Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sterling, John
STERLING, JOHN (1806–1844), author, born at Kames Castle in the island of Bute, 20 July 1806, was the son of Edward Sterling by his wife Hester, only daughter of John Coningham, merchant, of Londonderry. He was consequently Irish on both sides of the house, although his father's family was originally Scottish.
The father, Edward Sterling (1773–1847), traced descent from William, younger brother of Sir Robert Sterling, who had served under Gustavus Adolphus, and, subsequently attaching himself to James Butler, first duke of Ormonde [q. v.], was knighted in 1649 and exiled until 1660, when he returned and settled in Munster. Edward, born at Waterford on 27 Feb. 1773, was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and was called to the Irish bar. He fought as a loyal volunteer at Vinegar Hill, and, having attained the rank of a captain of militia, contemplated a military career, and was for a short time attached to the ‘eighth batallion of reserve.’ Shortly after his marriage, on 5 April 1804, his regiment was ‘broke,’ and he migrated to Kames Castle and then to Llanblethian, near Cowbridge, Glamorganshire. In 1811 he issued a pamphlet on ‘Military Reform,’ which led to his becoming a regular correspondent of the ‘Times’ newspaper, under the signature ‘Vetus,’ later exchanged for ‘Magus.’ Some of his letters were reprinted. During the peace interval in 1814–15 he was at Paris, and on his return to England he became a regular and important member of the ‘Times’ staff. Between 1830 and 1840 the paper became, says Carlyle, his ‘express emblem,’ and his opinions were specially identified with ‘The Thunderer's’ admiration for Wellington and Peel and detestation of O'Connell. He retired from active journalism soon after 1840, and died on 3 Sept. 1847 at South Place, Knightsbridge, at the house of his elder son, Sir Anthony Coningham Sterling [q. v.] (Gent. Mag. 1847, ii. 440).
John's infancy owed much to Wales, some of his most abiding impressions having been formed when his family were domiciled at Llanblethian. After his father's return from Paris in 1814, he permanently settled in England. He received most of his schooling at Dr. Burney's establishment at Greenwich, and, after a short trial of the university of Glasgow, proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1824. Here his tutor was Julius Charles Hare [q. v.], a circumstance which may be said to have determined his intellectual course for life, not so much from Hare's immediate influence upon him, as from the acquaintances, literary and personal, which he was thus led to form. His opinions had hitherto been radical and utilitarian, but the study of Niebuhr, to which Hare must have introduced him, effected a complete revolution; he became a leading member of the ‘Apostles'’ club; he was the most distinguished speaker at the Union; and formed friendships with Frederick Denison Maurice [q. v.] and Richard Chenevix Trench [q. v.] which had the most powerful effect upon his mind and character. It was most probably through Hare that he became acquainted with Coleridge, at whose feet he sat whenever possible, and through whom he came to know Wordsworth and Edward Irving. He migrated along with Maurice to Trinity Hall, with the intention of taking a legal degree, but left the university in 1827 without any, and disappointed his family by declining to study for the bar, ‘because,’ as he afterwards told Caroline Fox, ‘he knew how specially dangerous to his temperament would be the snare of it.’ A secretaryship to a political association was found for him. The object of the society was believed by Carlyle to have been the abolition of the East India Company's trading monopoly, a reform eagerly promoted at the time. If so, it would account for Sterling's acquaintance with James Silk Buckingham [q. v.], from whom in July 1828 he, with other friends, purchased the ‘Athenæum.’ This journal for a half-year was principally conducted by him and Maurice. Both had been regular writers while it was under Buckingham's management, and General Maurice shows in his life of his father that ignorance of the fact that they were not then its conductors has led Carlyle to mistake their sentiments, which were by no means ultra-liberal in politics, although daringly original in literature. Maurice's essay on Shelley, for instance, is a perfect dithyrambic, and either he or his colleague is found seriously exhorting University College to make the opium-eater its professor of logic. With much crudity there was a right spirit in the journal. Some of the little fanciful tales and sketches contributed by Sterling were especially charming. Financial considerations, however, soon made it imperative to transfer the paper to more practical and experienced hands. Sterling occupied the leisure thus gained in trying to fathom Coleridge, whose ‘Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit’ he transcribed, and in the composition of his suggestive but unsatisfying novel of ‘Arthur Coningsby,’ though this did not appear until 1833 (London, 3 vols. 8vo, published anonymously). The best thing in it is the beautiful ballad ‘A maiden came gliding over the sea,’ which alone would prove Sterling a poet. Another novel, ‘Fitzgeorge,’ brought out by the publisher of ‘Arthur Coningsby’ in 1832, has been attributed to Sterling, but it is impossible that he should have written it.
In 1830 Sterling married under romantic circumstances. He had become connected with General Torrijos and other Spanish refugees who were planning an expedition to Spain to overthrow the tyranny of Ferdinand VII, and it was at his suggestion that an Irish cousin, Lieutenant Boyd, formerly of the East India service (‘My victim,’ he remorsefully says in a letter to Trench), found funds, a ship, and arms, for this generous but wild undertaking. Sterling himself was to have accompanied it, but upon the point of departure discovered that he had inspired a strong interest in Susannah, eldest daughter of Lieutenant-general Barton of the life-guards, and that the ‘stately blooming black-eyed young woman, full of gay softness’ (Carlyle), would by no means let him go. He therefore stayed behind and married her, 2 Nov. 1830, thus escaping the disastrous fate which overtook Boyd, Torrijos himself, and most of the other associates in the unfortunate enterprise. Trench and Mitchell Kemble, who had actually accompanied the expedition, fortunately returned before its catastrophe. Almost immediately after his marriage he had a dangerous pulmonary attack, which decided him to accept a proposal to go out to St. Vincent, and undertake the management of a sugar estate which had belonged to a deceased uncle of his mother's, and in which he himself had an interest. Sugar-planting in the West Indies failed to prove congenial to a man born for the intellectual life, and as the state of his own health had sent him out, the state of his wife's served to send him back in August 1832. A son had been born to him in St. Vincent in October 1831, and in the previous August he had had experience of a tremendous hurricane, graphically described in a letter printed by Carlyle.
His return to England seems to have been vaguely connected in his own mind with a project for the government education of the negroes, now on the eve of emancipation. This was promptly extinguished by the colonial office, and Sterling had for the time nothing else to do than to resume the train of thought into which he had been directed by Coleridge. This led him to Germany to study German philosophy at its source, and at Bonn, in July 1833, an encounter with his former tutor, Julius Hare, now rector of Hurstmonceaux in Sussex, gave definite shape to an idea which had been dimly growing up in his mind of the church as a possible sphere for him. Hare's cordial encouragement clenched the matter, and on Trinity Sunday 1834 Sterling received deacon's orders and became Hare's curate at Hurstmonceaux, where he remained, fulfilling his professional duties in the most exemplary manner, until ill-health compelled, or was supposed to compel, his retirement in February 1835. Carlyle is no doubt correct in deeming the real reason to have been Sterling's perception that he was out of place, and his ordination was without question an ill-judged and precipitate step.
Yet Sterling certainly did not meditate forsaking the clerical profession when he resigned his curacy. He wished to edit Coleridge's theological works, and would have taken the English chaplaincy at Rome if he could have got it. He continued to reside at Hurstmonceaux until the autumn, when he settled at Bayswater, and constant intercourse with Carlyle, whose acquaintance he had made in the previous February, greatly influenced him. He nevertheless remained constant to the study of German divinity as long as he was in England. Not until his arrival in Bordeaux, whither ill-health drove him in the autumn of 1836, are there indications of his conviction that literature was his vocation.
Upon his return in 1837 he wrote his poem of ‘The Sexton's Daughter,’ much in the style of Wordsworth, which was published in 1839 with miscellaneous ‘Poems’ (London, 12mo; Philadelphia, 1842). At the same time he formed a connection with ‘Blackwood,’ in which appeared prose pieces more distinctively original. Chief among them in merit is ‘The Palace of Morgana,’ one of the most beautiful of prose poems. The most elaborate is ‘The Onyx Ring’ (Blackwood, vols. xliv. xlv.; separately published, Boston, 1856, 16mo), a romance showing decided German influence, and perhaps on this account acceptable to Carlyle, who is apparently idealised in it as ‘Collins,’ while Hare figures as ‘Musgrave.’ The connection with ‘Blackwood’ continued during 1837–8, despite friction caused by the neglect of the contributors' notes and the mislaying of his manuscripts by the erratic ‘Christopher North’ (Mrs. Oliphant, William Blackwood and his Sons, ii. 186–92). During these years appeared in ‘Maga’ the detached thoughts entitled ‘Crystals from a Cavern.’ To the ‘London and Westminster Review,’ conducted by Stuart Mill, now a very intimate friend, Sterling contributed an essay on Montaigne, evincing more clearly than heretofore his detachment from theology; and another on Simonides, with translations exhibiting his poetical talent at its best.
In the autumn of 1837 Sterling, again driven abroad by ill-health, repaired to Madeira, where he made the acquaintance of Dr. Calvert, another invalid exile. On his return in 1838 the Sterling Club was instituted, and named after him. A list of the members signed ‘James Spedding, secretary,’ and dated 8 Aug. 1838, is printed in Carlyle's ‘Life of Sterling’ (pt. ii. chap. vi.). The winter of 1838–9 was spent at Rome, a pilgrimage disparaged by Carlyle, but justly considered by Hare as momentous in its effect on Sterling's mental development. It was now hoped that he might be able to reside entirely in England, and with this view he took a house at Clifton, where he gained the friendship of Francis Newman, to whom he afterwards bequeathed the guardianship of his son. Here Sterling wrote his article on Carlyle in the ‘Westminster,’ which went far to complete his intellectual estrangement (there never was any other) from his old friends. This was further promoted by the assent which he found himself no longer able to refuse to some of the propositions of Strauss. He was beginning his tragedy of ‘Strafford,’ when, in November, a violent attack of hæmorrhage drove him to Falmouth, where he was introduced by his friend Calvert to the amiable and accomplished quaker family of Fox. Stuart Mill was also there, tending his dying brother Henry, and the social intercourse of the visitors and their Cornish entertainers is delightfully depicted in the diary of Caroline Fox [q. v.], which entirely confirms the testimony of Sterling's older friends to his amiability and charm.
The rest of Sterling's life was a hopeless struggle against consumption. On 18 April 1843 his mother and his wife both died within a few hours of each other, but he pursued his literary work in the face of every discouragement. ‘The Election: a Poem in seven books’ (London, 12mo), analysed and on the whole not dispraised by Carlyle, appeared in 1841; it is a pleasant exhibition of the humours of an election, somewhat in the manner of Crabbe, comic but not farcical, and linked to a pretty story. ‘Strafford: a Tragedy’ (London, 8vo), published in 1843, with a graceful dedication to Emerson, has much beautiful writing, but is undramatic. Of the eight cantos of ‘Richard Cœur de Lion,’ an ‘Orlandish or Odyssean serio-comic poem’ in octaves, after the pattern of Berni, only three have been published. They appeared in ‘Fraser’ after the author's death, and by their humour and narrative faculty deserve the praise Carlyle bestows upon them. The writer in the ‘Prospective Review’—doubtless Francis Newman—however, states that nearly all the part specially commended by Carlyle was afterwards cancelled and rewritten by Sterling, one proof among many that his judgment was not in such bondage to his friend's as has been stated. One of his last efforts was his review in the ‘Quarterly’ of Tennyson's ‘Poems’ (September 1842), in which, after an apology for the paucity of poetic power in England at the time, praise is lavished upon the homely and domestic at the expense of the more purely imaginative poems. He died on 18 Sept. 1844 at Ventnor, where he had dwelt since June 1843, and was interred in the old churchyard at Bonchurch. His writings were edited in 1848 by Julius Hare (‘Essays and Tales by John Sterling,’ 2 vols. London, 8vo), with a memoir in many respects most admirable, but its inadequacy, inevitable from the writer's point of view, stimulated Carlyle to the composition in 1851 of the biography which has made Sterling almost as widely and intimately known as Carlyle himself. The book is remarkable for its inversion of the usual proportion between biographer and hero. Johnson for once writes upon Boswell. Sterling is a remarkable instance of a man of letters of no ordinary talent and desert who nevertheless owes his reputation to a genius, not for literature, but for friendship.
A fine sculptured head, engraved by J. Brown is prefixed to Hare's issue of Sterling's ‘Essays and Tales,’ and a portrait of 1830, after Delacour, by the same engraver, to Carlyle's ‘Life’ (1851).
[Of all sources of information respecting Sterling, Carlyle's biography is infinitely the most important; next are to be named Archdeacon Hare's memoir, prefixed to Essays and Tales in 1848; the invaluable notices in Caroline Fox's diary, and the article in the Prospective Review, vol. viii. General Maurice's biography of his father and Froude's publications on Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle also afford many interesting notices. Numerous letters are published in the Letters and Memorials of Archbishop Trench; and the correspondence between Sterling and Emerson appeared in the Atlantic Monthly for July 1897, and was republished in book form ‘with a sketch of Sterling's life by Edward Waldo Emerson,’ Boston, 1897. Twelve letters on religious subjects to Sterling's cousin, William Coningham, afterwards M.P. for Brighton, were printed in 1851.]