1824- 1825

The Collected Letters, Volume 3


TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 1 January 1824; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18240101-TC-JAC-01; CL 3:3-7.


Kinnaird House, 1st Jany, 1824—

My dear Jack,

As I liked your letter1 very much, I am determined not to let it long want an answer; and being at liberty this night I purpose to enjoy myself a little by chatting with you. Letters out of the bottom of Strath Tay2 in the depth of winter cannot well be expected to be entertaining: unless the writer have the country's gift, that of second sight, he can have few interesting objects to describe; and the surrounding monotony of the vegetable, the animal and mineral kingdoms, the stagnant dulness of all things earthly and celestial, is too apt to extend its narcotic influence even to the mind, and to paralyze the power of thought as other powers are paralyzed. In my case, at least, aided as it is by my peculiar circumstances, things are even so: I have thought none since I saw you, and scarcely expect to think any till I see you again. I am of the hybernating animals; torpid like the swallow and the bat: my intellect is defunct for a time; elle reparoitra au printemps [it will reappear come spring]. But intellect is not all that we want, or indispensable to our intercourse. We are Brothers, Jack; and it is pleasant and proper to write, whether we have any thing to say or not.

I rejoice to find that you are going on so handsomely at Edinr; so busy, so profitably busy, and enjoying so fair a modicum of health and contentment. There is nothing more noble in this world than the sincere pursuit of knowledge; nothing more interesting than to see a young man striving with all his energies towards such an object, and controuling his desires for pleasure and his dissatisfaction under painful restraint, consenting to be unhappy for the present that he may be happy and honoured in the future. I am glad to learn that your repugnance to Medicine is gradually wearing away: persist honestly in the study, and you will like it more and more. Like all practical sciences medicine is begirt with a tangled border of minute, technical, uninteresting or it may be disgusting details; the whole of which must be mastered before you penetrate into the philosophy of the business, and get the better powers of your understanding at all fastened on the subject. You are now I suppose getting across these brambly thickets into the green fields of the science. Go on and prosper my dear Jack! Let not the difficulties repulse you, nor the little contentions of natural taste abate your ardour. To conquer our inclinations of whatever sort is a lesson which all men have to learn; and the man who learns it soonest will learn it easiest. This Medicine your judgement says is to be useful to you: do you assail it and get the better of it, in spite of all other considerations. It is a noble thing to have a profession by the end: it makes a man independent of all mortals; he is richer than a lord, for no external change can destroy the possession which he has acquired for himself. Nor is there any weight in the fears you labour under about failing in more interesting acquisitions by your diligence in following after this. It appears to me that a man who is not born to some independency, if he means to devote himself to literature properly so called, even ought to study some profession which as a first preliminary will enable him to live. It is galling and heartbreaking to live on the precarious windfalls of literature: and the idea that one has not time for practicing an honest calling is stark delusion. I could have studied three professions in the time I have been forced (for want of one) to spend in strenuous idleness;3 I could practice the most laborious doctors occupation at this moment in less time than I am constrained to devote to toiling in that which cannot permanently profit, and serves only to make a scanty “provision for the day that is passing over me.”4 But I will preach no more; for you are a reasonable youth, Jack, and are already bent on persevering. I only wish to see you moderately diligent to be assured that you cannot fail. There is nothing to hinder you from becoming one of the medical Lights of your age, and adorning all your medical ideas and your every-day proceedings in the world with those more elegant and catholic accomplishments, a deep skill in philosophy and literature, which scarcely any physician of our day is possessed of. I know you will always be an honourable downright kind-hearted fellow, and I shall yet live to see you a man of mark among the Thinkers and Doers of your time.

You do well to stick by Good;5 in my poor opinion, he looked like a more rational person than most of your instructors. I also commend your employment of the evening in lighter studies or even recreations. It is needless to be too critcal in what you read; you know the English classics by name: read them in any order you can get them in. Have you read Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric?6 Kames' Elements of Criticism,7 which you once began? Have you read Boswell's Life of Johnson and Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides? Read them both, if you have not; for the picture they give you of a very strange and rather great man is at once graphic interesting and amusing. Have you read Alison on Taste?8 But on the whole these critical geniuses (except Kames and perhaps Campbell) are not just the very best thing you can read at this time: I mean that you should rather be trying to gather ideas than be too earnest about the way of dressing them. When the thoughts are there the words will soon follow. As to your essay-writing I grant it is irksome, tho' some sort of writing is very essential for acquiring a style. I wrote nothing but letters: however I still feel the effects of that preponderance of taste over capability; I will write very slow. After all it is the logic of the thing, the arrangement of the thoughts, their vividness and number which regulate speed in writing. Never envy Rate:9 it is better to write two sentences a-day as they sho[uld] be written, tha[n many] sheets of the joot [sour liquor] which his headpiece ferments and pours forth so copiously. I would however recommend you certainly to try something: if you cannot in winter we shall have it in spring when I come near you—which will be sooner than you look for.

In fact you must know, Sir, that one month is going to satisfy me here: the people, particularly the Lady, seem still more tired of the place than I am; they are going down to Edinr about the first of Feby to stay there for a month—meaning to return again, and then set out for London in April. I do not return. Meister must begin printing whenever I arrive, and I must push it thro' as fast as possible. Woe to this Schiller! I have absolutely taken up a horror at it. Would you believe that I but began it three nights ago, and am not yet half thro' the first copy of it. My mind absolutely will not fasten on it, ne veut pas mordre [will not bite]: besides, the mercury has made me weaker than a sparrow both in body and mind. Nothing but a stout heart to a steep brae [steep hill]! I will be thro it, betide what may. As to the drugs, the less we say of them the better: I could not if you took me on oath this moment say whether they have done me good or harm; both certainly; but I rather think the good predominates. I am far weaker, but I sleep almost every night. The tobacco I am beginning to suspect is a real improvement: I have not yet decided; nor, of course touched a morsel of it. I shall get well when I am better settled, and the weather warmer.

The Bullers are all away to dance at a ball up the valley some miles at Castle Menzies: I should have said all but Arthur, whose boots being deranged he declined going. He and I dined and are to have tea together. I always go in at eight and drink one cup with them, and talk inepta for a while. On the whole I am more comfortable than I once was,—which is something tho' not much.

You did well to send the Targer10 a letter: did he come to see you? or write to you? Did Mitchell come and prosper? Tell me when you write. Is Duncan recovered? Is the Jurist11 come to Edinr? Write to the Child of Misfortune,12 and make my compliments to him. Do you know what he has done with himself?— I had a letter this day from home, written by the joint hands of our Father, Mother and Alick: they are all as they should be. What a miserable story is this of Basie's! Poor Mrs Bell! she sat beside me last time I was in the meeting-house at Ecclefn—and now—!— Basil Sandy says is fled.13 But Basta [Enough]! Many, many happy new years to you Jack! Were you able to sleep last night? They woke me with whisky and good wishes this morning at six. I am always your's

Th: Carlyle

Will you recollect to buy a little English Dictionary for poor uncle Robie? I have totally forgot it for many a month till this moment. The Post come[s] both on Thursday and Friday