The Collected Letters, Volume 12


TC TO JOHN STERLING ; 12 November 1840; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18401112-TC-JOST-01; CL 12: 320-323


Chelsea, 12 Novr, 1840—

My dear Sterling,

Your Poem is full of talent, and full of faults.1 I wish to Heaven I could give you some wise word of advice about it:—but indeed would you have the smallest chance to follow such advice if given? I have read this Election with much more entertainment than I ever before read any Poem of yours with. Nay at bottom it is perhaps almost the only Piece, especially of such length, that I could, independently of my regard for the Writer, have read with real entertainment. In spite of the rhyme, in spite of the afflictive snakishly ambiguous hand (the s not knowing whether it will turn out an h or even an m or n!) I found the reading of this thing not a duty but a pleasure. So much from me, you will admit, is a great deal.

I do not yet find a musical tune in either the soul or the body of this Piece; but the rhyme flows easily along, does not much obstruct the grammatical perspecuity [sic]; and in the burlesque parts the jingle of it at the end of the lines has a gratifying effect on me. I, even I, find some benefit in rhymes on such occasions. The serious passages again, which in themselves are the truest as well as far the worthiest, I could have liked better to see still in prose,—if it were Sterlingean prose. This is the naked truth; tho' you will not believe much of it, but will only believe that I believed it. For the rest, I like the burle[s]que too, think it good of its kind, and that, as I said, the rhyme has a good effect on it. But in the serious there struggles a great meaning, seizable here only in straggling glimpses, obstructed altogether by the form of the composition, and generally out of place when you do seize it.

The master-fault of the Piece, hear it my Friend with a frown, is, as ever, that it is too easily born. Could I enwrap you in one of the thick atrabiliary cloaks-of-darkness that envelope my poor self, cloak above cloak, till my light seems quenched for most part as in London fog, and all utterance of myself is so inexpressibly difficult, inexpressibly hateful,—what a fellow I should make of you! I would sink this Piece down into the Orcus2 of your soul, and it should not spring up but with a fight at every step; and arise at last a shorter and a wiser Poem! But it may not be. Who knows how much of your gift were inconsistent with such wrappages and practices, and might expire in such handling?

As it stands, your Story in this Election is eminently loose-jointed, improbable, not to say incredible; your earnest does not cohere with your sport (indeed they would be terribly difficult to make cohere well), the earnest is too long, and nothing to the purpose in hand for most part;—in short the whole thing coheres very loosely, or is incoherent; and only by natural worth of material forces some pleasure on you,—no inconsiderable pleasure.

On the whole what is to be done? I am clear that the thing see the light, under one condition or another. As a separate volume in its present form, I should say, Questionable, or even Unquestionable. Will Blackwood print it? It might do better there than elsewhere; if, as is perhaps likely, you want no more trouble with it. I know not that I would recommend very much more trouble now; you have my thoughts above, as to that, pro and contra. Consider, however (even for Blackwood), whether your young lady, whom I decidedly like, would not be better to have a longer shift on her,3 if indeed she have rightly any shift at present! Whether Vane's Life4 be not for most part a superfetation; far too long, for any thing he ever did or suffered; eminently unsuitable for courting with &c &c.

On the whole, and this is the sum of my advice, take deep and ever deeper counsel with yourself, what it is that will really give you most satisfaction in the ordering of this business (to print or not to print); and account that a greater fact than any other,—if you can once ascertain it well. Do you really from the heart like this thing; or do you merely think and hope that others may like it &c? Doctors say the real voice of the appetite is the best rule in Dietetics; but it has to be carefully discriminated from the superficial, transient fallacious voice, which declares for gingerbread, peppercake, comfits and the like!

You see what a pen I have; in what impetuous velocity I must write! You have the rudest thoughts of my heart; all the truer for that, if you can read them. Adieu, my friend; and a wise decision to you, be it in any sense or not in mine.

Yours ever /

T. Carlyle.

P.S. Do you mean to entitle yourself The Revd J. Sterling still! It is awfully heterodox much of that quizzing; tho' to me all the welcomer.

What am I to do with the four copybooks?

[Additional Comments]5

Not “more earnestness and strength”; no, but more perfection and consistency; making this thing more what it means to be.


The Story?

There is no reason assigned, or easily conceivable, why Vane (for example) might not have driven leisurely over to Aleborough, and proposed for the young lady, and got her—with a bounty; without any Election at all! Pray remedy this; it is remediable. Much else of the story is dramatic, lively, good;—much else too, as it now stands, not.


The Life?

There is no incident in it; nothing done; it amounts to no life: the man has looked at Alpine chasms, some picture-galeries; been in love (no recommendation to him in Miss Ann's case); had money dropt into his mouth; and, after looking at the wrecks of an Auction,—is here! It is no life, and yet is the good abstraction of a life and Sterling can make it the concretion of one,—and shall.


Not like Swift, like me, like anybody; only like Sterling, but like him: let it be the pure essence of him.


In a word, pass the whole business rigorously thro' your limbecks once more; produce it not till rectified, clarified, that all men at taste thereof may say, “Yea, verily!”— And so Heaven love you, and whatsoever you do!

T. C.