TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON; 6 May 1820; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18200506-TC-JJ-01; CL 1:242-250.
TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON
Mainhill6th May 1820.
My dear Johnstone,
It is vain to apologize or dissemble. I am one of the most careless, negligent, ungrateful dogs in existence. I ought without doubt to have answered your long-looked-for and most valuable letter, by the very first opportunity. To have intended it, and gone directly to the post office for information about the Nova Scotia mails, is nothing: this long silence—the longest that has occurred in our correspondence, since we first had the happiness to know each other—gives you just ground to suspect that the lapse of a few months can obliterate all traces of a long friendship from my mind, and render the duties of that honourable relation an empty name. I confess you have just grounds for such thoughts: and I despair of gaining credit when I assure you that in entertaining them you would do me any thing but justice. Yet the fact is, I have not at any time forgotten you. Strolling about these moors, last summer, the sight of Bogside,1 of the sun setting in the west, and twenty other objects incessantly and painfully recalled you to my memory: and in Edinburgh the presence of silly students with whom I could have no sympathy or fellowship recalled you still more painfully. Why then did I not write? I know not; I have said that there is no apology of a satisfactory kind, and I shall not attempt to offer you a frivolous one: but something like a palliation for my conduct may be found in the successive fits of activity and low-spirits which occupied my time last winter, in the paucity of our opportunities to send letters to America, above all in the desultory procrastinating habits which a fluctuating being like me is sure to contract, and which steal away our minutes, we know not how, till they amount to months or years of time gone uselessly and irrecoverably by. It seemed so easy when I had missed the January mail (a few days after your letter reached me) to be in readiness against the first Wednesday of February; and when Feby & March had both passed fruitlessly away the thing became so painful to think upon, and Hill's projected voyage to New Brunswick offered such a flattering unction to my soul2 that at last I gladly resolved to postpone the operation till his departure, which has been delayed several weeks longer than was expected. I ought to say also that I tried twice to write to you: but the demons of dulness and disquietude shed their poppies and their gall upon me; twice I attempted & bis patriae cecidere manus [twice the father's hands dropped down (Vergil, Aeneid, VI, 33)]. Upon the whole, I see well enough that I have made out but a very lame case for myself; therefore after all that I can say my only resource is to throw myself on the mercy of the judge, and to entreat him to hope that I shall never in future behave so badly. If bulk can supply other deficiencies, you shall be satisfied: for I design to scribble nearly all the paper in the house.
I was going to congratulate you on the safe termination of the voyage desc[r]ibed so vividly in your letter, and to express my hope that time had already moulded your way of thinking and living into some degree of toleration for that of Annapolis; when I learned that your new situation appeared likely to yield nothing but discomfort and chagrin; that your boys are stupid, your society brutish, your climate disagre[e]able and every thing about the place repulsive and disheartening. Alas! my dear friend, I am grieved to the heart for it. That by crossing the ocean you have not escaped from care, is not surprising—she climbs the deck along with us; she follows us to the throne and the temple; the grave alone is delivered from her visits: but that after so much exertion danger and vexation you should still find so little to sweeten the cup of life, is an affliction that I did not anticipate. Yet what can I say to comfort you? My words cannot transform Acadia into Tempe, its rude Planters into Roscoes, or its Trulliber3 into what a clergyman ought to be. Not am I at all prepared, even if I were qualified, to advise you at such a juncture—the circumstances have found me at second hand; I have been but two days at Mainhill, and I have yet seen none of your letters or correspondents. At first view however it certainly strikes me that America has presented its worst side first to you[.] A new situation commonly resembles a new suit of clothes: rarely does it fail to gall the wearer in some points at the beginning; yet a little while is generally sufficient to put all to rights, to make the robe accommodate itself to the man or the man to the robe.4 So may it fare with your tutorship at Annapolis. I can easily conceive, for I have often felt, the forlorn sensation that takes possession of the mind, when no object is at hand to interest it, and no other mind to communicate with: I can understand the painfulness of teaching, the trouble of interrupted habits, and twenty other inconveniences that your place abounds with: yet still before determining (as I hear you have well nigh done) to revisit Europe, I would have you steadily reflect upon the consequence of such a step. Can you determine to become a schoolmaster finally, to perambulate the country as a dissenting preacher, or to spend some dozen painful years in the family of a paltry squire with the hope of gaining an obscure footing in the establishment?5 None of these plans I think would suit you well; yet they are almost the only avenues which the literary profession holds out for preferment to persons in our station. Even these poor avenues are in this country overcrowded, one is jostled in them at every step: other lines of life are not less overcrowded; and in place of times mending, it seems clear to most unprejudiced people that the distress, not to say starvation, which at present involves the trading part of the community, must ultimately and that ere long involve all the lower classes entirely— Nothing then to be hoped but the dubious and distant result of revolution and civil discord. This is a pale and dreary prospect, my friend, which Great Britain holds out to one; I fear, however, it is too faithful. On the other hand consider how many of the evils that now torment you custom will inure you to endure with indifference, perhaps with satisfaction—consider the pleasure of an independent maintenance—consider the boundless field which the new country opens for exertion of every sort—a field not impoverished like ours and disputed in daily strife; but thinly occupied and fertile tho' coarse. Consider all this, I intreat you, before adopting a resolution, which must now be final— Fortune and the world conspire to chastise us severely for inconstancy; and at our time of life it is highly disadvantageous to change.
In all this long discussion, I have endeavoured to speak the cold and naked truth, as it appears to my own mind, on considering every circumstance that has come to my knowledge on the subject. I have endeavoured to divest myself of every partial or selfish feeling; because I consider that your demeanour on this occassion may give a colour to the rest of your life; and whoever takes upon him to advise a friend ought to speak with an eye to that friend's interest alone. It has cost me an effort so to do in this case: few persons I suppose have missed you more than I; and should you upon maturely contemplating both sides of the question, determine to return to Scotland, I shall be the very first to welcome you with heart & hand to your native shore. Perhaps you have views, which I know not of; perhaps your agricultural skill might be exercised in England more advantageously than any of your other acquirements; I shall be most happy to find it so: but I would not advise you to lay any stress upon the pleasure of spending another winter in Edinr; unless you have distinct prospects of putting the knowledge you will acquire there to use, I would not advise you to go even tho' you were in Scotland and doing nothing. Edinburgh looks beautiful in the imagination, because the heart, when we knew it of old, was as yet unwrung and ready to derive enjoyment from whatever came before it. Visit the alma mater now, and you are disgusted probably with the most feeble drivelling of the students—shocked at the unphilosophic spirit of the professors—dissatisfied with the smoke and the odour and every thing else in or about the city. I certainly would not counsel you to make any sacrifices for what I know from sad experience would almost without doubt disappoint you: yet this I think ought hardly to weigh at all in forming your determination. Edinr may have changed since we knew it—we ourselves may have changed still more—yet after all, there is a world, even in Scotland, there is a world elsewhere.6 I repeat my request (and with it conclude this prolix dissertation) that you would stedfastly and seriously consider the circumstances of the case—do nothing rashly—and if you resolve to return back to Annandale, be sure that all your friends, and they are not few, will experience the greatest satisfaction at beholding you once more.
After perusing the preceding pages, gratuitously consecrated to advise upon a subject which I know so imperfectly, you will be ready to infer that myself am placed on some commanding eminence, above the vicissitudes of Fortune, & qualified to cast down an experienced eye upon the vortex of human affairs. You were never in your life more mistaken. At no period, that I recollect, have matters had a more doubtful aspect. I went to Edinr in winter, after a summer pleasantly but not very profitably spent at my Father's, with the view of studying Scots law—intending, as you know, if all things prospered to make one desperate effort at obtaining an Advocates gown; and gaining my bread by a profession recommended to my fancy so strongly, by the honourable nature of the exertions that insure success in it. I went in moderate health; and with considerable hopes: but alas! David Hume owns no spark of his uncle's genius; his lectures on law are (still excepting Erskine's Institute) the dullest piece of stuff I ever saw or heard of. Long-winded, dry details about points not of the slightest importance to any but an attorney or notary public; observations upon the formalities of customs which ought to be instantly & forever abolished; uncounted cases of blockhead A versus blockhead B, with what Stair thought upon them, what Bankton, what the poor doubting Dirleton;7 and then the nature of actions of—O infandum [O, unspeakable]! By degrees I got disheartened; the science of law seemed little calculated to yield a reward proportionate to the labour of acquiring it; I became remiss in my efforts to follow our lecturer thro' thro' [sic] the vast and thorny desart he was traversing; till at length I abandoned him altogether—with a resolution that if ever I became familiar with law, it must be under different guidance. Occassionally too I tried writing, but most of my projects in that department altogether failed. The silly lives of Montesquieu, Monta[i]gne &c &c which I wrote for Brewsters Encyclopedia are not worth mentioning; the rest are yet in embryo. At length these incidents aided powerfully by the last horrible winter, began to act upon my health: I determined to quit Edinr; and on Wednesday evening I returned once more to Mainhill—wearied and faint, and tho' long used not altogether reconciled to the rest which is enjoyed upon the pillow of uncertainty.8 I am to translate & write some trifles during summer if my spirits serve; what next—I am sorry that I care so much more than I know. Upon the whole I am altering very fast. Hope will not always stay with one; and despair is not an eligible neighbour. I do not think I am ever to have any settled way of doing. Teaching & preaching I have forsworn; and I believe I am too old for beginning any new profession. One leads a strange miscellaneous life at that rate: yet if it cannot be helped—
It must be owned however that I have no great reason to complain. On looking at the condition of many others there seems rather cause for gratulation. Never in the history of Britain did I read of such a situation as the present— Black inquietude, misery physical & moral, from one end of the island to the other, radical risings, and armed confederations of the higher classes, and little or no expectation of better times. This neighbourhood, I find, is suffering very slightly in comparison; on my way from Paisley I passed several groups journeying hither in search of work & food, like the Isrealites of old to Goshen in the dearth:9 yet none can doubt that the Agriculture must feel the pressure of those taxes which at present exclude our commerce-except at a ruinous rate—from almost all the markets of the world. I am not a croaker; but I forecast nothing except an increase of calamity for several years to come. I suppose you have heard fully from the newspapers of the radical commotions, the marching, countermarching, armaments and battles that have marked this troubled winter. The disturbances are quitted for a season; but as an old peasant, whom I overtook on the road from Muirkirk, expressed himself, unless these times alter, folks will all be radicals together. One of the events which have occurred in the late troubles may affect you more than many other events of greater importance. I allude to the capture of William Smith shoemaker Ecclefechan, who had travelled to Glasgow for the purpose of buying leather; and falling in with sundry men of kindred sentiments had farther invested himself with the character of delegate from our poor unpolitical village, and proceeded to act forthwith in that capacity. His dignity soon withered from his brow; and scarcely had he got his sentiments disclosed, when the room in the Gallowgate which those statesmen occupied was environed by a party of soldiers, and the whole fraternity of reformers with poor Will among them were lodged in Glasgow jail. Poor Sutor! I know not the extent of his criminality: but from the complexion of the times, I should not be at all surprised if he were sent to botanize in New Holland.10— I have much to say on the present state of public affairs; and if you were beside me, you would have to hear it all: but it is a little too much to occupy our brief interview with such matters—now that you are beyond the ocean and not at all concerned by them, and that I tho' on this side the great water, am so situated as to have nothing to hope and almost nothing to fear from any political change whatever. I consign you therefore if desirous of additional information, to two well-written articles by Jeffrey in the last Edinr reviews—and if you honour the maxim, audi alteram partem [hear the other side], to sundry delirious speculations from the pen of Mr Southey, wherein these points are handled at considerable length in the Quarterly review.11 I betake me to private history, in which tho' with equal dulness and haste, I am sure of exciting deeper interest. I know not when or what you have heard from Scotland—and possibly my intelligence may be but like a twice-told tale; yet at the risk of tiring you, I propose to venture upon some details—the most prominent of the few that have reached me.
I can afford but the most prominent; for if I should mention more than the names of those neighbours even who have departed from this fitful scene, the greater part of my sheet would be occupied with the obituary. As none of these persons, however, are connected with you more closely than by the ties of common acquaintance, I shall insert only my father's last surviving brother, who finished his earthly existence a few months after your voyage to Annapolis. With what feelings I saw my Uncle Francis (connected so intimately with my earliest and most pleasing recollections) consigned to the narrow house it is needless to describe. After life's changeful fever he sleeps well:12 and many of the living have cause to envy such repose.
Your friends at Hitchill I have not seen for 6 months; but believe them to be well. They leave Annandale at the expiration of the lease. During my few visits in summer, your name of course formed a leading theme: you should write to them if you are not on the very wing for home. Poor Owen answered very ill; he was paid off in the course of a few months; James Church was transported to Saul's boarding-school at Greenrow—John consigned to Miss Harper, and Duncan sent to Clarencefield. They are not boys of the first water.
With regard to Mr & Mrs Duncan, Mitchell and the rest of them at Ruthwell, I know little except thro' the medium of little George John13 whom I saw five weeks ago in Edinr, and of one letter from our friend Mitchell, which has formed my allowance during winter. I suppose they too are all in prosperity. Mr Duncan's loss of the plea with Colin Monro appears to be the most important occur[r]ence in his history since your departure. I must not neglect to inform you while on this subject, that Mitchell expresses the most profound astonishment not unmixed with irritation at your neglect to write him or, at any rate, Mr Duncan. You should have written; and tho' I did any thing but foment M's disappointment, I do entreat you to send them all letters home by the return of Hill's ship. For myself tho' I am dying with desire (as the French say) to hear from you, I shall generously surrender three fourths of my share rather than such a duty should be neglected. No matter how short—be sure to write them each a letter.
And now, my friend, I must draw this wretched tissue to a close. My paper is coarse, my mind has been distracted and hurried by a thousand cross accidents since I began to write: I have written stupid[ly] and tediously of course; nothing has been as it should be but the wish to please you, which I do most conscientiously pretend to. I am persuade[d] y[ou wi]ll pardon my inconsistencies and blunders for the sake of this last [in] stance; nay farther that in spite of all my faults you will write m[e at] immense length by the ship's return. I have said that it would not surprise me if you returned on board of her; it will hardly please any one so highly as myself: yet if so be not, if we must not see each other for many long eventful years, I hope both of us will always retain a happy & heartfelt remembrance of the many days we have spent together; and neglect no opportunity of cultivating an intercourse so pleasant, by every means that yet remains to us[.] My Mother sends her most kind respects to you, and best wishes for your—safe return—so she phrases it; my father is presented [prevented] by absence from joining at the present moment from joining in this wish; but Alick and Mag who are beside me—& every other heart about Mainhill—desire to be most cordially included in it. Bogside I suppose has written a letter by this conveyance—so I have not mentioned any domestic news. Edward Irving is at Glasgow, Dr Chalmers' assistant; I spent a-week with him on my return from Edinr— He succeeds wonderfully. But I have room for nothing more. Write to me as fully as you possibly can; unless you intend to bring yourself; and believe me to be with the warmest wishes for your prosperity,
My dear friend / Ever most faithfully yours /