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I CANNOT more appropriately introduce the Cosmos to the notice of the readers of the Scientific Library, than by presenting them with a brief sketch of the life of its illustrious author.* While the name of Alexander von Humboldt is familiar to every one, few, perhaps, are aware of the peculiar circumstances of his scientific career, and of the extent of his labours in almost every department of physical knowledge. He was born on the 14th of September, 1769, and is, therefore, now in his 80th year. After going through the ordinary course of education at Göttingen, and having made a rapid tour through Holland, England, and France, he became a pupil of Werner at the mining school of Freyburg, and in his 21st year, published an "Essay on the Basalts of the Rhine." Though he soon became officially connected with the mining corps, he was enabled to continue his excursions in foreign countries, for during the six or seven years succeeding the publication of his first essay, he seems to have visited Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France. His attention to mining did not, however, prevent him from devoting his attention to other scientific pursuits, amongst which botany and the then recent discovery of galvanism may be especially noticed. Botany, indeed, we know from his own authority, occupied him almost exclusively for some years, but even at this time he was practising the use of those astronomical and physical instruments, which he afterwards turned to so singularly excellent an account.
The political disturbances of the civilized world at the close of the last century prevented our author from carrying out
* For the following remarks I am mainly indebted to the articles on the Cosmos in the two leading quarterly Reviews.
various plans of foreign travel which he had contemplated, and detained him an unwilling prisoner in Europe. In the year 1799 he went to Spain, with the hope of entering Africa from Cadiz, but the unexpected patronage which he received at the Court of Madrid, led to a great alteration in his plans, and decided him to proceed directly to the Spanish Possessions in America, "and there gratify the longings for foreign adventure, and the scenery of the tropics, which had haunted him from boyhood, but had all along been turned in the diametrically opposite direction of Asia." After encountering various risks of capture, he succeeded in reaching America, and from 1799 to 1804 prosecuted there extensive researches in the physical geography of the New World, which have indelibly stamped his name in the undying records of science.
Excepting an excursion to Naples with Gay Lussac and Von Buch in 1805 (the year after his return from America), the succeeding twenty years of his life were spent in Paris. and were almost exclusively employed in editing the results of his American journey. In order to bring these results before the world, in a manner worthy of their importance, he commenced a series of gigantic publications in almost every branch of science, on which he had instituted observations. In 1817, after twelve years of incessant toil, fourfifths were completed, and an ordinary copy of the part then in print, cost considerably more than one hundred pounds sterling. Since that time the publication has gone on more slowly, and even now, after the lapse of nearly half a century, it remains, and probably ever will remain, incomplete.
In the year 1828, when the greatest portion of his literary labour had been accomplished, he undertook a scientific journey to Siberia, under the special protection of the Russian Government. In this journey-a journey for which he had prepared himself by a course of study unparallelled in the history of travel-he was accompanied by two companions hardly less distinguished than himself; Ehrenberg and Gustav
Rose, and the results obtained during their expedition, are recorded by our author in his Fragments Asiatiques, and in his Asie Centrale, and by Rose in his Reise nach dem Oural. If the Asie Centrale had been his only work, constituting, as it does, an epitome of all the knowledge acquired by himself and by former travellers, on the physical geography of Northern and Central Asia, that work alone would have sufficed to form a reputation of the highest order.
I proceed to offer a few remarks on the work of which I now present a new translation to the English public, a work intended by its author "to embrace a summary of physical knowledge, as connected with a delineation of the material universe."
The idea of such a physical description of the universe had, it appears, been present to his mind from a very early epoch. It was a work which he felt he must accomplish, and he devoted almost a lifetime to the accumulation of materials for it. For almost half a century it had occupied his thoughts; and at length in the evening of life, he felt himself rich enough in the accumulation of thought, travel, reading, and experimental research, to reduce into form and reality, the undefined vision that has so long floated before him. The work when completed will form three volumes. The first volume comprises a sketch of all that is at present known of the physical phenomena of the universe: the second comprehends two distinct parts, the first of which treats of the incitements to the study of nature, afforded in descriptive poetry, landscape painting, and the cultivation of exotic plants; while the second and larger part enters into the consideration of the different epochs in the progress of discovery and of the corresponding stages of advance in human civilisation. The third volume, the publication of which, as M. Humboldt himself informs me in a letter addressed to my learned friend and publisher, Mr. H. G. Bohn, •has been somewhat delayed, owing to the present state of
public affairs, will comprise the special and scientific development of the great Picture of Nature." Each of the three parts of the Cosmos is therefore, to a certain extent, distinct in its object and may be considered complete in itself. We cannot better terminate this brief notice, than in the words of one of the most eminent philosophers of our own country, that "should the conclusion correspond (as we doubt not) with these beginnings, a work will have been accomplished, every way worthy of the author's fame, and a crownng laurel added to that wreath, with which Europe will lways delight to surround the name of Alexander von Humboldt."
In venturing to appear before the English public as the interpreter of " the great work of our age," I have been encouraged by the assistance of many kind literary and scientific friends, and I gladly avail myself of this opportunity of expressing my deep obligations to Mr. Brooke, Dr. Day, Professor Edward Forbes, Mr. Hind, Mr. Glaisher, Dr. Percy, and Mr. Ronalds, for the valuable aid they have afforded me.
It would be scarcely right to conclude these remarks without a reference to the translations that have preceded mine. The translation, executed by Mrs. Sabine, is singularly accurate and elegant. The other translation is remarkable for the opposite qualities, and may therefore be passed over i silence. The present volumes differ from those of Mrs. Sabin in having all the foreign measures converted into corresponding English terms, in being published at considerably less than one third of the price, and in being a translation of the entire work, for I have not conceived myself justified in omitting passages, sometimes amounting to pages, simply because they might be deemed slightly obnoxious to our national prejudices.
*The expression applied to the Cosmos, by the learned Bunsen in his late Report on Ethnology, in the Report of the British Association for 1847, p. 265.