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Chapter 4


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.

Thomas Carlyle

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