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   Chapter 1 CLIFTON.

Life of John Sterling By Thomas Carlyle Characters: 29470

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

Matters once readjusted at Hastings, it was thought Sterling's health had so improved, and his activities towards Literature so developed themselves into congruity, that a permanent English place of abode might now again be selected,-on the Southwest coast somewhere,-and the family once more have the blessing of a home, and see its lares and penates and household furniture unlocked from the Pantechnicon repositories, where they had so long been lying.

Clifton, by Bristol, with its soft Southern winds and high cheerful situation, recommended too by the presence of one or more valuable acquaintances there, was found to be the eligible place; and thither in this summer of 1839, having found a tolerable lodging, with the prospect by and by of an agreeable house, he and his removed. This was the end of what I call his "third peregrinity;"-or reckoning the West Indies one, his fourth. This also is, since Bayswater, the fourth time his family has had to shift on his account. Bayswater; then to Bordeaux, to Blackheath and Knightsbridge (during the Madeira time), to Hastings (Roman time); and now to Clifton, not to stay there either: a sadly nomadic life to be prescribed to a civilized man!

At Clifton his habitation was speedily enough set up; household conveniences, methods of work, daily promenades on foot or horseback, and before long even a circle of friends, or of kindly neighborhoods ripening into intimacy, were established round him. In all this no man could be more expert or expeditious, in such cases. It was with singular facility, in a loving, hoping manner, that he threw himself open to the new interests and capabilities of the new place; snatched out of it whatsoever of human or material would suit him; and in brief, in all senses had pitched his tent-habitation, and grew to look on it as a house. It was beautiful too, as well as pathetic. This man saw himself reduced to be a dweller in tents, his house is but a stone tent; and he can so kindly accommodate himself to that arrangement;-healthy faculty and diseased necessity, nature and habit, and all manner of things primary and secondary, original and incidental, conspiring now to make it easy for him. With the evils of nomadism, he participated to the full in whatever benefits lie in it for a man.

He had friends enough, old and new, at Clifton, whose intercourse made the place human for him. Perhaps among the most valued of the former sort may be mentioned Mrs. Edward Strachey, Widow of the late Indian Judge, who now resided here; a cultivated, graceful, most devout and high-minded lady; whom he had known in old years, first probably as Charles Buller's Aunt, and whose esteem was constant for him, and always precious to him. She was some ten or twelve years older than he; she survived him some years, but is now also gone from us. Of new friends acquired here, besides a skilful and ingenious Dr. Symonds, physician as well as friend, the principal was Francis Newman, then and still an ardently inquiring soul, of fine University and other attainments, of sharp-cutting, restlessly advancing intellect, and the mildest pious enthusiasm; whose worth, since better known to all the world, Sterling highly estimated;-and indeed practically testified the same; having by will appointed him, some years hence, guardian to his eldest Son; which pious function Mr. Newman now successfully discharges.

Sterling was not long in certainty as to his abode at Clifton: alas, where could he long be so? Hardly six months were gone when his old enemy again overtook him; again admonished him how frail his hopes of permanency were. Each winter, it turned out, he had to fly; and after the second of these, he quitted the place altogether. Here, meanwhile, in a Letter to myself, and in Excerpts from others, are some glimpses of his advent and first summer there:-

To his Mother.

"Clifton, June 11th, 1839.-As yet I am personally very uncomfortable from the general confusion of this house, which deprives me of my room to sit and read and write in; all being more or less lumbered by boxes, and invaded by servile domesticities aproned, handled, bristled, and of nondescript varieties. We have very fine warm weather, with occasional showers; and the verdure of the woods and fields is very beautiful. Bristol seems as busy as need be; and the shops and all kinds of practical conveniences are excellent; but those of Clifton have the usual sentimental, not to say meretricious fraudulence of commercial establishments in Watering-places.

"The bag which Hannah forgot reached us safely at Bath on Friday morning; but I cannot quite unriddle the mystery of the change of padlocks, for I left the right one in care of the Head Steam-engine at Paddington, which seemed a very decent person with a good black coat on, and a pen behind its ear. I have been meditating much on the story of Palarea's 'box of papers;' which does not appear to be in my possession, and I have a strong impression that I gave it to young Florez Calderon. I will write to say so to Madam Torrijos speedily." Palarea, Dr. Palarea, I understand, was "an old guerilla leader whom they called El Medico." Of him and of the vanished shadows, now gone to Paris, to Madrid, or out of the world, let us say nothing!

To Mr. Carlyle.

"June 15th, 1839.-We have a room now occupied by Robert Barton [a brother-in-law]; to which Anthony may perhaps succeed; but which after him, or in lieu of him, would expand itself to receive you. Is there no hope of your coming? I would undertake to ride with you at all possible paces, and in all existing directions.

"As yet my books are lying as ghost books, in a limbo on the banks of a certain Bristolian Styx, humanly speaking, a Canal; but the other apparatus of life is gathered about me, and performs its diurnal functions. The place pleases me better than I expected: a far lookout on all sides, over green country; a sufficient old City lying in the hollow near; and civilization, in no tumultuous state, rather indeed stagnant, visible in the Rows of Houses and Gardens which call themselves Clifton. I hope soon to take a lease of a house, where I may arrange myself more methodically; keep myself equably boiling in my own kitchen; and spread myself over a series of book-shelves.... I have just been interrupted by a visit from Mrs. Strachey; with whom I dined yesterday. She seems a very good and thoroughly kind-hearted woman; and it is pleasant to have her for a neighbor.... I have read Emerson's Pamphlets. I should find it more difficult than ever to write to him."

To his Father.

"June 30th, 1839.-Of Books I shall have no lack, though no plethora; and the Reading-room supplies all one can want in the way of Papers and Reviews. I go there three or four times a week, and inquire how the human race goes on. I suppose this Turco-Egyptian War will throw several diplomatists into a state of great excitement, and massacre a good many thousands of Africans and Asiatics?-For the present, it appears, the English Education Question is settled. I wish the Government had said that, in their inspection and superintendence, they would look only to secular matters, and leave religious ones to the persons who set up the schools, whoever these might be. It seems to me monstrous that the State should be prevented taking any efficient measures for teaching Roman Catholic children to read, write and cipher, merely because they believe in the Pope, and the Pope is an impostor,-which I candidly confess he is! There is no question which I can so ill endure to see made a party one as that of Education."-The following is of the same day:-

"To Thomas Carlyle, Esq., Chelsea, London.


"30th June, 1839.

"MY DEAR CARLYLE,-I have heard, this morning, from my Father, that you are to set out on Tuesday for Scotland: so I have determined to fillip away some spurt of ink in your direction, which may reach you before you move towards Thule.

"Writing to you, in fact, is considerably easier than writing about you; which has been my employment of late, at leisure moments,-that is, moments of leisure from idleness, not work. As you partly guessed, I took in hand a Review of Teufelsdrockh-for want of a better Heuschrecke to do the work; and when I have been well enough, and alert enough, during the last fortnight, have tried to set down some notions about Tobacco, Radicalism, Christianity, Assafoetida and so forth. But a few abortive pages are all the result as yet. If my speculations should ever see daylight, they may chance to get you into scrapes, but will certainly get me into worse.... But one must work; sic itur ad astra,-and the astra are always there to befriend one, at least as asterisks, filling up the gaps which yawn in vain for words.

"Except my unsuccessful efforts to discuss you and your offences, I have done nothing that leaves a trace behind;-unless the endeavor to teach my little boy the Latin declensions shall be found, at some time short of the Last Day, to have done so. I have-rather I think from dyspepsia than dyspneumony-been often and for days disabled from doing anything but read. In this way I have gone through a good deal of Strauss's Book; which is exceedingly clever and clearheaded; with more of insight, and less of destructive rage than I expected. It will work deep and far, in such a time as ours. When so many minds are distracted about the history, or rather genesis of the Gospel, it is a great thing for partisans on the one side to have, what the other never have wanted, a Book of which they can say, This is our Creed and Code,-or rather Anti-creed and Anti-code. And Strauss seems perfectly secure against the sort of answer to which Voltaire's critical and historical shallowness perpetually exposed him. I mean to read the Book through. It seems admitted that the orthodox theologians have failed to give any sufficient answer.-I have also looked through Michelet's Luther, with great delight; and have read the fourth volume of Coleridge's Literary Remains, in which there are things that would interest you. He has a great hankering after Cromwell, and explicitly defends the execution of Charles.

"Of Mrs. Strachey we have seen a great deal; and might have seen more, had I had time and spirits for it. She is a warm-hearted, enthusiastic creature, whom one cannot but like. She seems always excited by the wish for more excitement than her life affords. And such a person is always in danger of doing something less wise than his best knowledge and aspirations; because he must do something, and circumstances do not allow him to do what he desires. Thence, after the first glow of novelty, endless self-tormenting comes from the contrast between aims and acts. She sets out, with her daughter and two boys, for a Tour in Wales to-morrow morning. Her talk of you is always most affectionate; and few, I guess, will read Sartor with more interest than she.

"I am still in a very extempore condition as to house, books, &c. One which I have hired for three years will be given up to me in the middle of August; and then I may hope to have something like a house,-so far as that is possible for any one to whom Time itself is often but a worse or a better kind of cave in the desert. We have had rainy and cheerless weather almost since the day of our arrival. But the sun now shines more lovingly, and the skies seem less disdainful of man and his perplexities. The earth is green, abundant and beautiful. But human life, so far as I can learn, is mean and meagre enough in its purposes, however striking to the speculative or sentimental bystander. Pray be assured that whatever you may say of the 'landlord at Clifton,' 21 the more I know of him, the less I shall like him. Well with me if I can put up with him for the present, and make use of him, till at last I can joyfully turn him off forever!

"Love to you Wife and self. My little Charlotte desires me to tell you that she has new shoes for her Doll, which she will show you when you come.



The visit to Clifton never took effect; nor to any of Sterling's subsequent homes; which now is matter of regret to me. Concerning the "Review of Teufelsdrockh" there will be more to say anon. As to "little Charlotte and her Doll," I remember well enough and was more than once reminded, this bright little creature, on one of my first visits to Bayswater, had earnestly applied to me to put her Doll's shoes on for her; which feat was performed.-The next fragment indicates a household settled, fallen into wholesome routine again; and may close the series here:-

To his Mother.

"July 22d, 1839.-A few evenings ago we went to Mr. Griffin's, and met there Dr. Prichard, the author of a well-known Book on the Races of Mankind, to which it stands in the same relation among English books as the Racing Calendar does to those of Horsekind. He is a very intelligent, accomplished person. We had also there the Dean; a certain Dr. -- of Corpus College, Cambridge (a booby); and a clever fellow, a Mr. Fisher, one of the Tutors of Trinity in my days. We had a very pleasant evening."-

At London we were in the habit of expecting Sterling pretty often; his presence, in this house as in others, was looked for, once in the month or two, and came always as sunshine in the gray weather to me and mine. My daily walks with him had long since been cut short without renewal; that walk to Eltham and Edgeworth's perhaps the last of the kind he and I had: but our intimacy, deepening and widening year after year, knew no interruption or abatement of increase; an honest, frank and truly human mutual relation, valuable or even invaluable to both parties, and a lasting loss, hardly to be replaced in this world, to the survivor of the two.

His visits, which were usually of two or three days, were always full of business, rapid in movement as all his life was. To me, if possible, he would come in the evening; a whole cornucopia of talk and speculation was to be discharged. If the evening would not do, and my affairs otherwise permitted, I had to mount into cabs with him; fly far and wide, shuttling athwart the big Babel, wherever his calls and pauses had to be. This was his way to husband time! Our talk, in such straitened circumstances, was loud or low as the circumambient groaning rage of wheels and sound prescribed,-very loud it had to be in such thoroughfares as London Bridge and Cheapside; but except while he was absent, off for minutes into some banker's office, lawyer's, stationer's, haberdasher's or what office there might be, it never paused. In this way exten

sive strange dialogues were carried on: to me also very strange,-private friendly colloquies, on all manner of rich subjects, held thus amid the chaotic roar of things. Sterling was full of speculations, observations and bright sallies; vividly awake to what was passing in the world; glanced pertinently with victorious clearness, without spleen, though often enough with a dash of mockery, into its Puseyisms, Liberalisms, literary Lionisms, or what else the mad hour might be producing,-always prompt to recognize what grain of sanity might be in the same. He was opulent in talk, and the rapid movement and vicissitude on such occasions seemed to give him new excitement.

Once, I still remember,-it was some years before, probably in May, on his return from Madeira,-he undertook a day's riding with me; once and never again. We coursed extensively, over the Hampstead and Highgate regions, and the country beyond, sauntering or galloping through many leafy lanes and pleasant places, in ever-flowing, ever-changing talk; and returned down Regent Street at nightfall: one of the cheerfulest days I ever had;-not to be repeated, said the Fates. Sterling was charming on such occasions: at once a child and a gifted man. A serious fund of thought he always had, a serious drift you never missed in him: nor indeed had he much depth of real laughter or sense of the ludicrous, as I have elsewhere said; but what he had was genuine, free and continual: his sparkling sallies bubbled up as from aerated natural fountains; a mild dash of gayety was native to the man, and had moulded his physiognomy in a very graceful way. We got once into a cab, about Charing Cross; I know not now whence or well whitherward, nor that our haste was at all special; however, the cabman, sensible that his pace was slowish, took to whipping, with a steady, passionless, businesslike assiduity which, though the horse seemed lazy rather than weak, became afflictive; and I urged remonstrance with the savage fellow: "Let him alone," answered Sterling; "he is kindling the enthusiasm of his horse, you perceive; that is the first thing, then we shall do very well!"-as accordingly we did.

At Clifton, though his thoughts began to turn more on poetic forms of composition, he was diligent in prose elaborations too,-doing Criticism, for one thing, as we incidentally observed. He wrote there, and sent forth in this autumn of 1839, his most important contribution to John Mill's Review, the article on Carlyle, which stands also in Mr. Hare's collection. 22 What its effect on the public was I knew not, and know not; but remember well, and may here be permitted to acknowledge, the deep silent joy, not of a weak or ignoble nature, which it gave to myself in my then mood and situation; as it well might. The first generous human recognition, expressed with heroic emphasis, and clear conviction visible amid its fiery exaggeration, that one's poor battle in this world is not quite a mad and futile, that it is perhaps a worthy and manful one, which will come to something yet: this fact is a memorable one in every history; and for me Sterling, often enough the stiff gainsayer in our private communings, was the doer of this. The thought burnt in me like a lamp, for several days; lighting up into a kind of heroic splendor the sad volcanic wrecks, abysses, and convulsions of said poor battle, and secretly I was very grateful to my daring friend, and am still, and ought to be. What the public might be thinking about him and his audacities, and me in consequence, or whether it thought at all, I never learned, or much heeded to learn.

Sterling's gainsaying had given way on many points; but on others it continued stiff as ever, as may be seen in that article; indeed he fought Parthian-like in such cases, holding out his last position as doggedly as the first: and to some of my notions he seemed to grow in stubbornness of opposition, with the growing inevitability, and never would surrender. Especially that doctrine of the "greatness and fruitfulness of Silence," remained afflictive and incomprehensible: "Silence?" he would say: "Yes, truly; if they give you leave to proclaim silence by cannon-salvos! My Harpocrates-Stentor!" In like manner, "Intellect and Virtue," how they are proportional, or are indeed one gift in us, the same great summary of gifts; and again, "Might and Right," the identity of these two, if a man will understand this God's-Universe, and that only he who conforms to the law of it can in the long-run have any "might:" all this, at the first blush, often awakened Sterling's musketry upon me, and many volleys I have had to stand,-the thing not being decidable by that kind of weapon or strategy.

In such cases your one method was to leave our friend in peace. By small-arms practice no mortal could dislodge him: but if you were in the right, the silent hours would work continually for you; and Sterling, more certainly than any man, would and must at length swear fealty to the right, and passionately adopt it, burying all hostilities under foot. A more candid soul, once let the stormful velocities of it expend themselves, was nowhere to be met with. A son of light, if I have ever seen one; recognizing the truth, if truth there were; hurling overboard his vanities, petulances, big and small interests, in ready loyalty to truth: very beautiful; at once a loyal child, as I said, and a gifted man!-Here is a very pertinent passage from one of his Letters, which, though the name continues blank, I will insert:-

To his Father.

"October 15th, 1839.-As to my 'over-estimate of --,' your expressions rather puzzle me. I suppose there may be, at the outside, a hundred persons in England whose opinions on such a matter are worth as much as mine. If by 'the public' you and my Mother mean the other ninety-nine, I submit. I have no doubt that, on any matter not relating peculiarly to myself, the judgment of the ninety-nine most philosophical heads in the country, if unanimous, would be right, and mine, if opposed to them, wrong. But then I am at a loss to make out, How the decision of the very few really competent persons has been ascertained to be thus in contradiction to me? And on the other hand, I conceive myself, from my opportunities, knowledge and attention to the subject, to be alone quite entitled to outvote tens of thousands of gentlemen, however much my superiors as men of business, men of the world, or men of merely dry or merely frivolous literature.

"I do not remember ever before to have heard the saying, whether of Talleyrand or of any one else, That all the world is a wiser man than any man in the world. Had it been said even by the Devil, it would nevertheless be false. I have often indeed heard the saying, On peut etre plus FIN qu'un autre, mais pas plus FIN que tous les autres. But observe that 'fin' means cunning, not wise. The difference between this assertion and the one you refer to is curious and worth examining. It is quite certain, there is always some one man in the world wiser than all the rest; as Socrates was declared by the oracle to be; and as, I suppose, Bacon was in his day, and perhaps Burke in his. There is also some one, whose opinion would be probably true, if opposed to that of all around him; and it is always indubitable that the wise men are the scores, and the unwise the millions. The millions indeed come round, in the course of a generation or two, to the opinions of the wise; but by that time a new race of wise men have again shot ahead of their contemporaries: so it has always been, and so, in the nature of things, it always must be. But with cunning, the matter is quite different. Cunning is not dishonest wisdom, which would be a contradiction in terms; it is dishonest prudence, acuteness in practice, not in thought: and though there must always be some one the most cunning in the world, as well as some one the most wise, these two superlatives will fare very differently in the world. In the case of cunning, the shrewdness of a whole people, of a whole generation, may doubtless be combined against that of the one, and so triumph over it; which was pretty much the case with Napoleon. But although a man of the greatest cunning can hardly conceal his designs and true character from millions of unfriendly eyes, it is quite impossible thus to club the eyes of the mind, and to constitute by the union of ten thousand follies an equivalent for a single wisdom. A hundred school-boys can easily unite and thrash their one master; but a hundred thousand school-boys would not be nearer than a score to knowing as much Greek among them as Bentley or Scaliger. To all which, I believe, you will assent as readily as I;-and I have written it down only because I have nothing more important to say."-

Besides his prose labors, Sterling had by this time written, publishing chiefly in Blackwood, a large assortment of verses, Sexton's Daughter, Hymns of a Hermit, and I know not what other extensive stock of pieces; concerning which he was now somewhat at a loss as to his true course. He could write verses with astonishing facility, in any given form of metre; and to various readers they seemed excellent, and high judges had freely called them so, but he himself had grave misgivings on that latter essential point. In fact here once more was a parting of the ways, "Write in Poetry; write in Prose?" upon which, before all else, it much concerned him to come to a settlement.

My own advice was, as it had always been, steady against Poetry; and we had colloquies upon it, which must have tried his patience, for in him there was a strong leaning the other way. But, as I remarked and urged: Had he not already gained superior excellence in delivering, by way of speech or prose, what thoughts were in him, which is the grand and only intrinsic function of a writing man, call him by what title you will? Cultivate that superior excellence till it become a perfect and superlative one. Why sing your bits of thoughts, if you can contrive to speak them? By your thought, not by your mode of delivering it, you must live or die.-Besides I had to observe there was in Sterling intrinsically no depth of tune; which surely is the real test of a Poet or Singer, as distinguished from a Speaker? In music proper he had not the slightest ear; all music was mere impertinent noise to him, nothing in it perceptible but the mere march or time. Nor in his way of conception and utterance, in the verses he wrote, was there any contradiction, but a constant confirmation to me, of that fatal prognostic;-as indeed the whole man, in ear and heart and tongue, is one; and he whose soul does not sing, need not try to do it with his throat. Sterling's verses had a monotonous rub-a-dub, instead of tune; no trace of music deeper than that of a well-beaten drum; to which limited range of excellence the substance also corresponded; being intrinsically always a rhymed and slightly rhythmical speech, not a song.

In short, all seemed to me to say, in his case: "You can speak with supreme excellence; sing with considerable excellence you never can. And the Age itself, does it not, beyond most ages, demand and require clear speech; an Age incapable of being sung to, in any but a trivial manner, till these convulsive agonies and wild revolutionary overturnings readjust themselves? Intelligible word of command, not musical psalmody and fiddling, is possible in this fell storm of battle. Beyond all ages, our Age admonishes whatsoever thinking or writing man it has: Oh, speak to me some wise intelligible speech; your wise meaning in the shortest and clearest way; behold I am dying for want of wise meaning, and insight into the devouring fact: speak, if you have any wisdom! As to song so called, and your fiddling talent,-even if you have one, much more if you have none,-we will talk of that a couple of centuries hence, when things are calmer again. Homer shall be thrice welcome; but only when Troy is taken: alas, while the siege lasts, and battle's fury rages everywhere, what can I do with the Homer? I want Achilleus and Odysseus, and am enraged to see them trying to be Homers!"-

Sterling, who respected my sincerity, and always was amenable enough to counsel, was doubtless much confused by such contradictory diagnosis of his case. The question, Poetry or Prose? became more and more pressing, more and more insoluble. He decided, at last, to appeal to the public upon it;-got ready, in the late autumn, a small select Volume of his verses; and was now busy pushing it through the press. Unfortunately, in the mean while, a grave illness, of the old pulmonary sort, overtook him, which at one time threatened to be dangerous. This is a glance again into his interior household in these circumstances:-

To his Mother.

"December 21st, 1839.-The Tin box came quite safe, with all its miscellaneous contents. I suppose we are to thank you for the Comic Almanac, which, as usual, is very amusing; and for the Book on Watt, which disappointed me. The scientific part is no doubt very good, and particularly clear and simple; but there is nothing remarkable in the account of Watt's character; and it is an absurd piece of French impertinence in Arago to say, that England has not yet learnt to appreciate men like Watt, because he was not made a peer; which, were our peerage an institution like that of France, would have been very proper.

"I have now finished correcting the proofs of my little Volume of Poems. It has been a great plague to me, and one that I would not have incurred, had I expected to be laid up as I have been; but the matter was begun before I had any notion of being disabled by such an illness,-the severest I have suffered since I went to the West Indies. The Book will, after all, be a botched business in many respects; and I much doubt whether it will pay its expenses: but I try to consider it as out of my hands, and not to fret myself about it. I shall be very curious to see Carlyle's Tractate on Chartism; which"-But we need not enter upon that.

Sterling's little Book was printed at his own expense; 23 published by Moxon in the very end of this year. It carries an appropriate and pretty Epigraph:-

"Feeling, Thought, and Fancy be

Gentle sister Graces three:

If these prove averse to me,

They will punish,-pardon Ye!"

He had dedicated the little Volume to Mr. Hare;-and he submitted very patiently to the discouraging neglect with which it was received by the world; for indeed the "Ye" said nothing audible, in the way of pardon or other doom; so that whether the "sister Graces" were averse or not, remained as doubtful as ever.

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