His Letters to His Wife
Key Thought: " It was not inclination, but business, that made me limit myself to twice a week, for it would be an agreeable employment to write to you twice a day, if I had nothing to call me off. But, however my hands and head are engaged, my heart is always with you. It can be but seldom, if at all, that you are out of my thoughts for five minutes together. "
My views, in sending these letters abroad, are chiefly four:
1. As a public testimony, of the thanks which I owe, to the God of my life, for giving me such a treasure; for uniting our hearts by such tender ties, and for continuing her to me so long. .
2. As a monument of respect, and gratitude, to her memory. She was my pleasing companion, my most affectionate friend, my judicious counselor. I seldom or ever repented, of acting according to her advice. And I seldom acted against it, without being convinced by the event, that I was wrong.
3. I hope to show, by the most familiar kind of proofs example, that marriage, when the parties are united by affection, and the general conduct is governed by religion, and prudence, is not only an honorable, but a comfortable state. But, from what I have felt, and what I have seen, I am well assured that religion, by which I mean, the fear of God, a regard to his precepts, and a dependence upon his care, is absolutely necessary, to make us comfortable, or happy, even in the possession of our own wishes. The fairest prospects, unless founded upon this basis, may be compared to a house, built upon the sand, which may seem to answer, for a time, while the weather is fine; but which, when tried by the storms and floods, the changes and calamities, inseparable from the present state of things, will, sooner or later, fall; and involve the builders, in confusion and distress.
4. I likewise hope, that my example may prove a warning to others, who set out with warm hopes of satisfaction; to be cautious of an over-attachment to their creature-comforts. My sharpest trials, and my most pungent causes for repentance, and humiliation, through life, sprung from this source!
Clapham, July 2, 1772.
If it was not to my dearest wife, I could not write so soon after dinner. But, though my belly is full, and my head empty, I must tell you that I had very quiet agreeable company in the coach, and a pleasant ride to Deptford; where I mounted a horse dear Mr. T___ had sent for me, which said horse brought me safely hither. Thus the Lord graciously preserves me from place to place.
I am always a little awkward without you, and every room where you are not present, looks unfurnished. It is not a humble servant that says this—but a husband—and he says it, not in what is called the honeymoon—but in the twenty-third year after marriage. Nor do I speak it to my own praise—but to the praise of our good Lord, who, by his blessing, has endeared us to each other. Fickleness and vanity are inherent in our fallen nature; and, if left to ourselves, we might have been indifferent, weary, and disgusted with each other long ago. But He has united our hearts; and, I trust, the union shall exist to eternity. May we possess, while here, the peace which passes understanding, and live under the abiding expectation of perfect happiness hereafter!
London, November 16, 1773.
Past three o'clock on this cloudy morning. I hope my dearest is now in a sweet sleep. When I am done writing, I shall proceed to the coach, which sets off exactly at four. Please do not fear my being robbed or hurt in the dark. For I expect a guard will go with me—One to whom "the darkness and the light are both alike." I went through a very long dark lane, on Wednesday evening, with dear Mr. Th___; but no one disturbed us, for the Lord was our Preserver.
You may be sure that my heart is continually with you. I seldom pass many minutes without darting a prayer upwards in your behalf. The knowledge of your affection affords me the greatest pleasure I can receive or desire, of a temporal kind. But your apprehensions on my account, when I am called from you for a season, give me pain. I wish we could both more simply entrust each other, without anxiety, to the Lord's goodness and care. Surely, he delights in our prosperity, or else why have we been spared so long? or how have we been so mercifully supported, so seasonably relieved, and enriched with so many blessings, from year to year? May all that we experience be sanctified, to humble us, and to increase our dependence upon Him, who is always near and willing to help us.
I must go. I carry with me from place to place a heart full of an affectionate and grateful sense of your love, and of the innumerable and invaluable mercies and comforts the Lord has given me in the relation I stand to you.
My evening walk was outwardly pleasant—but my mind was confused. However, I prayed for you. Let me be as I will in other respects, you are always present to my thoughts. My love has been growing from the day of marriage, and still it is in a growing state. It was once as an acorn—but it has now a deep root and spreading branches, like an old oak. It would not have proved so, if the Lord had not watered it with his blessing.
I received your welcome letter of the 17 th, which, when I had read it about twenty times over, furnished me with many pleasing reflections; and led me to compare my present state, with the low insipid life I must have led, even in the most affluent circumstances, if my sincere love had not obtained the only adequate prize, a reciprocal affection from you.
I am still of the opinion, that at first, compassion and generosity induced you to think favourably of me. It did not suit with your temper to be unaffected by the pain and uneasiness of any one, much less of one, who though under a thousand disadvantages, you had reason to believe, really loved you. And, if I am not mistaken, you used some constraint with yourself, in the beginning, to bring your inclination to coincide with the power you had to make me happy. Thus I thought when I received your hand in marriage. Yet 1 was no less easy and secure, than if I had made the most successful improvement of our long acquaintance, in gaining your heart. For I knew you too well to fear that after you had gone so far, you would stop short, till your affection was equal to my own.
I was pretty well assured in my own mind, that I should make it the chief business, or rather pleasure, of my life, to study and seize every opportunity of obliging you; and I was no less certain, that the most trivial instance of such an intention, would not be overlooked by you, or lost upon you. The event has answered my expectation. I have now the same confidence that you love me, as that I love you. A confidence, which I would not exchange for any consideration the world could offer. A confidence, which renders me superior to all the little entertainments that would allure me while I am here; and which I hope will satisfy and cheer me, when, in a few days, I shall leave them all behind me. I long to be gone, for, after parting with you, all scenes will be equally indifferent to me, till the happy hour of our reunion.
I thank you for your promise of writing weekly, and you may depend upon my not being behindhand with you. But remember there is no regular post from Africa, and that the length of the passage of a ship is very precarious. I hope therefore you will not indulge discouraging thoughts, if you should not hear from me so soon as you may expect. The weather has been dark and rainy. b When I am at sea, I shall watch it, at the hour we agreed upon, that I may have the pleasure of thinking that sometimes our eyes and thoughts are fixed upon the same object.
Liverpool, 29 July.
There is a strange mixture of pleasure and pain in the life I now lead. When I think of the regard which you express in your letters (one of which in their course I re-peruse every post day) I feel a satisfaction which no wealth could buy from me. But when I think of the uneasiness it causes you, I could almost bear to be forgotten. I know I have said this often, but I must repeat it when you write in a melancholy strain. You charge me, in that which I have now at my lips, with making hours seem more tedious to you than days and weeks did formerly.
I am sorry. I beg you to strive to be cheerful.Though I feel absence painful indeed, I do not deserve much pity, because I am absent for your sake. I am likewise engaged in active business, and have some new scene offering every day, to relieve my mind: besides, I have been long used to suffer, and did not begin to know what peace or pleasure meant till I married you. On the contrary, you, by marriage, exposed yourself to cares and anxieties to which you were before a stranger; and you have done enough to make me happy, if I could be happy alone, but that is impossible. Unless you are happy likewise, money, pleasure, health, nay love itself, will not make me amends.
Last post day I finished a large sheet, and did not leave room to write my name,
for I had crowded 181 lines into it. Should this come first to your hand, you may wonder where I could find subject: matter. Nothing (necessary business excepted) seems deserving my attention but religion and love: the one my constant support, the other my constant solace, and was I not favoured with some taste for these, I should find a settled gloom in my heart, though placed in the gayest scenes of life.
At Sea, 3 December.
Though this is not my post-night, I am willing to write, because I am behindhand, and because it is the most pleasant way of filling up a leisure hour. It was not inclination, but business, that made me limit myself to twice a week, for it would be an agreeable employment to write to you twice a day, if I had nothing to call me off. But, however my hands and head are engaged, my heart is always with you. It can be but seldom, if at all, that you are out of my thoughts for five minutes together. Whether I am visiting, trading, or watching, your idea is still before my eyes.
I would give something for such a sympathetic, needle and dial-plate, as is mentioned in the Spectator, that we might be able to correspond without being interrupted by distance. But perhaps I am better without it, for I should hardly attend to anything else. And we already have what is more valuable: a sympathy of mind and affection. I believe, if we could compare notes, we should find that our thoughts are often engaged in the same manner, at the same time.
Shebar, 10 February.
Last night (which made it a remarkable night) I dreamed of you. Me thought we were walking together, and mutually hearing and relating many things which had occurred since our parting. It
was a pleasing illusion; but at day-light the noise of the people over my head broke the charm, and reminded me, that for a time, I must submit to a very different scene. But I seemed more refreshed by my dream than I should have been by a longer sleep. I sometimes wonder that my sleeping fancy does not oftener transport me to you. Were it true, as some suppose, that our dreams are usually influenced by our employment when awake, I should surely dream of you always. For my attention is seldom so engaged by the most pressing business, as to exclude the thoughts of you, five minutes at a time. Perhaps my mind, being so taken up with you when I am awake, is glad to take the opportunity of sleeping, when my body does. Yet I well remember that when I first loved you, I dreamed of you, night after night, for near three months successively; though I certainly could not have half the regard for you then, that I have now.
Sbebar, 26 February.
If our correspondence was made public, I suppose many people, who, though married, are strangers to the delicacy of mutual love, would smile at me for writing so often, and at you for accepting my frequent and long letters so favourably as I know you will. I pity them no less than they can pity me. I could tell those who undervalue only because they do not understand, that there have been men of as much politeness and good judgment as they can pretend to, who have placed much of their happiness in possessing and deserving the affections of a worthy woman. If you understood Latin, you would be much pleased with some letters of Pliny to his wife. He was the first favorite of the Emperor, and as a scholar, a courtier, and a philosopher, inferior to none of his age. You may find two or three of them translated in the Tatler, but they fall short of the spirit of the original. But
were the billetdoux of our modern fine gentlemen, upon the commencement of an amour, (which is the only time they are desirous of pleasing) compared with the epistles of Pliny to his Calphurnias, they would appear very trivial and empty. The grateful remembrance of past pleasures, the anxiety and tenderness of absence, the impertinence of all business compared with love, the inquietude of passing a day without a letter, and the promised satisfaction of a happy meeting, are topics which he dwells upon with equal elegance and passion. Having said so much of Pliny, I must add in my own behalf, that I love as well as he did, though I cannot express myself so well; but for plain downright affection and gratitude, I would not yield to the best Pliny that ever wore a head.
It was an expression of Cato, that it was more honourable to be a good husband, husband, than a great senator. The point of honour seems to have varied since his time. We now find too many who value themselves upon a contrary character, and yet are not the worse received in company, not even by those of your sex; who I think, both in justice and compassion, should unite in despising the man who dares to use a deserving woman ill, because he has not a heart to value her.
But had Cato said there was more profit and comfort in being a good husband than in being an unmarried Emperor, he would have said but the truth. And, however fashionable it might become to dispute or contradict this maxim, there would always be a favoured few, who would not be disputed, or laughed out of their experience. And it is only by experience it can be known. We need not wonder, therefore, if a married life is thought lightly of, by those who judge of it only by hearsay. For a man might as well pretend to paint a found, as to describe the various sensibilities connected with a happy marriage, in such a manner as to make a stranger understand them.
Regarding his love for his wife:
"You will not be displeased with me for saying, that though you are dearer to me than the aggregate of all earthly comforts, I wish to limit my passion within those bounds which God has appointed. Our love to each other ought to lead us to love him supremely, who is the author and source of all the good we possess or hope for. It is to him we owe that happiness in a marriage state which so many seek in vain, some of whom set out with such hopes and prospects, that their disappointments can be deduced for no other cause, than having placed that high regard on a creature which is only due to the Creator. He therefore withholds his blessing (without which no union can subsist) and their expectations, of course, end in indifference . . . "
"I consider our union as a peculiar effect and gift of an indulgent Providence, and therefore, as a talent to be improved to higher ends, to the promoting of his will and service upon earth. And to assisting each other to prepare for an eternal state, to which a few years at the farthest will introduce us. Were these points wholly neglected, however great our satisfaction might be for the present, it would be better never to have seen each other; since the time must come when, of all the endearments of our connection, nothing will remain, but the consciousness how greatly we were favored, and how we improved the favors we possessed . . ."
"He formed us for each other, and his good Providence brought us together. It is no wonder if so many years, so many endearments, so many obligations, have produced an uncommon effect; and that by long habit, it is become almost impossible for me to draw a breath, of which you are not concerned. If this mutual affection leads us to this fountain from which our blessings flow, and if we can regard each other, and everything about us, with a reference to that eternity to which we are hasting, then we are happy indeed. Then not even death . . . can greatly harm us. Death itself can only part us for a little space, as the pier of a bridge, divides the stream for a few moments but cannot make a real separation."
Regarding the future:
"The path of few peoples through life has been more marked with peculiar mercies than yours. How differently has he led us from the way we should have chosen for ourselves! We have had remarkable turns in our affairs; but every change has been for the better; and in every trouble (for we have had our troubles) he has given us effectual help. Shall we not then believe, that he will perfect that which concerns us? When I was an infant, and knew not what I wanted, he sent you into the world to be, first, the principal hinge, upon which my part, and character in life, was to turn and then to be my companion. We have traveled together near twenty-six years; and though we are changeable creatures, and have seen almost every thing change around us, he has preserved our affections, by his blessings, or we might have been weary of each other. How far we have yet to go, we know not . . . . If our lives are prolonged, the shadows of the evening, old age, with its attendant infirmities, will be pressing upon us soon. Yet I hope this uncertain remaining part of our pilgrimage, will upon the whole, be the best; for our God is all-sufficient, and can make us more happy, by the light of his countenance, when our temporal comforts fail, then we never were, when we possessed them to the greatest advantage."