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Chapter 6


LITERATURE: THE ATHENAEUM.

Of all forms of public life, in the Talking Era, it was clear that
only one completely suited Sterling,--the anarchic, nomadic, entirely
aerial and unconditional one, called Literature. To this all his
tendencies, and fine gifts positive and negative, were evidently
pointing; and here, after such brief attempting or thoughts to attempt
at other posts, he already in this same year arrives. As many do, and
ever more must do, in these our years and times. This is the chaotic
haven of so many frustrate activities; where all manner of good gifts
go up in far-seen smoke or conflagration; and whole fleets, that might
have been war-fleets to conquer kingdoms, are _consumed_ (too truly,
often), amid "fame" enough, and the admiring shouts of the vulgar,
which is always fond to see fire going on. The true Canaan and Mount
Zion of a Talking Era must ever be Literature: the extraneous,
miscellaneous, self-elected, indescribable _Parliamentum_, or Talking
Apparatus, which talks by books and printed papers.

A literary Newspaper called _The Athenaeum_, the same which still
subsists, had been founded in those years by Mr. Buckingham; James
Silk Buckingham, who has since continued notable under various
figures. Mr. Buckingham's _Athenaeum_ had not as yet got into a
flourishing condition; and he was willing to sell the copyright of it
for a consideration. Perhaps Sterling and old Cambridge friends of
his had been already writing for it. At all events, Sterling, who had
already privately begun writing a Novel, and was clearly looking
towards Literature, perceived that his gifted Cambridge friend,
Frederic Maurice, was now also at large in a somewhat similar
situation; and that here was an opening for both of them, and for
other gifted friends. The copyright was purchased for I know not what
sum, nor with whose money, but guess it may have been Sterling's, and
no great sum;--and so, under free auspices, themselves their own
captains, Maurice and he spread sail for this new voyage of adventure
into all the world. It was about the end of 1828 that readers of
periodical literature, and quidnuncs in those departments, began to
report the appearance, in a Paper called the _Athenaeum, of_ writings
showing a superior brilliancy, and height of aim; one or perhaps two
slight specimens of which came into my own hands, in my remote corner,
about that time, and were duly recognized by me, while the authors
were still far off and hidden behind deep veils.

Some of Sterling's best Papers from the _Athenaeum_ have been
published by Archdeacon Hare: first-fruits by a young man of
twenty-two; crude, imperfect, yet singularly beautiful and attractive;
which will still testify what high literary promise lay in him. The
ruddiest glow of young enthusiasm, of noble incipient spiritual
manhood reigns over them; once more a divine Universe unveiling itself
in gloom and splendor, in auroral firelight and many-tinted shadow,
full of hope and full of awe, to a young melodious pious heart just
arrived upon it. Often enough the delineation has a certain flowing
completeness, not to be expected from so young an artist; here and
there is a decided felicity of insight; everywhere the point of view
adopted is a high and noble one, and the result worked out a result to
be sympathized with, and accepted so far as it will go. Good reading
still, those Papers, for the less-furnished mind,--thrice-excellent
reading compared with what is usually going. For the rest, a grand
melancholy is the prevailing impression they leave;--partly as if,
while the surface was so blooming and opulent, the heart of them was
still vacant, sad and cold. Here is a beautiful mirage, in the dry
wilderness; but you cannot quench your thirst there! The writer's
heart is indeed still too vacant, except of beautiful shadows and
reflexes and resonances; and is far from joyful, though it wears
commonly a smile.

In some of the Greek delineations (_The Lycian Painter_, for example),
we have already noticed a strange opulence of splendor,
characterizable as half-legitimate, half-meretricious,--a splendor
hovering between the raffaelesque and the japannish. What other
things Sterling wrote there, I never knew; nor would he in any mood,
in those later days, have told you, had you asked. This period of his
life he always rather accounted, as the Arabs do the idolatrous times
before Mahomet's advent, the "period of darkness."

Thomas Carlyle

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