TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 28 October 1822; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18221028-TC-JBW-01; CL 2:183-190.
TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH
3. Moray-street, Monday—[28 October 1822]—
My dear Friend,
I know not whether it be that I am grown more reasonable of late than formerly, but certain it is that I never in my life felt less inclined to be in “bad humour” with you than at present. For a long while, our intercourse, unlike what it once was, has been a source of unmixed pleasure to me; and the present complexion of it, I rejoice to say, seems to afford the hope of its being as permanent as any thing so delightful can be expected to be. When you write in the proper style, your letters have a power at once to gratify and to excite me which almost nothing else has: there is always some sharp fillip for my vanities, and some voice to awaken and direct my exertions—something shewn me to be done, and something to be avoided; and the whole is accomplished in a manner which might give inanity itself some value. I daresay you wonder at these salutary effects of your compositions; yet I do not overrate the matter, but the contrary. Last Friday, for instance, what a fine bright region of dreams arose over my stagnant imagination, when your letter was spread out before me! There was the Celt Glengarry, misplaced in these manufacturing times as much as some Mammoth or Mastodonton would be at the Tryst of Falkirk;1 then the somerset, and the new mode of splitting rocks invented at Aberdeen; then the tragedy of the Elgin duck, and the venerable pullet of St Johnstown2—on both of which ill-fated fowls I design to write some elegaic stanzas the first time I feel melancholy enough to do them justice. Nay even with regard to your new friend, tho' viewing him with the “jealous leer malign”3 so natural in such a case, I could not help admitting him to be a very dashing gallant fellow, and well worth all the attention you have given him, and more. I must envy him his equestrian powers, if they often lead him on such journeys as the one to Lammerlaw. Did he write these verses? If so, he seems young at the art like us, but not without powers of doing better: dactyls are always difficult to manage, and his accordingly are but a kind of flash in the pan—no damage is done; but the other piece has a sort of swaggering pococurante [little-caring] air about it which looks more like genius and truth, and answers greatly better. Except the last stanza, they are good. If he is only about twenty years of age or so, he may cultivate poetry with considerable hope: if nearer thirty I advise him never to write another line.
But I am wasting my paper with these gossipings, forgetful of my chief object in taking up the pen at present. It is very unfortunate for any one to live without a settled plan, still more so for one like you; and happy indeed should I be if any effort of mine could deliver you from such a situation. Nor am I without hopes of effecting this purpose: for unless I am greatly mistaken in my estimate of your resources, there is not any thing desperate or even very difficult in the case. I know the common error of underrating the difficulties of our neighbour as much as we overrate our own: but certainly it seems to me that the proportion between your wishes and your power of accomplishing them is more favourable than with the great majority of the world. Your object is simple—the attainment of intellectual eminence, which you look upon and justly as the first of mortal distinctions: your means of attaining it are abundant—a genius which I have often characterised, ardour as yet unabated, and domestic comfort in every sense, including a total freedom as well from that heart-breaking isolation, as those thousand vulgar cares about “what you shall eat or what you shall drink or wherewithal you shall be clothed,”4 under which most people labour, and in which the great mass of mankind find a sufficient some times an excessive occupation all their days. Where then is the difficulty? In your circumstances, I imagine I could produce a very glorious result. I would rigidly set apart some hours of every day for the purposes of study; I would read and think and imagine; I would familiarize myself with whatever great or noble thing men have done or conceived since the commencement of civilization—that is I would study their history, their philosophy, their literature—endeavouring all the while not merely to recollect but to apply, not merely to have in my possession but to nourish myself with all these accumulated stores of the Past, and to strengthen my hands with them for adding to the stores of the Future. In about two or at most three years from this date, I would thus have before my mind a distinct and vivid conception of the manière d'être [way of life] of all the great characters that have ever lived—in order to borrow from them whatever beauty could be imitated in my own character—which is the first great benefit of education; I would would [sic] have a no less vivid conception of all that is most picturesque or spirit-stirring in the fortunes of our race—all that they have done and endured and discovered—which forms at once the wealth of the imagination and the understanding—the materials on which they operate, and is the other great benefit of education. And in collecting all this mental riches, I would be attentive also to improve my powers of distributing it: I would cultivate the art of composition in its widest meaning; I would write verse and prose, grave things and gay, matters of reasoning and of fancy according as my humour might direct. After all which long training, I would look forth on the wide empire which I had thus conquered, and acquired the skill to govern; I would select the fairest and finest province in it, which I would cultivate and adorn with all my heart and soul; if I could increase the general inheritance of mankind—how glorious my destiny!—if not, I should at least have longed to do it, I should have travelled thro' the wilderness of life surrounded with solemn and elevating and noble objects, and I should die with the spirit of a man that had endeavoured well—and only failed because Nature never meant he should succeed.
In all this I am sensible there is far too much vagueness and generality: it is the impossibility of writing all that might be said on the subject, which forces me to sketch only the outline, and leave the filling of it up to a fairer opportunity. If I saw you for two hours—to question and suggest—to consult and discuss by word of mouth, it might be different. In the mean time I cannot avoid again recommending one branch of study which ought to lie at the root of all others, and in which if I mistake not you are still deficient. It is the study of history, the easiest the most entertaining and the most instructive of all; the foundation of which may be laid in a few months, tho' many diligent readers neglect all their lives to lay it. Have you finished Hume yet? Have you ever read Robertson and Gibbon? There are Greece and Rome which well merit your attention, if they have not yet gained it; and a multitude of authors good and bad are at hand to direct in this undertaking. Did you ever read Plutarch or Vertot or Rollin?5 You see I know not how to come to particulars: but here is room enough for a great quantity of useful labour, tho' I cannot specify it distinctly. Then for modern times, we have Gibbon (worth reading on other accounts, tho' he is an infidel and a rather heartless person) and Müller6 and Watson and Sismondi and Lacratelle7 and a host of others. With regard to philosophy I need not say any thing at present—or criticism—or those parts of the sciences which might suit you: there is work enough for a time without them.
Now, my dear Pupil, if you are at all giving ear to this confused sermon of mine, I can easily fancy the state of despondency and helplessness into which it has already cast you. You contemplate a task without limits, in which you know not how to begin, and see not where you shall end. Such feelings are natural but groundless. Give but four hours a day to serious study—give them constantly faithfully inflexibly—reserving the other twelve to your Mother and your friends and those accomplishments and amusements which befit your sex and rank: the celerity and success with which you may get thro' the work will far surpass your hopes. What may you not have learned even before winter is done! It will make you far happier too: for no thinking creature can sit easy under the idea that time “the stuff that life is made of”8 continues wasting drop by drop and leaving no trace behind it. I would absolutely set about this undertaking, were I in your place, and that without delay. I would make the silly people in my neighbourhood respect my purposes and cease to interfere with their fulfilment. What an arrangement that thoughts and aims directed as it were to Eternity itself should be thwarted and obstructed by the shallow movements of people whose only object is to live! Tell them that these four hours are sacred to the hopes of Immortality—that you will be uninterrupted in the use of them; and they will cease to interrupt you. If any murmur, if any sneer; let them have their humour out: a little while will shew who were the gainers, and it is only theirs to laugh.
If I conceived less highly of my beloved pupil, I would prescribe more moderate duties for her: but as matters stand, this sketch contains the rude draught (rude enough certainly) of what in my real opinion were best be done. You see I have formed a lofty idea of what you are destined to become—a person rich in solid knowledge, and habituated to the use of strong and brilliant faculties. Without this, there may be smartness and shew, but no true greatness: you may write elegant trifles, but never shew yourself a woman of a sublime and commanding mind. You see also that I exclude the idea of any thing like publication for the present. In truth I do not see what should hurry you in this respect. I am far from insensible to the pleasures of fame: at the same time, it is to be not to seem that one should labour; and if the former is attained, the latter will inevitably follow—or may stay if it likes, for then its value is but secondary. What matters it indeed whether another pays you reverence, provided you are sure that at any given moment you have force of mind enough to lay him prostrate whenever you think proper? There is even a kind of pleasure in being despised by some blockheads. The certainty you have of their gross blindness, the sense of your own magnanimity in sustaining their injustice, does more than console you for the loss of what in itself is of so very little value. This is a doctrine, you will say, peculiar to myself: in fact I would not have you act upon it too largely; but it is fit we be persuaded that worth not currency is the rational object—that if we have the gold, the coining of it is a far inferior matter. I cannot call that mind a really great one which does not feel so. Percival Stockdale9 went nearly altogether mad out of eagerness for the glory which he never could deserve: Lord Bacon calmly entrusted the care of his works “to posterity when two centuries should have elapsed.” I conceive that even at present you might write a very amusing novel or light work of that sort; but I should regret to see you do so: it would appear frivolous to yourself at some future day—or what were worse—it might lead your mind into a class of trivial pursuits, and bring about the bad exchange of precocity for strength. Aim rather at something far higher: become a truly accomplished and richly-furnished person first; and then what thing is impossible to you?
But I must bring this tedious lecture to a close at last. I have managed it so badly that I fear you will find it difficult to make out my project after all I have said about it. The leading idea lies vaguely and indefinitely within my own mind, and of course I explain it obscurely; but I am persuaded of its correctness. I beg you to give the matter your attention seriously, and to let me have your views respecting it as soon as possible. If you purpose to let me see your face within any measurable space of time, I promise to make every thing clear and precise; if otherwise, I will write till you understand plainly, or grow altogether tired of my stupidity. I would not weary you to death all at once; so I leave it for the present.
It is kind in you to ask after my designs; but your kindness must meet a very unworthy requital. I shall only again vex you with the stupid picture of broken resolutions and empty regrets, of incessant restlessness and no advancement, of the most glorious projects and the meanest execution. What an ass! I sit and spin out long plans which it would require a lifetime to complete; I feel astonished at my own temerity when I approach the commencement of them; I faulter, I hesitate, and at length give them up in despair. Meanwhile the few sands of existence are hastening away, the noon of life is already fleeting over me, and “the night cometh wherein no man can work.”10 I know I deserve your contempt; I am fast securing my own. It is vain for me to urge in excuse that I must first be liberated from these grinding cares, these ignoble toils, this anxiety about the humblest circumstances of the future, this separation from all kindred minds, this weak and wayward state of health: I was born to endure these things, and must endure them to the end of time, unless my own hand deliver me; and how shall it deliver me except by previously effecting what I like a child would willingly postpone? Sometimes I candidly believe myself to be the weakest most imprudent driveller now extant.
Four months ago I had a splendid plan of treating the history of England during the Commonwealth in a new style—not by way of regular narrative—for which I felt too well my inequality, but by grouping together the most singular manifestations of mind that occurred then under distinct heads—selecting some remarkable person as the representative of each class, and trying to explain and illustrate their excellencies and defects, all that was curious in their fortune as individuals, or in their formation as members of the human family, by the most striking methods I could devise. Already my characters were fixed upon—Laud, Fox, Clarendon, Cromwell, Milton, Hambden [Hampden]; already I was busied in the study of their works; when that wretched Philomath with his sines and tangents11 came to put me in mind of a prior engagement,—to obstruct my efforts in this undertaking, and at length to drive them totally away. Next I thought of some work of imagination: I would paint, in a brief but vivid manner, the old story of a noble mind struggling against an ignoble fate; some fiery yet benignant spirit reaching forth to catch the bright creations of his own fancy and breaking his head against the vulgar obstacles of this lower world: But then what knew I of this lower world? The man must be a hero, and I could only draw the materials of him from myself. rich source of such materials! Besides it were well that he died of love; and your novel—love is become a perfect drug; and of the genuine sort I could not undertake to say a word. I once thought of calling in your assistance, that we might work in concert, and make a new hero and heroine such as the world never saw. Could I have obtained your concurrence? Would to Heaven we could make such a thing! Finally I abandoned the project.— I have since tried to resume the Commonwealth; but the charm of it is gone: I contemplate with terror the long train of preparation, and the poorness of the result. Now Boyd the fat bookseller would give me something like £150 for a solitary life of Milton with notes on his poems, criticisms &c &c: last week I was within an ace of accepting his offer. One thing is certain, I cannot live thus. Tell me if you can to what hand I ought to turn me. I am very unhappy often, and deserve to be still more so.
But see!—the bottom of my second sheet! I must check this torrent of egotism, and deliver you from my insipidities at last. When will you write to me again? You are a generous creature, or you would not be troubled with me at all. I must also have some poetry if possible; tho' I have none to give you—for charity itself cannot call by such a name the swashing bombast which I am going to enclose. What put it into your imagination that our unhappy Night-moth12 was translated? Alas! the poor animal actually perished before my eyes one summer midnight in the Burgh of Kirkcaldy; and like Jerry of the Carlisle newspaper, I pat eet aw into langish meesel’. This lest Posterity should mistake the thing.
I have read the “bright city,” and rejoiced to find your criticism of it so agreeable to my own. Milman is certainly a poet, but he takes a flight higher than he can sustain. He paints too gorgeously and indistinctly, he also whines too much, he is sometimes even liable to cant. I am astonished at your diffidence in judging him: it were well if he always found even critics by profession so well qualified.
To-morrow I must try to get you O'Meara:13 if not, this must go without it, and you shall have the book another time. Byron's Magazine or rather Hunt's “the Liberal” is arrived in town; but they will not sell it—it is so full of Atheism and Radicalism and other noxious isms. I had a glance of it one evening; I read it thro' and found two papers apparently by Byron, and full of talent as well as mischief.14 Hunt is the only serious man in it, since Shell[e]y died: he has a wish to preach about politics and bishops and pleasure and paintings and nature, honest man; Byron wants only to write squibs against Southey and the like. The work will hardly do. If possible you shall see this number.
Once more then I have done. Be patient with this long scribble for I have sat till mid-night writing it, and of course intended it for good. Write me again when you want to make me happy. Adieu, my most valued friend!