TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON; 26 June 1818; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18180626-TC-JJ-01; CL 1:130-135.
TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON
Kirkcaldy, 26th June 1818.
It is about three weeks since, upon entering my chamber on a Sunday evening—wearied with the toil, & sick with the inanity of an excursion to Edinr, my eyes were rejoiced by the sight of your letter.1— I must not criticise the sentiments2 with which you commence. The partiality of friendship, and the modesty of him who feels it may become excessive, without ceasing to be amiable. I have little genius for complimenting, and therefore shall not say, in what esteem I hold your communications. Let it be sufficient to observe that the emotions they awaken are numbered among the happiest of my life. That you write so seldom is the only subject of complaint.
My journey to Edinr, you have heard, was p[roduct]ive of little enjoyment. How should it indeed? Most of my acquaintance are looking out for kirks: some by diligent paedogogy accompanied with a firm belief in the excellence of certain Country Gentlemen—and others by assiduously dancing attendance upon the leading clergymen of our venerable establishment. This is as it should be—but I have no part or lot in the matter. The rest speak of the St Anne-street3 buildings, the Brownie of Bodsbeck with other tales by James Hogg4—and things of that stamp— Now the St Anne-street buildings concern only some ‘feuars5 of the extinet royalty’:6 and as for the Brownie of Bodsbeck with other tales by James Hogg—they seem to have been written under the influence of a liquour more potent than that of the Pierian spring—so there needs not much be said about them. If I go to the bookseller's shop, I find polemical sciolists, and pathetic beaux-esprits. And when I walk along the street, I see fair women of whom it were folly to think one moment, & fops (dandies they are named in the current slang) with carcases shaped like an hour-glass,—creatures ‘whose life and death,[’] as Crispus7 pithily observes, ‘I esteem of equal importance,
and decline to speak of either—de trâque siletur [there is silence concerning both].[’] It would be ridiculous to fret at all this. Being a person of habits, I fear, somewhat anomalous—belonging to no profession, and having therefore (as my Lord Verulam8 would say) no idol of the tribe, or rather no fashionable one, to bow down before, it is but little sympathy that I can look for.
I am far from ‘laughing’ at your agricultural studies.9 Nor is it wonderful that you dislike teaching. A lover of it is rarer than a phoenix. No trade—but why do I talk? Discontent is the most vulgar of all feelings. It is utterly useless moreover, & worse than useless. Let us cultivate our minds; and await the issue calmly, whatever it may be. The honest Hibernian had nothing to support himself, his wife and eight childer—nothing—‘but these four bones’: yet he did not murmur or despair.
Your project of a tour to the Cumberland Lakes meets my views exactly. Get matters arranged, and I shall gladly accompany you to Keswick or Ulleswater or whithersoever you please. Examine some map of the county—& Grays book if possible.10 Cannot you persuade Mitchell to go with us? A few days will do it all. Tell him we may go by sea to Whitehaven, if it please us—then take a peep at the desolate loch of Ennerdale—and cross the hills to Buttermere, where we shall obtain a glimpse of the ‘Beauty’ if there be any such. Next we can penetrate through Gatesgarth—afterwards emerge from the jaws of Borrowdale—coast the western shore of Derwentwater & ascend to the top of Skiddaw, or examine that unfathomable tarn which rests upon the shoulders of old Saddleback. We shall see Scawfell & Helvellyn, with Scale-force, Sour-milk-force & others too tedious to mention. In fine it may improve us all, both in body & mind. You must endeavour to have the route marked out before this night (Friday) fiveweeks.11 On Saturday the first of August, if all go well, I hope to see you at Mainhill—you must be there any way—if it be in your power.— But [it] is time to go & sleep. To-morrow I intend to discuss (very briefly) the books I have been reading. Meanwhile I give you quarter—for a season. Good night my dear James.—
27th June— The last book worth mentioning, which I perused was Stewart's preliminary dissertation—for the second time. The longer I study the works of this philosopher, the more I become convinced of two things. First, that in perspicacity & comprehensiveness of understanding he yields to several. But, secondly, that in taste, variety of acquirements, and, what is of more importance, in moral dignity of mind, he has no rival that I know of. Every liberal opinion has at all times found in him a zealous advocate. When he has come before the public, he has borne himself with a carriage so meek,12 yet so commanding: and now—when, with unabating ardour, he has retired to devote the last remnant of a well-spent life, to the great cause of human improvement—his attitude is so pensively sublime—I regard him with a reverence which I scarcely feel for any other living person. ‘He is a man, take him for all in all—we shall not look upon his like again.’13 There is something melancholy in the thought that the world cannot long enjoy the light of such a mind.— But ‘the cup goes round; and who so artful as to put it by?’ Poor Donaldson, you see, is cut off in the prime of his days. Poor fellow! Few summers have past since he was my companion, as careless, good-natured a being as ever breathed the air of this world: and to think that he is gone, excites many painful reflections upon the obvious but solemn truth, that, the places which now know us, shall ere long know us no more, again, at all, forever.14 It is foolish, we are told, to shrink from or repine at the unalterable fate, to which this earth, and that it inherits have been doomed. It is ungrateful too; for who would wish to live thus forever?
And an hour or a thousand centuries are the same fleeting instant, in the everlasting sweep of ages that have past or are to come. ‘Ex Asia rediens’ (says Servius Sulpicius, in his far-famed letter to Tully on the death of his daughter) ‘Cum ab Aegina Megaram versus navigarem, coepi regiones circum circa prospicere; post me erat Aegina, ante Megara, dextrâ Piraeus, sinistrâ Corinthus; quae oppida quodam tempore florentissima fuerunt, nunc prostrata et diruta ante oculos jacent. Coepi egomet mecum sic cogitare: Hem, nos homunculi indignantur, si quis nostrûm interiit aut occisus est quorum vita brevior esse debet cum uno loco tot oppitûm cadavera projecta jacent[! Vis]ne tu te Servi cohibere, et meminise hominem te esse natum?15 All this may be true philosophy—yet still some natural tears [word blurred] [f]all upon the graves of those whom we have loved, and who are departed to that land of darkness & of the shadow of death, about which so much is hoped or feared, and so little understood. These are mournful thoughts. They come across my mind, at times, in the stillness of these solitary nights—and plunge me into an ocean of fearful conjectures. ‘My God’ (exclaimed the melancholy & high-minded Paso[al]) ‘enlighten my soul: or take from it this reasoning curiosity!’ Montaigne tells us he reposed upon the pillow of doubt16—& there is a day coming, it is even now not distant, when all mine shall be explained—or require no explanation. I will pursue these reflections no farther. One thing let us never cease to believe—whatever be our destiny, an upright mind is the greatest blessing we can obtain or imagine.— Believe me to be,
[Word or words blurred] friend / Yours faithfully, /
P.S. If you see any of our folks ask them if they got a letter which I sent several weeks ago. Say to Mitchell that I will write to him soon.
Give my kind respects to Mr & Mrs Church & Miss Harper—as well as to my friends at Bogside. Write soon I intreat you.