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Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881). Characteristics.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

THOMAS CARLYLE was born at Ecclefechan in the south of Scotland, December 4, 1795. His father, a rigorous Calvinist belonging to the seceding “Burgher Kirk,” was a stone-mason, a man of stern and upright character with a gift of fiery speech. Thomas began his education at home, went next to the village school, thence to the grammar school at Annan, and in 1809 walked to Edinburgh, a hundred miles away, and entered the University with a view to preparing for the ministry. On finishing his arts course, he was appointed mathematical usher at Annan and two years later at Kirkcaldy, where he formed an intimate friendship with Edward Irving. But he hated teaching, and, as he had abandoned his orthodox views and could no longer think of preaching, he returned to Edinburgh to study for the bar, supporting himself by private tutoring and writing for encyclopedias. These years, 1819–1822, he regarded as the most miserable of his life. Tormented with dyspepsia, torn with religious perplexity, with no prospects and no profession, he found comfort only in the affection of his family. It was about this time that the study of German led him to Goethe, who proved his chief aid in his struggles to gain spiritual peace.

Through Irving Carlyle obtained a position as tutor to Charles and Arthur Buller at a salary that enabled him to help his family in substantial ways. This engagement lasted for two years, during which he translated Legendre’s “Geometry” and Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister,” and wrote a “Life of Schiller.” His relation with the Bullers led him to London, and for a short time to Paris; and in his “Reminiscences” we have a graphic picture of the unfavorable impression made on him by fashionable and literary society.

He now retired to a farm near his father’s house, and spent a peaceful year, chiefly in translating. In 1826 he married Jane Baillie Welsh, the brilliant and beautiful daughter of a doctor in Haddington, whom he had met through Irving. Miss Welsh was descended on one side from John Knox, on the other from the gypsies, and, it was claimed, William Wallace; and her temperament did not belie her ancestry. She had been much courted, and her wooing by Carlyle was as ominous as it was extraordinary. Over their subsequent domestic relations there has been a vast amount of unseemly controversy, no one condemning Carlyle more severely than he did himself. Yet it may be argued that they found in their marriage as much satisfaction as either of them was capable of finding in wedded life. Carlyle’s absorption in his work and his career undoubtedly led to much neglect and suffering on the part of his wife, but it is clear that the expressions of remorse in his writings after her death are not fairly to be taken as judicial evidence against him.

For the first eighteen months after marriage, the Carlyles lived in Edinburgh, where they shared in the most distinguished intellectual society of the city, and where Carlyle formed with Francis Jeffrey a pleasant and useful relation. Jeffrey accepted articles for the “Edinburgh Review,” and their success there opened to Carlyle the pages of other periodicals. The first two reviews were on Richter and on German Literature, which, with his translations and later writings in the same field, gained him recognition as a pioneer of German literature in England, and brought him generous personal acknowledgments from Goethe.

In spite of these successes, the financial affairs of the Carlyles were still far from satisfactory, and to reduce expenses they retreated to the farm of Craigenputtock, which belonged to Mrs. Carlyle. Here they lived for more than six years, in an isolation broken only by occasional visits from guests, notable among whom were the Jeffreys and Emerson. It was here that the quasi-autobiographical “Sartor Resartus” was written, and more German articles, the market for which, however, grew duller and duller. A visit to London in 1831, for which he had to borrow money from Jeffrey, led to new relations with publishers and editors; and four months in Edinburgh broadened his range of subjects. But, finally, solitude and the need of money drove them to London, where they settled in 1834 in the house in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

The most important event of the earlier years of the London period was the ripening of Carlyle’s friendship with J. S. Mill. To this intercourse was due his undertaking his “History of the French Revolution,” published in 1837. Meanwhile, he succeeded in getting sorely needed funds by lecturing, giving four courses in successive springs, the last of which was his well-known “Heroes and Hero-worship.” These relieved him from pressing necessities, and with the recognition of the brilliant qualities of his “French Revolution” came the turn in his fortunes. He gained many friends, among whom were such men as John Sterling, whose life he afterward was to write with sympathy and charm; F. D. Maurice, J. G. Lockhart, R. M. Milnes, afterwards Lord Houghton, and the Barings; and he was often sought out by young inquirers. Emerson had introduced his works to America, with the result of both fame and profit. He was already becoming a noted figure in intellectual circles in London.

His political ideas were put into definite shape in his “Chartism” (1839), and, if any one had ever doubted it, it now became clear that he was never to be classed with any of the established political parties. “Past and Present,” a contrast between medieval monastic life and modern conditions, still further emphasized his separation from both Tories and Radicals. While these shorter works were being put forth, he was laboring on his next great book, the “Life and Letters of Oliver Cromwell”; and when this appeared in 1845 his position as one of the leading men of letters of the day was thoroughly established.

After a year or two mainly occupied with political writing, most of it at once powerful in style and ineffective in result, he settled down to another great task, a life of Frederick the Great, which occupied his main energies till 1865, and extended his reputation both on the Continent and at home. In this year he was elected Lord Rector of Edinburgh University. The Inaugural Address, which constitutes the sole duty of this honorary office, he delivered the next year; and on his journey south after a triumphal reception he was met at Dumfries by the news of his wife’s death. She was buried in the Abbey Kirk at Haddington; and the epitaph which her husband placed upon her grave tells what the blow meant for him. It runs thus: “In her bright existence she had more sorrows than are common, but also a soft invincibility, a capacity of discernment, and a noble loyalty of heart which are rare. For forty years she was the true and loving helpmate of her husband, and by act and word unweariedly forwarded him as none else could in all of worthy that he did or attempted. She died at London, 21st April, 1866, suddenly snatched from him, and the light of his life as if gone out.”

And, indeed, the light of his life had gone out. He was henceforth a broken man. He revised his collected works, wrote his “Reminiscences,” but undertook no new tasks. He was now at the head of his profession, and surrounded by friends and admirers; honors were showered on him at home and abroad; but he lived in a gloom that deepened to the end. He died on February 4, 1881, and was buried in the old kirkyard at Ecclefechan.

Of the works by Carlyle here printed, “Characteristics” is a condensed and telling statement of some of his most fundamental ideas; the essay on “Sir Walter Scott” exhibits, both in its strength and in its shortcomings, the domination of ethical over esthetic considerations in his estimate of literature, and contains besides many characteristic generalizations on human life and conduct; the “Inaugural Address,” the subject of which is nominally the “Reading of Books,” summarizes rapidly his own intellectual history, and digresses in true Carlylean fashion into religion, ethics, history, and a variety of other topics. It is written in an exceptionally simple and straightforward style, admirably suited to the occasion; the two other papers represent more truly his habitual manner of expression—often abrupt, often exaggerated, sometimes grotesque, but, to use his own words of his “French Revolution,” coming “direct and flamingly from the heart of a living man.”

This style was, indeed, highly characteristic of its owner. The endless labor he put into his histories, the passion of his political convictions, the profound earnestness of his moral and religious preaching, were combined with a thirst for effective expression that led him to shatter any convention that stood in the way of truth, and gave a weight and edge to his utterance that make it a thing unique in English literature. Complex and inconsistent to the point of paradox, absolutely sincere yet exaggerated and over-emphatic, violent to brutality yet tender of heart, a Radical to the Tories and a Tory to the Radicals Carlyle formed no school, yet was one of the most stimulating and potent influences of his century. Over his character and his message the voices of controversy have not yet died down, but whoever turns to his work finds coursing everywhere through it the red blood of a man.