TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 6 November 1818; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18181106-TC-RM-01; CL 1:141-147.
TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL
Kirkcaldy, 6th November 1818.
My dear Mitchell,
About a week ago, I received a letter from the Magistrates of this burgh (which letter I even now use as a blot-sheet), accepting my ‘resignation of the Teacher of the Grammar school,’ as their phrase goes: and in a fortnight, I shall quit my present situation. Although I relate this event so abruptly, my part in it has not been performed without mature deliberation. You shall hear it all.— The miseries of school teaching were known long before the time of the second Dionysius,1 who opened shop, in the city of Corinth, about the middle of the fourth century before Christ. Lucian2 (the Voltaire of antiquity) has left his opinion, in writing, that when the Gods have determined to render a man ridiculously miserable, they make a schoolmaster of him; and an experience of more than four years does not, in my own case, authorise me to contradict this assertion. But of late, the loss of my companions (Irving, who left us last Saturday, and Pears, who will depart in ten days), together with some convincing pro[ofs of] unpopularity, have given, to my reflections on this subject, a complexion more serious than ordinary. I have thought much and long of the irksome drudgery—the solitude—the gloom of my condition. I reasoned thus— These things may be endured, if not with a peaceful heart, at least with a serene countenance: but it is worth while to enquire whether the profit will repay the pain of enduring them. A scanty and precarious livelihood constitutes the profit; you know me, and can form some judgement of the pain. But there is loss as well as pain. I speak not of the loss of health: but the destruction of benevolent feeling, that searing of the heart, which misery, especially of a petty kind, sooner or later, will never fail to effect—is a more frightful thing. The desire, which, in common with all men, I feel for conversation and social intercourse, is, I find, enveloped in a dense repulsive atmosphere —not of vulgar mauvaise honte [false shame], tho' such it is generally esteemed—but of deeper feelings, which I partly inherit from Nature, and which are mostly due to the undefined station I have hitherto occupied in society. If I continue a schoolmaster, I fear there is little reason to doubt that these feelings will increase, and at last drive me entirely from the kindly sympathies of life, to brood in silence over the bitterness into which my friendly propensities must be changed. Where then would be my comfort? Had I lived at Athens, in the plastic days of that brilliant commonwealth, I might have purchased ‘a narrow paltry tub,’ and pleased myself with uttering gall among them of Cynosarges.3 But in these times—when political institutions and increased civilization have fixed the texture of society—when Religion has the privelege of prescribing principles of conduct, from which it is a crime to dissent—when, therefore, the aberrations of philosophical enthusiasm are rewarded not by admiration but contempt—when Plato would be dissected in the Edinr review, and Diogenes laid hold of by a ‘society for the suppression of beggars’—in these times—it may not be. But this cure, or any other that I know of, not being applicable—it were better to avoid the disease. Therefore I must cease to be a paedagogue. The question is now reduced within a narrower compass. It remains only to enquire at what time I can quit this employment, with the greatest chance of finding another. But how, except by some brisk sally, am I likely ever to emerge from my thraldom? Scantily supplied with books—without a rival or a comarade in the pursuit of any thing scientific,—little can be atcheived in that direction. With none here even to shew me the various ways of living in the world, much less to help me into any of them—reduced to contemplate the busy scene of life, through the narrow aperture of printed books, Danoetas being judge, I have a right, metaphorically speaking, to be his great Apollo; inasmuch as I have found and occupied that station, where the space of heaven extends not more than three ells.4 The brightest of my days too are flying fast over my head; and the sooner I resolve, the better. Besides at this time (that of Irving's departure) I give my employers the fittest opportunity to erect an institution for education, that may end their woes on that head—which, for the last six years, have been neither few nor small. In short the present is the time.— And I wrote my demission on the 23d of October accordingly.— After receiving the answer above alluded to, the business seemed to be done; when on Monday last, a certain very kind & worthy banker, Mr Swan,5 attended by another person, came to ask me, whether if they could offer me a salary between £120 and £150, for teaching, in a private capacity, some 30 scholars, I would not be induced to remain another year among them. Upon m[y] signifying an assent, they left me to pro[cure] subscribers, I suppose; and I have heard no more of their proceedings. But for this proposal, the probable success of which I cannot estimate, and do not rate highly—Edinr is certainly my destination for the winter[.]
I have calculated that, with oeconomy, I can live there for two years; independently of private teaching, which however I should not refuse, if as is not likely, it should offer itself. During that period, if I do not study, I deserve to continue ignorant. Mineralogy is to be my winter's work. I have thought of writing for Booksellers. Risum teneas [Hold your laughter];6 for at times I am serious in this matter. In fine weather it does strike me that there are in this head some ideas, a few disjecta membra [dismembered parts],7 which might find admittance into some one of the many publications of the day. To live by authorship was never my intention. It is said not to be common at present, and happily so: for if we may credit Biographers the least miserable day of an Author's life is generally the last.
I have meditated an attempt upon the professi[on of] a lawyer or of a civil engineer; tho what person would afford me any assistance in executing either of these projects, I cannot say. It is doubtful, if I can even learn the nature of the obstacles to be overcome, and the recompense of success. This is the most provoking thing of all: yet how to remedy it? I have thought of asking Mr Duncan for an introduction to some of his friends in Edinr—who might inform me at least upon these points, help me to get books—and shew me countenance in other ways that might not interfere with their own convenience. Tell me what you think of this. But do not mention it to Mr D—he might regard it as an opening of the first parallell: and that would be a mistake. When (if ever) I shall have convinced myself, that it is right to overcome the scruples which one naturally feels against asking such a favour, for the first time in one's life,—I shall wish to execute the task, without any (unnecessary) meanness. The Minister9 here is [a] worthy, kind man: but he has been beset with similar applications; and I cannot trouble him. Last time I was in Edinr, I called at Professor Christison's,10 with full purpose of talking to him upon this subject: but the good man was already environed with a crowd of hungry schoolmasters. I felt for myself— and made my exit in half an hour; tho' not till he had expounded the views of Messieurs Dufieff & Sanabbier, and discussed the merits of Sir James M'Intosh, the King, the late Ld Hopetoun, Dr Parr, the Calton-hill observatory,11 with twenty other things, in a way, which (no offense to the General) I could not think very edifying. Mr Leslie has already befriended me; I must allow him to ‘pursue the labyrinths of Physical research,’ without molestation. Yet without some such interference, I must be contented with angel's visits12 to the College library—and my society [must con]sist of private Teachers & probationers—a class of creatures (I speak it with a sigh) not the [several words torn away] in Edinr. Their ideas are silly & grovelling—their minds unvisited by any generous sentiment [; I love them not; and] of course the feeling will be mutual.
You see, my boy, that my prospects are not the brightest in Nature. Yet what shall we say? Contentment, that little practised virtue, has been inculcated by saint, by savage and by sage—and by each from a different principle. Do not fear that I shall read you a homily on that hackneyed theme. Simply I wish to tell you, that in days of darkness—for there are days when my support (pride or whatever it is) has enough to do—I find it useful to remember that Cleanthes, whose 13 may last yet [an]other two thousand years, never murmured, when he laboured by night, as a street porter, that he might hear the lectures of Zero, by day; and that Epictetus, the ill-used slave of a cruel tyrant's as wretched minion, wrote that [Enchiridion] which may fortify the soul of the latest inhabitant of Earth.14 Besides tho' neither of these men had adorned their species—it is morally certain, that our earthly joys or griefs can last but a few brief years; and tho' the latter were eternal, complaint and despondency could neither mitigate their intensity nor shorten their duration. Therefore my duty, and that of every man, on this p[oint, is] clear as light itself.
Excuse, my dear Mitchell, the egotism of this almost interminable letter. I have few other friends before whom I can unfold my secret soul. Do not say, with the French wit, on aime mieux dire du mal de soi-même, que de n'en point parler [one prefers to speak ill of one's self rather than not to talk about one's self at all]. Regard this rather as an auricular confession, intended to answer, with other purposes, that of marshalling my own reasons for my conduct—that I may be the better able to meet the result, whatever it be, with a resolute spirit.
I have left myself no room for criticism (falsely so called), or remarks upon your interesting letter. How fully I participate in your feelings with regard to the men of Cambridge will appear from the foregoing pages. Yet never despair. Remember Jeremiah Horrox,15 John Kepler, Samuel Johnson and a cloud of other witnesses. Have you advanced far in Gibbon? You would not, or will not, fail to admire the characters of Stilicho, of Aetius, of Boniface, of Belisarius—whilst the threefold coffin of Attila the Hun, with the barbaric sp[l]endour of his life & funeral—no less than the boisterous spirit of Alaric the Goth, whose bones yet repose beneath the waves of the Cosenza—might inflame your fancy with martial pomp and circumstance. What think you of Gibbon's views of the habits and opinions of those ages—his understanding—his stile?— I will not speak of Watson's history of the two Philips16—an interesting, clear, well-arranged and rather feebleminded work; any more than of the Harrington & Ormond of Edgeworth17—or the Chaotic jumble of Analytical institutions, poems, Encyclopaedias, Reviews, which of late, I have grappled withal. I am glad to find you pleased with your Newton—the carriage was 1/8—the residue I keep for you.— Of course you will write to me before I leave this place—I say of course. I was going to ask whether our friend Johnston was in the body—when lo! a letter from him reached me;—it shall be answered, tell him, in due time. I mourn for poor Lewis.18 Where is his son? Sir Samuel Romilly too!19— His peer is not within the empire.— But I have done. Write (obsecro [I beg]) in less than a week, to,
My dear Mitchell / Your faithful friend /