Biography of Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle

North-west of Carlisle (from which town the Carlyle family in all probability first took their name), a little way along the border, the river Annan comes down its green valley from the lowland hills to lose itself in the wide sands of the Solway Firth. At the foot of these hills is the village of Ecclefechan, some eight miles inland. Here in the wide irregular street, down the side of which flows a little beck, stands the grey cottage, built by the stonemason James Carlyle, where he lived with his second wife, Margaret Aitken; and here on December 4, 1795, the eldest of nine children, their son Thomas was born. There is little to redeem the place from insignificance; the houses are mostly mean, the position of the village is tame and commonplace. But if a visitor will mount the hills that lie to the north, turn southward and look over the wide expanse of land and water to the Cumbrian mountains, then, should he be fortunate enough to see the landscape in stormy and unsettled weather, he may realize why the land was so dear to its most famous son that he could return to it from year to year throughout his life and could there at all times soothe his most unquiet moods. Through all his years in London he remained a lowland Scot and was most at home in Annandale. With this district his fame is still bound up, as that of Walter Scott with the Tweed, or that of Wordsworth with the Lakes.

In this humble household Thomas Carlyle first learnt what is meant by work, by truthfulness, and by reverence, lessons which he never forgot. He learnt to revere authority, to revere worth, and to revere something yet higher and more mysterious-the Unseen. In Sartor Resartus he describes how his hero was impressed by his parents’ observance of religious duties. ‘The highest whom I knew on earth I here saw bowed down with awe unspeakable before a Higher in Heaven; such things especially in infancy, reach inwards to the very core of your being.’ His father was a man of unusual force of character and gifted with a wonderful power of speech, flashing out in picturesque metaphor, in biting satire, in humorous comment upon life. He had, too, the Scotch genius for valuing education; and it was he who decided that Tom, whose character he had observed, should have every chance that schooling could give him. His mother was a most affectionate, single-hearted, and religious woman; laboring for her family, content with her lot, her trust for her son unfailing, her only fear for him lest in his new learning he might fall away from the old Biblical faith which she held so firmly herself.

Reading with his father or mother, lending a hand at housework when needed, nourishing himself on the simple oatmeal and milk which throughout life remained his favorite food, submitting himself instinctively to the stern discipline of the home, he passed, happily on the whole, through his childhood and soon outstripped his comrades in the village school. His success there led to his going in his tenth year to the grammar school at Annan; and before he reached his fourteenth year he trudged off on foot to Edinburgh to begin his studies at the university.

Instead of young men caught up by express trains and deposited, by the aid of cabmen and porters, in a few hours in the sheltered courts of Oxford and Cambridge, we must imagine a party of boys, of fourteen or fifteen years old, trudging on foot twenty miles a day for five days across bleak country, sleeping at rough inns, and on their arrival searching for an attic in some bleak tenement in a noisy street. Here they were to live almost entirely on the baskets of home produce sent through the carriers at intervals by their thrifty parents. It was and is a Spartan discipline, and it turns out men who have shown their grit and independence in all lands where the British flag is flown.

The earliest successes, which Carlyle won, both at Annan and at Edinburgh, were in mathematics. His classical studies received little help from his professors, and his literary gifts were developed mostly by his own reading, and stimulated from time to time by talks with fellow students. Perhaps it was for his ultimate good that he was not brought under influences, which might have guided him into more methodical courses and tamed his rugged originality. The universities cannot often be proved to have fostered kindly their poets and original men of letters; at least we may say that Edinburgh was a more kindly Alma Mater to Carlyle than Oxford and Cambridge proved to Shelley and Byron. His native genius, and the qualities which he inherited from his parents, were not starved in alien soil, but put out vigorous growth. From such letters to his friends as have survived, we can see what a power Carlyle had already developed of forcibly expressing his ideas and establishing an influence over others.

He left the university at the age of nineteen, and the next twelve years of his life were of a most unsettled character. He made nearly as many false starts in life as Goldsmith or Coleridge, though he redeemed them nobly by his persistence in after years. In 1814 his family still regarded the ministry as his vocation, and Carlyle was himself quite undecided about it. To promote this idea the profession of schoolmaster was taken up for the time. He continued in it for more than six years, first at Annan and then at Kirkcaldy; but he was soon finding it uncongenial and rebelling against it. A few years later he tried reading law with no greater contentment; and in order to support himself he was reduced to teaching private pupils. The chief friend of this period was Edward Irving, the gifted preacher who afterwards, in London, came to tragic shipwreck. He was a native of Annan, five years older than Carlyle, and he had spent some time in preaching and preparing for the ministry. He was one of the few people who profoundly influenced Carlyle’s life. At Kirkcaldy he was his constant companion, shared his tastes, lent him books, and kindled his powers of insight and judgment in many a country walk. Carlyle has left us records of this time in his Reminiscences, how he read the twelve volumes of Irving’s Gibbon in twelve days, how he tramped through the Trossachs on foot, how in summer twilights he paced the long stretches of sand at Irving’s side.

It was Irving who in 1822 commended him to the Buller family, with whom he continued as tutor for two years. Charles Buller, the eldest son, was a boy of rare gifts and promise, worthy of such a teacher; and but for his untimely death in 1848 he might have won a foremost place in politics. The family proved valuable friends to Carlyle in after-life, besides enabling him at this time to live in comfort, with leisure for his own studies and some spare money to help his family. But for this aid, his brother Alexander would have fared ill with the farming, and John could never have afforded the training for the medical profession.

Again, it was Irving who first took him to Haddington in 1821 and introduced him to Jane Baillie Welsh, his future wife. Irving’s sincerity and sympathy, his earnest enthusiasm joined with the power of genuine laughter (always to Carlyle a mark of a true rich nature), made him through all these years a thoroughly congenial companion. He really understood Carlyle as few outside his family did, and he never grew impatient at Carlyle’s difficulty in settling to a profession. ‘Your mind,’ he wrote, ‘unfortunately for its present peace, has taken in so wide a range of study as to be almost incapable of professional trammels; and it has nourished so uncommon and so unyielding a character, as first unfits you for, and then disgusts you with, any accommodations which for so cultivated and so fertile a mind would easily procure favour and patronage.’ Well might Carlyle in later days find a hero in tough old Samuel Johnson, whose sufferings were due to similar causes. The other source which kept the fire in him aglow through these difficult years was the confidence and affection of his whole family, and the welcome which he always found at home. Disappointed though they were at his failure, as yet, to settle to a profession and to earn a steady income, for all that ‘Tom’ was to be a great man; and when he could find time to spend some months at Mainhill, or later at Scotsbrig, a room could always be found for him, hours of peace and solitude could be enjoyed, the most wholesome food, and the most cordial affection, were there rendered as loyal ungrudging tribute. But new ties were soon to be knit and a new chapter to be opened in his life.

John Welsh of Haddington, who died before Carlyle met his future wife, was a surgeon and a man of remarkable gifts; and his daughter could trace her descent to such famous Scotsmen as Wallace and John Knox. Her own mental powers were great, and her vivacity and charming manners caused her to shine in society wherever she was. She had an unquestioned supremacy among the ladies of Haddington and many had been the suitors for her hand. When Irving had given her lessons there, love had sprung up between tutor and pupil, but this budding romance ended tragically in 1822. Before meeting her he had been engaged to another lady; and when a new appointment gave him a sure income, he was held to his bond and was forced to crush down his passion and to take farewell of Miss Welsh. At what date Carlyle conceived the hope of making her his wife it is difficult to say. Her beauty and wit seem to have done their work quickly in his case; but she was not one to give her affections readily, for all the intellectual sympathy, which united them. In 1823 she was contemplating marriage, but had made no promise; in 1824 she had accepted the idea of marrying him, but in 1825 she still scouted the conditions in which he proposed to live. His position was precarious, his projects visionary,[16] and his immediate desire was to settle on a lonely farm, where he could devote himself to study, if she would do the household drudgery. Because his mother whom he loved and honored was content to lead this life, he seemed to think that his wife could do the same; but her nature and her rearing were not those of the Carlyles and their Annandale neighbors. It involved a complete renunciation of the comforts of life and the social position, which she enjoyed; and much though she admired his talents and enjoyed his company, she was not in that passion of love, which could lift her to such heights of self-sacrifice.

By this time we can begin to discern in his letters the outline of his character-his passionate absorption in study, his moodiness, his fits of despondency, his intense irritability; his incapacity to master his own tongue and temper. In happy moments he shows great tenderness of feeling for those whom he loves or pities; but this alternates with inconsiderate clamor and loud complaints deafening the ears of all about him, provoked often by slight and even imaginary grievances. It is the artistic nature run riot, and that in one who preached silence and stoicism as the chief virtues-an inconsistency which has amused and disgusted generations of readers. It was impossible for him to do his work with the regular method, the equable temper, of a Southey or a Scott. In dealing with history he must image the past to himself most vividly before he could expound his subject; and that effort and strain cost him sleepless nights and days of concentrated thought. Nor was he an easier companion when his work was finished and he could take his ease. Then life seemed empty and profitless; and in its emptiness his voice echoed all the louder. The ill was within him, and outward circumstances were powerless to affect his nature.

At this time he was chiefly occupied in reading German literature and spreading the knowledge of it among his countrymen. After Coleridge he was the first of our literary men to appreciate the poets and mystics of Germany, and he did more even than Coleridge to make Englishmen familiar with them. He acquired at this time a knowledge of French and Italian literature too; but the philosophy of Kant and the writings of Goethe and Schiller roused him to greater enthusiasm. From Kant he learnt that the guiding principle of conduct was not happiness, but the ‘categorical imperative’ of duty; from Goethe he drew such hopefulness as gleams occasionally through his despondent utterances on the progress of the human race. He translated Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister, in 1823, and followed it up with the Life of Schiller. There was no considerable sale for either of these books till his lectures in London and his established fame roused a demand for all he had written. In these days he was practicing for the profession of a man of letters, and was largely influenced by personal ambition and the desire to earn an income which would make him independent; he was not yet fired with a mission, or kindled to white heat.

His long courtship was rewarded in October 1826. When the marriage took place the bride was twenty-five years old and the bridegroom thirty. Men of letters have not the reputation of making ideal husbands, and the qualities to which this is due were possessed by Carlyle in exaggerated measure. It was a perilous enterprise for any one to live with him, most of all for such a woman, delicately bred, nervous, and highly-strung. She was aware of this, and was prepared for a large measure of self-denial; but she could not have foreseen how severe she would find the trial. The morbid sensitiveness of Carlyle to his own pains and troubles, so often imaginary, joined with his inconsiderate blindness to his wife’s real sufferings, led to many heart-burnings. If she contributed to them, in some degree, by her willfulness, jealous temper, and sharpness of tongue, ill-health and solitude may well excuse her.

His own confessions, made after her death, are colored by sorrow and deep affection: no doubt he paints his own conduct in hues darker than the truth demands. Shallow critics have sneered at the picture of the philosopher whose life was so much at variance with his creed, and too much has, perhaps, been written about the subject. If reference must be made to such a well-worn tale, it is best to let Carlyle’s own account stand as he wished it to stand. His moral worth has been vindicated in a hundred ways, not least by his humility and honesty about himself, and can bear the test of time.

For the first two years of married life Carlyle’s scheme of living on a farm was kept at bay by his wife, and their home was at Edinburgh. Carlyle refers to this as the happiest period of his life, though he did not refrain from loud laments upon occasions. The good genius of the household was Jeffrey, the famous editor of the Edinburgh Review, who was distantly related to Mrs. Carlyle. He made friends with the newly married pair, opened a path for them into the society of the capital, and enabled Carlyle to spread the knowledge of German authors in the Review and to make his bow before a wider public. The prospects of the little household seemed brighter, but by generously making over all her money to her mother, his wife had crippled its resources; and Carlyle was of so difficult a humor that neither Jeffrey nor any one else could guide his steps for long. Living was precarious; society made demands even on a modest household, and in 1828 he at length had his way and persuaded his wife to remove to Craigenputtock. It was in the loneliness of the moors that Carlyle was to come to his full stature and to develop his astonishing genius.

Craigenputtock was a farm belonging to his wife’s family, lying seventy feet above the sea, sixteen miles from Dumfries, among desolate moors and bogs, and fully six miles from the nearest village. ‘The house is gaunt and hungry looking. It stands with the scanty fields attached as an island in a sea of morass. The landscape is unredeemed either by grace or grandeur, mere undulating hills of grass and heather with peat bogs in the hollows between them.’ So Froude describes the home where the Carlyles were to spend six years, the wife in domestic labors, in solitude, in growing ill-health, the husband in omnivorous reading, in digesting the knowledge that he gathered, in transmuting it and marking it with the peculiar stamp of his genius. There was no true companionship over the work. As the moorland gave the fresh air and stillness required, so the wife might nourish the physical frame with wholesome digestible food and save him from external cares; the rest must be done by lonely communing with himself. He needed no Fleet Street taverns or literary salons to encourage him. Goethe, with whom he exchanged letters and compliments at times, said with rare insight that he ‘had in himself an originating principle of conviction, out of which he could develop the force that lay in him unassisted by other men’.

Few were the interruptions from without. His fame was not yet established. In any case pilgrims would have to undertake a very rough journey, and the fashion of such pilgrimages had hardly begun. But in 1833 from distant America came one disciple, afterwards to be known as the famous author Ralph Waldo Emerson; and he has left us in his English Traits a vivid record of his impression of two or three famous men of letters whom he saw. He describes Carlyle as ‘tall and gaunt, with a cliff-like brow, self-possessed, and holding his extraordinary powers of conversation in easy command; clinging to his northern accent with evident relish; full of lively anecdote, and with a streaming humour, which floated everything he looked upon’.

Much of his time was given to reading about the French Revolution, which was to be the subject of his greatest literary triumph. But the characteristic work of this period is Sartor Resartus (‘The tailor patched anew’), in which Carlyle, under a thin German disguise, reveals himself to the world, with his views on the customs and ways of society and his contempt for all the pretensions and absurdities which they involved. In many places it is extravagant and fantastic, as when ‘the most remarkable incident in modern history’ proves to be George Fox the Quaker making a suit of leather to render himself independent of tailors; in others it rises to the highest pitch of poetry, as in the sympathetic lament over the hardships of manual labor. ‘Venerable to me is the hard Hand; crooked, coarse; wherein notwithstanding lies a cunning virtue, indefeasibly royal, as of the Sceptre of this Planet. Venerable, too, is the rugged face, all weather-tanned, besoiled, with its rude intelligence; for it is the face of a Man living manlike. O, but the more venerable for thy rudeness, and even because we must pity as well as love thee! Hardly-entreated Brother! For us was thy back so bent, for us were thy straight limbs and fingers so deformed; thou wert our Conscript on whom the lot fell, and fighting our battles wert so marred.’ It is through such passages that Carlyle has won his way to the hearts of many who care little for history, or for German literature.

The book evidently contains much that is autobiographical, and helps us to understand Carlyle’s childhood and youth; but it is so mixed up with fantasy and humor that it is difficult to separate fiction from fact. Its chief aim seems to be the overthrow of cant, the ridiculing of empty conventions, and the preaching of sincerity and independence. But not yet was Carlyle’s generation prepared to listen to such sermons. Jeffrey was bewildered by the tone and offended at the style; publisher after publisher refused it; and when at length it was launched upon the world piecemeal in Fraser’s Magazine, the reading public either ignored it or abused it in the roundest terms. During all this time Carlyle was anxiously looking for some surer means of livelihood, and had not yet decided that literature was to be his profession. He had hopes at different times of professorships in Edinburgh and St. Andrews, and of the editorship of various reviews; but these all came to nothing. For some posts he was not suited; for others his application could find no support. He even thought of going to America, where Emerson and other admirers would have welcomed him. But the disappointments in Scotland decided him to make one more effort in London before accepting defeat, and in 1834 he found a house at Chelsea and prepared to quit his hermitage among the moors.

Cheyne Row, Chelsea, was to be his new home, a quiet street running northward from the riverside in a quarter of London not then invaded by industrialism. The house, No. 24, with its little garden, has been made into a Carlyle museum, and may still be seen on the east side of the street facing a few survivors of the sturdy old pollarded lime-trees standing there ‘like giants in Tawtie wigs’. His bust, by Boehm, is in the garden on the Embankment not a hundred yards away. With this district are connected other names famous in literature and art, but its presiding genius is the ‘Sage of Chelsea’, who spent the last forty-seven years of his life in it; and there, in a double-walled room, in spite of trivial disturbances from without, in spite of far more serious fits of dejection and discontent within, he composed his three greatest historical books. At the outset his prospects were not bright, and at the end of 1834 he confessed ‘it is now twenty-three months since I earned a penny by the craft of literature’. There was need of much faith; and it was fortunate for him that he had at his side one who believed in his genius and who was well qualified to judge. He must have been thinking of this when he wrote of Mahomet in Heroes and of the prophet’s gratitude to his first wife Kadijah: ‘She believed in me when none else would believe. In the whole world I had but one friend and she was that!’ In the same place he quoted the German writer Novalis: ‘It is certain my conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it.’

So fortified, he worked through the days of poverty and gloom, with groans and outbursts of fury, kindling to white heat as he imaged to himself the men and events of the French Revolution, and throwing them on to paper in lurid pictures of flame. One terrible misadventure chilled his spirit in 1835, when the manuscript of the first volume was lent to J. S. Mill, and was accidentally burnt; but, after a short fit of despair, he set manfully to work to repair the loss, and the new version was finished in January 1837. This book marked an epoch in the writing of history. Hitherto few had realized what potent force there was in the original documents lying stored in libraries and record offices. They were ‘live shells’ buried in the dust of a neglected magazine; and in the hands of Carlyle they came to life again and worked havoc among the traditional judgments of history. This book was also the turning point in his career. Dickens, Thackeray, and others hailed it with enthusiasm; gradually it made its way with the public at large; and as in the following years Carlyle, prompted by some friends, gave successful courses of lectures, his position among men of letters became assured, and he had no more need to worry over money. Living in London he became known to a wider circle, and his marvelous powers of conversation brought visitors and invitations in larger measure than he desired. The new friends whom he valued most were Mr. and Lady Harriet Baring, and he was often their guest in London, in Surrey, in Scotland, and later at The Grange in Hampshire. But he remained faithful to his older and more humble friends, while he also made himself accessible to young men of letters who seemed anxious to learn, and who did not offend one or other of his many prejudices. Such were Sterling, Ruskin, Tennyson, and James Anthony Froude.

Despite these successes Carlyle’s letters at this time are full of the usual discontents. London life and society stimulated him for the time, but he paid dearly for it. Late dinners and prolonged bouts of talk, in which he put forth all his powers, were followed by dyspepsia and lassitude next day; and the neighbors, who kept dogs or cocks which were accused of disturbing his slumbers, were the mark for many plaints and lamentations. He could not in any circumstances be entirely happy. Work was so exciting with the imagination on fire that it kept him awake at night; idleness was still more fatal in its effects. And so, after a few years of relative calm, in 1839 we find his active brain struggling to create a true picture of Oliver Cromwell and to expound the meaning of the Great Civil War.

It was to be no easy task. For nearly five years he was to wrestle with the subject, trying in vain to give it adequate shape and form, and then to scrap the labors of years and to start again on a new plan; but in the end he was to win another signal victory. While the French Revolution may be the higher artistic triumph, Cromwell is more important for one who wishes to understand the life work of Carlyle and all for which he stood. The emptiness of political theories and institutions, the enduring value of character, are lessons, which no one has preached more forcibly. In his opinion the success of the English revolution, the blow to tyranny and misgovernment in Church and State, was not due to eloquent members of the Long Parliament, but to plain God-fearing men, who, if they quoted scripture, did so not from hypocrisy but because it was the language in which they habitually thought. Nor could they build up a new England till they had found a leader. It was the ages, which had faith to recognize their worthiest man and to accept his guidance which had achieved great things in the world, not those which prated of democracy and progress. To make his countrymen, in this age of fluent political talk, see the true moral quality of the men of the seventeenth century-this it was which occupied seven years of Carlyle’s life and filled his thoughts. It was indeed a labor of Hercules. Much of the material was lost beyond repair, much buried in voluminous folios and State papers, much obscured by the cant and prejudice of eighteenth-century authors. To recall the past, Carlyle needed such help as geography would give him, and he spent many days in visiting Dunbar, Worcester, and other sites. To Naseby he went in 1842, in company with Dr. Arnold, and ‘plucked two gowans and a cowslip from the burial heaps of the slain’. A more important task was to recover authentic utterances of Cromwell and his fellow workers, and to put these in the place of the second-hand judgments of political partisans; and this involved laborious researches in libraries. Above all, he had to interpret these records in a new spirit, exercising true insight and sympathy, to put life into the dry bones and to present his readers with the living image of a man. He combined in unique fashion the laborious research of a student with the moral fervor of a prophet.

Despite the strain of these labors Carlyle showed few signs of his fifty years. The family was of tough stock; and the years which he had spent in moorland air had increased the capital of health on which he could draw. The flight of time was chiefly marked by his growing antipathy to the political movements of the day, and by a growing despondency about the future. People might buy his books; but he looked in vain for evidence that they paid heed to the lessons, which he preached. The year of revolutions, 1848, followed by the setting up of the French Empire and the collapse of the Roman Republic, produced nothing but disappointment, and he became louder and more bitter in his judgments on democracy. 1849 saw the birth of the Latter-Day Pamphlets in which he outraged Mill and the Radicals by his scornful words about Negro Emancipation, and by the savage delight with which he shattered their idols. He loved to expose what seemed to him the sophistries involved in the conventional praise of liberty. Of old the mediaeval serf or the negro slave had some one who was responsible for him, some one interested in his physical well-being. The new conditions too often meant nothing but liberty to starve, liberty to be idle, liberty to slip back into the worst indulgences, while those who might have governed stood by regardless and lent no help. Such from an extreme point of view appeared the policy of laisser-faire; and he was neither moderate nor impartial in stating his case. ‘An idle white gentleman is not pleasant to me; but what say you to an idle black gentleman, with his rum bottle in his hand,… no breeches on his body, pumpkin at discretion, and the fruitfullest region of the earth going back to jungle round him?’ In a similar vein he dealt with stump oratory, prison reform, and other subjects, tilting in reckless fashion at the shields of the reforming Radicals of the day; nor was he less outspoken when he met in person the champions of these views. A letter to his wife in 1847 tells of a visit to the Brights at Rochdale; how ‘John and I discorded in our views not a little’, and how ‘I shook peaceable Brightdom as with a passing earthquake’. From books he could learn: to human teachers he proved refractory. Had he been more willing to listen to others, his judgments on contemporary events might have been more valuable. All his life he was, as George Meredith says, ‘Titanic rather than Olympian, a heaver of rocks, not a shaper'; and this fever of denunciation grew with advancing years. But with these spurts of volcanic energy alternate moods of the deepest depression. His journal for 1850 says, ‘This seems really the Nadir of my fortunes; and in hope, desire, or outlook, so far as common mortals reckon such, I never was more bankrupt. Lonely, shut up within my contemptible and yet not deliberately ignoble self, perhaps there never was, in modern literary or other history, a more solitary soul, capable of any friendship or honest relation to others.’ By this time he was feeling the need of another task, and in 1851 he chose Frederick the Great of Prussia for the subject of his next book.

To this generation apology seems to be needed for an English author who lavishes so much admiration on Prussian men and institutions. But Carlyle, whose chief heroes had been men of intense religious convictions, like Luther, Knox, and Cromwell, could find no hero after his heart in English history subsequent to the Civil War. Eloquent Pitts and Burkes, jobbing Walpoles and Pelhams, were to him types of politicians who had brought England to her present plight. German literature had always kept its influence over him and had directed his attention to German history; Frederick, without religion as he was, seemed at any rate sincere, recognized facts, and showed practical capacity for ruling (essential elements in the Carlylean hero), and the subject would be new to his readers. The labor involved was stupendous; it was to fill his life and the lives of his helpers for thirteen years. Of these helpers the chief credit is due to Joseph Neuberg, who piloted him over German railways, libraries, and battlefields in the search for picturesque detail, and to Henry Larkin, who toiled in London to trace references in scores of authors, and who finally crowned the work by laborious indexing, which made Carlyle’s labyrinth accessible to his readers. There were masses of material hidden away and unsifted; and, as in the case of Cromwell, only a man of original genius could penetrate this inert mass with shafts of light and make the past live again. The task grew as he continued his researches. He groped his way back to the beginning of the Hohenzollerns, and sketched the portraits of the old Electors in a style unequalled for vividness and humor. He drew a full-length portrait of Frederick William, most famous of drill-sergeants, and he studied the campaigns of his son with a thoroughness which has been a model to soldiers and civilians ever since. We have the record of two tours which he made in Germany to view the scene of operations; and it is amazing how exact a picture he could bring away from a short visit to each separate battle-field. His diligence, accuracy, and wide grasp of the subject satisfied the severest judges; and the book won him a success as complete and enduring in Germany as in England and America.

When this was finished, Carlyle was on the verge of seventy and his work was done; though the evening of his life was long, his strength was exhausted. His wife lived just long enough to see the seal set upon his fame, and to hear of his election to be Lord Rector of Edinburgh University. But in April 1866, while he was in Scotland for his installation, which she was too weak to attend, he heard the news of her sudden death from heart failure in London; and after this he was a broken man. By reading her journal he learnt, too late, how much his own inconsiderate temper had added to her trials, and his remorse was bitter and lasting. He shut himself off from all his friends except Froude, who was to be his literary executor, and gave himself to collecting and annotating the memorials, which she had left. Each letter is followed by some words of tender recollection or some cry of self-reproach. He has erected to her the most singular of literary monuments, morbid perhaps, but inspired by a feeling, which was in his case natural and sincere.

About 1870 he began to lose the use of his right hand and he found it impossible to compose by dictation. Of the last years of his life there is little to narrate. The offer of a baronetcy or the G.C.B. from Mr. Disraeli in 1874 pleased him for the moment, but he resolutely refused external honors. He took daily walks with Froude, daily drives when he became too weak to go on foot. Towards the end the Bible and Shakespeare were his most habitual reading. He had long ceased to be a member of any church, but his belief in God and in God’s working in history was the very foundation of his being, and the lessons of the Bible were to him inexhaustible and ever new. Death came to him peacefully in February 1881; and as he had expressed a definite wish, he was buried at Ecclefechan, though a public funeral in the Abbey was offered and its acceptance would have met with the approval of his countrymen.

The very wealth of records makes it difficult to judge his character fairly. Few men have so laid bare the thoughts and feelings of their hearts. It is easy to blame the unmanly laments which he utters over his health, his solitude, and his sufferings, real or imaginary; few imaginative writers have the every-day virtues. His egotism, too, is difficult to defend. If, as he himself admits, he invariably took an undue share of talk, often in fact monopolizing it, wherever he was, we must remember that the brilliance of his gifts was admitted by all; less pardonable is his habit of disparaging other men, and especially other men of letters. His pen-pictures of Mill, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others, are wonderfully vivid but too often sour in flavor; his sketch of Charles Lamb is an outrage on that generous and kindly soul. Too often he was unconscious of the pain given by such random words. When he was brought to book, he was honorable enough to recant. Fearing on one occasion to have offended even the serene loyalty of Emerson, he cries out protestingly, ‘Has not the man Emerson, from old years, been a Human Friend to me? Can I ever forget, or think otherwise than lovingly of the man Emerson?’

But whatever offence Carlyle committed with his ungovernable tongue or pen, he had rare virtues in conduct. His generosity was as unassuming as it was persistent; and it began at home. Long before he was free from anxieties about money for himself, he was helping two of his brothers to make a career, one in agriculture, and the other in medicine. In his latter days he regularly gave away large sums in such a way that no one knew the source from which they came. His letters show a deep tenderness of affection for his mother, his wife, and others of the family; and the humble Annandale home was always in his thoughts. His charity embraced even those whose claim on him was but indirect. When his wife was dead, he could remember to celebrate her birthday by sending a present to her old nurse. He was scrupulous in money-dealing and frugal in all matters of personal comfort; in his innermost thoughts he was always pure-hearted and sincere; for nothing on earth would he traffic in his independence or in adherence to the truth.

His style has not largely influenced other historians; and this is as well, since imitations of it easily fall into mere obscurity and extravagance. But his historical method has been of great value, the patient study of original authorities, the copious references quoted, the careful indexing, all being proof how anxious he was that the subject should be presented clearly and veraciously, rather than that the books should shine as literary performances. How far the principles which he valued and taught have spread it is difficult to say. Party politicians still appeal to the sacred name of liberty without inquiring what true liberty means; publicists still speak as if the material gains of modern life, cheap food and machine-made products, meant nothing but advance in the history of the human race; but there are others who look to the spiritual factors and wish to enlarge the bounds of political economy.

The writings of Carlyle, and of Ruskin, on whom fell the prophet’s mantle, certainly made their influence felt in later books devoted to that once ‘dismal’ science. Few can be quite indifferent to the man or to his message. Those who demand moderation, clearness, and Attic simplicity, will be repelled by his extravagances or by his mysticism. Others will be attracted by his glowing imagination and by his fiery eloquence, and will reserve for him a foremost place in their affections. These will echo the words, which Emerson was heard to say on his deathbed, when his eyes fell on a portrait of the familiar rugged features, ‘That is the man, my man’.



MLA Source Citation:

Blore, George Henry. Victorian Worthies, Sixteen Biographies. Oxford University Press, England. 1920. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 23 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/genealogy/biography-of-thomas-carlyle.htm - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2013


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