Lord Minto's perspective on Leyden

The following letter was written by Lord Minto to his wife in early 1811, after a voyage in close proximity to Leyden. The letter is quoted in John Reith, Life of Dr. John Leyden: Poet and Linguist. (Galashiels: A. Walker & Son, 1923) on pages 296-299. Reith, for his part, described the letter as "the most sympathetic, true, and complete characterisation of Leyden that has come down to us." (297)

Letter from Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, 1st Earl of Minto, to his wife, Anna Maria, Lady Minto.

Modeste Frigate.

Madras to Puloo Penang.

April 24th to May 8th [1811]

…Dr Leyden’s learning is stupendous, and he is a very universal scholar. His knowledge, extensive and minute as it is, is always in his pocket, at his fingers’ ends, and on the tip of his tongue. He has made it completely his own, and it is all ready money. All his talent and labour, which are both excessive, could not, however, have accumulated such stores without his extraordinary memory. I begin, I fear, to look at that faculty with increasing wonder; I hope, without envy, but something like one’s admiration of young eyes.

It must be confessed that Leyden has occasion for all the stores which application and memory can furnish to supply his tongue, which would dissipate a common stock in a week. I do not believe that so great a reader was ever so great a talker before. You may be conceited about yourselves, my beautiful wife and daughters, but with all my partiality I must give it against you. You would appear absolutely silent in his company, as a ship under way seems at anchor when it is passed by a swifter sailer. Another feature of his conversation is a shrill, piercing, and at the same time grating voice. A frigate is not near large enough to place the ear at the proper point of hearing. If he had been at Babel, he would infallibly have learned all the languages there, but in the end they must all have merged in the Tividale how (twang), for not a creature would have got spoken by himself. I must say, to his honour, that he has as intimate and profound a knowledge of the geography, history, mutual relations, religion, character, and manners of every tribe in Asia as he has of their language.

His conversation is rather excursive, because, on his way to the point of inquiry, he strikes aside to some collateral topic, and from thence diverges still wider from the original object. I have often tried, without success, to fix him to the point in hand, and the only way has been a more peremptory call than I like to use, especially to one whom I like and esteem so highly. But nothing can differ more widely from his conversation in this respect than his writing. His pen is sober, steady, concise, lucid, and well fed with useful as well as curious matter. His reasoning is just, his judgment extremely sound, and his principles always admirable. His mind is upright and independent, his character spirited and generous, with a strong leaning to the chivalrous; and in my own experience I have never found any trace either of wrong head or of an impracticable or unpleasant temper.

The only little blemish I have sometimes regretted to see in him is a disposition to egotism—not selfishness, but a propensity to bring the conversation, from whatever quarter it starts, round to himself, and to exalt his own actions, sufferings, or adventures in a manner a little approaching the marvelous. I have indulged myself in this portrait because I feel an interest which I know you all share in so distinguished a worthy of Teviotside.

[Source: Reith, John. Life of Dr. John Leyden: Poet and Linguist. Galashiels: A. Walker & Son, 1923. 296-299.]