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   Chapter 6 VENTNOR DEATH.

Life of John Sterling By Thomas Carlyle Characters: 26884

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


In this sudden avalanche of sorrows Sterling, weak and worn as we have seen, bore up manfully, and with pious valor fronted what had come upon him. He was not a man to yield to vain wailings, or make repinings at the unalterable: here was enough to be long mourned over; but here, for the moment, was very much imperatively requiring to be done. That evening, he called his children round him; spoke words of religious admonition and affection to them; said, "He must now be a Mother as well as Father to them." On the evening of the funeral, writes Mr. Hare, he bade them good-night, adding these words, "If I am taken from you, God will take care of you." He had six children left to his charge, two of them infants; and a dark outlook ahead of them and him. The good Mrs. Maurice, the children's young Aunt, present at this time and often afterwards till all ended, was a great consolation.

Falmouth, it may be supposed, had grown a sorrowful place to him, peopled with haggard memories in his weak state; and now again, as had been usual with him, change of place suggested itself as a desirable alleviation;-and indeed, in some sort, as a necessity. He has "friends here," he admits to himself, "whose kindness is beyond all price, all description;" but his little children, if anything befell him, have no relative within two hundred miles. He is now sole watcher over them; and his very life is so precarious; nay, at any rate, it would appear, he has to leave Falmouth every spring, or run the hazard of worse. Once more, what is to be done? Once more,-and now, as it turned out, for the last time.

A still gentler climate, greater proximity to London, where his Brother Anthony now was and most of his friends and interests were: these considerations recommended Ventnor, in the beautiful Southeastern corner of the Isle of Wight; where on inquiry an eligible house was found for sale. The house and its surrounding piece of ground, improvable both, were purchased; he removed thither in June of this year 1843; and set about improvements and adjustments on a frank scale. By the decease of his Mother, he had become rich in money; his share of the West-India properties having now fallen to him, which, added to his former incomings, made a revenue he could consider ample and abundant. Falmouth friends looked lovingly towards him, promising occasional visits; old Herstmonceux, which he often spoke of revisiting but never did, was not far off; and London, with all its resources and remembrances, was now again accessible. He resumed his work; and had hopes of again achieving something.

The Poem of Coeur-de-Lion has been already mentioned, and the wider form and aim it had got since he first took it in hand. It was above a year before the date of these tragedies and changes, that he had sent me a Canto, or couple of Cantos, of Coeur-de-Lion; loyally again demanding my opinion, harsh as it had often been on that side. This time I felt right glad to answer in another tone: "That here was real felicity and ingenuity, on the prescribed conditions; a decisively rhythmic quality in this composition; thought and phraseology actually dancing, after a sort. What the plan and scope of the Work might be, he had not said, and I could not judge; but here was a light opulence of airy fancy, picturesque conception, vigorous delineation, all marching on as with cheerful drum and fife, if without more rich and complicated forms of melody: if a man would write in metre, this sure enough was the way to try doing it." For such encouragement from that stinted quarter, Sterling, I doubt not, was very thankful; and of course it might co-operate with the inspirations from his Naples Tour to further him a little in this his now chief task in the way of Poetry; a thought which, among my many almost pathetic remembrances of contradictions to his Poetic tendency, is pleasant for me.

But, on the whole, it was no matter. With or without encouragement, he was resolute to persevere in Poetry, and did persevere. When I think now of his modest, quiet steadfastness in this business of Poetry; how, in spite of friend and foe, he silently persisted, without wavering, in the form of utterance he had chosen for himself; and to what length he carried it, and vindicated himself against us all;-his character comes out in a new light to me, with more of a certain central inflexibility and noble silent resolution than I had elsewhere noticed in it. This summer, moved by natural feelings, which were sanctioned, too, and in a sort sanctified to him, by the remembered counsel of his late Wife, he printed the Tragedy of Strafford. But there was in the public no contradiction to the hard vote I had given about it: the little Book fell dead-born; and Sterling had again to take his disappointment;-which it must be owned he cheerfully did; and, resolute to try it again and ever again, went along with his Coeur-de-Lion, as if the public had been all with him. An honorable capacity to stand single against the whole world; such as all men need, from time to time! After all, who knows whether, in his overclouded, broken, flighty way of life, incapable of long hard drudgery, and so shut out from the solid forms of Prose, this Poetic Form, which he could well learn as he could all forms, was not the suitablest for him?

This work of Coeur-de-Lion he prosecuted steadfastly in his new home; and indeed employed on it henceforth all the available days that were left him in this world. As was already said, he did not live to complete it; but some eight Cantos, three or four of which I know to possess high worth, were finished, before Death intervened, and there he had to leave it. Perhaps it will yet be given to the public; and in that case be better received than the others were, by men of judgment; and serve to put Sterling's Poetic pretensions on a much truer footing. I can say, that to readers who do prefer a poetic diet, this ought to be welcome: if you can contrive to love the thing which is still called "poetry" in these days, here is a decidedly superior article in that kind,-richer than one of a hundred that you smilingly consume.

In this same month of June, 1843, while the house at Ventnor was getting ready, Sterling was again in London for a few days. Of course at Knightsbridge, now fallen under such sad change, many private matters needed to be settled by his Father and Brother and him. Captain Anthony, now minded to remove with his family to London and quit the military way of life, had agreed to purchase the big family house, which he still occupies; the old man, now rid of that encumbrance, retired to a smaller establishment of his own; came ultimately to be Anthony's guest, and spent his last days so. He was much lamed and broken, the half of his old life suddenly torn away;-and other losses, which he yet knew not of, lay close ahead of him. In a year or two, the rugged old man, borne down by these pressures, quite gave way; sank into paralytic and other infirmities; and was released from life's sorrows, under his son Anthony's roof, in the fall of 1847.-The house in Knightsbridge was, at the time we now speak of, empty except of servants; Anthony having returned to Dublin, I suppose to conclude his affairs there, prior to removal. John lodged in a Hotel.

We had our fair share of his company in this visit, as in all the past ones; but the intercourse, I recollect, was dim and broken, a disastrous shadow hanging over it, not to be cleared away by effort. Two American gentlemen, acquaintances also of mine, had been recommended to him, by Emerson most likely: one morning Sterling appeared here with a strenuous proposal that we should come to Knightsbridge, and dine with him and them. Objections, general dissuasions were not wanting: The empty dark house, such needless trouble, and the like;-but he answered in his quizzing way, "Nature herself prompts you, when a stranger comes, to give him a dinner. There are servants yonder; it is all easy; come; both of you are bound to come." And accordingly we went. I remember it as one of the saddest dinners; though Sterling talked copiously, and our friends, Theodore Parker one of them, were pleasant and distinguished men. All was so haggard in one's memory, and half consciously in one's anticipations; sad, as if one had been dining in a will, in the crypt of a mausoleum. Our conversation was waste and logical, I forget quite on what, not joyful and harmoniously effusive: Sterling's silent sadness was painfully apparent through the bright mask he had bound himself to wear. Withal one could notice now, as on his last visit, a certain sternness of mood, unknown in better days; as if strange gorgon-faces of earnest Destiny were more and more rising round him, and the time for sport were past. He looked always hurried, abrupt, even beyond wont; and indeed was, I suppose, overwhelmed in details of business.

One evening, I remember, he came down hither, designing to have a freer talk with us. We were all sad enough; and strove rather to avoid speaking of what might make us sadder. Before any true talk had been got into, an interruption occurred, some unwelcome arrival; Sterling abruptly rose; gave me the signal to rise; and we unpolitely walked away, adjourning to his Hotel, which I recollect was in the Strand, near Hungerford Market; some ancient comfortable quaint-looking place, off the street; where, in a good warm queer old room, the remainder of our colloquy was duly finished. We spoke of Cromwell, among other things which I have now forgotten; on which subject Sterling was trenchant, positive, and in some essential points wrong,-as I said I would convince him some day. "Well, well!" answered he, with a shake of the head.-We parted before long; bedtime for invalids being come: he escorted me down certain carpeted backstairs, and would not be forbidden: we took leave under the dim skies;-and alas, little as I then dreamt of it, this, so far as I can calculate, must have been the last time I ever saw him in the world. Softly as a common evening, the last of the evenings had passed away, and no other would come for me forevermore.

Through the summer he was occupied with fitting up his new residence, selecting governesses, servants; earnestly endeavoring to set his house in order, on the new footing it had now assumed. Extensive improvements in his garden and grounds, in which he took due interest to the last, were also going on. His Brother, and Mr. Maurice his brother-in-law,-especially Mrs. Maurice the kind sister, faithfully endeavoring to be as a mother to her poor little nieces,-were occasionally with him. All hours available for labor on his literary tasks, he employed, almost exclusively I believe, on Coeur-de-Lion; with what energy, the progress he had made in that Work, and in the art of Poetic composition generally, amid so many sore impediments, best testifies. I perceive, his life in general lay heavier on him than it had done before; his mood of mind is grown more sombre;-indeed the very solitude of this Ventnor as a place, not to speak of other solitudes, must have been new and depressing. But he admits no hypochondria, now or ever; occasionally, though rarely, even flashes of a kind of wild gayety break through. He works steadily at his task, with all the strength left him; endures the past as he may, and makes gallant front against the world. "I am going on quietly here, rather than happily," writes he to his friend Newman; "sometimes quite helpless, not from distinct illness, but from sad thoughts and a ghastly dreaminess. The heart is gone out of my life. My children, however, are doing well; and the place is cheerful and mild."

From Letters of this period I might select some melancholy enough; but will prefer to give the following one (nearly the last I can give), as indicative of a less usual temper:-

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

"VENTNOR, 7th December, 1843.

"MY DEAR CARLYLE,-My Irish Newspaper was not meant as a hint that I wanted a Letter. It contained an absurd long Advertisement,-some project for regenerating human knowledge, &c. &c.; to which I prefixed my private mark (a blot), thinking that you might be pleased to know of a fellow-laborer somewhere in Tipperary.

"Your Letter, like the Scriptural oil,-(they had no patent lamps then, and used the best oil, 7s. per gallon),-has made my face to shine. There is but one person in the world, I shall not tell you who, from whom a Letter would give me so much pleasure. It would be nearly as good at Pekin, in the centre of the most enlightened Mandarins; but here at Ventnor, where there are few Mandarins and no enlightenment,-fountains in the wilderness, even were they miraculous, are nothing compared with your handwriting. Yet it is sad that you should be so melancholy. I often think that though Mercury was the pleasanter fellow, and probably the happier, Saturn was the greater god;-rather cannibal or so, but one excuses it in him, as in some other heroes one knows of.

"It is, as you say, your destiny to write about Cromwell: and you will make a book of him, at which the ears of our grandchildren will tingle;-and as one may hope that the ears of human nature will be growing longer and longer, the tingling will be proportionately greater than we are accustomed to. Do what you can, I fear there will be lit

tle gain from the Royalists. There is something very small about the biggest of them that I have ever fallen in with, unless you count old Hobbes a Royalist.

"Curious to see that you have them exactly preserved in the Country Gentlemen of our day; while of the Puritans not a trace remains except in History. Squirism had already, in that day, become the caput mortuum that it is now; and has therefore, like other mummies, been able to last. What was opposed to it was the Life of Puritanism,-then on the point of disappearing; and it too has left its mummy at Exeter Hall on the platform and elsewhere. One must go back to the Middle Ages to see Squirism as rampant and vivacious as Biblicism was in the Seventeenth Century: and I suppose our modern Country Gentlemen are about as near to what the old Knights and Barons were who fought the Crusades, as our modern Evangelicals to the fellows who sought the Lord by the light of their own pistol-shots.

"Those same Crusades are now pleasant matter for me. You remember, or perhaps you do not, a thing I once sent you about Coeur-de-Lion. Long since, I settled to make the Cantos you saw part of a larger Book; and worked at it, last autumn and winter, till I had a bad illness. I am now at work on it again; and go full sail, like my hero. There are six Cantos done, roughly, besides what you saw. I have struck out most of the absurdest couplets, and given the whole a higher though still sportive tone. It is becoming a kind of Odyssey, with a laughing and Christian Achilles for hero. One may manage to wrap, in that chivalrous brocade, many things belonging to our Time, and capable of interesting it. The thing is not bad; but will require great labor. Only it is labor that I thoroughly like; and which keeps the maggots out of one's brain, until their time.

"I have never spoken to you, never been able to speak to you, of the change in my life,-almost as great, one fancies, as one's own death. Even now, although it seems as if I had so much to say, I cannot. If one could imagine-... But it is no use; I cannot write wisely on this matter. I suppose no human being was ever devoted to another more entirely than she; and that makes the change not less but more bearable. It seems as if she could not be gone quite; and that indeed is my faith.

"Mr. James, your New-England friend, was here only for a few days; I saw him several times, and liked him. They went, on the 24th of last month, back to London,-or so purposed,-because there is no pavement here for him to walk on. I want to know where he is, and thought I should be able to learn from you. I gave him a Note for Mill, who perhaps may have seen him. I think this is all at present from,

"Yours,

"JOHN STERLING."

Of his health, all this while, we had heard little definite; and understood that he was very quiet and careful; in virtue of which grand improvement we vaguely considered all others would follow. Once let him learn well to be slow as the common run of men are, would not all be safe and well? Nor through the winter, or the cold spring months, did bad news reach us; perhaps less news of any kind than had been usual, which seemed to indicate a still and wholesome way of life and work. Not till "April 4th, 1844," did the new alarm occur: again on some slight accident, the breaking of a blood-vessel; again prostration under dangerous sickness, from which this time he never rose.

There had been so many sudden failings and happy risings again in our poor Sterling's late course of health, we had grown so accustomed to mingle blame of his impetuosity with pity for his sad overthrows, we did not for many weeks quite realize to ourselves the stern fact that here at length had the peculiar fall come upon us,-the last of all these falls! This brittle life, which had so often held together and victoriously rallied under pressures and collisions, could not rally always, and must one time be shivered. It was not till the summer came and no improvement; and not even then without lingering glimmers of hope against hope, that I fairly had to own what had now come, what was now day by day sternly advancing with the steadiness of Time.

From the first, the doctors spoke despondently; and Sterling himself felt well that there was no longer any chance of life. He had often said so, in his former illnesses, and thought so, yet always till now with some tacit grain of counter-hope; he had never clearly felt so as now: Here is the end; the great change is now here!-Seeing how it was, then, he earnestly gathered all his strength to do this last act of his tragedy, as he had striven to do the others, in a pious and manful manner. As I believe we can say he did; few men in any time more piously or manfully. For about six months he sat looking steadfastly, at all moments, into the eyes of Death; he too who had eyes to see Death and the Terrors and Eternities; and surely it was with perfect courage and piety, and valiant simplicity of heart, that he bore himself, and did and thought and suffered, in this trying predicament, more terrible than the usual death of men. All strength left to him he still employed in working: day by day the end came nearer, but day by day also some new portion of his adjustments was completed, by some small stage his task was nearer done. His domestic and other affairs, of all sorts, he settled to the last item. Of his own Papers he saved a few, giving brief pertinent directions about them; great quantities, among which a certain Autobiography begun some years ago at Clifton, he ruthlessly burnt, judging that the best. To his friends he left messages, memorials of books: I have a Gough's Camden, and other relics, which came to me in that way, and are among my sacred possessions. The very Letters of his friends he sorted and returned; had each friend's Letters made into a packet, sealed with black, and duly addressed for delivery when the time should come.

At an early period of his illness, all visitors had of course been excluded, except his most intimate ones: before long, so soon as the end became apparent, he took leave even of his Father, to avoid excitements and intolerable emotions; and except his Brother and the Maurices, who were generally about him coming and going, none were admitted. This latter form of life, I think, continued for above three months. Men were still working about his grounds, of whom he took some charge; needful works, great and small, let them not pause on account of him. He still rose from bed; had still some portion of his day which he could spend in his Library. Besides business there, he read a good deal,-earnest books; the Bible, most earnest of books, his chief favorite. He still even wrote a good deal. To his eldest Boy, now Mr. Newman's ward, who had been removed to the Maurices' since the beginning of this illness, he addressed, every day or two, sometimes daily, for eight or nine weeks, a Letter, of general paternal advice and exhortation; interspersing sparingly, now and then, such notices of his own feelings and condition as could be addressed to a boy. These Letters, I have lately read: they give, beyond any he has written, a noble image of the intrinsic Sterling;-the same face we had long known; but painted now as on the azure of Eternity, serene, victorious, divinely sad; the dusts and extraneous disfigurements imprinted on it by the world, now washed away. One little Excerpt, not the best, but the fittest for its neighborhood here, will be welcome to the reader:-

"To Master Edward C. Sterling, London.

"HILLSIDE, VENTNOR, 29th June, 1844.

"MY DEAR BOY,-We have been going on here as quietly as possible, with no event that I know of. There is nothing except books to occupy me. But you may suppose that my thoughts often move towards you, and that I fancy what you may be doing in the great City,-the greatest on the Earth,-where I spent so many years of my life. I first saw London when I was between eight and nine years old, and then lived in or near it for the whole of the next ten, and more there than anywhere else for seven years longer. Since then I have hardly ever been a year without seeing the place, and have often lived in it for a considerable time. There I grew from childhood to be a man. My little Brothers and Sisters, and since, my Mother, died and are buried there. There I first saw your Mamma, and was there married. It seems as if, in some strange way, London were a part of Me or I of London. I think of it often, not as full of noise and dust and confusion, but as something silent, grand and everlasting.

"When I fancy how you are walking in the same streets, and moving along the same river, that I used to watch so intently, as if in a dream, when younger than you are,-I could gladly burst into tears, not of grief, but with a feeling that there is no name for. Everything is so wonderful, great and holy, so sad and yet not bitter, so full of Death and so bordering on Heaven. Can you understand anything of this? If you can, you will begin to know what a serious matter our Life is; how unworthy and stupid it is to trifle it away without heed; what a wretched, insignificant, worthless creature any one comes to be, who does not as soon as possible bend his whole strength, as in stringing a stiff bow, to doing whatever task lies first before him....

"We have a mist here to-day from the sea. It reminds me of that which I used to see from my house in St, Vincent, rolling over the great volcano and the mountains round it. I used to look at it from our windows with your Mamma, and you a little baby in her arms.

"This Letter is not so well written as I could wish, but I hope you will be able to read it.

"Your affectionate Papa,

"JOHN STERLING."

These Letters go from June 9th to August 2d, at which latter date vacation-time arrived, and the Boy returned to him. The Letters are preserved; and surely well worth preserving.

In this manner he wore the slow doomed months away. Day after day his little period of Library went on waning, shrinking into less and less; but I think it never altogether ended till the general end came.-For courage, for active audacity we had all known Sterling; but such a fund of mild stoicism, of devout patience and heroic composure, we did not hitherto know in him. His sufferings, his sorrows, all his unutterabilities in this slow agony, he held right manfully down; marched loyally, as at the bidding of the Eternal, into the dread Kingdoms, and no voice of weakness was heard from him. Poor noble Sterling, he had struggled so high and gained so little here! But this also he did gain, to be a brave man; and it was much.

Summer passed into Autumn: Sterling's earthly businesses, to the last detail of them, were now all as good as done: his strength too was wearing to its end, his daily turn in the Library shrunk now to a span. He had to hold himself as if in readiness for the great voyage at any moment. One other Letter I must give; not quite the last message I had from Sterling, but the last that can be inserted here: a brief Letter, fit to be forever memorable to the receiver of it:-

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

"HILLSIDE, VENTNOR, 10th August, 1844.

MY DEAR CARLYLE,-For the first time for many months it seems possible to send you a few words; merely, however, for Remembrance and Farewell. On higher matters there is nothing to say. I tread the common road into the great darkness, without any thought of fear, and with very much of hope. Certainty indeed I have none. With regard to You and Me I cannot begin to write; having nothing for it but to keep shut the lid of those secrets with all the iron weights that are in my power. Towards me it is still more true than towards England that no man has been and done like you. Heaven bless you! If I can lend a hand when THERE, that will not be wanting. It is all very strange, but not one hundredth part so sad as it seems to the standers-by.

"Your Wife knows my mind towards her, and will believe it without asseverations.

"Yours to the last,

"JOHN STERLING."

It was a bright Sunday morning when this letter came to me: if in the great Cathedral of Immensity I did no worship that day, the fault surely was my own. Sterling affectionately refused to see me; which also was kind and wise. And four days before his death, there are some stanzas of verse for me, written as if in star-fire and immortal tears; which are among my sacred possessions, to be kept for myself alone.

His business with the world was done; the one business now to await silently what may lie in other grander worlds. "God is great," he was wont to say: "God is great." The Maurices were now constantly near him; Mrs. Maurice assiduously watching over him. On the evening of Wednesday the 18th of September, his Brother, as he did every two or three days, came down; found him in the old temper, weak in strength but not very sensibly weaker; they talked calmly together for an hour; then Anthony left his bedside, and retired for the night, not expecting any change. But suddenly, about eleven o'clock, there came a summons and alarm: hurrying to his Brother's room, he found his Brother dying; and in a short while more the faint last struggle was ended, and all those struggles and strenuous often-foiled endeavors of eight-and-thirty years lay hushed in death.

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