The Collected Letters, Volume 2


Edward Irving to TC; 17 March 1822; DOI: 10.1215/lt-00000000-EI-TC-01; CL 2:62-65.

Edward Irving to TC

My Dear Carlyle

You have indeed set me a task which I am neither willing nor able to perform, not willing because you are one whom I have been accustomed to defend, and how to judge or condemn you I find not, not able because your mind is dissimilar to my own, and rises, I think, into an altitude where it is not congenial for mine to live. But yet at your earnest request, and from regard to your future prosperity in that sphere, more congenial to me, of actual life out of which you must drink your happiness or misery I undertake and shall faithfully perform.

And for the sake of breadth as well as distinctness, I shall take the following order—the habits of your understanding, of your feelings and of your conduct. Your intellect has always appeared to me too accute, whether it be its nature or the impulse of your feelings I know not, but it has an impatience, and quick decision that seems to me against the accuracy of its results, and much against the pleasant communication of them. In writing it is not so, there is much wisdom then, and much truth. It must be the presence of another that excites it to such promptitude—and the perception of his weakness or his prejudice. Now this ought to have the opposite effect, for we have then not only the truth but the raiment of the truth to consult for. not only the pleasing of ourselves but the not offending of our neighbour— You bear most impetuously to a point, and have got to an issue, before our minds have addressed themselves to the question, and hence we are obliged to be silent, contented to listen, or we have to arm ourselves with seeming indifference that we may not appear to be outrun, or we have to lose temper and flatly contradict your conclusion, and shew dislike of the discussion. Guard yourself here well[.] If I might be bold to hazard a stricture upon the make of your understanding it does not proceed methodically enough. You are so full of matter, that you would require double skill and endeavour after distribution. Your argument is too full of particulars, all telling, but the individual or aggregate weight not seemingly told even to yourself. Hence you drop towards your conclusion into a falling key—maintain a running doubt with yourself, and at length come perhaps to the conclusion that it is the other way— But this perhaps may be my own defect of particulars justifying itself— It is unfortunate you have not yet joined yourself to any cause in which men are deeply concerned, for then the interests of that cause you prized would to your hand have distributed your knowledge, and given weight and decision to your judgements. You understand rather like a thinking than an acting man. This however is perhaps the necessary consequence of your circumstances. These three things combined, your penetration to perceive the remote bearings of the question, and your impatience to balance and judge the whole, with no call of occupation or authority of any kind to drive you to settled issues, have produced that habit to which none is more alive than yourself of doubting of things certain rather than ascertaining things doubtful. This makes your knowledge yield you so little happiness, and it has not yet yielded you any power, but ministered strength to your ideal existence which was originally strong enough of itself. Now, though I see truth in what I have said I know not how it is to be mended. There are things which you reverence, religion, liberty, domestic ties trusty friendship, female love, and above all the independence of the soul. Could you not cherish these loves, and make them fruitful. Bringing your wonderful knowledge and invention to decorate & strengthen them both within yourself, and for the worlds sake. Find out what you love & understand for that, and act for it, and unite friendships upon finding men with similar sympathies— Now, really, this is important, your mind might minister a pillar of strength, and a wealth of beauty to whatsoever is worthy—and at the present moment it is corroding itself. Cast it forth speedily, and oh! let it be upon something worthy of a man, something which you truly love. Your wit, your sarcasm your contempt your hatred, at this moment threaten to devour your benevolence, your admiration and your tender affection. Permit it not for the Love you bear Heaven Earth and yourself. Not that you should extinguish these sensibilities not less noble nor less bountifully given, because in general harmfully used—but that you should draw them in as helps-meet for the other kindlier & better sensibilities, for the purpose of withering up whatever opposes them. In that review of Faust, which for all you say against it, is worthy the first critical name in the age, it would have been worthy your great mind to have philosophized the character which Goethe has poetized, and not only so, but to have instructed mankind how to guard against the evil of the tree of knowledge. Carlyle, this is in you, and it will be your salvation, the salvation of many future sons of genius to arise, it is in you to meditate, and map out these obliquities in the path of knowledge, and to trace how it may be made the sure path of wisdom and happiness. For surely I cannot be mistaken that to know well this our sphere, is to possess it well, or rather is before possessing it well. And though it will not carry back its limitations, it will teach us full liberty within them. In doing this, which you are so qualified for by having sounded so many of its bitter waters, which others dare not approach, you serve your species, and our common Father, and in the next sphere of our being, are more worthy of honour for having endeavoured to purify and brighten this. In all that I have said, I do not except revealed religion of which you know the necessity, and feel some of the strongest applications.

Now of your feelings I shall speak first as they bear upon yourself, then as they bear upon others. Your opinion of yourself wants decision, or seems to want it. My opinion of you is made up & need not here be repeated—but for yourself, to hear you speak, one would take you for the most aimless indifferent mortal upon earth, whereas you are one of the clearest-sighted, and acutely-suffering. Now what is the use of this? First you are lost to many who seek for a sufficient love in a sufficient mind. Then you lay others off their guard who come on to crush a moth, and find it sting their foot & escape their tread. Learn to esteem yourself up to your proper dimensions and to act accordingly. In the discourse take tone, take place. They listen to you often as a curiosity of knowledge, not as a man of knowledge. They dread you as Cap-a-pee-armed champion, rather than shelter beside you as a guardian of what is good & peaceful. Give men the right view of you and they will both wonder & respect, for I know no vice in practice or opinion with which you are chargeable. Again I crave your attention to this— Give men time to know you, and take time to know them— It is this incongruity between what you are, and what you seem to be, which marrs their judgment. Not that I ask you to court men's favour, but that I would save you from uphappy rencounters; from misapprehension and misrepresentation, and smooth the way to honour and to life. Now with regard to your opinion of men you go far too much upon intellect, I mean in the literary world— I do not mean [bare?] intellect, but you look for something which may be the fruit of much intellect wedded to the other parts of their nature. Now in this Scotland there is a subtlety but no largeness of intellect—there is a caution which is timorous, and an economy which is rigorous. There is a stint and parchedness in things, which I could long to see removed. But not being able I learn to respect though I love not and practice not their prudences and I wish you were the same— Again I say look for the little good there is in them, though only the grain of corn in the bushel of chaff, look it out, talk of it and respect it, and respect him who has it[.] [The rest of the letter is missing.]