The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO JOHN FERGUSSON; 25 August 1819; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18190825-TC-JOFE-01; CL 1:192-196.


Mainhill, 25th August, 1819.

My dear Sir,

By this time, I suppose, you are quietly settled in your native valley;1 glad to have escaped, for a season, the eating cares of pedagogy; and to have exchanged the heartless gossipping of dull loungers, the dust, the sin & sea-coal of Edinburgh, for mountain breezes and the simple affectionate communing of true friends. It may perhaps diversify without suspending your enjoyment to turn your thoughts hither for a little while. I am aware, that, Johnstone's thanks and mine should have been transmitted to you some fortnight sooner: but the old causes, aggravated by a torrid atmosphere, which to judge from my nerves, could not be much short of 212° Fa[h]renheit, have hitherto frustrated my well-meant endeavours. All things considered, you ought to be well satisfied.

The life, which I have led, for some time, cannot well bear much description. It is of that peaceful kind which furnishes few materials for a narrative. Moderate health, domestic kindness, uninterrupted leisure are the elements of my condition: and whether I read the Abbé Raynal, or stroll into the fields to muse over Skiddaw and his ancient brethren; to look at the Solway and the yellow hills and dales which intervene; or to enjoy ‘the sweet approach of even,’2 when the Sun sinks behind the cone of Queensberry—the day glides gently along, undisturbed by ennui, tho' unvaried except by incidents too trivial to be remembered much less detailed. You may imagine such a state very favourable for intellectual, if not for moral, improvement: but the painful truth is, I derive too little advantage from it. One cardinal error, which I have long lamented, is the want of any plan in my researches. Indolence and the love of novelty may plead that knowledge of all kinds is valuable; and exultingly point to Stewart's ‘literary artisan’: it remains certain, that reading, when thus conducted, is too often more like dissipation than study— But without any profession or distinct prospects how shall this evil be remedied? Unfortunately, the precept ‘whatsoever thy hand findeth [to] do, do it with all thy might’3—a palliative at any rate and not a cure—is more easily assented to than put in practice. I have much need of your advice upon this head; for as things go, philology, fiction, metaphysics and history are very oddly jumbled in my poor head— The German still maintains a dubious footing; Jardine comes once a-week; but alas! he is not an Adelung;4 and my own efforts have been so far from persevering, that, I can yet obtain only an imperfect idea of a scene in the Misstrauische5 (Distrustful), without the aid of dictionaries. Either the literature of that country little merits the praises which it has received, or my selection of German books has been singularly unfortunate. Lessing6 had some spirit in him; but von Cronegk and Archenholtz7 are men of mould: and Klopfstock's Messias8 seems cold—dull even, if I might say so. My operations in Italian have been limited to six pages of Tasso.9 What think you of a project which I have formed? We two are to rise at 7 o'clock every morning, throughout winter, and read together Italian one day, Greek the other. I think we once spoke of Greek before: can our intentions not be executed? Without believing in the creed of Oxford, we may be allowed, for many reasons, to regret that, in our own boasted seminaries, an ability to relish the sages and poets of Greece, ‘to unsphere the spirit of Plato’10 in his native garb—is so very rarely attained. But it is a pitiful thing to be mourning all one's life for the want of a language, when a competent knowledge of it might be obtained in a few months. Consider this proposal before you write. I may not detain you with the Tales of my Landlord.11 They are unpopular I hear; from which one might infer that the public has been spoiled with an excess of dainty food. For my own particular—I admire the plastic power that has combined the rude delineations of Harte & Monro into the pleasant Capt Dalgetty;12 I delight to follow Montrose and his wild host through the Highland mountains; I prefer Inverlochy to Bothwell-brig, and Ranald M'Eagh to the gypsey Merrilies13— Little needs be said about M'Cormick (the continuator of Smollet[t]) who possesses neither the virtues nor the talents of an Historian;14 and I ought scarce to mention Clarkson's dull life of W. Penn,15 or other of the same stamp. Above a month ago, I found Raynal's history of the E. and W. Indies,16 in a farmer's house of this neighbourhood. It were long to tell you fully my opinion of this work, which (according to Gibbon) the author, by a happy audacity, names philosophical as well as political. The Abbé's researches embrace almost the whole habitable globe; his narrative, too much chequered by boisterous speculations, is generally conducted in a distinct, easy manner; and the information communicated upon physical, commercial and moral topics is various, and I believe reckoned authentic, tho' no authorities are quoted. Abundantly free from puritanism of any sort, he possesses an acute and cultivated understanding, a fervid imagination, an indignant rather than a forcible character. Opposite the title-page, beneath the picture of a sullen thoughtful countenance, Sterne's Eliza Draper17 has written: William Thomas Raynal, defender of truth, humanity and liberty. An enlightened admirer of those sacred qualities, may respect the genius and principles of Raynal, with[out] forgetting to lament that his denunciations against tyranny & priestcraft so frequently over step the moderation of philosophy. By way of punishing any aristocratic prejudices, which you may have contracted among those Celtic clans, I send you the concluding volley of his attack on the education of Kings. ‘Heureusement leurs insti[tu]teurs pervers sont tôt ou tard chatiés par l'ingratitude ou par le mépris de leurs éleves. Heureusement ces éleves, miserables au sien de la grandeur, sont tourmentés toute leur vie par un profond ennui qu'ils ne peuvent eloigner de leurs palais. Heureusement le morne silence de leurs sujets leur apprend de t[emp]s en tem[p]s la haine qu'on leur porte. Heureusement ils sont trop lâches pour la dédaigner. Heureusement les prejugés [fach-?] ceux qu'on a semés dans leurs ames reviennent sur eux et les tyrannisent. Heureusement, après une vie qu'aucun mortel, sans en excepter le dernier de leur sujets, ne voudroit accepter, s'il en connoissait toute la misère, ils trouvent les noires inquiétudes, la terreur et le désespoir assis au chevet de leur lit de mort.’18 Apparently our historian has sources of happiness a little extraordinary.

Before my sheet is exhausted, I ought to mention, that, probably about the beginning of November, you will see me in Edinburgh. I look forward to my arrival in town, with feelings similar to those of a bather contemplating, from his sunny slope, the dark pool, that is soon to receive him. Something must be done; but what or how is not so evident. I continue to participate in your dislike of teaching, the miseries of which are sufficiently obvious—unhappily the means of avoiding it are less so. It is matter of regret rather than surprise that you have yet sent nothing to the press. The difficulties of such an undertaking I have found to augment, as the execution of it approaches— Yet let us not despair. We are young; and the world, which is all before us,19 will not refuse to patient efforts, the little that we want from it. You must write to me as soon as possible: and make no more apologies for dulness than I do. Your letter is the best I have got for some time; and it had a value independent of its literary merits.— The pen being in my hand, I was about to send Irving a letter, but intelligence has reached me, that, he was to arrive at Annan on Saturday. I wonder if he has explored the ua-fino, the castle of Artornish and the stronghold where Donald of the isles20 whilom maintained his stormy sway. Were you with him? Dixon is arrived too; but I have not seen him—

Write soon: and believe me to be, /

My Dear friend, / Your's faithfully /

Thomas Carlyle