July 1836-December 1837

The Collected Letters, Volume 9


JWC TO JOHN STERLING; 30 September 1837; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18370900-JWC-JOST-01; CL 9:320-326.


[September–October 1837]

My dear Friend

Being a sending of more dialogue—it were downright extravagance to send a letter as well—so I shall merely say (your Father being sitting impatiently beating with his stick) that you are on no account to understand that by either of these Dialogean's I mean to shadow forth my own personality—I think it not supurfluous [sic] to give you this warning because I remember you talked of Chicco's Philosophy of life as my philosophy of life which was a horrible Calumny—

You can fancy how one must be hurried when your Father is in the case.

God bless you always Yours

Jane W Carlyle


The Bird and the Watch.

Watch. ‘Chirp, chirp, chirp;’ what a weariness thou art with thy chirping! Does it never occur to thee, frivolous thing, that life is too short for being chirped away at this rate?

Bird. Never. I am no philosopher, but just a plain canary-bird.

Watch. At all events, thou art a creature of time that hast been hatched, and that will surely die. And, such being the case, methinks thou art imperatively called upon to think more and to chirp less.

Bird. I ‘called upon to think’! How do you make that out? Will you be kind enough to specify how my condition would be improved by thought? Could thought procure me one grain of seed or one drop of water beyond what my mistress is pleased to give? Could it produce me one eighth of an inch, one hair's-breadth more room to move about in, or could it procure me to be hatched over again with better auspices, in fair green wood beneath the blue free sky? I imagine not. Certainly I never yet betook myself to thinking instead of singing, that I did not end in dashing wildly against the wires of my cage, with sure loss of feathers and at the peril of limb and life. No, no, Madam Gravity, in this very conditional world, depend upon it, he that thinks least will live the longest, and song is better than sense for carrying one handsomely along.

Watch. You confess, then, without a blush, that you have no other aim in existence than to kill time?

Bird. Just so. If I were not always a killing of time, time, I can tell you, would speedily kill me. Heigh ho! I wish you had not interrupted me in my singing.

Watch. Thou sighest, ‘Chico;’ there is a drop of bitterness at the bottom of this froth of levity. Confess the truth; thou art not without compunction as to thy course of life.

Bird. Indeed, but I am, though. It is for the Power that made me and placed me here to feel compunction, if any is to be felt. For me, I do but fulfil my destiny: in the appointing of it, I had no hand. It was with no consent of mine that I ever was hatched; for the blind instinct that led me to chip the shell, and so exchange my natural prison for one made with hands, can hardly be imputed to me as an act of volition; it was with no consent of mine that I was fated to live and move within the wires of a cage, where a fractured skull and broken wings are the result of all endeavour towards the blue infinite, nor yet was it with consent of mine that I was made to depend for subsistence, not on my own faculties and exertions, but on the bounty of a fickle mistress, who starves me at one time and surfeits me at another. Deeply from my inmost soul I have protested, and do and will protest against all this. If, then, the chirping with which I stave off sorrow and ennui be an offence to the would-be-wise, it is not I but Providence should bear the blame, having placed me in a condition where there is no alternative but to chirp or die, and at the same time made self-preservation the first instinct of all living things.

Watch. ‘Unhappy Chico!1 not in thy circumstances, but in thyself lies the mean impediment over which thou canst not gain the mastery.’2 The lot thou complainest of so petulantly is, with slight variation, the lot of all. Thou art not free? Tell me who is? Alas, my bird! Here sit prisoners; there also do prisoners sit. This world is all prison, the only difference for those who inhabit it being in the size and aspect of the cells; while some of these stand revealed in cold strong nakedness for what they really are, others are painted to look like sky overhead, and open country all around, but the bare and the painted walls are alike impassable, and fall away only at the coming of the Angel of Death.

Bird. With all due reverence for thy universal insight, picked up Heaven knows how, in spending thy days at the bottom of a dark fob, I must continue to think that the birds of the air, for example, are tolerably free; at least, they lead a stirring, pleasurable sort of life, which may well be called freedom in comparison with this of mine. Oh that, like them, I might skim the azure and hop among the boughs; that, like them, I might have a nest I could call my own, and a wife of my own choosing, that I might fly away from, the instant she wearied me! Would that the egg I was hatched from had been addled, or that I had perished while yet unfledged! I am weary of my life, especially since thou hast constituted thyself my spiritual adviser. Ay de mi! But enough of this; it shall never be told that I died the death of Jenkin's hen.3 ‘Chico, point de faiblesse [no weakness].’4

Watch. It were more like a Christian to say, ‘Heaven be my strength.’

Bird. And pray what is a Christian? I have seen poets, philosophers, politicians, bluestockings, philanthropists, all sorts of notable people about my mistress; but no Christian, so far as I am aware.

Watch. Bird! thy spiritual darkness exceeds belief. What can I say to thee? I wish I could make thee wiser, better!

Bird. If wishes were saws, I should request you to saw me a passage through those wires; but wishes being simply wishes, I desire to be let alone of them.

Watch. Good counsel at least is not to be rejected, and I give the best, wouldst thou but lay it to heart. Look around thee, Chico—around and within. Ascertain, if thou canst, the main source of thy discontent, and towards the removal of that direct thy whole faculties and energies. Even should thy success prove incomplete, the very struggle will be productive of good. ‘An evil,’ says a great German thinker, ‘ceases to be an evil from the moment in which we begin to combat it.’5 Is it what you call loss of liberty that flings the darkest shadow over your soul? If so, you have only to take a correct and philosophical view of the subject instead of a democratic sentimental one, and you will find, as other captives have done, that there is more real freedom within the walls of a prison than in the distracting tumult without. Ah, Chico, in pining for the pleasures and excitements which lie beyond these wires, take also into account the perils and hardships. Think what the bird of the air has to suffer from the weather, from boys and beasts, and even from other birds. Storms and snares and unknown woes beset it at every turn, from all which you have been mercifully delivered in being once for all cooped up here.

Bird. There is one known woe, however, from which I have not been delivered in being cooped up here, and that is your absolute wisdom and impertinent interference, from which same I pray Heaven to take me with all convenient speed. If ever I attain to freedom, trust me, the very first use I shall make of it will be to fly where your solemn prosy tick shall not reach me any more for ever. Evil befall the hour when my mistress and your master took it into their heads to ‘swear eternal friendship,’ and so occasion a juxtaposition betwixt us two which nature could never have meant.

Watch. My ‘master’? Thou imbecile. I own no master; rather am I his mistress, of whom thou speakest. Nothing can he do without appealing to me as to a second better conscience, and it is I who decide for him when he is incapable of deciding for himself. I say to him, It is time to go, and he goeth; or, There is time to stay, and he stayeth. Hardly is he awake of a morning when I tick authoritatively into his ear. ‘Levez-vous, monsieur! Vous avez des grandes choses à faire;6 and forthwith he gathers himself together to enjoy the light of a new day—if no better may be. And is not every triumph he ever gained over natural indolence to be attributed to my often-repeated remonstrance, ‘Work, for the night cometh’?7 Ay, and when the night is come, and he lays himself down, I take my place at his bed-head, and, like the tenderest nurse, tick him to repose.

Bird. And suppose he neglected to wind thee up, or that thy main-spring chanced to snap? What would follow then? Would the world stand still in consequence? Would thy master—for such he is to all intents and purposes—lie for ever in bed expecting thy Levez-vous? Would there be nothing in the wide universe besides thee to tell him what o'clock it was? Impudent piece of mechanism! Thing of springs and wheels, in which flows no life-blood, beats no heart! Depend upon it, for all so much as thou thinkest of thyself, thou couldst be done without. [‘]Il n'y a point de montre nécessaire!8 The artisan who made thee with files and pincers could make a thousand of thee to order. Cease, then, to deem thyself a fit critic and lawgiver for any living soul. Complete of thy kind, tick on, with infallible accuracy, sixty ticks to the minute, through all eternity if thou wilt and canst; but do not expect such as have hearts in their breasts to keep time with thee. A heart is a spontaneous, impulsive thing, which cannot, I would have thee know, be made to beat always at one measured rate for the good pleasure of any time-piece that ever was put together. And so good day to thee, for here comes one who, thank Heaven, will put thee into his fob, and so end our tête-à-tête.

Watch. (With a sigh.) ‘The living on earth have much to bear!’

J. W. C.


This is the piece mentioned in Sterling's Life, p. 3049 (he had seen it; I never did till now, she refusing me, as usual; nor did I know for certain that it was in existence still). ‘Chico’ (Tiny, in Spanish) was our canary bird, brought from Craigenputtoch hither on her knee. The ‘Watch’ had been her mother's; it is now (August, 1866) her mother's niece's (Maggie Welsh's, for two months back). A ‘Remonstrance,’ now placed here, is from the same ‘Watch,’ probably several years later. Or perhaps this is the ‘farther sending’ letter referred to in Letter No. 39 (1837) vaguely as in second bit of dialogue? No ‘second’ otherwise, of any kind, is now discoverable. (August 15, 1869, my last day at present on this sad and sacred task.)— T. C. insomnis (as to much).

Remonstrance of my Old Watch.

What have I done to you, that you should dream of ‘tearing out my inside’ and selling me away for an old song? Is your heart become hard as the nether millstone, that you overlook long familiarity and faithful service, to take up with the new-fangled gimcracks of the day? Did I ever play thee false? I have been driven with you, been galloped with you over the roughest roads; have been ‘jolted’ as never watch was; and all this without ‘sticking up’ a single time, or so much as lagging behind! Nay, once I remember (the devil surely possessed you at that moment) you pitched me out of your hand as though I had been a worthless pincushion; and even that unprecedented shock I sustained with unshaken nerves! Try any of your new favourites as you have tried me; send the little wretch you at present wear within your waistband smack against a deal floor, and if ever it stirred more in this world, I should think it little less than a miracle.

Bethink you then, misguided woman, while it is yet time! If not for my sake, for your own, do not complete your barbarous purpose. Let not a passing womanish fancy lead you from what has been the ruling principle of your life—a detestation of shams and humbug. For, believe me, these little watches are arrant shams, if ever there was one. They are not watches so much as lockets with watch faces. The least rough handling puts them out of sorts; a jolt is fatal; they cost as much in repairs every year as their original price; and when they in their turn come to have their insides torn out, what have you left? Hardly gold enough to make a good-sized thimble.

But if you are deaf to all suggestions of common-sense, let sentiment plead for me in your breast. Remember how daintily you played with me in your childhood, deriving from my gold shine your first ideas of worldly splendour. Remember how, at a more advanced age, you longed for the possession of me and of a riding-habit and whip, as comprising all that was most desirable in life! And when at length your mother made me over to you, remember how feelingly (so feelingly that you shed tears) I brought home to your bosom the maxim of your favourite Goethe, ‘The wished-for comes too late.’10 And oh! for the sake of all these touching remembrances, cast me not off, to be dealt with in that shocking manner; but if, through the caprice of fashion, I am deemed no longer fit to be seen, make me a little pouch inside your dress, and I am a much mistaken watch if you do not admit in the long run that my solid merit is far above that of any half-dozen of these lilliputian upstarts.

And so, betwixt hope and fear, I remain,

Your dreadfully agitated /


I find so much reason as well as pathos and natural eloquence in the above that I shall proceed no further with the proposed exchange.