TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 26 March 1823; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18230326-TC-JBW-01; CL 2:312-316.
TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH
3. Moray-street, Wednesday-night [26 March 1823].
My dear Friend,
You have not done a more beneficial action for a long time than writing to me last monday. I had already spent too much of the preceding week in the delightful exercise of that Christian virtue, for which both of us are so remarkable; I had wearied myself in the region of conjecture, and found little comfort within its ample domains. On the evening in question, I had just brought out my papers, and was sitting down to begin that weary life of Schiller—in the most vinegar humour that a man could well be in—with a head empty of ideas, and a heart oppressed by as many chagrins as might have served a dozen hearts—when her Serene Lowness, the Dowager Wilkie,1 came gliding in, with—“a parcel Sir!” I felt myself grow half a hundredweight lighter whenever I saw it. Your letter wrought upon me as if by art magic: I was another man when I had read it. To use a Slawkenburgian figure,2 it was as if you had lit up a blazing fire in the dark damp haunted chamber of some old ruined Gothic pile, scattering the ghosts and spectres into the shades of Erebus, and tinging the grim walls once more with the colours of jovial life and warm substantial cheer. I declared within myself that you were the very best of all the daughters of Eve: I proceeded to my work as if I had grown young again.— It is pity that this magical force will not always continue; pity that the fire at last goes out, and leaves the poor mind's chamber cold and dark, and haunted by the Devil as before! Yet after all, we should be thankful for our mercies: there are parts of life too fine to be the general material of it; and virtue itself, they say, is nothing but the victory, often fiercely struggled for, of free-will over fate. Let it be so.
I know not how I felt when I read of these marryings and givings in marriage. It seems to me as if our destinies were yet long to be intermingled, as if we were yet to walk side by side thro' many bright scenes, to assist each other in many a noble purpose; and oh! what a pitiful conclusion to all this would a vulgar wedding make! It is true they manage it otherwise in the common world: there the great object of a young woman's existence is to get a rich husband, and a fine house, and give dinners; just as it is the great object of ravens to find carrion, or of pawn brokers to amass a plum;3 and the sooner they attain their respective destinations it is surely the better. But if each creature ought to follow the good its nature aims at, then you are right to take another path—right to press forward towards the golden summit of mental eminence, and to shrink at no sacrifice which you believe that elevation will repay you for. The time will come indeed, when you must “fall in love” and be wedded as others have been; it is the general law, and must be fulfilled: but I fear not that I shall ever have the pain of seeing your happiness entrusted to one unworthy however desirous of the charge, or the high ambitions of your youth given up for any thing less sacred than the feelings of the heart, if these unhappily should come to oppose them. I say unhappily; for the love of Knowledge is a passion which, once in possession of the mind, can hardly ever be extinguished; it is noble in its nature too, and like other noble passions elevates itself into a kindred with all the virtues of the character: if stinted, & still more if checked, in its gratification, it leaves a painful hankering behind it which is inconsistent with true peace of mind, and often, I imagine, with the free exercise of the moral faculties. In the mean time, therefore, you must just continue on your way. If I had my will you should not be married till—not till a considerable period after this. Literary women have many things to suffer, but they have likewise something to enjoy. I confess it appears to me more enviable to be a sister of Madame de Stael's for half a year, than “to suckle fools and chronicle small beer”4 for half a century.
But I must cease to preach, for the text is plain without a commentary, and I have other things to do. You are right to keep by Gibbon, since you have begun it: there is no other tolerable history of those times and nations, within the reach of such readers as we are; it is a kind of bridge that connects the antique with the modern ages. And how gorgeously does it swing across the gloomy and tumultuous chasm of those barbarous centuries! Gibbon is a man whom one never forgets—unless oneself deserving to be forgotten; the perusal of his work forms an epoch in the history of one's mind. I know you will admire Gibbon, yet I do not expect or wish that you should love him. He has but a coarse and vulgar heart, with all his keen logic and glowing imagination and lordly irony: he worships power and splendour; and suffering virtue, the most heroic devotedness if unsuccessful, unarrayed in the pomp and circumstance of outward glory, has little of his sympathy. To the Christians he is frequently very unfair: if he had lived now, he would have written differently on those points. I would not have you love him; I am sure you will not. Have you any notion what an ugly thief he was? Jack brought down his life5 to-day, and it has a profile of his whole person— Alas for Mlle. Curchod! Alas for her daughter Wilhelmina Necker who wished to marry him, when she was thirteen—not out of love to him but to her Mother!6 I would have sent you this Life, but it is a large quarto and I knew not if you would receive it patiently. Should you wish it, write to me to-morrow and I will send it out. There is some amusement in it, but you will relish it more, when you know more fully and think more highly of the studied labours of the mind which it shews you in deshabille.
I am also glad that you like my thrice illustrious Goethe, and cannot understand him. What expounding and reading and chit-chatting we shall have together when you come! I beg only that you do not disappoint me again. At first I was rather disconcerted at this postponement: I had calculated on your arrival as a perfect certainty; nay it was only on Monday, that I got into to [sic] the most wonderful flurry at what I conceived to be the actual sight of you! The small divine who was with me on Prince-street might as well have spoken to the winds, I could answer his prosing statements but by monosyllables which I daresay had no connection oftener than once with the “subject matter of his discourse”: the lady before us seemed to have your very dress and form and gait, and I heard not what he said.— Alas! we overtook this beatific vision, and she had a nose about the length of a moderate dibble! So abrupt is often the transition from the height of poetry to the depth of prose.
On second thoughts, however, I am satisfied. By the time you arrive, I shall have finished Schiller; I shall see more of you, and be more at leisure to see you. It will be absolutely cruel, if you do not come about the very beginning of the month. We could be so happy, I often think, wandering at large beneath these clear spring skies, talking over all our plans and hopes, arguing or discussing—or doing nothing at all beside each other! You must come in less than a fortnight. You will write to me just once before that time, and the next message will be that “Miss Welsh condescends to allow the dyspeptical Philosopher to behold the light of her countenance to-morrow morning about ten.” Said Philosopher will be punctual to the hour, and promises to conduct himself with great submissiveness and propriety. If you have any heart—which I sometimes do believe is the case, in spite of all your sinful indifference and manifold railleries—you will think of this and do it. I look forward to April as to a white month.
You do not say a word about composition this time—because I suppose you have had other things to mind. We will settle all that when we meet. Bring Götz with you also, and we will decipher it, tho' it were as dark as the linen books. I like you better for dismissing that ancient sinner Giovan Boccaccio: he is a wicked knave with all his talents, and intellectual pleasure may be dearly purchased at such a risk. You are yourself throughout, my own noble Jane in every thing.— I rejoice too that you have done with the genius: those geniuses are the most arrant littleworths in nature. Your Irish tapeman I shall be bound is worth ten of him. Poor little hopper; and praiseworthy Shandy to spy him out!
Now have I not tired you enough for once? There is poor Schiller lying too, at whom I must have a hit or two before I sleep. It will be an invaluable life this of Schillers, were it once completed: so splendid and profound and full of unction— Oh! I could beat my brains out, when I think what a miserable pithless ninny I am! Would it were in my power either to write like a man or honestly to give up the attempt for ever. Chained to the earth by native gravitation and a thousand wretched fetters, I am miserable unless I be soaring in the empyrean; and thus between the lofty will & the powerless deed, I have no peace, no peace. Sometimes I could almost run distracted; my wearied soul seems as if it were hunted round within its narrow enclosure by a whole legion of the dogs of Tartarus, which sleep not, night or day. In fact I am never happy except when full of business, and nothing more. The secret of all is “I have no genius,” and like Andrew Irving's horse, I have “a dibbil of a temper.” We must just submit!
Boyd7 the pursy Bookseller wishes me to translate Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, which I have told him is very clever. It will not be determined for some weeks—not till I see where I am to be and how, during summer. Come, my dear Jane, and let us consider all these matters! Come! Come! I am vehemently longing to see you.— Write at any rate when your Mother has finished Delphine—sooner if you want Gibbon. My “Amplification” greets you most respectfully. My best compliments to your Mother, and say I am much of her mind in the affair.—Yours, mia cara, per sempre [my dear one, forever.]
(Excuse this crumpled paper: I knew not how to fold it, and had much more to say than it would hold. Write to me immediately—and come, if you would make me happy)