Life of John Sterling

Author: Thomas Carlyle

Chapter VII. Conclusion.

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 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 () of the society he lived in,—with correctness and something more. In all these particulars, a man perfectly , 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 mother.

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 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 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. .


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Chicago: Thomas Carlyle, "Chapter VII. Conclusion.," Life of John Sterling, trans. Evans, Sebastian in Life of John Sterling Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2022,

MLA: Carlyle, Thomas. "Chapter VII. Conclusion." Life of John Sterling, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in Life of John Sterling, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2022.

Harvard: Carlyle, T, 'Chapter VII. Conclusion.' in Life of John Sterling, trans. . cited in , Life of John Sterling. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2022, from