The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 5. His relation to Goethe
Carlyle was never weary, all his life long, of proclaiming his personal debt to his German masters, above all, to Goethe; and, no doubt, the debt, especially to the latter, was a very real one. It was Goethe who helped him out of the Slough of Despond in the early twenties, when he was searching for a solution to the problem: “What canst thou work at?”—Goethe who showed him how to work his way through blank despair to the “Everlasting Yea.”
Carlyle has himself said that the famous incident in Sartor Resartus, where the light breaks on Teufelsdröckh in the rue Saint Thomas de l’Enfer, really took place in his own life one June afternoon in 1821, as he went down Leith walk to bathe in the firth of Forth. He, too, like his hero, had dwelt with the “Everlasting No”; difficulties of all kinds had beset him, religious difficulties, moral difficulties, above all, the racking problem of the end of life—happiness versus renunciation. He had, perhaps, also to face problems of a more practical kind than those which assailed his Teufelsdröckh; for it was only a few weeks before the crisis that he had met Miss Welsh; and, doubtless, in a dim way, he felt that the problem of life was now, or would become for him, not merely what canst thou work at, but what canst thou work at with sufficient worldly success to allow of sharing thy life with another. Moreover, the spiritual crisis, when it did break over Carlyle, assuredly did not come and go with the dramatic vividness of the chapters in Sartor; Carlyle’s struggles with the powers of darkness extended over years, and it may be questioned if he ever found complete deliverance, ever succeeded in setting the “Everlasting No” completely and finally at defiance.
When, however, we scrutinise Carlyle’s relation to Goethe more closely, we see how strangely few points actually existed between the two men. Carlyle’s Goethe was by no means the whole Goethe, not even the real Goethe. Carlyle’s hero and saviour was a fantastic, romantic Goethe, on whom was grafted a modern individualism that was assuredly not Goethe’s. Carlyle attributed to Goethe a disharmony between the emotional and the intellectual life, which the German poet had never really known; for Goethe’s “storm and stress” crisis, which had been lived through, once and for all, years before Carlyle was born, was of quite another kind. The “Everlasting Yea” of Sartor, tinged, as it was, by puritanic abnegations, had not been Goethe’s solution to the inner dissonance of his early years; and Entsagen, to the “Great Heathen,” was a very different thing from the drab and austere interpretation which Carlyle put on the English word “renunciation.” In truth, Carlyle was no true Goethean, but a romanticist to the core; not in the vague English sense of that word, but as it is used in Germany, where it connotes a particular school of thought at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He drew his spiritual transcendentalism from Novalis, who is the theme of one of the most beautiful of his German essays; he sought his philosophic and political inspiration in Fichte; he regarded Richter’s Sterne-like genius, his fantastic and often incongruous mingling of crude melodrama, eccentric humour and soaring imaginative flight, as something divinely inspired; and Goethe, to him, was no calm Olympian, but a hero of self-abnegation, who had emerged, scarified and broken, from a “sanctuary of sorrows.” And yet, in a kind of dim way, even if much of Goethe’s life and thinking was a closed book to him, Carlyle realised that the German poet had solved the riddle of the spiritual life which tortured himself, and had arrived at a peace and serenity to which it was never his own lot to attain. Carlyle’s interest in German literature virtually came to a close with Goethe’s death and the end of romantic ascendancy in Germany. For the later men and movements of that literature he had no sympathy or understanding; and the chief German friend of his later life, Varnhagen von Ense, was, preeminently, an upholder of the traditions of the past. Thus, it is to Carlyle, rather than to Byron, or to Coleridge and Wordsworth, that we must look to find the analogue in English literature of continental romanticism, that movement which, built up on a faith in the spiritual and the unseen, had risen superior to the “enlightenment,” as well as to the Weltschmerz, of the previous century. This was what Carlyle’s English contemporaries endeavoured to express when they said that he belonged to the “mystic” school. At the same time, he by no means represents romanticism in all its variety and extent; he stands rather for its ethical and religious side only; while, to find an English equivalent for the no less fruitful aesthetic side of the romantic movement—with which Carlyle had no sympathy—we have to turn to the later pre-Raphaelites and to Carlyle’s disciple Ruskin.
The romantic stamp on Carlyle’s work is nowhere more clearly apparent than in his critical writings. His method as a literary critic is summed up in the title of one of his essays, Characteristics, a title which had been used for a volume of criticism by the two leaders of German romanticism, the brothers Schlegel. The older ideals of criticism, which had held uninterrupted sway in Europe from the renascence to the end of the eighteenth century, had been established on the assumption that the critic was a man of superior knowledge and juster instincts; the critic, according to this view, sat in judgment, and looked down on the criticised from his higher standpoint; or, as Carlyle himself put it: “perched himself resolutely, as it were, on the shoulders of his author, and therefrom showed as if he commanded and looked down upon him by a natural superiority of stature.” This type of critic persisted in England in the school of Jeffrey and The Edinburgh Review; its most brilliant representative among Carlyle’s contemporaries was Macaulay. It was Carlyle’s mission, as a literary critic, to complete the revolution already tentatively foreshadowed by Coleridge, and to establish the new standpoint which had been ably maintained by the Schlegels. According to these writers, the first function of the critic is not to pass superior judgments, but to “characterise”; to interpret, in humble respect for the higher rights and claims of creative genius; to approach poetry through the personality of the poet. This is the attitude which Carlyle consistently maintains in all his essays. He insists that it is the critic’s chief task to get into sympathy with his author, to understand and appreciate his aims and intentions, not to impose on him purposes which may have lain entirely outside his plan. It was this ideal, Carlyle’s adaptation of the interpretative method of the Schlegels to English needs, that makes his critical essays a landmark of the first importance in the history of English criticism.
In practice, criticism of this kind is, obviously, at the mercy of the personal attitude of the critic to literature; it allows freer play to subjective likes and dislikes than is permitted to the critic who proceeds by rule of thumb. One might say that it postulates an original sympathy between critic and criticised; at least, it is to be seen at its best where such sympathy is strong, as, for instance, in Carlyle’s essays on his German masters, Goethe, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, Novalis, and in his masterly essay on Burns. But, where such sympathy does not exist, the method may be responsible for an even greater unfairness than is to be laid at the door of the older, objective criticism. This disadvantage, to some extent, is apparent in Carlyle’s essay on Scott; it comes out with disagreeable emphasis in his personal utterances on men like Heine, on the leaders of the French romantic school and on many of his English contemporaries, such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Lamb. On the other hand, one must not overlook the eminent fairness with which Carlyle has written of the eighteenth century—a century which appeared to him only as an age of paralysing scepticism and unbelief—and on writers so far away from his own way of thinking as Diderot and Voltaire.