Je n’ai point rencontré, dans ma vie, de femme plus noble; ayant autant de sympathie pour ses semblables, et dont l’esprit fut plus vivifant. Je me suis tout de suite sentie attirée par elle. Quand je fis sa connoissance, j’ignorais que.ce fut une femme remarquable.
I BECAME acquainted with Margaret in 1835. Perhaps it was a year earlier that Henry Hedge, who had long been her friend, told me of her genius and studies, and loaned me her manuscript translation of Goethe’s Tasso. I was afterwards still more interested in her, by the warm praises of Harriet Martineau, who had become acquainted with her at Cambridge, and who, finding Margaret’s fancy for seeing me, took a generous interest in bringing us together. I remember, during a week in the winter of 1835-6, in which Miss Martineau was my guest, she returned again and again to the topic of Margaret’s excelling genius and conversation, and enjoined it on me to seek her acquaintance; which I willingly promised. I am not sure that it was not in Miss Martineau’s company, a little earlier, that I first saw her. And I find a memorandum, in her own journal, of a visit, made by my brother Charles and myself, to Miss Martineau, at Mrs. Farrar’s. It was not, however, till the next July, after a little diplomatizing in billets by the ladies, that her first visit to our house was arranged, and she came to spend a fortnight with my wife. I still remember the first half-hour of Margaret’s conversation. She was then twenty-six years old. She had a face and frame that would indicate fulness and tenacity of life. She was rather under the middle height; her complexion was fair, with strong fair hair. She was then, as always, carefully and becomingly dressed, and of ladylike self-possession. For the rest, her appearance had nothing prepossessing. Her extreme plainness,—a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids,—the nasal tone of her voice, all repelled; and I said to myself, we shall never get far. It is to be said, that Margaret made a disagreeable first impression on most persons, including those who became afterwards her best friends, to such an extreme that they did not wish to be in the same room with her. This was partly the effect of her manners, which expressed an overweening sense of power, and slight esteem of others, and partly the prejudice of her fame. She had a dangerous reputation for satire, in addition to her great scholarship. The men thought she carried too many guns, and the women did not like one who despised them. I believe I fancied her too much interested in personal history; and her talk was a comedy in which dramatic justice was done to everybody’s foibles. I remember that she made me laugh more than I liked; for I was, at that time, an eager scholar of ethics, and had tasted the sweets of solitude and stoicism, and I found something profane in the hours of amusing gossip into which she drew me, and, when I returned to my library, had much to think of the crackling of thorns under a pot. Margaret, who had stuffed me out as a philosopher, in her own fancy, was too intent on establishing a good footing between us, to omit any art of winning. She studied my tastes, piqued and amused me, challenged frankness by frankness, and did not conceal the good opinion of me she brought with her, nor her wish to please. She was curious to know my opinions and experiences. Of course, it was impossible long to hold out against such urgent assault. She had an incredible variety of anecdotes, and the readiest wit to give an absurd turn to whatever passed; and the eyes, which were so plain at first, soon swam with fun and drolleries, and the very tides of joy and superabundant life.
This rumor was much spread abroad, that she was sneering, scoffing, critical, disdainful of humble people, and of all but the intellectual. I had heard it whenever she was named. It was a superficial judgment. Her satire was only the pastime and necessity of her talent, the play of superabundant animal spirits. And it will be seen, in the sequel, that her mind presently disclosed many moods and powers, in successive platforms or terraces, each above each, that quite effaced this first impression, in the opulence of the following pictures.
Let us hear what she has herself to say on the subject of tea-table-talk, in a letter to a young lady, to whom she was already much attached:—
I am repelled by your account of your party. It is beneath you to amuse yourself with active satire, with what is vulgarly called quizzing. When such a person as —— chooses to throw himself in your way, I sympathize with your keen perception of his ridiculous points. But to laugh a whole evening at vulgar nondescripts,—is that an employment for one who was born passionately to love, to admire, to sustain truth? This would be much more excusable in a chameleon like me. Yet, whatever may be the vulgar view of my character, I can truly say, I know not the hour in which I ever looked for the ridiculous. It has always been forced upon me, and is the accident of my existence. I would not want the sense of it when it comes, for that would show an obtuseness of mental organization; put, on peril of my soul, I would not move an eyelash to look for it.
When she came to Concord, she was already rich in friends, rich in experiences, rich in culture. She was well read in French, Italian, and German literature. She had learned Latin and a little Greek. But her English reading was incomplete; and, while she knew Moliere, and Rousseau, and any quantity of French letters, memoirs, and novels, and was a dear student of Dante and Petrarca, and knew German books more cordially than any other person, she was little read in Shakspeare; and I believe I had the pleasure of making her acquainted with Chaucer, with Ben Jonson, with Herbert, Chapman, Ford, Beaumont and Fletcher, with Bacon, and Sir Thomas Browne. I was seven years her senior, and had the habit of idle reading in old English books, and, though not much versed, yet quite enough to give me the right to lead her. She fancied that her sympathy and taste had led her to an exclusive culture of southern European books.
She had large experiences. She had been a precocious scholar at Dr. Park’s school; good in mathematics and in languages. Her father, whom she had recently lost, had been proud of her, and petted her. She had drawn, at Cambridge, numbers of lively young men about her. She had had a circle of young women who were devoted to her, and who described her as “a wonder of intellect, who had yet no religion.” She had drawn to her every superior young man or young woman she had met, and whole romances of life and love had been confided, counselled, thought, and lived through, in her cognizance and sympathy.
These histories are rapid, so that she had already beheld many times the youth, meridian, and old age of passion. She had, besides, selected, from so many, a few eminent companions, and already felt that she was not likely to see anything more beautiful than her beauties, anything more powerful and generous than her youths. She had found out her own secret by early comparison, and knew what power to draw confidence, what necessity to lead in every circle, belonged of right to her. Her powers were maturing, and nobler sentiments were subliming the first heats and rude experiments. She had outward calmness and dignity. She had come, to the ambition to be filled with all nobleness.
Of the friends who surrounded her, at that period, it is neither easy to speak, nor not to speak. A life of Margaret is impossible without them, she mixed herself so inextricably with her company; and when this little book was first projected, it was proposed to entitle it “Margaret and her Friends,” the subject persisting to offer itself in the plural number. But, on trial, that form proved impossible, and it only remained that the narrative, like a Greek tragedy, should suppose the chorus always on the stage, sympathizing and sympathized with by the queen of the scene.
Yet I remember these persons as a fair, commanding troop, every one of them adorned by some splendor of beauty, of grace, of talent, or of character, and comprising in their band persons who have since disclosed sterling worth and elevated aims in the conduct of life.
Three beautiful women,-either of whom would have been the fairest ornament of Papanti’s Assemblies, but for the presence of the other,—were her friends. One of these early became, and long remained, nearly the central figure in Margaret’s brilliant circle, attracting to herself, by her grace and her singular natural eloquence, every feeling of affection, hope, and pride.
Two others I recall, whose rich and cultivated voices in song were,-one a little earlier, the other a little later, the joy of every house into which they came; and, indeed, Margaret’s taste for music was amply gratified in the taste and science which several persons among her intimate friends possessed. She was successively intimate with two sisters, whose taste for music had been opened, by a fine and severe culture, to the knowledge and to the expression of all the wealth of the German masters.
I remember another, whom every muse inspired, skilful alike with the pencil and the pen, and by whom both were almost contemned for their inadequateness, in the height and scope of her aims. ‘With her,’ said Margaret, ‘I can talk of anything. She is like me. She is able to look facts in the face. We enjoy the clearest, widest, most direct communication. She may be no happier than ——, but she will know her own mind too clearly to make any great mistake in conduct, and will learn a deep meaning from her days.’
‘It is not in the way of tenderness that I love ——. I prize her always; and this is all the love some natures ever know. And I also feel that I may always expect she will be with me. I delight to picture to myself certain persons translated, illuminated. There are a few in whom I see occasionally the future being piercing, promising,—whom I can strip of all that masks their temporary relations, and elevate to their natural position. Sometimes I have not known these persons intimately,—oftener I have; for it is only in the deepest hours that this light is likely to break out. But some of those I have best befriended I cannot thus portray, and very few men I can. It does not depend at all on the beauty of their forms, at present; it is in the eye and the smile, that the hope shines through. I can see exactly how —— will look: not like this angel in the paper; she will not bring flowers, but a living coal, to the lips of the singer; her eyes will not burn as now with smothered fires, they will be ever deeper, and glow more intensely; her cheek will be smooth, but marble pale; her gestures nobly free, but few.’
Another was a lady who was devoted to landscape painting, and who enjoyed the distinction of being the only pupil of Allston, and who, in her alliance with Margaret, gave as much honor as she received, by the security of her spirit, and by the heroism of her devotion to her friend. Her friends called her “the perpetual peace offering,” and Margaret says of her,—‘She is here, and her neighborhood casts the mildness and purity too of the moonbeam on the else parti-colored scene.’
There was another lady, more late and reluctantly entering Margaret’s circle, with a mind as high, and more mathematically exact, drawn by taste to Greek, as Margaret to Italian genius, tempted to do homage to Margaret’s flowing expressive energy, but still more inclined and secured to her side by the good sense and the heroism which Margaret disclosed, perhaps not a little by the sufferings which she addressed herself to alleviate, as long as Margaret lived. Margaret had a courage in her address which it was not easy to resist. She called all her friends by their Christian names. In their early intercourse I suppose this lady’s billets were more punctiliously worded than Margaret liked; so she subscribed herself, in reply, ‘Your affectionate “Miss Fuller.”’ When the difficulties were at length surmounted, and the conditions ascertained on which two admirable persons could live together, the best understanding grew up, and subsisted during her life. In her journal is a note:—
‘Passed the morning in Sleepy Hollow, with ——. What fine, just distinctions she made! Worlds grew clearer as we talked. I grieve to see her fine frame subject to such rude discipline. But she truly said, “I am not a failed experiment; for, in the bad hours, I do not forget what I thought in the better.”’
None interested her more at that time, and for many years after, than a youth with whom she had been acquainted in Cambridge before he left the University, and the unfolding of whose powers she had watched with the warmest sympathy. He was an amateur, and, but for the exactions no.t to be resisted of an American, that is to say, of a commercial, career,—his acceptance of which she never ceased to regard as an apostasy,—himself a high artist. He was her companion, and, though much younger, her guide in the study of art. With him she examined, leaf by leaf, the designs of Raphael, of Michel Angelo, of Da Vinci, of Guercino, the architecture of the Greeks, the books of Palladio, the Ruins, and Prisons of Piranesi; and long kept up a profuse correspondence on books and studies in which they had a mutual interest. And yet, as happened so often, these literary sympathies, though sincere, were only veils and occasions to beguile the time, so profound was her interest in the character and fortunes of her friend.
There was another youth, whom she found later, of invalid habit, which had infected in some degree the tone of his mind, but of a delicate and pervasive insight, and the highest appreciation for genius in letters, arts, and life. Margaret describes ‘his complexion as clear in its pallor, and his eye steady.’ His turn of mind, and his habits of life, had almost a monastic turn,—a jealousy of the common tendencies of literary men either to display or to philosophy. Margaret was struck with the singular fineness of his perceptions, and the pious tendency of his thoughts, and enjoyed with him his proud reception, not as from above, but almost on equal ground, of Homer and Æschylus, of Dante and Petrarch, of Montaigne, of Calderon, of Goethe. Margaret wished, also, to defend his privacy from the dangerous solicitations to premature authorship:—
His mind should be approached close by one who ‘needs its fragrance. All with him leads rather to glimpses and insights, than to broad, comprehensive views. Till he needs the public, the public does not need him. The lonely lamp, the niche, the dark cathedral grove, befit him best. Let him shroud himself in the symbols of his native ritual, till he can issue forth on the wings of song.’
She was at this time, too, much drawn also to a man of poetic sensibility, and of much reading,—which he took the greatest pains to conceal,—studious of the art of poetry, but still more a poet in his conversation than in his poems,—who attracted Margaret by the flowing humor with which he filled the present hour, and the prodigality with which he forgot all the past.
‘Unequal and uncertain,’ she says, ‘but in his good moods, of the best for a companion, absolutely abandoned to the revelations of the moment, without distrust or check of any kind, unlimited and delicate, abundant in thought, and free of motion, he enriches life, and fills the hour.’
‘I wish I could retain ——’s talk last night. It was wonderful; it was about all the past experiences frozen down in the soul, and the impossibility of being penetrated by anything. “Had I met you,” said he, “when I was young!—but now nothing can penetrate.” Absurd as was what he said, on one side, it was the finest poetic inspiration on the other, painting the cruel process of life, except where genius continually burns over the stubble fields.’
“Life,” he said, “is continually eating us up.” He said, “Mr. E. is quite wrong about books. He wants them all good; now I want many bad. Literature is not merely a collection of gems, but a great system of interpretation.” He railed at me as artificial. “It don’t strike me when you are alone with me,” he says; “but it does when others are present. You don’t follow out the fancy of the moment; you converse; you have treasured thoughts to tell; you are disciplined,—artificial.” I pleaded guilty, and observed that I supposed that it must be so with one of any continuity of thought; or earnestness of character. “As to that,” says he, “I shall not like you the better for your excellence. I don’t know what is the matter. I feel strongly attracted towards you; but there is a drawback in my mind,—I don’t know exactly what. You will always be wanting to grow forward; now I like to grow backward, too. You are too ideal. Ideal people anticipate their lives; and they make themselves and everybody around them restless, by always being beforehand with themselves.”
I listened attentively; for what he said was excellent. Following up the humor of the moment, he arrests admirable thoughts on the wing. But I cannot but see, that what they say of my or other obscure lives is true of every prophetic, of every tragic character. And then I like to have them make me look on that side, and reverence the lovely forms of nature, and the shifting moods, and the clinging instincts. But I must not let them disturb me. There is an only guide, the voice in the heart, that asks, “Was thy wish sincere? If so, thou canst not stray from nature, nor be so perverted but she will make thee true again.” I must take my own path, and learn from them all, without being paralyzed for the day. We need great energy, faith, and self-reliance to endure to-day. My age may not be the best, my position may be bad, my character ill-formed; but Thou, oh Spirit! hast no regard to aught but the seeking heart; and, if I try to walk upright, wilt guide me. What despair must he feel, who, after a whole life passed in trying to build up himself, resolves that it would have been far better if he had kept still as the clod of the valley, or yielded easily as the leaf to every breeze! A path has been appointed me. I have walked in it as steadily as I could. I am what I am; that which I am not, teach me in the others. I will bear the pain, of imperfection, but not of doubt. E. must not shake me in my worldliness, nor —— in the fine motion that has given me what I give of life, nor this child of genius make me lay [illegible] the armor, without which I had lain bleeding on the field long since; but, if they can keep closer to nature, and learn to interpret her as souls, also, let me learn from them what I have not.’
And, in connection with this conversation, she has copied the following lines which this gentleman addressed to her:—
“I mark beneath thy life the virtue shine
That deep within the star’s eye opes its day;
I clutch the gorgeous thoughts thou throw’st away
From the profound unfathomable mine,
And with them this mean common hour do twine,
As glassy waters on the dry beach play.
And I were rich as night, them to combine
With my poor store, and warm me with thy ray.
From the fixed answer of those dateless eyes
I meet bold hints of spirit’s mystery
As to what’s past, and hungry prophecies
Of deeds to-day, and things which are to be;
Of lofty life that with the eagle flies,
And humble love that clasps humanity.”
I have thus vaguely designated, among the numerous group of her friends, only those who were much in her company, in the early years of my acquaintance with her.
She wore this circle of friends, when I first knew her, as a necklace of diamonds about her neck. They were so much to each other, that Margaret seemed to represent them all, and, to know her, was to acquire a place with them. The confidences given her were their best, and she held them to them. She was an active inspiring companion and correspondent, and all the art, the thought, and the nobleness in New England, seemed, at that moment, related to her, and she to it. She was everywhere a welcome guest. The houses of her friends in town and country were open to her, and every hospitable attention eagerly offered. Her arrival was a holiday, and so was her abode. She stayed a few days, often a week, more seldom a month, and all tasks that could be suspended were put aside to catch the favorable hour, in walking, riding, or boating, to talk with this joyful guest, who brought wit, anecdotes, love-stories, tragedies, oracles with her, and, with her broad web of relations to so many fine friends, seemed like the queen of some parliament of love, who carried the key to all confidences, and to whom every question had been finally referred.
Persons were her game, specially, if marked by fortune, or character, or success;—to such was she sent. She addressed them with a hardihood,—almost a haughty assurance,—queen-like. Indeed, they fell in her way, where the access might have seemed difficult, by wonderful casualties; and the inveterate recluse, the coyest maid, the waywardest poet, made no resistance, but yielded at discretion, as if they had been waiting for her, all doors to this imperious dame. She disarmed the suspicion of recluse scholars by the absence of bookishness. The ease with which she entered into conversation made them forget all they had heard of her; and she was infinitely less interested in literature than in life. They saw she valued earnest persons, and Dante, Petrarch, and Goethe, because they thought as she did, and gratified her with high portraits, which she was everywhere seeking. She drew her companions to surprising confessions. She was the wedding-guest, to whom the long-pent story must be told; and they were not less struck, on reflection, at the suddenness of the friendship which had established, in one day, new and permanent covenants. She extorted the secret of life, which cannot be told without setting heart and mind in a glow; and thus had the best of those she saw whatever romance, whatever virtue, whatever impressive experience,—this came to her; and she lived in a superior circle; for they suppressed all their commonplace in her presence.
She was perfectly true to this confidence. She never confounded relations, but kept a hundred fine threads in her hand, without crossing or entangling any. An entire intimacy, which seemed to make both sharers of the whole horizon of each others’ and of all truth, did not yet make her false to any other friend; gave no title to the history that an equal trust of another friend had put in her keeping. In this reticence was no prudery and no effort. For, so rich her mind, that she never was tempted to treachery, by the desire of entertaining. The day was never long enough to exhaust her opulent memory; and I, who knew her intimately for ten years,—from July, 1836, till August, 1846, when she sailed for Europe,—never saw her without surprise at her new powers.
Of the conversations above alluded/to, the substance was whatever was suggested by her passionate wish for equal companions, to the end of making life altogether noble. With the firmest tact she led the discourse into the midst of their daily living and working, recognizing the good-will and sincerity which each man has in his aims, and treating so playfully and intellectually all the points, that one seemed to see his life en beau, and was flattered by beholding what he had found so tedious in its workday weeds, shining in glorious costume. Each of his friends passed before him in the new light; hope seemed to spring under his feet, and life was worth living. The auditor jumped for joy, and thirsted for unlimited draughts. What! is this the dame, who, I heard, was sneering and critical ? this the blue-stocking, of whom I stood in terror and dislike? this wondrous woman, full of counsel, full of tenderness, before whom every mean thing is ashamed, and hides itself; this new Corinne, more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent, who seems to have learned all languages, Heaven knows when or how,—I should think
she was born to them,—magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles like this, ‘Yours is an example of a destiny springing from character:’ and, again, ‘I see your destiny hovering before you, but it always escapes from you.’
The test of this eloquence was its range. It told on children, and on old people; on men of the world, and on sainted maids. She could hold them all by her honeyed tongue. A lady of the best eminence, whom Margaret occasionally visited, in one of our cities of spindles, speaking one day of her neighbors, said, “I stand in a certain awe of the moneyed men, the manufacturers, and so on, knowing that they will have small interest in Plato, or in Biot; but I saw them approach Margaret, with perfect security, for she could give them bread that they could eat.” Some persons are thrown off their balance when in society; others are thrown on to balance; the excitement of company, and the observation of other characters, correct their biases. Margaret always appeared to unexpected advantage in conversation with a large circle. She had more sanity than any other; whilst, in private, her vision was often through colored lenses.
Her talents were so various, and her conversation so rich and entertaining, that one might talk with her many times, by the parlor fire, before he discovered the strength which served as foundation to so much accomplishment and eloquence. But, concealed under flowers and music, was the broadest good sense, very well able to dispose of all this pile of native and foreign ornaments, and quite able ty work without them. She could always rally on this, in every circumstance, and in every company, and find herself on a firm footing of equality with any party whatever, and make herself useful, and, if need be, formidable.
The old Anaximenes, seeking, I suppose, tor a source sufficiently diffusive, said, that Mind must be in the air, which, when all men breathed, they were filled with one intelligence. And when men have larger measures of reason, as Æsop, Cervantes, Franklin, Scott, they gain in universality, or are no longer confined to’ a few associates, but are good company for all persons.—philosophers, women, men of fashion, tradesmen, and servants. Indeed, an older philosopher than Auaximenes, namely, language itself, had taught to distinguish superior or purer sense as common sense.
Margaret had, with certain limitations, or, must we say, strictures, these larger lungs, inhaling this universal element, and could speak to Jew and Greek, free and bond, to each in his own tongue. The Concord stage-coachman distinguished her by his respect, and the chambermaid was pretty sure to confide to her, on the second day, her homely romance.
I regret that it is not in my power to give any true report of Margaret’s conversation. She soon became an established friend and frequent inmate of our house, and continued, thenceforward, for years, to come, once in three or four months, to spend a week or a fortnight with us. She adopted all the people and all the interests she found here. Your people shall be my people, and yonder darling boy I shall cherish as my own. Her ready sympathies endeared her to my wife and my mother, each of whom highly esteemed her good sense and sincerity. She suited each, and all. Yet, she was not a person to be suspected of complaisance, and her attachments, one might say, were chemical.
She had so many tasks of her own, that she was a very easy guest to entertain, as she could be left to herself, day after day, without apology. According to our usual habit, we seldom met in the forenoon. After dinner, we read something together, or walked, or rode. In the evening, she came to the library, and many and many a conversation was there held, whose details, if they could be preserved, would justify all encomiums. They interested me in every manner;—talent, memory, wit, stern introspection, poetic play, religion, the finest personal feeling, the aspects of the future, each followed each in full activity, and left me, I remember, enriched and sometimes astonished by the gifts of my guest. Her topics were numerous, but the cardinal points of poetry, love, and religion, were never far off. She was a student of art, and, though untravelled, knew, much better than most persons who had been abroad, the conventional reputation of each of the masters. She was familiar with all the field of elegant criticism in literature. Among the problems of the day, these two attracted her chiefly, Mythology and Demonology; then, also, French Socialism, especially as it concerned woman; the whole prolific family of reforms, and, of course, the genius and career of each remarkable person.
She had other friends, in this town, beside those in my house. A lady, already alluded to, lived in the village, who had known her longer than I, and whose prejudices Margaret had resolutely fought down, until she converted her into the firmest and most efficient of friends. In 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne, already then known to the world by his Twice-Told Tales, came to live in Concord, in the “Old Manse,” with his wife, who was herself an artist. With these welcomed persons Margaret formed a strict and happy acquaintance. She liked their old house, and the taste which had filled it with new articles of beautiful form, yet harmonized with the antique furniture left by the former proprietors. She liked, too, the pleasing walks, and rides, and boatings, which that neighborhood commanded.
In 1842, William Ellery Channing, whose wife was her sister, built a house in Concord, and this circumstance made a new tie and another home for Margaret.
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