Woman, or Artist?

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


  Margaret resolved, again and again, to devote herself no more to these disappointing forms of men and women, but to the children of the muse. ‘The dramatis personæ,’ she said, ‘of my poems shall henceforth be chosen from the children of immortal Muse. I fix my affections no more on these frail forms.’ But it was vain; she rushed back again to persons, with a woman’s devotion.

  Her pen was a non-conductor. She always took it up with some disdain, thinking it a kind of impiety to attempt to report a life so warm and cordial, and wrote on the fly-leaf of her journal,—

Scrivo sol per sfogar’ ‘l’interno.”

  ‘Since you went away,’ she said, ‘I have thought of many things I might have told yon, but I could not bear to be eloquent and poetical. It is a mockery thus to play the artist with life, and dip the brush in one’s own heart’s blood. One would fain be no more artist, or philosopher, or lover, or critic, but a soul ever rushing forth in tides of genial life.’

  ‘26 Dec., 1842.—I have been reading the lives of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and of Sir Kenelm Digby. These splendid, chivalrous, and thoughtful Englishmen are meat which my soul loveth, even as much as my Italians. What I demand of men,—that they could act out all their thoughts,—these have. They are lives;—and of such I do not care if they had as many faults as there are days in the year,—there is the energy to redeem them. Do you not admire Lord Herbert’s two poems on life, and the conjectures concerning celestial life? I keep reading them.’

  ‘When I look at my papers, I feel as if I had never had a thought that was worthy the attention of any but myself; and ‘tis only when, on talking with people, I find I tell them what they did not know, that my confidence at all returns.’

  ‘My verses,—I am ashamed when I think there is scarce a line of poetry in them,—all rhetorical and impassioned, as Goethe said of De Stael. However, such as they are, they have been overflowing drops from the somewhat bitter cup of my existence.’

  ‘How can l ever write with this impatience of detail? I shall never be an artist; I have no patient love of execution; I am delighted with my sketch, but if I try to finish it, I am chilled. Never was there a great sculptor who did not love to chip the marble.’

  ‘I have talent and knowledge enough to furnish a dwelling for friendship, but not enough to deck with golden, gifts a Delphi for the world.’

  ‘Then a woman of tact and brilliancy, like me, has an undue advantage in conversation with men. They are astonished at our instincts. They do not see where we got our knowledge; and, while they tramp on in their clumsy way, we wheel, and fly, and dart hither and thither, and seize with ready eye all the weak points, like Saladin in the desert. It is quite another thing when we come to write, and, without suggestion from another mind, to declare the positive amount of thought that is in us. Because we seemed to know all, they think we can tell all; and, finding we can tell so little, lose faith in their first opinion of us, which, nathless, was true.’

  And again: ‘These gentlemen are surprised that I write no better, because I talk so well. But I have served a long apprenticeship to the one, none to the other. I shall write better, but never, I think, so well as I talk; for then I feel inspired. The means are pleasant; my voice excites me, my pen never. I shall not be discouraged, nor take for final what they say, but sift from it the truth, and use it. I feel the strength to dispense with all illusions. I will stand steady, and rejoice in the severest probations.’

  ‘What a vulgarity there seems in this writing for the multitude! We know not yet, have not made ourselves known to a single soul, and shall we address those still more unknown? Shall we multiply our connections, and thus make them still more superficial?’

  ‘I would go into the crowd, and meet men for the day, to help them for the day, but for that intercourse which most becomes us. Pericles, Anaxagoras, Aspasia, Cleone, is circle wide enough for me. I should think all the resources of my nature, and all the tribute it could enforce from external nature, none too much to furnish the banquet for this circle.

  ‘But where to find fit, though few, representatives for all we value in humanity? Where obtain those golden keys to the secret treasure-chambers of the soul? No samples are perfect. We must look abroad into the wide circle, to seek a little here, and a little there, to make up our company. And is not the “prent book” a good beacon-light to tell where we wait the bark? a reputation, the means of entering the Olympic.game, where Pindar may perchance be encountered?

  ‘So it seems the mind must reveal its secret; must reproduce. And I have no castle, and no natural circle, in which-I might live, like the wise Makaria, observing my kindred the stars, and gradually enriching my archives. Makaria here must go abroad, or the stars would hide their light, and the archive remain a blank.

  For all the tides of life that flow within me, I am dumb and ineffectual, when it comes to casting my thought into a form. No old one suits me. If I could invent one, it seems to me the pleasure of creation would make it possible for me to write. What shall I do, dear friend? I want force to be either a genius or a character. One should be either private or public. I love best to be a woman; but womanhood is at present too straitly-bounded to give me scope. At hours, I live truly as a woman; at others, I should stifle; as, on the other hand, I should palsy, when I would play the artist.’

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