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Chapter 6

VENTNOR: DEATH.

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,

"Yours,
"JOHN STERLING."

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
rose.

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,
"JOHN STERLING."

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
asseverations.

"Yours to the last,
"JOHN STERLING."

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
alone.

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.

Thomas Carlyle

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