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Thomas Carlyle


Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), Scottish born biographer, historian, philosopher and prolific author wrote Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdrockh (1831);

So have we endeavored, from the enormous, amorphous Plum-pudding, more like a Scottish Haggis, which Herr Teufelsdrockh had kneaded for his fellow-mortals, to pick out the choicest Plums, and present them separately on a cover of our own. A laborious, perhaps a thankless enterprise; in which, however, something of hope has occasionally cheered us, and of which we can now wash our hands not altogether without satisfaction. If hereby, though in barbaric wise, some morsel of spiritual nourishment have been added to the scanty ration of our beloved British world, what nobler recompense could the Editor desire? If it prove otherwise, why should he murmur? Was not this a Task which Destiny, in any case, had appointed him; which having now done with, he sees his general Day's-work so much the lighter, so much the shorter?--Book III, Chapter 12

Thomas Carlyle, the eldest of nine children, was born on 4 December 1795. The family home was built and designed in part by his hard working father, stonemason James Carlyle (1757-1832) and was called Arch House, in Ecclefechan, in the district of Annandale, county Dumfries, Scotland. An arched doorway and an arched window centred on the second floor give the home its name. Carlyle 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, and, like many peasant Scotsmen who had sons with a gift for great learning he wanted his eldest Thomas 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, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne for solace.

In 1809, at the age of fourteen, Carlyle was 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 Carlyle became schoolmaster for first the Annan, then Kirkaldy Grammar Schools. He 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, and retreated to his parent's home 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. It turned out to be a success. Carlyle was beginning to be regarded as somewhat of a pioneer in the area of translation of German works. The Reviews of the day were publishing his material but Carlyle remained wracked with doubt as to his own abilities. He met the Bullers in London in the spring of 1824 and lived with them for a time, whereupon he was to meet 'the very best figures in literary society', including poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

By 1824 Carlyle was writing full-time and studying German literature, in particular Fichte's transcendentalism. His Life of Schiller (1825) first appeared in London Magazine in 1823-1824. He was also immensely impressed with Johann Wolfgang von 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 Ralph Waldo 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. They were back to their difficult country life for a few years, with long silences between them, quarrelling, and suffering a lack of social contacts. Carlyle often read from 9AM to 10PM. He went horseback riding alone. The tedious days of life on the moors were broken up by the arrival of the young American poet Ralph Waldo 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 Charles Dickens, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Darwin and John 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; 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. Hero Worship was published in 1841. 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, for 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 to his friend Emerson. 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, London, England, to care for him. On his eighty-fourth birthday, Robert Browning and John 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. Thomas Carlyle died on 5 February 1881 in London, his last words "Good bye". 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 pri...

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 seriou...

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 ap...

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