The Collected Letters, Volume 2


TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 20 January 1823; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18230120-TC-JBW-01; CL 2:273-277.


3. Moray-street, 20th Jany. 1823.

My dear Friend,

I hope to get Vertot for you this afternoon, and I will not let slip the opportunity of scribbling a few lines along with it. You are very much mistaken in supposing that I can “laugh” at any thing which so evidently makes you unhappy as the present subject of your anxiety. If my power were equal to my willingness to aid you, the difficulty would be speedily removed: but alas! “therein the patient must minister to herself,”1 and the prescription which is so easily given is the hardest in the world to follow.

I wish I had not sent you this great blubbering numbscull D'Israeli: his “calamities” have sunk upon your spirits, and tinged the whole world of intellect with the hue of mourning and despair. The paths of learning seem, in your present mood of mind, to lead but thro' regions of woe and lamentation and darkness and dead men's bones. Hang the ass!—it is all false, if you take it up in this light. Do you not see that his observations can apply only to men in whom genius was more the want of common qualities than the possession of uncommon ones; whose life was embittered not so much because they had imagination and sensibility, as because they had not prudence and true moral principles? If one chose to investigate the history of the first twenty tattered blackguards to be found lying on the benches of the watch-house, or stewing in drunkenness and squalor in the Jerusalem Tap-room, it would not be difficult to write a much more moving book on the “calamities of shoemakers” or street-porters, or any other class of handicraftsmen, than this of D'Israeli's on Authors. It is the few illstarred wretches, and the multitude of ill-behaved, that are miserable, in all ranks,—and among writers just as elsewhere. Literature, I do believe, has keener pains connected with it than almost any other pursuit; but then it has also far livelier and nobler pleasures, and if you shudder at engaging in it on those terms, you ought also to envy the stupidity of other people, their insensibility, the meanness of their circumstances, whatever narrows their sphere of action, and adds more stagnation to the current of their feelings. The dangers with which intellectual enterprises are encompassed should arouse us to vigilance, to unwearied circumspection, to gain the absolute dominion of ourselves: they should not dishearten but instruct. You say rightly that you would not quit this way of life although you could: no one that has once tasted the nectar of science or literature, that will not thirst for it thenceforth to the end. Nor shall my own Scholar repent this her noble determination. Dangers beset her, neither few nor small; but her steadfastness and prudence will conquer them; she will yet be happy and famous beyond her hopes.

“Oh! if this were true!” you exclaim “but”— Nay, I will have n[o] buts: it depends entirely upon yourself. I have no more hesitation in affirming that Nature has given you qualities enough to satisfy any reasonable ambition—to secure you the much longed for elevation you pant after—than I have to believe my own existence. It is no doubt in your own power to frustrate all these hopes, to ruin the fairest promises it has been my chance to witness in any one, and to make your life as wretched as it will be useless. But I trust in God you will be better guided; you will learn in time to moderate your ardour, to cultivate the virtues of patience and self-command, to believe that the sole tho' certain road to excellence is thro' long tracts of calm exertion and quiet study. Do thing [sic] of this, my dear Jane, both for my sake and your own. Why will you vex and torment yourself so, for a precocious fruit, which Time itself would bring to a much happier and more glorious maturity? You must absolutely acquire far more knowledge before your faculties can have any thing like fair play: in your actual condition, I confess they often amaze me. When I was of your age, I had not half the skill. And what haste is there? Rousseau was above thirty, before he suspected himself to be any thing but a thievish apprentice, and a vagabond littleworth: Cowper became a poet at fifty, and found he was still in time enough. Will you also let me say that I continue to lament this inordinate love of Fame which agitates you so; and which as I believe lies at the root of all this mischief. I think this feeling unworthy of you: it is far too shallow a principle for a mind like yours. Do not imagine that I make no account of a glorious name: I think it the best of external rewards, but never to be set in competition with those that lie within. To depend for our highest happiness on the popular breath, to lie at the mercy of every scribbler for our daily meed of enjoyment—does seem to me a very helpless state. It is the means of fame not the end that chiefly delights me; if I beli[e]ved that I had done the very uttermost that I could for myself, had cultivated my soul to the very highest pitch that Nature meant it to reach, I think I could be happy tho' no suffrages at all were given me; my conscience would be at rest, I should actually be a worthy man, whatever I might seem. You may also take it as an indubitable truth that there is nothing lasting or satisfying in these applauses of others: the only gratification, worth calling by that name, arises from the approval of the man within. I may also state my firm conviction, that no man ever became famous, entirely or even chiefly from the love of fame. It is the interior fire, the solitary delight which our own hearts experience in these things, and the misery we feel in vacancy, that must urge us, or we shall never reach the goal. The love of Fame will make a Percival Stockdale,2 but not a Milton or a Schiller. Do you believe in this doctrine? Then study to keep down this strong desire of notoriety; give scope rather to your feeling of the Beautiful and the Great within yourself, conceive that every new idea you get does actually exalt you as a thinking being, every new branch of knowledge you master, does in very truth make you richer and more enviable tho' there were no other being but yourself in the Universe to judge you. There is an independence, a grandeur of solitary power, and strong self-help in this, which attracts one greatly. It makes us the arbiters of our own destiny: it is the surest method of getting glory, and the best means of setting us above the want of it. I do beg of you with all my heart to consider these things well; my own opinion seems to me true as the truest sentence in the Gospel; and if you could adopt it, how much happier would it make you!

I am sorry for you with your Highland Cousin and the gallant Captain Spalding. But it is wrong in you to take these things so much to heart. A little interruption does no harm at all, and these visits as they bring you more in contact with the common world, are in your case absolutely beneficial. Therefore do not cloud your countenance when Spalding enters; do not [fill] those bright eyes of yours with indignation when he lingers. Study rather to make the man happy, and to be happy with him: throw by your books and papers, and be again a lively thoughtless racketting girl as you were before.3 There is much improvement to be got in such things; they give an exercise to the mind as difficult and valuable as any literary study can. Be happy, I tell you; diligent in moderation when the time bids, and idle and gay as willingly. For your Mother, I do entreat you to continue to love her and honour her and prefer her company to that of any other. The exercise of these placid affections is the truest happiness to be got in this world, and the best nourishment for all that is worthiest in our nature. I dare not promise that you will ever find so true a friend as your Mother. Some love us for our qualities—for what we are or what we do: but a Mother's bosom is ever the home of her child independent of all concomitants; ever warm to welcome us in good and bad report, a kindly hiding-place which neither misfortune nor misconduct, woe, want or infamy or guilt itself can shut against us.

I am very impudent to preach to you in this style: but it makes me unhappy to see you evidently so uncomfortable; I would gladly open your eyes to the extreme enviableness of your situation. What is to hinder you to read your books and write your essays, and talk with your Mother, and visit the good people round you, and have me for your Tutor and absolute servant, and live in the enjoyment of all simple blessings and the sure hope of all sweet and glorious things, as happy as the day is long? In good truth, My dearest friend, you have too keen and high a soul: you must restrain yourself, or fail by the very excess of your noble qualities.

You cannot speak too much to me of your difficulties in any point. God knows there are few sacrifices I would not make to help you. For your writing, I do not wonder in the least that it agitates and embarrasses you. There never was a human being in your state that did not a thousand times look on himself just as you do, as the stupidest creature in the whole Universe. Nor was there ever a human being more mistaken than you are, this time; or more sure of seeing his mistake.— But hark!— Two o'clock is striking and still here!— I must away this instant, before I can even speak to you about a plan. What say you of a life and Criticism on Madame de Staël? Of an Essay on the Character of Byron? Take the easiest subject first. No matter what. But for Heaven's sake, do not torment yourself about it. I will say more next time. Jack has just come in with Vertot, and Gillies which last I hope you will call for directly. Write to me as if I were your brother—that loved you more than fifty brothers,—about all that lies upon your heart. The very talking of it will do you good. God bless you, My dear Jane!

I am ever your's /

Thomas Carlyle.