Max Müller at Oxford

THE warmest of the late Mr. Max Müller’s admirers will hardly refrain from a faint, fugitive, and tender smile when he reads the ingenuous apology prefixed to the newly published Autobiography of the Oriental scholar.1 Friends, it seems, had complained to him that there was not enough of himself in the two volumes of reminiscences which were issued in 1898 and 1899 under the title of Auld Lang Syne. To that neutral being, the general reader, there seemed, no doubt, to be a good deal of himself even in those discursive memoirs. Yet to have known him, as the present writer did, from fifteen to twenty years ago, in the fullness of his mental power, and when even his extraordinary personal beauty was almost unimpaired by time, is to feel that the gracious and unique personality of the man was a more memorable thing than all his philological researches, metaphysical theories, and social advantages put together.

Historically the Autobiography is only a fragment; and Mr. Wilhelm Max Müller tells us in his modest preface under what affecting circumstances that fragment received its latest revision at his father’s hands : “ Even when he was lying in bed, far too weak to sit up in a chair, he continued to work at the manuscript with me. I would read portions aloud to him, and he would suggest alterations and dictate additions. I see that we were actually at work on this up to the 19th of October, and on the 28th he was taken to his well-earned rest.” The connected narrative stops short altogether in the first years of the young German philologist’s popularity in Oxford, when he was about thirty years of age, before he had fortified his uncertain social position in a foreign land, as well as insured his own singular domestic happiness, by his marriage with Georgina Grenfell, whose maiden name represented so much of what is most admirable in England in the way both of civic and of military tradition.

Not the least engaging among Friedrich Max Müller’s many pleasant personal qualities was a certain trustful and rather whimsical candor, which led him, upon occasion, to speak openly of things advantageous to himself, such as a more self-conscious and really vainer person would have kept sedulously concealed. When he relates how the librarian of the Bibliothèque Royale, in Paris, used to shout to Ernest Renan to fetch certain Sanskrit manuscripts for the use of Mr. Max Müller, he fully perceives the humor of the situation, and hopes and expects that his reader will perceive it, too. Nor did he ever cease to find an exquisite kind of amusement in his own position as Fellow of All Souls. For him, the self-devoted Stubengelehrte, the youth of austere training and unworldly ideals, to have drifted into that fat paradise of the voluptuaries of learning struck him as a delightful joke on the part of Fate, and one which he frankly enjoyed seeing appreciated by others. Two of the prizes which he most ardently desired, and which many thought he deserved and should have received, — the Boden Professorship of Sanskrit and the presidency of the Indian Institute, — fell to other competitors ; but he accepted his defeat, and the compensations which were indirectly offered him therefor, with that unalterable sweetness which seemed a natural product of his own light, easy-going, but very genuine piety. “We must allow the gods to be good to us in their own way,” he would have said, “ and not in ours.” He knew that he was a personage and a power in Oxford, and had done a most important work there in the impulse which he gave to philological, and especially Oriental studies, at that critical moment when the old rigid scholastic barriers were crumbling and everything was ripe for change. Some of his younger disciples came eventually to feel, as young disciples are so prone to do, that they had outstripped their teacher. It was almost one to him, whose main desire and most steadfast preoccupation were, after all, the prosperity of sound learning and the spread of essential truth. So, too, with the curiously impartial attitude which he managed to maintain through all the agitating conflicts and tragical episodes that accompanied the so-called Oxford Movement. He was freely accused of timeserving, and a canny determination to keep well with both the impassioned parties in that desperate strife. In reality, he viewed them both from the outside, in a spirit of mild and debonair detachment, serene in the enjoyment of his own simple creed, which was that of a highly diluted and idealized Lutheranism. “ The religious and devotional element,” he observes in the chapter on Childhood in Dessau, “ is very strong in Germany, but the churches are mostly empty. A German keeps his religion for week days rather than Sundays.” In this vague but genial belief he lived and died content; and it is in a spirit of the simplest good faith that he describes himself as trying earnestly, but vainly, to convince Froude and Kingsley and Liddon how entirely imaginary most of their spiritual troubles were. No doubt, also, as he himself suggests, he imbibed a certain amount of Oriental quietism from those philosophies of the East which early became his favorite study. He came to Oxford, as has been said, in the declining years of the fine old semi-monastic and yet exceedingly mundane order. He saw the centenarian Dr. Routh, of Magdalen, who had known a lady who had seen Charles I. walking in those dreamy “ Parks ” that derived thenname from the disposition of the royal artillery in the Civil War ; and he lived to witness the æsthetically deplorable development of “ villa land ” in the direction of Woodstock and Banbury, and a numerous and influential society of married dons. He arrived from Leipsic, via Paris, in the light marching order of a wandering scholar, while Newman was yet at Littlemore, and he saw, before the close of his Oxford career, lecture rooms crowded with note-scribbling ladies, pupils flocking to the summer school, and Mansfield College completed and prosperous ! By temperament he was German of the Germans ; and it is one more proof of his gentle but invincible independence of spirit that, though so fully adopted into the British order of things, and highly distinguished by British Royalty (which, however, is also German), — “ in spite,” as one may say, “ of all temptations to belong to other nations,” — he was never to any appreciable degree Anglicized. Furthermore, he was a German of that speculative and romantic period from whose transcendental ideals the aggressive Germany of Bismarck and his creature the Emperor William III. appears, at least, to have reacted so far. Brought up by his pretty, pensive, and very early widowed mother, in the old-fashioned walled capital of the little mid-German state of Dessau, of which he gives, in his first chapter, a captivating description, his were not merely the simple habits and strict moral refinement, but the unconscious and therefore wholly unashamed sentimentality, the marked artistic and especially musical aptitude, and, above all, the passion for abstract truth, which belonged to the Germany of Kant and Hegel, Mendelssohn and Schubert, Schiller, Uhland, Adelbert von Chamisso, and de la Motte Fouqué. This was the very country of lisping lyrics, pious memories, and sober lives, which Longfellow discovered to the inquisitive spirits of Boston, Cambridge, and Concord, ’t is sixty years since.

When the young Friedrich Maximilian was sent, at the age of twelve, from Dessau to a preparatory school in the university town of Leipsic, his darling ambition was to become a philosopher, and he is very entertaining about the metaphysical craze which raged, at that period, all over Germany. Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason he found discouraging upon first acquaintance, but Hegel’s famous Idea seemed to promise the solution of every mystery. From the Minister of Instruction down to the village schoolmaster everybody claimed to be an Hegelian, and this was supposed to be the best road to advancement. “ Ultimately, however,” he characteristically adds, “ while dreaming of a chair of philosophy in a German university, I began to feel that I must know something special, something that no other philosopher knew, and that induced me to learn Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian. I had only heard what we call in Germany the chiming, not the striking of the bells of Indian philosophers.” Later on, as all the world knows, he came to regard the study of language and the study of thought as one, and finally defended against all comers the thesis that there is no such thing as thought without language. People who had begun to read seriously in the sixties well remember how fresh and stimulating were the essays on the Study of Language and the Chips from a German Workshop ; but the positive and permanent value of Max Müller’s contributions to the science even of human speech has probably yet to be determined. No doubt he suffered unduly for a time from the first inevitable reaction against his vogue in Oxford. To the elder men of the old order, stagnating in their academic traditions, he was a welcome novelty; but precisely because these made a pet, the men of the new order were half inclined to make a butt of him, and it became the fairly wearisome cliché of a certain clique to jeer at the sun myth. I have always thought, also, that the real originality of some of his views, at the time when they were first propounded, combined with a certain perverse insular distrust of his personal affability to foster something like the dogged prejudice with which the German Prince Consort had always to contend.

It will hardly be possible, however, to judge fairly either of his work or of the adequacy of its reward until the fuller memoirs which Mrs. Max Müller is now preparing shall have been given to the world ; and assuredly there was never a wife better fitted, either by womanly sympathy or intellectual acumen, to interpret a distinguished husband to the public.

Meanwhile, the Autobiography, imperfect as it is, recalls delightfully to an old acquaintance, and must, I think, convey even to one who never knew him, a clear image of the man. He was usually at his best as a host; especially at All Souls, where I recall him upon a warm April day, “ in such a time as comes before the leaf,” but when the tall windows of the college hall were thrown wide open to an expanse of emerald English turf, bordered by a blaze of jonquils and Pyrus japonica, enthusiastically doing the honors of that stately place. He expatiated by turns, and with the same boyish zest, on the beauteous anomaly of a college without pupils ; on the use of those ingeniously turned mahogany rods, ending, some in a horseshoe-sliaped appendage, and some in a large curve like that of a crosier, which had been invented by a gouty Fellow to facilitate the progress of the wine; and on the fitness of the word “ tumbler ” as originally applied to certain clumsy little silver cups with convex bottoms, which would stand upright only when filled and weighted with the potent college ale.

Of the more private hospitalities of that sunny house overlooking the Parks, where so many of our compatriots have received a hearty welcome, it seems hardly allowable to speak. The freedom of that house was to many an undergraduate one of the best boons of his Oxford days ; and there was an old joke about claiming kinship with the family, embodied in one of the epigrammatic quatrains that were in vogue at one time, and of which the witty two upon the Master of Balliol and the Dean of Christ Church are familiar on both sides of the sea. The reader can safely fill in the blanks in the following with any one of a half dozen trochaic proper names, intimately associated with the more modern renown of Oxford : —

“ I am - -; I have dozens
Of the most enchanting cousins.
I ’m going across the Parks to tea ;
Won’t you come along with me ? ”

The entertainment in that house was frequently musical, and always of the best. Both the then surviving daughters inherited their father’s musical temperament and were accomplished performers, though neither ever quite attained to his own astonishing early proficiency at the piano. He gloried in telling that, as a boy of sixteen at Leipsic, he had been affectionately patted on the shoulder by Felix Mendelssohn for his manner of playing one of the master’s own pieces ; but he would explain with hardly inferior relish how it was his playing which won him admission, while he was yet green in Oxford, to the houses of some of the most exclusive heads, albeit those magnates never dissembled their opinion that it was no part of a gentleman’s business to understand the pianoforte.

The first break in the ideal family circle at Norham Gardens — “husband, wife, and children three ” — came with the marriage of the exquisite elder daughter, Mary, to Frederic Conybeare, a don of University College, since known to the world for his gallant exertions on behalf of Captain Dreyfus and for some pungent political pamphlets. In Mary Conybeare, the genius of the father who idolized her and the exceptional physical beauty of both parents reappeared in a strangely etherealized form. She was one of those of whom we all seem to perceive, after they are gone, that a hundred mystic signs had always marked them for another world than this. I can see her still, with her classic head and straight, sweet features, with a wreath, in her dark hair, of gold olive leaves beaten flat and thin, which had been copied from an Etruscan model for one of her wedding gifts, — a vision of almost incredible human grace, “ a dream of form in days of thought.” I also remember her husband’s telling me, to illustrate the astonishing quickness of her mind and her fine inherited aptitudes, how he taught her Greek orally, one summer when they passed six weeks at a German bath, and she accompanied him on the long forest and mountain walks which his physician had ordered. The alphabet she had known before, but she learned from his lips, in that short time, declensions, conjugations, a considerable vocabulary, and enough of syntax to be able to construe easy Greek, like that of Xenophon, with entire ease, the first time she opened a book.

I do not wonder,” as Ruskin says, “ at what men suffer, but I do wonder at what they lose. . . . The fruit stricken to earth before its ripeness, . . . the dead, naked, eyeless loss, — what good comes of that ? ”

All Oxford was heartstricken by the tidings of Mrs. Conybeare’s sudden death at the seaside, within three years after her marriage.

“ The light of her young life went down
As sinks behind a hill
The glory of a setting star,
Clear, suddenly and still.”

And the father whose pride she was, and who had remained young so long, began to be an old man from that sorrowful day.

  1. My Autobiography. By F. MAX MÜLLER. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1901.