January-July 1842

The Collected Letters, Volume 14


TC TO JOHN STERLING ; 26 January 1842; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18420126-TC-JOST-01; CL 14: 23-25


Chelsea, 26 jany, 1842—

My dear Sterling,

Your Letter does you infinite honour, and me far too much. It is rare indeed to see a man capable of balancing himself between two such noble antagonisms; animated by such a wish to please, and such a patience in not pleasing. Courage! Such a spirit conquers many difficulties; conquers all difficulties, if it can endure. I said to myself: “Such a Letter is worth half a dozen of the best Dramas going,—and does point towards good Dramas in the distance yet, or else still better things.”

I also entirely respect your persistance in your own firm purpose in spite of all cavils of mine: what else can you persist in? The inward voice, if it be an inward one, and not some false echo of mere outer ones, is the prophetic voice of our whole soul and world, saying to us, “There, in such a world, that is the thing that thou canst do!” All voices from without, and counter-monitions of other men, how prudent and well-meant soever, are in the end but impertinences in comparison. A man has to go, often enough, right in the teeth of all that; all that, often enough, is as the Gates of Gaza, which a right Sampson, duly surveying the strength of them, and well considering himself, has to walk off with, and carry away on his shoulders. Alas, we are sore hemmed-in, all of us, and dwell imprisoned as in Polyphemus caverns, in cases of triple brass,—which we have to break, or perish in trying to break!1

Let me add moreover, in reference to Strafford, that it is at least actually my worst word you now have; that having once expectorated my dissatisfaction with the general outcome, the worth and even excellence of many of the details become clearer to me. It was very evident to me that you had bestowed much pains on the work, much previous reading, much diligent manipulation in all kinds. What I wished was, at bottom in summary this: That you had bestowed still more! It is perhaps the highest feat a man can attempt, the writing of a right Tragedy; I begin to know this better than I used to do. I have read three years on that piece of history,2 not to speak of long readings twenty years back; and still what to make of it, perhaps in far easier forms than that of Tragedy, I with a kind of despair have to confess that I do not clearly know. Most probably you will decide on printing this Strafford; against which, whatever private feelings I have, what more can I say? I will say as my last word,—a safe enough word: Be at least in no haste to publish it. Let it lie there for a while till it cool, till it get to a freer distance from you.3 Had you once made a plunge into some altogether foreign element, and swam about there for a time, you will see Strafford much more clearly from the other shore of that; and judge better of it what is to be done with it.

Of Dramatic Art, tho' I have eagerly listened to a Goethe speaking of it, and to several hundreds of other persons mumbling and trying to speak of it, I find that I, practically speaking, know yet almost as good as nothing. Indeed of Art generally (Kunst so-called) I can know almost nothing: my first and last secret of Kunst, is to get a thorough intelligence of the fact to be painted, represented, or in whatever way set forth;—the fact, deep as Hades, high as Heaven, and written so, as to the visual face of it, on our poor Earth! This once blazing within one, if it will ever get to blaze, and bursting to be out, one has to take the whole dexterity of adaptation one is master of or has ever gathered from the four winds, and with tremendous struggling, really frightful struggling, contrive to exhibit it one way or other! This is not Art, I know well; it is Robinson Crusoe, and not the Master of Woolwich, building a ship. Yet, at bottom, is there any Woolwich Builder for such kinds of craft? What Kunst had Homer; what Kunst had Shakspeare? Patient docile valiant intelligence, conscious and unconscious, gathered from all winds, of these two things,—their own faculty of utterance, and the audience (rude theatre, Ithacan farm-hall, or whatever it was) they had to utter to: add only to which, as the soul of the whole, the above-said blazing radiant insight into the fact, blazing burning interest about it, and we have the whole Art of Shakspeare and Homer!— To speak of Goethe, how the like of him is related to these two, would lead me a long way: but of Goethe too, and of all speaking men, I will say, The soul of all worth in them, without which none else is possible, and with which much is certain, are still that same radiant all-irradiating insight, that same burning interest, and the glorious melodious perennial veracity that results from these two.

Now, my Friend, what I fundamentally object to Strafford is that even such an insight, such an interest, and consequently such a veracity is not there. You seem to me (if you will let the three-years reader speak to the one-year) not to have seized the true type of that Transaction, but a too untrue and superficial one. I object to the fate of Strafford being made to turn on any kind of quiddity; it was a necessity of nature, and till you have shown it as such there is no right Tragedy made of it. There is a tragic anecdote made of it. I invite you to consider this. Then think what a misrepresentation you have had to make of the whole physiognomy of things in that opening of the Long Parliament;4—all necessitated perhaps by Strafford's quiddity! The fact it seems to me is far more tragical, nay is alone tragical; and it was the fact that you, by emblems and fictions &c, were to represent. Finally I ask you to revise and reconsider almost all the characters, except Strafford and Lucy!5— Am not I a modest man! My good Sterling, I will cease scribbling, cease fretting you. My purpose and wish is clear to your true heart; but the fulfilment of it—?— God keep you and guide you, my dear friend. Affectionately yours

T. Carlyle