The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO EDWARD IRVING; 3 June 1820; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18200603-TC-EI-01; CL 1:253-256.


Mainhill, 3d June, 1820.

My Dear Irving:

For the last three weeks, my conscience has frequently reproached me on your account; and tho' the frigorific mixture of Hunsteen's terrestrial magnetism and Herr Mohs' crystalography that my soul was enveloped in, prevented the things from being so acutely felt as might have been expected, yet they left the proper wounds behind them; and now that I once more breathe the free air, the balsam ought to be applied without delay. To speak without figures—for the present one has little to recommend it—I shall be too severely punished if you apply the lex talionis to me. Of the two, there is no doubt that I have suffered more severely by my silence. Having no associate; living, I might almost say, only in the abyss of my own thoughts; I cannot without pain, lose sight of one who—widely as we differ on many points—participates more deeply in my feelings than any other I have met with. You must not doubt that I shall be a most exemplary correspondent during summer; with proper encouragement, I propose not to be as long silent again—if I can help it.

You would derive little pleasure or profit from a detail of my insipid journey into Annandale. The road lay over moors and waste land; had it been thro' Tempe or Eden, it would have made small difference; the remembrance of the days I had spent with you, and the deep matters we had been discussing,1 gave a colour to my ideas which the aspect of material nature had little power to alter, and I arrived at Dumfries the second evening after leaving you, in the same humour nearly as we parted. Nothing on my journey pleased me more than the character of a shepherdess—not, alas! Arcadian in person or accommodation—but the wife of a raw-boned Scottish herd on the borders of Dumfriesshire. She was dirty as McClarty2 of deathless name, her children squealed, and her husband grunted with the pain of a vanishing inflammatory fever; but whilst I wondered how human beings could support existence on such terms, the arrival of three women from Glasgow revealed a more touching scene. The husband of one of these women, on his way from Glasgow to Dumfries to seek work, had died suddenly in that miserable hovel; his widow, with three little children, was returning to her own country under the guidance of her mother and sister; the tears of these poor forlorn creatures, the genuine heart-felt sympathy and benevolence of poor McClarty altogether formed a picture which moved me deeply. When I left the “crib”—wishing that I were but an angel to relieve these unfortunates—I could not help asking: How is it that this poor slut, who has never read of sympathy or examined Sterne and the “Man of Feeling,”3 can yet experience a sentiment so warm and profound? How have the hardships, the penury, the discomfort of her own situation failed to shut her heart against the hardships, the penury, and discomfort of others? Does experience teach her imagination to represent such evils more vividly? Does refinement lead to naked egotism, as some pretend? Why or how does it happen? I could not say at all; and so winded on my way without deciding the point. Nothing material has occurred to me since I returned to Mainhill. I wrote the first half of Hunsteen and translated, from the German, the first half of Mohs; I rejoice that I have so far done with them. Are not such things the vaccination of science, as Napoleon spoke? Elle ne durera pas cinquante ans [It will not last fifty years].4 Except a brief visit to Ruthwell, I have scarcely been from home since my arrival—my excursions in the world of literature have scarcely been wider. Rousseau's Contrat Social5—in spite of the frightful notoriety which circumstances gave it—seems little calculated for a remote posterity. The misanthrope of Geneva resembles a certain great Doctor more than many of either's admirers are aware.6 With respect to Goethe's Faust— if I were at your side you should hear of nothing else for many hours; and sorry am I that your brows will suddenly contract—if I give free scope to my notions even by this imperfect vehicle. I wish Goethe were my countryman, I wish—O, how I wish—he were my friend. It is not for his masterly conception of human nature—from the heroes of classical story down to the blackguards of a Leipsic alehouse—that I admire him above all others; his profound sentiment of beauty, his most brilliant delineations of all its varieties—his gayety of head and melancholy of heart, open all the floodgates of my sympathy. Faust is a wonderful tragedy. I doubt if even Shakespeare with all his powers had sadness enough in his nature to understand the arid and withered feelings of a passionate spirit, worn out by excessive studies and the want of all enjoyment; to delineate the chaos of his thoughts when the secrets of nature are bared before him; to depict his terrible volition and the bitter mockery of the demon gives scope to that volition. All this and much more is done by Goethe; and but for his speaking cats7 and a good deal besides of a like stamp, I should be an unexcepting admirer of the execution. Upon the whole, I advise you strongly to persist in German. These people have some muscle in their frames.

Enough of the polishing and burnishing of our Gallic friends—commend me to Fichte rather than Voltaire. I tell you, go on with German— I will lend the very best of Schiller's plays—(I have lately got them all from Ewan [Swan] of Kirkcaldy) as soon as they are bound. We shall have another point of union by this means; if I had studied Italian still another.

But I must quit these prospects—or bring you in for a double postage. Have you heard from Pears8 or Dickson?9 I have got two marvellous letters from the former. He invites me strongly to go and witness his school's examination. John seems to enjoy some measure of composure at Alnwick, if Castlereagh10 would let him be. I had a kind of proposal made to me afar off by Allen to go and teach at York—the answer was some further inquiries about the affair; and since I began to write I have got another letter from Allen signifying that the place in question is disposed of; but inviting me strongly to go and see York in summer. Que deviendrai-je [What will become of me]? no matter, write to me soon—if you have any charity. (Kindest respects to Messrs. Grahame and Hope.)11

Ever yours, /

Thomas Carlyle.