1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Carlyle, Thomas
CARLYLE, THOMAS (1795–1881), British essayist, historian and philosopher, born on the 4th of December 1795 at Ecclefechan, in Annandale, was the eldest of the nine children of James Carlyle by his second wife, Janet Aitken. The father was by trade a mason, and afterwards a small farmer. He had joined a sect of seceders from the kirk, and had all the characteristics of the typical Scottish Calvinist. He was respected for his integrity and independence, and a stern outside covered warm affections. The family tie between all the Carlyles was unusually strong, and Thomas regarded his father with a reverence which found forcible expression in his Reminiscences. He always showed the tenderest love for his mother, and was the best of brothers. The narrow means of his parents were made sufficient by strict frugality. He was sent to the parish school when seven, and to Annan grammar-school when ten years old. His pugnacity brought him into troubles with his fellows at Annan; but he soon showed an appetite for learning which induced his father to educate him for the ministry. He walked to Edinburgh in November 1809, and entered the university. He cared little for any of the professors, except Sir John Leslie, from whom he learned some mathematics. He acquired a little classical knowledge, but the most valuable influence was that of his contemporaries. A few lads in positions similar to his own began to look up to him as an intellectual leader, and their correspondence with him shows remarkable interest in literary matters. In 1814 Carlyle, still looking forward to the career of a minister, obtained the mathematical mastership at Annan. The salary of £60 or £70 a year enabled him to save a little money. He went to Edinburgh once or twice, to deliver the discourses required from students of divinity. He does not seem, however, to have taken to his profession very earnestly. He was too shy and proud to see many of the Annan people, and found his chief solace in reading such books as he could get. In 1816 he was appointed, through the recommendation of Leslie, to a school at Kirkcaldy, where Edward Irving, Carlyle’s senior by three years, was also master of a school. Irving’s severity as a teacher had offended some of the parents, who set up Carlyle to be his rival. A previous meeting with Irving, also a native of Annan, had led to a little passage of arms, but Irving now welcomed Carlyle with a generosity which entirely won his heart, and the rivals soon became the closest of friends. The intimacy, affectionately commemorated in the Reminiscences, was of great importance to Carlyle’s whole career. “But for Irving,” he says, “I had never known what the communion of man with man means.” Irving had a library, in which Carlyle devoured Gibbon and much French literature, and they made various excursions together. Carlyle did his duties as a schoolmaster punctiliously, but found the life thoroughly uncongenial. No man was less fitted by temperament for the necessary drudgery and worry. A passing admiration for a Miss Gordon is supposed to have suggested the “Blumine” of Sartor Resartus; but he made no new friendships, and when Irving left at the end of 1818 Carlyle also resigned his post.
He had by this time resolved to give up the ministry. He has given no details of the intellectual change which alienated him from the church. He had, however, been led, by whatever process, to abandon the dogmatic system of his forefathers, though he was and always remained in profound sympathy with the spirit of their teaching. A period of severe struggle followed. He studied law for a time, but liked it no better than schoolmastering. He took a pupil or two, and wrote articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia under the editorship of Brewster. He occasionally visited his family, and their unfailing confidence helped to keep up his courage. Meanwhile he was going through a spiritual crisis. Atheism seemed for a time to be the only alternative to his old creed. It was, however, profoundly repugnant to him. At last, one day in June 1821, after three weeks’ total sleeplessness, he went through the crisis afterwards described quite “literally” in Sartor Resartus. He cast out the spirit of negation, and henceforth the temper of his misery was changed to one, not of “whining,” but of “indignation and grim fire-eyed defiance.” That, he says, was his spiritual new-birth, though certainly not into a life of serenity. The conversion was coincident with Carlyle’s submission to a new and very potent influence. In 1819 he had begun to study German, with which he soon acquired a very remarkable familiarity. Many of his contemporaries were awakening to the importance of German thought, and Carlyle’s knowledge enabled him before long to take a conspicuous part in diffusing the new intellectual light. The chief object of his reverence was Goethe. In many most important respects no two men could be more unlike; but, for the present, Carlyle seems to have seen in Goethe a proof that it was possible to reject outworn dogmas without sinking into materialism. Goethe, by singularly different methods, had emerged from a merely negative position into a lofty and coherent conception of the universe. Meanwhile, Carlyle’s various anxieties were beginning to be complicated by physical derangement. A rat, he declared, was gnawing at the pit of his stomach. He was already suffering from the ailments, whatever their precise nature, from which he never escaped. He gave vent to his irritability by lamentations so grotesquely exaggerated as to make it difficult to estimate the real extent of the evil.
Irving’s friendship now became serviceable. Carlyle’s confession of the radical difference of religious opinion had not alienated his friend, who was settling in London, and used his opportunities for promoting Carlyle’s interest. In January 1822 Carlyle, through Irving’s recommendation, became tutor to Charles and Arthur Buller, who were to be students at Edinburgh. Carlyle’s salary was £200 a year, and this, with the proceeds of some literary work, enabled him at once to help his brother John to study medicine and his brother Alexander to take up a farm. Carlyle spent some time with the elder Bullers, but found a life of dependence upon fashionable people humiliating and unsatisfactory. He employed himself at intervals upon a life of Schiller and a translation of Wilhelm Meister. He received £50 for a translation of Legendre’s Geometry; and an introduction, explaining the theory of proportion, is said by De Morgan to show that he could have gained distinction as an expounder of mathematical principles. He finally gave up his tutorship in July 1824, and for a time tried to find employment in London. The impressions made upon him by London men of letters were most unfavourable. Carlyle felt by this time conscious of having a message to deliver to mankind, and his comrades, he thought, were making literature a trade instead of a vocation, and prostituting their talents to frivolous journalism. He went once to see Coleridge, who was then delivering his oracular utterances at Highgate, and the only result was the singularly vivid portrait given in a famous chapter in his life of Sterling. Coleridge seemed to him to be ineffectual as a philosopher, and personally to be a melancholy instance of genius running to waste. Carlyle, conscious of great abilities, and impressed by such instances of the deleterious effects of the social atmosphere of London, resolved to settle in his native district. There he could live frugally and achieve some real work. He could, for one thing, be the interpreter of Germany to England. A friendly letter from Goethe, acknowledging the translation of Wilhelm Meister, reached him at the end of 1824 and greatly encouraged him. Goethe afterwards spoke warmly of the life of Schiller, and desired it to be translated into German. Letters occasionally passed between them in later years, which were edited by Professor Charles Eliot Norton in 1887. Goethe received Carlyle’s homage with kind complacency. The gift of a seal to Goethe on his birthday in 1831 “from fifteen English friends,” including Scott and Wordsworth, was suggested and carried out by Carlyle. The interest in German, which Carlyle did so much to promote, suggested to him other translations and reviews during the next few years, and he made some preparations for a history of German literature. British curiosity, however, about such matters seems to have been soon satisfied, and the demand for such work slackened.
Carlyle was meanwhile passing through the most important crisis of his personal history. Jane Baillie Welsh, born 1801, was the only child of Dr Welsh of Haddington. She had shown precocious talent, and was sent to the school at Haddington where Edward Irving (q.v.) was a master. After her father’s death in 1819 she lived with her mother, and her wit and beauty attracted many admirers. Her old tutor, Irving, was now at Kirkcaldy, where he became engaged to a Miss Martin. He visited Haddington occasionally in the following years, and a strong mutual regard arose between him and Miss Welsh. They contemplated a marriage, and Irving endeavoured to obtain a release from his previous engagement. The Martin family held him to his word, and he took a final leave of Miss Welsh in 1822. Meanwhile he had brought Carlyle from Edinburgh and introduced him to the Welshes. Carlyle was attracted by the brilliant abilities of the young lady, procured books for her and wrote letters to her as an intellectual guide. The two were to perform a new variation upon the theme of Abelard and Héloïse. [A good deal of uncertainty long covered the precise character of their relations. Until 1909, when Mr. Alexander Carlyle published his edition of the “love-letters,” the full material was not accessible; they had been read by Carlyle’s biographer, Froude, and also by Professor Charles Norton, and Norton (in his edition of Carlyle’s Early Letters, 1886) declared that Froude had distorted the significance of this correspondence in a sense injurious to the writers. The publication of the letters certainly seems to justify Norton’s view.] Miss Welsh’s previous affair with Irving had far less importance than Froude ascribes to it; and she soon came to regard her past love as a childish fancy. She recognized Carlyle’s vast intellectual superiority, and the respect gradually deepened into genuine love. The process, however, took some time. Her father had bequeathed to her his whole property (£200 to £300 a year). In 1823 she made it over to her mother, but left the whole to Carlyle in the event of her own and her mother’s death. She still declared that she did not love him well enough to become his wife. In 1824 she gradually relented so far as to say that she would marry if he could achieve independence. She had been brought up in a station superior to that of the Carlyles, and could not accept the life of hardship which would be necessary in his present circumstances. Carlyle, accustomed to his father’s household, was less frightened by the prospect of poverty. He was determined not to abandon his vocation as a man of genius by following the lower though more profitable paths to literary success, and expected that his wife should partake the necessary sacrifice of comfort. The natural result of such discussions followed. The attraction became stronger on both sides, in spite of occasional spasms of doubt. An odd incident precipitated the result. A friend of Irving’s, Mrs Basil Montague, wrote to Miss Welsh, to exhort her to suppress her love for Irving, who had married Miss Martin in 1823. Miss Welsh replied by announcing her intention to marry Carlyle; and then told him the whole story, of which he had previously been ignorant. He properly begged her not to yield to the impulse without due consideration. She answered by coming at once to his father’s house, where he was staying; and the marriage was finally settled. It took place on the 17th of October 1826.
Carlyle had now to arrange the mode of life which should enable him to fulfil his aspiration. His wife had made over her income to her mother, but he had saved a small sum upon which to begin housekeeping. A passing suggestion from Mrs Carlyle that they might live with her mother was judiciously abandoned. Carlyle had thought of occupying Craigenputtock, a remote and dreary farm belonging to Mrs Welsh. His wife objected his utter incapacity as a farmer; and they finally took a small house at Comely Bank, Edinburgh, where they could live on a humble scale. The brilliant conversation of both attracted some notice in the literary society of Edinburgh. The most important connexion was with Francis, Lord Jeffrey, still editor of the Edinburgh Review. Though Jeffrey had no intellectual sympathy with Carlyle, he accepted some articles for the Review and became warmly attached to Mrs Carlyle. Carlyle began to be known as leader of a new “mystic” school, and his earnings enabled him to send his brother John to study in Germany. The public appetite, however, for “mysticism” was not keen. In spite of support from Jeffrey and other friends, Carlyle failed in a candidature for a professorship at St Andrews. His brother, Alexander, had now taken the farm at Craigenputtock, and the Carlyles decided to settle at the separate dwelling-house there, which would bring them nearer to Mrs Welsh. They went there in 1828, and began a hard struggle. Carlyle, indomitably determined to make no concessions for immediate profit, wrote slowly and carefully, and turned out some of his most finished work. He laboured “passionately” at Sartor Resartus, and made articles out of fragments originally intended for the history of German literature. The money difficulty soon became more pressing. John, whom he was still helping, was trying unsuccessfully to set up as a doctor in London; and Alexander’s farming failed. In spite of such drawbacks, Carlyle in later years looked back upon the life at Craigenputtock as on the whole a comparatively healthy and even happy period, as it was certainly one of most strenuous and courageous endeavour. Though often absorbed in his work and made both gloomy and irritable by his anxieties, he found relief in rides with his wife, and occasionally visiting their relations. Their letters during temporary separations are most affectionate. The bleak climate, however, the solitude, and the necessity of managing a household with a single servant, were excessively trying to a delicate woman, though Mrs Carlyle concealed from her husband the extent of her sacrifices. The position was gradually becoming untenable. In the autumn of 1831 Carlyle was forced to accept a loan of £50 from Jeffrey, and went in search of work to London, whither his wife followed him. He made some engagements with publishers, though no one would take Sartor Resartus, and returned to Craigenputtock in the spring of 1832. Jeffrey, stimulated perhaps by his sympathy for Mrs Carlyle, was characteristically generous. Besides pressing loans upon both Thomas and John Carlyle, he offered to settle an annuity of £100 upon Thomas, and finally enabled John to support himself by recommending him to a medical position. Carlyle’s proud spirit of independence made him reject Jeffrey’s help as long as possible; and even his acknowledgment of the generosity (in the Reminiscences) is tinged with something disagreeably like resentment. In 1834 he applied to Jeffrey for a post at the Edinburgh Observatory. Jeffrey naturally declined to appoint a man who, in spite of some mathematical knowledge, had no special qualification, and administered a general lecture upon Carlyle’s arrogance and eccentricity which left a permanent sense of injury.
In the beginning of 1833 the Carlyles made another trial of Edinburgh. There Carlyle found materials in the Advocates’ Library for the article on the Diamond Necklace, one of his most perfect writings, which led him to study the history of the French Revolution. Sartor Resartus was at last appearing in Fraser’s Magazine, though the rate of payment was cut down, and the publisher reported that it was received with “unqualified dissatisfaction.” Edinburgh society did not attract him, and he retreated once more to Craigenputtock. After another winter the necessity of some change became obvious. The Carlyles resolved to “burn their ships.” They went to London in the summer of 1834, and took a house at 5 (now 24) Cheyne Row, Chelsea, which Carlyle inhabited till his death; the house has since been bought for the public. Irving, who had welcomed him on former occasions, was just dying,—a victim, as Carlyle thought, to fashionable cajoleries. A few young men were beginning to show appreciation. J. S. Mill had made Carlyle’s acquaintance in the previous visit to London, and had corresponded with him. Mill had introduced Ralph Waldo Emerson, who visited Craigenputtock in 1833. Carlyle was charmed with Emerson, and their letters published by Professor Norton show that his regard never cooled. Emerson’s interest showed that Carlyle’s fame was already spreading in America. Carlyle’s connexion with Charles Buller, a zealous utilitarian, introduced him to the circle of “philosophical radicals.”
Carlyle called himself in some sense a radical; and J. S. Mill, though not an intellectual disciple, was a very warm admirer of his friend’s genius. Carlyle had some expectation of the editorship of the London Review, started by Sir W. Molesworth at this time as an organ of philosophical radicalism. The combination would clearly have been explosive. Meanwhile Mill, who had collected many books upon the French Revolution, was eager to help Carlyle in the history which he was now beginning. He set to work at once and finished the first volume in five months. The manuscript, while entrusted to Mill for annotation, was burnt by an accident. Mill induced Carlyle to accept in compensation £100, which was urgently needed. Carlyle took up the task again and finished the whole on the 12th of January 1837. “I can tell the world,” he said to his wife, “you have not had for a hundred years any book that comes more direct and flamingly from the heart of a living man. Do what you like with it, you ——”
The publication, six months later, of the French Revolution marks the turning-point of Carlyle’s career. Many readers hold it to be the best, as it is certainly the most characteristic, of Carlyle’s books. The failure of Sartor Resartus to attract average readers is quite intelligible. It contains, indeed, some of the most impressive expositions of his philosophical position, and some of his most beautiful and perfectly written passages. But there is something forced and clumsy, in spite of the flashes of grim humour, in the machinery of the Clothes Philosophy. The mannerism, which has been attributed to an imitation of Jean Paul, appeared to Carlyle himself to be derived rather from the phrases current in his father’s house, and in any case gave an appropriate dialect for the expression of his peculiar idiosyncrasy. But it could not be appreciated by readers who would not take the trouble to learn a new language. In the French Revolution Carlyle had discovered his real strength. He was always at his best when his imagination was set to work upon a solid framework of fact. The book shows a unique combination: on the one hand is the singularly shrewd insight into character and the vivid realization of the picturesque; on the other is the “mysticism” or poetical philosophy which relieves the events against a background of mystery. The contrast is marked by the humour which seems to combine a cynical view of human folly with a deeply pathetic sense of the sadness and suffering of life. The convictions, whatever their value, came, as he said, “flamingly from the heart.” It was, of course, impossible for Carlyle to satisfy modern requirements of matter-of-fact accuracy. He could not in the time have assimilated all the materials even then extant, and later accumulations would necessitate a complete revision. Considered as a “prose epic,” or a vivid utterance of the thought of the period, it has a permanent and unique value.
The book was speedily successful. It was reviewed by Mill in the Westminster and by Thackeray in The Times, and Carlyle, after a heroic struggle, was at last touching land. In each of the years 1837 to 1840 he gave a course of lectures, of which the last only (upon “Hero Worship”) was published; they materially helped his finances. By Emerson’s management he also received something during the same period from American publishers. At the age of forty-five he had thus become independent. He had also established a position among the chief writers of the day. Young disciples, among whom John Sterling was the most accepted, were gathering round him, and he became an object of social curiosity. Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton), who won universal popularity by the most genuine kindliness of nature, became a cordial friend. Another important intimacy was with the Barings, afterwards Lord and Lady Ashburton. Carlyle’s conversational powers were extraordinary; though, as he won greater recognition as a prophet, he indulged too freely in didactic monologue. In his prophetic capacity he published two remarkable books: Chartism (1829), enlarged from an article which Lockhart, though personally approving, was afraid to take for the Quarterly; and Past and Present (1843), in which the recently published Mediaeval Chronicle was taken as a text for the exposure of modern evils. They may be regarded as expositions of the doctrine implicitly set forth in the French Revolution. Carlyle was a “radical” as sharing the sentiments of the class in which he was born. He had been profoundly moved by the widely-spread distresses in his earlier years. When the yeomanry were called out to suppress riots after the Peace, his sympathies were with the people rather than with the authorities. So far he was in harmony with Mill and the “philosophical radicals.” A fundamental divergence of principle, however, existed and was soon indicated by his speedy separation from the party and alienation from Mill himself. The Revolution, according to him, meant the sweeping away of effete beliefs and institutions, but implied also the necessity of a reconstructive process. Chartism begins with a fierce attack upon the laissez faire theory, which showed blindness to this necessity. The prevalent political economy, in which that theory was embodied, made a principle of neglecting the very evils which it should be the great function of government to remedy. Carlyle’s doctrines, entirely opposed to the ordinary opinions of Whigs and Radicals, found afterwards an expositor in his ardent disciple Ruskin, and have obvious affinities with more recent socialism. At the time he was as one crying in the wilderness to little practical purpose. Liberals were scandalized by his apparent identification of “right” with “might,” implied in the demand for a strong government; and though he often declared the true interpretation to be that the right would ultimately become might, his desire for strong government seemed too often to sanction the inverse view. He came into collision with philanthropists, and was supposed to approve of despotism for its own sake.
His religious position was equally unintelligible to the average mind. While unequivocally rejecting the accepted creeds, and so scandalizing even liberal theologians, he was still more hostile to simply sceptical and materialist tendencies. He was, as he called himself, a “mystic”; and his creed was too vague to be put into any formula beyond a condemnation of atheism. One corollary was the famous doctrine of “hero worship” first expounded in his lectures. Any philosophy of history which emphasized the importance of general causes seemed to him to imply a simply mechanical doctrine and to deny the efficacy of the great spiritual forces. He met it by making biography the essence of history, or attributing all great events to the “heroes,” who are the successive embodiments of divine revelations. This belief was implied in his next great work, the Life and Letters of Oliver Cromwell, published in 1845. The great Puritan hero was a man after his own heart, and the portrait drawn by so sympathetic a writer is not only intensely vivid, but a very effective rehabilitation of misrepresented character. The “biographical” view of history, however, implies the weakness, not only of unqualified approval of all Cromwell’s actions, but of omitting any attempt to estimate the Protector’s real relation to the social and political development of the time. The question, what was Cromwell’s real and permanent achievement, is not answered nor distinctly considered. The effect may be partly due to the peculiar form of the book as a detached series of documents and comments. The composition introduced Carlyle to the “Dryasdust” rubbish heaps of which he here and ever afterwards bitterly complained. A conscientious desire to unearth the facts, and the effort of extracting from the dullest records the materials for graphic pictures, made the process of production excessively painful. For some years after Cromwell Carlyle wrote little. His growing acceptance by publishers, and the inheritance of her property by Mrs Carlyle on her mother’s death in 1842, finally removed the stimulus of money pressure. He visited Ireland in 1846 and again in 1849, when he made a long tour in company with Sir C. Gavan Duffy, then a young member of the Nationalist party (see Sir C. G. Duffy’s Conversations with Carlyle, 1892, for an interesting narrative). Carlyle’s strong convictions as to the misery and misgovernment of Ireland recommended him to men who had taken part in the rising of 1848. Although the remedies acceptable to a eulogist of Cromwell could not be to their taste, they admired his moral teaching; and he received their attentions, as Sir C. G. Duffy testifies, with conspicuous courtesy. His aversion from the ordinary radicalism led to an article upon slavery in 1849, to which Mill replied, and which caused their final alienation. It was followed in 1850 by the Latterday Pamphlets, containing “sulphurous” denunciations of the do-nothing principle. They gave general offence, and the disapproval, according to Froude, stopped the sale for years. The Life of Sterling (d. 1844), which appeared in 1851, was intended to correct the life by Julius Hare, which had given too much prominence to theological questions. The subject roused Carlyle’s tenderest mood, and the Life is one of the most perfect in the language.
Carlyle meanwhile was suffering domestic troubles, unfortunately not exceptional in their nature, though the exceptional intellect and characters of the persons concerned have given them unusual prominence. Carlyle’s constitutional irritability made him intensely sensitive to petty annoyances. He suffered the torments of dyspepsia; he was often sleepless, and the crowing of “demon-fowls” in neighbours’ yards drove him wild. Composition meant for him intense absorption in his work; solitude and quiet were essential; and he resented interruptions by grotesque explosions of humorously exaggerated wrath. Mrs Carlyle had to pass many hours alone, and the management of the household and of devices intended to shield him from annoyances was left entirely to her. House-cleanings and struggles with builders during the construction of a “sound-proof room” taxed her energy, while Carlyle was hiding himself with his family in Scotland or staying at English country houses. Nothing could be more affectionate than his behaviour to his wife on serious occasions, such as the death of her mother, and he could be considerate when his attention was called to the facts. But he was often oblivious to the strain upon her energies, and had little command of his temper. An unfortunate aggravation of the difficulty arose from his intimacy with the Ashburtons. Lady Ashburton, a woman of singular social charm and great ability, appreciated the author, but apparently accepted the company of the author’s wife rather as a necessity than as an additional charm. Mrs Carlyle was hurt by the fine lady’s condescension and her husband’s accessibility to aristocratic blandishments. Carlyle, as a wise man, should have yielded to his wife’s wishes; unluckily, he was content to point out that her jealousy was unreasonable, and, upon that very insufficient ground, to disregard it and to continue his intimacy with the Ashburtons on the old terms. Mrs Carlyle bitterly resented his conduct. She had been willing to renounce any aspirations of her own and to sink herself in his glory, but she naturally expected him to recognize her devotion and to value her society beyond all others. She had just cause of complaint, and a remarkable power, as her letters prove, of seeing things plainly and despising sentimental consolations. She was childless, and had time to brood over her wrongs. She formed a little circle of friends, attached to her rather than to her husband; and to one of them, Giuseppe Mazzini, she confided her troubles in 1846. He gave her admirable advice; and the alienation from her husband, though it continued still to smoulder, led to no further results. A journal written at the same time gives a painful record of her sufferings, and after her death made Carlyle conscious for the first time of their full extent. The death of Lady Ashburton in 1857 removed this cause of jealousy; and Lord Ashburton married a second wife in 1858, who became a warm friend of both Carlyles. The cloud which had separated them was thus at last dispersed. Meanwhile Carlyle had become absorbed in his best and most laborious work. Soon after the completion of the Cromwell he had thought of Frederick for his next hero, and had in 1845 contemplated a visit to Germany to collect materials. He did not, however, settle down finally to the work till 1851. He shut himself up in his study to wrestle with the Prussian Dryasdusts, whom he discovered to be as wearisome as their Puritan predecessors and more voluminous. He went to Scotland to see his mother, to whom he had always shown the tenderest affection, on her deathbed at the end of 1853. He returned to shut himself up in the “sound-proof room.” He twice visited Germany (1852 and 1858) to see Frederick’s battlefields and obtain materials; and he occasionally went to the Ashburtons and his relations in Scotland. The first two volumes of Frederick the Great appeared in 1858, and succeeding volumes in 1862, 1864 and 1865. The success was great from the first, though it did little to clear up Carlyle’s gloom. The book is in some respects his masterpiece, and its merits are beyond question. Carlyle had spared no pains in research. The descriptions of the campaigns are admirably vivid, and show his singular eye for scenery. These narratives are said to be used by military students in Germany, and at least convince the non-military student that he can understand the story. The book was declared by Emerson to be the wittiest ever written. Many episodes, describing the society at the Prussian court and the relations of Frederick to Voltaire, are unsurpassable as humorous portraiture. The effort to fuse the masses of raw material into a well-proportioned whole is perhaps not quite successful; and Carlyle had not the full sympathy with Frederick which had given interest to the Cromwell. A hero-worshipper with half-concealed doubts as to his hero is in an awkward position. Carlyle’s general conception of history made him comparatively blind to aspects of the subject which would, to writers of other schools, have a great importance. The extraordinary power of the book is undeniable, though it does not show the fire which animated the French Revolution. A certain depression and weariness of spirit darken the general tone.
During the later labours Mrs Carlyle’s health had been breaking. Carlyle, now that happier relations had been restored, did his best to give her the needed comforts; and in spite of his immersion in Frederick, showed her all possible attention in later years. She had apparently recovered from an almost hopeless illness, when at the end of 1865 he was elected to the rectorship of the university of Edinburgh. He delivered an address there on the 2nd of April 1866, unusually mild in tone, and received with general applause. He was still detained in Scotland when Mrs Carlyle died suddenly while driving in her carriage. The immediate cause was the shock of an accident to her dog. She had once hurt her mother’s feelings by refusing to use some wax candles. She had preserved them ever since, and by her direction they were now lighted in the chamber of death. Carlyle was overpowered by her loss. His life thenceforward became more and more secluded, and he gradually became incapable of work. He went to Mentone in the winter of 1866 and began the Reminiscences. He afterwards annotated the letters from his wife, published (1883) as Letters and Memorials. He was, as Froude says, impressed by the story of Johnson’s “penance” at Uttoxeter, and desired to make a posthumous confession of his shortcomings in his relations to his wife. A few later utterances made known his opinions of current affairs. He joined the committee for the defence of Governor Eyre in 1867; he also wrote in 1867 an article upon “shooting Niagara,” that is, upon the tendency of the Reform Bill of that year; and in 1870 he wrote a letter defending the German case against France. The worth of his Frederick was acknowledged by the Prussian Order of Merit in 1874. In the same year Disraeli offered him the Grand Cross of the Bath and a pension. He declined very courteously, and felt some regret for previous remarks upon the minister. The length of his literary career was now softening old antipathies, and he was the object of general respect. His infirmities enforced a very retired life, but he was constantly visited by Froude, and occasionally by his disciple Ruskin. A small number of other friends paid him constant attention. His conversation was still interesting, especially when it turned upon his recollections, and though his judgments were sometimes severe enough, he never condescended to the scandalous. His views of the future were gloomy. The world seemed to be going from bad to worse, with little heed to his warnings. He would sometimes regret that it was no longer permissible to leave it in the old Roman fashion. He sank gradually, and died on the 4th of February 1881. A place in Westminster Abbey was offered, but he was buried, according to his own desire, by the side of his parents at Ecclefechan. He left Craigenputtock, which had become his own property, to found bursaries at the university of Edinburgh. He gave his books to Harvard College.
Carlyle’s appearance has been made familiar by many portraits, none of them, according to Froude, satisfactory. The statue by Boehm on the Chelsea Embankment, however, is characteristic; and there is a fine painting by Watts in the National Portrait Gallery. J. McNeill Whistler’s portrait of him is in the possession of the Glasgow corporation.
During Carlyle’s later years the antagonism roused by his attacks upon popular opinions had subsided; and upon his death general expression was given to the emotions natural upon the loss of a remarkable man of genius. The rapid publication of the Reminiscences by Froude produced a sudden revulsion of feeling. Carlyle became the object of general condemnation. Froude’s biography, and the Memorials of Mrs Carlyle, published soon afterwards, strengthened the hostile feeling. Carlyle had appended to the Reminiscences an injunction to his friends not to publish them as they stood, and added that no part could ever be published without the strictest editing. Afterwards, when he had almost forgotten what he had written, he verbally empowered Froude to use his own judgment: Froude accordingly published the book at once, without any editing, and with many inaccuracies. Omissions of a few passages written from memory at a time of profound nervous depression would have altered the whole character of the book. Froude in this and the later publications held that he was giving effect to Carlyle’s wish to imitate Johnson’s “penance.” No one, said Boswell, should persuade him to make his lion into a cat. Froude intended, in the same spirit, to give the shades as well as the lights in the portrait of his hero. His admiration for Carlyle probably led him to assume too early that his readers would approach the story from the same point of view, that is, with an admiration too warm to be repelled by the admissions. Moreover, Froude’s characteristic desire for picturesque effect, unchecked by any painstaking accuracy, led to his reading preconceived impressions into his documents. The result was that Carlyle was too often judged by his defects, and regarded as a selfish and eccentric misanthrope with flashes of genius, rather than as a man with many of the highest qualities of mind and character clouded by constitutional infirmities. Yet it would be difficult to speak too strongly of the great qualities which underlay the superficial defects. Through long years of poverty and obscurity Carlyle showed unsurpassed fidelity to his vocation and superiority to the lower temptations which have ruined so many literary careers, His ambition might be interpreted as selfishness, but certainly showed no coldness of heart. His unstinted generosity to his brothers during his worst times is only one proof of the singular strength of his family affections. No one was more devoted to such congenial friends as Irving and Sterling. He is not the only man whom absorption in work and infirmity of temper have made into a provoking husband, though few wives have had Mrs Carlyle’s capacity for expressing the sense of injustice. The knowledge that the deepest devotion underlies misunderstandings is often a very imperfect consolation; but such devotion clearly existed all through, and proves the defect to have been relatively superficial.
The harsh judgments of individuals in the Reminiscences had no parallel in his own writings. He scarcely ever mentions a contemporary, and was never involved in a personal controversy. But the harshness certainly reflects a characteristic attitude of mind. Carlyle was throughout a pessimist or a prophet denouncing a backsliding world. His most popular contemporaries seemed to him to be false guides, and charlatans had ousted the heroes. The general condemnation of “shams” and cant had, of course, particular applications, though he left them to be inferred by his readers. Carlyle was the exponent of many of the deepest convictions of his time. Nobody could be more in sympathy with aspirations for a spiritual religion and for a lofty idealism in political and social life. To most minds, however, which cherish such aspirations the gentler optimism of men like Emerson was more congenial. They believed in the progress of the race and the triumph of the nobler elements. Though Carlyle, especially in his earlier years, could deliver an invigorating and encouraging, if not a sanguine doctrine, his utterances were more generally couched in the key of denunciation, and betrayed a growing despondency. Materialism and low moral principles seemed to him to be gaining the upper hand; and the hope that religion might survive the “old clothes” in which it had been draped seemed to grow fainter. The ordinary mind complained that he had no specific remedy to propose for the growing evils of the time; and the more cultivated idealist was alienated by the gloom and the tendency to despair. To a later generation it will probably appear that, whatever the exaggerations and the misconceptions to which he was led, his vehement attacks at least called attention to rather grave limitations and defects in the current beliefs and social tendencies of the time. The mannerisms and grotesque exaggerations of his writings annoyed persons of refinement, and suggest Matthew Arnold’s advice to flee “Carlylese” as you would flee the devil. Yet the shrewd common-sense, the biting humour, the power of graphic description and the imaginative “mysticism” give them a unique attraction for many even who do not fully sympathize with the implied philosophy or with the Puritanical code of ethics. The letters and autobiographical writings, whether they attract or repel sympathy, are at least a series of documents of profound interest for any one who cares to study character, and display an almost unique idiosyncrasy. (L. S.)
The chief authorities for Carlyle’s life are his own Reminiscences, the Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle, the Love Letters of Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh (ed. A. Carlyle), and the four volumes of J. A. Froude’s biography; Froude was Carlyle’s literary executor. Prof. C.E. Norton’s edition of the Reminiscences and his collection of Carlyle’s Early Letters correct some of Froude’s inaccuracies. A list of many articles upon Carlyle is given by Mr Ireland in Notes and Queries, sixth series, vol. iv. Among other authors may be noticed Henry James, sen., in Literary Remains; Prof. Masson, Carlyle, Personally and in his Writings; Conway, Thomas Carlyle; Larkin, The Open Secret of Carlyle’s Life; Mrs Oliphant in Macmillan’s Magazine for April 1881; G. S. Venables in Fortnightly Review for May 1883 and November 1884. A good deal of controversy has arisen relating to Froude’s treatment of the relations between Carlyle and his wife, and during 1903–1904 this was pushed to a somewhat unsavoury extent. Those who are curious to pry into the question of Carlyle’s marital capacity, and the issues between Froude’s assailants and his defenders, may consult New Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, with introduction by Sir James Crichton-Browne; My Relations with Carlyle, by J. A. Froude; The Nemesis of Froude, by Sir J. Crichton-Browne and Alexander Carlyle; and articles in the Contemporary Review (June, July, August, 1903), and Nineteenth Century and After (May, July, 1903). See also Herbert Paul’s Life of Froude (1905). The precise truth in these matters is hardly recoverable, even if it concerns posterity: and though Froude was often inaccurate, he was given full authority by Carlyle, he had all the unpublished material before him, and he was dead and unable to reply to criticism when the later attacks were made.
- John Aitken Carlyle (1801–1879) finally settled near the Carlyles in Chelsea. He began an English prose version of Dante’s Divine Comedy—which has earned him the name of “Dante Carlyle”—but only completed the translation of the Inferno (1849). The work included a critical edition of the text and a valuable introduction and notes.