Thomas Carlyle, 1795-1881
Historian and essayist, was born at Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire. His father, James Carlyle, was a stonemason, a man of intellect and strong character, and his mother was, as he said, “of the fairest descent, that of the pious, the just, and the wise.” His earliest education was received at the parish school of Ecclefechan (the Entepfuhl of Sartor Resartus). Thence he went to the Grammar School of Annan, and in 1809 to the University of Edinburgh, the 90 miles to which he travelled on foot. There he read voraciously, his chief study being mathematics. After completing his “Arts” course, he went on to divinity with the view of entering the Church, but about the middle of his course found that he could not proceed. He became a schoolmaster first at Annan and then at Kirkcaldy, where he formed a profound friendship with Edward Irving, and met Margaret Gordon, afterwards Lady Bannerman, believed by some to be the prototype of Blumine in Sartor. Returning in 1819 to Edinburgh he for a time studied law and took pupils; but his health was bad, he suffered from insomnia and dyspepsia, and he tired of law. He was also sorely bestead by mental and spiritual conflicts, which came to a crisis in Leith Walk in June 1821 in a sudden uprising of defiance to the devil and all his works, upon which the clouds lifted.
For the next two years, 1822–24, he acted as tutor to Charles Buller (whose promising political career was cut short by his premature death) and his brother. On the termination of this engagement he decided upon a literary career, which he began by contributing articles to the Edinburgh Encyclopædia. In 1824 he translated Legendre’s Geometry (to which he prefixed an essay on Proportion), and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister; he also wrote for the London Magazine a Life of Schiller. About this time he visited Paris and London, where he met Hazlitt, Campbell, Coleridge, and others. Thereafter he returned to Dumfriesshire. In the following year (1826) he married Jane Baillie Welsh, and settled in Edinburgh Here his first work was Specimens of German Romance (4 vols.) A much more important matter was his friendship with Jeffrey and his connection with the Edinburgh Review, in which appeared, among others, his essays on Richter, Burns, Characteristics, and German Poetry.
In 1828 Carlyle applied unsuccessfully for the Chair of Moral Philosophy in St. Andrews, and the same year he went to Craigenputtock, a small property in Dumfriesshire belonging to Mrs. Carlyle, where they remained for several years, and where many of his best essays and Sartor Resartus were written, and where his correspondence with Goethe began. In 1831 he went to London to find a publisher for Sartor, but was unsuccessful, and it did not appear in book form until 1838, after having come out in Fraser’s Magazine in 1833–34.
The year last mentioned found him finally in London, settled in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, his abode for the rest of his life. He immediately set to work on his French Revolution. While it was in progress he in 1835 lent the MS. to J.S. Mill, by whose servant nearly the whole of the first vol. was burned, in spite of which misfortune the work was ready for publication in 1837. Its originality, brilliance, and vividness took the world by storm, and his reputation as one of the foremost men of letters in the country was at once and finally established.
In the same year he appeared as a public lecturer, and delivered four courses on German Literature, Periods of European Culture, Revolutions of Modern Europe, and Heroes and Hero–Worship, the last of which was published as a book in 1841. Although his writings did not yet produce a large income, his circumstances had become comfortable, owing to Mrs. Carlyle having succeeded to her patrimony in 1840. Books now followed each other rapidly, Chartism had appeared in 1839, Past and Present came out in 1843, and Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell in 1845, the last named being perhaps the most successful of his writings, inasmuch as it fully attained the object aimed at in clearing Cromwell from the ignorant or malevolent aspersions under which he had long lain, and giving him his just place among the greatest of the nation. In 1850 he published his fiercest blast, Latter Day Pamphlets, which was followed next year by his biography of his friend John Sterling.
It was about this time, as is shown by the Letters and Memoirs of Mrs. Carlyle, that a temporary estrangement arose between his wife and himself, based apparently on Mrs. Carlyle’s part upon his friendship with Lady Ashburton, a cause of which Carlyle seems to have been unconscious. In 1851 he began his largest, if not his greatest work, Frederick the Great, which occupied him from that year until 1865, and in connection with which he made two visits to Germany in 1852 and 1858. It is a work of astonishing research and abounds in brilliant passages, but lacks the concentrated intensity of The French Revolution. It is, however, the one of his works which enjoys the highest reputation in Germany.
In 1865 he was elected Lord Rector of the University of Edinburgh, and delivered a remarkable address to the students by whom he was received with enthusiasm. Almost immediately afterwards a heavy blow fell upon him in the death of Mrs. Carlyle, and in the discovery, from her diary, of how greatly she had suffered, unknown to him, from the neglect and want of consideration which, owing to absorption in his work and other causes, he had perhaps unconsciously shown. Whatever his faults, of which the most was made in some quarters, there can be no doubt that Carlyle and his wife were sincerely attached to each other, and that he deeply mourned her. In 1866 his Reminiscences (published 1881) were written. The Franco–German War of 1870–71 profoundly interested him, and evoked a plea for Germany. From this time his health began to give way more and more. In 1872 his right hand became paralysed. In 1874 he received the distinction of the Prussian Order of Merit, as the biographer of its founder, and in the same year, Mr. Disraeli offered him the choice of the Grand Cross of the Bath or a baronetcy and a pension, all of which he declined. The completion of his 80th year in 1875 was made the occasion of many tributes of respect and veneration, including a gold medal from some of his Scottish admirers. He died on February 5, 1881. Burial in Westminster Abbey was offered, but he had left instructions that he should lie with his kindred. He bequeathed the property of Craigenputtock to the University of Edinburgh
Carlyle exercised a very powerful influence upon the thought of his age, not only by his own writings and personality, but through the many men of distinction both in literature and active life whom he imbued with his doctrines; and perhaps no better proof of this exists than the fact that much that was new and original when first propounded by him has passed into the texture of the national ideas. His style is perhaps the most remarkable and individual in our literature, intensely strong, vivid, and picturesque, but utterly unconventional, and often whimsical or explosive. He had in a high degree the poetic and imaginative faculty, and also irresistible humour, pungent sarcasm, insight, tenderness, and fierce indignation. All the works of Carlyle shed light on his personality, but Sartor Resartus especially may be regarded as autobiographical.