The readers of the “Household Library” will certainly welcome a Life of Burns. That his soul was of the real heroic stamp, no one who is familiar with his imperishable lyric poetry, will deny.
This Life of the great Scottish bard is composed of two parts. The first part, which is brief, and gives merely his external life, is taken from the “Encyclopedia Britannica.” The principle object of it, in this place, is to prepare the reader for what follows. The second part is a grand spiritual portrait of Burns, the like of which the ages have scarcely produced; the equal of which, in our opinion, does not exist. In fact, since men began to write and publish their thoughts in this world, no one has appeared who equals Carlyle as a spiritual-portrait painter; and, taken all in all, this of his gifted countryman Burns is his master-piece. I should not dare to say how many times I have perused it, and always with new wonder and delight. I once read it in the Manfrini Palace, at Venice, sitting before Titian’s portrait of Ariosto. Great is the contrast between the Songs of Burns and the Rime of the Italian poet, between the fine spiritual perception of Carlyle’s mind and the delicate touch of Titian’s hand, between picturesque expression and an expressive picture; yet this very antithesis seemed to prepare my mind for the full enjoyment of both these famous portraits; the sombre majesty of northern genius seemed to heighten and be heightened by the sunset glow of the genius of the south.
Besides giving the article from the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” as a kind of frame for the portrait of Burns, we will here add, from the “English Cyclopedia,” a sketch of Carlyle’s life. A severe taste may find it a little out of place, yet we must be allowed to consult the wishes of those for whom these little volumes are designed.
Carlyle, (Thomas,) a thinker and writer, confessedly among the most original and influential that Britain has produced, was born in the parish of Middlebie, near the village of Ecclefechan, in Dumfries-shire, Scotland, on the 4th of December, 1795. His father, a man of remarkable force of character, was a small farmer in comfortable circumstances; his mother was also no ordinary person. The eldest son of a considerable family, he received an education the best in its kind that Scotland could then afford—the education of a pious and industrious home, supplemented by that of school and college. (Another son of the family, Dr. John A. Carlyle, a younger brother of Thomas, was educated in a similar manner, and, after practising for many years as a physician in Germany and Rome, has recently become known in British literature as the author of the best prose translation of Dante.) After a few years spent at the ordinary parish school, Thomas was sent, in his thirteenth or fourteenth year, to the grammar school of the neighboring town of Annan; and here it was that he first became acquainted with a man destined, like himself, to a career of great celebrity. “The first time I saw Edward Irving,” writes Mr. Carlyle in 1835, “was six-and-twenty years ago, in his native town, Annan. He was fresh from Edinburgh, with college prizes, high character, and promise: he had come to see our school-master, who had also been his. We heard of famed professors—of high matters, classical, mathematical—a whole Wonderland of knowledge; nothing but joy, health, hopefulness without end, looked out from the blooming young man.” Irving was then sixteen years of age, Carlyle fourteen; and from that time till Irving’s sad and premature death, the two were intimate and constant friends. It was not long before Carlyle followed Irving to that “Wonderland of Knowledge,” the University of Edinburgh, of which, and its “famed professors,” he had received such tidings. If the description of the nameless German university, however, in “Sartor Resartus,” is to be supposed as allusive also to Mr. Carlyle’s own reminiscences of his training at Edinburgh, he seems afterwards to have held the more formal or academic part of that training in no very high respect. “What vain jargon of controversial metaphysic, etymology, and mechanical manipulation, falsely named science, was current there,” says Teufelsdröckh; “I indeed learned better perhaps than most.” At Edinburgh, the professor of “controversial metaphysic” in Carlyle’s day, was Dr. Thomas Brown, Dugald Stewart having then just retired; physical science and mathematics, were represented by Playfair and Sir John Leslie, and classical studies by men less known to fame. While at college, Carlyle’s special bent, so far as the work of the classes was concerned, seems to have been to mathematics and natural philosophy. But it is rather by his voluntary studies and readings, apart from the work of the classes, that Mr. Carlyle, in his youth, laid the foundation of his vast and varied knowledge. The college session in Edinburgh extends over about half the year, from November to April; and during these months, the college library, and other such libraries as were accessible, were laid under contribution by him to an extent till then hardly paralleled by any Scottish student. Works on science and mathematics, works on philosophy, histories of all ages, and the great classics of British literature, were read by him miscellaneously or in orderly succession; and it was at this period, also, if we are not mistaken, he commenced his studies—not very usual then in Scotland—in the foreign languages of modern Europe. With the same diligence, and in very much the same way, were the summer vacations employed, during which he generally returned to his father’s house in Dumfries-shire, or rambled among the hills and moors of that neighborhood.
Mr. Carlyle had begun his studies with a view to entering the Scottish Church. About the time, however, when these studies were nearly ended, and when, according to the ordinary routine, he might have become a preacher, a change of views induced him to abandon the intended profession. This appears to have been about the year 1819 or 1820, when he was twenty-four years of age. For some time, he seems to have been uncertain as to his future course. Along with Irving, he employed himself for a year or two, as a teacher in Fifeshire; but gradually it became clear to him, that his true vocation was that of literature. Accordingly, parting from Irving, about the year 1822, the younger Scot of Annandale, deliberately embraced the alternative open to him, and became a general man of letters. Probably few have ever embraced that profession with qualifications so wide, or with aims so high and severe. Apart altogether from his diligence in learning, and from the extraordinary amount of acquired knowledge of all kinds, which was the fruit of it, there had been remarked in him, from the first, a strong originality of character, a noble earnestness and fervor in all that he said or did, and a vein of inherent constitutional contempt for the mean and the frivolous, inclining him, in some degree, to a life of isolation and solitude. Add to this, that his acquaintance with German literature, in particular, had familiarized him with ideas, modes of thinking, and types of literary character, not then generally known in this country, and yet, in his opinion, more deserving of being known than much of a corresponding kind that was occupying and ruling British thought.
The first period of Mr. Carlyle’s literary life may be said to extend from 1822 to 1827, or from his twenty-sixth to his thirty-second year. It was during this period that he produced (besides a translation of Legendre’s “Geometry,” to which he prefixed an “Essay on Proportion,”) his numerous well-known translations from German writers, and also his “Life of Schiller.” The latter and a considerable proportion of the former, were written by him during the leisure afforded him by an engagement he had formed in 1823, as tutor to Charles Buller, whose subsequent brilliant though brief career in the politics of Britain, gives interest to this connection. The first part of the “Life of Schiller” appeared originally in the “London Magazine,” of which John Scott was editor, and Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Allan Cunningham, De Quincey, and Hood, were the best known supporters; and the second and third parts, were published in the same magazine in 1824. In this year appeared also the translation of Göthe’s “Wilhelm Meister,” which was published by Messrs. Oliver and Boyd, of Edinburgh, without the translator’s name. This translation, the first real introduction of Göthe to the reading world of Great Britain, attracted much notice. “The translator,” said a critic in “Blackwood,” “is, we understand, a young gentleman in this city, who now for the first time appears before the public. We congratulate him on his very promising debut; and would fain hope to receive a series of really good translations from his hand. He has evidently a perfect knowledge of German; he already writes English better than is at all common, even at this time; and we know of no exercise more likely to produce effects of permanent advantage upon a young mind of intellectual ambition.” The advice here given to Mr. Carlyle by his critic, was followed by him in so far that, in 1827, he published in Edinburgh, his “Specimens of German Romance,” in four volumes; one of these containing “Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre,” as a fresh specimen of Göthe; the others containing tales from Jean Paul, Tieck, Musæus, and Hoffman. Meanwhile, in 1825, Mr. Carlyle had revised and enlarged his “Life of Schiller,” and given it to the world in a separate form, through the press of Messrs. Taylor and Hessay, the proprietors of the “London Magazine.” In the same year, quitting his tutorship of Charles Buller, he had married a lady fitted in a pre-eminent degree to be the wife of such a man. (It is interesting to know that Mrs. Carlyle, originally Miss Welch, is a lineal descendent of the Scottish Reformer, Knox.) For some time after the marriage, Mr. Carlyle continued to reside in Edinburgh; but before 1827 he removed to Craigenputtoch, a small property in the most solitary part of Dumfries-shire.
The second period of Mr. Carlyle’s literary life, extending from 1827 to 1834, or from his thirty-second to his thirty-ninth year, was the period of the first decided manifestations of his extraordinary originality as a thinker. Probably the very seclusion in which he lived helped to develope, in stronger proportions, his native and peculiar tendencies. The following account of his place and mode of life at this time was sent by him, in 1828, to Göthe, with whom he was then in correspondence, and was published by the great German in the preface to a German translation of the “Life of Schiller,” executed under his immediate care:—“Dumfries is a pleasant town, containing about fifteen thousand inhabitants, and to be considered the centre of the trade and judicial system of a district which possesses some importance in the sphere of Scottish activity. Our residence is not in the town itself, but fifteen miles to the northwest of it, among the granite hills and the black morasses which stretch westward through Galloway almost to the Irish Sea. In this wilderness of heath and rock, our estate stands forth a green oasis, a tract of ploughed, partly inclosed and planted ground, where corn ripens and trees afford a shade, although surrounded by sea-mews and rough-woolled sheep. Here, with no small effort, have we built and furnished a neat, substantial dwelling; here, in the absence of a professional or other office, we live to cultivate literature according to our strength, and in our own peculiar way. We wish a joyful growth to the roses and flowers of our garden; we hope for health and peaceful thoughts to further our aims. The roses, indeed, are still in part to be planted, but they blossom already in anticipation. Two ponies which carry us every where, and the mountain air, are the best medicine for weak nerves. This daily exercise, to which I am much devoted, is my only recreation; for this nook of ours is the loneliest in Britain—six miles removed from any one likely to visit me. Here Rousseau would have been as happy as on his island of Saint-Pierre. My town friends, indeed, ascribe my sojourn here to a similar disposition, and forbode me no good result; but I came hither solely with the design to simplify my way of life, and to secure the independence through which I could be enabled to remain true to myself. This bit of earth is our own; here we can live, write, and think, as best pleases ourselves, even though Zoilus himself were to be crowned the monarch of literature. Nor is the solitude of such great importance, for a stage-coach takes us speedily to Edinburgh, which we look upon as our British Weimar; and have I not, too, at this moment, piled upon the table of my little library, a whole cart-load of French, German, American, and English journals and periodicals—whatever may be their worth? Of antiquarian studies, too, there is no lack.”
Before this letter was written, Mr. Carlyle had already begun the well-known series of his contributions to the “Edinburgh Review.” The first of these was his essay on “Jean Paul,” which appeared in 1827; and was followed by his striking article on “German Literature,” and by his singularly beautiful essay on “Burns” (1828). Other essays in the same periodical followed, as well as articles in the “Foreign Quarterly Review,” which was established in 1828, and shorter articles of less importance in Brewster’s “Edinburgh Encyclopedia,” then in course of publication. Externally, in short, at this time, Mr. Carlyle was a writer for reviews and magazines, choosing to live, for the convenience of his work and the satisfaction of his own tastes, in a retired nook of Scotland, whence he could correspond with his friends, occasionally visit the nearest of them, and occasionally also receive visits from them in turn. Among the friends whom he saw in his occasional visits to Edinburgh, were Jeffrey, Wilson, and other literary celebrities of that capital (Sir Walter Scott, we believe, he never met otherwise than casually in the streets); among the more distant friends who visited him, none was more welcome than the American Emerson, who, having already been attracted to him by his writings, made a journey to Dumfries-shire, during his first visit to England, expressly to see him; and of his foreign correspondents, the most valued by far was Göthe, whose death in 1832, and that of Scott in the same year, impressed him deeply, and were finely commemorated by him.
Meanwhile, though thus ostensibly but an occasional contributor to periodicals, Mr. Carlyle was silently throwing his whole strength into a work which was to reveal him in a far other character than that of a mere literary critic, however able and profound. This was his “Sartor Resartus;” or, an imaginary History of the Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh, an eccentric German professor and philosopher. Under this quaint guise (the name “Sartor Resartus” being, it would appear, a translation into Latin of “The Tailor done over,” which is the title of an old Scottish song), Mr. Carlyle propounded, in a style half-serious and half-grotesque, and in a manner far more bold and trenchant than the rules of review-writing permitted, his own philosophy of life and society in almost all their bearings. The work was truly an anomaly in British literature, exhibiting a combination of deep, speculative power, poetical genius, and lofty moral purpose, with wild and riotous humor and shrewd observation and satire, such as had rarely been seen; and coming into the midst of the more conventional British literature of the day, it was like a fresh but barbaric blast from the hills and moorlands amid which it had been conceived. But the very strangeness and originality of the work prevented it from finding a publisher; and after the manuscript had been returned by several London firms to whom it was offered, the author was glad to cut it into parts and publish it piecemeal in “Frazer’s Magazine.” Here it appeared in the course of 1833-34, scandalising most readers by its Gothic mode of thought and its extraordinary torture, as it was called, of the English language; but eagerly read by some sympathetic minds, who discerned in the writer a new power in literature, and wondered who and what he was.
With the publication of the “Sartor Resartus” papers, the third period of Mr. Carlyle’s literary life may be said to begin. It was during the negotiations for the publication that he was led to contemplate removing to London—a step which he finally took, we believe, in 1834. Since that year—the thirty-ninth of his life—Mr. Carlyle has permanently resided in London, in a house situated in one of the quiet streets running at right angles to the River Thames, at Chelsea. The change into the bustle of London, from the solitude of Craigenputtoch was, externally, a great one. In reality, however, it was less than it seemed. A man in the prime of life, when he came to reside in the metropolis, he brought into its roar and confusion, not the restless spirit of a young adventurer, but the settled energy of one who had ascertained his strength, and fixed his methods and his aims.
Among the Maginns and others who contributed to “Frazer,” he at once took his place as a man rather to influence than be influenced; and gradually, as the circle of his acquaintances widened so as to include such notable men as John Mill, Sterling, Maurice, Leigh Hunt, Browning, Thackeray, and others of established or rising fame in all walks of speculation and literature, the recognition of his rare personal powers of influence became more general and deep. In particular, in that London circle, in which John Sterling moved, was his personal influence great, even while as yet he was but the anonymous author of the “Sartor Resartus” papers, and of numerous other contributions, also anonymous, to “Frazer’s Magazine,” and the “Edinburgh,” “Foreign Quarterly,” “British and Foreign,” and “Westminster,” Reviews. It was not till 1837, or his forty-second year, that his name, already so well known to an inner circle of admirers, was openly associated with a work fully proportional to his powers. This was his “French Revolution: a History,” in three volumes, the extraordinary merits of which as at once a history and a gorgeous prose-epic, are known to all. In 1838, the “Sartor Resartus” papers, already re-published in the United States, were put forth, collectively, with his name; and, in the same year, his various scattered articles in periodicals, after having similarly received the honor of re-publication in America, were given to the world in four volumes, in their chronological series from 1827 to 1837, under the title of “Miscellanies.” Mr. Carlyle’s next publication was his little tract on “Chartism,” published in 1839, in which, to use the words of one of his critics, “he first broke ground on the Condition of England question.”
During the time when these successive publications were carrying his name through the land, Mr. Carlyle appeared in a new capacity, and delivered four courses of lectures in London to select but crowded audiences, including many of the aristocracy both of rank and of literature: the first, a course on “German Literature,” delivered at Willis’s Rooms in 1837; the second, a course on “The History of Literature, or the Successive Periods of European Culture,” delivered in Edward-street, Portman-square, in 1838; the third, a course on “the Revolutions of Modern Europe,” delivered in 1839; and the fourth, a course on “Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History,” delivered in 1840. This last course alone was published; and it became more immediately popular than any of the works which had preceded it. It was followed, in 1843, by “Past and Present,” a work contrasting, in a historico-philosophical spirit, English society of the middle ages with English society in our own day; and this again, in 1845, by “Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, with elucidations and a connecting narrative;” such being the unpretending form which a work, originally intended to be a history of Cromwell and his times, ultimately assumed. By the year 1849, this work had reached a third edition. In 1850, appeared the “Latter-Day Pamphlets,” in which, more than in any previous publication, the author spoke out in the character of a social and political censor of his own age. From their very nature, as stern denunciations of what the author considered contemporary fallacies, wrongs, and hypocrisies, these pamphlets produced a storm of critical indignation against Mr. Carlyle, which was still raging, when, in 1851, he gave to the world his “Life of John Sterling.” While we write (April, 1856) this, with the exception of some papers in periodicals, is the last publication that has proceeded from his pen; but at the present the British public are anxiously expecting a “History of the Life and Times of Frederick the Great,” in which he is known to have been long engaged. A collection of some of the most striking opinions, sentiments, and descriptions, contained in all his works hitherto written, has been published in a single volume, entitled, “Passages selected from the Writings of Thomas Carlyle,” (1855,) from the memoir prefixed to which, by the editor, Mr. Thomas Ballantyne, we have derived most of the facts for this notice.
An appreciation of Mr. Carlyle’s genius and of his influence on British thought and literature, is not to be looked for here, and indeed is hardly possible in the still raging conflict of opinions—one might even say, passions and parties—respecting him. The following remarks, however, by one of his critics, seems to us to express what all must admit to be the literal truth:—“It is nearly half a generation since Mr. Carlyle became an intellectual power in this country; and certainly rarely, if ever, in the history of literature, has such a phenomenon been witnessed as that of his influence. Throughout the whole atmosphere of this island his spirit has diffused itself, so that there is, probably, not an educated man under forty years of age, from Caithness to Cornwall, that can honestly say that he has not been more or less affected by it. Not to speak of his express imitators, one can hardly take up a book or a periodical, without finding some expression or some mode of thinking that bears the mint-mark of his genius.” The same critic notices it as a peculiarity in Mr. Carlyle’s literary career, that, whereas most men begin with the vehement and the controversial, and gradually become calm and acquiescent in things as they are, he began as an artist in pure literature, a critic of poetry, song, and the drama, and has ended as a vehement moralist and preacher of social reforms, disdaining the etiquette and even the name of pure literature, and more anxious to rouse than to please. With this development of his views of his own functions as a writer, is connected the development of his literary style, from the quiet and pleasing, though still solid and deep beauty of his earlier writings, to that later and more peculiar, and to many, disagreeable form, which has been nicknamed ‘the Carlylese.’
As all the world knows, two volumes of Carlyle’s Frederick the Great have recently appeared. We might add, from personal acquaintance, many anecdotes, but we have learned, during a long residence abroad, to respect the hospitality that we have enjoyed.
O. W. Wight.