The Collected Letters, Volume 13


TC TO KARL AUGUST VARNHAGEN VON ENSE ; 16 May 1841; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18410516-TC-KAVE-01; CL 13: 134-136


Chelsea, London, 16 May, 1841—

My dear Sir,

Some six weeks ago, while I was just running off into the country, your very welcome and most friendly Letter reached me here. An ugly disorder, which they call Influenza, had altogether lamed me, in the cold weather of Spring; the Doctors, and still more emphatically my own feelings, declared that I could not shake the dregs of it off except in the quiet of the fields. Always, after a certain length of time spent in this enormous never-resting Babel of a city, there rises in one not a wish only but a kind of passion, for uttermost solitude,—were it only some black ever-desolate moor, where Nature alone was present, and Manufacture and Noise, speech, witty or stupid, had never reached! I prolonged my Excursion, which at first was only a visit to Yorkshire, into the South of Scotland my native region, where Brothers of mine, where an aged good Mother still live for me. I myself, to all other persons, am now as good as a stranger there. It is a mournful, solemn, nay, almost preternatural place for me now, that birthland of mine; sends me back from it silent, for there are no words to speak the1 thoughts and the unthinkables it awakens! Arriving here, ten days ago, your Berlin Books,2 one of the most interesting Gifts, lay all beautifully arranged on a table for me; I had heard of their safe arrival in my absence, and here they lay like a congratulation waiting my return.

You forbid me to speak of this altogether extraordinary Gift; accordingly I shall say nothing of it, how much soever I must naturally feel,—except that, under penalty of my never asking you again about any book, you must not purchase for me any more than these! No; that would never do; for I shall want perhaps to ask about many Books. I will put them on my shelves, having once read them thro'; there let them stand as a peculiar thing, a memorial to me of many things.— All my days I have laboured and lamented under a fatal lack of Books; as indeed England generally and London itself would astonish you in that particular: think only that in London, except it be the garbage of new Novels and such like, there is no Library whatever from which any man can borrow a Book home with him. One library alone, in our huge empire, that of the British Museum here, is open to the public, to read in it; there at first I used to attempt reading, but found that in a room with 500 people I could do no good as a reader. A German, a Frenchman can hardly believe the existence of such a state of things: but it is a lamentable fact. We are a strange people, we English. A people, as I sometimes say, with more inarticulate intelligence and less of articulate than any people the Sun now shines on. Speak to one of us, speak to almost any one of us, you will stand struck silent at the contractedness, perhaps Cimmerian3 stupidity of the word he responds; yet look at the action of the man, at the combined action of 28 millions of such men. After years you begin to see thro' their outer dumbness how these things have been possible for them; how they do verily stand in closest continual communication with many a Power of Nature, clearest insight into that; how perhaps their very dumbness is a kind of force! On the whole I grow to admire less and less your speaking peoples. The French are a speaking people, and persuade numbers of men that they are great; but coming to try veracious Nature, the Ocean for example, Canada, Algiers or the like, Nature answers, “No Messieurs, you are little!” Russia again, is not that a great thing, still speechless? From Petersburg to Kamtchatka, the Earth answers—,“Yes” I love the English too, and all the Teutons, for their silence.4 Th[ey] can speak too,—by a Shakspeare, by a Goethe, when the time comes. So[me] assiduous whisking “dog of knowledge” seems to itself a far cleverer creature than the great quiet elephant or noble horse;—but it is far mistaken!

However, this of the lamentable want of Books in London (owing to that “outer stupidity” of the English) has now brought about some beginning of its own remedy. What I meant to say was, That the generous Varnhagen need not send me any more Books, because any good Book, German or other has now become attainable here. Some two years ago, after sufficiently lamenting and even sometimes execrating such a state of matters, it struck me, Couldst not thou, even thou there, try to mend it? The result, after much confused difficulty, is a democratic Institution called “London Library,” where all men, on payment of a small annual sum, can now borrow Books; a thing called here “Subscription Library,” which in such a city as London, appetite growing by what it feeds on, may well become by and by one of the best Libraries extant. We are democratic as I said, or rather we mean to be; for as yet only the elect of the Public could be interested in the scheme. Prince Albert, good youth, is Patron, by his own free offer; has given 50 pounds of money, and promises “a stock of German books.”5 Varnhagen's are already there. Faustum sit [May it turn out well].

You give an altogether melancholy account of your health; in which, alas, I can too well sympathize! It seems to me often the one misery in this world. But the Supreme Powers send it: we are to work under such condition, we cannot alter that condition. Perhaps there is even much good in it: I often feel so.— Your response to the poor Pamphlet Chartism6 is that of a generous human heart, resonant to all human things, never so remote from it. We are struggling as thro' thick darkness, in this England of ours,—towards light and deliverance as I do believe. Adieu, my dear Sir; better health of body to you, and no worse healthy brotherliness of soul! With affectionate esteem, Yours always,

T. Carlyle