“I Find No Intellect Comparable To My Own”

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The heroine of Madame de Staël’s Corinne, or Italy, published in 1807, soon translated and read by every lady in England and America who had any pretensions to literary culture, is a beautiful, dark, sensuous chanter of poetic improvisations in Rome; at the end of the book she dies in exquisite and protracted pain for the love of a stolid English nobleman. Margaret was fully as erudite as that romantic creature was represented as being, and at the climaxes of her Conversations, when she had reduced the others to awed silence, she would close her eyes in an inspired trance and utter unfathomable words of occult wisdom. But there the analogy ended. Not only was she incapable of spontaneous verse and rhymes, but she was, alas! phenomenally homely. Her hair was not quite blond and was stringy and thin. Dr. Holmes, who along with Lowell spoke the opinion of the gentlemen of proper Boston, and who, as did all these, preferred his women to be ministering angels and not to read Kant and Goethe in the original, said that her abnormally long neck was “ophidian.” The little band of Harvard youths who adored her this side of idolatry (and also this side of the marriage proposal) make this most striking of her features no more alluring to us when they descant, as does Channing, upon “the singular pliancy of the vertebrae and muscles of her neck, enabling her by a mere movement to denote each varying emotion.” “In moments of tenderness, or pensive feeling,” the unwitting Channing disastrously continues, “its curves were swan-like, but when she was scornful or indignant, it contracted, and made swift turns like that of a bird of prey.” Add to this terrifying accomplishment her other mannerisms—”a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids,” said the candid Emerson, “the nasal tone of her voice”- and you understand why even those who loved her acknowledged that a first impression could be repelling, and why those who could not abide her saw in her only the comic Miranda of Lowell’s A Fable for Critics.

Her relation with this fellowship of Harvard intellectuals, all of them going on to the Divinity School and then to Unitarian or Independent pulpits from which they preached a Transcendental Christianity which professing Christians decried as more Transcendental than Christian, is a curious story. Probably anyone not a qualified psychiatrist ought not to meddle with it. She studied with them, exchanged her journals for a reading of theirs, and with them ventured far into what were then held to be the dangerous, the infidel and immoral, bogs of German romanticism. She boldly announced that she would write a life of Goethe, and would not shrink from treating his amours. As a consequence of these forbidden studies, Margaret became easily the peer of any in that confederation called the Transcendental movement, and so was the inevitable nominee, once they undertook to publish a magazine, to become in 1840 managing editor of The Dial.

However, all these youths married amiable, docile maidens. Just how much Margaret was in fact clutching at them for something other than mental companionship is hard to tell, either because they were too polite after her death to confess, or else because they were too utterly unsophisticated at the time to know what was going on. For one of them, Samuel Gray Ward, she apparently so failed to disguise her feelings that when he married the lovely blond Anna Barker, Emerson was obliged to skirt gingerly around the open secret: “Ah! my friend, you must be generous beyond even the strain of heroism to bear your part in this scene & resign without a sigh two Friends:—you whose heart unceasingly demands all, & is a sea that hates an ebb.”

Still, one fact is obvious, even from the fragmentary evidence that comes clown from the Transcendental circle: they all—but most of all Margaret—exalted the cult of “friendship,” both of the men with the women and of the women with the other women, to so rarefied a height that without having to indulge in what are commonly called affairs they could experience a range of the torments and fluctuations of passion that would challenge the analytical powers of a Marcel Proust. And it was Margaret who galloped at the most self-consuming rate through these intensified attachments.