Thomas Carlyle


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Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), Scottish born biographer, historian, philosopher and prolific author wrote of Hero Worship. (1841)

Thomas Carlyle, the eldest of nine children, was born on 4 December 1795. The family home was built and designed in part by his hardworking father, stonemason James Carlyle (1757-1832) and was called Arch House, in Ecclefechan, in the district of Annandale, county Dumfries. An arched doorway and an arched window centered on the second floor give it its name. He would later write of his father "He was among the last of the true men, which Scotland (on the old system) produced, or can produce." His father often spoke metaphorically though he did not know what metaphor was and didn't have much time for poetry and fiction. He instilled the Gospel of Work into his children however, like many peasant Scotsmen who had sons with a gift for great learning he wanted his eldest to become a minister and was surprisingly patient while he tried to find his vocation in school. Carlyle's childhood home was dominated by his father who rarely showed emotion and where the absolutes of Religion, Conduct and Work prevailed. Carlyle's doting and loving mother, Margaret née Aitken, taught him to read and was a true Christian believer, living in the frugal Calvinist way.

Early on Carlyle showed a great aptitude for mathematics, which his father had introduced him to. While in grammar school, as his mother had taught him to turn the other cheek, he was bullied by the other boys until once responding in kind and the attacks lessened. His apartness was obvious when the teachers singled him out as gifted, causing jealousy and more bullying. He quickly learned to defend himself to the hostile world verbally and turned to reading, among many others, Defoe, Fielding and Sterne for solace.

In 1809, at the age of fourteen Carlyle was now prepared to enter the University of Edinburgh to study maths and the classics. He was still the reticent boy, shy and often retreating to his books. Many of the social activities at the university went against his upbringing of frugal emotion "amusements, too often riotous and libertine" which seemed initially coarse and distasteful to him. His father had become a farmer at Mainhill so he would travel there for his summer vacations. In 1813 he graduated with a B.A. Upon finishing university and until 1818 he studied for the ministry of the Church of Scotland, though he ended up telling his parents that he would not pursue theology, to his mother and father's great disappointment. "Let me write my books as he built his houses." Between 1814 and 1818 he became schoolmaster for first the Annan then Kirkaldy Grammar Schools but had little patience for the young boys disinterested in the Latin and arithmetic he so loved. Again his father did not chastise his confusion as to his chosen profession. He suffered a period of ill-health, probably dyspepsia, and retreated to his parent's in the country where he became quite depressed until the summer of 1819.

An exceptional break in the black clouds occurred for Carlyle in 1820 when his friend, Edward Irving (d.1836) assisted him in becoming a tutor to the two Buller boys. Irving was hopeful that his friend would gain some self-confidence through this position which turned out to be a success. Carlyle was beginning to be regarded as somewhat of a pioneer in the area of translation of German; the Reviews of the day were publishing his material, however Carlyle remained wracked with doubt as to his own abilities. He met the Bullers in London in the spring of 1824 and would live with them for a time, whereupon he was to meet `the very best figures in literary society' including Coleridge.

By 1824 Carlyle was writing full-time and studying German literature, in particular Fichte's transcendentalism. Life of Schiller (1825) first appeared in London Magazine in 1823-1824. He was also immensely impressed with Goethe and translated some of his works. He felt Faust's pilgrimage was very similar to his own quest to rationalise his spiritual and intellectual sides. In 1826 Carlyle and the writer Jane Baillie Welsh (1801-1866) married. Financial difficulties caused them to move to Jane's inherited farm `Craigenputtock' in 1828 for four years though she felt it beneath her at first. Carlyle's brother Alick would help run the farm. While Jane had a servant she also was known to help with the chores. Carlyle had another period of despondency and listlessness, and as a result he wrote his Sartor Resartus. (1838) Under the guise of reminisces of a German philosopher by the name of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, it's part autobiography and part philosophy, satirising the inane shams of life and revealing a profound turn from revelation to acceptance in labyrinthine quotations. It was highly praised by R.W. Emerson in America. Feeling positive and encouraged by his opinion he set off on the five-hour boat trip from Scotland for London to survey the literary scene.

As was their pattern during a separation, Carlyle and Jane resumed their affectionate correspondence while he was away. She wrote to him "Heaven reward thee, my clear-headed, warm-hearted, dearest little Screamikin." She would join her husband after a while, though promptly suffered an attack of nerves and headache. She tended to ill-health at the best of times, getting colds often, though she concealed the worst of her complaints from her husband for years. Carlyle wasn't having any luck in finding a publisher for Sartor. News came from Scotland that Carlyle's father John Carlyle died on 22 January 1832. He wrote a portrait of his father which was published in his Reminisces. (1881) "With the exception of the religious and moral instruction which I had the happiness of receiving from my parents, and which I humbly trust will not be entirely lost on me, there is nothing for which I feel more grateful than for the education which they have bestowed on me." The grieving son and his wife moved back to Craigenputtock. The couple were back to their difficult country life for a few years, with long silences between them, quarrelling and lack of social contacts. Carlyle often read from 9a.m. to 10p.m. He went horseback riding alone. The tedious days of life on the moors were broken up by the arrival of the young American Emerson seeking out his much admired Carlyle of whose work he'd read so much of in magazines. While Jane was suffering physically, Carlyle was suffering mentally, consumed with great impatience to express to the world "A strange feeling of supernaturalism, of the fearfulness and wonderfulness of this hurts me and grows upon me . . . The whole Creation seems more and more divine to me." Carlyle would finally have his Sartor Resartus serialised in Fraser's Magazine though it would go largely misunderstood.

Between the autumn of 1834 and January of 1837, while living in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, Carlyle wrote his three-volume The French Revolution. A major disruption, the first manuscript of one-hundred and seventy pages of foolscap was accidentally burned by John Stuart Mills' maid. Mills begged Carlyle to accept compensation and he finally agreed to £100, wages for five months labour. The Carlyle's had a number of illustrious guests visit them including Dickens, Tennyson, Darwin and Ruskin. Carlyle was always a difficult companion when he was in the middle of writing and often Jane's ill-health would come to the fore and this time was no exception and she left for Scotland for refuge. Upon completion of The French Revolution Carlyle embarked on a series of lectures On Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. By using examples of great men from history he spoke of the chaos in society and it's demands that heroes take control; that society loses it's humanity when ideological formulas, `rights' and `laws', are applied. He also wrote Life and Letters of Oliver Cromwell. (1845) The success of his lecture tours were partly due to the generosity of Lord and Lady Ashburton. He fell under the spell of and became romantically involved with Lady Ashburton in 1846, much to the notice and dismay of Jane. Carlyle had never met anyone like her, she was "the most queen-like woman" he had ever met, practically the opposite of Jane. He was invited to give talks at their residences at Addiscombe, The Grange and Bath House. He was invited to go hunting and to attend their grand house parties. Of his good friend and mentor, Carlyle published the Life of John Stirling in 1851.

Carlyle wrote his magnum opus, a biography of Fredrick the Great of Prussia in six volumes between 1858 and 1865. It exemplifies his pen-portrait art, his ability to describe character in minute detail. He once again set out in his claims that the universe is of a construct that it is Right only to be strong, but his critics misunderstood him as his belief in the divine right of strength. He approached Frederick as the German scholar he was, though with no great portent to Germany's future role in world history. His estrangement with Jane started to wane when Lady Ashburton died suddenly in 1857. The Carlyle's correspondence became affectionate again. In the winter of 1865 Carlyle was asked to accept the Rector ship of Edinburgh University. He had finished and published Frederick so duly accepted, but while not having a prepared Address, held his audience captive for an hour and a half. Three weeks would pass by with all the dinners and congratulatory occasions following his appointment. His dear Jane, while out for a carriage ride in Kensington Gardens, died suddenly on 21 April 1866. Her husband never fully recovered from his grief "I am forever poor without her" he wrote. He immersed himself in chronologically arranging her correspondence between himself and others in The Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle. "Oh that I had you yet but for five minutes beside me, to tell you all!"

In 1874 Carlyle received the Prussian Order of Merit. By this time his niece Mary Aitken had moved in with him at Cheyne Row to care for him. On his eighty-fourth birthday, Browning and Ruskin visited. Into his eighties, the widower Carlyle could be seen walking twice a day rain or shine on the Battersea Park or Chelsea Embankment. He lost his vent for emotion as he could no longer write due to a shaky hand. John Carlyle died on 5 February 1881 in London, his last words "Goodbye". Four days later his body was taken by train to Scotland to Ecclefechan where his remains are buried beside his parents. His funeral was at noon. The Presbyterian Kirk bells tolled the hour. A hundred of the local villagers followed his hearse and as was the custom nobody spoke and his coffin was lowered in silence. John Carlyle's collected works comprise 30 volumes.

"A man's religion consists not of the many things he is in doubt of and tries to believe, but of the few he is assured of, and has no need of effort for believing."

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2005. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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Drawing on "The Selected Writings" of Carlyle

PECULIAR DIFFICULTIES What I try to do in this poetry is not unlike the role of the historian as Thomas Carlyle saw it; namely, "to isolate the message from the irrelevant matter by which it is obscured, to distinguish well what does still reach to the surface and is alive and frondent for us (from) what…moulders safe underground, never to send forth leaves or fruit for mankind any more." We play out our lives as poets "against the ceaseless activity of the multitudinous extras in the cast." It is this "ceaseless activity" of the wider society, of history, of what takes places now on the global stage that is the "most durable impression" for the masses of humankind. But in our own private lives the texture of events is different and we must summon up reserves of energy and concentration; we must possess a relentless emphasis on being constantly active and cultivate our own 'peculiar feverishness' in our mode of expression as poets.-Ron Price with thanks to Alan Shelston in Thomas Carlyle: Selected Writings, Penguin, Ringwood, 1971, p.27. This inward home reared by slow and laborious effort and an insight into what I trust will never alter, once desolate, baleful and darker than night, now covered anew with beauty and solemnity, with doubt banished from the important places and the reconciliation of life's contradictions always the task in my own way and manner, surrounded as I am by the peculiar difficulties of our time.1 1 See Carlyle's essays on Goethe. ibid., pp.37/8. Ron Price 24 November 2002


Quoting Carlyle on Humour

LAUGHING GAS While I was teaching at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education in 1974 and at Box Hill Tafe College in Melbourne in 1975, the film Monte Python and the Holy Grail was produced and then released in London. I won't summarize the film's story here because readers can find the story in many places. But this classic satire of King Arthur and his knights has been part of the core of comedy's world in western society now for more than a quarter of a century. This send up of a legend, of courtly love, fidelity and bravery, among other things, symbolized, for me, my getting of humour. I had grown up in a serious household of classical music and religion; I had studied serious subjects in university for four years; I had struggled through the first six years as a teacher, experienced several episodes of bi-polar disorder and lived through a divorce by 1975. These were all pretty heavy-duty items on life's agenda. By 1975, though, I had had four years living in Australia where humour was a way of life with its slices of skepticism and cynicism, sarcasm and irony, self-mockery and pleasure seeking. During my decades in Australia humour became, as Thomas Mann experienced the process, insensibly and by immeasureable degrees, by subtle and incremental additions and alterations, part of my soul's salvation. Humour was, as Thomas Carlyle put it at the beginning of the Bahá’í Era, "a token of virtue." Self-mockery and humour's light touch became for me, what it was for millions of others, survival tools in a spiritually parched land.1 -Ron Price with thanks to Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Four On An Island, George Ronald, Oxford, 1983, p.87. They've been pumping laughing-gas into lounge rooms now for over half a century.1 I remember I Love Lucy back in the fifties: that was where it began for me. It's not all bad, Gore. It's got an important role in our great, vast brontosaurissmus society, with its slough of despond and the phantoms of a wrongly informed imagination. The laughs have lightened the load, Gore. I was, like you, once critical of the whole thing, but I've softened with the years in this downunder land, this world that is just not as serious as Canada which once housed my impulse to believe, nurtured my imperfections and let them grow as insidious as a seed. Laughter came out like a baby, pushed out, giving birth, born of the pain of life in a grand and periodic shake-up injecting a high seriousness with laughing-gas. Gore, it's not all that bad. 1 A remark made by Gore Vidal in an interview in 2006. Ron Price 21 November 2006


Carlyle As A Thinker And His Style

CARLYLE AS A THINKER Carlyle exerted such a profound influence upon generation by his thought as to be called the “Censor of the age”. His was a clarion cry to Victorian England to abandon its self-complacency and profit and loss philosophy and to know and hold to the “Everlasting Yea”. In the age of democracy and individualism he preached the gospel of hero-worship and medieval organization. Belief in human freedom and in the “infinite nature of duty”, as the basis of religion; belief in the rule if the few wise and strong over the many weak and foolish, as the basis of government; belief in mutual sympathy, as the basis of society; belief in a spiritual interpretation of natural appearances, as the basis of philosophy; and, above all, belief in sincerity as the condition of all knowledge—these are the foundations on which Carlyle built. By his friends, Carlyle was considered to be a great teacher, more like a great tonic—as a source of intellectual and moral stimulus and refreshment , rather than of theoretical and practical guidance. Tyndall says “Carlyle was great awakener”. Emerson says “he is a friend and aider of those who would believe in power and worship. CARLYLE --- AN ICONOCLAST (A breaker of images/ superstitions) Carlyle delivered vehement and even savage attacks against some of his most eminent contemporaries, whether they were heads of religious institutes or lover of science like Charles Darwin. Once he called Darwin’s discoveries as “Gorilla damnifications of humanity”. His wrath was specially directed at the metaphysicians, scientists and political economists whom he labeled together as “logic-chopping” machines. NOT A PESSIMIST: Carlyle philosophy, if carefully considered, will be found to be dangerously optimist rather than pessimist. As a thinker Carlyle is not sad, but recklessly and rather unscrupulously satisfied. For he seems to have held the theory that good can not be defeated definitely in the world; and the every thing in the long run finds its right level. It began with what we may call the “Bible of History” idea; that all human affairs and politics were a clouded but unbroken revelation of the Devine. CARLYLE’S RELIGION Carlyle religion was that of a mystic, a transcendentalist. He got his faith from the German philosophers Kant and Fichte and from great German writers like Richter, Novalis and Goethe, the influence of last one being the paramount and abiding on Carlyle’s career and belief. Carlyle’s spiritual conversion came about in June 1821, when he was having a walk. Carlyle considers Universe to be Divine and Matter having no existence. In his words “To me the Universe was all void of life, of purpose, of volition or hostility; it was a huge dead mass.” PERFORMANCE OF DUTY: To Carlyle, the chief aim and end of life is the performance of duty, and only consolation in life is to be sense of doing the duty. He is full of contempt for the pursuit of happiness. His stern creed allows no collateral support to the discharge of duty. DUTY OF WORK: The first great duty is the duty of work—action, activity. This eminent feature in his preaching has called “the Gospel of Labour”. Man’s greatest enemy is disorder: his most imperative and crying duty is to subdue disorder, convert chaos into order and method. Furthermore, he lays great emphasis on duty of Obedience and duty of Sincerity. HERO WORSHIP: To the readers of Carlyle, nothing in his writings is so well-known as his doctrine of Hero-worship. We conceive of history of peoples, Carlyle conceived of History as the Biography of Great Men or Heroes who are responsible for what the world has been or will be. Carlyle swept aside the current conceptions of Democracy and Freedom and said; “In freedom for itself there is nothing to raise a man above a fly; the value of human life is that of its work done; the prime province of law is to get from its subjects the most of the best work. The first duty of people is to find—which means to accept—their chief; their second and last to obey him. SOCIALISM: He points out three ideas as dominant in Carlyle’s social political treatises, firstly protest against the doctrine of Laissez Faire, side by side with wrong support of free trade, secondly the advocacy of the Organization of Labour, and thirdly advocacy of Emigration, as a remedy for over-population. We may say that his chief contribution to political thought was the vigour of his demonstration that man lives by spiritual as well as material things, and that civilization is not a piece of mechanism grinding out results of itself, but is dependent on the energy and will and devotion which men put into it. CARLYLE’S STYLE Carlyle is known for his peculiar style, known as “Carlylese”. His style is mirror of his mind. No writer is as idiosyncratic as he is. It illustrates not only all is traits but all his moods. It brings out into the starkest relief his defects as well as his qualities. It is terribly indiscreet and lays bare his caprice, his lack of deference, his defiance if discipline, his intoxicated responsibilities. GERMAN INFLUENCE: There are some writers who believe that German writers and philosophy had deep impact in the moulding Carlyle’s style. Once Carlyle admitted that his style “had its origin in his father’s house in Annandale”. Carlyle often stated that style was not a thing a man could put off and on, and that matter was more important than manner. A man should have something to say, and should say it in the manner that comes natural to him. Carlyle was parent of own style. DEFECTS OF CARLYLE’S STYLE: The defects in Carlyle’s style are more apparent than its merits. Its “ellipsis, gestures capitals, interjection, iterations”, its “barbarous, new, erroneous coinages and locution”, “the constant recurrence of some words in quaint and queer connexion”,” Germanized compounds, frequency of inversion, fatiguing over-emphasis”,” occasional jerking and almost spasmodic excitement “ lie on the surface. Besides, these easily perceptible defects there are two other which are more fundamental. One is the noise of the style, the strident emphasis by the trick of italicizing, and the other is the intense self-consciousness of all his writing, good and bad alike; the self-reference, the self-lashing, the self scrutiny, the self-distrust. MERITS OF CARLYLE’S STYLE: He always tried to paint the light shining in the darkness comprehending it not, and therefore it was that he strive so hard to invent a new style which should express not simply the amount of human knowledge, but also so far as possible, the much vaster amount of human ignorance against which that knowledge sparkled in more radiant points breaking the gloom. It seems to me a style invented for the purpose of convincing those whom it charmed, that moral truth can only be discerned by a brilliant imaginative tact and audacity in discriminating the various stars sprinkled in a great vault of mystery, and then walking boldly into the doubtful light they give; that there is much which cannot be believed except by self-deceivers or fools, but that wonder is of the essence of all right mindedness. CHARACTERSTICS OF CARLYLE’S STYLE (a)Romantic and Oratorical Prose: Carlyle’s style does not match with the Classical writers of Prose because he does not possess the Classical qualities of clearness, ease and balance. It rather looks to be Romantic Prose since it is addressed to the ear rather than to eye, to the feelings rather than to the understanding. (b)Love of the concretely picturesque: He speaks in images so beautifully that it creates mental vision in reader’s mind. With the help of Metaphors and Similes, he makes blur image look clear, and this faculty is in born in him. (c)Vocabulary: His command of words must be pronounced to be of the highest order. Among the few that stand next to Shakespeare, he occupies very high place in describing characters. He coined new words and compounds plentiful and makes new forms of syntax. (d)Humour: Bromwell calls Carlyle’s humor a trifle, flat and artificial, because it is more than willful. but that is an unjust sentence. His humor presents picture of amusement, scorn and sadness. Sometimes he looks a little out of place and his Humour a bit “elephantine”. But as a rule he master of irony and the ludicrous. He is great in sarcasms, satire and euphemisms. (e) Wealth of allusions: Carlyle’s range of allusions is wide, and in one passage he will be giving allusions half a dozen different and widely separated books in literature. He draws upon theology, mathematics, science, philosophy, history, economics etc. for his instances and images.


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