Read PART I - CHAPTER V. A PROFESSION. of The Life of John Sterling, free online book, by Thomas Carlyle, on

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 conquer!

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 neglect.

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 dafür 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.