Conversations on the Fine Arts.

From: Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1874).
Author: R.W. Emerson, W.H. Channing, J.F. Clarke
Published: Roberts Brothers 1874 Boston


  “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 æsthetic 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 sciul 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, a11d 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 ns 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 out 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 tum, 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?’

  “C—— replied,—’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 ere: ate 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 our 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 adp1itted. 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 Sabreanism 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 train 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 ge1m 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;” “Dæmonology;” “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, Goethe, 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.’

All Sub-Works of Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1874).:
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.