TC TO MATTHEW ALLEN; 7 June 1820; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18200607-TC-MAL-01; CL 1:259-263.
TC TO MATTHEW ALLEN
Mainhill, near Ecclefechan, 7th June 1820—
My dear Sir,
Having just concluded the first volume of Sismondi's1 history, and the other not being yet arrived from Edinr, I think I cannot better employ the hour of leisure, which necessarily intervenes between the end of this and the beginning of a fresh employment, than in returning you my thanks for the kind and good-humoured letter which I received last Saturday. Perhaps you may think me somewhat hasty in my movements; but you ought to recollect that the fault I am going to commit is not very likely to recur; and most of all, that, opportunity which is justly painted with locks before, is altogether bald behind. Fronte capillata, post, est occassio calva2—if you like it better, in a foreign tongue.
I like to see a friend write from the heart,—somewhat in earnest—tho' it be a little in dishabille. It indicates at least the absence of excessive caution—a Scottish quality—but one which I am not patriot enough to respect very highly. Upon the whole, I am glad that this business of Mr Vicars' has occurred—and not sorry that it is so settled. Your conduct in the matter affords me a practical proof of your desire to shew me kindness: and tho' I knew this theoretically well enough before, yet one cannot be too well convinced of a truth so palatable. Who knows but in the shiftings of this great country-dance, I may yet have a better opportunity to shew my gratitude than mere words can give me?
I am 'cute enough to perceive that your second mode of settlement in York is not less a jest than the first. Come and see you, my dear sir! When Jack the Giant-Killer doffed his seven-league boots, did he send them into Annandale? Have I the hippogriff of Astolpho3 to ride upon?—or are my coffers so crammed with money that the expence of travelling a hundred and fifty British miles (a hundred and fifty, by Arrowsmith's map,4 as the crow flies) would be nothing but a wholesome depletion for them? But it seems, I am to devote an hour each day to your improvement. Here lies the very cream of the jest,—I am far from vain enough to think myself capable of improving you in any branch of useful knowledge: and tho' I did, I would advise you to consider before continuing your career of acquirements. Is Happiness our being's end and aim? All men believe so.5 Then why covet more Knowledge than can be comfortably bartered against the banknotes or the applause of our neighbours? Will intellectual superiority do any thing but disgust us more deeply with the contrast between what is and what ought to be? ‘Those thoughts that wander thro' Eternity’6—what do they but plunge us farther into the abysses of our mysterious being—and reveal to us more clearly the blackness and rottenness of every object which our fancy would, otherwise, gild most brightly? O! Commend me to the innocent gentleman, whose sober wishes never learned to stray7 beyond the amassing of ‘certain monies’—and obtaining the title of verger or Mayor or Custos Rotulorum [Guard of the Little Wheels],8 to give them dignity in the eyes of men. He forms no general propositions: hence every object is a novelty. He asks not whence he came into this vortex of existence, or whither he is tending. Ignorance—you say.— But does he not eat his muffin every morning, and his beef every evening, with a tranquil heart: and when the three-score and ten years of his pilgrimage are completed, does he not lie down calmly on the pillow of superstition, to sleep sound in the bosom of his mother, tho' never to eat beef or muffins any more? You will call me paradoxical; but then you must attack my premises; for otherwise I defy Euclid himself to budge one stone of my conclusion.
After all, however, I think, if it pay, you do well to write on politics. The harvest truly is great but the labourers are few.9 There seems at the present a general fermentation of minds, an indeterminate longing after something new, and a heart-felt nausea of the ancient nostrums which have so long delighted us. I am not of those who argue that the era of derision [has ar]rived and that henceforth we must shift away with bare-faced selfishness and cold mockery as we best may. Believing that the human character has in it an unfathomable store of enthusiasm, I wish only for a proper channel to hold and direct that enthusiasm; and augur, in that case, nothing but boundless melioration for ages yet to come. It is doubtless, however, a sign of the times, that so few writers or speakers of eminence have yet appeared to regulate or awaken the current of public thought. We have not Fox10 any longer to raise the AEgis of his talents before every liberal and manly opinion; the brilliant wit of Sheridan,11 enlivening and illustrating whatever it touched, is heard no more; the splendid tho' irregular genius of Burke12—the eagle spirit of Junius,13 in whose indignant glance the trappings [of] rank and royalty could not save their wearers from ‘strange horror and pangs unfelt before’14—Alas!
In their stead we have Brougham16—(at anchor in the stream of time since 1688, that is, politically speaking); Jeremiah Bentham,17 a rhinoceros—strong and clumsy; Malthus,18 a scholar of the first form in Adam Smith's school;19 and more of a like stamp whose names I have not room for. The Ensors,20 Southeys21—infelix pecus [unhappy herd]! You must rise far above them, and shine with a brighter, more copious lustre. I long to see you mount: and I should be happy—if any efforts of mine could at all contribute to so desirable an object. I have little room for my list—and none for characterising it, even if I had any talents for such a task. Have you seen Harrington's Oceana,22 a stout old puritan, greatly praised by many? Locke's writings I suppose are getting nearer to the region of truisms23—in the progress of a century. Have you read Algernon Sidney24 Montesquieu (Esprit des loix, Spirit of laws),25 Madame de Staël's French Revolution26 Necker's (her father's) dernières vues (last views)?27 I have forgot the political essays of Hume28—but you see my paper is out—and I must conclude: at any rate, I know little or nothing about these matters. Believe me to be,
My dear Sir, / Your's most sincerely /
[In margins:] Have I not paid your irregularity in kind? Write soon. Post-script—or rather antescript—When will you write to me? Put ‘Dumfriesshire’ or ‘by Carlisle’ upon your letter. The judicious postmaster sent the last one round by Edinr. I have no room for Irving—m[uch] some other time. I am sorry for my scanty and meagre bead-roll of political writers—consider the want of a larger sheet. By the way, have you ever a London newspaper in that city of yours which you could send me—one or two days after date—payment when I see you? I guess not. L Hunt29 I do not like.