Margaret Fuller Ossoli.

Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Volume I online

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Through Nature's dullest, as her brightest ways,
We will march onward, singing to thy praise."

E.S., _in the Dial_.

"The peculiar nature of the scholar's occupation consists in
this, - that science, and especially that side of it from
which he conceives of the whole, shall continually burst forth
before him in new and fairer forms. Let this fresh spiritual
youth never grow old within him; let no form become fixed
and rigid; let each sunrise bring him new joy and love in his
vocation, and larger views of its significance."


* * * * *

Of Margaret's studies while at Cambridge, I knew personally only of
the German. She already, when I first became acquainted with her, had
become familiar with the masterpieces of French, Italian and
Spanish literature. But all this amount of reading had not made her
"deep-learned in books and shallow in herself;" for she brought to
the study of most writers "a spirit and genius equal or superior." - so
far, at least, as the analytic understanding was concerned. Every
writer whom she studied, as every person whom she knew, she placed in
his own class, knew his relation to other writers, to the world, to
life, to nature, to herself. Much as they might delight her, they
never swept her away. She breasted the current of their genius, as a
stately swan moves up a stream, enjoying the rushing water the more
because she resists it. In a passionate love-struggle she wrestled
thus with the genius of De Staël, of Rousseau, of Alfieri, of

The first and most striking element in the genius of Margaret was the
clear, sharp understanding, which keenly distinguished between things
different, and kept every thought, opinion, person, character, in
its own place, not to be confounded with any other. The god Terminus
presided over her intellect. She knew her thoughts as we know each
other's faces; and opinions, with most of us so vague, shadowy, and
shifting, were in her mind substantial and distinct realities. Some
persons see distinctions, others resemblances; but she saw both. No
sophist could pass on her a counterfeit piece of intellectual money;
but also she recognized the one pure metallic basis in coins of
different epochs, and when mixed with a very ruinous alloy. This gave
a comprehensive quality to her mind most imposing and convincing,
as it enabled her to show the one Truth, or the one Law, manifesting
itself in such various phenomena. Add to this her profound faith in
truth, which made her a Realist of that order that thoughts to her
were things. The world of her thoughts rose around her mind as a
panorama, - the sun-in the sky, the flowers distinct in the foreground,
the pale mountain sharply, though faintly, cutting the sky with its
outline in the distance, - and all in pure light and shade, all in
perfect perspective.

Margaret began to study German early in 1832. Both she and I were
attracted towards this literature, at the same time, by the wild
bugle-call of Thomas Carlyle, in his romantic articles on Richter,
Schiller, and Goethe, which appeared in the old Foreign Review, the
Edinburgh Review, and afterwards in the Foreign Quarterly.

I believe that in about three months from the time that Margaret
commenced German, she was reading with ease the masterpieces of its
literature. Within the year, she had read Goethe's Faust, Tasso,
Iphigenia, Hermann and Dorothea, Elective Affinities, and Memoirs;
Tieck's William Lovel, Prince Zerbino, and other works; Körner,
Novalis, and something of Richter; all of Schiller's principal dramas,
and his lyric poetry. Almost every evening I saw her, and heard an
account of her studies. Her mind opened under this influence, as the
apple-blossom at the end of a warm week in May. The thought and the
beauty of this rich literature equally filled her mind and fascinated
her imagination.

* * * * *

But if she studied books thus earnestly, still more frequently did she
turn to the study of men. Authors and their personages were not ideal
beings merely, but full of human blood and life. So living men
and women were idealized again, and transfigured by her rapid
fancy, - every trait intensified, developed, ennobled. Lessing says
that "The true portrait painter will paint his subject, flattering him
as art ought to flatter, - painting the face not as it actually is,
but as creation designed, omitting the imperfections arising from the
resistance of the material worked in." Margaret's portrait-painting
intellect treated persons in this way. She saw them as God designed
them, - omitting the loss from wear and tear, from false position, from
friction of untoward circumstances. If we may be permitted to take
a somewhat transcendental distinction, she saw them not as they
_actually_ were, but as they _really_ were. This accounts for her
high estimate of her friends, - too high, too flattering, indeed, but
justified to her mind by her knowledge of their interior capabilities.

* * * * *

The following extract illustrates her power, even at the age of
nineteen, of comprehending the relations of two things lying far apart
from each other, and of rising to a point of view which could overlook
both: -

'I have had, - while staying a day or two in Boston, - some of
Shirley's, Ford's, and Hey wood's plays from the Athenæum.
There are some noble strains of proud rage, and intellectual,
but most poetical, all-absorbing, passion. One of the finest
fictions I recollect in those specimens of the Italian
novelists, - which you, I think, read when I did, - noble, where
it illustrated the Italian national spirit, is ruined by the
English novelist, who has transplanted it to an uncongenial
soil; yet he has given it beauties which an Italian eye could
not see, by investing the actors with deep, continuing, truly
English affections.'

* * * * *

The following criticism on some of the dialogues of Plato, (dated June
3d, 1833,) in a letter returning the book, illustrates her downright
way of asking world-revered authors to accept the test of plain common
sense. As a finished or deliberate opinion, it ought not to be read;
for it was not intended as such, but as a first impression hastily
sketched. But read it as an illustration of the method in which her
mind worked, and you will see that she meets the great Plato modestly,
but boldly, on human ground, asking him for satisfactory proof of all
that he says, and treating him as a human being, speaking to human

'_June_ 3, 1833. - I part with Plato with regret. I could have
wished to "enchant myself," as Socrates would say, with
him some days longer. Eutyphron is excellent. Tis the best
specimen I have ever seen of that mode of convincing. There is
one passage in which Socrates, as if it were _aside_, - since
the remark is quite away from the consciousness of
Eutyphron, - declares, "qu'il aimerait incomparablement mieux
des principes fixes et inébranlables à l'habilité de Dédale
avec les tresors de Tantale." I delight to hear such things
from those whose lives have given the right to say them. For
'tis not always true what Lessing says, and I, myself, once
thought, -

"F. - Von was fur Tugenden spricht er denn?
MINNA. - - Er spricht von keiner; denn ihn fehlt keine."

For the mouth sometimes talketh virtue from the overflowing of
the heart, as well as love, anger, &c.

'"Crito" I have read only once, but like it. I have not got it
in my heart though, so clearly as the others. The "Apology"
I deem only remarkable for the noble tone of sentiment, and
beautiful calmness. I was much affected by Phaedo, but think
the argument weak in many respects. The nature of abstract
ideas is clearly set forth; but there is no justice in
reasoning, from their existence, that our souls have lived
previous to our present state, since it was as easy for the
Deity to create at once the idea of beauty within us, as the
sense which brings to the soul intelligence that it exists in
some outward shape. He does not clearly show his opinion of
what the soul is; whether eternal _as_ the Deity, created
_by_ the Deity, or how. In his answer to Simmias, he takes
advantage of the general meaning of the words harmony,
discord, &c. The soul might be a result, without being a
harmony. But I think too many things to write, and some I have
not had time to examine. Meanwhile I can think over parts, and
say to myself, "beautiful," "noble," and use this as one of my

* * * * *

'I send two of your German books. It pains me to part with
Ottilia. I wish we could learn books, as we do pieces of
music, and repeat them, in the author's order, when taking a
solitary walk. But, now, if I set out with an Ottilia, this
wicked fairy association conjures up such crowds of less
lovely companions, that I often cease to feel the influence of
the elect one. I don't like Goethe so well as Schiller now.
I mean, I am not so happy in reading him. That perfect wisdom
and _merciless_ nature seems cold, after those seducing
pictures of forms more beautiful than truth. Nathless, I
should like to read the second part of Goethe's Memoirs, if
you do not use it now.'

* * * * *

1832. - I am thinking how I omitted to talk a volume to you
about the "Elective Affinities." Now I shall never say half of
it, for which I, on my own account, am sorry. But two or three
things I would ask: -

'What do you think of Charlotte's proposition, that the
accomplished pedagogue must be tiresome in society?

'Of Ottilia's, that the afflicted, and ill-educated, are
oftentimes singled out by fate to instruct others, and her
beautiful reasons why?

'And what have you thought of the discussion touching graves
and monuments?

'I am now going to dream of your sermon, and of Ottilia's
china-asters. Both shall be driven from my head to-morrow,
for I go to town, allured by despatches from thence, promising
much entertainment. Woe unto them if they disappoint me!

'Consider it, I pray you, as the "nearest duty" to answer my
questions, and not act as you did about the sphinx-song.'

* * * * *

'I have not anybody to speak to, that does not talk
common-place, and I wish to talk about such an uncommon
person, - about Novalis! a wondrous youth, and who has only
written one volume. That is pleasant! I feel as though I could
pursue my natural mode with him, get acquainted, then make my
mind easy in the belief that I know all that is to be known.
And he died at twenty-nine, and, as with Körner, your feelings
may be single; you will never be called upon to share his
experience, and compare his future feelings with his present.
And his life was so full and so still.

Then it is a relief, after feeling the immense superiority of
Goethe. It seems to me as if the mind of Goethe had embraced
the universe. I have felt this lately, in reading his lyric
poems. I am enchanted while I read. He comprehends every
feeling I have ever had so perfectly, expresses it so
beautifully: but when I shut the book, it seems as if I had
lost my personal identity; all my feelings linked with such
an immense variety that belong to beings I had thought so
different. What can I bring? There is no answer in my mind,
except "It is so," or "It will be so," or "No doubt such and
such feel so." Yet, while my judgment becomes daily more
tolerant towards others, the same attracting and repelling
work is going on in my feelings. But I persevere in reading
the great sage, some part of every day, hoping the time will
come, when I shall not feel so overwhelmed, and leave off this
habit of wishing to grasp the whole, and be contented to learn
a little every day, as becomes a pupil.

'But now the one-sidedness, imperfection, and glow, of a mind
like that of Novalis, seem refreshingly human to me. I have
wished fifty times to write some letters giving an account,
first, of his very pretty life, and then of his one volume,
as I re-read it, chapter by chapter. If you will pretend to
be very much interested, perhaps I will get a better pen, and
write them to you.' * *


'_Aug_. 7, 1832. - I feel quite lost; it is so long since I
have talked myself. To see so many acquaintances, to talk
so many words, and never tell my mind completely on any
subject - to say so many things which do not seem called out,
makes me feel strangely vague and movable.

''Tis true, the time is probably near when I must live alone,
to all intents and purposes, - separate entirely my acting from
my thinking world, take care of my ideas without aid, - except
from the illustrious dead, - answer my own questions, correct
my own feelings, and do all that hard work for myself. How
tiresome 'tis to find out all one's self-delusion! I thought
myself so very independent, because I could conceal some
feelings at will, and did not need the same excitement as
other young characters did. And I am not independent, nor
never shall be, while I can get anybody to minister to me. But
I shall go where there is never a spirit to come, if I call
ever so loudly.

'Perhaps I shall talk to you about Körner, but need not write.
He charms me, and has become a fixed star in the heaven of
my thought; but I understand all that he excites perfectly.
I felt very '_new_ about Novalis, - "the good Novalis," as
you call him after Mr. Carlyle. He is, indeed, _good_, most
enlightened, yet most pure; every link of his experience
framed - no, _beaten_ - from the tried gold.

'I have read, thoroughly, only two of his pieces, "Die
Lehrlinge zu Sais," and "Heinrich von Ofterdingen." From the
former I have only brought away piecemeal impressions, but the
plan and treatment of the latter, I believe, I understand. It
describes the development of poetry in a mind; and with this
several other developments are connected. I think I shall tell
you all I know about it, some quiet time after your return,
but if not, will certainly keep a Novalis-journal for you some
favorable season, when I live regularly for a fort night.'

* * * * *

'_June_, 1833. - I return Lessing. I could hardly get through
Miss Sampson. E. Galeotti is good in the same way as
Minna. Well-conceived and sustained characters, interesting
situations, but never that profound knowledge of human nature,
those minute beauties, and delicate vivifying traits, which
lead on so in the writings of some authors, who may be
nameless. I think him easily followed; strong, but not deep.'

* * * * *

'_May_, 1833. - _Groton_. - I think you are wrong in applying
your artistical ideas to occasional poetry. An epic, a drama,
must have a fixed form in the mind of the poet from the first;
and copious draughts of ambrosia quaffed in the heaven of
thought, soft fanning gales and bright light from the outward
world, give muscle and bloom, - that is, give life, - to this
skeleton. But all occasional poems must be moods, and can a
mood have a form fixed and perfect, more than a wave of the

* * * * *

'Three or four afternoons I have passed very happily at my
beloved haunt in the wood, reading Goethe's "Second Residence
in Rome." Your pencil-marks show that you have been before me.
I shut the book each time with an earnest desire to live as
he did, - always to have some engrossing object of pursuit.
I sympathize deeply with a mind in that state. While mine is
being used up by ounces, I wish pailfuls might be poured into
it. I am dejected and uneasy when I see no results from my
daily existence, but I am suffocated and lost when I have not
the bright feeling of progression.' * *

* * * * *

'I think I am less happy, in many respects, than you, but
particularly in this. You can speak freely to me of all your
circumstances and feelings, can you not? It is not possible
for me to be so profoundly frank with any earthly friend. Thus
my heart has no proper home; it only can prefer some of its
visiting-places to others; and with deep regret I realize that
I have, at length, entered on the concentrating stage of
life. It was not time. I had been too sadly cramped. I had not
learned enough, and must always remain imperfect. Enough! I am
glad I have been able to say so much.'

* * * * *

'I have read nothing, - to signify, - except Goethe's "Campagne
in Frankreich." Have you looked through it, and do you
remember his intercourse with the Wertherian Plessing? That
tale pained me exceedingly. We cry, "help, help," and there is
no help - in man at least. How often I have thought, if I could
see Goethe, and tell him my state of mind, he would support
and guide me! He would be able to understand; he would show
me how to rule circumstances, instead of being ruled by them;
and, above all, he would not have been so sure that all would
be for the best, without our making an effort to act out the
oracles; he would have wished to see me what Nature intended.
But his conduct to Plessing and Ohlenschlager shows that to
him, also, an appeal would have been vain.'

'Do you really believe there is anything "all-comprehending"
but religion? Are not these distinctions imaginary? Must not
the philosophy of every mind, or set of minds, be a system
suited to guide them, and give a home where they can bring
materials among which to accept, reject, and shape at
pleasure? Novalis calls those, who harbor these ideas,
"unbelievers;" but hard names make no difference. He says with
disdain, "To _such_, philosophy is only a system which will
spare them the trouble of reflecting." Now this is just
my case. I _do_ want a system which shall suffice to my
character, and in whose applications I shall have faith. I
do not wish to _reflect_ always, if reflecting must be always
about one's identity, whether "_ich_" am the true "_ich_" &c.
I wish to arrive at that point where I can trust myself, and
leave off saying, "It seems to me," and boldly feel, It _is_
so TO ME. My character has got its natural regulator, my heart
beats, my lips speak truth, I can walk alone, or offer my arm
to a friend, or if I lean on another, it is not the debility
of sickness, but only wayside weariness. This is the
philosophy _I_ want; this much would satisfy _me_.

'Then Novalis says, "Philosophy is the art of discovering the
place of truth in every encountered event and circumstance, to
attune all relations to truth."

'Philosophy is peculiarly home-sickness; an over-mastering
desire to be at home.

'I think so; but what is there _all-comprehending_;
eternally-conscious, about that?'

* * * * *

'_Sept.,_ 1832. - "Not see the use of metaphysics?" A moderate
portion, taken at stated intervals, I hold to be of much
use as discipline of the faculties. I only object to them as
having an absorbing and anti-productive tendency. But 'tis not
always so; may not be so with you. Wait till you are two years
older, before you decide that 'tis your vocation. Time
enough at six-and-twenty to form yourself into a metaphysical
philosopher. The brain does not easily get too dry for
_that_. Happy you, in these ideas which give you a tendency to
optimism. May you become a proselyte to that consoling faith.
I shall never be able to follow you, but shall look after you
with longing eyes.'

* * * * *

'_Groton._ - Spring has come, and I shall see you soon. If
I could pour into your mind all the ideas which have passed
through mine, you would be well entertained, I think, for
three or four days. But no hour will receive aught beyond its
own appropriate wealth.

'I am at present engaged in surveying the level on which the
public mind is poised. I no longer lie in wait for the
tragedy and comedy of life; the rules of its _prose_ engage my
attention. I talk incessantly with common-place people, full
of curiosity to ascertain the process by which materials,
apparently so jarring and incapable of classification, get
united into that strange whole, the American public. I have
read all Jefferson's letters, the North American, the daily
papers, &c., without end. H. seems to be weaving his Kantisms
into the American system in a tolerably happy manner.'

* * * * *

* * 'George Thompson has a voice of uncommon compass and
beauty; never sharp in its highest, or rough and husky in its
lowest, tones. A perfect enunciation, every syllable round
and energetic; though his manner was the one I love best,
very rapid, and full of eager climaxes. Earnestness in every
part, - sometimes impassioned earnestness, - a sort of "Dear
friends, believe, _pray_ believe, I love you, and you MUST
believe as I do" expression, even in the argumentative parts.
I felt, as I have so often done before, if I were a man, the
gift I would choose should be that of eloquence. That power of
forcing the vital currents of thousands of human hearts into
ONE current, by the constraining power of that most delicate
instrument, the voice, is so intense, - yes, I would prefer it
to a more extensive fame, a more permanent influence.'

'Did I describe to you my feelings on hearing Mr. Everett's
eulogy on Lafayette? No; I did not. That was exquisite.
The old, hackneyed story; not a new anecdote, not a single
reflection of any value; but the manner, the _manner_^ the
delicate inflections of voice, the elegant and appropriate
gesture, the sense of beauty produced by the whole, which
thrilled us all to tears, flowing from a deeper and purer
source than that which answers to pathos. This was fine; but
I prefer the Thompson manner. Then there is Mr. Webster's,
unlike either; simple grandeur, nobler, more impressive, less
captivating. I have heard few fine speakers; I wish I could
hear a thousand.

Are you vexed by my keeping the six volumes of your Goethe?
I read him very little either; I have so little time, - many
things to do at home, - my three children, and three pupils
besides, whom I instruct.

'By the way, I have always thought all that was said about
the anti-religious tendency of a classical education to be
old wives' tales. But their puzzles about Virgil's notions
of heaven and virtue, and his gracefully-described gods and
goddesses, have led me to alter my opinions; and I suspect,
from reminiscences of my own mental history, that if all
governors do not think the same 't is from want of that
intimate knowledge of their pupils' minds which I naturally
possess. I really find it difficult to keep their _morale_
steady, and am inclined to think many of my own sceptical
sufferings are traceable to this source. I well remember what
reflections arose in my childish mind from a comparison of the
Hebrew history, where every moral obliquity is shown out with
such naïveté, and the Greek history, full of sparkling deeds
and brilliant sayings, and their gods and goddesses, the
types of beauty and power, with the dazzling veil of flowery
language and poetical imagery cast over their vices and

* * * * *

'My own favorite project, since I began seriously to entertain
any of that sort, is six historical tragedies; of which I have
the plans of three quite perfect. However, the attempts I

Online LibraryMargaret Fuller OssoliMemoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Volume I → online text (page 8 of 24)