- Thomas Carlyle - A hero dwells within [Biography]
HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Periods Alphabetically Nationality Topics Glossary

Selected Works
According To...
Suggested Reading


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
Outlines of English and American Literature
Thomas Carlyle
by Long, William J.

There is little harmony of opinion concerning Carlyle, criticism of the man being divided between praise and disparagement. If you are to read only one of his works, it is perhaps advisable to avoid all biographies at first and to let the Essay on Burns or Heroes and Hero Worship make its own impression. But if you intend to read more widely, some knowledge of Carlyle's personal history is essential in order to furnish the grain of salt with which most of his opinions must be taken.


In the village of Ecclefechan Carlyle was born in 1795, the year before Burns's death. His father was a stone-mason, an honest man of caustic tongue; his mother, judged by her son's account, was one of nature's noblewomen. The love of his mother and a proud respect for his father were the two sentiments in Carlyle that went with him unchanged through a troubled and oft-complaining life.

His Wrestlings

Of his tearful school days in Annandale and of his wretched years at Edinburgh University we have glimpses in Sartor Resartus. In the chapters of the same book entitled "The Everlasting Nay" and "The Everlasting Yea" is a picture of the conflict between doubt and faith in the stormy years when Carlyle was finding himself. He taught school, and hated it; he abandoned the ministry, for which his parents had intended him; he resolved on a literary life, and did hack work to earn his bread. All the while he wrestled with his gloomy temper or with the petty demons of dyspepsia, which he was wont to magnify into giant doubts and despairs.

Carlyle and Emerson

In 1826 he married Jane Welsh, and went to live in a house she had inherited at Craigenputtock, or Hill of the Hawks. There on a lonely moorland farm he spent six or seven years, writing books which few cared to read; and there Emerson appeared one day ("He came and went like an angel," said the Carlyles) with the heartening news that the neglected writings were winning a great audience in America. The letters of Carlyle and Emerson, as edited by Charles Eliot Norton, are among the pleasantest results of Carlyle's whole career.

Mrs. Carlyle

Carlyle's wife was a brilliant but nervous woman with literary gifts of her own. She had always received attention; she expected and probably deserved admiration; but so did Carlyle, who expected also to be made the center of all solicitude when he called heaven and earth to witness against democracy, crowing roosters, weak tea and other grievous afflictions. After her death (in London, 1866) he was plunged into deepest grief. In his Reminiscences and Letters he fairly deifies his wife, calling her his queen, his star, his light and joy of life, and portrays a companionship as of two mortals in a Paradise without a serpent. All that is doubtless as it should be, in a romance; but the unfortunate publication of Mrs. Carlyle's letters and journals introduced a jarring note of reality. A jungle of controversial writings has since grown up around the domestic relations of the Carlyles,--impertinent, deplorable writings, which serve no purpose but to make us cry, "Enough, let them rest in peace!" Both had sharp tongues, and probably both were often sorry.

Work in London

From the moors the Carlyles went to London and settled for the remainder of their lives in a house in Cheyne Row, in the suburb of Chelsea. There Carlyle slowly won recognition, his success being founded on his French Revolution. Invitations began to pour in upon him; great men visited and praised him, and his fame spread as "the sage of Chelsea." Then followed his Cromwell and Frederick the Great, the latter completed after years of complaining labor which made wreck of home happiness. And then came a period of unusual irritation, to which we owe, in part at least, Carlyle's railings against progress and his deplorable criticism of England's great men and women,--poor little Browning, animalcular De Quincey, rabbit-brained Newman, sawdustish Mill, chattering George Eliot, ghastly-shrieky Shelley, once-enough Lamb, stinted-scanty Wordsworth, poor thin fool Darwin and his book (The Origin of Species, of which Carlyle confessed he never read a page) which was wonderful as an example of the stupidity of mankind.

Such criticisms were reserved for Carlyle's private memoirs. The world knew him only by his books, and revered him as a great and good man. He died in 1881, and of the thousand notices which appeared in English or American periodicals of that year there is hardly one that does not overflow with praise.

In the home at Chelsea were numerous letters and journals which Carlyle committed to his friend Froude the historian. The publication of these private papers raised a storm of protest. Admirers of Carlyle, shocked at the revelation of another side to their hero, denounced Froude for his disloyalty and malice; whereupon the literary world divided into two camps, the Jane Carlyleists and the Thomas Carlyleists, as they are still called. That Froude showed poor taste is evident; but we must acquit him of all malice. Private papers had been given him with the charge to publish them if he saw fit; and from them he attempted to draw not a flattering but a truthful portrait of Carlyle, who had always preached the doctrine that a man must speak truth as he sees it. Nor will Carlyle suffer in the long run from being deprived of a halo which he never deserved. Already the crustiness of the man begins to grow dim in the distance; it is his rugged earnestness that will be longest remembered.

Works of Carlyle

The beginner will do well to make acquaintance with Carlyle in some of the minor essays, which are less original but more pleasing than his labored works. Among the best essays are those on Goethe (who was Carlyle's first master), Signs of the Times, Novalis, and especially Scott and Burns. With Scott he was not in sympathy, and though he tried as a Scotsman to be "loyal to kith and clan," a strong touch of prejudice mars his work. With Burns he succeeded better, and his picture of the plowboy genius in misfortune is one of the best we have on the subject. This Essay on Burns is also notable as the best example of Carlyle's early style, before he compounded the strange mixture which appeared in his later books.

Heroes and Hero Worship

The most readable of Carlyle's longer works is Heroes and Hero Worship (1840), which deals with certain leaders in the fields of religion, poetry, war and politics. It is an interesting study to compare this work with the Representative Men of Emerson. The latter looks upon the world as governed by ideals, which belong not to individuals but to humanity. When some man appears in whom the common ideal is written large, other men follow him because they see in him a truth which they revere in their own souls. So the leader is always in the highest sense a representative of his race. But Carlyle will have nothing of such democracy; to him common men are stupid or helpless and must be governed from without. Occasionally, when humanity is in the Slough of Despond, appears a hero, a superman, and proceeds by his own force to drag or drive his subjects to a higher level. When the hero dies, humanity must halt and pray heaven to send another master.

It is evident before one has read much of Heroes that Carlyle is at heart a force-worshiper. To him history means the biography of a few heroes, and heroism is a matter of power, not of physical or moral courage. The hero may have the rugged courage of a Cromwell, or he may be an easy-living poet like Shakespeare, or a ruthless despot like Napoleon, or an epitome of all meanness like Rousseau; but if he shows superior force of any kind, that is the hallmark of his heroism, and before such an one humanity should bow down. Of real history, therefore, you will learn nothing from Heroes; neither will you get any trustworthy information concerning Odin, Mahomet and the rest of Carlyle's oddly consorted characters. One does not read the book for facts but for a new view of old matters. With hero-worshipers especially it ranks very high among the thought-provoking books of the past century.

The French Revolution

Of the historical works [Footnote: These include Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1850) and History of Frederick the Great (1858).] of Carlyle the most famous is The French Revolution (1837). On this work Carlyle spent much heart-breaking labor, and the story of the first volume shows that the author, who made himself miserable over petty matters, could be patient in face of a real misfortune. [Footnote: The manuscript of the first volume was submitted to Carlyle's friend Mill (him of the "sawdustish" mind) for criticism. Mill lent it to a lady, who lost it. When he appeared "white as a ghost" to confess his carelessness, the Carlyles did their best to make light of it. Yet it was a terrible blow to them; for aside from the wearisome labor of doing the work over again, they were counting on the sale of the book to pay for their daily bread.] Moreover, it furnishes a striking example of Carlyle's method, which was not historical in the modern sense, but essentially pictorial or dramatic. He selected a few dramatic scenes, such as the storming of the Bastille, and painted them in flaming colors. Also he was strong in drawing portraits, and his portrayal of Robespierre, Danton and other actors in the terrible drama is astonishingly vigorous, though seldom accurate. His chief purpose in drawing all these pictures and portraits was to prove that order can never come out of chaos save by the iron grip of a governing hand. Hence, if you want to learn the real history of the French Revolution, you must seek elsewhere; but if you want an impression of it, an impression that burns its way into the mind, you will hardly find the equal of Carlyle's book in any language.

Of Carlyle's miscellaneous works one must speak with some hesitation. As an expression of what some call his prophetic mood, and others his ranting, one who has patience might try Shooting Niagara or the Latter Day Pamphlets. A reflection of his doctrine of honest work as the cure for social ills is found in Past and Present; and for a summary of his philosophy there is nothing quite so good as his early Sartor Resartus (1834).

Sartor Resartus

The last-named work is called philosophy only by courtesy. The title means "the tailor retailored," or "the patcher repatched," and the book professed to be "a complete Resartus philosophy of clothes." Since everything wears clothes of some kind (the soul wears a body, and the body garments; earth puts forth grass, and the firmament stars; ideas clothe themselves in words; society puts on fashions and habits), it can be seen that Carlyle felt free to bring in any subject he pleased; and so he did. Moreover, in order to have liberty of style, he represented himself to be the editor not the author of Sartor. The alleged author was a German professor, Diogenes Teufelsdroeckh, an odd stick, half genius, half madman, whose chaotic notes Carlyle professed to arrange with a running commentary of his own.

In consequence of this overlabored plan Sartor has no plan at all. It is a jumble of thoughts, notions, attacks on shams, scraps of German philosophy,--everything that Carlyle wrote about during his seven-years sojourn on his moorland farm. The only valuable things in Sartor are a few autobiographical chapters, such as "The Everlasting Yea," and certain passages dealing with night, the stars, the yearnings of humanity, the splendors of earth and heaven. Note this picture of Teufelsdroeckh standing alone at the North Cape, "looking like a little belfry":

    "Silence as of death, for Midnight, even in the Arctic latitudes,
    has its character: nothing but the granite cliffs ruddy-tinged, the
    peaceable gurgle of that slow-heaving Polar Ocean, over which in
    the utmost North the great Sun hangs low and lazy, as if he too
    were slumbering. Yet is his cloud-couch wrought of crimson and
    cloth-of-gold; yet does his light stream over the mirror of waters,
    like a tremulous fire-pillar shooting downwards to the abyss, and
    hide itself under my feet. In such moments Solitude also is
    invaluable; for who would speak, or be looked on, when behind him
    lies all Europe and Africa, fast asleep, except the watchmen; and
    before him the silent Immensity and Palace of the Eternal, whereof
    our Sun is but a porch-lamp?"

The book has several such passages, written in a psalmodic style, appealing to elemental feeling, to our sense of wonder or reverence before the mystery of life and death. It is a pity that we have no edition of Sartor which does justice to its golden nuggets by the simple expedient of sifting out the mass of rubbish in which the gold is hidden. The central doctrines of the book are the suppression of self, or selfishness, and the value of honest work in contrast with the evil of mammon-worship.

A Criticism of Carlyle

Except in his literary essays Carlyle's "rumfustianish growlery of style," as he called it, is so uneven that no description will apply to it. In moments of emotion he uses a chanting prose that is like primitive poetry. Sometimes he forgets Thomas Carlyle, keeps his eye on his subject, and describes it in vivid, picturesque words; then, when he has nothing to say, he thinks of himself and tries to hold you by his manner, by his ranting or dogmatism. In one mood he is a poet, in another a painter, in a third a stump speaker. In all moods he must have your ear, but he succeeds better in getting than in holding it. It has been said that his prose is on a level with Browning's verse, but a better comparison may be drawn between Carlyle and Walt Whitman. Of each of these writers the best that can be said is that his style was his own, that it served his purpose, and that it is not to be imitated.

His Two Sides

In formulating any summary of Carlyle the critic must remember that he is dealing with a man of two sides, one prejudiced, dogmatic, jealous of rivals, the other roughly sincere. On either side Carlyle is a man of contradictions. For an odious dead despot like Frederick, who happens to please him, he turns criticism into eulogy; and for a living poet like Wordsworth he tempers praise by spiteful criticism. [Footnote: Carlyle's praise of Wordsworth's "fine, wholesome rusticity" is often quoted, but only in part. If you read the whole passage (in Reminiscences) you will find the effect of Carlyle's praise wholly spoiled by a heartless dissection of a poet, with whom, as Carlyle confessed, he had very slight acquaintance.] He writes a score of letters to show that his grief is too deep for words. He is voluble on "the infinite virtue of silence." He proclaims to-day that he "will write no word on any subject till he has studied it to the bottom," and to-morrow will pronounce judgment on America or science or some other matter of which he knows nothing. In all this Carlyle sees no inconsistency; he is sincere in either role, of prophet or stump speaker, and even thinks that humor is one of his prime qualities.

Another matter to remember is Carlyle's constant motive rather than his constant mistakes. He had the gloomy conviction that he was ordained to cry out against the shams of society; and as most modern things appeared to him as shams, he had to be very busy. Moreover, he had an eye like a hawk for the small failings of men, especially of living men, but was almost blind to their large virtues. This hawklike vision, which ignores all large matters in a swoop on some petty object, accounts for two things: for the marvelous detail of Carlyle's portraits, and for his merciless criticism of the faults of society in general, and of the Victorian age in particular.

Such a writer invites both applause and opposition, and in Carlyle's case the one is as hearty as the other. The only point on which critics are fairly well agreed is that his rugged independence of mind and his picturesque style appealed powerfully to a small circle of readers in England and to a large circle in America. It is doubtful whether any other essayist, with the possible exception of the serene and hopeful Emerson, had a more stimulating influence on the thought of the latter half of the nineteenth century.


Terms Defined

Referenced Works