January-July 1842

The Collected Letters, Volume 14


TC TO JOHN STERLING ; 20 January 1842; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18420120-TC-JOST-01; CL 14: 20-22


Chelsea, 20 jany, 1842—

Dear Sterling,

Accept a brief, and I doubt you will think, very crabbed verdict about Strafford, from one who loves you, and unwillingly shews you the contradictory points he has. A verdict, means a VERE-DICTUM [true saying]; the vere is all that can be required of it, and the rest a thing you yourself will easily manage.

I have read this Strafford without difficulty; a fact which to you, who know my impatience of manuscript, will already mean something. Indeed throughout there is so much of gracefulness, ingen[u]ity,1 and unhideable Sterlingism that were the Piece once well printed, clear and handsome to the eye, I should think most persons of taste and faculty would vote that it might be read without great trouble! But this is not all you want,—very far from it; and this unfortunately is almost all that I can say.

My judgement about the Drama generally, I am conscious, must be worth little to Dramatic Writers; for actually, always in glancing into the business, with any eye to practice, it has seemed to me as if the Drama in these times were about impossible. Even Shakspeare, when I have gone to see him at Covent Garden, admits, to my huge sorrow, that he has become as good as undramatic for me; that he is only in parts alive, and in other parts dead, dead,—a most sorrowful combination! My voice therefore need not go for more with you than it is worth. If I vote that it seems to me very questionable indeed to print this Strafford, and impossible to act it, you can let me vote.

In fact I may say I like this worse than an y of your Poems; that is to say, it is more repulsive to me to accept this, with its aims and its result, as a fair emblem of Sterling's talent;—and in fact, whatever others do, I for one will not!

There is surely far too little action in the Play; far too little probability in it; far too—in short, why should I go on? It is not a credible image of Strafford and his Environment; neither directly nor emblematically can I find it nearly true enough for Sterling to have written! Of “legitimate drammars” and such like I say nothing; but this is Sterling's emblematic image of Strafford and the breaking out of the Puritan Wars; and as such I have infinite objections to sustain it. Above nine-tenths of the work seem to me fairly unworthy of the workman. The representation of the man and of the things is not interesting; nor is it in any sense conformable to the truth. I find little that contents me if it be not, in some measure, the burlesque passages, and certain detached speeches,—most of all, that fair Carlisle's valediction to the poor King Charles,2 which almost alone of the whole Play got into some proximity with this hard heart of mine. In fact there is something very good in the character of this Distinguished Female; Strafford too has his emphasis, his force,—tho' I cannot find him to be true: but in the rest of the characters I find, alas, little but disappointment. They are untrue to History; but in fact they are not painted at all,—at least, not by action which is the only dramatic way of painting.— In a word, my dear Sterling, I do not like this Strafford; verily not; and this, I suppose, is all you were wanting to know of me, all that it can be suitable for me to say at present.

I continually pray to Heaven (in a secret way) that you would return to honest Prose, in which as [I] do very seriously believe you are ten times more poetical than in that singing without any tune, to an audience without ear, you will ever make yourself! And yet not my will, but thy will be done.——— And so God help us all, for we have a horrible time of it

Yours ever /

T. Carlyle