Giuseppe Mazzini stamp

Personal Recollections of Mazzini

Fortnightly Review 55 (May 1891): 702-12.

[NOTE: Blind originally wrote a version of this essay in 1873, a year after Mazzini’s death, but John Morley, then-editor of  the Fortnightly, rejected it. Sixteen years later, then-editor Frank Harris asked her to submit an essay on “The Personality of Mazinni,” which appeared as “Personal Recollections of Mazzini” in the May 1891 issue. Giuseppe Mazzini founded the secret revolutionary society Young Italy (1832); he championed the movement for Italian unity known as the Risorgimento and was the leader of the Italian revolutionary movement. He later became part of the radical refugee community that often gathered at Karl and Friederike Blind’s St. John’s Wood home in northwest London, and he made a deep impression on Friederike’s young daughter (she dedicated her pseudonymous 1867 volume Poems to him, just as Swinburne would later do when he published Songs Before Sunrise in 1871). While Mazzini influenced Blind’s political beliefs, and helped her overcome the despair she experienced after her brother committed suicide in 1866 following his failed attempt to assassinate Prussian President Otto von Bismarck, she resisted his gender attitudes and his paternalism.]

And did I once see Mazzini plain? Did I hear him talk? Did I touch his hand? Did I feel the unique magnetism of his personality? Indeed, it is a never-to-be-forgotten epoch in my life the day on which I saw this great man for the first time, for his presence came upon me with the surprise of a revelation. It would be difficult to explain how the effect was produced, but I became aware almost instantaneously that the man sitting there, familiarly chatting among friends, was not so much an individual as the incarnation of an idea in a perishable human frame.

And a particularly perishable, worn, and emaciated body was that of Mazzini, when, as a girl, I was fortunate enough to know him in his latter years. He seemed to hold life by a very frail tenure. His face, too, of wax-like pallor, was furrowed by suffering even more than years – by suffering and the continuous strain of thought. But the inspired look of the eyes – dark glowing, luminous with spiritual fire – gave an appearance of eternal youth to the wasted countenance. In the features and expression you observed a singular lending of the qualities which show the thinker and the man of action. The upper part of the head and brow had a dominant massiveness not unlike that of the fine bust of Julius Caesar in the British Museum, and the aquiline curve of the nose and firm-set mouth, with the close-cropped grey beard, were suggestive of unflinching energy and an iron force of will; but this effect was softened by an expression of deep and earnest thought, and the rare smile whose subtle sweetness seemed the aroma of a nature as remarkable for tenderness as strength.

Those who have heard Mazzini will never forget the eloquence, originality, and range of his talk. It sometimes had a prophetic grandeur, a range of his talk. It sometimes had a prophetic grandeur, a ring of passionate conviction, which stimulated every better impulse, and made his listeners realize those larger issues of life which bring individual consciousness into harmony with universal law. His speech had the urgency of a trumpet call. In fact, to have known Mazzini is to understand those mythical and historical figures who, from Buddha to Savonarola, have infused a new spirit into the outworn religious thought of their age, – men who were themselves the embodiment of their message, and whose unwritten sermons, graven on the hearts of disciples, became the means of transforming empires and shaping the destinies of nations. As far as I am able to judge, all the writings of Mazzini, however powerful, are but a pale reflection of his own impressive and [703] apostolic individuality. He belonged to that class of men who ranked highest in his judgment, “the men of the mighty subjective race,” as he called them, “who stamp the impress of their own mind – like conquerors – both upon the actual world and the world of their own creation, and derive the life they make manifest either from the life within themselves, or from that life of the future which, prophet-like, they foresee.”

However, Mazzini’s conception of life, as shown in his writings on religious, political, and social questions, is too well known to be touched upon here. I propose, in the space at my disposal, to make a record of his talk and teaching as addressed to myself, and, as far as I am able, to let him speak in his own strong and stirring words. Of course this would be impossible now had I not at the time taken notes of his conversation under the heading of “Words of Life.” And if his teaching did not, in my case, have just the result he might have expected, neither did it fall on entirely barren ground. It seemed to me, then, in the ferment and unrest of my mind, that I might get some clue to the meaning of the world, some help in my vain seeking after truth, from on who in his own person seemed a guarantee of the sacredness of life. For the preponderance of evil and sorrow, the poor pittance of happiness doled out to the individual, the limitations which hedge us in on all sides, had tormented me from an early age, and would often fill me with a passionate rebellion against existence. The materialist school of thought, which recognized force and matter as the only factors in the world, the notion that we are ephemeral creatures here to-day and gone to-morrow, that the life in us is as the flame of a candle which burns down to the socket and goes out, left a void which it required Mazzini’s essentially spiritual doctrine to bridge over. His quenchless faith in the progress of the race, in the duty of the individual to modify and transform the social medium, and in the intrinsic oneness of all human life, gave it a deeper reality by connecting our temporary passage here withal the generations that have gone before and are coming after. What made Mazzini so great in my eyes was that he tried to grasp life as a whole; that he considered the evolution of society as an upward movement, of which the progressive stages are marked by the different creeds which each in turn have contributed their share in developing the moral and mental capacities of man. Mazzini’s ideas in some respects were not unlike those of Lessing and of Auguste Comte, who, in their luminous generalization, interpret history as an educational process in the growth of humanity.

“One and all, like Herder,” he says, “we demand of the instinct of our conscience a great religious thought which may rescue us from doubt, a social faith which may save us from anarchy, a moral [704] inspiration which may embody that faith in action, and keep us from idle contemplation.”

How often in conversation with me have I heard Mazzini inveighing against the habit of contemplation and that reprehensible frame of mind which is content to passively receive the impressions of the outer world. For, as he believed that we are “down here” (as he used to put it) to transform nature, he blamed those who merely seek for sensations; especially the poet, the artist who, instead of reaching out after some ideal, considers that he has done his part in copying that which already exists. “High poetry is truth,” he would say, and the theory of art for art’s sake was abhorrent to his soul. The paradox of a witty contributor to this Review as to the uselessness of all art would have elicited his most vehement protest. In his view it was one of the most ennobling forces of society, and by peopling the imagination with types of moral and physical excellence, helped in transforming the ideals of one generation into the realities of another. Possibly the beautiful myth of Pygmalion and Galatea foreshadows this conception of art; and the artist’s passionate aspiration after beauty may in time have the mysterious faculty of translating the marble image into palpitating life.

At any rate, it may be useful to recall this spiritual view at a moment when the naturalist school of art is bearing down everything before it. According to Mazzini’s grand generalization, art should not rest content with following in the footsteps of experience, but be the herald in the van. On this account Æschylus, Dante, Schiller, and Byron were the poets he preferred. He did not actually rank their genius higher, but he loved them best. Though he considered Goethe the greatest poet since Shakespeare, he was always finding fault with him, a little, perhaps, on account of my intense admiration for this writer. “Goethe,” exclaimed Mazzini, on one occasion, “was incapable of considering events in their public connection, and as they affected the mass of men. In this respect he seems to have lacked some faculty. Isolated facts and individuals alone had any interest for him. The carcass of a sheep, the bones of a fish, had actually more importance in his eyes when travelling in the Argonne than the great Revolution which then raged in France. Believe me, you are deluded by the great genius of Goethe. I was also completely fascinated by him in my youth. So difficult is it at that age to realize that heart and genius do not always go together. Goethe’s genius enabled him to project himself in imagination into every possible form of human emotion and aspiration, but his whole life proves that the man himself was not possessed by such aspirations. Still, I am quite ready to admit that Goethe is the most representative poet Europe has produced since Shakespeare, but like Shakespeare, the poet with whom he has the [705] most in common, he resembles a mirror which passively reflects the world as it is.”

“But the method of these two poets, “I replied, “seems essentially different. Shakespeare disappears completely behind his works, while Goethe’s are so many steps in his own development.”

“You are right; but this is also accomplished by him in an objective, passive manner. The poet calmly holds up the glass to his own ever-changing sensations and emotions, and reflects them precisely as he would any other object in nature. But is this the true mission of the poet? Should not he embody in language that which abides in his own deep heart, instead of contenting himself with giving us a mere reflection of passing impressions? Turn from your idol, Goethe, to his noble contemporary; there it is the man himself who hopes, strives, and suffers with humanity, as Dante did, and as Æschylus did before Dante.

“Indeed, the ancients had no idea of our modern way of separating the man from the artist, and judging them separately. The man should always be our first and foremost consideration. In the next place we have to judge of the man-artist; but to judge him precisely as we would judge of the man-soldier, the man-artisan, the man-peasant &c. In modern times the man himself has been effaced, and an undue prominence given to the artist. I consider this to be not only a great misfortune in itself, but as one which radically destroys true art.

“But to return to Goethe. The fact is that he was not only indifferent to the needs and sufferings of the people – the child of humanity – which it is the duty of the gifted and fortunate to educate and raise to their own level, but at bottom he was cold to everything. His feelings were never deeply affected, for his brain had pumped his heart dry. Anything and everything interested him alike. When Bettina in her youthful enthusiasm threw herself at his feet and worshipped him, his only through was – ‘I will study her.’ But the green serpent twisting about on his table was an object of equal importance to him. He observed one on account of her brilliant flashes of fancy, and the other for the delicate play of light on its scales. He looked at both in the same spirit of scientific curiosity.

“Moreover, I am convinced that Goethe never truly loved any woman. Woman was a subject on which to make experiments in love. Look at Dante, on the other hand. What a sustained glow of true passion is in him! He does not wait for objects to impress him. He impresses the seal of his own soul on every object. He is not moulded; he moulds. His whole life – the reality of his aspirations, of his hate and love – glows with irresistible truth through his writings. We need not go to any biographer to learn who and what the Man Dante was.”

[706] Curiously enough Goethe’s view of art resembled Mazzini’s far more than one would expect. “The great artist,” he remarks, in his conversations with Eckermann, “stands above nature and treats her according to his aims. Art is not entirely subject to natural necessities, but to laws of its own. The artist has a twofold relation to nature: he is at once her master and her slave.”

I remember one day, on being asked by Mazzini what books I had been reading, that I owned to an enthusiastic perusal of Carlyle.

“Carlyle!” he exclaimed, with a half-quizzical smile, for he was often playful, and even bantering in conversation: “Why, we are diametrically opposed to each other! He worships force! I combat it with all my might!”

“But all the same,” I ventured to persist, “he resembles you in his discontent with the present state of society, in his conviction that men should shape their lives according to some religious ideal, some standard of duty!”

“Can you tell me,” asked Mazzini, with flashing eyes, “what religious ideal he enunciates? To what standard of duty he asks you to conform? Can you show me in any of his writings what objects of belief he points out for your worship? In our age words are too often made to do the work of ideas, and when you sift them to the bottom you find they are meaningless.

“Scepticism, analysis,” he continued, with a meaning look at me, “are the bane of our age. To think that women, even women, who should be all compact of faith and devotion, are beginning to question and to analyse!

“Scepticism, analysis,” he continued, with a meaning look at me, “are the bane of our age. To think that women, even women, who should be all compact of faith and devotion, are beginning to question and to analyse! Remember the story of Psyche. When, impelled by doubt, she took a lamp to assure herself of the reality of love, love fled for ever. So it is with all deepest and holiest feelings when looked at with your analyzing skepticism. Carlyle is the sceptic of skeptics. He is grand when he pulls down, but incapable of reconstructing something fresh. How can you call Sartor Resartus a magnificent book?” he continued. “If you called it a work written with great genius, that would be nearer the truth. I used to know Carlyle intimately, and I told him fifteen years ago, when he was still a republican, to what his principles would lead him. He would not believe me, but time has shown that I was right. He was separated because we could no longer agree. He is a worshipper of force – intellectual or moral force, I grant you – but this, in the end, must lead to an apology for despotism. If, instead of loving and admiring nations and humanity, you only love, admire, and reverence individuals, you must end by being an [707] advocate of despots. Great men can only spring from a great people, just as an oak, however high it may tower above every other tree in a forest, depends on the soil whence it derives its nourishment. This soil must be enriched by countless decaying leaves or the acorn embedded in it could never shoot up into a gigantic oak. Just so a great man draws his strength from the generations which have preceded him, and from the men of his own generation by whom he is surrounded. Mind, I don’t mean to deny the power of individuality. I don’t deny that every human being brings something with him that is distinctively his own. You are something; I am something; you and I are different from either you or I. And it is this interdependence of man upon man which is the germ of that collectivity manifested through history. There is deepest truth in Christ’s saying: ‘Where two or three are gathered together there is the Holy Spirit.’”

In connection with this subject, I remember Mazzini saying that he did not believe that chance existed in history. “A cause must necessarily underlie every event, although for the moment it may appear as the result of apparently accidental circumstances. An Alexander, a Caesar, a Napoleon are not the results of accident, but the inevitable product of the time and nation from which they spring. It was not Caesar who destroyed the Roman Republic: the republic was dead before Caesar came. Sulla, Marius, Catiline preceded and foreshadowed Caesar, but he, gifted with keener insight and greater genius, snatched the power from them and concentrated it in his own hands. For there is no doubt that he was fitter to rule than all the others put together; at the same time, supposing he had appeared a hundred and fifty years earlier, he would not have succeeded in destroying the republic. When he came the life had already gone out of it, and even Caesar’s death could not restore that.”

By way of assisting me in the course my reading should take, Mazzini sketched out the following plan of study, and after bidding me to lay aside Carlyle, who could only lead me astray, he added: “Do not entangle yourself in philosophy. Philosophy will do you no good. It will only teach you thought about thought. Study astronomy. I mean, make yourself familiar with the laws unfolded by the astonishing science, and when you have grasped its elements, dive down, through geology, to the forces which have elaborated our globe. Next in order take up history from the most primitive times to our own, and, if you like, take up the different systems of philosophy each in connection with the period it sprang from – Plato, Descartes, Spinoza in their historical sequence. Read, and meditate deeply on what you have read. If much still remains dark, concentrate your mind in prayer. You know what I understand by [708] prayer. After a while, when you have discovered that the laws which govern history are in harmony with those which rule the heavens and the earth, the meaning of life will grow clearer, and it is that which it concerns you above all things to know.

“You should give six hours a day to the course of study I have indicated; that is,” he added, smiling, “if you are not too much taken up with your dress. I should like some time to talk to you, not about literature or philosophy, but about life. But I must know you better first. Yes,” he concluded, “I have not yet formed a clear estimate of your character. I think you have an extraordinary amount of imagination and that makes it more difficult. Besides, it is always easier to know men than women. A man is either good or bad, but woman is the sphynx. You may have known her all your life and yet not know her to the bottom. From your love of Goethe, among other things, I conclude that you are objective – by which I mean that you have no aim or ideal after which to strive. You simply watch the world turn round and get absorbed by whatever happens to be before you. Wholly and brilliantly so, I grant you; then the object passes and something else engrosses you in turn. This is selfish. For though the dreams you indulge in are always most poetical, it is a selfish indulgence. You want to be happy; but happiness, let me tell you, is not the object of our life. When you set out on a journey you have an object towards which you are going. You may welcome the sun if it shines on your path, but you do not break your journey if it should not be shining; nor do you travel on purpose to seek it. It is the same with happiness. Search not for it; believe me, by so doing it will always escape your grasp. Like a shadow it will for ever hover beyond your reach. But if with study aim you pursue an appointed task, just as unexpectedly as the sunshine falls on your path happiness will surprise you unawares.

“Forgetfulness of the world and existence, glimpses of something higher and brighter – that is all we can mean by happiness here on earth. A deep abiding sadness always fills my heart. The things of this world are so fleeting and incomplete that if for no other reason but this, I could never be happy here. With a few exceptions, I despise the present generation, and only in the idea of Humanity as it will be in the future do I find my consolation. For at present men have lost the sense of the continuity and unity of their race. Each one is only conscious of his own individual rights. They have forgotten duty. Their love itself is only a selfishness à deux. Though we can only love a few with all our heart, yet should we bear ourselves towards all men as though we loved them. I have always tried to behave alike to all, but only the [709] smiles of a few dear ones ever give me any comfort. Remember, I do not act thus for the happiness it may bring me. I do not hold the Christian belief that doing good must needs make us happy. Nor I do not expect any kind of reward. No; you must do good for the sake of goodness only.”

In order to impress his theory of life more clearly upon me, Mazzini, in answer to my appeal for fuller insight, wrote me several letters, from one of which I will give an extract, as it sums up in a little room from the quintessence of his teaching:

“It is not from me, dear troubled one, it is from yourself that you must draw strength and comfort. It is by reaching through your own efforts, faith: faith in duty and immortality. You have had moments in which faith visited you; but next moment you analysed, dissected and it disappeared. Did you ever think, Mathilde, that all great scientific discoveries have been owing to what they call intuition – to an hypothesis which flashed before the eye of genius, without antecedents, without any reasoning that could be ascertained. Reasoning only ascertained the truth of the hypothesis afterwards. As intuition to the intellect, so are those moments to the soul. They see truth. They make you feel life: your analyzing reason can only, like anatomy, examine death. As the telescope – the enlarged eye – discovers new stars and planets by concentrating on your pupil a larger mass of rays of light: so you can only discover truth, moral truth, by a concentration of all your faculties, instincts, aspirations on a given point. The moments of which you speak, do that. Why do you spurn them, ungrateful child? Why do you doubt them? High poetry is truth; and it is truth because you cannot trace out or analyse its source. In a beautiful night, near the grave of a dear lost one, before the Alps or the sea, in a moment of concentrated love for a being, for an idea, for an aim, you are nearer the truth than after having spent days and nights on philosophical systems. If ever you have a strange moment of religious feeling, of supreme resignation, of quiet love of humanity, of a calm insight of duty, kneel down, kneel down, thankful, and treasure within yourself the feeling suddenly arisen: it is the feeling of life.

“Such feelings came to me at the period about which I wrote these pages; I cannot write them down. Still I have written enough to show their source. The source is a definition of life. Life is not search for happiness; life is a mission. We have no rights: we have only duties; when bent on fulfilling them, we have a right to not be prevented or checked: thence liberty, thence equality, thence association; but we have no rights, unless we do fulfill a duty….

“God is: but He is not the Christian God. He is not the arbitrary [710] dispenser of grace. He has made laws; He has given you powers and liberty; He has put before you evil, so that you may fight it; He has surrounded you with millions of other beings, so that you may feel your brotherhood with them; He has pointed out to you many aims tending to their improvement; He has given to your contemplation a whole long tradition of martyr-souls, of good, patient, struggling, hopeful men as examples and companions on the way. He could not, cannot do more for you. Do not ask your grace: conquer it. Do not contemplate: work. Do not think of yourself: think of others. Christianity tried to teach man how to save himself alone, in spite of the world, and spurning it – unsuccessfully. Man cannot save himself, except by saving others – by modifying for the best the medium, the element in which he is living. Do not seek as alms what you can deserve by deeds. Do not fret or moan while you can fight. Worship duty: it is the only reality. Very strange that we should recognize it in each inferior manifestation of life; that we should say: ‘Man, if he wants to live physically, ought to work;’ and that we forget it whenever we think of life in its whole, of life in its highest sense….

“Life is a mission: nothing else.

“There is nothing real but duty. The sun may, or may not shine on your path; but the path is ever the same.

“Call it God or what you like, there is life which we have no created, but which is given. There is a law of life. Therefore we have each of us a function, an individualized mission.

“To study and try to discover what part of the law of life is pointed out to us in our epoch – then to fulfill it according to our means of action – that is the only possible aim of our terrestrial existence.

“The first thing may be achieved by your listening to the tradition of mankind, and to the sacred whisper of your own conscience. On the intersection point where they both meet is truth – not absolute truth, of course – but what of it you may conquer in your stage of life.

“The second will be achieved by feeling that man is thought and action; by strengthening as much as possible that now dismembered unity; by establishing for yourself the law of trying to embody, to symbolize by action, as far as possible, every good thought you have.

“We do not know, nor can down here know, all the laws of life; but we already know that life is inseparable from progress, progress inseparable from association. You must, therefore, not leave your terrestrial existence without having endeavoured to add something to both. Otherwise your life down here will be a failure; [711] and, although you may not believe in them, I know that the consequences will be heavy on your own progress in future.”….

Mazzini lived at that time at 2, Onslow Terrace, Brompton, and whenever I entered the door of his modest room it had the same elevating effect upon me which a church has on the faithful. It was crammed with newspapers, books, and pamphlets; the chairs and sofa, as well as the table, were covered with them, so that there was little space left for turning these articles of furniture to their natural use. It may be on this account that Mazzini had got into a way of sitting on the very edge of a seat, leaning forward a little, with his thin hands, more often than not, crossed on his knees. A shadowy figure, all dressed in black, without a vestige of white collar or necktie, with the smoke of a companionable cigar usually floating round him. Here great part of Mazzini’s time was spent in a voluminous political correspondence with his Italian compatriots. But, while keeping the flame of revolutionary enterprise alive in his country, the gentleness of his nature was shown, among other things, in his love of birds. He kept several, and so tame were they as to fly freely about the room, perching confidingly on the shoulder of the man who has an object of distrust and terror to most of the governments of Europe.

Indeed, pity and tenderness for all things weak, suffering, and oppressed were the mainspring of Mazzini’s political action. Love for those beneath him was his ruling impulse, and no description can convey the compassion that suffused his face and vibrated through his voice in speaking of the masses and the hardness of their lot. But he did not even hate those powerful ones of the earth whose privileges he attacked. He warred with institutions, not with men. The only time I can recall an expression of concentrated scorn and anger in his tone was on his speaking of “The Man of December.” He never named him. His silence conveyed an intensity of reprobation more terrible than the wildest abuse.

. . . he made war to the knife against superannuated systems of religious and political life, . . .

For though he made war to the knife against superannuated systems of religious and political life, he had a profound reverence for the past. True, it was dying or dead, and we should haste to bury it with all decent observances, lest it taint their air of the living; but we should refrain from spurning it with impatience or contempt. Never would you hear on Mazzini’s lips that cheap eighteenth century declamation against kings and priests, as if they were the originators instead of being the offspring of what is out of joint in society. Believing in the working of a continuous law through history, he did not put them in a class apart and imitate those Sioux theologians who said, “The Great Spirit made all things except the wild rice; but the wild rice came by chance.”

[712] Austere in his private life and of the simplest habits, Mazzini led an existence of self-denial verging on asceticism. Outside the intercourse of a few chosen ones he had no relaxation, and seldom stirred from home except to visit the bedside of a sick friend. He lived so completely in high thoughts and strove so earnestly to translate them into action, that the things of the actual world took but little hold of him. “Would you have me look for nature in the streets of London?” he asked me once ironically; and then added, pointing to two trees outside his window, “Out of these I can construct the whole of Nature. Give me the Alps or nothing. By the way, the only time to see them at their best is in winter. Then they are sublime. They look to me like the mothers of Europe. They feed the great plains of our continent with the streams and torrents flowing in undying life beneath the snow.”

Among flowers, also, Mazzini had a characteristic preference. Better than the rose he loved the pale blossom of the syringe, whose acrid perfume, suggestive of the hidden sting in all pleasure, was more typical of life. The moon, he once told me half jokingly, had a special fascination for him; he looked upon it as a world in the cradle, and watched her as one would an infant. He had a fancy that one day, when life should be developed there, some kind of communication would be established between our earth and the moon. Every edifice equal to Westminster Abbey would then be visible to our largest telescopes, and it would perhaps depend on an intuition of genius in some inhabitant of the moon to afford us ground for a sort of telegraphic intercourse. Such trifles may not lack interest as indicating a side of Mazzini’s temperament not revealed in his published writings.

For the rest I shall be satisfied if I have succeeded in adding one touch to the figure of this modern prophet, whose greatness, like that of an Alp, will make itself manifest in proportion as we get far enough off to judge of him correctly.