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Chapter 5


Here, then, is a young soul, brought to the years of legal majority,
furnished from his training-schools with such and such shining
capabilities, and ushered on the scene of things to inquire
practically, What he will do there? Piety is in the man, noble human
valor, bright intelligence, ardent proud veracity; light and fire, in
none of their many senses, wanting for him, but abundantly bestowed:
a kingly kind of man;--whose "kingdom," however, in this bewildered
place and epoch of the world will probably be difficult to find and

For, alas, the world, as we said, already stands convicted to this
young soul of being an untrue, unblessed world; its high dignitaries
many of them phantasms and players'-masks; its worthships and worships
unworshipful: from Dan to Beersheba, a mad world, my masters. And
surely we may say, and none will now gainsay, this his idea of the
world at that epoch was nearer to the fact than at most other epochs
it has been. Truly, in all times and places, the young ardent soul
that enters on this world with heroic purpose, with veracious insight,
and the yet unclouded "inspiration of the Almighty" which has given us
our intelligence, will find this world a very mad one: why else is
he, with his little outfit of heroisms and inspirations, come hither
into it, except to make it diligently a little saner? Of him there
would have been no need, had it been quite sane. This is true; this
will, in all centuries and countries, be true.

And yet perhaps of no time or country, for the last two thousand
years, was it _so_ true as here in this waste-weltering epoch of
Sterling's and ours. A world all rocking and plunging, like that old
Roman one when the measure of its iniquities was full; the abysses,
and subterranean and supernal deluges, plainly broken loose; in the
wild dim-lighted chaos all stars of Heaven gone out. No star of
Heaven visible, hardly now to any man; the pestiferous fogs, and foul
exhalations grown continual, have, except on the highest mountaintops,
blotted out all stars: will-o'-wisps, of various course and color,
take the place of stars. Over the wild-surging chaos, in the leaden
air, are only sudden glares of revolutionary lightning; then mere
darkness, with philanthropistic phosphorescences, empty meteoric
lights; here and there an ecclesiastical luminary still hovering,
hanging on to its old quaking fixtures, pretending still to be a Moon
or Sun,--though visibly it is but a Chinese lantern made of _paper_
mainly, with candle-end foully dying in the heart of it. Surely as
mad a world as you could wish!

If you want to make sudden fortunes in it, and achieve the temporary
hallelujah of flunkies for yourself, renouncing the perennial esteem
of wise men; if you can believe that the chief end of man is to
collect about him a bigger heap of gold than ever before, in a shorter
time than ever before, you will find it a most handy and every way
furthersome, blessed and felicitous world. But for any other human
aim, I think you will find it not furthersome. If you in any way ask
practically, How a noble life is to be led in it? you will be luckier
than Sterling or I if you get any credible answer, or find any made
road whatever. Alas, it is even so. Your heart's question, if it be
of that sort, most things and persons will answer with a "Nonsense!
Noble life is in Drury Lane, and wears yellow boots. You fool,
compose yourself to your pudding!"--Surely, in these times, if ever in
any, the young heroic soul entering on life, so opulent, full of sunny
hope, of noble valor and divine intention, is tragical as well as
beautiful to us.

Of the three learned Professions none offered any likelihood for
Sterling. From the Church his notions of the "black dragoon," had
there been no other obstacle, were sufficient to exclude him. Law he
had just renounced, his own Radical philosophies disheartening him, in
face of the ponderous impediments, continual up-hill struggles and
formidable toils inherent in such a pursuit: with Medicine he had
never been in any contiguity, that he should dream of it as a course
for him. Clearly enough the professions were unsuitable; they to him,
he to them. Professions, built so largely on speciosity instead of
performance; clogged, in this bad epoch, and defaced under such
suspicions of fatal imposture, were hateful not lovable to the young
radical soul, scornful of gross profit, and intent on ideals and human
noblenesses. Again, the professions, were they never so perfect and
veracious, will require slow steady pulling, to which this individual
young radical, with his swift, far-darting brilliancies, and nomadic
desultory ways, is of all men the most averse and unfitted. No
profession could, in any case, have well gained the early love of
Sterling. And perhaps withal the most tragic element of his life is
even this, That there now was none to which he could fitly, by those
wiser than himself, have been bound and constrained, that he might
learn to love it. So swift, light-limbed and fiery an Arab courser
ought, for all manner of reasons, to have been trained to saddle and
harness. Roaming at full gallop over the heaths,--especially when
your heath was London, and English and European life, in the
nineteenth century,--he suffered much, and did comparatively little.
I have known few creatures whom it was more wasteful to send forth
with the bridle thrown up, and to set to steeple-hunting instead of
running on highways! But it is the lot of many such, in this
dislocated time,--Heaven mend it! In a better time there will be
other "professions" than those three extremely cramp, confused and
indeed almost obsolete ones: professions, if possible, that are true,
and do _not_ require you at the threshold to constitute yourself an
impostor. Human association,--which will mean discipline, vigorous
wise subordination and co-ordination,--is so unspeakably important.
Professions, "regimented human pursuits," how many of honorable and
manful might be possible for men; and which should _not_, in their
results to society, need to stumble along, in such an unwieldy futile
manner, with legs swollen into such enormous elephantiasis and no go
at all in them! Men will one day think of the force they squander in
every generation, and the fatal damage they encounter, by this

The career likeliest for Sterling, in his and the world's
circumstances, would have been what is called public life: some
secretarial, diplomatic or other official training, to issue if
possible in Parliament as the true field for him. And here, beyond
question, had the gross material conditions been allowed, his
spiritual capabilities were first-rate. In any arena where eloquence
and argument was the point, this man was calculated to have borne the
bell from all competitors. In lucid ingenious talk and logic, in all
manner of brilliant utterance and tongue-fence, I have hardly known
his fellow. So ready lay his store of knowledge round him, so perfect
was his ready utterance of the same,--in coruscating wit, in jocund
drollery, in compact articulated clearness or high poignant emphasis,
as the case required,--he was a match for any man in argument before a
crowd of men. One of the most supple-wristed, dexterous, graceful and
successful fencers in that kind. A man, as Mr. Hare has said, "able
to argue with four or five at once;" could do the parrying all round,
in a succession swift as light, and plant his hits wherever a chance
offered. In Parliament, such a soul put into a body of the due
toughness might have carried it far. If ours is to be called, as I
hear some call it, the Talking Era, Sterling of all men had the talent
to excel in it.

Probably it was with some vague view towards chances in this direction
that Sterling's first engagement was entered upon; a brief connection
as Secretary to some Club or Association into which certain public
men, of the reforming sort, Mr. Crawford (the Oriental Diplomatist and
Writer), Mr. Kirkman Finlay (then Member for Glasgow), and other
political notabilities had now formed themselves,--with what specific
objects I do not know, nor with what result if any. I have heard
vaguely, it was "to open the trade to India." Of course they intended
to stir up the public mind into co-operation, whatever their goal or
object was: Mr. Crawford, an intimate in the Sterling household,
recognized the fine literary gift of John; and might think it a lucky
hit that he had caught such a Secretary for three hundred pounds a
year. That was the salary agreed upon; and for some months actually
worked for and paid; Sterling becoming for the time an intimate and
almost an inmate in Mr. Crawford's circle, doubtless not without
results to himself beyond the secretarial work and pounds sterling:
so much is certain. But neither the Secretaryship nor the Association
itself had any continuance; nor can I now learn accurately more of it
than what is here stated;--in which vague state it must vanish from
Sterling's history again, as it in great measure did from his life.
From himself in after-years I never heard mention of it; nor were his
pursuits connected afterwards with those of Mr. Crawford, though the
mutual good-will continued unbroken.

In fact, however splendid and indubitable Sterling's qualifications
for a parliamentary life, there was that in him withal which flatly
put a negative on any such project. He had not the slow
steady-pulling diligence which is indispensable in that, as in all
important pursuits and strenuous human competitions whatsoever. In
every sense, his momentum depended on velocity of stroke, rather than
on weight of metal; "beautifulest sheet-lightning," as I often said,
"not to be condensed into thunder-bolts." Add to this,--what indeed
is perhaps but the same phenomenon in another form,--his bodily frame
was thin, excitable, already manifesting pulmonary symptoms; a body
which the tear and wear of Parliament would infallibly in few months
have wrecked and ended. By this path there was clearly no mounting.
The far-darting, restlessly coruscating soul, equips beyond all others
to shine in the Talking Era, and lead National Palavers with their
_spolia opima_ captive, is imprisoned in a fragile hectic body which
quite forbids the adventure. "_Es ist dafur gesorgt_," says Goethe,
"Provision has been made that the trees do not grow into the
sky;"--means are always there to stop them short of the sky.

Thomas Carlyle

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