Portraits of American Women: Iii. Sarah Alden Ripley
SARAH ALDEN BRADFORD
Born in Boston, July 31, 1793;
Married Rev. Samuel Ripley, 1818;
Lived in Waltham, Massachusetts, 18181846;
Husband died, 1847;
Died in Concord, Massachusetts, July 26, 1867.
FEW American women of to-day know of Mrs. Samuel Ripley, but a sentence from Senator Hoar’s Autobiography will give her a favorable introduction: ‘She was one of the most wonderful scholars of her time, or indeed of any time. President Everett said she could fill any professor’s chair at Harvard.’ To this we may add the testimony of Professor Child, whose authority no one will question: ‘The most learned woman I have ever known, the most diversely learned perhaps of her time, and not inferior in this respect, I venture to say, to any woman of any age.’
It seems worth while to know a little more about her, does it not?
From her childhood she had a passion for books and study. Every available minute was snatched for them, and some that were not available. ‘I never go to Boston or anywhere else, my passion for reading increasing inversely with time,’ she writes when little more than a child. In the early
years of the nineteenth century, when she was growing up, New England was not very favorable to the education of girls — nor was any other place. But she was fortunate in having a father — Captain Bradford of Duxbury — who was a scholar as well as a sea-captain, and who loved her and liked to indulge her fancies.
‘Father, may I study Latin?’ she asked him.
‘Latin! A girl study Latin! Certainly. Study anything you like.’
Whereupon she compares him, greatly to his advantage, with another father who endeavored to convince his daughter that ‘all knowledge, except, that of domestic affairs, appears unbecoming in a female.’
Becoming or not, all knowledge was acceptable to her. She studied Latin until she could read it like a modern tongue, Greek the same, also French, German, and Italian. She did this largely alone, German without any assistance whatever, persisting incredibly, ‘working still at an abominable language without being sensible of the least progress,’ she complains. Nor did she confine herself to languages. Her zeal for mathematics and philosophy was fully equal. Most of all, perhaps, she loved the sciences; and chemistry, astronomy, and especially botany, were a delight to her from youth to age.
Nor did she take her study of languages as a task simply, as an end in itself, as so many do. It was but a means, a greater facility for getting at the thoughts of wise men and past ages. She read Latin and Greek widely as well as thoroughly. Tacitus and Juvenal must have furnished odd reflection for a schoolgirl, and it is not every infant of fourteen who regales her imagination with the novels of Voltaire.
Naturally such solitary reading in a child of that age had something academic about it, and the intellectual enthusiasm of her early letters abounds in pleasing suggestions of copy-book moralities. Yet the keen, vigorous insight often breaks through, even here. Conventional habit might lead an ordinary student to moralize on death; but few ordinary students would generalize their botanical observations into the remark that soon ‘our bodies transformed into their airy elements may be converted into the jointed stalk of the rank grass which will wave over our graves.’ Pretty well for a girl of sixteen!
And though she studied rules and learned traditions, and so early laid over her spirit a mighty mass of authority, she did not propose to be in any way a slave to it. When rules vex her, she cries out against them. For instance, she could never spell, and why should she? ‘I wish the free spirit were not trammeled by these confounded rules.’ Also, while she studies for study’s sake, and could hardly be expected, in the early days, to interest herself too much in the why of it, you get singular hints of penetration where you least look for them. She asks herself whether her devotion to the Classics springs ‘from pride of learning in your humble servant or intrinsic merit in Cicero, Virgil, and Tacitus.’ The question is one that many an older scholar might put with advantage.
It is, above all, in the line of religious speculation that one examines most curiously Sarah’s gradual change from a conventional acceptance of what is taught her to fierce, independent thinking for herself. She was brought up on by no means narrow lines of orthodoxy. But in her early letters there is a serious and earnest acceptance of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and a loyal effort to apply them practically. Gradually this unquestioning submission yields to the steady encroachment of the spirit of inquiry, the ‘dread of enthusiasm, of the mind’s becoming enslaved to a system perhaps erroneous, and shut forever against the light of truth.’ With the process of years the emancipation grows more marked, until little of the old faith is left but the unfailing habit of its goodness.
Do not, however, for a moment suppose that this studious and thoughtful childhood was altogether lost in bookishness, that Sarah was, in youth or in age, a stuffy pedant. She was never that in the least, at any time of her life; never gave that impression to any one. She was at all points an energetic, practical, efficient, common-sense human being. She did not indeed have the eager life of sport and diversion that the girl of to-day has. No girl had it then. There was no tennis or basketball, not even skating, or swimming, or riding. These things would not have been ladylike, if they had been possible. Instead of them, there were only Jong walks in the Duxbury woods and the rich, wholesome flavor of the New England autumn: ‘The great pear tree at the gate, full of orange pears; the ground strewed with golden high-tops; the girl in the corn-barn paring apples to dry; the woods filled with huckleberries.’
Also, there were the pressing cares of daily life, where mouths were many and means were little. Sarah had her full share of these and met them with swift and adequate efficiency. It is true, she groans sometimes over ‘that dreadful ironing day,’ and rebels a little when ‘Betsey, teasing to know how the meat is to be dissected,’ interferes with letters filled with Greek poets and Roman historians. But she comes right down to earth and stays there, heats the irons, dissects the meat, sweeps the parlor, at proper times takes an apparently absorbed interest in shopping and ribbons and furbelows, as a normal girl should.
Even her abstruser preoccupations are put to practical use. The oldest of a large family, she imparts her own acquirements to those who come after her, not making any one the scholar she herself was, but giving them all an education exceptional in that day or any day. Also, she gave them more than book-education; for the early death of her mother left her at the head of the household, and she attended to every duty as if her beloved books did not exist at all. Nor was she moved by the sense of duty only, but by tenderness and affection, as appears charmingly in the words written by her father to her mother from over-sea: ‘Tell Sarah (oh, she is a seraph!) that I thank her with my tears which flow fast as I now write and think of her good behavior, her virtues, her filial piety.’
To which let me add these further words of her father, which show that she was a live, flesh-and-blood girl and not a mere copy-book model: ‘You I hope are skipping, jumping, dancing, and running up and down in Boston. This I know you are doing if you are well, for you are always on the wing.’
Souls that skip and dance and are always on the wing usually have the elements of sociability in them. In her youth, as later, Sarah was popular and beloved by those who knew her. She had a singular charm of simplicity and grace, and if she was aroused and interested, she had that social attraction which comes when quick words spring from vivid and eager thoughts. At the same time, she never sought the world and often shunned it. Her first preoccupation was with books, and she turned to them when possible. Trivial social occasions were to be avoided on principle: ‘I do not intend to give up all society; I intend only to relinquish that from which I can gain no good.’ Moreover, site was naturally shy and self-conscious, doubted her own powders of conversation and entertainment, her own instinct of behavior in company. A dread of impropriety, she says, is the plague of her life. And again, ‘I should have exerted myself more, but I believe I shall never learn to talk.’
She was a close analyst of her sensations and experiences with others as well as alone, and this is not a temper favorable to complete social enjoyment. The hearts of those about her she read with equal keenness—a habit also not always socially fortunate. She would not for the world have hurt the feelings of a single human being; and when she reproaches herself with talking scandal, we know that it is such scandal as one might expect from a saint. But even at an early age she saw men and women as they are, and this, alas, in our mingled life, is too often to appear ill-natured. Therefore she turned from men and women to books and thoughts.
Which does not mean that she had not kindly affections, deep and tender and lasting. Here also the sharp probe of her analysis intrudes itself. To her dearest friend she says, ‘I love you as much as I am capable of loving any one’; and later in life she observes, ‘I have learned by experience that friendship is a plant that must be watered and nursed or it withers.’
But these self-doubting loves often are the tendercst and truest, and Sarah’s devotion to those for whom she really cared was as sincere as it was lasting. With a humility as touching as her independence, she writes to one of them, ‘You are the only person who ever thought me of any consequence and I am pretty well convinced that other folks are more than half right.
I want you to love me, but do as you please about it.’
These words were written to that singular personage, Mary Moody Emerson, aunt of Ralph Waldo and halfsister of Samuel Ripley, whom Sarah afterwards married. The friendship between these ladies was close and warm, and Mrs. Ripley always spoke of Miss Emerson with the greatest esteem. But one even nearer to her was Miss Allyn, later Mrs. Francis, and the long series of letters that passed between them is delightful in its simplicity, its cordiality, its curious revelation of two pure and sympathetic spirits. What an odd mixture it presents of common daily interests, of religious aspiration, of intellectual enthusiasm. New bonnets, old prayers, botany, chemistry, Homer and Tacitus jostle each other on the same page with quite transparent genuineness and charm.
The one topic supposed to be most common in young ladies’ letters, that is, young men and their doings and their attentions, is quite absent here. The truth is, Sarah was not concerned with such things. There is no evidence that in her childhood and youth her heart was ever touched. When she was twenty-five years old, she married Mr. Ripley. She did not pretend that it was a marriage of love on her side. She had the greatest respect for her husband, who was a clergyman of high and noble character in every way. Her father was anxious for the match, and she yielded to persuasion. But at the time a life of solitary study seemed to her preferable, as she frankly admits. The words with which she announced her engagement, in writing to Miss Emerson, are curiously characteristic: ‘Your family have probably no idea what trouble they may be entailing on themselves; I make no promises of good behaviour, but knowing my tastes and habits they must take the consequences upon themselves.’ After which, it need merely be added that there never was a more devoted and affectionate wife.
I am going to pass at once from Mrs. Ripley in youth to Mrs. Ripley in age, because in fairness I should end with the ripe splendor of her middle years. It so happens that we have abundant correspondence of the earlier and later periods, but little between, when she was too occupied and too active to write. In age as in youth her spirit was pure, lofty, and serene; but with her temperament it was natural that the sadness of age should be peculiarly apparent. The poignancy of the contrast, cannot be better illustrated than by two very beautiful passages, written fifty years apart.
In the buoyancy of early days she writes, ‘A light breakfast and a ride into town in the cool morning air, stretched my existence through eternity. I lived ages in an hour.’ The tottering limbs and broken thoughts of after years recall a dim echo of these raptures, how far, how very far away. ‘I took a walk in the pine grove near the cemetery, yesterday morning, and crept down the hill into a deep ravine we used to call the bowl, covered with decayed leaves, where we used to play tea with acorns for fairy cups; the acorns and the cups remain, but the charm is gone never to return.'
It is in this older period of her life that the impression of Mrs. Ripley’s personal appearance survives with most of those who have told us anything about her career. It is not said that even in youth she was especially beautiful; but in youth as in age there must have been the suggestion of earnest purity and dignity, so marked in all the likenesses of her that remain. Her features are calm, thoughtful, noble, sympathetic, but with a hint of the sadness of one who has long meditated on life with vast comprehension and limited hope.
This impression of sadness is undeniably prominent in the numerous letters of her later years. ‘Sorrow, not hope,’ she says, ‘is the color of old age.’ Her sorrow never has the taint of petulance or pitiful complaining. It is even penetrated with a sweet kindliness which often amounts to sunshine. But the sorrow is there, deeply motived and all-pervading.
To her clear vision it seems that all things are falling away from her. Society? The contact with her fellows had never been the chief thing in her life. Now the few she loved are gone or going, and the many who used to excite a vague curiosity have such different ways and thoughts that she can hardly understand them any more. Her last years were passed in the Manse, at Concord, the dwelling of her husband’s forefathers. The Manse was then, as it has always been, widely hospitable, and the hurry of eager feet often passed her threshold and the door of her quiet chamber. She listened to it with sympathetic tenderness, but her interest faded with the fading years.
Religion? Religion had melted for her into a great love. But of active beliefs she cherished few or none. The days of strenuous thought and fierce probing of impenetrable secrets were over. She would gladly put aside the little child’s questions, if she could have the little child’s peace, ‘How well it is that the world is so large, that lichens grow on every tree, that there are toadstools as well as sermons for those that like them.’ Newspapers? She had rarely read them in her most active days. She could find little interest in them now. Even the turbulence of the Civil War touched her but slightly. She had drunk deep of the horrors of the past and hated them. Why should she revive their torment in the present? The war, she writes, ‘sits on me as a nightmare.’ But like a nightmare, she shakes it off when she can.
Study? Ah, that alone is still real, as always. And she would have echoed the phrase that Sainte-Beuve loved, ‘On so lasse de tout excepte de comprendre.’ ‘Thank Heaven,’ she says, ‘I led a lonely life of study in my youth and return to its rest with satisfaction.’ The books on her shelves are friends and companions who will not desert her. ‘ When I am alive I hold audience with Plato, and when I am not, I gaze on his outside with delight.’ She learns Spanish by herself at seventy and reads Don Quixote with relish, complaining only that the pronunciation is beyond her. Yet, after all, even books afford but a pale consolation, when life is behind instead of before. And in a dull, dark moment she confesses that she reads mainly to kill time.
As the years grow shorter and the hours longer, the one thing that she falls back upon more and more is the affections of the home. Her memory fails her, her great mental powers no longer sustain her. But, in noting this, she observes, with touching pathos, ‘I may be childish, but there are no limits to love.’ In her active years she had never depended upon those around her for comfort or for diversion. To her sister-in-law, who remarked that she was contented only when she had all her children in the room with her. Mrs. Ripley said that she did not require her children’s presence, so long as she knew that they were happy. But as time flowed on, her heart turned more to the contact of those she loved. It pleased her to be busy for them, when she could, though she deplored the weakness and ineptitude of age in this regard. ‘It seems strange that I that have so little to do, should do that little wrong.’ It pleased her to have them about her. She writes to the daughter she loved best, with winning tenderness, ‘I feel a want unsatisfied, and I think it must be to see you. Now this is somewhat of a concession for one who has always professed entire independence. But there is often, nowadays, a solitude of the heart which nothing can fill except your image.’
She loved to hear the prattle of her grandchildren, to watch their pretty, wild activities, as if they were creatures of her dreams. So they were, and she regarded them, as she regarded the whole world and her own sold, with a sad and gentle curiosity. In such a tender atmosphere of thought, of love, and of memory, she faded away, in the spirit of the beautiful words which she herself wrote not many weeks before the end: ‘We have kept step together through a long piece of road in the weary journey of life: we have loved the same beings and wept together over their graves. I have not your faith to console me, as they drop one after another from my side; yet my will, I trust, is in harmony with the divine order, and resigned where light is wanting. The sun looks brighter and my home more tranquil as the evening of life draws near.’
Now, to consider Mrs. Ripley as she was in her best years, from thirty to sixty, with all her wealth of spiritual power and practical usefulness. We find, of course, the same qualities that we studied in her youth, but amplified, enriched, and balanced by the full development of maturity and a broader contact with the world.
And first, the wife and mother and housekeeper. It must be admitted that Mrs. Ripley’s natural tastes did not lie in this direction. All the more notable is it that she was as admirable and successful here as in more abstract and ambitious pursuits. She herself recognizes amply that in giving up her cherished interests for a life of active usefulness she had found gain as well as loss. ‘I once thought a solitary life the true one, and, contrary to my theory, was moved to give up the independence of an attic covered with books for the responsibilities and perplexities of a parish and a family. Yet I have never regretted the change. Though I have suffered much, yet I have enjoyed much and learned more.’ And housekeeping for her meant, not a ladylike supervision, but hard, perpetual labor. She rarely had a servant, she had many children, she had large social obligations, and for years she had the needs of a boys’ school to provide for. Whatever her life lacked, it was not activity. The fret, the wear, the burden of all these cares she undoubtedly felt, especially as her health was never of the best. Sometimes she longed unutterably to be free and quiet. But she never complained, she never grew sour or querulous. Says one who knew her and loved her, ‘In all the annoyances of an overtaxed life I never saw her temper touched. She did not know resentment; she seemed always living in a sphere far above us all, yet in perfect sympathy.’
As a wife and mother she did her full duty as if it were a pleasure. The affection, almost devotion, with which her husband speaks of her is sufficient evidence as to her relation to him. I have already said that she did not depend upon her children for amusement; but she watched over them and entered into their lives as only her intelligence could. Her methods of training and education were those of sympathy and kindness, and better testimony to their success could not be afforded than the noble qualities and eminent usefulness of her sons and daughters.
No account of these middle years of Mrs. Ripley’s life would be complete without an analysis of her contact with the world, with her fellow men and women. In one way her career was an isolated, or at least a limited one. She never traveled, knew nothing even of her own country outside the circle of her immediate surroundings. Books and talk, however, gave her a far wider knowledge of mankind than this would promise. And, though she did not go to the world, the world came to her. Her father’s houses in Boston and Duxbury were always open to friends and neighbors, and during her husband’s long ministration in his Waltham parish, she kept up a hospitality which never failed or weakened. All sorts of people were welcomed in her parlor, and if her thoughts were often called away to other higher or lower cares, she did not show it and her visitors never knew it.
This is not saying that her duties were not sometimes irksome. Occasionally, in her most intimate correspondence, she rebelled and uttered what she felt. ‘I would there were any hole to creep out of this most servile of all situations, a country clergyman’s wife. Oh, the insupportable fatigue of affected sympathy with ordinary and vulgar minds.’ Yet an impatience like this was but momentary, and was in no way incompatible with the social charm which I have already indicated in Mrs. Ripley’s youth, and which continued and increased with age. She certainly did not seek society, in fact preferred the multitudinous solitude of her own thoughts; but neither did she avoid her fellows, and when with them she had always the supreme attraction of being wholly and perfectly herself. There was no affectation, no convention in her manners or in her talk. She said what she thought, and, as her thoughts were wide, abundant, and original, her conversation could not fail to be stimulating. She was, indeed, more interested in the thoughts of others than in her own, and never permitted herself to be burdened with the demands of making talk where there was none.
The shyness of early years persisted in the form of quiet self-effacement. In the words of one who knew her well, ‘Without being precisely shy, she often gave one the impression of an unobtrusive, yet extreme solicitude to be in nobody’s way.’ And this is not the worst of social qualities. It must not, however, in Mrs. Ripley’s case, suggest dullness. When she did speak, it was with the ease and the fertility of a full soul. To Dr. Hedge it seemed that she had ‘an attraction proceeding from no personal charms, but due to the astonishing vivacity, the all-aliveness, of her presence, which made it impossible to imagine her otherwise than wideawake and active in word or work.’
Yet even so, I have not quite portrayed the singular candor and impersonality of Mrs. Ripley’s spirit. Her lower self did not exist for her; that is, she left it to regulate its doings by an exquisite instinct, without cumbering her soul with it. When her friends, in jest, engaged her in speculative talk and then put a broom in her hands and asked her to carry it across Boston Common, she did it quite without thought. In the same way, she carried her own external, social person through life, bearing it with the flawless and unfailing dignity that belonged to high preoccupations, and so making contact with her one of the privileges and delights of all she met.
Among the activities of Mrs. Ripley’s prime none is more illustrative of her character than her teaching. She taught boys for many years, sometimes as an assistant in her husband’s boarding-school, or again simply taking pupils to tutor in her own house.
I find very little evidence that she enjoyed the work. Of course, there was the rare pleasure of really waking up a soul, knowing and seeing that you had done so. But the teacher was too selfdistrustful to take much credit, even in such cases. She hated all responsibility — how much, then, the responsibility of a young life. She hated drudgery, of body or soul, though her whole long existence was made up of it. And whatever pleasure there may be in teaching, few will deny that there is drudgery also. Especially she hated discipline, believed at least that she had no faculty for it, and refused to practise it in any harsher sense. It is said that, as she sat in her teacher’s chair, she knitted assiduously and purposely, so that small infractions of propriety might escape her notice. It is said, also, that when such things were forced upon her, she made no comment at the time, but afterwards wrote gentle, pleading notes to the culprits, which never failed of their effect.
For, whatever she may have felt herself, her pupils thought her eminently successful as a teacher. They learned from her, they obeyed her, they admired her, they loved her. No one affords better evidence than she that the stimulus of the soul goes further than the stimulus of the rod. Most of her boys were rich, idle fellows, who had been suspended from college or had never been able to get there. Such hearts are not always bad, but you have got to touch them to help them. On this point I do not know that I can quote better testimony than that of Senator Hoar. He says of the pupils who came to her from college: ‘She would keep them along in all their studies, in most cases better instructed than they would have been if they had stayed in Cambridge. I remember her now with the strongest feelings of reverence, affection, and gratitude. In that I say only what every other pupil of hers would say. I do not think she ever knew how much her boys loved her.
I cannot leave Mrs. Ripley’s teaching and practical usefulness better than with the pathos of that last sentence.
There is no doubt that the chief interest of Mrs. Ripley’s best years, as of her youth, is in her intellectual preoccupations. It is true that she theoretically subordinates such preoccupations to useful action, but her very words in doing this show her attitude. ‘I sympathize much with your tranquil enjoyment in study. There is no enjoyment like it, except perhaps disinterested action; but all action is disturbing, because one is constantly limited and annoyed by others.’ So, in spite of the immense activity that was forced upon her by her choice of life and her surroundings, she persisted day after day and year after year in grasping more firmly and more zealously the things of the spirit.
Sometimes, indeed, the difficulties were so great that even her courage faltered. ‘I begin to think we must either live for earth or heaven, that there is no such thing as living for both at the same time.’
Her health was uncertain; her time was broken, till there seemed nothing left of it; those about her would call her attention to petty details and trifling matters, world removed from the high thoughts she loved to linger with. It made no difference. The persistence — call it obstinacy — which others expended upon social success, upon worldly profit, upon mere, immediate pleasure, she devoted wholly to books, to study, to vaster acquisition of varied knowledge; and somehow or other she knit up the flying minutes, which many would have wasted, into connected hours of profitable toil.
Note that this spiritual effort was given to intellectual interests pure and simple. Mrs. Ripley had never any great love for the æsthetic side of life. Music, unless as a matter of analytical study, made little appeal to her. Art made almost none. ‘I am not sufficiently initiated into the mysteries of art to admire the right things,’she says. Even in poetry her tastes were narrowly limited. The Classics she read because they were the Classics. To the moderns she gave little attention and less care. So with contemporary events. They passed her by almost unnoticed. Her whole thought was given to the eternal.
Note also that she did not study to make a parade of it. She was as far as possible from a pedant in her speech as in her thought. She had no desire whatever to give instruction, simply to get it. Nor did literary ambition enter at all into her enthusiasm. She never wrote, had probably no great gift for formal writing. Her one inspiring passion, from youth to age, was to use every power she had in making just a little more progress into the vast, shadowy regions of obtainable knowledge.
As I have already pointed out in connection with her young days, her intellectual appetite was universal in its scope. It almost seemed as if she did not care upon what she used her mind, so long as she used it. The truth was, that every study was so delightful that choice was hardly necessary. Language? All languages fascinated her, and she grasped eagerly at every one that came within her reach. The ethereal flights of pure mathematics and astronomy might have absorbed her altogether, had it not been that chemistry and botany offered attractions so perpetually and variously alluring. The close contemporary of Thoreau, she had none of his imaginative interpretation of the natural world; but it is doubtful whether his actual knowledge of plants and trees was more exact than hers.
On the whole, it must be said, however, that her chief interest was in philosophy and abstract thought. The intense preoccupation with heaven and hell which beset every New England childhood in those days, turned, with her, as with so many others, into a close and keen analysis of where heaven and hell came from — and where they had gone to. She read the Greek and the English and the German philosophers and meditated upon them, with the result of a complete, profound, and all-involving intellectual skepticism. Observe that this skepticism was individual, not general. She was no dogmatic agnostic, no blatant unbeliever; above all, she abhorred the thought of leading any other astray. She was simply a humble, gentle, reverent seeker, ever anxious to know whether anyone had found the light, but irrevocably determined to accept no false gleam, no deluding will-o’-the-wisp.
Even in face of the great mystery of all she would express only a deep resignation, making no pretense to a confidence she could not feel. ‘Death is an event as natural as birth, and faith makes it as full of promise. But faith is denied to certain minds, and submission must take its place. The Unknown, which lighted the morning of life, will hallow and make serene its evening. Conscious or unconscious, we shall rest in the lap of the Infinite. Enough of this. Let us live while we live, and snatch each fleeting moment of truth and love and beauty.’
It may easily be maintained that Mrs. Ripley carried intellectual sincerity too far. She was so conscientious that she made a dogma, and finally even a duty, of doubt. She too often overlooked the blessed privilege of thorough skepticism, which is that it leaves hope as permissible as despair. Yet such singular, lucid, unfailing devotion to pure truth is highly notable in any one. I do not know whether a man may be forgiven for assuming that it is especially notable in a woman.
It is in this connection that I find a peculiar interest in Mrs. Ripley’s intimacy with her nephew by marriage, Emerson. It would seem as if the two must have been an infinite source of stimulus and solace to each other. That there was always the deepest affection and respect between them is perfectly evident. When Mrs. Ripley refers to Waldo in her earlier letters, it is as to a spirit inspired and almost super-earthly. And in her old age she writes of his absence, ‘I miss my guide and support in many ways.’ Emerson’s tone is no less enthusiastic, not only in the eulogy of his friend published soon after her death, but in many passages of his Journal.
Yet, with all this, one is rather surprised to note that the two seem to see little of each other, do not seek in each other’s society that constant sympathy that one would think they would have found there. The truth is, their ways of looking at life were radically different. Mrs. Ripley records a conversation between them in which she remarked that ‘the soul’s serenity was at best nothing more than resignation to what could not be helped’; and Emerson rejoined, ‘Oh, no, not resignation, aspiration is the soul’s true state! What have we knees for, what have we hands for? Peace is victory.’
This difference of attitude peeps out slyly in a touch here and there in Mrs. Ripley’s letters. It is glaringly marked in the study of her, printed at large in the sixth volume of Emerson’s Journal. He does, indeed, repeat, with entire sincerity, much of his former praise. But he adds these somewhat harsh comments: ‘She would pardon any vice in another which did not obscure his intellect or deform him as a companion. She knows perfectly well what is right and wrong, but it is not from conscience that she acts, but from sense of propriety, in the absence, too, of all motives to vice. She has not a profound mind, but her faculties are very muscular, and she is endowed with a certain restless and impatient temperament, which drives her to the pursuit of knowledge, not so much for the value of the knowledge, but for some rope to twist, some grist to her mill.’
Few spiritual touches could be more instructive than this conflict of minds so akin in many interests and so closely thrown together. A certain justice in Emerson’s complaints is undeniable. Mrs. Ripley’s was in no way a creative, original intelligence. She knew that it was not, and perhaps we may say, did not wish it to be. Her mental activity does at times appear an effort at diversion and distraction, rather than a passionate struggle toward the ultimate ends of thought. Yet it is hard to be satisfied with Emerson’s criticism, when one reads passages like the following: ‘Religion has become so simple a matter to me — a yearning after God, an earnest desire for the peace that flows from the consciousness of union with him. It is the last thought that floats through my mind as I sleep, the first that comes when I wake. It forms the basis of my present life, saddened by past experience. It bedims my eyes with tears when I walk out into the beautiful nature, where love is all around me. And yet no direct ray comes to my soul.’
The true cause of the difference between Mrs. Ripley and Emerson was that her unconquerable, uncompromising dread of illusion did not suit his persistent and somewhat willful optimism. The lucid shafts of her penetrating intelligence drove right through his gorgeous cloud-fabric. Doubtless she listened to his golden visions with the profoundest attention and respect. But she was ten years older than he, she had known him as a boy and from boyhood, and she read the boy in the man and the angel, and he knew she did.
I have no direct evidence whatever, but I am inclined to suspect that she regarded those eager pages, peppered with capitalized abstractions, as Waldo’s pretty playthings, which amused Waldo and could hurt nobody.
Emerson’s verdict on Mrs. Ripley’s moral character also; if not unjust, is misleading. It might naturally be expected that skepticism so complete would have some moral effects; but in this case those mainly perceptible are a divine gentleness and tolerance. Theoretical disbelief is apt to blight action. But action was so forced upon Mrs. Ripley all her life, that she could neither shun it nor neglect it. As to her moral instincts, Emerson himself indicates their sureness and delicacy. They never failed her in any connection. It was far more than a negative correctness of conduct. It was the most subtle and pervading sympathy with purity, holiness, and sacrifice, wherever they might be found. Above all, there was in her letters as in her life — and this Emerson fully recognizes — a singular tenderness, a pervading grace of comprehension, that endeared her to all who knew her. And hers is the saying, notable in one who so greatly prized all honesty and veracity, ‘The law of love is higher than the law of truth.’ In short, it may well be said that she believed in nothing but goodness, kindliness, the dignity of virtue and the unfailing delight of the pursuit of knowledge. Even as to these things she had her doubts, though they were clamped with iron tenacity to the inmost fibre of her soul, as to the existence of which she doubted also.
But, however great the charm of Mrs. Ripley’s pure and saintly external life, the chief interest of her character, and of her example, must always lie in her extraordinary devotion to intellectual matters. It is to be observed that from her childhood to her age this devotion was absolutely disinterested. Most men who make a business of study combine it with some ulterior object, either professional success, or financial profit, or the glory of literary achievement or of scientific discovery. This woman never entertained the slightest suggestion of such advantage. With her there was but one aim, the pure exercise of thought for itself, the perpetual probing a little deeper and a little deeper and a little deeper into the vast, elusive mystery of existence. Such a tremendous and unceasing voyage of discovery carried its own triumph and its own satisfaction with it, and its resources of desire and delight were as varied as they were inexhaustible.
In Pater’s Imaginary Portrait, Sebastian van Storck says to his mother, ‘Good mother, there are duties towards the intellect also, which women can but rarely understand.’ No man ever understood those duties to the intellect better than this woman understood them.