TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON; 8 January 1819; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18190108-TC-JJ-01; CL 1:155-159.
TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON
Edinr, 8th January 1819—
My dear Johnston,
Before my departure from Kirkcaldy I had commenced a letter intended for your perusal: but avocations, necessary or not, interrupted me; and the twenty-fifth of November found it still unfinished. Since that period I have crossed the frith, and undergone, with murmuring not loud but deep, the manifold vexations to which a life such as mine is liable. I might have written to you, some months ago; but my daily intention has been frustrated by those innumerable trifles which cramp the movements of indolent men—those trifles which of late, during many weeks, deprived me of the pleasure of hearing from yourself. However ridiculous it may appear, I cannot help regretting yet again, that we should write so seldom. To a man who has few friends, and most people have fewer than they suspect, real sympathy is doubly valuable. Amid the buffettings of fortune, a letter from a true friend is like an oasis in the desart of selfishness wherewith this Earth is filled. Why then, I ask it with some anger against us both, why should we write to one another so very seldom?
I am grieved to observe your embryo resolution of going to America.1 It is always a mournful thing to leave our country; to a man of sensibility & reflection it is dreadful. I speak not of that feeling which must freeze the soul of an emigrant, when, landing on the quay of Boston or New York, he reflects that the wide Atlantic is roaring between him and every heart that cares for his fate. But to snap asunder, for ever, the associations that bind us to our native soil; to forget the Hampdens, the Sydneys, the Lockes, the Stewarts the Burnses,—or to remember them only as men of a foreign land; to change our ideas of human excellence; to have our principles our prejudices supplanted; to endure the rubs which hard unkindness will have in store for us; to throw aside old friendships, and with a seared heart to seek for new ones—all this is terrible. And after all what would you do there? To teach is misery in the old world or the new: and perhaps (if it must be so) England is as fair a field for it as the Union. I entreat you, my dear friend, to lay aside this enterprise—at least for the present. I look upon emigration as a fearful destiny— Not more fearful, I grant, than others that might be imagined; than such failure, for instance, as might call forth the pity of those who love us (I was about to add—and the triumph of those who hate us: but it is a paltry sentiment to care for that;—if it exist within me I would wish to hide it both from you & myself); but thank Heaven things are not yet come to this. Consider the talents you possess—the classical, scientific, historical—above all the agricultural knowledge, which you have acquired; look around you; continue to improve your mind in patience, and do not yet imagine that, in our own country, the gates of preferment are shut against you. It will give satisfaction to me, and perhaps some relief to your own mind, to have your situation and views distinctly explained in your next letter. Write to me without reserve—as to one who can be indifferent to nothing which concerns you.
It is superfluous to say that I have bid farewell to Fife. My resolution was taken without advice, because none was to be had; but not without long & serious meditation. I could not leave Kirkcaldy but with regret. There are in it many persons of a respectable—several of an exemplary character; and had the tie which united us been of a less irritating nature, my time might have been spent very happily among them. At present my prospects are as dim, and my feelings of course nearly as uncomfortable, as they have been at any period of my life. About the end of 1816, I remember informing you, that, in the space of two years, my views of human life had considerably altered. A similar period has again elapsed, and brought with it a change less marked indeed, but not less real. Till not very long ago, I imagined my whole duty to consist in thinking and enduring. It now appears that I ought not only to suffer but to act. Connected with mankind by sympathies & wants which experience never ceases to reveal—I now begin to perceive that it is impossible to attain the Solitary happiness of the Stoic—and hurtful if it were possible— How far the creed of Epictetus2 may require to be modified, it is not easy to determine; that [it] is defective seems pretty evident. I quit the stubborn dogma, with a regret heightened almost to remorse; and feel it to be a desire rather than a duty to mingle in the busy current which is flowing past me, and to act my part before the not distant day arrive, when they who seek me shall not find me.3 What part I shall act is still a mystery. The four hours of private teaching, which I mentioned to Mitchell, diminished in a day to two, and altogether ceased a fortnight ago. At present I am giving lessons in Geometry, one hour per day, to Mr Saumarez, an old gentleman of Guernsey, whose disbelief in Newton, against whom he has written a book, together with his admirable notions about light & pressure, might amuse me, if I were in a more joyful humour. A competent quantity of hours (such is the cant phrase) might, I have not much doubt, be procured, if the usual measures were adopted;—but it will hardly do.— Several weeks ago, I received Mr Duncan's introductory letters—a favour which I reckon among the few acts of disinterested kindness that have been conferred upon me in this world. You will believe that the delivery of them was a new scene for me. I went through it however with great sang froid. Frank Dixon says the procedure in these cases is quite regular. You are received with a bow—the weather is discussed, and the merits of the last review—then you retire; sometime after which you are invited to breakfast, and here the acquaintance terminates. I received a polite reception from all my new friends. Dr Brewster is the only one whom I have seen a second time. He has very much the air of a kind man.— Would I had some employment! My mind lies toward the law; but much capital is requisite for obtaining a gown, and many years are often spent in waiting for employment— Yet it is a fair field with no favour, and were it not for the first objection I would attempt it instantly. Some weeks ago I met Professor Leslie on the street; and after discussing the hard fate which his curves of the second order were undergoing from the blockhead of an engraver—‘upon the whole’ said the philosopher ‘the best plan for you seems to be to learn the engineer business, and go to America. Great business there—large fortunes made— Swiss gentleman went lately—great encourag[e]ment— I must have you introduced to Jardine.'— I have already hinted what I think of Amer[ica.] Authorship also is in my eye: but the road to subsistense, I do not mention fame, in that direction is not very clear. Waugh and Innes' review4 is before the public. It would be rash i[n] me to decide upon its merits—especially before reading it attentively[.] The slight look which I gave it did not certainly, any more than the prospectus, impress me with a lofty idea of the brethren's energy. But time will try.
With regard to reading, you would think I have enough of time upon my hands at present: yet the truth is, I have often read more, almost never studied less! I have no enthusiasm—cui bono? I always ask myself. It would be irksome, & impossible, in this state of my sheet, to criticise the elegant and ingenious rather than powerful or philosophic narrative which Horace Benédict Saussure gives of his journeys in the Alps. I am in the third quarto— Nor shall I speak about Biot's traité de physique5 of which, to tell the truth, I have scarcely read 100 pages. There is also Madame de Staël on the French revolution—first volume only finished—remarks (if any) in the next letter. There is Jameson6 with his most crude theories—his orders Mammalia, Digitala & fencibles of gli[illegible]rac & bruta with [chi]sel-shaped foreteeth & & grieves me every day.
I long to hear your news. What are you doing? Is Miss Harper returned from Galloway— Have you seen Mrs Lawson— Is the Ecclefechan library set agoing—and twenty other questions of equal importance, I should be glad to have answered. Make my best respects (those of the season if not too late) to Mr & Mrs Church—not forgetting my two trusty fellow-travellers James & Duncan—whose progress to Goorse-mir [underscored twice] (Grassmere) thro E[a]sdale & Sour Milk Gills is not yet I suppose at all forgotten— Write soon as possible to one who hopes always [to] subscribe himself,
Your's faithful friend /
P.S. I forgot to say (what was indeed of no consequence) that I spent, along with Irving, the Christmas holidays in Fife. They were the happiest, for many reasons which I cannot at this time explain,7 that for a long space have marked the tenor of my life—