January-September 1856

The Collected Letters, Volume 31


TC TO AN UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT ; 1 May 1856; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18560501-TC-UC-01; CL 31: 77-78


Chelsea, 1 May, 1856—

Dear Sir,

I do not pretend to say that you might not, with industry, come by and by to write verses as well as very many persons do who follow that business as their trade at present: at the same time, I will explicitly advise you to renounce all thoughts of writing verse, otherwise than perhaps as an amusement; and also by no means to think seriously of trying Literature, in any form, as a stepping-stone towards some improvement of your position in life. This advice I give with all seriousness, and with whatever weight a long observation of the matter, aided by personal experience in certain branches of it, can lend to any vote of mine.

You may depend upon it, whatever the idle humour of mankind, thro' their Newspapers and Literary Gazettes, may be in our time, there is no idler trade now carried on than that of verse-writing, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of the thousand, now is; not any in which success is more uncertain, nor more utterly worthless to a serious man when it does come. The like,—tho' in some cases, to a less degree,—holds of Prose Literature: if I found a young man, with seeds of real talent, of real wisdom and superiority, discernible in him, it is certainly by no means to Literature that I would direct him to go for the developement and employment of these. Be chary of speech; “watch well your tongue,” what you will utter and not utter: that was ever, and is still, and will ever be,1 the advice of the wise man to an ingenuous inquirer. Do not watch your tongue at all; try to utter everything; spend your life in pumping everything out of you in the shape of words: that truly is pretty much the universal unconscious advice just now; but you may assure yourself (so far as my poor word can assure you) it is bad advice, not to be followed; and I think the longer you live with any manfulness of purpose, the better will you see how bad such advice was.

It is very natural and proper you should try to better your situation; tho', if you have honest labour, with decent food and raiment in return for it, you are bound not to be too impatient,—as very many are, giving ear to ambition &c, which it is not a good thing to indulge; frightfully the reverse indeed. However, we will suppose your impatience no other than just and manful; and taking it so, my deliberate counsel to you is, to sharpen and cultivate your faculties, to train and equip yourself by all possible methods, in modest strenuous silence, as one of the chief conditions of really good progress; and, on the whole, to aim at getting a better situation by doing, with your whole might, to more and more perfection, the duties of your present one,—which however low, you may depend upon it, can be done with all degrees of excellence, moral, spiritual, practical, and with all degrees of want of excellence in these three respects. You will thus grow, not only to be thought, but to be, a really clever and worthy worker and man; and you need not fear there will be ample need felt of you, in a time with so much work on its hands and so very few to whom it can be entrusted in that high form!—

Too probably you will think this advice very crabbed, and will at once or gradually resolve upon, or drift into, the opposite and too common road: however, I thought good to offer it you (hurried as I am);—and I will wish sincerely you may choose what is right; and so will bid you farewell.

T. Carlyle 2