The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO JOHN FERGUSSON; 25 September 1819; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18190925-TC-JOFE-01; CL 1:196-199.


Mainhill, 25th Septr 1819—

Dear Fergusson,

An affairs of business merely, which the sight of the accompanying books will sufficiently explain, gives rise to this letter. The books which Mr Johnston, with many acknowledgements for your past kindness, requests you to procure for him, are the three nearest the beginning of a list which I shall enclose. I declare myself almost ashamed to trouble you again: but I cannot find in my heart to refuse the poor young man. Perhaps I should have trespassed upon your good nature in a similar way, for my own account; but there is a certain entanglement among the receipts, which I cannot think of afflicting you withal:—and, to speak the naked truth, I have not read all the volumes which I carried with me—nor will I apparently make the attempt, till the time be past. Coxe1 has had one day devoted to him; and Father Boscovich2 has exposed his gilt back to my eyes, for five months, constantly, in vain— Laziness, irresolution or—but I make no comments. Homo sum [I am a man].

It is past my usual hour of going to sleep, my pen (as you observe) writes very ill, and my unfortunate brain is entirely desiccated with the labour of reading Goethe and scratching Teutonic characters: from all which I intend to infer the propriety of briefly closing this ill-omen[e]d sheet. The letter which I dispatched to the mountains of Perthshire will most probably have reached you: and my situation since the date of that production has undergone no change. I was much grieved to learn, about a week ago, the cause of your premature departure from Edinr. I cannot forbid myself to hope that your Mother is recovered, tho' my ignorance is the only ground of such a supposition. It is not difficult to sympathize with the distress, which a contrary event must occassion. The name of mother will awaken many thoughts in every heart: but it becomes us to reflect that in a short space this best of friends will be separated from us by the ‘cold obstruction’3 of the grave; and to indulge the hope that in another undiscovered country,4 the severed links of nature may be joined again forever. I discard these melancholy ideas, for the belief (prudent in existing circumstances) that all is well.

Edward Irving was the bearer of the ungrateful intelligence, to which I have just alluded. I spent three or four days with him last week. He had not seen Fingal's cave,5 but in recompense he had examined the peasants and the clergy of Ulster; the Giant's causeway the city of Derry, and other strange objects.6 His stay in Colerain7 might have been protracted, had not a letter from Dr Chalmers recalled him to Glasgow, where he finally engaged (if a month['s] probation should be favourable) to serve as that Revd person's assistant in discharging the complicated duties of St John's parish. The Doctor's application originated from a sermon which he heard our friend deliver in Thomson's church.8 You will rejoice with me that Irving, has in so honourable a way, obtained admittance to the career, whither his principles and feelings have long been exclusively directed. He has a fair field: and if (somewhat contrary to my hopes) his fervid genius do not prompt him into extravagancies, from which more stupid and less honest preachers are exempted, his success, I doubt not, will be brilliant. He was humble but not undesirous to prove himself, last monday, when I accompanied him a few miles on his way. Bid good speed to poor Irving; and pray that neither the absurd nostrums, which Dr C. intends to apply forthwith, to the Glasgow weavers, nor any other obstacle may thwart his well-meant endeavours.

The same day, I saw Frank Dixon. He has been sick of a fever, for three weeks; but is recovering pretty rapidly. Tho' he still seems unhealthy, he talks of being in Edinr shortly. If you are not tired of this newsmongering—you may learn, that, James Brown is likely to become assistant & successor in the parish of Hawick or of Westerkirk.9 [Carlyle writes and then crosses out: And what have I to do with Hawick or Westerkirk you ask. Nothing my dear Sir.] But it is possible that the venerable and tippling incumbent of the former may prevent this consummation, in honest Brown's case so devoutly to be wished.10

But time wears— It were a stale theme to offer condolences, however sincere, upon the death of our much-lamented Playfair;11 or congratulations upon the issue of the late canvass for the mathematical chair of Edinr. How dare such an unfortunate as Haldane,12 think you, offer to occupy the place of Gregory & Maclaurin? 13 And the Edinr Presbytery!— But peace be with them! Rejoice only that the days of their ascendancy have passed away.

I was about to speak of Locke's Essay:14 but two o'clock A. M. is no season for metaphysics. So let Brucker or rather Enfield15 with his ‘critical history of philosophy,’ sleep also in peace. Tho' he has tired my heart and head, with dull and most barren accounts of many a frantic system, I bear him no malice.

Will you write me immediately? Not the note solely that will of course come with the books; but a very long account of all your speculations. I am to be with you in the beginning of November. What to do is not so certain. I think at times of law, and Advocates: but when I contemplate the thousand difficulties—the want of friends—talents—capital &c I see enough to give us pause.

‘And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment
Have oft with this regard their currents turned awry
And lose the name of action.’16

But we shall see. Meantime what think you of my scheme for learn[ing Greek?] Nothing remains for us, you see, but diligent study, by which to open th[“e oyster”] … to which my friend Ancient Pistol likens this world.17 I wish you [would] agree to read the Anabāsîs of Xenophon, or some such book. I have not looked at a Greek word this summer; but my zeal is not the smaller. Tell me when you write.

I conclude this letter (which, I entreat you to think, is the most incoherent that I ever wrote almost) with a humble petition for those books; and an assurance that I remain,

My Dear Sir, / Yours most sincerely /

Thomas Carlyle—