Amsterdam, 30 May 1877

My dear Theo,
Thanks for your letter of today, I have to do a few things and so am writing in haste. Gave your letter to Uncle Jan, accept his warm regards and he thanks you for writing.
There were some words in your letter that touched me, ‘I should really like to get away from everything, I’m the cause of everything and only make others sad, I alone have caused all this misery to myself and others’.1 Those were words that touched me – because that same feeling, exactly the same, nothing more and nothing less, is also on my conscience.
When I think of the past – when I think of the future, of nearly insurmountable difficulties, of much and difficult work which I have no passion for, which I – the evil part of me, that is – would prefer to avoid, when I think of the eyes of so many that are fixed upon me – who, if I do not succeed, will know the reason why – who will not utter any ordinary reproaches but who, because they have been tried and are well versed in what is good and proper and fine gold,2 as it were, will say it by the expression on their faces: we helped you and have been a light unto you – we did for you what we could. Did you sincerely desire it? What are our wages and the fruits of our labours?3 You see, when I think of all that and of so much else, all manner of things – too many to mention, of all the troubles and worries which do not become less as one progresses through life, of suffering, of disappointment, of the danger of failing to a scandalous extent, then that desire is no stranger to me either – I would really like to get away from everything!
And yet – I go on – but with caution and in the hope that I’ll succeed in warding off all these things, so that I can somehow answer all the reproaches that threaten, trusting that in spite of everything that seems to be against me I shall attain that thing that I desire, and, God willing, shall find grace in the eyes4 of some whom I love, and in the eyes of those who shall come after me.
It is written, lift up the feeble hands, and the knees which hang down,5 and when the disciples had toiled all night and had taken nothing, it was said unto them, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets again.6
My head is sometimes numb and is often burning hot, and my thoughts are confused – how shall I ever get all that difficult and detailed study into it? – I don’t know – after those turbulent years, becoming accustomed to plain, well-ordered work and persevering in it isn’t always easy. And yet I go on, if we’re tired, isn’t it because we’ve already gone a long way, and if it’s true that man’s life on earth is a struggle, isn’t feeling tired and having a burning head a sign that we have struggled? When one labours at difficult work and strives for good results, one fights the good fight,7 the reward of which, surely, is already this: that one is preserved from much that is evil. And God beholds the labour and the sorrow,8 and can help in spite of everything.  1v:2
Faith in God is for me a certainty – not some notion, not an idle belief, it is so, it is true – there is a God that lives9 – and He is with our parents, and his eye is also upon us,10 and I am certain that He intends us for something, and that we do not belong entirely to ourselves, as it were – and that God is none other than Christ of Whom we read in our Bible, whose word and story are also deep in your heart. If only I had worked at it sooner with all my might, yes, it would be better for me now – but even now He will be a mighty help, and it is in His power to make our life bearable, to keep us from evil,11 to let all things work together for good,12 to make the end of us peace.13 There is evil in the world and in ourselves, terrible things, and one doesn’t have to have gone far in life to dread much and to feel the need for unfaltering hope14 in a life after this one, and to know that without faith in a God one cannot live – cannot endure. But with that faith one can long endure. And now, there are words in our Bible that are emphatically repeated in various places, on various occasions, under various circumstances, Fear not,15 our Father took that to heart and he says ‘I never despair’,16 let us repeat it after him. Isn’t it your experience, too, that whenever you wanted to do something bad, you were held back – that whenever there was something upsetting you and you saw no way out, you came through it all unharmed? A book by Bunyan tells of a traveller who sees a lion lying at the side of the road he must traverse – and yet he continues on his way – there is nothing else he may or can do – and when he arrives at the place he notices that the lion is chained up and is only there to test the travellers’ courage.17 Thus it is in life more than once. There is much in store for us, but others have lived, and so whosoever loves his parents must follow them on life’s path. If you value the love and esteem of young people, declare your beliefs openly whenever suitable, and admit that you love Christ and the Bible, doesn’t a son love his Father better for this reason than for any other? Women and children and the simple often feel and know these things so deeply,18 and there is hidden in so many a heart a great and vigorous faith. We, too, are in need of this when we think of much that is in store for us, He spoke from all His experience of life, and we know how much must have been going on in the heart whose plenitude made His mouth utter the words ‘in the Heavenly Kingdom they do not marry, and are not given in marriage’,19 and who said, he who hate not, even his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.20 Yes, those words of the Lord, surely they are the words issuing from the mouth of God whereby man shall live – and not by bread alone21 and the more one seeks in those words, the more one shall find therein.22 When I was standing next to Aertsen’s body,23 the calm and seriousness and solemn stillness of death contrasted so greatly with us who were living, that everyone felt what his daughter24 said in her simplicity: he is delivered from the burden of life which we must still bear. And yet we are so attached to that old life because there is cheerfulness to counter despondency, and our heart and our soul are gladdened, just as the lark who cannot help singing in the morning, even if our soul is sometimes cast down within us and is disquieted in us.25 And the memory of everything we have loved remains and returns in the evening of our life.26 It is not dead, but sleepeth27 and it is good to collect a great store of it. Accept a handshake in thought, and I wish you the very best, and write again soon to

Your most loving brother


Br. 1990: 117 | CL: 98
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Amsterdam, Wednesday, 30 May 1877

1. Theo appears to have had renewed contact with the woman he was in love with. Several remarks made by his parents reveal the consternation this caused and show how they attempted to impose their standards on their children. Mrs van Gogh wrote: ‘still, it was disappointing to notice that you are not yet strong, and if you don’t yet feel strong, you don’t avoid the dangerous places and risk temptation ... It seems to me, Theo, that the girl does not respect the promise she knew you made to your parents. And if she truly wanted to act sensibly, she would not have spoken to you first. Don’t make yourself and us unhappy; it may be difficult to make a sacrifice, but your love is based on sensuality, and you must open your eyes to the danger in order to flee it all the more forcefully’ (FR b2533, 21 May 1877).
Mr van Gogh issued Theo a stern warning the same day. His reaction is especially revealing as regards their view of the matter: ‘Haven’t you heard enough from Jan Carbentus? I’ve seen so much of it. That is why such a relationship is so wretched and loathsome, because it lacks any moral foundation and is based on material interest, combined with sensual desire.
A man, a young man, a young man of good family as you are, you would be throwing yourself away if you let yourself be tempted again to enter into a relationship that you cannot expect to be a happy one.
I appreciate your having written to us. I am not saying that you acted wrongly in your demeanour towards her. But Theo! I beg you, do not let her be deluded into thinking that you are a young man of common character. Do not let her find you in places and streets where others promenade, and if you must pass by such a street – remember – to avoid any appearance of being stuck on someone, etc., which one finds among the young people who promenade there.
Tell yourself that you will not let your life take that pitiful course. Sacrifice pleasure – if it is pleasure, but console yourself that it is better to be very reserved than too abandoned.
But you can and must have pleasure and diversion, only I beg you, do not seek it in people of that kind. Your whole future depends on it. Jan Carbentus said it himself. I was made unhappy by such a meeting in the street’ (FR b2532, 21 May 1877).
After this Theo told his parents that he wanted to change his situation (FR b2534, 31 May 1877). To steer this plan in the right direction – a plan his parents strongly disapproved of – Mr van Gogh spoke to Uncle Vincent on 8 June about the possibility of Theo’s being given a position abroad (FR b2535).
2. Biblical, see, for instance, Ps. 19:11 (in KJ Ps. 19:10) and Isa. 13:12.
4. Biblical.
5. Heb. 12:12. Van Gogh confused the adjectives in this passage.
9. Biblical, see, for example, 1 Sam. 25:34, 2 Sam. 22:47 and Ps. 18:47 (in KJ Ps. 18:46).
15. Biblical.
16. For the expression ‘I never despair’, see letter 113, n. 15. Possibly derived from hymn 56:1 and hymn 56:9.
17. This particular passage in Bunyan’s The pilgrim’s progress ends with the words of the gatekeeper Watchful, directed at Christian, the protagonist: ‘Is thy strength so small? fear not the Lions, for they are Chained; and are placed there for trial of faith where it is; and for discovery of those that have none: keep in the midst of the Path, and no hurt shall come unto thee.’ See ed. N.H. Keeble. Oxford and New York 1984, pp. 35-38 (quotation on p. 38). For the closing line, see Mark 4:40. This scene was illustrated in various contemporary editions, such as London 1870, facing p. 32. Ill. 1829 [1829].
23. Van Gogh had gone to Etten on 8 April to visit Jan Aertsen, who was dying; see letter 110.
24. This was either Cornelia Aertsen, born on 15 April 1837, or Adriana Aertsen, born on 3 March 1851 (RAW).