The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 25 May 1818; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18180525-TC-RM-01; CL 1:126-130.


Kirk[c]aldy25th May 1818.

My dear friend,

After parting with you on the quay of Burntisland, I proceeded slowly to the westward; and seating myself upon the brow of that crag from which the poor king Alexander brak's neck-bane,1 I watched your fleet-sailing skiff till it vanished in the mists of the Forth. So! Mitchell is gone!— thought I, we shall have no more chat together for many a day; but he will write me a letter in a week at any rate:—and with that consolatory expectation, I pensively returned to Kirk[c]aldy. If excessive studiousness has frustrated this hope, then is it well, and I shall wait contentedly till some hour of relaxation occur, when you may sport upon paper for my benefit—without detriment to your graver pursuits. But if sheer indolence possesses you, it were proper to cast off the noxious spell, as soon as possible.— From the fact of my writing at present, you may conjecture (and rightly) that my own avocations are slackly pursued. My conduct, I fear, is absurd. I believe it to be a truth (and tho' no creature believed it, it would continue to be a truth) that a man's dignity in the great system of which he forms a part, is exactly proportional to his moral & intellectual acquirements: and I find moreover, that when I am assaulted by those feelings of discontent & ferocity which solitude at all times tends to produce, and by that host of miserable little passions which are ever and anon attempting to disturb one's repose, there is no method of defeating them so effectual, as to take them in flank by a zealous course of study. I believe all this—but my practice clashes with my creed. I had read some little of Laplace2 when I saw you; & I continue to advance with a diminishing velocity. I turned aside into Leslie's conics— & went thro' it, in search of two propositions, which when in your geometrical vein, you will find little difficulty in demonstrating. Take them if you will.— (I.) The straight line drawn through the focus from the extremity of a diameter to meet its conjugate, is equal to the semitransverse. From which it may be seen that (II.) The square of the diameter of an osculating circle is to the square of the chord which passes thro' the point of osculation & the focus, as the same chord is to the parameter of the transverse axis. By the help of the latter combined with Art. 210. in Robinsons3 mechanical philosophy, where it is shewn (very simply) that the forces by which bodies are deflected in different points of their curvilinear paths are directly as the squares of the velocities & inversely as the deflective chords of the equicurve circles in those points—it is easy to deduce the law of the force by which a body describes an ellipse or any other conic section. Newton employed this method if we believe Robinson & Wallace; but I can find it neither in the first nor third edition of the Principia—and I have seen no other. I likewise turned aside into Charles Bossut's Mécanique4—to study his demonstration of pendulums, and his doctrine of forces. The text is often tediously explanatory—& in the notes, it is but a dim hallucination of the truth that I can obtain thro' the medium of integrals & differentials by which he communicates it. However I am now pretty well convinced that a body projected from the earth with a velocity of 39,000 feet per second,5 will never return. I got Lagrange's mecanique analytique6 also, but to me it is nearly a sealed book. After all these divarications, & more which I shall mention afterwards, you must pardon me, if I am not above half-through the exposition du système du monde. The first volume is beautiful, & can be understood; great part of the second is demonstrated, he says, in the mécanique celeste, and I am obliged to be content with ignorantly admiring these sublime mysteries, which I am assured are de hautes connaissances, les delices des êtres pensans [high knowledge, the delights of thinking beings]. Surely it is a powerful instrument which enables the mind of a man to grasp the universe & to elicit from it & demonstrate such laws—as that, whatever be the actions of the planets on each other, the mean distances of each from the sun & its mean motion can never change: and that, every variation in any of their elements must be periodical. To see these truths, my good Robert—to feel them as one does the proportion of the sphere & cylinder! 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished7—but not very likely ever to arrive. Sometimes, indeed, on a fine evening, & when I have quenched my thirst with large potations of Souchong, I say to myself—away with despondency—hast thou not a soul and a kind of understanding in it? And what more has any analyst of them all? But next morning, alas, when I consider my understanding—how coarse yet feeble it is, & how much of it must be devoted to supply the vulgar wants of life, or to master the paltry but never-ending vexations with which all creatures are beleaguered— I ask how is it possible not to despond? Especially, when, as old Chaucer* [TC's asterisk] said of the Astrolabye, “the conclusyons that have been founden or ells possiblye might be founde in so noble an instrument [as in an Astrolabie: TC omits], ben unknowen perfitely to any mortal man in this region, as I suppose.’8 But I fear you are tired of these prosings—you must bear with them. Excepting the few friends whom Providence has given me, & whose kindness I wish never to forfeit, I have & am likely to have little else but these pursuits to derive enjoyment from; and there is none but you to talk it over with. They are all preaching here & care not a straw for Laplace & his calculus both. You will be preaching one of these days too—and perhaps— but it is needless to anticipate—you must not leave off Mathematics.

Moore's Lallah Rookh & Byron's Childe Harold canto fourth 9 formed an odd mixture with these speculations. It was foolish, you may think, to exchange the truths of philosophy, for the airy nothings10 of these sweet singers: but I could not help it. Do not fear that I will spend time in criticising the tulip-cheek. Moore is but a sort of refined Mahometan, and (with immense deference) I think that his character in a later Edinr review11 is somewhat too high. His imagination seldom quits material even sexual objects—he describes them admirably—and intermingles here & there some beautiful traits of natural pathos; but he seems to have failed (excepting partially the fire-worshippers) in his attempts to pourtray the fierce or lofty features of human character. Mokannah,12 in particular, insensible to pain or pity or any earthly feelings, might as well, at least for all poetical purposes, have been made of clock-work as of flesh & blood.— I grieve to say that the catastrophe excited laughter rather than horror. The poisoned believers sitting round the table, with their black swol[le]n jobbernowls [stupid heads] reclining on their breasts, and saucereyes fixed upon the ill-favoured prophet—appeared so like the concluding scene of an election-dinner, when all are dead-drunk but the Provost, a man of five bottles, with a carbuncled face & an amorphous nose, that, I was forced to exclaim du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas [it is just a step from the sublime to the ridiculous]. Moore is universally said to be the author of the letters from the Fudge family13—a work, if I may judge by copious extracts, of extraordinary humour. Phil. Fudge seems to mean poor Southey.— I perceive Mitchell that I cannot finish this letter in time for the post as I intended, and since there is still a streak of radiance on the horizon's brim, I may as well go forth to enjoy it. Therefore good bye, my old friend, for a short season.— 8½ o'clock P.M.— 11 o'clock— I return from a saunter with Pears, and an unprofitable inspection of his chaotic library, to conclude my task. Pennam amens capio; nec sat rationis in penna.14— Be easy in your mind; I am going to write, not fly.— That dissertation upon the Eastern romance is so long-winded that I cannot in conscience afflict you with any remarks upon the deep-toned but de[risive] poetry of Lord Byron. What think you of his address to Alfonso duke of Ferrara, the persecutor of [Tasso] 15

Thou! formed to eat, & be despised & die,
Even as the be[asts] that perish, save that thou
Hadst a more splendid trough & wider sty:
He! &c’ 16

This is emphatic enough.— I need not speak of Dr Chalmers' boisterous treatise upon the causes & cure of pauperism in the last Edinr review.17 His reasoning (so they call it) is disjointed or absurd—& his language a barbarous jargon—agre[e]able neither to Gods nor men.18 And what avail the Church politics of the General assembly—the performances of the fire-proof signora (Geraldini(?)—or the flagellations of Bill Blackwood & the as paltry antagonist of Bill Blackwood?19— But let me repress these effusions of vanity:—pleasant they may be to myself—yet unbecoming—till I turn a renowned man—which unless things be miserably conducted—will certainly (you would think) come to pass one way or other.— What is the matter with Johnston? He is becoming very unguidable—& declines apparently either to hop or win—in the way of writing letters.— If you will not write to me yourself Mr Robert, I cannot help it, but must continue tho' ‘without the least prefarment,’ to subscribe myself,

Your faithful but disconsolate friend, /

Thomas Carlyle