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The Life of Thomas Carlyle

by W. Wallace

Thomas Carlyle.

Thomas Carlyle was born December 4, 1795, at Ecclesfechan, in the parish of Hoddam, Annandale, Dumfriesshire, a small Scottish market-town, the Entipfuhl of "Sartor Resartus," six miles inland from the Solway, and about sixteen by road from Carlisle. He was the second son of James Carlyle, stone-mason, but his first son by his second wife, Margaret Aitken. James Carlyle, who came of a family which, although in humble circumstances, was an offshoot of a Border clan, was a man of great physical and moral strength, of fearless independence, and of, in his son's opinion, "a natural faculty" equal to that of Burns; and Margaret Aitken was "a woman of the fairest descent, that of the pious, the just, and the wise." Frugal, abstemious, prudent, though not niggardly, James Carlyle was prosperous according to the times, the conditions of his trade, and the standard of Ecclesfechan. He was able, therefore, to give such of his sons (he had a family of ten children in all, five sons and five daughters) as showed an aptitude for culture an excellent Scottish education. Thomas seems to have been taught his letters and elementary reading by his mother, and arithmetic by his father. His home-teaching was supplemented by attendance at the Ecclesfechan school, where he was "reported complete in English" at about seven, made satisfactory progress in arithmetic, and took to Latin with enthusiasm. Thence he proceeded, in 1805, to Annan Academy, where he learned to read Latin and French fluently, "some geometry, algebra, arithmetic thoroughly well, vague outlines of geography, Greek to the extent of the alphabet mainly." His first two years at Annan Academy were among the most miserable in his life, from his being bullied by some of his fellow-pupils, whom he describes as "coarse, unguided, tyrannous cubs." But he "revolted against them, and gave them shake for shake." In his third year, Carlyle had his first glimpse of Edward Irving, who was five years his senior, and had been a pupil at Annan Academy, but was then attending classes at Edinburgh University. In November, 1809, Carlyle himself entered that university, travelling on foot all the way, a hundred miles, between Ecclesfechan and the Scottish capital. Except in one department, Carlyle's college curriculum was not remarkable. In "the classical field" he describes himself "truly as nothing," and learned to read Homer in the original with difficulty. He preferred Homer and Æschylus to all other classical authors, found Tacitus and Virgil "really interesting," Horace "egotistical, leichtfertig," and Cicero "a windy person, and a weariness." Nor did he take much to metaphysics or moral philosophy. In geometry, however, he excelled, perhaps because Professor (subsequently Sir John) Leslie, "alone of my professors had some genius in his business, and awoke a certain enthusiasm in me." But even in the mathematical class he took no prize.

In 1813 Carlyle's attendance at the Arts course in Edinburgh University came to an end, and he began formal, though fitful, preparation for the ministry of the Church of Scotland by enrolling himself, on November 16th of the same year, as a student at its Divinity Hall. In the summer of 1814 he competed successfully at Dumfries for the mathematical mastership of Annan Academy. The post was worth only between £60 and £70 a year; but it enabled Carlyle, who was as frugal as his parents, to relieve his father of the expense of his support, and to save a few pounds. Meanwhile he read widely, and wrote of his reading at great length, and with considerable power of satiric characterization, to some of his college friends. But he found himself "abundantly lonesome, uncomfortable, and out of place" in Annan, and from the first disliked teaching; while his "sentiments on the clerical profession" were "mostly of the unfavorable kind."

In 1816 Carlyle accepted the post of assistant to the teacher of the parish (or grammar) school of Kirkcaldy, with "an emolument rated about a hundred a year," and all actual scholastic duties to perform. This change brought him into intimate relations with Edward Irving, who, having acquired a reputation as a teacher in Haddington, had been induced by the patrons of an adventure school, in Kirkcaldy, to undertake the management of it. The two, though professionally rivals, became fast friends, and read and made excursions into different parts of Scotland together. Carlyle was also introduced by Irving to various Kirkcaldy families, including that of Mr. Martin, the parish minister, one of whose daughters his friend subsequently married. He himself became attached to an ex-pupil of Irving's, a Miss Margaret Gordon, with some of whose graces he afterward endowed the dark and fickle Blumine, of "Sartor Resartus." She reciprocated Carlyle's affection, but the aunt with whom she lived put a stop to some talk of an engagement.

Carlyle found the people of Kirkcaldy more to his mind than those of Annan; but in two years the work of teaching became altogether intolerable to him, although he did it conscientiously. Successful opposition sprung up to Irving and himself, moreover, in the shape of a third school. Irving resolved to leave Kirkcaldy, and, in September, 1818, Carlyle wrote to his father, who had now given up business in Ecclesfechan and taken the farm of Mainhill, about two miles distant, that, having saved about £70, he purposed removing to Edinburgh, where he thought he "could," perhaps, find private teaching to support him, till he could fall into some other way of doing. He had now totally abandoned all thoughts of entering the ministry.

Carlyle removed to Edinburgh in November, 1818. His prospects were for some time dubious; he even entertained the idea of emigrating to America. Ultimately, however, he obtained fairly regular and well-paid private teaching. An introduction to Dr. (afterward Sir David) Brewster, the editor of the "Edinburgh Encyclopædia," led to his writing articles, chiefly biographical and geographical, for that work, at "bread-and-butter wages," and subsequently to his translating Legendre's "Elements of Geometry" from the French for £50. At the beginning of the session of 1819, he enrolled in the class of Scots Law, with the intention of becoming an advocate. But he found law as uncongenial a study as divinity. Till 1822 he lived in various lodgings in Edinburgh, finding his chief relief from tutorial drudgery in visits to his parents in Dumfriesshire. His health, which had suffered from too close application to study, was at times "most miserable;" he was in a low fever for two weeks, "was harassed by sleeplessness," and began to be tortured by his life-long foe, dyspepsia. At the same time his mind was perplexed with doubt on religious matters, regarding which he seems to have unburdened himself solely to Irving, who was then assistant to Dr. Chalmers, in Glasgow. For a period he was "totally irreligious." This struggle terminated in June, 1821, "all at once," and when he was walking along Leith Walk (the Rue St. Thomas de l'Enfer of "Sartor Resartus"), in what he regarded as his "spiritual new birth." He was now absorbed in German literature, especially the writings of Schiller and Goethe. The latter, indeed, had a more abiding influence on him than any other author.

In June, 1821, also, occurred his introduction, through Irving, to Miss Jane Baillie Welsh (1801-66), only daughter of Dr. John Welsh, medical practitioner in Haddington, who had died two years before, leaving his daughter sole heiress of the small estate of Craigenputtock, sixteen miles from the town of Dumfries. Miss Welsh, who was descended through her father from John Knox, was then living in Haddington with her mother, who claimed kindred with the patriot Wallace, and, according to Carlyle, "narrowly missed being a woman of genius." Miss Welsh had been the private pupil of Irving when he was a teacher in Haddington, and the result of the acquaintance thus brought about was a passionate attachment. They would, indeed, have been married, but for Irving's engagement to Miss Martin. The introduction of Carlyle to Miss Welsh, then twenty years of age, led to a correspondence between them on literary matters. After a time, Carlyle attempted to adopt the tone of a lover. This, however, she peremptorily forbade, although she refused other suitors.

Early in 1822, Irving, who was on the point of entering on the pastorate of the Caledonian Chapel, in Hatton Garden, London, recommended Carlyle as tutor to the three sons of Mr. Buller, a retired Anglo-Indian. The salary offered was £200 a year. Carlyle, who had previously declined the editorship of a Dundee newspaper, accepted the offer; and two of the three, Charles Duller and Arthur, came to Edinburgh in the spring, to be under his care while attending classes at the university. Carlyle found his duties pleasant, and was now able to give substantial pecuniary aid to his family, particularly as regarded the education of his younger brother John, who subsequently became a physician, but is better known as the translator of Dante's "Inferno" (1849). Carlyle, after contemplating a history of the British commonwealth, and a novel in association with Miss Welsh, arranged to write a "Life of Schiller" for Mr. Taylor, the proprietor of the London Magazine, and a translation of the "Wilhelm Meister" of Goethe for Mr. Boyd, an Edinburgh publisher. These two enterprises fully occupied his leisure while he was engaged as a tutor to the Bullers, whose parents, after spending the winter of 1822 in Edinburgh, removed in the following spring to Kinnaird House, near Dunkeld, on the Tay.

Carlyle paid his first visit to London in June, 1824, whither the Bullers had gone, and although his engagement with them was abruptly broken off, he remained there till March, 1825, superintending the publication in book form of his "Life of Schiller." At this time he received the first of a series of letters from Goethe and made the acquaintance of Coleridge, Thomas Campbell, Allan Cunningham, Proctor, and other literary notabilities. On March 26, 1825, he removed to the farm of Hoddam Hill, about two miles from Mainhill, which he had leased; his brother Alexander doing the practical work of farming, while he himself translated German romances. Miss Welsh now consented to become his wife, after a lengthened correspondence. In 1826 he quarrelled with his landlord, his father gave up his farm, and both removed to Scotsbrig, another farm in the vicinity of Ecclesfechan. The marriage between Carlyle and Miss Welsh took place on October 17, 1826, at her grandfather's house at Templand, Dumfriesshire, and they at once settled in 21 Comely Bank, Edinburgh. Here Carlyle completed four volumes of translations from Tieck, Musaeus, and Richter, which were published under the title of "German Romance," and commenced a didactic novel, but burned his manuscript. An introduction from Proctor to Jeffrey led to his becoming a contributor to the Edinburgh Review, his first article, on Jean Paul Richter, appearing in June, 1827. The same year he failed in his candidature for the chair of moral philosophy in the University of St. Andrews, in succession to Dr. Chalmers. Various subsequent attempts to obtain an academic position for Carlyle met with no better success.

In May, 1828, the Carlyles removed to Mrs. Carlyle's little property of Craigenputtock, which, in a letter to Goethe, he described as "the loneliest nook in Britain, six miles removed from anyone likely to visit me," and there they lived for about six years. Carlyle subsisted during this period by writing for a number of reviews, including theEdinburgh, the Westminster, the Foreign Quarterly, and Fraser's Magazine. The chief of the essays which he produced at Craigenputtock are those on Burns, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Voltaire, Diderot, and Schiller. He also wrote a "History of German Literature," the best parts of which were subsequently published in the form of essays; and in 1833-34 there appeared, by instalments in Fraser's Magazine, "Sartor Resartus," his most characteristic work, the fantastic hero of which, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, illustrates in his life and opinions the mystical and grotesque "Philosophy of Clothes." "Sartor Resartus" is notable in the literary history of Carlyle as revealing the Germanization of his mind, and his abandonment of the comparatively simple diction of his earlier essays for the thoroughly individual style of his later works—eruptive, ejaculatory, but always powerful, and often rising to an epic sublimity. Life at Craigenputtock was varied on the part of Carlyle by occasional visits to Edinburgh, in one of which the idea of writing his "French Revolution" occurred to him; by a residence of six months in London, during which he made the acquaintance of John Stuart Mill and John Sterling; and by visits from old friends like Jeffrey, and new admirers like Emerson. In 1830 Carlyle was reduced to great straits; and he had to borrow £50 from Jeffrey for the expenses of his journey to London, although he declined to accept an annuity of £100 from the same source.

Having by 1834 again saved £200, Carlyle resolved to try his fortune in London, and on June 10th established himself in the house, 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, in which he lived till the day of his death. Here he settled down to the writing of his "French Revolution," which appeared in 1837. This enterprise was also put an end to in 1835, owing to the destruction, by a servant-girl, of all but four or five leaves of the manuscript of the first volume, which had been lent to John Stuart Mill. Carlyle accepted £100 from Mill as compensation for his loss.

Carlyle at Chelsea.

In the years 1837, 1838, 1839, and 1840, Carlyle lectured to considerable, yet select, audiences on "German Literature," "The Successive Periods of European Culture," "The Revolutions of Modern Europe," and "Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History." Carlyle's yearly earnings from these lectures, the last series of which had been published, varied between £135 and £300, and maintained him and his wife till the "French Revolution" not only established his reputation as a literary genius of the highest order, and as, in Goethe's phrase, "a new moral force," but placed him beyond the possibility of want. Yet, until late in life, his annual income from literature was not more than £400. In 1838 appeared "Sartor Resartus" in book form, and the first edition of his "Miscellanies." The following year, Carlyle, who was at one time averse to the idea of becoming a personal force in politics, published the first of a series of attacks on the shams and corruptions of modern society, under the title of "Chartism." This he followed in 1843 with "Past and Present," and in 1850 with "Latter-day Pamphlets," which proved among other things that, if he did not quite approve of slavery, he disapproved of the manner in which it had been abolished in the British dominions. In 1845 appeared "Cromwell's Letters and Speeches," perhaps the most successful of all his works, inasmuch as it completely revolutionized the public estimate of its subject. In 1851 he published a biography of his friend, John Sterling. From this time Carlyle gave himself up entirely to his largest work, "The History of Frederick II., commonly called Frederick the Great," the first two volumes of which were published in 1858, and which was concluded in 1865. The preparation of this book led Carlyle to make two excursions to the Continent, which, with a yachting trip to Ostend, two tours in Ireland (on which he intended to write a book based on a diary that was published after his death), and regular visits to his kindred and friends in Scotland, formed the chief distractions from his literary labors. Among the few public movements with which Carlyle identified himself was that which resulted in the establishment of the London Library, in 1839. In August, 1866, he also allowed himself to be elected chairman of the committee for the defence of Mr. Eyre, who had been recalled from his post of Governor of Jamaica on the ground of his having shown unnecessary severity in suppressing a negro insurrection which had broken out in October of the previous year, or, as Carlyle put it, for having "saved the West Indies and hanged one incendiary mulatto, well worth the gallows."

On November 11, 1865, Carlyle was elected lord rector of Edinburgh University, by a majority of 657 votes over 310 recorded for Mr. Disraeli. On April 2, 1866, the ceremony of his installation took place amid extraordinary demonstrations of enthusiasm, when he delivered an address in which he embodied his moral experiences in the form of advice to the younger members of his audience. The success attending this visit to Edinburgh was quite obliterated by the news, which reached him in Dumfries, of the death, on April 21st, of Mrs. Carlyle, as she was driving in her carriage in Hyde Park. Carlyle's grief developed into remorse when he discovered, from certain of her letters, and from a journal which she kept, that during a period of her married life his irritability of temper and unconscious want of consideration for her wishes, had caused her much misery and even ill-health, which she studiously concealed from him. It has also been demonstrated, by the letters and memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, that in the years 1855 and 1856 they were somewhat estranged, owing to Carlyle's liking for the society of Harriet, Lady Ashburton. After the death of Lady Ashburton, there were no differences between them, except such as might be expected in the case of two persons of irritable and high-strung natures, and of uncompromising veracity. These memorials are also of note as proving Mrs. Carlyle to have been one of the keenest critics, most brilliant letter-writers, and most accomplished of women of her time.

Carlyle wrote no important work after his wife's death, although after a visit to Mentone in 1867, where he partially composed his "Personal Reminiscences," he settled down to his old life in London. In August, 1867, there appeared in Macmillan's Magazine his view of British democracy, under the title of "Shooting Niagara." He prepared a special edition of his collected works, and added to them, in 1875, a fresh volume containing "The Early Kings of Norway" and an essay on the "Portraits of John Knox." On November 18, 1870, he wrote a letter to the Times on the "Franco German Question," defending the attitude of Germany. He expressed privately strong opposition to the Irish policy of Mr. Gladstone. In February, 1874, he was offered and accepted the Prussian Order of Merit in recognition of his having written the "Life of Frederick the Great," who founded the Order. Toward the end of the same year Mr. Disraeli offered him the Grand Cross of the Bath (with the alternative of a baronetcy) and a pension of "an amount equal to a good fellowship," but he declined both.

His eightieth birthday, December 4, 1875, brought Carlyle many tributes of respect, including a gold medal from a number of Scottish admirers, and "a noble and most unexpected" note from Prince Bismarck. On May 5, 1877, he published a short letter in the Times, referring to a rumor that Mr. Disraeli, as Premier, meditated forcing on a "Philo-Turk war against Russia," and protesting against any such design. This was his last public act. On February 5, 1881, he died at his house in Chelsea. A burial in Westminster Abbey was offered, but in accordance with his own wish, he was laid in the churchyard of Ecclesfechan, beside his kindred.

The time has not yet come for the passing of a final judgment on Carlyle's position in British literature. He was, above all things, a prophet in the guise of a man of letters, who predicted the reverse of smooth things for his country and for the world; and it has yet to be seen if his predictions will be fulfilled. But it may be said even now, and without risk of contradiction, that, for good or evil, he exerted a greater influence on British literature during the middle of the nineteenth century, and, through that literature, on the ethical, religious, and political beliefs of his time, than any of his contemporaries; that, as a humorist, using humor seriously and as a weapon for the enforcement of his opinions, he has no superior, combining in himself what is best in Dunbar, Burns, Rabelais, and Swift; that, as a master of the graphic in style, he has no rival and no second—showing an equal facility in photographing nature, and in grasping and presenting in appropriate phraseology the salient points of personal character as exhibited in expression, habits, features, build, and dress.

Of Carlyle as a man, it is also permissible to say that, irritable, impatient, intolerant, fiercely proud, occasionally hasty in his judgments though he was, preserving to the last, nor caring to get rid of, certain Scottish and Annandale rusticities of manner and mental attitude, no one was ever more essentially self-controlled, patient, and humble than he, or ever faced the real misfortunes of life with a calmer courage; that he was as incapable of conscious injustice, unkindliness, or vindictiveness, as he was of insincerity or impurity; that in pecuniary straits, even in despair, he never wrote a line that he did not believe, never swerved by a hair's breadth from the noble purposes which dominated his life and extinguished all selfish ambition.

The following letter was written by Carlyle, in 1876, to a young man who had asked his advice on the choice of a profession:

"Dear Sir,—I respect your conscientious scruples in regard to choosing a profession, and wish much I had the power of giving you advice that would be of the least service. But that, I fear, in my total ignorance of yourself and the posture of your affairs, is pretty nearly impossible. The profession of the law is in many respects a most honorable one, and has this to recommend it, that a man succeeds there, if he succeeds at all, in an independent and manful manner, by force of his own talent and behavior, without needing to seek patronage from anybody. As to ambition, that is, no doubt, a thing to be carefully discouraged in oneself; but it does not necessarily inhere in the barrister's profession more than in many others, and I have known one or two who, by quiet fidelity in promoting justice, and by keeping down litigation, had acquired the epithet of the 'honest lawyer,' which appeared to me altogether human and beautiful.

"Literature, as a profession, is what I would counsel no faithful man to be concerned with, except when absolutely forced into it, under penalty, as it were, of death. The pursuit of culture, too, is in the highest degree recommendable to every human soul, and may be successfully achieved in almost any honest employment that has wages paid for it. No doubt, too, the church seems to offer facilities in this respect; but I will by no means advise you to overcome your reluctance against seeking refuge there. On the whole, there is nothing strikes me likelier for one of your disposition than the profession of teacher, which is rising into higher request every day, and has scope in it for the grandest endowments of human faculties (could such hitherto be got to enter it), and of all useful and fruitful employments may be defined as the usefullest, fruitfullest, and also indispensablest in these days of ours.

"Regretting much that I can help you so infinitely little, bidding you take pious and patient counsel with your own soul, and wishing you with great truth a happy result, I remain, dear sir,

"Faithfully yours,

"T. Carlyle."

Book: Reflection on the Important Things