The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 18 March 1820; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18200318-TC-RM-01; CL 1:231-234.


Edinr, 18th March, 1820—

My dear Mitchell,

Ever since the month of January last, a train of ill health, with its usual depression, aggravated by other privations and calamities too tedious to particularize, have pressed heavily upon me. The victim of inquietude and despondency, I could not resolve to afflict you with my sorrows or my dulness; and tho' conscience frequently accused me of neglect, three months, you see, have passed away before the simple duty of answering your letter is performed.1 Tho' the period of my silence has been long, the excuse which I have offered might apply still longer; but my friends are too few, and my opportunities of acquiring more too slender for allowing me to stand such hazards: I cannot afford to lose the pleasure of our intimacy; and lest desuetude may cool (I trust it will not extinguish) that feeling, I write altho' it be ‘in spite of nature & my stars.’2

You would suspect me of a closeness, far enough from my disposition, if I did not attempt to trace you a sketch of the life which I have led for some time past. It must be a brief sketch for many reasons, however; and chiefly because it will contain no feature calculated to interest any one, even a second self. Zimmermann has written a book which he calls ‘the pleasures of solitude’:3 I would not have you to believe him: solitude in truth has few pleasures, uninterrupted solitude is full of pain. But solitude, or company more distressing, is not the worst ingredient of this condition. The thought that one's best days are hurrying darkly and uselessly away is yet more grievous. It is vain to deny it, my friend, I am altogether an unprofitable creature. Timid yet not humble, weak yet enthusiastic, nature and education have rendered me entirely unfit to force my way among the thick-skinned inhabitants of this planet. Law, I fear, must be renounced: it is a shapeless mass of absurdity & chichane, and the ten years, which a barrister commonly spends in painful idleness before arriving at employment, is more than my physical or moral frame could endure. Teaching a school is but another word for sure and not very slow destruction: & as to compiling the wretched lives of Montesquieu, Montagu, Montaigne &c for Dr Brewster—the remuneration will hardly sustain life. What then is to be done? This situation— But I touch a string which generally yields a tedious sound to any but the operator. I know you are not indifferent to the matter; but I would not tire you with it. The fate of one man is a mighty small concern in the grand whole of this best of all possible worlds,4 let us quit the subject, with just one observation more, which I throw out for your benefit should you ever come to need such an advice. It is to keep the profession you have adopted, if it be at all tolerable. A young man who goes forth into the world to seek his fortune with those lofty ideas of honour and uprightness which a studious secluded life naturally begets, will in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, if friends and other aids are wanting, fall into the sere the yellow leaf,5 and if he quit not his integrity, end a wretched tho' happily a short career in misery and failure. Dissipation is infinitely worse: I thank Heaven I am not a poet, I shall avoid that sad alternative.

I was glad to learn that you had finished the perusal of Homer.6 Certainly the blind bard is little obliged by your opinion of him: I believe, however, Candour is, and that is better. If from the admiration felt by Causabon, Scaliger & Co, and still more by the crowds that blindly follow them, we could subtract that portion which originates in the as hollow admiration of others for the same object; and if farther all affectation could be banished; I fear a very inconsiderable item would remain. In fact Maeonides has had his day—at least the better part of it; the noon was five and twenty centuries ago; the twilight (for he set in 1453) may last for other five and twenty centuries—but it too must terminate. Nothing that we know of can last forever. The very mountains are silently wasting away, and long before eternity is done, Mont Blanc might cease to be the pinnacle of Europe, and Chimborazo7 lie under the Pacific. Philosophy and literature have a far shorter date. Error, in the first, succeeds to error as wave to wave. Plato obscured the fame of Pythagoras, Cudworth & Kant of Plato: the Stagirite8 and his idle spawn have been swept away by Lord Bacon, himself to be swept away in his turn. Even in the narrow dominion of truth the continuance of renown is not more durable: each succeeding observer from a higher vantage-ground compresses the labours of his forerunner; and as the principia of Newton is already swallowed up in the mécanique céleste of La Place, so likewise will it fare with this present Lord of the ascendant.— Poetry they tell us escapes the general doom: but even without the aid of revolutions or deluges, it cannot always escape. The ideas about which it is conversant must differ in every different age and country. The Poetry of a Choctaw, I imagine, would turn chiefly on the pains of hunger, and the pleasures of catching bears or scalping Chicasaws. In like manner tho' some of the affections which Homer delineates are coexistent with the race, yet in the progress of refinement (or change) his mode of delineating them will appear trivial or disgusting—and the very twilight of his fame will have an end. Th[us] all things are dying, my friend,—only ourselves die faster. Man! if I had £200 a-year, a beautiful little house, in some laughing valley,—three or four pure-spirited mortals who would love me & be loved again,—together with a handsome library, and—a great genius, I would investigate the hallucinations that connect themselves with such ideas— At present I must revisit this nether sphere.

I think you are decidedly wrong in the affair of Johnston.9 His silence most assuredly proceeds not from any thing like ingratitude to Mr Duncan or inattention to you: these qualities are strangers entirely to the mind of our emigrant; and it will be very hard, if barrenness of fancy and extreme difficulty in writing letters should deprive him of friends whom he respects, as I well know, so highly. Most probably you have received intelligence from him ere this time: but even tho' you have not, I would venture to regret—if I might do so with impunity—that punctilios & the point of honour should obstruct a correspondence—to which the wide Atlantic offers difficulties enough. I can give very wholesome advice, you perceive: unfortunately it is easier given than followed: James's letter10 of four sheets is yet unanswered! Twice have I begun—and twice has indolence or low spirits consigned my ill-fated paper to the winds. I am a great sinner in this point.

Present my most respectful compliments to Mr Duncan; and say, if you like, that I have not forgotten his kind request to hear from me; but my inabality to communicate any importance to a subject so trifling as the one he proposed, has hitherto prevented me from attempting it.— Tell Mrs Duncan (after making my respects) that her young student,11 whom I regret that I have not seen for a while, is becoming a very smart little gentleman. I have no doubt he is improving both in understanding & sçavoir faire.12— We hear a sort of report here that the Courier is to be sold very soon— How is this?— I know not whether I shall see you in summer: most probably I shall leave this town—if forever I need not greatly care: but whether or not, I need not add that, I remain,

My dear Mitchell, / Your's ever, /

Thomas Carlyle—

(My compliments to the people of Hitchill)