תמונות בעמוד
PDF
ePub

of the “ Reform" question in England-the relative position of Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Bright, etc. These great commercial and manufacturing towns, like Leeds, are very seething pots of reform in England; but Leeds has not so often boiled over as have Manchester, Birmingham, and some other places. Mr. S. seemed to express the Leeds spirit, when he said, “We can afford to wait. We know Reform on many questions must come, and these little delays and retrocessions don't at all effect the great question of enlarged privileges for the people of England."- Liberal Christian.

Mrs. L. H. Stone.

ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT.

From THE GERMAN of HERMAN GRIMM.

Translated for “THE FRIEND."

W

HEN the collection of letters and conversations which were exchanged

between Humboldt and Varnhagen was published the impression it made was a profound one. The public, and that truly a public embracing all ranks, read with avidity the pages here opened to it.

Of this there can be no doubt, that of the confidential relations (for secrets they were not) thus thrown open to the gaze of the whole world, a misuse was made which nothing can possibly justify. Through it we have become accustomed to seeing opinions, characters, and even the most private circumstances, openly discussed in the most regardless manner. But this scarcely offends any longer. Everyone acknowledges the influence of momentary excitement. Those who feel themselves touched either answer the attack or ignore it. The whole world, however, quickly forgets what has thus been said, and no one would wish on that account to abrogate the free. dom of the press. If the affair becomes too mischievous, the redress lies in the courts.

But what is to be done, if the sharp utterances of a deceased statesman in the most private conversations with another statesman suddenly find themselves written down and printed ?

Let us picture to ourselves a family widely scattered and living in the most perfect harmony. Bad temper, which gives vent to itself in irritating words, cannot keep away even from it. It lies in the nature of mankind, and breaks out everywhere. The recollection, however, vanishes with the outbreak, and in spite of the wickedest speech which has fallen here or there, the general unity and confidence remains. But now, let us suppose, it is suddenly discovered that there has been an unseen hand actively at work, just at the time when one or another has expressed himself most irritably toward a brother or sister, or even toward parents or children, and we meet with all these things written down and printed. It would be impossible to invent a more effective weapon, were it designed at one stroke to break asunder the most secure circle. Forever after, each one would read again anew, in indelible writing, what the other had said of him, and confidence thenceforth would be destroyed.

Something similar happened on the publication of the letters and conversations of Humboldt. Varnhagen was still one of the few who outlived the olden times. To him Humboldt came now and then and gave himself up to the free expression of all that angered, troubled, and oppressed him. What stands written in his letters is in a less measure entangling ; his verbal utterances, however, which were noted down when he left Varnhagen, contain that, which to many is intolerably offensive.

The distinction between written thoughts and verbal speech is this, that in the former case one is uniformly apt to say somewhat less than one chinks, but in the latter one is more than apt to say somewhat more than one has thought. This distinction is so powerful that, in reading, we are always forced to bear in mind that which, apart from the identical words used, the writer desires to communicate in the whole; or, in other words, we read between the lines. He who writes anything, himself reflects upon it, and calls for reflection ; he who speaks anything, feels it only, and expects feeling in others—therefore he makes use of stronger accents. I can write to a man informing him that he does not suit my fancy in such a manner that any one might read from the sentence, that I designed calling him a miserable fellow; on the other hand, if I make use of the most severe verbal expressions, they go to show only that I, in some specified moment, with some definite purpose, suffered myself to use this or that word, which, the more severe it sounded, only served to give expression to the passion which governed me at the time. Such utterances are therefore true and false at the same time ; and he who writes down a spoken word behind the back of the speaker, and sends it out into the world, commits a wrong act.

In like manner, when we see Humboldt's letters published without his commission, his words recorded without his knowledge, and likewise printed, then the blame of this action falls only on the shoulders of him who made them public; and surely no special verdict is requisite to this end, but the affair will right itself. There is a law of authorization and unauthorization known to every one. He who sins against this law receives his p:nishment by the very act of transgressing, and there is no appeal, since there exists neither plaintiff nor court of judgment. The open deed is its own accuser, and public sentiment the court of judgment.

Now that the book has lost the charm of novelty, it is perhaps admissible to make these remarks concerning its appearance. The severity of the first judgment has grown milder. We have become aware that the assaults which it contains upon characters who still remain among us have glided off from them as though they had never been made, an experience which is universal wherever the sharpest or even the most justifiable things are said against living men. It is as though it were impossible for any verdict of his fellow men to cleave to a man while he is still among us: such verdicts are like garments, they become worn out and finally disappear. Instead of this, Humboldt's character, as it shows itself in the letters and conversations, is more and more seen to be the real contents of the hook.

An abiding judgment is beginning to be formed over him, and the question must be answered: What kind of an aspect of his inmost nature is to be had here?

He had lived so many years that we still, even, looked upon him as a living character, who had flung a pamphlet into the world against his contemporaries. We began to perceive that he was really dead. The words which gave such offence are the words of a man who has vanished-the words of a man upon whom, so long as he lived, nothing imposed but the true, real labor for the benefit of humanity-a man whose uninterrupted labor in the service of knowledge stands before our eyes like a mountain, and who, (I speak it unhesitatingly), even in this book, is never untrue to his character.

For, whatever charges his utterances allow to be brought against him, che reproach of violated confidence, the direct contradiction into which he him seif falls, as shown perhaps from his own letters, in which he ever, from different stand-points, mentions the same things at the same time in accents both of praise and blame, and the manifest partiality with which he frequently catches up personal matters—all these things do not alter the state of the case in one particle. He talked flattery to the faces of persons whom in private conversation with Varnhagen he placed on the lowermost step; he praised and protected bad books and bad people, who did not deserve it; he kept silent where he might have said with a powerful voice what his meaning was. All that granted, in his true frame of mind he ever knew how to find the truth and to clothe it in sharp words. If we concede the one, as a less ideal development of his nature-which perhaps, by the force of circumstances, became a vital necessity-still so much the more firmly do we hold to the other, and feel that herein lies the truly imperishable in his character. If he could have suspected the possibility of his memory being made a prize of, close upon his death, he would certainly have striven with all his powers to prevent it; but since it has once so happened, and what is done cannot be undone, we recognize in Humboldt's words the proper sense of the intolerableness of the condition of affairs from which we to-day have escaped, and corroborate ourselves in forming a judgment as to what share or participation therein is to be ascribed to certain definite personages. In this connection, the appearance of this book is of historic significance. It was a success. No one knew the circumstances so well as he; no one would have ventured to speak as sharply and precisely of them. He presented the nation a train of most precise thoughts. These revelations come like a destiny. One felt that it was the truth that was here spoken-or even, perhaps, kept secret.

ance.

Humboldt appears, both when he found fault as well as when he fattered, to have done so without consideration. No one will be likely to imitate him in this respect, since no one is likely to stand forth clothed with the enchantment of such authority. He praised without limit. “Interesting,” “ important,” “ admirable,” “ ingenious,” were the trifling small coin which he regardlessly thrust into the hand of almost every one, as into that of a beggar; but for the most part, however, only those whom he took for beggars. Even such an address as “ dear and valued friend” belongs, to a certain extent, to the same category. He made use of it as the Italians employ their molto amico mio, ottimo amico, which is used to indicate a sort of superficial acquaint

He did not hesitate to bestow encomiums upon men and works which he had never known. It had come to be a habit with him, as the investing with orders and titles must get to be a habit, for it is a physical impossibility that he from whom these issue should often know those who have been clothed with them, even by name. Humboldt, however, most certainly had, along with the few whom he perhaps made arrogant through his words, so seductive in their sound, very many whom his praise benefited and whom he lifted up, on to a higher step towards himself.

There dwelt a power in his words, even when they were but sheer flattery, for which little foundation existed, which gave those to whom they were addressed a nobler respect, above themselves, and spurred them on to fulfill in the deed the ideal of the proper activity, which was held out to them as being nearly fully accomplished. While he, with scarcely perceptible condescension, seemed to place himself on a level with whoever applied to him, he knew how to infuse into such a feeling of his own activity, as though he were working together with them toward the great spiritual goal of humanity. We can but feel that the brilliant light in which his words of praise were put, streamed forth from himself. In such moments he took mankind as though they had already accomplished that which, under the most favorable circumstances, they might be able to accomplish at some future time ; because he recognized in them the capability, he saw them already as developed and matured. It is quite possible that shallow natures accepted this gold as hard coin which could be paid out again penny for penny; for the most part, it is that class who have been publicly known, but no one knows all the hidden, successful effect that was the lot of others, without hurt to their own modesty, who feel themselves forever quickened and elevated by a single such sunbeam of praise.

Humboldt had the instinct of seeing things in a brilliant light. His inclinations, like his distastes, were somewhat suberabundant. His style shows that, he acknowledged to Varnhagen that he was somewhat forid, often too Aorid. He likes to give the nouns an escort of stately adjectives, and the periods a sonorous rounding.off. So much more cold and prosy, then, do his words seem where throughout no opportunity of ideal intuition of vision offers itself. He expresses himself with an air of abandon. What he so condemns is not the lacking power, with a good will, but rather it is the spirit of vain-glory which spreads itself so as to take the light from others. One can go through the book, but offensive blame is only cast upon those who seek to force their own notions upon the world in a prejudicial manner. Humboldt will recognize no bounds which are set up to the free action of the mind—let no one undertake forcibly to play the guide in this domain—let no one dare to carry through his form as the only source of sa). vation (even as a Government officer, professing to be of the greatest wisdom, *)-bis form, which points out to the world the right path, without the aid even of the police. Whoever thus contemplates Humboldt's opinions, even the most noxious of them, must perceive in them the sense of the freedom to which he was ever true, and to which his life and his pursuits were consecrated.

An opportunity to express these thoughts offers itself in the shape of a little book which has issued from the publishing house of Franz Duncker, in Berlin, entitled, “ Correspondence and Conversations of Alexander von Humboldt with a Young Friend." The author does not give his name, but intimates, however, sufficiently that this may readily be ascertained by means of inquiry. But it matters little, in reality, so far as the writing is concerned, who the author may be; the information given is fully satisfying, that in the year 1848 he lived as a student in Berlin, and is now living in England as a private citizen. The book contains several letters of Humboldt's, of no special interest, its chief contents consisting of notes of a limited number of visits and conversations, scattered over a period of nine years.

Humboldt, who, according to his own statement, wrote some three thousand letters in the course of a year, and from day to day learned to know any quantity of strange faces, may here be seen pictured forth from the cir. cumstances thus related, in a most wonderfully happy manner. The world must be full of people who have had correspondence with and stood with him in verbal intercourse.

Without doubt, out of the collections of a few only here in Berlin, one could bring together thick volumes which would contain by far more interesting things than have thus far been made known. A perfect food of letters and remembrances were easily to be imagined, if all portfolios were to open themselves, by which the few pages which here form the topic of conversation must needs be quite submerged; meanwhile, until this takes place, let them ever henceforward be permitted to have a claim as aids to a knowledge of the great man, to point out a new side of his nature, or, if this will already pass as known, to bring some beautiful evidence of his manner, as it unfolds itself.

* It is a current belief in Germany that the under-officers of the Government are uni. versally reliable and trustworthy, and that the most implicit confidence may be placed both in their words and actions, and consequently that no police are needed to watch their move. ments.-- Translatur.

« הקודםהמשך »