Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

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 stone-mason and had built with his own hands the house in which his son Thomas was born. The little village of Ecclefechan was about six miles from the Solway Firth, among the pasture lands of the vale of Annan. Here Thomas grew to be a boy running about barefooted and sturdy with his many brothers and sisters, and one step-brother older than himself.

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 eye-servant.' They are little texts to me of the gospel of man's free will." But there were meanwhile many little folks to clothe, many hungry little mouths to fill, so their clothes were of the plainest, and porridge and milk, and potatoes forming their only fare. "It was not a joyful life," says Thomas—"what life is?—yet a safe, quiet one; above most others, or any others I have witnessed, a wholesome one."

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 school-days came to an end. He was not yet fourteen, but he had proved himself so eager a scholar that his father decided to send him to college and let him become a minister.

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 Mrs. Carlyle. Here was solitude indeed. The air was so quiet that the very sheep could be heard nibbling. For miles around there was no house, the post came only once a week, and months at a time would go past without a visitor crossing the doorstep.

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 far-off wilderness. So he made the great plunge, and saying good-by to the quiet of barren rock and moorland he came to live in London. He took a house in Cheyne Row in Chelsea, and this for the rest of his life was his home. But at first London was hardly less lonely than Craigenputtock. It seemed impossible to make people want either Carlyle or his books. "He had created no 'public' of his own," says a friend who wrote his life, "the public which existed could not understand his writings and would not buy them, nor could he be induced so much as to attempt to please it; and thus it was that in Cheyne Row he was more neglected than he had been in Scotland."

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 better!—

"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 other. . . .

"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, seamy-faced, raw-boned College Servitor stalking about, in winter season, with his shoes worn out; how the charitable Gentleman Commoner secretly places a new pair at his door, and the raw-boned Servitor, lifting them, looking at them near, with his dim eyes, with what thought,—pitches them out of window! Wet feet, mud, frost, hunger, or what you will; but not beggary: we cannot stand beggary! Rude stubborn self-help here; a whole world of squalor, rudeness, confused misery and want, yet of nobleness and manfulness withal.

"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 us!—

"And yet with all this rugged pride of manhood and self-help, was there ever soul more tenderly affectionate, loyally submissive to what was really higher than he? Great souls are always loyally submissive, reverent to what is over them; only small souls are otherwise. . . .

"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 watch-seal'; no, but he stands by truth, speaks by it, works and lives by it. Thus it ever is. . . .

"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 Doubt. . . .

"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 to-day the light of Carlyle as a prophet may be somewhat dimmed, we may still find, as a great man of his own day found, that the good his writings do us, is "not as philosophy to instruct, but as poetry to animate."

Carlyle went steadily on with his writing. In the summer he 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. The sound-proof room was not, however, a great success, for though it kept out some noises it let in others even worse.

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 Mrs. Carlyle named "noblemen's seats."

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, large-featured, dime-eyed, bronze-coloured, shaggy-headed man is Alfred; dusty, smoky, free and easy; who swims outwardly and inwardly with great composure in an articulate element as of tranquil chaos and tobacco smoke; great, now and then when he does emerge; a most restful, brotherly, whole-hearted man." Or again: "Smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical, metallic, fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between. I do not meet in these late decades such company over a pipe. We shall see what he will grow to."

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 gray-haired men. They talked and smoked and walked about together often at night through the lamp-lit streets, sometimes in the wind, and rain, Carlyle crying out as they walked along against the dirt and squalor and noise of London, "that healthless, profitless, mad and heavy-laden place,"  "that Devil's Oven."


Carlyle and Tennyson talked and smoked together.

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, "Tom Carlyle lives in perfect dignity in a little 40 pound house in Chelsea, with a snuffy Scotch maid to open the door; and the best company in England ringing at 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 seventy-one, a famous man, he returned to make his speech upon entering his office as Rector.

This speech was a splendid success, his reception magnificent, "a perfect triumph," as a friend telegraphed to Mrs. Carlyle waiting anxiously for news in London. For a few days Carlyle lingered in Scotland. Then he was suddenly recalled home by the terrible news that his wife had died suddenly while out driving. It was a crushing blow. Only when it was too late did Carlyle realize all that his wife had been to him. She was, as he wrote on her tombstone, "Suddenly snatched away from him, and the light of his life as if gone out."

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 eighty-five he died.

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,by D. M. Ford.

Readings from Carlyle, by W. Keith Leask.

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