Conversation.—Social Intercourse.

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



“Be thou what thou singly art, and personate only thyself. Swim
smoothly in the stream of thy nature, and live but one man.”

                                                        SIR THOMAS BROWNE.

“Ah, how mournful look in letters
Black on white, the words to me,
Which from lips of thine fetters
Round the heart, or set it free.”

                             GOETHE, translated by J. S. Dwight

“Zu erfinden, zu beschliessen,
Bleibe, Kunstler, oft allein;
Deines Wirkes zu geuiessen
Eile freudig zum Verein,
Hier im Ganzen schau erfahre
Deines eignes Lebenslauf,
Und die Thaten mancher Jahre
Gehn dir in dem Nachbar auf.”

                                  GOETHE, Artist’s Song.


  WHEN I first knew Margaret, she was much in society, but in a circle of her own,-of friends whom she had drawn around her, and whom she entertained and delighted by her exuberant talent. Of those belonging to this circle, let me recall a few characters.

  The young girls whom Margaret had attracted were very different from herself, and from each other. From Boston, Charlestown, Roxbury, Brookline, they came to her, and the little circle of companions would meet now in one house, and now in another, of these pleasant towns. There was A—, a dark-haired, black-eyed beauty, with clear olive complexion, through which the rich blood flowed. She was bright, beauteous, and cold as a gem,—with clear perceptions of character within a narrow limit,—enjoying society, and always surrounded with admirers, of whose feelings she seemed quite unconscious. While they were just ready to die of unrequited love, she stood untouched as Artemis, scarcely aware of the deadly arrows which had flown from her silver bow. I remember that Margaret said, that Tennyson’s little poem of the skipping-rope must have been written for her,—where the lover expressing his admiration of the fairy-like motion and the light grace of the lady, is told—

“Get off, or else my skipping-rope
Will hit you in the eye.”

  Then there was B—, the reverse of all this,—tender, susceptible, with soft blue eyes, and mouth of trembling sensibility. How sweet were her songs, in which a single strain of pure feeling ever reminded me of those angel symphonies,—

“In all whose music, the pathetic minor
Our ears will cross—”

and when she sang or spoke, her eyes had often the expression of one looking in at her thought, not out at her companion.

  Then there was C—, all animated and radiant with joyful interest in life,—seeing with ready eye the beauty of Nature and of Thought,—entering with quick sympathy into all human interest, taking readily everything which belonged to her, and dropping wide sure instinct whatever suited her not. Unknown to her was struggle-, conflict, crisis; she grew up harmonious as the flower, drawing nutriment from earth and air,—from” common things which round us lie,” and equally from the highest thoughts and inspirations.

  Shall I also speak of D—, whose beauty had a half-voluptuous character, from those ripe red lips, those ringlets overflowing the well-rounded shoulders, and the hazy softness of those large eyes? Or of E—, her companion, beautiful too, but in a calmer, purer style,—with eye from which looked forth self-possession, truth and fortitude? Others, well worth notice, I must not notice now.

  But among the young men who surrounded Margaret, a like variety prevailed. One was to her interesting, on account of his quick, active intellect, and his contempt for shows and pretences; for his inexhaustible wit, his exquisite taste, his infinitely varied stores of information, and the poetic view which he took of life, painting it with Rembrandt depths of shadow and bursts of light. Another she gladly went to for his compact, thoroughly considered views of God and the world,—for his culture, so much more deep and rich than any other we could find here,—for his conversation, opening in systematic form new fields of thought. Yet men of strong native talent, and rich character, she also liked well to know, however deficient in culture, knowledge, or power of utterance. Each was to her a study, and she never rested till she had found the bottom of every mind,—till she had satisfied herself of its capacity and currents,—measuring it with her sure line, as

—“All human wits
Are measured, but a few.”

  It was by her singular gift of speech that she cast her spells and worked her wonders in this little circle. Full of thoughts and full of words; capable of poetic improvisation, had there· not been a slight overweight of a tendency to the tangible and real; capable of clear, complete, philosophic statement, but for the strong tendency to life which melted down evermore in its lava-current the solid blocks of thought; she was yet, by these excesses, better fitted for the arena of conversation. Here she found none adequate for the equal encounter; when she laid her lance in rest, every champion must go down before it. How fluent her wit, which, for hour after hour, would furnish best entertainment, as she described scenes where she had lately been, or persons she had lately seen! Yet she readily changed from gay to grave, and loved better the serious talk which opened the depths of life. Describing a conversation in relation to Christianity, with a friend of strong mind, who told her he had found, in this religion, a home for his best and deepest thoughts, she says—‘Ah! what a pleasure to meet with such a daring, yet realizing, mind as his!’ But her catholic taste found satisfaction in intercourse with persons quite different from herself in opinions and tendencies, as the following letter, written in her twentieth year, will indicate:

*    *    *    *    *

  I was very happy, although greatly restrained by the apprehension of ‘going a little too far with these persons of singular refinement and settled opinions. However, I believe I did pretty well, though I did make one or two little mistakes, when most interested; but I was not so foolish as to try to retrieve them. One occasion more particularly, when Mr. G—, after going more fully into his poetical opinions than I could have expected, stated his sentiments: first, that Wordsworth had, in truth, guided, or, rather, completely vivified the poetry of this age; secondly, that ‘twas his influence which had, in reality, given all his better individuality to Byron. He recurred again and again to this opinion, con amore, and seemed to wish much for an answer; but I would not venture, though ‘twas hard for me to for’ bear, I knew so well what I thought. Mr. G—’s Wordsworthianism, however, is excellent; his beautiful simplicity of taste, and love of truth, have preserved him from any .touch of that vague and imbecile enthusiasm, which has enervated almost all the exclusive and determined admirers of the great poet whom 1 have known in these parts. His reverence, his feeling, are thoroughly intelligent. Everything in his mind is well defined; and his horror of the vague, and false, nay, even (suppose another horror here, for grammar’s sake) of the startling and paradoxical, have their beauty. I think I could know Mr. G– long, and see him perpetually, without any touch of satiety; such variety is made by the very absence of pretension, and the love of truth. I found much amusement in leading him to sketch the scenes and persons which Lockhart portrays in such glowing colors, and which he, too, has seen with the eye of taste, but how different!

*    *    *    *    *

  Our friend was well aware that her forte was in conversation. Here she felt at home, here she felt her power, and the excitement which the presence of living persons brought, gave all her faculties full activity ‘After all,’ she says, in a letter, ‘this writing is mighty dead. Oh, for my dear old Greeks, who talked everything—not to shine as in the Parisian saloons, but to learn, to teach, to vent the heart, to clear the mind!’

  Again, in 1832:—

  Conversation is my natural element. I need to be called out, and never think alone, without imagining some companion. Whether this be nature or the force of circumstances, I know not; it is my habit, and be speaks a second-rate mind.

  I am disposed to think, much as she excelled in general conversation, that her greatest mental efforts were made in intercourse with individuals. All her friends will unite in the testimony, that whatever they may have known of wit and eloquence in others, they have never seen one who, like her, by the conversation of an hour or two, could not merely entertain and inform, but make an epoch in one’s life. We all dated back to this or that conversation with Margaret, in which we took a complete survey of great subjects, came to some clear view of a difficult question, saw our way open before us to a higher plane of life, and were led to some definite resolution or purpose which has had a bearing on all our subsequent career. For Margaret’s conversation turned, at such times, to life,—its destiny, its duty, its prospect. With comprehensive glance she would survey the past, and sum up, in a few brief words, its results; she would then turn to the future, and, by a natural order, sweep through its chances and alternatives,—passing over into a more earnest tone, into a more serious view,—and then bring all to bear on the present, till its duties grew plain, and its opportunities attractive. Happy he who can lift conversation, without loss of its cheer, to the highest uses! Happy he who has such a gift as this, an original faculty thus accomplished by culture, by which he can make our common life rich, significant and fair,—can give to the hour a beauty and brilliancy which shall make it eminent long after, amid dreary years of level routine!

  I recall many such conversations. I remember one summer’s day, in which we rode together, on horseback, from Cambridge to Newton,—a day all of a piece, in which my eloquent companion helped me to understand my past life, and her own,—a day which left me in that calm repose which comes to us, when we clearly apprehend what we ought to do, and are ready to attempt it. I recall other mornings when, not having seen her for a week or two, I would walk with her for hours, beneath the lindens or in the garden, while we related to each other what we had read in our German studies. And I always left her astonished at the progress of her mind, at the amount of new thoughts she had garnered, and filled with a new sense of the worth of knowledge, and the value of life.

  There were other conversations, in which, impelled by the strong instinct of utterance, she would state, in words of tragical pathos, her own needs and longings, her demands on life,—the struggles of mind, and of heart,—her conflicts with self, with nature, with the limitations of circumstances, with insoluble problems, with an unattainable desire. She seemed to feel relief from the expression of these thoughts, though she gained no light from her companion. Many such conversations I remember, while she lived in Cambridge, and one such in Groton; but afterwards, when I met her, I found her mind risen above these struggles, and in a self-possessed state which needed no such outlet for its ferment.

  It is impossible to give any account of these conversations; but I add a few scraps, to indicate, however slightly, something of her ordinary manner.

  Rev. Mr. —— preached a sermon on TIME. But what business had he to talk about time? We should like well to hear the opinions of a great man, who had made good use of ·time; but not of a little man, who had not used it to any purpose. I wished to get up and tell him to speak of something which he knew and felt.

  The best criticism on those sermons which proclaim so loudly the dignity of human nature was from our friend E. S. She said, coming out from Dr. Channing’s church, that she felt fatigued by the demands the sermon made on her, and would go home and read what Jesus said,—“Ye are of more value than many sparrows.” That she could bear; it did not seem exaggerated praise.

  The Swedenborgians say, “that is Correspondence,” and the phrenologists, “that it is Approbativeness,” and so think they know all about it. It would not be so, if we could be like the birds,—make one method, and then desert it, and make a new one,—as they build their nests.

  As regards crime, we cannot understand what we have not already felt;—thus, all crimes have formed part of our minds. We do but recognize one part of ourselves in the worst actions of others. When you take the subject in this light, do you not incline to consider the capacity for action as something widely differing from the experience of a feeling?

  How beautiful the life of Benvenuto Cellini! How his occupations perpetually impelled to thought,—to gushings of thought naturally excited!

  Father lectured me for looking satirical when the man of Words spake, and so attentive to the man of Truth,—that is, of God.

  Margaret used often to talk about the books which she and I were reading.

GODWIN.  I think you will be more and more satisfied with Godwin. He has fully lived the double existence of man, and he casts the reflexes on his magic mirror from a height where no object in life’s panorama can cause one throb of delirious hope or grasping ambition. At any rate, if you study him, you may know all he has to tell. He is quite free from vanity, and conceals not miserly any of his treasures from the knowledge of posterity.

M’LLE. D’ESPINASSE.  I am swallowing by gasps that cauldrony beverage of selfish passion and morbid taste, the letters of M’lle D’Espinasse. It is good for me. How odious is the abandonment of passion, such as this, unshaded by pride or delicacy, unhallowed by religion,—a selfish craving only; every source of enjoyment stifled to cherish this burning thirst. Yet the picture, so minute in its touches, is true as death. I should not like Delphine now.

  Events in life, apparently trivial, often seemed to her full of mystic significance, and it was her pleasure to turn such to poetry. On one occasion, the sight of a passion-flower, given by one lady to another, and then lost, appeared to her so significant of the character, relation, and destiny of the two, that it drew from her line: of which two or three seem worth preserving, as indicating her feeling of social relations.

Dear friend, my heart grew pensive when I saw
The flower, for thee so sweetly set apart,
By one whose passionless though tender heart
Is worthy to bestow, as angels are,
By an unheeding hand conveyed away,
To close, in unsoothed night, the promise of its day.

*    *    *    *    *

The mystic flower read in thy soul-filled eye
To its life’s question the desired reply,
But came no nearer. On thy gentle breast
It hoped to find the haven of its rest;
But in cold night, hurried afar from thee,
It closed its once half-smiling destiny.

Yet thus, methinks, it utters as it dies,—
“By the pure truth of those calm, gentle eyes
Which saw my life should find its aim in thine,
I see a clime where no strait laws confine.
In that blest land where twos ne’er know a three,
Save as the accord of their fine sympathy,
O, best-loved, I will wait for thee!”

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