January-September 1845

The Collected Letters, Volume 19


TC TO KARL AUGUST VARNHAGEN VON ENSE ; 16 February 1845; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18450216-TC-KAVE-01; CL 19: 34-36


Chelsea, 16 feby, 1845—

My dear Sir,

I am delighted to hear from you again, to taste of your old friendliness and forgivenness again.1 I have behaved very ill,—or rather seemed to behave, for the blame is not wholly mine, as the penalty wholly is. These many months I have not, except upon the sherest compulsion, written to any person. Not that I have been so busy as never to have a vacant hour,—alas, very far from that, often enough;—but I have been, and am still, and still am like to be, sunk deep down in Chaos and the Deathkingdoms; sick of body, sick of heart; saddled with an enterprise which is too heavy for me. It is many long years now since I began the study of Oliver Cromwell, a problem for all ingenuous Englishmen; it is four or five long years since I as it were committed myself to the task of doing something with it: and now, on fair trial, it proves the likest to any impossible task of all I ever undertook. The books upon it would load some waggons, dull as torpor itself, every book of them; the pedantries, dilettantisms, cants, misconceptions, platitudes and unimaginable confusions that prevail upon it,—drive one to despair! I have read, and written and burnt; I have sat often contemplative, looking out upon the mere Infinite of desolation. What to do I yet know not. I have Goethe's superstition about “not turning back”; having put one's hand to the plough, it is not good to shrink away till one has driven the furrow thro' in some way or other! Alas, the noble Seventeenth Century, with a God shining thro' all fibres of it, by what art can it be presented to this poor Nineteenth which has no God, which has not even quitted the bewildering pretention to have a God?— These things hold me silent, for of them it is better not to speak; and my poor life is buried under them at present.

However, I suppose, we shall get into daylight again, sooner or later! After a good deal of consideration, I decided on gathering together all that I could yet find of Oliver's own writing or uttering; his Letters and Speeches I now have in a mass, rendered for the first time legible to modern men: this, tho' it must be a very dull kind of reading to most or all, I have serious thoughts of handing out, since men now can read it;—I would say, or in some politer way intimate, “There, you unfortunate canaille [rabble]; read these! Judge whether that man was a ‘hypocrite,’ a ‘charlatan’ and ‘liar’ whether he was not a Hero and god-inspired Man, and you a set of sniggering ‘Apes by the Dead Sea’?”— This you perceive will not be easy to say! All these things, however, plead my excuse with you, who know well enough what the like of them means in a man's existence; and so I stand absolved in your thoughts, and am pitied by you, and tenderly regarded as before!—

Your beautiful little Books came safe to hand above a week ago.2 The reading of them is like landing on a sunny green island, out of waste endless Polar Seas, which my usual studies have resembled of late. I like Derfflinger very well;3 and envy you the beautiful talent of getting across a wide dim wilderness so handsomely, delineating almost all that is visible in it as you go! Your Elector of Brandenburg, Derfflinger's Elector, was an acquaintance of my Oliver's too;4 this is a new point of union. I had read Lippe already; but grudged him not a second reading, neither is this perhaps the last. I have known the man always since Herder's Biography by his Widow; and regarded him with real curiosity and interest.5 A most tough, original, unsubduable lean man! Those scenes in the Portuguese War which stood all as a Picture in my head were f[ull] of admonition to me on this last occasion. I said to myself, “See, there is a man with a still uglier enterprise than thine; in the centre he too of infinite human Stupidities; see how he moulds them, controuls them, hurls them asunder, stands like a piece of human Valour in the middle of them;—see, and take shame to thyself!” Many thanks to you for this new Gift. And weary not to go on working with great or with small encouragement in that true province of yours. A man with a pen in his hand, with the gift of articulate pictorial utterance, surely he is well employed in painting and articulating worthy acts and men that by the nature of them were dumb. I on the whole define all Writing to mean even that, or else almost nothing. From Homer's Iliad down to the New-Testament Gospels,—to the Goethe's Poems (if we will look what the essence of them is),—all writing means Biography; utterance in human words of Heroisms that are not fully utterable except in the speech of gods! Go on, and prosper. Tho' all kinds of jargon circulate round the thing one does, and in these days no man as it were is worth listening to at all upon it; yet the Silences know one's work very well, and do adopt what part of it is true, and preserve that indestructible thro eternal time! Courage!—

I have sent you here a few Autographs;6 they are worth almost nothing; they came without trouble, and will testify at least of my goodwill. If I had any service useful for you, very gladly would I do it.

You ask what Books &c you can again procure for me? At present no Books; but there is another thing perhaps,—tho' I know not certainly. The case is this. Booksellers are about republishing a miserable little Life of Schiller by me; and want a Medal of Schiller which they could engrave from. A good likeness;—an autograph in addition is hardly to be looked for. I have here a small cameo copied from Danecker's Bust, by much the finest Schiller's-face I have seen.7 But perhaps there is no such medal? Do not mind it much, I pray you! And so farewell and wish me well!

T. Carlyle