August 1846-June 1847

The Collected Letters, Volume 21


TC TO THOMAS ERSKINE; 12 June 1847; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18470612-TC-TE-01; CL 21:228-230.


June 12, 1847.

One is warned by Nature herself not to “sit down by the side of sad thoughts,” as my friend Oliver has it, and dwell voluntarily with what is sorrowful and painful.1 Yet at the same time one has to say for oneself—at least I have—that all the good I ever got came to me rather in the shape of sorrow: that there is nothing noble or godlike in this world but has in it something of “infinite sadness,” very different indeed from what the current moral philosophies represent it to us; and surely in a time like ours, if in any time, it is good for a man to be driven, were it by never such harsh methods, into looking at this great universe with his own eyes, for himself and not for another, and trying to adjust himself truly there. By the helps and traditions of others he never will adjust himself: others are but offering him their miserable spyglasses; Puseyite, Presbyterian, Free Kirk, old Jew, old Greek, middle-age Italian, imperfect, not to say distorted, semiopaque, wholly opaque and altogether melancholy and rejectable spyglasses, one and all, if one has eyes left. On me, too, the pressure of these things falls very heavy: indeed I often feel the loneliest of all the sons of Adam; and, in the jargon of poor grimacing men, it is as if one listened to the jabbering of spectres—not a cheerful situation at all while it lasts. In fact, I am quite idle so far as the outer hand goes at present. Silent, not from having nothing, but from having infinitely too much, to say: out of which perplexity I know no road except that of getting more and more miserable in it, till one is forced to say something, and so carry on the work a little. I must not complain. I must try to get my work done while the days and years are. Nay, is not that the thing I would, before all others, have chosen, had the universe and all its felicities been freely offered me to take my share from? The great soul of this world is Just. With a voice soft as the harmony of spheres, yet stronger, sterner, than all thunders, this message does now and then reach us through the hollow jargon of things. This great fact we live in, and were made by. It is “a noble Spartan Mother” to all of us that dare be sons to it. Courage! we must not quit our shields; we must return home upon our shields, having fought in the battle till we died. That is verily the law. Many a time I remember that of Dante, the inscription on the gate of hell: “Eternal love made me”2—made even me; a word which the paltry generations of this time shriek over, and do not in the least understand. I confess their “Exeter Hall,” with its froth oceans, benevolence, &c., &c., seems to me amongst the most degraded platitudes this world ever saw; a more brutal idolatry perhaps—for they are white men, and their century is the nineteenth—than that of Mumbo Jumbo itself! This, you perceive, is strong talking. This I have got to say yet, or try what I can do toward saying if I live. From Dan to Beersheba3 I find the same most mournful fact written down for me; mutely calling on me to read it and speak it abroad if I be not a lazy coward and slave, which I would fain avoid being. … It is every way very strange to consider what “Christianity,” so called, has grown to within these two centuries, on the Howard and Fry side as on every other4—a paltry, mealy-mouthed “religion of cowards,” who can have no religion but a sham one, which also, as I believe, awaits its “abolition” from the avenging power. If men will turn away their faces from God, and set up idols, temporary phantasms, instead of the Eternal One—alas! the consequences are from of old well known.5