Kemble, John Mitchell (DNB00)

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KEMBLE, JOHN MITCHELL (1807–1857), philologist and historian, born on 2 April 1807, was elder son of Charles Kemble [q. v.], by his wife Marie Thérèse [see Kemble, Maria Theresa], and was nephew of John Philip Kemble [q. v.] and of Mrs. Siddons. He received his early education at Clapham from Richardson the lexicographer, from whom he perhaps in part derived his love of philology, though both his father and uncle took some pleasure in it (Record of a Girlhood, i. 62, 83). As a boy he had a strong taste for chemistry, and, though he soon laid aside the pursuit, always retained a lively interest in the progress of the science. At home he often amused himself by acting childish plays with his sister Fanny. From Clapham he went to the grammar school at Bury St. Edmunds, where in 1826 he obtained an exhibition to Trinity College, Cambridge, and went into residence. Among his friends at Cambridge were Alfred (afterwards Lord) Tennyson, Richard Chenevix Trench (afterwards archbishop of Dublin), Charles Buller [q. v.], and, above all, William Bodham Donne [q. v.] Great things were expected of him, for his talents were good and his knowledge already wide; but though he obtained some successes in writing essays in 1827, he disappointed the hopes of his family. He read much, but would not follow the course of study prescribed by the university, and was, moreover, fond of society and of athletic amusements. Though not tall he was strong, well-made, and active; his features were clearly cut, and his eyes dark and bright; he had a fine voice, sang and recited well, talked brilliantly, and was extremely popular. He entered at the Inner Temple, but studied only those parts of English law which illustrated history or ancient customs. When he went up for examination at Cambridge in 1829, his degree was deferred until he could satisfy the examiners that he had studied the works of Locke and Paley, for he had confined his answers to arguments against their doctrines. He went with a friend to Heidelberg, and thence to Munich, and during this visit to Germany began to study Teutonic philology. On his return to England he graduated B.A. in 1830, proceeding M.A. in 1833, and determined to take holy orders. He appeared to have grown seriously minded; his friends believed that he would become a ‘light in the church’ (Life of Trench, i. 61), and Tennyson addressed to him the sonnet headed ‘To J. M. K.’ He was a member of the Apostles' Club, and contributed both verse and prose to the ‘Athenæum.’ Before long he was induced to join Trench, Boyd, and other young Englishmen in attempting to aid General Torrijos in his rebellion against Ferdinand VII, and being directed to make preparations for the landing of the expedition in Spain, sailed suddenly for Gibraltar in July, apparently without the knowledge of his relations. At Gibraltar he spent most of his time with Trench ‘smoking, and drinking ale, and holding forth on German metaphysics’ (Record of a Girlhood). Finding that the failure of the expedition was certain, he returned to London, to his father's house in Great Russell Street, on 21 May 1831.

His idea of taking orders being now abandoned, he went to Göttingen and other places in Germany to study under philologists, and especially under Jacob Grimm, with whom he soon became very friendly, and who spoke of him as one of his most promising pupils. His reputation as an Anglo-Saxon scholar was established in England by the publication of his edition of the poems of Beowulf in 1833, and was increased the following year by a course of lectures which he delivered on his own responsibility at Cambridge on Anglo-Saxon language and literature. At his first lecture there was a full attendance, but the number of his audience rapidly dwindled, for he did not care to treat his subject in a popular style. Still his lectures were never deserted, as has been stated (Athenæum, 4 April 1857), and were attended to the end by some distinguished scholars (Fraser's Mag. May 1857). Some slighting remarks on what had already been done in England in the study of Anglo-Saxon which he made in a review of Thorpe's ‘Analecta Anglo-Saxonica’ (Gent. Mag. new ser. 1834, i. 391 sqq.) drew upon him a violent attack in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Anglo-Saxon Meteor: a Plea in Defence of Oxford,’ supposed to have been printed in Holland under the superintendence of Joseph (afterwards Dr.) Bosworth [q. v.] In this Kemble was accused of being led in ‘leading-strings’ by Danes and Germans, and specially by Professor Rask. Letters on the subject were published by Sir F. Madden and Dr. Ingram (ib. ii. 483, and 1835, i. 43). Kemble's reputation did not suffer, and in 1837 he was described as standing high in the estimation of Lord Melbourne's government and likely to be employed in the universities commission then talked of (Hale).

From 1835 to 1844 Kemble was editor of the ‘British and Foreign Review.’ Probably in 1836 he married Nathalie Auguste, daughter of Professor Amadeus Wendt of Göttingen; the marriage was not a happy one. After his marriage Kemble appears to have resided in London for some time, employing himself in literary work, and specially in transcribing in the British Museum, and in various collegiate and cathedral libraries, the Anglo-Saxon charters afterwards printed in his ‘Codex Diplomaticus.’ On 24 Feb. 1840 he was appointed examiner of stage-plays in succession to his father, who resigned in his favour, and held that office until his death. He toiled unremittingly at his philological and historical studies, which brought him little pecuniary reward. In 1847 he was living with his children in a small house near Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, and was forced by poverty to advertise for pupils. He was then engaged on his ‘Saxons in England’ and a contemplated ‘History of Roman Law,’ though he thought it unlikely that he should find a publisher. Later he appears to have lived much abroad, apart from his wife and children, and chiefly in Hanover, his official duties being fulfilled during his long absences by W. B. Donne. While residing in Hanover in 1854 he turned his attention to pre-historic archæology, was engaged in rearranging and cataloguing the collections in the Royal Museum, and during five months was employed by the managers of the museum to make excavations in the neighbourhood of the rivers Wilmerau and the Wipperau, in the principality of Lüneburg. He entered into this new pursuit with characteristic ardour, and, though he had not received any instruction as a draughtsman, made a vast number of careful drawings of pre-historic antiquities in the museums of Munich, Berlin, and Schwerin. On his return to England he sent accounts of his discoveries to the Society of Antiquaries and the Archæological Institute, and issued the prospectus of a book to be published by subscription, with the title ‘Horæ Ferales,’ which was to set forth his ‘complete system of northern archæology,’ and to ‘supply the means of comparison between the principal types of objects of archæological interest from different ages and different parts of the world.’ The committee of the Art Treasures Exhibition at Manchester employed him to collect and arrange Keltic and Roman antiquities for them, and in February 1857 he went on this business to Dublin, where he delivered an address on archæology before the Royal Irish Academy, which was much admired. While in Dublin he over-exerted himself, caught cold, and died at the Gresham Hotel, of inflammation of the lungs, on 26 March 1857. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Jerome. His wife survived him for some years. He left three children—Gertrude, born 1837, married to (Sir) Charles Santley, the baritone singer, died in 1882; Henry Charles, born in 1840, a colonel in the Bengal cavalry; and Mildred, born in 1841, married to the Rev. Charles Edward Donne, son of W. B. Donne, and vicar of Faversham, Kent (died in 1876). A bust of Kemble, by Woolner, is in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, and there is a likeness of him when a young man in an engraving by Lane, representing him, his father, his brother Henry James Vincent Kemble, and his two sisters Frances Anne, Mrs. Butler, and Adelaide, Mrs. Sartoris. A drawing of him by Lady Eastlake is in the possession of the Rev. C. E. Donne. He was a member of the Royal Academies of Berlin, Munich, and of other learned societies on the continent.

Kemble's mind was vigorous, his critical faculty acute, and his memory retentive. Besides knowing French, Spanish, and German, of which last he was sufficiently master to write a German treatise and instruct German audiences, he was familiar with Greek, and studied attentively the works of the Byzantine historians. In his knowledge of Teutonic philology he was far ahead of any of his fellow-countrymen, and was the recognised exponent of the investigations of Jacob Grimm and other German writers on the subject. With regard to the study of Anglo-Saxon, Kemble had a more scientific as well as a more accurate knowledge of the language than any earlier scholar, and a deeper insight into its relations to other branches of Teutonic speech. He used his knowledge chiefly in illustrating Anglo-Saxon literature and history, writing in all his original work as a man of letters no less than as a scholar. In commenting on an early fable he notes its significance, traces its development, and examines the forms under which it appears at different times and in various countries. The publication of his collection of documents belonging to the Anglo-Saxon period may be said to have laid the foundation of our present knowledge of the institutions and customs of the English before the Norman conquest. Useful additions may be made to his collection, but his ‘Codex Diplomaticus’ must remain the great original of all such undertakings, and the pattern to be followed by all future editors of charters. Besides the exact knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and the skill in deciphering manuscripts displayed by this book, it presents, though so unobtrusively as to be almost likely to escape notice, proofs of an amazing amount of knowledge and critical acumen. Every charter which offers ground for suspicion is marked with an asterisk. Kemble's work was always done with minute care, and a charter that he has not marked as spurious may as a rule safely be accepted as genuine. Founded on the ‘Codex,’ Kemble's ‘Saxons in England’ was, until the appearance of Bishop Stubbs's ‘Constitutional History’ in 1873, the best English treatise on the polity of our ancestors before the coming of the Normans. Its arrangement is not good, and it is in parts diffuse. Some of Kemble's opinions, as, for example, certain theories respecting the mark in England, the gá, the hide, and the status of the gesith, have been rejected by later and better informed writers. He was given to exaggeration and was apt to build a good deal on rather slender supports. But by far the larger number of his opinions, many of them expounded by him for the first time in England, have been confirmed by later investigation, and his book is remarkable both on account of the use made in it of the documents in the ‘Codex’ and as being the first work in which the institutions of other branches of the Teutonic race set forth by German scholars were treated to any large extent as a guide in the examination of those in force among the Anglo-Saxons.

Much of Kemble's published work must be sought for in periodical literature. He contributed to the ‘Foreign Quarterly Review,’ the ‘British and Foreign Review,’ the ‘Archæologia,’ occasionally to the ‘Journal of the Royal Institute’ and the publications of other learned societies, and, towards the close of his life, to ‘Fraser's Magazine.’ His writings that appeared in book form are:

  1. ‘The Poems of Beowulf,’ with a glossary and an historical preface, 8vo, 1833, 1837.
  2. ‘Ueber die Stammtafel der Westsachsen,’ a short treatise dedicated to Jacob Grimm, Munich, 1836.
  3. ‘An Introduction to Francisque Michel's “Bibliothèque Anglo-Saxonne,”’ 8vo, Paris, 1836.
  4. ‘A Few Historical Remarks upon the supposed Antiquity of Church Rates,’ 1836, anonymously for the Reform Association; not seen, but see ‘Saxons in England,’ i. 559 n., and answer to the ‘Remarks’ by W. H. (Archdeacon) Hale, 1837.
  5. ‘Translation of the Poem of Beowulf,’ with glossary and notes, uniform with the 2nd edition of (1) the ‘Poems,’ 8vo, 1837.
  6. ‘Codex Diplomaticus ævi Saxonici’ contains over 1,400 documents, 6 vols. 8vo, 1839–48, for the English Historical Society.
  7. ‘Vercelli Codex, Poetry of,’ with translation, 8vo, 1843.
  8. ‘Salomon and Saturn,’ 8vo, 1845 (?); this edition was begun by Kemble as early as 1833; he called it all in except twenty copies, one of which is in the British Museum, when he undertook to produce for the Ælfric Society.
  9. ‘The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturn,’ 8vo, 1848.
  10. An edition of ‘Certaine Considerations upon the Government of England,’ by Sir Roger Twysden, from the unpublished manuscript, 4to, 1849, for the Camden Society.
  11. ‘The Saxons in England,’ 2 vols. 8vo, 1849; a new edition by W. de G. Birch, 1876.
  12. ‘Gospel of St. Matthew in Anglo-Saxon and Northumbrian,’ 4to, 1856.
  13. Historical introduction to the ‘Knights Hospitallers in England,’ edited by L. B. Larking, 4to, 1857, for the Camden Society.
  14. ‘State Papers and Correspondence illustrative of the … State of Europe from the Revolution to the Accession of the House of Hanover,’ with an historical introduction dated November 1856, and a large number of biographical notices of great interest, 8vo, 1857.
  15. ‘On the Utility of Antiquarian Collections,’ an address delivered in Dublin shortly before his death, 8vo, 1857.
  16. ‘Horæ Ferales,’ including drawings and descriptions of prehistoric antiquities designed by Kemble for the book advertised under this title, translation of Kemble's address delivered at the opening of the Hanover Museum, his address delivered at Dublin 9 Feb. 1857, and other matter, edited by R. G. Latham and A. W. Franks, 4to, 1863.

[Fraser's Mag. May 1857, pp. 612–18, by W. B. Donne; information received from the Rev. C. E. Donne; Trench's Life of Archbishop Trench, i. 11, 22, 30, 46, 57, 61, 91, 162; F. A. Kemble's (Mrs. Butler) Record of a Girlhood, 3 vols. i. and ii. passim, Records of Later Life, iii. 28, Further Records, iii. 151; Athenæum, 28 March, 4 April 1857, pp. 406, 439; Hale's Antiquity of Church Rates.]

W. H.