TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 15 February 1819; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18190215-TC-RM-01; CL 1:159-163.
TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL
Edinr, 15th Feby 1819.
My dear friend,
Altho' well aware of the propensity, which exists in men, to speak more about themselves than others care for hearing, yet, as you have hitherto been the participator of all my scheme[s], I venture to solicit your forbearance and advice, at a time when I need them as much perhaps as I have ever done.
My situation may be briefly explained. All the plans that I have formed for succeeding in any profession, have involved the idea of subsisting in the interim by writing; and every project of this kind which I have devised, up to the present date, has been frustrated by my inability to procure books either for criticising or consulting. I have, it is true, the privilege of appearing on the floor of the college library, to ask for any book,—to wait about an hour, and then to fi[nd it—not in.] But this is of small advantage. My private teaching came to an end about a month [ago and] at this time, except a small degree of attention which I pay to the shadow rather than the su[bstance] of Mineralogy—for which science it is perhaps less surprising than unlucky that my unsettled [con]dition and my indifferent state of health have left me little enthusiasm; excepting also a slight [tinc]ture of the German language which I am receiving from one Robt Jardine of Göttingen (or rather Applegarth),1 in return for an equally slight tincture of the French which I communicate,—there is no stated duty whatever for me to perform. The source of that considerable quantity of comfort, which I enjoy, in these circumstances, is twofold. First there is the hope of better days, which I am not yet old and worn enough to have quite laid aside. This cheerful feeling is combined with a portion of the universal quality which we ourselves name firmness, others obstinacy; the quality which I suppose to be the fulcrum of all Stoical philosophy; and which, when the charmer Hope has utterly forsaken us, may afford a grim support in the extreme of wretchedness. But there are other emotions which, at times, arise; when, in my solitary walks around the Meadows or Calton-hill, my mind escapes from the smoke and tarnish of those unfortunate persons, with whom it is too much my fortune to associate—emotions which if less fleeting might constitute a principle of action at once rational & powerful— It is difficult to speak upon these subjects without being ridiculous if not hypocritical. Besides, the principles to which I allude, being little else than a more intense perception of certain truths universally acknowledged, to translate them into language would degrade them to the rank of truisms. Therefore unwillingly I leave you to conjecture. It is probable, however, that your good-natured imagination might lead you to overrate my resources if I neglected to inform you that, upon the whole, my mind is far from philosophical composure. The vicissitudes of our opinions do not happen with the celerity or distinctness of an astronomical phenomenon; but it is evident, that my mind, at the present, is undergoing sundry alterations. When I review my past conduct it seems to have been guided by narrow or defective views, and (worst of all) by lurking, deeply-lurking affectation. I could have defended these views by the most paramount logic: but what logic can withstand Experience? This is not the first, and, if I live long, it will not be the last of my revolutions. Thus—velut unda supervenit undam2— errour succeeds to errour; and thus while I seek a rule of life—life itself is fast flying away. At the last, perhaps my creed may be found too nearly to resemble the memorable Tristrapaedia of Walter Shandy, of which the minute and indubitable directions for Tristram's baby-clothes were finished, when Tristram was in breeches3—
But I forget the aphorism with which I began my letter. Here at least, let me [conclude] this longwinded account of my affairs; and request from you as particular an account of your own. We [cannot] help one another, my friend, but mutual advice and encouragement may easily be given & thank[fu]lly received. Will you go to Liverpool or Bristol or anywhither, and institute a classico-mathemat[i]cal academy? or what say you to that asylum or rather hiding-place for poverty and discontent, America? To be fabricating lock no. 8, among the passes of the Alleg[h]any!4—
Some nights ago, by the kindness of Dr Brewster, I was present at a meeting of the Royal Society. It is pleasant to see persons met together—when their object even professes to be the pursuit of knowledge. But if any one should expect to find, in George street, an image of the first Royal Society,—when Newton was in the chair & Halley at the table; he cannot (unless his fancy be the stronger) fail of disappointment. He will find indeed a number of clean, well-dressed (some of them able-bodied) men: but in place of witnessing the invention of fluxions or the discovery of gravitation, he may chance to learn the dimensions of a fossil stick, or hear it decided that a certain little crumb of stone is neither to be called mesotype nor Stillbite. This (a critic would say) has very much the look of drivelling— But pauca verba [few words]5— Dr B. is said to be almost the only efficient member of this philosophical guild6— I may mention (tho this has nothing earthly to do with it) that I have seen the Dr twice since my first visit; that I have met with a kind reception, and found instruction as well as entertainment in his conversation.
In conformity with ancient custom, I ought now to transmit you some account of my studies— But I have too much conscience to dilate upon this subject. Besides, it is not so easy to criticise the brilliant work of Madame de Staël—considerations sur quelques événemen[t]s de la revolution7—as to tell you, what I learnt from a small Genevese attending Jameson's class, that she was very ugly and very immoral—yet had fine eyes, and was very kind to the poor people of Coppet & the environs. But she is gone; and with all her faults she possessed the loftiest soul of any female of her time. Upon the same authority, I inform you that Horace Benedict Saussure (whose beautiful voyages dans les Alpes I have not yet finished) died 20 years ago; but Theodore, his son, is still living.8 Moreover Sismondi9 (another member of the Geneva Academy) is un petit homme, vieux, mais vif, tres vif [a small man, old, but lively, very lively]. I read Bailly's memoires d'un témoin de la revolution,10 with little comfort. The book is not ill written: but it greived me to see the august historian of astronomy, the intimate of Kepler, Gallileo & Newton—‘thrown into tumult, raptur'd or alarm'd,’ at the approbation or the blame of Parisian tradesmen—not to speak of the ‘pauvres ouvriers’ [‘poor workers’], as he fondly names the dogs, du faubourg St Antoine.11— With regard to Mineralogy—the maxim of Corporal Nym12 is again applicable. Peace be to Brochant, Bro[n]gniart & ‘the illustrious Werner’!13 It is a mour[n]ful study—and the Teacher,14 ‘a cold long-winded native of the deep.’ Do you wish to know the important fact, that the stone which I brought from Helvellyn is feldspar-porphyry? Skiddaw is of Thonschiefer (clay-schistus) [clay-slate]; and I firmly believe that the other rocks of that wild country have names equally beautiful & descriptive. Of their properties I am forbid to know any thing. En[-]veut[-]on la cause [Do you want to know the reason]? The ‘external characters’ are reckoned enough, in the school of Freyberg.
Upon a cool comparison of dates, I find that if I carry this letter to the post-office to-night, you may have it on Monday. The thing is then resolved upon. But it verges upon midnight; and it is high time to conclude the useless labours of the day—on which, I have walked to Dalkeith for the purpose of exercise—heard a heart-rending sermon, and have not studied the moon's erection in La Lande.15 When am I to hope for an answer? It may be short or long—it will not fail to comfort the soul of,
My Dear Mitchell / Your faithful friend /
(Remember me kindly to Johnston. O! that the man would write me an account of his doings!—)