A Memoir of Baron Bunsen, Late Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary of His Majesty Frederick William Iv. At the Court of St. James


Drawn chiefly from Family Papers by his Widow, FRANCES BARONESS BUNSEN. In Two Volumes. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott & Co. London : Longmans & Co.
UNITED Germany could alone cope successfully with these prodigious volumes, invade them at every point, and wring from them their guarded significance. Powers of less patience and endurance can indeed attack them here and there, and perhaps lightly overrun their territory; but this is very far from a conquest, and the unsubdued country closes solidly behind the retreating force, whose trophies are meagre and trivial. Let us be plainly just to the Baroness Bunsen, and own that if she had been born German, she could not have produced out of the material a more fatiguing book. The Baroness Bunsen has that domesticity of mind to which all things appear equally important; she has that thorough education of English-women, which turns grace to propriety, and common sense to commonplace; while, from long contact with German life, her style shows here and there the effusiveness of the German spirit, and the character of the German speech. Yet the reader sees through all the true nature of a good and honest-hearted woman, who, having passed her life in the atmosphere of courts, and dearly loving dignities, was not warped or dazzled by them, but grew steadily with her husband into something like due appreciation of the people, and respect for the humble rank from which he came. They were both too earnestly religious ever to be snobbish, but, made a part of the organized and enacted disregard of popular aspirations, it would be strange if they had not forgotten at times that the masses existed for any end save to be governed. There seems to have been nothing to offend the younger diplomatist in that officious and shocking act of Niebuhr’s, by which the great scholar, as Prussian Minister, supplied the necessities of an Austrian army marching to invade Naples, and suppress a revolution ; and Bunsen may be said to have been educated into love of liberty chiefly by the success of its friends. This was a great deal, for the true Tory, wherever found, is never so sure that his enemies are wrong as when they have beaten him. It was a great deal, but let us recognize that it was not the most. For the admirer of Bunsen’s other qualities of head and heart, when he comes to read in his letter to the Duchess of Argyll, “I daily thank God that I have lived to see Italy free, and Garibaldi her hero! Now twenty-six millions will be able to believe that God governs the world, and to believe in him,” it is mortifying to remember little in the record of the writer’s twenty years' life in Italy to prove that he had any faith in her power to achieve freedom and unity, or even desired her to do so. Yet one forgives him, when he listens to these words from his death-bed, and considers through what difficult and dangerous prosperity the man had worked right at last: “ All power founded on supposed privileges must perish : it is all of evil. The United States of America have much yet to do, much for their future, to purify themselves, to make themselves free.” He had, in fact, six years earlier than this expressed a negative sympathy with those here who were endeavoring to establish freedom instead of privilege : “ The world has never seen such a worthless and base President of the United States as Pierce..... We are at an end, in Europe and in the United States, if we are not converted to this belief in God, in humanity, in moral individuality. . . . . The Slave States are doomed. May God soon grant us cotton-fields in India, Persia, Armenia, and above all in Africa! otherwise Mammon will keep up the original ones.” If Bunsen did nothing to promote political reform, he could understand the value of a step in advance when made. He would fain have had his king be true to the revolution of '48; and he was never part of the reaction against it. He deplored the ascendency of Austria and Germany, and he desired a constitutional government in Prussia.
But he was in reality no politician, though he had much to do with politics, as he was no diplomatist, though he was always concerned with diplomacy. He was essentially a man of religion ; all his study and his immense researches had a religious direction, and he was only literary in the service of religion. He was chiefly estimable in his personal character, and Dr. M’Cosh says that he found Bunsen “respected and beloved by all, except the enemies of civil and religious liberty,” though “his speculations, philosophical or theological, carried very little weight in Germany.” Even this great book does not give the idea of a great man ; even this dull book does not obscure in his life the charm of its beauty and purity. Is it not a rare testimony to his goodness, that after reading twelve hundred pages about him you still do not hate Bunsen ?
He was born at Corbach, in the principality of Waldeck, in 1791 ; and though his parents were both too old to expect him, they knew very well what to do with him after he came. They were poor, and lived scantily upon the produce of a few ancestral acres and the father’s pension as a retired soldier, and such pay as he could get for copying law-papers. Bunsen’s mother was a good woman, and his father good and sagacious, too, and taught his son two sets of maxims, which admirably corrected each other, and which one finds expressed in much that Bunsen was and did in after-life. “In clothing, live up to your means ; in food, below your means ; in dwelling, above your means,” were the worldly precepts; and “ Don’t become a soldier, don’t cringe to nobles,” were the manly lessons. Armed with this wisdom, Bunsen in due time went to school, where he distinguished himself, and then passed to the University of Göttingen, where he entered upon his vast philological and antiquarian labors with that religious purpose which imbued his whole after-life, whatever were its occupations or duties. The plan of study which he submitted to Niebuhr at this time involved Asiatic travel and personal research in many countries, and had to be greatly modified. Bunsen was then tutor to Mr. William B. Astor of New York (with whom he continued in relations of lifelong friendship), and once thought of coming to America; but went instead to Florence, where, parting with Mr. Astor, he was left to very discouraging uncertainties of income. To eke out his means of support, he gave lessons in French to an Englishman, while he worked “with real fury” in the libraries at his Oriental studies ; but the hope of Niebuhr’s friendship and instruction was an attraction that drew him soon afterwards to Rome, where he found employment in the Legation. On Niebuhr’s retirement he succeeded him as Prussian Minister, and continued at Rome in that capacity for twenty years. He had early in his diplomatic career married Miss Waddington, a young English girl sojourning at Rome, and in his charming house, whither all that was brilliant and learned in the world’s capital resorted, she became the centre of one of the happiest homes. Bunsen was as domestic as he was religious ; this enfant de cinquante ans, as he came one day to be called, had always a lover’s devotion for his wife, and a young father’s enthusiastic tenderness for his halfscore children. His wife entered heart and soul into those studies whose religious purpose robbed them of their dryness, and their existences were so interfused in the exchange of intellectual and affectional sympathies, that it is indeed their “ common life ” which the Baroness Bunsen here presents us. Few marriages have been so perfect; and the author is nowhere so graceful and so happy as in her revelations of its perfection.
During this long and tranquil residence at Rome, most of Bunsen’s great works were begun or planned, but there is not more said of them than of his Hymn-Book and his Liturgy, and in fact he was as thoroughly interested in the adoption of these in the churches as in the establishment of Egypt’s place in history. These enterprises brought him into close relations with his king, who was also very religious in the headstrong fashion of the Prussian princes; and it is melancholy to see how two men meant to be friends and to serve one another were powerless to do so in their essentially false positions of sovereign and subject. This king, who loved Bunsen and would receive and dismiss him with kisses, had afterwards a state reason for making him a scapegoat for the difficulty with Rome about mixed marriages in the Rhenish provinces; and so the man who had contended for justice and toleration towards the Catholics became the victim of the Pope’s resentment, and had to give up his place. The court party in Berlin always hated Bunsen for his plebeian birth, and for so much revolution as was embodied in his success ; and its enmity was at first sufficiently powerful to hinder the king’s favor from bestowing on him any place greater than that of Minister to Switzerland; and finally, when his appointment to England seemed inevitable, its reluctance was made apparent by a very curious procedure. The king was persuaded that it would be an affront to the aristocratic court of St. James to send a commoner thither, and so he offered to Victoria’s choice three names, including Bunsen’s, in order that his merit might not be entirely ignored, and yet that he might be snubbed if necessary. The Queen, however, at once chose Bunsen; and he nowentered upon that full intellectual life, so fruitful in great purposes and results, so happy in its relations to a people whose politics and civilization he admired above all things.
From the prince to the peasant he had loved the whole English nation, and he loved the good in it none the less intensely when he began to see that neither in temporal nor spiritual affairs was its government perfection. Me found London, even more than Rome, the world’s capital, and in the esteem and honor of a free Protestant sovereign and people he had the greatest pleasure and incentive. Afterward, in the comparatively provincial German life he led, he had to lament, not only the facilities and means of the vast city in libraries and in men who were as useful and as easily accessible as books, but the rapid interchange of ideas and the direct influence of intellectual sympathies. Nothing, in fact, could have been more prosperous and delightful than all the circumstances of the great religious scholar, and his relation to diplomacy and to Berlin could alone make him unhappy. The king tried to be his friend, and was so in that feeble fashion in which kings can benefit good men; and one of the last sane acts of poor Frederick William’s life was to make his old and faithful servant peer of Prussia with a seat in the upper house as Baron. “ This,” writes Bunsen to a friend, “is a triumph of progress in the English direction. The court party wanted to make me pass through a preparatory stage of ordinary noblesse (Junkerthum), but I insisted on giving up the whole, or that a creation should take place as was done by Queen Victoria in the case of Macaulay.”
This elevation to the peerage Was almost the sole event of political import in Bunsen’s life after he left England. From that time until his death his biography is scarcely more than the record of his prodigious literary labors, which besides the production of his Bibelwerk (“a corrected translation of the Scriptures, with parallel passages, and comprehensive explanations of the sense and its connection below the text”) included work upon his “Egypt’s Place in Universal History,” the publication of “ Signs of the Times,” and various minor enterprises. He had become a spectator in politics, and had purposely avoided residence in Prussia that he might not be drawn into the political affairs of his own country. His interest in these things, however, did not fail with his waning health and the advance of age upon him ; on the contrary, with his release from diplomatic functions his political vision seems to have brightened and widened, and the letters referring to European events during the periods of his residence at Charlottenberg and Bonn have a value not remarkable in those of other times. He had so far worked free and clear in his sentiments as to have become the fixed antagonist of Austrian influence in Germany, and to have conceived of that German unity in an aggrandized Prussia which Bismarck is now accomplishing. He was ashamed of the mean and inferior part his country played in German affairs ; and when the war of France and Italy against Austria broke out, in 1859, he was one of very few Germans whose aspirations were for the better cause, and who comprehended that the liberation of Italy was the hope of German unity. His imagination was taken, too, with the heroic figure of Garibaldi, and Garibaldi’s desire for the Bible and Protestantism, and on the last birthday which he celebrated he gave the health of the people’s soldier.
Baroness Bunsen treats the dosing period of his life with a tender fulness which shows all the sweet qualities of one of the most amiable men. The love of their perfect marriage burnt purer and brighter than even, and the home it had created seemed never so beautiful as when the shadow of death began to fall upon it. Bunsen’s disorder was of the heart, and it might be said that he was dying for months before the release came from that agony over which his serene spirit constantly triumphed in expressions of exalted faith and affection. His letters throughout these volumes breathe, in all circumstances and conditions, the same spirit; but otherwise they are not interesting letters : they are almost as wholly wanting in esprit as the narrative in which they are set; they are often exuberant and earnest, and they are often solid and earnest ; but they are nearly always verbose and tedious.
The Memoirs of Bunsen give the idea of a man whose whole scheme of intellectual life was too vast for fulfilment, and who, throughout a career of wonderful prosperity, came short of perfect success. As means to a literary and religious end, he accepted employments alien to him; but this did not affect the impregnable sincerity and singleness of his character, though it divided his interests; and we do not love him less because he was not a great diplomatist. In this new country, where nearly every aspiring man works ten hours for his living, in order that he may give two hours to his life’s work, there is a lesson, both in Bunsen’s success and in his measure of failure; while as a plebeian, seizing public honors in the most stupidly aristocratic country in Europe, we democrats can all rejoice in him.