She had been early remarked for her sense and sprightliness, and for her skill in school exercises. Now she had added wide reading, and of the books most grateful to her. She had read the Italian poets by herself, and from sympathy. I said, that, by the leading part she naturally took, she had identified herself with all the elegant culture in this country. Almost every person who had any distinction for wit, or art, or scholarship, was known to her; and she was familiar with the leading books and topics. There is a kind of undulation in the popularity of the great writers, even of the first rank. We have seen a recent importance given to Behmen and Swedenborg; and Shakspeare has unquestionably gained with the present generation. It is distinctive, too, of the taste of the period,—the new vogue given to the genius of Dante. An edition of Cary ‘s translation, reprinted in Boston, many years ago, was rapidly sold; and, for the last twenty years, all studious youths and maidens have been reading the Inferno. Margaret had very early found her way to Dante, and from a certain native preference which she felt or fancied for the Italian genius. The following letter, though of a later date, relates to these studies:―
December, 1842.―When you were here, you seemed to think I might perhaps have done something on the Vita Nuova; and the next day I opened the book, and considered how I could do it. But you shall not expect that, either, for your present occasion. When I first mentioned it to you, it was only as a piece of Sunday work, which I thought of doing for you alone; and because it has never seemed to me you entered enough into the genius of the Italian to apprehend the mind, which has seemed so great to me, and a star unlike, if not higher than all the others in our sky. Else, I should have given you the original, rather than any version of mine. I intended to translate the poems, with which it is interspersed, into plain prose. Milnes and Longfellow have tried each their power at doing it in verse, and have done better, probably, than I could, yet not well. But this would not satisfy me for the public. Besides, the translating Dante is a piece of literary presumption, and challenges a criticism to which I am not sure that I am, as the Germans say, gewachsen. Italian, as well as German, I learned by myself, unassisted, except as to the pronunciation. I have never been brought into connection with minds trained to any severity in these kinds of elegant culture. I have used all the means within my reach, but my not going abroad is an insuperable defect in the technical part of my education. I was easily capable of attaining excellence, perhaps master, in the use of some implements. Now I know, at least, what I do not know, and I get along by never voluntarily going beyond my depth, and, when called on to do it, statin my incompetency. At moments when I feel tempted to regret that I could not follow out the plan I had marked for myself, and develop powers which are not usual here, I reflect that if I had attained high finish and an easy range in these respects, I should not have been thrown back on my own resources, or known them as I do. But Lord Brougham should not translate Greek orations, nor a maid-of-all-work attempt such a piece of delicate handling as to translate the Vita Nuova.’
Here is a letter, without date, to another correspondent:
To-day, on reading over some of the sonnets of Michel Angelo, I felt them more than usual. I know not why I have not read them thus before, except that the beauty was pointed out to me at first by another, instead of my coming unexpectedly upon it of myself. All the great writers, all the persons who have been dear to me, I have found and chosen; they have not been proposed to me. My intimacy with them came upon me as natural eras, unexpected and thrice dear. Thus I have appreciated, but not been able to feel, Michel Angelo as a poet.
It is a singular face in my mental history, that, while I understand the principles and construction of language much better than formerly, I cannot read so well les langues méridionales. I suppose it is that I am less méridionale myself. I understand the genius of the north better than I did.
Dante, Petrarca, Tasso, were her friends among the old poets,—for to Ariosto she assigned a far lower place,—Alfieri and Manzoni, among the new. But what was of still more import to her education, she had read German books, and, for the three years before I knew her, almost exclusively, – Lessing, Schiller, Richter, Tieck, Novalis, and, above all, Goethe. It was very obvious, at the first intercourse with her, though her rich and busy mind never reproduced undigested reading, that the last writer,—food or poison,—the most powerful of all mental reagents,—the pivotal mind in modern literature,—for all before him are ancients, and all who have read him are moderns,—that this mind had been her teacher, and, of course, the place was filled, nor was there room for any other. She had that symptom which appears in all the students of Goethe, an ill—dissembled contempt of all criticism on him which they hear from others, as if it were totally irrelevant; and they are themselves always preparing to say the right word,—a prestige which is allowed, of course, until they do speak: when they have delivered their volley, they pass, like their foregoers, to the rear.
The effect on Margaret was complete. She was perfectly timed to it. She found her moods met, her topics treated, the liberty of thought she loved, the same climate of mind. Of course, this book superseded all others, for the time, and tinged deeply all her thoughts. The religion, the science, the catholicism, the worship of art, the mysticism and dæmonology, and withal the clear recognition of moral distinctions as final and eternal, all charmed her; and Faust, and Tasso, and Mignon, and Makaria, and Iphigenia, became irresistible names. It was one of those agreeable historical coincidences, perhaps invariable, though not yet registered, the simultaneous appearance of a teacher and of pupils, between whom exists a strict affinity. Nowhere did Goethe find a braver, more intelligent, or more sympathetic reader. About the time I knew her, she was meditating a biography of Goethe, and did set herself to the task in 1837. She spent much time on it, and has left heaps of manuscripts, which are notes, transcripts, and studies in that direction. But she wanted leisure and health to finish it, amid the multitude of projected works with which her brain teemed. She used great discretion on this point, and made no promises. In 1839, she published her translation of Eckermann, a book which makes the basis of the translation of Eckermann since published in London, by Mr. Oxenford. In the Dial, in July, 1841, she wrote an article on Goeth, which is, on many accounts, her best paper.
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