TC TO THOMAS MURRAY; 28 July 1818; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18180728-TC-TM-01; CL 1:135-137.
TC TO THOMAS MURRAY
Kirkcaldy, 28th July 1818.—
My Dear Sir,
Whilst arranging some scattered papers previously to my departure from this place, which I am to leave to morrow for Dumfriesshire—I happened to alight upon your letter.1 The recollection that it was unanswered awakened a feeling of remorse in my mind; and tho' it is near midnight, I have determined to employ the passing hour, in writing you a few lines by way of a return for your affectionate farewell. If I have not done so sooner, impute it, I beseech you, to want of ability rather than of inclination. Be assured, I have not forgotten the many joyful days which long ago, we spent together—Sweet days of ignorance and airy hope! They had their troubles too: but to bear them, there was a light-heartedness and buoyancy of soul, which the sterner qualities of manhood, & the harsher buffetings that require them, have forever forbidden to return.
I forbear to say much of the pursuits which have engaged me. They would little interest you, I fear. With most young men, I have had dreams of intellectual greatness, and of making me a name upon the earth— They were little else but dreams. To gain renown is what I do not hope & hardly care for, in the present state of my feelings. The improvement of one's mind, indeed, is the noblest object which can occupy any reasonable creature: but the attainment of it requires a concurrence of circumstances over which one has little control. I now perceive more clearly than ever, that any man's opinions depend not on himself so much as on the age he lives in, or even the persons with whom he associates. If his mind at all surpass their habits, his aspirings are briefly quenched in the narcotic atmosphere that surrounds him. He forfeits sympathy, & procures hatred if he excel but a little the dull standard of his neighbours. Difficulties multiply as he proceeds; and none but chosen souls can rise to any height above the level of the swinish-herd— Upon this principle, I could tell you why Socrates sacrificed at his death to Esculapius—why Kepler wrote his cosmographic harmony,2 & why Sir Thomas More believed the Pope to be infallible— Nevertheless one should do what he can.
I need not trouble you with the particulars of my situation. My prospects are not extremely brilliant at present. I have quitted all thoughts of the church, for many reasons, which it would be tedious perhaps displeasing to enumerate. I feel no love (I should wish to see the human creature that feels any love) for the paltry trade I follow; and there is before me a chequered and fluctuating scene, where I see nothing clearly, but that a little time will finish it. Yet wherefore should we murmur? A share of evil greater or less (the difference of shares is not worth mentioning) is the unalterable doom of mortals: and the mind may be taught to abide it in peace. Complaint is generally despicable, always worse than unavailing. It is an instructive thing, I think, to observe Lord Byron surrounded with the voluptuousness of an Italian Seraglio, chaunting a mournful strain over the wretchedness of human life;—and then to contemplate the poor but lofty-minded Epictetus—the slave—of a cruel master too—& to hear him lifting up his voice to far distant generations, in these unforgotten words, ' [sic: read ]. 3— But truce to moralising. Suffice it, with our Stoic to say, [sic: read ] which, being interpreted, is suffer and abstain.
I heard with pleasure that you had got licence, and had preached with success. May you soon obtain a settlement, and feel happy in it. A Scottish clergyman, when he does his duty faithfully, is both a useful & honourable member of society. When he neglects his office, and has subscribed his creed ‘with a sigh or a smile’ (as Gibbon spicefully remarks)—the less one says of him the better. But I hope other things of you.
Three weeks ago, I had a visit from the forlorn Poet Stewart Lewis. He came into the school one morning, and stood plumb up without speaking a word. I was touched to see the gray veteran, in tattered clothes & with a pensive air, waging against necessity the same unprosperous battle which, any time these forty years, has been his constant occupation. His wife died many months ago; and since that event he has been protracting a miserable, useless existence (he called it), by selling small poems of his own composing. I understand he got rid of some part of his cargo here;—and of all his sorrows, by a copious potation of usque-baugh [whisky]. He spoke to me with much gratitude of a certain young lady in Wigton, who for your sake (think of that Master Brook4), had sought out his lodgings and replenished his purse. He has many faults, and the crowning one of drunkenness—but some genius likewise, and a degree of taste, which, considering his habits & situation is altogether surprising. Moreover he is old, and poor, and not unthankful for any kindness shown him. I pity the man & would not wish to see him die a mendicant.
Perhaps you are acquainted with the tragic end of poor William Irving5 whom you once knew. Tho' auguring little good of him, I never feared that he would do that deed, which renders his name a thing which sober people may not mention. But now that it has happened, suicide seems a not unsuitable conclusion to his frantic & miserable way of life. I bewail his mournful destiny. Had the talents which he certainly did possess been cultivated with judgement, and directed by principle of any kind—he might have been a credit to his country.
If you write to me before Septr let your letter be directed to Mainhill near Ecclefechan—after that period, to Mrs Skeen's Kirkwynd Kirkcaldy. Are you to leave Sorbie? I must hear of your destination. During the vacation I intend to visit the Cumberland lakes; and I should like to see Galloway also, but I cannot make it out this summer. Will you be in Edinr any time soon? When or where shall I see you? Write me a letter at least when you can find leisure, and believe me to be,
My dear Murray / Yours faithfully /