The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO JOHN FERGUSSON; 29 June 1819; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18190629-TC-JOFE-01; CL 1:182-186.


Mainhill, 29th June 1819—

My dear Friend,

Owing to the negligence of our Carrier, the parcel, which you so kindly despatched to me, lingered on the road till yesterday. It required some such circumstance to induce me, at so short a notice, to think of making my acknowledgements; tho' by writing this letter, I discharge a duty which has been too often projected & postponed. For some years, I have been an individual among the thousands to whom the arrival of an Edinr Review is always a welcome occurrence: in the present instance, it is doubly delightful for being a delicate mark of attention from one, whose conversation might have done more for me than dispel the gloom of some otherwise unpleasant hours; and to whose principles I could desire, with so little reservation, that my own were similar.

In commencing a correspondence, which I trust neither of us will have cause to regret, I shall not detain you with reflections upon the slender means we possess of rendering it varied or interesting. Our intercourse with the world (scarcely greather than our knowledge of it) is without doubt, trifling; what little we have is not with the learned or the powerful, and our letters cannot be enlivened by the record & discussions of those events which agitate or instruct mankind. But the history of our studies, our opinions, our hopes, enterprises and disappointments—the simple tho' to us not indifferent events which mark the current of our life,—offers a field, narrow indeed yet still worth cultivating, from which the talents and opportunities of a Walpole or a Grimm1 are not needed to extract both profit & amusement. With more propriety, I might supplicate your clemency for the dulness that must especially characterize the communications sent to you from this “obscure sojourn.’2 Little experience, however, is wanted to convince us that the progress of ennui can no more be suspended by entreating its victim to be merry, than the conflagration at Bender could be quenched by Karl der Zwolfte's barrel of brandy.3 Waiving, therefore, all such prologues and apologies, let us proceed to more edifying matters.

It seems scarcely doubtful, that, a minute narrative of my transactions since leaving you, would not suit this division of our subject. They have been few and unimportant. Nor is there in my present situation any peculiarity, which, without lengthened description, you may not easily conceive. Like one ‘long in populous city pent,’4 I feel the benefit of country air in an improving state of health. I have been happy—perhaps too happy, because too little disturbed about my future destiny. Yet now and then, the thought that, in a month or two, I must put to sea once more—refitted certainly, but still without chart or compass, arises to interrupt my repose, with an aspect more threatening the more rarely it is seen. The question, what shall we do? has often been the theme which beguiled the tedium of our walks during winter: it may still be asked with anxiety and fear. The pursuit of wealth or other means of attracting the vulgar admiration is a littleness to which from our situation we are not much tempted. Other objects indeed have allurements for us: but if our abilities, such as they are, have been doomed to augment the sum of those talents which from untoward circumstances can never benefit the world or the possessor of them;—still considerations are not wanting, which,

—With a pleasing sorcery can charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm th' obdured breast
With stubborn patience as with triple steel.5

It is paying but a slight compliment to say, that, I often regret the want of your society. My friend Johnston (of whom I think you have heard) is gone to Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia; and Mitchell, the only other person of an intellectual character whom I know in these parts, living at the distance of eight miles, I have few opportunities of seeing him. Some delight results from conversing with my brothers, whose opening minds I view with fraternal partiality: but the people in our neighbourhood are mostly peasants, and display the sentiments and habits usually met with in that race of men. Those in other stations are scarcely more refined. Possessing a fund of character and talents, by no means despicable, their want of commerce tends on many accounts to keep them ignorant and unenterprising; whilst the smuggling adventures of the bye-gone generation and the moss-trooping6 of more remote ones have left but too deep traces in their minds. With regard to our Gentry—a stranger only would call it petulance to say, that their principles & pursuits are often little different from those ‘vouchsafed to cattel and each beast.’7 Their character, modified perhaps by that of the people, produces in its turn a strong and baneful reaction.— But what have I to do with them or their pursuits? Did not I return from Dumfries last Sunday—mounted on the back of a small Shelty—loaded with a cargo of books from Johnston's circulating library? And in spite of Lady Morgan, Jeanne de France, Roderick the Goth8—to say nothing of magazines, and your Review (which otherwise I might not have seen for weeks), will the demon of solitude ever assail me with success?— I do not like, it is true, to speak so freely of my studies; the past is little else than a blank:—May the future not resemble it!

Small sorrow, it must be owned, is excited in me at hearing of the indifference with which you viewed the squabbles of the General Assembly—the worship of idols belonging to the tribe or the den is, doubtless, a pleasant exercise: it is also a debasing one; and feelings of complacency will naturally arise in the mind of him, who appears, after many a painful struggle, to have ascended, thro' outer & thro' middle darkness, to a station from whence he can look down with philosophical composure upon the selfishness and bigotry of the ‘Stygian pool’;9 confident that He who ruleth in the whirlwind10 is directing even prejudice & superstition to do his errands of mercy among the sons of men. Abstractly considered, a number of persons met together to consult for the spiritual interests of millions is an imposing spectacle. Pity that its sublimity should have so often tended only to encrease the disgust, with which want of principle ought always to be regarded! To see the awful anticipations which seem to point out the eternal destiny of man, basely tampered with to gratify the interest or the passions of a few worthless individuals, whether assembled as an æcumenic council or a Parli[ament] session, may continue, for some ages, to provoke ‘a sigh or a smile’ according to the humour of the spectator.11

The condition of the Church you see affords me little satisfaction: that of the State, which reaches me, every Thursday, in the form of a poor greasy newspaper, is scarcely more exhilerating. You cannot be expected like me to execrate the new taxes of vansittart; by which the poor artisan when his heart has been broken by exactions & penury (the fruit of our glorious campaigns) is at last denied the sad and sole resource—a quid of wholesome tobacco! And what shall we say to that thing called privelege? If the custody of a Serjeant at Arms be a fit punishment for mistaking the meaning of a sentence; what shall he look for, whose brain of feathers has helped that country to the ruin which his heart of lead allows him to insult? But I have done.12

You must send me, as soon as possible, a particular account of every thing pertaining to you. Do you ever see Irving? My best respects to him. Is Gibson, the Cumbrian philosopher,13 still in the body? And he who is not a mongrel of the plains?14 I desire you to send me, among other news, such accounts as you receive at ‘literary tea-table’ and elsewhere, respecting the writers of the last Edinr Review. I have (thanks to this scrawl) got little of it read yet. Brougham would write the first—Jeffrey that concerning Thos Campbell? The admirers of Profr Playfair ought to hope that he is not the critic of Woodhouse's astronomy.15 What says David Brown—or does he say any thing, touching the demolition of his kinsmen, in Blackwoods Magazine for May?16 In consideration of this long sheet, so punctually filled, I expect very speedily as long a letter from you: And remain in the meantime,

My Dear Sir, / Your faithful friend, /

Thomas Carlyle.