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Chapter 4


UNIVERSITIES: GLASGOW; CAMBRIDGE.

At a later stage, John had some instruction from a Dr. Waite at
Blackheath; and lastly, the family having now removed into Town, to
Seymour Street in the fashionable region there, he "read for a while
with Dr. Trollope, Master of Christ's Hospital;" which ended his
school history.

In this his ever-changing course, from Reece at Cowbridge to Trollope
in Christ's, which was passed so nomadically, under ferulas of various
color, the boy had, on the whole, snatched successfully a fair share
of what was going. Competent skill in construing Latin, I think also
an elementary knowledge of Greek; add ciphering to a small extent,
Euclid perhaps in a rather imaginary condition; a swift but not very
legible or handsome penmanship, and the copious prompt habit of
employing it in all manner of unconscious English prose composition,
or even occasionally in verse itself: this, or something like this,
he had gained from his grammar-schools: this is the most of what they
offer to the poor young soul in general, in these indigent times. The
express schoolmaster is not equal to much at present,--while the
_un_express, for good or for evil, is so busy with a poor little
fellow! Other departments of schooling had been infinitely more
productive, for our young friend, than the gerund-grinding one. A
voracious reader I believe he all along was,--had "read the whole
Edinburgh Review" in these boyish years, and out of the circulating
libraries one knows not what cartloads; wading like Ulysses towards
his palace "through infinite dung." A voracious observer and
participator in all things he likewise all along was; and had had his
sights, and reflections, and sorrows and adventures, from Kaimes
Castle onward,--and had gone at least to Dover on his own score.
_Puer bonae spei_, as the school-albums say; a boy of whom much may be
hoped? Surely, in many senses, yes. A frank veracity is in him,
truth and courage, as the basis of all; and of wild gifts and graces
there is abundance. I figure him a brilliant, swift, voluble,
affectionate and pleasant creature; out of whom, if it were not that
symptoms of delicate health already show themselves, great things
might be made. Promotions at least, especially in this country and
epoch of parliaments and eloquent palavers, are surely very possible
for such a one!


Being now turned of sixteen, and the family economics getting yearly
more propitious and flourishing, he, as his brother had already been,
was sent to Glasgow University, in which city their Mother had
connections. His brother and he were now all that remained of the
young family; much attached to one another in their College years as
afterwards. Glasgow, however, was not properly their College scene:
here, except that they had some tuition from Mr. Jacobson, then a
senior fellow-student, now (1851) the learned editor of St. Basil, and
Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford, who continued ever afterwards
a valued intimate of John's, I find nothing special recorded of them.
The Glasgow curriculum, for John especially, lasted but one year; who,
after some farther tutorage from Mr. Jacobson or Dr. Trollope, was
appointed for a more ambitious sphere of education.

In the beginning of his nineteenth year, "in the autumn of 1824," he
went to Trinity College, Cambridge. His brother Anthony, who had
already been there a year, had just quitted this Establishment, and
entered on a military life under good omens; I think, at Dublin under
the Lord Lieutenant's patronage, to whose service he was, in some
capacity, attached. The two brothers, ever in company hitherto,
parted roads at this point; and, except on holiday visits and by
frequent correspondence, did not again live together; but they
continued in a true fraternal attachment while life lasted, and I
believe never had any even temporary estrangement, or on either side a
cause for such. The family, as I said, was now, for the last three
years, reduced to these two; the rest of the young ones, with their
laughter and their sorrows, all gone. The parents otherwise were
prosperous in outward circumstances; the Father's position more and
more developing itself into affluent security, an agreeable circle of
acquaintance, and a certain real influence, though of a peculiar sort,
according to his gifts for work in this world.


Sterling's Tutor at Trinity College was Julius Hare, now the
distinguished Archdeacon of Lewes:--who soon conceived a great esteem
for him, and continued ever afterwards, in looser or closer
connection, his loved and loving friend. As the Biographical and
Editorial work above alluded to abundantly evinces. Mr. Hare
celebrates the wonderful and beautiful gifts, the sparkling ingenuity,
ready logic, eloquent utterance, and noble generosities and pieties of
his pupil;--records in particular how once, on a sudden alarm of fire
in some neighboring College edifice while his lecture was proceeding,
all hands rushed out to help; how the undergraduates instantly formed
themselves in lines from the fire to the river, and in swift
continuance kept passing buckets as was needful, till the enemy was
visibly fast yielding,--when Mr. Hare, going along the line, was
astonished to find Sterling, at the river-end of it, standing up to
his waist in water, deftly dealing with the buckets as they came and
went. You in the river, Sterling; you with your coughs, and dangerous
tendencies of health!--"Somebody must be in it," answered Sterling;
"why not I, as well as another?" Sterling's friends may remember many
traits of that kind. The swiftest in all things, he was apt to be
found at the head of the column, whithersoever the march might be; if
towards any brunt of danger, there was he surest to be at the head;
and of himself and his peculiar risks or impediments he was negligent
at all times, even to an excessive and plainly unreasonable degree.

Mr. Hare justly refuses him the character of an exact scholar, or
technical proficient at any time in either of the ancient literatures.
But he freely read in Greek and Latin, as in various modern languages;
and in all fields, in the classical as well, his lively faculty of
recognition and assimilation had given him large booty in proportion
to his labor. One cannot under any circumstances conceive of Sterling
as a steady dictionary philologue, historian, or archaeologist; nor
did he here, nor could he well, attempt that course. At the same
time, Greek and the Greeks being here before him, he could not fail to
gather somewhat from it, to take some hue and shape from it.
Accordingly there is, to a singular extent, especially in his early
writings, a certain tinge of Grecism and Heathen classicality
traceable in him;--Classicality, indeed, which does not satisfy one's
sense as real or truly living, but which glitters with a certain
genial, if perhaps almost meretricious half-_japannish_
splendor,--greatly distinguishable from mere gerund-grinding, and
death in longs and shorts. If Classicality mean the practical
conception, or attempt to conceive, what human life was in the epoch
called classical,--perhaps few or none of Sterling's contemporaries in
that Cambridge establishment carried away more of available
Classicality than even he.

But here, as in his former schools, his studies and inquiries,
diligently prosecuted I believe, were of the most discursive
wide-flowing character; not steadily advancing along beaten roads
towards College honors, but pulsing out with impetuous irregularity
now on this tract, now on that, towards whatever spiritual Delphi
might promise to unfold the mystery of this world, and announce to him
what was, in our new day, the authentic message of the gods. His
speculations, readings, inferences, glances and conclusions were
doubtless sufficiently encyclopedic; his grand tutors the multifarious
set of Books he devoured. And perhaps,--as is the singular case in
most schools and educational establishments of this unexampled
epoch,--it was not the express set of arrangements in this or any
extant University that could essentially forward him, but only the
implied and silent ones; less in the prescribed "course of study,"
which seems to tend no-whither, than--if you will consider it--in the
generous (not ungenerous) rebellion against said prescribed course,
and the voluntary spirit of endeavor and adventure excited thereby,
does help lie for a brave youth in such places. Curious to consider.
The fagging, the illicit boating, and the things _forbidden_ by the
schoolmaster,--these, I often notice in my Eton acquaintances, are the
things that have done them good; these, and not their inconsiderable
or considerable knowledge of the Greek accidence almost at all! What
is Greek accidence, compared to Spartan discipline, if it can be had?
That latter is a real and grand attainment. Certainly, if rebellion
is unfortunately needful, and you can rebel in a generous manner,
several things may be acquired in that operation,--rigorous mutual
fidelity, reticence, steadfastness, mild stoicism, and other virtues
far transcending your Greek accidence. Nor can the unwisest
"prescribed course of study" be considered quite useless, if it have
incited you to try nobly on all sides for a course of your own. A
singular condition of Schools and High-schools, which have come down,
in their strange old clothes and "courses of study," from the monkish
ages into this highly unmonkish one;--tragical condition, at which the
intelligent observer makes deep pause!

One benefit, not to be dissevered from the most obsolete University
still frequented by young ingenuous living souls, is that of manifold
collision and communication with the said young souls; which, to every
one of these coevals, is undoubtedly the most important branch of
breeding for him. In this point, as the learned Huber has
insisted,[6] the two English Universities,--their studies otherwise being
granted to be nearly useless, and even ill done of their kind,--far
excel all other Universities: so valuable are the rules of human
behavior which from of old have tacitly established themselves there;
so manful, with all its sad drawbacks, is the style of English
character, "frank, simple, rugged and yet courteous," which has
tacitly but imperatively got itself sanctioned and prescribed there.
Such, in full sight of Continental and other Universities, is Huber's
opinion. Alas, the question of University Reform goes deep at
present; deep as the world;--and the real University of these new
epochs is yet a great way from us! Another judge in whom I have
confidence declares further, That of these two Universities, Cambridge
is decidedly the more catholic (not Roman catholic, but Human
catholic) in its tendencies and habitudes; and that in fact, of all
the miserable Schools and High-schools in the England of these years,
he, if reduced to choose from them, would choose Cambridge as a place
of culture for the young idea. So that, in these bad circumstances,
Sterling had perhaps rather made a hit than otherwise?


Sterling at Cambridge had undoubtedly a wide and rather genial circle
of comrades; and could not fail to be regarded and beloved by many of
them. Their life seems to have been an ardently speculating and
talking one; by no means excessively restrained within limits; and, in
the more adventurous heads like Sterling's, decidedly tending towards
the latitudinarian in most things. They had among them a Debating
Society called The Union; where on stated evenings was much logic, and
other spiritual fencing and ingenuous collision,--probably of a really
superior quality in that kind; for not a few of the then disputants
have since proved themselves men of parts, and attained distinction in
the intellectual walks of life. Frederic Maurice, Richard Trench,
John Kemble, Spedding, Venables, Charles Buller, Richard Milnes and
others:--I have heard that in speaking and arguing, Sterling was the
acknowledged chief in this Union Club; and that "none even came near
him, except the late Charles Buller," whose distinction in this and
higher respects was also already notable.

The questions agitated seem occasionally to have touched on the
political department, and even on the ecclesiastical. I have heard
one trait of Sterling's eloquence, which survived on the wings of
grinning rumor, and had evidently borne upon Church Conservatism in
some form: "Have they not,"--or perhaps it was, Has she (the Church)
not,--"a black dragoon in every parish, on good pay and rations,
horse-meat and man's-meat, to patrol and battle for these things?"
The "black dragoon," which naturally at the moment ruffled the general
young imagination into stormy laughter, points towards important
conclusions in respect to Sterling at this time. I conclude he had,
with his usual alacrity and impetuous daring, frankly adopted the
anti-superstitious side of things; and stood scornfully prepared to
repel all aggressions or pretensions from the opposite quarter. In
short, that he was already, what afterwards there is no doubt about
his being, at all points a Radical, as the name or nickname then went.
In other words, a young ardent soul looking with hope and joy into a
world which was infinitely beautiful to him, though overhung with
falsities and foul cobwebs as world never was before; overloaded,
overclouded, to the zenith and the nadir of it, by incredible
uncredited traditions, solemnly sordid hypocrisies, and beggarly
deliriums old and new; which latter class of objects it was clearly
the part of every noble heart to expend all its lightnings and
energies in burning up without delay, and sweeping into their native
Chaos out of such a Cosmos as this. Which process, it did not then
seem to him could be very difficult; or attended with much other than
heroic joy, and enthusiasm of victory or of battle, to the gallant
operator, in his part of it. This was, with modifications such as
might be, the humor and creed of College Radicalism five-and-twenty
years ago. Rather horrible at that time; seen to be not so horrible
now, at least to have grown very universal, and to need no concealment
now. The natural humor and attitude, we may well regret to say,--and
honorable not dishonorable, for a brave young soul such as Sterling's,
in those years in those localities!

I do not find that Sterling had, at that stage, adopted the then
prevalent Utilitarian theory of human things. But neither,
apparently, had he rejected it; still less did he yet at all denounce
it with the damnatory vehemence we were used to in him at a later
period. Probably he, so much occupied with the negative side of
things, had not yet thought seriously of any positive basis for his
world; or asked himself, too earnestly, What, then, is the noble rule
of living for a man? In this world so eclipsed and scandalously
overhung with fable and hypocrisy, what is the eternal fact, on which
a man may front the Destinies and the Immensities? The day for such
questions, sure enough to come in his case, was still but coming.
Sufficient for this day be the work thereof; that of blasting into
merited annihilation the innumerable and immeasurable recognized
deliriums, and extirpating or coercing to the due pitch those legions
of "black dragoons," of all varieties and purposes, who patrol, with
horse-meat and man's-meat, this afflicted earth, so hugely to the
detriment of it.


Sterling, it appears, after above a year of Trinity College, followed
his friend Maurice into Trinity Hall, with the intention of taking a
degree in Law; which intention, like many others with him, came to
nothing; and in 1827 he left Trinity Hall and Cambridge altogether;
here ending, after two years, his brief University life.

Thomas Carlyle

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