The Collected Letters, Volume 2


TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 25 December 1822; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18221225-TC-JBW-01; CL 2:249-253.


3. Moray-street, 25th December 1822—

My dear Friend,

I got your parcel about two hours ago. I had been living for the last week in the dread of a lecture; I now think it happy that I am quit so easily. It is very true I am a kind of ineptus [stupid fellow]; and when I sit down to write letters to people that I care any thing for, I am too apt to get into a certain ebullient humour, and so to indite great quantities of nonsense, which even my own judgement condemns—when too late for being mended. The longer I live, the more cl[e]arly do I see that Corporal Nym's maxim is the great elixir of Philosophy, the quintessence of all moral doctrine. Pauca verba [few words], pauca verba1 is the only remedy we can apply to all the excesses and irregularities of the head and heart. Pauca verba, then!

You are too late by a day in asking for Faust. It is not to be got in the book-shops here, and the College-library is shut for the Christmas holidays. You shall have the volume on the 2nd or 3d of January. In the mean time, I have sent you Tell and the Bride of Messina,2 the former of which Schiller's critics have praised greatly; generally condemning the latter as written upon a false system, tho with immense care and labour. I was disappointed in Tell: it struck me as too disjointed and heterogeneous, tho there are excellent views of Swiss life in it, and Tell himself is a fine patriot-peasant. I want your criticism on it. You did well to cry so heartily over Wallenstein: I like it best of any in the series. Is it not strange that they cannot for their hearts get up a decent play in our own country? All try it, and all fail. Lord John Russel[l] has sent us down what he calls a “tragedy” the other day—and upon a subject no less dangerous than the fate of Don Carlas.3 Schiller and Alfieri yet live. The Newspapers say Lord Byron is greatly obliged to his brother lord, the latter having even surpassed “Werner” in tameness and insipidity; so that Byron is no longer author of the dullest tragedy ever printed by a Lord. This is very foul to Byron; for tho' I fear he will never write a good play, it is impossible he can ever write any thing so truly innocent as this “Don Carlos.” I would have sent it to you; but it seemed superfluous. There is great regularity in the speeches, the lines have all ten syllables exactly—and precisely the same smooth ding-dong r[h]ythm from the first page to the last;4 there are also little bits of metaphors scattered up and down at convenient intervals, and very fair whig sentiments here and there: but the whole is cold, flat, stale and unprofitable,5 to a degree that “neither gods nor men nor columns can endure.”6 You & I could write a better thing in two weeks, and then burn it. Yet he dedicates to Lord Holland,7 and seems to say like Correggio in the Vatican ed io anche son pittore.8 Let us be of courage! we shall not be hindmost any way.

I am really sorry to see you in such a coil about your writing. What use is there in so perplexing and overtasking yourself with what should be the ornament and solace of your life, not its chief vexation? I take blame to myself in the business; and pray you to be moderate. One thing ought to afford you some consolation: “Genius” said Sir Joshua Reynolds, and he never spoke more truly, “is nothing but the intense direction of a mind to some intellectual object—that consecration of all our powers to it, which leads to disregard all toils and obstacles in the attainment of it, and if strong enough will ultimately bring success.”9 Some such thought as this was Sir Joshua's; and truly it contains nine-tenths of the whole doctrine: it should lead every one that feels this inspiration and unrest within to be proud of feeling it, and also to adopt the only means of turning it to good account—the sedulous cultivation of the faculties—by patiently amassing knowledge and studying by every method to digest it well. This, my dear pupil, is the great deficiency with you at present; this I would have you to regard as your chief object for a considerable time to come. Be diligent with your historical and other studies; and consider that every new step you make in this direction is infallibly however circuitously leading you nearer to the goal at which you are aiming. For composition, the art of expressing the thoughts and emotions you are thus daily acquiring, do not by any means neglect it; but at the same time feel no surprize at the disproportion of your wishes to your execution in regard to it. How long did it take you to learn playing on the Piano? and what execrable jingling did you make when you first tried it? But what are all the stringed instruments of the Earth in point of complicacy compared to one immortal mind? Is it strange that you should feel a difficulty in managing the rich melodies that “slumber in the chords” of your Imagination your Understanding and your Heart? Long years of patient industry, many trials, many failures must be gone thro', before you can even begin to satisfy yourself. And do not let this dishearten you—for if rightly gone about, the task is pleasant as well as necessary. I have promised that if you will but take hold of my hand, I—dim-sighted guide as I am—will lead you along pleasant paths up even to the summit. I am still confident in my predictions, still zealous to perform: my only stipulation is that we go on constantly and regularly; you shall neither stop to trifle by the way, nor run till you are out of breath—as you are now doing, and must soon cease to do in disgust and exhaustion—or else break your heart in vain striving

I partly guess what hinders you from beginning your “story”: it is the excess of that noble quality in you, which I have preached against so vigorously, and still love for all my preaching—the excess of your Ambition, the too high ideas you have formed of excellence, and your vexation at not realizing them. It is safe to err on this side, so far as feeling is concerned; but wrong to let your action be so much cramped by these considerations. Cannot you do as others do? Sit down and write—something short—but write and write, tho' you could swear it was the most stupid stuff in Nature, till you fairly get to the end. A week after it is finished it will look far better than you expected. The next you write will go on more smoothly and look better still. So likewise with the third and fourth,—in regular progression,—till you will wonder how such difficulties could ever stop you for a moment. Be not too careful for a subject; take the one you feel most interest in and understand best—some description of manners or passions—some picture of a kind of life you are familiar with, and which looks lovely in your eyes: and for a commencement, why should it give you pause? Take the precept of Horace—proripe in medias res;10 rush forward and fear nothing. You really magnify the matter too much: never think of the press or public when you are writing: remember that it is only a secondary matter at present, to be taken up as a light task, and laid down again whenever it interferes with your regular studies. If you cannot think of any proper theme, cannot get in motion for whatever cause; then let the business rest for a week; cease to vex yourself about it, in time materials will come unsought. Finally, my dear Friend, possess your mind in patience, follow your laborious but noble task with peaceful diligence; study, read, accumulate ideas, and try to give them utterance in all ways; and look upon it as a cardinal truth that there is no obstacle before you which calm perseverance will not enable you to surmount.

Now, I am sure, you cannot say I have tried to flatter you on this occasion. My speech has been at once dull and honest: I have preached till we are both grown stupid, you observe; and I leave you undeceived at any rate if uninstructed. The sum of my doctrine is: Begin to write something, if you can, without delay, never minding how shallow & poor it may seem; if you cannot, drive it altogether out of your thoughts, till we meet. I entertain no fear whatever of the result: I know well you will write better than you yet dream of, and look back on these sage prescriptions of mine with an indulgent pity. Shall we not also write together when times are better? Yes we shall—in spite of your good-natured sarcasms at my “wit and genius”—and the lubberly productions I send you at present—we shall write in concert—if Fortune does not mean to vex me more than she has ever done.— This Hope is a fine creature after all! I owe her more than the whole posse of saints and angels put together.

By the Belfast town and country Almanack,11 Spring will be here in a month. Perhaps you think to steal away again without seeing me: but try it—!— To be sure, it is only the brief space of a year, since we met, for about five minutes; and we have so many hundred centuries to live on Earth together—I confess I am very unreasonable.

But why should I keep prating? The night is run, my pen is worn to the stump; and certain male and female Milliners in this street are regaling themselves with Auld Langsyne a[nd] punch and other viler liquours, and calling back my thoughts too f[ast] from those elysian flights to the vulgar prose of this poor world. May Heaven be the comf[ort] of these poor Milliners! Their noise and jollity might call forth anathemas from a cynic: my prayer for them is that they may never want a sausage or two and a goose better or worse and a drop of “blue ruin”12 to keep their Christmas with; and whatever quantities of tape and bees'-wax and diluted tea their several necessities require. Man wants but little[.]13

I will write again with Faust—briefly, I promise—and tell you all that I am doing and mean to-do. Good night! my dear Friend.

I am always, / Your's in sincerity, /

Thomas Carlyle—