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



“Nur durch das Morgenthor des Schönen
Drangst du in der Erkenntniss Land;
An hüben Glanz sich zu gewühnen
Uebt sich am Reize der Verstand.
Was bei dem Saitenklang der Musen
Mit sussem Beben dich durchdrang,
Erzog die Kraft in deinem Busen,
Die sich dereinst zum Weltgeist schwang.”


“To work, with heart resigned and spirit strong;
Subdue, with patient toil, life’s bitter wrong,
Through Nature’s dullest, as her brightest ways,
We will march onward, singing to thy praise.”

                                     E. S., in the Dial

“The peculiar nature of the scholar’s occupation consists in this,—that science, and especially that side of it from which he conceives of the whole, shall continually burst forth before him in new and fairer forms. Let this fresh spiritual youth never grow old within him; let no form become fixed and rigid; let each sunrise bring him new joy and love in his vocation, and larger views of its significance.”


  OF Margaret’s studies while at Cambridge, I knew personally only of the German. She already, when I first became acquainted with her, had become familiar with the masterpieces of French, Italian and Spanish literature. But all this amount of reading had not made her “deep-learned in books and shallow in herself;” for she brought to the study of most writers “a spirit and genius equal or superior;”—so far, at least, as the analytic understanding was concerned. Every writer whom she studied, as every person whom she knew, she placed in his own class, knew his relation to other writers, to the world, to life, to nature, to herself. Much as they might delight her, they never swept her away. She breasted the current of their genius, as a stately swan moves up a stream, enjoying the rushing water the more because she resists it. In a passionate love-struggle she wrestled thus with the genius of De Staël, of Rousseau, of Alfieri, of Petrarch.

  The first and most striking element in the genius of Margaret was the clear, sharp understanding, which keenly distinguished between things different, and kept every thought, opinion, person, character, in its own place, not to be confounded with any other. The god Terminus presided over her intellect. She knew her thoughts as we know each other’s faces; and opinions, with most of us so vague, shadowy, and shifting, were in her mind substantial and distinct realities. Some persons see distinctions, others resemblances; but she saw both. No sophist could pass on her a counterfeit piece of intellectual money; but also she recognized the one pure metallic basis in coins of different epochs, and when mixed with a very ruinous alloy. This gave a comprehensive quality to her mind most imposing and convincing, as it enabled her to show the one Truth, or the one Law, manifesting itself in such various phenomena. Add to this her profound faith in truth, which made her a Realist of that order that thoughts to her were things. The world of her thoughts rose around her mind as a panorama, the sun in the sky, the flowers distinct in the foreground, the pale mountain sharply, though faintly, cutting the sky with its outline in the distance,—and all in pure light and shade, all in perfect perspective.

  Margaret began to study German early in 1832. Both she and I were attracted towards this literature, at the same time, by the wild bugle-call of Thomas Carlyle, in his romantic articles on Richter, Schiller, and Goethe, which appeared in the old Foreign Review, the Edinburgh Review, and afterwards in the Foreign Quarterly.

  I believe that in about three months from the time that Margaret commenced German, she was reading with ease the masterpieces of its literature. Within the year, she had read Goethe’s Faust, Tasso, Iphigenia, Hermann and Dorothea, Elective Affinities, and Memoirs; Tieck’s William Love!, Prince Zerbino, and other works; Korner, Novalis, and something of Richter; all of Schiller’s principal dramas, and his lyric poetry. Almost every evening I saw her, and heard an account of her studies. Her mind opened under this influence, as the apple-blossom at the end of a warm week in May. The thought and the beauty of this rich literature equally filled her mind anti fascinated her imagination.

  But if she studied books thus earnestly, still more frequently did she turn to the study of men. Authors and their personages were not ideal beings merely, but full of human blood and life. So living men and women were idealized again, and transfigured by her rapid fancy,—every trait intensified, developed, ennobled. Lessing says that “The true portrait painter will paint his subject, flattering him as art ought to flatter—painting the face not as it actually is, but as creation designed, omitting the imperfectious arising from the resistance of the material worked in.” Margaret’s portrait-painting intellect treated persons in this way. She saw them as God designed them,—omitting the loss from wear and tear, from false position, from friction of untoward circumstances. If we may be permitted to take a somewhat transcendental distinction, she saw them not as they actually were, but as they really were. This accounts for her high estimate of her friends,—too high, too flattering, indeed, but justified to her mind by her knowledge of their interior capabilities.

  The following extract illustrates her power, even at the age of nineteen, of comprehending the relations of two things lying far apart from each other, and of rising to a point of view which could overlook both:—

  I have had,—while staying a day or two in Boston,—some of Shirley’s, Ford’s, and Heywood’s plays from the Athenreum. There are some noble strains of proud rage, and intellectual, but most poetical, all absorbing, passion. One of the finest fictions I recollect in those specimens of the Italian novelists,—which you, I think, read when I did,—noble, where it illustrated the Italian national spirit, is ruined by the English novelist, who has transplanted it to an uncongenial soil; yet he has given it beauties which an Italian eye could not see, by investing the actors with deep, continuing, truly English affections.

*    *    *    *    *

  The following criticism on some of the dialogues of Plato, (dated June 3d, 1833,) in a letter returning the book, illustrates her downright way of asking world-revered authors to accept. the test of plain common sense. As a finished or deliberate opinion, it ought not to be read; for it was not intended as such, but as a first impression hastily sketched. But read it as an illustration of the method in which her mind worked, and you will see that she meets the great Plato modestly, but boldly, on human ground, asking him for satisfactory proof of all that he says, and treating him as a human being, speaking to human beings.

  June 3, 1833.—I part with Plato with regret. I could have wished to “enchant myself,” as Socrates would say, with him some days longer. Eutyphron is excellent. ‘Tis the best specimen I have ever seen of that mode of convincing. There is one passage in which Socrates, as if it were aside,—since the remark is quite away from the consciousness of Eutyphron,—declares, “qu’il aimerait incomparablement mieux des principes fixes et inébranlables à l’habilité de Dédale avec les tresors de Tantale.” I delight to hear such things from those whose lives have given the right to say them. For ‘tis not always true what Lessing says, and I, myself, once thought,—

“F.—Von was fur Tugenden spricht er den?
MINNA.—Er spricht von keiner; denn ihn fehlt keine.”

For the mouth sometimes talketh virtue from the overflowing of the heart, as well as love, anger, &c.

  “Crito” I have read only once, but like it. I have not got it in my heart though, so clearly as the others.

  The “Apology” I deem only remarkable for the noble tone of sentiment, and beautiful calmness. I was much affected by Phredo, but think the argument weak in many respects. The nature of abstract ideas is clearly set forth; but there is no justice in reasoning, from their existence, that our souls have lived previous to our present state, since it was as easy for the Deity to create at once the idea of beauty within us, as the sense which brings to the soul intelligence that it exists in some outward shape. He does not clearly show his opinion of what the soul is; whether eternal as the Deity, created by the Deity, or how. In his answer to Simmias, he takes advantage of the general meaning of the words harmony, discord, &c. The soul might be a result, without being a harmony. But I think too many things to write, and some I have not had time to examine. Meanwhile I can think over parts, and say to myself, “beautiful,” “noble,” and us this as one of my enchantments.

  I send two of your German books. It pains me to part with Ottilia. I wish we could learn books, as we do pieces of music, and repeat them, in the author’s order, when taking a solitary walk. But, now, if I set out with an Ottilia, this wicked fairy association conjures up such crowds of less lovely companions, that I often cease to feel the influence of the elect one. I don’t like Goethe so well as Schiller now. I mean, I am not so happy in reading him. That perfect wisdom and merciless nature seems cold, after those seducing pictures of forms more beautiful than truth. Nathless, I should like to read the second part of Goethe’s Memoirs, if you do not use it now.

  1832.—I am thinking how I omitted to talk a volume to you about the “Elective Affinities.” Now I shall never say half of it, for which I, on my own account, am sorry. But two or three things I would ask:—

  What do you think of Charlotte’s proposition, that the accomplished pedagogue must be tiresome in society?

  Of Ottilia’s, that the afflicted, and ill-educated, are oftentimes singled out by fate to instruct others, and her beautiful reasons why?

  And what have you thought of the discussion touching graves and monuments?

  I am now going to dream of your sermon, and of Ottilia’s china-asters. Both shall be driven from my head to-morrow, for I go to town, allured by despatches from thence, promising much entertainment. Woe unto them if they disappoint me!

  Consider it, I pray you, as the “nearest duty” to answer my questions, and not act as you did about the sphinx-song.

  I have not anybody to speak to, that does not talk common-place, and I wish to talk about such an uncommon person,—about Novalis! a wondrous youth, and who has only written one volume. That is pleasant! I feel as though I could pursue my natural mode with him, get acquainted, then make my mind easy in the belief that I know all that is to be known. And he died at twenty-nine, and, as with Körner, your feelings may be single; you will never be called upon to share his experience, and compare his future feelings with his present. And his life was so full and so still.

  Then it is a relief, after feeling the immense superiority of Goethe. It seems to me as if the mind of Goethe had embraced the universe. I have felt this lately, in reading his lyric poems. I am enchanted while I read. He comprehends every feeling I have ever had so perfectly, expresses it so beautifully; but when I shut the book, it seems as if I had lost my personal identity; all my feelings linked with such an immense variety that belong to beings I had thought so different. What can I bring? There is no answer in my mind, except “It is so,” or “It will be so,” or “No doubt such and such feel so.” Yet, while my judgment becomes daily more tolerant towards others, the same attracting and repelling work is going on in my feelings. But I persevere in reading the great sage, some part of every day, hoping the time will come, when I shall not feel so overwhelmed, and leave off this habit of wishing to grasp the whole, and be contented to learn a little every day, as becomes a pupil.

  But now the one-sidedness, imperfection, and glow, of a mind like that of Novalis, seem refreshingly human to me. I have wished fifty times to write some letters giving an account, first, of his very pretty life, and then of his one volume, as I re-read it, chapter by chapter. If you will pretend to be very much interested, perhaps I will get a better pen, and write them to you. **


  Aug. 7, 1832.—I feel quite lost; it is so long since I have talked myself. To see so many acquaintances, to talk so many words, and never tell my mind completely on any subject—to say so many things which do not seem called out, makes me feel strangely vague and movable.

  Tis true, the time is probably near when I must live alone, to all intents and purposes,— separate entirely my acting from my thinking world, take care of my ideas without aid,—except from the illustrious dead,—answer my own questions, correct my own feelings, and do all that hard work for myself. How tiresome ‘tis to find out all one’s self-delusion! I thought myself so very independent, because I could conceal some feelings at will, and did not need the same excitement as other young characters did. And I am not independent, nor never shall be, while I can get anybody to minister to me. But I shall go where there is never a spirit to come, if I call ever so loudly.

  Perhaps I shall talk to you about Körner, but need not write. He charms me, and has become a fixed star in the heaven of my thought; but I understand all that he excites perfectly. I felt very new about Novalis,—“the good Novalis,” as you call him after Mr. Carlyle. He is, indeed, good, most, enlightened, yet most pure; every link of his experience framed—no, beaten—from the tried gold.

  I have read, thoroughly, only two of his pieces,” Die Lehrlinge zu Sais,” and “Heinrich von Ofterdingen.” From the former I have only brought away piecemeal impressions, but the plan and treatment of the latter, I believe, I understand. It describes the development of poetry in a mind; and with this several other developments are connected. I think I shall tell you all I know about it, some quiet time after your return, but, if not, will certainly keep a Novalis-journal for you some favorable season, when I live regularly for a fortnight.

  June, 1833.—I return Lessing. I could hardly get through Miss Sampson. E. Galeotti is good in the same way as Minna. Well-conceived and sustained characters, interesting situations, but never that profound knowledge of human nature, those minnte beauties, and delicate vivifying traits, which lead on so in the writings of some authors, who may be nameless. I think him easily followed; strong, but not deep.

  May, 1833.—Groton.—I think you are wrong in applying your artistical ideas to occasional poetry. An epic, a drama, must have a fixed form in the mind of the poet from the first; and copious draughts of ambrosia quaffed in the heaven of thought, soft fanning gales and bright light from the outward world, give muscle and bloom,—that is, give life,—to this skeleton. But all occasional poems must be moods, and can a mood have a form fixed and perfect, more than a wave of the sea?

  Three or four afternoons I have passed very happily at my beloved haunt in the wood, reading Goethe’s “Second Residence in Rome.” Your pencil-marks show that you have been before me. I shut the book each time with in earnest desire to live as he did,—always to have some engrossing object of pursuit. I sympathize deeply with a mind in that state. While mine is being used up by ounces, I wish pailfuls might be poured into it. I am dejected and uneasy when I see no results from my daily existence, but I am suffocated and lost when I have not the bright feeling of progression. **

  I think I am less happy, in many respects, than you, but particularly in this. You can speak freely to me of all your circumstances and feelings, can you not? It is not possible for me to be so profoundly frank with any earthly friend. Thus my heart has no proper home; it only can prefer some of its visiting-places to others; and with deep regret I realize that I have, at length, entered on the concentrating stage of life. It was not time. I had been too sadly cramped. I had not learned enough, and must always remain imperfect. Enough! I am glad I have been able to say so much.

  I have read nothing,—to signify,—except Goethe’s “Campagne in Frankreich.” Have you looked through it, and do you remember his intercourse with the Wertherian Plessing? That tale pained me exceedingly. We cry, “help, help,” and there is no help—in man at least. How often I have thought, if I could see Goethe, and tell him my state of mind, he would support and guide me! He would be able to understand; he would show me how to rule circumstances, instead of being ruled by them; and, above all, he would not have been so sure that all would be for the best, without our making an effort to act out the oracles; he would have wished to see me what Nature intended. But his conduct to Plessing and Ohlenschlager shows that to him, also, au appeal would have been vain.

  Do you really believe there is anything “all-comprehending” but religion? Are not these distinctions imaginary? Must not the philosophy of every mind, or set of minds, be a system suited to guide them, and give a home where they can bring materials—among which to accept, reject, and shape at pleasure? Novalis calls those, who harbor these ideas, “unbelievers;” but hard names make no difference. He says with disdain, “To such, philosophy is only a system which “will spare them the trouble of reflecting.” Now this is just my case. I do want a system which shall suffice to my character, and in whose applications I shall have faith. I do not wish to reflect always, if reflecting must be always about one’s identity, whether “ich,” am the true “ich,” &c. I wish to arrive at that point where I can trust myself, and leave off saying, “It seems to me,” and boldly feel, It is so TO ME. My character has got its natural regulator, my heart beats, my lips speak truth, I can walk alone, or offer my arm to a friend, or if I lean on another, it is not the debility of sickness, but only wayside weariness. This is the philosophy I want; this much would satisfy me.

  Then Novalis says, “Philosophy is the art of discovering the place of truth in every encountered event and circumstance, to attune all relations to truth.”

  Philosophy is peculiarly home-sickness; an over-mastering desire to be at home.

  I think so; but what is there all-comprehending, eternally-conscious, about that?

  Sept., 1832.—“Not see the use of metaphysics? A moderate portion, taken at stated intervals, I hold to be of much use as discipline of the faculties. I only object to them as having an absorbing and anti-productive tendency. But ‘tis not always so; may not be so with you. Wait till you are two years older, before you decide that ‘tis your vocation. Time enough at six-and-twenty to form yourself into a metaphysical philosopher. The brain does not easily get too dry for that. Happy you, in these ideas which give you a tendency to optimism: May you become a proselyte to that consoling faith. I shall never be able to follow you, but shall look after you with longing eyes.

  Groton.—Spring has come, and I shall see you soon. If I could pour into your mind all the ideas which have passed through mine, you would be well entertained, I think, for three or four days. But no hour will receive aught beyond its own appropriate wealth.

  I am at present engaged in surveying the level on which the public mind is poised. I no longer lie in wait for the tragedy and comedy of life; the rules of its prose engage my attention. I talk incessantly with common-place people, full of curiosity to ascertain the process by which materials, apparently so jarring and incapable of classification, get united into that strange whole, the American public. I have read all Jefferson’s letters, the North American, the daily papers, &c., without end. H. seems to be weaving his Kantisms into the American system in a tolerably happy manner.

  ** George Thompson has a voice of uncommon compass and beauty; never sharp in its highest, or rough and husky in its lowest, tones. A perfect enunciation, every syllable round and energetic; though his manner was the one I love best, very rapid, and full of eager climaxes. Earnestness in every part—sometimes impassioned earnestness,—a sort of “Dear friends, believe, pray believe, I love you, and you MUST believe as I do” expression, even in the argumentative parts. I felt, as I have so often done before, if I were a man, the gift I would choose should be that of eloquence. That power of forcing the vital currents of thousands of human hearts into ONE current, by the constraining power of that most delicate instrument, the voice, is so intense,—yes, I would prefer it to a more extensive fame, a more permanent influence.

  Did I describe to you my feelings on hearing Mr. Everett’s eulogy on Lafayette? No; I did not. That was exquisite. The old, hackneyed story; not a new anecdote, not a single reflection of any value; but the manner, the manner, the delicate inflections of voice, the elegant and appropriate gesture, the sense of beauty produced by the whole, which thrilled us all to tears, flowing from a deeper and purer source than that which answers to pathos. This was fine; but I prefer the Thompson manner. Then there is Mr. Webster’s, unlike either; simple grandeur, nobler, more impressive, less captivating. I have heard few fine speakers; I wish I could hear a thousand.

  Are you vexed by my keeping the six volumes of your Goethe? I read him very little either; I have so little time,—many things to do at home,—my three children, and three pupils besides, whom I instruct.

  By the way, I have always thought all that was said about the anti-religious tendency of a classical education to be old wives’ tales. But their puzzles about Virgil’s notions of heaven and virtue, and his gracefully described gods and goddesses, have led me to alter my opinions; and I suspect, from reminiscences of my own mental history, that if all governors do not think the same ‘t is from want of that intimate knowledge of their pupils’ minds which I naturally possess. I really find it difficult to keep their morale steady, and am inclined to think many of my own sceptical sufferings are traceable to this source. I well remember what reflections arose in my childish mind from a comparison of the Hebrew history, where every moral obliquity is shown out with such naïveté, and the Greek history, full of sparkling deeds and brilliant sayings, and their gods and goddesses, the types of beauty and power, with the dazzling veil of flowery language and poetical imagery cast over their vices and failings.

  My own favorite project, since I began seriously to entertain any of that sort, is six historical tragedies; of which I have the plans of three quite perfect. However, the attempts I have made on them have served to show me the vast difference between conception and execution. Yet I am, though abashed, not altogether discouraged. My next favorite plan is a series of tales illustrative of Hebrew history. The proper junctures have occurred to me during my late studies on the historical books of the Old Testament. This task, however, requires a thorough and imbuing knowledge of the Hebrew manners and spirit, with a chastened energy of imagination, which I am as yet far from possessing. But if I should be permitted peace and time to follow out my ideas, I have hopes. Perhaps it is a weakness to confide to you embryo designs, which never may glow into life, or mock me by their failure.

  I have long had a suspicion that no mind can systematize its knowledge, and carry on the concentrating processes, without some fixed opinion on the subject of metaphysics. But that indisposition, or even dread of the study, which you may remember, has kept me from meddling with it, till lately, in meditating on the life of Goethe, I thought I must get some idea of the history of philosophical opinion in Germany, that I might be able to judge of the influence it exercised upon his mind. I think I can comprehend him every other way, and probably interpret him satisfactorily to others,—if I can get the proper materials. When I was in Cambridge, I got Fichte and Jacobi; I was much interrupted, but some time and earnest thought I devoted. Fichte I could not understand at all; though the treatise which I read was one intended to be popular, and which he says must compel (bezwingen) to conviction. Jacobi I could understand in details, but not in system. It seemed to me that his mind must have been moulded by some other mind, with which I ought to be acquainted, in order to know him well,—perhaps Spinoza’s. Since I came home, I have been consulting Buhle’s and Tennemann’s histories of philosophy, and dipping into Brown, Stewart, and that class of books.

  After I had cast the burden of my cares upon you, I rested, and read Petrarch for a day or two. But that could not last. I had begun to “take an account of stock,” as Coleridge calls it, and was forced to proceed, He says few persons ever did this faithfully, without being dissatisfied with the result, and lowering their estimate of their supposed riches. With me it has ended in the most humiliating sense of poverty; and only just enough pride is left to keep your poor friend off the parish. As it is, I have already asked items of several besides yourself; but, though they have all given what they had, it has by no means answered my purpose; and I have laid their gifts aside, with my other hoards, which gleamed so fairy bright, and are now, in the hour of trial, turned into mere slate-stones. I am not sure that even if I do find the philosopher’s stone, I shall be able to transmute them into the gold they looked so like formerly. It will be long before I can give a distinct, and at the same time, concise, account of my present state. I believe it is a great era. I am thinking now,—really thinking, I believe; certainly it seems as if I had never done so before. If it does not kill me, something will come of it. Never was my mind so active; and the subjects are God, the universe, immortality. But shall I be fit for anything till I have absolutely re-educated myself? Am I, can I make myself, fit to write an account of half a Century of the existence of one of the master-spirits of this world? It seems as if I had been very arrogant to dare to think it; yet will I not shrink back from what I have undertaken,-even by failure I shall learn much.

  I am shocked to perceive you think I am writing the life of Goethe. No, indeed! I shall need a great deal of preparation before I shall have it clear in my head. I have taken a great many notes; but I shall not begin to write it, till it all lies mapped out before me. I have no materials for ten years of his life, from the time he went to Weimar, up to the Italian journey. Besides, I wish to see the books that have been written about him in Germany, by friend or foe. I wish to look at the matter from all sides. New lights are constantly dawning on me; and I think it possible I shall come out from the Carlyle view, and perhaps from yours, and distaste you, which will trouble me.

  ** How am I to get the information I want, unless I go to Europe? To whom shall I write to choose my materials? I have thought of Mr. Carlyle, but still more of Goethe’s friend, Von Muller. I dare say he would be pleased at the idea of a life of G. written in this hemisphere, and be very willing to help me. If you have anything to tell me, you will, and not mince matters. Of course, my impressions of Goethe’s works cannot be influenced by information I get about his life; but, as to this latter, I suspect I must have been hasty in my inferences. I apply to you without scruple. There are subjects on which men and women usually talk a great deal, but apart from one another. You, however, are well aware that I am very destitute of what is commonly called modesty. With regard to this, how fine the remark of our present subject: “Courage and modesty are virtues which every sort of society reveres, because they are virtues which cannot be counterfeited; also, they are known by the same hue.” When that blush does not come naturally to my face, I do not drop a veil to make people think it is there. All this may be very unlovely, but it is I.


  This is a noble work. So refreshing its calm, benign atmosphere, after the pestilence-bringing gales of the day. It comes like a breath borne over some solemn sea which separates us from an island of righteousness. How valuable is it to have among us a man who, standing apart from the conflicts of the herd, watches the principles that are at work, with a truly paternal love for what is human, and may be permanent; ready at the proper point to give his casting-vote to the cause of Right! The author has amplified on the grounds of his faith, to a degree that might seem superfluous, if the question had not become so utterly bemazed and be darkened of late. After all, it is probable that, in addressing the public at large, it is not best to express a thought in as few words as possible; there is much classic authority for diffuseness.


  Groton.—Ritcher says, the childish heart vies in the height of its surges with the manly, only is not furnished with lead for sounding them.

  How thoroughly am I converted to the love of Jean Paul, and wonder at the indolence or shallowness which could resist so long, and call his profuse riches want of system! What a mistake! System, plan, there is, but on so broad a basis that I did not at first comprehend it. In every page I am forced to pencil. I will make me a book, or, as he would say, bind me a bouquet from his pages, and wear it on my heart of hearts, and be ever refreshing my wearied inward sense with its exquisite fragrance. I must have improved, to love him as I do.

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