Thomas Carlyle

Portret van Thomas Carlyle

Hieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over Thomas Carlyle.


Letter The writings of Mr.Carlyle are so various, that he may be characterised as historian, biographer, translator, moralist, or satirist. His greatest and most splendid successes, however, have been won in the departments of biography and history.

The chief interest and charm of his works consist in the individual portraits they contain and the strong personal sympathies or antipathies they describe. He has a clear and penetrating insight into human nature; he notes every fact and circumstance that can elucidate character, and having selected his subject, he works with passionate earnestness till he reproduces the individual or scene before the reader, exact in outline according to his preconceived notion, and with marvellous force and vivdness of colouring. Even as a landscape-painter – a character he by no means affects – Mr.Carlyle has rarely been surpassed. A Scotch shipping town, an English fen, a wild mountain solitude, or a Welsh valley, is depicted by him in a few words with the distinctness and reality of a photograph.

Thomas Carlyle was born on December 4, 1795, in the village of Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire. His death occured at Chelsea on February 5, 1881, and he was buried beside his forefathers, in his native village. His father, a farmer, is spoken of as a man of great moral worth and sagacity; his mother as affectionate, pious, and more than ordinarily intelligent; and thus, accepting his own theory that „the history of a man’s childhood is the description of his parents and environment,” Mr.Carlyle entered upon „the mystery of life” under happy and enviable circumstances.

As a school-boy, he became acquainted with Edward Irving, the once celebrated preacher, whom he has commemorated as a man of the noblest nature. From the grammar-school of Annan, Carlyle went to Edinburgh, and studied at the university for the church; but before he had completed his academical course, his views changed. He had excelled in mathematics; and afterwards, for about four years, he was a teacher of mathematics – first in Annan, and afterwards in Kirkcaldy, Fifeshire, where Edward Irving also resided as a teacher.

In 1818 he proceeded to Edinburgh, where he had the range of the university Library, and where he wrote a number of short biographies and other articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopædia, conducted by Brewster. In 1821 he became tutor to Mr.Charles Buller, whose honourable public career was prematurely terminated in by his death, in his forty-second year, in 1848. „His light airy brilliancy,” said Carlyle, „has suddenly become solemn, fixed in the earnest stillness of eternity.”

Mr.Carlyle in 1823 contributed to the London Magazine in monthly portions his Life of Schiller, which he enlarged and published in a seperate form in 1825. He was also engaged in translating Legendre’s Geometry, to which he prefixed an essay on Proportion; and in the same busy year (1824) he translated the Wilhelm Meister of Goethe. Mr.Carlyle’s translation appeared without his name. Its merits were to palpable to be overlooked, though some critics objected to the strong infusion of German phraseology which the translator had imported into his English version. This never left Mr.Carlyle even in his original works; but the Life of Schiller has none of the peculliarity.

In 1826, marriage lessened the anxieties attendant on a literary life, while it added permanently to Mr.Carlyle’s happiness. The lady to whom he was united was a lineal descendant of John Knox – Miss Jane Welsh, daughter of Dr.Welsh, Haddington. Mrs.Carlyle had a small property, Craigenputtoch, in Dumfriesshire, to which, after about three years residence in Edinburgh, Carlyle had published four volumes of Specimens of German Romance (1826), and written for the Edinburgh Review essays in Jogn Paul and German Literature.

In this country residence Mr.Carlyle wrote papers for the Foreign Review, and his Sartor Resartus, which, after being rejected by several publishers, appeared in Fraser’s Magazine, 1833-34. The book might well have puzzled the „book-tasters” who deside for publishers on works submitted to them in manuscript.

Sartor professes to be a review of a German treatise on dress, and the hero, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, is made to illustrate by his life and character the transcendental philosophy of Fichte, adopted by Mr.Carlyle, which is thus explained: „Yhat all things which we see or work with in this earth, especially we ourselves and all persons, are as a kind of vesture or sensuous appearance: that under all these lies, as the essence of them, what he calls the „Divine Idea of the World;” this is the reality which lies at the bottom of all appearance. To The mass of men no such divine idea is recognisable in the world; they live merely, says Fichte, among the superficialities, practicalities, and shows of the world, not dreaming that there is anything divine under them.” – (Hero Worship).

Mr.Carlyle works out this theory – the clothes-philosophy – and finds the world false and hollow, our institutions mere worn-out rags and disguises, and that our only safety lies in flying from falsehood to truth, and becoming in harmony with the „divine idea.”

There is much fanciful, grotesque description in Sartor, but also deep thought and beautiful imagery. The hearty love of truth seems to constitute the germ of Mr.Carlyle’s philosophy, as Milton said it was the foundation of eloquence. And with this he unites the „gospel of work,” duty and obedience. „Labore est orare – work is worship.”

In 1834, Mr.Carlyle left the „ever-silent whinstones of Nithsdale” for a suburb of London – a house in the „remnant of genuine old Dutch-looking Chelsea” – the now famous Cheyne Row, where he resided till his death. In 1837 he delivered lectures on German Literature in Wills’s Rooms; and in the following year another course in Edward Street, Portman Square, on the History of Literature, or the Successive Periods of European Culture. Two other courses of lectures – one on the Revolutions of Modern Europe, 1839, and the other on Heroes and Hero Worship, 1840 – added to the popularity of Mr.Carlyle. It Appeared, said Leigh Hunt, „as if some Puritan had come to life again, liberalised by German philosophy and his own intense reflections and experience.”

This vein of Puritanism running through the speculations of the lecturer and moral censor, has been claimed as peculiarly northern. „That earnestness” says Mr.Hannay, „that grim humour – that queer, half-sarcastic, half-sympathetic fun – is quite Scotch. It appears in Knox and Buchanan, and it appears in Burns. I was not surprised when a schoolfellow of Carlyle’s told me that his favourite poem as a boy was Death and Dr.Hornbook. And if I were asked to explain this originality, I should say that he was a Covenanter coming in the wake of the eighteenth century and the transcendental philosophy. He has gone into the hills against „shams,” as they did against Prelacy, Erastianism, and so forth. But he lives in a quieter age and in a literary position. So he can give play to the humour which existed in them as well, and he overflows with a range of reading and speculation to which they were necessarily strangers.” But at least one-half the originality here sketched, wtyle as well as sentiment, must be placed to the account of German studies.

In 1836 appeared b>The French Revolution, a History, by Thomas Carlyle. This is the ablest of all the author’s works, and is indeed one of the most remarkable books of the age. The first perusal of it forms a sort of era in a man’s life, and fixes for ever in his memory the ghastly panorama of the Revolution, its scendes and actors.

In 1838 Mr.Carlyle collected his contributions to the Reviews, and published them under the title of Miscellanies, extending to five volumes. The biographical portion of these volumes – essays on Voltaire, Mirabeau, Johnson and Boswell, Burns, Sir Walter Scott, &c. – is admirably executed. They are compact, complete, and at once highly picturesque and suggestive. The character and history of Burns he has drawn with a degree of insight, true wisdom, and pathos not surpassed in any biographical or critical production of the present century. Mr.Thackeray’s essay on Swift resembles it in power, but it is more of a sketch.

The next two appearances of Mr.Carlyle were political, and on thus ground he seems shorn of his strength. Charitism, 1839, and Past and Present, 1843 contain many weighty truths and shrewd observations, directed against all shams, cant, formulas, speciosities, &c.; but when we look for a remedy for existing evils, and ask how we are to replace the forms and institutions which Mr.Carlyle would have extinguished, we find little to guide us in our author’s prelections. The only tangible measures he proposes are education and emigration, with a strict enforcement of the penal laws. We would earnestly desire to extend still more the benefits of education; but when Mr.Carlyle vituperates the present age in comparison with the past, he should recollect how much has been done of late years to promote the instruction of the people.

The next work of our author was a special service to history and to the memory of one of England’s historical worthies. His collection of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, with Elucidations, two volumes, 1845, is a good work well done „The authentic utterances of the man Oliver himself,” he says, „I have gathered them from far and near; foshed them up from the foul Lethean quagmires when they lay buried; I have washed or endeavoured to wash them clean from foreign stupidities – such a job of buck-washing as I do not long to repeat – and thw world shall now see them in their own shape.” The world was thankful for the service, and the book, though large and expensive, had a rapid sale. The letters and speeches of Cromwell thus presented, the spelling and punctuation rectified, and a few words occasionally added for the sake of perspicuity, were first made intelligible and effective by Mr.Carlyle; while his editorial „elucidations,” descriptive and historical, are often felicitous.

Another series of political tracts, entitled Latterday Pamphlets, 1850, formed Mr.Carlyle’s next work. In these the censor appeared in his most irate and uncompromising mood, and with his peculiarities of style and expression in greater growth and deformity. He seemed to be the worshipper of mere brute-force, the advocate of all harsh, coercive measures. Model prisons and schools for the reform of criminals, poor-laws, churches, as at present constituted, the aristocracy, parliament, and other institutions, were assailed and ridiculed in unmeasured terms, and, generally, the English public was set down as composed of sham-heroes and a valet or flunkey world. On some political questions and administrative abuses, bold truths and merited satire appear in the Pamphlets; but, on the whole, they must be considered, whether viewed as literary or philosophical productions, as unworthy of their author.

The Life of John Sterling, 1851, was an affectionate tribute by Mr.Carlyle to the memory of a friend. Mr.Sterling, son of Captain Sterling, the „Thunderer of the Times,” had written some few volumes in prose and verse, which cannot be said to have possessed any feature of originality; but he was amiable, accomplished, and brilliant in conversation. His friends were strongly attached to him, and among those friends were Archdeacon Hare and Mr.Carlyle. The former after Stirling’s death in 1844 (in his thirty-eighth year), published a selection of his Tales and Essays with a Life of the author. Mr.Carlyle was dissatisfied with this Life of Sterling. The archdeacon had considered the deceased too exclusively as a clergyman, whereas Sterling had been a curate for only eight months, and latterly had lapsed into scepticism, or at least into a blief different from that of the church.

„True,” says Mr.Carlyle, „he had his religion to seek, and painfully shape together for himself, out of the abysses of conflicting disbelief and sham-belief and bedlam delusion, now filling the world, as all men of reflection have; and in theur respect too – more especially as his lot in the battle appeared for us all was, if you can understand it, victory and not defeat – he is an expressive emblem of his time, and an instruction and possession to his contemporaries.”

The tone adopted by the biographer in treating of Sterling’s religious lapse, exposed him to considerable censure. Even the mild and liberal George Brimley, in reviewing Mr.Carlyle’s book, judged it necessary to put in a disclaimed against the tendency it was likely to have: „Mr.Carlyle has no right, no man has any right, to weaken or destroy a faith which he cannot or will not replace with a loftier. He ought to have said nothing, or said more. Scrape of verse from Goethe, and declamations, however brilliantly they may be phrased, are but a poor compensation for the lightest obscuring of the hope of immortality brought to light by the gospel, and by it conveyed to the hut of the poorest man, to awaken his crushed intelligence and lighten the load of his misery.”
As a literary work, the Life of Sterling is a finished, artitstic performance. There was little in the hero of the piece to demand skilful portret-painting; but we have the great Coleridge and the Times Thunderer placed before us with the clearness of a daguerreotype.

In 1858 appeared the first portion of Mr.Carlyle’s long-expected work, the History of Friedrich II, called Frederick the Great, volumes i. and ii. The third and fourth volumes were published in 1862, and the fifth and sixth, completing the work, in 1865. A considerable part of the first volume is devoted to „clearing the way” for the approach of the hero, and tracing the Houses of Brandenburg and Hohenzollern. Frederick, as Mr.Carlyle Admits, was rather a questionable hero. But he was a reality, and had „nothing whatever of the hypocrite or phantasm.” This was the biographer’s inducement and encouragement to study his life.

„How this man, officially a king withal, comported himself in the eighteenth century, and managed not to be a liar and charlatan as his century was, deserves to be seen a little by men and kings, and may silently have didactic meanings in it.” And the eighteenth century is cordially abused as a period of worthlessness and inanity. „What little it did, we must call Friedrich; what little it thought, Voltaire.”

But as the eighteenth century had also David Hume, Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson, Henry Fielding and Robert Burns – to say nothing of Chatham and Burke, we must demur to such extravagant and wholesale condemnation. These idiosyncrasies and prejudices of Mr.Carlyle must be taken, like his peculiar style, because they are accompanied by better things – by patient historical research, by „vivid glances across the mists of history,” by humour, pathos and eloquence.

Shortly after the completion of this laborious History, Mr.Carlyle was elected Lord Rector of Edinburgh University, and on April 2, 1866, he delivered his installation address – an extemporaneous effusion, or at least spoken without notes, and quite equal, in literarry power, to his published works.

His triumph on this occasion was followed by a heavy calamity, the loss of his wife, who died before his return to England. „For forty years she was the true and loving helpmate of het 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 away from him, and the light of his life as if gone out.” Such is part of the inscription on the tomb of this excellent woman.

The subsequent publications of Mr.Carlyle have been short adressess on the topics of the day. In 1867 an article in Macmillan’s Magazine entitled Shooting Niagara, in the style of the Latter-day Pamphlets, predicted a series of evils and disasters from the Reform Act; another occasional utterance was in favour of emigration; a third on the war between France and Germany (1870), and a fourth on the Eastern Quetsion (1878); his last work, Early Kings of Norway; also the Portraits of John Knox, appeared in 1875. In 1881 Mr.Froude published Reminiscences, by Carlyle, in 1882 a Memoir (1795-1835), in 2 vols, and subsequently a collection of Mrs. Carlyle’s latters (3 vols, 1883).