CARLYLE, Thomas, Scotch essayist, historian and miscellaneous writer; b. Ecclefechan, near Annandale, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, 4 Dec. 1795; d. London, 4 Feb. 1881.
Carlyle's ancestors were said to have come to Annandale from Carlisle, England, in the time of David II, but at the author's birth the immediate family was living in very straitened circumstances at Ecclefechan, where the grandfather, Thomas, was village carpenter and his five sons masons. The second of these, James, a man of “largest natural adornment,” assertive, choleric, honest and pious, with an uncommon gift of forcible expression, married as his second wife Margaret Aitken, a woman of affectionate nature and piety of mind. By her he had four sons and five daughters, of whom the eldest was Thomas. The third son, John Carlyle (q.v.), became distinguished as the translator of Dante. Thomas, like the other children, was brought up with much affectionate care. His parents intended him for the Church and gave him all the education in their power. He early learned his letters and soon became a voracious reader.
At 10 he was sent to the grammar school at Annan, where, as a moody, sensitive child, he was much bullied by the other boys, and probably suffered acutely. At the age of 13 he was ready to enter Edinburgh University, which he attended from 1809 to 1814, without, however, taking a degree. His individuality did not readily allow itself to be molded to the academic routine. Finding himself unable, because of religious doubts, to enter the ministry, he went to Annan Academy as tutor in mathematics, in 1814. Later he taught at Kirkcaldy, where he made the acquaintance of Edward Irving (q.v), one of his warmest friends. Irving's friendship was of great value to Carlyle, and his library enabled the latter to gratify his love of reading and to mitigate the distaste which he felt for teaching. In October 1818 the work became so repellent that he resigned from his school, saying that “it were better to perish than to continue school-mastering.” Then he went to Edinburgh to try to earn his living.
The next three years were perhaps the most trying of his life. He was tormented to an uncommon degree by his lifelong enemy, dyspepsia, and as a result was greatly depressed in spirit. Uncertain what career to follow, trying his hand at many vocations and different studies, miserably poor, finding his only employment for a time in writing hack articles, he was “mentally and physically adrift” in the sense that is described in his “Everlasting No” of ‘Sartor Resartus.’ Toward the middle of 1821, however, he seems, by much resolution and energy of will, to have shaken off much of the depression, to have attained the position of the “Everlasting Yea.” The men who at this time most influenced him were the Germans, particularly Goethe, the mystic Richter, and the philosopher Fichte. German literature was now his most absorbing study, and later this study bore fruit in his ‘Life of Schiller’ (1823-24), his translation of Goethe's ‘Wilhelm Meister’ (1824) and in several essays. These books mark his formal entrance into literature.
Up to the time of their publication Carlyle's published writing had been a series of articles for Sir David Brewster's ‘Encyclopedia,’ a translation of Legendre's ‘Geometry,’ to which he prefixed an ‘Essay on Proportion,’ and miscellaneous hack work. The ‘Life of Schiller’ and the translation of ‘Wilhelm Meister’ met with favorable reviews, and the translation is usually regarded as one of the best of all renderings into English. While he was at work on these books he was (1822-24) tutor in a well-to-do family, the Bullers, from whom he received £200 a year for not disagreeable work. In spite of the kindness of his patrons, he managed, as was usual with him during life, to find much fault with his surroundings and to utter complaints with very little fairness or reserve. A trip (1824) to London and Paris broke the monotony of his existence, and gave him many new impressions and opinions in what was a critical period of his growth. Returning to Scotland in 1825 he established himself at Hoddam Hill, a farm near the Solway, where he farmed and wrote.
On 17 Oct. 1826, Carlyle, after a somewhat prolonged, vacillating and rather stormy wooing, succeeded in marrying Jane Baillie Welsh; a woman in many ways as remarkable as himself and distinguished as a descendant of John Knox. The humors and distempers of their married life have become proverbial and are to be found most fully recorded in Froude's biography. Both seem to have been extremely and unintelligently self-willed and so vain as to be wholly lacking in reticence about their domestic life. For two years they lived at Scotsbrig near Edinburgh, where they had the advantage of the intelligent society of the capital, and where Carlyle supported himself by writing for the reviews. In the Edinburgh Review, under the editorship of his friend Jeffrey (q.v.), he published, in 1827, his well-known essay on ‘Richter’ and ‘The State of German Literature,’ an article which led to the famous correspondence with Goethe. For several years the Edinburgh and other reviews were his only medium of publication. He essayed a novel but failed, and was disappointed m his attempts to secure the chair in moral philosophy at Saint Andrews and a professorship in London University.In May 1828 the Carlyles removed to a lonely farm, Craigenputtoch, overlooking the Solway. Here he wrote his ‘Essay on Burns,’ one of his most sympathetic pieces of criticism (Edinburgh Review, 1828), several other essays of much importance, as ‘Voltaire,’ ‘Novalis’ and his ‘Sartor Resartus,’ the book for which he is perhaps most famous. Refused by several publishers, ‘Sartor Resartus’ first saw light in Fraser's Magazine, between December 1833 and August 1834, where it excited such a storm of protest that no separate English edition appeared till 1838. Meanwhile (1836) it first appeared in book form in America, where it was especially commended by Emerson. This most characteristic book of Carlyle purports to be a review by an English editor of a treatise by a learned German professor, Herr Teufelsdröckh, with whose life and opinions it deals.
The book is written around the famous Philosophy of Clothes, designed by Swift (q.v.), and is in the main symbolical of Carlyle's creed at this time — that as clothes express the taste of the wearer, so life in all its forms may be regarded as the vesture of the mind. The idea is not a very original one, but is expressed with such oddity of phrase and image that it appears as profound as forcible. The most interesting feature is the account of the moral and spiritual attire of Teufelsdröckh, who is Carlyle himself. It is the querulous, stormy tale of early suffering, lack of sympathy from fellowmen, disappointment alike in the business of the head and the affairs of the heart, despondency and despair over the great question why man is in the universe, doubt and wavering, and final acceptance of the facts of existence with the hope of solution through stern endeavor. The book might be called a prose epic of the inner life, and it is wholly egoistic and anthropocentric.In 1834 the Carlyles removed to London, where they settled in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, and here were their headquarters for the remainder of their lives. Soon after the change he began his ‘French Revolution,’ which was completed in 1837 and which gave him much more reputation than he had heretofore enjoyed. During the same period he wrote the ‘Diamond Necklace’ and the articles on ‘Mirabeau’ and ‘Sir Walter Scott,’ the honorarium from which was of great benefit in his impecunious state. The success of the history enabled him, in the four following years, to gain audience for four series of lectures, ‘German Literature,’ the ‘History of European Literature,’ ‘Revolutions’ and the more characteristic ‘Heroes and Hero-Worship.’ Published in book form in 1841, this series remains to-day one of the most widely read of Carlyle's works and is perhaps the clearest expression of his philosophy of history. “As I take it,” he says, “universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked there.”
The moral animus of the book is expressed farther on in the same introduction: “We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain which it is good and pleasant to be near.” Again, speaking of the Hero as a man of letters, he tells us the purpose of all his own writing: “The writer of a book, is he not a preacher, preaching not to this parish or that, on this day or that, but to all men in all times and places?”The book may conveniently mark an important time in Carlyle's life. The pamphlet on ‘Chartism’ of 1840 had enunciated a doctrine, of a political sort, that “Might is right,” — “one of the few strings,” says Nichol, “on which, with all the variations of a political Paganini, he played through life.” About this time, in short, his ideas of history, of morals, of politics, of his own mission, seem to have crystallized. Furthermore, his circumstances had definitively bettered. His name was well known and be was able to refuse a chair of history at Edinburgh University and later another at Saint Andrews. In 1842 the death of Mrs. Carlyle's mother threw an income of at least £200 in the hands of the Carlyles and relieved them of the fear of penury.From this time on Carlyle's work falls mainly into two main classes: (1) the lives of great individuals and (2) pamphlets of a quasi-political sort, powerful lashings of modern institutions. The most important of the latter, ‘Past and Present,’ written in seven weeks, appeared in 1843. Herein Carlyle commits a common and characteristic fallacy in comparing a charming picture of monastic England with some of the worst things of modern life, to the obvious disadvantage of the latter and, by extension and implication, to modern civilisation as a whole. Nevertheless, the book makes a strong appeal to our humanity, and is perhaps the best example of Carlyle's many protests against modern barbarism. It is said to have been productive of good in factory legislation. Meanwhile he was engaged on an important work of the first class spoken of, — ‘Cromwell,’ which, after three years' preparation, appeared in 1845. Carlyle, with characteristic thoroughness, spent a large part of the summers of 1842 and 1843 in visiting the battlefields of the Civil War.
It is significant that the “great man” was now, with Carlyle, not necessarily a man of letters, as in his works previous to the ‘French Revolution,’ but a man of political prowess as well, and this tendency to exalt the man of might reached its climax in the ‘History of Frederick II.’ The years between ‘Cromwell’ and the beginning of ‘Frederick’ are marked by his notable ‘Latter-Day Pamphlets’ (1849), one of the most denunciatory of his books, and his ‘Life of John Stirling’ (1851), a dear friend who had died six years before and who, like Edward King and Arthur Hallam, is chiefly remembered through the work of a greater man. After a trip in the fall of 1851, with the Brownings, to France, where he met the chief literary celebrities of the time — and passed unfavorable comment on them as on all affairs French — he settled down to the planning of the ‘History of Frederick II.’ On the preparation of this work and the composition of it he was engaged for the next 13 years. His study was indefatigable and he made two trips to Germany, in 1852 and 1858, to study the battlefields of Frederick. In 1850 the first two volumes were published with great success, the third in 1862, the fourth in 1864 and the fifth and sixth in 1865. During the composition he had done practically no side work; a somewhat unintelligent dialogue, ‘Ilias Americana in Nuce,’ on the American War, and his ‘Prinzenraub’ are the only pieces.The compilation of ‘Frederick’ marks the climax of Carlyle's life. It won for him recognition in England as the foremost of prose writers, and in Germany, too, his fame was naturally great. Even the Scotch decided to honor a prophet of their own country; he was elected lord rector of Edinburgh University, and in the spring of 1866 delivered the inaugural address, on the ‘Reading of Books.’ While on his trip he received news of the death of Mrs. Carlyle, which, in spite of their disagreements, was a severe blow to him and may be said to mark the beginning of his decline. He was over 70 years of age and the labor of ‘Frederick’ had left him worn and weary. Thereafter he wrote only three books of comparative importance. ‘Shooting Niagara — and After,’ of the type of ‘Past and Present,’ the ‘Early Kings of Norway,’ of the hero type, and ‘Reminiscences of Jane Carlyle and of Jeffrey and Edward Irving,’ written in the months following the death of his wife, but not published until after his death. His last public utterance, according to Froude, was a letter which he wrote, in May 1877, to the Times, protesting against the moral support which England was giving to Turkey in the war with Russia.
His life at this time is described as one surrounded by honors and supported by a few staunch friends, but as one of growing weariness and desire to be at rest, until, after two years of physical feebleness, he died quietly in his 86th year.Carlyle's character and place in literature have, since his death, as during his life, been subjects of much comment and of comment of the most diverse sorts. He has been extolled on the one hand as the greatest of prophets, the most eloquent of sages; and condemned, on the other, as the noisiest of egoists. It is therefore impossible to fix with any approximation his value as a character or as a man of letters, in the sense that Milton, Addison, Gray and others may be tolerably well characterized. His severest critics, like Mr. Robertson, are undoubtedly right when they accuse him of inconsistency and irrationality and when they point out in his character certain elements of brutality and narrow egoism, and yet the fact remains that he has been the awakening force of many men and that there is a feeling abroad that he is one of the great names in English prose. Perhaps the most sensible of these opposing views may best be summed up in Huxley's words (letter to Lord Stanley, 9 March 1881): “Few men can have dissented more strongly from his way of looking at things than I; but I should not yield to the most devoted of his followers in gratitude for the bracing, wholesome influence of his writings when, as a very young man, I was essaying without rudder or compass to strike out a course for myself.”In view of such diverse opinions, all of which contain truth, it seems necessary merely to protest against loose extremist views which have just been referred to. Whether one regards him as the wisest of men or the noisiest of hypocrites is, after all, a question of temper or of what one regards as valuable in the universe, and usually has value only as the expression of personal opinion. Carlyle's influence, like that of Dr. Johnson, is the personal influence of a powerful and upright man rather than that of a philosopher or a discoverer of new truth. His personal qualities as expressed in his writings — his integrity, his earnestness, his independence, his sincerity, his hatred of sham, cant and affectation, his vigor — are what count in his hold on people.
As a system, his work, as his critics justly remark, is unscientific and untrue. His work, so voluminous and, on the face of it, consisting of translations, literary, biographical, historical essays and books, tracts of the times and satires, comes down to the glorification of a galaxy of interesting and, in different ways, powerful individuals: Schiller, Goethe, Cromwell, Frederick, himself (in ‘Sartor Resartus’) and others, and to the doctrine that their power is good. There is, of course, no means of testing the general truth of such views. They are really personal. He is, therefore, to be regarded as a seer, a prophet, a preacher, who feels deeply a, rather than the, meaning of life, and exhorts his readers to feel rightly and live rightly, to “do the duty which lies next them,” to “work and despair not.” These things he said with an impressiveness equaled by few men and to a very large body of listeners.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920