Fanny Kemble.

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


  When in Boston, I saw the Kembles twice,—in “Much ado about Nothing,” and “The Stranger.” The first night I felt much disappointed in Miss K. In the gay parts a coquettish, courtly manner marred the wild mirth and wanton wit of Beatrice. Yet, in everything else, I liked her conception of the part; and; where she urges Benedict to fight with Claudio, and where she reads Benedict’s sonnet, she was admirable. But I received no more pleasure from Miss K.’s acting out the part than I have done in reading it, and this disappointed me. Neither did I laugh, but though all the while of Miss K.,—how very graceful she was, and whether this and that way of rendering the part was just. I do not believe she has comic power within herself, though tasteful enough to comprehend any part. So I went home, vexed because my “heart was not full,” and my “brain not on fire” with enthusiasm. I drank my milk, and went to sleep, as on other dreary occasions, and dreamed not of Miss Kemble.

  Next night, however, I went expectant, and all my soul was satisfied. I saw her at a favorable distance, and she looked beautiful. And as the scene rose in interest, her attitudes, her gestures, had the expression which an Angelo could give to sculpture. After she tells her story,—and I was almost suffocated by the effort she made to divulge her sin and fall,—she sunk to the earth, her head bowed upon her knee, her white drapery falling in large, graceful folds about this broken piece of beautiful humanity, crushed in the very manner so well described by Scott when speaking of a far different person, “not as “one who intentionally stoops, kneels, or prostrates himself to excite compassion, but like a man borne down on all sides by the pressure of some invisible force, which crushes him to the earth without power of resistance.” A movement of abhorrence from me, as her insipid confidante turned away, attested the triumph of the poet-actress. Had not all been over in a moment, I believe I could not have refrained from rushing forward to raise the fair frail being, who seemed so prematurely humbled in her parent dust. I burst into tears; and, with the stifled, hopeless feeling of a real sorrow, continued to weep till the very end; not could I recover till I left the house.

  That is genius, which could give such life to this play; for, if I may judge from other parts, it is defaced by inflated sentiments, and verified by few natural touches. I wish I had it to read, for I should like to recall her every tone and look.

  I have been studying Flaxman and Retzsch. How pure, how immortal, the language of Form! Fools cannot fancy they fathom its meaning; witless dillettanti cannot degrade it by hackneyed usage; none but genius can create or reproduce it. Unlike the colorist, he who expresses his thought in form is secure as man can be against the ravages of time.

  I went to the Athenæum in an agonizing conflict of mind, when some high influence was needed to rouse me from the state of sickly sensitiveness, which, much as I despise, I cannot wholly conquer. How soothing it was to feel the blessed power of the Ideal world, to be surrounded once more with the records of lives poured out in embodying thought in beauty! I seemed to breathe my native atmosphere, and smoothed my ruffled pinions.

  No wonder God made a world to express his thought. Who, that has a soul for beauty, does not feel the need of creating, and that the power of creation alone can satisfy the spirit? When I thus reflect, the Artist seems, the only fortunate man. Had I but as much creative genius as I have apprehensiveness!’

  How transcendently lovely was the face of one young angel by Raphael! It was the perfection of physical, moral, and mental life. Variegated wings, of pinkish purple touched with green, like the breasts of doves, and in perfect harmony with the complexion, spring from the shoulders upwards, and against them leans the divine head. The eye seems fixed on the centre of being, and the lips are gently parted, as if uttering strains of celestial melody.

  The head of Aspasia was instinct with the voluptuousness of intellect. From the eyes, the cheek, the divine lip, one might hive honey. Both the Loves were exquisite: one, that zephyr sentiment which visits all the roses of life; the other, the Amore Greco, may be fitly described in these words of Landor: “There is a gloom in deep love, as in deep water; there is a silence in it which suspends the foot, and the folded arms and the dejected head are the images it reflects. No voice shakes its surface; the Muses themselves approach it with a tardy and a timid step, with a low and tremulous and melancholy song.”

  The Sibyl I understood. What grace in that beautiful oval! what apprehensiveness in the eye! Such is female Genius; it alone understands the God. The Muses only sang the praises of Apollo; the Sibyls interpreted his will. Nay, she to whom it was offered, refused the divine union, and preferred remaining a satellite to being absorbed into the sun. You read in the eye of this one, and the observation is confirmed by the low forehead, that the secret of her inspiration lay in the passionate enthusiasm of her nature, rather than in the ideal perfection of any faculty.

  A Christ, by Raphael, that I saw the other night, brought Christianity more home to my heart, made me more long to be like Jesus, than ever did sermon. It ill from one of the Vatican frescoes. The Deity,—a stern, strong, wise man, of about forty-five, in a square velvet cap, truly the Jewish God, inflexibly just, yet jealous and wrathful,—is at the top of the picture, looking with a gaze of almost frowning scrutiny down into his world. A step below is the Son. Stately angelic shapes kneel near him in dignified adoration,—brothers, but not peers. A cloud of more ecstatic seraphs floats behind the Father. At the feet of the Son is the Holy Ghost, the Heavenly Dove. In the description, by a connoisseur, of this picture, read to me while I was looking at it, it is spoken of as in Raphael’s first manner, cold, hard, trammeled. But to me how did that face proclaim the Infinite Love! His head is bent back, as if seeking to behold the Father. His attitude expresses the need of adoring something higher, in order to keep him at his highest. What sweetness, what purity, in the eyes! I can never express it; but I felt, when looking at it, the beauty of reverence, of self-sacrifice, to a degree that stripped the Apollo of his beams.

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