October 1856-July 1857

The Collected Letters, Volume 32


JWC TO MARY SMITH ; 11 January 1857; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18570111-JWC-MS-01; CL 32: 70-73


5 CHEYNE ROW, CHELSEA, 11th January, 1857.

Dear Miss Smith,

This time you come to me as an old acquaintance, whom I am glad to shake hands with again. The mere fact of your being still in the same position after so long an interval, and with such passionate inward protest as that first letter indicated,1 is a more authentic testimony to your worth, than if you had sent me a certificate of character signed by all the clergy and householders of Carlisle!2 So many talents are wasted, so many enthusiasms turned to smoke, so many lives blighted, for want of a little patience and endurance! for want of understanding and laying to heart that which you have so well expressed in these verses—the meaning of the Present!3—for want of recognising, that it is not the greatness or littleness of “the duty nearest hand,"4 but the spirit in which one does it, that makes one's doing noble or mean!

I can't think how people, who have any natural ambition, and any sense of power in them, escape going mad in a world like this, without the recognition of that! I know I was very near mad when I found it out for myself (as one has to find out for one-self everything that is to be of any real practical use to one). Shall I tell you how it came into my head? Perhaps it may be of comfort to you in similar moments of fatigue and disgust.

I had gone with my husband to live on a little estate of peat bog, that had descended to me, all the way down from John Welsh, the Covenanter, who married a daughter of John Knox.5 That didn't, I am ashamed to say, make me feel Craigenputtock a whit less of a peat bog, and most dreary, untoward place to live at! In fact, it was sixteen miles distant on every side from all the conveniences of life—shops and even post office!

Further, we were very poor; and further and worst, being an only child, and brought up to “great prospects,” I was sublimely ignorant of every branch of useful knowledge, though a capital Latin scholar and a very fair mathematician!! It behoved me in these astonishing circumstances to learn—to sew! Husbands, I was shocked to find, wore their stockings into holes! and were always losing buttons! and I was expected to “look to all that!” Also, it behoved me to learn to cook! No capable servant choosing to live at “such an out of the way place,” and my husband having “bad digestion,” which complicated my difficulties dreadfully. The bread, above all, brought from Dumfries, “soured on his stomach,” (Oh, Heavens!) and it was plainly my duty as a christian wife to bake at home!

So I sent for Cobbett's “Cottage Economy,"6 and fell to work at a loaf of bread. But knowing nothing about the process of fermentation or the heat of ovens, it came to pass that my loaf got put into the oven at the time myself ought to have put into bed, and I remained the only person not asleep, in a house in the middle of a desert! One o'clock struck, and then two, and then three; and still I was sitting there in an intense solitude, my whole body aching with weariness, my heart aching with a sense of forlornness and degradation. “That I who had been so petted at home, whose comfort had been studied by everybody in the house, who had never been required to do anything but cultivate my mind, should have to pass all those hours of the night in watching a loaf of bread! which mightn't turn out bread after all!"

Such thoughts maddened me, till I laid down my head on the table, and sobbed aloud. It was then that somehow the idea of Benvenuto Cellini, sitting up all night watching his Pericles [Perseus]7 in the oven, came into my head; and suddenly I asked myself, “After all; in the sight of the upper powers, what is the mighty difference between a statue of Pericles [Perseus] and a loaf of bread, so that each be the thing one's hand hath found to do? The man's determined will, his energy, his patience, his resource, were the really admirable things, of which the statue of Pericles [Perseus] was the mere chance expression. If he had been a woman, living at Craigenputtock, with a dyspeptic husband, sixteen miles from a baker, and he a bad one—all these same qualities would have come out most fitly in a good loaf of bread!"

I cannot express what consolation this germ of an idea spread over my uncongenial life, during five years we lived at that savage place; where my two immediate predecessors had gone mad, and the third had taken to drink!8

But here am I beginning on a third little sheet and you are waiting for my opinion of the verses!9 If you knew how completely I have lost all taste for poetry (so called), you would not have appealed to my judgment of all peoples! Indeed, I should need to have been a poet born, to have continued writing or reading anything in verse, in the valley of the shadow of Mr. Carlyle's denunciations of verse! I suppose, too, as one gets old, one naturally falls back on plain prose. But since you have asked my opinion, it would be discourteous to refuse it, even on the plea of incompetence.

I have read these verses very carefully several times over, and what I feel about them is that they are full of thought and sense, and deficient in music. They give me the impression of thought put into verse by force of will, rather than from a natural taste for singing itself.

My husband once asked Monkton Milnes10 why he put what he had to say into rhymes, “instead of JUST SAYING IT.” The answer was—“Why you see, a very little thought goes so much further in verse!” Now, it seems to me, that you do not lie under that general exigence of modern poets, driving them on expedients to make a little thought go further than its natural length. There is more thought in the verses you have sent me, than might be elaborated into a long prose essay—more thought than in several volumes of poems, lying about on drawing room tables. But it is hurt rather than shown to advantage by the versification, which is hard and stiff—in a word, unmusical.

I should hardly have trusted my own judgment in such a matter, if Mr. Carlyle had not confirmed it. I read the verses to him, having first given him my notions about them, and he said—“Well, they are just what you said. The young lady has something in her to write, but she should resolve on sticking to prose.” That from him was rather high praise, I assure you.

Yours truly, /