Life of John Sterling

Author: Thomas Carlyle

Chapter V. To Madeira.

Sterling’s dubieties as to continuing at Bordeaux were quickly decided. The cholera in France, the cholera in Nice, the— In fact his moorings were now loose; and having been fairly at sea, he never could anchor himself here again. Very shortly after this Letter, he left Belsito again (for good, as it proved); and returned to England with his household, there to consider what should next be done.

On my return from Scotland, that year, perhaps late in September, I remember finding him lodged straitly but cheerfully, and in happy humor, in a little cottage on Blackheath; whither his Father one day persuaded me to drive out with him for dinner. Our welcome, I can still recollect, was conspicuously cordial; the place of dinner a kind of upper room, half garret and full of books, which seemed to be John’s place of study. From a shelf, I remember also, the good soul took down a book modestly enough bound in three volumes, lettered on the back Carlyle’s , which had been published lately; this he with friendly banter bade me look at as a first symptom, small but significant, that the book was not to die all at once. "One copy of it at least might hope to last the date of sheep-leather," I admitted,—and in my then mood the little fact was welcome. Our dinner, frank and happy on the part of Sterling, was peppered with abundant jolly satire from his Father: before tea, I took myself away; towards Woolwich, I remember, where probably there was another call to make, and passage homeward by steamer: Sterling strode along with me a good bit of road in the bright sunny evening, full of lively friendly talk, and altogether kind and amiable; and beautifully sympathetic with the loads he thought he saw on , forgetful of his own. We shook hands on the road near the foot of Shooter’s Hill:—at which point dim oblivious clouds rush down; and of small or great I remember nothing more in my history or his for some time.

Besides running much about among friends, and holding counsels for the management of the coming winter, Sterling was now considerably occupied with Literature again; and indeed may be said to have already definitely taken it up as the one practical pursuit left for him. Some correspondence with was opening itself, under promising omens: now, and more and more henceforth, he began to look on Literature as his real employment, after all; and was prosecuting it with his accustomed loyalty and ardor. And he continued ever afterwards, in spite of such fitful circumstances and uncertain outward fluctuations as his were sure of being, to prosecute it steadily with all the strength he had.

One evening about this time, he came down to us, to Chelsea, most likely by appointment and with stipulation for privacy; and read, for our opinion, his Poem of the , which we now first heard of. The judgment in this house was friendly, but not the most encouraging. We found the piece monotonous, cast in the mould of Wordsworth, deficient in real human fervor or depth of melody, dallying on the borders of the infantile and "goody-good;"—in fact, involved still in the shadows of the surplice, and inculcating (on hearsay mainly) a weak morality, which he would one day find not to be moral at all, but in good part maudlin-hypocritical and immoral. As indeed was to be said still of most of his performances, especially the poetical; a sickly of the parish-church still hanging over them, which he could by no means recognize for sickly. nevertheless was the concluding word,—with these grave abatements, and rhadamanthine admonitions. To all which Sterling listened seriously and in the mildest humor. His reading, it might have been added, had much hurt the effect of the piece: a dreary pulpit or even conventicle manner; that flattest moaning hoo-hoo of predetermined pathos, with a kind of rocking canter introduced by way of intonation, each stanza the exact fellow Of the other, and the dull swing of the rocking-horse duly in each;—no reading could be more unfavorable to Sterling’s poetry than his own. Such a mode of reading, and indeed generally in a man of such vivacity the total absence of all gifts for play-acting or artistic mimicry in any kind, was a noticeable point.

After much consultation, it was settled at last that Sterling should go to Madeira for the winter. One gray dull autumn afternoon, towards the middle of October, I remember walking with him to the eastern Dock region, to see his ship, and how the final preparations in his own little cabin were proceeding there. A dingy little ship, the deck crowded with packages, and bustling sailors within eight-and-forty hours of lifting anchor; a dingy chill smoky day, as I have said withal, and a chaotic element and outlook, enough to make a friend’s heart sad. I admired the cheerful careless humor and brisk activity of Sterling, who took the matter all on the sunny side, as he was wont in such cases. We came home together in manifold talk: he accepted with the due smile my last contribution to his sea-equipment, a sixpenny box of German lucifers purchased on the sudden in St. James’s Street, fit to be offered with laughter or with tears or with both; he was to leave for Portsmouth almost immediately, and there go on board. Our next news was of his safe arrival in the temperate Isle. Mrs. Sterling and the children were left at Knightsbridge; to pass this winter with his Father and Mother.

At Madeira Sterling did well: improved in health; was busy with much Literature; and fell in with society which he could reckon pleasant. He was much delighted with the scenery of the place; found the climate wholesome to him in a marked degree; and, with good news from home, and kindly interests here abroad, passed no disagreeable winter in that exile. There was talking, there was writing, there was hope of better health; he rode almost daily, in cheerful busy humor, along those fringed shore-roads:—beautiful leafy roads and horse-paths; with here and there a wild cataract and bridge to look at; and always with the soft sky overhead, the dead volcanic mountain on one hand, and broad illimitable sea spread out on the other. Here are two Letters which give reasonably good account of him:—

"FUNCHAL, MADEIRA, 16th November, 1837.

"MY DEAR CARLYLE,—I have been writing a good many letters all in a batch, to go by the same opportunity; and I am thoroughly weary of writing the same things over and over again to different people. My letter to you therefore, I fear, must have much of the character of remainder-biscuit. But you will receive it as a proof that I do not wish you to forget me, though it may be useless for any other purpose.

"I reached this on the 2d, after a tolerably prosperous voyage, deformed by some days of sea-sickness, but otherwise not to be complained of. I liked my twenty fellow-passengers far better than I expected;—three or four of them I like much, and continue to see frequently. The Island too is better than I expected: so that my Barataria at least does not disappoint me. The bold rough mountains, with mist about their summits, verdure below, and a bright sun over all, please me much; and I ride daily on the steep and narrow paved roads, which no wheels ever journeyed on. The Town is clean, and there its merits end: but I am comfortably lodged; with a large and pleasant sitting-room to myself. I have met with much kindness; and see all the society I want,—though it is not quite equal to that of London, even excluding Chelsea.

"I have got about me what Books I brought out; and have read a little, and done some writing for ,—all, I have the pleasure to inform you, prose, nay extremely prose. I shall now be more at leisure; and hope to get more steadily to work; though I do not know what I shall begin upon. As to reading, I have been looking at , especially the ,—much as a shying horse looks at a post. In truth, I am afraid of him. I enjoy and admire him so much, and feel I could so easily be tempted to go along with him. And yet I have a deeply rooted and old persuasion that he was the most splendid of anachronisms. A thoroughly, nay intensely Pagan Life, in an age when it is men’s duty to be Christian. I therefore never take him up without a kind of inward check, as if I were trying some forbidden spell; while, on the other hand, there is so infinitely much to be learnt from him, and it is so needful to understand the world we live in, and our own age, and especially its greatest minds, that I cannot bring myself to burn my books as the converted Magicians did, or sink them as did Prospero. There must, as I think, have been some prodigious defect in his mind, to let him hold such views as his about women and some other things; and in another respect, I find so much coldness and hollowness as to the highest truths, and feel so strongly that the Heaven he looks up to is but a vault of ice,—that these two indications, leading to the same conclusion, go far to convince me he was a profoundly immoral and irreligious spirit, with as rare faculties of intelligence as ever belonged to any one. All this may be mere weakness and twaddle, on my part: but it is a persuasion that I cannot escape from; though I should feel the doing so to be a deliverance from a most painful load. If you could help me, I heartily wish you would. I never take him up without high admiration, or lay him down without real sorrow for what he chose to be.

"I have been reading nothing else that you would much care for. Southey’s has amused me; and Lyell’s interested me. The latter gives one the same sort of bewildering view of the abysmal extent of Time that Astronomy does of Space. I do not think I shall take your advice as to learning Portuguese. It is said to be very ill spoken here; and assuredly it is the most direful series of nasal twangs I ever heard. One gets on quite well with English.

"The people here are, I believe, in a very low condition; but they do not appear miserable. I am told that the influence of the priests makes the peasantry all Miguelites; but it is said that nobody wants any more revolutions. There is no appearance of riot or crime; and they are all extremely civil. I was much interested by learning that Columbus once lived here, before he found America and fame. I have been to see a deserted (country-house), where there is a great deal of curious old sculpture, in relief, upon the masonry; many of the figures, which are nearly as large as life, representing soldiers clad and armed much as I should suppose those of Cortez were. There are no buildings about the Town, of the smallest pretensions to beauty or charm of any kind. On the whole, if Madeira were one’s world, life would certainly rather tend to stagnate; but as a temporary refuge, a niche in an old ruin where one is sheltered from the shower, it has great merit. I am more comfortable and contented than I expected to be, so far from home and from everybody I am closely connected with: but, of course, it is at best a tolerable exile.

"Tell Mrs. Carlyle that I have written, since I have been here, and am going to send to , a humble imitation of her , entitled .[15] I am conscious that I am far from having reached the depth and fulness of despair and mockery which distinguish the original! But in truth there is a lightness of tone about her style, which I hold to be invaluable: where she makes hairstrokes, I make blotches. I have a vehement suspicion that my Dialogue is an entire failure; but I cannot be plagued with it any longer. Tell her I will not send her messages, but will write to her soon.—Meanwhile I am affectionately hers and yours,


The next is to his Brother-in-law; and in a still hopefuler tone:—

FUNCHAL, MADEIRA, 3d March, 1838.

"MY DEAR CHARLES,—I have often been thinking of you and your whereabouts in Germany, and wishing I knew more about you; and at last it occurred to me that you might perhaps have the same wish about me, and that therefore I should do well to write to you.

"I have been here exactly four months, having arrived on the 2d of November,—my wedding-day; and though you perhaps may not think it a compliment to Susan, I have seldom passed four months more cheerfully and agreeably. I have of course felt my absence from my family, and missed the society of my friends; for there is not a person here whom I knew before I left England. But, on the whole, I have been in good health, and actively employed. I have a good many agreeable and valuable acquaintances, one or two of whom I hope I may hereafter reckon as friends. The weather has generally been fine, and never cold; and the scenery of the Island is of a beauty which you unhappy Northern people can have little conception of.

"It consists of a great mass of volcanic mountains, covered in their lower parts with cottages, vines and patches of vegetables. When you pass through, or over the central ridge, and get towards the North, there are woods of trees, of the laurel kind, covering the wild steep slopes, and forming some of the strangest and most beautiful prospects I have ever seen. Towards the interior, the forms of the hills become more abrupt, and loftier; and give the notion of very recent volcanic disturbances, though in fact there has been nothing of the kind since the discovery of the Island by Europeans. Among these mountains, the dark deep precipices, and narrow ravines with small streams at the bottom; the basaltic knobs and ridges on the summits; and the perpetual play of mist and cloud around them, under this bright sun and clear sky,—form landscapes which you would thoroughly enjoy, and which I much wish I could give you a notion of. The Town is on the south, and of course the sheltered side of the Island; perfectly protected from the North and East; although we have seen sometimes patches of bright snow on the dark peaks in the distance. It is a neat cheerful place; all built of gray stone, but having many of the houses colored white or red. There is not a really handsome building in it, but there is a general aspect of comfort and solidity. The shops are very poor. The English do not mix at all with the Portuguese. The Bay is a very bad anchorage; but is wide, bright and cheerful; and there are some picturesque points—one a small black island—scattered about it.

"I lived till a fortnight ago in lodgings, having two rooms, one a very good one; and paying for everything fifty-six dollars a month, the dollar being four shillings and twopence. This you will see is dear; but I could make no better arrangement, for there is an unusual affluence of strangers this year. I have now come to live with a friend, a Dr. Calvert, in a small house of our own, where I am much more comfortable, and live greatly cheaper. He is a friend of Mrs. Percival’s; about my age, an Oriel man, and a very superior person. I think the chances are, we shall go home together.... I cannot tell you of all the other people I have become familiar with; and shall only mention in addition Bingham Baring, eldest son of Lord Ashburton, who was here for some weeks on account of a dying brother, and whom I saw a great deal of. He is a pleasant, very good-natured and rather clever man; Conservative Member for North Staffordshire.

"During the first two months I was here, I rode a great deal about the Island, having a horse regularly; and was much in agreeable company, seeing a great deal of beautiful scenery. Since then, the weather has been much more unsettled, though not cold; and I have gone about less, as I cannot risk the being wet. But I have spent my time pleasantly, reading and writing. I have written a good many things for ; one of which, the , I see is printed in the February Number. I have just sent them a long Tale, called the , which cost me a good deal of trouble; and the extravagance of which, I think, would amuse you; but its length may prevent its appearance in . If so, I think I should make a volume of it. I have also written some poems, and shall probably publish the when I return.

"My health goes on most favorably. I have had no attack of the chest this spring; which has not happened to me since the spring before we went to Bonn; and I am told, if I take care, I may roll along for years. But I have little hope of being allowed to spend the four first months of any year in England; and the question will be, Whether to go at once to Italy, by way of Germany and Switzerland, with my family, or to settle with them in England, perhaps at Hastings, and go abroad myself when it may be necessary. I cannot decide till I return; but I think the latter the most probable.

"To my dear Charles I do not like to use the ordinary forms of ending a letter, for they are very inadequate to express my sense of your long and most unvarying kindness; but be assured no one living could say with more sincerity that he is ever affectionately yours,


Other Letters give occasionally views of the shadier side of things: dark broken weather, in the sky and in the mind; ugly clouds covering one’s poor fitful transitory prospect, for a time, as they might well do in Sterling’s case. Meanwhile we perceive his literary business is fast developing itself; amid all his confusions, he is never idle long. Some of his best Pieces—the Onyx , for one, as we perceive—were written here this winter. Out of the turbid whirlpool of the days he strives assiduously to snatch what he can.

Sterling’s communications with had now issued in some open sanction of him by Professor Wilson, the distinguished presiding spirit of that Periodical; a fact naturally of high importance to him under the literary point of view. For Wilson, with his clear flashing eye and great genial heart, had at once recognized Sterling; and lavished stormily, in his wild generous way, torrents of praise on him in the editorial comments: which undoubtedly was one of the gratefulest literary baptisms, by fire or by water, that could befall a soul like Sterling’s. He bore it very gently, being indeed past the age to have his head turned by anybody’s praises: nor do I think the exaggeration that was in these eulogies did him any ill whatever; while surely their generous encouragement did him much good, in his solitary struggle towards new activity under such impediments as his. ; to be called noble by one whom you and the world recognize as noble: this great satisfaction, never perhaps in such a degree before or after had now been vouchsafed to Sterling; and was, as I compute, an important fact for him. He proceeded on his pilgrimage with new energy, and felt more and more as if authentically consecrated to the same.

The , a curious Tale, with wild improbable basis, but with a noble glow of coloring and with other high merits in it, a Tale still worth reading, in which, among the imaginary characters, various friends of Sterling’s are shadowed forth, not always in the truest manner, came out in in the winter of this year. Surely a very high talent for painting, both of scenery and persons, is visible in this Fiction; the promise of a Novel such as we have few. But there wants maturing, wants purifying of clear from unclear;—properly there want patience and steady depth. The basis, as we said, is wild and loose; and in the details, lucent often with fine color, and dipt in beautiful sunshine, there are several things mis, untrue, which is the worst species of mispainting. Witness, as Sterling himself would have by and by admitted, the "empty clockcase" (so we called it) which he has labelled Goethe,—which puts all other untruths in the Piece to silence.

One of the great alleviations of his exile at Madeira he has already celebrated to us: the pleasant circle of society he fell into there. Great luck, thinks Sterling in this voyage; as indeed there was: but he himself, moreover, was readier than most men to fall into pleasant circles everywhere, being singularly prompt to make the most of any circle. Some of his Madeira acquaintanceships were really good; and one of them, if not more, ripened into comradeship and friendship for him. He says, as we saw, "The chances are, Calvert and I will come home together."

Among the English in pursuit of health, or in flight from fatal disease, that winter, was this Dr. Calvert; an excellent ingenious cheery Cumberland gentleman, about Sterling’s age, and in a deeper stage of ailment, this not being his first visit to Madeira: he, warmly joining himself to Sterling, as we have seen, was warmly received by him; so that there soon grew a close and free intimacy between them; which for the next three years, till poor Calvert ended his course, was a leading element in the history of both. Companionship in incurable malady, a touching bond of union, was by no means purely or chiefly a companionship in misery in their case. The sunniest inextinguishable cheerfulness shone, through all manner of clouds, in both. Calvert had been travelling physician in some family of rank, who had rewarded him with a pension, shielding his own ill-health from one sad evil. Being hopelessly gone in pulmonary disorder, he now moved about among friendly climates and places, seeking what alleviation there might be; often spending his summers in the house of a sister in the environs of London; an insatiable rider on his little brown pony; always, wherever you might meet him, one of the cheeriest of men. He had plenty of speculation too, clear glances of all kinds into religious, social, moral concerns; and pleasantly incited Sterling’s outpourings on such subjects. He could report of fashionable persons and manners, in a fine human Cumberland manner; loved art, a great collector of drawings; he had endless help and ingenuity; and was in short every way a very human, lovable, good and nimble man,—the laughing blue eyes of him, the clear cheery soul of him, still redolent of the fresh Northern breezes and transparent Mountain streams. With this Calvert, Sterling formed a natural intimacy; and they were to each other a great possession, mutually enlivening many a dark day during the next three years. They did come home together this spring; and subsequently made several of these health-journeys in partnership.


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Chicago: Thomas Carlyle, "Chapter V. To Madeira.," Life of John Sterling, trans. Evans, Sebastian in Life of John Sterling Original Sources, accessed May 30, 2023,

MLA: Carlyle, Thomas. "Chapter V. To Madeira." Life of John Sterling, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in Life of John Sterling, Original Sources. 30 May. 2023.

Harvard: Carlyle, T, 'Chapter V. To Madeira.' in Life of John Sterling, trans. . cited in , Life of John Sterling. Original Sources, retrieved 30 May 2023, from