The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON; 30 April 1818; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18180430-TC-JJ-01; CL 1:123-126.


Kirkcaldy30th April 1818

My Dear Johnston,

I have been engaged, for the last ten days; in a painful and till very lately, fruitless search after some demonstrations in Dynamics; or I would immediately have answered your long-expected letter. It came to me on tuesday fortnight, and effectually dissipated some unpleasant surmises that were beginning to insinuate themselves upon me. I intreat you be of good cheer: I harbour no resentment against you at all, but rather the contrary. It is not difficult to feel the force of your excuses: and I gladly impute your silence to the causes you enumerate—combined with the presence of that unblessed dancingmaster, who I understand has infested your borders all winter. ‘Fastidiousness’ of which I am deeply guilty, is a mortal sin in letter-writing. If we were secretaries of state, and our letters despatches, it might be pardonable, but as we are, nothing can be more absurd. The recital of wonderful events, the flowers of rhetoric or the niceties of grammar are not necessary or even well-fitted to delight in the converse of friends. Let me hear more of your domestic and personal history—your feelings, anecdotes, remarks—taciturnity be sure is worst of all.

Your news were very acceptable. I hope Robt. Jeffrey will get Girthon Kirk.1 He has lain long at the pool, and now that the waters are stirring,2 it will be hard if he miss the opportunity. Murray,3 I believe, had never a good chance and has now none at all for the benefice.— I learn by a letter from Sandy4 that James Donaldson Senr is dead and that his son is in extreme danger.5 What the flight of a few years can bring about! You should go to see poor Donaldson, and send me word particularly how he is. Without doubt you acted wisely in preferring your present situation to any that Mrs. S. could offer you at Ecclefechan. The happiness of living in a sensible, well-regulated and kind family is not to be put in competition with pounds at all. I am glad you find so much pleasure in chess. It appears to be an innocent perhaps profitable amusement; and he that snarls at it must be of malignant mood. The regret which you express at the slow progress of your historical studies, whether just or not, is a good sympton. It is perhaps true as cynics will say, that history is little else than a detail of the keen and likewise vulgar scramble for place and power, and that tho' the scramblers be Kings and princes, they seldom fail to be small and very paltry men. Still it is also true that by history we live in ages that are past long ago; and there are few feelings more pure and delightful than the homage paid to departed virtue, or the contempt ‘there is seldom need for anger’ which visits the unsuccessful or successful wickedness of the dead.— Quin igitur expergiscere6 [Nay, rather, wake up therefore], if you are really dozing, and proceed with vigour. I am disposed to agree with your remarks upon the Bertrams, Corsairs Taras7 and other dead-doing monsters of the modern school. You need not read Mandeville,8 unless you wish to exercise the patient virtues. Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, by Godwin's son-in-law9 seems to be another unnatural disgusting fiction; but I know it only from the praises bestowed upon it by the critics of the fifth and sixth magnitude who figure in the Edinr Magazines— I have done little since I wrote last but revised Leslie's conics,10 and read a part of Laplace's ‘exposition du systeme du monde’ not the mecanique celeste11 for I alas, am not one of the gifted half-dozen that can understand it—but the original of that book which Smeal12 once brought from Selkirk and lent to you. I have comprehended him hitherto with a little difficulty; he is a beautiful writer, and this is the smallest of his merits. It were needless to speak of pamphlets, magazines &c. which appear for a short season, and then vanish away. They are read without comfort, and remembered with remorse.

I would willingly say much about my life and conversation; but the events which occupy me from day to day, leave scarce a trace upon the memory. My existence is marked by almost nothing, but that silent stream of thoughts and whims and fantasies that never ceases to pervade the mind of every living man. Yet I am not without positive comforts too. True it is, I oftentimes desiderate the unrestrained and joyful intercourse which thou and I were wont to have together; but Pears and Irving whom I see very frequently, are worthy young men; And we generally have a common feeling, except when we discuss the degeneracy of the church or the blindness of patrons; about which I have long ceased to feel any lively care. I's time here will expire in five months, and it does not seem probable that he will renew his engagements. At present he is very fond of preaching and the bible-society. He sometimes speaks of going to Edinr to live by private teaching—and devote his time to pulpit-eloquence verum enim vero is demum mihi vivere atque frui anima videtur qui aliquo negotio intentus praclari facinoris, aut artis bonae famam quaerit.13 For thee and me, to whom no famous action or profitable act holds out its glory, little remains of life's enjoyments, but what can be derived from these poor old books, which we have or shall have made our own: and tho' the heritage be scanty, it is precious, capable of increase, and cannot be taken away. Therefore never fear. The society which I mentioned in my last letter, was mustered some weeks ago, and they called it Academic association I think or some such name. It seems still a matter of doubt whether it will live or die. James Grierson is to reason upon Noah's Deluge and the Neptunian Geology next Saterday it is easy to see how he will fare.

There is or can be little here to attract attention[.] I could without difficulty descant upon the assembly room which —— I might speak to you of the s[c]ripture parodies with their ‘reviews’—malice of their readers, and are as stolid as the day is long, I could describe—dancing and diray[?] which were intended to instruct the Gail, and feed the hungry—but what would it avail? These things delight not me and you they would disgust—better were it, since this night above all others the Goddess of Dulness seems to have marked me for her victim, much better were it I say, to quit—altogether than try such shifts. I desire only to put you in mind once more of the—dangers of delay, and to tell you that I long violently (Je meurs d'envie as the French have it) to receive a letter from your hand,—before subscribing myself

Your Faithful friend /

Thomas Carlyle

P.S. Make my compliments to Mrs. Church and Miss H. and Mr. C.14 I am happy to find that you and Mitchell sort so well together. He staid with me one night the other week and we had some pleasant talk; but he was obliged to cross the frith next day, on account of some engagement he had made. I was to have a letter from him immediately (of course) and no scratch of a pen has reached me yet. Who ever heard of such work? If you see any of our people tell them I am well, and received my brothers letter, which I design to answer in a few days. Remember me at Bogside. Write quickly and minutely about all your concerns. ‘The iron tongue of Time’15 proclaims the hour of shutting up the post-office—or rather will do so in a few minutes, for this horologe is not with the Town-clock. Good night James and remember your promise.