Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 2, January 1836, 2:126-127


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Reminiscences of an Intercourse with Mr. Niebuhr, the Historian, during a Residence with him in Rome, in the years 1822 and 1823. By Francis Lieber, Professor of History and Political Economy in South Carolina College. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard.

Mr. Niebuhr has exercised a very powerful influence on the spirit of his age. One of the most important branches of human science has received, not only additional light, but an entirely novel interest and character from his exertions. Those historiographers of Rome who wrote before him, were either men of insufficient talents, or, possessing talents, were not practical statesmen. Niebuhr is the only writer of Roman history who unites intellect of a high order with the indispensable knowledge of what may be termed the art, in contradistinction to the science, of government. While, then, we read with avidity even common-place memorials of common-place men, (a fact strikingly characteristic of a period not inaptly denominated by the Germans “the age of wigs,”) it cannot be supposed that a book like the one now before us, will fail to make a deep impression upon the mind of the public.

Beyond his Roman History, our acquaintance extends to only one or two of Mr. Niebuhr’s publications. We remember the Life of his Father, of which an English translation was printed some time ago, in one of the tracts of the Library of Useful Knowledge, issued under the direction of the Society for the diffusion of Useful Knowledge — and, we have seen The Description of the City of Rome (one volume of it) which appeared in 1829 or ’30, professedly by Bunsen and Platner, but in the getting up of which there can be no doubt of Mr. Niebuhr’s having had the greater share. The Representation of the Internal Government of Great Britain, by Baron Von Vincke, Berlin, 1815, was also written, most probably, by Mr. N. who, however, announced himself as editor alone. “I published,” says he, in the Reminiscences we are now reviewing, “I published the work on Great Britain after that unfortunate time when a foreign people ruled over us (Germans) with a cruel sword, and a heartless bureaucracy, in order to show what liberty is. Those who oppressed us called themselves all the time the harbingers of liberty, at the very moment they sucked the heart blood of our people; and we wanted to show what liberty in reality is.” A translation of an Essay on the Allegory in the first canto of Dante, written by our historian during his perusal of the poet, and intended to be read, or perhaps actually read, in one of the learned societies of Rome, is appended to the present volume. Mr. L. copied it, by permission of the author, from the original in Italian, which was found in a copy of Dante belonging to Mr. Niebuhr. This Essay, we think, will prove of deeper interest to readers of Italian than even Mr. Lieber has anticipated. Its opinions differ singularly from those of all the commentators on Dante — the most of whom maintain that the wood (la selva) in this famous Allegory, should be understood as the condition of the human soul, shrouded in vice; the hill (il colle) encircled by light, but difficult of access, as virtue; and the furious beasts (il fere) which attack the poet in his attempt at ascending, as carnal sins — an interpretation, always putting us in mind of the monk in the Gesta Romanorum, who, speaking of the characters in the Iliad, says — “My beloved, Ulysses is Christ, and Achilles the Holy Ghost: Helen represents the Human Soul — Troy is Hell — and Paris the Devil.”

Dr. Francis Lieber himself is well known to the American public as the editor of the Encyclop;aedia Americana, in which compilation he was assisted by Edward Wigglesworth, and T. G. Bradford, Esqrs. The first original work of our author, we believe, was called Journal of my Residence in Greece, and was issued at Leipzig in 1823. This book was written at the instigation of Mr. Niebuhr, who personally superintended the whole; Mr. L. reading to the historian and his wife, every morning at breakfast, what had been completed in the preceding afternoon. Since that period we have seen, from the same pen, only The Stranger in America, in two volumes, full of interest and extensively circulated — and the book whose title forms the heading of this article.

Not the least striking portion of this latter work, is its Preface, embracing forty-five pages. Niebuhr’s noble nature is, herein, rendered hardly more apparent than the mingled simplicity and enthusiasm of his biographer. The account given by Mr. L. of his first introduction to the Prussian minister — of the perplexing circumstances which led to that introduction — of his invitation to dinner, and consequent embarrassment on account of his scanty nether habiliments — of his final domestication in the house of his patron, and of the great advantages accruing to himself therefrom — are all related without the slightest attempt at prevarication, and in a style of irresistibly captivating bonhommie and näiveté.

Mr. Lieber went, in 1821, to Greece — led, as he himself relates, “by youthful ardor, to assist the oppressed and struggling descendants of that people, whom all civilized nations love and admire.” With a thousand others, he was disappointed in the hope of rendering any assistance to the objects of his sympathy. He found it impossible either to fight, or to get a dinner — either to live or to die. In 1822, therefore he resolved, with many other Philhellenes, to return. Money, however, was scarce, and the adventurer had sold nearly every thing he possessed — but to remain longer was to starve. He accordingly “bargained with a Greek,” and took passage at Missolonghi (Messalunghi) in a small vessel bound for Ancona. After a rough passage, during which the “tartan” was forced to seek shelter in the bay of Gorzola, the wished-for port was finally reached. Here, being altogether without money, Mr. Lieber wrote to a friend in Rome, enclosing the letter to an eminent artist. “My friend,” says Mr. L. “happened to be at Rome, and to have money, and with the promptness of a German student, sent me all he possessed at the time.” This assistance came very seasonably. It enabled the Philhellenist to defray the expenses of his quarantine at Ancona. Had he failed in paying them, the Captain would have been bound for the sum, and Mr. L. would have been obliged finally to discharge the debt, by serving as a sailor on board the Greek vessel.

Having, at length, obtained his pratica, he determined upon visiting Rome; and the anxiety with which he appears to have contemplated the defeat of his hopes in this respect is strikingly characteristic of the man. His passport was in bad order, and provisional, and he had to make his way with it through the police office at Ancona. He was informed too, that orders had been received from Rome forbidding the signature of passports in the possession of persons coming from Greece, except for a direct journey home. “You are a Prussian,” said the officer, “and I must direct your passport home to Germany. I will direct it to Florence: your minister there may direct it back to Rome. Or I will direct it to any place in Tuscany which you may choose; for through Tuscany you must travel in order to reach Germany.” Mr. L. assures us he never felt more wretched than on hearing this announcement. He had made his way round Rome without seeing the Eternal City. The examination of a map of Italy, however, gave him new hope. It pointed out to him how near the south-western frontier line of Tuscany approaches to Rome. The road from Ancona to Orbitello, he thought, was nearly the same as that to the object of his desires, and he therefore requested the officer to direct his passport to Orbitello. “Italians generally,” says Mr. Lieber, “are exceedingly poor geographers.” The gentleman whom he addressed, inquired of another in the adjoining room, whether Orbitello was in Tuscany, or belonged to the Papal territory. Mr. L. pointed out the place on the map: it was situated just within the colors which distinguished Tuscany from the other states of Italy. This satisfied the police, and the passport was made out.

Having hired a vetturino our traveller proceeded towards Orbitello. A few miles beyond Nepi, at the Colonneta, the road divides, and the coachman was desired to pursue the path leading to Rome. A bribe silenced all objections, and when near the city, Mr. L. jumped out of the carriage, and entered the Porta del Populo.

But it was impossible to dwell in Rome without the sanction of the police, and this sanction could not be obtained without a certificate from the Prussian minister that our friend’s passport was in order. Mr. Lieber therefore “hoping that a scholar who had written the history of Rome could not be so cruel as to drive away thence a pilgrim without allowing him time to see and study it,” resolved on disclosing his situation frankly to Mr. Niebuhr.

The Prussian minister resided at the Palazzo Orsini — he was engaged and could not be seen — but the secretary of the legation received the visiter kindly, and having learned his story, retired to an inner apartment. Soon afterwards he returned with a paper written in Mr. Niebuhr’s own hand. It was the necessary permission to reside in Rome. A sum of money was at the same time presented to Mr. L. which the secretary assured him was part of a sum Prince Henry (brother to the reigning king,) had placed at the minister’s disposal for the assistance of gentlemen who might return from Greece. Mr. L. was informed also that Niebuhr would see him on the following day. The result of the interview we must give in the words of our author.

When I went the next morning at the appointed time, as I thought, Mr. Niebuhr met me on the stairs, being on the point of going out. He received me with kindness and affability, returned with me to his room, made me relate my whole story, and appeared much pleased that I could give him some information respecting Greece, which seemed to be not void of interest to him. Our conversation lasted several hours, when he broke off, asking me to return to dinner. I hesitated in accepting the invitation, which he seemed unable to understand. He probably thought that a person in my situation ought to be glad to receive an invitation of this kind; and, in fact any one might feel gratified in being asked to dine with him, especially in Rome. When I saw that my motive for declining so flattering an invitation was not understood, I said, throwing a glance at my dress, “Really, sir, I am not in a state to dine with an excellency.” He stamped with his foot, and said with some animation, “Are diplomatists always believed to be so cold-hearted! I am the same that I was in Berlin when I delivered my lectures; your remark was wrong.”* No argument could be urged against such reasons.

I recollect that dinner with delight. His conversation, abounding in rich and various knowledge and striking observations; his great kindness; the acquaintance I made with Mrs. Niebuhr; his lovely children, who were so beautiful, that when, at a later period, I used to walk with them, the women would exclaim, “Ma guardate, guardate, che angeli!” — a good dinner (which I had not enjoyed for a long time) in a high vaulted room, the ceiling of which was painted in the style of Italian palaces; a picture by the mild Francia close by; the sound of the murmuring fountain in the garden, and the refreshing beverages in coolers, which I had seen, but the day before, represented in some of the most masterly pictures of the Italian schools; — in short, my consciousness of being at dinner with Niebuhr in his house in Rome — and all this in so bold relief to my late and not unfrequently disgusting sufferings, would have rendered the moment one of almost perfect enjoyment and happiness, had it not been for an annoyance which, I have no doubt, will appear here a mere trifle. However, reality often widely differs from its description on paper. Objects of great effect for the moment become light as air, and others, shadows and vapors in reality, swell into matters of weighty consideration when subjected to the recording pen; — a truth, by the way, which applies to our daily life, as well as to transactions of powerful effect; — and it is, therefore, the sifting tact which constitutes one of the most necessary, yet difficult, requisites for a sound historian.

My dress consisted as yet of nothing better than a pair of unblacked shoes, such as are not unfrequently worn in the Levant; a pair of socks of coarse Greek wool; the brownish pantaloons frequently worn by sea-captains in the Mediterranean; and a blue frock-coat, through which two balls had passed — a fate to which the blue cloth cap had likewise been exposed. The socks were exceedingly short, hardly covering my ankles, and so indeed were the pantaloons; so that, when I was in a sitting position, they refused me the charity of meeting, with an obstinacy which reminded me of the irreconcileable temper of the two brothers in Schiller’s Bride of Messina. There happened to dine with Mr. Niebuhr another lady besides Mrs. Niebuhr; and my embarrassment was not small when, towards the conclusion of the dinner, the children rose and played about on the ground, and I saw my poor extremities exposed to all the frank remarks of quick-sighted childhood; fearing as I did, at the same time, the still more trying moments after dinner, when I should be obliged to take coffee near the ladies, unprotected by the kindly shelter of the table. Mr. Niebuhr observed, perhaps, that something embarrassed me, and he redoubled, if possible, his kindness.

After dinner he proposed a walk, and asked the ladies to accompany us. I pitied them; but as a gentleman of their acquaintance had dropped in by this time, who gladly accepted the offer to walk with us, they were spared the mortification of taking my arm. Mr. Niebuhr, probably remembering what I had said of my own appearance in the morning, put his arm under mine, and thus walked with me for a long time. After our return, when I intended to take leave, he asked me whether I wished for any thing. I said I should like to borrow his History. He had but one copy, to which he had added notes, and which he did not wish, therefore, to lend out of his house; but he said he would get a copy for me. As to his other books, he gave me the key of his library to take whatever I liked. He laughed when I returned laden with books, and dismissed me in the kindest manner.

Mr. Lieber became the constant companion of Niebuhr in his daily walks after dinner, during one of which the proposition was discussed to which we have formerly referred — that of our author’s writing an account of his journey in Greece. In March 1823, the minister quitted Rome, and took Mr. Lieber with him to Naples. By way of Florence, Pisa, and Bologna, they afterwards went to the Tyrol — and in Inspruck they parted. A correspondence of the most familiar and friendly nature was, however, kept up, with little intermission, until the death of the historian in 1831. Mr. Lieber disclaims the design of any thing like a complete record of all the interesting or important sentiments of Niebuhr during his own residence with him. He does not profess to give even all the most important facts or opinions. He observes, with great apparent justice, that he lived in too constant a state of excitement to record regularly all he saw or heard. His papers too were seized by the police — and have undergone its criticism. Some have been lost by this process, and others in a subsequent life of wandering. Still we can assure our readers that those presented to us in the present volume, are of the greatest interest. They enable us to form a more accurate idea of the truly great man to whom they relate than we have hitherto entertained, and have moreover, not unfrequently, an interest altogether their own.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page ???:]

* Das war Kleinlich were his words.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (January 1836)