations which took place among them," he was frequently called upon," it is said, "to take a part, (being only eleven or twelve years of age,) and not seldom information was asked of him regarding geographical, statistical, historical, and other subjects, and given in a manner which excited their astonishment. His statistical knowledge was even then extraordinary: he was frequently assiduously engaged in subjects of this nature, such for instance as writing out lists of mortality."

The boy's character, in less favourable circumstances, could hardly have escaped the evil effects of such premature excitement. But his extreme natural simplicity, combined with the example of his father, and frequent expressions on the part of his mother, showing how little she valued these things, effectually protected him from all tendency to vanity. There was, besides, a depth as well as quickness of apprehension in him, which even now, as so strikingly in later years, could not brook any mere superficial display.

In his thirteenth year Niebuhr went to the Gymnasium at Meldorf. In a letter from his father dated 1788, he says,"Barthold has not troubled his head so much about the Turks and the Emperor for some time past, but has made up his mind to enter the highest class at Easter, and is therefore busily engaged with the history of literature. He revels so in the Latin authors that I am almost obliged to restrain his ardour." He very soon outstripped his fellow-scholars, and acquired all he could at the Gymnasium. The Principal, Dr. Jäger, however, offered to advance his studies privately, and prepare him for the University, an offer which was gladly accepted. He read with him the most difficult passages of the Greek and Latin authors, and gave him hints which enabled him to perfect his acquaintance with them. His industry was amazing. His industry was amazing. "More than half the day he gave to hard work, some hours to general reading, and a very short time to recreation and social pleasures."

All this intellectual exertion was undoubtedly excessive, and could not have failed to prove injurious, save from the rare strength and elasticity of Niebuhr's mental capacity. His studies were also at this time, as he himself afterwards complained, diffused over too wide and desultory a field. Still the finely balanced power and tone of his mind enabled him to pass comparatively unharmed through disadvantages which might have seriously retarded the progress of others; while there is undoubtedly something very noble in the mere absorbing ardour of his studious devotion. We do not know of a more impressive example of strenuous self-culture from the earliest years

Master of twenty languages.

427

-of a youth devoted with such pure zeal and unconscious simplicity of aim to intellectual and moral discipline.

The French Revolution of 1791 deeply affected him, but not as it did so many young minds of that period. It was even at this early age not so much the bright as the dark side of that great event on which his mind dwelt. Friend as he was of

liberty, he was imbued with so passionate a love of order, that he was no less prone now than in later years to see beneath the revolutionary assertion of popular rights all the horrors of anarchy and popular tyranny.

In the year 1792, Niebuhr went to Hamburgh to school. Here he formed the friendship of Klopstock and the geographer Ebeling; and his residence amid a wider and more varied circle both of men of letters and youth of his own age, than he had hitherto enjoyed, promised him many advantages, which would have been of great service to him in some parts of his future career; but taken with vehement home-sickness, he returned to his father's house after only three months' absence.

The two subsequent years were spent at Meldorf in a similar round of study as before. The modern languages especially engaged his attention. Already familiar with French, English, and Italian, he now applied himself particularly to acquire Spanish and Portuguese. Here is the somewhat frightful catalogue given by his father in 1807 of the languages he then knew:"1. German, as his mother-tongue, he learned at school; 2. Latin; 3. Greek; 4. Hebrew; and besides, in Meldorf, he learned, 5. Danish; 6. English; 7. French; 8. Italian; but only so far as to be able to read a book in these languages: some books from a vessel wrecked on the coast induced him to learn, 9. Portuguese; 10. Spanish; of Arabic he did not learn much at home, because I had lost my lexicon, and could not quickly replace it. In Kiel and Copenhagen he had opportunities of practice in speaking and writing French, English, and Danish; in Copenhagen he learnt, 11. Persian, (of Count Ludolph, the Austrian minister, who was born at Constantinople, and whose father was an acquaintance of mine ;) and 12. Arabic, he taught himself; in Holland he learnt, 13. Dutch; and again in Copenhagen he learnt, 14. Swedish, and a little Icelandic; at Memel, 15. Prussian; 16. Sclavonic; 17. Polish; 18. Bohemian; and 19. Illyrian; with the addition of Low German, this makes in all twenty languages."

In 1794 Niebuhr commenced his studies at the university of Kiel. The society into which he there entered proved a source of great enjoyment to him. With the aged Professor Hensler he contracted a particular intimacy, and in his house first made the acquaintance of Madame Hensler, (the Professor's daughter-in

VOL. XVII. NO. XXXIV.

2 F

law,) who was destined to exercise so strong an influence on the whole future course of his life. She is described as "a woman of strong and healthy mind, with much decision of character, combined with deep feeling, and no ordinary cultivation-one of those women whose clear and correct judgment and ever ready sympathy render them through life the persons to whom all their friends instinctively turn for advice and assistance." At Kiel, as in his father's house, philology and history continued to be our Student's favourite pursuits. The Greek and Roman classics were now so familiar to him that he only indulged himself in such reading as a recreation. He was so thoroughly imbued with their spirit, that he may be said to have lived more easily in the world disclosed by them, than in the actual world around him. The ancient classical Life in its great facts and features was realized by him with a vividness such as no one, we fancy, ever excelled or perhaps equalled. In that old Ethnic world he dwelt familiarly as an inhabitant-pleased with its joys and responsive to its sorrows. "He once told a friend who had called on him and found him in great emotion, that he often could not bear to read more than a few pages at a time in the old tragic poets; he realized so vividly all that was said and done and suffered, by the persons represented. He could see Antigone leading her blind father-the aged Edipus entering the grove-he could catch the music of their speech, and felt certain that he could distinguish the true accent of the Greeks, though he could not reproduce it with his barbarian tongue."

At this time, too, he gave himself with considerable zeal to the study of philosophy, especially the system of Kant, then expounded in the University with great enthusiasm by Rheinhold. The abstruse subtleties of the metaphysics of his country do not seem, however, now, or at any time, to have had much charm for Niebuhr. He appears himself to have been conscious of his inaptitude for them. We miss that hearty intelligence about his allusions to philosophy which distinguish his allusions to his other studies. The Concrete in life or in history had alone surpassing interest for him, and only in the contemplation and comprehension of it did his mind find full gratification, or show its full strength. Those merely intellectual difficulties, which the transcendental philosophy sought to resolve, scarcely discover themselves throughout all his letters, written as they often were amid the thick of metaphysical contention around him. History-the more he sought to apply himself to philosophy-appeared to him as his true vocation. "History," he says, grows dearer and dearer to me, so much so, that my ardour in reading history interferes with my zeal for philo

66

[blocks in formation]

sophy, while no philosophy can blunt my inclination for history.'

The series of his letters begin with his residence at Kiel. Their interest at this early stage consists almost entirely in the light which they throw upon his studies. He had begun already to indulge some original speculations respecting ancient history. The following extract from a letter to his parents, dated Kiel, 7th June 1794, explains in some degree the nature of these speculations:

"I have not as yet fully explained to anybody but Hensler, my ideas about the colonization of Greece and the whole of Asia Minor, including Armenia from the west. For the peopling of the rest of Asia, I assume, 1. the Aramaic, or Assyrian race, to which belong the Arabs, Jews, Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldees, and Medes, of more or less pure descent; 2. the Indo-Persic; 3. the Tartar; 4. the Mongol; 5. probably the Chinese race. Taking this as a basis, we can proceed further, and shall obtain everywhere at last the same result, viz., that these great national races have never sprung from the growth of a single family into a nation, but always from the association of several families of human beings, raised above their fellowanimals by the nature of their wants, and the gradual invention of a language, each of which families probably had originally formed a language peculiar to itself. This last idea belongs to Reinhold. By this I explain the immense variety of languages among the North American savages, which it is absolutely impossible to refer to any common source, but which, in some cases, have resolved themselves into one language, as in Mexico and Peru for instance; and also the number of synonyms in the earliest periods of languages. On this account I maintain, that we must make a very cautious use of differences of languages, as applied to the theory of races, and have more regard to physical conformation, which latter is exactly the same, for instance, in most of the Indian tribes of North America."-Vol. i. pp. 38, 39.

We add to this the following noble words from a letter of a few months' later date-words which, as they reveal so clearly the genuine spirit of self-culture which animated young Niebuhr, well deserve the earnest attention of every student :

"Knowledge, what is commonly called learning, mere dull memorywork, will never be the aim of my exertions. The one thing needful is to cultivate one's understanding for one's self, so as to render it capable of production. He who merely crams himself with the conceptions of other men's minds, clothed in forms foreign to his own nature, will never accomplish much. Quiet and independent energetic industry can alone attain to what is true, and bring forth what is really useful."

While at Kiel Niebuhr largely extended his literary acquaint

ance, not only among the professors and students, but within a circle composed of some of the most highly gifted men of the time-then resident at Holstein. "The little city of Eutin, delightfully situated on the wooded shores of an extensive lake, about twenty miles from Kiel, formed a sort of centre to this circle." Here, or in the immediate neighbourhood, lived the two brothers Stolberg. Here were also Jacobi, and Voss, (Niebuhr's old acquaintance,) who was rector of the Gymnasium of the place. Of these illustrious men, Jacobi perhaps exercised the greatest influence over him. There was a purity and elevation about the philosopher's character which lent a softening and impressive wisdom to all his discourse, peculiarly attractive to Niebuhr. There was the same moral earnestness in both--the same love for the ideally beautiful in life and manners which, as it at once drew them together, formed a bond of union between them which was only broken by death. Of Voss, Niebuhr's admiration was at this time at the highest point. To his friend Count Moltke he unbosoms himself regarding him with an enthusiasm which, while very characteristic of the writer, is not without interest in reference to the subject. Count Adam Moltke, we should observe, was one of Niebuhr's dearest friends at this period and afterwards. He formed his acquaintance during the second year of his college-life, and the warmest attachment speedily sprung up betwixt them-an attachment to which Niebuhr's letters everywhere testify. To him he thus writes, on 4th August 1795, of Voss, whose "Luise," he says, had lately afforded him such "unequalled enjoyment," that he could not help inviting his friend also to contemplate and admire it.

"He (Voss) may be, (and will be, perhaps, for after ages,) to Germany what Homer and the most perfect of the Greek poets were to their nation. Did he meet with such a reception as they found among their unrivalled fellow-countrymen-were his idyls publicly recited to the people, and his songs sung in popular assemblies, how much might such a teacher accomplish! He would effect more that was really good and great than the only true philosophy, should that ever be discovered. I should like to prescribe Voss and Lessing for you and myself, as our exclusive mental aliment. Voss forbids every author but Lessing, whom he deems perfect, except that he wants rhythm; he did not, indeed, name himself as the second, but no doubt he knows what he is, and would despise the false modesty of refusing to confess it on a fitting occasion. Forsake even Klopstock, and measure yourself by the severe standard of these men; such, at least, is my resolution. Not without reason do I speak thus warmly of Luise.' It has done what a book scarcely ever did before-drawn tears of delight from my eyes. It is a striking example, that to move the reader most deeply, the author must be in perfect repose, and the style of his whole work calm and mellowed.

« PreviousContinue »