English Literature Of The 19th Century:
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Like a rugged peak towering grandly above the undulations of a mountain range, stands Thomas Carlyle among the great writers of the century. He wrote histories with the inspiration of a poet, biographies with the choice precision of an artist, essays and pamphlets which combine the solemnity of a seer with the scurrility of a buffoon. Nearly forty years were requisite to raise him from the obscurity of his native corner to his predestined place among the leaders of his age, and then for forty years he swayed the minds of men or growled contemptuously at their neglect. His manifest sincerity and intense earnestness compelled respect for his repellant individuality. Beneath his savage moroseness dwelt a tender human heart, with an unshaken belief in the eternal verities.
Thomas Carlyle was born on the 4th of December, 1795, at Ecclefechan, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. His father was a stonemason and a stern Covenanter. Thomas was sent at fifteen to the University of Edinburgh to study for the ministry, but his conscience forbade him the pulpit. He taught school for a time, and in 1822 became tutor in the Buller family. He wrote also for Brewster's "Encyclopaedia" and contributed to the magazines. His special acquaintance with German was shown in his excellent translation of Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister" and his admirable "Life of Schiller." In 1826 he married Jane Welsh, a woman of brilliant intellect, who is said to have hesitated in choice between him and the gifted preacher, Edward Irving. They lived for some months in Edinburgh, but the unpolished rustic was not admitted to its literary circles. Then he resolved to retire to a small moorland farm which his wife owned at Craigenputtoch in Dumfriesshire. In this wilderness Carlyle fought his great spiritual battle and emerged triumphant. For earthly living he wrote for the "Edinburgh Review" many articles on German literature, Burns, Dr. Johnson, etc. It was a bright gleam of sunshine when Emerson made his pilgrimage to this remote spot to honor one whose greatness he was among the first to discern. He had been attracted by the fantastic essays on Clothes-Philosophy, which were appearing in "Fraser's Magazine" under the title, "Sartor Resartus" (The Tailor Done Over). Their importance was disguised by representing them as annotations on a book by a German professor, Diogenes Teufelsdrökh (God-born Devilsdung). It was really Carlyle's autobiography, summary of philosophy and confession of faith. By Emerson's favor the papers were gathered into a book and published at Boston two years before an English edition was printed. Carlyle received his share of the American profits.
After six years' residence at Craigenputtoch, Carlyle removed to London and took the little house at Chelsea, which has now been made a memorial and place of pilgrimage. Here he completed his work on the French Revolution, already commenced in the Scotch farm-house. John Stuart Mill borrowed the first volume in manuscript and lent it to his friend, Mrs. Taylor, whose housemaid used it to kindle a fire. Mill insisted, against Carlyle's proud refusal, on paying for the loss, but the terrible task of rewriting the manuscript had to be performed. This work, which first gave Carlyle fame, is memorable for its creation of a prose epic style, as well as for its new mode of viewing and interpreting history by vivid pictures. The "French Revolution" came out in 1837, and in spite of furious outcries against its style and temper, gave its author rank among the great historians of the world. Carlyle now lectured on "German Literature," on "History" and on "Heroes and Hero-Worship," the last being printed in 1841 and becoming one of his best-known books. He discussed the political problems of the time in "Chartism" (1839), and in "Past and Present" (1843), which greatly stirred the thoughtful public. In 1845 he published his "Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell," in which he did much to explain the character and deeds of that extraordinary leader.
The revolutions of 1848 filled Carlyle with indignant scorn for the weakness and stupidity of governments that did anything but govern, and henceforth he insisted on the submission of the common herd to the Strong Silent Man. In "Latter-Day Pamphlets" (1850) he discussed the "nigger" question and other political problems. In contrast with this came his "Life of Sterling" (1851), which was written as a reply to Archdeacon Julius Hare's sketch of their friend, and exhibited distinctly Carlyle's attitude towards the Church. The "History of Frederick the Great" was next undertaken, and fourteen years were spent as Mrs. Carlyle expressed it, "in the valley of the shadow of Frederick." The historian was drawn to the Prussian King by his admiration for strong individual will. Yet he became conscious of the demerits of his hero, and explained that he was called Great only "because he man-aged not to be a liar and a charlatan as his century was." Carlyle did not appreciate the making of a strong Prussia as preliminary to the formation of a new German Empire. So also he had no sympathy for the North during the American Civil War, yet, long after it was over, on reading the "Harvard Memorial Biographies," which a friend had sent him, he exclaimed in thoroughly Scotch style, "I doubt I have been wrong." He was chosen Lord Rector of Edinburgh University in 1866, and his address to the students had great success. The only drawback was that his wife was unable to attend; she died before his return to London. Carlyle poured forth the bitterness of his anguish in his "Reminiscences," which he marked to be revised before publication. Unfortunately, his executor, the historian Fronde, published them without reservation, and thus brought deep reproach upon the philosopher. Carlyle survived his wife fifteen years, but did no important work in that time. "The Early Kings of Nor-way" was his last history. He died in 1881, aged eighty-six.
Carlyle's works are chiefly historical or biographical, though like a Hebrew prophet, he delivered many messages to his countrymen on the social and political sins or duties of the time. He denounced Disraeli's Reform bill of 1867 as "Shooting Niagara," and predicted deplorable consequences. It was well said of him, "Carlyle comprehends only the individual; the true sense of the unity of the human race escapes him." Hence he turned history as far as possible into biography of heroes. Hence, too, he insisted that the duty of each age and country is to discover its hero, and, having discovered the fated leader, to commit control of everything to him. Beyond this, the duty of every man is to work, to employ usefully for himself and others whatever talents he possesses. With loud vociferation Carlyle denounced speech, and clamored for silence, yet appeared unconscious of the self-contradiction. His peculiar style was partly due to his study of German, especially Richter, but it is more largely due to his giving vent to his native Scotch fervor, and expressing in print the twists and turns of his own thought and speech. There is great variety in his style, which changes readily from sober statements to fierce denunciation or quaint humor, to glowing enthusiasm or pathetic lamentation. His aim is always to lead men to live and act as in the presence of an eternal righteous ruler.