The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON; 15 December 1821; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18211215-TC-JJ-01; CL 1:410-412.


Edinr, Cusine's Lodgings, 5 College-st. / 15th December, 1821—

My dear Johnstone,

If ever you are at the pains to think of me at all, it must be as of a very negligent and untrustworthy creature. I daresay you did not anticipate at our parting that I should be so late in making inquiries after you: and had things turned out as we expected then, I should certainly merit great blame for what appears to be so unfriendly a line of proceeding. Nevertheless I shall have no great difficulty in framing a satisfactory apology. Since the Saturday when I saw you lodged on the Coach-roof, and whirled away at the rate of seven miles an hour into the West, you must know, my condition has been little better than that of the Indian bird, which, being destitute of legs, is constrained (poor fowl!) to pass its time forever on the wing. I have drifted and flitted about almost incessantly, taking to no settled employment because [of] perpetually changing my place of abode, or perpetually expecting to change it: and it was only last Wednesday that I landed here, or have had any thing like the prospect of passing the winter in my existing position. So, how could I send you my address? Nay so anxious was I to exert every nerve in fulfilling this duty, that last week tho' still unsettled, in writing to Irving I requested him to let you know my news and desire you to take measures for commencing our correspondence under the actual auspices however adverse. Irving confessed to me the other night that he had forgot this commission; and as the account he was able to give me of your residence amounted only to what you see on the back of this sheet, no small dexterity as well as zeal was required to make me accomplish even the slender task, which I have now commenced. I trust however you will get this fairly, will write to me immediately on reading it, and be ready to receive forthwith a more explicit epistle—and better directed than “next door to Smith the Booksellers.” This is not perhaps quite satisfactory; but “what man could do is done”1 to make it so.

I have made so tedious a preface, that scarcely any space remains for the main body of the work; and this letter I fear must look, when finished, little better than if an architect were to erect a porch high as the Ram's Horn of Glasgow2 to conduct into a dog-hutch, his edifice would look. It is necessity, you see, that urges me. And possibly, in truth, I ought to rend it as a happy necessity: for what in the world could I interest you with, tho my sheet were broad as the Atlantic and long in proportion? I have had few happy feelings or sad of my own which I can communicate to you; and I am sick to loathing of the criticisms on College Professors, or ‘Cain a Mystery by Lord Byron,’3 or the Galloway Stot, I mean Macculloch's Lectures on Political Economy4 (delivered, or to be so, to a crowded audience—of eleven), or any of the other garbage, with which “the general”5 here delight themselves. Next time I write I shall be over head and ears in a translation of Legendre's Eléments de Géometrie (this is under the rose) which I have partly engaged to execute for a kind of embryo society for the encouragement of the Arts, as it calls itself, in Edinburgh[.] Also I shall be writing various trash for Reviews and Encyc[lope]dias; and meditating stoutly on commencing some Opus [Mag]num of my own, which I fear will prove equal trash. I mention this Opus Magnum, because I wish you to reproach me, if I do not try at least to perform it. At present I am teaching two or three hours daily, to keep the purse (base destiny, that Man, the paragon of Animals,6 should need a purse!) from becoming altogether a nonentity. My pupils are learning Mathematics, Metaphysics, Languages; and are all moderately stupid: but they keep very civil, and the stupidity is their own affair—not mine. I get plenty of talk, but no society, in this “intellectual” town: one learns to do without society; and as I am not very unhealthy, I cannot complain of being quite unhappy.

Now in return for this lucid exposition of my concerns, what have you to tell me about yours? What studies are you following and with what relish? Is the Irish business settled? In general, what occupation have you for the present, what hope for the future? It is still one of the few topics to which I do not feel indifferent, and I beg of you to dilate upon it largely. I expect your letter earnestly for various reasons. One is that I may have an opportunity to make amends in some degree for the arid barrenness of my present exhibition. This day is [one] of our worst days in the smoky city. It resembles a day on the shores of Acheron more than any Christian place. It is this which acts upon me principally, for there is some truth in me still—at any rate when I subscribe myself—Your sincere friend, Thomas Carlyle.