Carlyle—The Sage of Chelsea
J OHN KEATS was little more than a month old, when far away across the Border another little baby boy was born. His parents, too, were simple folk, and he, too, was born to be great.
This boy's name was Thomas Carlyle. His father was a
But he did not run about quite wild, for by the time he was five his mother had taught him to read and his father had taught him to do sums, and then he was sent to the village school.
James Carlyle was a good and steady workman. Long afterwards his
famous son said of him, "Nothing that he undertook to do but he
did it faithfully and like a true man. I shall look on the
houses he built with a certain proud interest. They stand firm
and sound to the heart all over his little district. No one that
comes after him will ever say, 'Here was the finger of a hollow
Between the earnest and frugal father and mother and their children there was a great and reverent though quiet love, and poor though they were, the parents determined that their children should be well taught, so when Thomas was ten he was sent to a school at Annan some five miles away, where he could learn more than in the little village school.
On a bright May morning Thomas set out trotting gayly by his father's side. This was his first venture into the world, and his heart was full of hopes just dashed with sadness at leaving his mother. But the wonderful new world of school proved a bitter disappointment to the little fellow. He had a violent temper, and his mother, fearing into what he might be led when far from her, made him promise never to return a blow. Thomas kept his promise, with the result that his fellows, finding they might torment him with safety, tormented him without mercy.
In a book called Sartor Resartus which Carlyle wrote later, and which here and there was called forth by a memory of his own life, he says:
"My schoolfellows were boys, most rude boys, and obeyed the impulse of rude nature which bids the deer herd fall upon any stricken hart, the duck flock put to death any broken-winged brother or sister, and on all hands the strong tyrannise over the weak."
So Thomas at school was unhappy and lonely and tormented. But one day, unable to bear the torment longer, he flew at one of the biggest bullies in the school.
The result was a fight in which Thomas got the worst, but, he had shown his fellows what he could do, he was tormented no longer. Yet ever afterwards he bore an unhappy remembrance of those days at school.
After three years his
So early one November morning he set out in the cold and dark upon his long tramp of more than eighty miles to Edinburgh. It was dark when he left the house, and his father and mother went with him a little way, and then they turned back and left Tom to trudge along in the growing light, with another boy a year or two older who was returning to college.
Little is known of Carlyle's college days. After five years' study, at nineteen he became a schoolmaster, still with the intention of later becoming a minister as his father wished. But for teaching Carlyle had no love, and after some years of it, first in schools and then as a private tutor, he gave it up. He gave up, too, the idea of becoming a minister, for he found he had lost the simple faith of his fathers and could not with good conscience teach to others what he did not thoroughly believe himself. He gave up, too, the thought of becoming a barrister, for after a little study he found he had no bent for law.
Already he had begun to write. Besides other things he had translated and published Wilhelm Meister, a story by the great German poet, Goethe. It was well received. The great Goethe himself wrote a kind letter to his translator. It came to him, said Carlyle, "like a message from fairyland." And thus encouraged, after drifting here and there, trying first one thing and then another, Carlyle gave himself up to literature.
Meanwhile he had met and loved a beautiful and clever lady named Jane Walsh. She was above him in station, witty, and sought after. Admiring the genius of Carlyle she yet had no mind she said to marry a poor genius. But she did, and so began a long mistake of forty years.
The newly married couple took a cottage on the outskirts of
Edinburgh, and there Carlyle settled down to his writing. But
money coming in slowly, Carlyle found he could no longer afford
to live in Edinburgh. So after a year and a half of cheerful,
social life, surrounded by many cultured friends, he and his wife
moved to Craigenputtock, a lonely house fourteen miles from
Dumfries, which belonged to
To Carlyle, who hated noises, who all his life long waged war against howling dogs and "demon" fowls, the silence and loneliness were delightful. His work took all his thoughts, filled all his life. He did not remember that what to him was simply peaceful quiet was for his witty, social wife a dreary desert of loneliness. Carlyle was not only, as his mother said, "gey ill to deal wi'," but also "gey ill to live wi'." For he was a genius and a sick genius. He was nervous and bilious and suffered tortures from indigestion which made him often gloomy and miserable.
It was not a happy fortune which cast Jane and Thomas Carlyle together into this loneliness. Still the days passed not all in gloom, Thomas writing a wonderful book, Sartor Resartus, and Jane using all her cleverness to make the home beautiful and comfortable. For they were very poor, and Jane, who before her marriage had no knowledge of housekeeping, found herself obliged to cook and do much of the housework herself.
Nearly all Carlyle's first books had to do with German literature. He translated stories from great German writers and wrote about the authors. And just as Byron had taught people on the Continent to read English literature, so Carlyle taught English people to read German literature. He steeped himself so thoroughly in German that he himself came to write English, if I may so express it, with a German accent. Carlyle's style is harsh and rugged. It has a vividness and picturesqueness all his own, but when Carlyle began to write people cared neither for his style nor for his subjects. He found publishers hard to persuade, and life was by no means easy.
When Sartor was finished Carlyle took it to London, but could find no one willing to publish it. So it was cut up into articles and published in a magazine "and was then mostly laughed at," says Carlyle, and many declared they would stop taking the magazine unless these ridiculous papers ceased. Not until years had passed was it published in book form.
I do not think I can make you understand the charm of Sartor. It is a prose poem and a book you must leave for the years to come. Sartor Resartus means "The tailor patched again." And under the guise of a philosophy of clothes Carlyle teaches that man and everything belonging to him is only the expression of the one great real thing—God. "Thus in this one pregnant subject of Clothes, rightly understood, is included all that men have thought, dreamed, done, and been."
The book is full of humor and wisdom, of stray lightenings, and deep growlings. There are glimpses of "a story" to be caught too. It is perhaps the most Carlylean book Carlyle ever wrote. But let it lie yet awhile on your bookshelf unread.
At the end of six years or so Carlyle decided that Craigenputtock
was of no use to him. He wanted to get the ear of the world, to
make the world listen to him. It would not listen to him when he
spoke from a
Still in spite of neglect Carlyle worked on, now writing his great French Revolution. He labored for months at this book, and at length having finished the first volume of it he lent it to a friend to read. This friend left it lying about, and a servant thinking it waste paper destroyed it. In great distress he came to tell Carlyle what had happened. It was a terrible blow, for Carlyle had earned nothing for months, and money was growing scarce. But he bravely hid his consternation and comforted his friend. "We must try to hide from him how very serious this business is to us," were the first words he said to his wife when they were alone together. Long afterwards when asked how he felt when he heard the news, "Well, I just felt like a man swimming without water," he replied.
So once more he set to work rewriting all that had been lost. In 1837 the book was published, and from that time Carlyle took his place in the world as a man of genius. But money was still scarce, so as a means of making some, he gave several courses of lectures. But he hated it. "O heaven!" he cries, "I cannot speak. I can only gasp and write and stutter, a spectacle to gods and fashionables,—being forced to it by want of money." One course of these lectures—the last—was on Heroes and Hero Worship. This may be one of the first of Carlyle's book that you will care to read, and you may now like to hear what he has to say of Samuel Johnson in The Hero as a Man of Letters.
"As for Johnson, I have always considered him to be, by nature,
one of our great English souls. A strong and noble man; so much
left undeveloped in him to the last; in a kindlier element what
might he not have been,—Poet, Priest, Sovereign Ruler! On the
whole, a man must not complain of his 'element,' or his 'time' or
the like; it is thriftless work doing so. His time is bad; well
then, he is there to make it
"Johnson's youth was poor, isolated, hopeless, very miserable.
Indeed, it does not seem possible that, in any of the
favourablest outward circumstances, Johnson's life could have
been other than a painful one. The world might have had more
profitable work out of him, or less; but his effort against the
world's work could never have been a light one. Nature, in
return for his nobleness, had said to him, 'Live in an element of
diseased sorrow.' Nay, perhaps the sorrow and the nobleness were
intimately and even inseparably connected with each
"The largest soul that was in all England; and provision made for
it of 'fourpence halfpenny a day.' Yet a giant, invincible soul;
a true man's. One remembers always that story of the shoes at
Oxford; the rough,
"It is a type of the man's life, this pitching away of the shoes,
an original man;—not a second hand, borrowing or begging man.
Let us stand on our own basis, at any rate! On such shoes as we
ourselves can get. On frost and mud, if you will, but honestly
on that;—On the reality and substance which nature gives us, not
on the semblance, on the thing she has given another than
"And yet with all this rugged pride of manhood and
"It was in virtue of his sincerity, of his speaking still in some
sort from the heart of Nature, though in the current artificial
dialect, that Johnson was a Prophet. . . . Mark, too, how little
Johnson boasts of his 'sincerity.' He has no suspicion of his
being particularly sincere,—of his being particularly anything!
A hard-struggling, weary-hearted man, or 'scholar' as he calls
himself, trying hard to get some honest livelihood in the world,
not to starve, but to live,—without stealing! A noble
unconsciousness is in him. He does not 'engrave Truth on his
"Johnson was a Prophet to his people: preached a Gospel to
them,—as all like him always do. The highest Gospel he preached
we may describe as a kind of moral Prudence: 'in a world where
much is to be done, and little is to be known,' see how you will
do it! A thing
well worth preaching. 'A world where much is to
be done, and little is to be known,' do not sink yourselves in
boundless, bottomless abysses of
"Such Gospel Johnson preached and taught;—coupled with this other great Gospel. 'Clear your mind of Cant!' Have no trade with Cant: stand on the cold mud in the frosty weather, but let it be in your own real torn shoes: 'that will be better for you,' as Mahomet says! I call this, I call these two things joined together, a great Gospel, the greatest perhaps that was possible at that time."
I give this quotation from Heroes because there is, in some ways a great likeness between Johnson and Carlyle. Both were sincere, and both after a time of poverty and struggle ruled the thought of their day. For Carlyle became known by degrees, and became, like Johnson before him, a great literary man. He was sought after by the other writers of his day, who came to listen to the growlings of the "Sage of Chelsea."
Carlyle, like Johnson, was a Prophet with a message. "Carlyle," says a French writer, "has taken up a mission; he is a prophet, the prophet of sincerity. This sincerity or earnestness he would have applied everywhere: he makes it the law, the healthy and holy law, of art, of morals, of politics." And through all Carlyle's exaggeration and waywardness of diction we find that note ring clear again and again. Be sincere, find the highest, and worship it with all thy mind and heart and will.
And although for us of
Carlyle went steadily on with his writing. In the
would have his table and tray of books brought out into the
garden so that he could write in the open air, but much of his
work, too, was done in a "sound proof" room which he built at the
top of the house in order to escape from the horror of noise.
When visitors came they were received either indoors or in the
little garden which Carlyle found "of admirable comfort in the
smoking way." In the garden they smoked and talked sitting on
kitchen chairs, or on the quaint china barrels which
Among the many friends Carlyle made was the young poet Alfred Tennyson. Returning from a walk one day he found a splendidly handsome young man sitting in the garden talking to his wife. It was the poet.
Here is how Carlyle describes his new friend: "A fine,
Although Carlyle was older than Tennyson by fourteen years, this
was the beginning of a friendship which strengthened with years
and lasted when they were both
The years passed and Carlyle added book to book. Perhaps of them all that which we should be most grateful for is his Life and Letters of Cromwell. For in this book he set Cromwell in a new light, a better light than he had ever been set before. Carlyle is a hero worshiper, and in Cromwell as a hero he can find no fault. He had of course his faults like other men, and he had no need of such blind championship. For in his letters and speeches, gathered together and given to the world by Carlyle, he speaks for himself. In them we find one to whom we may look up as a true hero, a man of strength to trust. We find, too, a man of such broad kindliness, a man of such a tender human heart that we may love him.
Another great book was Carlyle's History of Frederick the Great. It is a marvelous piece of historical work, and as volume after volume appeared Carlyle's fame steadily rose.
"No critic," says his first biographer, Froude, "no critic after the completion of Frederick, challenged Carlyle's right to a place beside the greatest of English authors, past and present." He was a great historian, but in the history he gives us not dead facts, but living, breathing men and women. His pages are as full of color and of life as the pages of Shakespeare.
The old days of struggle and want were long over, but the
Carlyles still lived the simple life in the little Chelsea house.
As another writer
has quaintly put it,
Then in 1865 Carlyle was chosen Lord Rector of Edinburgh University, and although this could add little to his fame, he was glad that his own country had recognized his greatness.
Fifty years before, he had left the University a poor and unknown
lad. Now at
This speech was a splendid success, his reception magnificent, "a
perfect triumph," as a friend telegraphed to
The light indeed had gone out. The rest of his life was a sad twilight, filled with cruel remorse. He still wrote a little, and friends were kind, but his real work in life was done, and he felt bitterly alone.
Honors were offered him, a title if he would, a pension. But he
declined them all. For fifteen years life dragged along. Then
at the age of
He might have lain in Westminster among the illustrious dead. But such had not been his wish, so he was buried beside his father and mother in the old churchyard at Ecclefechan.
Books To Read
Stories from Carlyle,
Readings from Carlyle, by W. Keith Leask.