The Collected Letters, Volume 2


TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 15 March 1822; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18220315-TC-JAC-01; CL 2:59-61.


Moray-street, 15th March 1822—

My dear Jack,

I understand the Carrier is to be here to-morrow; and as I have a spare hour at present before bed-time, and little inclination to attempt any kind of study, it seems advisable to catch old Time by the forelock, and make ready a small epistle for your perusal, while I have leisure to do it. The coherence of my ideas cannot easily be great; since, besides the inaptitude for thinking just alluded to, my attention is at this moment more strongly than pleasantly solicited by the jollity of certain male and female mantua-makers,1 established in the floor above me, whose stock of muscular movement seems to be very considerable. But we two are not sticklish with each other: and in truth the devilry of these unhappy se[a]mstresses appears at last to have dwindled from leaping in the hop-and-step way into various quavers and social catches, of which I am lucky enough to hear only a very few echoes. I wish no harm to any of the poor animals; they have never disturbed me till this night; and I trust Providence will continue to them a bountiful supply of tape and bees' wax and thin tea and whatever else they require—for many a year.

Your two letters by the Jurist,2 came to hand about a fortnight ago. I read them with the pleasure that all your letters give me: they exhibit the same picture of young ardour, honest affection, and inflexible perseverance in worthy tho' difficult pursuits, for which I have always loved you. The last quality, perseverance, I particularly respect: it is the very hinge of all virtues.— On looking over the world, the cause of nine parts in ten of the lamentable failures which occur in men's undertakings & darken and degrade so much of their history, lies not in the want of talents or the will to use them, but in the vacillating and desultory mode of using them—in flying from object to object, in starting away at each little disgust, and thus applying the force which might conquer any one difficulty to a series of difficulties so large that no human force can conquer them. The smallest brook on earth, by continual running, has hollowed out for itself a considerable valley to flow in: the wildest tempest, by its occasional raging, over-turns a few cottages, uproots a few trees, and leaves after a short space no mark behind it. Commend me therefore to the Dutch virtue of perseverance! Without it all the rest are little better than fairy gold, which glitters in your purse, but when taken to the market proves to be—slate or cinders.

This preaching, my beloved Jack, is directed against myself who have need of it, not against you who have none. “Improve the passing hour, for it will never never return”3 is a precept which you not only assent to but practice—your last year's history shews with what success. I admire your gallant onslaught upon the Greek language, and augur great advantages to you from it. By all means persist. The acquirement of this noble tongue, in which Plato wrote and Homer sung, will have a marked and beneficial influence on your subsequent literary life. In this Edinr College, few acquire it without previous preparation at school. See a mournful example in myself!— Shallow dominies of Annandale!—but for you, I need not now be wrestling with lexicons and grammars.

It will be right for you now, I think, to take up some book—the New Testament for example—or better—Dalziel's Collectanea Minora,4 and read it as you can; learning the other verbs and remaining matters as you proceed. When we next meet, I make sure of finding you a competent Graeculus, if not a complete Graecus.5

For myself, study has in a measure ceased to be a thing of which I am capable. At no period of my life did I spend my time more unprofitably than at present. Sciences and arts and book-learning no longer inspire me with any suitable interest; and my ignorance, my indecision, my weakness of all kinds, prevents me from fixing my heart on any one object of my own inventing. Well did old Crispus say: “Truly that man, I think, lives and enjoys existence, who intent on some undertaking, aims at the glory of some excellent attainment or illustrious exploit!”6 It is in fact certain that I must write a book [underscored twice]. Would to Heaven! I had a subject, which I could discuss and at the same time loved to discuss! I cannot say for certain whether I have the smallest genius: but I know I have unrest enough to serve a parish[.] Pity me, Jack; but hope that I shall not always be so pitiful a thing.

One main cause of all this self-reproach, which I have merited long but never got so keenly as now, is a partial return of health. When a sick man begins to blame himself, and to fret & worry and fume, about loss of time and so forth, you may suspect him to be past the worst point of his disorder. In fact, I am gathering strength—slowly, but still gathering it. In a year or two I may be quite sound. At present, I have what in Annandale is called “sufferable ease” at all times; and hours occur when I get immersed in thoughts that can make me forget that there is such a thing as digestion in the world. As for my employment, it goes on pretty fairly; the Bullers are boys of many good qualities and many faults; I am too little beside them at present, to grapple on fair terms with their inattentions and frequent peccadilloes. However in the main, they are very superior boys both in head and heart: and I think the undertaking will succeed ultimately in spite of all. I expect to have the hours changed soon: for it cuts up my time horribly as arranged at present.— But see! the end is at hand, and it behoves me to use despatch. Thou must write me by the Post forthwith. Next time I will send down a copy of my critique on Faust: Perhaps I shall get it to-morrow in in [sic] time: but any way I will write again soon. Call at Bogside & see Johnston: he will tell you about Graham of Burnswark & Edward Irving, who were my guests lately. Poor James!7 I am very sorry that so worthy a man should be so luckless. What is he doing? Remind him that he is to write. Make my best compliments to your worthy fellow-burgher Ben Nelson.

I am always, / My dear Jack, / Your affectionate Brother, /

Th: Carlyle.

Monday-Evening.— My dear Jack—The Carrier did not come; so I send this with Dobie, who goes off tomorrow. Write to me by post. I am well. My love to them of Mainhill. Vale! The proof-sheet of Faust is not arrived yet: I hope to send it by the first box. [I] am still bent on writing [underscored twice].