Littell's Living Age/Volume 125/Issue 1611/The Tercentenary Festival at Leyden

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From Macmillan's Magazine.


It seems well worth while for an eyewitness to give some account of this memorable feast, as most of the "special correspondents" who wrote in the daily papers concerning it had evidently either not gone to Leyden at all or had not been admitted to any of the ceremonies. They enumerated people as present who were not present. They did not know in what language some of the addresses were delivered. And one of them at least endeavoured to conceal his ignorance by such flippant impertinence, that he has since been personally exposed in the indignant Dutch papers. We are accustomed to letters from Khiva being written in London offices, but it seems hard that the excellent Hollanders should have their contemporary history disposed of in such summary fashion. They had spared no pains to make the Tercentenary of their great academy famous all over Europe. Months ago a formal bilingual invitation in Dutch and in Latin had been sent to all the academies in Europe asking them to send representatives to Leyden. Thirty-eight responded to the call affirmatively. Many more sent polite and respectful apologies. From the extremities of Europe — from Hungary and from Ireland, from Finland and from Portugal — men came and brought with them their state robes to do honour to the great mother of Scaligers, Boerhaaves, and Salmasii. The Swedes telegraphed that six feet of snow had suddenly blocked up their railwavs, and that travelling was impossible. The Romans could not send an embassy from Italy, but chose an eminent Hollander (Professor Boot) to represent them. There was but one strange exception to the eagerness and respect shown by all Europe — Oxford was unrepresented. Nay, more, Oxford had not answered the invitation. The Hollanders have a great respect for Oxford. The late king was educated at Christchurch. The present master of Balliol was among the half-dozen Englishmen who were selected for honorary degrees. Yet, as Oxford men are rarely discourteous, it was feared by some that they were imperfectly informed as to where Leyden was and what Leyden had done. And yet Leyden is certainly the most celebrated and the most meritorious university in Europe. There is no other centre of education which has so often been the home of the first man of his day. From the days of Scaliger and Boerhaave down to the present day, when Leyden can boast of the best Greek scholar in Europe, this has frequently been the case. If English universities could forget this, or if they were ignorant of it, so much the worse for their own reputation.

But it has since transpired that Oxford was guilty of no intentional discourtesy. The Academy deserves the credit of eliciting the fact, that the vice-chancellor was ill when the invitation arrived, and that it was in consequence mislaid. It is understood that he has now formally expressed the regrets of Oxford to the senate of Leyden. The incident suggests but one remark. If the courtesy of Oxford depends so completely on the health of the vice-chancellor, it is hoped that in future a sound and vigorous constitution will be made a necessary qualification for that august office.

The visitors were invited to arrive before Sunday, 7th February, when the festivities were opened by a sermon in the great church. This sermon was not in a dead language, as was stated in the Athenæum, but in Dutch. The service resembled that of the Scotch Church, in its gauntness and want of elegant ritual. The preacher obtained for himself pauses in the discourse by giving out hymns, which were sung by two thousand voices in long-drawn and solemn unison, but so slow withal that the melody was well nigh lost. What made the effect most curious to a foreigner was that most men had their hats on during the sermon, and that several deacons were all the while going round with long landing-nets of black velvet, and fishing for alms among the people. These inexorable deacons, not satisfied with one requisition, returned twice to the charge; and the reckless stranger, who, in imitation of the widow in the gospel, had cast in his two mites together, began to discover that in Holland alms are paid in instalments, and that had she been a Dutchwoman she would have made two bites of the cherry, and applied each mite separately to satisfy the demands of a new collector. The sermon was doubtless very eloquent, to judge from the sonorous strings of great names with which it abounded, but the details, though the general argument was in the main obvious, were high Dutch to almost all the foreigners. Owing to this obstacle there was, it must be confessed, some relief felt when the great congregation began to surge and scatter, pouring out of the doors into the clear, frosty sunlight. The picturesque old town was all hung with streaming banners, and great barges were coming up the canals laden to the water's edge with rich exotic plants and hothouse flowers, with which the lower windows of every street were to be richly set out. Foreign flags marked the houses where the professors were entertaining the representatives of the respective nations; and already groups of strangers, learned-looking men in spectacles and careless dress, might be seen wandering to and fro, and making their first survey of the town.

But after a five o'clock dinner (the usual hour in Holland), all the learned world was assembled at the first state reception given by the burgomaster. Here indeed was a scene such as will not again be witnessed for many a day. Orientalists, hellenists, latinists, historians, philosophers, physiologists, jurists, theologians — all men of mark in the world — were all introducing and being introduced, all discussing and responding, all jabbering in a number of languages, so that, as was profanely remarked, but for the absence of one most important personage, it seemed a veritable Day of Pentecost. Unfortunately the fashion of making speeches seems universal in Holland, and accordingly much hindrance was offered to conversation by the general compliments which polite guests and gracious hosts lavished upon each other. The pleasantest discourse was certainly that of Ernest Renan, who spoke with great frankness and feeling of the miseries of France, and excited general admiration by his elegant style and his vivacious action. But still every moment lost from conversation that evening was well-nigh irreparable. There were the great critical scholars, Cobet, Madvig, Pluygers, and Boot — the real successors of Porson and Bentley in Europe; the historians. Dozy and Ernst Curtius; the orientalists, Noldeke, Kern, Veth, De Goeje, Vullers, Renan; the theologians, Scholten, Kuenen, Kahnis, Biedermann; the antiquarians, Stark and G. Perrot; the physlologists, Milne-Edwards and Donders; the jurists, Jhering and Nypels — and these are selected almost at random from among the two hundred that thronged the room. Happily there were several such receptions, so that in spite of the speeches, there was a chance of hearing some fragments of talk from the lips of these giants. So the time ran on till midnight, when the guests who were not fatigued adjourned to the students' club — entitled the Minerva — thereto enjoy cigars and champagne,[1] and more speeches. But here the speeches were a more remarkable feature. After an elegant Latin welcome by M. Kappeyne, the president, speeches were made in Latin, Dutch, French, English, and German, all of which were thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed by some five hundred students who thronged the room.

It was a sight to astonish any foreigner; and the members of British universities might well feel ashamed when they compared the high culture and large accomplishments of the Leyden students with those of their own alumni. Imagine speeches in five languages addressed to our students! Imagine them making speeches in Latin or in German! When we perceive the admiration felt in England for Oxford and Cambridge; when we perceive the tacit assumption of superiority among many members of these wealthy institutions, we are often deceived into thinking them leaders of thought in Europe. It is a painful question, but one which was forced upon all the great visitors to this inter-university celebration — What are the English universities doing for the thought of Europe? Who among their scholars is a real leader of men?

But this is disagreeable digression. It should be noted concerning the students that, as their culture is superior to that of English and Irish students, so their habits and ways seemed not inferior to the average Oxford or Cambridge men. The Dutch are not the least like the average German student — untidy, poor, and duelling; and even where the German students are gentlemanly and refined, as many are at Göttingen, there always remains the barbarism of the duel. The Dutch are far above this level. They have private means. They are even accused of extravagance. They live in handsome lodgings, with good appointments. They have good wine and good cigars for their friends. They do not give their enemies the satisfaction of hacking their faces. Their conduct all through the feast, as stewards, as spectators, as audiences, was most exemplary. At the solemn giving of degrees there was no approach to the disgraceful scenes which have often been the opprobrium of Oxford and Dublin. They were hospitable, generous, enthusiastic; and always gentlemen. There are now nearly eight hundred of them, residing for four years at least. They pay from 10l. to 20l. in fees, and if not preparing for any special profession, consider law the best general training. Thus about two-thirds of them appear to be law-students. They use the term philosophers for natural philosophers, of whom there are a good many, particularly attached to the views of Mr. Darwin. These alone escape the inestimable advantage of the classical lectures of Cobet and Pluygers, which all the rest attend. A few statistics such as these are worth mentioning by way of parenthesis, though this paper is not on the university, but on the festival. Yet the English reader, who is usually perfectly ignorant of all foreign institutions, and to whom it is perhaps new that Cobet is professor of Greek at Leyden, may enjoy even these elementary notions about the famous Lugdunum Batavorum.

To follow out the various entertainments in their exact order would be monotonous, and would involve much repetition. It must therefore suffice to say something on the separate heads of dinner-parties, orations, and of general conversation. The deputations were invited to two state dinners: one given by the university, in a large town-hall, the other by Prince Frederick, the king's uncle, at his palace, entitled the "Huis de Pauw" (Domus Pavonum). In addition to these entertainments there were a concert and an opera given by the citizens, a second evening (or rather morning) with the students at their Concordia, an evening reception by the curators, and an afternoon reception by the king and queen, who came to Leyden specially to honour the university and its guests. This interest shown by the royal family for a purely academic meeting was not the least remarkable feature, or the least contrasted with the habits of other courts. The appointments were in all cases very splendid. The banquet of the prince was equal in every respect to those given in our own country by princes and great noblemen. The menu was, however, decidedly longer, though its French was not more perfect than what we see on our fashionable tables. There was the same wonderful variety of wines, of which the Dutch, however, partake honestly, thus disproving our idle fears that a mixture will prove headachy. But the most marked difference in both dinners from ours was this: that, owing to the great profusion and length of the courses, as well as the intense fever for making speeches, the toasts began when dinner was about half over, and thus it required all the ability of the officers in waiting at Prince Frederick's to keep silence among the attendants. At the public dinner in Leyden this was not accomplished, and so the speeches were accompanied with a clatter of plates and knives, and an occasional jingle of glasses. But so many were the speeches, and so many the occasions for delivering them, that even the orators bore the interruption most good-humouredly; and many a sly guest made it an excuse for continuing an interesting conversation he had begun with some remarkable neighbour. If the cooking differed at all from the best French method, it was in the greater richness of the condiments, and in the more complete disguising of nature under the cloak of art.

Of course, the proper place to hear the oratorical power of the Hollanders was not at dinner, where the strangers were very prominent, but at the solemn meetings of the university, at the first of which the outgoing rector. Professor Heynsius, made an oration in Dutch, of which a French version was considerately circulated among the strangers when they took their places in the church. Despite the arctic cold of the building which was all the more bitterly felt as the strangers were in state dress, the oration was heard with great attention, and its vigour and boldness greatly praised. It seemed very odd to foreigners to hear from the pulpit of a church an attack on theology of the most vehement kind. "L'ancien ménage la tolère encore," said the orator, "mais le sort qui l'attend ne semble pas douteux dès qu'un nouveau ménage remplacera cellui qui a fait sou temps. Le grand principe de la séparation de l'Eglise et de l'Etat exige sa chute avec une inexorable rigueur. Nous ne le regrettons pas — personne d'entre nous." As is well known, the theological school of Leyden, the school of Scholten and Kuenen, is very advanced and sceptical indeed, yet even granting this, the outspoken boldness of the address was freely criticised by the Dutch themselves. But still the most orthodox thing done at the festival was to give Professor Jowett a theological degree; and they evidently guarded themselves against the suspicion of any such weakness by associating with him Mr. Martineau and M. Athanase Coquerel!

The second state speech was a very elegant address to the assembled deputies in the senate-house, made by the secretary, Professor de Vries, in Latin. The scene was, perhaps, the most striking during the week. In this famous small room, which has been so often praised and cited, were assembled the most various collection of learned men the world has seen together for many a day, while the walls were equally crowded with the long series of splendid professors that had lived and taught in Leyden. Such an occasion might well inspire the orator, who spoke with unusual fire. The answers of the deputies were very poor and brief in comparison; but it must be said in justice to them, that they were intentionally brief, owing to pressure of business and want of time. The third oration was that of the new rector, Professor Buys, at the conferring of the honorary degrees. But this speech being made in Dutch, and without a translation, was hardly appreciable at first hearing without a thorough knowledge of the language. Its irony was subtle, and its style very elegant; indeed, it was declared by the nation to be the speech of the festival; but its very excellence made it too hard for outsiders to understand until they read it.

The general impression made by Dutch eloquence, as compared with that of the other nations was this: that while decidedly pleasanter than German, which is harsh in conversation, and still harsher in public speaking, it was not so pleasant as French, especially those delicate French causeries, which made M. Renan and M. Gaston Paris such favourites whenever they rose. As compared with English speakers, the chief difference seemed to be the prevalence of the habit of learning off by heart — a habit almost universal in Dutch sermons, and obvious enough all through the festival orations, as well in the highest and most venerable authorities, as in the young and nervous student. This practice must have its effect upon the speaker, and must necessarily impair the freshness and grace of his delivery. If it were not impertinent and ungrateful to requite such hospitality by advice, the Irish spectator were disposed to impart the time-honoured and masterly advice of the elder Cato — Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Conversation is almost always more agreeable than set speeches, because it must necessarily conform to this rule, and the conversation at Leyden was no exception. After all the feasts and the state receptions, and the audiences with the king, and the gracious queen, and the affable princes, audiences necessarily short, and yet full of interest — after the exuberant evenings with the students, where the eager young faces warm the heart with as deep a delight as all the gold and the jewels of royal state — after all these varied distractions have been calmly reviewed, the conviction ripens that of all the many pleasures provided, that which was the least consciously provided by the hosts was the best — it was the daily contact with the great men who are now maintaining the old honour and renown of their famous university. It were obviously impossible for any single observer to appreciate all these men, for to appreciate each great specialist, some knowledge of each science is necessary, and who can attempt this nowadays? So then each visitor felt drawn to his congenial spirits, nor were those the least fortunate who knew classics enough to approach the great hellenist of Holland, and hear him speak of his own life and training, and of his principles in criticising the Greek classics.[2] The English scholar might well feel proud to hear him discard all German influences, and rank himself as strictly the follower of the great English school — the school of the three Richards, of Porson, and Bentley, and Dawes. This school has now, alas! migrated to Leyden. But it is the genius of Cobet which has transplanted it. Under his magic influence, under the strange fascination of his strong, bold, vehement nature, every earnest classical student is turned into the strict path of criticism, is trained in palæography, and through this necessary preparation set upon the duty of purifying our Greek texts; and so it happens that the lesser lights in Leyden have done and are doing more to amend our classics than all the stars of the British universities together. This great hellenist professes to know no Latin, and yet to hear him speak in Latin is a perfectly new sensation. No one could borrow a speech from him without instant detection. There is a Ciceronian flavour about it, which even at Leyden, the home of Latin speeches, is quite unapproachable. And yet he is evidently thinking in Latin, and forming his sentences as he proceeds. Even Madvig shrank from replying to his eloquence, and confessed that he had here met his master.

Were it not a violation of the obligations of guests, many pleasant pages could be tilled with anecdotes of such men as these by any fair observer. But the men of Leyden would doubtless look upon such a vivisector among them with greater fear than Cicero did upon Catiline, who, sitting in the senate, notat et designat oculis ad cædem unumquemque nostrum. Such a crime were worse than parricide. It would furthermore close the doors of the hospitable mansions, now open to English visitors with a hearty welcome. It is therefore safer and more profitable to advise young English scholars, who fancy themselves masters of their subject, to pay a visit to this seat of learning, and compare what they find there with what they have learned in England. Steamboats have not yet abolished insular prejudice, or railways conquered national pride. We still want contact with foreign learning, intimacy with foreign research, sympathy with foreign thought — if the republic of letters is to become a great state, instead of remaining a mere conglomerate of "village communities." For this reason periodical festivals and celebrations are more than mere recreation, better than mere dissipation; and this was so strongly felt by all the visitors at Leyden, that we may expect its great example to be followed by other universities. Though few can hope to equal the splendour of the late ceremony, the good seed which it has sown will doubtless not be suffered to lie dormant or to decay. J. P. Mahaffy.

  1. Not pipes and beer, as the Times imagined.
  2. Those who take an interest in such things can appreciate the main by reading his Variæ Lectiones, in which there is more good Latin prose, and more sound Greek scholarship, than in an ordinairy library of classical commentaries.