TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 25 March 1815; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18150325-TC-RM-01; CL 1:41-45.
TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL
Annan. 25th March 1815.
My Dear Bob,
At sundry times and in divers ways, I have pondered upon a project I had formed—of sending you a letter to arouse you, if possible, from the state of torpor in which, of late, to my unspeakable regret your faculties were benumbed.— You are obliged to me for my intentions—and tho' tribulations of various sorts have prevented me from putting them in execution, you are not the less obliged on that account.— You are a happy fellow, Mit, to be allowed to sit under your vine and under your fig-tree, quietly ruminating on your thirty-nine articles, with none to make you afraid.—and how could you be so cruel as to mention, those heart-breaking discourses?1 How, or when or wherewithal are they to be made?— In sobriety, that putting off, and that dissipation of [stud]ies is a serious evil. A thousand times have I lamented that hop-skip-and-jump disposition of mine, which is perpetually prompting me to fly off at a tangent from whatever I am engaged in. Your ‘auricular confession’2 owns the same propensity: and I begin to think it is a fault of every mind—which effort alone can cure. I could be metaphysical perhaps; but you will be better satisfied with an example:— It was but yesternight, that I your most obedt servt became all at once sensible of the importance of present time, and having brought out my accoutrements, set right doughtily to the composition of my exegesis. I began with alacrity of soul; and had finished the fourth line when I made a—dead halt!— One cannot long be idle—you will not wonder that I took up the first book that came in my way—and tho' it was the dullest of all dull books, yet by a fatality attendant on those things, I could not give it up. It purported to be a ‘history of a lover’—showing how Cecilia3 (somebody) being poor but honest went to Paris, with some Brandy Irish Dowager (of Tipperary) and was much astounded at their goings on—yet very much liked by the beaux. Shewing how after divers trials and temptations she married with a lord (something) who had been a very great rascal in his early days but was now become a most delectable personage; how the[y] lived in great harmony of souls till the honest man one day riding on som[e] wold and happening to fall from his beast in the presence of this notable lady, she fell into hystericks or convulsions and was taken home in a wo[e]ful plight—where she loitered on till she was ‘brought to bed,’ when she took her leave of the goodman and all the world— Would you believe me, I read & read this horrid story & might have been reading yet had not a most dolorous ode to Matrimonial—no ‘Monody on the Death of a beloved’ &c compelled me to throw past the book; and set to writing you a letter. Tell me not again of ‘Jacks of all Trades'—you are a king of a student compared with me.
You are charitable enough to suppose that my head is full of ideas—your good nature misleads you.— I have indeed had ideas and strange ones too since I wrote you; but like many other remarkable ideas, they have had the fortune to evaporate as soon as produced. Mathematics, I have absolutely never thought on—excepting some trifles from the Ladies' and Gentleman's diary4—which I shall have conscience enough not to trouble you with at present. Great and manifold are the books I have read since I saw you. You recommended Thaddeus of Warsaw5 long ago you may remember—and the work in my judgement fully deserves it. Miss Porter has no wit—she invariably bungles a picture of the conversatio[n] of ordinary persons, whenever she attempts it—why does she delight in unfolding the forward weaknesses of the female heart, and making even Mary Beaufort love first?— Yet with all her deficiencies she is interesting; —never failing to excite our sympathy, tho she cannot rank with our Fielding or Smollett—she infinitely surpasses the insipid froth of
As an extraordinary instance of perseverance, I must mention my having read ‘Cicero de officiis.’7 You must read it too Bob— You will get thro' it in a week—and cannot think your time mis[s]pent. It consists of letters addressed to his son—and if we compare the steady, affectionate, unbending precepts of the venerable Roman—with the only work of a similar kind in our own times—Chesterfield's8 advice—we shall blush for the eighteenth century!
But the most extraordinary production of any, I have seen these many days, is ‘La Pucelle d'Orleans’9 an Epic by Voltaire. This Mock-Heroic illustrates several things— First that the French held Voltaire a sort of demigod—secondly (and consequently) that they were wrong in so doing—and thirdly that the said Voltaire is the most impudent, blaspheming, libidinous blackgaurd that ever lived. As proofs of the first take the following specimen of French ingenuousness, from the preface by the Editor— After affirming that the poem is Voltaire's— he observes that—‘Personne na été la dupe du desaveu qu'il a fait de ce poëme, dans un lettre à Messieurs de l'Academie Francaise. Sa véracité est connue depuis longtem[p]s. Tout le monde sçait, qu'affirmer ou nier, selon les temps, les lieux les convenances fut toujours une de ses maximes favorites; et en vérité un homme aussi extraordinaire doit bien avoir des principes qui lui soient propres.’10 Happy great man! Peace be to him and his ‘principes qui lui soient propres’!— An epigrammatist—sagely remarks—
‘C'est du Voltaire—Et tout est beau,
Tout plait chez lui, jusqu'au blaspheme’ [underscored twice].11
To illustrate the third proposition—take any part of the poem.— It is infinitely inferior in point of wit to ‘Hudibras’12— Yet were we not continually shocked with some indecent, vicious or profane allusion—it would not be unentertaining. There is a description of the Temple of Fame, something in the spirit of Swift, which I would send had I room. The following [is a] new representation of the Miseries of the builders of [Babe]l—
[I ma]y add that as it is professedly intended ‘pour les jeunes de[m]oiselles’ [for the young ladies]—I most heartily ‘wish them luck o' the prize man!’—14 I have also read— But hold thy hand thou way-ward mortal! consign not to the flames this ill-fated Scrawl!—it is egotistical—it is nonsensical—and I speak it with a sigh, it is dull!—yet burn it not—if a condition bordering on Coma—if an endless series of misfortunes and sou[th]-west winds which have almost obliterated my spirit—cannot excuse me—think for thine own sake—is there not many a dulcet precept still slumbering at the bottom of my inkhorn, which it will do thy heart good to receive? think and read!— Which of ye, ye long-headed ones of the earth ever dreamt that little Nap [underscored twice], tired of fretting out his heart in Elba—would rise Phoenix-like disdaining ‘the limits of his little reign’15 and once more front the world—determined to die ‘with harness on his back’?16 Your calculations are ruined for NAP is on the field! And now poor d——l! when so many men that wield sceptres, and paving-shovels—when so many people that have diadems, and gridirons are combined against thee—why should I be thine enemy?— No! fight thine own battle—and come what speed thou mayest for me. And yet I fear, my little fellow, thou art upon slippery ice—still thou hast many a trick and with more truth than ever it was said of another, may it be said of thee
But I must finish this badinage—and assure you, my Dear Mit, that I never was more serious, than when I add that I am yours most sincerely
If you don't write sir instantaneously—it is almost 2 o'clock—and I writing the most confounded nonsense—merely to provoke an answer—if you fail—I can't tell what to do with you.