The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 14 July 1819; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18190714-TC-RM-01; CL 1:188-192.


Mainhill, 14th July 1819—

I have not taken up the pen, my dear Mitchell, because of being smit with the love of sacred letterwriting; but simply to acquit me of a debt, which for some time has lain rather heavy on my conscience. An ancient sage philosopher has said that nothing should be done invitâ Minervâ,1 my respect for antiquity is very considerable; but without infringing such precepts, which laziness also raises her amiable voice to applaud, my terrestrial exploits would quickly have a close. After all, this communication by letter gives occassion to many squabbles between the moral & the active powers: I wish from my soul, some less laborious mode of friendly intercourse could be devised. Much may be done in the flight of ages. I despair of steam indeed; notwithstanding its felicitous application to so many useful purposes: but who can limit the undiscovered agents with which Knowledge is yet to enrich Philanthropy? Charming prospect for the dull, above all, the solitary dull of future times! Small comfort for us, however, who in no great fraction of one age shall need to care nothing about the matter. But wherefore whine? Employing rather our own very limited gifts, agamus pingui Minervâ, ut aiunt2—since we can have no other.

The best quality which I can communicate to the narrative of my journey to Cumberland3 is extreme brevity. In fact, however strongly a love of the sublime might tempt me to renew the kind anxiety, you felt on our account, the love of truth, which is or ought to be more powerful, compels me to declare that nothing dangerous or wonderful occurred. Maugre the predictions of your light bodied grocer,4 the Skinburness wherry buffetted the billous of the Solway, as proudly as ever the Bucentaur5 did those of the unquiet Adriatic. We had not even the dubious pleasure of being frightened. A poor Cumbrian statesman, however, enjoyed a more spirit-stirring fortune. Unused to his situation, he cast a penetrating glance upon ‘the secrets of the hoary deep’;6 his visage became pallid and elongated; and when, turning round, he noticed the entrance of a spoonful of spray—‘Lock,’ he exclaimed in a sepulchral tone, ‘Lock prasarve us! si as its coomin join’ in theare [see how it's rushing in there]!’— But the lapse of two hours delivered him from all his terrors.— On arriving at Workington, next morning, the Severn, we were told, was not to proceed on her voyage, for a week. Tho' wishing to enjoy the melancholy satisfaction of seeing Johnston fairly under way; yet, when Friday came, and (Harrington, Whitehaven, Cockermouth, Crummock-water &c being visited) this day of sailing was still at a considerable distance—the opportunity of a Dumfries sloop induced me to take farewell of our friendly emigrant. What my feelings were, that afternoon, I need not describe. To some days of mournful excitement, a sort of stupor had succeeded, which the noise of two half-civilized shipmen and the task of guessing at some stanzas of Tasso were little calculated to dispel. By this time, poor James is most probably inspecting the rugged shores of Fundy Bay. Let us hope that his talents and those virtues which are their modest ornament will secure, from the Acadians, that affection & esteem, which all who know him have never failed to pay. I do not wish you to convince me, that, we three shall never meet again, under more benign auspices—

Since my return, except one journey to Dumfries which I undertook for the purpose of engaging a supply of poetry, reviews and such small gear, during my continuance in these parts,—I have not been four miles from home. Jardine gives me a solitary lesson, each week, in German; which I repay by one in French. Of Italian nothing should be said: and with respect to Lesage's theory of attraction7 my efforts are feeble and far between. I know not if there be a Goddess of Sloth—tho' considering that this of all our passions is the least turbulent and most victorious, it could not without partiality be left destitute— But if there be, she certainly looks on with an approving smile—when in a supine posture, I lie for hours with my eyes fixed upon the pages of Lady Morgan's France or the travels of Faujas St Fond8—my mind seldom taking the pains even to execrate the imbecile materialism, the tawdry gossipping of the former, or to pity the infirm speculations and the already antiquated mineralogy of the latter. What shall I say to the woebegone Roderick last of the Goths; and others of a similar stamp? They go through my brain as light goes thro' an achromatic telescope. When even this task becomes tiresome; or when the need of exercise (which I never neglect for a day with impunity) induces me to take the fields; I saunter about, building deceitful hopes; or when otherwise disposed, indulging an obdured recklessness, which I am apt enough to dignify with the name of patience.— Do you know of a more edifying life? Seriously, it becomes you, as my Father Confessor to administer an appropriate rebuke.

I am glad to hear of your innocent enjoyments. Malcolm Laing9 produced in me,—some years since, an opinion of Ossian10 similar to yours; from which indeed I do not recollect of hearing any but one person dissent— The exception in question was an Aboriginal from the edge of Mid-Lorn, whom I met with last winter. Some two hundred Latin vocables, which he had picked up at St Andrews, seemed on[ly] to have strengthened his conviction of the Gaël's infinite superiority in every department of Nature & Art. The mention of the sledge-cars, the itch, the ignorance of his Celtic Kinsmen was a piercing thrust—which could not be parried by the barrenness and altitude of the highland hills—since Switzerland was ready with her Alps to oppose his Grampians, and with her Zwinglis, her Gessners, her Hallers, Eulers, Bernouellis, to eclipse his solitary Fergusson & Maclaurin.11 Poor Pseudo-Ossian was silenced as easily by the intrepid Orkneyman; and this fervid patriot, after an hour of torture, utterred a keen vituperation on Malcolm & me for being ‘Mongrels of the plain,’ which shut the scene. ‘The schoolmaster of Badenoch’12 like every dog, has had his day—

You speak very much at your ease about visiting me in—a few weeks! I should lose patience, but there is one sad & sole relief—if the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet knows what course to take. I was going to say one of these Saturdays; but, since I began to write, a letter from Dr Brewster has arrived, which will very possibly bring me over on Saturday first. It is about that calculating Geo Ross;13 and I must see Mr Duncan. The letter has already spent a week upon the road & there is no time to lose. Expect me therefore, unless ‘Diana in the shape of rain’14 prevent me and my poor shelty from travelling— O! that I saw the ‘imp of fame’15 wherewith poor Murray is in travail! ‘The Stewartry’— But I have done.

Your's, my dear Mitchell, / in all sincerity of heart, /

Thomas Carlyle—