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Chapter 5: my studies

As a love of study has been a leading influence in my life, I will here employ a little time, at the risk of some repetition, in tracing the way in which my thoughts had mostly tended up to the period when, after two years of deep depression, I suddenly turned to practical life with an eager desire to profit by its opportunities.

From early days my dear mother noticed in me an introspective tendency, which led her to complain that when I went with her to friends' houses I appeared dreamy and little concerned with what was going on around me. My early education, received at home, interested me more than most of my school work. While one person devoted time and attention to me, I repaid the effort to my best ability. In the classes of my schooldays, the contact between teacher and pupil was less immediate. I shall always remember with pleasure Mrs. B.'s ‘Conversations’ on Chemistry, which I studied with great pleasure, albeit that I never saw one of the experiments therein described. I remember that Paley's ‘Evidences [57] of Christianity’ interested me more than his ‘Philosophy,’ and that Blair's ‘Rhetoric,’ with its many quotations from the poets, was a delight to me. As I have before said, I was not inapt at algebra and geometry, but was too indolent to acquire any mastery in mathematics. The French language was somehow burnt into my mind by a cruel French teacher, who made my lessons as unpleasant as possible. My fear of him was so great that I really exerted myself seriously to meet his requirements. I have profited in later life by his severity, having been able not only to speak French fluently but also to write it with ease.

I was fourteen years of age when I besought my father to allow me to have some lessons in Italian. These were given me by Professor Lorenzo Da Ponte, son of the veteran of whom I have already spoken. With him I read the dramas of Metastasio and of Alfieri.

Through all these years there went with me the vision of some great work or works which I myself should give to the world. I should write the novel or play of the age. This, I need not say, I never did. I made indeed some progress in a drama founded upon Scott's novel of ‘Kenil-worth,’ but presently relinquished this to begin a play suggested by Gibbon's account of the fall of Constantinople. Such successes as I did manage to achieve were in quite a different line, that of [58] lyric poetry. A beloved music-master, Daniel Schlesinger, falling ill and dying, I attended his funeral and wrote some stanzas descriptive of the scene, which were printed in various papers, attracting some notice. I set them to music of my own, and sang them often, to the accompaniment of a guitar.

Although the reading of Byron was sparingly conceded to us, and that of Shelley forbidden, the morbid discontent which characterized these poets made itself felt in our community as well as in England. Here, as elsewhere, it brought into fashion a certain romantic melancholy. It is true that at school we read Cow. per's ‘Task,’ and did our parsing on Milton's ‘Paradise Lost,’ but what were these in comparison with:—

The cold in clime are cold in blood,


I loved her, Father, nay, adored.

After my brother's return from Europe, I read such works of George Sand and Balzac as he would allow me to choose from his library. Of the two writers, George Sand appeared to me by far the superior, though I then knew of her works only ‘Les Sept Cordes de la Lyre,’ ‘Spiridion,’ ‘Jacques,’ and ‘Andre.’ It was at least ten years after this time that ‘Consuelo’ revealed to the world the real George Sand, and [59] thereby made her peace with the society which she had defied and scandalized. Of my German studies I have already made mention. I began them with a class of ladies under the tuition of Dr. Nordheimer. But it was with the later aid of Dr. Cogswell that I really mastered the difficulties of the language. It was while I was thus engaged that my eldest brother returned from Germany. In conversing with him, I acquired the use of colloquial German. Having, as I have said, the command of his fine library, I was soon deep in Goethe's ‘Faust’ and ‘Wilhelm Meister,’ reading also the works of Jean Paul, Matthias Claudius, and Herder.

Thus was a new influence introduced into the life of one who had been brought up after the strictest rule of New England Puritanism. I derived from these studies a sense of intellectual freedom so new to me that it was half delightful, half alarming. My father undertook one day to read an English translation of ‘Faust.’ He presently came to me and said,—

‘My daughter, I hope that you have not read this wicked book!’

I must say, even after an interval of sixty years, that I do not consider ‘Wilhelm Meister’ altogether good reading for the youth of our country. Its great author introduces into his recital scenes and personages calculated to awaken [60] strange discords in a mind ignorant of any greater wrong than the small sins of a well-ordered household. Although disapproving greatly of Goethe, my father took a certain pride in my literary accomplishments, and was much pleased, I think, at the commendation which followed some of my early efforts. One of these, a brief essay on the minor poems of Goethe and Schiller, was published in the ‘New York Review,’ perhaps in 1848, and was spoken of in the ‘North American’ of that time as ‘a charming paper, said to have been written by a lady.’

I have already said that a vision of some important literary work which I should accomplish was present with me in my early life, and had much to do with habits of study acquired by me in youth, and never wholly relinquished. At this late day, I find it difficult to account for a sense of literary responsibility which never left me, and which I must consider to have formed a part of my spiritual make-up. My earliest efforts in prose, two review articles, were probably more remarked at the time of their publication than their merit would have warranted. But women writers were by no means as numerous sixty years ago as they are to-day. Neither was it possible for a girl student in those days to find that help and guidance toward a literary career which may easily be commanded to-day. [61]

The death, within one year, of my father and most dearly loved brother touched within me a deeper train of thought than I had yet known. The anguish which I then experienced sought relief in expression, and took form in a small collection of poems, which Margaret Fuller urged me to publish, but which have never seen the light, and never will.

Among the friends who frequented my father's house was the Rev. Francis L. Hawkes, long the pastor of a very prominent and fashionable Episcopal church in New York. I remember that on one occasion he began to abuse my Germans in good earnest for their irreligion and infidelity, of which I, indeed, knew nothing. I inquired whether he had read any of the authors whom he so unsparingly condemned. He was forced to confess that he had not, but presently turned upon me, quite indignant that I should have asked such a question. I recall another occasion on which the anti-slavery agitation was spoken of. Dr. Hawkes condemned it very severely, and said: ‘If I could get hold of one of those men who are trying to stir up the slaves of the South to cut their masters' throats, I would hang him to that lamp-post.’ An uncle of mine who was present said: ‘Doctor, I honor you!’ but I felt much offended at the doctor's violence. With these exceptions his society was a welcome addition to our family circle. [62] He was a man of genial temperament and commanding character, widely read in English literature, and esteemed very eloquent as a preacher.

I remember moments in which the enlargement of my horizon of thought and of faith became strongly sensible to me, in the quiet of my reading, in my own room. A certain essay in the ‘Wandsbecker Bote’ of Matthias Claudius ends thus: ‘And is he not also the God of the Japanese?’ Foolish as it may appear, it had never struck me before that the God whom I had been taught to worship was the God of any peoples outside the limits of Judaism and Christendom. The suggestion shocked me at first, but, later on, gave me much satisfaction. Another such moment I recall when, having carefully read ‘Paradise Lost’ to the very end, I saw presented before me the picture of an eternal evil, of Satan and his ministers subjugated indeed by God, but not conquered, and able to maintain against Him an opposition as eternal as his goodness. This appeared to me impossible, and I threw away, once and forever, the thought of the terrible hell which till then had always formed part of my belief. In its place, I cherished the persuasion that the victory of goodness must consist in making everything good, and that Satan himself could have no shield strong enough to resist permanently the divine power of the divine spirit. [63]

This was a great emancipation for me, and I soon welcomed with joy every evidence in literature which tended to show that religion has never been confined to the experience of a particular race or nation, but has shown itself at all times, and under every variety of form, as a seeking for the divine and a reverence for the things unseen.

So much for study I

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