The Collected Letters, Volume 2


TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 28 July 1823; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18230728-TC-JBW-01; CL 2:408-409.


Mainhill, 28th July, 1823—

My dear Jane,

I should have allowed this week to pass without troubling you, had it not been that you seemed anxious to get your Mother's Song1 without delay. The chain of causes and effects is truly wonderful. This old hunting-catch has often been vociferated in surly bass tones thro' the windpipes of twenty roystering Carlyles, greatly exciting their “swill of whisky and their flow of soul”;2 and now that these worthy men are all dead and gone, and their descendants dwindled into pedlars and peasants, the same immortal rhyme procures to me their undeserving clansman the pleasure of writing to my best friend. I shall forgive the stalwart Laird for all his pranks, if he often serve me in such stead.

You must not drown yourself in the Nith, or anywhere else, till you see farther about you. The kind of life you are leading is in truth vexatious enough;—yielding no enjoyment in the present, and no result for the future but the sad thought of wasted time, it might tire a more prosaic character than you. “Too much of one thing” is an adage in all modern and ancient tongues. Even I am beginning to wish you home again: if you cannot manage it otherwise, I think you ought actually to set about “wearying them out” as soon as possible. Nevertheless you need not repine very much for all the mischief that has yet taken place. You have the prospect of a long and free life before you: plenty of days and months will remain after all abatements. These interruptions distress and irritate you, and it is natural they should: but no mortal ever got his whole time consecrated to worthy pursuits; and the history of literary men in particular should teach one patience under many obstructions. Cowper became an Author for the first time at fifty. Johnson in his old age said with a kind of gloomy pathos that “much of his life had been wasted under the pressures of disease, much of it had been trifled away, much of it had always been spent in making provision for the day that was passing over him”;3 yet who would not say that Johnson did enough? You remember Milton; how he wrote Latin grammars, and taught schools, and fought in the arena of politics, as well as made Comus and Paradise Lost. Did not poor old Hooker write his Ecclesiastical Polity in the middle of gridirons and foul platters and squealing children, and what was worse than all, within earshot and arm's length of a scolding sooty hilding whom he had to wife?4 Alas! my dear Jane, this world, take it as we will, is made of most unpliant stuff. I should think myself happy could I promise that even one tenth part of my existence would be at my disposal for any purpose above those of the beasts that perish. But it will not be; and often it burns my heart to think it will not. For you however I see better things in store. Deep cause as you have to regret that best and truest Friend and Father, whom you lost so mournfully, and on whose memory you will ever dwell with such a sad fondness, I cannot but perceive that by far the most trying period of your life is already past with safety. No one will ever counsel you in difficulties with so faithful and disinterested a mind as that good man who is gone; no one!—not even I can speak to you once in ten times without some pitiful sneaking undercurrent less or more of selfish or half-selfish motives—for which I often heartily despise myself: but a counsellor that can never wilfully deceive you, your own judgement, is coming fast to maturity, and will bear you through triumphantly. There are the most ample materials to work upon, the best purposes, the best powers, and freedom to employ these advantages greater than falls to the lot of one in a hundred. I know you often ponder these things, and study plans for a long future: by degrees you will learn as you seriously search for it, the art of surmounting or evading the obstacles that thwart you, and of reaping their full profit from the many circumstances that favour you. I have prophecied your complete success a hundred times: I still prophecy it more undoubtingly than ever. There is no fear: if your will is steadfast enough, nothing can repel you.

Bad luck to Bride kirk! He cuts me off in the middle of my story, when I had a million of things to explain, and many that cannot wait. Will you write instantly and give me instant leave to answer? I begin to think I shall not see you: Heaven give me patience! I have been twenty minutes unhappier, but never more serious than even now. O that I could form some settled and feasible plan of life! I am weary of this wayfaring existence I have led so long: but what to do to alter it? God bless you!

T. Carlyle