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Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)


Scottish-born British historian and essayist who was a leading figure in the Victorian era. Carlyle's collected works (1974) comprises 30 volumes. In the age which put faith in legislation, cooperation and mechanization, Carlyle believed in a leader, a hero, whom people must recognize and worship. In his famous work On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) his examples ranged from Mohammed to Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson.

"No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men. There is no sadder symptom of a generation than such general blindness to the spiritual lightning, with faith only in the head of barren dead fuel." (On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, edited by Henry David Gray, 1906, p. 13)

Thomas Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfries and Galloway, the son of a stonemason and small farmer. He was brought up in a strict Calvinist household. At the age of 15 he went to University of Edinburgh, receiving his B.A. in 1813. From 1813 to 1818 he studied for the ministry of the Church of Scotland, but abandoned this course and studied law for a while.

Carlyle taught at Annan Academy (1814-16), at Kircaldy Grammar School (1816-18), and privately in Edinburgh (1818-22). During this time he worked on his Life of Schiller, which was first published by the London Magazine in 1823-24. He wrote contributions for Brewter's Edinburgh Encyclopedia, also contributing to such journals as Edinburgh Review and Fraser's Magazine. From 1824 he was a full-time writer and undertook thorough study of German literature, especially Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Carlyle's essays on German philosophy introduced many new ideas to the British public. In addition, he produced English translations of Goethe, which were highly acclaimed.  Translating the word "Umgebung" in Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), Carlyle coined the term "environment".

Carlyle was beset by terrible dyspepsia; "it was as if a rat were gnawing at the pit of his stomach," as his biographer Richard Garnett wrote in 1887. In 1826 Carlyle married Jane Baillie Welsh, whom he had met when he was still far from famous. 1823 she wrote to him: "Your Friend I will be, your truest most devoted friend, while I breathe the breath of life; but your wife! never never! Not though you were as rich as Croesus, as honoured and renowned as you yet shall be – " (I Too Am Here: Selections from the Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle, edited by Alan Simpson and Mary McQueen Simpson, 1977, p. 37) Carlyle answered two days later: "you love me as a sister, and will not wed ; I love you in all possible senses of the world, and will not wed, any more than you. Does this reassure you?" (Early Letters of Thomas Carlyle, edited by Charles Eliot Norton, Vol. II, 1821-1826, 1886, p. 375) Alfred Lord Tennyson defended their marriage, when it was suggested that it was a mistake: "By any other arrangement, four people would have been unhappy instead of two." (The Oxford Book Of Literary Anecdotes, edited by James Sutherland, 1977, p. 294)

Jane was a doctor's daughter, well-educated, pretty, and her wit made her an excellent letterwriter – her circle of correspondents included many eminent Victorians. Later Virginia Woolf called her "the most caustic, the most concrete, the most clear-sighted of women." (The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5 1929-1932 by Virginia Woolf, edited by Stuart Clarke, 2010, p. 12) However, she never tried to outshine her famous husband. The Carlyles lived first years of their marriage on a remote farm in Dumfriesshire – the place was a shock for Jane who was used to cultured life. Oppressed by financial difficulties the Carlyles returned to Jane's farm at Craigenputtock and concentrated on writing. While staying in London in 1831, Carlyle became acquainted with J.S. Mill, who later introduced him to Emerson, the American philosopher and essayist.

When Emerson arrived at the home of  Jane and Thomas Carlyle, he had read Carlyle's essays and admired his style. "The visit of an angel," called Jane their meeting with Emerson. Carlyle started with Emerson a correspondence which lasted decades despite their different characters. "He talks like a very unhappy man, profoundly solitary, displeased & hindered by all men & things about him," Emerson said about his friend. (The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume X: 1847-1848, edited by Merton M. Sealths, Jr., 1973, p. 541) Wordsworth thought that Carlyle wrote obscurely, that he was "sometimes insane."

In 1834 Carlyle moved with his wife to London. His breakthrough work, Sartor Resartus, was published in 1833-34. Part autobiography, part philosophy, it was written using an energetic, complex language that came to be called Carlylese. Another major work, a three volume history of the French Revolution, came out in 1837, and a biography of Fredrick the Great in 1858-65. From 1837 to 1840 Carlyle undertook several series of lectures, of which the most significant was On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Although Carlyle recognized the achievements of Cromwell and Napoleon, he saw that in his own time the hero needed was a thinker and writer.

After his wife's death in 1866, from which he never completely recovered, Carlyle retired from public life, and wrote little. Jane had recorded her bitter thoughts in a secret journal, which Carlyle found, but in a letter to Emerson he stated: "Bright, heroic, tender, true and noble was that lost treasure of my heart, who faithfully accompanied me in all the rocky ways and climbings; and I am forever poor without her. She was snatched from me in a moment,—as by a death from the gods." (The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834-1872, Volume 2, by Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2018, p. 160) He gave her papers and letters in 1871 to his friend J.A. Froude, who published them after Carlyle's death. Froude also put out Carlyle's Reminiscences (1881) and a four-volume biography (1882-84). Carlyle was appointed Rector of the University of Edinburgh in 1866, and in 1874 he received Prussian Order of Merit. However, Carlyle declined baronecy from Disraeli. Carlyle died on February 5, 1881 in London. His grave is in Ecclefechan.

History gave Carlyle the most heroic characters he could imagine, and relying on his intuitive spirit, he wrote such works as The French Revolution (1837), On Heroes and Hero WorshipOliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845), Frederick II of Prussia (1858-65).

Through selected vivid details and mastery of dramatic (even if rather complicated) language, The French Revolution, a tour de force, brought the past alive in the way few historians had done before. While waiting for its publication, Carlyle said in a letter: "What I do know of it is that it has come hot out of my own soul; born in blackness, whirlwind and sorrow; that no man, for a long while, has stood speaking so completely alone under the Eternal Azure, in the character of man only; or is likely for a long while so to stand". (The French Revolution, introduced and selected by Ruth Scurr, 2010, pp. 1-2) Carlyle had to rewrite the book after he had sent the manuscript to John Stuart Mill, whose maid burned it – the only copy – for waste paper. Mill offered the author £200 compensation, he eventually accepted £100. They remained friends until Carlyle defended the brutal methods with which the Governor of Jamaica had quelled a rebellion, an action condemned by the liberal Mills.

Carlyle opposed analytic reasoning and advocated the more emotional and intuitive approach of the 18th and 19th century German thinkers like Richter and Goethe. Carlyle's Sartor Resartus was a kind of spiritual autobiography. The first half of the book is about the ideas of a German professor named Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, who believes everything can be explained in terms of clothes: "Clothes gave us individuality, distinctions, social polity; Clothes have made Men of us; they are threatening to make Clothes-screens of us."

"One age, he is hag-ridden, bewitched; the next, priestridden, befooled; in all ages, bedevilled. And now the Genius of Mechanism smothers him worse than any Nightmare did. In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism; he has fear for nothing else, hope in nothing else." (Sartor Resartus, published by Fraser's Magazine, 1833-34)

As an essayist Carlyle's career began with two pieces in the Edinburgh Review in 1827. He expressed sympathy for the condition of the working class in the long essay Chartism (1839). In the pamphlet Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question (1853) he addressed the subject of West Indian slavery in intemperate and for the modern day reader repugnant terms: Referring to "my obscure Black friends" he stated that "decidedly you have to be servants to those that are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you; servants to the Whites, if they are (as what mortal can doubt they are?) born wiser than you. That, you may depend on it, my obsure Black friends, is and was always the Law of the World, for you and for all men. . . ." Many of Carlyle's admirers have ignored his mentality of colonialism; of all major Victorian writers, he was perhaps the most offensive. In 'The Nigger Question' (1849) he wrote: "Do I, hate the Negro. No . . . I decidedly like poor Quashee . . . A swift, supple fellow; a merry-hearted grinning, dancing, singing affectionate kind of creature, with a great deal of melody and amenability in his composition." ('Racism in the Mid-Victorian Novel: Thackeray's Philip' by John Peck, in Varieties of Victorianism: The Uses of a Past, edited by Gary Day, 1998, p. 133)

Carlyle's cynicism with English society was evident in the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). As in his historical studies, Carlyle insisted the importance of the individual, and raised serious questions about democracy, mass persuasion, and politics. According to Carlyle, democracy was an ideology that rendered any man equal to another – "Judas Iscariot to Jesus Christ;  and Bedlam and Gehenna equal to the New Jerusalem, shall we say?" (Victorian Keats and Romantic Carlyle: The Fusions and Confusions of Literary Periods, edited by C.C. Barfoot, 1999, p. 10)  This stand of his also isolated him from the  liberal and democratic tendencies of his age. As a response to the Second Reform Act (1867), which greatly increased the voting power of the urban working class, he wrote the essay 'Shooting Niagara: And After' (1867). Carlyle regarded the reform bill as a disaster and prophesied an imminent collapse.

Henry James saw Carlyle as "the same old sausage, fizzing and sputtering in its own grease." (Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History by Matthew Parris, 2018, p. 262) In the 20th-century his reputation waned, partly because his trust in authority and admiration of strong leaders, which were interpreted as foreshadowing of Fascism. According to a story, Gobbels read to Hitler in 1945, as the Allied advanced, Carlyle's work on Frederick the Great. In Nazi propaganda, Hitler was porttayed as the legitimate heir to the King of Prussia. At the end of the Seven Years' War Frederick the Great had found himelf holed up in his ruined palace in Breslau, in Silesia, but he had been saved by a "reversal of alliances."  

For further reading: Life of Thomas Carlyle by Richard Garnett (1887); Carlyle and German Thought, 1819-34 by C.F. Harold (1934); Carlyle and the Idea of the Modernism by Albert J. LaValley (1968); Guide to Carlyle by Augustus Ralli (1970); Carlyle and Goethe by W. Witte (1972); Carlyle and his Contemporaries, ed. by J. Clubbe (1976); Thomas Carlyle as a Critic of Literature by F.W. Roe (1976); Carlyle and the Burden of History by John D. Rosenberg (1986); Carlyle and Tennyson by Michael Timko (1988); Thomas Carlyle: A Biography by Fred Kaplan (1993); Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle by Simon Heffer (1995); Carlyle and Scottish Though by Ralph Jessop (1997); Thomas & Jane Carlyle: Portrait of a Marriage by Rosemary Ashton (2002); Jane Welsh Carlyle and her Victorian World: a Story of Love, Work, Friendship, and Marriage by Kathy Chamberlain (2017); Thomas Carlyle and the Idea of Influence, edited by Paul E. Kerry, Albert D. Pionke, Megan Dent (2018); The Year That Shaped the Victorian Age: Lives, Loves and Letters of 1845 by Michael Wheeler (2023); Environmental Justice in Early Victorian Literature by Adrian Tate (2024) - "Much twaddling criticism has been spent on Carlyle's style. Unquestionably there are some genuine minds, not at all given to twaddle, to whom his style in antipathetic, who find it as unendurable as an English lady finds peppermint. Against antipathies there is no arguing; they are misfortunes. But instinctive repulsion apart, surely there is no one who can read and relish Carlyle feeling that they could no more wish him to have written in another style than they could wish Gothic architecture not to be Gothic, or Raffaelle not to be Raffaellesque. . . . No novelist has made his creations live for us more thoroughly than Carlyle has made Mirabeau and the men of the French Revolution, Cromwell and the Puritans. What humour in his pictures! Yet what depth of appreciation, what reverence for the great and godlike under every sort of earthy mummery!" (George Eliot in 'Thomas Carlyle', The Leader, Volume VI, 27 October 1855) - See also: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Selected works:

  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship: A Novel, 1824 (translation, from the German)
  • Translations from the German, 1824-1827 (3 vols.)
  • The Life of Schiller:  Comprehending an Examination of his Works, 1825
  • German Romance: Specimens of Its Chief Authors. With Biographical and Critical Notes, 1827 (translation; 4 vols., authors represented, often with their best work, include E.T.A. Hoffmann, J.K. Musäeus, and J.L. Tieck)
  • Burns, 1828
  • Signs of the Times, 1829 (in the Edinburgh Review)
  • On History, 1830
  • On History Again, 1833
  • Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh, 1833-34 (published serially in Fraser's Magazine; 2nd ed., 1837; first English edition 1838)
  • The French Revolution: A History, 1837 (3 vols.)
  • Lectures on German Literature, 1837
  • Lectures on the History of Literature, 1838
  • Essay on Scott, 1838
  • Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 1838-39 (4 vols.)
  • Lectures on European Revolutions, 1839
  • Collected Essays, 1839
  • Chartism, 1840
  • J.W. Goethe's Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Travels, 1840 (3 vols., translator)
  • On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, 1841
  • Past and Present, 1843
  • Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches: With Elucidations, 1845 (2 vols.) 
  • Dumb Love by Johann August Musæus, 1849 (translation, from the German)
  • Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Qestion, 1849 (in Fraser's Magazine; revised and expanded, 1853)
  • Latter-Day Pamphlets, 1850 (edited by Thomas Carlyle)
  • The Life of John Sterling, 1851
  • Samuel Johnson, 1853
  • History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick of the Great, 1858-65 (6 vols.)
  • Inaugural Address at Edinburgh, April 2nd, 1866; by Thomas Carlyle, on Being Installed as Rector of the University There, 1866
  • On the Choice of Books. The Inaugural Address of Thomas Carlyle, Lord Rector of the University of Edinburgh. Reprinted from "The Times", with Additional Articles, a Memoir of the Author, and Two Portraits 1866
  • Shooting Niagara: And After?, 1867
  • Thomas Carlyle’s Collected Works, 1869-1871 (30 vols.)  
  • Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 1872 (7 vols.)
  • Tales by Musæus, Tieck, Richter, 1874 (2 vols., tr. from the German by Thomas Carlyle)  
  • The Early Kings of Norway, 1875
  • Goethe, 1881
  • Letters Addressed to Mrs. Basil Montagu and B.W. Procter, 1881
  • Reminiscences, 1881 (ed. by James Anthony Froude)
  • Reminiscences of My Irish Journey in 1849, 1882
  • Last Words, 1882
  • The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834-1872, 1883 (2 vols.)
  • Carlyle’s Complete Works, 1885 (20 vols.)
  • The Diamond Necklace, and Mirabeau, 1885
  • Dr. Francis, & Other Essays, 1885
  • Early Letters of Thomas Carlyle, 1886
  • Letters of Thomas Carlyle, 1826-1836, 1888 (2 vols., edited by Clarles Eliot Norton)
  • Early Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Together with a Few of Later Years and Some of Thomas Carlyle, All Hitherto Unpublished, 1889 (ed. by David G. Ritchie)
  • An Essay on Burns, 1889 (with an introduction and notes by J.W. Abernethy)
  • On the Choice of Books, and Two Letters, 1890
  • Thomas Carlyle, Table Talk, 1890
  • The Socialism and Unsocialism of Thomas Carlyle. A Collection of Carlyle’s Social Writings; Together with Joseph Mazzini’s Famous Essay Protesting Against Carlyle’s Views, 1891 (2 vols.)
  • Rescued Essays of Thomas Carlyle, 1892 (ed. by Percy Newberry)
  • The Homes and Haunts of Thomas Carlyle, 1895
  • The Works of Thomas Carlyle, 1896-1901 (centenary ed., 30 vols.)
  • Correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle, 1887 (edited by Charles Eliot Norton)
  • Montaigne and Other Essays, Chiefly Biographical, 1897
  • Essay on Biography, 1898
  • Two notebooks of Thomas Carlyle, from 23d March, 1822, to 16th May, 1832, 1898 (ed. by Charles Eliot Norton)
  • Letters of Thomas Carlyle to His Youngest Sister, 1899
  • "Beautiful thoughts", 1900
  • Carlyle Year-Book, 1900
  • Collectanea Thomas Carlyle, 1821-1855, 1903 (ed. by Samuel Arthur Jones)
  • New Letters of Thomas Carlyle, 1904 (2 vols., ed. and annotated by Alexander Carlyle)
  • The Love Letters of Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh, 1909 (2 vols., ed. by Alexander Carlyle)
  • Masters of Literature, 1909 (ed. by A.W. Evans)
  • Carlyle, 1922 (edited by Bliss Perry)
  • Jocelin of Brakelond: From Past and Present, 1923
  • Letters of Thomas Carlyle to John Stuart Mill, John Sterling and Robert Browning, 1923 (edited by Alexander Carlyle)
  • The Best of Carlyle, 1924 (selected, with biographical introduction, by Thomas Orr Glencross)
  • The Best of Carlyle, 1929 (selected essays and passages, edited with introduction and notes by Herbert Le Sourd Creek)
  • Scottish & Other Miscellanies, 1932
  • Journey to Germany, Autumn 1858, 1940 (edited by Richard Albert Edward Brooks)
  • Letters of Thomas Carlyle to William Graham, 1950 (edited by John Graham, Jr.)
  • Carlyle’s Unfinished History of German Literature, 1951 (edited by Hill Shine)
  • Carlyle: An Anthology, 1953 (ed. by G. M. Trevelyan)
  • Thomas Carlyle: Letters to His Wife, 1953 (edited by Trudy Bliss)
  • Selected works, Reminiscences, and Letters, 1955
  • Letters to Ruskin, 1958 (a finding list with some unpublished letters and comments by Charles Richard Sanders)
  • These Days, 1961 (with an introductory essay by William E. H. Lecky, edited by John E. Longhurst)
  • The Letters of Thomas Carlyle to His Brother Alexander, with Related Family Letters, 1968 (edited by Edwin W. Marrs, Jr.)
  • A Carlyle Reader: Selections from the Writings of Thomas Carlyle, 1969 (edited by G. B. Tennyson)
  • The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, 1970-2010 (in progress, general editor, Charles Richard Sanders)
  • Selected writings, 1971 (edited with an introd. by Alan Shelston)
  • The works of Thomas Carlyle, 1974 (centenary ed., 30 vols., edited and with introductions by H. D. Traill)
  • Thomas and Jane: Selected Letters from the Edinburgh University Library collection, 1980 (edited by Ian Cambell)
  • Carlyle, "The Hero as Poet" and "The Everlasting Yea", 1987 (edited by T.R. Sharma)
  • Reminiscences, 1997 (edited by K.J. Fielding and Ian Campbell)
  • Historical Essays, 2002 (edited by Chris R. Vanden Bossche)
  • Criticism of Thomas Carlyle, 2006 (selected and edited by Michael Di Santo)
  • Essays on Literature, 2020 (introduction and notes by Fleming McClelland, Brent E. Kinser, Chris R. Vanden Bossche; text established by Chris R. Vanden Bossche)
  • Essays on Politics and Society, 2022 (introduction and notes by John M. Ulrich, Lowell T. Frye, and Chris R. Vanden Bossche; text established by Chris R. Vanden Bossche)
  • Past and Present, 2023 (introduction by David R. Sorensen; text edited with notes by David R. Sorensen and Brent E. Kinser)

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