1824- 1825

The Collected Letters, Volume 3


TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 10 August 1824; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18240810-TC-JAC-01; CL 3:120-124.


Birmingham, 10th August, 1824—

My dear Jack,

Tho I have not been much hurried by positive business since receiving your welcome letter,1 and tho' I purposed to answer it with very little delay, I find “the three weeks” are fast hastening to a close, and you no whit the wiser. I have taken up my pen to-day, to write to you and also to Alick. Letters to other quarters are likewise due; but yours are the most agreeable if not the most pressing debts; and I will pay them first.

Birmingham I have now tried for a reasonable time, and I cannot complain of being tired of it. As a town, it is pitiful enough; a mean congeries of bricks, including scarcely one or two large capitalists, some hundreds of minor ones, and perhaps a hundred and twenty thousand sooty artisans in metals & chemical produce. The streets are ill-built, ill-paved, always flimsy in their aspect, often poor, sometimes miserable. Not above one or two of them are paved with flag-stones at the sides; and to walk upon the little egg-shaped slippery flints that supply their place is something very like a pennance. Yet withal it is interesting, from some of the commons or lanes that spot or intersect the green woody undulating environs, to view this City of Tubalcain. Torrents of thick smoke with ever and anon a burst of dingy flame are issuing from a thousand funnels; “a thousand hammers fall by turns on the red [i]ron of the furnace”; you hear the clank of innumerable steam-engings, the rumbling of vans and cars and the hum of men, interrupted by the sharper rattle of some canal-boat loading or disloading, or perhaps some fierce explosion where the cannon-founders are proving their new-made ware. I have seen their rolling mills; their polishing of teapots and buttons and gunbarrels, and fire-shovels and swords, and all manner of toys and tackle; I have looked into their iron-works (where 150,000 men are smelting the metal, in a district a few miles to the north), their coal mines—fit image of Avernus!2—their tubs and vats (as large as country-churches) full of copperas and aquafortis and oil of vitriol; and the whole is not without its attractions as well as repulsions, of which when we meet I will preach to you at large. But one's comfort as you know depends not much on brick and mortar, or the outward figure of a town; and even of this I am pretty independent. Badams lives in the north-east verge of the place, close upon the country; and his frank easy honest manners would make a smoky alley pleasant. I feel as much at home as if I had lived with him for years. He still predicts the reestablishment of my health; and tho' the whole or very nearly the whole of this thrice blessed change is still in prospect, I am not without hopes of its being ultimately realized. As yet indeed there has been no fair chance: he has been dosing me considerably with drugs vegetable and saline; trying me on various tacks, to see where lies the rotten plank in this fabric, before attempting to repair it. By this means I am weak, but not very wretched in my carcass; and most frequently anticipating an improvement. On the whole, I am not unhappy—in my own peculiar way; when the infernal genius of Pain retires but a few steps from me, there is a quiet island of beatitude far in the distance, a little oasis among the “burning marle” of my internal world, to which I hasten, and where I live among bright tho' chequered scenes, not without images and hopes of a stern beauty, radiant tho' sobered by a cast of sadness. Such resting finds the sole of unblest feet! If I live and regain any portion of my strength I will tell the Earth these things: if not, n'importe.

Meanwhile I pass my days in a quiet enough style: I read Scotch novels, biographies and all sorts of insipid trash: Badams talks sense and nonsense to me; I ride and dream and sleep. After much delay I have agreed to publish Schiller with Taylor (for the additional sum of £ 50) and henceforth I am to be partially engaged with translating scenes of plays, with altering and arranging, to get the book ready against November. It is to have a portrait; I design to make considerable additions; and the thing I expect will live its three months creditably enough among the other lumber of the time. Of course I will send a copy to Kirkchrist whenever it is ready.

I need not say, my good Jack, how glad I am that you proceed with unabated spirit in your studies, and of course with corresponding success. I feel more and more persuaded that there never was greater room for an accomplished philosophical physician than at present. It is fallen into the hands of quacks and drivellers: a man of a true head and heart may aim at the very top of his profession, without presumption. Badams promised to give me a list of books for you to read, but to-day he has not time. He seems to recommend a thorough knowledge of chemistry and anatomy; then a general knowledge of the modern practice of physic (such as you may get from Good); and then that you should study medicine historically—that is in the writings of Boerhaave, Sydenham,3 &c &c, and so get out of those technical trammels in which our friend maintains the medical world to be totally bound at present, and reduced to little more than the rank of mere tradesmen working by prescribed formulae of which they know not soundly either the whence or the why. There seems to me some truth in this: I will make the man tell me something more precise about it, and communicate to you in due time. For the rest, you do well to fill your mind with general knowledge, while you have it in your power. Continue to study Greek, as an accomplishment at once distinguishing and truly valuabl[e.] The Greeks are [in] some respects the fountains of good taste even in our modern literature; par[tly] because they were men of finer organs than we rude Saxons, partly because we learned from them. This you will see more clearly as you advance. Mind German too: it is growing more important every day. Are you sure you know enough of natural philosophy; mechanics, astronomy? I doubt it: if you could get some treatise such as Nicholson's or Cavallo's,4 or some of the more modern French ones (see Waugh on these), or even the various articles on these subjects in the Encyclopedia Britannica with the Supplement, which would perhaps answer you better than aught else, I could like well enough to hear of your devoting some attention to them. Tell me what you think of this. The Supplement of the Encycl. is a very superior performance. I wish you knew Astronomy. Paley, as you say, is clear; but clear because it is shallow. I do and must call Marcus Brutus a more virtuous man than James Watt of Soho near Brummagem, come of it what will: yet for its utility the steam-engine was worth five hundred deaths of Caesar. Utility is in fact a dead matter, so far as I can see: it came into vogue with the French Revolution and lingers only in the heads of the Political Economists and Editors of Whig newspapers. I believed in it for three months. Have you read Stewart's Essays?5 You will find them useful and beautiful—as well as all his writings—saving the outlines which are a meagre class-book. Have you perused Locke and Reid's works? Or if you feel indisposed to these things, what say you to a thorough set-to on the History of Greece? Mitford is the man—or Gillies.6 With a set of Ancient maps you will soon master it: then the Roman; then Gibbon. Here is for you, boy! Cut and dry! I know your diligence: I expect much of you, and so task you heavily.

Now Jack you must write to me directly as usual. Are you happy at Kirkchrist? I advise you to take a spell of it for a week or two longer. How are all your worthy hosts? Present my kindest love to them, not forgetting Duncan,7 and Mazeppa.8 Is Mitchell with you? Do you see Murray or Jeffrey? I have long meant to write to Murray. Willm Grahame of Burnswark as I learn is safely arrived at New York: Edward Irving has a son—of which I hear he is mighty fond. So Crosbie9 told me, whom I saw to-day. He Crosbie is a vain shallow dyspeptic, well-meaning man; beset with difficulties which I hope he is getting over. Now my boy across all this confusion canst thou trace any thing serviceable or comfortable to thy inward man? My unabated love and careless abandon de moi-même [letting myself go] at least. Be a good boy, and we will never leave each other. If thou want any thing, know where to ask. Thy Brother,

T. Carlyle