Read PART I - CHAPTER VI.  LITERATURE:  THE ATHENAEUM. of The Life of John Sterling, free online book, by Thomas Carlyle, on

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.”