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Chapter 5


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.

Thomas Carlyle

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