PAPERS ON LITERATURE AND ART - Part Iby Margaret Fuller
Her criticisms on Wordsworth which go deeper than anything James Russel Lowell has written
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Passing from her single phrases and 'obiter dicta' to her continuous criticisms, Margaret Fuller's essay on "Modern British Poets" in "Papers on Literature and Art;" and the "dialogue" between Aglauron and Laurie; may place her critically only second to perhaps Goethe.
Her criticisms on Wordsworth which go deeper than anything James Russel Lowell has written on the same subject; Fuller links together the poems "A Complaint" and the sonnet beginning
"There is a change and I am poor,"
and has pointed out that these two give us a glimpse of a profounder personal emotion and a deeper possibility of sadness in Wordsworth than all else that he has written put together. There are also admirable remarks on Coleridge and on Shakespeare; and how fine in thought, how simply and admirably stated, is this conclusion : —
"Were I, despite the bright points so numerous in their history and the admonitions of my own conscience, inclined to despise my fellow-men, I should have found abundant argument against it daring this late study of Hamlet. In the streets, saloons, and lecture rooms we continually hear comments so stupid, insolent, and shallow on great and beautiful works, that we are tempted to think that there is no public for anything that is good; that a work of genius can appeal only to the fewest minds in any one age, and that the reputation now awarded to those of former times is never felt, but only traditional. Of Shakespeare, so vaunted a name, little wise or worthy has been written, perhaps nothing so adequate as Coleridge's comparison of him to the pine-apple; yet on reading Hamlet, his greatest work, we find there is not a pregnant sentence, scarce a word that men have not appreciated, have not used in myriad ways. Had we never read the play, we should find the whole of it from quotation and illustration as familiar to us as air. The exquisite phraseology, so heavy with meaning, wrought out with such admirable minuteness, has become a part of literary diction, the stock of the literary bank; and what set criticism can tell like this fact how great was the work, and that men were worthy it should be addressed to them ?"
In this conversation, as in all the imaginary conversations which were so in fashion at that period, there are traces of Landor; but Margaret Fuller achieved, both in "Aglauron and Laurie," and in "The Two Herberts," what Landor rarely accomplished — what Lowell could not achieve in his "Conversations on the Dramatists," or her other fellow-townsman, Story, in his more recent "He and She," — the distinct individualization of the two participants. Through the whole dialogue we see two persons, not merely one person speaking through two mouths. For instance, Laurie asks Aglauron: —
"But have I not seemed heartless to you at times?"
and Aglauron replies :—
"In the moment, perhaps, but quiet thought always showed me the difference between heartlessness and the want of a deep heart."
Here we have not only an admirable glimpse into the recesses of human character, but we have a sharp demarcation between the two friends. Here and elsewhere, the conversation is a real interchange of thoughts and not a disguised monologue. Margaret Fuller's career as a critic encountered, at two points, the sincere opposition and even hostility of many readers, especially in her own home; in relation, namely, to her fellow-townsmen Longfellow and Lowell. It may readily be admitted at this time that she did less than justice to them both. This admitted, the fact remains that there was not a trace of personal rancor or grievance in either case; her whole career, indeed, being singularly free from this lowest of literary vices. In regard to Longfellow, she in the first place, wished to be excused from reviewing him; and then stated without disguise why she criticized him so frankly: because he seemed to her overpraised, and because she thought him exotic.
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