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The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Carlyle, Thomas

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CARLYLE, Thomas, a British author, born at Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, Dec. 4, 1795. He was educated at Annan and afterward at Edinburgh, where Edward Irving, three years his senior, was a fellow student. Irving undertook to conduct a school at Kirkcaldy, and invited Carlyle, then 18 years old and just graduated at the university, to become his assistant. “To Kirkcaldy,” says Carlyle, “I went. Together we talked and wrought and thought; together we strove, by virtue of birch and book, to initiate the urchins into what is called the rudiments of learning; until at length the hand of the Lord was laid upon him, and the voice of his God spake to him saying, Arise and get thee hence; and he arose and girded up his loins. And I tarried awhile at Kirkcaldy, endeavoring still to initiate the urchins into the rudiments of learning. I had been destined by my father and my father's minister to be myself a minister of the kirk of Scotland. But now that I had gained man's estate, I was not sure that I believed the doctrines of my father's kirk; and it was needful that I should now settle it. And so I entered my chamber and closed the door, and around me there came a trooping throng of phantasms dire from the abysmal depth of nethermost perdition. Doubt, fear, unbelief, mockery, and scoffing were there; and I wrestled with them in agony of spirit. Thus it was for weeks. Whether I ate I know not; whether I drank I know not; whether I slept I know not. But I know that when I came forth again it was with the direful persuasion that I was the miserable owner of a diabolical arrangement called a stomach.” Thus, in his 23d year, he contracted that chronic dyspepsia which has tormented him through life, and given tone to most of his writings. He was at this time in Edinburgh, where he had begun the study of divinity. Having decided that he could not become a minister, he cast about to settle upon his way of life. Leaving Edinburgh, he was for a while tutor in a private family, and made himself master of the German language and literature. Then returning to Edinburgh, he entered upon his chosen profession, that of “a writer of books.” He translated Legendre's geometry, to which he prefixed an “Essay on Proportion,” and wrote the “Life of Schiller,” which was originally published in the “London Magazine,” 1823-'4. About the same time he translated Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. In 1826 he married Jane Welch, a lineal descendant of John Knox, who died in 1866. She appears to have brought him some property, and he went to reside upon her small estate of Craigenputtoch, among the granite hills and black morasses of the wildest part of Dumfriesshire, 15 miles from a town. During his six years' residence here he studied, thought, and wrote with untiring activity. He completed the “Specimens of German Romance” (3 vols., 1827), comprising translations from Jean Paul, Tieck, Musäus, and Hoffmann, names then almost unknown in Great Britain; wrote many biographical sketches for the “Edinburgh Cyclopædia;” and began the series of essays now known as his “Miscellanies.” The first of these, on Jean Paul Richter, appeared in the “Edinburgh Review” for 1827, followed within the next two years by several of the best of them all, notably those on Burns and Novalis. These critical and biographical essays, forty in number, were collected in 1845 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and republished in America, and among them are fully a score that rank as the best in the language. “Sartor Resartus” was written in 1831, and the next year Carlyle went with it to London, and upon his arrival there took up his residence in a modest house in Chelsea, in which he has lived ever since. At first he met ill success with his manuscript. The “reader” for one publisher said that the work was beyond doubt that of a man of talent, but that it was disjointed and fragmentary; the humor was very German and very heavy; was not the book, in fact, a translation from the German? The publisher declined the book with thanks, but intimated that the author might do better some day. Failing to find a publisher in book form, Sartor Resartus, “The Stitcher Restitched,” appeared in “Fraser's Magazine” in 1833-'4. From all that appears, it does not seem that there was in all England a single reader who found it other than a very absurd and altogether stupid production. The work purports to be extracts from a book on the “Philosophy of Clothes” by Godborn Devilsdung (Diogenes Teufelsdröckh), born at Duckpuddle (Entepfuhl), and professor of matters and things in general at the university of Don'tknowwhere (Weissnichtwo), with notices of the life and opinions of the author. The scope of it is, that all forms, creeds, and institutions are but the garments in which man has from time to time clothed himself, and that for the most part these garments are sadly out of repair. It is a critique upon the civilization of the age. Intermingled with much that is simply grotesque either in thought or expression, there are passages which, for lofty eloquence, keen insight, and trenchant satire, are not surpassed by anything in the language. Hitherto the style of Carlyle, though nervous and idiomatic, had been pure and graceful. In “Sartor Resartus” he adopted here and there, and not unfrequently, that involved, intertwisted, and contorted manner which thenceforth became the most obvious characteristic of most of his writings. In 1837 was published “The French Revolution, a History,” the first of Carlyle's works to which his name was formally attached. It is less a history than a series of tableaux from the history of the revolution, presupposing the reader to be acquainted with the general course of the events. The remarkable essay on “Characteristics,” written in 1831, marks the time when Carlyle had begun to embrace that doctrine of pessimism, which finally became the leading principle in his philosophy. Taking his own confirmed dyspepsia as a sort of starting point, he educes the axiom that unconsciousness is not only the sign but the condition of health in the individual and in society. It is the sick, not the well, who are consciously aware of their state. The present age is a self-conscious and therefore a diseased one. “All this talk about the improvement of the age, the spirit of the age, the march of the intellect, and the progress of the species, is evidence of an unhealthy state, the precursor and prognostic of still worse health.” This idea crops out in the “French Revolution” and many of the essays, and in some of liis later works is developed still further into the assumption that all nobleness, virtue, and belief have died out of the world; that modern civilization is a hollow sham; and that mankind are worse and worse off than they were 500 years ago. “The French Revolution,” notwithstanding the critics of the day, made an immediate mark. Its publication was delayed by the accidental burning of the manuscript of the second volume just as it was ready for the printers. A friend borrowed it to read, and he in turn lent it to another. The latter having left it at night in a confused heap on his library table, the servant in the morning used nearly the whole of it to kindle a fire. Carlyle set about rewriting it, but failed in the first attempt through mental depression. He then devoted several weeks to novel-reading as a relaxation, and so finally succeeded in reproducing his destroyed work. In 1839 he published a small work on “Chartism,” in 1840 “Heroes and Hero Worship,” and in 1843 “Past and Present,” chiefly notable for their extreme pessimist views, and for the extent to which the affectation in style was carried. During these years he also wrote for the “Edinburgh Review” and the “Foreign Quarterly Review,” and contributed to “Fraser's Magazine” some of his best papers, notable among which were “Count Cagliostro” and “The Diamond Necklace.” After 1844 he furnished few contributions to periodical literature. In 1845 he published the “Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell,” with copious remarks and annotations, a work which has done more than any other to set in its true light the character of the great lord protector. In 1850 he published a series of “Latter-Day Pamphlets,” dealing with the questions of the day, and by far the least valuable of his works. In 1851 appeared the “Life of John Sterling,” an admirable biography, in which he returned to the earlier purity of style which characterized the “Life of Schiller.” He had in the mean while been long engaged upon the “History of Friedrich the Second, called Frederick the Great.” The first two volumes appeared in 1858, two more in 1862, and the concluding two in 1864. With this work Carlyle's literary life may probably be supposed to have closed. In 1865 he was elected rector of Edinburgh university, and delivered his inaugural address April 2, 1866. During the American civil war he was open in avowing his belief in the overthrow of the republic. In 1869 he published a magazine article in the manner of his “Latter-Day Pamphlets,” entitled “Shooting Niagara,” in which he vehemently opposed the project of electoral reform in Great Britain. During the Franco-German war he took sides with Germany, and in November, 1870, published in the “Times” two long letters on the subject. — Carlyle's merit as an essayist is undisputed. His claim to the highest place is called in question in favor of no one, unless it be Macaulay. As a historian he brings to his work the first great requisite of unwearied industry in the collection of facts. The brilliant pictures in the “French Revolution” are elaborated to the minutest detail from an immense mass of contemporary narratives. For “Frederick the Great” he appears to have read and noted every book, pamphlet, and despatch published in relation to that monarch, and to have examined innumerable maps and prints in order to make himself master of every point in topography and local scenery. His descriptions of campaigns and battles are exceeded by nothing in military literature. Viewed as a series of pictures, his two histories have certainly no superior, perhaps no equal, and their effect in this regard is enhanced rather than diminished by the idiosyncrasies in manner which he has chosen to adopt. But he lacks that soundness of judgment which forms the still higher requisite of a great historian. Everything is colored and distorted by the medium through which he looks. In his pessimist philosophy there are but three virtues: earnest belief, which has long since gone from the world; force and audacity, which overcome every obstacle; and a prudent thrift, which makes the best of a bad state of things. He has a sort of liking for Benjamin Franklin because “he taught the American people how by frugality and labor a man may buffet the waves of fortune, and swim straight on to prosperity and success.” In a man whom he likes he can see little that is bad; in one whom he dislikes nothing either good or even worthy of respect. Mirabeau and Danton are eulogized for their rude force; Robespierre is only a contemptible sea-green cockscomb playing the part of ruler. In Bonaparte he sees only “the great highwayman of history, whose habit was to clutch king or kaiser by the throat, and swear that if they did not stand and deliver he would blow their brains out; and who did a profitable trade at this sort of thing until another man, Arthur, duke of Wellington, who had learned the trick, succeeded in clutching him, and there was the end of him.” Frederick had the virtues of force and thrift, the only ones now or for some generations extant, and so he makes a hero of him. Carlyle wholly lacks the power of intellectual perspective. Everything is great or small, not as it is in itself or in its relation to other things, but in proportion as it is picturesque. The life of Frederick is full of episodes in which the most trifling details are elaborated as they would be in a novel. The march of the history is stayed while the writer is picking weeds or flowers by the wayside. For literature, after his early enthusiasm for that of Germany, he affects supreme contempt. Men who know him best, and some who have heard Coleridge talk, say that they never knew what table talk could be until they had listened to Carlyle seated, pipe in mouth, under an awning in the yard of his modest home. Carlyle's works have been issued from time to time in almost every shape and form. His “Complete Works” have been published in 30 vols. 8vo, with three additional volumes of translations (London, 1869-'71).