The Collected Letters, Volume 4


TC TO ANNA D. B. MONTAGU; 25 December 1826; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18261225-TC-ADBM-01; CL 4:170-174.


21, Comley Bank. 25th December, 1826.

My Dear Madam,

At length my most nervous bookseller has determined, even in these “worst of times,” as he calls them, on sending forth his literary cargo; a heroic resolution which he has not adopted till after the most painful consultation, and after calculating as if by astrological science the propitious day and minute indicated by the horoscope of the work. I know not whether it is right to laugh at this poor profit-and-loss philosopher in his pitiable quandary; for his one true God being Mammon, he does worship him with an edifying devoutness; but, at all events, I may rejoice that this favourable conjunction of the stars has at length actually occurred, which after four months' imprisonment in Ballantyne's warehouses now takes this feeble concern finally off my hands, and enables me among many other important duties to discharge not the least important one, that of paying my debt to you.

I have really owed you long, but you are a patient creditor, and know too, I am persuaded, that though letters are the symbol of attention and regard, the thing signified may often exist in full strength without the sign. Indeed, indeed, my dear Madam, I am not mad enough to forget you, the more I see of the world and myself the less tendency have I that way, the more do I feel that in this my wilderness journeys I have found but one Mrs. Montagu, and that except in virtue of peculiar good fortune I had no right to calculate on even finding one. A hundred times do I regret that you are not here, or I there: but I say to myself, we shall surely meet again on this side the wall of Night, and you will find me wiser and I shall know you better, and love and reverence you more. Meantime, as conscience whispers, what are protestations? Nothing, or worse than nothing: therefore let us leave them.

Of my late history I need not speak, for you already know it: I am wedded to the best of wives, and with all the elements of enjoyment richly ministered to me, and health—rather worse than even it was wont to be. Sad contradiction! But I were no apt scholar if I had not learned long ago with my friend Tieck that “in the fairest sunshine a shadow chases us, that in the softest music there is a tone which chides.”1

I sometimes hope that I shall be well: at other times I determine to be wise in spite of sickness, and feel that wisdom is better even than health, and I dismiss the lying cozener Hope entirely, and fancy I perceive that even the rocky land of Sorrow is not without a heavenly radiance overspreading it, lovelier than aught that this earth with all its joys can give us. At all events, what right have we to murmur? It is the common lot: the Persian King2 could not find three happy men in the wide world to write the names of on his queen's tomb, or the Philosopher would have recalled her from death. Every son of Adam has his task to toil at, and his stripes to bear for doing it wrong. There is one deadly error we commit on our entrance on life, and sooner or later we must lay it aside, for till then there is neither peace nor rest for us in this world: we all start, I have observed, with the tacit persuasion that whatever become of others, we (the illustrious all-important we) are entitled of right to be entirely fortunate, to accumulate all knowledge, beauty, health, and earthly felicity in our sacred person, and so pass our most sovereign days in rosy bowers, with Distress never seen by us, except as an interesting shade in the distance of our landscape. Alas! what comes of it? Providence will not treat us thus, nay, with reverence be it spoken, cannot treat us thus, and so we fight and fret against His laws, and cease not from our mad, romancing delusion, till Experience have beaten it out of us with many chastisements.

Most indeed never fully unlearn it all their days, but continue to the last to believe that, in their lot in life thay are unjustly treated, and cease not from foolish hopes, and still stand in new amazement that they should be disappointed—so very strangely, so unfairly! This class is certainly the most pitiable of all, for an Action of Damages against Providence is surely no promising lawsuit.

But I must descend from Life in general to Life in Edinburgh. In spite of ill-health, I reckon myself moderately happy here, much happier than men usually are, or than such a fool as I deserves to be. My good wife exceeds all my hopes and is in truth I believe among the best women that the world contains. The philosophy of the heart is far better than that of the understanding. She loves me with her whole soul, and this one sentiment has taught her much that I have long been vainly at the Schools to learn. Good Jane! She is sitting by me knitting you a purse: you must not cease to love her, for she deserves it, and few love you better. Of society in this modern Athens we have no want, but rather a superabundance, which however we are fast and successfully reducing down to the fit measure. True it is, one meets with many a Turk in grain among these people: but it is some comfort to know beforehand that Turks are, have been, and for ever will be; and to understand that from a Turk no Christian word or deed can rationally be expected. Let the people speak in the Turkish dialect, in Heaven's name! It is their own, and they have no other. A better class of persons, too, are to be found here and there; a sober, discreet, logic-loving, moderately well-informed class: with these I talk and enjoy myself; but only talk as from an upper window to people on the street; into the house (of my spirit) I cannot admit them; and the unwise wonderment they exhibit when I do but show them the lobby, warns me to lose no time in again slamming-to the door. But what of society? Round our own hearth is society enough, with a blessing. I read books, or like the Roman Poet and so many British ones “disport on paper”;3 and many a still evening when I stand in our little flowergarden (it is fully larger than two bed-quilts), and smoke my pipe in peace, and look at the reflection of the distant city lamps, and hear the faint murmur of its tumult, I feel no little pleasure in the thought of “my own four walls,”4 and what they hold.

On the whole, what I chiefly want is occupation; which when “the times grow better,” or my own “genius” gets more alert and thorough-going will not fail, I suppose, to present itself. Idle I am not altogether, yet not occupied as I should be; for to dig in the mines of Plutus, and sell the gift of God (and such is every man's small fraction of intellectual talent) for a piece of money is a measure I am not inclined to; and for invention, for Art of any sort I feel myself too helpless and undetermined. Some day—O that the day were here!—I shall surely speak out these things that are lying in me, and giving me no sleep till they are spoken! Or else if the Fates would be so kind as show me—that I had nothing to say! This perhaps is the real secret of it after all; a hard result, yet not intolerable, were it once clear and certain. Literature, it seems, is to be my trade: but the present aspects of it among us seem to me peculiarly perplexed and uninviting. I love it not: in fact I have almost quitted modern reading; lower down than the Restoration I rarely venture in English. These men, these Hookers, Bacons, Brownes were men; but for our present “men of letters,” our dandy wits, our utilitarian philosophers, our novel, play, sonnet and song manufacturers, I shall only say: May the Lord pity us and them! But enough of this! For what am I that I should censure? Less than the least in Israel.

It is time that I devote a word or two to others, having spent the whole sheet on myself. You say nothing of your health: am I to consider you as recovered? I dare scarcely believe it: yet perhaps you are recovering. Alas! sorrow has long been familiar to you; and ill-health is but one of the many forms under which it too frequently pursues such beings from the cradle to the grave. But the heart too, according to the old similitude, is sometimes like a spicy flower, which yields not its sweetest perfume till it be crushed. Of Charles' history at Cambridge I am sorry to hear, tho' it does not surprise me much, or in any way diminish my faith in his character and capabilities.5 It shows only that venerating Science and this alone, he has formed too lofty an estimate of its Expositors and Institutions: he looked for sages, such as are not to be found on this clay Planet; he meets with Drivellers, and his heart is too proud to yield their gowns and maces what it denies their minds. He is far too proud, poor fellow; and that is a failing which he must and will lay aside. But what is to be done with him for the present? At Cambridge in his present mood, he must not continue; in Edinburgh I durst not predict his fate, he might find the right road, or deviate further from it than ever. Again and again I say, if I can be of any service command me. And in the meanwhile fear not for your stormful, headstrong, highminded boy. There is metal in him which no fire can utterly consume, and one way or other (with more or less suffering to himself, but with certainty as I believe), it will be fused and purified and the wayward youth will be a wise and virtuous man.

I have finished my sheet, and more I must deny myself at present. Will you get these tomes conveyed to Badams,6 my own good Badams, whom I swear I had rather see than any ten men in England? I have begged of him to write, but I know he will not: my good wishes are always with him. From you I expect better things, being minded to become a better correspondent myself. Will you make my kindest compliments to Mr. Montagu, and all your household, and believe me ever, my dear Madam,

Your affectionate friend, /

T. Carlyle.