Thomas Carlyle

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THOMAS CARLYLE

BY
JOHN NICHOL, LL. D, M.A., BALLIOL, OXON

1904

PREFATORY NOTE

The following record of the leading events of Carlyle’s life and attempt
to estimate his genius rely on frequently renewed study of his work, on
slight personal impressions—”vidi tantum”—and on information supplied
by previous narrators. Of these the great author’s chosen literary
legatee is the most eminent and, in the main, the most reliable. Every
critic of Carlyle must admit as constant obligations to Mr. Froude as
every critic of Byron to Moore or of Scott to Lockhart. The works of
these masters in biography remain the ample storehouses from which every
student will continue to draw. Each has, in a sense, made his subject his
own, and each has been similarly arraigned.

I must here be allowed to express a feeling akin to indignation at the
persistent, often virulent, attacks directed against a loyal friend,
betrayed, it may be, by excess of faith and the defective reticence that
often belongs to genius, to publish too much about his hero. But Mr.
Froude’s quotation, in defence, from the essay on Sir Walter Scott
requires no supplement: it should be remembered that he acted with
explicit authority; that the restrictions under which he was at first
entrusted with the MSS. of the Reminiscences and the Letters and
Memorials
(annotated by Carlyle himself, as if for publication) were
withdrawn; and that the initial permission to select finally approached a
practical injunction to communicate the whole. The worst that can be said
is that, in the last years of Carlyle’s career, his own judgment as to
what should be made public of the details of his domestic life may have
been somewhat obscured; but, if so, it was a weakness easily hidden from
a devotee.

My acknowledgments are due to several of the Press comments which
appeared shortly after Carlyle’s death, more especially that of the St.
James’s Gazette
, giving the most philosophical brief summary of his
religious views which I have seen; and to the kindness of Dr. Eugene
Oswald, President of the Carlyle Society, in supplying me with valuable
hints on matters relating to German History and Literature. I have also
to thank the Editor of the Manchester Guardian for permitting me to
reproduce the substance of my article in its columns of February 1881.
That article was largely based on a contribution on the same subject, in
1859, to Mackenzie’s Imperial Dictionary of Biography.

I may add that in the distribution of material over the comparatively
short space at my command, I have endeavoured to give prominence to facts
less generally known, and passed over slightly the details of events
previously enlarged on, as the terrible accident to Mrs. Carlyle and the
incidents of her death. To her inner history I have only referred in so
far as it had a direct bearing on her husband’s life. As regards the
itinerary of Carlyle’s foreign journeys, it has seemed to me that it
might be of interest to those travelling in Germany to have a short
record of the places where the author sought his “studies” for his
greatest work.

CONTENTS

CHAPTER I INTRODUCTORY SUMMARY
CHAPTER II 1795-1826 ECCLEFECHAN AND EDINBURGH
CHAPTER III 1826-1834 CRAIGENPUTTOCK (from Marriage to London)
CHAPTER IV 1834-1842 CHEYNE ROW—(To death of Mrs. Welsh)
CHAPTER V 1842-1853 CHEYNE ROW—(To death of Carlyle’s Mother)
CHAPTER VI 1853-1866 THE MINOTAUR—(To death of Mrs. Carlyle)
CHAPTER VII 1866-1881 DECADENCE
CHAPTER VIII CARLYLE AS MAN OF LETTERS, CRITIC, AND HISTORIAN
CHAPTER IX CARLYLE’S POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
CHAPTER X ETHICS—PREDECESSORS—INFLUENCE
APPENDIX ON CARLYLE’S RELIGION
INDEX

THOMAS CARLYLE

CHAPTER I

INTRODUCTORY SUMMARY

Four Scotchmen, born within the limits of the same hundred years, all
in the first rank of writers, if not of thinkers, represent much of the
spirit of four successive generations. They are leading links in an
intellectual chain.

DAVID HUME (1711-1776) remains the most salient type in our island of the
scepticism, half conservative, half destructive, but never revolutionary,
which marked the third quarter of the eighteenth century. He had some
points of intellectual contact with Voltaire, though substituting a staid
temper and passionless logic for the incisive brilliancy of a mocking
Mercury; he had no relation, save an unhappy personal one, to Rousseau.

ROBERT BURNS (1759-1796), last of great lyrists inspired by a local
genius, keenest of popular satirists, narrative poet of the people,
spokesman of their higher as of their lower natures, stood on the verge
between two eras. Half Jacobite, nursling of old minstrelsy, he was
also half Jacobin, an early-born child of the upheaval that closed the
century; as essentially a foe of Calvinism as Hume himself. Master
musician of his race, he was, as Thomas Campbell notes, severed, for good
and ill, from his fellow Scots, by an utter want of their protecting or
paralysing caution.

WALTER SCOTT (1771-1832), broadest and most generous, if not loftiest of
the group—”no sounder piece of British manhood,” says Carlyle himself
in his inadequate review, “was put together in that century”—the great
revivalist of the mediaeval past, lighting up its scenes with a magic
glamour, the wizard of northern tradition, was also, like Burns, the
humorist of contemporary life. Dealing with Feudal themes, but in the
manner of the Romantic school, he was the heir of the Troubadours,
the sympathetic peer of Byron, and in his translation of Goetz von
Berlichingen he laid the first rafters of our bridge to Germany.

THOMAS CARLYLE (1795-1881) is on the whole the strongest, though far from
the finest spirit of the age succeeding—an age of criticism threatening
to crowd creation out, of jostling interests and of surging streams,
some of which he has striven to direct, more to stem. Even now what Mill
twenty-five years ago wrote of Coleridge is still true of Carlyle: “The
reading public is apt to be divided between those to whom his views are
everything and those to whom they are nothing.” But it is possible to
extricate from a mass of often turbid eloquence the strands of his
thought and to measure his influence by indicating its range.

Travellers in the Hartz, ascending the Brocken, are in certain
atmospheres startled by the apparition of a shadowy figure,—a giant
image of themselves, thrown on the horizon by the dawn. Similar is the
relation of Carlyle to the common types of his countrymen. Burns, despite
his perfervid patriotism, was in many ways “a starry stranger.” Carlyle
was Scotch to the core and to the close, in every respect a macrocosm of
the higher peasant class of the Lowlanders. Saturated to the last with
the spirit of a dismissed creed, he fretted in bonds from which he could
never get wholly free. Intrepid, independent, steadfast, frugal, prudent,
dauntless, he trampled on the pride of kings with the pride of Lucifer.
He was clannish to excess, painfully jealous of proximate rivals,
self-centred if not self-seeking, fired by zeal and inflamed by almost
mean emulations, resenting benefits as debts, ungenerous—with one
exception, that of Goethe,—to his intellectual creditors; and, with
reference to men and manners around him at variance with himself,
violently intolerant. He bore a strange relation to the great poet,
in many ways his predecessor in influence, whom with persistent
inconsistency he alternately eulogised and disparaged, the half Scot Lord
Byron. One had by nature many affinities to the Latin races, the other
was purely Teutonic: but the power of both was Titanic rather than
Olympian; both were forces of revolution; both protested, in widely
different fashion, against the tendency of the age to submerge
Individualism; both were to a large extent egoists: the one whining, the
other roaring, against the “Philistine” restraints of ordinary society.
Both had hot hearts, big brains, and an exhaustless store of winged
and fiery words; both were wrapt in a measureless discontent, and made
constant appeal against what they deemed the shallows of Optimism;
Carlylism is the prose rather than “the male of Byronism.” The contrasts
are no less obvious: the author of Sartor Resartus, however vaguely,
defended the System of the Universe; the author of Cain, with an
audacity that in its essence went beyond that of Shelley, arraigned it.
In both we find vehemence and substantial honesty; but, in the one, there
is a dominant faith, tempered by pride, in the “caste of Vere de Vere,”
in Freedom for itself—a faith marred by shifting purposes, the garrulous
incontinence of vanity, and a broken life; in the other unwavering
belief in Law. The record of their fame is diverse. Byron leapt into the
citadel, awoke and found himself the greatest inheritor of an ancient
name. Carlyle, a peasant’s son, laid slow siege to his eminence, and,
only after outliving twice the years of the other, attained it. His
career was a struggle, sterner than that of either Johnson or Wordsworth,
from obscurity, almost from contempt, to a rarely challenged renown.
Fifty years ago few “so poor to do him reverence”: at his death, in a
sunset storm of praise, the air was full of him, and deafening was the
Babel of the reviews; for the progress of every original thinker is
accompanied by a stream of commentary that swells as it runs till it ends
in a dismal swamp of platitude. Carlyle’s first recognition was from
America, his last from his own countrymen. His teaching came home to
their hearts “late in the gloamin’.” In Scotland, where, for good or ill,
passions are in extremes, he was long howled down, lampooned, preached
at, prayed for: till, after his Edinburgh Inaugural Address, he of a
sudden became the object of an equally blind devotion; and was, often
by the very men who had tried and condemned him for blasphemy, as
senselessly credited with essential orthodoxy. “The stone which the
builders rejected became the headstone of the corner,” the terror of the
pulpit its text. Carlyle’s decease was marked by a dirge of rhapsodists
whose measureless acclamations stifled the voice of sober criticism.
In the realm of contemporary English prose he has left no adequate
successor; [Footnote: The nearest being the now foremost prose writers
of our time, Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Froude.] the throne that does not pass
by primogeniture is vacant, and the bleak northern skies seem colder
and grayer since that venerable head was laid to rest by the village
churchyard, far from the smoke and din of the great city on whose streets
his figure was long familiar and his name was at last so honoured.

Carlyle first saw the world tempest-tossed by the events he celebrates in
his earliest History. In its opening pages, we are made to listen to the
feet and chariots of “Dubarrydom” hurrying from the “Armida Palace,”
where Louis XV. and the ancien régime lay dying; later to the ticking
of the clocks in Launay’s doomed Bastile; again to the tocsin of the
steeples that roused the singers of the Marseillaise to march from
“their bright Phocaean city” and grapple with the Swiss guard, last
bulwark of the Bourbons. “The Swiss would have won,” the historian
characteristically quotes from Napoleon, “if they had had a commander.”
Already, over little more than the space of the author’s life—for he was
a contemporary of Keats, born seven months before the death of Burns,
Shelley’s junior by three, Scott’s by twenty-four, Byron’s by seven
years—three years after Goethe went to feel the pulse of the
“cannon-fever” at Argonne—already these sounds are across a sea. Two
whole generations have passed with the memory of half their storms.
“Another race hath been, and other palms are won.” Old policies,
governments, councils, creeds, modes and hopes of life have been
sifted in strange fires. Assaye, Trafalgar, Austerlitz, Jena, Leipzig,
Inkermann, Sadowa,—Waterloo when he was twenty and Sedan when he was
seventy-five,—have been fought and won. Born under the French Directory
and the Presidency of Washington, Carlyle survived two French empires,
two kingdoms, and two republics; elsewhere partitions, abolitions,
revivals and deaths of States innumerable. During his life our sway in
the East doubled its area, two peoples (the German with, the Italian
without, his sympathy) were consolidated on the Continent, while another
across the Atlantic developed to a magnitude that amazes and sometimes
alarms the rest. Aggressions were made and repelled, patriots perorated
and fought, diplomatists finessed with a zeal worthy of the world’s most
restless, if not its wisest, age. In the internal affairs of the leading
nations the transformation scenes were often as rapid as those of a
pantomime. The Art and Literature of those eighty-six years—stirred to
new thought and form at their commencement by the so-called Romantic
movement, more recently influenced by the Classic reaction, the
Pre-Raphaelite protest, the Aesthetic mode,—followed various, even
contradictory, standards. But, in one line of progress, there was no
shadow of turning. Over the road which Bacon laid roughly down and
Newton made safe for transit, Physical Science, during the whole period,
advanced without let and beyond the cavil of ignorance. If the dreams
of the New Atlantis have not even in our days been wholly realised,
Science has been brought from heaven to earth, and the elements made
ministers of Prospero’s wand. This apparent, and partially real, conquest
of matter has doubtless done much to “relieve our estate,” to make life
in some directions run more smoothly, and to multiply resources to meet
the demands of rapidly-increasing multitudes: but it is in danger of
becoming a conquest of matter over us; for the agencies we have called
into almost fearful activity threaten, like Frankenstein’s miscreated
goblin, to beat us down to the same level. Sanguine spirits who

throw out acclamations of self-thanking, self-admiring,
With, at every mile run taster, O the wondrous, wondrous age,

are apt to forget that the electric light can do nothing to dispel the
darkness of the mind; that there are strict limits to the power of
prosperity to supply man’s wants or satisfy his aspirations. This is a
great part of Carlyle’s teaching. It is impossible, were it desirable,
accurately to define his religious, social, or political creed. He
swallows formulae with the voracity of Mirabeau, and like Proteus escapes
analysis. No printed labels will stick to him: when we seek to corner him
by argument he thunders and lightens. Emerson complains that he failed
to extract from him a definite answer about Immortality. Neither by
syllogism nor by crucible could Bacon himself have made the “Form” of
Carlyle to confess itself. But call him what we will—essential Calvinist
or recalcitrant Neologist, Mystic, Idealist, Deist or Pantheist,
practical Absolutist, or “the strayed reveller” of Radicalism—he is
consistent in his even bigoted antagonism to all Utilitarian solutions of
the problems of the world. One of the foremost physicists of our time was
among his truest and most loyal friends; they were bound together by the
link of genius and kindred political views; and Carlyle was himself an
expert in mathematics, the mental science that most obviously subserves
physical research: but of Physics themselves (astronomy being scarcely a
physical science) his ignorance was profound, and his abusive criticisms
of such men as Darwin are infantile. This intellectual defect, or
rather vacuum, left him free to denounce material views of life with
unconditioned vehemence. “Will the whole upholsterers,” he exclaims in
his half comic, sometimes nonsensical, vein, “and confectioners of modern
Europe undertake to make one single shoeblack happy!” And more seriously
of the railways, without whose noisy aid he had never been able to visit
the battle-fields of Friedrich II.—

Our stupendous railway miracles I have stopped short in admiring….
The distances of London to Aberdeen, to Ostend, to Vienna, are still
infinitely inadequate to me. Will you teach me the winged flight through
immensity, up to the throne dark with excess of bright? You unfortunate,
you grin as an ape would at such a question: you do not know that unless
you can reach thither in some effectual most veritable sense, you are
lost, doomed to Hela’s death-realm and the abyss where mere brutes are
buried. I do not want cheaper cotton, swifter railways; I want what
Novalis calls “God, Freedom, and Immortality.” Will swift railways and
sacrifices to Hudson help me towards that?

The ECONOMIC AND MECHANICAL SPIRIT of the age, faith in mere steel or
stone, was one of Carlyle’s red rags. The others were INSINCERITY in
Politics and in Life, DEMOCRACY without Reverence, and PHILANTHROPY
without Sense. In our time these two last powers have made such strides
as to threaten the Reign of Law. The Democrat without a ruler, who
protests that one man is by nature as good as another, according to
Carlyle is “shooting Niagara.” In deference to the mandate of the
philanthropist the last shred of brutality, with much of decision,
has vanished from our code. Sentiment is in office and Mercy not only
tempers, but threatens to gag Justice. When Sir Samuel Romilly began his
beneficent agitation, and Carlyle was at school, talkers of treason were
liable to be disembowelled before execution; now the crime of treason is
practically erased, and the free use of dynamite brings so-called reforms
“within the range of practical politics.” Individualism was still a mark
of the early years of the century. The spirit of “L’Etat c’est moi”
survived in Mirabeau’s “never name to me that bête of a word
‘impossible’;” in the first Napoleon’s threat to the Austrian ambassador,
“I will break your empire like this vase”; in Nelson turning his blind
eye to the signal of retreat at Copenhagen, and Wellington fencing Torres
Vedras against the world: it lingered in Nicholas the Czar, and has found
perhaps its latest political representative in Prince Bismarck.

This is the spirit to which Carlyle has always given his undivided
sympathy. He has held out hands to Knox, Francia, Friedrich, to the men
who have made manners, not to the manners which have made men, to
the rulers of people, not to their representatives: and the not
inconsiderable following he has obtained is the most conspicuous tribute
to a power resolute to pull against the stream. How strong its currents
may be illustrated by a few lines from our leading literary journal, the
Athenaeum, of the Saturday after his death :—

“The future historian of the century will have to record the marvellous
fact that while in the reign of Queen Victoria there was initiated,
formulated, and methodised an entirely new cosmogony, its most powerful
and highly-gifted man of letters was preaching a polity and a philosophy
of history that would have better harmonised with the time of Queen
Semiramis. . . . Long before he launched his sarcasms at human progress,
there had been a conviction among thinkers that it was not the hero
that developed the race, but a deep mysterious energy in the race that
produced the hero; that the wave produced the bubble, and not the bubble
the wave. But the moment a theory of evolution saw the light it was a
fact. The old cosmogony, on which were built Sartor Resartus and the
Calvinism of Ecclefechan, were gone. Ecclefechan had declared that the
earth did not move; but it moved nevertheless. The great stream of modern
thought has advanced; the theory of evolution has been universally
accepted; nations, it is acknowledged, produce kings, and kings are
denied the faculty of producing nations.”

Taliter, qualiter; but one or two remarks on the incisive summary
of this adroit and able theorist are obvious. First, the implied
assertion,—”Ecclefechan had declared that the earth did not move,”—that
Carlyle was in essential sympathy with the Inquisitors who confronted
Galileo with the rack, is perhaps the strangest piece of recent criticism
extant: for what is his French Revolution but a cannonade in three
volumes, reverberating, as no other book has done, a hurricane of
revolutionary thought and deed, a final storming of old fortresses, an
assertion of the necessity of movement, progress, and upheaval? Secondly,
every new discovery is apt to be discredited by new shibboleths, and
one-sided exaggerations of its range. It were platitude to say that Mr.
Darwin was not only an almost unrivalled student of nature, as careful
and conscientious in his methods, as fearless in stating his results,
but—pace Mr. Carlyle—a man of genius, who has thrown Hoods of light on
the inter-relations of the organic world. But there are whole troops
of serfs, “addicti jururo in verba magistri,” who, accepting, without
attempt or capacity to verify the conclusions of the master mind, think
to solve all the mysteries of the universe by ejaculating the word
“Evolution.” If I ask what was the secret of Dante’s or of Shakespeare’s
divining rod, and you answer “Evolution,” ’tis as if, when sick in heart
and sick in head, I were referred, as medicine for “a mind diseased,” to
Grimm’s Law or to the Magnetic Belt.

Let us grant that Cæsar was evolved from the currents in the air about
the Roman Capitol, that Marcus Aurelius was a blend of Plato and
Cleanthes, Charlemagne a graft of Frankish blood on Gallic soil, William
I. a rill from Rollo filtered in Neustrian fields, Hildebrand a flame
from the altar of the mediæval church, Barbarossa a plant grown to
masterdom in German woods, or later—not to heap up figures whose
memories still possess the world—that Columbus was a Genoan breeze,
Bacon a réchauffé of Elizabethan thought, Orange the Silent a Dutch
dyke, Chatham the frontispiece of eighteenth-century England, or Corsican
Buonaparte the “armed soldier of Democracy.” These men, at all events,
were no bubbles on the froth of the waves which they defied and
dominated.

So much, and more, is to be said for Carlyle’s insistence that great men
are creators as well as creatures of their age. Doubtless, as we advance
in history, direct personal influence, happily or unhappily, declines. In
an era of overwrought activity, of superficial, however free, education,
when we run the risk of being associated into nothingness and criticised
to death, it remains a question whether, in the interests of the highest
civilisation (which means opportunity for every capable citizen to lead
the highest life), the subordination of the one to the many ought to be
accelerated or retarded. It is said that the triumph of Democracy is a
mere “matter of time.” But time is in this case of the essence of the
matter, and the party of resistance will all the more earnestly maintain
that the defenders should hold the forts till the invaders have become
civilised. “The individual withers and the world is more and more,”
preludes, though over a long interval, the cynic comment of the second
“Locksley Hall” on the “increasing purpose” of the age. At an earlier
date “Luria” had protested against the arrogance of mere majorities.

  A people is but the attempt of many

  To rise to the completer life of one;

  And those who live as models to the mass

  Are singly of more value than they all.

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