* Polyglot poems
|LIFE OF CARDINAL MEZZOFANTI|
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An American gentleman whom I met one day in the Cardinal's ante-chamber, showed me an impromptu English couplet which his eminence had just written for him, on his asking for some memorial of their interview. I am not able now to recall this distich to memory ; but it is only one of numberless similar tokens which the Cardinal presented to his visitors and friends. One of his favourite amusements consisted in improvising little scraps of verse in various languages, for the most part embodying some pious or moral sentiment, which he flung off with the rapidity of thought, and without the slightest effort. Few of those which I have seen, indeed, can be said to exhibit much poetical genius. There is but little trace of imagination in them, and the sentiments, though excellent, are generally commonplace enough. But while, considered as a test of command over the languages in which they are written, even the most worthless of them cannot be regarded as insignificant, there are many of them which are very prettily turned, and display no common power of versification.
It is difficult to recover scraps like these, fragmentary of their own nature, and scattered over every country of the earth. I have sought in vain for oriental specimens, although the Cardinal distributed numbers of them to the students of the Propaganda at their leaving college. In a sheet of autographs prefixed to this volume will be found verses in sixteen different languages. A few others are given in the appendix. I shall jot down here two or three speciments of his classical epigrams which have fallen in my way.
Most of them arose out of the very circumstance of his being asked for such a token of remembrance.
For instance, on one occasion when the request was addressed to him in Greek, he wrote :
So again, when a visitor begged him to write his name in an album, he gave, instead, this pretty couplet.
On being presented on New Year's day with a pair of spectacles by his friend, Dr. Peter Trombetti, of Bologna, he wrote :—
To another of his Bolognese friends, the Canonico Tartaglia, now rector of the Pontifical seminary, who begged some memorial, he sent the following pretty-epigram :—
Any one who has ever tried to turn a verse in any foreign tongue, will agree with me in regarding the rapidity with which these trifles were written, as one of the most curious evidences of the writer's mastery over the many languages in which he is known to have indulged this fancy. The really pretty Dutch verses—verses as graceful in sentiment as they are elegant in language—in reply to Dr. "Wap's address, were penned in Dr. Wap's presence and with great rapidity. Father Legrelle's Flemish verses were dashed off with equal quickness. The American of whom I spoke told me that the Cardinal wrote almost without a moment's thought. It was the same for the lady mentioned by Dr. Wap, although the subject of these verses arose during the interview ; and even the Persian stanza which he wrote for Dr. Tholuck, and which "contained several pretty enqumhseis cost him only about half an hour ! How many of those who consider themselves most perfect in French, Italian, or German, have ever ventured even upon a single line of poetry in any of them ?
I must not omit another circumstance which I myself observed, and which struck me forcibly as illustrating the singular nicety of his ear, and still more the completeness with which he threw himself into all the details of every language which he cultivated ;—I mean his manner and accent in pronouncing Latin in conversation with natives of different countries. One day I was speaking to him in company with Guido Gorres, when he had occasion to quote to me Horace's line.
" Or, as you would say :
introducing into it every single characteristic of the German manner of pronouncing the Latin language. I have heard the same from other foreigners. It was amusing, too, to observe that he had taken the trouble to note and to acquire the peculiar expletive or interjectional sounds, with which, as it is well known, natives of different countries unconsciously interlard their conversation, and the absence or misuse
of which will sometimes serve to discover the foreign origin of one who seems to speak a language with every refinement of
correctness. The Englishman's "ah !" the Frenchman's " oh !" the whistling interjection of the Neapolitan, the grunt of the Turk, the Spaniard's nasal twang—were all at his command.
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