Thomas Carlyle : Criticism and Biography – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers

Rousseau : Socialism and Education
Sir Walter Scott : The Modern Novel
Lord Byron : Poetic Genius
Thomas Carlyle : Criticism and Biography
Lord Macaulay : Artistic Historical Writing
Shakspeare or The Poet
John Milton : Poet and Patriot
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe : Germany’s Greatest Writer
Alfred Lord Tennyson : The Spirit Of Modern Poetry

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers
John Lord

Topics Covered
Froude’s Biography of Carlyle
Brief résumé of Carlyle’s career
Parentage and birth
Slender education; school-teaching
Abandons clerical intentions to become a writer
“Elements of Geometry;” “Life of Schiller;” “Wilhelm Meister”
Marries Jane Welsh
Her character
Edinburgh and Craigenputtock
Essays: “German Literature”
Goethe’s “Helena”
“Life of Heyne;” “Voltaire”
Wholesome and productive life at Craigenputtock
“Dr. Johnson”
Friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Sartor Resartus”
Carlyle removes to London
Begins “The French Revolution”
Manuscript accidentally destroyed
Habits of great authors in rewriting
Publication of the work; Carlyle’s literary style
Better reception in America than in England
Carlyle begins lecturing
Popular eloquence in England
Carlyle and the Chartists
“Heroes and Hero Worship”
“Past and Present”
Carlyle becomes bitter
“Latter-Day Pamphlets”
“Life of Oliver Cromwell”
Carlyle’s confounding right with might
Great merits of Carlyle as historian
Death of Mrs. Carlyle
Success of Carlyle established
“Frederick the Great”
Decline of the author’s popularity
Public honors; private sorrow
Final illness and death
Carlyle’s place in literature

Thomas Carlyle : Criticism and Biography


The now famous biography of Thomas Carlyle, by Mr. Froude, shed a new light on the eccentric Scotch essayist, and in some respects changed the impressions produced by his own “Reminiscences” and the Letters of his wife. It is with the aid of those two brilliant and interesting volumes on Carlyle’s “Earlier Life” and “Life in London,” issued about two years after the death of their distinguished subject, that I have rewritten my own view of one of the most remarkable men of the nineteenth century.

Of the men of genius who have produced a great effect on their own time, there is no one concerning whom such fluctuating opinions have prevailed within forty years as in regard to Carlyle. His old admirers became his detractors, and those who first disliked him became his friends. When his earlier works appeared they attracted but little general notice, though there were many who saw in him a new light, or a new power to brush away cobwebs and shams, and to exalt the spiritual and eternal in man over all materialistic theories and worldly conventionalities.

Carlyle’s “Miscellanies”–essays published first in the leading Reviews, when he lived in his moorland retreat–created enthusiasm among young students and genuine thinkers of every creed. Lord Jeffrey detected the new genius and gave him a lift. Carlyle’s “French Revolution” took the world by surprise, and established his fame. His “Oliver Cromwell” modified and perhaps changed the opinions of English and American people respecting the Great Protector. It was then that his popularity was greatest, and that the eccentric genius of Cheyne Row, so long struggling with poverty, was assured of a competence, and was received in some of the proudest families of the kingdom as a teacher and a sage. Thus far he was an optimist, taking cheerful views of human life, and encouraging those who had noble aspirations.

But for some unaccountable reason, whether from discontent or dyspepsia or disappointment, or disgust with this world, Carlyle gradually became a pessimist, and attacked all forms of philanthropy, thus alienating those who had been his warmest supporters. He grew more bitter and morose, until at last he howled almost like a madman, and was steeped in cynicism and gloom. He put forth the doctrine that might was right, and that thrones belong to the strongest. He saw no reliance in governments save upon physical force, and expressed the most boundless contempt for all institutions established by the people. Then he wrote his “Frederic the Great,”–his most ambitious and elaborate production, received as an authority from its marvellous historical accuracy, but not so generally read as his “French Revolution,” and not, like his “Cromwell,” changing the opinions of mankind.

Soon after this the death of his wife plunged him into renewed gloom, from which he never emerged; and he virtually retired from the world, and was lost sight of by the younger generation, until his “Reminiscences” appeared, injudiciously published at his request by his friend and pupil Froude, in which his scorn and contempt for everybody and everything turned the current of public opinion strongly against him. This was still further increased when the Letters of his wife appeared.

Carlyle’s bitterest assailants were now agnostics of every shade and degree, especially of the humanitarian school,–that to which Mill and George Eliot belonged. It was seen that this reviler of hypocrisy and shams, this disbeliever in miracles and in mechanisms to save society, was after all a believer in God Almighty and in immortality; a stern advocate of justice and duty, appealing to the conscience of mankind; a man who detested Comte the positivist as much as he despised Mill the agnostic, and who exalted the old religion of his fathers, stripped of supernaturalism, as the only hope of the world. The biography by Froude, while it does not conceal the atrabilious temperament of Carlyle, his bad temper, his intense egotism, his irritability, his overweening pride, his scorn, his profound loneliness and sorrow, and the deep gloom into which he finally settled, made clear at the same time his honest and tender nature, his noble independence, his heroic struggles with poverty of which he never complained, his generous charities, his conscientiousness and allegiance to duty, his constant labors amid disease and excessive nervousness, and his profound and unvarying love for his wife, although he was deficient in those small attentions and demonstrations of affection which are so much prized by women. If it be asked whether he was happy in his domestic relations, I would say that he was as much so as such a man could be. But it was a physical and moral impossibility that with his ailments and temper he could be happy. He was not sent into this world to be happy, but to do a work which only such a man as he could do.

So displeasing, however, were the personal peculiarities of Carlyle that the man can never be popular. This hyperborean literary giant, speaking a Babylonian dialect, smiting remorselessly all pretenders and quacks, and even honest fools, was himself personally a bundle of contradictions, fierce and sad by turns. He was a compound of Diogenes, Jeremiah, and Dr. Johnson: like the Grecian cynic in his contempt and scorn, like the Jewish prophet in his melancholy lamentations, like the English moralist in his grim humor and overbearing dogmatism.

It is unfortunate that we know so much of the man. Better would it be for his fame if we knew nothing at all of his habits and peculiarities. In our blended admiration and contempt, our minds are diverted from the lasting literary legacy he has left, which, after all, is the chief thing that concerns us. The mortal man is dead, but his works live. The biography of a great man is interesting, but his thoughts go coursing round the world, penetrating even the distant ages, modifying systems and institutions. What a mighty power is law! Yet how little do we know or care, comparatively, for lawgivers!

Thomas Carlyle was born in the year 1795, of humble parentage, in an obscure Scotch village. His father was a stone-mason, much respected for doing good work, and for his virtue and intelligence,–a rough, rugged man who appreciated the value of education. Although kind-hearted and religious, it would seem that he was as hard and undemonstrative as an old-fashioned Puritan farmer,–one of those men who never kiss their children, or even their wives, before people. His mother also was sagacious and religious, and marked by great individuality of character. For these stern parents Carlyle ever cherished the profoundest respect and affection, regularly visiting them once a year wherever he might be, writing to them frequently, and yielding as much to their influence as to that of anybody.

At the age of fourteen the boy was sent to the University of Edinburgh, with but little money in his pocket, and forced to practise the most rigid economy. He did not make a distinguished mark at college, nor did he cultivate many friendships. He was reserved, shy, awkward, and proud. After leaving college he became a school-teacher, with no aptness and much disdain for his calling. It was then that he formed the acquaintance of Edward Irving, which ripened into the warmest friendship of his life. He was much indebted to this celebrated preacher for the intellectual impulse received from him. Irving was at the head of a school at Kirkcaldy, and Carlyle became his assistant. Both these young men were ambitious, and aspired to pre-eminence. Like Napoleon at the military school of Brienne, they would not have been contented with anything less, because they were conscious of their gifts; and both attained their end. Irving became the greatest preacher of his day, and Carlyle the greatest writer; but Carlyle had the most self-sustained greatness. Irving was led by the demon of popularity into extravagances of utterance which destroyed his influence. Carlyle, on the other hand, never courted popularity; but becoming bitter and cynical in the rugged road he climbed to fame, he too lost many of his admirers.

In ceasing to be a country schoolmaster, Carlyle did not abandon teaching. He removed to Edinburgh for the study of divinity, and supported himself by giving lessons. He had been destined by his parents to be a minister of the Kirk of Scotland; but at the age of twenty-three he entered upon a severe self-examination to decide whether he honestly believed and could preach its doctrines. Weeks of intense struggle freed him from the intellectual bonds of the kirk, but fastened upon him the chronic disorder of his stomach which embittered his life, and in later years distorted his vision of the world about him. At the recommendation of his friend Irving, then preacher at Hatton Gardens, Carlyle now became private tutor to the son of Mr. Charles Buller, an Anglo-Indian merchant, on a salary of £200; and the tutor had the satisfaction of seeing his pupil’s political advancement as a member of the House of Commons and one of the most promising men in England.

About this time Carlyle, who had been industriously studying German and French, published a translation of Legendre’s “Elements of Geometry;” and in 1824 brought out a “Life of Schiller,” a work that he never thought much of, but which was a very respectable performance. In fact, he never thought much of any of his works: they were always behind his ideal. He wrote slowly, and took great pains to be accurate; and in this respect he reminds us of George Eliot. Carlyle had no faith in rapid writing of any sort, any more than Daniel Webster had in extempore speaking. After he had become a master of composition, it took him thirteen years of steady work to write “Frederick the Great,”–about the same length of time it took Macaulay to write the history of fifteen years of England’s life, whereas Gibbon wrote the whole of his voluminous and exhaustive “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in twenty years.

“Schiller” being finished, Carlyle was now launched upon his life-work as “a writer of books.” He translated Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister,” for which he received £180. I do not see the transcendent excellence of this novel, except in its original and forcible criticism, and its undercurrent of philosophy; but it is nevertheless famous. These two works gave Carlyle some literary reputation among scholars, but not much fame.

Although Carlyle was thus fairly embarked on a literary career, the “trade” of literature he always regarded as a poor one, and never encouraged a young man to pursue it as a profession unless forced into it by his own irresistible impulses. Its nobility he ranked very high, but not its remunerativeness. He regarded it as a luxury for the rich and leisurely, but a very thorny and discouraging path for a poor man. How few have ever got a living by it, unless allied with other callings,–as a managing clerk, or professor, or lecturer, or editor! The finest productions of Emerson were originally delivered as lectures. Novelists and dramatists, I think, are the only class, who, without doing anything else, have earned a comfortable support by their writings. Historians have, with very few exceptions, been independent in their circumstances.

In the year 1826, at the age of thirty-one, Carlyle married Jane Welsh, the only child of a deceased physician of Haddington, who had some little property in expectancy from the profits of a farm in the moorlands of Scotland. She was beautiful, intellectual, and nervously intense. She had been a pupil of Edward Irving, who had introduced his friend Carlyle to her. On the whole, it was a fortunate marriage for Carlyle, although it would have been impossible for him to have or to give happiness in constant and intimate companionship with any woman. He was very fond of his wife, but in an undemonstrative sort of way,–except in his letters to her, which are genuine love-letters, tender and considerate. As in the case of most superior women, clouds at times gathered over her, which her husband did not or could not dissipate. But she was very proud of him, and faithful to him, and careful of his interest and fame. Nor is there evidence from her letters, or from the late biography which Froude has written, that she was, on the whole, unhappy. She was very frank, very sharp with her tongue, and sometimes did not spare her husband. She had a good deal to put up with from his irritable temper; but she also was irritable, nervous, and sickly, although in her loyalty she rarely complained, while she had many privations to endure,–for Carlyle until he was nearly fifty was a poor man. During the first two years of their residence in London they were obliged to live on £100 a year. He was never in even moderately easy circumstances until after his “Oliver Cromwell” was published.

After his marriage, Carlyle lived eighteen months near Edinburgh; but there was no opening for him in the exclusive society there. His merits were not then recognized as a man of genius in that cultivated capital, as it pre-eminently was at that time; but he made the acquaintance of Jeffrey, who acknowledged his merit, admired his wife, and continued to be as good a friend as that worldly but accomplished man could be to one so far beneath him in social rank.

The next seven years of Carlyle’s life were spent at the Scotch moorland farm of Craigenputtock, belonging to his wife’s mother, which must have contributed to his support. How any brilliant woman, fond of society as Mrs. Carlyle was, could have lived contentedly in that dreary solitude, fifteen miles from any visiting neighbor or town, is a mystery. She had been delicately reared, and the hard life wore upon her health. Yet it was here that the young couple established themselves, and here that some of the young author’s best works were written,–as the “Miscellanies” and “Sartor Resartus.” From here it was that he sent forth those magnificent articles on Heyne, Goethe, Novalis, Voltaire, Burns, and Johnson, which, published in the Edinburgh and other Reviews, attracted the attention of the reading world, and excited boundless admiration among students.

The earlier of these remarkable productions, like those on Burns and Jean Paul Richter, were free from those eccentricities of style which Carlyle persisted in retaining with amazing pertinacity as he advanced in life,–except, again, in his letters to his wife, which are models of clear writing.

The essay on “German Literature” appeared in the same year, 1827,–a longer and more valuable article, a blended defence and eulogium of a terra incognita, somewhat similar in spirit to that of Madame de Staël’s revelations twenty years before, and in which the writer shows great admiration of German poetry and criticism. Perhaps no Englishman, with the possible exceptions of Julius Hare and Coleridge,–the latter then a broken-down old man,–had at that time so profound an acquaintance as Carlyle with German literature, which was his food and life during the seven years’ retirement on his moorland farm. This essay also was comparatively free from the involved, grotesque, but vivid style of his later works; and it was religious in its tone. “It is mournful,” writes he, “to see so many noble, tender, and aspiring minds deserted of that light which once guided all such; mourning in the darkness because there is no home for the soul; or, what is worse, pitching tents among the ashes, and kindling weak, earthly lamps which we are to take for stars. But this darkness is very transitory. These ashes are the soil of future herbage and richer harvests. Religion dwells in the soul of man, and is as eternal as the being of man.”

In this extract we see the optimism which runs through Carlyle’s earlier writings,–the faith in creation which is to succeed destruction, the immortal hopes which sustain the soul. He believed in the God of Abraham, and was as far from being a scoffer as the heavens are higher than the earth. He had renounced historical Christianity, but he adhered to its essential spirit.

The next article which Carlyle published seems to have been on Werner, followed the same year, 1828, by one on Goethe’s “Helena,”–a continuation of his “Faust.” This transcendent work of German art, which should be studied rather than read, is commented on by the reviewer with boundless admiration. If there was one human being whom Carlyle worshipped it was the dictator of German literature, who reigned at Weimar as Voltaire had reigned at Ferney. If he was not the first to introduce the writings of Goethe into England, he was the great German’s warmest admirer. If Goethe had faults, they were to Carlyle the faults of a god, and he exalted him as the greatest light of modern times,–a new force in the world, a new fire in the soul, who inaugurated a new era in literature which went to the heart of cultivated Europe, weary of the doubts and denials that Voltaire had made fashionable. It seemed to Carlyle that Goethe entered into the sorrows, the solemn questionings and affirmations of the soul, seeking emancipation from dogmas and denials alike, and, in the spirit of Plato, resting on the certitudes of a higher life,–calm, self-poised, many-sided, having subdued passion as he had outgrown cant; full of benignity, free from sarcasm; a man of mighty and deep experiences, with knowledge of himself, of the world, and the whole realm of literature; a great artist as well as a great genius, seated on the throne of letters, not to scatter thunderbolts, but to instruct the present and future generations.

The next great essay which Carlyle published, this time in the Edinburgh Review, was on Burns,–a hackneyed subject, yet treated with masterly ability. This article, in some respects his best, entirely free from mannerisms and affectation of style, is just in its criticism, glowing with eloquence, and full of sympathy with the infirmities of a great poet, showing a remarkable insight into what is noblest and truest. This essay is likely to live for style alone, aside from its various other merits. It is complete, exhaustive, brilliant, such as only a Scotchman could have written who was familiar with the laborious lives of the peasantry, living in the realm of art and truth, careless of outward circumstances and trappings, and exalting only what is immortal and lofty. While Carlyle sees in Goethe the impersonation of human wisdom,–in every aspect a success, outwardly and inwardly, serene and potent as an Olympian deity,–he sees in Burns a highly gifted genius also, but yet a wreck and a failure; a man broken down by the force of that degrading habit which unfortunately and peculiarly and even mysteriously robs a man of all dignity, all honor, and all sense of shame. Amid the misfortunes, the mistakes, and the degradations of the born poet, whom he alike admires and pities and mildly blames, he sees also the noble elements of the poet’s gifted soul, and loves him, especially for his sincerity, which next to labor he uniformly praises. It was the truthfulness he saw in Burns which constrained Carlyle’s affection,–the poet’s sympathy and humanity, speaking out of his heart in unconscious earnestness and plaintive melody; sad and sorrowful, of course, since his life was an unsuccessful battle with himself, but free from egotism, and full of a love which no misery could crush,–so unlike that other greatest poet of our century, “whose exemplar was Satan, the hero of his poetry and the model of his life.” In this most beautiful and finished essay Carlyle paints the man in his true colors,–sinning and sinned against, courageous while yielding, poor but proud, scornful yet affectionate; singing in matchless lyrics the sentiments of the people from whom he sprung and among whom he died, which lyrics, though but fragments indeed, are precious and imperishable.

In the same year appeared the Life of Heyne,–the great German scholar, pushing his way from the depths of poverty and obscurity, by force of patient industry and genius, to a proud position and a national fame. “Let no unfriended son of genius despair,” exclaims Carlyle. “If he have the will, the power will not be denied him. Like the acorn, carelessly cast abroad in the wilderness, yet it rises to be an oak; on the wild soil it nourishes itself; it defies the tempest, and lives for a thousand years.” The whole outward life of Carlyle himself, like that of Heyne, was an example of heroism amid difficulties, and hope amid the storms.

François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, painting by Nicolas de Largillière

François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, painting by Nicolas de Largillière

The next noticeable article which Carlyle published was on Voltaire, and appeared in the Quarterly Review in 1829. It would appear that he hoped to find in this great oracle and guide of the eighteenth century something to admire and praise commensurate with his great fame. But vainly. Voltaire, though fortunate beyond example in literary history, versatile, laborious, brilliant in style,–poet, satirist, historian, and essayist,–seemed to Carlyle to be superficial, irreligious, and egotistical. The critic ascribes his power to ridicule,–a Lucian, who destroyed but did not reconstruct; worldly, material, sceptical, defiant, utterly lacking that earnestness without which nothing permanently great can be effected. Carlyle says:–

“Voltaire read history, not with the eye of a devout seer, or even critic, but through a pair of mere anti-Catholic spectacles. It is not a mighty drama, enacted on the theatre of infinitude, with suns for lamps and eternity as a background, whose author is God and whose purport leads to the throne of God, but a poor, wearisome debating-club dispute, spun through ten centuries, between the Encyclopédie and the Sorbonne.”

Carlyle’s essays for the next two years, chiefly on German literature, which he admired and sought to introduce to his countrymen, were published in various Reviews. I can only allude to one on Richter, whose whimsicality of style he unconsciously copied, and whose original ideas he made his own. In this essay Carlyle introduced to the English people a great German, but a grotesque, whose writings will probably never be read much out of Germany, excellent as they are, on account of the “jarring combination of parentheses, dashes, hyphens, figures without limit, one tissue of metaphors and similes, interlaced with epigrammatic bursts and sardonic turns,–a heterogeneous, unparalleled imbroglio of perplexity and extravagance.” There was another, on Schiller, not an idol to Carlyle as Goethe was, yet a great poet and a true man, with deep insight and intense earnestness. “His works,” said Carlyle, “and the memory of what he was, will arise afar off, like a towering landmark in the solitude of the past, when distance shall have dwarfed into invisibility many lesser people that once encompassed him, and hid them forever from the near beholder.”

Thus far Carlyle had confined himself to biography and essays on German literature, in which his extraordinary insight is seen; but now he enters another field, and writes a strictly original essay, called “Characteristics,” published in the Edinburgh Review in the prolific year of 1831, in which essay we see the germs of his philosophy. The article is hard to read, and is disfigured by obscurities which leave a doubt on the mind of the reader as to whether the author understood the subject about which he was writing,–for Carlyle was not a philosopher, but a painter and prose-poet. There is no stream of logic running consistently through his writings. In “Characteristics” he seems to have had merely glimpses of great truths which he could not clearly express, and which won him the reputation of being a German transcendentalist. Its leading idea is the commonplace one of the progress of society, which no sane and Christian man has ever seriously questioned,–not an uninterrupted progress, but a general advance, brought about by Christian ideas. Any other view of progress is dreary and discouraging; nor is this inconsistent with great catastrophes and national backslidings, with the fall of empires, and French Revolutions.

We note at this time in Carlyle’s writings, on the whole, a cheerful view of human life in spite of sorrows, hardships, and disappointments, which are made by Divine Providence to act as healthy discipline. We see nothing of the angry pessimism of his later writings. Those years at Craigenputtock were healthy and wholesome; he labored in hope, and had great intellectual and artistic enjoyment, which reconciled him to solitude,–the chief evil with which he had to contend, after dyspepsia. His habits were frugal, but poverty did not stare him in the face, since he had the income of the farm. It does not appear that the deep gloom which subsequently came over his soul oppressed him in his moorland retreat. He did not sympathize with any religion of denials, but felt that out of the jargon of false and pretentious philosophies would come at last a positive belief which would once more enthrone God in the world.

After writing another characteristic article, on Biography, he furnished for Fraser’s Magazine one of the finest biographical portraits ever painted,–that of Dr. Johnson, in which that cyclopean worker stands out, with even more distinctness than in Boswell’s “Life,” as one of the most honest, earnest, patient laborers in the whole field of literature. Carlyle makes us almost love this man, in spite of his awkwardness, dogmatism, and petulance. Johnson in his day was an acknowledged dictator on all literary questions, surrounded by admirers of the highest gifts, who did homage to his learning,–a man of more striking individuality than any other celebrity in England, and a man of intense religious convictions in an age of religious indifference. We now wonder why this struggling, poorly paid, and disagreeable man of letters should have had such an ascendency over men superior to himself in learning, genius, and culture, as Burke and Gibbon doubtless were. Even Goldsmith, whom he snubbed and loved, is now more popular than he. It was the heroism of his character which Carlyle so much admired and so vividly described,–contending with so many difficulties, yet surmounting them all by his persistent industry and noble aspirations; never losing faith in himself or his Maker, never servilely bowing down to rank and wealth, as others did, and maintaining his self-respect in whatever condition he was placed. In this delightful biography we are made to see the superiority of character to genius, and the dignity of labor when idleness was the coveted desire of most fortunate men, as well as the almost universal vice of the magnates of the land. Labor, to the mind of Johnson as well as to that of Carlyle, is not only honorable, but is a necessity which Nature imposes as the condition of happiness and usefulness. Nor does Carlyle sneer at the wedded life of Johnson, made up of “drizzle and dry weather,” but reverences his fidelity to his best friend, uninteresting as she was to the world, and his plaintive and touching grief when she passed away.

Carlyle in this essay exalts a life of letters, however poorly paid (which Pope in his “Dunciad” did so much to depreciate), showing how it contributes to the elevation of a nation, and to those lofty pleasures which no wealth can purchase. But it is the moral dignity of Johnson which the essay makes to shine most conspicuously in his character, supported as he was by the truths of religion, in which under all circumstances he proudly glories, and without which he must have made shipwreck of himself amid so many discouragements, maladies, and embarrassments,–for his greatest labors were made with poverty, distress, and obscurity for his companions,–until at last, victorious over every external evil and vile temptation, he emerged into the realm of peace and light, and became an oracle and a sage wherever he chose to go.

Johnson was the greatest master of conversation in his day, whose detached sayings are still quoted more often than his most elaborate periods. I apprehend that there was a great contrast between Johnson’s writings and his conversation. While the former are Ciceronian, his talk was epigrammatic, terse, and direct; and its charm and power were in his pointed and vehement Saxon style. Had he talked as he wrote, he would have been wearisome and pedantic. Still, like Coleridge and Robert Hall, he preached rather than conversed, thinking what he himself should say rather than paying attention to what others said, except to combat and rebuke them,–a discourser, as Macaulay was; not one to suggest interchange of ideas, as Addison did. But neither power of conversation nor learning would have made Johnson a literary dictator. His power was in the force of his character, his earnestness, and sincerity, even more than in his genius.

I will not dwell on the other Review articles which Carlyle wrote in his isolated retreat, since published as “Miscellanies,” on which his fame in no small degree rests,–even as the essays of Macaulay may be read when his more elaborate History will lie neglected on the shelves of libraries. Carlyle put his soul into these miscellanies, and the labor and enjoyment of writing made him partially forget his ailments. I look upon those years at Craigenputtock as the brightest and healthiest of his life, removed as he was from the sight of levities and follies which tormented his soul and irritated his temper.

Carlyle contrived to save about £200 from his literary earnings, so frugal was his life and so free from temptations. His recreation was in wandering on foot or horseback over the silent moors and unending hills, watered by nameless rills and shadowed by mists and vapors. His life was solitary, but not more so than that of Moses amid the deserts of Midian,–isolation, indeed, but in which the highest wisdom is matured. Into this retreat Emerson penetrated, a young man, with boundless enthusiasm for his teacher,–for Carlyle was a teacher to him as to hundreds of others in this country. Carlyle never had a truer and better friend than Emerson, who opened to him the great reward of recognition in distant America while yet his own land refused to take knowledge of him; and this friendship continued to the end, an honor to both,–for Carlyle never saw in Emerson’s writings the genius and wisdom which his American friend admired in the Scottish sage. Nor were their opinions so harmonious as some suppose. Emerson despised Calvinism, and had no definite opinions on any theological subject; Carlyle was a Calvinist without the theology of Calvinism, if that be possible. He did not, indeed, believe in historical Christianity, but he had the profoundest convictions of an overruling God, reigning in justice, and making the wrath of man to praise Him. Carlyle, too, despised everything visionary and indefinite, and had more respect for what is brought about by revolution than by evolution. But of all things he held in profoundest abhorrence the dreary theories of materialists and political economists. It was the spirit and not the body which stood out in his eyes as of most importance; it was the manly virtues which he reverenced in man, not his clothes and surroundings. And it was on this lofty spiritual plane that Carlyle and Emerson stood in complete harmony together.

I cannot quit this part of Carlyle’s life without mention of what I conceive to be his most original and remarkable production,–“Sartor Resartus,”–The Stitcher Restitched: or, The Tailor Done Over,–the title of an old Scotch song. It is a quaintly conceived reproduction of the work of an imaginary German professor on “The Philosophy of Clothes,”–under which external figure he includes all institutions, customs, beliefs, in which humanity has draped itself, as distinguished from the inner reality of man himself. “The beginning of all Wisdom,” he says, “is to look fixedly on Clothes, or even with armed eyesight, till they become transparent.” And thus, in grotesque fashion, with amazing vigor he ranges the universe in search of the Real. In one of his letters to Emerson, Carlyle, discussing a project of lecturing in America, takes on his sartorial professor’s name, and writes: “Could any one but appoint me Lecturing Professor of Teufelsdröckh’s Science,–‘Things in General’!” This work was written in his remote solitude, yet not published for years after it was finished,–and for the best of reasons, because with all his literary repute Carlyle could not find a publisher. The “Sartor” was not appreciated; and Carlyle, knowing its value, locked it up in his drawer, and waited for his time.

The “Sartor Resartus” is a sort of prose poem, written with the heart’s blood, vivid as fire in a dark night; a Dantean production; a revelation probably of the author’s own struggles and experiences from the dark gulf of the “Everlasting Nay” to the clear and serene heights of the “Everlasting Yea.” To me the book is full of consolation and encouragement,–a battle of the spirit with infernal doubts, a victory over despair, over all external evils and all spiritual foes. It is also a bold and grotesque but scorching sarcasm of the conventionalities and hypocrisies of society, and a savage thrust at those quackeries which seem to reign in this world in spite of their falsity and shallowness. It is not, I grant, easy to read. It is full of conceits and affectations of style,–a puzzle to some, a rebuke to others. “Every page of this unique collection of confessions and meditations, of passionate invective and solemn reflection,” is stamped with the seal of genius, and yet was the last of Carlyle’s writings to be appreciated. I believe that this is the ordinary fate of truly original works, those that are destined to live the longest, especially if they burn no incense to the idols of prevailing worship, and be characterized by a style which, to say the least, is extraordinary. Flashy, brilliant, witty, yet superficial pictures of external life which everybody has seen and knows, are the soonest to find admirers; but a revelation of what is not seen, this is the work of seers and prophets whose ordinary destiny has been anything other than to wear soft raiment and sit in king’s palaces. The “Sartor” was at last, in 1833-1834, printed in Fraser’s Magazine, meeting no appreciation in England, but very enthusiastically received by Emerson, Channing, Ripley, and a group of advanced thinkers in New England, through whose efforts it was published here in book form. And so, in spite of timid London publishers, it drifted back to London and a slow-growing fame. In our time, sixty years later, it sells by scores of thousands annually, in cheap and in luxurious editions, throughout the English-speaking world.

In respect of early recognition and popularity, Carlyle differs from his great contemporary Macaulay, who was so immediately and so magnificently rewarded, and yet received no more than his due as the finest prose writer of his day. Macaulay’s Essays are generally word-pictures of remarkable men and remarkable events, but of men of action rather than of quiet meditation. His heroes are such men as Clive and Hastings and Pitt, not such men as Pascal or Augustine or Leibnitz or Goethe. But Carlyle in his heroes paints the struggling soul in its deepest aspirations, and the truths evolved by profound meditations. These are not such as gain instant popular acceptance; yet they are the longer-lived.

The time came at last for Carlyle to leave his retirement among moors and hills, and in 1831 he directed his steps to London, spending the winter with his wife in the great centre of English life and thought, and being well received; so that in 1834 he removed permanently to the metropolis. But he was scarcely less buried at his modest house in Chelsea than he had been on his farm, for he came to London with only £200, and was obliged to practise the most rigid economy. For two years he labored in his London workshop without earning a shilling, and with a limited acquaintance. Not yet was his society sought by the great world which he mocked and despised. He fortunately had the genial and agreeable Leigh Hunt for a neighbor, and Edward Irving for his friend. He was known to the critics by his writings, but his circle of personal friends was small. He was more or less intimate with John Stuart Mill, Charles Austin, Sir William Molesworth, and the advanced section of the philosophical radicals,–the very class of men from whom he afterwards was most estranged. None of these men forwarded his fortunes; but they lent him books, and helped him at the libraries, for no carpenter can work without tools.

The work to which Carlyle now devoted himself was a history of the French Revolution, the principal characters of which he had already studied and written about. It was a subject adapted to his genius for dramatic writing, and for the presentation of his views as to retribution. His whole theology, according to Froude, was underlaid by the belief in punishment for sin, which was impressed upon his mind by his God-fearing parents, and was one of his firmest convictions. The French were to his mind the greatest sinners among Christian nations, and therefore were to reap a fearful penalty. To paint in a new and impressive form the inevitable calamities attendant on violated law and justice, was the aspiration of Carlyle. He had money enough to last him with economy for two years. In this time he hoped to complete his work. The possibility was due to the intelligent thrift of his wife. Commenting on one of her letters describing their snug little house, he writes:–

“From birth upwards she had lived in opulence; and now, for my sake, had become poor,–so nobly poor. Truly, her pretty little brag [in this letter] was well founded. No such house, for beautiful thrift, quiet, spontaneous, nay, as it were, unconscious–minimum of money reconciled to human comfort and human dignity–have I anywhere looked upon.”

He devoted himself to his task with intense interest, and was completely preoccupied.

In the winter of 1835, after a year of general study, collection of material and writing, and at last “by dint of continual endeavor for many weary weeks,” the first volume was completed and submitted to his friend Mill. The valuable manuscript was accidentally and ignorantly destroyed by a servant, and Mill was in despair. Carlyle bore the loss like a hero. He did not chide or repine. If his spirit sunk within him, it was when he was alone in his library or in the society of his sympathizing wife. He generously writes to Emerson,–

“I could not complain, or the poor man would have shot himself: we had to gather ourselves together, and show a smooth front to it,–which happily, though difficult, was not impossible to do. I began again at the beginning, to such a wretched, paralyzing torpedo of a task as my hand never found to do.”

Mill made all the reparation possible. He gave his friend £200, but Carlyle would accept only £100. Few men could have rewritten with any heart that first volume: it would be almost impossible to revive sufficient interest; the precious inspiration would have been wanting. Yet Carlyle manfully accomplished his task, and I am inclined to think that the second writing was better than the first; that he probably left out what was unessential, and made a more condensed narrative,–a more complete picture, for his memory was singularly retentive. I do not believe that any man can do his best at the first heat. See how the great poets revise and rewrite. Brougham rewrote his celebrated peroration on the trial of Queen Caroline seventeen times. Carlyle had to rewrite his book, but his materials remained; his great pictures were all in his mind. In this second writing there may have been less emotion,–less fire in his descriptions; but there was fire enough, for his vivacity was excessive. Even his work could be pruned, not by others, but by himself. “The household at Chelsea was never closer drawn together than in those times of trial.” Carlyle lost time and spirits, but he could afford the loss. The entire work was delayed, but was done at last. The final sentence of Vol. III. was written at ten o’clock on a damp evening, January 14, 1837.

This great work, the most ambitious and famous of all Carlyle’s writings, and in many respects his best, was not received by the public with the enthusiam it ought to have awakened. It was not appreciated by the people at large. “Ordinary readers were not enraptured by the Iliad swiftness and vividness of the narrative, its sustained passion, the flow of poetry, the touches of grandeur and tenderness, and the masterly touches by which he made the great actors stand out in their individuality.” It seemed to many to be extravagant, exaggerated, at war with all the “feudalities of literature.” Partisans of all kinds were offended. The style was startlingly broken, almost savage in strength, vivid and distinct as lightning. Doubtless the man himself had grown away from the quieter moods of his earlier essays. Froude quotes this from Carlyle’s journal: “The poor people seem to think a style can be put off or on, not like a skin but like a coat. Is not a skin verily a product and close kinsfellow of all that lies under it, exact type of the nature of the beast, not to be plucked off without flaying and death? The Public is an old woman. Let her maunder and mumble.”

But the extraordinary merits of the book made a great impression on the cultivated intellects of England,–such men as Jeffrey, Macaulay, Southey, Hallam, Brougham, Thackeray, Dickens,–who saw and admitted that a great genius had arisen, whether they agreed with his views or not. In America, we may be proud to say, the work created general enthusiasm, and its republication through Emerson’s efforts brought some money as well as larger fame to its author. Of the first moneys that Emerson sent Carlyle as fruits of this adventure, the dyspeptic Scotchman wrote that he was “half-resolved to buy myself a sharp little nag with twenty of these trans-Atlantic pounds, and ride him till the other thirty be eaten. I will call the creature ‘Yankee.’ … My kind friends!” And Yankee was duly bought and ridden.

Carlyle still remained in straitened circumstances, although his reputation was now established. In order to assist him in his great necessities his friends got up lectures for him, which were attended by the élite of London. He gave several courses in successive years during the London season, which brought him more money than his writings at that time, gave him personal éclat, and added largely to his circle of admirers. His second course of twelve lectures brought him £300,–a year’s harvest, and a large sum for lectures in England, where the literary institutions rarely paid over £5 for a single lecture. Even in later times the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, which commanded the finest talent, paid only £10 to such men as Froude and the archbishop of York.

But lecturing, to many men an agreeable excitement, seems to have been very unpleasant to Carlyle,–even repulsive. Though the lectures brought both money and fame, he abominated the delivery of them. They broke his rest, destroyed his peace of mind, and depressed his spirits. Nothing but direst necessity reconciled him to the disagreeable task. He never took any satisfaction or pride in his success in this field; nor was his success probably legitimate. People went to see him as a new literary lion,–to hear him roar, not to be edified. He had no peculiar qualification for public speaking, and he affected to despise it. Very few English men of letters have had this gift. Indeed, popular eloquence is at a discount among the cultivated classes in England. They prefer to read at their leisure. Popular eloquence best thrives in democracies, as in that of ancient Athens; aristocrats disdain it, and fear it. In their contempt for it they even affect hesitation and stammering, not only when called upon to speak in public, but also in social converse, until the halting style has come to be known among Americans as “very English.” In absolute monarchies eloquence is rare except in the pulpit or at the bar. Cicero would have had no field, and would not probably have been endured, in the reign of Nero; yet Bossuet and Bourdaloue were the delight of Louis XIV. What would that monarch have said to the speeches of Mirabeau?

After the publication in 1837 of the “French Revolution,”–that “roaring conflagration of anarchies,” that series of graphic pictures rather than a history or even a criticism,–it was some time before Carlyle could settle down upon another great work. He delivered lectures, wrote tracts and essays, gave vent to his humors, and nursed his ailments. He was now famous,–a man whom everybody wished to see and know, especially Americans when they came to London, but whom he generally snubbed (as he did me) and pronounced them bores. It was at this time that he made the acquaintance of Monckton Milnes, afterward Lord Houghton, who invited him to breakfast, where he met other notabilities,–among them Bunsen the Prussian Ambassador at London; Lord Mahon the historian; and Mr. Baring, afterward Lord Ashburton, the warmest and the truest of his friends, who extended to him the most generous hospitalities.

Carlyle was now in what is called “high society,” and was “taking life easy,”–writing but little, yet reading much, especially about Oliver Cromwell, whose Life he thought of writing. His lectures at this period were more successful than ever, attended by great and fashionable people; and from them his chief income was derived.

While collecting materials for his Life of Cromwell, Carlyle became deeply interested in the movements of the Chartists, composed chiefly of working-men with socialistic tendencies. He was called a “radical,”–and he did believe in a radical reform of men’s lives, especially of the upper classes who showed but little sympathy for the poor. He was not satisfied with the Whigs, who believed that the Reform Bill would usher in a political millennium. He had more sympathy with the “conservative” Tories than the “liberal” Whigs; but his opinions were not acceptable to either of the great political parties. They alike distrusted him. Even Mill had a year before declined an article on the working classes for his Review, the Westminster. Carlyle took it to Lockhart of the Quarterly, but Lockhart was afraid to publish it. Mill, then about to leave the Westminster, wished to insert it as a final shout; but Carlyle declined, and in 1839 expanded his article into a book called “Chartism,” which was rapidly sold and loudly noticed. It gave but little satisfaction, however. It offended the conservatives by exposing sores that could not be healed, while on the other hand the radicals did not wish to be told that men were far from being equal,–that in fact they were very unequal; and that society could not be advanced by debating clubs or economical theories, but only by gifted individuals as instruments of Divine Providence, guiding mankind by their superior wisdom.

These views were expanded in a new course of lectures, on “Heroes and Hero Worship,” and subsequently printed,–the most able and suggestive of all Carlyle’s lectures, delivered in the spring of 1840 with great éclat. He never appeared on the platform again. Lecturing, as we have said, was not to his taste; he preferred to earn his living by his pen, and his writings had now begun to yield a comfortable support. He received on account of them £400 from America alone, thanks to the influence of his friend Emerson.

Carlyle now began to weary of the distraction of London life, and pined for the country. But his wife would not hear a word about it; she had had enough of the country, at Craigenputtock. Meanwhile preparations for the Life of Cromwell went on slowly, varied by visits to his relatives in Scotland, travels on the Continent, and interviews with distinguished men. His mind at this period (1842) was most occupied with the sad condition of the English people,–everywhere riots, disturbances, physical suffering and abject poverty among the masses, for the Corn Laws had not then been repealed; and to Carlyle’s vision there was a most melancholy prospect ahead,–not revolution, but universal degradation, and the reign of injustice. This sad condition of the people was contrasted in his mind with what it had been centuries before, as it appeared from an old book which he happened to read, Jocelin’s Chronicles, which painted English life in the twelfth century. He fancied that the world was going on from bad to worse; and in this gloomy state of mind he wrote his “Past and Present,” which appeared in 1843, and created a storm of anger as well as admiration. It was a sort of protest against the political systems of economy then so popular. Lockhart said of it that he could accept none of his friend’s inferences except one,–“that we were all wrong, and were all like to be damned.”

Gloomy and satirical as the book was, it made a great impression on the thinkers of the day, while it did not add to the author’s popularity. It seemed as if he were a prophet of wrath,–an Ishmaelite whose hand was against everybody. He offended all political parties,–“the Tories by his radicalism, and the Radicals by his scorn of their formulas; the High Churchman by his Protestantism, and the Low Churchman by evident unorthodoxy.” Yet all parties and sects admitted that much that he said was true, while at the same time they had no sympathy with his fierce ravings.

For ten years after the publication of the “French Revolution” Carlyle assumed the functions of a prophet, hurling anathemas and pronouncing woes. To his mind everything was alike disjointed or false or pretentious, in view of which he uttered groans and hisses and maledictions. The very name of a society designed to ameliorate evils seemed to put him into a passion. Every reformer appeared to him to be a blind teacher of the blind. Exeter Hall, then the scene of every variety of social and religious and political discussion, was to him a veritable pandemonium. Everybody at that period of agitation and reform was giving lectures, and everybody went to hear them; and Carlyle ridiculed them all alike as pedlers of nostrums to heal diseases which were incurable. He lived in an atmosphere of disdain. “The English people,” said he, “number some thirty millions,–mostly fools.” His friends expostulated with him for giving utterance to such bitter expressions, and for holding such gloomy views. John Mill was mortally offended, and walked no more with him. De Quincey said, “You have made a new hole in your society kettle: how do you propose to mend it?”

Yet all this while Carlyle had not lost faith in Providence, as it might seem, but felt that God would inflict calamities on peoples for their sins. He resembled Savonarola more than he did Voltaire. What seemed to some to be mockeries were really the earnest protests of his soul against universal corruption, to be followed by downward courses and retribution. His mind was morbid from intense reflection on certain evils, and from his physical ailments. He doubtless grieved and alienated his best friends by his diatribes against popular education and free institutions. He even appeared to lean to despotism and the rule of tyrants, provided only they were strong.

Thus Carlyle destroyed his influence, even while he moved the mind to reflection. It was seen and felt that he had no sympathy with many movements designed to benefit society, and that he cherished utter scorn for many active philanthropists. In his bitterness, wrath, and disdain he became himself intolerant. In some of his wild utterances he brought upon himself almost universal reproach, as when he said, “I never thought the rights of negroes worth much discussing, nor the rights of man in any form,”–a sentiment which militated against his whole philosophy. In this strange and unhappy mood of mind, the “Latter Day Pamphlets,” “Past and Present,” and other essays were written, which undermined the reverence in which he had been held. These were the blots on his great career, which may be traced to sickness and a disordered mind.

In fact, Carlyle cannot be called a sound writer at any period. He contradicts himself. He is a great painter, a prose-poet, a satirist,–not a philosopher; perhaps the most suggestive writer of the nineteenth century, often giving utterance to the grandest thoughts, yet not a safe guide at all times, since he is inconsistent and full of exaggerations.

The morbid and unhealthy tone of Carlyle’s mind at this period may be seen by an extract from one of his letters to Sterling:–

“I see almost nobody. I avoid sight, rather, and study to consume my own smoke. I wish you would build me, among your buildings, some small Prophet Chamber, fifteen feet square, with a flue for smoking, sacred from all noises of dogs, cocks, and piano-fortes, engaging some dumb old woman to light a fire for me daily, and boil some kind of a kettle.”

Thus quaintly he expressed his desire for uninterrupted solitude, where he could work to advantage.

He was then engaged on Cromwell, and the few persons with whom he exchanged letters show how retired was his life. His friends were also few, although he could have met as many persons as pleased him. He was too much absorbed with work to be what is called a society man; but what society he did see was of the best.

At last Carlyle’s task on the “Life of Oliver Cromwell” was finished in August, 1845, when he was fifty years of age. It was the greatest contribution to English history; Mr. Froude thinks, which has been made in the present century. “Carlyle was the first to make Cromwell and his age intelligible to mankind.” Indeed, he reversed the opinions of mankind respecting that remarkable man, which was a great accomplishment. No one doubts the genuineness of the portrait. Cromwell was almost universally supposed, fifty years ago, to be a hypocrite as well as a usurper. In Carlyle’s hands he stands out visionary, perhaps, but yet practical, sincere, earnest, God-fearing,–a patriot devoted to the good of his country. Carlyle rescued a great historical personage from the accumulated slanders of two centuries, and did his work so well that no hostile criticisms have modified his verdict. He has painted a picture which is immortal. The insight, the sagacity, the ability, and the statesmanship of Cromwell are impressed upon the minds of all readers. That England never had a greater or more enlightened ruler, everybody is now forced to admit,–and not merely a patriotic but a Christian ruler, who regarded himself simply as the instrument of Providence.

People still differ as to the cause in which Cromwell embarked, and few defend the means he used to accomplish his ends. He does not stand out as a perfect man; he made mistakes, and committed political crimes which can be defended only on grounds of expediency. But his private life was above reproach, and he died in the triumph of Christian faith, after having raised his country to a higher pitch of glory than had been seen since the days of Queen Elizabeth.

The faults of the biographer centre in confounding right with might; and this conspicuously false doctrine is the leading defect of the philosophy of Carlyle, runs through all his writings, and makes him an unsound teacher. If this doctrine be true, then all the usurpers of the world from Caesar to Napoleon can be justified. If this be true, then an irresistible imperialism becomes the best government for mankind. It is but fair to say that Carlyle himself denied this inference. Writing of Lecky’s having charged him with believing in the divine right of strength, he says:–

“With respect to that poor heresy of might being the symbol of right ‘to a certain great and venerable author,’ I shall have to tell Lecky one day that quite the converse or reverse is the great and venerable author’s real opinion,–namely, that right is the eternal symbol of might; … in fact, he probably never met with a son of Adam more contemptuous of might except when it rests on the above origin.”

Yet the impression of all his strongest work is the other way.

Certain other kindred doctrines may be inferentially drawn from Carlyle’s defence of Cromwell; namely, that a popular assembly is incapable of guiding successfully the destinies of a nation; that behind all constitutions lies an ultimate law of force; that majorities, as such, have no more right to rule than kings and nobles; that the strongest are the best, and the best are the strongest; that the right to rule lies with those who are right in mind and heart, as he supposed Cromwell to be, and who can execute their convictions. Such teachings, it need not be shown, are at war with the whole progress of modern society and the enlightened opinion of mankind.

The great merit of Carlyle’s History is in the clearness and vividness with which he paints his hero and the exposure of the injustice with which he has been treated by historians. It is an able vindication of Cromwell’s character. But the deductions drawn from his philosophy lead to absurdity, and are an insult to the understanding of the world.

It was about this time, on the conclusion of the “Cromwell,” when he was on the summit of his literary fame, and the world began to shower its favors upon him, that Carlyle’s days were saddened by a domestic trouble which gave him inexpressible solicitude and grief. His wife, with whom he had lived happily for so many years, was exceedingly disturbed on account of his intimate friendship with Lady Ashburton. Nothing can be more plaintive and sadly beautiful than the letters he wrote to her on the occasion of her starting off in a fit of spleen, after a stormy scene, to visit friends at a distance; and what is singular is that we do not find in those letters, when his soul was moved to its very depths, any of his peculiarities of style. They are remarkably simple as well as serious.

Carlyle’s friendship for one of the most brilliant and cultivated women of England, which the breath of scandal never for a moment assailed, was reasonable and natural, and was a great comfort to him. He persisted in enjoying it, knowing that his wife disliked it. In this matter, which was a cloud upon his married life, and saddened the family hearth for years, Mrs. Carlyle was doubtless exacting and unreasonable; though some men would have yielded the point for the sake of a faithful wife,–or even for peace. There are those who think that Carlyle was selfish in keeping up an intercourse which was hateful to his wife; but the Ashburtons were the best friends that Carlyle ever had, after he became famous,–and in their various country seats he enjoyed a hospitality rarely extended to poor literary men. There he met in enjoyable and helpful intercourse, when he could not have seen them in his own house, some of the most distinguished men of the day,–men of rank and influence as well as those of literary fame.

Until this intimacy with the Ashburtons, no domestic disturbances of note had taken place in the Carlyle household. The wife may occasionally have been sad and lonely when her husband was preoccupied with his studies; but this she ought to have anticipated in marrying a literary man whose only support was from his pen. Carlyle, too, was an inveterate smoker, and she detested tobacco, so that he did not spend as much time in the parlor as he did in his library, where he could smoke to his heart’s content. On the whole, however, their letters show genuine mutual affection, and as much connubial happiness as is common to most men and women, with far more of intimate intellectual and spiritual congeniality. Carlyle, certainly, in all his letters, ever speaks of his wife with admiration and gratitude. He regarded her as not only the most talented woman that he had ever known, but as the one without whom he was miserable. They were the best of comrades and companions from first to last, when at home together.

For a considerable period after the publication of the Life of Cromwell, Carlyle was apparently idle. He wrote for several years nothing of note except his “Latter Day Pamphlets” (1850), and a Life of his friend John Sterling (1851), to whom he was tenderly attached. It would seem that he was now in easy circumstances, although he retained to the end his economical habits. He amused himself with travelling, and with frequent visits to distinguished people in the country. If not a society man, he was much sought; he dined often at the tables of the great, and personally knew almost every man of note in London. He sturdily took his place among distinguished men,–the intellectual peer of the greatest. He often met Macaulay, but was not intimate with him. I doubt if they even exchanged visits. The reason for this may have been that they were not congenial to each other in anything, and that the social position of Macaulay was immeasurably higher than Carlyle’s. It would be hard to say which was the greater man.

Thomas Carlyle Painting by Sir John Everett Millais

Thomas Carlyle Painting by Sir John Everett Millais

It was not until 1852 or 1853, when Carlyle was fifty-eight, that he seriously set himself to write his Life of Frederic II., his last great work, on which he perseveringly labored for thirteen years. It is an exhaustive history of the Prussian hero, and is regarded in Germany as the standard work on that great monarch and general. The first volume came out in 1858, and the last in 1865. It is a marvel of industry and accuracy,–the most elaborate of all his works, but probably the least read because of its enormous length and scholastic pedantries. It might be said to bear the same relation to his “French Revolution” that “Romola” does to “Adam Bede.” In this book Carlyle made no new revelations, as he did in his Life of Cromwell. He did not change essentially the opinion of mankind. Frederick the Great, in his hands, still stands out as an unscrupulous public enemy,–a robber and a tyrant. His crimes are only partially redeemed by his heroism, especially when Europe was in arms against him. There is the same defect in this great work that there is in the Life of Cromwell,–the inculcation of the doctrine that might makes right; that we may do evil that good may come,–thus putting expediency above eternal justice, and palliating crimes because of their success. It is difficult to account for Carlyle’s decline in moral perceptions, when we consider that his personal life was so far above reproach.

Although the Life of Frederick is a work of transcendent industry, it did not add to Carlyle’s popularity, which had been undermined by his bitter attacks on society in his various pamphlets. At this period he was still looked up to with reverence as a great intellectual giant; but that love for him which had been felt by those who were aroused to honest thinking by his earlier writings had passed away. A new generation looked upon him as an embittered and surly old man. His services were not forgotten, but he was no longer a favorite,–no longer an inspiring guide. His writings continued to stimulate thought, but were no longer regarded as sound. Commonplace people never did like him, probably because they never understood him. His admirers were among the young, the enthusiastic, the hopeful, the inquiring; and when their veneration passed away, there were few left to uphold his real greatness and noble character. One might suppose that Carlyle would have been unhappy to alienate so many persons, especially old admirers. In fact, I apprehend that he cared little for anybody’s admiration or flattery. He lived in an atmosphere so infinitely above small and envious and detracting people that he was practically independent of human sympathies. Had he been doomed to live with commonplace persons, he might have sought to conciliate them; but he really lived in another sphere,–not perhaps higher than theirs, but eternally distinct,–in the sphere of abstract truth. To him most people were either babblers or bores. What did he care for their envious shafts, or even for their honest disapprobation!

Hence, the last days of this great man were not his best days, although he was not without honor. He was made Lord Rector of the University of Edinburgh, and delivered a fine address on the occasion; and later, Disraeli, when prime minister, offered him knighthood, with the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath and a pension, which he declined. The author of the “Sartor Resartus” did not care for titles. He preferred to remain simply Thomas Carlyle.

While Carlyle was in the midst of honors in Edinburgh, his wife, who had long been in poor health, suddenly died, April 21, 1866. This affliction was a terrible blow to Carlyle, from which he never recovered. It filled out his measure of sorrow, deep and sad, and hard to be borne. His letters after this are full of pathos and plaintive sadness. He could not get resigned to his loss, for his wife had been more and more his staff and companion as years had advanced. The Queen sent her sympathy, but nothing could console him. He was then seventy-one years old, and his work was done. His remaining years were those of loneliness and sorrow and suffering. He visited friends, but they amused him not. He wrote reminiscences, but his isolation remained. He sought out charities when he himself was the object of compassion,–a sad old man who could not sleep. He tried to interest himself in politics, but time hung heavy on his hands. He read much and thought more, but assumed no fresh literary work. He had enough to do to correct proof-sheets of new editions of his works. His fiercest protests were now against atheism in its varied forms. In 1870, Mr. Erskine, his last Scotch friend, died. In 1873 he writes: “More and more dreary, barren, base, and ugly seem to me all the aspects of this poor, diminishing quack-world,–fallen openly anarchic, doomed to a death which one can wish to be speedy.”

Poor old man! He has survived his friends, his pleasures, his labors, almost his fame; he is sick, and weary of life, which to him has become a blank. Pity it is, he could not have died when “Cromwell” was completed. He drags on his forlorn life, without wife or children, and with only a few friends, in disease and ennui and discontent, almost alone, until he is eighty-five.

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps on this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

The relief came at last. It was on a cold day in February, 1881, that Lecky, Froude, and Tyndall, alone of his London friends, accompanied his mortal remains to Ecclefechan, where he was buried by the graves of his father and mother. He might have rested in the vaults of Westminster; but he chose to lie in a humble churchyard, near where he was born.

“In future years,” says his able and interesting biographer, “Scotland will have raised a monument over his remains; but no monument is needed for one who has made an eternal memorial for himself in the hearts of all to whom truth is the dearest possession.

“‘For, giving his soul to the common cause, he won for himself a wreath which will not fade, and a tomb the most honorable,–not where his dust is decaying, but where his glory lives in everlasting remembrance. For of illustrious men all the earth is the sepulchre; and it is not the inscribed column in their own land which is the record of their virtues, but the unwritten memories of them in the hearts and minds of all mankind.'” [1]

Thomas Carlyle will always have an honorable place among the great men of his time. He was pre-eminently a profound thinker, a severe critic, a great word-painter,–a man of uncommon original gifts, who aroused and instructed his generation. In the literal sense, he was neither philosopher nor poet nor statesman, but a man of genius, who cast his searching and fearless glance into all creeds, systems, and public movements, denouncing hypocrisies, shams, and lies with such power that he lost friends almost as fast as he made them,–without, however, losing the respect and admiration of his literary rivals, or of the ablest and best men both in England and America. Although no believer in the scientific philosophies of our time, he was a great breaker of ground for them, having been a pioneer in the cause of honest thinking and plain speaking. His passion for truth, and courage in declaring his own vision of it, were potent for spiritual liberty. He stands as one of the earliest and stoutest champions of that revolt against authority in religious, intellectual, and social matters which has chiefly marked the Nineteenth Century.

[1] Quoted by Froude from the Funeral Oration of Pericles in honor of the Athenians slain during the first summer of the Peloponnesian War, as given by Thucydides,–“their,” “they,” etc. being changed to “his,” “he,” etc.

Lord Macaulay : Artistic Historical Writing

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers