Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli/2 Cambridge
LIFE IN CAMBRIDGE.
BY JAMES FREEMAN CLARKE.
“Extraordinary, generous seeking.”
“Through, brothers, through, — this be
Our watchword in danger or sorrow,
Common clay to its mother dust,
All nobleness heavenward!”
“Thou friend whose presence on my youthful heart
Fell, like bright Spring upon some herbless plain;
How beautiful and calm and free thou wert
In thy young wisdom, when the mortal chain
Of custom thou didst burst and rend in twain,
And walk as free as light the clouds among!”
“There are not a few instances of that conflict, known also to the fathers, of the spirit with the flesh, the inner with the outer man, of the freedom of the will with the necessity of nature, the pleasure of the individual with the conventions of society, of the emergency of the ease with the despotism of the rule. It is this, which, while it makes the interest of life, makes the difficulty of living. It is a struggle, indeed, between unequal powers, — between the man, who is a conscious moral person, and nature, or events, or bodies of men, which either want personality or unity; and hence the man, after fearful and desolating war, sometimes rises on the ruins of all the necessities of nature and all the prescriptions of society. But what these want in personality they possess in number, in recurrency, in invulnerability. The spirit of man, an agent indeed of curious power and boundless resource, but trembling with sensibilities, tender and irritable, goes out against the inexorable conditions of destiny, the lifeless forces of nature, or the ferocious cruelty of the multitude, and long before the hands are weary or the invention exhausted, the heart may be broken in the warfare.”
- N. A. Review, Jan., 1817, article “Dichtung und Wahrheit.”
The difficulty which we all feel in describing our past intercourse and friendship with Margaret Fuller, is, that the intercourse was so intimate, and the friendship so personal, that it is like making a confession to the public of our most interior selves. For this noble person, by her keen insight and her generous interest, entered into the depth of every soul with which she stood in any real relation. To print one of her letters, is like giving an extract from our own private journal. To relate what she was to us, is to tell how she discerned elements of worth and beauty where others could only have seen what was common-place and poor; it is to say what high hopes, what generous assurance, what a pure ambition, she entertained on our behalf, — a hope and confidence which may well be felt as a rebuke to our low attainments and poor accomplishments.
Nevertheless, it seems due to this great soul that those of us who have been blessed and benefited by her friendship should be willing to say what she has done for us, — undeterred by the thought that to reveal her is to expose ourselves.
My acquaintance with Sarah Margaret Fuller began in 1829. We both lived in Cambridge, and from that time until she went to Groton to reside, in 1833, I saw her, or heard from her, almost every day. There was a family connection, and we called each other cousin. During this period, her intellect was intensely active. With what eagerness did she seek for knowledge! What fire, what exuberance, what reach, grasp, overflow of thought, shone in her conversation! She needed a friend to whom to speak of her studies, to whom to express the ideas which were dawning and taking shape in her mind. She accepted me for this friend, and to me it was a gift of the gods, an influence like no other.
For the first few months of our acquaintance, our intercourse was simply that of two young persons seeking entertainment in each other's society. Perhaps a note written at this time will illustrate the easy and graceful movement of her mind in this superficial kind of intercourse.
‘March 16th, 1830. Half-past six, morning.—I have encountered that most common-place of glories, sunrise, (to say naught of being praised and wondered at by every member of the family in succession,) that I might have leisure to answer your note even as you requested. I thank you a thousand times for “The Rivals.” Alas!! I must leave my heart in the book, and spend the livelong morning in reading to a sick lady from some amusing story-book. I tell you of this act of (in my professedly unamiable self) most unwonted charity, for three several reasons. Firstly, and foremostly, because I think that you, being a socialist by vocation, a sentimentalist by nature, and a Channingite from force of circumstances and fashion, will peculiarly admire this little self-sacrifice exploit. Secondly, because ‘tis neither conformable to the spirit of the nineteenth century, nor the march of mind, that those churlish reserves should be kept up between the right and left hands, which belonged to ages of barbarism and prejudice, and could only have been inculcated for their use. Thirdly, and lastly, the true lady-like reason, — because I would fain have my correspondent enter into and sympathize with my feelings of the moment.
‘As to the relationship; ’tis, I find, on inquiry, by no means to be compared with that between myself and ——; of course, the intimacy cannot be so great. But no matter; it will enable me to answer your notes, and you will interest my imagination much more than if I knew you better. But I am exceeding legitimate note-writing limits. With a hope that this epistle may be legible to your undiscerning eyes, I conclude,
Your cousin only thirty-seven degrees removed,
The next note which I shall give was written not many days after, and is in quite a different vein. It is memorable to me as laying the foundation of a friendship which brought light to my mind, which enlarged my heart, and gave elevation and energy to my aims and purposes. For nearly twenty years, Margaret remained true to the pledges of this note. In a few years we were separated, but our friendship remained firm. Living in different parts of the country, occupied with different thoughts and duties, making other friends,— sometimes not seeing nor hearing from each other for months,— we never met without my feeling that she was ready to be interested in all my thoughts, to love those whom I loved, to watch my progress, to rebuke my faults and follies, to encourage within me every generous and pure aspiration, to demand of me, always, the best that I could be or do, and to be satisfied with no mediocrity, no conformity to any low standard.
And what she thus was to me, she was to many others. Inexhaustible in power of insight, and with a good-will “broad as ether,” she could enter into the needs, and sympathize with the various excellences, of the greatest variety of characters. One thing only she demanded of all her friends,— that they should have some “extraordinary generous seeking,” that they should not be satisfied with the common routine of life,— that they should aspire to something higher, better, holier, than they had now attained. Where this element of aspiration existed, she demanded no originality of intellect, no greatness of soul. If these were found, well; but she could love, tenderly and truly, where they were not. But for a worldly character, however gifted, she felt and expressed something very like contempt. At this period, she had no patience with self-satisfied mediocrity. She afterwards learned patience and unlearned contempt; but at the time of which I write, she seemed, and was to the multitude, a haughty and supercilious person, — while to those whom she loved, she was all the more gentle, tender and true.
Margaret possessed, in a greater degree than any person I ever knew, the power of so magnetizing others, when she wished, by the power of her mind, that they would lay open to her all the secrets of their nature. She had an infinite curiosity to know individuals,— not the vulgar curiosity which seeks to find out the circumstances of their outward lives, but that which longs to understand the inward springs of thought and action in their souls. This desire and power both rested on a profound conviction of her mind in the individuality of every human being. A human being, according to her faith, was not the result of the presence and stamp of outward circumstances, but an original monad, with a certain special faculty, capable of a certain fixed development, and having a profound personal unity, which the ages of eternity might develop, but could not exhaust. I know not if she would have stated her faith in these terms, but some such conviction appeared in her constant endeavor to see and understand the germinal principle, the special characteristic, of every person whom she deemed worthy of knowing at all. Therefore, while some persons study human nature in its universal laws, and become great philosophers, moralists and teachers of the race, — while others study mankind in action, and, seeing the motives and feelings by which masses are swayed, become eminent politicians, sagacious leaders, and eminent in all political affairs,— a few, like Margaret, study character, and acquire the power of exerting profoundest influence on individual souls.
I had expressed to her my desire to know something of the history of her mind,—to understand her aims, her hopes, her views of life. In a note written in reply, she answered me thus:—
‘I cannot bring myself to write you what you wished. You would be disappointed, at any rate, after all the solemn note of preparation; the consciousness of this would chill me now. Besides, I cannot be willing to leave with you such absolute vagaries in a tangible, examinable shape. I think of your after-smiles, of your colder moods. But I will tell you, when a fitting opportunity presents, all that can interest you, and perhaps more. And excuse my caution. I do not profess, I may not dare, to be generous in these matters.’
To this I replied to the effect that, “in my coldest mood I could not criticize words written in a confiding spirit;” and that, at all events, she must not expect of me a confidence which she dared not return. This was the substance of a note to which Margaret thus replied:—
‘I thank you for your note. Ten minutes before I received it, I scarcely thought that anything again would make my stifled heart throb so warm a pulse of pleasure. Excuse my cold doubts, my selfish arrogance, — you will, when I tell you that this experiment has before had such uniform results; those who professed to seek my friendship, and whom, indeed, I have often truly loved, have always learned to content themselves with that inequality in the connection which I have never striven to veil. Indeed, I have thought myself more valued and better beloved, because the sympathy, the interest, were all on my side. True! such regard could never flatter my pride, nor gratify my affections, since it was paid not to myself, but to the need they had of me; still, it was dear and pleasing, as it has given me an opportunity of knowing and serving many lovely characters; and I cannot see that there is anything else for me to do on earth. And I should rejoice to cultivate generosity, since (see that since) affections gentler and more sympathetic are denied me.
‘I would have been a true friend to you; ever ready to solace your pains and partake your joy as far as possible. Yet I cannot but rejoice that I have met a person who could discriminate and reject a proffer of this sort. Two years ago I should have ventured to proffer you friendship, indeed, on seeing such an instance of pride in you; but I have gone through a sad process of feeling since, and those emotions, so necessarily repressed, have lost their simplicity, their ardent beauty. Then, there was nothing I might not have disclosed to a person capable of comprehending, had I ever seen such an one! Now there are many voices of the soul which I imperiously silence. This results not from any particular circumstance or event, but from a gradual ascertaining of realities.
‘I cannot promise you any limitless confidence, but I can promise that no timid caution, no haughty dread shall prevent my telling you the truth of my thoughts on any subject we may have in common. Will this satisfy you? Oh let it! suffer me to know you.’
In a postscript she adds, ‘No other cousin or friend of any style is to see this note.’ So for twenty years it has lain unseen, but for twenty years did we remain true to the pledges of that period. And now that noble heart sleeps beneath the tossing Atlantic, and I feel no reluctance in showing to the world this expression of pure youthful ardor, It may, perhaps, lead some wise worldlings, who doubt the possibility of such a relation, to reconsider the grounds of their scepticism; or, if not that, it may encourage some youthful souls, as earnest and eager as ours, to trust themselves to their hearts’ impulse, and enjoy some such blessing as came to us.
Let me give extracts from other notes and letters, written by Margaret, about the same period.
‘Saturday evening, May 1st, 1830. — The holy moon and merry-toned wind of this night woo to a vigil at the open window; a half-satisfied interest urges me to live, love and perish! in the noble, wronged heart of Basil; my Journal, which lies before me, tempts to follow out and interpret the as yet only half-understood musings of the past week. Letter-writing, compared with any of these things, takes the ungracious semblance of a duty. I have, nathless, after a two hours’ reverie, to which this resolve and its preliminaries have formed excellent warp, determined to sacrifice this hallowed time to you.
‘It did not in the least surprise me that you found it impossible at the time to avail yourself of the confidential privileges I had invested you with. On the contrary, I only wonder that we should ever, after such gage given and received, (not by a look or tone, but by letter,) hold any frank communication. Preparations are good in life, prologues ruinous. I felt this even before I sent my note, but could not persuade myself to consign an impulse so embodied, to oblivion, from any consideration of expediency.’ * *
‘May 4th, 1830.— * * I have greatly wished to see among us such a person of genius as the nineteenth century can afford —i. e., one who has tasted in the morning of existence the extremes of good and ill, both imaginative and real. I had imagined a person endowed by nature with that acute sense of Beauty, (i. e., Harmony or Truth,) and that vast capacity of desire, which give soul to love and ambition. I had wished this person might grow up to manhood alone (but not alone in crowds); I would have placed him in a situation so retired, so obscure, that he would quietly, but without bitter sense of isolation, stand apart from all surrounding him. I would have had him go on steadily, feeding his mind with congenial love, hopefully confident that if he only nourished his existence into perfect life, Fate would, at fitting season, furnish an atmosphere and orbit meet for his breathing and exercise. I wished he might adore, not fever for, the bright phantoms of his mind’s creation, and believe them but the shadows of external things to be met with hereafter. After this steady intellectual growth had brought his powers to manhood, so far as the ideal can do it, I wished this being might be launched into the world of realities, his heart glowing with the ardor of an immortal toward perfection, his eyes searching everywhere to behold it; I wished he might collect into one burning point those withering, palsying convictions, which, in the ordinary routine of things, so gradually pervade the soul; that he might suffer, in brief space, agonies of disappointment commensurate with his unpreparedness and confidence. And I thought, thus thrown back on the representing pictorial resources I supposed him originally to possess, with such material, and the need he must feel of using it, such a man would suddenly dilate into a form of Pride, Power, and Glory, — a centre, round which asking, aimless hearts might rally, — a man fitted to act as interpreter to the one tale of many-languaged eyes!
‘What words are these! Perhaps you will feel as if I sought but for the longest and strongest. Yet to my ear they do but faintly describe the imagined powers of such a being.’
Margaret’s home at this time was in the mansion-house formerly belonging to Judge Dana,— a large, old-fashioned building, since taken down, standing about a quarter of a mile from the Cambridge Colleges, on the main road to Boston. The house stood back from the road, on rising ground, which overlooked an extensive landscape. It was always a pleasure to Margaret to look at the outlines of the distant hills beyond the river, and to have before her this extent of horizon and sky. In the last year of her residence in Cambridge, her father moved to the old Brattle place, — a still more ancient edifice, with large, old-fashioned garden, and stately rows of Linden trees. Here Margaret enjoyed the garden walks, which took the place of the extensive view.
During these five years her life was not diversified by events, but was marked by an inward history. Study, conversation, society, friendship, and reflection on the aim and law of life, made up her biography. Accordingly, these topics will constitute the substance of this chapter, though sometimes, in order to give completeness to a subject, we may anticipate a little, and insert passages from the letters and journals of her Groton life.
- ↑ I had once before seen Margaret, when we were both children about five years of age. She made an impression on my mind which was never effaced, and I distinctly recollect the joyful child, with light flowing locks and bright face, who led me by the hand down the back-steps of her house into the garden. This was when her father lived in Cambridgeport, in a house on Cherry street, in front of which still stand some handsome trees, planted by him in the year of Margaret’s birth.
- ↑ “The Rivals” was a novel I had lent her, — if I remember right, by the author of “The Collegians;” a writer who in those days interested us not a little.
- ↑ These words of Goethe, which I have placed among the mottoes at the beginning of this chapter, were written by Margaret on the first page of a richly gilt and bound blank book, which she gave to me, in 1832, for a private journal. The words of Körner are also translated by herself, and were given to me about the same time.
- ↑ The hero of a novel she was reading.