Character.—Aims and Ideas of Life.

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



“O friend, how flat and tasteless such a life!
Impulse gives birth to impulse, deed to deed,
Still toilsomely ascending step by step,
Into an unknown realm of dark blue clouds.
What crowns the ascent? Speak, or I go no further.
I need a. goal, an aim. I cannot toil,
Because the steps are here; in their ascent
Tell me THE END, or I sit still and weep.”
                “NATURLICHE TOCHTER,”
                 Translated by Margaret.

  “And so he went onward, ever onward, for twenty-seven years—then, indeed, he had gone far enough.”
                              GOETHE’s words concerning Schiller

  I WOULD say something of Margaret’s inward condition, of her aims and views in life, while in Cambridge, before closing this chapter of her story. Her powers, whether of mind, heart, or will, have been sufficiently indicated in what has preceded. In the sketch of her friendships and of her studies, we have seen the affluence of her intellect, and the deep tenderness of her woman’s nature. We have seen the energy which she displayed in study and labor.

  But to what aim were these powers directed? Had she any clear view of the demands and opportunities of life, any definite plan, any high, pure purpose? This is, after all, the test question, which detects the lowborn and low-minded wearer of the robe of gold,—

“Touch them inwardly, they smell of copper.”

  Margaret’s life had an aim, and she was, therefore, essentially a moral person, and not merely au overflowing genius, in whom “impulse gives birth to impulse, deed to deed.” This aim was distinctly apprehended and steadily pursued by her from first to last. It was a high, noble one, wholly religious, almost Christian. It gave dignity to her whole career, and made it heroic.

  This aim, from first to last, was SELF-CULTURE. If she ever was ambitious of knowledge and talent, as a means of excelling others, and gaining fame, position, admiration,— this vanity had passed before I knew her, and was replaced by the profound desire for a full development of her whole nature, by means of a full experience of life.

  In her description of her own youth, she says, ‘VERY EARLY I KNEW THAT THE ONLY OBJECT IN LIFE WAS TO GROW.’ This is the passage:—

  I was now in the hands of teachers, who had not, since they came on the earth, put to themselves one intelligent question as to their business here. Good dispositions and employment for the heart gave a tone to all they said, which was pleasing, and not perverting. They, no doubt injured those who accepted the husks they proffered for bread, and believed that exercise of memory was study, and to know what others knew, was the object of study. But to me this was all penetrable. I had known great living minds,—I had seen how they took their food and did their exercise, and what their objects were. Very early I knew that the only object in life was to grow. I was often false to this knowledge, in idolatries of particular objects, or impatient longings for happiness, but I have never lost sight of it, have always been controlled by it, and this first gift of thought has never been superseded by a later love.

  In this she spoke truth. The good and the evil which flow from this great idea of self-development she fully realized. This aim of life, originally self-chosen, was made much more clear to her mind by the study of Goethe, the great master of this school, in whose unequalled eloquence this doctrine acquires an almost irresistible beauty and charm.

  “Wholly religious, and almost Christian,” I said, was this aim. It was religious, because it recognized something divine, infinite, imperishable in the human soul,—something divine in outward nature and providence, by which the soul is led along its appointed way. It was almost Christian in its superiority to all low, worldly, vulgar thoughts and cares; in its recognition of a high standard of duty, and a great destiny for man. In its strength, Margaret was enabled to do and bear, with patient fortitude, what would have crushed a soul not thus supported. Yet it is not the highest aim, for in all its forms, whether as personal improvement, the salvation of the soul, or ascetic religion, it has at its core a profound selfishness. Margaret’s soul was too generous for any low form of selfishness. Too noble to become an Epicurean, too large-minded to become a modern ascetic, the defective nature of her rule of life, showed itself in her case, only in a certain supercilious tone toward “the vulgar herd,” in the absence (at this period) of a tender humanity, and in an idolatrous hero-worship of genius and power. Afterward, too, she may have suffered from her desire for a universal human experience, and an unwillingness to see that we must often be content to enter the Kingdom of Heaven halt and maimed,—that a perfect development here must often be wholly renounced.

  But how much better to pursue with devotion, like that of Margaret, an imperfect aim, than to worship with lip-service, as most persons do, even though it be in a loftier temple, and before a holier shrine! With Margaret, the doctrine of self-culture was a devotion to which she sacrificed all earthly hopes and joys,—everything but manifest duty. And so her course was “onward, ever onward,” like that of Schiller, to her last hour of life.

Burned in her cheek with ever deepening fire
The spirit’s YOUTH, which never passes by;—
The COURAGE which, though worlds in hate conspire,
Conquers, at last, their dull hostility;—
The lofty FAITH, which, ever mounting higher,
Now presses on, now waiteth patiently,—
With which the good tends ever to his goal,
With which day finds, at last, the earnest soul.

  But this high-idea which governed our friend’s life, brought her into sharp conflicts, which constituted the pathos and tragedy of her existence,—first with her circumstances, which seemed so inadequate to the needs of her nature,—afterwards with duties to relatives and friends,—and, finally, with the law of the Great Spirit, whose will she found it so hard to acquiesce in.

  The circumstances in which Margaret lived appeared to her life a prison. She had no room for utterance, no sphere adequate; her powers were unemployed. With what eloquence she described this want of a field! Often have I listened with wonder and admiration, satisfied that she exaggerated the evil, and yet unable to combat her rapid statements. Could she have seen in how few years a way would open before her, by which she could emerge into an ample field,—how soon she would find troops of friends, fit society, literary occupation, and the opportunity of studying the great works of art in their own home,—she would have been spared many a sharp pang.

  Margaret, like every really earnest and deep nature, felt the necessity of a religious faith as the foundation of character. The first notice which I find of her views on this point is contained in the following letter to one of her youthful friends, when only nineteen:—

*    *    *    *    *

  I have hesitated much whether to tell you what you ask about my religion. You are mistaken! I have not formed an opinion. I have determined not to form settled opinions at present. Loving or feeble natures need a positive religion, a visible refuge, a protection, as much in the passionate season of youth as in those stages nearer to the grave. But mine is not such. My pride is any feelings I have yet experienced: my affection is strong admiration, not the necessity of giving or receiving assistance or sympathy. When disappointed, do not ask or wish consolation,—I wish to know and feel my pain, to investigate its nature and its source; I will not have my thoughts diverted, or my feelings soothed; ‘tis therefore that my young life is so singularly barren of illusions. I know, I feel the time must come when this proud and impatient heart shall be stilled, and turn from the ardors of Search and Action, to lean on something above. But-shall I say, it?—the thought of that calmer era is to me a thought of deepest sadness; so remote from my present being is that future existence, which still the mind may conceive. I believe in Eternal Progression. I believe in a God, a Beauty and Perfection to which I am to strive all my life for assimilation. From these two articles of belief, I draw the rules by which I strive to regulate my life. But, though I reverence all religions as necessary to the happiness of man, I am yet ignorant of the religion of Revelation. Tangible promises! well defined hopes! are things of which I do not now feel the need. At .present, my soul is intent on this life, and I think of religion as its rule; and, in my opinion, this is the natural and proper course from youth to age. What I have written is not hastily concocted, it has a meaning. I have given you, in this little space, the substance of many thoughts, the clues to many cherished opinions. ‘Tis a subject on which I rarely speak. I never said so much but once before. I have here given you all I know, or think, on the most important of subjects-could you but read understandingly!

*    *    *    *    *

  I find, in her journals for 1833, the following passages, expressing the religious purity of her aspirations at that time:—

  Blessed Father, nip every foolish wish in blossom. Lead me any way to truth and goodness; but if it might be, I would not pass from idol to idol. Let no mean sculpture deform a mind disorderly, perhaps ill-furnished, but spacious and life-warm. Remember thy child, such as thou madest her, and let her understand her little troubles, when possible, oh, beautiful Deity!

  Sunday morning.—Mr. — preached on the nature of our duties, social and personal. The sweet dew of truth penetrated my heart like balm. He pointed out the various means of improvement, whereby the humblest of us may be beneficent at last. How just, how nobly true,—how modestly, yet firmly uttered, – his opinions of man,—of time,—of God!

  My heart swelled with prayer. I began to feel hope that time and toil might strengthen me to despise the “vulgar parts of felicity,” and live as becomes an immortal creature. I am sure, quite sure, that I am getting into the right road. Oh, lead me, my Father! root out false pride and selfishness from my heart; inspire me with virtuous energy, and enable me to improve every talent for the eternal good of myself and others.

  A friend of Margaret, some years older than herself, gives me the following narrative:—

  “I was,” says she, in substance, “suffering keenly from a severe trial, and had secluded myself from all my friends, when Margaret, a girl of twenty, forced her war to me. She sat with me, and gave me her sympathy, and, with most affectionate interest, sought to draw me away from my gloom. As far as she was able, she gave me comfort. But as my thoughts were then much led to religious subjects, she sought to learn my religions experience, and listened to it with great interest. I told her how I had sat in darkness for two long years, waiting for the light, and in full faith that it would come; how I had kept my soul patient and quiet,—had surrendered self-will to God’s will,—had watched and waited till at last His great mercy came in an infinite peace to my soul. Margaret was never weary of asking me concerning this state, and said, ‘I would gladly give all my talents and knowledge for such an experience as this.’

  “Several years after,” continues this friend, “I was travelling with her, and we sat, one lovely night, looking at the river, as it rolled beneath the yellow moonlight. We spoke again of God’s light in the soul, and I said—‘Margaret! has that light dawned on your soul?’ She answered, ‘I think it has. But, oh! it is so glorious that I fear it will not be permanent, and so precious that I dare not speak of it, lest it should be gone.’

  “That was the whole of our conversation, and I did not speak to her again concerning it.”

  Before this time, however, during her residence at Cambridge, she seemed to reach the period of her existence in which she descended lowest into the depths of gloom. She felt keenly, at this time, the want of a home for her heart. Full of a profound tendency toward life, capable of an ardent love, her affections were thrown back on her heart, to become stagnant, and for a while to grow bitter there. Then it was that she felt how empty and worthless were all the attainments and triumphs of the mere intellect; then it was that “she went about to cause her heart to despair of all the labor she had taken under the sun.” Had she not emerged from this valley of the shadow of death, and come on to a higher plane of conviction and hope, her life would have been a most painful tragedy. But, when we know how she passed on and up, ever higher and higher, to the mountain-top, leaving one by one these dark ravines and mist-shrouded valleys, and ascending to where a perpetual sunshine lay, above the region of clouds, and was able to overlook with each glance the widest panorama,—we can read, with sympathy indeed, but without pain, the following extracts from a journal:—

  It was Thanksgiving day, (Nov., 1831,) and I was obliged to go to church, or exceedingly displease my father. I almost always suffered much in church from a feeling of disunion with the hearers and dissent from the preacher; but to-day, more than ever before, the services jarred upon me from their grateful and joyful tone. I was wearied out with mental conflicts, and in a mood of most childish, child-like sadness. I felt within myself great power, and generosity, and tenderness; but it seemed to me as if they were all unrecognized, and as if it was impossible that they should be used in life. I was only one-and-twenty; the past was worthless, the future hopeless; yet I could not remember ever voluntarily to have done a wrong thing, and my aspiration seemed very high. I looked round the church, and envied all the little children; for I supposed they had parents who protected them, so that they could never know this strange anguish, this dread uncertainty. I knew not, then, that none could have any father but God. I knew not, that I was not the only lonely one, that I was not the selected Œdipus, the special victim of an iron law. I was in haste for all to be over, that I might get into the free air. **

  I walked away over the fields as fast as I could walk. This was my custom at that time, when I could no longer bear the weight of my feelings, and fix my attention on any pursuit; for I do believe I never voluntarily gave way to these thoughts one moment. The force I exerted I think, even now, greater than I ever knew in any other character. But when I could bear myself no longer, I walked many hours, till the anguish was wearied out, and I returned in a state of prayer. To-day all seemed to have reached its height. It seemed as if I could never return to a world in which I had no place,—to the mockery of humanities. I could not act a part, nor seem to live any longer. It was a sad and sallow day of the late autumn. Slow processions of sad clouds were passing over a cold blue sky; the hues of earth were dull, and gray, and brown, with sickly struggles of late green here and there; sometimes a moaning gust of wind drove late, reluctant leaves across the path;—there was no life else. In the sweetness of my present peace, such days seem to me made to tell man the worst of his lot; but still that November wind can bring a chill of memory.

  I paused beside a little stream, which I had envied in the merry fulness of its spring life. It was shrunken, voiceless, choked with withered leaves. I marveled that it did not quite lose itself in the earth. There was no stay for me, and I went on and on, till I came to where the trees were thick about a little pool, dark and silent. I sat down there. I did not think; all was dark, and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover, which it will use when it has been unkind all a cold autumn day. And, even then, passed into my thought a beam from its true sun, from its native sphere, which has never since departed from me. I remembered how, a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs, and asked, how came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it? I remembered all the times and ways in which the same thought had returned. I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space, and human nature; but I saw, also, that it MUST do it,—that it must make all this false true,—and sow new and immortal plants in the garden of God, before it could return again. I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the ALL, and all was mine. This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God. In that true ray most of the relations of earth seemed mere films, phenomena. **

  My earthly pain at not being recognized never went deep after this hour. I had passed the extreme of passionate sorrow; and all check, all failure, all ignorance, have seemed temporary ever since. When I consider that this will be nine years ago next November, I am astonished that I have not gone on faster since; that I am not yet sufficiently purified to be taken back to God. Still, I did but touch then on the only haven of Insight. You know what I would say. I was dwelling in the ineffable, the unutterable. But the sun of earth set, and it grew dark around; the moment came for me to go. I had never been accustomed to walk alone at night, for my father was very strict on that subject, but now I had not one fear. When I came back, the moon was riding clear above the houses: I went into the churchyard, and there offered a prayer as holy, if not as deeply true, as any I know now; a prayer, which perhaps took form as the guardian angel of my life. If that word in the Bible, Selah, means what gray-headed old men think it does, when they read aloud, it should be written here,—Selah!

  Since that day, I have never more been completely engaged in self; but the statue has been emerging, though slowly, from the block. Others may not see the promise even of its pure symmetry, but I do, and am learning to be patient. I shall be all human yet; and then the hour will come to leave humanity, and live always in the pure ray.

  This first day I was taken up; but the second time the Holy Ghost descended like a dove. I went out again for a day, but this time it was spring. I walked in the fields of Groton. But I will not describe that day; its music still sounds too sweetly near. Suffice it to say, I gave it all into our Father’s hands, and was no stern-weaving Fate more, but one elected to obey, and love, and at last know. Since then I have suffered, as I must suffer again, till all the complex be made simple, but I have never been in discord with the grand harmony.

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