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


Sterling was of rather slim but well-boned wiry figure, perhaps an
inch or two from six feet in height; of blonde complexion, without
color, yet not pale or sickly; dark-blonde hair, copious enough, which
he usually wore short. The general aspect of him indicated freedom,
perfect spontaneity, with a certain careless natural grace. In his
apparel, you could notice, he affected dim colors, easy shapes;
cleanly always, yet even in this not fastidious or conspicuous: he
sat or stood, oftenest, in loose sloping postures; walked with long
strides, body carelessly bent, head flung eagerly forward, right hand
perhaps grasping a cane, and rather by the middle to swing it, than by
the end to use it otherwise. An attitude of frank, cheerful
impetuosity, of hopeful speed and alacrity; which indeed his
physiognomy, on all sides of it, offered as the chief expression.
Alacrity, velocity, joyous ardor, dwelt in the eyes too, which were of
brownish gray, full of bright kindly life, rapid and frank rather than
deep or strong. A smile, half of kindly impatience, half of real
mirth, often sat on his face. The head was long; high over the
vertex; in the brow, of fair breadth, but not high for such a man.

In the voice, which was of good tenor sort, rapid and strikingly
distinct, powerful too, and except in some of the higher notes
harmonious, there was a clear-ringing _metallic_ tone,--which I often
thought was wonderfully physiognomic. A certain splendor, beautiful,
but not the deepest or the softest, which I could call a splendor as
of burnished metal,--fiery valor of heart, swift decisive insight and
utterance, then a turn for brilliant elegance, also for ostentation,
rashness, &c. &c.,--in short, a flash as of clear-glancing
sharp-cutting steel, lay in the whole nature of the man, in his heart
and in his intellect, marking alike the excellence and the limits of
them both. His laugh, which on light occasions was ready and
frequent, had in it no great depth of gayety, or sense for the
ludicrous in men or things; you might call it rather a good smile
become vocal than a deep real laugh: with his whole man I never saw
him laugh. A clear sense of the humorous he had, as of most other
things; but in himself little or no true humor;--nor did he attempt
that side of things. To call him deficient in sympathy would seem
strange, him whose radiances and resonances went thrilling over all
the world, and kept him in brotherly contact with all: but I may say
his sympathies dwelt rather with the high and sublime than with the
low or ludicrous; and were, in any field, rather light, wide and
lively, than deep, abiding or great.

There is no Portrait of him which tolerably resembles. The miniature
Medallion, of which Mr. Hare has given an Engraving, offers us, with
no great truth in physical details, one, and not the best, superficial
expression of his face, as if that with vacuity had been what the face
contained; and even that Mr. Hare's engraver has disfigured into the
nearly or the utterly irrecognizable. Two Pencil-sketches, which no
artist could approve of, hasty sketches done in some social hour, one
by his friend Spedding, one by Banim the Novelist, whom he slightly
knew and had been kind to, tell a much truer story so far as they go:
of these his Brother has engravings; but these also I must suppress as
inadequate for strangers.

Nor in the way of Spiritual Portraiture does there, after so much
writing and excerpting, anything of importance remain for me to say.
John Sterling and his Life in this world were--such as has been
already said. In purity of character, in the so-called moralities, in
all manner of proprieties of conduct, so as tea-tables and other human
tribunals rule them, he might be defined as perfect, according to the
world's pattern: in these outward tangible respects the world's
criticism of him must have been praise and that only. An honorable
man, and good citizen; discharging, with unblamable correctness, all
functions and duties laid on him by the customs (_mores_) of the
society he lived in,--with correctness and something more. In all
these particulars, a man perfectly _moral_, or of approved virtue
according to the rules.

Nay in the far more essential tacit virtues, which are not marked on
stone tables, or so apt to be insisted on by human creatures over tea
or elsewhere,--in clear and perfect fidelity to Truth wherever found,
in childlike and soldier-like, pious and valiant loyalty to the
Highest, and what of good and evil that might send him,--he excelled
among good men. The joys and the sorrows of his lot he took with true
simplicity and acquiescence. Like a true son, not like a miserable
mutinous rebel, he comported himself in this Universe. Extremity of
distress--and surely his fervid temper had enough of contradiction in
this world--could not tempt him into impatience at any time. By no
chance did you ever hear from him a whisper of those mean repinings,
miserable arraignings and questionings of the Eternal Power, such as
weak souls even well disposed will sometimes give way to in the
pressure of their despair; to the like of this he never yielded, or
showed the least tendency to yield;--which surely was well on his
part. For the Eternal Power, I still remark, will not answer the like
of this, but silently and terribly accounts it impious, blasphemous
and damnable, and now as heretofore will visit it as such. Not a
rebel but a son, I said; willing to suffer when Heaven said, Thou
shalt;--and withal, what is perhaps rarer in such a combination,
willing to rejoice also, and right cheerily taking the good that was
sent, whensoever or in whatever form it came.

A pious soul we may justly call him; devoutly submissive to the will
of the Supreme in all things: the highest and sole essential form
which Religion can assume in man, and without which all forms of
religion are a mockery and a delusion in man. Doubtless, in so clear
and filial a heart there must have dwelt the perennial feeling of
silent worship; which silent feeling, as we have seen, he was eager
enough to express by all good ways of utterance; zealously adopting
such appointed forms and creeds as the dignitaries of the World had
fixed upon and solemnly named recommendable; prostrating his heart in
such Church, by such accredited rituals and seemingly fit or half-fit
methods, as his poor time and country had to offer him,--not rejecting
the said methods till they stood convicted of palpable unfitness and
then doing it right gently withal, rather letting them drop as
pitiably dead for him, than angrily hurling them out of doors as
needing to be killed. By few Englishmen of his epoch had the thing
called Church of England been more loyally appealed to as a spiritual

And yet, as I said before, it may be questioned whether piety, what we
call devotion or worship, was the principle deepest in him. In spite
of his Coleridge discipleship, and his once headlong operations
following thereon, I used to judge that his piety was prompt and pure
rather than great or intense; that, on the whole, religious devotion
was not the deepest element of him. His reverence was ardent and
just, ever ready for the thing or man that deserved revering, or
seemed to deserve it: but he was of too joyful, light and hoping a
nature to go to the depths of that feeling, much more to dwell
perennially in it. He had no fear in his composition; terror and awe
did not blend with his respect of anything. In no scene or epoch
could he have been a Church Saint, a fanatic enthusiast, or have worn
out his life in passive martyrdom, sitting patient in his grim
coal-mine, looking at the "three ells" of Heaven high overhead there.
In sorrow he would not dwell; all sorrow he swiftly subdued, and shook
away from him. How could you have made an Indian Fakir of the Greek
Apollo, "whose bright eye lends brightness, and never yet saw a
shadow"?--I should say, not religious reverence, rather artistic
admiration was the essential character of him: a fact connected with
all other facts in the physiognomy of his life and self, and giving a
tragic enough character to much of the history he had among us.

Poor Sterling, he was by nature appointed for a Poet, then,--a Poet
after his sort, or recognizer and delineator of the Beautiful; and not
for a Priest at all? Striving towards the sunny heights, out of such
a level and through such an element as ours in these days is, he had
strange aberrations appointed him, and painful wanderings amid the
miserable gaslights, bog-fires, dancing meteors and putrid
phosphorescences which form the guidance of a young human soul at
present! Not till after trying all manner of sublimely illuminated
places, and finding that the basis of them was putridity, artificial
gas and quaking bog, did he, when his strength was all done, discover
his true sacred hill, and passionately climb thither while life was
fast ebbing!--A tragic history, as all histories are; yet a gallant,
brave and noble one, as not many are. It is what, to a radiant son of
the Muses, and bright messenger of the harmonious Wisdoms, this poor
world--if he himself have not strength enough, and _inertia_ enough,
and amid his harmonious eloquences silence enough--has provided at
present. Many a high-striving, too hasty soul, seeking guidance
towards eternal excellence from the official Black-artists, and
successful Professors of political, ecclesiastical, philosophical,
commercial, general and particular Legerdemain, will recognize his own
history in this image of a fellow-pilgrim's.

Over-haste was Sterling's continual fault; over-haste, and want of the
due strength,--alas, mere want of the due _inertia_ chiefly; which is
so common a gift for most part; and proves so inexorably needful
withal! But he was good and generous and true; joyful where there was
joy, patient and silent where endurance was required of him; shook
innumerable sorrows, and thick-crowding forms of pain, gallantly away
from him; fared frankly forward, and with scrupulous care to tread on
no one's toes. True, above all, one may call him; a man of perfect
veracity in thought, word and deed. Integrity towards all men,--nay
integrity had ripened with him into chivalrous generosity; there was
no guile or baseness anywhere found in him. Transparent as crystal;
he could not hide anything sinister, if such there had been to hide.
A more perfectly transparent soul I have never known. It was
beautiful, to read all those interior movements; the little shades of
affectations, ostentations; transient spurts of anger, which never
grew to the length of settled spleen: all so naive, so childlike, the
very faults grew beautiful to you.

And so he played his part among us, and has now ended it: in this
first half of the Nineteenth Century, such was the shape of human
destinies the world and he made out between them. He sleeps now, in
the little burying-ground of Bonchurch; bright, ever-young in the
memory of others that must grow old; and was honorably released from
his toils before the hottest of the day.

All that remains, in palpable shape, of John Sterling's activities in
this world are those Two poor Volumes; scattered fragments gathered
from the general waste of forgotten ephemera by the piety of a friend:
an inconsiderable memorial; not pretending to have achieved greatness;
only disclosing, mournfully, to the more observant, that a promise of
greatness was there. Like other such lives, like all lives, this is a
tragedy; high hopes, noble efforts; under thickening difficulties and
impediments, ever-new nobleness of valiant effort;--and the result
death, with conquests by no means corresponding. A life which cannot
challenge the world's attention; yet which does modestly solicit it,
and perhaps on clear study will be found to reward it.

On good evidence let the world understand that here was a remarkable
soul born into it; who, more than others, sensible to its influences,
took intensely into him such tint and shape of feature as the world
had to offer there and then; fashioning himself eagerly by whatsoever
of noble presented itself; participating ardently in the world's
battle, and suffering deeply in its bewilderments;--whose
Life-pilgrimage accordingly is an emblem, unusually significant, of
the world's own during those years of his. A man of infinite
susceptivity; who caught everywhere, more than others, the color of
the element he lived in, the infection of all that was or appeared
honorable, beautiful and manful in the tendencies of his Time;--whose
history therefore is, beyond others, emblematic of that of his Time.

In Sterling's Writings and Actions, were they capable of being well
read, we consider that there is for all true hearts, and especially
for young noble seekers, and strivers towards what is highest, a
mirror in which some shadow of themselves and of their immeasurably
complex arena will profitably present itself. Here also is one
encompassed and struggling even as they now are. This man also had
said to himself, not in mere Catechism-words, but with all his
instincts, and the question thrilled in every nerve of him, and pulsed
in every drop of his blood: "What is the chief end of man? Behold, I
too would live and work as beseems a denizen of this Universe, a child
of the Highest God. By what means is a noble life still possible for
me here? Ye Heavens and thou Earth, oh, how?"--The history of this
long-continued prayer and endeavor, lasting in various figures for
near forty years, may now and for some time coming have something to
say to men!

Nay, what of men or of the world? Here, visible to myself, for some
while, was a brilliant human presence, distinguishable, honorable and
lovable amid the dim common populations; among the million little
beautiful, once more a beautiful human soul: whom I, among others,
recognized and lovingly walked with, while the years and the hours
were. Sitting now by his tomb in thoughtful mood, the new times bring
a new duty for me. "Why write the Life of Sterling?" I imagine I had
a commission higher than the world's, the dictate of Nature herself,
to do what is now done. _Sic prosit_.

[1] _John Sterling's Essays and Tales, with Life_ by Archdeacon Hare.
Parker; London, 1848.
[2] _Commons Journals_, iv. 15 (l0th January, 1644-5); and again v.
307 &c., 498 (18th September, 1647-15th March, 1647-8).
[3] _Literary Chronicle_, New Series; London, Saturday, 21 June, 1828,
Art. II.
[4] "The Letters of Vetus from March 10th to May 10th, 1812" (second
edition, London, 1812): Ditto, "Part III., with a Preface and Notes"
(ibid. 1814).
[5] Here, in a Note, is the tragic little Register, with what
indications for us may lie in it:--
(l.) Robert Sterling died, 4th June, 1815, at Queen Square, in
his fourth year (John being now nine).
(2.) Elizabeth died, 12th March, 1818, at Blackfriars Road, in
her second year.
(3.) Edward, 30th March, 1818 (same place, same month and year),
in his ninth.
(4.) Hester, 21st July, 1818 (three months later), at Blackheath,
in her eleventh.
(5.) Catherine Hester Elizabeth, 16th January, 1821, in Seymour
[6] _History of the English Universities_. (Translated from the
[7] Mrs. Anthony Sterling, very lately Miss Charlotte Baird.
[8] _Biography_, by Hare, pp. xvi-xxvi.
[9] _Biography_, by Mr. Hare, p. xli.
[10] Hare, pp. xliii-xlvi.
[11] Hare, xlviii, liv, lv.
[12] Hare, p. lvi.
[13] P. lxxviii.
[14] Given in Hare (ii. 188-193).
[15] Came out, as will soon appear, in _Blackwood_ (February, 1838).
[16] "_Hotel de l'Europe, Berlin_," added in Mrs. Sterling's hand.
[17] Hare, ii. 96-167.
[18] Ib. i. 129, 188.
[19] Here in a Note they are, if they can be important to anybody. The
marks of interrogation, attached to some Names as not yet consulted or
otherwise questionable, are in the Secretary's hand:--
J. D. Acland, Esq. H. Malden, Esq.
Hon. W. B. Baring. J. S. Mill, Esq.
Rev. J. W. Blakesley. R. M. Milnes, Esq.
W. Boxall, Esq. R. Monteith, Esq.
T. Carlyle, Esq. S. A. O'Brien, Esq.
Hon. R. Cavendish (?) Sir F. Palgrave (?)
H. N. Coleridge, Esq. (?) W. F. Pollok, Esq.
J. W. Colville, Esq. Philip Pusey, Esq.
Allan Cunningham, Esq. (?) A. Rio, Esq.
Rev. H. Donn. C. Romilly, Esq.
F. H. Doyle, Esq. James Spedding, Esq.
C. L. Eastlake, Esq. Rev. John Sterling.
Alex. Ellice, Esq. Alfred Tennyson, Esq.
J. F. Elliott, Esq. Rev. Connop Thirlwall.
Copley Fielding, Esq. Rev. W. Hepworth Thompson.
Rev. J. C. Hare. Edward Twisleton, Esq.
Sir Edmund Head (?) G. S. Venables, Esq.
D. D. Heath, Esq. Samuel Wood, Esq.
G. C. Lewis, Esq. Rev. T. Worsley.
H. L. Lushington, Esq.
The Lord Lyttleton. James Spedding, _Secretary_.
C. Macarthy, Esq. 8th August, 1838.
[20] Hare, p. cxviii.
[21] Of Sterling himself, I suppose.
[22] Hare, ii. p. 252.
[23] _Poems by John Sterling_. London (Moxon), 1839.
[24] _The Election: a Poem, in Seven Books_. London, Murray, 1841.
[25] Pp. 7, 8.
[26] Pp. 89-93.
[27] Sister of Mrs. Strachey and Mrs. Buller: Sir John Louis was now
in a high Naval post at Malta.
[28] Long Letter to his Father: Naples, 3d May, 1842.
[29] Death of her Mother, four mouths before. (_Note of_ 1870.]

Thomas Carlyle

Sorry, no summary available yet.