Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/December 1878/Language and the Emotions

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THE following passage in De Quincey's "Walking Stewart" is well worth noticing: "The character of a nation may be judged of in this particular, by examining its idiomatic language. The French, in whom the lower forms of passion are constantly bubbling up from the shallow and superficial character of their feelings, have appropriated all the phrases of passion to the service of trivial and ordinary life, and hence they have no language of passion for the service of poetry, or of occasions really demanding it, for it has been already enfeebled by continual association with cases of an unimpassioned order. But a character of deeper passion has a perpetual standard in itself, by which as by an instinct it tries all cases, and rejects the language of passion as disproportionate and ludicrous where it is not fully justified. 'Ah, Heavens!' or 'O my God!' are exclamations with us so exclusively reserved for cases of profound interest that, on hearing a woman even (i. e., a person of the sex most easily excited) utter such words, we look round expecting to see her child in some situation of danger. But in France, 'Ciel!' and 'O mon Dieu!' are uttered by every woman if a mouse does but run across the floor. The ignorant and the thoughtless, however, will continue to class the English character under the phlegmatic temperament, while the philosopher will perceive that it is the exact polar antithesis to a phlegmatic character."

There is a great amount of truth in this passage. The too frequent use of strong language may indurate and blunt our feelings, as excessive indulgence in alcoholic stimulants deadens the sensibility of our palate. And there can hardly be a doubt but that the frequent use of words disproportionate in their strength to the thoughts and feelings in whose connection they are used has detracted from the original strength of the French language. Naturally the strongest word ought to be used to give expression to the strongest feeling. But strong words have been so blunted through frequent use that they have lost their sharp edge, and pass over our thick skin without even pricking our sensibility; while, at moments when we expect a heavy blow, the light tickling of the socially polite feather may far more vividly stimulate our sensibility. It may be said that this disparate use of words is the essence of sarcasm, and that sarcasm is naturally strong. But the use of sarcasm itself indicates an abnormal state of mind, and its frequent cultivation during a certain epoch, or in a certain country, is almost an infallible symptom of disease in some quarter. When polite and otherwise weak words are used in a powerful context, it is almost invariably a sign of over-frequent and hackneyed use of strong words. There are many instances of this in France. Among them let us examine one of recent date and of great interest, because of its publicity and because of its author—the most powerful writer of the age. Of all Victor Hugo's writings this letter is one of the most characteristic specimens; not because of the strong words of which it consists, but, on the contrary, because of the colloquial, polite phraseology with which it begins, on an occasion when one would rightly expect the words which are used when—a stray dog has sprinkled a drop of mud on our newly-blacked boots.

"Monsieur: Vous faites une imprudence." (We expected an outburst of deeply-felt passion.). . . ."Tout cela a été dit. Je n'y insiste pas. Je dédaigne un peu les choses inutiles.

"Vous insultez Voltaire, et vous me faites l'honneur de m'injurier. C'est votre affaire.

"Nous sommes, vous et moi, deux hommes quelconque. L'avenir jugera. Vous dites que je suis vieux, et vous me faites entendre que vous êtes jeune. Je le crois.

"Le sens moral est encore si peu formé chez vous, que vous me faites 'une honte' de ce qui est mon honneur.

"Vous prétendez, monsieur, me faire la leçon. De quel droit? Qui êtes-vous? Aliens au fait. Le fait le voici: Qu'est-ce que c'est que votre conscience, et qu'est-ce que c'est que la mienne?


"Un rapprochement suffira," etc[1]

And now he launches into a grand and dignified comparison, in which the words used are quite adequate to the weight of the feelings expressed.

No doubt there are other elements which contribute their share to make this letter so strong in style: as, for example, the great crescendo of the whole, which gradually and with a continual bridling in shows us the growing speed and bulk of his feelings, until they burst forth in grandeur. Then, again, we feel that the person who wrote this is on the one hand a man of the world, who can constrain passionate outbursts, and this prepares us for the subsequent great effect when his passion is let loose; for the man of the world is not the man of the street, who uses weighty language for light occasions. On the other hand, we hardly need fear, with Victor Hugo, that we may find the "typical" man of the world who has lost all power of passion in habitually repressing it; and we are prepared to receive the full meaning of deep words when they come.

However, the passage exemplifies what I mean. Instead of the word "imprudence," we expect something meaning unworthy, immoral action, or insolence. Instead of "un peu," we expect "profondément," etc. It will be seen that the whole beginning is in a tone of lightness which we would almost expect to notice in two gentlemen conversing in some public place quite simply, though without smiling. Still the essence which underlies the form is intensely passionate.

The reaction against this abuse of strong language may lead, on the one hand, to this disproportionate use of lighter words, or, on the other hand, to a return to coarseness. In coarseness there is still an element of strength; the terse monosyllable which Bayard gave as a retort to the summons of surrender is an instance. Had he said, "Après vous, messieurs!" it would almost have been equally strong. The coarseness of some of the earlier English novelists, I think, was chiefly a reaction against the French manners of former periods. In my limited personal experience, I have found that many young men, who had spent their days with the ideal of "good form " before them, have taken a childlike delight in using vulgar language when free from restraint.

Language is to a certain extent an indicator of national character. But we must not be led to a one-sided statement of the case. There is an abuse, as well in the neglect or disuse of words expressive of feeling as in the too facile application of such words. And I believe that there is a faulty implication in De Quincey's remark quoted above, especially in its application to the English character—the implication, namely, that, where there is no verbal demonstration of feeling, we may infer a greater depth of feeling. In fact, one frequently hears this asserted, and the proverb, "Still waters run deep," has contributed to confirm such a belief. But this must not be hastily accepted. I believe that it is the extreme and just opposition against the equally faulty assertion that, where there is no demonstrative feeling, there is no feeling whatever. Falsehood, luckily, is not the normal manner of expression, notwithstanding the proposition that "la parole a été donné, à l’homme pour cacher sa pensée;"[2] and therefore I am inclined to believe that, cæteris paribus, feeling is more likely to be present where we can perceive the outward signs of its existence, than where there is no sign whatever; as I am more inclined to believe that preciseness and firmness of character are more likely to be possessed by the man who takes great pains with the neatness and cleanliness of his person and attire than by one who does not. But there are action and reaction between the care of the person and the cast of the character; e. g., cleanliness may be the outward expression of certain traits of character, and when practised may again produce, or strengthen, or prolong these traits. All education rests upon the fact of this interaction. We see what is the desirable cast of mind by its outward manifestations, and try to ingraft such a mental attitude by habitual practice of these manifestations. It has been suggested to me in conversation that the fact of the lower orders, especially in the country, wearing their "Sunday best," and generally attending to the neatness of their appearance on Sundays, has a reviving and improving effect upon them. The workday customs, with rough language and more or less brutal indulgences, are cast away with the work-day clothes, and there is a strong feeling that outbursts would be out of keeping with such fine dress, and that a man must act up to his (genteel) appearance.

Words are not merely the indications of feeling, but they may also react upon our feelings, modify them, in some cases even produce new groups of emotions.

If the emotions are a desirable and essential element of the human mind, and if language can thus react upon our emotional nature, the expression of these desirable emotions ought not to be neglected, but even positively cultivated. If we compare the German language with the English, we are struck by the poverty of the latter as regards the expression of emotions, and especially of those indicating contentment.

The wealth of the German language in expressions of feeling and general moods admits of no doubt. In what language do we meet with such a wealth of words expressing mental pain, from the most marked shadings down to the finest, until pain gently overlaps into pleasure? Let us attempt an incomplete enumeration of such expressions, omitting the numerous foreign words (such as Melancholie, Apathie, Misere, Agonie, Tortur, etc.), which have been embodied in German idiom: Verzweiflung, Marter, Pein, Jammer (Herzensjammer), Elend, Gram, Kummer, Leid (Herzeleid), Herzensnoth, Herzensangst, Bangen, Trauer, Harm, Betrübniss, Trübsal, Trübsinn, Unglück, Schmerz, Weh, Unlust, Schmachten, Hinschmachten, Hindarben, Vergehen, Hinbrüten, Schwermuth, Wehmuth, Sehnsucht, Sehnen, Drängen, etc. Besides these there are numerous expressive compounds.

Now, it is true that the German, as well as every language, is richer in words expressive of grief than of joy; and this is a characteristic common to all language, because it springs from psychological facts common to all men. We do not so readily express our joy as our grief, because, in the first place, grief is more dignified than joy. We do not like to show our joy, because it is easily unbridled, and the boundless is less comely than the bounded. Joy is elation, which implies opposition to the usual fetters and to form; while grief is a contraction, which implies a closer sinking into form, and seeks the plastic. The facial expression of joy and grief corresponds to this—nay, perhaps was a cause in determining our inclination or repugnance as regards the expression of these emotions. Joy manifests itself in an expansion of the facial muscles, and avoids the eye of the sculptor who wishes to render a beautiful harmonious display of features. The sinking and contraction of grief, on the other hand, bring out more markedly the fine features and the modeling. Then, again, elation means motion and unrest; it points to restless diffusion, while contraction must end, and points to quiet and rest; and therefore sculptors, to whom to a great extent we owe the creation of the ideal of human beauty, rendered the latter and shunned the former.

In the second place, sympathy, if sought by the happy, is less sure to be obtained; for man has the evil tendency to envy, and, though it is easy for him to feel the delight of compassion and pity, he is more grudging with his sympathy with others' joy. He has also the tendency to egoism. Joy has less need of sympathy: the happy are apt to be self-sufficient. He can afford to share some of his pain with his brethren; but joy is a matter much in demand, and he cannot well spare a particle of it—that, unless it can be increased by division, is devoured alone.

And, finally, there are fewer expressions of joy, because contentment is essentially a unit, is one, or at least is so in its perfect state, toward which we strive. There is a homely German saying, "Satter wie satt kann man nicht werden." Satiety is the one point, and all that is above or below this point is not enjoyable. When we are contented we have arrived at the normal state of existence; there is no other way of expressing it, for it is unique, and cannot be split into various shadings. And we are generally driven to express different shadings of joy by the physical concomitants of that feeling, as elation, thrilling, etc. It is the one positive point.[3]

All these causes will evidently influence lyric poetry, the musically-poetical expression of emotions. It is very difficult to say more than that we are happy, while we may tell many things of our peculiar feelings of misfortune. And we are not inclined to show our smiling face without hope of having it reciprocated; while we may fail to reproduce in our readers the sad mood which drove us to write a sad poem and still not feel ridiculous. The measured tone of sad words and their context is more adapted to musical rhythm than the rapid, short expressions of mirth. As in sculpture the woful expression is more plastical than the joyful, so in poetry the sad strives toward harmonious form more readily than the happy, and therefore we shall have fewer poems expressive of joy than of sorrow.

But to return to the main topic: The greatest distinction between the German and English language is perceived when we compare the expressions of the bright side of emotions. Let us again attempt an incomplete enumeration, omitting the numerous foreign words adopted into the German language, as well as the compounds which express so definitely certain fine shadings: Entzücken, Ergötzen, Tubel, Wonne, Seligkeit, Glückseligkeit, Freude, Freudigkeit, Glück, Lust, Vergnügnen, Frohsinn, Frohmuth, Heiterkeit, Munterkeit, Scherzhaftigkeit, Ausgelassenheit, Launigkeit, Schalkhaftigkeit, Wohlbehagen, Zufriedenheit, Gemüthsruhe, etc.

Now, some of these words have been and are still in use in the English language; but they have suffered strange usage. They have degenerated to lightness, losing their original weight and dignity, or they have been actually lowered and have received an evil connotation. And we generally find that the Latinized words degenerate in the direction of levity, while the Saxon words degenerate in the direction of vulgarity.

As an instance of the first case, the English words corresponding to Glück and Unglück are Fortune and Misfortune. The dark side of these ideas, Misfortune, has retained the strength and dignity corresponding to the German. Fortune, however, does not correspond to Glück as Misfortune corresponds to Unglück. It may be urged that Fortune had already lost its deep meaning in the Latin, perhaps because of the fickle and worldly character which poets attributed to the goddess Fortuna; but the difference in the comparative depth of signification between Fortune and Misfortune illustrates what I mean. Fortune has more and more turned toward a signification of luck or chance, or to an expression of the most worldly accidents of happiness, as wealth, etc. When the German says, "Ich bin glücklich," he means to indicate a state of high satisfaction; but, when we say, "I am fortunate," it conveys the impression of a transitory state of satisfaction; in fact, we are not necessarily happy or contented, the accent is not thrown upon our own mood, but upon some outer fact, for we would naturally ask, "Fortunate in what?"

As an instance of the second case, we find the word Lust still used in English, but in what an altered meaning from the German! In German, Lust denotes a wide, high, and intense pleasure. It would not be amiss in German to speak of the '" high Lust of the converse with God in prayer."[4] The wide compass of this word is beautifully illustrated in that untranslatable poem in Goethe's "West-öestlicher Divan," in which Lust is brought in connection with rose-water which cost the life of a whole world of flowers, and with the great historical event of Tamerlane's (Timour) inroad which also cost the life of myriads of existences:

"Dir mit Wohlgeruch zu kosen,
Deine Freuden zu erhöhn,
Knospend müssen tausend Rosen
Erst in Gluthen untergehn.

"Um ein Fläschehen zu besitzen
Das den Ruch auf ewig hält,
Schlank wie deine Fingerspitzen
Da bedarf es einer Welt;


"Einer Welt von Lebenstrieben,
Die, in ihrer Fülle Drang,
Ahneten schon Bulbuls Lieben,
Seeleregenden Gesang.

"Sollte jene Qual uns quälen,
Da sie unsre Lust vermehrt?
Hat nicht Myriaden Seelen
Timur's Herrschaft aufgezehrt?"


It is true, the word Lust in English is not exclusively used in the lowest animal sense, but has been applied in a more intellectual connection; so we speak of the "lust of empire," the "lust of power," etc. But there is undoubtedly always an admixture of evil and of disapproval, and some hidden analogy to animal desire. With Chaucer, still, "luste" is used both as a noun and verb to signify wish, desire, pleasure, enjoyment, without an evil connotation.[5] The causes of this degeneration are numerous. But two seem to me most worthy of notice. It is a well-known fact that, after the Norman Conquest, the language of the conqueror, French, became the language of the aristocracy. This has manifested itself in the fact that the raw materials of food—cattle, etc.—retained their Saxon names, such as calf, ox, sheep, etc., while the prepared meat is called by the French terms, beef, veal, mutton. Words used by the aristocracy will retain a high and polite signification, while the corresponding words in Saxon used by the vulgar will be spurned by the higher classes, and will receive a vulgar stamp.

Another striking instance of the vulgarizing influence of the Norman Conquest upon the Saxon vernacular is afforded by the word "buxom." In Anglo-Saxon beogan, bugan, and bocsum, it still obtains in the German, biegen, biegsam. In German it has retained its original meaning of bendable, pliable, slender, etc. In a mental sense it meant obedient (pliable), as "Under obedience to be and buxum to the lawe" ("Piers Plowman," about a. d. 1362). In Chaucer ("Clerkes Tale") we have it in its original physical meaning: "And they with humble entent buxumly—knelynge upon hir knees ful reverently." But in English we find a strange alteration in its meaning as applied to the human female figure. I may venture upon the following hypothesis with regard to the history of this word: Originally, I believe, this word was applied to the female figure to denote grace, litheness, slimness. If I remember rightly, some modern poet uses the word in that sense; the "buxom willow," or in some similar context. It would then convey the attribute of pliability and grace which is given in the words of Musset addressed to a lady: "Dans nos valses joyeuses je vous sentait dans mes bras plier comme un roseau." So, I venture to say, the word buxom was frequently applied to graceful, slender girls as a mark of high admiration. After the Norman Conquest, I suppose this to have been the action on the part of those who struck the key-note of bon-ton. Consciously, or half-consciously, the following train of thought seems to have pressed itself upon those of a markedly aristocratic turn of mind: "The people is essentially a distinct body from us, the aristocracy, especially the woman whom we admire so much. The words of the people must denote the attributes of the people: the lady is graceful, etc.; the woman is healthy, stout, red-cheeked, etc.—the lady dances, and we can feel her 'se plier comme un roseau,' but not the peasant-woman." Now, they found the word buxom indicating beauty in the woman of the people, they therefore influenced language, so that "buxom" conveyed the meaning of the beauty peculiar to the woman of the people.

Such a process is not restricted to the historical development of England; but we meet with it repeatedly in history, whenever there is this bloodless intellectual and linguistic warfare between classes. In Germany, e. g., the purely German words were repressed in meaning in proportion as the French gained footing as the language of the courts and of polite society through Frederick the Great and the subsequent Napoleonic influence. The Frau and Frauenzimmer assumed a lower connotation the more the word "madame" was used in connection with ladies. At present there is a strong reaction against the French idiom in German. Politics and language are closely linked together in their bearing upon one another, and loss in political prestige precedes repression of idiom.

During the time of the Revolution we might have expected a revival of the old word, such as Lust; but the Revolution was puritanic in spirit, and so, instead of being reinstated it was still more repressed, for Puritanism with its stern features was ever averse to expressions of joyful emotions. Only such joy as partook of a lofty, aspiring character was cultivated, and the amiable and light-hearted was immediately stamped as frivolous. I think we must look to Puritanism for an explanation of one curious fact in these expressions. We find many expressions of exalted joy, of temporary pleasurable states (as a contribution from the French), and of the lower pleasure which is to be spurned. But we hardly find a powerful word which expresses a lasting state of pleasure, comprising as well the smallest satisfaction as the loftiest happiness—I mean a word corresponding to the German Glückseligkeit and the Greek ενδαιμονία. In the German word the "glück" comprises all real happiness of life, and the "seligkeit" the most exalted spiritual happiness, and both combine to a lasting positive whole. A person would hardly be shocked were an Epicurean (a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus, I mean) to tell him that "Glückseligkeit was the aim of life," for this would include-the highest moral satisfaction; while many people would be shocked to hear that "pleasure," or even "happiness, is the aim of life." This I attribute chiefly to the fact that the Puritan spirit drew a marked line between pleasures: there were exalted pleasures, and there were low pleasures; the first are desirable, the rest are to be repudiated, and there is no middle way.

This spirit, of course, did not always reign supreme, and the natural tendency is never totally to be extinguished, and we have some Saxon expressions of light mirth. But to this spirit, and other natural and historical causes, I attribute the fact that the dark side of expressions has been developed in England out of proportion with the bright side. So, for instance, we find that the German word Mitgefühl is rendered by the English "sympathy." This word, which means a "feeling with," originally meant a "suffering with." But while the German can subdivide this "feeling with" into with-joy and with-suffering (Gönnen, Mitfreude, and Mitleid), the English have two expressions of with-suffering, compassion, and pity, but have no expression for with-joy. One may mention that congratulation[6] conveys this meaning; but, though it originally meant a sharing of joy, it has degenerated into a far lighter sphere, and has become a mere word of polite language, so that the illiterate will hardly recognize the original meaning from its present use. To use that French word to convey a deep feeling would be like using the word "plaisir" in German to express deep joy. The effect is similar to what it is when Heine, after his protestation of deep feeling, bursts forth with the French "Madeline, ich liebe sie!"

Now, I am inclined to believe that where there is no expression for such a feeling, and where we rarely find such feelings expressed in other ways, such feelings are not so likely to exist, and, in truth, the ideal of "good form," which cripples the nature of many young men at a time when their emotions are still developing, goes to suppress the expression of any such feelings. One may frequently hear young men express their disapproval of others; but I think that I am not making a hasty statement when I maintain that one hears young men expressing their approval of others far less frequently in England than in Germany, though it is not unmanly nor ungainly to express one's liking of a third person, and one's joy with another, and this expression may have good effects, as well upon the sociable character as upon the whole emotional nature of men.[7]

But "good form" and other causes are contributing to impoverish the English language in expressions of original emotions. We notice the avidity with which people grasp at slang, because it has such original life. Were it not for the wide-spread knowledge of Shakespeare, I verily believe that our emotional language would be sorely crippled. There are desirable emotions, and they can be cultivated. Language is a means of cultivating them. There is a great difference in the mental cast of those who know but one language and those who know several, even if they have never left their home. The latter are possessed of broader vision and feeling, they have learned new feelings. When we have learned the true meanings of the French word "chic" and the German word "Gemüthlichkeit," we may have learned something the existence of which was unknown to us before. If we can force people to express "Mitfreude" we may perhaps teach some how

to feel it. If the language is poor in expressions it can be made richer. Coining of words ought not to be condemned a priori. It is self-regulating. If a person thinks something worth thinking, or feels something worth feeling, and cannot find an adequate expression, let him coin a word—if possible, one which manifestly conveys his meaning. He will have to be careful, for the public will reject what is useless, ridicule a blunder, but perhaps adopt what is suitable.

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  1. "Sir, you are indiscreet. . . . That has already been said. I do not insist upon it. I rather despise useless things.
    "You insult Voltaire, and you do me the honor to revile me. That is your affair.
    "You and I are two men—what manner of men the future will decide. You say I am old, and you give mo to understand that you are young. I believe it.
    "In you the moral sense is still so undeveloped that you pronounce that in me 'a shame' which is my honor.
    "You presume, sir, to read me a lecture. By what right? Who are you? Let us come down to facts. Here is fact: What is your conscience, and what is mine?
    "Compare the two.
    "A comparison will be enough," etc.
  2. Language was given to man to hide his thoughts.
  3. I hold, in opposition to the pessimists, that this fact of the poverty of expressions of pleasure as contrasted with the multiplicity of expressions of pain goes to prove the positive nature of pleasure. The pessimists hold that pain is positive and pleasure negative, i. e., that pleasure is the absence of pain; the intermissions in the long chain of bodily and mental pains are to them pleasure. In logic the positive thing is definite and one, while the negative is indefinite and multiple. So "A" would be positive, definite, and would denote one thing; while "Not A" is negative, indefinite, in fact, denotes anything or all things in the universe excepting "A." Therefore, when the pessimist points to the wealth of expression in pain, and to the poverty in expressions of pleasure, and when he points to the difficulty of defining contentment, while pain comprises so many states, he has not disproved the positive nature of pleasure. On the contrary, we find that the simpler and more positive a fact is, the more difficult is it to define, until we are limited to the mere mention of the fact.
  4. We are reminded of the story of a German missionary in Australia, who, ignorant of this degeneration of Saxon words, exhorted his congregation "to do the will of God with craft and lust."
  5. In the "Canterbury Tales:"

    Clerkes Tale.

    "His lustes were al lawe in his decree
    For fortune as his friend wolde him obeye.

    Right as yon lust governe the matter.

     Wherefore I yow preye
    Doth your plesaunce, I wol your lust obeye.

    But on his lust present was al his thought
    As for to hauke and hunt on every syde."

    Squyeres Tale.

    "But thus Ilete in lust and iolitee
    This Cambyskam his lordes festeyinge
    Til wel ny the day began to springe.

    The knotte why that every tale is told
    If it be taried til the lust is cold.

     If hir lust it for to were
    Upon hir thombe."

    Man of Lawes Tale.

    "Al his lust and al his busy care
    Was for to love hir while his lyf may dure."

    "To do hir lust" (will, pleasure) is very common, and originally lust was used in the sense of list (the opposite sense, listless, still obtains), to do anything with pleasure, enjoyment. The word lusty Chaucer also uses like the German lustig, meaning merry, jovial (the lusty playne, the lusty somer, etc.). The noun lustiheed (joviality), corresponding to the German Lustigkeit, is also used:

    "Therefore I passe of al this lustiheed."

    (Squyeres Tale.)

  6. A curious instance in actual life which corroborates my statement was told me by a friend. A naïve and open-hearted lady was complaining to my friend of the difficulty she experienced in expressing her gratification to a relative who had been blessed with a baby. "You see," naïvely said this feeling person, "I can hardly express to her how truly I experience her joy, how I the-very-opposite-of-grudge" (she needed the German "gönnen") "her the blessing. Had her child died, I should have had many expressions at my service."
  7. Niebuhr, the great admirer of Englishmen, has remarked: "It is quite a national trait not to dwell upon 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 feel strongly as it would be to do the same themselves. How I shall bless the time when this constraint will be over, when in my own land I shall listen to the joys and sorrows of others, not as a mere piece of news, but as a communication to which I have a right, and be as sure of a welcome when I lay open my own heart! 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 or calling, learning or sex."—(From "The Life and Letters of B. G. Niebuhr, with Essays, etc.," by the Chevalier Bunsen, Professors Brandis and Loebell; translated by M. Winkworth.)