TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 1 July 1823; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18230701-TC-JBW-01; CL 2:386-391.
TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH
Kinnaird House, 1st July, 1823.
My dear Jane,
I am in a wonderful anxiety to hear from you, and have been for several days. By the almanack, it is just three weeks since I had my last letter: by my imagination, it is half an age. If I knew certainly that you were still in Nithsdale, your patience would likely be assailed with a long epistle from me: but it is one advantage of these jaunts (which you otherwise dislike so much) that your enemies cannot tell where to find you; that I the deadliest of them know not whether to point my soporific arrows against you to the south or the southeast. Good luck has delivered you for this time; but I warn you to be on your guard again. You promised to write to me once a week— No, you did not promise; but you are a kind angel of a creature, you will write to me whenever you can, and that is all I want. Give no heed to me when I become importunate.
Unable to accelerate the arrival of your letter, I have bethought me of discharging a duty which I owe you, and procuring to myself at the same time the pleasure of an hour or two's conversation with you; a species of entertainment which, unless I attend to it better, will ere long have grown to be a necessary of life. Then, if you take one of your frolicks, and cut off my supplies, and I perish of want! But no! my own Jane will never forsake me; she is the friend of my soul forever and ever, she is mine, and I am hers, and we will love one another thro' all the changes of chance and time. “Brave words, Sir!” you observe: “but now to business.” Well here it is.
Poor Musäus has been lying on the shelf these six weeks, longing to pay his devoirs to you. It was my earliest task to inspect his pretensions, and try whether he deserved that honour: I found him a very honest gentleman and admitted his claims without hesitation. Of genius in the strict meaning of the word his share is small if any; but in return he has a true vein of shrewd sense, no inconsiderable stock of knowledge, a fine little clear imagination, a perennial flow of good nature, and abundance of wit and humour such as they are. His tales are in general amusing: we shall be enabled to select some half dozen from them of a quite superior quality. The proper half dozen I have been considering of, for some days, without yet having come to any very firm resolution. Perhaps in the present stage of the business it were best for you to begin translating Libussa (in the third volume) which I reckon about the best; and when you tire of writing, to peruse carefully the following: Die Bücher der Chronika &c, Rolands Knappen, Legenden von Rübezahl, Der geraubte Schleyer, and Melechsala;1 out of which when we meet, as I trust in Providence we shall soon do, it will be easy for us to lay our heads together, and chuse the fit quantity in the most prudent manner. No one of the stories, even of those excluded in this enumeration, is without passages of great merit; but generally these passages are more thinly disseminated, and the narrative languishes and wants incident and unity, in the tales omitted here, particularly as you advance into the later volumes. On the whole however I think we shall have no difficulty in making out a very handsome volume, if we play our parts fitly: at all events the undertaking will be very advantageous for you, whatever be the fortune of it; you will gain by it a complete acquaintance with German, and train yourself more and more in the art of writing English. I have often been surprized at the easy elegance with which you already compose; you want only practice of sufficient extent to make you a style of your own and to give you the power of employing it with a felicity which there will be a thousand to envy for one there is to imitate. Some phrases and allusions in the original will here and there obstruct you; but do not linger over them; we will decipher them between us, or find means of blinking them in a plausible way. Take pains in your phraseology and punctuation; but not too much pains; there is a light good-natured strain of sarcasm in Musäus which often reminded me of you, and by obeying with some freedom the impulse of your first thoughts, you will likely transfuse this better than by too much study and erasion. On the whole you will like Musäus but not love him: his powers of head are akin to your own in some points, but he wants your heart with all its generous ardent feelings, and so never rises to be a true hero or any thing approaching to it. When you and I have once arrived at the years of discretion, we shall look down with great composure on such people as Musäus: in the mean time use him kindly, and his acquaintance will profit you.
Now, my dear Enemy, you must begin this business without delay; and keep by it constantly at the rate of about three hours (not more) daily, devoting the remainder of your time to finishing Gibbon, and writing immeasurable letters to the Malignant Philosopher, and entertaining your Mother and the good people your neighbours who come to visit you. I also insist that you spend two or three hours every day in the open air: do this, Jane, for my sake; I know the consequence of excessive application; I would not have you in such a state as I have spent the last five years in for all the universe. And never fear, my beloved Scholar, that I shall try to persuade you to relinquish the noble purposes which nature and habit have alike appointed you to fulfil: if I seem to restrain your impetuosity, it is only that you may more surely and happily reach the goal. There is in fact, I see it more clearly every day, nothing but literature that will serve to make your life agreeable or useful. In your actual situation, you have two things to chuse between: you may be a fashionable Lady, the ornament of drawing-rooms and festive parties in your native district, the wife of some prosperous man who will love you well and provide for you all that is choicest in the entertainment of common minds; or you may take the pursuit of truth and mental beauty for your highest good, and trust to fortune, be it good or bad, for the rest. The choice is important, and requires your most calm and serious reflection. Nevertheless, I think you have decided like a prudent woman no less than like a heroine. I dare not promise that your life will be free from sorrows; for minds like yours deep sorrows are reserved, take the world as you will: but you will also have noble pleasures, and the great intention of your being will be accomplished. As a fashionable fine lady, on the other hand, I do not see how you could get thro' the world on even moderate terms: a few years at most would quite sicken you of such a life; you would begin by becoming wretched, and end by ceasing to be amiable. I see something of fashionable people here; and truly to my plebeian conception there is not a more futile class of persons on the face of God's earth. If I were doomed to exist as a man of fashion I do honestly believe I should swallow rat's bane or apply to hemp or steel before three months were over. There is something so very unsubstantial in their whole proceedings, such toiling and wrestling and so very little realized, that really I know not well how even stupid people can endure it. From day to day and year to year the problem is not how to use time, but how to waste it least painfully; they have their dinners and their routs, they move heaven and earth to get every thing arranged and enacted properly, and when the whole is done, what is it? Had the parties all wrapped themselves up in warm blankets and kept their beds, much peace had been among several hundreds of his majesty's subjects, and the very same result, the uneasy destruction of half a dozen hours, had been quite as well attained. Think of this lasting thro' forty years—insipidity around you, before you, and behind! It is no wonder that poor women take to opium and scandal: the wonder is rather that these poor queens of the land do not some morning, struck by the hopelessness of their condition, make a general finish by simultaneous consent, and exhibit to coroners and juries the spectacle of the whole world of ton suspended by their garters, and freed at last from ennui, in the most cheap and complete of all possible modes. There is something in the life of a sturdy peasant toiling from sun to sun for a plump wife and six eating children: but as to the Lady Jerseys and the Lord Petershams 2—peace be with them! For you, my heroic Jane, there is nothing here, tho' in its utmost perfection, that could give one hour's true satisfaction; and wisely have you judged it better to chuse a path of your own, beset perhaps with difficulties and dangers, but leading to glory and true nobleness, than to follow the multitude along a path, beaten enough indeed, but leading thro' inanity and chagrin to—nothing. Persist! Persist! and fear not that all will yet be well.
“Oh! but I have no genius!” I tell you on the contrary that you have a genius, you ungrateful creature; every day I am growing surer of this: nothing but time and diligence are required to develope it in full splendour, tho' most likely in a shape very different from what you anticipate. So down to your Volksmährchen [folk tales], and get along with them, and let me hear no more complaints. See that you have Libussa done when I arrive: if not, the consequences may be fatal.
I expect to be with you even earlier than I said; most probably in three weeks[.] I do trust you will let me see you at Haddington: we should have a week to spend together, in talking over the thousand things in which we have a common concern. I forget how often I have been disappointed of seeing you lately; many times I am sure: but I still keep hoping as if nothing of the kind had happened. I figure out myself and you sitting unmolested for hours in your drawing-room—talking with each other of high matters—matters high to us, and taking counsel in concert about the affairs of the commonwealth, which are now assuming an aspect, more difficult to look on with coolness than ever. O Jane! if there were no subjunctive mood—but all ifs abolished from the earth forever! You are an angel; but I must not forget what I am. My life here is the most unprofitable and totally inane I ever found it. I think of little or nothing else but you; and that not like a man of sense, but like a foolish boy. I read none, I do not translate three pages of Goethe once a week. Good heavens! am I growing mad? I form ten thousand plans of future conduct, but each is weaker than its forerunner, each is rejected in its turn. I am also fast losing any little health I was possessed of: some days I suffer as much pain as would drive about three Lake poets down to Tartarus; but I have long been trained in a sterner school; besides by nature I am of the Cat genus, and like every Cat, I have nine lives. I shall not die therefore, but unless I take some prudent resolution, I shall do worse. I often think of leaving these Bullers entirely; going home to my kind true-hearted Mother, for a year; and then with recovered health, fronting the hardest of the world once more. The people treat me with extreme consideration, the young men love me and are worth some love in their turn; but their way of life threatens to prove inconsistent with my very pitiful health, my employment is without vexation but it leaves my best faculties unemployed, leisure hours must be devoted to exercise; thus I accomplish nothing, but waste the flower of my existence—in earning daily bread. Absolutely this will not and shall not do. I signified to Buller to-day that I must have leave of absence shortly: I mean to bring a horse with me when I return; I shall try Kinnaird for a week or two, and if I cannot keep in my usual tithe of health, and have some hours for better purposes, I am off, without sound of drum, forever and a day.
Well! here is surely a mournful tragedy, and a noble mind to bear the brunt of it! Why do I talk to you of it? Because you have a kind heart; and I am but a driveller to call for its sympathy with such despicable sorrows. Never mind me, my good Jane: allow me to fight with the paltry evils of my lot as best I may; and if I cannot beat them down, let me go to the Devil as is right I should. We have had too much of this!
How bright and serene and full of sunshine do all things appear when I turn from myself to you! Yes, in the darkest hour, some hope still lingers gilding the horizon, when I think of Jane; something of an etherial nature is still blended for me with the clay of this world, when I think that she is my friend. May God reward you, my dearest, for what you have been to me! It may be that we shall yet be a happiness to one another; that we shall live thro' this earthly pilgrimage united in the noblest pursuits, in the bonds of true love, one heart one soul one fortune; and go down to other times inseparable after life as in it: it may be that we must part and see each other no more: but stil[l we] shall remember one another with affection and respect, and regard these drea[ms of] our youth as among the fairest portions of our history.
But I must leave you again. Excuse the tattered state of these papers, and all the foolish things written on it. I began this letter yesterday, and I have said twice as much as I intended or ought. Write to me whenever you have any time: do, if you can; for I have no pleasure like what I get from listening to you. Tell me all that you feel or care for, all that is on your heart—as I do. What is become of that poor youth?3 What are you doing? Are you well and happy? Write, write! I will answer you once on paper, and shortly after you will see me if I am not too sick, which is not very likely. Good night my dearest friend. I am ever your's
To-morrow if I have time I will send your Mother that old song:4 to-night it is too late