The Apostle Of Gall And Bitterness
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
On the 5th of February, 1881, there died at Chelsea, London, one of the foremost of English men of letters. On the day following his death a New York editor published these words : The volcano has had its last eruption. After sixty industrious years it is motionless and silent. He dies in the eighty-sixth winter of his discontent, a gigantic Titan, stumbling blindly, undismayed, down to his rest." This was the great Carlyle. Growling in his bear's den across the sea, he had uttered forth his gospel of anathema and hate. In many a volume he had crucified sham and hollow pretense for three score of years. Everything in England and out of it felt the probe of his vindictive scorn. With a literary style that would have wrecked the reputation of any man, this apostle of wrath turned the batteries of his vituperation upon all existing customs. With biting phrase, he denounced indolence and urged himself and all others to be up and doing. In felicitous periods he preached "the unpreached, inarticulate, ineradicable, but forever-enduring gospel: work, and therein have well-being." With Olympian lightnings he blasted every idol that society had set up to worship. The young of both continents found in his writings a mighty inspiration. They thought he was severe and caustic and unrelenting ; but they knew that he was sincere and terribly in earnest. On the day of his burial he was called "greatest of modern men of letters," and the English-speaking race stood with bowed head and sorrowful heart at the grave of Thomas Carlyle.
But that was the culmination of his greatness, the full noonday of his earthly splendor. Since that time the reputation of the Titan has been waning. The world has been changing its opinion so as to place Carlyle where he belongs as the greatest misanthrope of all the ages. The "Sage of Chelsea" has turned into the young bear of Craigenputtock and the ravenous lion of Cheyne Row. Those fateful "Reminisences of Jane Welsh Carlyle" and the "Biography" of Mr. Froude has shattered the idol and broken the altar. Those who sadly mourned the death of a hero in '81, now think with pity of a poor sick man, clothed in the robe of unhappiness, going down to his death with a darkened mind and a bitter heart. How he crushed that poor woman's life out in his unreasoning selfishness ! How nobly she bore the burden of a lonely, toilsome, wretched life and how shamelessly he made her his slave and his drudge !
The man who set forth the message of silence in twenty octavo volumes filled the air with incessant complaints. The man who taught the duty of courage and patient endurance, was a whimpering coward and overshadowed his home with dark repinings. This false Carlyle, consorting with an angel of God, proclaimed that the noblest thing beneath the sun was to do one's simple daily duty, and he systematically neglected the woman to whom he owed the love and service of his life. Hear how he denounced hypocrisies and windbags in withering scorn, and he stands self-confessed the most arrant hypocrite and noisiest windbag of all time. He exhausted the' resources of language in his denunciations of cant ; but he wrote one thing in his books in regard to his religious convictions and believed another, as his letters fully show. Such bitterness, censoriousness, selfishness and falsehood are without parallel in the history of literature.
We believe the mind of this great impostor was darkened by the shadow of physical ill. During the greater part of his long and laborious life he was a victim of chronic dyspepsia. Intense suffering filled his mind with gloom and bodily ills made him selfish and exacting. Herculean labors, self-imposed, tasks too great for his strength, soured his spirit and filled his soul with gall and bitterness. In unspeakable discontent he dragged out the years of hard toil, making his home a desert waste and, in its parched and sterile atmosphere, he breathed the poison of misanthropy. From scolding his long-suffering wife, he turned to scold the society of England. From paroxysms of irritable anger over the trivial annoyances of the household, he turned to those upheavals of denunciation, a spleen and biting wrath that marked a new era in the literature of vituperation. As we now read the life of this strange "Sage of Chelsea" his books seem to have been conceived in spleen, composed in "hysterics and written in ineffable scorn.
But with a mind unclouded by the gloom of bodily weakness, Carlyle might have had a sweet heart, a happy home, and an undying reputation. A healthy body would have given to this preacher of wrath a healthy mind, and the world would have been spared the mortifying spectacle of that wretched home in Cheyne Row. How different would have been the story of this tumultuous life had there been perfect digestion and bounding blood in the body of Thomas Carlyle.