Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 15

BONN; HERSTMONCEUX.

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
parted.

"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
while!--


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.

Thomas Carlyle

Sorry, no summary available yet.