TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 1 September 1821; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18210901-TC-JBW-01; CL 1:381-383.
TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH
Mainhill, Ecclefechan, 1st September, 1821.
My dear Madam,
On again noticing this crabbed hand of mine, I fear, you are ready to exclaim with some feelings of surprise and displeasure: Why troublest thou me? To this very natural question it were tedious and difficult to make any satisfactory reply. The causes which give motion to my pen at present are too vague and complicated for being discussed in the preface to a single letter; and hardly of importance enough to a second person for being discussed anywhere. Perhaps it is more expedient, as it is certainly easier, to throw myself on your good-nature at once; to supplicate your indulgence if I prove tiresome, your forgiveness if I be so unfortunate as to offend. You know well enough it is far from my intention to do either: and cases are every day arising in which a generous person finds it just to let the innocence of the purpose serve as an excuse for the faultiness of the deed. Upon this principle, if on no other, I entreat you, be not angry with me! If you saw into my views properly, I am sure you would not.
The truth is, in this remote district, where so few sensible objects occur to arrest my attention—while I am too sick and indolent to search for intellectual objects—the Imagination is the busiest faculty, and shadows of the past and the future, are nearly all I have to occupy myself with. But in the multitude of anticipations and remembrances, it is quite conceivable that your image should be occasionally present with me: and all men love to talk or at least to write on subjects about which they often think. Nor is it merely as an absent friend that I contemplate you, and have a kind of claim to converse with you. It is impossible for me, without many peculiar emotions, to behold a being like you entering so devotedly upon the path of Letters, which I myself have found to be as full of danger as it is of beauty: and tho' my own progress in it bears but indifferent testimony to my qualifications as a Guide, I may be allowed to offer you the result of my experience, such as it is, and to pronounce the ‘Good-speed!’ which I wish you in silence so frequently & so cordially.
I am not now going to depreciate your studies, or tease you with advices to abandon them. I said enough on that side of the question when we were together last; and stupidly—as native dulness, aggravated by a sleepless week, and the fat contented presence of Mr Baird,1 could make me say it: and after all I believe my habitual opinion is not of that sort. To me those pursuits have been the source of much disquiet; but also of some enviable enjoyment: if they have added a darker shade to the gloom of my obscure destiny, I ought not to forget that here and there they have chequered it with a ray of heavenly brightness, which seemed to make amends for all. The case is similar with every one that follows literature: it increases our sensibility to pleasure as well as pain; it enlarges the circle of objects capable of affecting us; and thus at once deepens and diversifies the happiness and the misery of our life. The latter in a higher ratio, I fear: yet here it is often blamed unjustly; there are perturbed souls to whose unrest it gives direction rather than existence: and tho' the charge were altogether just, what could be made of it? Happiness is not our final aim in this world—or poor Shandy2 would be the finest character in the nation. It is the complete development of our faculties—the increase in capacity as sentient and thinking creatures that constitutes the first want: and as mental excellence—to think well and feel nobly—is doubtless the highest of all attainments—so the mental nourishment which literature affords, as richly as any object of human activity, should stand among the foremost of our desires. Nourishment of any kind may, indeed, by injudicious application, be converted into poison; and mental nourishment forms no exception to the rule. But if its abuse may lead to isolation from our brethren, and to every species of wretchedness; its prudent use does not of necessity exclude from any other source of happines[s.] Often, it is true, the studious man wanders in solitude over rocky & tempestuous regions: but sometimes a lovely scene will strike his eye as well as that of another, and touch him more keenly than it does another:—some sweet sequestered dale,3 embosomed calmly among the barren mountains of life,—so verdant and smiling and balmy—so like a home and resting place for the wearied spirit, that even the sight of it is happiness: to reach it would be too much; would bring Eden back again into the world, and make Death to be indeed, what cowards have named him, the enemy of man.—O! that it lay with me to shew you the means of scriving all the benefits to be found in such pursuits, without any of the harm! But it may not be. The law of our existence is that good and evil are inseparable always: the heart that can taste of rapture must taste of torment also, and find the elements of both in all things it engages with. Nevertheless I counsel you to persevere. In your advantages natural and accidental, there exist the materials of a glorious life; and if in cultivating the gifts of your mind, you can but observe the Golden mean, which it is so easy to talk of, so difficult to find—if in striving after what is great and productive of honour, you do not too widely deviate from what is common and productive of comfort—the result will not still be unmixed, but I shall join with thousands in rejoicing at it. The hazard is great, the alternative appalling: but I augur well.
My sheet is done while my subject is scarce begun. Shall I not have another opportunity to enter on it? I still entertain a firm trust that you are to read Schiller and Goethe with me in October. I never yet met with any to relish their beauties; and sympathy is the very soul of life.— This letter is amazingly stupid. It is enough if it recal[l] to your memory, without displeasure, one who desires your welfare in every sense as honestly as he can desire any thing,
Your sincere friend, /
P.S.— I am reading various Germans: how do you like this extract?
“Warum, meine liebste Freundinn, ach! warum haben Sie mich getaüscht? Drey Wochen!—und ich muss schreiben—so kalt und dumm und bebend handeln, und doch zittern dass ich Ihnen nicht anstössig sey! Ach! wenn Sie wüssten was[s] ich leide. Eine Briefe—um Gotteswillen, eine Briefe! Seyen Sie barmherzig—wo [wenn] nicht, so bin ich das armseligste Geschöpf im Welt. Vergessen Sie mein' nicht!”4