The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 15 July 1816; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18160715-TC-RM-01; CL 1:77-81.


Annan.15th July 1816.

My dear friend,

I am greatly obliged to you for your letter. At present, I had no great reason to expect it. Yet you must not suppose, that I have wilfully neglected to write. It is two months, since I set obstinately to work, determined to send you a very handsome letter, without loss of time. And I had assuredly done so, had I not clearly perceived, that it was not in my power to send you any thing, that could at all have interested you. Since that time I have been continually loading myself with unavailing reproaches: and I have begun to write at last, solely, lest by my silence, I should offend you without remedy. You are therefore to expect nothing but a very useless letter from me; and dull as may be.

I am very sorry that you are so unhappy— It is my own case also: for I have been extremely melancholy during the last six weeks, upon many accounts. It is about ten days since I got rid of a severe inflam[m]ation-of the throat, which confined me to the house for two weeks. During two or three days, I was not able to speak plainly; & you will easily conceive, that I passed my time very heavily. I endeavoured to read several things: I tried a book of modern Biography ‘The British Plutarch’;1 but soon finding it to be a very miserable book, I shut it for good and all. I next opened the Spectator—and tho' his ja[u]nty manner but ill accorded with my sulky humours, I toiled thro' a volume & a half, with exemplary patience. Lastly, I had recourse to Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son;2 and I think I never before so distinctly saw the pitiful disposition of this Lord. His directions concerning washing the face & paring the nails are indeed very praiseworthy: and I should be content to see them printed in a large type, and placed in frames above the chimneypieces of boarding-schools—for the purpose of enforcing the duties of cleanliness, upon the rising generation. But the flattery, the dissimulation & paltry cunning that he is perpetually recommending, leave one little room to regret that Chesterfield was not his father.— Such was the result of my studies, in my sickness:—a result highly unfavourable to those feelings of prostration before high birth & weight of purse, which (many tell us) it is so eminently the duty of all men to cultivate. Indeed this is not the first time that I have noticed in my mind, a considerable tendency to undervalue the great ones of this world. Conscious that this sentiment proceeds in a considerable degree from my situation in life, I sometimes endeavour to check it: but after all, it requires little observation to teach us that the Noble of Political society and the Noble of Nature are different persons, in nine cases out of ten. I am also aware that Flaccus has said that ‘Principibus placuisse viris, non ultima laus est’;3 but with great deference, I would submit to Flaccus, that the justness of his aphorism must depend upon the character of these same ‘Principes viri’; otherwise—it is easy to conceive a state of society, in which, this ‘non ultima laus’ of his must be very liberally shared with sycophants & panders.— But I daresay, you have enough of these reflections— Turn we to something else.— I daresay I know as little of Navigation as you; and yet I do not feel great difficulty, in explaining how Hamilton Moore4 “resolves triangles on the surface of a Sphere into plane triangles.” Hamilton Moore, honest man, gives himself no uneasiness about resolving his triangles—he takes them as he finds them—and considering them as plane triangles—solves his problems very comfortably.— (I believe Leslie has a note in his Trigonometry, 5 explaining the method of reducing the angles of a Spherical triangle to the plane triangles formed by its chords)— I re[a]dily agree with you, that Moore's rules are very defective:—his remarks are often quite stupid—for instance, his statement (noticed by Humboldt)6 that the attraction of a boat to a ship or of a ship to a rock is caused by gravitation. A Similar phenomenon may be witnessed by causing two pieces of wood to float on a bowl of water—and all men know that this is caused by capillary attraction.— I have never seen Kieth's Trigonometry,7 & therefore cannot tell you any thing about it.— I am glad to hear that you are getting forward so well with Homer. I know almost nothing about him—having never read any thing but Pope's translation, and not above a single book of the original—& that several years ago. Indeed I know very little of the Greek at any rate. I have several times begun to read Xenophon's anabasis completely: but always gave it up in favour of something else— You complain that nothing that you do leaves a vestige behind it:—what do you make of Homer?— For my part—I cannot well say what I have been about, since I wrote to you last. Out of a considerable quantity of garbage which I have allowed myself, at different intervals, to devour, I have only to mention Crabbes Poems as worthy of being read. In addition to great powers of correct description, he pos[s]esses all the sagacity of an anatomist in searching into the stormy passions of the human heart—and all the apathy of an anatomist in describing them.— For the rest—I continued reading Newton's Principia with considerable perseverance & little success—till on arriving a short way into the third book—I discovered that I had too little knowledge of Astronomy, to understand his reasoning rightly. And I forthwith sent to Edinr for De Lambre's abrégé d'Astronomie;8 and in the mean time, betook myself to reading Wood's optics. I cannot say much about this book. Its author intermeddles not with the abstruse parts of the science—such as the causes of reflection & refraction—the reason why transparent bodies, at given angles of incidence, reflect their light almost entirely (concerning which, I meet with many learned details, in the Encyclopedia Britan)—but contents himself with demonstrating, in a plain enough manner, the ordinary effects of plane & spherical mirrors—and of lenses of various kinds—applying his doctrines, to the explanation of various optical instruments & remarkable phenomena. But in truth, I know little about it, I read it with too great velocity.— I also read Keil's introductio ad veram Physicam;9 but I shall let it pass till next time I write. In fine De Lambre arrived; & I have read into his fourth Leçon—and like it greatly.I intended to have told you some of his observations—but I would not overwhelm you with ennui all at once—and therefore, I shall be silent at present.—ne quid nimis [moderation in all things] … as the proverb saith.10

On Friday we enjoyed the company of Brother Saffery of Salisbury11—a sollicitor (of money) for the benefit of the Baptist mission. I was rather disappointed in the appearance of this person. The name of a missionary suggests the idea of a lean and mortified ascetic—travelling with his staff & scrip—and with pious avarice, hoarding, for the behoof of his brethren, the scanty donations of a precarious charity. Brother Saffery was the reverse of all this: He arrived in a post chaise & was a tall man of a florid complexion, and very great diameter. Nevertheless it was easy to see that his was no common character. His brow was kint [knit] together, very [g]loomily—and his voice (naturally a deep-toned bass) was compressed into [an] unharmonious whine—all denoting profound humility & passi[ve obedien]ce. He spoke of the designs of Providence, & the projects of the Devil, [wi]th great sang froid; and quoted largely from the scripture, backing his quotations, with Wiltshire proverbs—and other baser stuff of his own composition. His conversation, you will easily believe then, was very oppressive. Indeed so strongly did it savour of stupidity, if not of something worse, that I could not perceive it to be at all a pressing duty, to put money into the hands of persons like him, for any purpose whatever. However Brother Saffery had no great room for misguiding the talent committed to his care by the people of Annan;—inasmuch as said talent amounted only to two pounds four shillings & sixpence—a sum, which considering the trouble he put himself to—was trifling enough. It is pity, that the missionaries cant so violently. There is no doubt that many of them are serious, well-meaning men—yet it would be too much to expect that in such a number—there should not be several—with whom the propagation of Christianity is far from being the primary object, and of the best—it is to be regretted that their zeal is not tempered with a little more prudence.

I had several other matters to write about; but my paper draws t[o] a close. Yet I cannot forbear noticing that strange project of going to Fra[nce], which you talk of. Possibly it might be extremely pleasant—but there are many perplexing questions to be answered, before it can be put in execution. First, how are we to get to France; second, how are we to live in France; and third what good will living in France do to us. ‘Chill penury,’ My Dear Mitchell, here as in other cases, represses our ‘noble rage’12 of visiting this country, and, may be, it is no great matter. For it may be doubted, one would think, whether a country inhabited by fierce revolutionists and rascally marauders & flimsy aristocrats—all sweating under a foreign & arbitrary yoke—would be a fit place for an honest man to dwell in—if he could help it.— At any rate, it seems I am to stay nearer home for a while. For you must know, I have received two letters from Professor Christison,13 concerning the situation of Teacher to the Parish school of Kirk[c]aldy—or rather I believe assistant to the present Teacher, who (being a very useless man)14 has agreed to resign—upon consideration of being allowed to retain his salary—retaining also the name without any of the power of Parish Schoolmaster. I cannot say that I am violently taken with this offer. The emolument is rated about a hundred a-year, but there appears to be some ambiguities about it—which I do not understand: & I have written to them, that if they should like to wait, I could come to Edinr in Autumn, & talk with them about the place— & if they should not like to wait,—that there would be an end of the matter.—and there it stands.— I wish you would send me as long a letter as this—by this day week— I wish also that you would come down & see me—say on a Saturday when the tide is about mid-day, & then we might cross the water to Skinburness. Write soon—send me West's exercise,15 that I mentioned last time—& believe me Dear Mitchell—you[rs] ever

Thomas Carlyle