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Chapter 1


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.

Thomas Carlyle

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