Monaldi, a Tale by Margaret Fuller

Monaldi, a Tale. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown.

“Who knows himself must needs in prophecy
Too oft behold his own most sad reverse.”

  WE seized with eagerness upon these leaves, for it is always a great pleasure, to see the same hand skillful with various implements, and same mind in various costumes. “He of the Pen and Sword” is more than doubly interesting to us; and when the touch is masterly upon the lyre or with the pen, as the grasp is strong upon the sword, we exult in a presentiment of the full development of a man. To see the same mind many-wise, it is all we ask; it is the secret of nature.
This tale casts some light upon the mind which, more than any other, has represented among us the pure reign of beauty. And, thus considered, its thoughtful sweetness has captivated even those who object to the conduct of the story and the external mode of treating the stronger passions. Here indeed is a gap as between two lives; for while the reproduction of the life of the sentiments and intellect bespeaks a ripe and rich experience, that of the passions is represented as from the impressions of a much more youthful period.
The coarse jealousy, which can be incited by the slanders of the stranger, or even by the strongest circumstantial evidence, should not we all feel, get the better in such a nature as Monaldi’s of the instincts of the soul and the picture of womanly sweetness and delicacy, exhibited by his wife in the interview where he tries her faith. When Othello cries,

“If she be false, oh! then Heaven mocks itself!”

  We can only endure that the noble Moor should again distrust the voice of his own heart, because the tempter is widely and deeply intellectual, and because the circumstances of the marriage and the warning of Desdemona’s father,

“Look to her, Moor, have a quick eye to see,
She has deceived her father and may thee” —

have prepared the mine now about to destroy her. This indeed is managed with such perfection of artless art, that when Iago says,

“She did deceive her father, marrying you,
And when she seemed to shake and fear your looks,
She loved them most,
Othello.— And so she did!”

we also mentally exclaim,
And so she did;
a thought which has been lying dormant, and indeed had never been in conscious existence, suddenly finding voice when the occasion calls. Of similar processes in the histories of our connextions in daily life all are conscious, yet who but thou, Shakespeare, ever wove the woof thus silent and gradual like nature, calling out the meaning of a before unobserved thread by the other which regulates its place in the pattern.
Besides, the temperament of Othello is impassioned, sudden, and ripened amid influences unlikely to offer it check or balance. The very tragedy of the play is that a single thought the other way might have undeceived him, had he but known how to distrust his impressions; thus is his greatness his ruin. But in a character like that of Monaldi, so profound, so religious, and of slower movement, we see too easily how such wretchedness might have been averted, to be willing to accompany him into it.
It is a fine touch of nature to make Maldura, even in his penitence, preserve the habit of selfishness and egotism, which makes him, by his prolonged confession, stab to the heart once more the unfortunate to whom he meant to atone.
The conception of the two characters is admirable, showing as much depth as delicacy of thought. They key offered in the following passage offers a treasury, not of the minted gold, but of gems of the secret mine.

“Among the students of a seminary at Bologna, were two friends, more remarkable for their attachment to each other than for any resemblance in their minds or dispositions. Indeed there was so little else in common between them, that hardly two boys could be found more unlike. The character of Maldura, the eldest, was bold, grasping, and ostentatious; while that of Monaldi, timid and gentle, seemed to shrink from observation. The one, proud and impatient, was ever laboring for distinction; the world, palpable, visible, audible, was his idol; he lived only in externals, and could neither act nor feel but for effect; even his secret reveries having an outward direction, as if he could not think without a view to praise, and anxiously referring to the opinion of others; in short, his nightly and daily dreams had but one subject — the talk and eye of the crowd. The other, silent and meditative, seldom looked out of himself either for applause or enjoyment; if he did so, it was only that he might add to, or sympathize in the triumph of another; this done, he retired again, as it were, to a world of his own, where thoughts and feelings, filling the place of men and things, could always supply him with occupation and amusement.
“Had the ambition of Maldura been less, or his self-knowledge greater, he might have been a benefactor to the world. His talents were of a high order. Perhaps few have ever surpassed him in the power of acquiring; to this he united perseverance; and all that was known, however various and opposite, he could master at will. But here his power stopped; beyond the regions of discovered knowledge he could not see, and dared not walk, for to him all beyond was “outer darkness;” in a word, with all his gifts he wanted that something, whatever it might be, which gives the living principle to thought. But this sole deficiency was the last of which he suspected himself. With that self-delusion so common to young men of mistaking the praise of what is promising for that of the thing promised, he too rashly confounded the ease with which he carried all the prizes of his school with the rare power of commanding at pleasure the higher honors of the world. But the honors of school are for things and purposes far different from those demanded and look for by the world. Maldura unfortunately did not make the distinction. His various knowledge, though ingeniously brought together, and skillfully set anew, was still the knowledge of other men; it did not come forth as in new birth, from the modifying influence of his own nature. His mind was hence like a thing of many parts, yet wanting a whole — the realizing quality which the world must feel before it will reverence. In proportion to its stores such a mind will be valued, and even admired; but it can not command that inward voice — the only true voice of fame, which speaks not, be it in friend or enemy, till awakened by the presense of a master spirit.
“Such were the mind and disposition of Maldura; and from their unfortunate union spranf all the after evils in his character. As yet, however, he was known to himself and others as a remarkable boy. His extraordinary attainments placing him above competition, he supposed himself incapable of so mean a passion as envy; indeed the high station from which he could look down on his associates gave a complacency to his mind not unfavorable to the gentler virtues; he was therefore, often kind, and even generous without an effort. Besides though he disdained to affect humility, he did not want discretion, and that taught him to bear his honors without arrogance. His claims were consequently admitted by his schoolfellows without a murmur. But there was amongst, whose praises were marked by such warmth and enthusiasm as no heart not morally insensible could long withstand; this youth was Monaldi. Maldura had naturally strong feelings, and so long as he continued prosperous and happy, their course was honorable. He requited the praises of his companion with his esteem and gratitude, which soon ripened into a friendship so sincere that he believed he could even lay down his life for him.
“It was in this way that two natures so opposite became mutually attracted. But the warmth and magnanimity of Monaldi were all that was yet known to the other; for, though not wanting in academic learning, he was by no means distinguished; indeed, so little, that Maldura could not but feel and lament it.
“The powers of Monaldi, however, were yet to be called forth. And it was not surprising that to his youthful companions he should have appeared inefficient, there being a singular kind of passiveness about him easily mistaken for vacancy. But his was like the passiveness og some uncultured spot, lying unnoticed within its nook of rocks, and silently drinking in the light, and the heat, and the showers of heaven, that nourish the seeds of a thousand nameless flowers, destined one day to mingle their fragrance with the breath of nature. Yet to common observers the external world seemed to lie only

‘Like a load upon his weary eye;’

but to them it appeared so because he delighted to shit it out, and to combine and give another life to the images it left in his memory; as if he would sleep to the real and be awake only to a world of shadows. But, though his emotions seldom betrayed themselves any outward signs, there was nothing sluggish in the soul of Monaldi; it was rather their depth and strength that prevented their passage through the feeble medium of words. He regarded nothing in the moral or physical world as tiresome of insignificant; every object had a charm, and its harmony and beauty, its expression and character, all passed into his soul in all their varieties, while his quickening spirit brooded over them as over the elementary forms of a creation of his own. Thus living in the life he gave, his existence was too intense and extended to be conceived by the common mind; hence the neglect and obscurity in which he passed his youth.
“But the term of pupilage soon came to an end, and the friends parted — each, as he could, to make his way in the world.
“The profession which Monaldi had chosen for the future occupation of his life was that of a painter; to which, however, he could not be said to have come wholly unprepared. The slight sketch just given of him will show that the most important part the mind of a painter, he already possessed; the nature of his amusements (in which, some one was well observed, men are generally most in earnest) having unconsciously disciplined his mind of this pursuit. He had looked at nature with the eye of a lover; none of her minutest beauties had escaped him, and all that were stirring to a sensitive heart and a romantic imagination were treasured up in his memory, as themes of delightful musing in her absence; and they came to him in those moments with that neverfailing freshness and life, which love can best give to the absent. But the skill and the hand of an artist were still to be acquired.
“But perseverance, if not a mark of genius, is at least one of its practical adjuncts; and Monaldi possessed it. Indeed there is but one mode of making endurable and perpetual craving of any master passion — the continually laboring to satisfy it. And, so it be innocent, how sweet the reward! giving health to the mind without the sense of toil. This Monaldi enjoyed; for it never felt that he had been toiling, even when the dawn, as if often happened, broke in upon his labors.”

There are many passages in the book of the same graceful lightness of expression and fineness of thought. They speak with the Ariel tone we dream of in the enchanted solitudes to which the pencil of the artist has introduced us. By very slight indications we are able to feel the “real presence” of that inward life revealed to most men, only at rare intervals, but here slowing like a brook hidden amid sighing reeds, with a steady silver sound.

Source: The Dial (January 1842) pp. 395-399