Thursday, November 8, 2007



By Thomas Carlyle.
Near seven years ago, a short while before his death in 1844, John
Sterling committed the care of his literary Character and printed
Writings to two friends, Archdeacon Hare and myself. His estimate of
the bequest was far from overweening; to few men could the small
sum-total of his activities in this world seem more inconsiderable
than, in those last solemn days, it did to him. He had burnt much;
found much unworthy; looking steadfastly into the silent continents of
Death and Eternity, a brave man's judgments about his own sorry work
in the field of Time are not apt to be too lenient. But, in fine,
here was some portion of his work which the world had already got hold
of, and which he could not burn. This too, since it was not to be
abolished and annihilated, but must still for some time live and act,
he wished to be wisely settled, as the rest had been. And so it was
left in charge to us, the survivors, to do for it what we judged
fittest, if indeed doing nothing did not seem the fittest to us. This
message, communicated after his decease, was naturally a sacred one to
Mr. Hare and me.
After some consultation on it, and survey of the difficulties and
delicate considerations involved in it, Archdeacon Hare and I agreed
that the whole task, of selecting what Writings were to be reprinted,
and of drawing up a Biography to introduce them, should be left to him
alone; and done without interference of mine:--as accordingly it
was,[1] in a manner surely far superior to the common, in every good quality
of editing; and visibly everywhere bearing testimony to the
friendliness, the piety, perspicacity and other gifts and virtues of
that eminent and amiable man.
In one respect, however, if in one only, the arrangement had been
unfortunate. Archdeacon Hare, both by natural tendency and by his
position as a Churchman, had been led, in editing a Work not free from
ecclesiastical heresies, and especially in writing a Life very full of
such, to dwell with preponderating emphasis on that part of his
subject; by no means extenuating the fact, nor yet passing lightly
over it (which a layman could have done) as needing no extenuation;
but carefully searching into it, with the view of excusing and
explaining it; dwelling on it, presenting all the documents of it, and
as it were spreading it over the whole field of his delineation; as if
religious heterodoxy had been the grand fact of Sterling's life, which
even to the Archdeacon's mind it could by no means seem to be. _Hinc
illae lachrymae_. For the Religious Newspapers, and Periodical
Heresy-hunters, getting very lively in those years, were prompt to
seize the cue; and have prosecuted and perhaps still prosecute it, in
their sad way, to all lengths and breadths. John Sterling's character
and writings, which had little business to be spoken of in any
Church-court, have hereby been carried thither as if for an exclusive
trial; and the mournfulest set of pleadings, out of which nothing but
a misjudgment _can_ be formed, prevail there ever since. The noble
Sterling, a radiant child of the empyrean, clad in bright auroral hues
in the memory of all that knew him,--what is he doing here in
inquisitorial _sanbenito_, with nothing but ghastly spectralities
prowling round him, and inarticulately screeching and gibbering what
they call their judgment on him!
"The sin of Hare's Book," says one of my Correspondents in those
years, "is easily defined, and not very condemnable, but it is
nevertheless ruinous to his task as Biographer. He takes up Sterling
as a clergyman merely. Sterling, I find, was a curate for exactly
eight months; during eight months and no more had he any special
relation to the Church. But he was a man, and had relation to the
Universe, for eight-and-thirty years: and it is in this latter
character, to which all the others were but features and transitory
hues, that we wish to know him. His battle with hereditary Church
formulas was severe; but it was by no means his one battle with things
inherited, nor indeed his chief battle; neither, according to my
observation of what it was, is it successfully delineated or summed up
in this Book. The truth is, nobody that had known Sterling would
recognize a feature of him here; you would never dream that this Book
treated of _him_ at all. A pale sickly shadow in torn surplice is
presented to us here; weltering bewildered amid heaps of what you call
'Hebrew Old-clothes;' wrestling, with impotent impetuosity, to free
itself from the baleful imbroglio, as if that had been its one
function in life: who in this miserable figure would recognize the
brilliant, beautiful and cheerful John Sterling, with his ever-flowing
wealth of ideas, fancies, imaginations; with his frank affections,
inexhaustible hopes, audacities, activities, and general radiant
vivacity of heart and intelligence, which made the presence of him an
illumination and inspiration wherever he went? It is too bad. Let a
man be honestly forgotten when his life ends; but let him not be
misremembered in this way. To be hung up as an ecclesiastical
scarecrow, as a target for heterodox and orthodox to practice archery
upon, is no fate that can be due to the memory of Sterling. It was
not as a ghastly phantasm, choked in Thirty-nine-article
controversies, or miserable Semitic, Anti-Semitic street-riots,--in
scepticisms, agonized self-seekings, that this man appeared in life;
nor as such, if the world still wishes to look at him should you
suffer the world's memory of him now to be. Once for all, it is
unjust; emphatically untrue as an image of John Sterling: perhaps to
few men that lived along with him could such an interpretation of
their existence be more inapplicable."
Whatever truth there might be in these rather passionate
representations, and to myself there wanted not a painful feeling of
their truth, it by no means appeared what help or remedy any friend of
Sterling's, and especially one so related to the matter as myself,
could attempt in the interim. Perhaps endure in patience till the
dust laid itself again, as all dust does if you leave it well alone?
Much obscuration would thus of its own accord fall away; and, in Mr.
Hare's narrative itself, apart from his commentary, many features of
Sterling's true character would become decipherable to such as sought
them. Censure, blame of this Work of Mr. Hare's was naturally far
from my thoughts. A work which distinguishes itself by human piety
and candid intelligence; which, in all details, is careful, lucid,
exact; and which offers, as we say, to the observant reader that will
interpret facts, many traits of Sterling besides his heterodoxy.
Censure of it, from me especially, is not the thing due; from me a far
other thing is due!--
On the whole, my private thought was: First, How happy it
comparatively is, for a man of any earnestness of life, to have no
Biography written of him; but to return silently, with his small,
sorely foiled bit of work, to the Supreme Silences, who alone can
judge of it or him; and not to trouble the reviewers, and greater or
lesser public, with attempting to judge it! The idea of "fame," as
they call it, posthumous or other, does not inspire one with much
ecstasy in these points of view.--Secondly, That Sterling's
performance and real or seeming importance in this world was actually
not of a kind to demand an express Biography, even according to the
world's usages. His character was not supremely original; neither was
his fate in the world wonderful. What he did was inconsiderable
enough; and as to what it lay in him to have done, this was but a
problem, now beyond possibility of settlement. Why had a Biography
been inflicted on this man; why had not No-biography, and the
privilege of all the weary, been his lot?--Thirdly, That such lot,
however, could now no longer be my good Sterling's; a tumult having
risen around his name, enough to impress some pretended likeness of
him (about as like as the Guy-Fauxes are, on Gunpowder-Day) upon the
minds of many men: so that he could not be forgotten, and could only
be misremembered, as matters now stood.
Whereupon, as practical conclusion to the whole, arose by degrees this
final thought, That, at some calmer season, when the theological dust
had well fallen, and both the matter itself, and my feelings on it,
were in a suitabler condition, I ought to give my testimony about this
friend whom I had known so well, and record clearly what my knowledge
of him was. This has ever since seemed a kind of duty I had to do in
the world before leaving it.
And so, having on my hands some leisure at this time, and being bound
to it by evident considerations, one of which ought to be especially
sacred to me, I decide to fling down on paper some outline of what my
recollections and reflections contain in reference to this most
friendly, bright and beautiful human soul; who walked with me for a
season in this world, and remains to me very memorable while I
continue in it. Gradually, if facts simple enough in themselves can
be narrated as they came to pass, it will be seen what kind of man
this was; to what extent condemnable for imaginary heresy and other
crimes, to what extent laudable and lovable for noble manful
_orthodoxy_ and other virtues;--and whether the lesson his life had to
teach us is not much the reverse of what the Religious Newspapers
hitherto educe from it.
Certainly it was not as a "sceptic" that you could define him,
whatever his definition might be. Belief, not doubt, attended him at
all points of his progress; rather a tendency to too hasty and
headlong belief. Of all men he was the least prone to what you could
call scepticism: diseased self-listenings, self-questionings,
impotently painful dubitations, all this fatal nosology of spiritual
maladies, so rife in our day, was eminently foreign to him. Quite on
the other side lay Sterling's faults, such as they were. In fact, you
could observe, in spite of his sleepless intellectual vivacity, he was
not properly a thinker at all; his faculties were of the active, not
of the passive or contemplative sort. A brilliant _improvisatore_;
rapid in thought, in word and in act; everywhere the promptest and
least hesitating of men. I likened him often, in my banterings, to
sheet-lightning; and reproachfully prayed that he would concentrate
himself into a bolt, and rive the mountain-barriers for us, instead of
merely playing on them and irradiating them.
True, he had his "religion" to seek, and painfully shape together for
himself, out of the abysses of conflicting disbelief and sham-belief
and bedlam delusion, now filling the world, as all men of reflection
have; and in this respect too,--more especially as his lot in the
battle appointed for us all was, if you can understand it, victory and
not defeat,--he is an expressive emblem of his time, and an
instruction and possession to his contemporaries. For, I say, it is
by no means as a vanquished _doubter_ that he figures in the memory of
those who knew him; but rather as a victorious _believer_, and under
great difficulties a victorious doer. An example to us all, not of
lamed misery, helpless spiritual bewilderment and sprawling despair,
or any kind of _drownage_ in the foul welter of our so-called
religious or other controversies and confusions; but of a swift and
valiant vanquisher of all these; a noble asserter of himself, as
worker and speaker, in spite of all these. Continually, so far as he
went, he was a teacher, by act and word, of hope, clearness, activity,
veracity, and human courage and nobleness: the preacher of a good
gospel to all men, not of a bad to any man. The man, whether in
priest's cassock or other costume of men, who is the enemy or hater of
John Sterling, may assure himself that he does not yet know him,--that
miserable differences of mere costume and dialect still divide him,
whatsoever is worthy, catholic and perennial in him, from a brother
soul who, more than most in his day, was his brother and not his
adversary in regard to all that.
Nor shall the irremediable drawback that Sterling was not current in
the Newspapers, that he achieved neither what the world calls
greatness nor what intrinsically is such, altogether discourage me.
What his natural size, and natural and accidental limits were, will
gradually appear, if my sketching be successful. And I have remarked
that a true delineation of the smallest man, and his scene of
pilgrimage through life, is capable of interesting the greatest man;
that all men are to an unspeakable degree brothers, each man's life a
strange emblem of every man's; and that Human Portraits, faithfully
drawn, are of all pictures the welcomest on human walls. Monitions
and moralities enough may lie in this small Work, if honestly written
and honestly read;--and, in particular, if any image of John Sterling
and his Pilgrimage through our poor Nineteenth Century be one day
wanted by the world, and they can find some shadow of a true image
here, my swift scribbling (which shall be very swift and immediate)
may prove useful by and by.
John Sterling was born at Kaimes Castle, a kind of dilapidated
baronial residence to which a small farm was then attached, rented by
his Father, in the Isle of Bute,--on the 20th July, 1806. Both his
parents were Irish by birth, Scotch by extraction; and became, as he
himself did, essentially English by long residence and habit. Of John
himself Scotland has little or nothing to claim except the birth and
genealogy, for he left it almost before the years of memory; and in
his mature days regarded it, if with a little more recognition and
intelligence, yet without more participation in any of its accents
outward or inward, than others natives of Middlesex or Surrey, where
the scene of his chief education lay.
The climate of Bute is rainy, soft of temperature; with skies of
unusual depth and brilliancy, while the weather is fair. In that soft
rainy climate, on that wild-wooded rocky coast, with its gnarled
mountains and green silent valleys, with its seething rain-storms and
many-sounding seas, was young Sterling ushered into his first
schooling in this world. I remember one little anecdote his Father
told me of those first years: One of the cows had calved; young John,
still in petticoats, was permitted to go, holding by his father's
hand, and look at the newly arrived calf; a mystery which he surveyed
with open intent eyes, and the silent exercise of all the scientific
faculties he had;--very strange mystery indeed, this new arrival, and
fresh denizen of our Universe: "Wull't eat a-body?" said John in his
first practical Scotch, inquiring into the tendencies this mystery
might have to fall upon a little fellow and consume him as provision:
"Will it eat one, Father?"--Poor little open-eyed John: the family
long bantered him with this anecdote; and we, in far other years,
laughed heartily on hearing it.--Simple peasant laborers, ploughers,
house-servants, occasional fisher-people too; and the sight of ships,
and crops, and Nature's doings where Art has little meddled with her:
this was the kind of schooling our young friend had, first of all; on
this bench of the grand world-school did he sit, for the first four
years of his life.
Edward Sterling his Father, a man who subsequently came to
considerable notice in the world, was originally of Waterford in
Munster; son of the Episcopalian Clergyman there; and chief
representative of a family of some standing in those parts. Family
founded, it appears, by a Colonel Robert Sterling, called also Sir
Robert Sterling; a Scottish Gustavus-Adolphus soldier, whom the
breaking out of the Civil War had recalled from his German
campaignings, and had before long, though not till after some
waverings on his part, attached firmly to the Duke of Ormond and to
the King's Party in that quarrel. A little bit of genealogy, since it
lies ready to my hand, gathered long ago out of wider studies, and
pleasantly connects things individual and present with the dim
universal crowd of things past,--may as well be inserted here as
thrown away.
This Colonel Robert designates himself Sterling "of Glorat;" I
believe, a younger branch of the well-known Stirlings of Keir in
Stirlingshire. It appears he prospered in his soldiering and other
business, in those bad Ormond times; being a man of energy, ardor and
intelligence,--probably prompt enough both with his word and with his
stroke. There survives yet, in the Commons Journals,[2] dim notice of
his controversies and adventures; especially of one controversy he had
got into with certain victorious Parliamentary official parties, while
his own party lay vanquished, during what was called the Ormond
Cessation, or Temporary Peace made by Ormond with the Parliament in
1646:--in which controversy Colonel Robert, after repeated
applications, journeyings to London, attendances upon committees, and
such like, finds himself worsted, declared to be in the wrong; and so
vanishes from the Commons Journals.
What became of him when Cromwell got to Ireland, and to Munster, I
have not heard: his knighthood, dating from the very year of
Cromwell's Invasion (1649), indicates a man expected to do his best on
the occasion:--as in all probability he did; had not Tredah Storm
proved ruinous, and the neck of this Irish War been broken at once.
Doubtless the Colonel Sir Robert followed or attended his Duke of
Ormond into foreign parts, and gave up his management of Munster,
while it was yet time: for after the Restoration we find him again,
safe, and as was natural, flourishing with new splendor; gifted,
recompensed with lands;--settled, in short, on fair revenues in those
Munster regions. He appears to have had no children; but to have left
his property to William, a younger brother who had followed him into
Ireland. From this William descends the family which, in the years we
treat of, had Edward Sterling, Father of our John, for its
representative. And now enough of genealogy.
Of Edward Sterling, Captain Edward Sterling as his title was, who in
the latter period of his life became well known in London political
society, whom indeed all England, with a curious mixture of mockery
and respect and even fear, knew well as "the Thunderer of the Times
Newspaper," there were much to be said, did the present task and its
limits permit. As perhaps it might, on certain terms? What is
indispensable let us not omit to say. The history of a man's
childhood is the description of his parents and environment: this is
his inarticulate but highly important history, in those first times,
while of articulate he has yet none.
Edward Sterling had now just entered on his thirty-fourth year; and
was already a man experienced in fortunes and changes. A native of
Waterford in Munster, as already mentioned; born in the "Deanery House
of Waterford, 27th February, 1773," say the registers. For his
Father, as we learn, resided in the Deanery House, though he was not
himself Dean, but only "Curate of the Cathedral" (whatever that may
mean); he was withal rector of two other livings, and the Dean's
friend,--friend indeed of the Dean's kinsmen the Beresfords generally;
whose grand house of Curraghmore, near by Waterford, was a familiar
haunt of his and his children's. This reverend gentleman, along with
his three livings and high acquaintanceships, had inherited political
connections;--inherited especially a Government Pension, with
survivorship for still one life beyond his own; his father having been
Clerk of the Irish House of Commons at the time of the Union, of which
office the lost salary was compensated in this way. The Pension was
of two hundred pounds; and only expired with the life of Edward,
John's Father, in 1847. There were, and still are, daughters of the
family; but Edward was the only son;--descended, too, from the
Scottish hero Wallace, as the old gentleman would sometimes admonish
him; his own wife, Edward's mother, being of that name, and boasting
herself, as most Scotch Wallaces do, to have that blood in her veins.
This Edward had picked up, at Waterford, and among the young
Beresfords of Curraghmore and elsewhere, a thoroughly Irish form of
character: fire and fervor, vitality of all kinds, in genial
abundance; but in a much more loquacious, ostentatious, much _louder_
style than is freely patronized on this side of the Channel. Of Irish
accent in speech he had entirely divested himself, so as not to be
traced by any vestige in that respect; but his Irish accent of
character, in all manner of other more important respects, was very
recognizable. An impetuous man, full of real energy, and immensely
conscious of the same; who transacted everything not with the minimum
of fuss and noise, but with the maximum: a very Captain Whirlwind, as
one was tempted to call him.
In youth, he had studied at Trinity College, Dublin; visited the Inns
of Court here, and trained himself for the Irish Bar. To the Bar he
had been duly called, and was waiting for the results,--when, in his
twenty-fifth year, the Irish Rebellion broke out; whereupon the Irish
Barristers decided to raise a corps of loyal Volunteers, and a
complete change introduced itself into Edward Sterling's way of life.
For, naturally, he had joined the array of Volunteers;--fought, I have
heard, "in three actions with the rebels" (Vinegar Hill, for one); and
doubtless fought well: but in the mess-rooms, among the young
military and civil officials, with all of whom he was a favorite, he
had acquired a taste for soldier life, and perhaps high hopes of
succeeding in it: at all events, having a commission in the
Lancashire Militia offered him, he accepted that; altogether quitted
the Bar, and became Captain Sterling thenceforth. From the Militia,
it appears, he had volunteered with his Company into the Line; and,
under some disappointments, and official delays of expected promotion,
was continuing to serve as Captain there, "Captain of the Eighth
Battalion of Reserve," say the Military Almanacs of 1803,--in which
year the quarters happened to be Derry, where new events awaited him.
At a ball in Derry he met with Miss Hester Coningham, the queen of the
scene, and of the fair world in Derry at that time. The acquaintance,
in spite of some Opposition, grew with vigor, and rapidly ripened:
and "at Fehan Church, Diocese of Derry," where the Bride's father had
a country-house, "on Thursday 5th April, 1804, Hester Coningham, only
daughter of John Coningham, Esquire, Merchant in Derry, and of
Elizabeth Campbell his wife," was wedded to Captain Sterling; she
happiest to him happiest,--as by Nature's kind law it is arranged.
Mrs. Sterling, even in her later days, had still traces of the old
beauty: then and always she was a woman of delicate, pious,
affectionate character; exemplary as a wife, a mother and a friend. A
refined female nature; something tremulous in it, timid, and with a
certain rural freshness still unweakened by long converse with the
world. The tall slim figure, always of a kind of quaker neatness; the
innocent anxious face, anxious bright hazel eyes; the timid, yet
gracefully cordial ways, the natural intelligence, instinctive sense
and worth, were very characteristic. Her voice too; with its
something of soft querulousness, easily adapting itself to a light
thin-flowing style of mirth on occasion, was characteristic: she had
retained her Ulster intonations, and was withal somewhat copious in
speech. A fine tremulously sensitive nature, strong chiefly on the
side of the affections, and the graceful insights and activities that
depend on these:--truly a beautiful, much-suffering, much-loving
house-mother. From her chiefly, as one could discern, John Sterling
had derived the delicate _aroma_ of his nature, its piety, clearness,
sincerity; as from his Father, the ready practical gifts, the
impetuosities and the audacities, were also (though in strange new
form) visibly inherited. A man was lucky to have such a Mother; to
have such Parents as both his were.
Meanwhile the new Wife appears to have had, for the present, no
marriage-portion; neither was Edward Sterling rich,--according to his
own ideas and aims, far from it. Of course he soon found that the
fluctuating barrack-life, especially with no outlooks of speedy
promotion, was little suited to his new circumstances: but how change
it? His father was now dead; from whom he had inherited the Speaker
Pension of two hundred pounds; but of available probably little or
nothing more. The rents of the small family estate, I suppose, and
other property, had gone to portion sisters. Two hundred pounds, and
the pay of a marching captain: within the limits of that revenue all
plans of his had to restrict themselves at present.
He continued for some time longer in the Army; his wife undivided from
him by the hardships, of that way of life. Their first son Anthony
(Captain Anthony Sterling, the only child who now survives) was born
to them in this position, while lying at Dundalk, in January, 1805.
Two months later, some eleven months after their marriage, the
regiment was broken; and Captain Sterling, declining to serve
elsewhere on the terms offered, and willingly accepting such decision
of his doubts, was reduced to half-pay. This was the end of his
soldiering: some five or six years in all; from which he had derived
for life, among other things, a decided military bearing, whereof he
was rather proud; an incapacity for practicing law;--and considerable
uncertainty as to what his next course of life was now to be.
For the present, his views lay towards farming: to establish himself,
if not as country gentleman, which was an unattainable ambition, then
at least as some kind of gentleman-farmer which had a flattering
resemblance to that. Kaimes Castle with a reasonable extent of land,
which, in his inquiries after farms, had turned up, was his first
place of settlement in this new capacity; and here, for some few
months, he had established himself when John his second child was
born. This was Captain Sterling's first attempt towards a fixed
course of life; not a very wise one, I have understood:--yet on the
whole, who, then and there, could have pointed out to him a wiser?
A fixed course of life and activity he could never attain, or not till
very late; and this doubtless was among the important points of his
destiny, and acted both on his own character and that of those who had
to attend him on his wayfarings.
Edward Sterling never shone in farming; indeed I believe he never took
heartily to it, or tried it except in fits. His Bute farm was, at
best, a kind of apology for some far different ideal of a country
establishment which could not be realized; practically a temporary
landing-place from which he could make sallies and excursions in
search of some more generous field of enterprise. Stormy brief
efforts at energetic husbandry, at agricultural improvement and rapid
field-labor, alternated with sudden flights to Dublin, to London,
whithersoever any flush of bright outlook which he could denominate
practical, or any gleam of hope which his impatient ennui could
represent as such, allured him. This latter was often enough the
case. In wet hay-times and harvest-times, the dripping outdoor world,
and lounging indoor one, in the absence of the master, offered far
from a satisfactory appearance! Here was, in fact, a man much
imprisoned; haunted, I doubt not, by demons enough; though ever brisk
and brave withal,--iracund, but cheerfully vigorous, opulent in wise
or unwise hope. A fiery energetic soul consciously and unconsciously
storming for deliverance into better arenas; and this in a restless,
rapid, impetuous, rather than in a strong, silent and deliberate way.
In rainy Bute and the dilapidated Kaimes Castle, it was evident, there
lay no Goshen for such a man. The lease, originally but for some
three years and a half, drawing now to a close, he resolved to quit
Bute; had heard, I know not where, of an eligible cottage without farm
attached, in the pleasant little village of Llanblethian close by
Cowbridge in Glamorganshire; of this he took a lease, and thither with
his family he moved in search of new fortunes. Glamorganshire was at
least a better climate than Bute; no groups of idle or of busy reapers
could here stand waiting on the guidance of a master, for there was no
farm here;--and among its other and probably its chief though secret
advantages, Llanblethian was much more convenient both for Dublin and
London than Kaimes Castle had been.
The removal thither took place in the autumn of 1809. Chief part of
the journey (perhaps from Greenock to Swansea or Bristol) was by sea:
John, just turned of three years, could in after-times remember
nothing of this voyage; Anthony, some eighteen months older, has still
a vivid recollection of the gray splashing tumult, and dim sorrow,
uncertainty, regret and distress he underwent: to him a
"dissolving-view" which not only left its effect on the _plate_ (as
all views and dissolving-views doubtless do on that kind of "plate"),
but remained consciously present there. John, in the close of his
twenty-first year, professes not to remember anything whatever of
Bute; his whole existence, in that earliest scene of it, had faded
away from him: Bute also, with its shaggy mountains, moaning woods,
and summer and winter seas, had been wholly a dissolving-view for him,
and had left no conscious impression, but only, like this voyage, an
Llanblethian hangs pleasantly, with its white cottages, and orchard
and other trees, on the western slope of a green hill looking far and
wide over green meadows and little or bigger hills, in the pleasant
plain of Glamorgan; a short mile to the south of Cowbridge, to which
smart little town it is properly a kind of suburb. Plain of
Glamorgan, some ten miles wide and thirty or forty long, which they
call the Vale of Glamorgan;--though properly it is not quite a Vale,
there being only one range of mountains to it, if even one: certainly
the central Mountains of Wales do gradually rise, in a miscellaneous
manner, on the north side of it; but on the south are no mountains,
not even land, only the Bristol Channel, and far off, the Hills of
Devonshire, for boundary,--the "English Hills," as the natives call
them, visible from every eminence in those parts. On such wide terms
is it called Vale of Glamorgan. But called by whatever name, it is a
most pleasant fruitful region: kind to the native, interesting to the
visitor. A waving grassy region; cut with innumerable ragged lanes;
dotted with sleepy unswept human hamlets, old ruinous castles with
their ivy and their daws, gray sleepy churches with their ditto ditto:
for ivy everywhere abounds; and generally a rank fragrant vegetation
clothes all things; hanging, in rude many-colored festoons and fringed
odoriferous tapestries, on your right and on your left, in every lane.
A country kinder to the sluggard husbandman than any I have ever seen.
For it lies all on limestone, needs no draining; the soil, everywhere
of handsome depth and finest quality, will grow good crops for you
with the most imperfect tilling. At a safe distance of a day's riding
lie the tartarean copper-forges of Swansea, the tartarean iron-forges
of Merthyr; their sooty battle far away, and not, at such safe
distance, a defilement to the face of the earth and sky, but rather an
encouragement to the earth at least; encouraging the husbandman to
plough better, if he only would.
The peasantry seem indolent and stagnant, but peaceable and
well-provided; much given to Methodism when they have any
character;--for the rest, an innocent good-humored people, who all
drink home-brewed beer, and have brown loaves of the most excellent
home-baked bread. The native peasant village is not generally
beautiful, though it might be, were it swept and trimmed; it gives one
rather the idea of sluttish stagnancy,--an interesting peep into the
Welsh Paradise of Sleepy Hollow. Stones, old kettles, naves of
wheels, all kinds of broken litter, with live pigs and etceteras, lie
about the street: for, as a rule, no rubbish is removed, but waits
patiently the action of mere natural chemistry and accident; if even a
house is burnt or falls, you will find it there after half a century,
only cloaked by the ever-ready ivy. Sluggish man seems never to have
struck a pick into it; his new hut is built close by on ground not
encumbered, and the old stones are still left lying.
This is the ordinary Welsh village; but there are exceptions, where
people of more cultivated tastes have been led to settle, and
Llanblethian is one of the more signal of these. A decidedly cheerful
group of human homes, the greater part of them indeed belonging to
persons of refined habits; trimness, shady shelter, whitewash, neither
conveniency nor decoration has been neglected here. Its effect from
the distance on the eastward is very pretty: you see it like a little
sleeping cataract of white houses, with trees overshadowing and
fringing it; and there the cataract hangs, and does not rush away from
John Sterling spent his next five years in this locality. He did not
again see it for a quarter of a century; but retained, all his life, a
lively remembrance of it; and, just in the end of his twenty-first
year, among his earliest printed pieces, we find an elaborate and
diffuse description of it and its relations to him,--part of which
piece, in spite of its otherwise insignificant quality, may find place
"The fields on which I first looked, and the sands which were marked
by my earliest footsteps, are completely lost to my memory; and of
those ancient walls among which I began to breathe, I retain no
recollection more clear than the outlines of a cloud in a moonless
sky. But of L----, the village where I afterwards lived, I persuade
myself that every line and hue is more deeply and accurately fixed
than those of any spot I have since beheld, even though borne in upon
the heart by the association of the strongest feelings.
"My home was built upon the slope of a hill, with a little orchard
stretching down before it, and a garden rising behind. At a
considerable distance beyond and beneath the orchard, a rivulet flowed
through meadows and turned a mill; while, above the garden, the summit
of the hill was crowned by a few gray rocks, from which a yew-tree
grew, solitary and bare. Extending at each side of the orchard,
toward the brook, two scattered patches of cottages lay nestled among
their gardens; and beyond this streamlet and the little mill and
bridge, another slight eminence arose, divided into green fields,
tufted and bordered with copsewood, and crested by a ruined castle,
contemporary, as was said, with the Conquest. I know not whether these
things in truth made up a prospect of much beauty. Since I was eight
years old, I have never seen them; but I well know that no landscape I
have since beheld, no picture of Claude or Salvator, gave me half the
impression of living, heartfelt, perfect beauty which fills my mind
when I think of that green valley, that sparkling rivulet, that broken
fortress of dark antiquity, and that hill with its aged yew and breezy
summit, from which I have so often looked over the broad stretch of
verdure beneath it, and the country-town, and church-tower, silent and
white beyond.
"In that little town there was, and I believe is, a school where the
elements of human knowledge were communicated to me, for some hours of
every day, during a considerable time. The path to it lay across the
rivulet and past the mill; from which point we could either journey
through the fields below the old castle, and the wood which surrounded
it, or along a road at the other side of the ruin, close to the
gateway of which it passed. The former track led through two or three
beautiful fields, the sylvan domain of the keep on one hand, and the
brook on the other; while an oak or two, like giant warders advanced
from the wood, broke the sunshine of the green with a soft and
graceful shadow. How often, on my way to school, have I stopped
beneath the tree to collect the fallen acorns; how often run down to
the stream to pluck a branch of the hawthorn which hung over the
water! The road which passed the castle joined, beyond these fields,
the path which traversed them. It took, I well remember, a certain
solemn and mysterious interest from the ruin. The shadow of the
archway, the discolorizations of time on all the walls, the dimness of
the little thicket which encircled it, the traditions of its
immeasurable age, made St. Quentin's Castle a wonderful and awful
fabric in the imagination of a child; and long after I last saw its
mouldering roughness, I never read of fortresses, or heights, or
spectres, or banditti, without connecting them with the one ruin of my
"It was close to this spot that one of the few adventures occurred
which marked, in my mind, my boyish days with importance. When
loitering beyond the castle, on the way to school, with a brother
somewhat older than myself, who was uniformly my champion and
protector, we espied a round sloe high up in the hedge-row. We
determined to obtain it; and I do not remember whether both of us, or
only my brother, climbed the tree. However, when the prize was all
but reached,--and no alchemist ever looked more eagerly for the moment
of projection which was to give him immortality and omnipotence,--a
gruff voice startled us with an oath, and an order to desist; and I
well recollect looking back, for long after, with terror to the vision
of an old and ill-tempered farmer, armed with a bill-hook, and vowing
our decapitation; nor did I subsequently remember without triumph the
eloquence whereby alone, in my firm belief, my brother and myself had
been rescued from instant death.
"At the entrance of the little town stood an old gateway, with a
pointed arch and decaying battlements. It gave admittance to the
street which contained the church, and which terminated in another
street, the principal one in the town of C----. In this was situated
the school to which I daily wended. I cannot now recall to mind the
face of its good conductor, nor of any of his scholars; but I have
before me a strong general image of the interior of his establishment.
I remember the reverence with which I was wont to carry to his seat a
well-thumbed duodecimo, the _History of Greece_ by Oliver Goldsmith.
I remember the mental agonies I endured in attempting to master the
art and mystery of penmanship; a craft in which, alas, I remained too
short a time under Mr. R---- to become as great a proficient as he
made his other scholars, and which my awkwardness has prevented me
from attaining in any considerable perfection under my various
subsequent pedagogues. But that which has left behind it a brilliant
trait of light was the exhibition of what are called 'Christmas
pieces;' things unknown in aristocratic seminaries, but constantly
used at the comparatively humble academy which supplied the best
knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic to be attained in that
remote neighborhood.
"The long desks covered from end to end with those painted
masterpieces, the Life of Robinson Crusoe, the Hunting of Chevy-Chase,
the History of Jack the Giant-Killer, and all the little eager faces
and trembling hands bent over these, and filling them up with some
choice quotation, sacred or profane;--no, the galleries of art, the
theatrical exhibitions, the reviews and processions,--which are only
not childish because they are practiced and admired by men instead of
children,--all the pomps and vanities of great cities, have shown me
no revelation of glory such as did that crowded school-room the week
before the Christmas holidays. But these were the splendors of life.
The truest and the strongest feelings do not connect themselves with
any scenes of gorgeous and gaudy magnificence; they are bound up in
the remembrances of home.
"The narrow orchard, with its grove of old apple-trees against one of
which I used to lean, and while I brandished a beanstalk, roar out
with Fitzjames,--
'Come one, come all; this rock shall fly
From its firm base as soon as I!'--
while I was ready to squall at the sight of a cur, and run valorously
away from a casually approaching cow; the field close beside it, where
I rolled about in summer among the hay; the brook in which, despite of
maid and mother, I waded by the hour; the garden where I sowed
flower-seeds, and then turned up the ground again and planted
potatoes, and then rooted out the potatoes to insert acorns and
apple-pips, and at last, as may be supposed, reaped neither roses, nor
potatoes, nor oak-trees, nor apples; the grass-plots on which I played
among those with whom I never can play nor work again: all these are
places and employments,--and, alas, playmates,--such as, if it were
worth while to weep at all, it would be worth weeping that I enjoy no
"I remember the house where I first grew familiar with peacocks; and
the mill-stream into which I once fell; and the religious awe
wherewith I heard, in the warm twilight, the psalm-singing around the
house of the Methodist miller; and the door-post against which I
discharged my brazen artillery; I remember the window by which I sat
while my mother taught me French; and the patch of garden which I dug
for-- But her name is best left blank; it was indeed writ in water.
These recollections are to me like the wealth of a departed friend, a
mournful treasure. But the public has heard enough of them; to it
they are worthless: they are a coin which only circulates at its true
value between the different periods of an individual's existence, and
good for nothing but to keep up a commerce between boyhood and
manhood. I have for years looked forward to the possibility of
visiting L----; but I am told that it is a changed village; and not
only has man been at work, but the old yew on the hill has fallen, and
scarcely a low stump remains of the tree which I delighted in
childhood to think might have furnished bows for the Norman
In Cowbridge is some kind of free school, or grammar-school, of a
certain distinction; and this to Captain Sterling was probably a
motive for settling in the neighborhood of it with his children. Of
this however, as it turned out, there was no use made: the Sterling
family, during its continuance in those parts, did not need more than
a primary school. The worthy master who presided over these Christmas
galas, and had the honor to teach John Sterling his reading and
writing, was an elderly Mr. Reece of Cowbridge, who still (in 1851)
survives, or lately did; and is still remembered by his old pupils as
a worthy, ingenious and kindly man, "who wore drab breeches and white
stockings." Beyond the Reece sphere of tuition John Sterling did not
go in this locality.
In fact the Sterling household was still fluctuating; the problem of a
task for Edward Sterling's powers, and of anchorage for his affairs in
any sense, was restlessly struggling to solve itself, but was still a
good way from being solved. Anthony, in revisiting these scenes with
John in 1839, mentions going to the spot "where we used to stand with
our Father, looking out for the arrival of the London mail:" a little
chink through which is disclosed to us a big restless section of a
human life. The Hill of Welsh Llanblethian, then, is like the mythic
Caucasus in its degree (as indeed all hills and habitations where men
sojourn are); and here too, on a small scale, is a Prometheus Chained!
Edward Sterling, I can well understand, was a man to tug at the chains
that held him idle in those the prime of his years; and to ask
restlessly, yet not in anger and remorse, so much as in hope,
locomotive speculation, and ever-new adventure and attempt, Is there
no task nearer my own natural size, then? So he looks out from the
Hill-side "for the arrival of the London mail;" thence hurries into
Cowbridge to the Post-office; and has a wide web, of threads and
gossamers, upon his loom, and many shuttles flying, in this world.
By the Marquis of Bute's appointment he had, very shortly after his
arrival in that region, become Adjutant of the Glamorganshire Militia,
"Local Militia," I suppose; and was, in this way, turning his military
capabilities to some use. The office involved pretty frequent
absences, in Cardiff and elsewhere. This doubtless was a welcome
outlet, though a small one. He had also begun to try writing,
especially on public subjects; a much more copious outlet,--which
indeed, gradually widening itself, became the final solution for him.
Of the year 1811 we have a Pamphlet of his, entitled _Military
Reform_; this is the second edition, "dedicated to the Duke of Kent;"
the first appears to have come out the year before, and had thus
attained a certain notice, which of course was encouraging. He now
furthermore opened a correspondence with the _Times_ Newspaper; wrote
to it, in 1812, a series of Letters under the signature _Vetus_:
voluntary Letters I suppose, without payment or pre-engagement, one
successful Letter calling out another; till _Vetus_ and his doctrines
came to be a distinguishable entity, and the business amounted to
something. Out of my own earliest Newspaper reading, I can remember
the name _Vetus_, as a kind of editorial hacklog on which able-editors
were wont to chop straw now and then. Nay the Letters were collected
and reprinted; both this first series, of 1812, and then a second of
next year: two very thin, very dim-colored cheap octavos; stray
copies of which still exist, and may one day become distillable into a
drop of History (should such be wanted of our poor "Scavenger Age" in
time coming), though the reading of them has long ceased in this
generation.[4] The first series, we perceive, had even gone to a
second edition. The tone, wherever one timidly glances into this
extinct cockpit, is trenchant and emphatic: the name of _Vetus_,
strenuously fighting there, had become considerable in the talking
political world; and, no doubt, was especially of mark, as that of a
writer who might otherwise be important, with the proprietors of the
_Times_. The connection continued: widened and deepened itself,--in
a slow tentative manner; passing naturally from voluntary into
remunerated: and indeed proving more and more to be the true ultimate
arena, and battle-field and seed-field, for the exuberant
impetuosities and faculties of this man.
What the _Letters of Vetus_ treated of I do not know; doubtless they
ran upon Napoleon, Catholic Emancipation, true methods of national
defence, of effective foreign Anti-gallicism, and of domestic ditto;
which formed the staple of editorial speculation at that time. I have
heard in general that Captain Sterling, then and afterwards, advocated
"the Marquis of Wellesley's policy;" but that also, what it was, I
have forgotten, and the world has been willing to forget. Enough, the
heads of the _Times_ establishment, perhaps already the Marquis of
Wellesley and other important persons, had their eye on this writer;
and it began to be surmised by him that here at last was the career he
had been seeking.
Accordingly, in 1814, when victorious Peace unexpectedly arrived; and
the gates of the Continent after five-and-twenty years of fierce
closure were suddenly thrown open; and the hearts of all English and
European men awoke staggering as if from a nightmare suddenly removed,
and ran hither and thither,--Edward Sterling also determined on a new
adventure, that of crossing to Paris, and trying what might lie in
store for him. For curiosity, in its idler sense, there was evidently
pabulum enough. But he had hopes moreover of learning much that might
perhaps avail him afterwards;--hopes withal, I have understood, of
getting to be Foreign Correspondent of the _Times_ Newspaper, and so
adding to his income in the mean while. He left Llanblethian in May;
dates from Dieppe the 27th of that month. He lived in occasional
contact with Parisian notabilities (all of them except Madame de Stael
forgotten now), all summer, diligently surveying his ground;--returned
for his family, who were still in Wales but ready to move, in the
beginning of August; took them immediately across with him; a house in
the neighborhood of Paris, in the pleasant village of Passy at once
town and country, being now ready; and so, under foreign skies, again
set up his household there.
Here was a strange new "school" for our friend John now in his eighth
year! Out of which the little Anthony and he drank doubtless at all
pores, vigorously as they had done in no school before. A change
total and immediate. Somniferous green Llanblethian has suddenly been
blotted out; presto, here are wakeful Passy and the noises of paved
Paris instead. Innocent ingenious Mr. Reece in drab breeches and
white stockings, he with his mild Christmas galas and peaceable rules
of Dilworth and Butterworth, has given place to such a saturnalia of
panoramic, symbolic and other teachers and monitors, addressing all
the five senses at once. Who John's express tutors were, at Passy, I
never heard; nor indeed, especially in his case, was it much worth
inquiring. To him and to all of us, the expressly appointed
schoolmasters and schoolings we get are as nothing, compared with the
unappointed incidental and continual ones, whose school-hours are all
the days and nights of our existence, and whose lessons, noticed or
unnoticed, stream in upon us with every breath we draw. Anthony says
they attended a French school, though only for about three months; and
he well remembers the last scene of it, "the boys shouting _Vive
l'Empereur_ when Napoleon came back."
Of John Sterling's express schooling, perhaps the most important
feature, and by no means a favorable one to him, was the excessive
fluctuation that prevailed in it. Change of scene, change of teacher,
_both_ express and implied, was incessant with him; and gave his young
life a nomadic character,--which surely, of all the adventitious
tendencies that could have been impressed upon him, so volatile, swift
and airy a being as him, was the one he needed least. His gentle
pious-hearted Mother, ever watching over him in all outward changes,
and assiduously keeping human pieties and good affections alive in
him, was probably the best counteracting element in his lot. And on
the whole, have we not all to run our chance in that respect; and
take, the most victoriously we can, such schooling as pleases to be
attainable in our year and place? Not very victoriously, the most of
us! A wise well-calculated breeding of a young genial soul in this
world, or alas of any young soul in it, lies fatally over the horizon
in these epochs!--This French scene of things, a grand school of its
sort, and also a perpetual banquet for the young soul, naturally
captivated John Sterling; he said afterwards, "New things and
experiences here were poured upon his mind and sense, not in streams,
but in a Niagara cataract." This too, however, was but a scene;
lasted only some six or seven months; and in the spring of the next
year terminated as abruptly as any of the rest could do.
For in the spring of the next year, Napoleon abruptly emerged from
Elba; and set all the populations of the world in motion, in a strange
manner;--set the Sterling household afloat, in particular; the big
European tide rushing into all smallest creeks, at Passy and
elsewhere. In brief, on the 20th of March, 1815, the family had to
shift, almost to fly, towards home and the sea-coast; and for a day or
two were under apprehension of being detained and not reaching home.
Mrs. Sterling, with her children and effects, all in one big carriage
with two horses, made the journey to Dieppe; in perfect safety, though
in continual tremor: here they were joined by Captain Sterling, who
had stayed behind at Paris to see the actual advent of Napoleon, and
to report what the aspect of affairs was, "Downcast looks of citizens,
with fierce saturnalian acclaim of soldiery:" after which they
proceeded together to London without farther apprehension;--there to
witness, in due time, the tar-barrels of Waterloo, and other phenomena
that followed.
Captain Sterling never quitted London as a residence any more; and
indeed was never absent from it, except on autumnal or other
excursions of a few weeks, till the end of his life. Nevertheless his
course there was as yet by no means clear; nor had his relations with
the heads of the _Times_, or with other high heads, assumed a form
which could be called definite, but were hanging as a cloudy maze of
possibilities, firm substance not yet divided from shadow. It
continued so for some years. The Sterling household shifted twice or
thrice to new streets or localities,--Russell Square or Queen Square,
Blackfriars Road, and longest at the Grove, Blackheath,-- before the
vapors of Wellesley promotions and such like slowly sank as useless
precipitate, and the firm rock, which was definite employment, ending
in lucrative co-proprietorship and more and more important connection
with the _Times_ Newspaper, slowly disclosed itself.
These changes of place naturally brought changes in John Sterling's
schoolmasters: nor were domestic tragedies wanting, still more
important to him. New brothers and sisters had been born; two little
brothers more, three little sisters he had in all; some of whom came
to their eleventh year beside him, some passed away in their second or
fourth: but from his ninth to his sixteenth year they all died; and
in 1821 only Anthony and John were left.[5] How many tears, and
passionate pangs, and soft infinite regrets; such as are appointed to
all mortals! In one year, I find, indeed in one half-year, he lost
three little playmates, two of them within one month. His own age was
not yet quite twelve. For one of these three, for little Edward, his
next younger, who died now at the age of nine, Mr. Hare records that
John copied out, in large school-hand, a _History of Valentine and
Orson_, to beguile the poor child's sickness, which ended in death
soon, leaving a sad cloud on John.
Of his grammar and other schools, which, as I said, are hardly worth
enumerating in comparison, the most important seems to have been a Dr.
Burney's at Greenwich; a large day-schoo] and boarding-school, where
Anthony and John gave their attendance for a year or two (1818-19)
from Blackheath. "John frequently did themes for the boys," says
Anthony, "and for myself when I was aground." His progress in all
school learning was certain to be rapid, if he even moderately took to
it. A lean, tallish, loose-made boy of twelve; strange alacrity,
rapidity and joyous eagerness looking out of his eyes, and of all his
ways and movements. I have a Picture of him at this stage; a little
portrait, which carries its verification with it. In manhood too, the
chief expression of his eyes and physiognomy was what I might call
alacrity, cheerful rapidity. You could see, here looked forth a soul
which was winged; which dwelt in hope and action, not in hesitation or
fear. Anthony says, he was "an affectionate and gallant kind of boy,
adventurous and generous, daring to a singular degree." Apt enough
withal to be "petulant now and then;" on the whole, "very
self-willed;" doubtless not a little discursive in his thoughts and
ways, and "difficult to manage."
I rather think Anthony, as the steadier, more substantial boy, was the
Mother's favorite; and that John, though the quicker and cleverer,
perhaps cost her many anxieties. Among the Papers given me, is an old
browned half-sheet in stiff school hand, unpunctuated, occasionally
ill spelt,--John Sterling's earliest remaining Letter,--which gives
record of a crowning escapade of his, the first and the last of its
kind; and so may be inserted here. A very headlong adventure on the
boy's part; so hasty and so futile, at once audacious and
impracticable; emblematic of much that befell in the history of the
"_To Mrs. Sterling, Blackheath_.
"21st September, 1818.
"DEAR MAMMA,--I am now at Dover, where I arrived this morning about
seven o'clock. When you thought I was going to church, I went down
the Kent Road, and walked on till I came to Gravesend, which is
upwards of twenty miles from Blackheath; at about seven o'clock in the
evening, without having eat anything the whole time. I applied to an
inkeeper (_sic_) there, pretending that I had served a haberdasher in
London, who left of (_sic_) business, and turned me away. He believed
me; and got me a passage in the coach here, for I said that I had an
Uncle here, and that my Father and Mother were dead;--when I wandered
about the quays for some time, till I met Captain Keys, whom I asked
to give me a passage to Boulogne; which he promised to do, and took me
home to breakfast with him: but Mrs. Keys questioned me a good deal;
when I not being able to make my story good, I was obliged to confess
to her that I had run away from you. Captain Keys says that he will
keep me at his house till you answer my letter.
Anthony remembers the business well; but can assign no origin to
it,--some penalty, indignity or cross put suddenly on John, which the
hasty John considered unbearable. His Mother's inconsolable weeping,
and then his own astonishment at such a culprit's being forgiven, are
all that remain with Anthony. The steady historical style of the
young runaway of twelve, narrating merely, not in the least
apologizing, is also noticeable.
This was some six months after his little brother Edward's death;
three months after that of Hester, his little sister next in the
family series to him: troubled days for the poor Mother in that small
household on Blackheath, as there are for mothers in so many
households in this world! I have heard that Mrs. Sterling passed much
of her time alone, at this period. Her husband's pursuits, with his
Wellesleys and the like, often carrying him into Town and detaining
him late there, she would sit among her sleeping children, such of
them as death had still spared, perhaps thriftily plying her needle,
full of mournful affectionate night-thoughts,--apprehensive too, in
her tremulous heart, that the head of the house might have fallen
among robbers in his way homeward.
At a later stage, John had some instruction from a Dr. Waite at
Blackheath; and lastly, the family having now removed into Town, to
Seymour Street in the fashionable region there, he "read for a while
with Dr. Trollope, Master of Christ's Hospital;" which ended his
school history.
In this his ever-changing course, from Reece at Cowbridge to Trollope
in Christ's, which was passed so nomadically, under ferulas of various
color, the boy had, on the whole, snatched successfully a fair share
of what was going. Competent skill in construing Latin, I think also
an elementary knowledge of Greek; add ciphering to a small extent,
Euclid perhaps in a rather imaginary condition; a swift but not very
legible or handsome penmanship, and the copious prompt habit of
employing it in all manner of unconscious English prose composition,
or even occasionally in verse itself: this, or something like this,
he had gained from his grammar-schools: this is the most of what they
offer to the poor young soul in general, in these indigent times. The
express schoolmaster is not equal to much at present,--while the
_un_express, for good or for evil, is so busy with a poor little
fellow! Other departments of schooling had been infinitely more
productive, for our young friend, than the gerund-grinding one. A
voracious reader I believe he all along was,--had "read the whole
Edinburgh Review" in these boyish years, and out of the circulating
libraries one knows not what cartloads; wading like Ulysses towards
his palace "through infinite dung." A voracious observer and
participator in all things he likewise all along was; and had had his
sights, and reflections, and sorrows and adventures, from Kaimes
Castle onward,--and had gone at least to Dover on his own score.
_Puer bonae spei_, as the school-albums say; a boy of whom much may be
hoped? Surely, in many senses, yes. A frank veracity is in him,
truth and courage, as the basis of all; and of wild gifts and graces
there is abundance. I figure him a brilliant, swift, voluble,
affectionate and pleasant creature; out of whom, if it were not that
symptoms of delicate health already show themselves, great things
might be made. Promotions at least, especially in this country and
epoch of parliaments and eloquent palavers, are surely very possible
for such a one!
Being now turned of sixteen, and the family economics getting yearly
more propitious and flourishing, he, as his brother had already been,
was sent to Glasgow University, in which city their Mother had
connections. His brother and he were now all that remained of the
young family; much attached to one another in their College years as
afterwards. Glasgow, however, was not properly their College scene:
here, except that they had some tuition from Mr. Jacobson, then a
senior fellow-student, now (1851) the learned editor of St. Basil, and
Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford, who continued ever afterwards
a valued intimate of John's, I find nothing special recorded of them.
The Glasgow curriculum, for John especially, lasted but one year; who,
after some farther tutorage from Mr. Jacobson or Dr. Trollope, was
appointed for a more ambitious sphere of education.
In the beginning of his nineteenth year, "in the autumn of 1824," he
went to Trinity College, Cambridge. His brother Anthony, who had
already been there a year, had just quitted this Establishment, and
entered on a military life under good omens; I think, at Dublin under
the Lord Lieutenant's patronage, to whose service he was, in some
capacity, attached. The two brothers, ever in company hitherto,
parted roads at this point; and, except on holiday visits and by
frequent correspondence, did not again live together; but they
continued in a true fraternal attachment while life lasted, and I
believe never had any even temporary estrangement, or on either side a
cause for such. The family, as I said, was now, for the last three
years, reduced to these two; the rest of the young ones, with their
laughter and their sorrows, all gone. The parents otherwise were
prosperous in outward circumstances; the Father's position more and
more developing itself into affluent security, an agreeable circle of
acquaintance, and a certain real influence, though of a peculiar sort,
according to his gifts for work in this world.
Sterling's Tutor at Trinity College was Julius Hare, now the
distinguished Archdeacon of Lewes:--who soon conceived a great esteem
for him, and continued ever afterwards, in looser or closer
connection, his loved and loving friend. As the Biographical and
Editorial work above alluded to abundantly evinces. Mr. Hare
celebrates the wonderful and beautiful gifts, the sparkling ingenuity,
ready logic, eloquent utterance, and noble generosities and pieties of
his pupil;--records in particular how once, on a sudden alarm of fire
in some neighboring College edifice while his lecture was proceeding,
all hands rushed out to help; how the undergraduates instantly formed
themselves in lines from the fire to the river, and in swift
continuance kept passing buckets as was needful, till the enemy was
visibly fast yielding,--when Mr. Hare, going along the line, was
astonished to find Sterling, at the river-end of it, standing up to
his waist in water, deftly dealing with the buckets as they came and
went. You in the river, Sterling; you with your coughs, and dangerous
tendencies of health!--"Somebody must be in it," answered Sterling;
"why not I, as well as another?" Sterling's friends may remember many
traits of that kind. The swiftest in all things, he was apt to be
found at the head of the column, whithersoever the march might be; if
towards any brunt of danger, there was he surest to be at the head;
and of himself and his peculiar risks or impediments he was negligent
at all times, even to an excessive and plainly unreasonable degree.
Mr. Hare justly refuses him the character of an exact scholar, or
technical proficient at any time in either of the ancient literatures.
But he freely read in Greek and Latin, as in various modern languages;
and in all fields, in the classical as well, his lively faculty of
recognition and assimilation had given him large booty in proportion
to his labor. One cannot under any circumstances conceive of Sterling
as a steady dictionary philologue, historian, or archaeologist; nor
did he here, nor could he well, attempt that course. At the same
time, Greek and the Greeks being here before him, he could not fail to
gather somewhat from it, to take some hue and shape from it.
Accordingly there is, to a singular extent, especially in his early
writings, a certain tinge of Grecism and Heathen classicality
traceable in him;--Classicality, indeed, which does not satisfy one's
sense as real or truly living, but which glitters with a certain
genial, if perhaps almost meretricious half-_japannish_
splendor,--greatly distinguishable from mere gerund-grinding, and
death in longs and shorts. If Classicality mean the practical
conception, or attempt to conceive, what human life was in the epoch
called classical,--perhaps few or none of Sterling's contemporaries in
that Cambridge establishment carried away more of available
Classicality than even he.
But here, as in his former schools, his studies and inquiries,
diligently prosecuted I believe, were of the most discursive
wide-flowing character; not steadily advancing along beaten roads
towards College honors, but pulsing out with impetuous irregularity
now on this tract, now on that, towards whatever spiritual Delphi
might promise to unfold the mystery of this world, and announce to him
what was, in our new day, the authentic message of the gods. His
speculations, readings, inferences, glances and conclusions were
doubtless sufficiently encyclopedic; his grand tutors the multifarious
set of Books he devoured. And perhaps,--as is the singular case in
most schools and educational establishments of this unexampled
epoch,--it was not the express set of arrangements in this or any
extant University that could essentially forward him, but only the
implied and silent ones; less in the prescribed "course of study,"
which seems to tend no-whither, than--if you will consider it--in the
generous (not ungenerous) rebellion against said prescribed course,
and the voluntary spirit of endeavor and adventure excited thereby,
does help lie for a brave youth in such places. Curious to consider.
The fagging, the illicit boating, and the things _forbidden_ by the
schoolmaster,--these, I often notice in my Eton acquaintances, are the
things that have done them good; these, and not their inconsiderable
or considerable knowledge of the Greek accidence almost at all! What
is Greek accidence, compared to Spartan discipline, if it can be had?
That latter is a real and grand attainment. Certainly, if rebellion
is unfortunately needful, and you can rebel in a generous manner,
several things may be acquired in that operation,--rigorous mutual
fidelity, reticence, steadfastness, mild stoicism, and other virtues
far transcending your Greek accidence. Nor can the unwisest
"prescribed course of study" be considered quite useless, if it have
incited you to try nobly on all sides for a course of your own. A
singular condition of Schools and High-schools, which have come down,
in their strange old clothes and "courses of study," from the monkish
ages into this highly unmonkish one;--tragical condition, at which the
intelligent observer makes deep pause!
One benefit, not to be dissevered from the most obsolete University
still frequented by young ingenuous living souls, is that of manifold
collision and communication with the said young souls; which, to every
one of these coevals, is undoubtedly the most important branch of
breeding for him. In this point, as the learned Huber has
insisted,[6] the two English Universities,--their studies otherwise being
granted to be nearly useless, and even ill done of their kind,--far
excel all other Universities: so valuable are the rules of human
behavior which from of old have tacitly established themselves there;
so manful, with all its sad drawbacks, is the style of English
character, "frank, simple, rugged and yet courteous," which has
tacitly but imperatively got itself sanctioned and prescribed there.
Such, in full sight of Continental and other Universities, is Huber's
opinion. Alas, the question of University Reform goes deep at
present; deep as the world;--and the real University of these new
epochs is yet a great way from us! Another judge in whom I have
confidence declares further, That of these two Universities, Cambridge
is decidedly the more catholic (not Roman catholic, but Human
catholic) in its tendencies and habitudes; and that in fact, of all
the miserable Schools and High-schools in the England of these years,
he, if reduced to choose from them, would choose Cambridge as a place
of culture for the young idea. So that, in these bad circumstances,
Sterling had perhaps rather made a hit than otherwise?
Sterling at Cambridge had undoubtedly a wide and rather genial circle
of comrades; and could not fail to be regarded and beloved by many of
them. Their life seems to have been an ardently speculating and
talking one; by no means excessively restrained within limits; and, in
the more adventurous heads like Sterling's, decidedly tending towards
the latitudinarian in most things. They had among them a Debating
Society called The Union; where on stated evenings was much logic, and
other spiritual fencing and ingenuous collision,--probably of a really
superior quality in that kind; for not a few of the then disputants
have since proved themselves men of parts, and attained distinction in
the intellectual walks of life. Frederic Maurice, Richard Trench,
John Kemble, Spedding, Venables, Charles Buller, Richard Milnes and
others:--I have heard that in speaking and arguing, Sterling was the
acknowledged chief in this Union Club; and that "none even came near
him, except the late Charles Buller," whose distinction in this and
higher respects was also already notable.
The questions agitated seem occasionally to have touched on the
political department, and even on the ecclesiastical. I have heard
one trait of Sterling's eloquence, which survived on the wings of
grinning rumor, and had evidently borne upon Church Conservatism in
some form: "Have they not,"--or perhaps it was, Has she (the Church)
not,--"a black dragoon in every parish, on good pay and rations,
horse-meat and man's-meat, to patrol and battle for these things?"
The "black dragoon," which naturally at the moment ruffled the general
young imagination into stormy laughter, points towards important
conclusions in respect to Sterling at this time. I conclude he had,
with his usual alacrity and impetuous daring, frankly adopted the
anti-superstitious side of things; and stood scornfully prepared to
repel all aggressions or pretensions from the opposite quarter. In
short, that he was already, what afterwards there is no doubt about
his being, at all points a Radical, as the name or nickname then went.
In other words, a young ardent soul looking with hope and joy into a
world which was infinitely beautiful to him, though overhung with
falsities and foul cobwebs as world never was before; overloaded,
overclouded, to the zenith and the nadir of it, by incredible
uncredited traditions, solemnly sordid hypocrisies, and beggarly
deliriums old and new; which latter class of objects it was clearly
the part of every noble heart to expend all its lightnings and
energies in burning up without delay, and sweeping into their native
Chaos out of such a Cosmos as this. Which process, it did not then
seem to him could be very difficult; or attended with much other than
heroic joy, and enthusiasm of victory or of battle, to the gallant
operator, in his part of it. This was, with modifications such as
might be, the humor and creed of College Radicalism five-and-twenty
years ago. Rather horrible at that time; seen to be not so horrible
now, at least to have grown very universal, and to need no concealment
now. The natural humor and attitude, we may well regret to say,--and
honorable not dishonorable, for a brave young soul such as Sterling's,
in those years in those localities!
I do not find that Sterling had, at that stage, adopted the then
prevalent Utilitarian theory of human things. But neither,
apparently, had he rejected it; still less did he yet at all denounce
it with the damnatory vehemence we were used to in him at a later
period. Probably he, so much occupied with the negative side of
things, had not yet thought seriously of any positive basis for his
world; or asked himself, too earnestly, What, then, is the noble rule
of living for a man? In this world so eclipsed and scandalously
overhung with fable and hypocrisy, what is the eternal fact, on which
a man may front the Destinies and the Immensities? The day for such
questions, sure enough to come in his case, was still but coming.
Sufficient for this day be the work thereof; that of blasting into
merited annihilation the innumerable and immeasurable recognized
deliriums, and extirpating or coercing to the due pitch those legions
of "black dragoons," of all varieties and purposes, who patrol, with
horse-meat and man's-meat, this afflicted earth, so hugely to the
detriment of it.
Sterling, it appears, after above a year of Trinity College, followed
his friend Maurice into Trinity Hall, with the intention of taking a
degree in Law; which intention, like many others with him, came to
nothing; and in 1827 he left Trinity Hall and Cambridge altogether;
here ending, after two years, his brief University life.
Here, then, is a young soul, brought to the years of legal majority,
furnished from his training-schools with such and such shining
capabilities, and ushered on the scene of things to inquire
practically, What he will do there? Piety is in the man, noble human
valor, bright intelligence, ardent proud veracity; light and fire, in
none of their many senses, wanting for him, but abundantly bestowed:
a kingly kind of man;--whose "kingdom," however, in this bewildered
place and epoch of the world will probably be difficult to find and
For, alas, the world, as we said, already stands convicted to this
young soul of being an untrue, unblessed world; its high dignitaries
many of them phantasms and players'-masks; its worthships and worships
unworshipful: from Dan to Beersheba, a mad world, my masters. And
surely we may say, and none will now gainsay, this his idea of the
world at that epoch was nearer to the fact than at most other epochs
it has been. Truly, in all times and places, the young ardent soul
that enters on this world with heroic purpose, with veracious insight,
and the yet unclouded "inspiration of the Almighty" which has given us
our intelligence, will find this world a very mad one: why else is
he, with his little outfit of heroisms and inspirations, come hither
into it, except to make it diligently a little saner? Of him there
would have been no need, had it been quite sane. This is true; this
will, in all centuries and countries, be true.
And yet perhaps of no time or country, for the last two thousand
years, was it _so_ true as here in this waste-weltering epoch of
Sterling's and ours. A world all rocking and plunging, like that old
Roman one when the measure of its iniquities was full; the abysses,
and subterranean and supernal deluges, plainly broken loose; in the
wild dim-lighted chaos all stars of Heaven gone out. No star of
Heaven visible, hardly now to any man; the pestiferous fogs, and foul
exhalations grown continual, have, except on the highest mountaintops,
blotted out all stars: will-o'-wisps, of various course and color,
take the place of stars. Over the wild-surging chaos, in the leaden
air, are only sudden glares of revolutionary lightning; then mere
darkness, with philanthropistic phosphorescences, empty meteoric
lights; here and there an ecclesiastical luminary still hovering,
hanging on to its old quaking fixtures, pretending still to be a Moon
or Sun,--though visibly it is but a Chinese lantern made of _paper_
mainly, with candle-end foully dying in the heart of it. Surely as
mad a world as you could wish!
If you want to make sudden fortunes in it, and achieve the temporary
hallelujah of flunkies for yourself, renouncing the perennial esteem
of wise men; if you can believe that the chief end of man is to
collect about him a bigger heap of gold than ever before, in a shorter
time than ever before, you will find it a most handy and every way
furthersome, blessed and felicitous world. But for any other human
aim, I think you will find it not furthersome. If you in any way ask
practically, How a noble life is to be led in it? you will be luckier
than Sterling or I if you get any credible answer, or find any made
road whatever. Alas, it is even so. Your heart's question, if it be
of that sort, most things and persons will answer with a "Nonsense!
Noble life is in Drury Lane, and wears yellow boots. You fool,
compose yourself to your pudding!"--Surely, in these times, if ever in
any, the young heroic soul entering on life, so opulent, full of sunny
hope, of noble valor and divine intention, is tragical as well as
beautiful to us.
Of the three learned Professions none offered any likelihood for
Sterling. From the Church his notions of the "black dragoon," had
there been no other obstacle, were sufficient to exclude him. Law he
had just renounced, his own Radical philosophies disheartening him, in
face of the ponderous impediments, continual up-hill struggles and
formidable toils inherent in such a pursuit: with Medicine he had
never been in any contiguity, that he should dream of it as a course
for him. Clearly enough the professions were unsuitable; they to him,
he to them. Professions, built so largely on speciosity instead of
performance; clogged, in this bad epoch, and defaced under such
suspicions of fatal imposture, were hateful not lovable to the young
radical soul, scornful of gross profit, and intent on ideals and human
noblenesses. Again, the professions, were they never so perfect and
veracious, will require slow steady pulling, to which this individual
young radical, with his swift, far-darting brilliancies, and nomadic
desultory ways, is of all men the most averse and unfitted. No
profession could, in any case, have well gained the early love of
Sterling. And perhaps withal the most tragic element of his life is
even this, That there now was none to which he could fitly, by those
wiser than himself, have been bound and constrained, that he might
learn to love it. So swift, light-limbed and fiery an Arab courser
ought, for all manner of reasons, to have been trained to saddle and
harness. Roaming at full gallop over the heaths,--especially when
your heath was London, and English and European life, in the
nineteenth century,--he suffered much, and did comparatively little.
I have known few creatures whom it was more wasteful to send forth
with the bridle thrown up, and to set to steeple-hunting instead of
running on highways! But it is the lot of many such, in this
dislocated time,--Heaven mend it! In a better time there will be
other "professions" than those three extremely cramp, confused and
indeed almost obsolete ones: professions, if possible, that are true,
and do _not_ require you at the threshold to constitute yourself an
impostor. Human association,--which will mean discipline, vigorous
wise subordination and co-ordination,--is so unspeakably important.
Professions, "regimented human pursuits," how many of honorable and
manful might be possible for men; and which should _not_, in their
results to society, need to stumble along, in such an unwieldy futile
manner, with legs swollen into such enormous elephantiasis and no go
at all in them! Men will one day think of the force they squander in
every generation, and the fatal damage they encounter, by this
The career likeliest for Sterling, in his and the world's
circumstances, would have been what is called public life: some
secretarial, diplomatic or other official training, to issue if
possible in Parliament as the true field for him. And here, beyond
question, had the gross material conditions been allowed, his
spiritual capabilities were first-rate. In any arena where eloquence
and argument was the point, this man was calculated to have borne the
bell from all competitors. In lucid ingenious talk and logic, in all
manner of brilliant utterance and tongue-fence, I have hardly known
his fellow. So ready lay his store of knowledge round him, so perfect
was his ready utterance of the same,--in coruscating wit, in jocund
drollery, in compact articulated clearness or high poignant emphasis,
as the case required,--he was a match for any man in argument before a
crowd of men. One of the most supple-wristed, dexterous, graceful and
successful fencers in that kind. A man, as Mr. Hare has said, "able
to argue with four or five at once;" could do the parrying all round,
in a succession swift as light, and plant his hits wherever a chance
offered. In Parliament, such a soul put into a body of the due
toughness might have carried it far. If ours is to be called, as I
hear some call it, the Talking Era, Sterling of all men had the talent
to excel in it.
Probably it was with some vague view towards chances in this direction
that Sterling's first engagement was entered upon; a brief connection
as Secretary to some Club or Association into which certain public
men, of the reforming sort, Mr. Crawford (the Oriental Diplomatist and
Writer), Mr. Kirkman Finlay (then Member for Glasgow), and other
political notabilities had now formed themselves,--with what specific
objects I do not know, nor with what result if any. I have heard
vaguely, it was "to open the trade to India." Of course they intended
to stir up the public mind into co-operation, whatever their goal or
object was: Mr. Crawford, an intimate in the Sterling household,
recognized the fine literary gift of John; and might think it a lucky
hit that he had caught such a Secretary for three hundred pounds a
year. That was the salary agreed upon; and for some months actually
worked for and paid; Sterling becoming for the time an intimate and
almost an inmate in Mr. Crawford's circle, doubtless not without
results to himself beyond the secretarial work and pounds sterling:
so much is certain. But neither the Secretaryship nor the Association
itself had any continuance; nor can I now learn accurately more of it
than what is here stated;--in which vague state it must vanish from
Sterling's history again, as it in great measure did from his life.
From himself in after-years I never heard mention of it; nor were his
pursuits connected afterwards with those of Mr. Crawford, though the
mutual good-will continued unbroken.
In fact, however splendid and indubitable Sterling's qualifications
for a parliamentary life, there was that in him withal which flatly
put a negative on any such project. He had not the slow
steady-pulling diligence which is indispensable in that, as in all
important pursuits and strenuous human competitions whatsoever. In
every sense, his momentum depended on velocity of stroke, rather than
on weight of metal; "beautifulest sheet-lightning," as I often said,
"not to be condensed into thunder-bolts." Add to this,--what indeed
is perhaps but the same phenomenon in another form,--his bodily frame
was thin, excitable, already manifesting pulmonary symptoms; a body
which the tear and wear of Parliament would infallibly in few months
have wrecked and ended. By this path there was clearly no mounting.
The far-darting, restlessly coruscating soul, equips beyond all others
to shine in the Talking Era, and lead National Palavers with their
_spolia opima_ captive, is imprisoned in a fragile hectic body which
quite forbids the adventure. "_Es ist dafur gesorgt_," says Goethe,
"Provision has been made that the trees do not grow into the
sky;"--means are always there to stop them short of the sky.
Of all forms of public life, in the Talking Era, it was clear that
only one completely suited Sterling,--the anarchic, nomadic, entirely
aerial and unconditional one, called Literature. To this all his
tendencies, and fine gifts positive and negative, were evidently
pointing; and here, after such brief attempting or thoughts to attempt
at other posts, he already in this same year arrives. As many do, and
ever more must do, in these our years and times. This is the chaotic
haven of so many frustrate activities; where all manner of good gifts
go up in far-seen smoke or conflagration; and whole fleets, that might
have been war-fleets to conquer kingdoms, are _consumed_ (too truly,
often), amid "fame" enough, and the admiring shouts of the vulgar,
which is always fond to see fire going on. The true Canaan and Mount
Zion of a Talking Era must ever be Literature: the extraneous,
miscellaneous, self-elected, indescribable _Parliamentum_, or Talking
Apparatus, which talks by books and printed papers.
A literary Newspaper called _The Athenaeum_, the same which still
subsists, had been founded in those years by Mr. Buckingham; James
Silk Buckingham, who has since continued notable under various
figures. Mr. Buckingham's _Athenaeum_ had not as yet got into a
flourishing condition; and he was willing to sell the copyright of it
for a consideration. Perhaps Sterling and old Cambridge friends of
his had been already writing for it. At all events, Sterling, who had
already privately begun writing a Novel, and was clearly looking
towards Literature, perceived that his gifted Cambridge friend,
Frederic Maurice, was now also at large in a somewhat similar
situation; and that here was an opening for both of them, and for
other gifted friends. The copyright was purchased for I know not what
sum, nor with whose money, but guess it may have been Sterling's, and
no great sum;--and so, under free auspices, themselves their own
captains, Maurice and he spread sail for this new voyage of adventure
into all the world. It was about the end of 1828 that readers of
periodical literature, and quidnuncs in those departments, began to
report the appearance, in a Paper called the _Athenaeum, of_ writings
showing a superior brilliancy, and height of aim; one or perhaps two
slight specimens of which came into my own hands, in my remote corner,
about that time, and were duly recognized by me, while the authors
were still far off and hidden behind deep veils.
Some of Sterling's best Papers from the _Athenaeum_ have been
published by Archdeacon Hare: first-fruits by a young man of
twenty-two; crude, imperfect, yet singularly beautiful and attractive;
which will still testify what high literary promise lay in him. The
ruddiest glow of young enthusiasm, of noble incipient spiritual
manhood reigns over them; once more a divine Universe unveiling itself
in gloom and splendor, in auroral firelight and many-tinted shadow,
full of hope and full of awe, to a young melodious pious heart just
arrived upon it. Often enough the delineation has a certain flowing
completeness, not to be expected from so young an artist; here and
there is a decided felicity of insight; everywhere the point of view
adopted is a high and noble one, and the result worked out a result to
be sympathized with, and accepted so far as it will go. Good reading
still, those Papers, for the less-furnished mind,--thrice-excellent
reading compared with what is usually going. For the rest, a grand
melancholy is the prevailing impression they leave;--partly as if,
while the surface was so blooming and opulent, the heart of them was
still vacant, sad and cold. Here is a beautiful mirage, in the dry
wilderness; but you cannot quench your thirst there! The writer's
heart is indeed still too vacant, except of beautiful shadows and
reflexes and resonances; and is far from joyful, though it wears
commonly a smile.
In some of the Greek delineations (_The Lycian Painter_, for example),
we have already noticed a strange opulence of splendor,
characterizable as half-legitimate, half-meretricious,--a splendor
hovering between the raffaelesque and the japannish. What other
things Sterling wrote there, I never knew; nor would he in any mood,
in those later days, have told you, had you asked. This period of his
life he always rather accounted, as the Arabs do the idolatrous times
before Mahomet's advent, the "period of darkness."
0n the commercial side the _Athenaeum_ still lacked success; nor was
like to find it under the highly uncommercial management it had now
got into. This, by and by, began to be a serious consideration. For
money is the sinews of Periodical Literature almost as much as of war
itself; without money, and under a constant drain of loss, Periodical
Literature is one of the things that cannot be carried on. In no long
time Sterling began to be practically sensible of this truth, and that
an unpleasant resolution in accordance with it would be necessary. By
him also, after a while, the _Athenaeum_ was transferred to other
hands, better fitted in that respect; and under these it did take
vigorous root, and still bears fruit according to its kind.
For the present, it brought him into the thick of London Literature,
especially of young London Literature and speculation; in which turbid
exciting element he swam and revelled, nothing loath, for certain
months longer,--a period short of two years in all. He had lodgings
in Regent Street: his Father's house, now a flourishing and stirring
establishment, in South Place, Knightsbridge, where, under the warmth
of increasing revenue and success, miscellaneous cheerful socialities
and abundant speculations, chiefly political (and not John's kind, but
that of the _Times_ Newspaper and the Clubs), were rife, he could
visit daily, and yet be master of his own studies and pursuits.
Maurice, Trench, John Mill, Charles Buller: these, and some few
others, among a wide circle of a transitory phantasmal character, whom
he speedily forgot and cared not to remember, were much about him;
with these he in all ways employed and disported himself: a first
favorite with them all.
No pleasanter companion, I suppose, had any of them. So frank, open,
guileless, fearless, a brother to all worthy souls whatsoever. Come
when you might, here is he open-hearted, rich in cheerful fancies, in
grave logic, in all kinds of bright activity. If perceptibly or
imperceptibly there is a touch of ostentation in him, blame it not; it
is so innocent, so good and childlike. He is still fonder of jingling
publicly, and spreading on the table, your big purse of opulences than
his own. Abrupt too he is, cares little for big-wigs and garnitures;
perhaps laughs more than the real fun he has would order; but of
arrogance there is no vestige, of insincerity or of ill-nature none.
These must have been pleasant evenings in Regent Street, when the
circle chanced to be well adjusted there. At other times, Philistines
would enter, what we call bores, dullards, Children of Darkness; and
then,--except in a hunt of dullards, and a _bore-baiting_, which might
be permissible,--the evening was dark. Sterling, of course, had
innumerable cares withal; and was toiling like a slave; his very
recreations almost a kind of work. An enormous activity was in the
man;--sufficient, in a body that could have held it without breaking,
to have gone far, even under the unstable guidance it was like to
Thus, too, an extensive, very variegated circle of connections was
forming round him. Besides his _Athenaeum_ work, and evenings in
Regent Street and elsewhere, he makes visits to country-houses, the
Bullers' and others; converses with established gentlemen, with
honorable women not a few; is gay and welcome with the young of his
own age; knows also religious, witty, and other distinguished ladies,
and is admiringly known by them. On the whole, he is already
locomotive; visits hither and thither in a very rapid flying manner.
Thus I find he had made one flying visit to the Cumberland Lake-region
in 1828, and got sight of Wordsworth; and in the same year another
flying one to Paris, and seen with no undue enthusiasm the
Saint-Simonian Portent just beginning to preach for itself, and France
in general simmering under a scum of impieties, levities,
Saint-Simonisms, and frothy fantasticalities of all kinds, towards the
boiling-over which soon made the Three Days of July famous. But by
far the most important foreign home he visited was that of Coleridge
on the Hill of Highgate,--if it were not rather a foreign shrine and
Dodona-Oracle, as he then reckoned,--to which (onwards from 1828, as
would appear) he was already an assiduous pilgrim. Concerning whom,
and Sterling's all-important connection with him, there will be much
to say anon.
Here, from this period, is a Letter of Sterling's, which the glimpses
it affords of bright scenes and figures now sunk, so many of them,
sorrowfully to the realm of shadows, will render interesting to some
of my readers. To me on the mere Letter, not on its contents alone,
there is accidentally a kind of fateful stamp. A few months after
Charles Buller's death, while his loss was mourned by many hearts, and
to his poor Mother all light except what hung upon his memory had gone
out in the world, a certain delicate and friendly hand, hoping to give
the poor bereaved lady a good moment, sought out this Letter of
Sterling's, one morning, and called, with intent to read it to
her:--alas, the poor lady had herself fallen suddenly into the
languors of death, help of another grander sort now close at hand; and
to her this Letter was never read!
On "Fanny Kemble," it appears, there is an Essay by Sterling in the
_Athenaeum_ of this year: "16th December, 1829." Very laudatory, I
conclude. He much admired her genius, nay was thought at one time to
be vaguely on the edge of still more chivalrous feelings. As the
Letter itself may perhaps indicate.
"_To Anthony Sterling, Esq., 24th Regiment, Dublin_.
"KNIGHTSBRIDGE, 10th Nov., 1829.
"MY DEAR ANTHONY,--Here in the Capital of England and of Europe, there
is less, so far as I hear, of movement and variety than in your
provincial Dublin, or among the Wicklow Mountains. We have the old
prospect of bricks and smoke, the old crowd of busy stupid faces, the
old occupations, the old sleepy amusements; and the latest news that
reaches us daily has an air of tiresome, doting antiquity. The world
has nothing for it but to exclaim with Faust, "Give me my youth
again." And as for me, my month of Cornish amusement is over; and I
must tie myself to my old employments. I have not much to tell you
about these; but perhaps you may like to hear of my expedition to the
"I wrote to Polvellan (Mr. Buller's) to announce the day on which I
intended to be there, so shortly before setting out, that there was no
time to receive an answer; and when I reached Devonport, which is
fifteen or sixteen miles from my place of destination, I found a
letter from Mrs. Buller, saying that she was coming in two days to a
Ball at Plymouth, and if I chose to stay in the mean while and look
about me, she would take me back with her. She added an introduction
to a relation of her husband's, a certain Captain Buller of the
Rifles, who was with the Depot there,--a pleasant person, who I
believe had been acquainted with Charlotte,[7] or at least had seen
her. Under his superintendence--...
"On leaving Devonport with Mrs. Buller, I went some of the way by
water, up the harbor and river; and the prospects are certainly very
beautiful; to say nothing of the large ships, which I admire almost as
much as you, though without knowing so much about them. There is a
great deal of fine scenery all along the road to Looe; and the House
itself, a very unpretending Gothic cottage, stands beautifully among
trees, hills and water, with the sea at the distance of a quarter of a
"And here, among pleasant, good-natured, well-informed and clever
people, I spent an idle month. I dined at one or two Corporation
dinners; spent a few days at the old Mansion of Mr. Buller of Morval,
the patron of West Looe; and during the rest of the time, read, wrote,
played chess, lounged, and ate red mullet (he who has not done this
has not begun to live); talked of cookery to the philosophers, and of
metaphysics to Mrs. Buller; and altogether cultivated indolence, and
developed the faculty of nonsense with considerable pleasure and
unexampled success. Charles Buller you know: he has just come to
town, but I have not yet seen him. Arthur, his younger brother, I
take to be one of the handsomest men in England; and he too has
considerable talent. Mr. Buller the father is rather a clever man of
sense, and particularly good-natured and gentlemanly; and his wife,
who was a renowned beauty and queen of Calcutta, has still many
striking and delicate traces of what she was. Her conversation is
more brilliant and pleasant than that of any one I know; and, at all
events, I am bound to admire her for the kindness with which she
patronizes me. I hope that, some day or other, you may be acquainted
with her.
"I believe I have seen no one in London about whom you would care to
hear,--unless the fame of Fanny Kemble has passed the Channel, and
astonished the Irish Barbarians in the midst of their bloody-minded
politics. Young Kemble, whom you have seen, is in Germany: but I
have the happiness of being also acquainted with his sister, the
divine Fanny; and I have seen her twice on the stage, and three or
four times in private, since my return from Cornwall. I had seen some
beautiful verses of hers, long before she was an actress; and her
conversation is full of spirit and talent. She never was taught to
act at all; and though there are many faults in her performance of
Juliet, there is more power than in any female playing I ever saw,
except Pasta's Medea. She is not handsome, rather short, and by no
means delicately formed; but her face is marked, and the eyes are
brilliant, dark, and full of character. She has far more ability than
she ever can display on the stage; but I have no doubt that, by
practice and self-culture, she will be a far finer actress at least
than any one since Mrs. Siddons. I was at Charles Kemble's a few
evenings ago, when a drawing of Miss Kemble, by Sir Thomas Lawrence,
was brought in; and I have no doubt that you will shortly see, even in
Dublin, an engraving of her from it, very unlike the caricatures that
have hitherto appeared. I hate the stage; and but for her, should very
likely never have gone to a theatre again. Even as it is, the
annoyance is much more than the pleasure; but I suppose I must go to
see her in every character in which she acts. If Charlotte cares for
plays, let me know, and I will write in more detail about this new
Melpomene. I fear there are very few subjects on which I can say
anything that will in the least interest her.
"Ever affectionately yours,
Sterling and his circle, as their ardent speculation and activity
fermented along, were in all things clear for progress, liberalism;
their politics, and view of the Universe, decisively of the Radical
sort. As indeed that of England then was, more than ever; the crust
of old hide-bound Toryism being now openly cracking towards some
incurable disruption, which accordingly ensued as the Reform Bill
before long. The Reform Bill already hung in the wind. Old
hide-bound Toryism, long recognized by all the world, and now at last
obliged to recognize its very self, for an overgrown Imposture,
supporting itself not by human reason, but by flunky blustering and
brazen lying, superadded to mere brute force, could be no creed for
young Sterling and his friends. In all things he and they were
liberals, and, as was natural at this stage, democrats; contemplating
root-and-branch innovation by aid of the hustings and ballot-box.
Hustings and ballot-box had speedily to vanish out of Sterling's
thoughts: but the character of root-and-branch innovator, essentially
of "Radical Reformer," was indelible with him, and under all forms
could be traced as his character through life.
For the present, his and those young people's aim was: By democracy,
or what means there are, be all impostures put down. Speedy end to
Superstition,--a gentle one if you can contrive it, but an end. What
can it profit any mortal to adopt locutions and imaginations which do
not correspond to fact; which no sane mortal can deliberately adopt in
his soul as true; which the most orthodox of mortals can only, and
this after infinite essentially _impious_ effort to put out the eyes
of his mind, persuade himself to "believe that he believes"? Away
with it; in the name of God, come out of it, all true men!
Piety of heart, a certain reality of religious faith, was always
Sterling's, the gift of nature to him which he would not and could not
throw away; but I find at this time his religion is as good as
altogether Ethnic, Greekish, what Goethe calls the Heathen form of
religion. The Church, with her articles, is without relation to him.
And along with obsolete spiritualisms, he sees all manner of obsolete
thrones and big-wigged temporalities; and for them also can prophesy,
and wish, only a speedy doom. Doom inevitable, registered in Heaven's
Chancery from the beginning of days, doom unalterable as the pillars
of the world; the gods are angry, and all nature groans, till this
doom of eternal justice be fulfilled.
With gay audacity, with enthusiasm tempered by mockery, as is the
manner of young gifted men, this faith, grounded for the present on
democracy and hustings operations, and giving to all life the aspect
of a chivalrous battle-field, or almost of a gay though perilous
tournament, and bout of "A hundred knights against all comers,"--was
maintained by Sterling and his friends. And in fine, after whatever
loud remonstrances, and solemn considerations, and such shaking of our
wigs as is undoubtedly natural in the case, let us be just to it and
him. We shall have to admit, nay it will behoove us to see and
practically know, for ourselves and him and others, that the essence
of this creed, in times like ours, was right and not wrong. That,
however the ground and form of it might change, essentially it was the
monition of his natal genius to this as it is to every brave man; the
behest of all his clear insight into this Universe, the message of
Heaven through him, which he could not suppress, but was inspired and
compelled to utter in this world by such methods as he had. There for
him lay the first commandment; _this_ is what it would have been the
unforgivable sin to swerve from and desert: the treason of treasons
for him, it were there; compared with which all other sins are venial!
The message did not cease at all, as we shall see; the message was
ardently, if fitfully, continued to the end: but the methods, the
tone and dialect and all outer conditions of uttering it, underwent
most important modifications!
Coleridge sat on the brow of Highgate Hill, in those years, looking
down on London and its smoke-tumult, like a sage escaped from the
inanity of life's battle; attracting towards him the thoughts of
innumerable brave souls still engaged there. His express
contributions to poetry, philosophy, or any specific province of human
literature or enlightenment, had been small and sadly intermittent;
but he had, especially among young inquiring men, a higher than
literary, a kind of prophetic or magician character. He was thought
to hold, he alone in England, the key of German and other
Transcendentalisms; knew the sublime secret of believing by "the
reason" what "the understanding" had been obliged to fling out as
incredible; and could still, after Hume and Voltaire had done their
best and worst with him, profess himself an orthodox Christian, and
say and print to the Church of England, with its singular old rubrics
and surplices at Allhallowtide, _Esto perpetua_. A sublime man; who,
alone in those dark days, had saved his crown of spiritual manhood;
escaping from the black materialisms, and revolutionary deluges, with
"God, Freedom, Immortality" still his: a king of men. The practical
intellects of the world did not much heed him, or carelessly reckoned
him a metaphysical dreamer: but to the rising spirits of the young
generation he had this dusky sublime character; and sat there as a
kind of _Magus_, girt in mystery and enigma; his Dodona oak-grove (Mr.
Gilman's house at Highgate) whispering strange things, uncertain
whether oracles or jargon.
The Gilmans did not encourage much company, or excitation of any sort,
round their sage; nevertheless access to him, if a youth did
reverently wish it, was not difficult. He would stroll about the
pleasant garden with you, sit in the pleasant rooms of the
place,--perhaps take you to his own peculiar room, high up, with a
rearward view, which was the chief view of all. A really charming
outlook, in fine weather. Close at hand, wide sweep of flowery leafy
gardens, their few houses mostly hidden, the very chimney-pots veiled
under blossomy umbrage, flowed gloriously down hill; gloriously
issuing in wide-tufted undulating plain-country, rich in all charms of
field and town. Waving blooming country of the brightest green;
dotted all over with handsome villas, handsome groves; crossed by
roads and human traffic, here inaudible or heard only as a musical
hum: and behind all swam, under olive-tinted haze, the illimitable
limitary ocean of London, with its domes and steeples definite in the
sun, big Paul's and the many memories attached to it hanging high over
all. Nowhere, of its kind, could you see a grander prospect on a
bright summer day, with the set of the air going
southward,--southward, and so draping with the city-smoke not you but
the city. Here for hours would Coleridge talk, concerning all
conceivable or inconceivable things; and liked nothing better than to
have an intelligent, or failing that, even a silent and patient human
listener. He distinguished himself to all that ever heard him as at
least the most surprising talker extant in this world,--and to some
small minority, by no means to all, as the most excellent.
The good man, he was now getting old, towards sixty perhaps; and gave
you the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings; a life
heavy-laden, half-vanquished, still swimming painfully in seas of
manifold physical and other bewilderment. Brow and head were round,
and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute. The
deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration;
confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild
astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise,
might be called flabby and irresolute; expressive of weakness under
possibility of strength. He hung loosely on his limbs, with knees
bent, and stooping attitude; in walking, he rather shuffled than
decisively steps; and a lady once remarked, he never could fix which
side of the garden walk would suit him best, but continually shifted,
in corkscrew fashion, and kept trying both. A heavy-laden,
high-aspiring and surely much-suffering man. His voice, naturally
soft and good, had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and
singsong; he spoke as if preaching,--you would have said, preaching
earnestly and also hopelessly the weightiest things. I still
recollect his "object" and "subject," terms of continual recurrence in
the Kantean province; and how he sang and snuffled them into
"om-m-mject" and "sum-m-mject," with a kind of solemn shake or quaver,
as he rolled along. No talk, in his century or in any other, could be
more surprising.
Sterling, who assiduously attended him, with profound reverence, and
was often with him by himself, for a good many months, gives a record
of their first colloquy.[8] Their colloquies were numerous, and he
had taken note of many; but they are all gone to the fire, except this
first, which Mr. Hare has printed,--unluckily without date. It
contains a number of ingenious, true and half-true observations, and
is of course a faithful epitome of the things said; but it gives small
idea of Coleridge's way of talking;--this one feature is perhaps the
most recognizable, "Our interview lasted for three hours, during which
he talked two hours and three quarters." Nothing could be more
copious than his talk; and furthermore it was always, virtually or
literally, of the nature of a monologue; suffering no interruption,
however reverent; hastily putting aside all foreign additions,
annotations, or most ingenuous desires for elucidation, as well-meant
superfluities which would never do. Besides, it was talk not flowing
any-whither like a river, but spreading every-whither in inextricable
currents and regurgitations like a lake or sea; terribly deficient in
definite goal or aim, nay often in logical intelligibility; _what_ you
were to believe or do, on any earthly or heavenly thing, obstinately
refusing to appear from it. So that, most times, you felt logically
lost; swamped near to drowning in this tide of ingenious vocables,
spreading out boundless as if to submerge the world.
To sit as a passive bucket and be pumped into, whether you consent or
not, can in the long-run be exhilarating to no creature; how eloquent
soever the flood of utterance that is descending. But if it be withal
a confused unintelligible flood of utterance, threatening to submerge
all known landmarks of thought, and drown the world and you!--I have
heard Coleridge talk, with eager musical energy, two stricken hours,
his face radiant and moist, and communicate no meaning whatsoever to
any individual of his hearers,--certain of whom, I for one, still kept
eagerly listening in hope; the most had long before given up, and
formed (if the room were large enough) secondary humming groups of
their own. He began anywhere: you put some question to him, made
some suggestive observation: instead of answering this, or decidedly
setting out towards answer of it, he would accumulate formidable
apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and
other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out; perhaps
did at last get under way,--but was swiftly solicited, turned aside by
the glance of some radiant new game on this hand or that, into new
courses; and ever into new; and before long into all the Universe,
where it was uncertain what game you would catch, or whether any.
His talk, alas, was distinguished, like himself, by irresolution: it
disliked to he troubled with conditions, abstinences, definite
fulfilments;--loved to wander at its own sweet will, and make its
auditor and his claims and humble wishes a mere passive bucket for
itself! He had knowledge about many things and topics, much curious
reading; but generally all topics led him, after a pass or two, into
the high seas of theosophic philosophy, the hazy infinitude of Kantean
transcendentalism, with its "sum-m-mjects " and " om-m-mjects." Sad
enough; for with such indolent impatience of the claims and ignorances
of others, he had not the least talent for explaining this or anything
unknown to them; and you swam and fluttered in the mistiest wide
unintelligible deluge of things, for most part in a rather profitless
uncomfortable manner.
Glorious islets, too, I have seen rise out of the haze; but they were
few, and soon swallowed in the general element again. Balmy sunny
islets, islets of the blest and the intelligible:--on which occasions
those secondary humming groups would all cease humming, and hang
breathless upon the eloquent words; till once your islet got wrapt in
the mist again, and they could recommence humming. Eloquent
artistically expressive words you always had; piercing radiances of a
most subtle insight came at intervals; tones of noble pious sympathy,
recognizable as pious though strangely colored, were never wanting
long: but in general you could not call this aimless, cloud-capt,
cloud-based, lawlessly meandering human discourse of reason by the
name of "excellent talk," but only of "surprising;" and were reminded
bitterly of Hazlitt's account of it: "Excellent talker, very,--if you
let him start from no premises and come to no conclusion." Coleridge
was not without what talkers call wit, and there were touches of
prickly sarcasm in him, contemptuous enough of the world and its idols
and popular dignitaries; he had traits even of poetic humor: but in
general he seemed deficient in laughter; or indeed in sympathy for
concrete human things either on the sunny or on the stormy side. One
right peal of concrete laughter at some convicted flesh-and-blood
absurdity, one burst of noble indignation at some injustice or
depravity, rubbing elbows with us on this solid Earth, how strange
would it have been in that Kantean haze-world, and how infinitely
cheering amid its vacant air-castles and dim-melting ghosts and
shadows! None such ever came. His life had been an abstract thinking
and dreaming, idealistic, passed amid the ghosts of defunct bodies and
of unborn ones. The moaning singsong of that theosophico-metaphysical
monotony left on you, at last, a very dreary feeling.
In close colloquy, flowing within narrower banks, I suppose he was
more definite and apprehensible; Sterling in after-times did not
complain of his unintelligibility, or imputed it only to the abtruse
high nature of the topics handled. Let us hope so, let us try to
believe so! There is no doubt but Coleridge could speak plain words
on things plain: his observations and responses on the trivial
matters that occurred were as simple as the commonest man's, or were
even distinguished by superior simplicity as well as pertinency. "Ah,
your tea is too cold, Mr. Coleridge!" mourned the good Mrs. Gilman
once, in her kind, reverential and yet protective manner, handing him
a very tolerable though belated cup.--"It's better than I deserve!"
snuffled he, in a low hoarse murmur, partly courteous, chiefly pious,
the tone of which still abides with me: "It's better than I deserve!"
But indeed, to the young ardent mind, instinct with pious nobleness,
yet driven to the grim deserts of Radicalism for a faith, his
speculations had a charm much more than literary, a charm almost
religious and prophetic. The constant gist of his discourse was
lamentation over the sunk condition of the world; which he recognized
to be given up to Atheism and Materialism, full of mere sordid
misbeliefs, mispursuits and misresults. All Science had become
mechanical; the science not of men, but of a kind of human beavers.
Churches themselves had died away into a godless mechanical condition;
and stood there as mere Cases of Articles, mere Forms of Churches;
like the dried carcasses of once swift camels, which you find left
withering in the thirst of the universal desert,--ghastly portents for
the present, beneficent ships of the desert no more. Men's souls were
blinded, hebetated; and sunk under the influence of Atheism and
Materialism, and Hume and Voltaire: the world for the present was as
an extinct world, deserted of God, and incapable of well-doing till it
changed its heart and spirit. This, expressed I think with less of
indignation and with more of long-drawn querulousness, was always
recognizable as the ground-tone:--in which truly a pious young heart,
driven into Radicalism and the opposition party, could not but
recognize a too sorrowful truth; and ask of the Oracle, with all
earnestness, What remedy, then?
The remedy, though Coleridge himself professed to see it as in
sunbeams, could not, except by processes unspeakably difficult, be
described to you at all. On the whole, those dead Churches, this dead
English Church especially, must be brought to life again. Why not?
It was not dead; the soul of it, in this parched-up body, was
tragically asleep only. Atheistic Philosophy was true on its side,
and Hume and Voltaire could on their own ground speak irrefragably for
themselves against any Church: but lift the Church and them into a
higher sphere. Of argument, _they_ died into inanition, the Church
revivified itself into pristine florid vigor,--became once more a
living ship of the desert, and invincibly bore you over stock and
stone. But how, but how! By attending to the "reason" of man, said
Coleridge, and duly chaining up the "understanding" of man: the
_Vernunft_ (Reason) and _Verstand_ (Understanding) of the Germans, it
all turned upon these, if you could well understand them,--which you
couldn't. For the rest, Mr. Coleridge had on the anvil various Books,
especially was about to write one grand Book _On the Logos_, which
would help to bridge the chasm for us. So much appeared, however:
Churches, though proved false (as you had imagined), were still true
(as you were to imagine): here was an Artist who could burn you up an
old Church, root and branch; and then as the Alchemists professed to
do with organic substances in general, distil you an "Astral Spirit"
from the ashes, which was the very image of the old burnt article, its
air-drawn counterpart,--this you still had, or might get, and draw
uses from, if you could. Wait till the Book on the Logos were
done;--alas, till your own terrene eyes, blind with conceit and the
dust of logic, were purged, subtilized and spiritualized into the
sharpness of vision requisite for discerning such an
"om-m-mject."--The ingenuous young English head, of those days, stood
strangely puzzled by such revelations; uncertain whether it were
getting inspired, or getting infatuated into flat imbecility; and
strange effulgence, of new day or else of deeper meteoric night,
colored the horizon of the future for it.
Let me not be unjust to this memorable man. Surely there was here, in
his pious, ever-laboring, subtle mind, a precious truth, or
prefigurement of truth; and yet a fatal delusion withal.
Prefigurement that, in spite of beaver sciences and temporary
spiritual hebetude and cecity, man and his Universe were eternally
divine; and that no past nobleness, or revelation of the divine, could
or would ever be lost to him. Most true, surely, and worthy of all
acceptance. Good also to do what you can with old Churches and
practical Symbols of the Noble: nay quit not the burnt ruins of them
while you find there is still gold to be dug there. But, on the
whole, do not think you can, by logical alchemy, distil astral spirits
from them; or if you could, that said astral spirits, or defunct
logical phantasms, could serve you in anything. What the light of
your mind, which is the direct inspiration of the Almighty, pronounces
incredible,--that, in God's name, leave uncredited; at your peril do
not try believing that. No subtlest hocus-pocus of "reason" versus
"understanding" will avail for that feat;--and it is terribly perilous
to try it in these provinces!
The truth is, I now see, Coleridge's talk and speculation was the
emblem of himself: in it as in him, a ray of heavenly inspiration
struggled, in a tragically ineffectual degree, with the weakness of
flesh and blood. He says once, he "had skirted the howling deserts of
Infidelity;" this was evident enough: but he had not had the courage,
in defiance of pain and terror, to press resolutely across said
deserts to the new firm lands of Faith beyond; he preferred to create
logical fata-morganas for himself on this hither side, and laboriously
solace himself with these.
To the man himself Nature had given, in high measure, the seeds of a
noble endowment; and to unfold it had been forbidden him. A subtle
lynx-eyed intellect, tremulous pious sensibility to all good and all
beautiful; truly a ray of empyrean light;--but embedded in such weak
laxity of character, in such indolences and esuriences as had made
strange work with it. Once more, the tragic story of a high endowment
with an insufficient will. An eye to discern the divineness of the
Heaven's spendors and lightnings, the insatiable wish to revel in
their godlike radiances and brilliances; but no heart to front the
scathing terrors of them, which is the first condition of your
conquering an abiding place there. The courage necessary for him,
above all things, had been denied this man. His life, with such ray
of the empyrean in it, was great and terrible to him; and he had not
valiantly grappled with it, he had fled from it; sought refuge in
vague daydreams, hollow compromises, in opium, in theosophic
metaphysics. Harsh pain, danger, necessity, slavish harnessed toil,
were of all things abhorrent to him. And so the empyrean element,
lying smothered under the terrene, and yet inextinguishable there,
made sad writhings. For pain, danger, difficulty, steady slaving
toil, and other highly disagreeable behests of destiny, shall in
nowise be shirked by any brightest mortal that will approve himself
loyal to his mission in this world; nay precisely the higher he is,
the deeper will be the disagreeableness, and the detestability to
flesh and blood, of the tasks laid on him; and the heavier too, and
more tragic, his penalties if he neglect them.
For the old Eternal Powers do live forever; nor do their laws know any
change, however we in our poor wigs and church-tippets may attempt to
read their laws. To _steal_ into Heaven,--by the modern method, of
sticking ostrich-like your head into fallacies on Earth, equally as by
the ancient and by all conceivable methods,--is forever forbidden.
High-treason is the name of that attempt; and it continues to be
punished as such. Strange enough: here once more was a kind of
Heaven-scaling Ixion; and to him, as to the old one, the just gods
were very stern! The ever-revolving, never-advancing Wheel (of a
kind) was his, through life; and from his Cloud-Juno did not he too
procreate strange Centaurs, spectral Puseyisms, monstrous illusory
Hybrids, and ecclesiastical Chimeras,--which now roam the earth in a
very lamentable manner!
This magical ingredient thrown into the wild caldron of such a mind,
which we have seen occupied hitherto with mere Ethnicism, Radicalism
and revolutionary tumult, but hungering all along for something higher
and better, was sure to be eagerly welcomed and imbibed, and could not
fail to produce important fermentations there. Fermentations;
important new directions, and withal important new perversions, in the
spiritual life of this man, as it has since done in the lives of so
many. Here then is the new celestial manna we were all in quest of?
This thrice-refined pabulum of transcendental moonshine? Whoso eateth
thereof,--yes, what, on the whole, will _he_ probably grow to?
Sterling never spoke much to me of his intercourse with Coleridge; and
when we did compare notes about him, it was usually rather in the way
of controversial discussion than of narrative. So that, from my own
resources, I can give no details of the business, nor specify anything
in it, except the general fact of an ardent attendance at Highgate
continued for many months, which was impressively known to all
Sterling's friends; and am unable to assign even the limitary dates,
Sterling's own papers on the subject having all been destroyed by him.
Inferences point to the end of 1828 as the beginning of this
intercourse; perhaps in 1829 it was at the highest point; and already
in 1830, when the intercourse itself was about to terminate, we have
proof of the influences it was producing,--in the Novel of _Arthur
Coningsby_, then on hand, the first and only Book that Sterling ever
wrote. His writings hitherto had been sketches, criticisms, brief
essays; he was now trying it on a wider scale; but not yet with
satisfactory results, and it proved to be his only trial in that form.
He had already, as was intimated, given up his brief proprietorship of
the _Athenaeum_; the commercial indications, and state of sales and of
costs, peremptorily ordering him to do so; the copyright went by sale
or gift, I know not at what precise date, into other fitter hands; and
with the copyright all connection on the part of Sterling. To
_Athenaeum_ Sketches had now (in 1829-30) succeeded _Arthur
Coningsby_, a Novel in three volumes; indicating (when it came to
light, a year or two afterwards) equally hasty and much more ambitious
aims in Literature;--giving strong evidence, too, of internal
spiritual revulsions going painfully forward, and in particular of the
impression Coleridge was producing on him. Without and within, it was
a wild tide of things this ardent light young soul was afloat upon, at
present; and his outlooks into the future, whether for his spiritual
or economic fortunes, were confused enough.
Among his familiars in this period, I might have mentioned one Charles
Barton, formerly his fellow-student at Cambridge, now an amiable,
cheerful, rather idle young fellow about Town; who led the way into
certain new experiences, and lighter fields, for Sterling. His
Father, Lieutenant-General Barton of the Life-guards, an Irish
landlord, I think in Fermanagh County, and a man of connections about
Court, lived in a certain figure here in Town; had a wife of
fashionable habits, with other sons, and also daughters, bred in this
sphere. These, all of them, were amiable, elegant and pleasant
people;--such was especially an eldest daughter, Susannah Barton, a
stately blooming black-eyed young woman, attractive enough in form and
character; full of gay softness, of indolent sense and enthusiasm;
about Sterling's own age, if not a little older. In this house, which
opened to him, more decisively than his Father's, a new stratum of
society, and where his reception for Charles's sake and his own was of
the kindest, he liked very well to be; and spent, I suppose, many of
his vacant half-hours, lightly chatting with the elders or the
youngsters,--doubtless with the young lady too, though as yet without
particular intentions on either side.
Nor, with all the Coleridge fermentation, was democratic Radicalism by
any means given up;--though how it was to live if the Coleridgean
moonshine took effect, might have been an abtruse question. Hitherto,
while said moonshine was but taking effect, and coloring the outer
surface of things without quite penetrating into the heart, democratic
Liberalism, revolt against superstition and oppression, and help to
whosoever would revolt, was still the grand element in Sterling's
creed; and practically he stood, not ready only, but full of alacrity
to fulfil all its behests. We heard long since of the "black
dragoons,"--whom doubtless the new moonshine had considerably
silvered-over into new hues, by this time;--but here now, while
Radicalism is tottering for him and threatening to crumble, comes
suddenly the grand consummation and explosion of Radicalism in his
life; whereby, all at once, Radicalism exhausted and ended itself, and
appeared no more there.
In those years a visible section of the London population, and
conspicuous out of all proportion to its size or value, was a small
knot of Spaniards, who had sought shelter here as Political Refugees.
"Political Refugees:" a tragic succession of that class is one of the
possessions of England in our time. Six-and-twenty years ago, when I
first saw London, I remember those unfortunate Spaniards among the new
phenomena. Daily in the cold spring air, under skies so unlike their
own, you could see a group of fifty or a hundred stately tragic
figures, in proud threadbare cloaks; perambulating, mostly with closed
lips, the broad pavements of Euston Square and the regions about St.
Pancras new Church. Their lodging was chiefly in Somers Town, as I
understood: and those open pavements about St. Pancras Church were
the general place of rendezvous. They spoke little or no English;
knew nobody, could employ themselves on nothing, in this new scene.
Old steel-gray heads, many of them; the shaggy, thick, blue-black hair
of others struck you; their brown complexion, dusky look of suppressed
fire, in general their tragic condition as of caged Numidian lions.
That particular Flight of Unfortunates has long since fled again, and
vanished; and new have come and fled. In this convulsed revolutionary
epoch, which already lasts above sixty years, what tragic flights of
such have we not seen arrive on the one safe coast which is open to
them, as they get successively vanquished, and chased into exile to
avoid worse! Swarm after swarm, of ever-new complexion, from Spain as
from other countries, is thrown off, in those ever-recurring
paroxysms; and will continue to be thrown off. As there could be
(suggests Linnaeus) a "flower-clock," measuring the hours of the day,
and the months of the year, by the kinds of flowers that go to sleep
and awaken, that blow into beauty and fade into dust: so in the great
Revolutionary Horologe, one might mark the years and epochs by the
successive kinds of exiles that walk London streets, and, in grim
silent manner, demand pity from us and reflections from us.--This then
extant group of Spanish Exiles was the Trocadero swarm, thrown off in
1823, in the Riego and Quirogas quarrel. These were they whom Charles
Tenth had, by sheer force, driven from their constitutionalisms and
their Trocadero fortresses,--Charles Tenth, who himself was soon
driven out, manifoldly by sheer force; and had to head his own swarm
of fugitives; and has now himself quite vanished, and given place to
others. For there is no end of them; propelling and propelled!--
Of these poor Spanish Exiles, now vegetating about Somers Town, and
painfully beating the pavement in Euston Square, the acknowledged
chief was General Torrijos, a man of high qualities and fortunes,
still in the vigor of his years, and in these desperate circumstances
refusing to despair; with whom Sterling had, at this time, become
Torrijos, who had now in 1829 been here some four or five years,
having come over in 1824, had from the first enjoyed a superior
reception in England. Possessing not only a language to speak, which
few of the others did, but manifold experiences courtly, military,
diplomatic, with fine natural faculties, and high Spanish manners
tempered into cosmopolitan, he had been welcomed in various circles of
society; and found, perhaps he alone of those Spaniards, a certain
human companionship among persons of some standing in this country.
With the elder Sterlings, among others, he had made acquaintance;
became familiar in the social circle at South Place, and was much
esteemed there. With Madam Torrijos, who also was a person of amiable
and distinguished qualities, an affectionate friendship grew up on the
part of Mrs. Sterling, which ended only with the death of these two
ladies. John Sterling, on arriving in London from his University
work, naturally inherited what he liked to take up of this relation:
and in the lodgings in Regent Street, and the democratico-literary
element there, Torrijos became a very prominent, and at length almost
the central object.
The man himself, it is well known, was a valiant, gallant man; of
lively intellect, of noble chivalrous character: fine talents, fine
accomplishments, all grounding themselves on a certain rugged
veracity, recommended him to the discerning. He had begun youth in
the Court of Ferdinand; had gone on in Wellington and other arduous,
victorious and unvictorious, soldierings; familiar in camps and
council-rooms, in presence-chambers and in prisons. He knew romantic
Spain;--he was himself, standing withal in the vanguard of Freedom's
fight, a kind of living romance. Infinitely interesting to John
Sterling, for one.
It was to Torrijos that the poor Spaniards of Somers Town looked
mainly, in their helplessness, for every species of help. Torrijos,
it was hoped, would yet lead them into Spain and glorious victory
there; meanwhile here in England, under defeat, he was their captain
and sovereign in another painfully inverse sense. To whom, in
extremity, everybody might apply. When all present resources failed,
and the exchequer was quite out, there still remained Torrijos.
Torrijos has to find new resources for his destitute patriots, find
loans, find Spanish lessons for them among his English friends: in
all which charitable operations, it need not be said, John Sterling
was his foremost man; zealous to empty his own purse for the object;
impetuous in rushing hither or thither to enlist the aid of others,
and find lessons or something that would do. His friends, of course,
had to assist; the Bartons, among others, were wont to assist;--and I
have heard that the fair Susan, stirring up her indolent enthusiasm
into practicality, was very successful in finding Spanish lessons, and
the like, for these distressed men. Sterling and his friends were yet
new in this business; but Torrijos and the others were getting old in
it?--and doubtless weary and almost desperate of it. They had now
been seven years in it, many of them; and were asking, When will the
end be?
Torrijos is described as a man of excellent discernment: who knows
how long he had repressed the unreasonable schemes of his followers,
and turned a deaf ear to the temptings of fallacious hope? But there
comes at length a sum-total of oppressive burdens which is
intolerable, which tempts the wisest towards fallacies for relief.
These weary groups, pacing the Euston-Square pavements, had often said
in their despair, "Were not death in battle better? Here are we
slowly mouldering into nothingness; there we might reach it rapidly,
in flaming splendor. Flame, either of victory to Spain and us, or of
a patriot death, the sure harbinger of victory to Spain. Flame fit to
kindle a fire which no Ferdinand, with all his Inquisitions and
Charles Tenths, could put out." Enough, in the end of 1829, Torrijos
himself had yielded to this pressure; and hoping against hope,
persuaded himself that if he could but land in the South of Spain with
a small patriot band well armed and well resolved, a band carrying
fire in its heart,--then Spain, all inflammable as touchwood, and
groaning indignantly under its brutal tyrant, might blaze wholly into
flame round him, and incalculable victory be won. Such was his
conclusion; not sudden, yet surely not deliberate either,--desperate
rather, and forced on by circumstances. He thought with himself that,
considering Somers Town and considering Spain, the terrible chance was
worth trying; that this big game of Fate, go how it might, was one
which the omens credibly declared he and these poor Spaniards ought to
His whole industries and energies were thereupon bent towards starting
the said game; and his thought and continual speech and song now was,
That if he had a few thousand pounds to buy arms, to freight a ship
and make the other preparations, he and these poor gentlemen, and
Spain and the world, were made men and a saved Spain and world. What
talks and consultations in the apartment in Regent Street, during
those winter days of 1829-30; setting into open conflagration the
young democracy that was wont to assemble there! Of which there is
now left next to no remembrance. For Sterling never spoke a word of
this affair in after-days, nor was any of the actors much tempted to
speak. We can understand too well that here were young fervid hearts
in an explosive condition; young rash heads, sanctioned by a man's
experienced head. Here at last shall enthusiasm and theory become
practice and fact; fiery dreams are at last permitted to realize
themselves; and now is the time or never!--How the Coleridge moonshine
comported itself amid these hot telluric flames, or whether it had not
yet begun to play there (which I rather doubt), must be left to
Mr. Hare speaks of Sterling "sailing over to St. Valery in an open
boat along with others," upon one occasion, in this enterprise;--in
the _final_ English scene of it, I suppose. Which is very possible.
Unquestionably there was adventure enough of other kinds for it, and
running to and fro with all his speed on behalf of it, during these
months of his history! Money was subscribed, collected: the young
Cambridge democrats were all ablaze to assist Torrijos; nay certain of
them decided to go with him,--and went. Only, as yet, the funds were
rather incomplete. And here, as I learn from a good hand, is the
secret history of their becoming complete. Which, as we are upon the
subject, I had better give. But for the following circumstance, they
had perhaps never been completed; nor had the rash enterprise, or its
catastrophe, so influential on the rest of Sterling's life, taken
place at all.
A certain Lieutenant Robert Boyd, of the Indian Army, an Ulster
Irishman, a cousin of Sterling's, had received some affront, or
otherwise taken some disgust in that service; had thrown up his
commission in consequence; and returned home, about this time, with
intent to seek another course of life. Having only, for outfit, these
impatient ardors, some experience in Indian drill exercise, and five
thousand pounds of inheritance, he found the enterprise attended with
difficulties; and was somewhat at a loss how to dispose of himself.
Some young Ulster comrade, in a partly similar situation, had pointed
out to him that there lay in a certain neighboring creek of the Irish
coast, a worn-out royal gun-brig condemned to sale, to be had
dog-cheap: this he proposed that they two, or in fact Boyd with his
five thousand pounds, should buy; that they should refit and arm and
man it;--and sail a-privateering "to the Eastern Archipelago,"
Philippine Isles, or I know not where; and _so_ conquer the golden
Boyd naturally paused a little at this great proposal; did not quite
reject it; came across, with it and other fine projects and
impatiences fermenting in his head, to London, there to see and
consider. It was in the months when the Torrijos enterprise was in
the birth-throes; crying wildly for capital, of all things. Boyd
naturally spoke of his projects to Sterling,--of his gun-brig lying in
the Irish creek, among others. Sterling naturally said, "If you want
an adventure of the Sea-king sort, and propose to lay your money and
your life into such a game, here is Torrijos and Spain at his back;
here is a golden fleece to conquer, worth twenty Eastern
Archipelagoes."--Boyd and Torrijos quickly met; quickly bargained.
Boyd's money was to go in purchasing, and storing with a certain stock
of arms and etceteras, a small ship in the Thames, which should carry
Boyd with Torrijos and the adventurers to the south coast of Spain;
and there, the game once played and won, Boyd was to have promotion
enough,--"the colonelcy of a Spanish cavalry regiment," for one
express thing. What exact share Sterling had in this negotiation, or
whether he did not even take the prudent side and caution Boyd to be
wary I know not; but it was he that brought the parties together; and
all his friends knew, in silence, that to the end of his life he
painfully remembered that fact.
And so a ship was hired, or purchased, in the Thames; due furnishings
began to be executed in it; arms and stores were gradually got on
board; Torrijos with his Fifty picked Spaniards, in the mean while,
getting ready. This was in the spring of 1830. Boyd's 5000 pounds
was the grand nucleus of finance; but vigorous subscription was
carried on likewise in Sterling's young democratic circle, or wherever
a member of it could find access; not without considerable result, and
with a zeal that may be imagined. Nay, as above hinted, certain of
these young men decided, not to give their money only, but themselves
along with it, as democratic volunteers and soldiers of progress;
among whom, it need not be said, Sterling intended to be foremost.
Busy weeks with him, those spring ones of the year 1830! Through this
small Note, accidentally preserved to us, addressed to his friend
Barton, we obtain a curious glance into the subterranean workshop:--
"_To Charles Barton, Esq., Dorset Sq., Regent's Park_.
[No date; apparently March or February, 1830.]
"MY DEAR CHARLES,--I have wanted to see you to talk to you about my
Foreign affairs. If you are going to be in London for a few days, I
believe you can be very useful to me, at a considerable expense and
trouble to yourself, in the way of buying accoutrements; _inter alia_,
a sword and a saddle,--not, you will understand, for my own use.
"Things are going on very well, but are very, even frightfully near;
only be quiet! Pray would you, in case of necessity, take a free
passage to Holland, next week or the week after; stay two or three
days, and come back, all expenses paid? If you write to B---- at
Cambridge, tell him above all things to hold his tongue. If you are
near Palace Yard to-morrow before two, pray come to see me. Do not
come on purpose; especially as I may perhaps be away, and at all
events shall not be there until eleven, nor perhaps till rather later.
"I fear I shall have alarmed your Mother by my irruption. Forgive me
for that and all my exactions from you. If the next month were over,
I should not have to trouble any one.
"Yours affectionately,
Busy weeks indeed; and a glowing smithy-light coming through the
chinks!--The romance of _Arthur Coningsby_ lay written, or
half-written, in his desk; and here, in his heart and among his hands,
was an acted romance and unknown catastrophes keeping pace with that.
Doubts from the doctors, for his health was getting ominous, threw
some shade over the adventure. Reproachful reminiscences of Coleridge
and Theosophy were natural too; then fond regrets for Literature and
its glories: if you act your romance, how can you also write it?
Regrets, and reproachful reminiscences, from Art and Theosophy;
perhaps some tenderer regrets withal. A crisis in life had come;
when, of innumerable possibilities one possibility was to be elected
king, and to swallow all the rest, the rest of course made noise
enough, and swelled themselves to their biggest.
Meanwhile the ship was fast getting ready: on a certain day, it was
to drop quietly down the Thames; then touch at Deal, and take on board
Torrijos and his adventurers, who were to be in waiting and on the
outlook for them there. Let every man lay in his accoutrements, then;
let every man make his packages, his arrangements and farewells.
Sterling went to take leave of Miss Barton. "You are going, then; to
Spain? To rough it amid the storms of war and perilous insurrection;
and with that weak health of yours; and--we shall never see you more,
then!" Miss Barton, all her gayety gone, the dimpling softness become
liquid sorrow, and the musical ringing voice one wail of woe, "burst
into tears,"--so I have it on authority:--here was one possibility
about to be strangled that made unexpected noise! Sterling's
interview ended in the offer of his hand, and the acceptance of
it;--any sacrifice to get rid of this horrid Spanish business, and
save the health and life of a gifted young man so precious to the
world and to another!
"Ill-health," as often afterwards in Sterling's life, when the excuse
was real enough but not the chief excuse; "ill-health, and insuperable
obstacles and engagements," had to bear the chief brunt in
apologizing: and, as Sterling's actual presence, or that of any
Englishman except Boyd and his money, was not in the least vital to
the adventure, his excuse was at once accepted. The English
connections and subscriptions are a given fact, to be presided over by
what English volunteers there are: and as for Englishmen, the fewer
Englishmen that go, the larger will be the share of influence for
each. The other adventurers, Torrijos among them in due readiness,
moved silently one by one down to Deal; Sterling, superintending the
naval hands, on board their ship in the Thames, was to see the last
finish given to everything in that department; then, on the set
evening, to drop down quietly to Deal, and there say _Andad con Dios_,
and return.
Behold! Just before the set evening came, the Spanish Envoy at this
Court has got notice of what is going on; the Spanish Envoy, and of
course the British Foreign Secretary, and of course also the Thames
Police. Armed men spring suddenly on board, one day, while Sterling
is there; declare the ship seized and embargoed in the King's name;
nobody on board to stir till he has given some account of himself in
due time and place! Huge consternation, naturally, from stem to
stern. Sterling, whose presence of mind seldom forsook him, casts his
eye over the River and its craft; sees a wherry, privately signals it,
drops rapidly on board of it: "Stop!" fiercely interjects the marine
policeman from the ship's deck.--"Why stop? What use have you for me,
or I for you?" and the oars begin playing.--"Stop, or I'll shoot you!"
cries the marine policeman, drawing a pistol.--"No, you won't."--"I
will!"--"If you do you'll be hanged at the next Maidstone assizes,
then; that's all,"--and Sterling's wherry shot rapidly ashore; and out
of this perilous adventure.
That same night he posted down to Deal; disclosed to the Torrijos
party what catastrophe had come. No passage Spainward from the
Thames; well if arrestment do not suddenly come from the Thames! It
was on this occasion, I suppose, that the passage in the open boat to
St. Valery occurred;--speedy flight in what boat or boats, open or
shut, could be got at Deal on the sudden. Sterling himself, according
to Hare's authority, actually went with them so far. Enough, they got
shipping, as private passengers in one craft or the other; and, by
degrees or at once, arrived all at Gibraltar,--Boyd, one or two young
democrats of Regent Street, the fifty picked Spaniards, and
Torrijos,--safe, though without arms; still in the early part of the
Sterling's outlooks and occupations, now that his Spanish friends were
gone, must have been of a rather miscellaneous confused description.
He had the enterprise of a married life close before him; and as yet
no profession, no fixed pursuit whatever. His health was already very
threatening; often such as to disable him from present activity, and
occasion the gravest apprehensions; practically blocking up all
important courses whatsoever, and rendering the future, if even life
were lengthened and he had any future, an insolubility for him.
Parliament was shut, public life was shut: Literature,--if, alas, any
solid fruit could lie in literature!
Or perhaps one's health would mend, after all; and many things be
better than was hoped! Sterling was not of a despondent temper, or
given in any measure to lie down and indolently moan: I fancy he
walked briskly enough into this tempestuous-looking future; not
heeding too much its thunderous aspects; doing swiftly, for the day,
what his hand found to do. _Arthur Coningsby_, I suppose, lay on the
anvil at present; visits to Coleridge were now again more possible;
grand news from Torrijos might be looked for, though only small yet
came:--nay here, in the hot July, is France, at least, all thrown into
volcano again! Here are the miraculous Three Days; heralding, in
thunder, great things to Torrijos and others; filling with babblement
and vaticination the mouths and hearts of all democratic men.
So rolled along, in tumult of chaotic remembrance and uncertain hope,
in manifold emotion, and the confused struggle (for Sterling as for
the world) to extricate the New from the falling ruins of the Old, the
summer and autumn of 1830. From Gibraltar and Torrijos the tidings
were vague, unimportant and discouraging: attempt on Cadiz, attempt
on the lines of St. Roch, those attempts, or rather resolutions to
attempt, had died in the birth, or almost before it. Men blamed
Torrijos, little knowing his impediments. Boyd was still patient at
his post: others of the young English (on the strength of the
subscribed moneys) were said to be thinking of tours,--perhaps in the
Sierra Morena and neighboring Quixote regions. From that Torrijos
enterprise it did not seem that anything considerable would come.
On the edge of winter, here at home, Sterling was married: "at
Christchurch, Marylebone, 2d November, 1830," say the records. His
blooming, kindly and true-hearted Wife had not much money, nor had he
as yet any: but friends on both sides were bountiful and hopeful; had
made up, for the young couple, the foundations of a modestly effective
household; and in the future there lay more substantial prospects. On
the finance side Sterling never had anything to suffer. His Wife,
though somewhat languid, and of indolent humor, was a graceful,
pious-minded, honorable and affectionate woman; she could not much
support him in the ever-shifting struggles of his life, but she
faithfully attended him in them, and loyally marched by his side
through the changes and nomadic pilgrimings, of which many were
appointed him in his short course.
Unhappily a few weeks after his marriage, and before any household was
yet set up, he fell dangerously ill; worse in health than he had ever
yet been: so many agitations crowded into the last few months had
been too much for him. He fell into dangerous pulmonary illness, sank
ever deeper; lay for many weeks in his Father's house utterly
prostrate, his young Wife and his Mother watching over him; friends,
sparingly admitted, long despairing of his life. All prospects in
this world were now apparently shut upon him.
After a while, came hope again, and kindlier symptoms: but the
doctors intimated that there lay consumption in the question, and that
perfect recovery was not to be looked for. For weeks he had been
confined to bed; it was several months before he could leave his
sick-room, where the visits of a few friends had much cheered him.
And now when delivered, readmitted to the air of day again,--weak as
he was, and with such a liability still lurking in him,--what his
young partner and he were to do, or whitherward to turn for a good
course of life, was by no means too apparent.
One of his Mother Mrs. Edward Sterling's Uncles, a Coningham from
Derry, had, in the course of his industrious and adventurous life,
realized large property in the West Indies,--a valuable Sugar-estate,
with its equipments, in the Island of St. Vincent;--from which Mrs.
Sterling and her family were now, and had been for some years before
her Uncle's decease, deriving important benefits. I have heard, it
was then worth some ten thousand pounds a year to the parties
interested. Anthony Sterling, John, and another a cousin of theirs
were ultimately to be heirs, in equal proportions. The old gentleman,
always kind to his kindred, and a brave and solid man though somewhat
abrupt in his ways, had lately died; leaving a settlement to this
effect, not without some intricacies, and almost caprices, in the
conditions attached.
This property, which is still a valuable one, was Sterling's chief
pecuniary outlook for the distant future. Of course it well deserved
taking care of; and if the eye of the master were upon it, of course
too (according to the adage) the cattle would fatten better. As the
warm climate was favorable to pulmonary complaints, and Sterling's
occupations were so shattered to pieces and his outlooks here so waste
and vague, why should not he undertake this duty for himself and
It was fixed upon as the eligiblest course. A visit to St. Vincent,
perhaps a permanent residence there: he went into the project with
his customary impetuosity; his young Wife cheerfully consenting, and
all manner of new hopes clustering round it. There are the rich
tropical sceneries, the romance of the torrid zone with its new skies
and seas and lands; there are Blacks, and the Slavery question to be
investigated: there are the bronzed Whites and Yellows, and their
strange new way of life: by all means let us go and
try!--Arrangements being completed, so soon as his strength had
sufficiently recovered, and the harsh spring winds had sufficiently
abated, Sterling with his small household set sail for St. Vincent;
and arrived without accident. His first child, a son Edward, now
living and grown to manhood, was born there, "at Brighton in the
Island of St. Vincent," in the fall of that year 1831.
Sterling found a pleasant residence, with all its adjuncts, ready for
him, at Colonarie, in this "volcanic Isle" under the hot sun. An
interesting Isle: a place of rugged chasms, precipitous gnarled
heights, and the most fruitful hollows; shaggy everywhere with
luxuriant vegetation; set under magnificent skies, in the mirror of
the summer seas; offering everywhere the grandest sudden outlooks and
contrasts. His Letters represent a placidly cheerful riding life: a
pensive humor, but the thunder-clouds all sleeping in the distance.
Good relations with a few neighboring planters; indifference to the
noisy political and other agitations of the rest: friendly, by no
means romantic appreciation of the Blacks; quiet prosperity economic
and domestic: on the whole a healthy and recommendable way of life,
with Literature very much in abeyance in it.
He writes to Mr. Hare (date not given): "The landscapes around me
here are noble and lovely as any that can be conceived on Earth. How
indeed could it be otherwise, in a small Island of volcanic mountains,
far within the Tropics, and perpetually covered with the richest
vegetation?" The moral aspect of things is by no means so good; but
neither is that without its fair features. "So far as I see, the
Slaves here are cunning, deceitful and idle; without any great
aptitude for ferocious crimes, and with very little scruple at
committing others. But I have seen them much only in very favorable
circumstances. They are, as a body, decidedly unfit for freedom; and
if left, as at present, completely in the hands of their masters, will
never become so, unless through the agency of the Methodists."[9]
In the Autumn came an immense hurricane; with new and indeed quite
perilous experiences of West-Indian life. This hasty Letter,
addressed to his Mother, is not intrinsically his remarkablest from
St. Vincent: but the body of fact delineated in it being so much the
greatest, we will quote it in preference. A West-Indian tornado, as
John Sterling witnesses it, and with vivid authenticity describes it,
may be considered worth looking at.
"_To Mrs. Sterling, South Place, Knightsbridge, London_.
"BRIGHTON, ST. VINCENT, 28th August, 1831.
"MY DEAR MOTHER,--The packet came in yesterday; bringing me some
Newspapers, a Letter from my Father, and one from Anthony, with a few
lines from you. I wrote, some days ago, a hasty Note to my Father, on
the chance of its reaching you through Grenada sooner than any
communication by the packet; and in it I spoke of the great misfortune
which had befallen this Island and Barbadoes, but from which all those
you take an interest in have happily escaped unhurt.
"From the day of our arrival in the West Indies until Thursday the
11th instant, which will long be a memorable day with us, I had been
doing my best to get ourselves established comfortably; and I had at
last bought the materials for making some additions to the house. But
on the morning I have mentioned, all that I had exerted myself to do,
nearly all the property both of Susan and myself, and the very house
we lived in, were suddenly destroyed by a visitation of Providence far
more terrible than any I have ever witnessed.
"When Susan came from her room, to breakfast, at eight o'clock, I
pointed out to her the extraordinary height and violence of the surf,
and the singular appearance of the clouds of heavy rain sweeping down
the valleys before us. At this time I had so little apprehension of
what was coming, that I talked of riding down to the shore when the
storm should abate, as I had never seen so fierce a sea. In about a
quarter of an hour the House-Negroes came in, to close the outside
shutters of the windows. They knew that the plantain-trees about the
Negro houses had been blown down in the night; and had told the
maid-servant Tyrrell, but I had heard nothing of it. A very few
minutes after the closing of the windows, I found that the shutters of
Tyrrell's room, at the south and commonly the most sheltered end of
the House, were giving way. I tried to tie them; but the silk
handkerchief which I used soon gave way; and as I had neither hammer,
boards nor nails in the house, I could do nothing more to keep out the
tempest. I found, in pushing at the leaf of the shutter, that the wind
resisted, more as if it had been a stone wall or a mass of iron, than
a mere current of air. There were one or two people outside trying to
fasten the windows, and I went out to help; but we had no tools at
hand: one man was blown down the hill in front of the house, before
my face; and the other and myself had great difficulty in getting back
again inside the door. The rain on my face and hands felt like so
much small shot from a gun. There was great exertion necessary to
shut the door of the house.
"The windows at the end of the large room were now giving way; and I
suppose it was about nine o'clock, when the hurricane burst them in,
as if it had been a discharge from a battery of heavy cannon. The
shutters were first forced open, and the wind fastened them back to
the wall; and then the panes of glass were smashed by the mere force
of the gale, without anything having touched them. Even now I was not
at all sure the house would go. My books, I saw, were lost; for the
rain poured past the bookcases, as if it had been the Colonarie River.
But we carried a good deal of furniture into the passage at the
entrance; we set Susan there on a sofa, and the Black Housekeeper was
even attempting to get her some breakfast. The house, however, began
to shake so violently, and the rain was so searching, that she could
not stay there long. She went into her own room and I stayed to see
what could be done.
"Under the forepart of the house, there are cellars built of stone,
but not arched. To these, however, there was no access except on the
outside; and I knew from my own experience that Susan could not have
gone a step beyond the door, without being carried away by the storm,
and probably killed on the spot. The only chance seemed to be that of
breaking through the floor. But when the old Cook and myself resolved
on this, we found that we had no instrument with which it would be
possible to do it. It was now clear that we had only God to trust in.
The front windows were giving way with successive crashes, and the
floor shook as you may have seen a carpet on a gusty day in London. I
went into our bedroom; where I found Susan, Tyrrell, and a little
Colored girl of seven or eight years old; and told them that we should
probably not be alive in half an hour. I could have escaped, if I had
chosen to go alone, by crawling on the ground either into the kitchen,
a separate stone building at no great distance, or into the open
fields away from trees or houses; but Susan could not have gone a
yard. She became quite calm when she knew the worst; and she sat on
my knee in what seemed the safest corner of the room, while every
blast was bringing nearer and nearer the moment of our seemingly
certain destruction.--
"The house was under two parallel roofs; and the one next the sea,
which sheltered the other, and us who were under the other, went off,
I suppose about ten o'clock. After my old plan, I will give you a
sketch, from which you may perceive how we were situated:--
[In print, a figure representing a floor-plan appears here]
The _a_, _a_ are the windows that were first destroyed: _b_ went
next; my books were between the windows _b_, and on the wall opposite
to them. The lines _c_ and _d_ mark the directions of the two roofs;
_e_ is the room in which we were, and 2 is a plan of it on a larger
scale. Look now at 2: _a_ is the bed; _c_, _c_ the two wardrobes;
_b_ the corner in which we were. I was sitting in an arm-chair,
holding my Wife; and Tyrrell and the little Black child were close to
us. We had given up all notion of surviving; and only waited for the
fall of the roof to perish together.
"Before long the roof went. Most of the materials, however, were
carried clear away: one of the large couples was caught on the
bedpost marked _d_, and held fast by the iron spike; while the end of
it hung over our heads: had the beam fallen an inch on either side of
the bedpost, it must necessarily have crushed us. The walls did not
go with the roof; and we remained for half an hour, alternately
praying to God, and watching them as they bent, creaked, and shivered
before the storm.
"Tyrrell and the child, when the roof was off, made their way through
the remains of the partition, to the outer door; and with the help of
the people who were looking for us, got into the kitchen. A good
while after they were gone, and before we knew anything of their fate,
a Negro suddenly came upon us; and the sight of him gave us a hope of
safety. When the people learned that we were in danger, and while
their own huts were flying about their ears, they crowded to help us;
and the old Cook urged them on to our rescue. He made five attempts,
after saving Tyrrell, to get to us; and four times he was blown down.
The fifth time he, and the Negro we first saw, reached the house. The
space they had to traverse was not above twenty yards of level ground,
if so much. In another minute or two, the Overseers and a crowd of
Negroes, most of whom had come on their hands and knees, were
surrounding us; and with their help Susan was carried round to the end
of the house; where they broke open the cellar window, and placed her
in comparative safety. The force of the hurricane was, by this time,
a good deal diminished, or it would have been impossible to stand
before it.
"But the wind was still terrific; and the rain poured into the cellars
through the floor above. Susan, Tyrrell, and a crowd of Negroes
remained under it, for more than two hours: and I was long afraid
that the wet and cold would kill her, if she did not perish more
violently. Happily we had wine and spirits at hand, and she was much
nerved by a tumbler of claret. As soon as I saw her in comparative
security, I went off with one of the Overseers down to the Works,
where the greater number of the Negroes were collected, that we might
see what could be done for them. They were wretched enough, but no
one was hurt; and I ordered them a dram apiece, which seemed to give
them a good deal of consolation.
"Before I could make my way back, the hurricane became as bad as at
first; and I was obliged to take shelter for half an hour in a ruined
Negro house. This, however, was the last of its extreme violence. By
one o'clock, even the rain had in a great degree ceased; and as only
one room of the house, the one marked _f_; was standing, and that
rickety,--I had Susan carried in a chair down the hill, to the
Hospital; where, in a small paved unlighted room, she spent the next
twenty-four hours. She was far less injured than might have been
expected from such a catastrophe.
"Next day, I had the passage at the entrance of the house repaired and
roofed; and we returned to the ruins of our habitation, still
encumbered as they were with the wreck of almost all we were possessed
of. The walls of the part of the house next the sea were carried
away, in less I think than half an hour after we reached the cellar:
when I had leisure to examine the remains of the house, I found the
floor strewn with fragments of the building, and with broken
furniture; and our books all soaked as completely as if they had been
for several hours in the sea.
"In the course of a few days I had the other room, _g_, which is under
the same roof as the one saved, rebuilt; and Susan stayed in this
temporary abode for a week,--when we left Colonarie, and came to
Brighton. Mr. Munro's kindness exceeds all precedent. We shall
certainly remain here till my Wife is recovered from her confinement.
In the mean while we shall have a new house built, in which we hope to
be well settled before Christmas.
"The roof was half blown off the kitchen, but I have had it mended
already; the other offices were all swept away. The gig is much
injured; and my horse received a wound in the fall of the stable, from
which he will not be recovered for some weeks: in the mean time I
have no choice but to buy another, as I must go at least once or twice
a week to Colonarie, besides business in Town. As to our own
comforts, we can scarcely expect ever to recover from the blow that
has now stricken us. No money would repay me for the loss of my
books, of which a large proportion had been in my hands for so many
years that they were like old and faithful friends, and of which many
had been given me at different times by the persons in the world whom
I most value.
"But against all this I have to set the preservation of our lives, in
a way the most awfully providential; and the safety of every one on
the Estate. And I have also the great satisfaction of reflecting that
all the Negroes from whom any assistance could reasonably be expected,
behaved like so many Heroes of Antiquity; risking their lives and
limbs for us and our property, while their own poor houses were flying
like chaff before the hurricane. There are few White people here who
can say as much for their Black dependents; and the force and value of
the relation between Master and Slave has been tried by the late
calamity on a large scale.
"Great part of both sides of this Island has been laid completely
waste. The beautiful wide and fertile Plain called the Charib
Country, extending for many miles to the north of Colonarie, and
formerly containing the finest sets of works and best dwelling-houses
in the Island, is, I am told, completely desolate: on several estates
not a roof even of a Negro hut standing. In the embarrassed
circumstances of many of the proprietors, the ruin is, I fear,
irreparable.--At Colonarie the damage is serious, but by no means
desperate. The crop is perhaps injured ten or fifteen per cent. The
roofs of several large buildings are destroyed, but these we are
already supplying; and the injuries done to the cottages of the
Negroes are, by this time, nearly if not quite remedied.
"Indeed, all that has been suffered in St. Vincent appears nothing
when compared with the appalling loss of property and of human lives
at Barbadoes. There the Town is little but a heap of ruins, and the
corpses are reckoned by thousands; while throughout the Island there
are not, I believe, ten estates on which the buildings are standing.
The Elliotts, from whom we have heard, are living with all their
family in a tent; and may think themselves wonderfully saved, when
whole families round them were crushed at once beneath their houses.
Hugh Barton, the only officer of the Garrison hurt, has broken his
arm, and we know nothing of his prospects of recovery. The more
horrible misfortune of Barbadoes is partly to be accounted for by the
fact of the hurricane having begun there during the night. The
flatness of the surface in that Island presented no obstacle to the
wind, which must, however, I think have been in itself more furious
than with us. No other island has suffered considerably.
"I have told both my Uncle and Anthony that I have given you the
details of our recent history;--which are not so pleasant that I
should wish to write them again. Perhaps you will be good enough to
let them see this, as soon as you and my Father can spare it.... I am
ever, dearest Mother,
"Your grateful and affectionate
This Letter, I observe, is dated 28th August, 1831; which is otherwise
a day of mark to the world and me,--the Poet Goethe's last birthday.
While Sterling sat in the Tropical solitudes, penning this history,
little European Weimar had its carriages and state-carriages busy on
the streets, and was astir with compliments and visiting-cards, doing
its best, as heretofore, on behalf of a remarkable day; and was not,
for centuries or tens of centuries, to see the like of it again!--
At Brighton, the hospitable home of those Munros, our friends
continued for above two months. Their first child, Edward, as above
noticed, was born here, "14th October, 1831;"--and now the poor lady,
safe from all her various perils, could return to Colonarie under good
It was in this year that I first heard definitely of Sterling as a
contemporary existence; and laid up some note and outline of him in my
memory, as of one whom I might yet hope to know. John Mill, Mrs.
Austin and perhaps other friends, spoke of him with great affection
and much pitying admiration; and hoped to see him home again, under
better omens, from over the seas. As a gifted amiable being, of a
certain radiant tenuity and velocity, too thin and rapid and
diffusive, in danger of dissipating himself into the vague, or alas
into death itself: it was so that, like a spot of bright colors,
rather than a portrait with features, he hung occasionally visible in
my imagination.
The ruin of his house had hardly been repaired, when there arrived out
of Europe tidings which smote as with a still more fatal hurricane on
the four corners of his inner world, and awoke all the old thunders
that lay asleep on his horizon there. Tidings, at last of a decisive
nature, from Gibraltar and the Spanish democrat adventure. This is
what the Newspapers had to report--the catastrophe at once, the
details by degrees--from Spain concerning that affair, in the
beginning of the new year 1832.
Torrijos, as we have seen, had hitherto accomplished as good as
nothing, except disappointment to his impatient followers, and sorrow
and regret to himself. Poor Torrijos, on arriving at Gibraltar with
his wild band, and coming into contact with the rough fact, had found
painfully how much his imagination had deceived him. The fact lay
round him haggard and iron-bound; flatly refusing to be handled
according to his scheme of it. No Spanish soldiery nor citizenry
showed the least disposition to join him; on the contrary the official
Spaniards of that coast seemed to have the watchfulest eye on all his
movements, nay it was conjectured they had spies in Gibraltar who
gathered his very intentions and betrayed them. This small project of
attack, and then that other, proved futile, or was abandoned before
the attempt. Torrijos had to lie painfully within the lines of
Gibraltar,--his poor followers reduced to extremity of impatience and
distress; the British Governor too, though not unfriendly to him,
obliged to frown. As for the young Cantabs, they, as was said, had
wandered a little over the South border of romantic Spain; had perhaps
seen Seville, Cadiz, with picturesque views, since not with
belligerent ones; and their money being done, had now returned home.
So had it lasted for eighteen months.
The French Three Days breaking out had armed the Guerrillero Mina,
armed all manner of democratic guerrieros and guerrilleros; and
considerable clouds of Invasion, from Spanish exiles, hung minatory
over the North and North-East of Spain, supported by the new-born
French Democracy, so far as privately possible. These Torrijos had to
look upon with inexpressible feelings, and take no hand in supporting
from the South; these also he had to see brushed away, successively
abolished by official generalship; and to sit within his lines, in the
painfulest manner, unable to do anything. The fated, gallant-minded,
but too headlong man. At length the British Governor himself was
obliged, in official decency and as is thought on repeated
remonstrance from his Spanish official neighbors, to signify how
indecorous, improper and impossible it was to harbor within one's
lines such explosive preparations, once they were discovered, against
allies in full peace with us,--the necessity, in fact, there was for
the matter ending. It is said, he offered Torrijos and his people
passports, and British protection, to any country of the world except
Spain: Torrijos did not accept the passports; spoke of going
peaceably to this place or to that; promised at least, what he saw and
felt to be clearly necessary, that he would soon leave Gibraltar. And
he did soon leave it; he and his, Boyd alone of the Englishmen being
now with him.
It was on the last night of November, 1831, that they all set forth;
Torrijos with Fifty-five companions; and in two small vessels
committed themselves to their nigh-desperate fortune. No sentry or
official person had noticed them; it was from the Spanish Consul, next
morning, that the British Governor first heard they were gone. The
British Governor knew nothing of them; but apparently the Spanish
officials were much better informed. Spanish guardships, instantly
awake, gave chase to the two small vessels, which were making all sail
towards Malaga; and, on shore, all manner of troops and detached
parties were in motion, to render a retreat to Gibraltar by land
Crowd all sail for Malaga, then; there perhaps a regiment will join
us; there,--or if not, we are but lost! Fancy need not paint a more
tragic situation than that of Torrijos, the unfortunate gallant man,
in the gray of this morning, first of December, 1831,--his last free
morning. Noble game is afoot, afoot at last; and all the hunters have
him in their toils.--The guardships gain upon Torrijos; he cannot even
reach Malaga; has to run ashore at a place called Fuengirola, not far
from that city;--the guardships seizing his vessels, so soon as he is
disembarked. The country is all up; troops scouring the coast
everywhere: no possibility of getting into Malaga with a party of
Fifty-five. He takes possession of a farmstead (Ingles, the place is
called); barricades himself there, but is speedily beleaguered with
forces hopelessly superior. He demands to treat; is refused all
treaty; is granted six hours to consider, shall then either surrender
at discretion, or be forced to do it. Of course he _does_ it, having
no alternative; and enters Malaga a prisoner, all his followers
prisoners. Here had the Torrijos Enterprise, and all that was
embarked upon it, finally arrived.
Express is sent to Madrid; express instantly returns; "Military
execution on the instant; give them shriving if they want it; that
done, fusillade them all." So poor Torrijos and his followers, the
whole Fifty-six of them, Robert Boyd included, meet swift death in
Malaga. In such manner rushes down the curtain on them and their
affair; they vanish thus on a sudden; rapt away as in black clouds of
fate. Poor Boyd, Sterling's cousin, pleaded his British citizenship;
to no purpose: it availed only to his dead body, this was delivered
to the British Consul for interment, and only this. Poor Madam
Torrijos, hearing, at Paris where she now was, of her husband's
capture, hurries towards Madrid to solicit mercy; whither also
messengers from Lafayette and the French Government were hurrying, on
the like errand: at Bayonne, news met the poor lady that it was
already all over, that she was now a widow, and her husband hidden
from her forever.--Such was the handsel of the new year 1832 for
Sterling in his West-Indian solitudes.
Sterling's friends never heard of these affairs; indeed we were all
secretly warned not to mention the name of Torrijos in his hearing,
which accordingly remained strictly a forbidden subject. His misery
over this catastrophe was known, in his own family, to have been
immense. He wrote to his Brother Anthony: "I hear the sound of that
musketry; it is as if the bullets were tearing my own brain." To
figure in one's sick and excited imagination such a scene of fatal
man-hunting, lost valor hopelessly captured and massacred; and to add
to it, that the victims are not men merely, that they are noble and
dear forms known lately as individual friends: what a Dance of the
Furies and wild-pealing Dead-march is this, for the mind of a loving,
generous and vivid man! Torrijos getting ashore at Fuengirola; Robert
Boyd and others ranked to die on the esplanade at Malaga--Nay had not
Sterling, too, been the innocent yet heedless means of Boyd's
embarking in this enterprise? By his own kinsman poor Boyd had been
witlessly guided into the pitfalls. "I hear the sound of that
musketry; it is as if the bullets were tearing my own brain!"
These thoughts dwelt long with Sterling; and for a good while, I
fancy, kept possession of the proscenium of his mind; madly parading
there, to the exclusion of all else,--coloring all else with their own
black hues. He was young, rich in the power to be miserable or
otherwise; and this was his first grand sorrow which had now fallen
upon him.
An important spiritual crisis, coming at any rate in some form, had
hereby suddenly in a very sad form come. No doubt, as youth was
passing into manhood in these Tropical seclusions, and higher wants
were awakening in his mind, and years and reflection were adding new
insight and admonition, much in his young way of thought and action
lay already under ban with him, and repentances enough over many
things were not wanting. But here on a sudden had all repentances, as
it were, dashed themselves together into one grand whirlwind of
repentance; and his past life was fallen wholly as into a state of
reprobation. A great remorseful misery had come upon him. Suddenly,
as with a sudden lightning-stroke, it had kindled into conflagration
all the ruined structure of his past life; such ruin had to blaze and
flame round him, in the painfulest manner, till it went out in black
ashes. His democratic philosophies, and mutinous radicalisms, already
falling doomed in his thoughts, had reached their consummation and
final condemnation here. It was all so rash, imprudent, arrogant, all
that; false, or but half true; inapplicable wholly as a rule of noble
conduct;--and it has ended _thus_. Woe on it! Another guidance must
be found in life, or life is impossible!--
It is evident, Sterling's thoughts had already, since the old days of
the "black dragoon," much modified themselves. We perceive that, by
mere increase of experience and length of time, the opposite and much
deeper side of the question, which also has its adamantine basis of
truth, was in turn coming into play; and in fine that a Philosophy of
Denial, and world illuminated merely by the flames of Destruction,
could never have permanently been the resting-place of such a man.
Those pilgrimings to Coleridge, years ago, indicate deeper wants
beginning to be felt, and important ulterior resolutions becoming
inevitable for him. If in your own soul there is any tone of the
"Eternal Melodies," you cannot live forever in those poor outer,
transitory grindings and discords; you will have to struggle inwards
and upwards, in search of some diviner home for yourself!--Coleridge's
prophetic moonshine, Torrijos's sad tragedy: those were important
occurrences in Sterling's life. But, on the whole, there was a big
Ocean for him, with impetuous Gulf-streams, and a doomed voyage in
quest of the Atlantis, _before_ either of those arose as lights on the
horizon. As important beacon-lights let us count them
nevertheless;--signal-dates they form to us, at lowest. We may reckon
this Torrijos tragedy the crisis of Sterling's history; the
turning-point, which modified, in the most important and by no means
wholly in the most favorable manner, all the subsequent stages of it.
Old Radicalism and mutinous audacious Ethnicism having thus fallen to
wreck, and a mere black world of misery and remorse now disclosing
itself, whatsoever of natural piety to God and man, whatsoever of pity
and reverence, of awe and devout hope was in Sterling's heart now
awoke into new activity; and strove for some due utterance and
predominance. His Letters, in these months, speak of earnest religious
studies and efforts;--of attempts by prayer and longing endeavor of
all kinds, to struggle his way into the temple, if temple there were,
and there find sanctuary.[10] The realities were grown so haggard;
life a field of black ashes, if there rose no temple anywhere on it!
Why, like a fated Orestes, is man so whipt by the Furies, and driven
madly hither and thither, if it is not even that he may seek some
shrine, and there make expiation and find deliverance?
In these circumstances, what a scope for Coleridge's philosophy, above
all! "If the bottled moonshine _be_ actually substance? Ah, could
one but believe in a Church while finding it incredible! What is
faith; what is conviction, credibility, insight? Can a thing be at
once known for true, and known for false? 'Reason,' 'Understanding:'
is there, then, such an internecine war between these two? It was so
Coleridge imagined it, the wisest of existing men!"--No, it is not an
easy matter (according to Sir Kenelm Digby), this of getting up your
"astral spirit" of a thing, and setting it in action, when the thing
itself is well burnt to ashes. Poor Sterling; poor sons of Adam in
general, in this sad age of cobwebs, worn-out symbolisms,
reminiscences and simulacra! Who can tell the struggles of poor
Sterling, and his pathless wanderings through these things! Long
afterwards, in speech with his Brother, he compared his case in this
time to that of "a young lady who has tragically lost her lover, and
is willing to be half-hoodwinked into a convent, or in any noble or
quasi-noble way to escape from a world which has become intolerable."
During the summer of 1832, I find traces of attempts towards
Anti-Slavery Philanthropy; shadows of extensive schemes in that
direction. Half-desperate outlooks, it is likely, towards the refuge
of Philanthropism, as a new chivalry of life. These took no serious
hold of so clear an intellect; but they hovered now and afterwards as
day-dreams, when life otherwise was shorn of aim;--mirages in the
desert, which are found not to be lakes when you put your bucket into
them. One thing was clear, the sojourn in St. Vincent was not to last
much longer.
Perhaps one might get some scheme raised into life, in Downing Street,
for universal Education to the Blacks, preparatory to emancipating
them? There were a noble work for a man! Then again poor Mrs.
Sterling's health, contrary to his own, did not agree with warm moist
climates. And again, &c. &c. These were the outer surfaces of the
measure; the unconscious pretexts under which it showed itself to
Sterling and was shown by him: but the inner heart and determining
cause of it (as frequently in Sterling's life, and in all our lives)
was not these. In brief, he had had enough of St. Vincent. The
strangling oppressions of his soul were too heavy for him there.
Solution lay in Europe, or might lie; not in these remote solitudes of
the sea,--where no shrine or saint's well is to be looked for, no
communing of pious pilgrims journeying together towards a shrine.
After a residence of perhaps fifteen months Sterling quitted St.
Vincent, and never returned. He reappeared at his Father's house, to
the joy of English friends, in August, 1832; well improved in health,
and eager for English news; but, beyond vague schemes and
possibilities, considerably uncertain what was next to be done.
After no long stay in this scene,--finding Downing Street dead as
stone to the Slave-Education and to all other schemes,--he went
across, with his wife and child, to Germany; purposing to make not so
much a tour as some loose ramble, or desultory residence in that
country, in the Rhineland first of all. Here was to be hoped the
picturesque in scenery, which he much affected; here the new and true
in speculation, which he inwardly longed for and wanted greatly more;
at all events, here as readily as elsewhere might a temporary
household be struck up, under interesting circumstances.--I conclude
he went across in the Spring of 1833; perhaps directly after _Arthur
Coningsby_ had got through the press. This Novel, which, as we have
said, was begun two or three years ago, probably on his cessation from
the _Athenaeum_, and was mainly finished, I think, before the removal
to St. Vincent, had by this time fallen as good as obsolete to his own
mind; and its destination now, whether to the press or to the fire,
was in some sort a matter at once of difficulty and of insignificance
to him. At length deciding for the milder alternative, he had thrown
in some completing touches here and there,--especially, as I
conjecture, a proportion of Coleridgean moonshine at the end; and so
sent it forth.
It was in the sunny days, perhaps in May or June of this year, that
_Arthur Coningsby_ reached my own hand, far off amid the heathy
wildernesses; sent by John Mill: and I can still recollect the
pleasant little episode it made in my solitude there. The general
impression it left on me, which has never since been renewed by a
second reading in whole or in part, was the certain prefigurement to
myself, more or less distinct, of an opulent, genial and sunny mind,
but misdirected, disappointed, experienced in misery;--nay crude and
hasty; mistaking for a solid outcome from its woes what was only to me
a gilded vacuity. The hero an ardent youth, representing Sterling
himself, plunges into life such as we now have it in these anarchic
times, with the radical, utilitarian, or mutinous heathen theory,
which is the readiest for inquiring souls; finds, by various courses
of adventure, utter shipwreck in this; lies broken, very wretched:
that is the tragic nodus, or apogee of his life-course. In this mood
of mind, he clutches desperately towards some new method (recognizable
as Coleridge's) of laying hand again on the old Church, which has
hitherto been extraneous and as if non-extant to his way of thought;
makes out, by some Coleridgean legedermain, that there actually is
still a Church for him; that this extant Church, which he long took
for an extinct shadow, is not such, but a substance; upon which he can
anchor himself amid the storms of fate;--and he does so, even taking
orders in it, I think. Such could by no means seem to me the true or
tenable solution. Here clearly, struggling amid the tumults, was a
lovable young fellow-soul; who had by no means yet got to land; but of
whom much might be hoped, if he ever did. Some of the delineations
are highly pictorial, flooded with a deep ruddy effulgence; betokening
much wealth, in the crude or the ripe state. The hope of perhaps, one
day, knowing Sterling, was welcome and interesting to me. _Arthur
Coningsby_, struggling imperfectly in a sphere high above
circulating-library novels, gained no notice whatever in that quarter;
gained, I suppose in a few scattered heads, some such recognition as
the above; and there rested. Sterling never mentioned the name of it
in my hearing, or would hear it mentioned.
In those very days while _Arthur Coningsby_ was getting read amid the
Scottish moors, "in June, 1833," Sterling, at Bonn in the
Rhine-country, fell in with his old tutor and friend, the Reverend
Julius Hare; one with whom he always delighted to communicate,
especially on such topics as then altogether occupied him. A man of
cheerful serious character, of much approved accomplishment, of
perfect courtesy; surely of much piety, in all senses of that word.
Mr. Hare had quitted his scholastic labors and distinctions, some time
ago; the call or opportunity for taking orders having come; and as
Rector of Herstmonceux in Sussex, a place patrimonially and otherwise
endeared to him, was about entering, under the best omens, on a new
course of life. He was now on his return from Rome, and a visit of
some length to Italy. Such a meeting could not but be welcome and
important to Sterling in such a mood. They had much earnest
conversation, freely communing on the highest matters; especially of
Sterling's purpose to undertake the clerical profession, in which
course his reverend friend could not but bid him good speed.
It appears, Sterling already intimated his intention to become a
clergyman: He would study theology, biblicalities, perfect himself in
the knowledge seemly or essential for his new course;--read diligently
"for a year or two in some good German University," then seek to
obtain orders: that was his plan. To which Mr. Hare gave his hearty
_Euge_; adding that if his own curacy happened then to be vacant, he
should be well pleased to have Sterling in that office. So they
"A year or two" of serious reflection "in some good German
University," or anywhere in the world, might have thrown much
elucidation upon these confused strugglings and purposings of
Sterling's, and probably have spared him some confusion in his
subsequent life. But the talent of waiting was, of all others, the
one he wanted most. Impetuous velocity, all-hoping headlong alacrity,
what we must call rashness and impatience, characterized him in most
of his important and unimportant procedures; from the purpose to the
execution there was usually but one big leap with him. A few months
after Mr. Hare was gone, Sterling wrote that his purposes were a
little changed by the late meeting at Bonn; that he now longed to
enter the Church straightway: that if the Herstmonceux Curacy was
still vacant, and the Rector's kind thought towards him still held, he
would instantly endeavor to qualify himself for that office.
Answer being in the affirmative on both heads, Sterling returned to
England; took orders,--"ordained deacon at Chichester on Trinity
Sunday in 1834" (he never became technically priest):--and so, having
fitted himself and family with a reasonable house, in one of those
leafy lanes in quiet Herstmonceux, on the edge of Pevensey Level, he
commenced the duties of his Curacy.
The bereaved young lady has _taken_ the veil, then! Even so. "Life
is growing all so dark and brutal; must be redeemed into human, if it
will continue life. Some pious heroism, to give a human color to life
again, on any terms,"--even on impossible ones!
To such length can transcendental moonshine, cast by some morbidly
radiating Coleridge into the chaos of a fermenting life, act magically
there, and produce divulsions and convulsions and diseased
developments. So dark and abstruse, without lamp or authentic
finger-post, is the course of pious genius towards the Eternal
Kingdoms grown. No fixed highway more; the old spiritual highways and
recognized paths to the Eternal, now all torn up and flung in heaps,
submerged in unutterable boiling mud-oceans of Hypocrisy and
Unbelievability, of brutal living Atheism and damnable dead putrescent
Cant: surely a tragic pilgrimage for all mortals; Darkness, and the
mere shadow of Death, enveloping all things from pole to pole; and in
the raging gulf-currents, offering us will-o'-wisps for
loadstars,--intimating that there are no stars, nor ever were, except
certain Old-Jew ones which have now gone out. Once more, a tragic
pilgrimage for all mortals; and for the young pious soul, winged with
genius, and passionately seeking land, and passionately abhorrent of
floating carrion withal, more tragical than for any!--A pilgrimage we
must all undertake nevertheless, and make the best of with our
respective means. Some arrive; a glorious few: many must be
lost,--go down upon the floating wreck which they took for land. Nay,
courage! These also, so far as there was any heroism in them, have
bequeathed their life as a contribution to us, have valiantly laid
their bodies in the chasm for us: of these also there is no ray of
heroism _lost_,--and, on the whole, what else of them could or should
be "saved" at any time? Courage, and ever Forward!
Concerning this attempt of Sterling's to find sanctuary in the old
Church, and desperately grasp the hem of her garment in such manner,
there will at present be many opinions: and mine must be recorded
here in flat reproval of it, in mere pitying condemnation of it, as a
rash, false, unwise and unpermitted step. Nay, among the evil lessons
of his Time to poor Sterling, I cannot but account this the worst;
properly indeed, as we may say, the apotheosis, the solemn apology and
consecration, of all the evil lessons that were in it to him. Alas,
if we did remember the divine and awful nature of God's Truth, and had
not so forgotten it as poor doomed creatures never did before,--should
we, durst we in our most audacious moments, think of wedding _it_ to
the World's Untruth, which is also, like all untruths, the Devil's?
Only in the world's last lethargy can such things be done, and
accounted safe and pious! Fools! "Do you think the Living God is a
buzzard idol," sternly asks Milton, that you dare address Him in this
manner?--Such darkness, thick sluggish clouds of cowardice and
oblivious baseness, have accumulated on us: thickening as if towards
the eternal sleep! It is not now known, what never needed proof or
statement before, that Religion is not a doubt; that it is a
certainty,--or else a mockery and horror. That none or all of the
many things we are in doubt about, and need to have demonstrated and
rendered probable, can by any alchemy be made a "Religion" for us; but
are and must continue a baleful, quiet or unquiet, Hypocrisy for us;
and bring--_salvation_, do we fancy? I think, it is another thing
they will bring, and are, on all hands, visibly bringing this good
The time, then, with its deliriums, has done its worst for poor
Sterling. Into deeper aberration it cannot lead him; this is the
crowning error. Happily, as beseems the superlative of errors, it was
a very brief, almost a momentary one. In June, 1834, Sterling dates
as installed at Herstmonceux; and is flinging, as usual, his whole
soul into the business; successfully so far as outward results could
show: but already in September, he begins to have misgivings; and in
February following, quits it altogether,--the rest of his life being,
in great part, a laborious effort of detail to pick the fragments of
it off him, and be free of it in soul as well as in title.
At this the extreme point of spiritual deflexion and depression, when
the world's madness, unusually impressive on such a man, has done its
very worst with him, and in all future errors whatsoever he will be a
little less mistaken, we may close the First Part of Sterling's Life.
By Mr. Hare's account, no priest of any Church could more fervently
address himself to his functions than Sterling now did. He went about
among the poor, the ignorant, and those that had need of help;
zealously forwarded schools and beneficences; strove, with his whole
might, to instruct and aid whosoever suffered consciously in body, or
still worse unconsciously in mind. He had charged himself to make the
Apostle Paul his model; the perils and voyagings and ultimate
martyrdom of Christian Paul, in those old ages, on the great scale,
were to be translated into detail, and become the practical emblem of
Christian Sterling on the coast of Sussex in this new age. "It would
be no longer from Jerusalem to Damascus," writes Sterling, "to Arabia,
to Derbe, Lystra, Ephesus, that he would travel: but each house of
his appointed Parish would be to him what each of those great cities
was,--a place where he would bend his whole being, and spend his heart
for the conversion, purification, elevation of those under his
influence. The whole man would be forever at work for this purpose;
head, heart, knowledge, time, body, possessions, all would be directed
to this end." A high enough model set before one:--how to be
realized!--Sterling hoped to realize it, to struggle towards realizing
it, in some small degree. This is Mr. Hare's report of him:--
"He was continually devising some fresh scheme for improving the
condition of the Parish. His aim was to awaken the minds of the
people, to arouse their conscience, to call forth their sense of moral
responsibility, to make them feel their own sinfulness, their need of
redemption, and thus lead them to a recognition of the Divine Love by
which that redemption is offered to us. In visiting them he was
diligent in all weathers, to the risk of his own health, which was
greatly impaired thereby; and his gentleness and considerate care for
the sick won their affection; so that, though his stay was very short,
his name is still, after a dozen years, cherished by many."
How beautiful would Sterling be in all this; rushing forward like a
host towards victory; playing and pulsing like sunshine or soft
lightning; busy at all hours to perform his part in abundant and
superabundant measure! "Of that which it was to me personally,"
continues Mr. Hare, "to have such a fellow-laborer, to live constantly
in the freest communion with such a friend, I cannot speak. He came
to me at a time of heavy affliction, just after I had heard that the
Brother, who had been the sharer of all my thoughts and feelings from
childhood, had bid farewell to his earthly life at Rome; and thus he
seemed given to me to make up in some sort for him whom I had lost.
Almost daily did I look out for his usual hour of coming to me, and
watch his tall slender form walking rapidly across the hill in front
of my window; with the assurance that he was coming to cheer and
brighten, to rouse and stir me, to call me up to some height of
feeling, or down to some depth of thought. His lively spirit,
responding instantaneously to every impulse of Nature and Art; his
generous ardor in behalf of whatever is noble and true; his scorn of
all meanness, of all false pretences and conventional beliefs,
softened as it was by compassion for the victims of those besetting
sins of a cultivated age; his never-flagging impetuosity in pushing
onward to some unattained point of duty or of knowledge: all this,
along with his gentle, almost reverential affectionateness towards his
former tutor, rendered my intercourse with him an unspeakable
blessing; and time after time has it seemed to me that his visit had
been like a shower of rain, bringing down freshness and brightness on
a dusty roadside hedge. By him too the recollection of these our
daily meetings was cherished till the last."[11]
There are many poor people still at Herstmonceux who affectionately
remember him: Mr. Hare especially makes mention of one good man
there, in his young days "a poor cobbler," and now advanced to a much
better position, who gratefully ascribes this outward and the other
improvements in his life to Sterling's generous encouragement and
charitable care for him. Such was the curate life at Herstmonceux.
So, in those actual leafy lanes, on the edge of Pevensey Level, in
this new age, did our poor New Paul (on hest of certain oracles)
diligently study to comport himself,--and struggle with all his might
_not_ to be a moonshine shadow of the First Paul.
It was in this summer of 1834,--month of May, shortly after arriving
in London,--that I first saw Sterling's Father. A stout broad
gentleman of sixty, perpendicular in attitude, rather showily dressed,
and of gracious, ingenious and slightly elaborate manners. It was at
Mrs. Austin's in Bayswater; he was just taking leave as I entered, so
our interview lasted only a moment: but the figure of the man, as
Sterling's father, had already an interest for me, and I remember the
time well. Captain Edward Sterling, as we formerly called him, had
now quite dropt the military title, nobody even of his friends now
remembering it; and was known, according to his wish, in political and
other circles, as Mr. Sterling, a private gentleman of some figure.
Over whom hung, moreover, a kind of mysterious nimbus as the principal
or one of the principal writers in the _Times_, which gave an
interesting chiaroscuro to his character in society. A potent,
profitable, but somewhat questionable position; of which, though he
affected, and sometimes with anger, altogether to disown it, and
rigorously insisted on the rights of anonymity, he was not unwilling
to take the honors too: the private pecuniary advantages were very
undeniable; and his reception in the Clubs, and occasionally in higher
quarters, was a good deal modelled on the universal belief in it.
John Sterling at Herstmonceux that afternoon, and his Father here in
London, would have offered strange contrasts to an eye that had seen
them both. Contrasts, and yet concordances. They were two very
different-looking men, and were following two very different modes of
activity that afternoon. And yet with a strange family likeness, too,
both in the men and their activities; the central impulse in each, the
faculties applied to fulfil said impulse, not at all dissimilar,--as
grew visible to me on farther knowledge.
Thus it went on for some months at Herstmonceux; but thus it could not
last. We said there were already misgivings as to health, &c. in
September:[12] that was but the fourth month, for it had begun only in
June. The like clouds of misgiving, flights of dark vapor, chequering
more and more the bright sky of this promised land, rose heavier and
rifer month after month; till in February following, that is in the
eighth month from starting, the sky had grown quite overshaded; and
poor Sterling had to think practically of departure from his promised
land again, finding that the goal of his pilgrimage was _not_ there.
Not there, wherever it may be! March again, therefore; the abiding
city, and post at which we can live and die, is still ahead of us, it
would appear!
"Ill-health" was the external cause; and, to all parties concerned, to
Sterling himself I have no doubt as completely as to any, the one
determining cause. Nor was the ill-health wanting; it was there in
too sad reality. And yet properly it was not there as the burden; it
was there as the last ounce which broke the camel's back. I take it,
in this as in other cases known to me, ill-health was not the primary
cause but rather the ultimate one, the summing-up of innumerable far
deeper conscious and unconscious causes,--the cause which could boldly
show itself on the surface, and give the casting vote. Such was often
Sterling's way, as one could observe in such cases: though the most
guileless, undeceptive and transparent of men, he had a noticeable,
almost childlike faculty of self-deception, and usually substituted
for the primary determining motive and set of motives, some ultimate
ostensible one, and gave that out to himself and others as the ruling
impulse for important changes in life. As is the way with much more
ponderous and deliberate men;--as is the way, in a degree, with all
Enough, in February, 1835, Sterling came up to London, to consult with
his physicians,--and in fact in all ways to consider with himself and
friends,--what was to be done in regard to this Herstmonceux business.
The oracle of the physicians, like that of Delphi, was not exceedingly
determinate: but it did bear, what was a sufficiently undeniable
fact, that Sterling's constitution, with a tendency to pulmonary
ailments, was ill-suited for the office of a preacher; that total
abstinence from preaching for a year or two would clearly be the safer
course. To which effect he writes to Mr. Hare with a tone of
sorrowful agitation; gives up his clerical duties at
Herstmonceux;--and never resumed them there or elsewhere. He had been
in the Church eight months in all: a brief section of his life, but
an important one, which colored several of his subsequent years, and
now strangely colors all his years in the memory of some.
This we may account the second grand crisis of his History.
Radicalism, not long since, had come to its consummation, and vanished
from him in a tragic manner. "Not by Radicalism is the path to Human
Nobleness for me!" And here now had English Priesthood risen like a
sun, over the waste ruins and extinct volcanoes of his dead Radical
world, with promise of new blessedness and healing under its Wings;
and this too has soon found itself an illusion: "Not by Priesthood
either lies the way, then. Once more, where does the way lie!"--To
follow illusions till they burst and vanish is the lot of all new
souls who, luckily or lucklessly, are left to their own choice in
starting on this Earth. The roads are many; the authentic
finger-posts are few,--never fewer than in this era, when in so many
senses the waters are out. Sterling of all men had the quickest sense
for nobleness, heroism and the human _summum bonum_; the liveliest
headlong spirit of adventure and audacity; few gifted living men less
stubbornness of perseverance. Illusions, in his chase of the _summum
bonum_, were not likely to be wanting; aberrations, and wasteful
changes of course, were likely to be many! It is in the history of
such vehement, trenchant, far-shining and yet intrinsically light and
volatile souls, missioned into this epoch to seek their way there,
that we best see what a confused epoch it is.
This clerical aberration,--for such it undoubtedly was in
Sterling,--we have ascribed to Coleridge; and do clearly think that
had there been no Coleridge, neither had this been,--nor had English
Puseyism or some other strange enough universal portents been.
Nevertheless, let us say farther that it lay partly in the general
bearing of the world for such a man. This battle, universal in our
sad epoch of "all old things passing away" against "all things
becoming new," has its summary and animating heart in that of
Radicalism against Church; there, as in its flaming core, and point of
focal splendor, does the heroic worth that lies in each side of the
quarrel most clearly disclose itself; and Sterling was the man, above
many, to recognize such worth on both sides. Natural enough, in such
a one, that the light of Radicalism having gone out in darkness for
him, the opposite splendor should next rise as the chief, and invite
his loyalty till it also failed. In one form or the other, such an
aberration was not unlikely for him. But an aberration, especially in
this form, we may certainly call it. No man of Sterling's veracity,
had he clearly consulted his own heart, or had his own heart been
capable of clearly responding, and not been dazzled and bewildered by
transient fantasies and theosophic moonshine, could have undertaken
this function. His heart would have answered: "No, thou canst not.
What is incredible to thee, thou shalt not, at thy soul's peril,
attempt to believe!--Elsewhither for a refuge, or die here. Go to
Perdition if thou must,--but not with a lie in thy mouth; by the
Eternal Maker, no!"
Alas, once more! How are poor mortals whirled hither and thither in
the tumultuous chaos of our era; and, under the thick smoke-canopy
which has eclipsed all stars, how do they fly now after this poor
meteor, now after that!--Sterling abandoned his clerical office in
February, 1835; having held it, and ardently followed it, so long as
we say,--eight calendar months in all.
It was on this his February expedition to London that I first saw
Sterling,--at the India House incidentally, one afternoon, where I
found him in company with John Mill, whom I happened like himself to
be visiting for a few minutes. The sight of one whose fine qualities
I had often heard of lately, was interesting enough; and, on the
whole, proved not disappointing, though it was the translation of
dream into fact, that is of poetry into prose, and showed its unrhymed
side withal. A loose, careless-looking, thin figure, in careless dim
costume, sat, in a lounging posture, carelessly and copiously talking.
I was struck with the kindly but restless swift-glancing eyes, which
looked as if the spirits were all out coursing like a pack of merry
eager beagles, beating every bush. The brow, rather sloping in form,
was not of imposing character, though again the head was longish,
which is always the best sign of intellect; the physiognomy in general
indicated animation rather than strength.
We talked rapidly of various unmemorable things: I remember coming on
the Negroes, and noticing that Sterling's notion on the Slavery
Question had not advanced into the stage of mine. In reference to the
question whether an "engagement for life," on just terms, between
parties who are fixed in the character of master and servant, as the
Whites and the Negroes are, is not really better than one from day to
day,--he said with a kindly jeer, "I would have the Negroes themselves
consulted as to that!"--and would not in the least believe that the
Negroes were by no means final or perfect judges of it.--His address,
I perceived, was abrupt, unceremonious; probably not at all
disinclined to logic, and capable of dashing in upon you like a charge
of Cossacks, on occasion: but it was also eminently ingenious,
social, guileless. We did all very well together: and Sterling and I
walked westward in company, choosing whatever lanes or quietest
streets there were, as far as Knightsbridge where our roads parted;
talking on moralities, theological philosophies; arguing copiously,
but _except_ in opinion not disagreeing
In his notions on such subjects, the expected Coleridge cast of
thought was very visible; and he seemed to express it even with
exaggeration, and in a fearless dogmatic manner. Identity of
sentiment, difference of opinion: these are the known elements of a
pleasant dialogue. We parted with the mutual wish to meet
again;--which accordingly, at his Father's house and at mine, we soon
repeatedly did; and already, in the few days before his return to
Herstmonceux, had laid the foundations of a frank intercourse,
pointing towards pleasant intimacies both with himself and with his
circle, which in the future were abundantly fulfilled. His Mother,
essentially and even professedly "Scotch," took to my Wife gradually
with a most kind maternal relation; his Father, a gallant showy
stirring gentleman, the Magus of the _Times_, had talk and argument
ever ready, was an interesting figure, and more and more took interest
in us. We had unconsciously made an acquisition, which grew richer
and wholesomer with every new year; and ranks now, seen in the pale
moonlight of memory, and must ever rank, among the precious
possessions of life.
Sterling's bright ingenuity, and also his audacity, velocity and
alacrity, struck me more and more. It was, I think, on the occasion
of a party given one of these evenings at his Father's, where I
remember John Mill, John Crawford, Mrs. Crawford, and a number of
young and elderly figures of distinction,--that a group having formed
on the younger side of the room, and transcendentalisms and theologies
forming the topic, a number of deep things were said in abrupt
conversational style, Sterling in the thick of it. For example, one
sceptical figure praised the Church of England, in Hume's phrase, "as
a Church tending to keep down fanaticism," and recommendable for its
very indifferency; whereupon a transcendental figure urges him: "You
are afraid of the horse's kicking: but will you sacrifice all
qualities to being safe from that? Then get a dead horse. None
comparable to that for not kicking in your stable!" Upon which, a
laugh; with new laughs on other the like occasions;--and at last, in
the fire of some discussion, Sterling, who was unusually eloquent and
animated, broke out with this wild phrase, "I could plunge into the
bottom of Hell, if I were sure of finding the Devil there and getting
him strangled!" Which produced the loudest laugh of all; and had to
be repeated, on Mrs. Crawford's inquiry, to the house at large; and,
creating among the elders a kind of silent shudder,--though we urged
that the feat would really be a good investment of human
industry,--checked or stopt these theologic thunders for the evening.
I still remember Sterling as in one of his most animated moods that
evening. He probably returned to Herstmonceux next day, where he
proposed yet to reside for some indefinite time.
Arrived at Herstmonceux, he had not forgotten us. One of his Letters
written there soon after was the following, which much entertained me,
in various ways. It turns on a poor Book of mine, called _Sartor
Resartus_; which was not then even a Book, but was still hanging
desolately under bibliopolic difficulties, now in its fourth or fifth
year, on the wrong side of the river, as a mere aggregate of Magazine
Articles; having at last been slit into that form, and lately
completed _so_, and put together into legibility. I suppose Sterling
had borrowed it of me. The adventurous hunter spirit which had
started such a bemired _Auerochs_, or Urus of the German woods, and
decided on chasing that as game, struck me not a little;--and the poor
Wood-Ox, so bemired in the forests, took it as a compliment rather:--
"_To Thomas Carlyle, Esq., Chelsea, London_.
"HERSTMONCEUX near BATTLE, 29th May, 1835.
"MY DEAR CARLYLE,--I have now read twice, with care, the wondrous
account of Teufelsdrockh and his Opinions; and I need not say that it
has given me much to think of. It falls in with the feelings and
tastes which were, for years, the ruling ones of my life; but which
you will not be angry with me when I say that I am infinitely and
hourly thankful for having escaped from. Not that I think of this
state of mind as one with which I have no longer any concern. The
sense of a oneness of life and power in all existence; and of a
boundless exuberance of beauty around us, to which most men are
well-nigh dead, is a possession which no one that has ever enjoyed it
would wish to lose. When to this we add the deep feeling of the
difference between the actual and the ideal in Nature, and still more
in Man; and bring in, to explain this, the principle of duty, as that
which connects us with a possible Higher State, and sets us in
progress towards it,--we have a cycle of thoughts which was the whole
spiritual empire of the wisest Pagans, and which might well supply
food for the wide speculations and richly creative fancy of
Teufelsdrockh, or his prototype Jean Paul.
"How then comes it, we cannot but ask, that these ideas, displayed
assuredly with no want of eloquence, vivacity or earnestness, have
found, unless I am much mistaken, so little acceptance among the best
and most energetic minds in this country? In a country where millions
read the Bible, and thousands Shakspeare; where Wordsworth circulates
through book-clubs and drawing-rooms; where there are innumerable
admirers of your favorite Burns; and where Coleridge, by sending from
his solitude the voice of earnest spiritual instruction, came to be
beloved, studied and mourned for, by no small or careless school of
disciples?--To answer this question would, of course, require more
thought and knowledge than I can pretend to bring to it. But there
are some points on which I will venture to say a few words.
"In the first place, as to the form of composition,--which may be
called, I think, the Rhapsodico-Reflective. In this the _Sartor
Resartus_ resembles some of the master-works of human invention, which
have been acknowledged as such by many generations; and especially the
works of Rabelais, Montaigne, Sterne and Swift. There is nothing I
know of in Antiquity like it. That which comes nearest is perhaps the
Platonic Dialogue. But of this, although there is something of the
playful and fanciful on the surface, there is in reality neither in
the language (which is austerely determined to its end), nor in the
method and progression of the work, any of that headlong
self-asserting capriciousness, which, if not discernible in the plan
of Teufelsdrockh's Memoirs, is yet plainly to be seen in the structure
of the sentences, the lawless oddity, and strange heterogeneous
combination and allusion. The principle of this difference,
observable often elsewhere in modern literature (for the same thing is
to be found, more or less, in many of our most genial works of
imagination,--_Don Quixote_, for instance, and the writings of Jeremy
Taylor), seems to be that well-known one of the predominant
objectivity of the Pagan mind; while among us the subjective has risen
into superiority, and brought with it in each individual a multitude
of peculiar associations and relations. These, as not explicable from
any one _external_ principle assumed as a premise by the ancient
philosopher, were rejected from the sphere of his aesthetic creation:
but to us they all have a value and meaning; being connected by the
bond of our own personality and all alike existing in that infinity
which is its arena.
"But however this may be, and comparing the Teufelsdrockhean Epopee
only with those other modern works,--it is noticeable that Rabelais,
Montaigne and Sterne have trusted for the currency of their writings,
in a great degree, to the use of obscene and sensual stimulants.
Rabelais, besides, was full of contemporary and personal satire; and
seems to have been a champion in the great cause of his time,--as was
Montaigne also,--that of the right of thought in all competent minds,
unrestrained by any outward authority. Montaigne, moreover, contains
more pleasant and lively gossip, and more distinct good-humored
painting of his own character and daily habits, than any other writer
I know. Sterne is never obscure, and never moral; and the costume of
his subjects is drawn from the familiar experience of his own time and
country: and Swift, again, has the same merit of the clearest
perspicuity, joined to that of the most homely, unaffected, forcible
English. These points of difference seem to me the chief ones which
bear against the success of the _Sartor_. On the other hand, there is
in Teufelsdrockh a depth and fervor of feeling, and a power of serious
eloquence, far beyond that of any of these four writers; and to which
indeed there is nothing at all comparable in any of them, except
perhaps now and then, and very imperfectly, in Montaigne.
"Of the other points of comparison there are two which I would chiefly
dwell on: and first as to the language. A good deal of this is
positively barbarous. 'Environment,' ' vestural,' 'stertorous,'
'visualized,' 'complected,' and others to be found I think in the
first twenty pages,--are words, so far as I know, without any
authority; some of them contrary to analogy: and none repaying by
their value the disadvantage of novelty. To these must be added new
and erroneous locutions; 'whole other tissues' for _all the other_,
and similar uses of the word _whole_; 'orients' for _pearls_; 'lucid'
and 'lucent' employed as if they were different in meaning; 'hulls'
perpetually for _coverings_, it being a word hardly used, and then
only for the husk of a nut; 'to insure a man of misapprehension;'
'talented,' a mere newspaper and hustings word, invented, I believe,
by O'Connell.
"I must also mention the constant recurrence of some words in a quaint
and queer connection, which gives a grotesque and somewhat repulsive
mannerism to many sentences. Of these the commonest offender is
'quite;' which appears in almost every page, and gives at first a
droll kind of emphasis; but soon becomes wearisome. 'Nay,'
'manifold,' 'cunning enough significance,' 'faculty' (meaning a man's
rational or moral _power_), 'special,' 'not without,' haunt the reader
as if in some uneasy dream which does not rise to the dignity of
nightmare. Some of these strange mannerisms fall under the general
head of a singularity peculiar, so far as I know, to Teufelsdrockh.
For instance, that of the incessant use of a sort of odd superfluous
qualification of his assertions; which seems to give the character of
deliberateness and caution to the style, but in time sounds like mere
trick or involuntary habit. 'Almost' does more than yeoman's,
_almost_ slave's service in this way. Something similar may be
remarked of the use of the double negative by way of affirmation.
"Under this head, of language, may be mentioned, though not with
strict grammatical accuracy, two standing characteristics of the
Professor's style,--at least as rendered into English: _First_, the
composition of words, such as 'snow-and-rosebloom maiden:' an
attractive damsel doubtless in Germany, but, with all her charms,
somewhat uncouth here. 'Life-vision' is another example; and many
more might be found. To say nothing of the innumerable cases in which
the words are only intelligible as a compound term, though not
distinguished by hyphens. Of course the composition of words is
sometimes allowable even in English: but the habit of dealing with
German seems to have produced, in the pages before us, a prodigious
superabundance of this form of expression; which gives harshness and
strangeness, where the matter would at all events have been surprising
enough. _Secondly_, I object, with the same qualification, to the
frequent use of _inversion_; which generally appears as a
transposition of the two members of a clause, in a way which would not
have been practiced in conversation. It certainly gives emphasis and
force, and often serves to point the meaning. But a style may be
fatiguing and faulty precisely by being too emphatic, forcible and
pointed; and so straining the attention to find its meaning, or the
admiration to appreciate its beauty.
"Another class of considerations connects itself with the heightened
and plethoric fulness of the style: its accumulation and contrast of
imagery; its occasional jerking and almost spasmodic violence;--and
above all, the painful subjective excitement, which seems the element
and groundwork even of every description of Nature; often taking the
shape of sarcasm or broad jest, but never subsiding into calm. There
is also a point which I should think worth attending to, were I
planning any similar book: I mean the importance, in a work of
imagination, of not too much disturbing in the reader's mind the
balance of the New and Old. The former addresses itself to his
active, the latter to his passive faculty; and these are mutually
dependent, and must coexist in certain proportion, if you wish to
combine his sympathy and progressive exertion with willingness and
ease of attention. This should be taken into account in forming a
style; for of course it cannot be consciously thought of in composing
each sentence.
"But chiefly it seems important in determining the plan of a work. If
the tone of feeling, the line of speculation are out of the common
way, and sure to present some difficulty to the average reader, then
it would probably be desirable to select, for the circumstances,
drapery and accessories of all kinds, those most familiar, or at least
most attractive. A fable of the homeliest purport, and commonest
every-day application, derives an interest and charm from its turning
on the characters and acts of gods and genii, lions and foxes, Arabs
and Affghauns. On the contrary, for philosophic inquiry and truths of
awful preciousness, I would select as my personages and interlocutors
beings with whose language and 'whereabouts' my readers would be
familiar. Thus did Plato in his Dialogues, Christ in his Parables.
Therefore it seems doubtful whether it was judicious to make a German
Professor the hero of _Sartor_. Berkeley began his _Siris_ with
tar-water; but what can English readers be expected to make of
_Gukguk_ by way of prelibation to your nectar and tokay? The
circumstances and details do not flash with living reality on the
minds of your readers, but, on the contrary, themselves require some
of that attention and minute speculation, the whole original stock of
which, in the minds of most of them, would not be too much to enable
them to follow your views of Man and Nature. In short, there is not a
sufficient basis of the common to justify the amount of peculiarity in
the work. In a book of science, these considerations would of course
be inapplicable; but then the whole shape and coloring of the book
must be altered to make it such; and a man who wishes merely to get at
the philosophical result, or summary of the whole, will regard the
details and illustrations as so much unprofitable surplusage.
"The sense of strangeness is also awakened by the marvellous
combinations, in which the work abounds to a degree that the common
reader must find perfectly bewildering. This can hardly, however, be
treated as a consequence of the _style_; for the style in this respect
coheres with, and springs from, the whole turn and tendency of
thought. The noblest images are objects of a humorous smile, in a
mind which sees itself above all Nature and throned in the arms of an
Almighty Necessity; while the meanest have a dignity, inasmuch as they
are trivial symbols of the same one life to which the great whole
belongs. And hence, as I divine, the startling whirl of incongruous
juxtaposition, which of a truth must to many readers seem as amazing
as if the Pythia on the tripod should have struck up a drinking-song,
or Thersites had caught the prophetic strain of Cassandra.
"All this, of course, appears to me true and relevant; but I cannot
help feeling that it is, after all, but a poor piece of quackery to
comment on a multitude of phenomena without adverting to the principle
which lies at the root, and gives the true meaning to them all. Now
this principle I seem to myself to find in the state of mind which is
attributed to Teufelsdrockh; in his state of mind, I say, not in his
opinions, though these are, in him as in all men, most
important,--being one of the best indices to his state of mind. Now
what distinguishes him, not merely from the greatest and best men who
have been on earth for eighteen hundred years, but from the whole body
of those who have been working forwards towards the good, and have
been the salt and light of the world, is this: That he does not
believe in a God. Do not be indignant, I am blaming no one;--but if I
write my thoughts, I must write them honestly.
"Teufelsdrockh does not belong to the herd of sensual and thoughtless
men; because he does perceive in all Existence a unity of power;
because he does believe that this is a real power external to him and
dominant to a certain extent over him, and does not think that he is
himself a shadow in a world of shadows. He had a deep feeling of the
beautiful, the good and the true; and a faith in their final victory.
"At the same time, how evident is the strong inward unrest, the
Titanic heaving of mountain on mountain; the storm-like rushing over
land and sea in search of peace. He writhes and roars under his
consciousness of the difference in himself between the possible and
the actual, the hoped-for and the existent. He feels that duty is the
highest law of his own being; and knowing how it bids the waves be
stilled into an icy fixedness and grandeur, he trusts (but with a
boundless inward misgiving) that there is a principle of order which
will reduce all confusion to shape and clearness. But wanting peace
himself, his fierce dissatisfaction fixes on all that is weak, corrupt
and imperfect around him; and instead of a calm and steady
co-operation with all those who are endeavoring to apply the highest
ideas as remedies for the worst evils, he holds himself aloof in
savage isolation; and cherishes (though he dare not own) a stern joy
at the prospect of that Catastrophe which is to turn loose again the
elements of man's social life, and give for a time the victory to
evil;--in hopes that each new convulsion of the world must bring us
nearer to the ultimate restoration of all things; fancying that each
may be the last. Wanting the calm and cheerful reliance, which would
be the spring of active exertion, he flatters his own distemper by
persuading himself that his own age and generation are peculiarly
feeble and decayed; and would even perhaps be willing to exchange the
restless immaturity of our self-consciousness, and the promise of its
long throe-pangs, for the unawakened undoubting simplicity of the
world's childhood; of the times in which there was all the evil and
horror of our day, only with the difference that conscience had not
arisen to try and condemn it. In these longings, if they are
Teufelsdrockh's, he seems to forget that, could we go back five
thousand years, we should only have the prospect of travelling them
again, and arriving at last at the same point at which we stand now.
"Something of this state of mind I may say that I understand; for I
have myself experienced it. And the root of the matter appears to me:
A want of sympathy with the great body of those who are now
endeavoring to guide and help onward their fellow-men. And in what is
this alienation grounded? It is, as I believe, simply in the
difference on that point: viz. the clear, deep, habitual recognition
of a one Living _Personal_ God, essentially good, wise, true and holy,
the Author of all that exists; and a reunion with whom is the only end
of all rational beings. This belief... [_There follow now several
pages on "Personal God," and other abstruse or indeed properly
unspeakable matters; these, and a general Postscript of qualifying
purport, I will suppress; extracting only the following fractions, as
luminous or slightly significant to us:_]
"Now see the difference of Teufelsdrockh's feelings. At the end of
book iii. chap. 8, I find these words: 'But whence? O Heaven,
whither? Sense knows not; Faith knows not; only that it is through
mystery to mystery, from God to God.
'We _are such stuff_
As dreams are made of, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.'
And this tallies with the whole strain of his character. What we find
everywhere, with an abundant use of the name of God, is the conception
of a formless Infinite whether in time or space; of a high inscrutable
Necessity, which it is the chief wisdom and virtue to submit to, which
is the mysterious impersonal base of all Existence,--shows itself in
the laws of every separate being's nature; and for man in the shape of
duty. On the other hand, I affirm, we do know whence we come and
whither we go!--
... "And in this state of mind, as there is no true sympathy with
others, just as little is there any true peace for ourselves. There
is indeed possible the unsympathizing factitious calm of Art, which we
find in Goethe. But at what expense is it bought? Simply, by
abandoning altogether the idea of duty, which is the great witness of
our personality. And he attains his inhuman ghastly calmness by
reducing the Universe to a heap of material for the idea of beauty to
work on!--
... "The sum of all I have been writing as to the connection of our
faith in God with our feeling towards men and our mode of action, may
of course be quite erroneous: but granting its truth, it would supply
the one principle which I have been seeking for, in order to explain
the peculiarities of style in your account of Teufelsdrockh and his
writings.... The life and works of Luther are the best comment I know
of on this doctrine of mine.
"Reading over what I have written, I find I have not nearly done
justice to my own sense of the genius and moral energy of the book;
but this is what you will best excuse.--Believe me most sincerely and
faithfully yours,
Here are sufficient points of "discrepancy with agreement," here is
material for talk and argument enough; and an expanse of free
discussion open, which requires rather to be speedily restricted for
convenience' sake, than allowed to widen itself into the boundless, as
it tends to do!--
In all Sterling's Letters to myself and others, a large collection of
which now lies before me, duly copied and indexed, there is, to one
that knew his speech as well, a perhaps unusual likeness between the
speech and the Letters; and yet, for most part, with a great
inferiority on the part of these. These, thrown off, one and all of
them, without premeditation, and with most rapid-flowing pen, are
naturally as like his speech as writing can well be; this is their
grand merit to us: but on the other hand, the want of the living
tones, swift looks and motions, and manifold dramatic accompaniments,
tells heavily, more heavily than common. What can be done with
champagne itself, much more with soda-water, when the gaseous spirit
is fled! The reader, in any specimens he may see, must bear this in
Meanwhile these Letters do excel in honesty, in candor and
transparency; their very carelessness secures their excellence in this
respect. And in another much deeper and more essential respect I must
likewise call them excellent,--in their childlike goodness, in the
purity of heart, the noble affection and fidelity they everywhere
manifest in the writer. This often touchingly strikes a familiar
friend in reading them; and will awaken reminiscences (when you have
the commentary in your own memory) which are sad and beautiful, and
not without reproach to you on occasion. To all friends, and all good
causes, this man is true; behind their back as before their face, the
same man!--Such traits of the autobiographic sort, from these Letters,
as can serve to paint him or his life, and promise not to weary the
reader, I must endeavor to select, in the sequel.
Sterling continued to reside at Herstmonceux through the spring and
summer; holding by the peaceable retired house he still had there,
till the vague future might more definitely shape itself, and better
point out what place of abode would suit him in his new circumstances.
He made frequent brief visits to London; in which I, among other
friends, frequently saw him, our acquaintance at each visit improving
in all ways. Like a swift dashing meteor he came into our circle;
coruscated among us, for a day or two, with sudden pleasant
illumination; then again suddenly withdrew,--we hoped, not for long.
I suppose, he was full of uncertainties; but undoubtedly was
gravitating towards London. Yet, on the whole, on the surface of him,
you saw no uncertainties; far from that: it seemed always rather with
peremptory resolutions, and swift express businesses, that he was
charged. Sickly in body, the testimony said: but here always was a
mind that gave you the impression of peremptory alertness, cheery
swift decision,--of a _health_ which you might have called exuberant.
I remember dialogues with him, of that year; one pleasant dialogue
under the trees of the Park (where now, in 1851, is the thing called
"Crystal Palace"), with the June sunset flinging long shadows for us;
the last of the Quality just vanishing for dinner, and the great night
beginning to prophesy of itself. Our talk (like that of the foregoing
Letter) was of the faults of my style, of my way of thinking, of my
&c. &c.; all which admonitions and remonstrances, so friendly and
innocent, from this young junior-senior, I was willing to listen to,
though unable, as usual, to get almost any practical hold of them. As
usual, the garments do not fit you, you are lost in the garments, or
you cannot get into them at all; this is not your suit of clothes, it
must be another's:--alas, these are not your dimensions, these are
only the optical angles you subtend; on the whole, you will never get
measured in that way!--
Another time, of date probably very contiguous, I remember hearing
Sterling preach. It was in some new college-chapel in Somerset-house
(I suppose, what is now called King's College); a very quiet small
place, the audience student-looking youths, with a few elder people,
perhaps mostly friends of the preacher's. The discourse, delivered
with a grave sonorous composure, and far surpassing in talent the
usual run of sermons, had withal an air of human veracity as I still
recollect, and bespoke dignity and piety of mind: but gave me the
impression rather of artistic excellence than of unction or
inspiration in that kind. Sterling returned with us to Chelsea that
day;--and in the afternoon we went on the Thames Putney-ward together,
we two with my Wife; under the sunny skies, on the quiet water, and
with copious cheery talk, the remembrance of which is still present
enough to me.
This was properly my only specimen of Sterling's preaching. Another
time, late in the same autumn, I did indeed attend him one evening to
some Church in the City,--a big Church behind Cheapside, "built by
Wren" as he carefully informed me;--but there, in my wearied mood, the
chief subject of reflection was the almost total vacancy of the place,
and how an eloquent soul was preaching to mere lamps and prayer-books;
and of the sermon I retain no image. It came up in the way of banter,
if he ever urged the duty of "Church extension," which already he very
seldom did and at length never, what a specimen we once had of bright
lamps, gilt prayer-books, baize-lined pews, Wren-built architecture;
and how, in almost all directions, you might have fired a musket
through the church, and hit no Christian life. A terrible outlook
indeed for the Apostolic laborer in the brick-and-mortar line!--
In the Autumn of this same 1835, he removed permanently to London,
whither all summer he had been evidently tending; took a house in
Bayswater, an airy suburb, half town, half country, near his Father's,
and within fair distance of his other friends and objects; and decided
to await there what the ultimate developments of his course might be.
His house was in Orme Square, close by the corner of that little place
(which has only _three_ sides of houses); its windows looking to the
east: the Number was, and I believe still is, No. 5. A sufficiently
commodious, by no means sumptuous, small mansion; where, with the
means sure to him, he could calculate on finding adequate shelter for
his family, his books and himself, and live in a decent manner, in no
terror of debt, for one thing. His income, I suppose, was not large;
but he lived generally a safe distance within it; and showed himself
always as a man bountiful in money matters, and taking no thought that
His study-room in this house was perhaps mainly the drawing-room;
looking out safe, over the little dingy grassplot in front, and the
quiet little row of houses opposite, with the huge dust-whirl of
Oxford Street and London far enough ahead of you as background,--as
back-curtain, blotting out only _half_ your blue hemisphere with dust
and smoke. On the right, you had the continuous growl of the Uxbridge
Road and its wheels, coming as lullaby not interruption. Leftward and
rearward, after some thin belt of houses, lay mere country; bright
sweeping green expanses, crowned by pleasant Hampstead, pleasant
Harrow, with their rustic steeples rising against the sky. Here on
winter evenings, the bustle of removal being all well ended, and
family and books got planted in their new places, friends could find
Sterling, as they often did, who was delighted to be found by them,
and would give and take, vividly as few others, an hour's good talk at
any time.
His outlooks, it must be admitted, were sufficiently vague and
overshadowed; neither the past nor the future of a too joyful kind.
Public life, in any professional form, is quite forbidden; to work
with his fellows anywhere appears to be forbidden: nor can the
humblest solitary endeavor to work worthily as yet find an arena. How
unfold one's little bit of talent; and live, and not lie sleeping,
while it is called To-day? As Radical, as Reforming Politician in any
public or private form,--not only has this, in Sterling's case,
received tragical sentence and execution; but the opposite extreme,
the Church whither he had fled, likewise proves abortive: the Church
also is not the haven for him at all. What is to be done? Something
must be done, and soon,--under penalties. Whoever has received, on
him there is an inexorable behest to give. "_Fais ton fait_, Do thy
little stroke of work:" this is Nature's voice, and the sum of all
the commandments, to each man!
A shepherd of the people, some small Agamemnon after his sort, doing
what little sovereignty and guidance he can in his day and generation:
such every gifted soul longs, and should long, to be. But how, in any
measure, is the small kingdom necessary for Sterling to be attained?
Not through newspapers and parliaments, not by rubrics and
reading-desks: none of the sceptres offered in the world's
market-place, nor none of the crosiers there, it seems, can be the
shepherd's-crook for this man. A most cheerful, hoping man; and full
of swift faculty, though much lamed,--considerably bewildered too; and
tending rather towards the wastes and solitary places for a home; the
paved world not being friendly to him hitherto! The paved world, in
fact, both on its practical and spiritual side, slams to its doors
against him; indicates that he cannot enter, and even must not,--that
it will prove a choke-vault, deadly to soul and to body, if he enter.
Sceptre, crosier, sheep-crook is none there for him.
There remains one other implement, the resource of all Adam's
posterity that are otherwise foiled,--the Pen. It was evident from
this point that Sterling, however otherwise beaten about, and set
fluctuating, would gravitate steadily with all his real weight towards
Literature. That he would gradually try with consciousness to get
into Literature; and, on the whole, never quit Literature, which was
now all the world for him. Such is accordingly the sum of his history
henceforth: such small sum, so terribly obstructed and diminished by
circumstances, is all we have realized from him.
Sterling had by no means as yet consciously quitted the clerical
profession, far less the Church as a creed. We have seen, he
occasionally officiated still in these months, when a friend requested
or an opportunity invited. Nay it turned out afterwards, he had,
unknown even to his own family, during a good many weeks in the
coldest period of next spring, when it was really dangerous for his
health and did prove hurtful to it,--been constantly performing the
morning service in some Chapel in Bayswater for a young clerical
neighbor, a slight acquaintance of his, who was sickly at the time.
So far as I know, this of the Bayswater Chapel in the spring of 1836,
a feat severely rebuked by his Doctor withal, was his last actual
service as a churchman. But the conscious life ecclesiastical still
hung visibly about his inner unconscious and real life, for years to
come; and not till by slow degrees he had unwinded from him the
wrappages of it, could he become clear about himself, and so much as
try heartily what his now sole course was. Alas, and he had to live
all the rest of his days, as in continual flight for his very
existence; "ducking under like a poor unfledged partridge-bird," as
one described it, "before the mower; darting continually from nook to
nook, and there crouching, to escape the scythe of Death." For
Literature Proper there was but little left in such a life. Only the
smallest broken fractions of his last and heaviest-laden years can
poor Sterling be said to have completely lived. His purpose had risen
before him slowly in noble clearness; clear at last,--and even then
the inevitable hour was at hand.
In those first London months, as always afterwards while it remained
physically possible, I saw much of him; loved him, as was natural,
more and more; found in him, many ways, a beautiful acquisition to my
existence here. He was full of bright speech and argument; radiant
with arrowy vitalities, vivacities and ingenuities. Less than any man
he gave you the idea of ill-health. Hopeful, sanguine; nay he did not
even seem to need definite hope, or much to form any; projecting
himself in aerial pulses like an aurora borealis, like a summer dawn,
and filling all the world with present brightness for himself and
others. Ill-health? Nay you found at last, it was the very excess of
_life_ in him that brought on disease. This restless play of being,
fit to conquer the world, could it have been held and guided, could
not be held. It had worn _holes_ in the outer case of it, and there
found vent for itself,--there, since not otherwise.
In our many promenades and colloquies, which were of the freest, most
copious and pleasant nature, religion often formed a topic, and
perhaps towards the beginning of our intercourse was the prevailing
topic. Sterling seemed much engrossed in matters theological, and led
the conversation towards such; talked often about Church, Christianity
Anglican and other, how essential the belief in it to man; then, on
the other side, about Pantheism and such like;--all in the Coleridge
dialect, and with eloquence and volubility to all lengths. I remember
his insisting often and with emphasis on what he called a "personal
God," and other high topics, of which it was not always pleasant to
give account in the argumentative form, in a loud hurried voice,
walking and arguing through the fields or streets. Though of warm
quick feelings, very positive in his opinions, and vehemently eager to
convince and conquer in such discussions, I seldom or never saw the
least anger in him against me or any friend. When the blows of
contradiction came too thick, he could with consummate dexterity whisk
aside out of their way; prick into his adversary on some new quarter;
or gracefully flourishing his weapon, end the duel in some handsome
manner. One angry glance I remember in him, and it was but a glance,
and gone in a moment. "Flat Pantheism!" urged he once (which he would
often enough do about this time), as if triumphantly, of something or
other, in the fire of a debate, in my hearing: "It is mere Pantheism,
that!"--"And suppose it were Pot-theism?" cried the other: "If the
thing is true!"--Sterling did look hurt at such flippant heterodoxy,
for a moment. The soul of his own creed, in those days, was far other
than this indifference to Pot or Pan in such departments of inquiry.
To me his sentiments for most part were lovable and admirable, though
in the logical outcome there was everywhere room for opposition. I
admired the temper, the longing towards antique heroism, in this young
man of the nineteenth century; but saw not how, except in some
German-English empire of the air, he was ever to realize it on those
terms. In fact, it became clear to me more and more that here was
nobleness of heart striving towards all nobleness; here was ardent
recognition of the worth of Christianity, for one thing; but no belief
in it at all, in my sense of the word belief,--no belief but one
definable as mere theoretic moonshine, which would never stand the
wind and weather of fact. Nay it struck me farther that Sterling's
was not intrinsically, nor had ever been in the highest or chief
degree, a devotional mind. Of course all excellence in man, and
worship as the supreme excellence, was part of the inheritance of this
gifted man: but if called to define him, I should say, Artist not
Saint was the real bent of his being. He had endless admiration, but
intrinsically rather a deficiency of reverence in comparison. Fear,
with its corollaries, on the religious side, he appeared to have none,
nor ever to have had any.
In short, it was a strange enough symptom to me of the bewildered
condition of the world, to behold a man of this temper, and of this
veracity and nobleness, self-consecrated here, by free volition and
deliberate selection, to be a Christian Priest; and zealously
struggling to fancy himself such in very truth. Undoubtedly a
singular present fact;--from which, as from their point of
intersection, great perplexities and aberrations in the past, and
considerable confusions in the future might be seen ominously
radiating. Happily our friend, as I said, needed little hope. To-day
with its activities was always bright and rich to him. His
unmanageable, dislocated, devastated world, spiritual or economical,
lay all illuminated in living sunshine, making it almost beautiful to
his eyes, and gave him no hypochondria. A richer soul, in the way of
natural outfit for felicity, for joyful activity in this world, so far
as his strength would go, was nowhere to be met with.
The Letters which Mr. Hare has printed, Letters addressed, I imagine,
mostly to himself, in this and the following year or two, give record
of abundant changeful plannings and laborings, on the part of
Sterling; still chiefly in the theological department. Translation
from Tholuck, from Schleiermacher; treatise on this thing, then on
that, are on the anvil: it is a life of abstruse vague speculations,
singularly cheerful and hopeful withal, about Will, Morals, Jonathan
Edwards, Jewhood, Manhood, and of Books to be written on these topics.
Part of which adventurous vague plans, as the Translation from
Tholuck, he actually performed; other greater part, merging always
into wider undertakings, remained plan merely. I remember he talked
often about Tholuck, Schleiermacher, and others of that stamp; and
looked disappointed, though full of good nature, at my obstinate
indifference to them and their affairs.
His knowledge of German Literature, very slight at this time, limited
itself altogether to writers on Church matters,--Evidences,
Counter-Evidences, Theologies and Rumors of Theologies; by the
Tholucks, Schleiermachers, Neanders, and I know not whom. Of the true
sovereign souls of that Literature, the Goethes, Richters, Schillers,
Lessings, he had as good as no knowledge; and of Goethe in particular
an obstinate misconception, with proper abhorrence appended,--which
did not abate for several years, nor quite abolish itself till a very
late period. Till, in a word, he got Goethe's works fairly read and
studied for himself! This was often enough the course with Sterling
in such cases. He had a most swift glance of recognition for the
worthy and for the unworthy; and was prone, in his ardent decisive
way, to put much faith in it. "Such a one is a worthless idol; not
excellent, only sham-excellent:" here, on this negative side
especially, you often had to admire how right he was;--often, but not
quite always. And he would maintain, with endless ingenuity,
confidence and persistence, his fallacious spectrum to be a real
image. However, it was sure to come all right in the end. Whatever
real excellence he might misknow, you had but to let it stand before
him, soliciting new examination from him: none surer than he to
recognize it at last, and to pay it all his dues, with the arrears and
interest on them. Goethe, who figures as some absurd high-stalking
hollow play-actor, or empty ornamental clock-case of an "Artist"
so-called, in the Tale of the _Onyx Ring_, was in the throne of
Sterling's intellectual world before all was done; and the theory of
"Goethe's want of feeling," want of &c. &c. appeared to him also
abundantly contemptible and forgettable.
Sterling's days, during this time as always, were full of occupation,
cheerfully interesting to himself and others; though, the wrecks of
theology so encumbering him, little fruit on the positive side could
come of these labors. On the negative side they were productive; and
there also, so much of encumbrance requiring removal, before fruit
could grow, there was plenty of labor needed. He looked happy as well
as busy; roamed extensively among his friends, and loved to have them
about him,--chiefly old Cambridge comrades now settling into
occupations in the world;--and was felt by all friends, by myself as
by few, to be a welcome illumination in the dim whirl of things. A
man of altogether social and human ways; his address everywhere
pleasant and enlivening. A certain smile of thin but genuine
laughter, we might say, hung gracefully over all he said and
did;--expressing gracefully, according to the model of this epoch, the
stoical pococurantism which is required of the cultivated Englishman.
Such laughter in him was not deep, but neither was it false (as
lamentably happens often); and the cheerfulness it went to symbolize
was hearty and beautiful,--visible in the silent unsymbolized state in
a still gracefuler fashion.
Of wit, so far as rapid lively intellect produces wit, he had plenty,
and did not abuse his endowment that way, being always fundamentally
serious in the purport of his speech: of what we call humor, he had
some, though little; nay of real sense for the ludicrous, in any form,
he had not much for a man of his vivacity; and you remarked that his
laugh was limited in compass, and of a clear but not rich quality. To
the like effect shone something, a kind of childlike half-embarrassed
shimmer of expression, on his fine vivid countenance; curiously
mingling with its ardors and audacities. A beautiful childlike soul!
He was naturally a favorite in conversation, especially with all who
had any funds for conversing: frank and direct, yet polite and
delicate withal,--though at times too he could crackle with his
dexterous petulancies, making the air all like needles round you; and
there was no end to his logic when you excited it; no end, unless in
some form of silence on your part. Elderly men of reputation I have
sometimes known offended by him: for he took a frank way in the
matter of talk; spoke freely out of him, freely listening to what
others spoke, with a kind of "hail fellow well met" feeling; and
carelessly measured a men much less by his reputed account in the bank
of wit, or in any other bank, than by what the man had to show for
himself in the shape of real spiritual cash on the occasion. But
withal there was ever a fine element of natural courtesy in Sterling;
his deliberate demeanor to acknowledged superiors was fine and
graceful; his apologies and the like, when in a fit of repentance he
felt commanded to apologize, were full of naivete, and very pretty and
His circle of friends was wide enough; chiefly men of his own
standing, old College friends many of them; some of whom have now
become universally known. Among whom the most important to him was
Frederic Maurice, who had not long before removed to the Chaplaincy of
Guy's Hospital here, and was still, as he had long been, his intimate
and counsellor. Their views and articulate opinions, I suppose, were
now fast beginning to diverge; and these went on diverging far enough:
but in their kindly union, in their perfect trustful familiarity,
precious to both parties, there never was the least break, but a
steady, equable and duly increasing current to the end. One of
Sterling's commonest expeditions, in this time, was a sally to the
other side of London Bridge: "Going to Guy's to-day." Maurice, in a
year or two, became Sterling's brother-in-law; wedded Mrs. Sterling's
younger sister,--a gentle excellent female soul; by whom the relation
was, in many ways, strengthened and beautified for Sterling and all
friends of the parties. With the Literary notabilities I think he had
no acquaintance; his thoughts indeed still tended rather towards a
certain class of the Clerical; but neither had he much to do with
these; for he was at no time the least of a tuft-hunter, but rather
had a marked natural indifference to _tufts_.
The Rev. Mr. Dunn, a venerable and amiable Irish gentleman,
"distinguished," we were told, "by having refused a bishopric:" and
who was now living, in an opulent enough retirement, amid his books
and philosophies and friends, in London,--is memorable to me among
this clerical class: one of the mildest, beautifulest old men I have
ever seen,--"like Fenelon," Sterling said: his very face, with its
kind true smile, with its look of suffering cheerfulness and pious
wisdom, was a sort of benediction. It is of him that Sterling writes,
in the Extract which Mr. Hare, modestly reducing the name to an
initial "Mr. D.," has given us:[13] "Mr. Dunn, for instance; the
defect of whose Theology, compounded as it is of the doctrine of the
Greek Fathers, of the Mystics and of Ethical Philosophers,
consists,--if I may hint a fault in one whose holiness, meekness and
fervor would have made him the beloved disciple of him whom Jesus
loved,--in an insufficient apprehension of the reality and depth of
Sin." A characteristic "defect" of this fine gentle soul. On Mr.
Dunn's death, which occurred two or three years later, Stirling gave,
in some veiled yet transparent form, in _Blackwood's Magazine_, an
affectionate and eloquent notice of him; which, stript of the veil,
was excerpted into the Newspapers also.[14]
Of Coleridge there was little said. Coleridge was now dead, not long
since; nor was his name henceforth much heard in Sterling's circle;
though on occasion, for a year or two to come, he would still assert
his transcendent admiration, especially if Maurice were by to help.
But he was getting into German, into various inquiries and sources of
knowledge new to him, and his admirations and notions on many things
were silently and rapidly modifying themselves.
So, amid interesting human realities, and wide cloud-canopies of
uncertain speculation, which also had their interests and their
rainbow-colors to him, and could not fail in his life just now, did
Sterling pass his year and half at Bayswater. Such vaporous
speculations were inevitable for him at present; but it was to be
hoped they would subside by and by, and leave the sky clear. All this
was but the preliminary to whatever work might lie in him:--and, alas,
much other interruption lay between him and that.
Sterling's dubieties as to continuing at Bordeaux were quickly
decided. The cholera in France, the cholera in Nice, the-- In fact
his moorings were now loose; and having been fairly at sea, he never
could anchor himself here again. Very shortly after this Letter, he
left Belsito again (for good, as it proved); and returned to England
with his household, there to consider what should next be done.
On my return from Scotland, that year, perhaps late in September, I
remember finding him lodged straitly but cheerfully, and in happy
humor, in a little cottage on Blackheath; whither his Father one day
persuaded me to drive out with him for dinner. Our welcome, I can
still recollect, was conspicuously cordial; the place of dinner a kind
of upper room, half garret and full of books, which seemed to be
John's place of study. From a shelf, I remember also, the good soul
took down a book modestly enough bound in three volumes, lettered on
the back Carlyle's _French Revolution_, which had been published
lately; this he with friendly banter bade me look at as a first
symptom, small but significant, that the book was not to die all at
once. "One copy of it at least might hope to last the date of
sheep-leather," I admitted,--and in my then mood the little fact was
welcome. Our dinner, frank and happy on the part of Sterling, was
peppered with abundant jolly satire from his Father: before tea, I
took myself away; towards Woolwich, I remember, where probably there
was another call to make, and passage homeward by steamer: Sterling
strode along with me a good bit of road in the bright sunny evening,
full of lively friendly talk, and altogether kind and amiable; and
beautifully sympathetic with the loads he thought he saw on _me_,
forgetful of his own. We shook hands on the road near the foot of
Shooter's Hill:--at which point dim oblivious clouds rush down; and of
small or great I remember nothing more in my history or his for some
Besides running much about among friends, and holding counsels for the
management of the coming winter, Sterling was now considerably
occupied with Literature again; and indeed may be said to have already
definitely taken it up as the one practical pursuit left for him.
Some correspondence with _Blackwood's Magazine_ was opening itself,
under promising omens: now, and more and more henceforth, he began to
look on Literature as his real employment, after all; and was
prosecuting it with his accustomed loyalty and ardor. And he
continued ever afterwards, in spite of such fitful circumstances and
uncertain outward fluctuations as his were sure of being, to prosecute
it steadily with all the strength he had.
One evening about this time, he came down to us, to Chelsea, most
likely by appointment and with stipulation for privacy; and read, for
our opinion, his Poem of the _Sexton's Daughter_, which we now first
heard of. The judgment in this house was friendly, but not the most
encouraging. We found the piece monotonous, cast in the mould of
Wordsworth, deficient in real human fervor or depth of melody,
dallying on the borders of the infantile and "goody-good;"--in fact,
involved still in the shadows of the surplice, and inculcating (on
hearsay mainly) a weak morality, which he would one day find not to be
moral at all, but in good part maudlin-hypocritical and immoral. As
indeed was to be said still of most of his performances, especially
the poetical; a sickly _shadow_ of the parish-church still hanging
over them, which he could by no means recognize for sickly.
_Imprimatur_ nevertheless was the concluding word,--with these grave
abatements, and rhadamanthine admonitions. To all which Sterling
listened seriously and in the mildest humor. His reading, it might
have been added, had much hurt the effect of the piece: a dreary
pulpit or even conventicle manner; that flattest moaning hoo-hoo of
predetermined pathos, with a kind of rocking canter introduced by way
of intonation, each stanza the exact fellow Of the other, and the dull
swing of the rocking-horse duly in each;--no reading could be more
unfavorable to Sterling's poetry than his own. Such a mode of
reading, and indeed generally in a man of such vivacity the total
absence of all gifts for play-acting or artistic mimicry in any kind,
was a noticeable point.
After much consultation, it was settled at last that Sterling should
go to Madeira for the winter. One gray dull autumn afternoon, towards
the middle of October, I remember walking with him to the eastern Dock
region, to see his ship, and how the final preparations in his own
little cabin were proceeding there. A dingy little ship, the deck
crowded with packages, and bustling sailors within eight-and-forty
hours of lifting anchor; a dingy chill smoky day, as I have said
withal, and a chaotic element and outlook, enough to make a friend's
heart sad. I admired the cheerful careless humor and brisk activity
of Sterling, who took the matter all on the sunny side, as he was wont
in such cases. We came home together in manifold talk: he accepted
with the due smile my last contribution to his sea-equipment, a
sixpenny box of German lucifers purchased on the sudden in St. James's
Street, fit to be offered with laughter or with tears or with both; he
was to leave for Portsmouth almost immediately, and there go on board.
Our next news was of his safe arrival in the temperate Isle. Mrs.
Sterling and the children were left at Knightsbridge; to pass this
winter with his Father and Mother.
At Madeira Sterling did well: improved in health; was busy with much
Literature; and fell in with society which he could reckon pleasant.
He was much delighted with the scenery of the place; found the climate
wholesome to him in a marked degree; and, with good news from home,
and kindly interests here abroad, passed no disagreeable winter in
that exile. There was talking, there was writing, there was hope of
better health; he rode almost daily, in cheerful busy humor, along
those fringed shore-roads:--beautiful leafy roads and horse-paths;
with here and there a wild cataract and bridge to look at; and always
with the soft sky overhead, the dead volcanic mountain on one hand,
and broad illimitable sea spread out on the other. Here are two
Letters which give reasonably good account of him:--
"_To Thomas Carlyle, Esq., Chelsea, London_.
"FUNCHAL, MADEIRA, 16th November, 1837.
"MY DEAR CARLYLE,--I have been writing a good many letters all in a
batch, to go by the same opportunity; and I am thoroughly weary of
writing the same things over and over again to different people. My
letter to you therefore, I fear, must have much of the character of
remainder-biscuit. But you will receive it as a proof that I do not
wish you to forget me, though it may be useless for any other purpose.
"I reached this on the 2d, after a tolerably prosperous voyage,
deformed by some days of sea-sickness, but otherwise not to be
complained of. I liked my twenty fellow-passengers far better than I
expected;--three or four of them I like much, and continue to see
frequently. The Island too is better than I expected: so that my
Barataria at least does not disappoint me. The bold rough mountains,
with mist about their summits, verdure below, and a bright sun over
all, please me much; and I ride daily on the steep and narrow paved
roads, which no wheels ever journeyed on. The Town is clean, and
there its merits end: but I am comfortably lodged; with a large and
pleasant sitting-room to myself. I have met with much kindness; and
see all the society I want,--though it is not quite equal to that of
London, even excluding Chelsea.
"I have got about me what Books I brought out; and have read a little,
and done some writing for _Blackwood_,--all, I have the pleasure to
inform you, prose, nay extremely prose. I shall now be more at
leisure; and hope to get more steadily to work; though I do not know
what I shall begin upon. As to reading, I have been looking at
_Goethe_, especially the _Life_,--much as a shying horse looks at a
post. In truth, I am afraid of him. I enjoy and admire him so much,
and feel I could so easily be tempted to go along with him. And yet I
have a deeply rooted and old persuasion that he was the most splendid
of anachronisms. A thoroughly, nay intensely Pagan Life, in an age
when it is men's duty to be Christian. I therefore never take him up
without a kind of inward check, as if I were trying some forbidden
spell; while, on the other hand, there is so infinitely much to be
learnt from him, and it is so needful to understand the world we live
in, and our own age, and especially its greatest minds, that I cannot
bring myself to burn my books as the converted Magicians did, or sink
them as did Prospero. There must, as I think, have been some
prodigious defect in his mind, to let him hold such views as his about
women and some other things; and in another respect, I find so much
coldness and hollowness as to the highest truths, and feel so strongly
that the Heaven he looks up to is but a vault of ice,--that these two
indications, leading to the same conclusion, go far to convince me he
was a profoundly immoral and irreligious spirit, with as rare
faculties of intelligence as ever belonged to any one. All this may
be mere _goody_ weakness and twaddle, on my part: but it is a
persuasion that I cannot escape from; though I should feel the doing
so to be a deliverance from a most painful load. If you could help
me, I heartily wish you would. I never take him up without high
admiration, or lay him down without real sorrow for what he chose to
"I have been reading nothing else that you would much care for.
Southey's _Amadis_ has amused me; and Lyell's _Geology_ interested me.
The latter gives one the same sort of bewildering view of the abysmal
extent of Time that Astronomy does of Space. I do not think I shall
take your advice as to learning Portuguese. It is said to be very ill
spoken here; and assuredly it is the most direful series of nasal
twangs I ever heard. One gets on quite well with English.
"The people here are, I believe, in a very low condition; but they do
not appear miserable. I am told that the influence of the priests
makes the peasantry all Miguelites; but it is said that nobody wants
any more revolutions. There is no appearance of riot or crime; and
they are all extremely civil. I was much interested by learning that
Columbus once lived here, before he found America and fame. I have
been to see a deserted _quinta_ (country-house), where there is a
great deal of curious old sculpture, in relief, upon the masonry; many
of the figures, which are nearly as large as life, representing
soldiers clad and armed much as I should suppose those of Cortez were.
There are no buildings about the Town, of the smallest pretensions to
beauty or charm of any kind. On the whole, if Madeira were one's
world, life would certainly rather tend to stagnate; but as a
temporary refuge, a niche in an old ruin where one is sheltered from
the shower, it has great merit. I am more comfortable and contented
than I expected to be, so far from home and from everybody I am
closely connected with: but, of course, it is at best a tolerable
"Tell Mrs. Carlyle that I have written, since I have been here, and am
going to send to _Blackwood_, a humble imitation of her _Watch and
Canary-Bird_, entitled _The Suit of Armor and the Skeleton_.[15] I am
conscious that I am far from having reached the depth and fulness of
despair and mockery which distinguish the original! But in truth
there is a lightness of tone about her style, which I hold to be
invaluable: where she makes hairstrokes, I make blotches. I have a
vehement suspicion that my Dialogue is an entire failure; but I cannot
be plagued with it any longer. Tell her I will not send her messages,
but will write to her soon.--Meanwhile I am affectionately hers and
The next is to his Brother-in-law; and in a still hopefuler tone:--
"_To Charles Barton, Esq._[16]
FUNCHAL, MADEIRA, 3d March, 1838.
"MY DEAR CHARLES,--I have often been thinking of you and your
whereabouts in Germany, and wishing I knew more about you; and at last
it occurred to me that you might perhaps have the same wish about me,
and that therefore I should do well to write to you.
"I have been here exactly four months, having arrived on the 2d of
November,--my wedding-day; and though you perhaps may not think it a
compliment to Susan, I have seldom passed four months more cheerfully
and agreeably. I have of course felt my absence from my family, and
missed the society of my friends; for there is not a person here whom
I knew before I left England. But, on the whole, I have been in good
health, and actively employed. I have a good many agreeable and
valuable acquaintances, one or two of whom I hope I may hereafter
reckon as friends. The weather has generally been fine, and never
cold; and the scenery of the Island is of a beauty which you unhappy
Northern people can have little conception of.
"It consists of a great mass of volcanic mountains, covered in their
lower parts with cottages, vines and patches of vegetables. When you
pass through, or over the central ridge, and get towards the North,
there are woods of trees, of the laurel kind, covering the wild steep
slopes, and forming some of the strangest and most beautiful prospects
I have ever seen. Towards the interior, the forms of the hills become
more abrupt, and loftier; and give the notion of very recent volcanic
disturbances, though in fact there has been nothing of the kind since
the discovery of the Island by Europeans. Among these mountains, the
dark deep precipices, and narrow ravines with small streams at the
bottom; the basaltic knobs and ridges on the summits; and the
perpetual play of mist and cloud around them, under this bright sun
and clear sky,--form landscapes which you would thoroughly enjoy, and
which I much wish I could give you a notion of. The Town is on the
south, and of course the sheltered side of the Island; perfectly
protected from the North and East; although we have seen sometimes
patches of bright snow on the dark peaks in the distance. It is a
neat cheerful place; all built of gray stone, but having many of the
houses colored white or red. There is not a really handsome building
in it, but there is a general aspect of comfort and solidity. The
shops are very poor. The English do not mix at all with the
Portuguese. The Bay is a very bad anchorage; but is wide, bright and
cheerful; and there are some picturesque points--one a small black
island--scattered about it.
"I lived till a fortnight ago in lodgings, having two rooms, one a
very good one; and paying for everything fifty-six dollars a month,
the dollar being four shillings and twopence. This you will see is
dear; but I could make no better arrangement, for there is an unusual
affluence of strangers this year. I have now come to live with a
friend, a Dr. Calvert, in a small house of our own, where I am much
more comfortable, and live greatly cheaper. He is a friend of Mrs.
Percival's; about my age, an Oriel man, and a very superior person. I
think the chances are, we shall go home together.... I cannot tell
you of all the other people I have become familiar with; and shall
only mention in addition Bingham Baring, eldest son of Lord Ashburton,
who was here for some weeks on account of a dying brother, and whom I
saw a great deal of. He is a pleasant, very good-natured and rather
clever man; Conservative Member for North Staffordshire.
"During the first two months I was here, I rode a great deal about the
Island, having a horse regularly; and was much in agreeable company,
seeing a great deal of beautiful scenery. Since then, the weather has
been much more unsettled, though not cold; and I have gone about less,
as I cannot risk the being wet. But I have spent my time pleasantly,
reading and writing. I have written a good many things for
_Blackwood_; one of which, the _Armor and the Skeleton_, I see is
printed in the February Number. I have just sent them a long Tale,
called the _Onyx Ring_, which cost me a good deal of trouble; and the
extravagance of which, I think, would amuse you; but its length may
prevent its appearance in _Blackwood_. If so, I think I should make a
volume of it. I have also written some poems, and shall probably
publish the _Sexton's Daughter_ when I return.
"My health goes on most favorably. I have had no attack of the chest
this spring; which has not happened to me since the spring before we
went to Bonn; and I am told, if I take care, I may roll along for
years. But I have little hope of being allowed to spend the four
first months of any year in England; and the question will be, Whether
to go at once to Italy, by way of Germany and Switzerland, with my
family, or to settle with them in England, perhaps at Hastings, and go
abroad myself when it may be necessary. I cannot decide till I
return; but I think the latter the most probable.
"To my dear Charles I do not like to use the ordinary forms of ending
a letter, for they are very inadequate to express my sense of your
long and most unvarying kindness; but be assured no one living could
say with more sincerity that he is ever affectionately yours,
Other Letters give occasionally views of the shadier side of things:
dark broken weather, in the sky and in the mind; ugly clouds covering
one's poor fitful transitory prospect, for a time, as they might well
do in Sterling's case. Meanwhile we perceive his literary business is
fast developing itself; amid all his confusions, he is never idle
long. Some of his best Pieces--the Onyx _Ring_, for one, as we
perceive--were written here this winter. Out of the turbid whirlpool
of the days he strives assiduously to snatch what he can.
Sterling's communications with _Blackwood's Magazine_ had now issued
in some open sanction of him by Professor Wilson, the distinguished
presiding spirit of that Periodical; a fact naturally of high
importance to him under the literary point of view. For Wilson, with
his clear flashing eye and great genial heart, had at once recognized
Sterling; and lavished stormily, in his wild generous way, torrents of
praise on him in the editorial comments: which undoubtedly was one of
the gratefulest literary baptisms, by fire or by water, that could
befall a soul like Sterling's. He bore it very gently, being indeed
past the age to have his head turned by anybody's praises: nor do I
think the exaggeration that was in these eulogies did him any ill
whatever; while surely their generous encouragement did him much good,
in his solitary struggle towards new activity under such impediments
as his. _Laudari a laudato_; to be called noble by one whom you and
the world recognize as noble: this great satisfaction, never perhaps
in such a degree before or after had now been vouchsafed to Sterling;
and was, as I compute, an important fact for him. He proceeded on his
pilgrimage with new energy, and felt more and more as if authentically
consecrated to the same.
The _Onyx Ring_, a curious Tale, with wild improbable basis, but with
a noble glow of coloring and with other high merits in it, a Tale
still worth reading, in which, among the imaginary characters, various
friends of Sterling's are shadowed forth, not always in the truest
manner, came out in _Blackwood_ in the winter of this year. Surely a
very high talent for painting, both of scenery and persons, is visible
in this Fiction; the promise of a Novel such as we have few. But
there wants maturing, wants purifying of clear from unclear;--properly
there want patience and steady depth. The basis, as we said, is wild
and loose; and in the details, lucent often with fine color, and dipt
in beautiful sunshine, there are several things mis_seen_, untrue,
which is the worst species of mispainting. Witness, as Sterling
himself would have by and by admitted, the "empty clockcase" (so we
called it) which he has labelled Goethe,--which puts all other
untruths in the Piece to silence.
One of the great alleviations of his exile at Madeira he has already
celebrated to us: the pleasant circle of society he fell into there.
Great luck, thinks Sterling in this voyage; as indeed there was: but
he himself, moreover, was readier than most men to fall into pleasant
circles everywhere, being singularly prompt to make the most of any
circle. Some of his Madeira acquaintanceships were really good; and
one of them, if not more, ripened into comradeship and friendship for
him. He says, as we saw, "The chances are, Calvert and I will come
home together."
Among the English in pursuit of health, or in flight from fatal
disease, that winter, was this Dr. Calvert; an excellent ingenious
cheery Cumberland gentleman, about Sterling's age, and in a deeper
stage of ailment, this not being his first visit to Madeira: he,
warmly joining himself to Sterling, as we have seen, was warmly
received by him; so that there soon grew a close and free intimacy
between them; which for the next three years, till poor Calvert ended
his course, was a leading element in the history of both.
Companionship in incurable malady, a touching bond of union, was by no
means purely or chiefly a companionship in misery in their case. The
sunniest inextinguishable cheerfulness shone, through all manner of
clouds, in both. Calvert had been travelling physician in some family
of rank, who had rewarded him with a pension, shielding his own
ill-health from one sad evil. Being hopelessly gone in pulmonary
disorder, he now moved about among friendly climates and places,
seeking what alleviation there might be; often spending his summers in
the house of a sister in the environs of London; an insatiable rider
on his little brown pony; always, wherever you might meet him, one of
the cheeriest of men. He had plenty of speculation too, clear glances
of all kinds into religious, social, moral concerns; and pleasantly
incited Sterling's outpourings on such subjects. He could report of
fashionable persons and manners, in a fine human Cumberland manner;
loved art, a great collector of drawings; he had endless help and
ingenuity; and was in short every way a very human, lovable, good and
nimble man,--the laughing blue eyes of him, the clear cheery soul of
him, still redolent of the fresh Northern breezes and transparent
Mountain streams. With this Calvert, Sterling formed a natural
intimacy; and they were to each other a great possession, mutually
enlivening many a dark day during the next three years. They did come
home together this spring; and subsequently made several of these
health-journeys in partnership.
In spite of these wanderings, Sterling's course in life, so far as his
poor life could have any course or aim beyond that of screening itself
from swift death, was getting more and more clear to him; and he
pursued it diligently, in the only way permitted him, by hasty
snatches, in the intervals of continual fluctuation, change of place
and other interruption.
Such, once for all, were the conditions appointed him. And it must be
owned he had, with a most kindly temper, adjusted himself to these;
nay you would have said, he loved them; it was almost as if he would
have chosen them as the suitablest. Such an adaptation was there in
him of volition to necessity:--for indeed they both, if well seen
into, proceeded from one source. Sterling's bodily disease was the
expression, under physical conditions, of the too vehement life which,
under the moral, the intellectual and other aspects, incessantly
struggled within him. Too vehement;--which would have required a
frame of oak and iron to contain it: in a thin though most wiry body
of flesh and bone, it incessantly "wore holes," and so found outlet
for itself. He could take no rest, he had never learned that art; he
was, as we often reproached him, fatally incapable of sitting still.
Rapidity, as of pulsing auroras, as of dancing lightnings: rapidity
in all forms characterized him. This, which was his bane, in many
senses, being the real origin of his disorder, and of such continual
necessity to move and change,--was also his antidote, so far as
antidote there might be; enabling him to love change, and to snatch,
as few others could have done, from the waste chaotic years, all
tumbled into ruin by incessant change, what hours and minutes of
available turned up. He had an incredible facility of labor. He
flashed with most piercing glance into a subject; gathered it up into
organic utterability, with truly wonderful despatch, considering the
success and truth attained; and threw it on paper with a swift
felicity, ingenuity, brilliancy and general excellence, of which,
under such conditions of swiftness, I have never seen a parallel.
Essentially an _improviser_ genius; as his Father too was, and of
admirable completeness he too, though under a very different form.
If Sterling has done little in Literature, we may ask, What other man
than he, in such circumstances, could have done anything? In virtue
of these rapid faculties, which otherwise cost him so dear, he has
built together, out of those wavering boiling quicksands of his few
later years, a result which may justly surprise us. There is actually
some result in those poor Two Volumes gathered from him, such as they
are; he that reads there will not wholly lose his time, nor rise with
a malison instead of a blessing on the writer. Here actually is a
real seer-glance, of some compass, into the world of our day; blessed
glance, once more, of an eye that is human; truer than one of a
thousand, and beautifully capable of making others see with it. I
have known considerable temporary reputations gained, considerable
piles of temporary guineas, with loud reviewing and the like to match,
on a far less basis than lies in those two volumes. Those also, I
expect, will be held in memory by the world, one way or other, till
the world has extracted all its benefit from them. Graceful,
ingenious and illuminative reading, of their sort, for all manner of
inquiring souls. A little verdant flowery island of poetic intellect,
of melodious human verity; sunlit island founded on the rocks;--which
the enormous circumambient continents of mown reed-grass and floating
lumber, with _their_ mountain-ranges of ejected stable-litter however
alpine, cannot by any means or chance submerge: nay, I expect, they
will not even quite hide it, this modest little island, from the
well-discerning; but will float past it towards the place appointed
for them, and leave said island standing. _Allah kereem_, say the
Arabs! And of the English also some still know that there is a,
difference in the material of mountains!--
As it is this last little result, the amount of his poor and
ever-interrupted literary labor, that henceforth forms the essential
history of Sterling, we need not dwell at too much length on the
foreign journeys, disanchorings, and nomadic vicissitudes of
household, which occupy his few remaining years, and which are only
the disastrous and accidental arena of this. He had now, excluding
his early and more deliberate residence in the West Indies, made two
flights abroad, once with his family, once without, in search of
health. He had two more, in rapid succession, to make, and many more
to meditate; and in the whole from Bayswater to the end, his family
made no fewer than five complete changes of abode, for his sake. But
these cannot be accepted as in any sense epochs in his life: the one
last epoch of his life was that of his internal change towards
Literature as his work in the world; and we need not linger much on
these, which are the mere outer accidents of that, and had no
distinguished influence in modifying that.
Friends still hoped the unrest of that brilliant too rapid soul would
abate with years. Nay the doctors sometimes promised, on the physical
side, a like result; prophesying that, at forty-five or some mature
age, the stress of disease might quit the lungs, and direct itself to
other quarters of the system. But no such result was appointed for
us; neither forty-five itself, nor the ameliorations promised then,
were ever to be reached. Four voyages abroad, three of them without
his family, in flight from death; and at home, for a like reason, five
complete shiftings of abode: in such wandering manner, and not
otherwise, had Sterling to continue his pilgrimage till it ended.
Once more I must say, his cheerfulness throughout was wonderful. A
certain grimmer shade, coming gradually over him, might perhaps be
noticed in the concluding years; not impatience properly, yet the
consciousness how much he needed patience; something more caustic in
his tone of wit, more trenchant and indignant occasionally in his tone
of speech: but at no moment was his activity bewildered or abated,
nor did his composure ever give way. No; both his activity and his
composure he bore with him, through all weathers, to the final close;
and on the whole, right manfully he walked his wild stern way towards
the goal, and like a Roman wrapt his mantle round him when he
fell.--Let us glance, with brevity, at what he saw and suffered in his
remaining pilgrimings and chargings; and count up what fractions of
spiritual fruit he realized to us from them.
Calvert and he returned from Madeira in the spring of 1838. Mrs.
Sterling and the family had lived in Knightsbridge with his Father's
people through the winter: they now changed to Blackheath, or
ultimately Hastings, and he with them, coming up to London pretty
often; uncertain what was to be done for next winter. Literature went
on briskly here: _Blackwood_ had from him, besides the _Onyx Ring_
which soon came out with due honor, assiduous almost monthly
contributions in prose and verse. The series called _Hymns of a
Hermit_ was now going on; eloquent melodies, tainted to me with
something of the same disease as the _Sexton's Daughter_, though
perhaps in a less degree, considering that the strain was in a so much
higher pitch. Still better, in clear eloquent prose, the series of
detached thoughts, entitled _Crystals from a Cavern_; of which the set
of fragments, generally a little larger in compass, called _Thoughts
and Images_, and again those called _Sayings and Essayings_,[17] are
properly continuations. Add to which, his friend John Mill had now
charge of a Review, _The London and Westminster_ its name; wherein
Sterling's assistance, ardently desired, was freely afforded, with
satisfaction to both parties, in this and the following years. An
Essay on _Montaigne_, with the notes and reminiscences already spoken
of, was Sterling's first contribution here; then one on
_Simonides_:[18] both of the present season.
On these and other businesses, slight or important, he was often
running up to London; and gave us almost the feeling of his being
resident among us. In order to meet the most or a good many of his
friends at once on such occasions, he now furthermore contrived the
scheme of a little Club, where monthly over a frugal dinner some
reunion might take place; that is, where friends of his, and withal
such friends of theirs as suited,--and in fine, where a small select
company definable as persons to whom it was pleasant to talk
together,--might have a little opportunity of talking. The scheme was
approved by the persons concerned: I have a copy of the Original
Regulations, probably drawn up by Sterling, a very solid lucid piece
of economics; and the List of the proposed Members, signed "James
Spedding, Secretary," and dated "8th August, 1838."[19] The Club grew;
was at first called the _Anonymous Club_; then, after some months of
success, in compliment to the founder who had now left us again, the
_Sterling Club_;--under which latter name, it once lately, for a time,
owing to the Religious Newspapers, became rather famous in the world!
In which strange circumstances the name was again altered, to suit
weak brethren; and the Club still subsists, in a sufficiently
flourishing though happily once more a private condition. That is the
origin and genesis of poor Sterling's Club; which, having honestly
paid the shot for itself at Will's Coffee-house or elsewhere, rashly
fancied its bits of affairs were quite settled; and once little
thought of getting into Books of History with them!--
But now, Autumn approaching, Sterling had to quit Clubs, for matters
of sadder consideration. A new removal, what we call "his third
peregrinity," had to be decided on; and it was resolved that Rome
should be the goal of it, the journey to be done in company with
Calvert, whom also the Italian climate might be made to serve instead
of Madeira. One of the liveliest recollections I have, connected with
the _Anonymous Club_, is that of once escorting Sterling, after a
certain meeting there, which I had seen only towards the end, and now
remember nothing of,--except that, on breaking up, he proved to be
encumbered with a carpet-bag, and could not at once find a cab for
Knightsbridge. Some small bantering hereupon, during the instants of
embargo. But we carried his carpet-bag, slinging it on my stick, two
or three of us alternately, through dusty vacant streets, under the
gaslights and the stars, towards the surest cab-stand; still jesting,
or pretending to jest, he and we, not in the mirthfulest manner; and
had (I suppose) our own feelings about the poor Pilgrim, who was to go
on the morrow, and had hurried to meet us in this way, as the last
thing before leaving England.
The journey to Italy was undertaken by advice of Sir James Clark,
reckoned the chief authority in pulmonary therapeutics; who prophesied
important improvements from it, and perhaps even the possibility
henceforth of living all the year in some English home. Mrs. Sterling
and the children continued in a house avowedly temporary, a furnished
house at Hastings, through the winter. The two friends had set off
for Belgium, while the due warmth was still in the air. They
traversed Belgium, looking well at pictures and such objects; ascended
the Rhine; rapidly traversed Switzerland and the Alps; issuing upon
Italy and Milan, with immense appetite for pictures, and time still to
gratify themselves in that pursuit, and be deliberate in their
approach to Rome. We will take this free-flowing sketch of their
passage over the Alps; written amid "the rocks of Arona,"--Santo
Borromeo's country, and poor little Mignon's! The "elder Perdonnets"
are opulent Lausanne people, to whose late son Sterling had been very
kind in Madeira the year before:--
"_To Mrs. Sterling, Knightsbridge, London_.
"ARONA on the LAGO MAGGIORE, 8th Oct., 1838.
"MY DEAR MOTHER,--I bring down the story of my proceedings to the
present time since the 29th of September. I think it must have been
after that day that I was at a great breakfast at the elder
Perdonnets', with whom I had declined to dine, not choosing to go out
at night.... I was taken by my hostess to see several pretty
pleasure-grounds and points of view in the neighborhood; and latterly
Calvert was better, and able to go with us. He was in force again,
and our passports were all settled so as to enable us to start on the
morning of the 2d, after taking leave of our kind entertainer with
thanks for her infinite kindness.
"We reached St. Maurice early that evening; having had the Dent du
Midi close to us for several hours; glittering like the top of a
silver teapot, far up in the sky. Our course lay along the Valley of
the Rhone; which is considered one of the least beautiful parts of
Switzerland, and perhaps for this reason pleased us, as we had not
been prepared to expect much. We saw, before reaching the foot of the
Alpine pass at Brieg, two rather celebrated Waterfalls; the one the
Pissevache, which has no more beauty than any waterfall one hundred or
two hundred feet high must necessarily have: the other, near
Tourtemagne, is much more pleasing, having foliage round it, and being
in a secluded dell. If you buy a Swiss Waterfall, choose this one.
"Our second day took us through Martigny to Sion, celebrated for its
picturesque towers upon detached hills, for its strong Romanism and
its population of _cretins_,--that is, maimed idiots having the
_goitre_. It looked to us a more thriving place than we expected.
They are building a great deal; among other things, a new Bishop's
Palace and a new Nunnery,--to inhabit either of which _ex officio_ I
feel myself very unsuitable. From Sion we came to Brieg; a little
village in a nook, close under an enormous mountain and glacier, where
it lies like a molehill, or something smaller, at the foot of a
haystack. Here also we slept; and the next day our voiturier, who had
brought us from Lausanne, started with us up the Simplon Pass; helped
on by two extra horses.
"The beginning of the road was rather cheerful; having a good deal of
green pasturage, and some mountain villages; but it soon becomes
dreary and savage in aspect, and but for our bright sky and warm air,
would have been truly dismal. However, we gained gradually a distinct
and near view of several large glaciers; and reached at last the high
and melancholy valleys of the Upper Alps; where even the pines become
scanty, and no sound is heard but the wheels of one's carriage, except
when there happens to be a storm or an avalanche, neither of which
entertained us. There is, here and there, a small stream of water
pouring from the snow; but this is rather a monotonous accompaniment
to the general desolation than an interruption of it. The road itself
is certainly very good, and impresses one with a strong notion of
human power. But the common descriptions are much exaggerated; and
many of what the Guide-Books call 'galleries' are merely parts of the
road supported by a wall built against the rock, and have nothing like
a roof above them. The 'stupendous bridges,' as they are called,
might be packed, a dozen together, into one arch of London Bridge; and
they are seldom even very striking from the depth below. The roadway
is excellent, and kept in the best order. On the whole, I am very
glad to have travelled the most famous road in Europe, and to have had
delightful weather for doing so, as indeed we have had ever since we
left Lausanne. The Italian descent is greatly more remarkable than
the other side.
"We slept near the top, at the Village of Simplon, in a very fair and
well-warmed inn, close to a mountain stream, which is one of the great
ornaments of this side of the road. We have here passed into a region
of granite, from that of limestone, and what is called gneiss. The
valleys are sharper and closer,--like cracks in a hard and solid
mass;--and there is much more of the startling contrast of light and
shade, as well as more angular boldness of outline; to all which the
more abundant waters add a fresh and vivacious interest. Looking back
through one of these abysmal gorges, one sees two torrents dashing
together, the precipice and ridge on one side, pitch-black with shade;
and that on the other all flaming gold; while behind rises, in a huge
cone, one of the glacier summits of the chain. The stream at one's
feet rushes at a leap some two hundred feet down, and is bordered with
pines and beeches, struggling through a ruined world of clefts and
boulders. I never saw anything so much resembling some of the
_Circles_ described by Dante. From Simplon we made for Duomo
d'Ossola; having broken out, as through the mouth of a mine, into
green and fertile valleys full of vines and chestnuts, and white
villages,--in short, into sunshine and Italy.
"At this place we dismissed our Swiss voiturier, and took an Italian
one; who conveyed us to Omegna on the Lake of Orta; a place little
visited by English travellers, but which fully repaid us the trouble
of going there. We were lodged in a simple and even rude Italian inn;
where they cannot speak a word of French; where we occupied a
barn-like room, with a huge chimney fit to lodge a hundred ghosts,
whom we expelled by dint of a hot woodfire. There were two beds, and
as it happened good ones, in this strange old apartment; which was
adorned by pictures of Architecture, and by Heads of Saints, better
than many at the Royal Academy Exhibition, and which one paid nothing
for looking at. The thorough Italian character of the whole scene
amused us, much more than Meurice's at Paris would have done; for we
had voluble, commonplace good-humor, with the aspect and accessories
of a den of banditti.
"To-day we have seen the Lake of Orta, have walked for some miles
among its vineyards and chestnuts; and thence have come, by Baveno, to
this place;--having seen by the way, I believe, the most beautiful
part of the Lago Maggiore, and certainly the most cheerful, complete
and extended example of fine scenery I have ever fallen in with. Here
we are, much to my wonder,--for it seems too good to be true,--fairly
in Italy; and as yet my journey has been a pleasanter and more
instructive, and in point of health a more successful one, than I at
all imagined possible. Calvert and I go on as well as can be. I let
him have his way about natural science, and he only laughs benignly
when he thinks me absurd in my moral speculations. My only regrets
are caused by my separation from my family and friends, and by the
hurry I have been living in, which has prevented me doing any
work,--and compelled me to write to you at a good deal faster rate
than the _vapore_ moves on the Lago Maggiore. It will take me
to-morrow to Sesto Calende, whence we go to Varese. We shall not be
at Milan for some days. Write thither, if you are kind enough to
write at all, till I give you another address. Love to my Father.
"Your affectionate son,
Omitting Milan, Florence nearly all, and much about "Art," Michael
Angelo, and other aerial matters, here are some select terrestrial
glimpses, the fittest I can find, of his progress towards Rome:--
_To his Mother_.
"_Lucca, Nov. 27th_, 1838.--I had dreams, like other people, before I
came here, of what the Lombard Lakes must be; and the week I spent
among them has left me an image, not only more distinct, but far more
warm, shining and various, and more deeply attractive in innumerable
respects, than all I had before conceived of them. And so also it has
been with Florence; where I spent three weeks: enough for the first
hazy radiant dawn of sympathy to pass away; yet constantly adding an
increase of knowledge and of love, while I examined, and tried to
understand, the wonderful minds that have left behind them there such
abundant traces of their presence.... On Sunday, the day before I
left Florence, I went to the highest part of the Grand Duke's Garden
of Boboli, which commands a view of most of the City, and of the vale
of the Arno to the westward; where, as we had been visited by several
rainy days, and now at last had a very fine one, the whole prospect
was in its highest beauty. The mass of buildings, chiefly on the
other side of the River, is sufficient to fill the eye, without
perplexing the mind by vastness like that of London; and its name and
history, its outline and large and picturesque buildings, give it
grandeur of a higher order than that of mere multitudinous extent.
The Hills that border the Valley of the Arno are also very pleasing
and striking to look upon; and the view of the rich Plain, glimmering
away into blue distance, covered with an endless web of villages and
country-houses, is one of the most delightful images of human
well-being I have ever seen....
"Very shortly before leaving Florence, I went through the house of
Michael Angelo; which is still possessed by persons of the same
family, descendants, I believe, of his Nephew. There is in it his
'first work in marble,' as it is called; and a few drawings,--all with
the stamp of his enginery upon them, which was more powerful than all
the steam in London.... On the whole, though I have done no work in
Florence that can be of any use or pleasure to others, except my
Letters to my Wife,--I leave it with the certainty of much valuable
knowledge gained there, and with a most pleasant remembrance of the
busy and thoughtful days I owe to it.
"We left Florence before seven yesterday morning [26th November] for
this place; travelling on the northern side of the Arno, by Prato,
Pistoia, Pescia. We tried to see some old frescos in a Church at
Prato; but found the Priests all about, saying mass; and of course did
not venture to put our hands into a hive where the bees were buzzing
and on the wing. Pistoia we only coasted. A little on one side of
it, there is a Hill, the first on the road from Florence; which we
walked up, and had a very lively and brilliant prospect over the road
we had just travelled, and the town of Pistoia. Thence to this place
the whole land is beautiful, and in the highest degree prosperous,--in
short, to speak metaphorically, all dotted with Leghorn bonnets, and
streaming with olive-oil. The girls here are said to employ
themselves chiefly in platting straw, which is a profitable
employment; and the slightness and quiet of the work are said to be
much more favorable to beauty than the coarser kinds of labor
performed by the country-women elsewhere. Certain it is that I saw
more pretty women in Pescia, in the hour I spent there, than I ever
before met with among the same numbers of the 'phare sect.'
Wherefore, as a memorial of them, I bought there several Legends of
Female Saints and Martyrs, and of other Ladies quite the reverse, and
held up as warnings; all of which are written in _ottava rima_, and
sold for three halfpence apiece. But unhappily I have not yet had
time to read them. This Town has 30,000 inhabitants, and is
surrounded by Walls, laid out as walks, and evidently not at present
intended to be besieged,--for which reason, this morning, I merely
walked on them round the Town, and did not besiege them....
"The Cathedral [of Lucca] contains some Relics; which have undoubtedly
worked miracles on the imagination of the people hereabouts. The
Grandfather of all Relics (as the Arabs would say) in the place is the
_Volto Santo_, which is a Face of the Saviour appertaining to a wooden
Crucifix. Now you must know that, after the ascension of Christ,
Nicodemus was ordered by an Angel to carve an image of him; and went
accordingly with a hatchet, and cut down a cedar for that purpose. He
then proceeded to carve the figure; and being tired, fell asleep
before he had done the face; which however, on awaking, he found
completed by celestial aid. This image was brought to Lucca, from
Leghorn, I think, where it had arrived in a ship, 'more than a
thousand years ago,' and has ever since been kept, in purple and fine
linen and gold and diamonds, quietly working miracles. I saw the gilt
Shrine of it; and also a Hatchet which refused to cut off the head of
an innocent man, who had been condemned to death, and who prayed to
the _Volto Santo_. I suppose it is by way of economy (they being a
frugal people) that the Italians have their Book of Common Prayer and
their Arabian Nights' Entertainments condensed into one."
_To the Same_.
"_Pisa, December 2d_, 1838.--Pisa is very unfairly treated in all the
Books I have read. It seems to me a quiet, but very agreeable place;
with wide clean streets, and a look of stability and comfort; and I
admire the Cathedral and its appendages more, the more I see them.
The leaning of the Tower is to my eye decidedly unpleasant; but it is
a beautiful building nevertheless, and the view from the top is, under
a bright sky, remarkably lively and satisfactory. The Lucchese Hills
form a fine mass, and the sea must in clear weather be very distinct.
There was some haze over it when I was up, though the land was all
clear. I could just see the Leghorn Light-house. Leghorn itself I
shall not be able to visit....
"The quiet gracefulness of Italian life, and the mental maturity and
vigor of Germany, have a great charm when compared with the restless
whirl of England, and the chorus of mingled yells and groans sent up
by our parties and sects, and by the suffering and bewildered crowds
of the laboring people. Our politics make my heart ache, whenever I
think of them. The base selfish frenzies of factions seem to me, at
this distance, half diabolic; and I am out of the way of knowing
anything that may be quietly a-doing to elevate the standard of wise
and temperate manhood in the country, and to diffuse the means of
physical and moral well-being among all the people.... I will write
to my Father as soon as I can after reaching the capital of his friend
the Pope,--who, if he had happened to be born an English gentleman,
would no doubt by this time be a respectable old-gentlemanly gouty
member of the Carlton. I have often amused myself by thinking what a
mere accident it is that Phillpotts is not Archbishop of Tuam, and
M'Hale Bishop of Exeter; and how slight a change of dress, and of a
few catchwords, would even now enable them to fill those respective
posts with all the propriety and discretion they display in their
present positions."
At Rome he found the Crawfords, known to him long since; and at
different dates other English friends old and new; and was altogether
in the liveliest humor, no end to his activities and speculations. Of
all which, during the next four months, the Letters now before me give
abundant record,--far too abundant for our objects here. His grand
pursuit, as natural at Rome, was Art; into which metaphysical domain
we shall not follow him; preferring to pick out, here and there,
something of concrete and human. Of his interests, researches,
speculations and descriptions on this subject of Art, there is always
rather a superabundance, especially in the Italian Tour.
Unfortunately, in the hard weather, poor Calvert fell ill; and
Sterling, along with his Art-studies, distinguished himself as a
sick-nurse till his poor comrade got afoot again. His general
impressions of the scene and what it held for him may be read in the
following excerpts. The Letters are all dated _Rome_, and addressed
to his Father or Mother:--
"_December 21st_, 1838.--Of Rome itself, as a whole, there are
infinite things to be said, well worth saying; but I shall confine
myself to two remarks: first, that while the Monuments and works of
Art gain in wondrousness and significance by familiarity with them,
the actual life of Rome, the Papacy and its pride, lose; and though
one gets accustomed to Cardinals and Friars and Swiss Guards, and
ragged beggars and the finery of London and Paris, all rolling on
together, and sees how it is that they subsist in a sort of spurious
unity, one loses all tendency to idealize the Metropolis and System of
the Hierarchy into anything higher than a piece of showy
stage-declamation, at bottom, in our day, thoroughly mean and prosaic.
My other remark is, that Rome, seen from the tower of the Capitol,
from the Pincian or the Janiculum, is at this day one of the most
beautiful spectacles which eyes ever beheld. The company of great
domes rising from a mass of large and solid buildings, with a few
stone-pines and scattered edifices on the outskirts; the broken bare
Campagna all around; the Alban Hills not far, and the purple range of
Sabine Mountains in the distance with a cope of snow;--this seen in
the clear air, and the whole spiritualized by endless recollections,
and a sense of the grave and lofty reality of human existence which
has had this place for a main theatre, fills at once the eyes and
heart more forcibly, and to me delightfully, than I can find words to
"_January 22d_, 1839.--The Modern Rome, Pope and all inclusive, are a
shabby attempt at something adequate to fill the place of the old
Commonwealth. It is easy enough to live among them, and there is much
to amuse and even interest a spectator; but the native existence of
the place is now thin and hollow, and there is a stamp of littleness,
and childish poverty of taste, upon all the great Christian buildings
I have seen here,--not excepting St. Peter's; which is crammed with
bits of colored marble and gilding, and Gog-and-Magog colossal statues
of saints (looking prodigiously small), and mosaics from the worst
pictures in Rome; and has altogether, with most imposing size and
lavish splendor, a tang of Guildhall finery about it that contrasts
oddly with the melancholy vastness and simplicity of the Ancient
Monuments, though these have not the Athenian elegance. I recur
perpetually to the galleries of Sculpture in the Vatican, and to the
Frescos of Raffael and Michael Angelo, of inexhaustible beauty and
greatness, and to the general aspect of the City and the Country round
it, as the most impressive scene on earth. But the Modern City, with
its churches, palaces, priests and beggars, is far from sublime."
Of about the same date, here is another paragraph worth inserting:
"Gladstone has three little agate crosses which he will give you for
my little girls. Calvert bought them, as a present, for 'the bodies,'
at Martigny in Switzerland, and I have had no earlier opportunity of
sending them. Will you despatch them to Hastings when you have an
opportunity? I have not yet seen Gladstone's _Church and State_; but
as there is a copy in Rome, I hope soon to lay hands on it. I saw
yesterday in the _Times_ a furious, and I am sorry to say, most absurd
attack on him and it, and the new Oxonian school."
"_February 28th, 1839_.--There is among the people plenty of squalid
misery; though not nearly so much as, they say, exists in Ireland; and
here there is a certain freedom and freshness of manners, a dash of
Southern enjoyment in the condition of the meanest and most miserable.
There is, I suppose, as little as well can be of conscience or
artificial cultivation of any kind; but there is not the affectation
of a virtue which they do not possess, nor any feeling of being
despised for the want of it; and where life generally is so inert,
except as to its passions and material wants, there is not the bitter
consciousness of having been beaten by the more prosperous, in a race
which the greater number have never thought of running. Among the
laboring poor of Rome, a bribe will buy a crime; but if common work
procures enough for a day's food or idleness, ten times the sum will
not induce them to toil on, as an English workman would, for the sake
of rising in the world. Sixpence any day will put any of them at the
top of the only tree they care for,--that on which grows the fruit of
idleness. It is striking to see the way in which, in magnificent
churches, the most ragged beggars kneel on the pavement before some
favorite altar in the midst of well-dressed women and of gazing
foreigners. Or sometimes you will see one with a child come in from
the street where she has been begging, put herself in a corner, say a
prayer (probably for the success of her petitions), and then return to
beg again. There is wonderfully little of any moral strength
connected with this devotion; but still it is better than nothing, and
more than is often found among the men of the upper classes in Rome.
I believe the Clergy to be generally profligate, and the state of
domestic morals as bad as it has ever been represented."--
Or, in sudden contrast, take this other glance homeward; a Letter to
his eldest child; in which kind of Letters, more than in any other,
Sterling seems to me to excel. Readers recollect the hurricane in St.
Vincent; the hasty removal to a neighbor's house, and the birth of a
son there, soon after. The boy has grown to some articulation, during
these seven years; and his Father, from the new foreign scene of
Priests and Dilettanti, thus addresses him:--
"_To Master Edward C. Sterling, Hastings_.
"ROME, 21st January, 1839.
"MY DEAR EDWARD,--I was very glad to receive your Letter, which showed
me that you have learned something since I left home. If you knew how
much pleasure it gave me to see your handwriting, I am sure you would
take pains to be able to write well, that you might often send me
letters, and tell me a great many things which I should like to know
about Mamma and your Sisters as well as yourself.
"If I go to Vesuvius, I will try to carry away a bit of the lava,
which you wish for. There has lately been a great eruption, as it is
called, of that Mountain; which means a great breaking-out of hot
ashes and fire, and of melted stones which is called lava.
"Miss Clark is very kind to take so much pains with you; and I trust
you will show that you are obliged to her, by paying attention to all
she tells you. When you see how much more grown people know than you,
you ought to be anxious to learn all you can from those who teach you;
and as there are so many wise and good things written in Books, you
ought to try to read early and carefully; that you may learn something
of what God has made you able to know. There are Libraries containing
very many thousands of Volumes; and all that is written in these
is,--accounts of some part or other of the World which God has made,
or of the Thoughts which he has enabled men to have in their minds.
Some Books are descriptions of the earth itself, with its rocks and
ground and water, and of the air and clouds, and the stars and moon
and sun, which shine so beautifully in the sky. Some tell you about
the things that grow upon the ground; the many millions of plants,
from little mosses and threads of grass up to great trees and forests.
Some also contain accounts of living things: flies, worms, fishes,
birds and four-legged beasts. And some, which are the most, are about
men and their thoughts and doings. These are the most important of
all; for men are the best and most wonderful creatures of God in the
world; being the only ones able to know him and love him, and to try
of their own accord to do his will.
"These Books about men are also the most important to us, because we
ourselves are human beings, and may learn from such Books what we
ought to think and to do and to try to be. Some of them describe what
sort of people have lived in old times and in other countries. By
reading them, we know what is the difference between ourselves in
England now, and the famous nations which lived in former days. Such
were the Egyptians who built the Pyramids, which are the greatest
heaps of stone upon the face of the earth: and the Babylonians, who
had a city with huge walls, built of bricks, having writing on them
that no one in our time has been able to make out. There were also
the Jews, who were the only ancient people that knew how wonderful and
how good God is: and the Greeks, who were the wisest of all in
thinking about men's lives and hearts, and who knew best how to make
fine statues and buildings, and to write wise books. By Books also we
may learn what sort of people the old Romans were, whose chief city
was Rome, where I am now; and how brave and skilful they were in war;
and how well they could govern and teach many nations which they had
conquered. It is from Books, too, that you must learn what kind of
men were our Ancestors in the Northern part of Europe, who belonged to
the tribes that did the most towards pulling down the power of the
Romans: and you will see in the same way how Christianity was sent
among them by God, to make them wiser and more peaceful, and more
noble in their minds; and how all the nations that now are in Europe,
and especially the Italians and the Germans, and the French and the
English, came to be what they now are.--It is well worth knowing (and
it can be known only by reading) how the Germans found out the
Printing of Books, and what great changes this has made in the world.
And everybody in England ought to try to understand how the English
came to have their Parliaments and Laws; and to have fleets that sail
over all seas of the world.
"Besides learning all these things, and a great many more about
different times and countries, you may learn from Books, what is the
truth of God's will, and what are the best and wisest thoughts, and
the most beautiful words; and how men are able to lead very right
lives, and to do a great deal to better the world. I have spent a
great part of my life in reading; and I hope you will come to like it
as much as I do, and to learn in this way all that I know.
"But it is a still more serious matter that you should try to be
obedient and gentle; and to command your temper; and to think of other
people's pleasure rather than your own, and of what you _ought_ to do
rather than what you _like_. If you try to be better for all you
read, as well as wiser, you will find Books a great help towards
goodness as well as knowledge, and above all other Books, the Bible;
which tells us of the will of God, and of the love of Jesus Christ
towards God and men.
"I had a Letter from Mamma to-day, which left Hastings on the 10th of
this month. I was very glad to find in it that you were all well and
happy; but I know Mamma is not well, and is likely to be more
uncomfortable every day for some time. So I hope you will all take
care to give her as little trouble as possible. After sending you so
much advice, I shall write a little Story to divert you.--I am, my
dear Boy,
"Your affectionate Father,
The "Story" is lost, destroyed, as are many such which Sterling wrote,
with great felicity, I am told, and much to the satisfaction of the
young folk, when the humor took him.
Besides these plentiful communications still left, I remember long
Letters, not now extant, principally addressed to his Wife, of which
we and the circle at Knightsbridge had due perusal, treating with
animated copiousness about all manner of picture-galleries, pictures,
statues and objects of Art at Rome, and on the road to Rome and from
it, wheresoever his course led him into neighborhood of such objects.
That was Sterling's habit. It is expected in this Nineteenth Century
that a man of culture shall understand and worship Art: among the
windy gospels addressed to our poor Century there are few louder than
this of Art;--and if the Century expects that every man shall do his
duty, surely Sterling was not the man to balk it! Various extracts
from these picture-surveys are given in Hare; the others, I suppose,
Sterling himself subsequently destroyed, not valuing them much.
Certainly no stranger could address himself more eagerly to reap what
artistic harvest Rome offers, which is reckoned the peculiar produce
of Rome among cities under the sun; to all galleries, churches,
sistine chapels, ruins, coliseums, and artistic or dilettante shrines
he zealously pilgrimed; and had much to say then and afterwards, and
with real technical and historical knowledge I believe, about the
objects of devotion there. But it often struck me as a question,
Whether all this even to himself was not, more or less, a nebulous
kind of element; prescribed not by Nature and her verities, but by the
Century expecting every man to do his duty? Whether not perhaps, in
good part, temporary dilettante cloudland of our poor Century;--or can
it be the real diviner Pisgah height, and everlasting mount of vision,
for man's soul in any Century? And I think Sterling himself bent
towards a negative conclusion, in the course of years. Certainly, of
all subjects this was the one I cared least to hear even Sterling talk
of: indeed it is a subject on which earnest men, abhorrent of
hypocrisy and speech that has no meaning, are admonished to silence in
this sad time, and had better, in such a Babel as we have got into for
the present, "perambulate their picture-gallery with little or no
Here is another and to me much more earnest kind of "Art," which
renders Rome unique among the cities of the world; of this we will, in
preference; take a glance through Sterling's eyes:--
"January 22d, 1839.--On Friday last there was a great Festival at St.
Peter's; the only one I have seen. The Church was decorated with
crimson hangings, and the choir fitted up with seats and galleries,
and a throne for the Pope. There were perhaps a couple of hundred
guards of different kinds; and three or four hundred English ladies,
and not so many foreign male spectators; so that the place looked
empty. The Cardinals in scarlet, and Monsignori in purple, were
there; and a body of officiating Clergy. The Pope was carried in in
his chair on men's shoulders, wearing the Triple Crown; which I have
thus actually seen: it is something like a gigantic Egg, and of the
same color, with three little bands of gold,--very large Egg-shell
with three streaks of the yolk smeared round it. He was dressed in
white silk robes, with gold trimmings.
"It was a fine piece of state-show; though, as there are three or four
such Festivals yearly, of course there is none of the eager interest
which breaks out at coronations and similar rare events; no explosion
of unwonted velvets, jewels, carriages and footmen, such as London and
Milan have lately enjoyed. I guessed all the people in St. Peter's,
including performers and spectators, at 2,000; where 20,000 would
hardly have been a crushing crowd. Mass was performed, and a stupid
but short Latin sermon delivered by a lad, in honor of St. Peter, who
would have been much astonished if he could have heard it. The
genuflections, and train-bearings, and folding up the tails of silk
petticoats while the Pontiff knelt, and the train of Cardinals going
up to kiss his Ring, and so forth,--made on me the impression of
something immeasurably old and sepulchral, such as might suit the
Grand Lama's court, or the inside of an Egyptian Pyramid; or as if the
Hieroglyphics on one of the Obelisks here should begin to pace and
gesticulate, and nod their bestial heads upon the granite tablets.
The careless bystanders, the London ladies with their eye-glasses and
look of an Opera-box, the yawning young gentlemen of the _Guarda
Nobile_, and the laugh of one of the file of vermilion Priests round
the steps of the altar at the whispered good thing of his neighbor,
brought one back to nothing indeed of a very lofty kind, but still to
the Nineteenth Century."--
"At the great Benediction of the City and the World on Easter Sunday
by the Pope," he writes afterwards, "there was a large crowd both
native and foreign, hundreds of carriages, and thousands of the lower
orders of people from the country; but even of the poor hardly one in
twenty took off his hat, and a still smaller number knelt down. A few
years ago, not a head was covered, nor was there a knee which did not
bow."--A very decadent "Holiness of our Lord the Pope," it would
Sterling's view of the Pope, as seen in these his gala days, doing his
big play-actorism under God's earnest sky, was much more substantial
to me than his studies in the picture-galleries. To Mr. Hare also he
writes: "I have seen the Pope in all his pomp at St. Peter's; and he
looked to me a mere lie in livery. The Romish Controversy is
doubtless a much more difficult one than the managers of the
Religious-Tract Society fancy, because it is a theoretical dispute;
and in dealing with notions and authorities, I can quite understand
how a mere student in a library, with no eye for facts, should take
either one side or other. But how any man with clear head and honest
heart, and capable of seeing realities, and distinguishing them from
scenic falsehoods, should, after living in a Romanist country, and
especially at Rome, be inclined to side with Leo against Luther, I
cannot understand."[20]
It is fit surely to recognize with admiring joy any glimpse of the
Beautiful and the Eternal that is hung out for us, in color, in form
or tone, in canvas, stone, or atmospheric air, and made accessible by
any sense, in this world: but it is greatly fitter still (little as
we are used that way) to shudder in pity and abhorrence over the
scandalous tragedy, transcendent nadir of human ugliness and
contemptibility, which under the daring title of religious worship,
and practical recognition of the Highest God, daily and hourly
everywhere transacts itself there. And, alas, not there only, but
elsewhere, everywhere more or less; whereby our sense is so blunted to
it;--whence, in all provinces of human life, these tears!--
But let us take a glance at the Carnival, since we are here. The
Letters, as before, are addressed to Knightsbridge; the date _Rome_:--
"_February 5th_, 1839.--The Carnival began yesterday. It is a curious
example of the trifling things which will heartily amuse tens of
thousands of grown people, precisely because they are trifling, and
therefore a relief from serious business, cares and labors. The Corso
is a street about a mile long, and about as broad as Jermyn Street;
but bordered by much loftier houses, with many palaces and churches,
and has two or three small squares opening into it. Carriages, mostly
open, drove up and down it for two or three hours; and the contents
were shot at with handfuls of comfits from the windows,--in the hope
of making them as non-content as possible,--while they returned the
fire to the best of their inferior ability. The populace, among whom
was I, walked about; perhaps one in fifty were masked in character;
but there was little in the masquerade either of splendor of costume
or liveliness of mimicry. However, the whole scene was very gay;
there were a good many troops about, and some of them heavy dragoons,
who flourished their swords with the magnanimity of our Life-Guards,
to repel the encroachments of too ambitious little boys. Most of the
windows and balconies were hung with colored drapery; and there were
flags, trumpets, nosegays and flirtations of all shapes and sizes.
The best of all was, that there was laughter enough to have frightened
Cassius out of his thin carcass, could the lean old homicide have been
present, otherwise than as a fleshless ghost;--in which capacity I
thought I had a glimpse of him looking over the shoulder of a
particolored clown, in a carriage full of London Cockneys driving
towards the Capitol. This good-humored foolery will go on for several
days to come, ending always with the celebrated Horse-race, of horses
without riders. The long street is cleared in the centre by troops,
and half a dozen quadrupeds, ornamented like Grimaldi in a London
pantomime, scamper away, with the mob closing and roaring at their
"_February_ 9th, 1839.--The usual state of Rome is quiet and sober.
One could almost fancy the actual generation held their breath, and
stole by on tiptoe, in presence of so memorable a past. But during
the Carnival all mankind, womankind and childkind think it unbecoming
not to play the fool. The modern donkey pokes its head out of the
lion's skin of old Rome, and brays out the absurdest of asinine
roundelays. Conceive twenty thousand grown people in a long street,
at the windows, on the footways, and in carriages, amused day after
day for several hours in pelting and being pelted with handfuls of
mock or real sugar-plums; and this no name or presence, but real
downright showers of plaster comfits, from which people guard their
eyes with meshes of wire. As sure as a carriage passes under a window
or balcony where are acquaintances of theirs, down comes a shower of
hail, ineffectually returned from below. The parties in two crossing
carriages similarly assault each other; and there are long balconies
hung the whole way with a deep canvas pocket full of this mortal shot.
One Russian Grand Duke goes with a troop of youngsters in a wagon, all
dressed in brown linen frocks and masked, and pelts among the most
furious, also being pelted. The children are of course preeminently
vigorous, and there is a considerable circulation of real sugar-plums,
which supply consolation for all disappointments."
The whole to conclude, as is proper, with a display, with two
displays, of fireworks; in which art, as in some others, Rome is
"_February 9th_, 1839.--It seems to be the ambition of all the lower
classes to wear a mask and showy grotesque disguise of some kind; and
I believe many of the upper ranks do the same. They even put St.
Peter's into masquerade; and make it a Cathedral of Lamplight instead
of a stone one. Two evenings ago this feat was performed; and I was
able to see it from the rooms of a friend near this, which command an
excellent view of it. I never saw so beautiful an effect of
artificial light. The evening was perfectly serene and clear; the
principal lines of the building, the columns, architrave and pediment
of the front, the two inferior cupolas, the curves of the dome from
which the dome rises, the ribs of the dome itself, the small oriel
windows between them, and the lantern and ball and cross,--all were
delineated in the clear vault of air by lines of pale yellow fire.
The dome of another great Church, much nearer to the eye, stood up as
a great black mass,--a funereal contrast to the luminous tabernacle.
"While I was looking at this latter, a red blaze burst from the
summit, and at the same moment seemed to flash over the whole
building, filling up the pale outline with a simultaneous burst of
fire. This is a celebrated display; and is done, I believe, by the
employment of a very great number of men to light, at the same
instant, the torches which are fixed for the purpose all over the
building. After the first glare of fire, I did not think the second
aspect of the building so beautiful as the first; it wanted both
softness and distinctness. The two most animated days of the Carnival
are still to come."
"_April 4th_, 1839.--We have just come to the termination of all the
Easter spectacles here. On Sunday evening St. Peter's was a second
time illuminated; I was in the Piazza, and admired the sight from a
nearer point than when I had seen it before at the time of the
"On Monday evening the celebrated fire-works were let off from the
Castle of St. Angelo; they were said to be, in some respects more
brilliant than usual. I certainly never saw any fireworks comparable
to them for beauty. The Girandola is a discharge of many thousands of
rockets at once, which of course fall back, like the leaves of a lily,
and form for a minute a very beautiful picture. There was also in
silvery light a very long Facade of a Palace, which looked a residence
for Oberon and Titania, and beat Aladdin's into darkness. Afterwards
a series of cascades of red fire poured down the faces of the Castle
and of the scaffoldings round it, and seemed a burning Niagara. Of
course there were abundance of serpents, wheels and cannon-shot; there
was also a display of dazzling white light, which made a strange
appearance on the houses, the river, the bridge, and the faces of the
multitude. The whole ended with a second and a more splendid
Take finally, to people the scene a little for us, if our imagination
be at all lively, these three small entries, of different dates, and
so wind up:--
"_December 30th_, 1838.--I received on Christmas-day a packet from Dr.
Carlyle, containing Letters from the Maurices; which were a very
pleasant arrival. The Dr. wrote a few lines with them, mentioning
that he was only at Civita Vecchia while the steamer baited on its way
to Naples. I have written to thank him for his despatches."
"_March 16th_, 1839.--I have seen a good deal of John Mill, whose
society I like much. He enters heartily into the interest of the
things which I most care for here, and I have seldom had more pleasure
than in taking him to see Raffael's Loggie, where are the Frescos
called his Bible, and to the Sixtine Chapel, which I admire and love
more and more. He is in very weak health, but as fresh and clear in
mind as possible.... English politics seem in a queer state, the
Conservatives creeping on, the Whigs losing ground; like combatants on
the top of a breach, while there is a social mine below which will
probably blow both parties into the air."
"_April 4th_, 1839.--I walked out on Tuesday on the Ancona Road, and
about noon met a travelling carriage, which from a distance looked
very suspicious, and on nearer approach was found really to contain
Captain Sterling and an Albanian manservant on the front, and behind
under the hood Mrs. A. Sterling and the she portion of the tail. They
seemed very well; and, having turned the Albanian back to the rear of
the whole machine, I sat by Anthony, and entered Rome in
triumph."--Here is indeed a conquest! Captain A. Sterling, now on his
return from service in Corfu, meets his Brother in this manner; and
the remaining Roman days are of a brighter complexion. As these
suddenly ended, I believe he turned southward, and found at Naples the
Dr. Carlyle above mentioned (an extremely intimate acquaintance of
mine), who was still there. For we are a most travelling people, we
of this Island in this time; and, as the Prophet threatened, see
ourselves, in so many senses, made "like unto a wheel!"--
Sterling returned from Italy filled with much cheerful imagery and
reminiscence, and great store of artistic, serious, dilettante and
other speculation for the time; improved in health, too; but probably
little enriched in real culture or spiritual strength; and indeed not
permanently altered by his tour in any respect to a sensible extent,
that one could notice. He returned rather in haste, and before the
expected time; summoned, about the middle of April, by his Wife's
domestic situation at Hastings; who, poor lady, had been brought to
bed before her calculation, and had in few days lost her infant; and
now saw a household round her much needing the master's presence. He
hurried off to Malta, dreading the Alps at that season; and came home,
by steamer, with all speed, early in May, 1839.
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
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
"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 extensive 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
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.
As we said above, it had been hoped by Sterling's friends, not very
confidently by himself, that in the gentler air of Clifton his health
might so far recover as to enable him to dispense with autumnal
voyages, and to spend the year all round in a house of his own. These
hopes, favorable while the warm season lasted, broke down when winter
came. In November of this same year, while his little Volume was
passing through the press, bad and worse symptoms, spitting of blood
to crown the sad list, reappeared; and Sterling had to equip himself
again, at this late season, for a new flight to Madeira; wherein the
good Calvert, himself suffering, and ready on all grounds for such an
adventure, offered to accompany him. Sterling went by land to
Falmouth, meaning there to wait for Calvert, who was to come by the
Madeira Packet, and there take him on board.
Calvert and the Packet did arrive, in stormy January weather; which
continued wildly blowing for weeks; forbidding all egress Westward,
especially for invalids. These elemental tumults, and blustering wars
of sea and sky, with nothing but the misty solitude of Madeira in the
distance, formed a very discouraging outlook. In the mean while
Falmouth itself had offered so many resources, and seemed so tolerable
in climate and otherwise, while this wintry ocean looked so
inhospitable for invalids, it was resolved our voyagers should stay
where they were till spring returned. Which accordingly was done;
with good effect for that season, and also with results for the coming
seasons. Here again, from Letters to Knightsbridge, are some glimpses
of his winter-life:--
"_Falmouth, February 5th_, 1840.--I have been to-day to see a new
tin-mine, two or three miles off, which is expected to turn into a
copper-mine by and by, so they will have the two constituents of
bronze close together. This, by the way, was the 'brass' of Homer and
the Ancients generally, who do not seem to have known our brass made
of copper and zinc. Achilles in his armor must have looked like a
bronze statue.--I took Sheridan's advice, and did not go down the
"_February 15th_.--To some iron-works the other day; where I saw half
the beam of a great steam-engine, a piece of iron forty feet long and
seven broad, cast in about five minutes. It was a very striking
spectacle. I hope to go to Penzance before I leave this country, and
will not fail to tell you about it." He did make trial of Penzance,
among other places, next year; but only of Falmouth this.
"_February 20th_.--I am going on _asy_ here, in spite of a great
change of weather. The East-winds are come at last, bringing with
them snow, which has been driving about for the last twenty-four
hours; not falling heavily, nor lying long when fallen. Neither is it
as yet very cold, but I suppose there will be some six weeks of
unpleasant temperature. The marine climate of this part of England
will, no doubt, modify and mollify the air into a happier sort of
substance than that you breathe in London.
"The large vessels that had been lying here for weeks, waiting for a
wind, have now sailed; two of them for the East Indies, and having
three hundred soldiers on board. It is a curious thing that the
long-continued westerly winds had so prevented the coasters arriving,
that the Town was almost on the point of a famine as to bread. The
change has brought in abundance of flour.--The people in general seem
extremely comfortable; their houses are excellent, almost all of
stone. Their habits are very little agricultural, but mining and
fishing seem to prosper with them. There are hardly any gentry here;
I have not seen more than two gentlemen's carriages in the Town;
indeed I think the nearest one comes from five miles off....
"I have been obliged to try to occupy myself with Natural Science, in
order to give some interest to my walks; and have begun to feel my way
in Geology. I have now learnt to recognize three or four of the
common kinds of stone about here, when I see them; but I find it
stupid work compared with Poetry and Philosophy. In the mornings,
however, for an hour or so before I get up, I generally light my
candle, and try to write some verses; and since I have been here, I
have put together short poems, almost enough for another small volume.
In the evenings I have gone on translating some of Goethe. But six or
seven hours spent on my legs, in the open air, do not leave my brain
much energy for thinking. Thus my life is a dull and unprofitable
one, but still better than it would have been in Madeira or on board
ship. I hear from Susan every day, and write to her by return of
At Falmouth Sterling had been warmly welcomed by the well-known Quaker
family of the Foxes, principal people in that place, persons of
cultivated opulent habits, and joining to the fine purities and
pieties of their sect a reverence for human intelligence in all kinds;
to whom such a visitor as Sterling was naturally a welcome windfall.
The family had grave elders, bright cheery younger branches, men and
women; truly amiable all, after their sort: they made a pleasant
image of home for Sterling in his winter exile. "Most worthy,
respectable and highly cultivated people, with a great deal of money
among them," writes Sterling in the end of February; "who make the
place pleasant to me. They are connected with all the large Quaker
circle, the Gurneys, Frys, &c., and also with Buxton the Abolitionist.
It is droll to hear them talking of all the common topics of science,
literature, and life, and in the midst of it: 'Does thou know
Wordsworth?' or, 'Did thou see the Coronation?' or 'Will thou take
some refreshment?' They are very kind and pleasant people to know."
"Calvert," continues our Diarist, "is better than he lately was,
though he has not been at all laid up. He shoots little birds, and
dissects and stuffs them; while I carry a hammer, and break flints and
slates, to look for diamonds and rubies inside; and admire my success
in the evening, when I empty my great-coat pocket of its specimens.
On the whole, I doubt whether my physical proceedings will set the
Thames on fire. Give my love to Anthony's Charlotte; also remember me
affectionately to the Carlyles."--
At this time, too, John Mill, probably encouraged by Sterling, arrived
in Falmouth, seeking refuge of climate for a sickly younger Brother,
to whom also, while he continued there, and to his poor patient, the
doors and hearts of this kind family were thrown wide open. Falmouth,
during these winter weeks, especially while Mill continued, was an
unexpectedly engaging place to Sterling; and he left it in spring, for
Clifton, with a very kindly image of it in his thoughts. So ended,
better than it might have done, his first year's flight from the
Clifton winter.
In April, 1840, he was at his own hearth again; cheerily pursuing his
old labors,--struggling to redeem, as he did with a gallant constancy,
the available months and days, out of the wreck of so many that were
unavailable, for the business allotted him in this world. His swift,
decisive energy of character; the valiant rally he made again and ever
again, starting up fresh from amid the wounded, and cheerily storming
in anew, was admirable, and showed a noble fund of natural health amid
such an element of disease. Somehow one could never rightly fancy
that he was diseased; that those fatal ever-recurring downbreaks were
not almost rather the penalties paid for exuberance of health, and of
faculty for living and working; criminal forfeitures, incurred by
excess of self-exertion and such irrepressible over-rapidity of
movement: and the vague hope was habitual with us, that increase of
years, as it deadened this over-energy, would first make the man
secure of life, and a sober prosperous worker among his fellows. It
was always as if with a kind of blame that one heard of his being ill
again! Poor Sterling;--no man knows another's burden: these things
were not, and were not to be, in the way we had fancied them!
Summer went along in its usual quiet tenor at Clifton; health good, as
usual while the warm weather lasted, and activity abundant; the scene
as still as the busiest could wish. "You metropolitan signors,"
writes Sterling to his Father, "cannot conceive the dulness and
scantiness of our provincial chronicle." Here is a little excursion
to the seaside; the lady of the family being again,--for good
reasons,--in a weakly state:--
"_To Edward Sterling, Esq., Knightsbridge, London_.
"PORTSHEAD, BRISTOL, 1st Sept., 1840.
"MY DEAR FATHER,--This place is a southern headland at the mouth of
the Avon. Susan, and the Children too, were all suffering from
languor; and as she is quite unfit to travel in a carriage, we were
obliged to move, if at all, to some place accessible by water; and
this is the nearest where we could get the fresher air of the Bristol
Channel. We sent to take a house, for a week; and came down here in a
steamer yesterday morning. It seems likely to do every one good. We
have a comfortable house, with eight rather small bedrooms, for which
we pay four guineas and a half for the week. We have brought three of
our own maids, and leave one to take care of the house at Clifton.
"A week ago my horse fell with me, but did not hurt seriously either
himself or me: it was, however, rather hard that, as there were six
legs to be damaged, the one that did scratch itself should belong to
the part of the machine possessing only two, instead of the
quadrupedal portion. I grazed about the size of a halfpenny on my
left knee; and for a couple of days walked about as if nothing had
happened. I found, however, that the skin was not returning
correctly; and so sent for a doctor: he treated the thing as quite
insignificant, but said I must keep my leg quiet for a few days. It
is still not quite healed; and I lie all day on a sofa, much to my
discomposure; but the thing is now rapidly disappearing; and I hope,
in a day or two more, I shall be free again. I find I can do no work,
while thus crippled in my leg. The man in Horace who made verses
_stans pede in uno_ had the advantage of me.
"The Great Western came in last night about eleven, and has just been
making a flourish past our windows; looking very grand, with four
streamers of bunting, and one of smoke. Of course I do not yet know
whether I have Letters by her, as if so they will have gone to Clifton
first. This place is quiet, green and pleasant; and will suit us very
well, if we have good weather, of which there seems every appearance.
"Milnes spent last Sunday with me at Clifton; and was very amusing and
cordial. It is impossible for those who know him well not to like
him.--I send this to Knightsbridge, not knowing where else to hit you.
Love to my Mother.
"Your affectionate,
The expected "Letters by the Great Western" are from Anthony, now in
Canada, doing military duties there. The "Milnes" is our excellent
Richard, whom all men know, and truly whom none can know well without
even doing as Sterling says.--In a week the family had returned to
Clifton; and Sterling was at his poetizings and equitations again.
His grand business was now Poetry; all effort, outlook and aim
exclusively directed thither, this good while.
Of the published Volume Moxon gave the worst tidings; no man had
hailed it with welcome; unsold it lay, under the leaden seal of
general neglect; the public when asked what it thought, had answered
hitherto by a lazy stare. It shall answer otherwise, thought
Sterling; by no means taking that as the final response. It was in
this same September that he announced to me and other friends, under
seal of secrecy as usual, the completion, or complete first-draught,
of "a new Poem reaching to two thousand verses." By working "three
hours every morning" he had brought it so far. This Piece, entitled
_The Election_, of which in due time we obtained perusal, and had to
give some judgment, proved to be in a new vein,--what might be called
the mock-heroic, or sentimental Hudibrastic, reminding one a little,
too, of Wieland's _Oberon_;--it had touches of true drollery combined
not ill with grave clear insight; showed spirit everywhere, and a
plainly improved power of execution. Our stingy verdict was to the
effect, "Better, but still not good enough:--why follow that sad
'metrical' course, climbing the loose sandhills, when you have a firm
path along the plain?" To Sterling himself it remained dubious
whether so slight a strain, new though it were, would suffice to
awaken the sleeping public; and the Piece was thrown away and taken up
again, at intervals; and the question, Publish or not publish? lay
many months undecided.
Meanwhile his own feeling was now set more and more towards Poetry;
and in spite of symptoms and dissuasions, and perverse prognostics of
outward wind and weather, he was rallying all his force for a
downright struggle with it; resolute to see which _was_ the stronger.
It must be owned, he takes his failures in the kindliest manner; and
goes along, bating no jot of heart or hope. Perhaps I should have
more admired this than I did! My dissuasions, in that case, might
have been fainter. But then my sincerity, which was all the use of my
poor counsel in assent or dissent, would have been less. He was now
furthermore busy with a _Tragedy of Strafford_, the theme of many
failures in Tragedy; planning it industriously in his head; eagerly
reading in _Whitlocke, Rushworth_ and the Puritan Books, to attain a
vesture and local habitation for it. Faithful assiduous studies I do
believe;--of which, knowing my stubborn realism, and savage humor
towards singing by the Thespian or other methods, he told me little,
during his visits that summer.
The advance of the dark weather sent him adrift again; to Torquay, for
this winter: there, in his old Falmouth climate, he hoped to do
well;--and did, so far as well-doing was readily possible, in that sad
wandering way of life. However, be where he may, he tries to work
"two or three hours in the morning," were it even "with a lamp," in
bed, before the fires are lit; and so makes something of it. From
abundant Letters of his now before me, I glean these two or three
small glimpses; sufficient for our purpose at present. The general
date is "Tor, near Torquay:"--
_To Mrs. Charles Fox, Falmouth_.
_Tor, November 30th_, 1840.--I reached this place on Thursday; having,
after much hesitation, resolved to come here, at least for the next
three weeks,--with some obscure purpose of embarking, at the New Year,
from Falmouth for Malta, and so reaching Naples, which I have not
seen. There was also a doubt whether I should not, after Christmas,
bring my family here for the first four months of the year. All this,
however, is still doubtful. But for certain inhabitants of Falmouth
and its neighborhood, this place would be far more attractive than it.
But I have here also friends, whose kindness, like much that I met
with last winter, perpetually makes me wonder at the stock of
benignity in human nature. A brother of my friend Julius Hare, Marcus
by name, a Naval man, and though not a man of letters, full of sense
and knowledge, lives here in a beautiful place, with a most agreeable
and excellent wife, a daughter of Lord Stanley of Alderley. I had
hardly seen them before; but they are fraternizing with me, in a much
better than the Jacobin fashion; and one only feels ashamed at the
enormity of some people's good-nature. I am in a little rural sort of
lodging; and as comfortable as a solitary oyster can expect to be."--
_To C. Barton_.
"_December 5th_.--This place is extremely small, much more so than
Falmouth even; but pretty, cheerful, and very mild in climate. There
are a great many villas in and about the little Town, having three or
four reception-rooms, eight or ten bedrooms; and costing about fifteen
hundred or two thousand pounds each, and occupied by persons spending
a thousand or more pounds a year. If the Country would acknowledge my
merits by the gift of one of these, I could prevail on myself to come
and live here; which would be the best move for my health I could make
in England; but, in the absence of any such expression of public
feeling, it would come rather dear."--
_To Mrs. Fox again_.
"_December 22d_.--By the way, did you ever read a Novel? If you ever
mean to do so hereafter, let it be Miss Martineau's _Deerbrook_. It
is really very striking; and parts of it are very true and very
beautiful. It is not so true, or so thoroughly clear and harmonious,
among delineations of English middle-class gentility, as Miss Austen's
books, especially as _Pride and Prejudice_, which I think exquisite;
but it is worth reading. _The hour and the Man_ is eloquent, but an
absurd exaggeration.--I hold out so valorously against this
Scandinavian weather, that I deserve to be ranked with Odin and Thor;
and fancy I may go to live at Clifton or Drontheim. Have you had the
same icy desolation as prevails here?"
_To W. Coningham, Esq_.
"_December 28th_.--Looking back to him [a deceased Uncle, father of
his correspondent], as I now very often do, I feel strongly, what the
loss of other friends has also impressed on me, how much Death deepens
our affection; and sharpens our regret for whatever has been even
slightly amiss in our conduct towards those who are gone. What
trifles then swell into painful importance; how we believe that, could
the past be recalled, life would present no worthier, happier task,
than that of so bearing ourselves towards those we love, that we might
ever after find nothing but melodious tranquillity breathing about
their graves! Yet, too often, I feel the difficulty of always
practicing such mild wisdom towards those who are still left me.--You
will wonder less at my rambling off in this way, when I tell you that
my little lodging is close to a picturesque old Church and Churchyard,
where, every day, I brush past a tombstone, recording that an Italian,
of Manferrato, has buried there a girl of sixteen, his only daughter:
_'L' unica speranza di mia vita_.'--No doubt, as you say, our
Mechanical Age is necessary as a passage to something better; but, at
least, do not let us go back."--
At the New-year time, feeling unusually well, he returns to Clifton.
His plans, of course, were ever fluctuating; his movements were swift
and uncertain. Alas, his whole life, especially his winter-life, had
to be built as if on wavering drift-sand; nothing certain in it,
except if possible the "two or three hours of work" snatched from the
general whirlpool of the dubious four-and-twenty!
_To Dr. Carlyle_.
"_Clifton, January 10th_, 1841.--I stood the sharp frost at Torquay
with such entire impunity, that at last I took courage, and resolved
to return home. I have been here a week, in extreme cold; and have
suffered not at all; so that I hope, with care I may prosper in spite
of medical prognostics,--if you permit such profane language. I am
even able to work a good deal; and write for some hours every morning,
by dint of getting up early, which an Arnott stove in my study enables
me to do."--But at Clifton he cannot continue. Again, before long,
the rude weather has driven him Southward; the spring finds him in his
former haunts; doubtful as ever what to decide upon for the future;
but tending evidently towards a new change of residence for household
and self:--
_To W. Coningham, Esq_.
"_Penzance, April 19th_, 1841.--My little Boy and I have been
wandering about between Torquay and this place; and latterly have had
my Father for a few days with us,--he left us yesterday. In all
probability I shall endeavor to settle either at Torquay, at Falmouth,
or here; as it is pretty clear that I cannot stand the sharp air of
Clifton, and still less the London east-winds. Penzance is, on the
whole, a pleasant-looking, cheerful place; with a delightful mildness
of air, and a great appearance of comfort among the people: the view
of Mount's Bay is certainly a very noble one. Torquay would suit the
health of my Wife and Children better; or else I should be glad to
live here always, London and its neighborhood being
impracticable."--Such was his second wandering winter; enough to
render the prospect of a third at Clifton very uninviting.
With the Falmouth friends, young and old, his intercourse had
meanwhile continued cordial and frequent. The omens were pointing
towards that region at his next place of abode. Accordingly, in few
weeks hence, in the June of this Summer, 1841, his dubitations and
inquirings are again ended for a time; he has fixed upon a house in
Falmouth, and removed thither; bidding Clifton, and the regretful
Clifton friends, a kind farewell. This was the _fifth_ change of
place for his family since Bayswater; the fifth, and to one chief
member of it the last. Mrs. Sterling had brought him a new child in
October last; and went hopefully to Falmouth, dreading _other_ than
what befell there.
At Falmouth, as usual, he was soon at home in his new environment;
resumed his labors; had his new small circle of acquaintance, the
ready and constant centre of which was the Fox family, with whom he
lived on an altogether intimate, honored and beloved footing;
realizing his best anticipations in that respect, which doubtless were
among his first inducements to settle in this new place. Open cheery
heights, rather bare of wood: fresh southwestern breezes; a brisk
laughing sea, swept by industrious sails, and the nets of a most
stalwart, wholesome, frank and interesting population: the clean
little fishing, trading and packet Town; hanging on its slope towards
the Eastern sun, close on the waters of its basin and intricate
bay,--with the miniature Pendennis Castle seaward on the right, the
miniature St. Mawes landward to left, and the mining world and the
farming world open boundlessly to the rear:--all this made a pleasant
outlook and environment. And in all this, as in the other new
elements of his position, Sterling, open beyond most men to the worth
of things about him, took his frank share. From the first, he had
liked the general aspect of the population, and their healthy, lively
ways; not to speak of the special friendships he had formed there,
which shed a charm over them all. "Men of strong character, clear
heads and genuine goodness," writes he, "are by no means wanting."
And long after: "The common people here dress better than in most
parts of England; and on Sundays, if the weather be at all fine, their
appearance is very pleasant. One sees them all round the Town,
especially towards Pendennis Castle, streaming in a succession of
little groups, and seeming for the most part really and quietly
happy." On the whole he reckoned himself lucky; and, so far as
locality went, found this a handsome shelter for the next two years of
his life. Two years, and not without an interruption; that was all.
Here we have no continuing city; he less than any of us! One other
flight for shelter; and then it is ended, and he has found an
inexpugnable refuge. Let us trace his remote footsteps, as we have
_To Dr. Symonds, Clifton_.
"_Falmouth, June 28th_, 1841.--Newman writes to me that he is gone to
the Rhine. I wish I were! And yet the only 'wish' at the bottom of
my heart, is to be able to work vigorously in my own way anywhere,
were it in some Circle of Dante's Inferno. This, however, is the
secret of my soul, which I disclose only to a few."
_To his Mother_.
"_Falmouth, July 6th_, 1841.--I have at last my own study made
comfortable; the carpet being now laid down, and most of my
appurtenances in tolerable order. By and by I shall, unless stopped
by illness, get myself together, and begin living an orderly life and
doing my daily task. I have swung a cot in my dressing-room; partly
as a convenience for myself, partly as a sort of memorial of my poor
Uncle, in whose cot in his dressing-room at Lisworney I remember to
have slept when a child. I have put a good large bookcase in my
drawing-room, and all the rest of my books fit very well into the
_To Mr. Carlyle_.
"_July 6th_.--No books have come in my way but Emerson's, which I
value full as much as you, though as yet I have read only some corners
of it. We have had an Election here, of the usual stamp; to me a
droll 'realized Ideal,' after my late metrical adventures in that
line. But the oddest sign of the Times I know, is a cheap Translation
of Strauss's _Leben Jesu_, now publishing in numbers, and said to be
circulating far and wide. What does--or rather, what does not--this
With the Poem called _The Election_, here alluded to, which had been
more than once revised and reconsidered, he was still under some
hesitations; but at last had well-nigh resolved, as from the first it
was clear he would do, on publishing it. This occupied some
occasional portion of his thoughts. But his grand private affair, I
believe, was now _Strafford_; to which, or to its adjuncts, all
working hours were devoted. Sterling's notions of Tragedy are high
enough. This is what he writes once, in reference to his own task in
these weeks: "Few, I fancy, know how much harder it is to write a
Tragedy than to realize or be one. Every man has in his heart and
lot, if he pleases, and too many whether they please or no, all the
woes of OEdipus and Antigone. But it takes the One, the Sophocles of
a thousand years, to utter these in the full depth and harmony of
creative song. Curious, by the way, how that Dramatic Form of the old
Greek, with only some superficial changes, remains a law not only for
the stage, but for the thoughts of all Poets; and what a charm it has
even for the reader who never saw a theatre. The Greek Plays and
Shakspeare have interested a hundred as books, for one who has seen
their writings acted. How lightly does the mere clown, the idle
school-girl, build a private theatre in the fancy, and laugh or weep
with Falstaff and Macbeth: with how entire an oblivion of the
artificial nature of the whole contrivance, which thus compels them to
be their own architects, machinists, scene-painters, and actors! In
fact, the artifice succeeds,--becomes grounded in the substance of the
soul: and every one loves to feel how he is thus brought face to face
with the brave, the fair, the woful and the great of all past ages;
looks into their eyes, and feels the beatings of their hearts; and
reads, over the shoulder, the secret written tablets of the busiest
and the largest brains; while the Juggler, by whose cunning the whole
strange beautiful absurdity is set in motion, keeps himself hidden;
sings loud with a mouth unmoving as that of a statue, and makes the
human race cheat itself unanimously and delightfully by the illusion
that he preordains; while as an obscure Fate, he sits invisible, and
hardly lets his being be divined by those who cannot flee him. The
Lyric Art is childish, and the Epic barbarous, compared to this. But
of the true and perfect Drama it may be said, as of even higher
mysteries, Who is sufficient for these things?"--On this _Tragedy of
Strafford_, writing it and again writing it, studying for it, and
bending himself with his whole strength to do his best on it, he
expended many strenuous months,--"above a year of his life," he
computes, in all.
For the rest, what Falmouth has to give him he is willing to take, and
mingles freely in it. In Hare's Collection there is given a _Lecture_
which he read in Autumn, 1841 (Mr. Hare says "1842," by mistake), to a
certain Public Institution in the place,--of which more anon;--a piece
interesting in this, if not much in any other respect. Doubtless his
friends the Foxes were at the heart of that lecturing enterprise, and
had urged and solicited him. Something like proficiency in certain
branches of science, as I have understood, characterized one or more
of this estimable family; love of knowledge, taste for art, wish to
consort with wisdom and wise men, were the tendencies of all; to
opulent means superadd the Quaker beneficence, Quaker purity and
reverence, there is a circle in which wise men also may love to be.
Sterling made acquaintance here with whatever of notable in worthy
persons or things might be afoot in those parts; and was led thereby,
now and then, into pleasant reunions, in new circles of activity,
which might otherwise have continued foreign to him. The good
Calvert, too, was now here; and intended to remain;--which he mostly
did henceforth, lodging in Sterling's neighborhood, so long as lodging
in this world was permitted him. Still good and clear and cheerful;
still a lively comrade, within doors or without,--a diligent rider
always,--though now wearing visibly weaker, and less able to exert
Among those accidental Falmouth reunions, perhaps the notablest for
Sterling occurred in this his first season. There is in Falmouth an
Association called the _Cornwall Polytechnic Society_, established
about twenty years ago, and supported by the wealthy people of the
Town and neighborhood, for the encouragement of the arts in that
region; it has its Library, its Museum, some kind of Annual Exhibition
withal; gives prizes, publishes reports: the main patrons, I believe,
are Sir Charles Lemon, a well-known country gentleman of those parts,
and the Messrs. Fox. To this, so far as he liked to go in it,
Sterling was sure to be introduced and solicited. The Polytechnic
meeting of 1841 was unusually distinguished; and Sterling's part in it
formed one of the pleasant occurrences for him in Falmouth. It was
here that, among other profitable as well as pleasant things, he made
acquaintance with Professor Owen (an event of which I too had my
benefit in due time, and still have): the bigger assemblage called
_British Association_, which met at Plymouth this year, having now
just finished its affairs there, Owen and other distinguished persons
had taken Falmouth in their route from it. Sterling's account of this
Polytechnic gala still remains,--in three Letters to his Father,
which, omitting the extraneous portions, I will give in one,--as a
piece worth reading among those still-life pictures:--
"To Edward Sterling, Esq., Knightsbridge, London_.
"FALMOUTH, 10th August, 1841.
"MY DEAR FATHER,--I was not well for a day or two after you went; and
since, I have been busy about an annual show of the Polytechnic
Society here, in which my friends take much interest, and for which I
have been acting as one of the judges in the department of the Fine
Arts, and have written a little Report for them. As I have not said
that Falmouth is as eminent as Athens or Florence, perhaps the
Committee will not adopt my statement. But if they do, it will be of
some use; for I have hinted, as delicately as possible, that people
should not paint historical pictures before they have the power of
drawing a decent outline of a pig or a cabbage. I saw Sir Charles
Lemon yesterday, who was kind as well as civil in his manner; and
promises to be a pleasant neighbor. There are several of the British
Association heroes here; but not Whewell, or any one whom I know."
"_August 17th_.--At the Polytechnic Meeting here we had several very
eminent men; among others, Professor Owen, said to be the first of
comparative anatomists, and Conybeare the geologist. Both of these
gave evening Lectures; and after Conybeare's, at which I happened to
be present, I said I would, if they chose, make some remarks on the
Busts which happened to be standing there, intended for prizes in the
department of the Fine Arts. They agreed gladly. The heads were
Homer, Pericles, Augustus, Dante and Michael Angelo. I got into the
box-like platform, with these on a shelf before me; and began a talk
which must have lasted some three quarters of an hour; describing
partly the characters and circumstances of the men, illustrated by
anecdotes and compared with their physiognomies, and partly the
several styles of sculpture exhibited in the Casts, referring these to
what I considered the true principles of the Art. The subject was one
that interests me, and I got on in famous style; and had both pit and
galleries all applauding, in a way that had had no precedent during
any other part of the meeting. Conybeare paid me high compliments;
Owen looked much pleased,--an honor well purchased by a year's hard
work;--and everybody, in short, seemed delighted. Susan was not
there, and I had nothing to make me nervous; so that I worked away
freely, and got vigorously over the ground. After so many years'
disuse of rhetoric, it was a pleasant surprise to myself to find that
I could still handle the old weapons without awkwardness. More by
good luck than good guidance, it has done my health no harm. I have
been at Sir Charles Lemon's, though only to pay a morning visit,
having declined to stay there or dine, the hours not suiting me. They
were very civil. The person I saw most of was his sister, Lady
Dunstanville; a pleasant, well-informed and well-bred woman. He seems
a most amiable, kindly man, of fair good sense and cultivated
tastes.--I had a letter to-day from my Mother [in Scotland]; who says
she sent you one which you were to forward me; which I hope soon to
"_August 29th_.--I returned yesterday from Carclew, Sir C. Lemon's
fine place about five miles off; where I had been staying a couple of
days, with apparently the heartiest welcome. Susan was asked; but
wanting a Governess, could not leave home.
"Sir Charles is a widower (his Wife was sister to Lord Ilchester)
without children; but had a niece staying with him, and his sister
Lady Dunstanville, a pleasant and very civil woman. There were also
Mr. Bunbury, eldest son of Sir Henry Bunbury, a man of much
cultivation and strong talents; Mr. Fox Talbot, son, I think, of
another Ilchester lady, and brother of _the_ Talbot of Wales, but
himself a man of large fortune, and known for photogenic and other
scientific plans of extracting sunbeams from cucumbers. He also is a
man of known ability, but chiefly employed in that peculiar
department. _Item_ Professors Lloyd and Owen: the former, of Dublin,
son of the late Provost, I had seen before and knew; a great
mathematician and optician, and a discoverer in those matters; with a
clever little Wife, who has a great deal of knowledge, quite free from
pretension. Owen is a first-rate comparative anatomist, they say the
greatest since Cuvier; lives in London, and lectures there. On the
whole, he interested me more than any of them,--by an apparent force
and downrightness of mind, combined with much simplicity and
"Nothing could be pleasanter and easier than the habits of life, with
what to me was a very unusual degree of luxury, though probably
nothing but what is common among people of large fortune. The library
and pictures are nothing extraordinary. The general tone of good
nature, good sense and quiet freedom, was what struck me most; and I
think besides this there was a disposition to be cordially courteous
towards me....
"I took Edward a ride of two hours yesterday on Calvert's pony, and he
is improving fast in horsemanship. The school appears to answer very
well. We shall have the Governess in a day or two, which will be a
great satisfaction. Will you send my Mother this scribble with my
love; and believe me,
"Your affectionate son,
One other little event dwells with me, out of those Falmouth times,
exact date now forgotten; a pleasant little matter, in which Sterling,
and principally the Misses Fox, bright cheery young creatures, were
concerned; which, for the sake of its human interest, is worth
mention. In a certain Cornish mine, said the Newspapers duly
specifying it, two miners deep down in the shaft were engaged putting
in a shot for blasting: they had completed their affair, and were
about to give the signal for being hoisted up,--one at a time was all
their coadjutor at the top could manage, and the second was to kindle
the match, and then mount with all speed. Now it chanced while they
were both still below, one of them thought the match too long; tried
to break it shorter, took a couple of stones, a flat and a sharp, to
cut it shorter; did cut it of the due length, but, horrible to relate,
kindled it at the same time, and both were still below! Both shouted
vehemently to the coadjutor at the windlass, both sprang at the
basket; the windlass man could not move it with them both. Here was a
moment for poor miner Jack and miner Will! Instant horrible death
hangs over both,--when Will generously resigns himself: "Go aloft,
Jack," and sits down; "away; in one minute I shall be in Heaven!"
Jack bounds aloft, the explosion instantly follows, bruises his face
as he looks over; he is safe above ground: and poor Will? Descending
eagerly they find Will too, as if by miracle, buried under rocks which
had arched themselves over him, and little injured: he too is brought
up safe, and all ends joyfully, say the Newspapers.
Such a piece of manful promptitude, and salutary human heroism, was
worth investigating. It was investigated; found to be accurate to the
letter,--with this addition and explanation, that Will, an honest,
ignorant good man, entirely given up to Methodism, had been perfect in
the "faith of assurance," certain that _he_ should get to Heaven if he
died, certain that Jack would not, which had been the ground of his
decision in that great moment;--for the rest, that he much wished to
learn reading and writing, and find some way of life above ground
instead of below. By aid of the Misses Fox and the rest of that
family, a subscription (modest _Anti_-Hudson testimonial) was raised
to this Methodist hero: he emerged into daylight with fifty pounds in
his pocket; did strenuously try, for certain months, to learn reading
and writing; found he could not learn those arts or either of them;
took his money and bought cows with it, wedding at the same time some
religious likely milkmaid; and is, last time I heard of him, a
prosperous modest dairyman, thankful for the upper light and safety
from the wrath to come. Sterling had some hand in this affair: but,
as I said, it was the two young ladies of the family that mainly did
In the end of 1841, after many hesitations and revisals, _The
Election_ came out; a tiny Duodecimo without name attached;[24] again
inquiring of the public what its suffrage was; again to little
purpose. My vote had never been loud for this step, but neither was
it quite adverse; and now, in reading the poor little Poem over again,
after ten years' space, I find it, with a touching mixture of pleasure
and repentance, considerably better than it then seemed to me. My
encouragement, if not to print this poem, yet to proceed with Poetry,
since there was such a resolution for it, might have been a little
more decided!
This is a small Piece, but aims at containing great things; a _multum
in parvo_ after its sort; and is executed here and there with
undeniable success. The style is free and flowing, the rhyme dances
along with a certain joyful triumph; everything of due brevity withal.
That mixture of mockery on the surface, which finely relieves the real
earnestness within, and flavors even what is not very earnest and
might even be insipid otherwise, is not ill managed: an amalgam
difficult to effect well in writing; nay, impossible in
writing,--unless it stand already done and effected, as a general
fact, in the writer's mind and character; which will betoken a certain
ripeness there.
As I said, great things are intended in this little Piece; the motto
itself foreshadowing them:--
"_Fluellen_. Ancient Pistol, I do partly understand your
_Pistol_. Why, then, rejoice therefor."
A stupid commonplace English Borough has lost its Member suddenly, by
apoplexy or otherwise; resolves, in the usual explosive temper of
mind, to replace him by one of two others; whereupon strange
stirring-up of rival-attorney and other human interests and
catastrophes. "Frank Vane" (Sterling himself), and "Peter Mogg," the
pattern English blockhead of elections: these are the candidates.
There are, of course, fierce rival attorneys; electors of all creeds
and complexions to be canvassed: a poor stupid Borough thrown all
into red or white heat; into blazing paroxysms of activity and
enthusiasm, which render the inner life of it (and of England and the
world through it) luminously transparent, so to speak;--of which
opportunity our friend and his "Muse" take dexterous advantage, to
delineate the same. His pictures are uncommonly good; brief, joyous,
sometimes conclusively true: in rigorously compressed shape; all is
merry freshness and exuberance: we have leafy summer embowering red
bricks and small human interests, presented as in glowing miniature; a
mock-heroic action fitly interwoven;--and many a clear glance is
carelessly given into the deepest things by the way. Very happy also
is the little love-episode; and the absorption of all the interest
into that, on the part of Frank Vane and of us, when once this gallant
Frank,--having fairly from his barrel-head stated his own (and John
Sterling's) views on the aspects of the world, and of course having
quite broken down with his attorney and his public,--handsomely, by
stratagem, gallops off with the fair Anne; and leaves free field to
Mogg, free field to the Hippopotamus if it like. This portrait of
Mogg may be considered to have merit:--
"Though short of days, how large the mind of man;
A godlike force enclosed within a span!
To climb the skies we spurn our nature's clog,
And toil as Titans to elect a Mogg.
"And who was Mogg? O Muse! the man declare,
How excellent his worth, his parts how rare.
A younger son, he learnt in Oxford's halls
The spheral harmonies of billiard-balls,
Drank, hunted, drove, and hid from Virtue's frown
His venial follies in Decorum's gown.
Too wise to doubt on insufficient cause,
He signed old Cranmer's lore without a pause;
And knew that logic's cunning rules are taught
To guard our creed, and not invigorate thought,--
As those bronze steeds at Venice, kept for pride,
Adorn a Town where not one man can ride.
"From Isis sent with all her loud acclaims,
The Laws he studied on the banks of Thames.
Park, race and play, in his capacious plan,
Combined with Coke to form the finished man,
Until the wig's ambrosial influence shed
Its last full glories on the lawyer's head.
"But vain are mortal schemes. The eldest son
At Harrier Hall had scarce his stud begun,
When Death's pale courser took the Squire away
To lands where never dawns a hunting day:
And so, while Thomas vanished 'mid the fog,
Bright rose the morning-star of Peter Mogg."[25]
And this little picture, in a quite opposite way:--
"Now, in her chamber all alone, the maid
Her polished limbs and shoulders disarrayed;
One little taper gave the only light,
One little mirror caught so dear a sight;
'Mid hangings dusk and shadows wide she stood,
Like some pale Nymph in dark-leafed solitude
Of rocks and gloomy waters all alone,
Where sunshine scarcely breaks on stump or stone
To scare the dreamy vision. Thus did she,
A star in deepest night, intent but free,
Gleam through the eyeless darkness, heeding not
Her beauty's praise, but musing o'er her lot.
"Her garments one by one she laid aside,
And then her knotted hair's long locks untied
With careless hand, and down her cheeks they fell,
And o'er her maiden bosom's blue-veined swell.
The right-hand fingers played amidst her hair,
And with her reverie wandered here and there:
The other hand sustained the only dress
That now but half concealed her loveliness;
And pausing, aimlessly she stood and thought,
In virgin beauty by no fear distraught."
Manifold, and beautiful of their sort, are Anne's musings, in this
interesting attitude, in the summer midnight, in the crisis of her
destiny now near;--at last:--
"But Anne, at last her mute devotions o'er,
Perceived the feet she had forgot before
Of her too shocking nudity; and shame
Flushed from her heart o'er all the snowy frame:
And, struck from top to toe with burning dread,
She blew the light out, and escaped to bed."[26]
--which also is a very pretty movement.
It must be owned withal, the Piece is crude in parts, and far enough
from perfect. Our good painter has yet several things to learn, and
to unlearn. His brush is not always of the finest; and dashes about,
sometimes, in a recognizably sprawling way: but it hits many a
feature with decisive accuracy and felicity; and on the palette, as
usual, lie the richest colors. A grand merit, too, is the brevity of
everything; by no means a spontaneous, or quite common merit with
This new poetic Duodecimo, as the last had done and as the next also
did, met with little or no recognition from the world: which was not
very inexcusable on the world's part; though many a poem with far less
proof of merit than this offers, has run, when the accidents favored
it, through its tens of editions, and raised the writer to the
demigods for a year or two, if not longer. Such as it is, we may take
it as marking, in its small way, in a noticed or unnoticed manner, a
new height arrived at by Sterling in his Poetic course; and almost as
vindicating the determination he had formed to keep climbing by that
method. Poor Poem, or rather Promise of a Poem! In Sterling's brave
struggle, this little _Election_ is the highest point he fairly lived
to see attained, and openly demonstrated in print. His next public
adventure in this kind was of inferior worth; and a third, which had
perhaps intrinsically gone much higher than any of its antecessors,
was cut off as a fragment, and has not hitherto been published.
Steady courage is needed on the Poetic course, as on all courses!--
Shortly after this Publication, in the beginning of 1842, poor
Calvert, long a hopeless sufferer, was delivered by death: Sterling's
faithful fellow-pilgrim could no more attend him in his wayfarings
through this world. The weary and heavy-laden man had borne his
burden well. Sterling says of him to Hare: "Since I wrote last, I
have lost Calvert; the man with whom, of all others, I have been
during late years the most intimate. Simplicity, benevolence,
practical good sense and moral earnestness were his great unfailing
characteristics; and no man, I believe, ever possessed them more
entirely. His illness had latterly so prostrated him, both in mind
and body, that those who most loved him were most anxious for his
departure." There was something touching in this exit; in the
quenching of so kind and bright a little life under the dark billows
of death. To me he left a curious old Print of James Nayler the
Quaker, which I still affectionately preserve.
Sterling, from this greater distance, came perhaps rather seldomer to
London; but we saw him still at moderate intervals; and, through his
family here and other direct and indirect channels, were kept in
lively communication with him. Literature was still his constant
pursuit; and, with encouragement or without, Poetic composition his
chosen department therein. On the ill success of _The Election_, or
any ill success with the world, nobody ever heard him utter the least
murmur; condolence upon that or any such subject might have been a
questionable operation, by no means called for! Nay, my own approval,
higher than this of the world, had been languid, by no means
enthusiastic. But our valiant friend took all quietly; and was not to
be repulsed from his Poetics either by the world's coldness or by
mine; he labored at his _Strafford_;--determined to labor, in all
ways, till he felt the end of his tether in this direction.
He sometimes spoke, with a certain zeal, of my starting a Periodical:
Why not lift up some kind of war-flag against the obese platitudes,
and sickly superstitious aperies and impostures of the time? But I
had to answer, "Who will join it, my friend?" He seemed to say, "I,
for one;" and there was occasionally a transient temptation in the
thought, but transient only. No fighting regiment, with the smallest
attempt towards drill, co-operation, commissariat, or the like
unspeakable advantages, could be raised in Sterling's time or mine;
which truly, to honest fighters, is a rather grievous want. A
grievous, but not quite a fatal one. For, failing this, failing all
things and all men, there remains the solitary battle (and were it by
the poorest weapon, the tongue only, or were it even by wise
abstinence and silence and without any weapon), such as each man for
himself can wage while he has life: an indubitable and infinitely
comfortable fact for every man! Said battle shaped itself for
Sterling, as we have long since seen, chiefly in the poetic form, in
the singing or hymning rather than the speaking form; and in that he
was cheerfully assiduous according to his light. The unfortunate
_Strafford_ is far on towards completion; a _Coeur-de-Lion_, of which
we shall hear farther, "_Coeur-de-Lion_, greatly the best of all his
Poems," unluckily not completed, and still unpublished, already hangs
in the wind.
His Letters to friends continue copious; and he has, as always, a
loyally interested eye on whatsoever of notable is passing in the
world. Especially on whatsoever indicates to him the spiritual
condition of the world. Of "Strauss," in English or in German, we now
hear nothing more; of Church matters, and that only to special
correspondents, less and less. Strauss, whom he used to mention, had
interested him only as a sign of the times; in which sense alone do we
find, for a year or two back, any notice of the Church, or its affairs
by Sterling; and at last even this as good as ceases: "Adieu, O
Church; thy road is that way, mine is this: in God's name, adieu!"
"What we are going _to_," says he once, "is abundantly obscure; but
what all men are going _from_, is very plain."--Sifted out of many
pages, not of sufficient interest, here are one or two miscellaneous
sentences, about the date we are now arrived at:--
_To Dr. Symonds_.
"_Falmouth, 3d November_, 1841.--Yesterday was my Wedding-day: eleven
years of marriage; and on the whole my verdict is clear for matrimony.
I solemnized the day by reading _John Gilpin_ to the children, who
with their Mother are all pretty well.... There is a trick of sham
Elizabethan writing now prevalent, that looks plausible, but in most
cases means nothing at all. Darley has real (lyrical) genius; Taylor,
wonderful sense, clearness and weight of purpose; Tennyson, a rich and
exquisite fancy. All the other men of our tiny generation that I know
of are, in Poetry, either feeble or fraudulent. I know nothing of the
Reviewer you ask about."
_To his Mother_
"_December 11th_.--I have seen no new books; but am reading your last.
I got hold of the two first Numbers of the _Hoggarty Diamond_; and
read them with extreme delight. What is there better in Fielding or
Goldsmith? The man is a true genius; and, with quiet and comfort,
might produce masterpieces that would last as long as any we have, and
delight millions of unborn readers. There is more truth and nature in
one of these papers than in all ----'s Novels together."--Thackeray,
always a close friend of the Sterling house, will observe that this is
dated 1841, not 1851, and have his own reflections on the matter!
_To the Same_.
"_December 17th_.--I am not much surprised at Lady ----'s views of
Coleridge's little Book on _Inspiration_.--Great part of the obscurity
of the Letters arises from his anxiety to avoid the difficulties and
absurdities of the common views, and his panic terror of saying
anything that bishops and good people would disapprove. He paid a
heavy price, viz. all his own candor and simplicity, in hope of
gaining the favor of persons like Lady ----; and you see what his
reward is! A good lesson for us all."
_To the Same_.
"_February 1st_, 1842.--English Toryism has, even in my eyes, about as
much to say for itself as any other form of doctrine; but Irish
Toryism is the downright proclamation of brutal injustice, and all in
the name of God and the Bible! It is almost enough to make one turn
Mahometan, but for the fear of the four wives."
_To his Father_.
"_March 12th_, 1842.--... Important to me as these matters are, it
almost seems as if there were something unfeeling in writing of them,
under the pressure of such news as ours from India. If the Cabool
Troops have perished, England has not received such a blow from an
enemy, nor anything approaching it, since Buckingham's Expedition to
the Isle of Rhe. Walcheren destroyed us by climate; and Corunna, with
all its losses, had much of glory. But here we are dismally injured
by mere Barbarians, in a War on our part shamefully unjust as well as
foolish: a combination of disgrace and calamity that would have
shocked Augustus even more than the defeat of Varus. One of the four
officers with Macnaghten was George Lawrence, a brother-in-law of Nat
Barton; a distinguished man, and the father of five totally unprovided
children. He is a prisoner, if not since murdered. Macnaghten I do
not pity; he was the prime author of the whole mad War. But Burnes;
and the women; and our regiments! India, however, I feel sure, is
So roll the months at Falmouth; such is the ticking of the great
World-Horologe as heard there by a good ear. "I willingly add," so
ends he, once, "that I lately found somewhere this fragment of an
Arab's love-song: 'O Ghalia! If my father were a jackass, I would
sell him to purchase Ghalia!' A beautiful parallel to the French
_'Avec cette sauce on mangerait son pere_.'"
In the bleak weather of this spring, 1842, he was again abroad for a
little while; partly from necessity, or at least utility; and partly,
as I guess, because these circumstances favored, and he could with a
good countenance indulge a little wish he had long had. In the
Italian Tour, which ended suddenly by Mrs. Sterling's illness
recalling him, he had missed Naples; a loss which he always thought to
be considerable; and which, from time to time, he had formed little
projects, failures hitherto, for supplying. The rigors of spring were
always dangerous to him in England, and it was always of advantage to
get out of them: and then the sight of Naples, too; this, always a
thing to be done some day, was now possible. Enough, with the real or
imaginary hope of bettering himself in health, and the certain one of
seeing Naples, and catching a glance of Italy again, he now made a run
thither. It was not long after Calvert's death. The Tragedy of
_Strafford_ lay finished in his desk. Several things, sad and bright,
were finished. A little intermezzo of ramble was not unadvisable.
His tour by water and by land was brief and rapid enough; hardly above
two months in all. Of which the following Letters will, with some
abridgment, give us what details are needful:--
"_To Charles Barton, Esq., Leamington_.
"FALMOUTH, 25th March, 1842.
"MY DEAR CHARLES,--My attempts to shoot you flying with my paper
pellets turned out very ill. I hope young ladies succeed better when
they happen to make appointments with you. Even now, I hardly know
whether you have received a Letter I wrote on Sunday last, and
addressed to The Cavendish. I sent it thither by Susan's advice.
"In this missive,--happily for us both, it did not contain a
hundred-pound note or any trifle of that kind,--I informed you that I
was compelled to plan an expedition towards the South Pole; stopping,
however, in the Mediterranean; and that I designed leaving this on
Monday next for Cadiz or Gibraltar, and then going on to Malta, whence
Italy and Sicily would be accessible. Of course your company would be
a great pleasure, if it were possible for you to join me. The delay
in hearing from you, through no fault of yours, has naturally put me
out a little; but, on the whole, my plan still holds, and I shall
leave this on Monday for Gibraltar, where the _Great Liverpool_ will
catch me, and carry me to Malta. The _Great Liverpool_ leaves
Southampton on the 1st of April, and Falmouth on the 2d; and will
reach Gibraltar in from four to five days.
"Now, if you _should_ be able and disposed to join me, you have only
to embark in that sumptuous tea-kettle, and pick me up under the guns
of the Rock. We could then cruise on to Malta, Sicily, Naples, Rome,
&c., _a discretion_. It is just _possible_, though extremely
improbable, that my steamer of Monday (most likely the _Montrose_) may
not reach Gibraltar so soon as the _Liverpool_. If so, and if you
should actually be on board, you must stop at Gibraltar. But there
are ninety-nine chances to one against this. Write at all events to
Susan, to let her know what you propose.
"I do not wait till the _Great Liverpool_ goes, because the object for
me is to get into a warm climate as soon as possible. I am decidedly
"Your affectionate Brother,
Barton did not go with him, none went; but he arrives safe, and not
_hurt_ in health, which is something.
"_To Mrs. Sterling, Knightsbridge, London_.
"MALTA, 14th April, 1842.
"DEAREST MOTHER,--I am writing to Susan through France, by to-morrow's
mail; and will also send you a line, instead of waiting for the longer
English conveyance.
"We reached this the day before yesterday, in the evening; having had
a strong breeze against us for a day or two before; which made me
extremely uncomfortable,--and indeed my headache is hardly gone yet.
From about the 4th to the 9th of the month, we had beautiful weather,
and I was happy enough. You will see by the map that the straightest
line from Gibraltar to this place goes close along the African coast;
which accordingly we saw with the utmost clearness; and found it
generally a line of mountains, the higher peaks and ridges covered
with snow. We went close in to Algiers; which looks strong, but
entirely from art. The town lies on the slope of a straight coast;
and is not at all embayed, though there is some little shelter for
shipping within the mole. It is a square patch of white buildings
huddled together; fringed with batteries; and commanded by large forts
on the ridge above: a most uncomfortable-looking place; though, no
doubt, there are _cafes_ and billiard-rooms and a theatre within,--for
the French like to have their Houris, &c., on _this_ side of Paradise,
if possible.
"Our party of fifty people (we had taken some on board at Gibraltar)
broke up, on reaching this; never, of course, to meet again. The
greater part do not proceed to Alexandria. Considering that there was
a bundle of midshipmen, ensigns, &c., we had as much reason among us
as could perhaps be looked for; and from several I gained bits of
information and traits of character, though nothing very
"I have established myself in an inn, rather than go to Lady
Louis's;[27] I not feeling quite equal to company, except in moderate doses. I
have, however, seen her a good deal; and dine there to-day, very
privately, for Sir John is not quite well, and they will have no
guests. The place, however, is full of official banqueting, for
various unimportant reasons. When here before, I was in much distress
and anxiety, on my way from Rome; and I suppose this it was that
prevented its making the same impression on me as now, when it seems
really the stateliest town I have ever seen. The architecture is
generally of a corrupt Roman kind; with something of the varied and
picturesque look, though much more massive, of our Elizabethan
buildings. We have the finest English summer and a pellucid sky....
Your affectionate
At Naples next, for three weeks, was due admiration of the sceneries
and antiquities, Bay and Mountain, by no means forgetting Art and the
Museum: "to Pozzuoli, to Baiae, round the Promontory of
Sorrento;"--above all, "twice to Pompeii," where the elegance and
classic simplicity of Ancient Housekeeping strikes us much; and again
to Paestum, where "the Temple of Neptune is far the noblest building I
have ever seen; and makes both Greek and Revived Roman seem quite
barbaric.... Lord Ponsonby lodges in the same house with me;--but, of
course, I do not countenance an adherent of a beaten Party!"[28]--Or
let us take this more compendious account, which has much more of
human in it, from an onward stage, ten days later:--
"_To Thomas Carlyle, Esq., Chelsea, London_.
"ROME, 13th May, 1842,
"MY DEAR CARLYLE,--I hope I wrote to you before leaving England, to
tell you of the necessity for my doing so. Though coming to Italy,
there was little comfort in the prospect of being divided from my
family, and pursuits which grew on me every day. However, I tried to
make the best of it, and have gained both health and pleasure.
"In spite of scanty communications from England (owing to the
uncertainty of my position), a word or two concerning you and your
dear Wife have reached me. Lately it has often occurred to me, that
the sight of the Bay of Naples, of the beautiful coast from that to
this place, and of Rome itself, all bathed in summer sunshine, and
green with spring foliage, would be some consolation to her.[29] Pray
give her my love.
"I have been two days here; and almost the first thing I did was to
visit the Protestant burial-ground, and the graves of those I knew
when here before. But much as being now alone here, I feel the
difference, there is no scene where Death seems so little dreadful and
miserable as in the lonelier neighborhoods of this old place. All
one's impressions, however, as to that and everything else, appear to
me, on reflection, more affected than I had for a long time any notion
of, by one's own isolation. All the feelings and activities which
family, friends and occupation commonly engage, are turned, here in
one's solitude, with strange force into the channels of mere
observation and contemplation; and the objects one is conversant with
seem to gain a tenfold significance from the abundance of spare
interest one now has to bestow on them. This explains to me a good
deal of the peculiar effect that Italy has always had on me: and
something of that artistic enthusiasm which I remember you used to
think so singular in Goethe's _Travels_. Darley, who is as much a
brooding hermit in England as here, felt nothing but disappointment
from a country which fills me with childish wonder and delight.
"Of you I have received some slight notice from Mrs. Strachey; who is
on her way hither; and will (she writes) be at Florence on the 15th,
and here before the end of the month. She notices having received a
Letter of yours which had pleased her much. She now proposes spending
the summer at Sorrento, or thereabouts; and if mere delight of
landscape and climate were enough, Adam and Eve, had their courier
taken them to that region, might have done well enough without
Paradise,--and not been tempted, either, by any Tree of Knowledge; a
kind that does not flourish in the Two Sicilies.
"The ignorance of the Neapolitans, from the highest to the lowest, is
very eminent; and excites the admiration of all the rest of Italy. In
the great building containing all the Works of Art, and a Library of
150,000 volumes, I asked for the best existing Book (a German one
published ten years ago) on the Statues in that very Collection; and,
after a rabble of clerks and custodes, got up to a dirty priest, who
bowing to the ground regretted 'they did not possess it,' but at last
remembered that 'they _had_ entered into negotiations on the subject,
which as yet had been unsuccessful.'--The favorite device on the walls
at Naples is a vermilion Picture of a Male and Female Soul
respectively up to the waist (the waist of a _soul_) in fire, and an
Angel above each, watering the sufferers from a watering-pot. This is
intended to gain alms for Masses. The same populace sit for hours on
the Mole, listening to rhapsodists who recite Ariosto. I have seen I
think five of them all within a hundred yards of each other, and some
sets of fiddlers to boot. Yet there are few parts of the world where
I have seen less laughter than there. The Miracle of Januarius's
Blood is, on the whole, my most curious experience. The furious
entreaties, shrieks and sobs, of a set of old women, yelling till the
Miracle was successfully performed, are things never to be forgotten.
"I spent three weeks in this most glittering of countries, and saw
most of the usual wonders,--the Paestan Temples being to me much the
most valuable. But Pompeii and all that it has yielded, especially
the Fresco Paintings, have also an infinite interest. When one
considers that this prodigious series of beautiful designs supplied
the place of our common room-papers,--the wealth of poetic imagery
among the Ancients, and the corresponding traditional variety and
elegance of pictorial treatment, seem equally remarkable. The Greek
and Latin Books do not give one quite so fully this sort of
impression; because they afford no direct measure of the extent of
their own diffusion. But these are ornaments from the smaller class
of decent houses in a little Country Town; and the greater number of
them, by the slightness of the execution, show very clearly that they
were adapted to ordinary taste, and done by mere artisans. In general
clearness, symmetry and simplicity of feeling, I cannot say that, on
the whole, the works of Raffaelle equal them; though of course he has
endless beauties such as we could not find unless in the great
original works from which these sketches at Pompeii were taken. Yet
with all my much increased reverence for the Greeks, it seems more
plain than ever that they had hardly anything of the peculiar
devotional feeling of Christianity.
"Rome, which I loved before above all the earth, now delights me more
than ever;--though at this moment there is rain falling that would not
discredit Oxford Street. The depth, sincerity and splendor that there
once was in the semi-paganism of the old Catholics comes out in St.
Peter's and its dependencies, almost as grandly as does Greek and
Roman Art in the Forum and the Vatican Galleries. I wish you were
here: but, at all events, hope to see you and your Wife once more
during this summer.
At Paris, where he stopped a day and night, and generally through his
whole journey from Marseilles to Havre, one thing attended him: the
prevailing epidemic of the place and year; now gone, and nigh
forgotten, as other influenzas are. He writes to his Father: "I have
not yet met a single Frenchman, who could give me any rational
explanation _why_ they were all in such a confounded rage against us.
Definite causes of quarrel a statesman may know how to deal with,
inasmuch as the removal of them may help to settle the dispute. But
it must be a puzzling task to negotiate about instincts; to which
class, as it seems to me, we must have recourse for an understanding
of the present abhorrence which everybody on the other side of the
Channel not only feels, but makes a point to boast of, against the
name of Britain. France is slowly arming, especially with Steam, _en
attendant_ a more than possible contest, in which they reckon
confidently on the eager co-operation of the Yankees; as, _vice
versa_, an American told me that his countrymen do on that of France.
One person at Paris (M. ---- whom you know) provoked me to tell him
that 'England did not want another battle of Trafalgar; but if France
did, she might compel England to gratify her.'"--After a couple of
pleasant and profitable months, he was safe home again in the first
days of June; and saw Falmouth not under gray iron skies, and whirls
of March dust, but bright with summer opulence and the roses coming
It was what I call his "_fifth_ peregrinity;" his fifth and last. He
soon afterwards came up to London; spent a couple of weeks, with all
his old vivacity, among us here. The AEsculapian oracles, it would
appear, gave altogether cheerful prophecy; the highest medical
authority "expresses the most decided opinion that I have gradually
mended for some years; and in truth I have not, for six or seven, been
so free from serious symptoms of illness as at present." So uncertain
are all oracles, AEsculapian and other!
During this visit, he made one new acquaintance which he much valued;
drawn thither, as I guess, by the wish to take counsel about
_Strafford_. He writes to his Clifton friend, under date, 1st July
1842: "Lockhart, of the _Quarterly Review_, I made my first oral
acquaintance with; and found him as neat, clear and cutting a brain as
you would expect; but with an amount of knowledge, good nature and
liberal anti-bigotry, that would much surprise many. The tone of his
children towards him seemed to me decisive of his real kindness. He
quite agreed with me as to the threatening seriousness of our present
social perplexities, and the necessity and difficulty of doing
something effectual for so satisfying the manual multitude as not to
overthrow all legal security....
"Of other persons whom I saw in London," continues he, "there are
several that would much interest you,--though I missed Tennyson, by a
mere chance.... John Mill has completely finished, and sent to the
bookseller, his great work on Logic; the labor of many years of a
singularly subtle, patient and comprehensive mind. It will be our
chief speculative monument of this age. Mill and I could not meet
above two or three times; but it was with the openness and freshness
of school-boy friends, though our friendship only dates from the
manhood of both."
He himself was busier than ever; occupied continually with all manner
of Poetic interests. _Coeur-de-Lion_, a new and more elaborate
attempt in the mock-heroic or comico-didactic vein, had been on hand
for some time, the scope of it greatly deepening and expanding itself
since it first took hold of him; and now, soon after the Naples
journey, it rose into shape on the wider plan; shaken up probably by
this new excitement, and indebted to Calabria, Palermo and the
Mediterranean scenes for much of the vesture it had. With this, which
opened higher hopes for him than any of his previous efforts, he was
now employing all his time and strength;--and continued to do so, this
being the last effort granted him among us.
Already, for some months, _Strafford_ lay complete: but how to get it
from the stocks; in what method to launch it? The step was
questionable. Before going to Italy he had sent me the Manuscript;
still loyal and friendly; and willing to hear the worst that could be
said of his poetic enterprise. I had to afflict him again, the good
brave soul, with the deliberate report that I could _not_ accept this
Drama as his Picture of the Life of Strafford, or as any _Picture_ of
that strange Fact. To which he answered, with an honest manfulness,
in a tone which is now pathetic enough to me, that he was much grieved
yet much obliged, and uncertain how to decide. On the other hand, Mr.
Hare wrote, warmly eulogizing. Lockhart too spoke kindly, though
taking some exceptions. It was a questionable case. On the whole,
_Strafford_ remained, for the present, unlaunched; and _Coeur de-Lion_
was getting its first timbers diligently laid down. So passed, in
peaceable seclusion, in wholesome employment and endeavor, the autumn
and winter of 1842-43. On Christmas-day, he reports to his Mother:--
"I wished to write to you yesterday; but was prevented by the
important business of preparing a Tree, in the German fashion, for the
children. This project answered perfectly, as it did last year; and
gave them the greatest pleasure. I wish you and my Father could have
been here to see their merry faces. Johnny was in the thick of the
fun, and much happier than Lord Anson on capturing the galleon. We
are all going on well and quietly, but with nothing very new among
us.... The last book I have lighted on is Moffat's _Missionary Labors
in South Africa_; which is worth reading. There is the best
collection of lion stories in it that I have ever seen. But the man
is, also, really a very good fellow; and fit for something much better
than most lions are. He is very ignorant, and mistaken in some
things; but has strong sense and heart; and his Narrative adds another
to the many proofs of the enormous power of Christianity on rude
minds. Nothing can be more chaotic, that is human at all, than the
notions of these poor Blacks, even after what is called their
conversion; but the effect is produced. They do adopt pantaloons, and
abandon polygamy; and I suppose will soon have newspapers and literary
DURING all these years of struggle and wayfaring, his Father's
household at Knightsbridge had stood healthful, happy, increasing in
wealth, free diligence, solidity and honest prosperity: a fixed sunny
islet, towards which, in all his voyagings and overclouded roamings,
he could look with satisfaction, as to an ever-open port of refuge.
The elder Sterling, after many battles, had reached his field of
conquest in these years; and was to be regarded as a victorious man.
Wealth sufficient, increasing not diminishing, had rewarded his labors
in the _Times_, which were now in their full flower; he had influence
of a sort; went busily among busy public men; and enjoyed, in the
questionable form attached to journalism and anonymity, a social
consideration and position which were abundantly gratifying to him. A
singular figure of the epoch; and when you came to know him, which it
was easy to fail of doing if you had not eyes and candid insight, a
gallant, truly gifted, and manful figure, of his kind. We saw much of
him in this house; much of all his family; and had grown to love them
all right well,--him too, though that was the difficult part of the
feat. For in his Irish way he played the conjurer very much,--"three
hundred and sixty-five opinions in the year upon every subject," as a
wag once said. In fact his talk, ever ingenious, emphatic and
spirited in detail, was much defective in earnestness, at least in
clear earnestness, of purport and outcome; but went tumbling as if in
mere welters of explosive unreason; a volcano heaving under vague
deluges of scoriae, ashes and imponderous pumice-stones, you could not
say in what direction, nor well whether in any. Not till after good
study did you see the deep molten lava-flood, which simmered steadily
enough, and showed very well by and by whither it was bound. For I
must say of Edward Sterling, after all his daily explosive
sophistries, and fallacies of talk, he had a stubborn instinctive
sense of what was manful, strong and worthy; recognized, with quick
feeling, the charlatan under his solemnest wig; knew as clearly as any
man a pusillanimous tailor in buckram, an ass under the lion's skin,
and did with his whole heart despise the same.
The sudden changes of doctrine in the _Times_, which failed not to
excite loud censure and indignant amazement in those days, were first
intelligible to you when you came to interpret them as his changes.
These sudden whirls from east to west on his part, and total changes
of party and articulate opinion at a day's warning, lay in the nature
of the man, and could not be helped; products of his fiery impatience,
of the combined impetuosity and limitation of an intellect, which did
nevertheless continually gravitate towards what was loyal, true and
right on all manner of subjects. These, as I define them, were the
mere scoriae and pumice wreck of a steady central lava-flood, which
truly was volcanic and explosive to a strange degree, but did rest as
few others on the grand fire-depths of the world. Thus, if he stormed
along, ten thousand strong, in the time of the Reform Bill,
indignantly denouncing Toryism and its obsolete insane pretensions;
and then if, after some experience of Whig management, he discerned
that Wellington and Peel, by whatever name entitled, were the men to
be depended on by England,--there lay in all this, visible enough, a
deeper consistency far more important than the superficial one, so
much clamored after by the vulgar. Which is the lion's-skin; which is
the real lion? Let a man, if he is prudent, ascertain that before
speaking;--but above and beyond all things, _let_ him ascertain it,
and stand valiantly to it when ascertained! In the latter essential
part of the operation Edward Sterling was honorably successful to a
really marked degree; in the former, or prudential part, very much the
reverse, as his history in the Journalistic department at least, was
continually teaching him.
An amazingly impetuous, hasty, explosive man, this "Captain
Whirlwind," as I used to call him! Great sensibility lay in him, too;
a real sympathy, and affectionate pity and softness, which he had an
over-tendency to express even by tears,--a singular sight in so
leonine a man. Enemies called them maudlin and hypocritical, these
tears; but that was nowise the complete account of them. On the
whole, there did conspicuously lie a dash of ostentation, a
self-consciousness apt to become loud and braggart, over all he said
and did and felt: this was the alloy of the man, and you had to be
thankful for the abundant gold along with it.
Quizzing enough he got among us for all this, and for the singular
_chiaroscuro_ manner of procedure, like that of an Archimagus
Cagliostro, or Kaiser Joseph Incognito, which his anonymous
known-unknown thunderings in the _Times_ necessitated in him; and much
we laughed,--not without explosive counter-banterings on his
part;--but, in fine, one could not do without him; one knew him at
heart for a right brave man. "By Jove, sir!" thus he would swear to
you, with radiant face; sometimes, not often, by a deeper oath. With
persons of dignity, especially with women, to whom he was always very
gallant, he had courtly delicate manners, verging towards the
wire-drawn and elaborate; on common occasions, he bloomed out at once
into jolly familiarity of the gracefully boisterous kind, reminding
you of mess-rooms and old Dublin days. His off-hand mode of speech
was always precise, emphatic, ingenious: his laugh, which was
frequent rather than otherwise, had a sincerity of banter, but no real
depth of sense for the ludicrous; and soon ended, if it grew too loud,
in a mere dissonant scream. He was broad, well-built, stout of
stature; had a long lowish head, sharp gray eyes, with large strong
aquiline face to match; and walked, or sat, in an erect decisive
manner. A remarkable man; and playing, especially in those years
1830-40, a remarkable part in the world.
For it may be said, the emphatic, big-voiced, always influential and
often strongly unreasonable _Times_ Newspaper was the express emblem
of Edward Sterling; he, more than any other man or circumstance, _was_
the _Times_ Newspaper, and thundered through it to the shaking of the
spheres. And let us assert withal that his and its influence, in
those days, was not ill grounded but rather well; that the loud
manifold unreason, often enough vituperated and groaned over, was of
the surface mostly; that his conclusions, unreasonable, partial, hasty
as they might at first be, gravitated irresistibly towards the right:
in virtue of which grand quality indeed, the root of all good insight
in man, his _Times_ oratory found acceptance and influential audience,
amid the loud whirl of an England itself logically very stupid, and
wise chiefly by instinct.
England listened to this voice, as all might observe; and to one who
knew England and it, the result was not quite a strange one, and was
honorable rather than otherwise to both parties. A good judge of
men's talents has been heard to say of Edward Sterling: "There is not
a _faculty of improvising_ equal to this in all my circle. Sterling
rushes out into the clubs, into London society, rolls about all day,
copiously talking modish nonsense or sense, and listening to the like,
with the multifarious miscellany of men; comes home at night; redacts
it into a _Times_ Leader,--and is found to have hit the essential
purport of the world's immeasurable babblement that day, with an
accuracy beyond all other men. This is what the multifarious Babel
sound did mean to say in clear words; this, more nearly than anything
else. Let the most gifted intellect, capable of writing epics, try to
write such a Leader for the Morning Newspapers! No intellect but
Edward Sterling's can do it. An improvising faculty without parallel
in my experience."--In this "improvising faculty," much more nobly
developed, as well as in other faculties and qualities with
unexpectedly new and improved figure, John Sterling, to the accurate
observer, showed himself very much the son of Edward.
Connected with this matter, a remarkable Note has come into my hands;
honorable to the man I am writing of, and in some sort to another
higher man; which, as it may now (unhappily for us all) be published
without scruple, I will not withhold here. The support, by Edward
Sterling and the _Times_, of Sir Robert Peel's first Ministry, and
generally of Peel's statesmanship, was a conspicuous fact in its day;
but the return it met with from the person chiefly interested may be
considered well worth recording. The following Letter, after
meandering through I know not what intricate conduits, and
consultations of the Mysterious Entity whose address it bore, came to
Edward Sterling as the real flesh-and-blood proprietor, and has been
found among his papers. It is marked _Private_:--
"(Private) _To the Editor of the Times_.
"WHITEHALL, 18th April, 1835.
"SIR,--Having this day delivered into the hands of the King the Seals
of Office, I can, without any imputation of an interested motive, or
any impediment from scrupulous feelings of delicacy, express my deep
sense of the powerful support which that Government over which I had
the honor to preside received from the _Times_ Newspaper.
"If I do not offer the expressions of personal gratitude, it is
because I feel that such expressions would do injustice to the
character of a support which was given exclusively on the highest and
most independent grounds of public principle. I can say this with
perfect truth, as I am addressing one whose person even is unknown to
me, and who during my tenure of power studiously avoided every species
of intercourse which could throw a suspicion upon the motives by which
he was actuated. I should, however, be doing injustice to my own
feelings, if I were to retire from Office without one word of
acknowledgment; without at least assuring you of the admiration with
which I witnessed, during the arduous contest in which I was engaged,
the daily exhibition of that extraordinary ability to which I was
indebted for a support, the more valuable because it was an impartial
and discriminating support.--I have the honor to be, Sir,
"Ever your most obedient and faithful servant,
To which, with due loftiness and diplomatic gravity and brevity, there
is Answer, Draught of Answer in Edward Sterling's hand, from the
Mysterious Entity so honored, in the following terms:--
"_To the Right Hon. Sir Robert Peel, Bart., &c. &c. &c_.
"SIR,--It gives me sincere satisfaction to learn from the Letter with
which you have honored me, bearing yesterday's date, that you estimate
so highly the efforts which have been made during the last five months
by the _Times_ Newspaper to support the cause of rational and
wholesome Government which his Majesty had intrusted to your guidance;
and that you appreciate fairly the disinterested motive, of regard to
the public welfare, and to that alone, through which this Journal has
been prompted to pursue a policy in accordance with that of your
Administration. It is, permit me to say, by such motives only, that
the _Times_, ever since I have known it, has been influenced, whether
in defence of the Government of the day, or in constitutional
resistance to it: and indeed there exist no other motives of action
for a Journalist, compatible either with the safety of the press, or
with the political morality of the great bulk of its readers.--With
much respect, I have the honor to be, Sir, &c. &c. &c.
Of this Note I do not think there was the least whisper during Edward
Sterling's lifetime; which fact also one likes to remember of him, so
ostentatious and little-reticent a man. For the rest, his loyal
admiration of Sir Robert Peel,--sanctioned, and as it were almost
consecrated to his mind, by the great example of the Duke of
Wellington, whom he reverenced always with true hero-worship,--was not
a journalistic one, but a most intimate authentic feeling,
sufficiently apparent in the very heart of his mind. Among the many
opinions "liable to three hundred and sixty-five changes in the course
of the year," this in reference to Peel and Wellington was one which
ever changed, but was the same all days and hours. To which, equally
genuine, and coming still oftener to light in those times, there might
one other be added, one and hardly more: fixed contempt, not
unmingled with detestation, for Daniel O'Connell. This latter
feeling, we used often laughingly to say, was his grand political
principle, the one firm centre where all else went revolving. But
internally the other also was deep and constant; and indeed these were
properly his _two_ centres,--poles of the same axis, negative and
positive, the one presupposing the other.
O'Connell he had known in young Dublin days;--and surely no man could
well venerate another less! It was his deliberate, unalterable
opinion of the then Great O, that good would never come of him; that
only mischief, and this in huge measure, would come. That however
showy, and adroit in rhetoric and management, he was a man of
incurably commonplace intellect, and of no character but a hollow,
blustery, pusillanimous and unsound one; great only in maudlin
patriotisms, in speciosities, astucities,--in the miserable gifts for
becoming Chief _Demagogos_, Leader of a deep-sunk Populace towards
_its_ Lands of Promise; which trade, in any age or country, and
especially in the Ireland of this age, our indignant friend regarded
(and with reason) as an extremely ugly one for a man. He had himself
zealously advocated Catholic Emancipation, and was not without his
Irish patriotism, very different from the Orange sort; but the
"Liberator" was not admirable to him, and grew daily less so to an
extreme degree. Truly, his scorn of the said Liberator, now riding in
supreme dominion on the wings of _blarney_, devil-ward of a surety,
with the Liberated all following and huzzaing; his fierce gusts of
wrath and abhorrence over him,--rose occasionally almost to the
sublime. We laughed often at these vehemences:--and they were not
wholly laughable; there was something very serious, and very true, in
them! This creed of Edward Sterling's would not now, in either pole
of its axis, look so strange as it then did in many quarters.
During those ten years which might be defined as the culminating
period of Edward Sterling's life, his house at South Place, Knights
bridge, had worn a gay and solid aspect, as if built at last on the
high table-land of sunshine and success, the region of storms and dark
weather now all victoriously traversed and lying safe below. Health,
work, wages, whatever is needful to a man, he had, in rich measure;
and a frank stout heart to guide the same: he lived in such style as
pleased him; drove his own chariot up and down (himself often acting
as Jehu, and reminding you a little of _Times_ thunder even in
driving); consorted, after a fashion, with the powerful of the world;
saw in due vicissitude a miscellany of social faces round
him,--pleasant parties, which he liked well enough to garnish by a
lord; "Irish lord, if no better might be," as the banter went. For
the rest, he loved men of worth and intellect, and recognized them
well, whatever their title: this was his own patent of worth which
Nature had given him; a central light in the man, which illuminated
into a kind of beauty, serious or humorous, all the artificialities he
had accumulated on the surface of him. So rolled his days, not
quietly, yet prosperously, in manifold commerce with men. At one in
the morning, when all had vanished into sleep, his lamp was kindled in
his library; and there, twice or thrice a week, for a three-hours'
space, he launched his bolts, which next morning were to shake the
high places of the world.
John's relation to his Father, when one saw John here, was altogether
frank, joyful and amiable: he ignored the _Times_ thunder for most
part, coldly taking the Anonymous for non-extant; spoke of it
floutingly, if he spoke at all: indeed a pleasant half-bantering
dialect was the common one between Father and Son; and they,
especially with the gentle, simple-hearted, just-minded Mother for
treble-voice between them, made a very pretty glee-harmony together.
So had it lasted, ever since poor John's voyagings began; his Father's
house standing always as a fixed sunny islet with safe harbor for him.
So it could not always last. This sunny islet was now also to break
and go down: so many firm islets, fixed pillars in his fluctuating
world, pillar after pillar, were to break and go down; till swiftly
all, so to speak, were sunk in the dark waters, and he with them! Our
little History is now hastening to a close.
In the beginning of 1843 news reached us that Sterling had, in his too
reckless way, encountered a dangerous accident: maids, in the room
where he was, were lifting a heavy table; he, seeing them in
difficulty, had snatched at the burden; heaved it away,--but had
broken a blood-vessel by the business; and was now, after extensive
hemorrhage, lying dangerously ill. The doctors hoped the worst was
over; but the case was evidently serious. In the same days, too, his
Mother had been seized here by some painful disease, which from its
continuance grew alarming. Sad omens for Edward Sterling, who by this
time had as good as ceased writing or working in the _Times_, having
comfortably winded up his affairs there; and was looking forward to a
freer idle life befitting his advanced years henceforth. Fatal
eclipse had fallen over that household of his; never to be lifted off
again till all darkened into night.
By dint of watchful nursing, John Sterling got on foot once more: but
his Mother did not recover, quite the contrary. Her case too grew
very questionable. Disease of the heart, said the medical men at
last; not immediately, not perhaps for a length of years, dangerous to
life, said they; but without hope of cure. The poor lady suffered
much; and, though affecting hope always, grew weaker and weaker. John
ran up to Town in March; I saw him, on the morrow or next day after,
in his own room at Knightsbridge: he had caught fresh cold overnight,
the servant having left his window up, but I was charged to say
nothing of it, not to flutter the already troubled house: he was
going home again that very day, and nothing ill would come of it. We
understood the family at Falmouth, his Wife being now near her
confinement again, could at any rate comport with no long absence. He
was cheerful, even rudely merry; himself pale and ill, his poor
Mother's cough audible occasionally through the wall. Very kind, too,
and gracefully affectionate; but I observed a certain grimness in his
mood of mind, and under his light laughter lay something unusual,
something stern, as if already dimmed in the coming shadows of Fate.
"Yes, yes, you are a good man: but I understand they mean to appoint
you to Rhadamanthus's post, which has been vacant for some time; and
you will see how you like that!" This was one of the things he said;
a strange effulgence of wild drollery flashing through the ice of
earnest pain and sorrow. He looked paler than usual: almost for the
first time, I had myself a twinge of misgiving as to his own health;
for hitherto I had been used to blame as much as pity his fits of
dangerous illness, and would often angrily remonstrate with him that
he might have excellent health, would he but take reasonable care of
himself, and learn the art of sitting still. Alas, as if he _could_
learn it; as if Nature had not laid her ban on him even there, and
said in smiles and frowns manifoldly, "No, that thou shalt not learn!"
He went that day; he never saw his good true Mother more. Very
shortly afterwards, in spite of doctors' prophecies, and affectionate
illusions, she grew alarmingly and soon hopelessly worse. Here are
his last two Letters to her:--
"_To Mrs. Sterling, Knightsbridge, London_.
"FALMOUTH 8th April, 1843.
"DEAREST MOTHER,--I could do you no good, but it would be the greatest
comfort to me if I could be near you. Nothing would detain me but
Susan's condition. I feel that until her confinement is over, I ought
to remain here,--unless you wished me to go to you; in which case she
would be the first to send me off. Happily she is doing as well as
possible, and seems even to gain strength every day. She sends her
love to you.
"The children are all doing well. I rode with Edward to-day through
some of the pleasant lanes in the neighborhood; and was delighted, as
I have often been at the same season, to see the primroses under every
hedge. It is pleasant to think that the Maker of them can make other
flowers for the gardens of his other mansions. We have here a
softness in the air, a smoothness of the clouds, and a mild sunshine,
that combine in lovely peace with the first green of spring and the
mellow whiteness of the sails upon the quiet sea. The whole aspect of
the world is full of a quiet harmony, that influences even one's
bodily frame, and seems to make one's very limbs aware of something
living, good and immortal in all around us. Knowing how you suffer,
and how weak you are, anything is a blessing to me that helps me to
rise out of confusion and grief into the sense of God and joy. I
could not indeed but feel how much happier I should have been, this
morning, had you been with me, and delighting as you would have done
in all the little as well as the large beauty of the world. But it
was still a satisfaction to feel how much I owe to you of the power of
perceiving meaning, reality and sweetness in all healthful life. And
thus I could fancy that you were still near me; and that I could see
you, as I have so often seen you, looking with earnest eyes at wayside
"I would rather not have written what must recall your thoughts to
your present sufferings: but, dear Mother, I wrote only what I felt;
and perhaps you would rather have it so, than that I should try to
find other topics. I still hope to be with you before long.
Meanwhile and always, God bless you, is the prayer of
"Your affectionate son,
_To the same_.
"FALMOUTH, 12th April, 1843.
"DEAREST MOTHER,--I have just received my Father's Letter; which gives
me at least the comfort of believing that you do not suffer very much
pain. That your mind has remained so clear and strong, is an infinite
"I do not know anything in the world that would make up to me at all
for wanting the recollection of the days I spent with you lately, when
I was amazed at the freshness and life of all your thoughts. It
brought back far-distant years, in the strangest, most peaceful way.
I felt myself walking with you in Greenwich Park, and on the seashore
at Sandgate; almost even I seemed a baby, with you bending over me.
Dear Mother, there is surely something uniting us that cannot perish.
I seem so sure of a love which shall last and reunite us, that even
the remembrance, painful as that is, of all my own follies and ill
tempers, cannot shake this faith. When I think of you, and know how
you feel towards me, and have felt for every moment of almost forty
years, it would be too dark to believe that we shall never meet again.
It was from you that I first learnt to think, to feel, to imagine, to
believe; and these powers, which cannot be extinguished, will one day
enter anew into communion with you. I have bought it very dear by the
prospect of losing you in this world,--but since you have been so ill,
everything has seemed to me holier, loftier and more lasting, more
full of hope and final joy.
"It would be a very great happiness to see you once more even here;
but I do not know if that will be granted to me. But for Susan's
state, I should not hesitate an instant; as it is, my duty seems to be
to remain, and I have no right to repine. There is no sacrifice that
she would not make for me, and it would be too cruel to endanger her
by mere anxiety on my account. Nothing can exceed her sympathy with
my sorrow. But she cannot know, no one can, the recollections of all
you have been and done for me; which now are the most sacred and
deepest, as well as most beautiful, thoughts that abide with me. May
God bless you, dearest Mother. It is much to believe that He feels
for you all that you have ever felt for your children.
A day or two after this, "on Good Friday, 1843," his Wife got happily
through her confinement, bringing him, he writes, "a stout little
girl, who and the Mother are doing as well as possible." The little
girl still lives and does well; but for the Mother there was another
lot. Till the Monday following she too did altogether well, he
affectionately watching her; but in the course of that day, some
change for the worse was noticed, though nothing to alarm either the
doctors or him; he watched by her bedside all night, still without
alarm; but sent again in the morning, Tuesday morning, for the
doctors,--Who did not seem able to make much of the symptoms. She
appeared weak and low, but made no particular complaint. The London
post meanwhile was announced; Sterling went into another room to learn
what tidings of his Mother it brought him. Returning speedily with a
face which in vain strove to be calm, his Wife asked, How at
Knightsbridge? "My Mother is dead," answered Sterling; "died on
Sunday: She is gone." "Poor old man! " murmured the other, thinking
of old Edward Sterling now left alone in the world; and these were her
own last words: in two hours more she too was dead. In two hours
Mother and Wife were suddenly both snatched away from him.
"It came with awful suddenness! " writes he to his Clifton friend.
"Still for a short time I had my Susan: but I soon saw that the
medical men were in terror; and almost within half an hour of that
fatal Knightsbridge news, I began to suspect our own pressing danger.
I received her last breath upon my lips. Her mind was much sunk, and
her perceptions slow; but a few minutes before the last, she must have
caught the idea of dissolution; and signed that I should kiss her.
She faltered painfully, 'Yes! yes!'--returned with fervency the
pressure of my lips; and in a few moments her eyes began to fix, her
pulse to cease. She too is gone from me!" It was Tuesday morning,
April 18th, 1843. His Mother had died on the Sunday before.
He had loved his excellent kind Mother, as he ought and well might:
in that good heart, in all the wanderings of his own, there had ever
been a shrine of warm pity, of mother's love and blessed soft
affections for him; and now it was closed in the Eternities
forevermore. His poor Life-partner too, his other self, who had
faithfully attended him so long in all his pilgrimings, cheerily
footing the heavy tortuous ways along with him, can follow him no
farther; sinks now at his side: "The rest of your pilgrimings alone,
O Friend,--adieu, adieu!" She too is forever hidden from his eyes;
and he stands, on the sudden, very solitary amid the tumult of fallen
and falling things. "My little baby girl is doing well; poor little
wreck cast upon the sea-beach of life. My children require me tenfold
now. What I shall do, is all confusion and darkness."
The younger Mrs. Sterling was a true good woman; loyal-hearted,
willing to do well, and struggling wonderfully to do it amid her
languors and infirmities; rescuing, in many ways, with beautiful
female heroism and adroitness, what of fertility their uncertain,
wandering, unfertile way of life still left possible, and cheerily
making the most of it. A genial, pious and harmonious fund of
character was in her; and withal an indolent, half-unconscious force
of intellect, and justness and delicacy of perception, which the
casual acquaintance scarcely gave her credit for. Sterling much
respected her decision in matters literary; often altering and
modifying where her feeling clearly went against him; and in verses
especially trusting to her ear, which was excellent, while he knew his
own to be worth little. I remember her melodious rich plaintive tone
of voice; and an exceedingly bright smile which she sometimes had,
effulgent with sunny gayety and true humor, among other fine
Sterling has lost much in these two hours; how much that has long been
can never again be for him! Twice in one morning, so to speak, has a
mighty wind smitten the corners of his house; and much lies in dismal
ruins round him.
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 little 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,
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
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,
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
"Yours to the last,
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
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.
Sterling was of rather slim but well-boned wiry figure, perhaps an
inch or two from six feet in height; of blonde complexion, without
color, yet not pale or sickly; dark-blonde hair, copious enough, which
he usually wore short. The general aspect of him indicated freedom,
perfect spontaneity, with a certain careless natural grace. In his
apparel, you could notice, he affected dim colors, easy shapes;
cleanly always, yet even in this not fastidious or conspicuous: he
sat or stood, oftenest, in loose sloping postures; walked with long
strides, body carelessly bent, head flung eagerly forward, right hand
perhaps grasping a cane, and rather by the middle to swing it, than by
the end to use it otherwise. An attitude of frank, cheerful
impetuosity, of hopeful speed and alacrity; which indeed his
physiognomy, on all sides of it, offered as the chief expression.
Alacrity, velocity, joyous ardor, dwelt in the eyes too, which were of
brownish gray, full of bright kindly life, rapid and frank rather than
deep or strong. A smile, half of kindly impatience, half of real
mirth, often sat on his face. The head was long; high over the
vertex; in the brow, of fair breadth, but not high for such a man.
In the voice, which was of good tenor sort, rapid and strikingly
distinct, powerful too, and except in some of the higher notes
harmonious, there was a clear-ringing _metallic_ tone,--which I often
thought was wonderfully physiognomic. A certain splendor, beautiful,
but not the deepest or the softest, which I could call a splendor as
of burnished metal,--fiery valor of heart, swift decisive insight and
utterance, then a turn for brilliant elegance, also for ostentation,
rashness, &c. &c.,--in short, a flash as of clear-glancing
sharp-cutting steel, lay in the whole nature of the man, in his heart
and in his intellect, marking alike the excellence and the limits of
them both. His laugh, which on light occasions was ready and
frequent, had in it no great depth of gayety, or sense for the
ludicrous in men or things; you might call it rather a good smile
become vocal than a deep real laugh: with his whole man I never saw
him laugh. A clear sense of the humorous he had, as of most other
things; but in himself little or no true humor;--nor did he attempt
that side of things. To call him deficient in sympathy would seem
strange, him whose radiances and resonances went thrilling over all
the world, and kept him in brotherly contact with all: but I may say
his sympathies dwelt rather with the high and sublime than with the
low or ludicrous; and were, in any field, rather light, wide and
lively, than deep, abiding or great.
There is no Portrait of him which tolerably resembles. The miniature
Medallion, of which Mr. Hare has given an Engraving, offers us, with
no great truth in physical details, one, and not the best, superficial
expression of his face, as if that with vacuity had been what the face
contained; and even that Mr. Hare's engraver has disfigured into the
nearly or the utterly irrecognizable. Two Pencil-sketches, which no
artist could approve of, hasty sketches done in some social hour, one
by his friend Spedding, one by Banim the Novelist, whom he slightly
knew and had been kind to, tell a much truer story so far as they go:
of these his Brother has engravings; but these also I must suppress as
inadequate for strangers.
Nor in the way of Spiritual Portraiture does there, after so much
writing and excerpting, anything of importance remain for me to say.
John Sterling and his Life in this world were--such as has been
already said. In purity of character, in the so-called moralities, in
all manner of proprieties of conduct, so as tea-tables and other human
tribunals rule them, he might be defined as perfect, according to the
world's pattern: in these outward tangible respects the world's
criticism of him must have been praise and that only. An honorable
man, and good citizen; discharging, with unblamable correctness, all
functions and duties laid on him by the customs (_mores_) of the
society he lived in,--with correctness and something more. In all
these particulars, a man perfectly _moral_, or of approved virtue
according to the rules.
Nay in the far more essential tacit virtues, which are not marked on
stone tables, or so apt to be insisted on by human creatures over tea
or elsewhere,--in clear and perfect fidelity to Truth wherever found,
in childlike and soldier-like, pious and valiant loyalty to the
Highest, and what of good and evil that might send him,--he excelled
among good men. The joys and the sorrows of his lot he took with true
simplicity and acquiescence. Like a true son, not like a miserable
mutinous rebel, he comported himself in this Universe. Extremity of
distress--and surely his fervid temper had enough of contradiction in
this world--could not tempt him into impatience at any time. By no
chance did you ever hear from him a whisper of those mean repinings,
miserable arraignings and questionings of the Eternal Power, such as
weak souls even well disposed will sometimes give way to in the
pressure of their despair; to the like of this he never yielded, or
showed the least tendency to yield;--which surely was well on his
part. For the Eternal Power, I still remark, will not answer the like
of this, but silently and terribly accounts it impious, blasphemous
and damnable, and now as heretofore will visit it as such. Not a
rebel but a son, I said; willing to suffer when Heaven said, Thou
shalt;--and withal, what is perhaps rarer in such a combination,
willing to rejoice also, and right cheerily taking the good that was
sent, whensoever or in whatever form it came.
A pious soul we may justly call him; devoutly submissive to the will
of the Supreme in all things: the highest and sole essential form
which Religion can assume in man, and without which all forms of
religion are a mockery and a delusion in man. Doubtless, in so clear
and filial a heart there must have dwelt the perennial feeling of
silent worship; which silent feeling, as we have seen, he was eager
enough to express by all good ways of utterance; zealously adopting
such appointed forms and creeds as the dignitaries of the World had
fixed upon and solemnly named recommendable; prostrating his heart in
such Church, by such accredited rituals and seemingly fit or half-fit
methods, as his poor time and country had to offer him,--not rejecting
the said methods till they stood convicted of palpable unfitness and
then doing it right gently withal, rather letting them drop as
pitiably dead for him, than angrily hurling them out of doors as
needing to be killed. By few Englishmen of his epoch had the thing
called Church of England been more loyally appealed to as a spiritual
And yet, as I said before, it may be questioned whether piety, what we
call devotion or worship, was the principle deepest in him. In spite
of his Coleridge discipleship, and his once headlong operations
following thereon, I used to judge that his piety was prompt and pure
rather than great or intense; that, on the whole, religious devotion
was not the deepest element of him. His reverence was ardent and
just, ever ready for the thing or man that deserved revering, or
seemed to deserve it: but he was of too joyful, light and hoping a
nature to go to the depths of that feeling, much more to dwell
perennially in it. He had no fear in his composition; terror and awe
did not blend with his respect of anything. In no scene or epoch
could he have been a Church Saint, a fanatic enthusiast, or have worn
out his life in passive martyrdom, sitting patient in his grim
coal-mine, looking at the "three ells" of Heaven high overhead there.
In sorrow he would not dwell; all sorrow he swiftly subdued, and shook
away from him. How could you have made an Indian Fakir of the Greek
Apollo, "whose bright eye lends brightness, and never yet saw a
shadow"?--I should say, not religious reverence, rather artistic
admiration was the essential character of him: a fact connected with
all other facts in the physiognomy of his life and self, and giving a
tragic enough character to much of the history he had among us.
Poor Sterling, he was by nature appointed for a Poet, then,--a Poet
after his sort, or recognizer and delineator of the Beautiful; and not
for a Priest at all? Striving towards the sunny heights, out of such
a level and through such an element as ours in these days is, he had
strange aberrations appointed him, and painful wanderings amid the
miserable gaslights, bog-fires, dancing meteors and putrid
phosphorescences which form the guidance of a young human soul at
present! Not till after trying all manner of sublimely illuminated
places, and finding that the basis of them was putridity, artificial
gas and quaking bog, did he, when his strength was all done, discover
his true sacred hill, and passionately climb thither while life was
fast ebbing!--A tragic history, as all histories are; yet a gallant,
brave and noble one, as not many are. It is what, to a radiant son of
the Muses, and bright messenger of the harmonious Wisdoms, this poor
world--if he himself have not strength enough, and _inertia_ enough,
and amid his harmonious eloquences silence enough--has provided at
present. Many a high-striving, too hasty soul, seeking guidance
towards eternal excellence from the official Black-artists, and
successful Professors of political, ecclesiastical, philosophical,
commercial, general and particular Legerdemain, will recognize his own
history in this image of a fellow-pilgrim's.
Over-haste was Sterling's continual fault; over-haste, and want of the
due strength,--alas, mere want of the due _inertia_ chiefly; which is
so common a gift for most part; and proves so inexorably needful
withal! But he was good and generous and true; joyful where there was
joy, patient and silent where endurance was required of him; shook
innumerable sorrows, and thick-crowding forms of pain, gallantly away
from him; fared frankly forward, and with scrupulous care to tread on
no one's toes. True, above all, one may call him; a man of perfect
veracity in thought, word and deed. Integrity towards all men,--nay
integrity had ripened with him into chivalrous generosity; there was
no guile or baseness anywhere found in him. Transparent as crystal;
he could not hide anything sinister, if such there had been to hide.
A more perfectly transparent soul I have never known. It was
beautiful, to read all those interior movements; the little shades of
affectations, ostentations; transient spurts of anger, which never
grew to the length of settled spleen: all so naive, so childlike, the
very faults grew beautiful to you.
And so he played his part among us, and has now ended it: in this
first half of the Nineteenth Century, such was the shape of human
destinies the world and he made out between them. He sleeps now, in
the little burying-ground of Bonchurch; bright, ever-young in the
memory of others that must grow old; and was honorably released from
his toils before the hottest of the day.
All that remains, in palpable shape, of John Sterling's activities in
this world are those Two poor Volumes; scattered fragments gathered
from the general waste of forgotten ephemera by the piety of a friend:
an inconsiderable memorial; not pretending to have achieved greatness;
only disclosing, mournfully, to the more observant, that a promise of
greatness was there. Like other such lives, like all lives, this is a
tragedy; high hopes, noble efforts; under thickening difficulties and
impediments, ever-new nobleness of valiant effort;--and the result
death, with conquests by no means corresponding. A life which cannot
challenge the world's attention; yet which does modestly solicit it,
and perhaps on clear study will be found to reward it.
On good evidence let the world understand that here was a remarkable
soul born into it; who, more than others, sensible to its influences,
took intensely into him such tint and shape of feature as the world
had to offer there and then; fashioning himself eagerly by whatsoever
of noble presented itself; participating ardently in the world's
battle, and suffering deeply in its bewilderments;--whose
Life-pilgrimage accordingly is an emblem, unusually significant, of
the world's own during those years of his. A man of infinite
susceptivity; who caught everywhere, more than others, the color of
the element he lived in, the infection of all that was or appeared
honorable, beautiful and manful in the tendencies of his Time;--whose
history therefore is, beyond others, emblematic of that of his Time.
In Sterling's Writings and Actions, were they capable of being well
read, we consider that there is for all true hearts, and especially
for young noble seekers, and strivers towards what is highest, a
mirror in which some shadow of themselves and of their immeasurably
complex arena will profitably present itself. Here also is one
encompassed and struggling even as they now are. This man also had
said to himself, not in mere Catechism-words, but with all his
instincts, and the question thrilled in every nerve of him, and pulsed
in every drop of his blood: "What is the chief end of man? Behold, I
too would live and work as beseems a denizen of this Universe, a child
of the Highest God. By what means is a noble life still possible for
me here? Ye Heavens and thou Earth, oh, how?"--The history of this
long-continued prayer and endeavor, lasting in various figures for
near forty years, may now and for some time coming have something to
say to men!
Nay, what of men or of the world? Here, visible to myself, for some
while, was a brilliant human presence, distinguishable, honorable and
lovable amid the dim common populations; among the million little
beautiful, once more a beautiful human soul: whom I, among others,
recognized and lovingly walked with, while the years and the hours
were. Sitting now by his tomb in thoughtful mood, the new times bring
a new duty for me. "Why write the Life of Sterling?" I imagine I had
a commission higher than the world's, the dictate of Nature herself,
to do what is now done. _Sic prosit_.
[1] _John Sterling's Essays and Tales, with Life_ by Archdeacon Hare.
Parker; London, 1848.
[2] _Commons Journals_, iv. 15 (l0th January, 1644-5); and again v.
307 &c., 498 (18th September, 1647-15th March, 1647-8).
[3] _Literary Chronicle_, New Series; London, Saturday, 21 June, 1828,
Art. II.
[4] "The Letters of Vetus from March 10th to May 10th, 1812" (second
edition, London, 1812): Ditto, "Part III., with a Preface and Notes"
(ibid. 1814).
[5] Here, in a Note, is the tragic little Register, with what
indications for us may lie in it:--
(l.) Robert Sterling died, 4th June, 1815, at Queen Square, in
his fourth year (John being now nine).
(2.) Elizabeth died, 12th March, 1818, at Blackfriars Road, in
her second year.
(3.) Edward, 30th March, 1818 (same place, same month and year),
in his ninth.
(4.) Hester, 21st July, 1818 (three months later), at Blackheath,
in her eleventh.
(5.) Catherine Hester Elizabeth, 16th January, 1821, in Seymour
[6] _History of the English Universities_. (Translated from the
[7] Mrs. Anthony Sterling, very lately Miss Charlotte Baird.
[8] _Biography_, by Hare, pp. xvi-xxvi.
[9] _Biography_, by Mr. Hare, p. xli.
[10] Hare, pp. xliii-xlvi.
[11] Hare, xlviii, liv, lv.
[12] Hare, p. lvi.
[13] P. lxxviii.
[14] Given in Hare (ii. 188-193).
[15] Came out, as will soon appear, in _Blackwood_ (February, 1838).
[16] "_Hotel de l'Europe, Berlin_," added in Mrs. Sterling's hand.
[17] Hare, ii. 96-167.
[18] Ib. i. 129, 188.
[19] Here in a Note they are, if they can be important to anybody. The
marks of interrogation, attached to some Names as not yet consulted or
otherwise questionable, are in the Secretary's hand:--
J. D. Acland, Esq. H. Malden, Esq.
Hon. W. B. Baring. J. S. Mill, Esq.
Rev. J. W. Blakesley. R. M. Milnes, Esq.
W. Boxall, Esq. R. Monteith, Esq.
T. Carlyle, Esq. S. A. O'Brien, Esq.
Hon. R. Cavendish (?) Sir F. Palgrave (?)
H. N. Coleridge, Esq. (?) W. F. Pollok, Esq.
J. W. Colville, Esq. Philip Pusey, Esq.
Allan Cunningham, Esq. (?) A. Rio, Esq.
Rev. H. Donn. C. Romilly, Esq.
F. H. Doyle, Esq. James Spedding, Esq.
C. L. Eastlake, Esq. Rev. John Sterling.
Alex. Ellice, Esq. Alfred Tennyson, Esq.
J. F. Elliott, Esq. Rev. Connop Thirlwall.
Copley Fielding, Esq. Rev. W. Hepworth Thompson.
Rev. J. C. Hare. Edward Twisleton, Esq.
Sir Edmund Head (?) G. S. Venables, Esq.
D. D. Heath, Esq. Samuel Wood, Esq.
G. C. Lewis, Esq. Rev. T. Worsley.
H. L. Lushington, Esq.
The Lord Lyttleton. James Spedding, _Secretary_.
C. Macarthy, Esq. 8th August, 1838.
[20] Hare, p. cxviii.
[21] Of Sterling himself, I suppose.
[22] Hare, ii. p. 252.
[23] _Poems by John Sterling_. London (Moxon), 1839.
[24] _The Election: a Poem, in Seven Books_. London, Murray, 1841.
[25] Pp. 7, 8.
[26] Pp. 89-93.
[27] Sister of Mrs. Strachey and Mrs. Buller: Sir John Louis was now
in a high Naval post at Malta.
[28] Long Letter to his Father: Naples, 3d May, 1842.
[29] Death of her Mother, four mouths before. (_Note of_ 1870.]

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