The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 13. John Sterling
Standing apart from the turmoil of political controversy as well as the more serious historical studies in these years, is a work which cannot be overlooked in an estimate of Carlyle’s activity as a man of letters, the biography of his friend John Sterling, which appeared in 1851. Sterling himself, whose life of brilliant promise had been darkened and prematurely eclipsed by consumption, was hardly a significant enough figure to warrant the monument which Carlyle has erected to him; but Carlyle felt that a duty was imposed upon him to remove the stigma which Sterling’s first biographer, Christopher Hare, had placed on his memory, in presenting him too exclusively as a renegade from church of England orthodoxy. Carlyle’s book has been declared by more than one critic to be his best from the point of view of pure literature; but it is unduly long and suffers by excessive and unnecessary detail. It contains, however, some of Carlyle’s most trenchant writing, notably the often quoted pen-portrait of Coleridge. Its chief value, perhaps, is the light it throws on Carlyle himself. We obtain from it an instructive glimpse of the writer’s own religion, that religion which was an almost ludicrous combination of the “dourest” Scottish Calvinism and the Spinozistic pantheism of Goethe; we get a pleasanter, less atrabilious picture in it, too, of the Carlyle of the early London days, than is to be obtained from Froude’s biography; and, most valuable of all, we are able to gather from it, not merely what he felt towards one disciple, but towards all the young aspiring souls of the time who, setting out in life, looked to him for spiritual guidance.