V. Conversations in Boston.
Do not scold me; they are guests of my eyes.
Do not frown,—they rant no bread; they are guests of my words.
In the year 1839, Margaret removed from Groton
, and, with her mother and family, took a house at Jamaica Plain
, five miles from Boston
In November of the next year the family removed to Cambridge
, and rented a house there, near their old home.
In 1841, Margaret took rooms for the winter in town, retaining still the house in Cambridge
And from the day of leaving Groton
, until the autumn of 1844, when she removed to New York, she resided in Boston
, or its immediate vicinity.
was her social centre.
There were the libraries, galleries, and concerts which she loved; there were her pupils and her friends; and there were her tasks, and the openings of a new career.
I have vaguely designated some of the friends with whom she was on terms of intimacy at the time when I was first acquainted with her. But the range of her talents required an equal compass in her society; and she gradually added a multitude of names to the list.
She knew already all the active minds at Cambridge
; and has left a record of one good interview she had with
She now became intimate with Doctor Channing
, and interested him to that point in some of her studies, that, at his request, she undertook to render some selections of German philosophy into English for him. But I believe this attempt was soon abandoned.
She found a valuable friend in the late Miss Mary Rotch
, of New Bedford, a woman of great strength of mind, connected with the Quakers not less by temperament than by birth, and possessing the best lights of that once spiritual sect.
, Margaret had made the acquaintance of an elegant scholar, in Mr. Calvert
, of Maryland
, she had won, as by conquest, such a homage of attachment, from young and old, that her arrival there, one day, on her return from a visit to Bristol
, was a kind of ovation.
, she knew people of every class,—merchants, politicians, scholars, artists, women, the migratory genius, and the rooted capitalist,—and, amongst all, many excellent people, who were every day passing, by new opportunities, conversations, and kind offices, into the sacred circle of friends.
The late Miss Susan Burley
had many points of attraction for her, not only in her elegant studies, but also in the deep interest which that lady took in securing the highest culture for women.
She was very well read, and, avoiding abstractions, knew how to help herself with examples and facts.
A friendship that proved of great importance to the next years was that established with Mr. George Ripley
; an accurate scholar, a man of character, and of eminent powers of conversation, and already then deeply engaged in plans of an expansive practical bearing, of which the first fruit was the little community which flourished for a few years at Brook Farm.
Margaret presently became
connected with him in literary labors, and, as long as she remained in this vicinity, kept up her habits of intimacy with the colonists of Brook Farm.
, too, she knew and prized the heroic heart, the learning and wit of Theodore Parker
, whose literary aid was, subsequently, of the first importance to her. She had an acquaintance, for many years,—subject, no doubt, to alternations of sun and shade,—with Mr. Alcott
There was much antagonism in their habitual views, but each learned to respect the genius of the other.
She had more sympathy with Mr. Alcott
's English friend, Charles Lane, an ingenious mystic, and bold experimenter in practical reforms, whose dexterity and temper in debate she frankly admired, whilst his asceticism engaged her reverence.
Neither could some marked difference of temperament remove her from the beneficent influences of Miss Elizabeth Peabody
, who, by her constitutional hospitality to excellence, whether mental or moral, has made her modest abode for so many years the inevitable resort of studious feet, and a private theatre for the exposition of every question of letters, of philosophy, of ethics, and of art.
The events in Margaret's life, up to the year 1840, were few, and not of that dramatic interest which readers love.
Of the few events of her bright and blameless years, how many are private, and must remain so. In reciting the story of an affectionate and passionate woman, the voice lowers itself to a whisper, and becomes inaudible.
A woman in our society finds her safety and happiness in exclusions and privacies.
She congratulates herself when she is not called to the market, to the courts, to the polls, to the stage, or to the orchestra.
Only the most extraordinary genius can make the career of an
artist secure and agreeable to her. Prescriptions almost invincible the female lecturer or professor of any science must encounter; and, except on points where the charities which are left to women as their legitimate province interpose against the ferocity of laws, with us a female politician is unknown.
Perhaps this fact, which so dangerously narrows the career of a woman, accuses the tardiness of our civility, and many signs show that a revolution is already on foot.
Margaret had no love of notoriety, or taste for eccentricity, to goad her, and no weak fear of either.
Willingly she was confined to the usual circles and methods of female talent.
She had no false shame.
Any task that called out her powers was good and desirable.
She wished to live by her strength.
She could converse, and teach, and write.
She took private classes of pupils at her own house.
She organized, with great success, a school for young ladies at Providence
, and gave four hours a day to it, during two years. She translated Eckermann
's Conversations with Goethe
, and published in 1839.
In 1841, she translated the Letters of Gunderode and Bettine, and published them as far as the sale warranted the work.
In 1843, she made a tour to Lake Superior
and to Michigan
, and published an agreeable narrative of it, called ‘Summer on the Lakes
Apparently a more pretending, but really also a private and friendly service, she edited the ‘Dial,’ a quarterly journal, for two years from its first publication in 1840.
She was eagerly solicited to undertake the charge of this work, which, when it began, concentrated a good deal of hope and affection.
It had its origin in a club of speculative students, who found the air in America
getting a little close and stagnant; and the agitation
had perhaps the fault of being too secondary or bookish in its origin, or caught not from primary instincts, but from English
, and still more from German books.
The journal was commenced with much hope, and liberal promises of many cooperators.
But the workmen of sufficient culture for a poetical and philosophical magazine were too few; and, as the pages were filled by unpaid contributors, each of whom had, according to the usage and necessity of this country, some paying employment, the journal did not get his best work, but his second best.
Its scattered writers had not digested their theories into a distinct dogma, still less into a practical measure which the public could grasp; and the magazine was so eclectic and miscellaneous, that each of its readers and writers valued only a small portion of it. For these reasons it never had a large circulation, and it was discontinued after four years. But the Dial betrayed, through all its juvenility, timidity, and conventional rubbish, some sparks of the true love and hope, and of the piety to spiritual law, which had moved its friends and founders, and it was received by its early subscribers with almost a religious welcome.
Many years after it was brought to a close, Margaret was surprised in England
by very warm testimony to its merits; and, in 1848, the writer of these pages found it holding the same affectionate place in many a private bookshelf in England
, which it had secured at home.
Good or bad, it cost a good deal of precious labor from those who served it, and from Margaret most of all. As editor, she received a compensation for the first years, which was intended to be two hundred dollars per annum
, but which, I fear, never reached even that amount.
But it made no difference to her exertion.
She put so
much heart into it that she bravely undertook to open, in the Dial, the subjects which most attracted her; and she treated, in turn, Goethe
, and Beethoven
, the Rhine
and the Romaic Ballads
, the Poems of John Sterling
, and several pieces of sentiment, with a spirit which spared no labor; and, when the hard conditions of journalism held her to an inevitable day, she submitted to jeopardizing a long-cherished subject, by treating it in the crude and forced article for the month.
I remember, after she had been compelled by ill health to relinquish the journal into my hands, my grateful wonder at the facility with which she assumed the preparation of laborious articles, that might have daunted the most practised scribe.
But in book or journal she found a very imperfect expression of herself, and it was the more vexatious, because she was accustomed to the clearest and fullest.
When, therefore, she had to choose an employment that should pay money, she consulted her own genius, as well as the wishes of a multitude of friends, in opening a class for conversation.
In the autumn of 1839, she addressed the following letter, intended for circulation, to Mrs. George Ripley
, in which her general design was stated:—
My dear friend:—The advantages of a weekly meeting, for conversation, might be great enough to repay the trouble of attendance, if they consisted only in supplying a point of union to well-educated and thinking women, in a city which, with great pretensions to mental refinement, boasts, at present, nothing of the kind, and where I have heard many, of mature age, wish for some such means of stimulus and cheer, and those younger, for a place where they could state their doubts and difficulties, with a hope of gaining
aid from the experience or aspirations of others.
And, if my office were only to suggest topics, which would lead to conversation of a better order than is usual at social meetings, and to turn back the current when digressing into personalities or common-places, so that what is valuable in the experience of each might be brought to bear upon all, I should think the object not unworthy of the effort.
But my ambition goes much further.
It is to pass in review the departments of thought and knowledge, and endeavor to place them in due relation to one another in our minds.
To systematize thought, and give a precision and clearness in which our sex are so deficient, chiefly, I think, because they have so few inducements to test and classify what they receive.
To ascertain what pursuits are best suited to us, in our time and state of society, and how we may make best use of our means for building up the life of thought upon the life of action.
Could a circle be assembled in earnest, desirous to answer the questions,—What were we born to do?
and how shall we do it? —which so few ever propose to themselves till their best years are gone by, I should think the undertaking a noble one, and, if my resources should prove sufficient to make me its moving spring, I should be willing to give to it a large portion of those coming years, which will, as I hope, be my best.
I look upon it with no blind enthusiasm, nor uhlimited faith, but with a confidence that I have attained a distinct perception of means, which, if there are persons competent to direct them, can supply a great want, and promote really high objects.
So far as I have tried them yet, they have met with success so much beyond
my hopes, that my faith will not easily be shaken, nor my earnestness chilled.
Should I, however, be disappointed in Boston, I could hardly hope that such a plan could be brought to bear on general society, in any other city of the United States.
But I do not fear, if a good beginning can be made.
I am confident that twenty persons cannot be brought together from better motives than vanity or pedantry, to talk upon such subjects as we propose, without finding in themselves great deficiencies, which they will be very desirous to supply.
Should the enterprise fail, it will be either from incompetence in me, or that sort of vanity in them which wears the garb of modesty.
On the first of these points, I need not speak.
I cannot be supposed to have felt so much the wants of others, without feeling my own still more deeply.
And, from the depth of this feeling, and the earnestness it gave, such power as I have yet exerted has come.
Of course, those who are inclined to meet me, feel a confidence in me, and should they be disappointed, I shall regret it not solely or most on my own account.
I have not given my gauge without measuring my capacity to sustain defeat.
For the other, I know it is very hard to lay aside the shelter of vague generalities, the art of coterie criticism, and the ‘delicate disdains’ of good society, and fearlessly meet the light, even though it flow from the sun of truth.
Yet, as, without such generous courage, nothing of value can be learned or done, I hope to see many capable of it; willing that others should think their sayings crude, shallow, or tasteless, if, by such unpleasant means, they may attain real health
and vigor, which need no aid from rouge or candlelight, to brave the light of the world.
Since I saw you, I have been told of persons who are desirous to join the class, ‘if only they need not talk.’
I am so sure that the success of the whole depends on conversation being general, that I do not wish any one to come, who does not intend, if possible, to take an active part.
No one will be forced, but those who do not talk will not derive the same advantages with those who openly state their impressions, and can consent to have it known that they learn by blundering, as is the destiny of man here below.
And general silence, or side talks, would paralyze me. I should feel coarse and misplaced, were I to harangue over-much.
In former instances, I have been able to make it easy and even pleasant, to twenty-five out of thirty, to bear their part, to question, to define, to state, and examine opinions.
If I could not do as much now, I should consider myself as unsuccessful, and should withdraw.
But I shall expect communication to be effected by degrees, and to do a great deal myself at the first meetings.
My method has been to open a subject,—for instance, Poetry, as expressed in—
The life of man;
The fine arts; or, The history of a nation to be studied in—
Its religious and civil institutions
Its literature and arts;
The characters of its great men; and, after as good a general statement as I know how to make, select a branch of the subject, and lead
others to give their thoughts upon it. When they have not been successful in verbal utterance of their thoughts, I have asked them to attempt it in writing.
At the next meeting, I would read these ‘skarts of pen and ink’ aloud, and canvass their adequacy, without mentioning the names of the writers.
I found this less necessary, as I proceeded, and my companions attained greater command both of thought and language; but for a time it was useful, and may be now. Great advantage in point of discipline may be derived from even this limited use of the pen.
I do not wish, at present, to pledge myself to any course of subjects.
Generally, I may say, they will be such as literature and the arts present in endless profusion.
Should a class be brought together, I should wish, first, to ascertain our common ground, and, in the course of a few meetings, should see whether it be practicable to follow out the design in my mind, which, as yet, would look too grand on paper.
Let us see whether there will be any organ, before noting down the music to which it may give breath.
Accordingly, a class of ladies assembled at Miss Peabody
's rooms, in West Street, on the 6th November, 1839. Twenty-five were present, and the circle comprised some of the most agreeable and intelligent women to be found in Boston
and its neighborhood.
The following brief report of this first day's meeting remains:—
Miss Fuller enlarged, in her introductory conversation, on the topics which she touched in her letter to Mrs. Ripley.
Women are now taught, at school, all that men are; they run over, superficially, even more studies, without being really taught anything.
When they come to the business of life, they find themselves inferior, and all their studies have not given them that practical good sense, and mother wisdom, and wit, which grew up with our grandmothers at the spinning-wheel.
But, with this difference; men are called on, from a very early period, to reproduce all that they learn Their college exercises, their political duties, their professional studies, the first actions of life in any direction, call on them to put to use what they have learned.
But women learn without any attempt to reproduce.
Their only reproduction is for purposes of display.
It is to supply this defect, “ Miss Fuller said, ” that these conversations have been planned.
She was not here to teach; but she had had some experience in the management of such a conversation as was now proposed; she meant to give her view on each subject, and provoke the thoughts of others.
It would be best to take subjects on which we know words, and have vague impressions, and compel ourselves to define those words.
We should have, probably, mortifications to suffer; but we should be encouraged by the rapid gain that comes from making a simple and earnest effort for expression.
Miss Fuller had proposed the Grecian Mythology as the subject of the first conversations, and now gave her reasons for the choice.
It is quite separated from all exciting local subjects.
It is serious, without being solemn, and without excluding any mode of intellectual action; it is playful, as well as deep.
It is sufficiently wide, for it is a complete expression of the cultivation
of a nation.
It is objective and tangible.
It is, also generally known, and associated with all our ideas of the arts.
It originated in the eye of the Greek.
He lived out of doors: his climate was genial, his senses were adapted to it. He was vivacious and intellectual, and personified all he beheld.
He saw the oreads, naiads, nereids.
Their forms, as poets and painters give them, are the very lines of nature humanized, as the child's eye sees faces in the embers or in the clouds.
Other forms of the mythology, as Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, are great instincts, or ideas, or facts of the internal constitution, separated and personified.
After exhibiting their enviable mental health, and rebutting the cavils of some of the speakers,—who could not bear, in Christian times, by Christian ladies, that heathen Greeks should be envied,—Miss Fuller declared, that she had no desire to go back, and believed we have the elements of a deeper civilization; yet, the Christian was in its infancy; the Greek in its maturity; nor could she look on the expression of a great nation's intellect, as insignificant.
These fables of the Gods were the result of the universal sentiments of religion, aspiration, intellectual action, of a people, whose political and aesthetic life had become immortal; and we must leave off despising, if we would begin to learn.
The reporter closes her account by saying:— ‘Miss Fuller
's thoughts were much illustrated, and all was said with the most captivating address and grace, and with beautiful modesty.
The position in which she placed herself with respect to the rest, was entirely ladylike, and companionable.
She told what she intended,
the earnest purpose with which she came, and, with great tact, indicated the indiscretions that might spoil the meeting.’
Here is Margaret's own account of the first days.
To another friend she wrote:—
The circle I meet interests me. So even devoutly thoughtful seems their spirit, that, from the very first, I took my proper place, and never had the feeling I dreaded, of display, of a paid Corinne.
I feel as I would, truly a teacher and a guide.
All are intelligent; five or six have talent.
But I am never driven home for ammunition; never put to any expense; never truly called out. What I have is always enough; though I feel how superficially I am treating my subject.
Here is an extract from the letter of a lady, who joined the class, for the first time, at the eighth meeting, to her friend in New Haven:—
Christmas made a holiday for Miss Fuller's class, but it met on Saturday, at noon. As I sat there, my heart overflowed with joy at the sight of the bright circle, and I longed to have you by my side, for I know not where to look for so much character, culture, and so much love of truth and beauty, in any other circle of women and girls.
The names and faces would not mean so much to you as to me, who have seen more of the lives, of which they are the sign.
Margaret, beautifully dressed, (don't despise that, for it made a fine picture,) presided with more dignity and grace than I had thought possible.
The subject was Beauty.
Each had written her definition, and Margaret began with
reading her own. This called forth questions, comments, and illustrations, on all sides.
The style and manner, of course, in this age, are different, but the question, the high point from which it was considered, and the earnestness and simplicity of the discussion, as well as the gifts and graces of the speakers, gave it the charm of a Platonic dialogue.
There was no pretension or pedantry in a word that was said.
The tone of remark and question was simple as that of children in a school class; and, I believe, every one was gratified.
The conversations thus opened proceeded with spirit and success.
Under the mythological forms, room was found for opening all the great questions, on which Margaret and her friends wished to converse.
was made the type of Pure Reason; Jupiter
, of Will; Juno
, the passive side of the same, or Obstinacy; Minerva
, Intellectual Power, Practical Reason; Mercury, Executive Power, Understanding; Apollo
was Genius, the Sun
was Geniality, the Earth
were contrasted,’ says the reporter.
‘Margaret unfolded her idea of Bacchus
His whole life was triumph.
Born from fire; a divine frenzy; the answer of the earth to the sun,—of the warmth of joy to the light of genius.
He is beautiful, also; not severe in youthful beauty, like Apollo
; but exuberant,— liable to excess.
She spoke of the fables of his destroying Pentheus
, &c., and suggested the interpretations.
was found in Scripture.
The Indian Bacchus
is glowing; he is the genial apprehensive power; the glow of existence; mere joy.’
was Grecian womanhood, instinctive; Diana
, chastity; Mars
, Grecian manhood, instinctive.
made the name for a conversation on Beauty, which was extended through four meetings, as it brought in irresistibly the related topics of poetry, genius, and taste.
was Circumstance; Pluto
, the Abyss, the Undeveloped; Pan, the glow and sportiveness and music of Nature; Ceres
, the productive power of Nature; Proserpine, the Phenomenon.
Under the head of Venus
, in the fifth conversation, the story of Cupid
was told with fitting beauty, by Margaret; and many fine conjectural interpretations suggested from all parts of the room.
The ninth conversation turned on the distinctive qualities of poetry, discriminating it from the other fine arts.
Rhythm and Imagery, it was agreed, were distinctive.
An episode to dancing, which the conversation took, led Miss Fuller
to give the thought that lies at the bottom of different dances.
Of her lively description the following record is preserved:—
Gavottes, shawl dances, and all of that kind, are intended merely to exhibit the figure in as many attitudes as possible.
They have no character, and say nothing, except, Look!
how graceful I am!
The minuet is conjugal; but the wedlock is chivalric.
Even so would Amadis wind slow, stately, calm, through the mazes of life, with Oriana, when he had made obeisances enough to win her for a partner.
English, German, Swiss, French, and Spanish dances all express the same things, though in very different ways.
Love and its life are still the theme.
In the English country dance, the pair who have chosen one another, submit decorously to the restraints of courtship and frequent separations, cross hands,
four go round, down outside, in the most earnest, lively, complacent fashion.
If they join hands to go down the middle, and exhibit their union to all spectators, they part almost as soon as meet, and disdain not to give hands right and left to the most indifferent persons, like marriage in its daily routine.
In the Swiss, the man pursues, stamping with energy, marking the time by exulting flings, or snapping of the fingers, in delighted confidence of succeeding at last; but the maiden coyly, demurely, foots it round, yet never gets out of the way, intending to be won.
The German asks his madchen if she will, with him, for an hour forget the cares and common-places of life in a tumult of rapturous sympathy, and she smiles with Saxon modesty her Ja. He sustains her in his arms; the music begins.
At first, in willing mazes they calmly imitate the planetary orbs, but the melodies flow quicker, their accordant hearts beat higher, and they whirl at last into giddy raptures, and dizzy evolutions, which steal from life its free — will and selfcollec-tion, till nothing is left but mere sensation.
The French couple are somewhat engaged with one another, but almost equally so with the world around them.
They think it well to vary existence with plenty of coquetry and display.
First, the graceful reverence to one another, then to their neighbors.
Exhibit your grace in the chasse,—made apparently solely for the purpose of dechasseing,—then civil intimacy between the ladies, in la chaine, then a decorous promenade of partners, then right and left with all the world, and balance, &c. The quadrille also offers opportunity for talk.
Looks and sympathetic motions are not
enough for our Parisian friends, unless eked out by words.
The impassioned bolero and fandango are the dances for me. They are not merely loving, but living; they express the sweet Southern ecstasy at the mere gift of existence.
These persons are together, they live, they are beautiful; how can they say this in sufficiently plain terms? —I love, I live, I am beautiful!—I put on my festal dress to do honor to my happiness; I shake my castanets, that my hands, too, may be busy; I felice,—felicissima!
This first series of conversations extended to thirteen, the class meeting once a week at noon, and remaining together for two hours. The class were happy, and the interest increased.
A new series of thirteen more weeks followed, and the general subject of the new course was ‘the Fine Arts
A few fragmentary notes only of these hours have been shown me, but all those who bore any part in them testify to their entire success.
A very competent witness has given me some interesting particulars:—
Margaret used to come to the conversations very well dressed, and, altogether, looked sumptuously.
She began them with an exordium, in which she gave her leading views; and those exordiums were excellent, from the elevation of the tone, the ease and flow of discourse, and from the tact with which they were kept aloof from any excess, and from the gracefulness with which they were brought down, at last, to a possible level for others to follow.
She made a pause, and invited the others to come in. Of course, it was not easy for every one to venture her remark, after an eloquent discourse, and in
the presence of twenty superior women, who were all inspired.
But whatever was said, Margaret knew how to seize the good meaning of it with hospitality, and to make the speaker feel glad, and not sorry, that she had spoken.
She showed herself thereby fit to preside at such meetings, and imparted to the susceptible a wonderful reliance on her genius.
In her writing she was prone to spin her sentences without a sure guidance, and beyond the sympathy of her reader.
But in discourse, she was quick, conscious of power, in perfect tune with her company, and would pause and turn the stream with grace and adroitness, and with so much spirit, that her face beamed, and the young people came away delighted, among other things, with ‘her beautiful looks.’
When she was intellectually excited, or in high animal spirits, as often happened, all deformity of features was dissolved in the power of the expression.
So I interpret this repeated story of sumptuousness of dress, that this appearance, like her reported beauty, was simply an effect of a general impression of magnificence made by her genius, and mistakenly attributed to some external elegance; for I have been told by her most intimate friend, who knew every particular of her conduct at that time, that there was nothing of special expense or splendor in her toilette.
The effect of the winter's work was happiest.
Margaret was made intimately known to many excellent persons.1
In this company of matrons and maids, many tender spirits had been set in ferment.
A new day had
dawned for them; new thoughts had opened; the secret of life was shown, or, at least, that life had a secret.
They could not forget what they had heard, and what they had been surprised into saying.
A true refinement had begun to work in many who had been slaves to trifles.
They went home thoughtful and happy, since the steady elevation of Margaret's aim had infused a certain unexpected greatness of tone into the conversation.
It was, I believe, only an expression of the feeling of the class, the remark made, perhaps at the next year's course, by a lady of eminent powers, previously by no means partial to Margaret, and who expressed her frank admiration on leaving the house:—‘I never heard, read of, or imagined a conversation at all equal to this we have now heard.’
The strongest wishes were expressed, on all sides, that the conversations should be renewed at the beginning of the following winter.
Margaret willingly consented; but, as I have already intimated, in the summer
of 1840, she had retreated to some interior shrine, and believed that she came into life and society with some advantage from this devotion.
Of this feeling the new discussion bore evident traces.
Most of the last year's class returned, and new members gave in their names.
The first meeting was holden on the twenty-second of November, 1840.
By all accounts it was the best of all her days.
I have again the notes, taken at the time, of the excellent lady at whose house it was held, to furnish the following sketch of the first and the following meetings.
I preface these notes by an extract from a letter of Margaret.
Conversations on the fine arts.
Miss Fuller's fifth conversation was pretty much a monologue of her own. The company collected proved much larger than any of us had anticipated: a chosen company,—several persons from homes out of town, at considerable inconvenience; and, in one or two instances, fresh from extreme experiences of joy and grief,—which Margaret felt a very grateful tribute to her. She knew no one came for experiment, but all in earnest love and trust, and was moved by it quite to the heart, which threw an indescribable charm of softness over her brilliancy.
It is sometimes said, that women never are so lovely and enchanting in the company of their own sex, merely, but it requires the other to draw them out. Certain it is that Margaret never appears, when I see her, either so brilliant and deep in thought, or so desirous to please, or so modest, or so heart-touching, as in this very party.
Well, she began to say how gratifying it was to her to see so many come, because all knew why they came,—that it was to learn from each other and ourselves the highest ends of life, where there could be no excitements and gratifications of personal ambition, &c. She spoke of herself, and said she felt she had undergone changes in her own mind since the last winter, as doubtless we all felt we had done; that she was conscious of looking at all things less objectively,—more from the law with which she identified herself.
This, she stated, was the natural progress of our individual being, when we did not hinder its development,
to advance from objects to law, from the circumference of being, where we found ourselves at our birth, to the centre.
This advance was enacted poesy.
We could not, in our individual lives, amid the disturbing influences of other wills, which had as much right to their own action as we to ours, enact poetry entirely; the discordant, the inferior, the prose, would intrude, but we should always keep in mind that poetry of life was not something aside, —a path that might or might not be trod,—it was the only path of the true soul; and prose you may call the deviation.
We might not always be poetic in life, but we might and should be poetic in our thought and intention.
The fine arts were one compensation for the necessary prose of life.
The man who could not write his thought of beauty in his life,—the materials of whose life would not work up into poetry,—wrote it in stone, drew it on canvas, breathed it in music, or built it in lofty rhyme.
In this statement, however, she guarded her meaning, and said that to seek beauty was to miss it often.
We should only seek to live as harmoniously with the great laws as our social and other duties permitted, and solace ourselves with poetry and the fine arts.
I find a further record by the same friendly scribe, which seems a second and enlarged account of the introductory conversation, or else a sketch of the course of thought which ran through several meetings, and which very naturally repeated occasionally the same thoughts.
I give it as I find it:—
She then recurred to the last year's conversations
and, first, the Grecian mythologies, which she looked at as symbolical of a deeper intellectual and aesthetic life than we were wont to esteem it, when looking at it from a narrow religious point of view.
We had merely skimmed along the deeper study.
She spoke of the conversations on the different part played by Inspiration and Will in the works of man, and stated the different views of inspiration,—how some had felt it was merely perception; others apprehended it as influx upon the soul from the soul-side of its being.
Then she spoke of the conversation upon poesy as the ground of all the fine arts, and also of the true art of life; it being not merely truth, not merely good, but the beauty which integrates both.
On this poesy, she dwelt long, aiming to show how life,—perfect life,— could be the only perfect manifestation of it. Then she spoke of the individual as surrounded, however, by prose,—so we may here call the manifestation of the temporary, in opposition to the eternal, always trenching on it, and circumscribing and darkening.
She spoke of the acceptance of this limitation, but it should be called by the right name, and always measured; and we should inwardly cling to the truth that poesy was the natural life of the soul; and never yield inwardly to the common notion that poesy was a luxury, out of the common track; but maintain in word and life that prose carried the soul out of its track; and then, perhaps, it would not injure us to walk in these by-paths, when forced thither.
She admitted that prose was the necessary human condition, and quickened our life indirectly by necessitating a conscious demand on the source of life.
In reply to a remark I made, she very strongly stated the difference between a poetic and a dilettante
life, and sympathized with the sensible people who were tired of hearing all the young ladies of Boston sighing like furnace after being beautiful.
Beauty was something very different from prettiness, and a microscopic vision missed the grand whole.
The fine arts were our compensation for not being able to live out our poesy, amid the conflicting and disturbing forces of this moral world in which we are. In sculpture, the heights to which our being comes are represented; and its nature is such as to allow us to leave out all that vulgarizes,— all that bridges over to the actual from the ideal.
She dwelt long upon sculpture, which seems her favorite art. That was grand, when a man first thought to engrave his idea of man upon a stone, the most unyielding and material of materials,—the backbone of this phenomenal earth,—and, when he did not succeed, that he persevered; and so, at last, by repeated efforts, the Apollo came to be.
But, no; music she thought the greatest of arts, —expressing what was most interior,—what was too fine to be put into any material grosser than air; conveying from soul to soul the most secret motions of feeling and thought.
This was the only fine art which might be thought to be flourishing now. The others had had their day. This was advancing upon a higher intellectual ground.
Of painting she spoke, but not so well.
She seemed to think painting worked more by illusion than sculpture.
It involved more prose, from its representing more objects.
She said nothing adequate about color.
She dwelt upon the histrionic art as the most complete, its organ being the most flexible and powerful.
She then spoke of life, as the art, of which these all
were beautiful symbols; and said, in recurring to her opinions expressed last winter, of Dante and Wordsworth, that she had taken another view, deeper, and more in accordance with some others which were then expressed.
She acknowledged that Wordsworth had done more to make all men poetical, than perhaps any other; that he was the poet of reflection; that where he failed to poetize his subject, his simple faith intimated to the reader a poetry that he did not find in the book.
She admitted that Dante's Narrative was instinct with the poetry concentrated often in single words.
She uttered her old heresies about Milton, however, unmodified.
I do not remember the transition to modern poetry and Milnes; but she read (very badly indeed) the Legendary Tale.
We then had three conversations upon Sculpture, one of which was taken up very much in historical accounts of the sculpture of the ancients, in which color was added to form, and which seemed to prove that they were not, after all, sufficiently intellectual to be operated on by form exclusively.
The question, of course, arose whether there was a modern sculpture, and why not. This led us to speak of the Greek sculpture as growing naturally out of their life and religion, and how alien it was to our life and to our religion.
The Swiss lion, carved by Thorwaldsen but of the side of a mountain rock, was described as a natural growth.
Those who had seen it described it; and Mrs.——spoke of it. She was also led to the story of her acquaintance with Thorwaldsen, and drew tears from many eyes with her natural eloquence.
Mrs. C. asked, if sculpture could express as well as painting the idea of immortality.
Margaret thought the Greek art expressed immortality as much as Christian art, but did not throw it into the future, by preeminence.
They expressed it in the present, by casting out of the mortal body every expression of infirmity and decay.
The idealization of the human form makes a God.
The fact that man can conceive and express this perfection of being, is as good a witness to immortality, as the look of aspiration in the countenance of a Magdalen.
It is quite beyond the power of my memory to recall all the bright utterances of Margaret, in these conversations on Sculpture.
It was a favorite subject with her. Then came two or three conversations on Painting, in which it seemed to be conceded that color expressed passion, whilst sculpture more severely expressed thought: yet painting did not exclude the expression of thought, or sculpture that of feeling,—witness Niobe,—but it must be an universal feeling, like the maternal sentiment.
March 22, 1841.—The question of the day was, What is life?
Let us define, each in turn, our idea of living.
Margaret did not believe we had, any of us, a distinct idea of life.
A. S. thought so great a question ought to be given for a written definition.
No, said Margaret,
that is of no use. When we go away to think of anything, we never do think.
We all talk of life.
We all have some thought now. Let us tell it. C——, what is life?
It is to laugh, or cry, according to our organization.
Good, said Margaret,
but not grave enough.
Come, what is life?
I know what I think; I want you to find out what you think.
Miss P. replied,— “Life is division from one's principle of life in order to a conscious reorganization.
We are cut up by time and circumstance, in order to feel our reproduction of the eternal law.”
Mrs. E.,— “We live by the will of God, and the object of life is to submit,” and went on into Calvinism.
Then came up all the antagonisms of Fate and Freedom.
Mrs. H. said,— “God created us in order to have a perfect sympathy from us as free beings.”
Mrs. A. B. said she thought the object of life was to attain absolute freedom.
At this Margaret immediately and visibly kindled.
C. S. said,— “God creates from the fulness of life, and cannot but create; he created us to overflow, without being exhausted, because what he created, necessitated new creation.
It is not to make us happy, but creation is his happiness and ours.”
Margaret was then pressed to say what she considered life to be.
Her answer was so full, clear, and concise, at once, that it cannot but be marred by being drawn through the scattering medium of my memory.
But here are some fragments of her satisfying statement.
She began with God as Spirit, Life, so full as to create and love eternally, yet capable of pause.
Love and creativeness are dynamic forces, out of which we, individually, as creatures, go forth bearing his image, that
is, having within our being the same dynamic forces, by which we also add constantly to the total sum of existence, and shaking off ignorance, and its effects, and by becoming more ourselves, i. e., more divine;—destroying sin in its principle, we attain to absolute freedom, we return to God, conscious like himself, and, as his friends, giving, as well as receiving, felicity forevermore.
In short, we become gods, and able to give the life which we now feel ourselves able only to receive.
On Saturday morning, Mrs. L. E. and Mrs. E. H. were present, and begged Margaret to repeat the statement concerning life, with which she closed the last conversation.
Margaret said she had forgotten every word she said.
She must have been inspired by a good genius, to have so satisfied everybody,—but the good genius had left her. She would try, however, to say what she thought, and trusted it would resemble what she had said already.
She then went into the matter, and, true enough, she did not use a single word she used before.
The fame of these conversations spread wide through all families and social circles of the ladies attending, and the golden report they gave, led to a proposal, that Margaret should undertake an evening class, of four or five lessons, to which gentlemen should also be admitted.
This was put in effect, in the course of the winter, and I had, myself the pleasure of assisting at one—the second—of these soirees.
The subject was Mythology, and several gentlemen took part in it. Margaret spoke well,—she could not otherwise,—but I remember that she seemed encumbered, or interrupted, by the headiness or incapacity of the men, whom she had not had the advantage of training, and who fancied, no doubt, that,
on such a question, they, too, must assert and dogmatize.
But, how well or ill they fared, may still be known; since the same true hand which reported for the Ladies
' Class, drew up, at the time, the following note of the Evenings of Mythology.
My distance from town, and engagements, prevented me from attending again.
I was told that on the preceding and following evenings the success was more decisive.
Margaret's plan, in these conversations, was a very noble one, and, had it been seconded, as she expected, they would have been splendid.
She thought, that, by admitting gentlemen, who had access, by their classical education, to the whole historical part of the mythology, her own comparative deficiency, as she felt it, in this part of learning, would be made up; and that taking her stand on the works of art, which were the final development in Greece of these multifarious fables, the whole subject might be swept from zenith to nadir.
But all that depended on others entirely failed.
Mr. W. contributed some isolated facts,—told the etymology of names, and cited a few fables not so commonly known as most; but, even in the point of erudition, which Margaret did not profess, on the subject, she proved the best informed of the party, while no one brought an idea, except herself.
Her general idea was, that, upon the Earth-worship and Sabaeanism of earlier ages, the Grecian genius acted to humanize and idealize, but, still, with some regard to the original principle.
What was a seed, or a root, merely, in the Egyptian mind, became a flower in Greece,—Isis, and Osiris, for instance, are reproduced in
Ceres and Proserpine, with some loss of generality, but with great gain of beauty; Hermes, in Mercury, with only more grace of form, though with great loss of grandeur; but the loss of grandeur was also an advance in philosophy, in this instance, the brain in the hand being the natural consequence of the application of Idea to practice,—the Hermes of the Egyptians.
I do not feel that the class, by their apprehension of Margaret, do any justice to the scope and depth of her views.
They come,—myself among the number,—I confess,—to be entertained; but she has a higher purpose.
She, amid all her infirmities, studies and thinks with the seriousness of one upon oath, and there has not been a single conversation this winter, in either class, that had not in it the spirit which giveth life.
Just in proportion to the importance of the subject, does she tax her mind, and say what is most important; while, of necessity, nothing is reported from the conversations but her brilliant sallies, her occasional paradoxes of form, and, sometimes, her impatient reacting upon dulness and frivolity.
In particular points, I know, some excel her; in particular departments I sympathize more with some other persons; but, take her as a whole, she has the most to bestow on others by conversation of any person I have ever known.
I cannot conceive of any species of vanity living in her presence.
She distances all who talk with her.
Mr. E. only served to display her powers.
With his sturdy reiteration of his uncompromising idealism, his absolute denial of the fact of human nature, he gave her opportunity and excitement to unfold and illustrate her realism and acceptance of conditions.
What is so noble is, that her realism is transparent with idea,—her human
nature is the gem of a divine life.
She proceeds in her search after the unity of things, the divine harmony, not by exclusion, as Mr. E. does, but by comprehension,—and so, no poorest, saddest spirit, but she will lead to hope and faith.
I have thought, sometimes, that her acceptance of evil was too great,—that her theory of the good to be educed proved too much.
But in a conversation I had with her yesterday, I understood her better than I had done.
“It might never be sin to us, at the moment,” she said, “it must be an excess, on which conscience puts the restraint”
The classes thus formed were renewed in November of each year, until Margaret's removal to New York, in 1844.
But the notes of my principal reporter fail me at this point.
Afterwards, I have only a few sketches from a younger hand.
In November, 1841, the class numbered from twenty-five to thirty members: the general subject is stated as ‘Ethics.’
And the influences on Woman seem to have been discussed under the topics of the Family
, the School
, the Church
, Society, and Literature.
In November, 1842, Margaret writes that the meetings have been unusually spirited, and congratulates herself on the part taken in them by Miss Burley
, as “a presence so positive as to be of great value to me.”
The general subject I do not find.
But particular topics were such as these:—‘Is the ideal first or last; divination or experience?’
‘Persons who never awake to life in this world.’
‘Mistakes;’ ‘Faith;’ ‘Creeds;’ ‘Woman;’ ‘Daemonology;’ ‘Influence;’ ‘Catholicism’ (Roman
); ‘The Ideal.’
In the winter of 1843-4, the general subject was ‘Education.’
Culture, Ignorance, Vanity, Prudence,
Patience, and Health, appear to have been the titles of conversations, in which wide digressions, and much autobiographic illustration, with episodes on War, Bonaparte
, and Spinoza
, were mingled.
But the brief narrative may wind up with a note from Margaret on the last day.
28th April, 1844.—It was the last day with my class.
How noble has been my experience of such relations now for six years, and with so many and so various minds!
Life is worth living, is it not?
We had a most animated meeting.
On bidding me good-bye, they all, and always, show so much good-will and love, that I feel I must really have become a friend to them.
I was then loaded with beautiful gifts, accompanied with those little delicate poetic traits, of which I should delight to tell you, if we were near.
Last came a beautiful bouquet, passion-flower, heliotrope, and soberer blooms.
Then I went to take my repose on C——'s sofa, and we had a most serene afternoon together.