The Collected Letters, Volume 2


TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 30 April 1822; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18220430-TC-JBW-01; CL 2:101-105.


Edinr, 30th April, 1822—

My dear Madam,

I address myself with the greatest pleasure to the task you have so kindly imposed on me. I very much approve your resolution to exercise your powers in some sort of literary effort; and I shall think myself happy, if by any means I can aid you in putting it in practice. There is nothing more injurious to the faculties than to keep poring over books continually without attempting to exhibit any of our own conceptions. We amass ideas, it is true; but at the same time we proportionally weaken our power of expressing them; a power equally valuable with that of conceiving them, and which, tho' in some degree like it the gift of Nature, is in a far higher degree the fruit of art, and so languishes more irretrievably by want of culture. Besides, our very conceptions when not taken up with the view of being delineated in writing are almost sure to become vague and disorganised; a glimpse of the truth will often satisfy mere curiosity equally with a full view of it; so hallucinations are apt to be substituted for perceptions: and even if our materials were all individually accurate, yet being gathered together from every quarter, and heaped into one undistinguished mass, they form at last an unmanageable chaos, serving little purpose except to perplex and cumber the mind that lives among them—to make it vacillating, irregular, and very unhappy—at least if it have not the fortune to be a pedant's mind—who I believe is generally a very cheerful character.

So that you see it is every way incumbent upon you to commence writing without loss of time; and to continue it steadily as you proceed in the acquisition of knowledge, thus causing the developement of your taste and of your ability to realize its dictates to go forward hand in hand. I do not imagine that you stand in need of all this confused logic to animate you in this undertaking:—inclination, I know well enough, impels you sufficiently at present; but inclination is oft[t]imes rather an unsteady guide, and at no time the worse for having conviction along with it.

There is not room here for dilating upon the peculiarities of your genius; to which at any rate I have no right to make myself inspector, even if my knowledge of the subject rendered my opinion worth the giving. I cannot help saying, however, that according to my imperfect observations, you seem with great keenness of intellectual vision generally, to unite a decided tendency to the study of human character both as an object of curiosity and of love or contempt, and to manifest a very striking faculty of expressing its peculiarities, not only by description but imitation. This is the very essence of dramatic genius; and if I mistake not, the blame will lie elsewhere than with Nature if you fail of producing something worth producing in this department. It depends on other circumstances than your intellectual powers, whether you should adopt the tragic or the comic species of composition: you know whether you feel more disposition to sympathize with the wretched or to laugh at the happy; to admire excellence or to search out defects; to cherish long vehement, heart felt, perhaps extravagant enthusiasm, or to exert the force of your heart in brief, violent sallies, the violence of which a sense of propriety is ever subduing and rendering of short continuance—converting indignation into derision, sympathy into pity and admiration into respect. The truth is those two kinds of talent are never so accurately divided in nature, as the two objects of them are in art; most people who could write a tragedy of merit could write a sort of comedy also, and vice versa. It is not indeed necessary to confine your efforts either to the one or the other: the kind of genius named dramatic may be employed in a thousand ways unconnected with the theatre; it gives life & splendour to the picturesque Novels of Sir Walter Scott; and forms, in a different shape, the basis of much sublime philosophy in the treatises of Madame de Staël. It is misemployed only when it is unoccupied; when the understanding, the invention, the fancy which might have given it a local habitation and a name,1 a shape and vehicle, are devoted to purposes in which it does not enter—to studying abstract sciences or manufacturing smart paragraphs—writing epigrams or reading metaphysics & mathematics—or any thing of a similar stamp. I would not have you, therefore, confine yourself too rigidly to mere Plays; it will be enough if you are engaged in the delineation or inspection of Character—without which I imagine you cannot do justice to your powers; but in the investigation of which you are not bound to any particular form of composition, being at liberty to cast your ideas into the shape of a historical description, of a Panegyric, of a novel, quite as much as of a regular drama. For this reason— But the Subjects? you say—the subjects—and have done with this prosing!— Well! here are two.

The first is a Tragedy to be constructed from the Story of Boadicea queen of the Iceni, a British tribe during her time under the dominion of the Romans. I know not if you are acquainted with the story of this lady: it is related in the 14th book of Tacitus Annals—in Henry's history2 (I suppose), both of which works I can send you if you like. She was the widow of Prasutagus who to secure the peace of his household had left the Emperor (Nero) coheir with his two daughters & their Mother: his kindness was unworthily requited; the Roman soldiers not only harried & laid waste his territories, but carried their brutal violence into the palace itself; Boadicea was beaten like a slave, and her two daughters used inhumanly. Treatment which the “crafty Lioness” was not slow or powerless to resent. She assembled the people, all driven already to madness by oppression, persuaded them to take arms, and turn against their tyrants. They did so after many omens & superstitious observances. Their vengeance was signal; they rioted a while in victory & blood; then met the Romans collected into a formidable body; and set their whole hopes of peace or even of life upon the cast at once. Boadicea harangued the men in person, many of their wives & children sitting on waggons behind the ranks to animate them in the fight. “She was of stature big and tall, of visage grim and stern, harsh of voice; her hair of bright colour flowed down to her limbs; she wore a plaited garment of divers colours, with a large gold chain; buttoned over all a thick robe.”3 The battle was lost to her; the British slaughtered miserably; she despatched herself by poison.

The advantages of these materials are considerable in my opinion. They are yet untouched, so far as I know; they carry you back into an age the manners of which are so unknown that they may be fashioned according to your pleasure; & they present you a variety of characters fitted for tragedy, and one eminently tragical character to group them all around. Boadicea (she need not be “big” or “grim” unless you like) is a character too which you could manage well. You have the widowed matron, the high-spirited woman, the patriot—the mother the queen irritated exasperated beyond the possibility of remedy;—you could shew her proud endurance of first injuries—her fiery purpose to endure them no longer,—her sympathy with the patriotic agony of her subjects, once free, now enslaved—and to Nero; her sway over every mind—men serving her with the devotedness due at once to a sovereign of a lofty spirit & to an injured female: then you might interweave with it as much of the gloomiest superstition as you chose— Druids with their wicker idols & human victims, their portents & prodigies & cursings of their foes—“many women like furies running to & fro in dismal habits, with their hair loose about their shoulders holding torches in their hands”:4 and lastly you have a fit catastrophe provided for you, and many happy contrasts—between the simple unpolished Britons and luxurious adventures of the Roman armies, the injured Boadicea, and the wicked tyrants for whom she was injured—the collision of native fervour and desperate resolution against military discipline, and warlike glory.— I do wish you would set about the consideration of it. I have set it forth very wretchedly here; I am quite confident you would think far better of it, if you saw the histories which describe it fully. Do undertake it; and send to me for all books whatsoever connected with it. If I saw you—I should have great hope to persuade you. I am sure you could make something fine of it. And what tho' it should not be perfect—as indeed your first attempt has little chance to be? It is better to erect a hut than to dream of erecting a palace.

Perhaps, however, I mistake the matter, and overrate the capabilities of the subject, because I could wish to know you engaged in some subject, and if possible (I may as well confess it) in one of my suggesting. Give no heed then to my pleadings, beyond what the reason of the case directs: consider Boadicea with your own judgement and decide accordingly. I have another Tragedy in store for you:—but not to-night; that unmelodious Watchman is saying or singing something about “one o'clock”; you shall have “Perkin Warbeck”5 to-morrow. I pray for soft sleep to you, and a glad awakening—wherever you may be. A Dieu.6


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Cetera desunt [The rest is lacking]. /

T. Carlyle—

If this Henry, who I fear is a very stupid gentleman, prove insufficient, tell me.