August-December 1842

The Collected Letters, Volume 15


TC TO JOHN STERLING ; 6 September 1842; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18420906-TC-JOST-01; CL 15: 67-69


Ely, Cambridgeshire, 6th Septr, 1842—

Dear Sterling,

In this sacerdotal City my thoughts revert to you; and from the Bagmen's room of the White Hart Inn, I employ Rowland Hill1 to convey a word from me. On the opposite side of my table, scribbles and counts assiduously a Norwich Bagman (happily in total silence otherwise); I have ridden all day, and walked all evening: you cannot expect much coherency in what I say.

Your Letter found me at Reginald Buller's Parsonage of Troston in Suffolk; whither I had followed my wife; whence I departed this morning, on a pilgrimage to Cromwell-land,—successful thus far. My paths thro' the whole forenoon, indeed all the way to Soham,2 were utterly complex; my Syntax-steed is of the completest Rosinante species:3 nevertheless we plodded along thro' boundless flat cornfields of reclaimed bog; and in the yellow evening sunshine, a little after five, got landed at the foot of the Cathedral, which had hung venerable and majestic in the air all along for some five miles before. Ely has veritably once been an Isle, at least in winter time; a kind of chalk or limy sandstone hill, of no considerable height, rising amid the infinite of swamps, and very conspicuous now with its noble Pile on the crown of it,—one of the most impressive buildings I have ever in my life seen.

I ran over even before tea; and got admittance, happily in total solitude: some agencies, supposed to be human, were blowing the organ, making it discourse deep solemn music; a poor little sparrow was fluttering far aloft in the topmost windows of the lantern (top of the main tower, which is almost all of glass); this sparrow, and a poor country lad, who had plucked up courage to follow on seeing me enter,—were my only fellow worshippers. I declare it were a good arrangement, if they would but keep the music going, in all such places, and sweep away the rest of the living lumber; and leave one alone in these enormous towering spaces, with one's own thoughts and the spirits of the Dead! I believe this Ely Cathedral is one of the “finest,” as they call it, in all England, and from me also few masses of architecture could win more admiration; but I recoil everywhere from treating these things as a dilettantism at all; the impressions they give me are too deep and sad to have anything to do with the shape of stones. Tonight, as the heaving bellows blew, and the yellow sunshine streamed in thro' those high windows, and my footfalls and the poor country lad's were the only sounds from below, I looked aloft, and my eyes filled with very tears to look at all this, and remember beside it (wedded to it now, and reconciled with it for me) Oliver Cromwell's, “Cease your fooling, and come out, sir!”4 In these two antagonisms lie what volumes of meaning!—

But to quit the sentimental and vague (in spite of Bagmen), know, dear Sterling, that I have clearly discerned the very House where my Friend Oliver dwelt and boiled his kettle some two hundred and two years ago; nay half an hour ago I actually sat and smoked a pipe upon his Horse block, the very stone, which still lies at the entrance to the stables, split in two and shoved a little aside to make room for a piece of pavement, but left lying as too unmanageable still for removal, in a place so stagnant as Ely! I think there are few better pilgrimages left possible for a man at present. Oliver's House stands close by St Mary's Churchyard; a mean shrunk-looking aged house, with “the biggest tithe-barn except one in all England”: the Mr Page who occupied it in Noble's time died only two years ago; a new arrangement has been made about Cathedral tithes, and the Oliver House now stands vacant, not like ever to be occupied again, and will soon probably vanish from the Earth.5 Could you persuade no Cambridge acquaintance who sketches to go up and take a portrait of it while there is yet time? Really it were well worth while. Soon, soon, or else never!

Tomorrow early I go for St Ives, for Huntingdon, and if possible Cambridge; next day I go homewards (Trostonwards) by Newmarket; may probably get as far as Bury St Edmunds where there is a man I know.6 About Monday next we return to Chelsea. How many guineas would I give to have Sterling beside me even now! Alas,—and I sit among Bagmen and sinners of the Earth: one never can get Sterling.— Well, good night any way, my much loved Friend; much loved, tho' ever-quarrelled with, and indeed deserving dreadful hatred now and then! These accursed Bagmen have actually driven the wits out of my head, and I add no word more Yours ever & ever

T. Carlyle

Your Letter followed me to Troston,—thanks for it. A small Note of mine, accompanying a Letter from Emerson for you, had crossed it, I think, on the road.— My first still Bagman has rolled off, and a new noisier one has rolled in. I will out for another view of Oliver's Ghost, and then to bed. Adieu.