August 1843-March 1844

The Collected Letters, Volume 17


TC TO ALEXANDER McKINNON ; 21 February 1844; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18440221-TC-AMC-01; CL 17: 277-279


Chelsea, February 21st, 1844.


I have looked over your verses,1 and am well pleased to observe that you possess an intelligent mind, an open, affectionate heart, and are heartily disposed to do what you can for instructing and unfolding yourself. My very sincere wish is that these good qualities may be well turned to account, and help to make you a useful man, and effectual “doer of your work” in this world.

There can be no harm in amusing your leisure with verses, if you find it an amusement; but certainly I would by no means recommend you to prosecute it in any way as an employment, for in that sense I think it can turn to nothing but an obstruction and a disappointment. Verse-writing, notwithstanding all the talk you hear about it, is in almost all cases a totally idle affair: a man was not sent into this world to write verses—no! If he finds himself called to speak, let him speak manfully, some “words of truth and soberness;” and, in general, leave the singing and verse-making part of it, till the very last extremity of some inward or outward call drive him irresistibly thither. Nay, in these times, I observe there is less and less attention paid to things in verse; and serious persons everywhere find themselvs disposed to hear what a man has to say the shortest way and the directest—that is to say, disencumbered of rhyme. I for my share am well content with this tendency of the world.

If you will prosecute the cultivation of your speculative faculties, which surely is highly laudable in all men, then I should think it would be a much likelier method that you addicted yourself to acquiring real information about the things that exist around you in this world, and that have existed here: this, surely, must be the basis of all good results in the way of thought, speech, or speculation for a man. In a word, I would have you employ your leisure in reading instructive books, conversing with intelligent men, anxiously seeking out such, anxiously endeavouring to render yourself worthy of such. In Hawick there must be some public library, perhaps there are several. I would have you struggle to get admittance to one of these; perhaps that is not impossible for you? To read even a few good books, above all to read them well; this is the clear way towards spiritual advancement; a way that will become always the clearer, too, the further one steadily persevers in it.

But on the whole it should always be kept in mind that a man's faculty is not given him in the long run for speculation; that no man's faculty is so given him. The harmony of soul which would fain utter itself from you in rhymed verses, how much nobler to make it utter itself in rhymed conduct! in excellent, manful endeavour to subdue the ruggedness of your life under your feet, and everywhere make order reign around you of what is disorder! This is a task all men are born to, and all other tasks are either nothing or else branches of this.

Whether these hurried words will have any light for you at present I know not; but if my wishes could avail, you should not want for guidance.

Tell your good little sister to be very careful of the spring winds: summer will help her.2 Give my kind regards to your father;—and, persisting with the best insight you have, prosper well

Yours very truly,