TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON; 3 June 1823; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18230603-TC-JJ-01; CL 2:365-368.
TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON
Kinnaird-House, Dunkeld, 3d June, 1823—
My dear Johnston,
It is above a month since I began meditating the great project of writing you a letter; but so many things have occurred in the interim that it is not without an effort I accomplish my purpose even now. I have been north and south and east and west, since you wrote to me; bickering with the chagrins of Edinr; snatching a taste of the joys of Annandale; admiring the beauties of Perthshire; and at length I am settled in my cell once more, and beginning to resume my ancient habitudes. One of my keenest regrets during the late peregrinations was the impossibility I felt myself under of taking in Broughty-ferry in my route. I had calculated on spending two days with you as I passed: the want of fit conveyances was a difficulty I had never started. But at Edinr (Thursday gone a week) I found that means would not by all my ingenuity tally with the end. There was a coach that day directly for Dunkeld; and none, if I went in by you, till the ensuing week. So after much inward contestation I unwillingly gave up my scheme; contented myself with wishing all good luck to you as I looked up the valley of Strathmore; hoped we should meet soon under happier omens; and fared onward to the ancient capital of Caledonia,1 no more a capital, but still the finest looking village in the British empire. Next day I was here, when I thought to have been with you.
Since my arrival I have once or twice been fermenting some wild scheme about meeting one Saturday or another at Cupar Angus;2 but on serious thought, I find the thing is ludicrous. We must wait till August, when I hope again to have a space of freedom, and perhaps to find you as I travel southward, at any rate to find you at the journey's end. Meanwhile, the substitute of visitings, the precious art of writing is still at our command; I beg of you to employ it forthwith in my favour; the chief purpose of my present employment is to persuade you.
Surely the business of the Cupar School is decided ere now. In your favour? or not? or how? These are questions that I want answers to as soon as may be. Tell me all that you are busy with, studying, wishing, dreading; all that one true man gossips to another whom he has long looked on as a friend
I have no news to tell you of Annandale: I staid in it only for nine days. Your friends there, I had occasion to know, are all well; they sent to ask of me (your sister Agnes did) some tidings of you, and I had nothing but what was agreeable to tell. The worthy Mistress of Bogside3 I only saw at Church; the evening, when my Mother and I proposed to cross the moor and visit her, proved rainy; and I came off next day. They are all sorry and surprised that you never write. The general aspect of affairs in our poor fatherland is pitiable, I think, as much as any where else. All people are embarrassed; farmers cannot pay their rents, or employ an artisan beyond the strictest limits of necessity; hence men even with strong and willing arms can hardly earn a bare subsistence, men less fortunate are about beginning to beg. What is to become of them I know not well: the times have been expected to “mend” any day these thousand years, and they have never mended as they should: I suppose poor mortals must just keep staggering on beneath their burdens, and as Smeal the Blacksmith said “do the best they can for a livelihood, boy,” till their backs break altogether, and then the weary day'rk [day's work] is over. One comfort they have, all will get thro' the world some way; none ever stuck in it except Lot's wife, and pillars of Salt are out of fashion now. It is ever a stranger riddle to me this parti-coloured life of ours: I hope over the water, things are managed better. Here, I can make nothing of them.
Since my arrival in the valley of the Tay, I have done nothing of importance; scarcely as yet ascertained the nature of my whereabout; tried little to turn its advantages to profit. The wonder at my sloth need not be great: this is the first day of even my usual health, and of what sort that is you already know. I was almost sound while at Mainhill, and greatly I rejoiced; but “Diana in the shape of indigestion”4 met me as I traversed Erockstane, and “dashed the cup of fame from my brow.”5 I slept none, out of grief I suppose, for a week. Truly this ill-health is a sober business: it crushes the spirit of a man into weakness and blindness and wofulness of every sort; making out of the philosopher a ninny, out of the patient Stoic a wretched driveller, out of the gay humourist “a fiery ettercap a fractious chiel.”6 It is true as people say there is ever something, it may be health or not, that we are anxious to have altered; and man were not perfectible were it otherwise. But the misery of sickness is that you are striving with a difficulty which others feel not; it is a difficulty into the bargain: and so you lose ground in the race of life, and many cuddies reach the mark before you. It was just so with James Paddy in the celebrated race of Dalton. James failed, not because his feet were lazy,—his feet were brothers of the wind; but because Peter on the day before had nourished him with cabbages and sour kail; the Paddyean colon was seized with unutterable twinges in the middle of the course: hence James had other things to mind than running; hence his competitors passed him as he cowered; and hence tho' he started to his legs and ran with the breeches about his ancles,—till that necessary garment was rent in twain, the prize was already snatched away, and the glory of Ecclefechan passed off forever! That village had another chance in me, but this too is lost; Fate has not nourished me with hope, but with the various shapes of pain; thus far from advancing, I can hardly live, and poor Ecclefechan must still sit among the pots7 for aught that I can do to help her. It is very hard: but we cannot help it—cannot help it; therefore let it be so. Nevertheless I keep myself busied with many occupations. I am writing a life of Schiller (one part of which is already done); and I have engaged to translate a very curious novel of von Goethe's8 against next winter. The first I doubt I shall never finish; the second I am just going to begin. Nothing is equal to employment, for driving the Devil out of one: I could easily go mad, if I had nothing better to do; but that is not my case.
I have much to tell you about the beauty of this place, and the ugly qualities of its people: but not now. I expect to be happy, if I be moderately healthy. The Bullers treat me with what Candlewick Mary calls calls [sic] “the height of discretion”; the boys are are [sic] very good fellows, and I have a fair allowance of time at my own disposal. I live apart from the larger house, except at meals and teaching hours; the place is quiet as the grave, and well aired as any could be: these things to me are all in all.
I left Jack at Mainhill translating two little french novels (for the press):9 he meditated long to come and see you, but could not make it out. A Letter from you to him would be a welcome treat; so would it be to me; there quick with it!
I am always sincerely your's
[In margin:] The Address is already given: Be content with this stupid palaver, and write to me whenever you have any hour free