The Collected Letters, Volume 12


TC TO GERALDINE E. JEWSBURY ; 30 November 1840; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18401130-TC-GEJ-01; CL 12: 336-340


Chelsea, 30 Novr, 1840—

Dear Miss Jewsbury,

Your house now set in order, you are asking yourself, How may the household of the mind be wisely ordered?1 What thing, and course of things, were it now most of all for my advantage to do?— It is a question infinitely momentous;—as I say sometimes, “We have waited a whole eternity to be born, and have now a whole eternity waiting to see what we will do when born!”2 A question which the anxious inquirer, let others help as they will, has in the long-run to answer almost altogether for himself; to which there is beforehand no definite complete answer; which indeed our whole Life is a Life because it answers more and more. “Do faithfully, with all thy might, what thy hand findeth to do”:3 sufficient for this day is such counsel; this day well spent will itself lend new counsel and clearness for the morrow. One has to discover what it is one most of all wishes; not what others fancy we may wish, what others will envy us for having &c &c: this once discovered, held steadily in view, and resolutely striven after, is a mighty point; a kind of pole-star in all our confused voyagings and accidents of sea and weather. Necessity and Chance will still play their part; but we too have there a part to play. There is much wisdom in what Goethe says somewhere to this effect: “I honour him who has an aim, and walks towards it: what his aim is, whether good or worse, is but my second question.”4 Nature would teach us, as she does the wild healthy creatures of the forest, if we could but listen to her,—which indeed in the whirlpool of our artificialities it is sometimes difficult to do.

A considerable portion of your time will naturally lie open for reading, for self-cultivation in what is called Literature: this, with your faculties, with your wants, will probably continue one of your chief interests. Follow it out zealously, while strength and hope abide with you. One knows not what, or how much may come of it. The “promised land” proves indeed to be no land of emerald and asphodel, here more than elsewhere: yet I know not well what attainment or possession there is in life of a superior or equal value. The intellect that is in us, called by what name we will, is we, is a divine thing, forever miraculous and transcending all else. “Ask of the Dead,” says Plutarch's old oracle:5 Inquire and see how the Noble and the True, your Brethren of other countries and ages, led their Life; learn in many ways to lead your own thereby! Reading, speculative study, cannot do all; but it can do much; it is the best foundation for the doing of all.

And now what is it that you like most to read; that you can get, and have the clearest desire to get? Old Johnson's rule is better than most others.6— As for my own experience, I should say Histories, faithfully studied, which end in Biographies as the flowers of History, have been the fruitfullest reading for me. Biographies are a kind of communing face to face with the Heroes and Teachers that have been; each of them still a kind of Gospel to us. To understand Biographies rightly one requires Histories; some notion of the country and people in which the Biography lay. Histories I have always found should be read with at least maps lying open before us; chronology, geography, travels &c, a multitude of subsidiary studies open with promise on us; for it is a solid study, and takes into question the whole man. In English we have some good Histories; in French some,—especially innumerable Memoirs, which are the pleasantest reading; the Germans too have their share. To whosoever would read much, and in any way make a business and interest of reading, I answer always: Read History, far and wide; and not read it only but study it; you will see there, from all sides, innumerable vistas open on you.

But for you Literature is more than a Study or Instruction; it is to be a Prophecy for you. Well, my dear Friend, that is the way to find out the real Prophecy there is in it too! Read Poets, express Sages and Teachers; get closer and closer acquaintance with these: for me too I find all History with its etceteras little other than the vestibule which is to lead me to these,—or at most the temple wherein I am to inquire of these. These are the oracles; from these I gain what is to be gained of man;—not all I want; alas, no; yet much that is infinitely precious to me.— After all, who knows but the surest practical thing you could do at present would be to set effectually about the learning of German, and to learn it? I incline to think so, guessing as I can. Suppose you devote, with or even without the occasional aid of a teacher, two hours every day to it? In some two months it will be free and open to you. You have then a Schiller, a Jean Paul, a Goethe to become acquainted with: they are well worth your looking at till you have seen them truly. Altogether in such difficulties as you now struggle in, have they struggled and conquered: that is in brief their value for us. In no other modern Literature can you see such a phenomenon; at best, poor shadows of it; or perhaps (as in the modern French) distracted disgusting aperies of it.— In a word, dear Scholar, see a little whitherward you are bound, then about all manner of details and indications question me as often as you like till farther help is not in me.

I by no means object to your choice of Heraud and his Substances or Shadows. Grant that they were but Phantasms, those notions of his, they will at least expel a balefuller set of opposing Shadows and Phantasms: I mean the horrible Nightmare which Physiology (as they still call it) lays on our souls, to the paralysis and almost extinction of them, in these days. I speak feelingly on this subject; the brutal martyrdom I suffered from it (in a most aggravating state of bodily disease too) is forever memorable. Death or some escape I believe to have been then the alternative; happily, thro' slow toiling years, it proved escape,—and no recapture possible! But as I say Phantasm neutralises Phantasm in these things. On the whole, all that I have gained from an endless reading of Metaphysics, Materialisms, Spiritualisms and abstractions of every colour and side, is that finally by God's blessing I got my head entirely swept clear of them, and felt the mandate of Nature (audible to few at present) audible thro' my whole soul, “Have done with brainwebs and cobwebs: here thou standest face to face with God's Universe, it a fact, thou a fact; in God's name open thy eyes and look!”— This Book Uriel, of Heraud's I have not seen; but I know the man Heraud these good many years.7 Let me not discourage you from reading him: his notions are what they call Pantheisms, mainly borrowed from Coleridge; very harmless; beautiful; and in him (if you knew the man) truly wonderful.— What can you do? You must search that great Mystery till you have found some satisfying answer in it; satisfaction even that it will not answer, that it need not answer, and had as well or better not. “To the unknown God”8 the wise may build an altar; but not “to the uncertain God.” To me the great Eternity lies round our little islet of a Life high as Heaven, deep as Hell, the work wholly of a God; but without fear or without hope, as it were,—casting a divineness over life which on the whole the inner heart of me owns to be better than fear or hope. But it was not without long travel that I arrived there: whether that is your destination, or another may be suitabler, there is no predicting. The one thing needful, as I calculate, is that we do arrive; that we get to pacification and satisfactio[n of] these subjects, and so be able to work cheerfully in well doing, wh[ich is the sole ob]ject of us here. As brave old Johnson said, “It is a world wh[ere] much [is to be done] and little is to be known.”9 All speculation that does [not] lead to action is a disease. The mind of the whole world in these generations is tossed, as it were, in fever and delirium; for scepticism is a fever,—which as I say always, will burn itself out, and leave new and higher health.10 He that has an intellect in him has it not to doubt and debate, but to see and ascertain that he may do. The very spider in the crevice is wiser than the Sceptic: the spider, ignorant of much, ascertains as a sure fact that it can sp[in,] and spins!———

Well, dear Geraldine, I must end for this time. I had much more to say, but there is no saying of it; I am held here like a squirrel in its barrel-cage, ever mounting, never higher: it is a terrible whirlpool, and I