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Chambers, William / Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 453 Volume 18, New Series, September 4, 1852


No. 453. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 1852. PRICE 1-1/2_d._


Occupied as most of us are with our respective worldly concerns, and
accustomed to see the routine of common events going on smoothly from
age to age, we are little apt to reflect on natural events of a
tremendous character, which modern science shews might possibly
happen, and that on any day of any year. We think of the land as a
firm and solid thing--as _terra firma_, in short--not recollecting
that geology shews how it may rise or sink, so as to pass into new
relations to the enveloping sea; how it may be raised, for instance,
to such an extent as to throw every port inland, or so far lowered as
to submerge the richest and most populous regions. No doubt, the
relations of sea and land have been much as they are during historical
time; but it is at the same time past all doubt, that the last great
geological event, in respect of most countries known, was a
submergence which produced the marine alluvial deposits; and when we
find that Scandinavia is slowly but steadily rising in some parts at
this moment, and that a thousand miles of the west coast of South
America rose four feet in a single night only thirty years ago, we
cannot feel quite assured, that the agencies which produced that
submergence, and the subsequent re-emergence, are at an end. We
likewise forgot, in these cool districts of the earth, that we are not
quite beyond the hazard of subterranean fire. There are numberless
extinct volcanoes in both Britain and France; there are some on the
banks of the Rhine; indeed, they are thick-sown everywhere. Now, an
extinct volcano is not quite so safe a neighbour as many may suppose.
Vesuvius was an extinct volcano from time immemorial till the year 63,
when it suddenly broke out again, and soon after destroyed Pompeii and
Herculaneum; since which time it has never again subsided into entire
inactivity. Suppose Arthur's Seat, which is 'within a mile of
Edinburgh town,' were to recommence business in like manner, we should
like to know at how many years' purchase house property in that
beautiful New Town would be selling next day. Yet what is there about
an old volcano here more than an old volcano in Italy, to give
assurance that its means of annoyance and destruction are absolutely

There is, however, in the showings of science, a more serious danger
than any of these. Comets were once regarded as most terrific objects,
but only in a superstitious way, perplexing nations with fear of
change, and shaking pestilence from their horrid hair. During an
intermediate enlightened time, these notions passed away; and we have
even come to think, that such a visitant of our skies may exercise a
beneficial influence. We at least recollect when old gentlemen, after
dinner, brightened up at the mention of 'claret 1811,' merrily
attributing the extraordinary merits of the liquor to the comet of
that year. But comets, in the cool eye of modern science, are not
without their terrors. Crossing as they often do the paths of the
planets in their progress to and from their perihelia, it cannot but
be that they should now and then come in contact with one of these
spheres. One, called Lexell's, did come athwart the satellites of
Jupiter in 1769, and once again in 1779, so as to be deranged in its
own course. It made, indeed, no observable change in the movements of
the Jovian train, being of too light a consistence for that; but can
we doubt, that it might nevertheless seriously affect the condition of
their surfaces, and especially any animal life existing thereon? This
very comet, on the 28th of June 1770, passed the earth at a distance
only six times that of the moon. There is another called Biela's,
which revisits the sun every six years, or a little more; and this
busy traveller actually crossed our orbit in 1832, only a month before
we passed through the same point in space! Another, which made a grand
appearance in the western sky in March 1843, would have involved us in
its tail, if we had been only a _fortnight_ earlier at a particular
place! Rather fine shaving that in the celestial economics. Now, if we
consider that as many as eight comets have been observed
telescopically in a single year (1846), we must see that the chance of
a collision of this kind is not quite so small as to be unworthy of
regard. If it be true that there are thousands of comets, all of which
make periodical visits to the near neighbourhood of the sun, it must
be evident that the earth, being itself not far, comparatively
speaking, from that luminary, must be rather liable as otherwise to a
brush from one of these wanderers; and, indeed, the wonder is, that
several thousand years should have passed without, so far as we know,
any one such collision having taken place.

Seeing what a highly-organised system is formed by the physical and
organic arrangements upon our planet, one is apt to think that the
scheme of Providence must have been framed with a provision for the
complete exclusion of such accidents. To allow of the sudden undoing
of all this fair scene, which it has taken thousands of years to bring
out in its full proportions, seems like a wanton destruction of
valuable property, and we are not disposed to believe that such a
thing could be permitted. But we must at the same time remember, that
our sense of what is important and consequential has a regard to the
earth alone, which is but a trifling atom in the universe. Who can
tell what are the limits which the Master of worlds has set to mundane
calamity? And assuredly, even though a whole solar system were here
and there, now and then, to be remodelled in respect of all such
arrangements as have been spoken of, it could not be supposed to be a
very great event in the progress of the entire scheme, seeing that
astronomy has taught us to regard such systems as no more than
particles in the dust-cloud or grains of sand on the sea-shore. It
must, then, in sober reasoning be admitted, that our mere abhorrence
of so much destruction is no guidance to our judgment on this point;
and that for anything we can see of the plans of Providence, an
entanglement of our globe with a comet may take place any day, with
consequences incalculably damaging for the meantime, though not
conclusively destructive, and perhaps necessary as a step towards an
improved system of things--the bringing in of what Ben Jonson calls
'an age of better metal.'

In the frame of mind which these speculations induce--not very greatly
alarmed about such extraordinary contingencies, yet not insensible to
the solemnity of the thought of what may come to pass even before our
living eyes--it is curious, and not necessarily unpleasant, to
consider what might be the actual phenomena attending a cometary
collision. We know not what comets are composed of, but are certain
that they consist of some palpable matter, however diffused, for they
observe the rules of motion in their revolutions round the sun. On the
whole, the most plausible supposition as to their composition, is that
which regards them as watery vapour or cloud, of great tenuity. How
like, for example, to the doings of a cloud, is the splitting into
two, which has been occasionally observed in them! Well, if they be
clouds, the coming of one into contact with our earth would most
likely deposit with us an immense addition to our stock of water. It
would be instantaneous, or nearly so. Only think of a sudden fall of
water sufficient to raise the ocean a hundred feet, and submerge all
parts of the land which were less than that height above the present
level of the sea! There would, of course, be a fearful abridgment of
our continents; all big islands would be made little; and many littler
ones would cease to be. The surviving lands would be so swept by the
flood, that scarcely any of the present features would remain
unchanged. All animals and movable things would be engulfed. In a few
minutes, this brawling, chattering, bustling world would be stilled in
universal death. What a settlement of 'questions' there! What a strike
of work! What a command of Silence!

A board of bank directors was hesitating about a bill for L.100, some
thinking it rather indifferent paper, others viewing it more
favourably; when down comes the cometic flood, and while the manager
rings his bell to see what is the matter, it enters by doors and
windows, and in an instant closes the whole concern. A criminal court
was sitting in expectation of the return of the jury with their
verdict. There was one thinking that death may not be far from his
door, and a hundred pitying him in the contrast of their own assurance
from the imminent foe, when lo! the flood, and judges, jury, criminal,
and sympathising audience, are all instantly on a level. A sanitary
commission was deliberating on impediments to the bringing in of fresh
and the taking away of foul water, and wondering if there ever would
be a body of their denomination which could do anything it wished to
do for the benefit of a mild, expectant, inactive, suffering public.
The comet pours in its fresh water on the instant, and the whole
difficulties of the case are at once resolved. A synod had been called
to consider some nice point, hardly palpable to common understandings,
but which everybody thought a very important point notwithstanding,
and three gentlemen speaking at once to contrary purposes were about
to be interrupted by a fourth of a different opinion still, when enter
comet--a real Moderator--and at one stroke decides what poor mankind
had been wrangling about for centuries, and what, to all appearance,
but for this 'redding straik,' they would have wrangled about for
centuries to come. Lord Augustus Anser had demanded satisfaction of
the Honourable Mr Pavo for an injurious remark, and they were
proceeding by railway to make a deadly end of it, when, lo! the comet
dashes in like an undesired train from a siding, and quashes one of
the prettiest quarrels which has happened for a twelvemonth. There was
an unpleasant dispute with America about a herring-barrel, and barrels
of a different kind were likely to be resorted to to settle it. The
Admiralty was all astir as to how many vessels it might be necessary
to set afloat for the business. Brother Jonathan was calculating what
could be made of the crisis in working out the election of a
president. The comet takes upon itself to set the whole naval force of
both countries afloat--the 'origo mali' too--and at the same time to
countermand the presidential election. So that matter passes. Another
president was on the point of electing himself emperor--a loving pair
was about to be wed--the Court of Chancery was just commencing a
career of reform--a new author was starting into fame with the most
brilliant novel of the season--when the comet thwarts every hope.
Lloyd's had never calculated on such an accident. On 'Change, if there
had been time for a moment's remark, it would have been regarded as a
most unheard-of thing. The life-assurance companies, having in their
tables made no allowance for such a contingency, would have been
ruined by so many policies 'emerging' (oh, word of mockery!) at once,
had it not been that there were no survivors to claim the various
amounts. Debts, bonds, contracts, obligations of all kinds, in like
manner were absolved by the comet, and Creation itself left to open a
new score in, it is to be hoped, a less blotted book.

Considered as a reform, our possible event must be viewed with great
interest. The patriot's heart is broken, in the ordinary current of
things, by the passive resistance he meets with from the great, inert
mass of prejudice and contrary interest. His most generous views are
thwarted by thousands of accidents which there was no foreseeing when
he put the affair down on paper. Tories hate and scandalise him;
despots put him in prison; he only can bequeath his scheme to be
wrought out by the happy man of a happier age. Here, however, comes me
in a besom which sweeps all the old peccant institutions away at one
whisk. Church and state are severed, and for ever. The Holy Alliance
against the liberties of mankind is broken up--the pomp and corruption
of courts is annihilated--bribery and bigotry are no more. What a
clean sweep!--how hopeless reaction! Surely the most extravagant views
of the Destructives must be gratified and contented at last.

If the event shall ever happen, it cannot be doubted that the present
Mankind will leave many interesting memorials of themselves and their
progress for the examination of a new race, should such ever arise.
When the geologist of the after-world begins his work--who can tell
how many hundreds of thousands of years hence?--he will find, over all
our stratification and palæontology, a DRIFT containing the remains of
the ancient human species--here a _tibia_ of a stockbroker, there the
skull of a poet--here a lady's dressing-case in a fossilised state,
there a gentleman's box of cigars: besides all these odds and ends,
there will doubtless be ruins of temples, fortresses, ships,
gin-palaces, and other pertinents of an active, passionate humanity,
the purposes of which will form most curious matter of speculation for
the more angelic species then at last come upon the earth. Nothing in
writing or print will have survived to convey an idea of the state of
our knowledge, or of the attainments of our great writers; but it is
possible that a few inscriptions may be disinterred, and that through
these some glimpses may be obtained of our history, though of a most
detached and confused nature. Probably, the most puzzling thing of all
will be our warlike implements and munitions; for to one who never
thought of harming his neighbour, how incomprehensible must be any
tool designed expressly for that purpose! If the intent of these
articles be penetrated, they will doubtless be ranged in museums as
curious monuments of passions long extinct, just as we see the
instruments of torture used by the Inquisition and other ancient
judicatories hung up in antiquarian collections of our own day.

Well, well, my dear brethren--you have read thus far without, I hope,
being too much distressed by the idea of the physical contingencies to
which it is shewn we are liable. Probably you have, each of you, too
many matters of sore concern pressing closely upon you, to be much
incommoded by possibilities of so infinitesimal a character. It
cannot, nevertheless, be amiss, that you should know these amongst
other things that may any day leap from the laps of the Parcæ, were it
only to expand your souls a little with things superior to the eternal
commonplaces of life. It is, after all, a great thing to be a part of
so great a system as that revealed to us in the external frame of
things, and to feel in what a mighty hand our destiny lies. Even in
the danger of what is here styled a Possible Event, there is a
grandeur--both as to the event itself, and the Power under whose
permission it will, if at all, take place, and our filial relations to
that Power, which never leaves us without hope--which, to a high and
purified mind, must be felt as more than reconciling.


We have been reading with profound interest the life and letters of
one of the great men of Germany, Barthold Niebuhr, published very
recently in an English garb.[1] The original work we have not seen,
but we understand it is about one-third larger than the present
selection, made in a great measure under the auspices of the Chevalier
Bunsen, the friend of Niebuhr, and his immediate successor in the
Prussian embassy to Rome. The interest of the book is, indeed,
principally derived from the private letters of Niebuhr, the greater
part of which were addressed to his early friend, Mme Hensler, whose
younger sister was his first wife, and her niece his second. Most
unfortunately, the valuable series of his letters to his father was
destroyed by fire a short time before his own death; but the account
given of him by Mme Hensler is quite sufficient to connect all that
remains; and from this, and one or two other sources open to us, we
shall try to fill up our present narrative.

Niebuhr is one of those men whose advent forms an era in the history
of human knowledge. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that he was
the first to infuse even into Roman story that element of doubt which
has changed the whole fabric of historical science. If Niebuhr was a
mere sceptic, he would be only the humble follower of Bayle, Lesurgnes
de Pouilly, and other writers of the last century; but his merit lies
in reconstruction--in the jealous care with which he distinguishes
between the true monuments of history and the mass of traditional
rubbish in which they lay entombed. In his Roman history, however,
although by that alone he is known in England, we find only a portion
of the intellectual man: he was learned in the learning of all times,
modern as well as ancient; and yet he was so completely immersed, not
merely as an observer, but as a participator, in the business of the
world and the great events of his own time, that even literature seems
to have been little more than a study indulged in during the pauses of
active life. The history of a mind so vast is by no means, we are
aware, adapted for pages like ours; and yet it seems important--indeed
indispensable--that in a popular journal, flowing on with the spirit
of the age, we should trace some authentic records of the character
and career of the man.

Carsten Niebuhr, the father of the historian, had not the advantages
of early education. He was no more than a free peasant, living on the
marsh-farm in Friesland, which had been possessed by several
generations of his ancestors; but at the age of two-and-twenty he put
himself under mathematical tutorship at Hamburg, and then studied at
Gottingen. He was invited to join a mission which the Danish
government determined to send into Arabia; and the proposal, at first
scarcely made in earnest to the half-educated young farmer, was
accepted by him with eagerness. By a singular fatality, he was the
only one of the travellers sent out on this expedition who returned;
he was absent more than six years, during four of which he was alone,
all his companions being dead. He had added largely to what was
previously known of Egypt; had made scientific observations of great
value in the deserts of Arabia, and undergone prodigious hardships;
but the most remarkable thing was, that his eagerness to fulfil in
some measure the purposes of the expedition, made the whole journey a
work of preparation and study, as well as of actual exploration. In
1773, being then just forty years of age, he married the orphan
daughter of Dr Blumenberg, a Thuringian physician, and lived at
Copenhagen, with the rank of captain of engineers, till the year 1778.
He then removed to Meldorf, a town in the province of Ditmarsch,
Holstein, where he settled for life as collector of the revenues of
the district.

Barthold George Niebuhr was born in Copenhagen on the 27th of August
1776; but with the little old town of Meldorf--once the capital of an
ancient commonwealth--his earliest associations were connected. A kind
of rude equality still reigned in the manners of the rustic
population, which was not likely to be disturbed by the influx of the
world into a bleak and gloomy district remote from the great roads.
Here young Niebuhr grew up a studious and solitary boy; instructed by
his father in French, the rudiments of Latin, and above all, in
geography and history, which the old traveller taught him to
illustrate by maps and plans, and by digging regular fortifications in
the garden. The sheriff of Meldorf, and editor of the _Deutsches
Museum_, a man of both fancy and learning, assisted in this early
education; and the boy--who had never been a child--employed himself,
even at seven years of age, in writing down the instructions he
received. In future years, he regretted his having thus 'lost the life
of a child.' 'I found matter for my childish fancy only in books,
engravings, or conversation. I drew into its sphere all I read, and I
read without reason and without aim; but the real world was closed to
me, and I could not conceive or imagine anything which had not been
first conceived or imagined by another.'

From this _second-hand world_ he removed at the age of thirteen, when
he was sent to the school at Meldorf, where the principal, Dr Jäger,
gave him as much attention as he could spare for a pupil, who, though
much the youngest, was the most advanced in the class. Afterwards,
finding it was impossible to do for him what this strange child
required, Dr Jäger advised his removal, and gave him a private lesson
of an hour every day instead. This was continued with only a few
months' interruption and unsuccessful trial of a school at Hamburg,
till Barthold was eighteen, when he was sent to the university of

His interest in politics dated from a very early period. At the age of
eleven, he studied the newspapers, English ones especially, which he
read with ease; and his knowledge of geography enabled him to follow
all the details of a campaign with vivid interest.

His going to the university was an important incident in his life. His
particular vocation, indeed, seems to have been clear enough from even
an earlier period; for though he was a learned linguist, history
especially, and philology, were the pursuits to which his heart was
given. The letters he wrote from Kiel to his parents are amiable, full
of affectionate outpourings about the new men and women to whom he was
introduced, about his studies, and about his theories. He profits by
the kindness of the physician, Dr Hensler, whose house and friendly
advice were always accessible; but he declines evening-parties; and
contemplates the mountain of knowledge, up whose steep sides he has
yet to climb, with profound awe and some anxiety. 'My head swims when
I survey what I have yet to learn--philosophy, mathematics, physics,
chemistry, natural history. Then, too, I must perfect myself in
history, German, and French; study Roman law, and the political
constitutions of Europe, as far as I can, &c.; and all this must be
done within five years at most.... I _must_ know all these things; but
how I shall learn them, Heaven knows! That I shall require them as a
learned man, or in any position I may occupy, I am fully convinced.'

In Dr Hensler's house he saw frequently Mme Hensler, the widow of the
doctor's son. She was six years older than Niebuhr; but to him, unused
to female society, and admitted at once into domestic familiarity with
a sensible and engaging woman, this disparity was nothing--perhaps,
indeed, it added to the charm. From other sources, we learn that he at
first became attached to Mme Hensler herself; but being discouraged as
a lover, allowed her to introduce him to her younger sister, Amelia
Behrens, a beautiful and intellectual woman; and although the
attachment he then formed was not sudden or violent, it became very
profound. After his engagement with this lady in 1797, and before his
marriage, he visited England; and in Scotland--chiefly in
Edinburgh--he spent nearly a year. The account given in his letters of
his sojourn in our capital, would interest and amuse many of its
present inhabitants. The Edinburgh of 1797 was more different
perhaps from its present self in outward things, than in mental
characteristics. His remarks on the want of a more open manifestation
of feeling and affection among his friends there are striking. 'It is
quite a national trait,' he says, 'not to dwell on what concerns us
personally, upon what fills our heart; and it is as unnatural to them
to hear me speak of the topics upon which I am feeling strongly, as it
would be to do the same themselves.... I am far from attributing it to
coldness in these good people. It is altogether national, and it is
the same with every one I have known here, whatever their rank,
calling, learning, or sex. It has quite surprised me, for example,
that if you meet a person in whose family some one has been ill, he
will hardly allude to it, beyond a short answer to your inquiries, or
speak of it with any feeling. In this way, it must be allowed, people
may easily be independent of each other. I believe firmly that the
Scots love their children--that Playfair is a good father; and yet the
former only speak of them because they have them with them in the
evenings, and the boys make their presence known: the latter behaves
exactly as if his boy were not in the room. So far from inviting me to
speak of my relations, so far from Mr Scott making any inquiries as to
my father's position--though he is, nevertheless, as much attached to
him as possible--they have met every attempt on my part to talk to
them on these subjects with a silence which admits of no other
explanation, than that it is not in good taste to say much about these
things. They have never once asked after my mother and sister.' We
have copied the above, because there is no trace in any part of
Niebuhr's writings, former or latter, of narrow national judgments;
and he repeatedly bears testimony to the fatherly kindness with which
he was welcomed, especially in the two houses mentioned in the above
extract. It is simply the sense of a difference, and a difference we
should be inclined to regret as well as he, between the German and the
English or Scotch habit. We shall never forget the earnest, _pained_
manner in which a young German in England once said, when adverting to
the case of some very irreproachable English youths, who yet were
never heard to express a feeling, scarcely to utter a kind thing:
'Your young countrymen seem to me positively _ashamed_ of being good.'

The diligence of Niebuhr, though often impeded by illness, was
immense. Languages, philosophy, history, natural science, all took
their turn. His number of languages was not short of twenty at this
time, and in some he was profoundly versed--in most, very respectably.
But the most remarkable thing through life was his memory, and its
wonderful combination of retentiveness and readiness. This, rather
than the imaginative power, it was that made his descriptions so
graphic. Seeing and retaining everything, he painted as if all history
was before him. When he spoke of a striking event, the coast, the
mountain-line, or the plain, all the accompaniments rose up and were
grouped before him. You felt carried away with him, as if he had lived
there, and was taking you up by the way.

His return to Denmark took place late in 1799. A double appointment
awaited him at Copenhagen--two government offices, neither bringing in
a large salary, but sufficient to allow of his marrying; and
accordingly Amelia Behrens became his wife in May 1800. The five
following years found him engaged in the civil service at
Copenhagen--sometimes in very onerous and uncongenial duties,
sometimes in a position of peril, for the bombardment of the city
under Nelson took place in 1801, and he keenly entered into every
political incident. During this period of five years, his official
service was more than once changed, but it seems always to have been
connected with finance. He still found time for study, straining every
power of his mind, he says, at one time in investigating Roman
history, sure 'that the representations of all the moderns, without
exception, are but mistaken, imperfect glimpses of the truth.' This
Copenhagen life allowed him time but for one visit to his parents; and
a disappointment which annoyed him considerably, in what, he thought,
a just expectation of preferment, disposed him, in 1806, to accept an
offer from the Prussian government of a post at Berlin not unlike that
he had occupied in Copenhagen, but promising many advantages in
society and literary opportunities.

Never was there a more disastrous commencement of a new career. The
Niebuhrs reached Berlin in October 5, 1806, and on the 14th came the
dreadful battles of Jena and Auerstadt, while Napoleon, with his
conquering army, marched rapidly upon the city, and seven of the
Prussian ministers gave in their allegiance to the French without even
the ceremony of communicating with their king. The new bank-director
shared in the general misfortune, and was forced to fly, with the
court and ministry, first to Danzig, then to Konigsberg, afterwards to
Memel and Riga. A fearful time it was; yet still Niebuhr could write
soothingly to his parents: 'You must not be uneasy: I can earn a
living either as a scholar or a merchant; and if I do not succeed in
one country, I shall in another.' To Mme Hensler also he wrote
cheeringly, but under caution, for all letters were unsafe. In the
meantime, the indefatigable student took the opportunity of learning
Russian and Sclavonic.

It is difficult to follow out his course distinctly during the next
three and a half trying years. He was always employed in the finance
department, and for some little time was a privy-councillor; but he
differed widely in his views from some of those with whom he worked.
His letters shew the most conscientious desire to put aside every
thought of personal ease, and to avert from the poor people around, if
possible, some part of the calamity which hostile armies and bad
government entailed on them; and it is delightful to observe his
perfect honesty and plainness of speech as a statesman--his high ideas
of truthfulness in all things. Yet they were mournful years; and his
health at last thoroughly failing, he sent in his resignation to the
king of Prussia, and solicited the office of historiographer, vacant
by the death of Müller. This was granted; and in 1810, he and his wife
once more found a settled home at Berlin.

And now came the happiest time of his life; though the great delicacy
of his wife's health was an obstacle to the feeling of security, and
though still the menaces of Napoleon sounded fearfully loud, if not
close at hand. The breathing-time, however, was delightful. The
university of Berlin was now just opened, and thither came intelligent
professors, men of renown in art and science, in knowledge and wisdom.
As historiographer to the king, Niebuhr's part was to lecture on
history; and now, for the first time, the treasures he had long been
amassing came into direct use as the means, through his management, of
instructing other minds. He had never before delivered public
lectures, and his advantages in manner were not great; but the success
of his first essays on the history of Rome, proves how solid and real
must have been the information he had to bestow. He was attended not
merely by the young men, but by members of the academy, by professors,
by military and public men of all grades. It is no wonder that he
succeeded thus: he was half a Roman by nature and feeling.

So passed the happy years of his professorship. But again the noise of
war was heard, and he and all his coadjutors had to take up arms, and
fight the battle of Prussia against the great tyrant of Europe. Most
touching anecdotes are told of the bravery and fine behaviour of the
native troops. Perhaps no war was ever more nobly sustained, and with
such anxious avoidance of cruelty. What a moment it was to Prussia
when the news of Bonaparte's abdication reached the country! when
there might be some hope of reaping the harvests they had sown, and
rebuilding their ruined villages! But the Niebuhrs were never again to
know the calm and happy days they had enjoyed. Mme Niebuhr, who had
long been declining, was grievously changed for the worse by the
anxieties of the war. On the 2d of May 1815, her husband received at
Berlin news of his father's death; and on the 21st of June, his
beloved Amelia followed. The good Mme Hensler, who had taken alarm,
was near to soothe her last hours, and to comfort the husband. Niebuhr
had never spoken to his wife of her approaching end: though longing to
know her parting wishes, he dared not break the physician's orders
against excitement. Once only, a few days before her death, as he was
holding her in his arms, he asked her if there was nothing he could do
for her sake--no pleasure he could give her. She replied, with a look
of unutterable love: 'You shall finish your history whether I live or

They had no family--he was therefore left alone. At first, nature gave
way, and it seemed as if he had imbibed his wife's disease--pulmonary
consumption--and that he regarded the legacy as a blessing; but his
higher nature triumphed. He promised Mme Hensler to live, and try to
accomplish his Amelia's wishes, and she, by her kindly influence, won
him to something more. She saw that to him a lonely life was nearly
impossible, and she had another partner in store for him--Gretchen
Hensler, a niece of her late husband. Again he took her counsel; and
again, which is perhaps the most extraordinary part of the affair, it
proved that she had judged as well for both parties as possible. There
was no concealment in the matter; the new Mme Niebuhr perfectly
understood his character and his sorrow--understood that she could not
be to him what Amelia had been; but she married him in faith and hope,
and the life she brought him was peaceful and ultimately happy.

Then another change had to be made. He could no longer bear Berlin.
Every one saw that a different position was desirable, and what better
than a residence in that country which his literary labours had seemed
to mark out as his own? The king of Prussia wanted an ambassador at
Rome, to negotiate with the pope certain matters touching the
interests of his Catholic subjects, and Niebuhr's appointment was the
most natural one possible.

His first impressions of Rome were not favourable, and his first
letter was even querulous; but soon his clear single mind grew strong
again; and the spirit of his correspondence during the whole seven
years of his Roman residence is delightful. Children brought out the
fatherly part of his character; his wife was ever his loving and
devoted companion; some powerful and interesting minds sought his
companionship; and a taste for art was improved by intercourse with
the rising young artists who were then at Rome--Cornelius, Overbeck,
Schadow; but, above all, the education of Marcus, his eldest child and
only boy, who can wonder if he became more and more of a Roman, and if
he closed the seventh year of his residence mournfully when preparing
for his return to Germany?

His mission had been a difficult one--not that the papal court was
unfriendly, but the home instructions were not always clear and
consistent. An earnest Protestant himself, he was yet profoundly alive
to the duties of rulers towards all their subjects, of all religious
beliefs, and wished in every negotiation to make sure of a large
measure of real freedom.

When at length the concordatives were agreed to, he was anxious for a
recall, on account, chiefly, of the delicate state of Mme Niebuhr's
health; but for this he had some little time to wait. It is
interesting to see the manner in which he was affected by the passing
events of this time.

'Idle talk,' says M. Bunsen, 'on matters of lofty import, and a
dwelling with pleasure upon trifling topics, were equally abhorrent to
him. I shall never forget how Niebuhr spoke at a princely table in
Rome, during the bloody scenes in Greece, of Suli and the Suliots, and
the future of the Christian Hellenes, in much the same terms as he has
spoken to posterity in a passage of his Roman history, which breathes
a noble indignation, and a sense that the brand of infamy still
cleaves to us. The prince, a high-minded, amiable, and intelligent
man, listened, as did his guests, with attention and sympathy; a
serious mood seemed to come over the whole party; a pause occurred.
One of the guests, a diplomatist, of Mephistophelian aspect and
species, took advantage of it to turn the conversation. One of the
eternally repeated trifles of the day--a so-called piece of news that
must be repeated to the prince--was skilfully used as a
stepping-stone; and in ten minutes, the whole table was alive with a
dispute between the spokesman and another person who had contradicted
him on a most important point--what "aurora" signified in the slang of
the Roman coffeehouses, whether a mixture of chocolate with coffee or
not. Niebuhr was silent. At last, with quiet earnestness and
dignified mien, he spoke these words: "What heavy chastisements must
be still in store for us, when, in such times, and with such events
still occurring around us, we can be entertained with such miserable
trifles!" All were mute, and Niebuhr also. A long pause ensued; and
the mysteries of the Caffé Nuovo were not mentioned again that day.'

The life which Niebuhr led after returning to Germany, was not
remarkable as to incident, but it abounded in useful and noble
pursuit. He still shunned Berlin; and, on the whole, the university of
Bonn appeared to him as the best and most suitable residence for the
family, now consisting of five children. He did not take any actual
professorship, but he lectured and he wrote. Here he became the centre
of a circle of the highest minds of Germany. All prized him; all,
young and old, felt the benefit of his presence, his labours, and
example. He regularly worked at the history of Rome; but he cultivated
his garden, taught and played with his children, and built himself a
house. The time was not all passed at Bonn; in 1829, the family
visited Holstein and Mme Hensler. A twelve years' absence had produced
many alterations, but the love of country and early home was wrought
into Niebuhr's heart, and he enjoyed this renewal of youth. A sad
calamity, however, awaited him at Bonn. On the night of February the
6th 1830, the new house he had built with such pleasure and care, was
burnt completely down. Very little could be saved--excepting, indeed,
that the books, being the first object to which his neighbours were
attracted when the family were rescued, were for the most part
preserved, and also the manuscript of the second volume of his Roman
history. The whole correspondence with his father, and many other
letters and papers, were destroyed.

This event, though a great shock, he bore with much calmness, and set
himself to restore what was lost. Foreign politics did not lose their
interest; on the contrary, the French Revolution of 1830 excited all
his ardour. At first, he was alarmed, anticipating fresh horrors; but
the welcome he gave to Louis-Philippe was most enthusiastic. Dr Arnold
describes him as being made quite happy by this turn of the page of
present life, and deeply indignant with the Bourbon ministers. His
ardour in this cause was indeed the immediate occasion of his fatal
illness; for while the French trials were pending, he would go every
evening, through severe cold, in the depth of winter, to the
news-rooms, and by this exposure caught the inflammatory cold of which
he died. On the evening of Christmas-day 1830, this formidable attack
began; and on the 1st of January 1831, the excellent man breathed his
last, fully conscious of his impending fate, and not less so of that
of his beloved partner, who had nursed him during the first two days,
but was afterwards too ill to leave her bed. When her husband was
informed of this, he turned his face to the wall, and was heard to
murmur: 'Hapless house! to lose father and mother at once!' Then,
'Pray to God, children; He alone can help us'--and his attendants saw
that he himself was seeking comfort in prayer. Poor Mme Niebuhr
survived him but nine days. She had her children with her, and tried
to give them counsel; but the shock had been too great for her broken
health; she rests in the same grave with him, not far from the
glorious river. The king of Prussia erected a monument to his honour.

Niebuhr was only a few months more than fifty-four. Mrs Austin, who
saw him in 1828, says: 'His person was diminutive, almost to meanness,
but his presence very imposing. His head and eye were grand, austere,
and commanding.

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Library mainpage -> Chambers, William -> Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 453 Volume 18, New Series, September 4, 1852