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Thomas Carlyle Critical Miscellaneous Essays About Love

Thomas Carlyle was an extremely long-lived Victorian author. He was also highly controversial, variously regarded as sage and impious, a moral leader, a moral desperado, a radical, a conservative, a Christian. Contradictions were rampant in the works of early biographers, and in the later twentieth century he is still far from being understood by a generation of critics awakening to his pivotal place in nineteenth-century Britain. His major works, long out of print and never properly edited, are soon to appear in new editions, thanks to the Essential Carlyle project (University of California Press), under the general editorship of Murray Baumgarten. The staggering correspondence he and his wife conducted with each other and with their formidable circle of friends and acquaintances (a circle which touched Victorian Britain at every point) will further enhance his reputation when the long process of editing and publishing it reaches an end. By 1985 twelve volumes of the Duke-Edinburgh edition of The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle (Duke University Press), edited by Charles Richard Sanders and others, had appeared. Volumes thirteen through fifteen are expected in 1987, and a total of forty volumes is planned. Carlyle is emerging from neglect and obscurity, from the dubious reputation of early fascist (which damned him for many in the 1930s and 1940s) or reactionary, windbag, and sham. Instead he is coming to be seen as innovator and survivor, a man born in the eighteenth century who lived through most of the nineteenth, whose early work predated Victoria's accession, and whose longevity almost matched his monarch's. Alive, he was an enigma; dead, he remains a problematic figure for the literary historian as well as for the critic.

Carlyle was definitely a Scot. Ecclefechan, his birthplace in rural southwest Scotland, was a farming village remote from the cities but on the main routes to the universities of Scotland, and to the burgeoning industrial center of England. Thomas Carlyle was the eldest son of a large family. His intensely pious parents, James Carlyle, a stonemason of extraordinary strength of character, and Margaret Aitken Carlyle, quieter but still intense, intended Thomas Carlyle for the Church, but his personal belief soon outgrew the limitations of their desire. He inherited their verbal gifts, their intense energy, and their will to succeed; he left behind their piety and rural values, passing through high school and Edinburgh University with a precocious interest in literature, in science, and in Scotland, which was enduring the tribulations of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. Carlyle was a voracious reader. He treated Edinburgh University distantly, reading on his own when he could, flinging himself into scientific and mathematical studies (which were his early ambition), restlessly trying out careers and rejecting teaching, the law, the Church, and free-lance translation and reviewing.

Early signs of lifelong dyspepsia date from these years, indicating long nights of reading and writing, a poor diet, and stress. An early affair with Margaret Gordon (Blumine in Carlyle's Sartor Resartus) shook his self-confidence, and his social links in Edinburgh became increasingly uneasy, particularly after he broke with his parents' Christian values. Though he never lost the broad outlines of the hierarchical, duty-dominated Calvinist world-picture of his youth, he found it sat uneasily with the new freedom of university reading and friendships, till in the early 1820s he discovered "a new Heaven and a new Earth" in German literature, in Schiller, and in Goethe. The result was electric: a clever but essentially sterile mathematical and scientific curiosity was transformed into the agency of a blazingly original synthesis of Carlyle's remaining Calvinist belief and his half-understood metaphysic and Romantic aspiration. The process of transformation, essentially, is the plot of the philosophical satire Sartor Resartus (1836): Carlyle's philosopher Diogenes Teufelsdröckh reflects his creator in his suffering and in the resolution of his life's crisis; happily, he speaks not only for Carlyle but for those many in the nineteenth century who found identification with orthodoxy in society and religion impossible and who were equally dissatisfied with quiescence. Teufelsdröckh's reaction is protest that saturates Sartor Resartus with an energy that is now seen as the book's most brilliant sustained achievement.

The similarities between Carlyle and his philosopher-hero are remarkable, despite Carlyle's later denials that Sartor Resartus was autobiographical. While recognition of the work's universality came slowly (Fraser's Magazine, where Sartor Resartus appeared first, in serial form, was the object of some reader hostility and the book had very few initial comments or reviews), it did eventually surface. In London, in 1831-1832 and after 1834, Carlyle had a circle in which he functioned as spokesman for an intelligent, articulate group with members as diverse as Harriet Martineau and John Stuart Mill—and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as is well known, thought little of crossing the Atlantic to find the author of Sartor Resartus. The combination of energy, allusive style, and symbolic layers of manipulation make Carlyle's early message at once seemingly precise and elastic enough to permit a wealth of personal identification; like Tennyson's In Memoriam, Sartor Resartus allows a good deal of reader latitude in identifying precise meaning and recognizing personal allusion. The early 1830s were a time for steady, puzzled growth in Carlyle's artistic reputation. His wife, Jane, saw in Sartor Resartus a work of genius from the start; slowly, the nineteenth century came to share her opinion.

Carlyle the man found steady resolutions to the crises of early manhood. While he was adjusting his faith in the 1820s, the crisis of loneliness and rejection was steadily lessened by his growing literary success as a translator and then as essayist and by the personal satisfaction of meeting Jane Welsh, whom he assiduously courted through four difficult years of conversation and correspondence. They married on 17 October 1826 and settled in an Edinburgh still enjoying the éclat of the Age of Scott. Finding it stimulating but too expensive, they moved to their celebrated fastness of Craigenputtoch, an isolated hill-farm in Dumfriesshire where they spent six years which saw the genesis of the essays eventually collected in Carlyle's Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1838) and, more important, of Sartor Resartus. He hated the silence, but he found it enabled him to write. Jane Carlyle, a lively and sociable person and brilliant conversationalist and raconteuse, had had quite enough by 1834 when a little affluence enabled them to move to London while Carlyle wrote his first major popular success, The French Revolution (1837), which has become a celebrated piece of historical writing.

In suburban but inexpensive Chelsea (the house still survives as a museum) the Carlyles established a life-style which changed very little over the years. They were never rich, but became increasingly comfortable. They entertained frugally, but their guests included the wits and thinkers, writers and public figures of their age, who flocked to enjoy the salon and above all the company of two of the century's great conversationalists. Dickens, Forster, Browning, Tennyson, Mazzini, Jewsbury, Martineau—all literary London seemed to enjoy a night with the Carlyles, or an account of one from their friends. Carlyle talked stupendously, often overbearingly, but his conversation was always stimulating. An outsider to much that stamped the English gentleman, lacking the background of public school and English university, he gave a view of his times and his society which often shocked his audience by virtue of its originality (as in the analysis of a "mechanical" society in the 1829 piece "Signs of the Times"), but impressed them nonetheless with its cogent, simple (some would say simplified) message.

Much of what we see now as Carlyle's "message" came from those early Scottish years—a Calvinist obsession with order, with duty, with work, with destiny; a fear of anarchy in the home, in the State, in international relations; an obsessive feeling that the times were morally degenerate; a narrow view of international affairs and an anti-intellectual view of the fine arts; a willingness to oversimplify, often knowingly, in order to make a start at reform, rather than allow visible degeneracy to proceed.

The Sage of Chelsea, or as some called him, the Sage of Ecclefechan, dominated a circle of disciples and cast a long shadow over distinguished contemporaries as various as Dickens and Tennyson, Browning and Forster, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell and George Eliot. Jane Carlyle had her own circle, less famous, still intensely clever and often advanced in particular on the question of woman's rights. In public Jane Carlyle deferred to her famous husband; in private she was a formidable presence, supportive of his creative work, ensuring the domestic order he craved, accepting his increasing eccentricity, and, finally, tolerating with bitterness his indifference to her feelings, his fascination with the aristocracy and particularly with Lady Harriet Ashburton. Jane Carlyle's health weakened steadily in the 1850s and 1860s; with his history of Frederick the Great finally complete in 1865, Carlyle intended to settle back and enjoy domestic retirement with Jane, but by then Jane was exhausted, and in 1866 while Carlyle was absent in Edinburgh, on the occasion of his installation as rector of his alma mater, Jane Carlyle collapsed in London and died.

Jane's death had a remarkable effect on her husband. While he continued his voluminous correspondence and worked in private on a brilliant autobiographical document which was to be published posthumously as his Reminiscences (1881), Carlyle was a spent force as a public writer. Without Jane he became lonely, embittered, valetudinarian. He was courted by a large circle of admirers and still respected by many despite his political inclinations, which leaned further and further to the right with advancing age and which, with the polemic that stretched from the publication of his Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question (1853) to Shooting Niagara: and After? (1867), finally alienated a whole generation of liberal thinkers including John Stuart Mill. Yet he was there, centrally a figure who had been in the public eye since the late 1820s, an innovator, a publicizer of new ideas, unquestionably an important writer and figurehead. When he died in 1881 there was a distinct sense that an era had ended.

Carlyle's early works, a translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1824), a biography of Friedrich Schiller (1825), and the four volumes of translations and biographical and critical notices entitled German Romance (1827), introduced to the British public those German writers who had opened new vistas for Carlyle himself. In the Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, Carlyle found that Goethe had given shape to what had seemed frighteningly shapeless in Carlyle's own life--the search for a faith, for an understanding of an apparently hostile and shapeless universe, and for a moral imperative to act on knowledge and self-knowledge. As Wilhelm Meister in his Wanderjahre moved away from sterile self-questioning to understanding and to action, and as Schiller resolved his personal problems to act and to produce great art, so Carlyle progressed to the world outside his study, the world of a Great Britain recovering from a major international conflict and grappling with the longer-term conflicts of industrialization, urban poverty, uncertain public and private faith, and a social system visibly ossified, visibly uncertain, yet fiercely resistant to the scale of change which seemed increasingly necessary to avert violence. In translating and studying German writers Carlyle found that personal problems very different from his own, yet clearly analogous, had solutions: in his early essays, Carlyle transferred that knowledge to analysis of his times and his country.

The 1829 essay "Signs of the Times" can be argued to mark the beginning of the Victorian age, even though Victoria was eight years from taking the throne. An original and clever piece of journalism, "Signs of the Times" ironically surveys the fallacies and weaknesses of a decade, sweetening a serious message which was developed two years later in another Edinburgh Review piece, "Characteristics." Briefly, that message had to do with the spiritual price to be paid for the industrial success and the onward movement of the early-nineteenth century: the reverberations of Carlyle's analysis were to be felt years later in Dickens's Hard Times (1854) and Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell's North and South (1855). "Mechanical" thinking, in Carlyle's description, accompanies and stultifies mechanical success. Man has moved mountains literally and metaphorically, but suddenly and without consideration. Reducing operatives to cyphers and giving up subtle and centuries-old mechanisms of an interdependent society, mankind has achieved miracles but discarded too much en route. Such, in brief, with amusing anecdotal outworks, is the message of Carlyle's early essays, which by the early 1840s were widely available on both sides of the Atlantic in the volumes entitled Critical and Miscellaneous Essays.

Several factors help account for their success. To make his points in these pieces Carlyle drew for illustrative purposes on his knowledge of Germans who wrote creatively (Goethe, Schiller) and philosophically (Kant), as well as on those who combined these functions (Richter, Novalis) to produce work which Carlyle frankly did not understand, but which he did manage to incorporate into his own original ideas (in, for example, "Thoughts on History," an often-reprinted periodical essay) and into the book which increasingly was forcing itself to the surface of his creative processes while he earned a living for Jane and himself with the essays.

Sartor Resartus is in some ways a baffling work. For one thing, its form is daringly experimental, borrowing the layered narrative techniques of Laurence Sterne and (less obviously) Henry Mackenzie and using multiple personae to present a chaotic picture of a chaotic reality. For another, the radicalism of Carlyle's work is cloaked and made oblique by a technique which aims at making impossible direct attribution to Carlyle of the radical premise (that the old clothes are worn out, that new clothes are needed, that violent change is not only desirable but also imminent). For the source of the narrative of Teufelsdröckh's life and career is, presumably, his editor, and the source of the editor's narrative is the conventional cache of papers, in this case some autobiographical, some analytic, some speculative, divided at random among a number of paper bags. From imperfect sources, with imperfect understanding, a fictional editor pieces together the story of the half-understood German mystic Teufelsdröckh, purportedly translating (seriously and frivolously by turns, as the sense dictated) from German originals and presenting the amalgam in an original and forceful exclamatory style.

Small wonder that the publisher's readers (whose puzzled comments Carlyle gleefully included in later editions) found it hard to cope with Sartor Resartus: genuinely original in form and content, it combines biography, autobiography, essay, and political commentary with a layered structure and avoidance of final meaning which makes it seem well in advance of its time. Its narrative thrust is to tell the story of a protagonist whose academic setting suggests that he should be taken seriously, though readers who possess a smattering of German can easily interpret both his name (Devil's Excrement) and his university (Nowhere in Particular) as obvious jokes. Teufelsdröckh follows a familiar path from struggling beginning and self-doubt to awakening sensitivity to a supernaturally alive universe, from the terrible "Everlasting NO" and "centre of indifference" to the explosion of energy and affirmation in the "Everlasting YEA" which marks the turning point of the book.

Typically, Carlyle mixes the serious with the almost farcical. In setting, name, manipulation of German for a largely ignorant readership, and manipulation of persona to hide overstatement, the book is clever tomfoolery. In passionate recollection of a personal descent into Hell reversed by a new, Goethean affirmation, in painfully oblique reminiscence of earlier rejection in love, society, and career, and in the undoubted frankness of a young man's renunciation of what is rotten in his society in favor of a juster and more egalitarian system, Sartor Resartus is unquestionably in deadly earnest. Jane Carlyle, a perceptive voice among early readers, pronounced it "a work of genius," and others took it as such (notably, Emerson) at a time when it was greeted with indifference or hostility. James Munroe of Boston had the honor of publishing Sartor Resartus in book form two years before it was published in London. The appearance of the three volumes of The French Revolution, in 1837 better acquainted readers with Carlyle's passionate style and his passionate belief in the need for society's rebirth, so that the seriousness of Sartor Resartus was more readily received, and now it is taken for a masterpiece, and rightly. To have conceived it on the Dumfriesshire moors was a major achievement: to have completed it made him ready to mix with his intellectual equals in London.

Settled in London, Carlyle found his environment changed and, with it, the process by which he wrote. Instead of the isolation of the Dumfriesshire hills, he had the stimulus of a major capital, its libraries (much as Carlyle execrated them as places to work), its personalities, its excitement. His thin nerves were no match for the noise and the pollution overtaking Chelsea even in 1834, but as an author he needed London. The French Revolution (1837) was the outcome of the first contact with the city and its riches. The libraries gave him resources for his scrupulous research. John Stuart Mill and his set gave him many ideas, either in serious discussion or in the verbal jousting they engaged in. The stream of visitors to Chelsea also gave Carlyle an audience. The loneliness of the creative process (Carlyle wrote with difficulty, revising endlessly) gave him a focus for the chaotic input of his very full life.

While writing The French Revolution, Carlyle suffered a severe setback--the loss of the handwritten draft for volume one. Though the episode is among the most famous in Victorian history, exactly what happened is not clear. It is known that the manuscript, messy and much rewritten in the course of Carlyle's hesitant creative process, was borrowed by Mill and that somehow it was mistaken for wastepaper and burned. Speculation as to how, when, and why the accident happened is impossible to corroborate: what is interesting is that, though Carlyle claimed to have kept no notes and to have rewritten volume one completely, fragments which survived the destruction tally very closely with the final published version. Although he may have kept some notes, the energy and courage Carlyle required to overcome his loss should not be underestimated. Perhaps it was inevitable that the warmest review of The French Revolution should have come from Mill. Others shared his enthusiasm: passionate, immediate, persuasive, The French Revolution touched events in the memories of many readers, and immediate in the history of many more. Fame and financial security followed this first major success, though not immediately.

While historians today have discredited much of the emphasis and interpretation Carlyle gave history in the volumes on France (and in the later works on Oliver Cromwell and Frederick the Great), few deny the power of Carlyle's view of the revolution. The historical research and annotation bespeak careful preparation, and the artistic impulse behind the finished work orders and selects, to orchestrate a pattern clearly of the author's choosing and to highlight his message of the inevitability of revolution in a France rotten with abused social privilege, skeptical freethinking, and human exploitation.

The French Revolution clearly articulates basic Carlylian principles: the king must rule, and the nobles effectively manage their estates; failing this, these orders of society must be put down. That a society based on bankrupt, mechanical, repetitive values will inevitably fail is taken for granted, and the magnificently described scenes of carnage and horror are presented not as aberration but as inevitable, tragic harvest after years of bad government. The Feast of Pikes, when blood ran in the streets of Paris, the storming of the Bastille, long enjoyed in isolation as bonbons of Victorian prose, should be seen in context as parts of Carlyle's argument that the French Revolution was history in action, the climax of a long and tragic plot, the letting-loose of the hounds of anarchy and popular revolution which could have been contained by strong and wise government, spiritual values, and good planning. Carlyle brought the conflict vividly to life for an audience who, in 1837, could remember uncomfortably the anarchy of Napoleonic war or Reform disturbance. The power of Carlyle as historian was not just to recreate the past but also to use his historical works to disturb the present.

Affluence came slowly. To eke out his early royalties, Carlyle had to give annual lectures, a process he detested and feared, yet which he seemed to perform with great public success, his normally impressive conversational and monologuing skills sharpened by nervousness and by the sense of occasion. His lectures on heroes, given in May 1840, were excellent. Published in 1841 as On Heroes, Hero-Worship & the Heroic in History , they pick up some of the main concerns of the volumes on the French Revolution.

The lectures, as Carlyle's title makes clear, are about heroes. Carlyle considered his own father a hero who had bred in him the view that heroes were necessary for both the individual and society as figures of support and guidance in morally difficult times. In On Heroes, Carlyle goes through history to select different great men in literature and in religion, in war and in peace, in the far past and in the recent past, but not--significantly--in Victorian Britain, which held few heroes for a man like Carlyle. He asks what each hero did for his age, and in every case he gives it shape, form, direction, values, coherence: often destructive, Carlyle's heroes prevented bloodshed, prevented anarchy, which even in the 1830s was a nightmare to many thinkers. Carlyle himself was becoming a hero to many. The ideas in On Heroes, Hero-Worship & the Heroic in History became some of his most widespread and influential. The lectures were republished many times, excerpted and made available to the new millions of literate poor. Their message was simple, clear, undemanding. Find your hero, give him your loyalty and your obedience. The times are dangerous, but follow your hero and fulfill your obligation to your creator. Christian and skeptic alike found in this clear and simple message a resonant faith, and Carlyle became more and more widely discussed.

Carlyle's 1839 work, Chartism, is about the Chartist movement seeking worker representation and rights for the industrious (and often starving) poor. Past and Present, published in 1843, is about the same contemporary problem, but Carlyle contrasts the nineteenth-century situation with that of the medieval monastery of St. Edmundsbury, in whose ordered community Carlyle found much to offer his age as a formula for improvement and reform.

In Chartism and Past and Present there is no spectacle of distinction comparable to that of the villainous aristocrats in The French Revolution. Instead the specter of anarchy and collapse is always in the wings, overtaking society not openly (as the phoenix is consumed at the end of Sartor Resartus), but implicitly, should the aristocracy not take their duties of government seriously, should social planners not wake up to the enormity of current problems, should the managerial class not buckle down to the duties of true management, should all society not redirect its social and ethical concerns to the whole complex framework of industrial Britain, its impoverished Irish and its impoverished urban and rural poor, its growing pollution, its increasing population, its emptying churches, its shaky educational ideals. The past of St. Edmundsbury was not pastoral idyll. In fact, the monastery had been revealed in historical records (the publication of which by the Camden Society in 1840 had spurred Carlyle) as corrupt and weakly governed, needing a new leader, who is found in Abbot Samson, to put things right sternly, inflexibly, unpityingly, heroically. Such a man, clearly, is needed for the Britain described in Chartism, and the need is pressingly conveyed by Carlyle's insistent rhetoric that makes use of repetition, questions, unusual syntax, and coinages to convince, to hector, to wheedle. Carlyle often annoyed his readers, but he was hard to ignore. He believed, overwhelmingly, in the wrongness of his society and rightness of his message. While people might dispute his message--they did in the 1830s, and many more did by the 1860s--they found it difficult to ignore the problems he cited. Something plainly was wrong when Chartist protest was necessary. Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) explores the problem from ground level in working-class Manchester: Chartism takes the aerial view, dizzying, the details blurred, the excitement unmistakable. And Carlyle the historian warns that the problem is not new, and the result has been terribly visible in recent European history.

By the early 1840s Carlyle's works were selling well, and each new book conveyed an original mind at the peak of its powers. Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches--two volumes (1845) and a supplement (1846)--is a case in point. The civil war fascinated Carlyle for decades, and the personality of its great hero (and he certainly saw the Protector in this light, as the strong leader who saved the country from collapsing into anarchy) gave him the focus for a historical work which blends narrative with letters and documents of the period and intersperses all with the author's addresses to the figures he treats, especially Cromwell. It is an extraordinary history, almost a dialogue with a dead hero. It was provocative, original, fiercely contested at the time of its publication and more so when Carlyle was deceived by patent forgeries of Cromwellian letters--the celebrated "Squire Letters"--offered him after he had completed the basic writing of his history. Carlyle accepted the letters uncritically and stubbornly clung to his belief in their authenticity after they had been revealed to the reasonable as forgeries. Just such a weakness makes it easy to criticize Carlyle's method and his conclusions: his method was intuitive, and his admiration for character (often on apparently inconsequential grounds) overrode many critical mechanisms which could have ensured greater objectivity. Carlyle's primary aim was to present a point of view, an analysis of past events, which could be read and understood by his contemporaries and applied to his own time mutatis mutandis. Cromwell's methods were direct and crude; they violated human rights--but they saved a country which was tearing itself apart in civil war. Carlyle's unambiguous stand on this issue (which hardened throughout the remainder of his life) shaped his following, steadily alienated liberal thinkers, sparked public argument, and made many politicians and thinkers uneasy.

In private life, paradoxical Carlyle could monologue for hours about the virtues of Cromwell and benign force, of the need for radical disciplined reform, yet reconcile these views with the delightful sense of humor and self-deprecatory ridicule which made him magnificent company. The public persona he put forth in his writing hardened in this period into that of a largely inflexible analyst of his times. He did, however, produce the whimsical, affectionate, autobiographically revealing The Life of John Sterling in 1851. Sterling was an essayist and poet who shared an intense friendship with Carlyle despite his anguished attempts to get Carlyle to state his religious position clearly and without pretense. (This Carlyle would not--perhaps by this time could not--do, being at the same time a great symbol of public Christian faith and conformity, and a private nonchurchgoer and at best a partial believer.) Carlyle's tribute to Sterling is one of the most approachable of his works, rich in interesting reminiscences, including Carlyle's recollection of Coleridge of Highgate Hill, which tells much about Coleridge in his old age, but even more about Carlyle in his early years.

The Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question (1853), and Shooting Niagara: and After?? (1867) are late Carlyle, and they share a set of ideas which had developed over the years and which, for many, colored the character of the sage of Chelsea. To be sure, they are the work of a man well into his maturity, in his sixties and seventies increasingly set in his ways and impressed by the accelerating chaos he perceived around him. They represent bitter, unyielding opposition to liberal views on human rights (particularly for Negroes), on individual liberty, on prison reform, and on international relations, particularly with less-developed nations. The eight Latter-Day Pamphlets systematically survey the public institutions of the time and lambaste them for their lazy inefficiency, their dangerous, soft-bellied liberalism, and their lack of relevance to the crying needs of the time. The Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question is addressed to the emancipated slaves of the West Indies sugar plantations and questions their right to strike or demand better conditions when there is sugar to be grown. Shooting Niagara: and After? apocalyptically sees the weaknesses of home and abroad, foreigners and British alike, combining to push British society over the brink of an unguessable future which threatens the collapse of Western civilization. This is not empty overstatement; Carlyle believed that collapse was a real, imminent possibility, but his readers polarized. Increasing numbers gave up their sage as an embittered and authoritarian old man; others believed him right, on balance, or altogether.

In the early 1850s Carlyle began working in earnest on his monumental history of Frederick the Great of Prussia. He, like Cromwell, was a ruler who earned Carlyle's approval for a job well done. Like Cromwell, too, he violated most of the civilized rules of freedom and justice to keep the machine of society running. The end, for Carlyle as for Frederick, clearly justified the means.

Researching and writing the six huge volumes of the history of Frederick almost killed Carlyle and did much to kill Jane. The work grew as he learned more about Frederick's time and about the complexity of the Prussian politics that trapped Frederick and to which he tried to respond. Carlyle grimly traced Frederick's life, decade by decade, as Frederick, grimly, kept his view of life and society and did his job by his own lights. Carlyle, locked in his attic study in Chelsea. increasingly saw Frederick's way as one which might work for his own times. Perhaps when Carlyle emerged, exhausted, from his labor in 1865 he had lost sight of how much the age was changing, had changed. But there are two sides to this coin: Carlyle was now in his late sixties, and he was not the sardonic and witty writer of "Signs of the Times." He had achieved an immense oeuvre, thirty volumes in the Centenary Edition of 1896-1899, many more volumes of miscellanea, and thousands and thousands of letters. He had seen Queen Victoria ascend the throne and reign for thirty years over an age which changed each half-decade almost beyond recognition. The history of Frederick is an older man's impatience and an older man's certainty.

It is the product, too, of years which had seen Jane Carlyle's health go from valetudinarianism to downright collapse (a collapse often little heeded by her husband, wrapped up in the task of Frederick), and years in which Carlyle had alienated public opinion by his unyielding conservatism, while he alienated friends and (especially) wounded his wife by his intense fascination with the Ashburton set of brilliant and titled aristocrats. The Ashburtons' Bath House came to represent for Jane Carlyle the graveyard of her marriage--even if Carlyle almost certainly had no more than a platonic and naive fascination with a world he had never known--and the bitterness of these years is visible even in the relatively few surviving letters and tantalizing scraps of Jane Carlyle's diary. Had Jane's confidential letters to Geraldine Jewsbury survived we might know more: but they were destroyed by prior arrangement, and we can judge only by the violence of Carlyle's remorse at Jane's death.

Certainly the period from the early 1850s to the mid 1860s was a period of crisis, of deteriorating health and marital security, of the "Valley of the Shadow of Frederick," of gradually polarizing opinion among admirers and former admirers. An interesting touchstone was the controversy provoked by Governor Edward Eyre in 1865: Carlyle, with little firsthand knowledge but a strong overall sense of the importance of strong government at a time of crisis, applauded a brutal over-reaction to a Jamaican rebellion as consistently as he came to admire Frederick the Great's unconstitutional but effective martial law. Once committed, he was unshakable: and he was supported by Dickens, Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Ruskin, and Tyndall. Those outraged by Eyre's actions included Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley, Charles Lyell, Herbert Spencer, Frederick Harrison, and Leslie Stephen. Clearly, by 1865, the author of the history of Frederick could no longer command liberal and youthfully radical support from the whole sweep of British intellectual life. Yet the list of names supporting Eyre, and supporting Carlyle's very public defense of Eyre, was a very strong one.

Carlyle's book on Frederick marked the end of an era. After Jane's death, Carlyle simply ceased to write effectively for public consumption, his hand shaky, his spirits shakier, dictation useless, and his wish to communicate (beyond occasional letters to the Times and generally ineffective later works on Scandinavian and Scottish history) dulled. The work of these lonely years is still remarkable in literary terms, in the correspondence he still conducted on a large scale, in the collecting and editing of his wife's letters and papers, and in the very private Reminiscences (1887) which, apart from an early chapter on his father composed in 1832, is the intense product of the first year or so of loneliness after Jane Carlyle's death. Driven almost beyond endurance by loneliness and hypochondria, he solaced himself by reliving the happier years of his youth. In so doing he revealed a photographic memory and an ability to organize and juxtapose that brought incidents from his life vividly into focus. Probably he never fully thought out the fate of these Reminiscences, which were meant to keep his mind occupied while he grew to live with the idea of life without Jane. Their posthumous publication reveals a new Carlyle, one far removed from the wooden repetitions and feeble arguments of The Early Kings of Norway or An Essay on the Portraits of John Knox, two works published together in a single volume in 1875. In these two late volumes Carlyle strives to revive a public persona which is effectively dead. From the mid 1860s to his death in 1881 Carlyle was Grand Old Man to many who knew perhaps only On Heroes, Hero-Worship & the Heroic in History and Sartor Resartus, who knew something about the old man's political vagaries or who knew them well but perhaps overlooked them in admiration for his achievement. While the procession of the famous and the young aspirants continued to Chelsea, the old man grew bored, lonely, feeble. All Britain held its breath as he lay dying in Chelsea; the newspapers recorded the end as a major national loss, and it was.

Several works published after Carlyle's death had a profound effect on his reputation. His confidant and executor was James Anthony Froude, a young historian and longtime admirer of Carlyle to whom his literary remains and papers were entrusted. Froude took his position seriously and was hard at work on biographical materials long before Carlyle's death. Hence the Reminiscences appeared soon after Carlyle's death, followed by four magnificent but badly flawed volumes of biography by Froude (1882, 1884) and Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle (1883), which had been partly annotated by Carlyle in the 1860s and 1870s.

The effect of Froude's work in the years following Carlyle's death was extraordinary. Almost overnight, it seemed, Carlyle plunged from his position as Sage of Chelsea and Grand Old Victorian to the object of puzzled dislike, or even of revulsion. The Reminiscences had been published, warts and all, by an editor who thought his duty to give them to the public rather than to polish away the irritations, the thin-skinned sarcasms against contemporaries (many of whom had died recently or had living relatives), the asides of a man recently bereaved but possessed still of such verbal gifts that a passing remark could make a very visible mark. The Reminiscences gain much of their effect from the immediacy of the emotion which produced them. In 1881, however, they seemed harsh, intolerant, bitter, unjustified often: to a readership that wanted the Olympian reminiscences of a Great Man of Letters, they offered instead evidence that Carlyle was an ordinary human being with sensitive nerves and a gift of speech which made his utterances memorable, even those his admirers might prefer to forget.

This process of Carlyle's decline was merely accelerated by the Letters and Memorials (with Carlyle's extensive and passionate annotations) and by Froude's Thomas Carlyle, A History of the First Forty Years of His Life, 1795-1835 (1882) and the subsequent Thomas Carlyle, A History of his Life in London, 1834-1881 (1884). Carlyle was revealed as a man of temper and tantrum, of bitter exaggeration in speech and in letter (though not as the man of self-deprecation and humor who emerges from so many other accounts). Froude plainly worshipped Jane Carlyle, and found Carlyle's attitude to her insufficiently respectful and neglectful in the decades of her poor health. Froude's writing, though vivid, is clearly flawed and biased, and his manipulation of evidence and documents high-handed. The family reacted with outrage: Charles Eliot Norton's 1887 edition of the Reminiscences is a new book, an attempt to rescue Carlyle's memoirs by proper editing (and delicate censorship) from notoriety. The volumes of letters and papers edited by Norton and by Carlyle's new champion, his nephew Alexander Carlyle, in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries attempted to right the balance. To some, Carlyle had been revealed as a wife-beater, a reactionary, a pig-headed, narrow, sharp-tongued man of double standards who advocated high morals and lived by low ones. To others, this portrait was an impossible travesty and in the arguments back and forth about who said what, who edited which manuscript with how much fidelity, and even over whether Carlyle ever beat his wife (or indeed consummated his marriage, for the argument gained grotesque momentum once it had started), Carlyle's work, his positive contributions to his age, became blurred and almost forgotten. And time moved on: what had been revolutionary in 1829 faded in the 1880s and 1890s.

The 1930s saw some revival of Carlyle's fortunes thanks to new biography (above all the completion of David Alec Wilson's six-volume life) and solid scholarly attention on both sides of the Atlantic, but the subject of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s again drove Carlyle out of fashion, despite the very dubious links people made between his later work and the National Socialism of Hitler, who may have enjoyed reading Carlyle's history of Frederick the Great, but who hardly lived up to the demands Carlyle made of a real hero. No matter: Carlyle remained a neglected writer till the mid 1950s; since then critical awareness of his work and its importance has risen steadily. With the publication of scholarly editions of his works, and above all of his letters, the reader stands a better chance than ever before of making an accurate and fair estimation of his importance.

Any critical estimation of Carlyle must take into account the sheer scale of his work, not only in quantity but also in range. It is hard not to credit Carlyle's industry. He was adept at several different kinds of writing, he changed his ideas over decades, he had the courage to innovate when he could have repeated formulae of previous successes. He responded freshly and memorably to the Victorian industrial urban scene when he first settled in London in the 1830s; by the 1860s he was part of the Victorian urban scene, even if he still thought as an outsider, an observer. Much as he deprecated the greater part of public life and most public figures in his time, he was part of that time, and an important man who enjoyed the attention he received, while paradoxically requiring much peace, privacy, and freedom to walk the streets alone at night, like Dickens seeking inspiration and strength from the power of slumbering London. He advocated a universe of hard work and dedication to ideals, and certainly he practiced what he preached.

But what exactly did he practice? First, Carlyle practiced an incisive, satirical, perceptive journalism. He had the power to see weakness and to give it grotesque shape--in the color of the complexion of the famous "sea-green Robespierre" (an indicator of character); as the fatuous "Morrison's Pill," in Past and Present

Thomas Carlyle (December 41795 – February 51881) was a Scottish essayist, satirist, and historian, whose work was hugely influential during the Victorian era. He was the husband of Jane Welsh Carlyle.



  • The weakest living creature, by concentrating his powers on a single object, can accomplish something. The strongest, by dispensing his over many, may fail to accomplish anything. The drop, by continually falling, bores its passage through the hardest rock. The hasty torrent rushes over it with hideous uproar, and leaves no trace behind.

Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1827–1855)[edit]

  • A well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.
  • Except by name, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter is little known out of Germany. The only thing connected with him, we think, that has reached this country is his saying,—imported by Madame de Staël, and thankfully pocketed by most newspaper critics, — "Providence has given to the French the empire of the land; to the English that of the sea; to the Germans that of—the air!"
  • The greatlaw of culture is: Let each become all that he was created capable of being.
  • Originality is a thing we constantly clamour for, and constantly quarrel with; as if, observes our author himself, any originality but our own could be expected to content us! In fact all strange thing are apt, without fault of theirs, to estrange us at first view, and unhappily scarcely anything is perfectly plain, but what is also perfectly common.
  • Humor is properly the exponent of low things; that which first renders them poetical to the mind. The man of Humor sees common life, even mean life, under the new light of sportfulness and love ; whatever has existence has a charm for him. Humor has justly been regarded as the finest perfection of poetic genius. He who wants it, be his other gifts what they may, has only half a mind; an eye for what is above him, not for what is about him or below him. Now, among all writers of any real poetic genius, we cannot recollect one who, in this respect, exhibits such total deficiency as Schiller. In his whole writings there is scarcely any vestige of it, scarcely any attempt that way. His nature was without Humor; and he had too true a feeling to adopt any counterfeit in its stead. Thus no drollery or caricature, still less any barren mockery, which, in the hundred cases are all that we find passing current as Humor, discover themselves in Schiller. His works are full of labored earnestness; he is the gravest of all writers.
  • "Schiller", first published in Fraser's Magazine (1831).
  • He who would write heroic poems should make his whole life a heroic poem.
  • The three great elements of modern civilization, gunpowder, printing, and the Protestant religion.
    • The State of German Literature (1827).
  • Literary men are...a perpetual priesthood.
    • The State of German Literature.
  • I came hither [Craigenputtoch] 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.
  • In every man's writings, the character of the writer must lie recorded.
  • Clever men are good, but they are not the best.
  • We are firm believers in the maxim that for all right judgment of any man or thing it is useful, nay, essential, to see his good qualities before pronouncing on his bad.
  • A poet without love were a physical and metaphysical impossibility.
  • How does the poet speak to men with power, but by being still more a man than they?
  • His religion at best is an anxious wish, — like that of Rabelais, a great Perhaps.
    • Burns; compare: "The grand perhaps", Browning, Bishop Bloughram's Apology.
  • We have oftener than once endeavoured to attach some meaning to that aphorism, vulgarly imputed to Shaftesbury, which however we can find nowhere in his works, that "ridicule is the test of truth."
    • Voltaire, Foreign Review, (1829); compare: "How comes it to pass, then, that we appear such cowards in reasoning, and are so afraid to stand the test of ridicule?", Shaftesbury, Characteristics. A Letter concerning Enthusiasm, sect. 2.; "Truth, 't is supposed, may bear all lights; and one of those principal lights or natural mediums by which things are to be viewed in order to a thorough recognition is ridicule itself", Shaftesbury, Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour, sect. 1.; "'T was the saying of an ancient sage [Gorgias Leontinus, apud Aristotle's "Rhetoric," lib. iii. c. 18], that humour was the only test of gravity, and gravity of humour. For a subject which would not bear raillery was suspicious; and a jest which would not bear a serious examination was certainly false wit", ibid. sect. 5.
  • There is endless merit in a man's knowing when to have done.
  • The eye of the intellect "sees in all objects what it brought with it the means of seeing."
    • Varnhagen von Ense's Memoirs.
  • Love is ever the beginning of Knowledge as fire is of light.
  • A mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one.
  • Everywhere the human soul stands between a hemisphere of light and another of darkness on the confines of two everlasting hostile empires, — Necessity and Free Will.
  • History is the essence of innumerable biographies.
  • What is all Knowledge too, but recorded Experience, and a product of History; of which, therefore, Reasoning and Belief, no less than Action and Passion, are essential materials.
  • The barrenest of all mortals is the sentimentalist.
  • A loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge.
  • Even in the meanest sorts of Labor, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony the instant he sets himself to work.
  • Nature admits no lie.
    • Latter Day Pamphlet, No. 5. (1850).
  • The fine arts once divorcing themselves from truth are quite certain to fall mad, if they do not die.
    • Latter Day Pamphlet, No. 8. (1850).

Signs of the Times (1829)[edit]

Full text online
  • No solitary miscreant, scarcely any solitary maniac, would venture on such actions and imaginations, as large communities of sane men have, in such circumstances, entertained as sound wisdom.
  • Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster.
  • Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. Here too nothing follows its spontaneous course, nothing is left to be accomplished by old natural methods. Everything has its cunningly devised implements, its preestablished apparatus; it is not done by hand, but by machinery.
  • Instruction, that mysterious communing of Wisdom with Ignorance, is no longer an indefinable tentative process, requiring a study of individual aptitudes, and a perpetual variation of means and methods, to attain the same end; but a secure, universal, straightforward business, to be conducted in the gross, by proper mechanism.
  • Has any man, or any society of men, a truth to speak, a piece of spiritual work to do; they can nowise proceed at once and with the mere natural organs, but must first call a public meeting, appoint committees, issue prospectuses, eat a public dinner; in a word, construct or borrow machinery, wherewith to speak it and do it. Without machinery, they were hopeless, helpless.
  • These things, which we state lightly enough here, are yet of deep import, and indicate a mighty change in our whole manner of existence. For the same habit regulates not our modes of action alone, but our modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour, and in natural force, of any kind. Not for internal perfection, but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions, for Mechanism of one sort or other, do they hope and struggle. Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions, turn on mechanism, and are of a mechanical character.
  • Consider, for example, the state of Science generally, in Europe, at this period. It is admitted, on all sides, that the Metaphysical and Moral Sciences are falling into decay, while the Physical are engrossing, every day, more respect and attention. In most of the European nations there is now no such thing as a Science of Mind; only more or less advancement in the general science, or the special sciences, of matter.
  • The science of the age, in short, is physical, chemical, physiological; in all shapes mechanical. Our favourite Mathematics, the highly prized exponent of all these other sciences, has also become more and more mechanical. Excellence in what is called its higher departments depends less on natural genius than on acquired expertness in wielding its machinery. Without undervaluing the wonderful results which a Lagrange or Laplace educes by means of it, we may remark, that their calculus, differential and integral, is little else than a more cunningly-constructed arithmetical mill; where the factors, being put in, are, as it were, ground into the true product, under cover, and without other effort on our part than steady turning of the handle. We have more Mathematics than ever; but less Mathesis.
  • We have the greatest admiration for this learned doctor: with what scientific stoicism he walks through the land of wonders, unwondering; like a wise man through some huge, gaudy, imposing Vauxhall, whose fire-works, cascades and symphonies, the vulgar may enjoy and believe in,—but where he finds nothing real but the saltpetre, pasteboard and catgut.
  • Civil government does by its nature include much that is mechanical, and must be treated accordingly. We term it indeed, in ordinary language, the Machine of Society, and talk of it as the grand working wheel from which all private machines must derive, or to which they must adapt, their movements.
  • The Philosopher of this age is not a Socrates, a Plato, a Hooker, or Taylor, who inculcates on men the necessity and infinite worth of moral goodness, the great truth that our happiness depends on the mind which is within us, and not on the circumstances which are without us; but a Smith, a De Lolme, a Bentham, who chiefly inculcates the reverse of this,—that our happiness depends entirely on external circumstances; nay, that the strength and dignity of the mind within us is itself the creature and consequence of these. Were the laws, the government, in good order, all were well with us; the rest would care for itself! Dissentients from this opinion, expressed or implied, are now rarely to be met with; widely and angrily as men differ in its application, the principle is admitted by all.
  • It is no longer the moral, religious, spiritual condition of the people that is our concern, but their physical, practical, economical condition, as regulated by public laws.
  • There is a science of Dynamics in man's fortunes and nature, as well as of Mechanics. There is a science which treats of, and practically addresses, the primary, unmodified forces and energies of man, the mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion, all which have a truly vital and infinite character; as well as a science which practically addresses the finite, modified developments of these, when they take the shape of immediate “motives,” as hope of reward, or as fear of punishment.
Now it is certain, that in former times the wise men, the enlightened lovers of their kind, who appeared generally as Moralists, Poets or Priests, did, without neglecting the Mechanical province, deal chiefly with the Dynamical; applying themselves chiefly to regulate, increase and purify the inward primary powers of man; and fancying that herein lay the main difficulty, and the best service they could undertake. But a wide difference is manifest in our age. For the wise men, who now appear as Political Philosophers, deal exclusively with the Mechanical province; and occupying themselves in counting-up and estimating men's motives, strive by curious checking and balancing, and other adjustments of Profit and Loss, to guide them to their true advantage
  • Consider the great elements of human enjoyment, the attainments and possessions that exalt man's life to its present height, and see what part of these he owes to institutions, to Mechanism of any kind; and what to the instinctive, unbounded force, which Nature herself lent him.
  • Shall we say, for example, that Science and Art are indebted principally to the founders of Schools and Universities? Did not Science originate rather, and gain advancement, in the obscure closets of the Roger Bacons, Keplers, Newtons; in the workshops of the Fausts and the Watts; wherever, and in what guise soever Nature, from the first times downwards, had sent a gifted spirit upon the earth? Again, were Homer and Shakspeare members of any beneficed guild, or made Poets by means of it? Were Painting and Sculpture created by forethought, brought into the world by institutions for that end? No; Science and Art have, from first to last, been the free gift of Nature; an unsolicited, unexpected gift; often even a fatal one.
  • If we read History with any degree of thoughtfulness, we shall find that checks and balances of Profit and Loss have never been the grand agents with men, that they have never been roused into deep, thorough, all-pervading efforts by any computable prospect of Profit and Loss, for any visible, finite object; but always for some invisible and infinite one.
  • Man is not the creature and product of Mechanism; but, in a far truer sense, its creator and producer: it is the noble People that makes the noble Government; rather than conversely.
  • Undue cultivation of the inward or Dynamical province leads to idle, visionary, impracticable courses, and, especially in rude eras, to Superstition and Fanaticism, with their long train of baleful and well-known evils. Undue cultivation of the outward, again, though less immediately prejudicial, and even for the time productive of many palpable benefits, must, in the long-run, by destroying Moral Force, which is the parent of all other Force, prove not less certainly, and perhaps still more hopelessly, pernicious. This, we take it, is the grand characteristic of our age. By our skill in Mechanism, it has come to pass, that in the management of external things we excel all other ages; while in whatever respects the pure moral nature, in true dignity of soul and character, we are perhaps inferior to most civilised ages.
  • The infinite, absolute character of Virtue has passed into a finite, conditional one; it is no longer a worship of the Beautiful and Good; but a calculation of the Profitable.
  • Our true Deity is Mechanism. It has subdued external Nature for us, and we think it will do all other things. We are Giants in physical power: in a deeper than metaphorical sense, we are Titans, that strive, by heaping mountain on mountain, to conquer Heaven also.
  • We are no longer instinctively driven to apprehend, and lay to heart, what is Good and Lovely, but rather to inquire, as onlookers, how it is produced, whence it comes, whither it goes. Our favourite Philosophers have no love and no hatred; they stand among us not to do, nor to create anything, but as a sort of Logic mills, to grind out the true causes and effects of all that is done and created.
  • An intellectual dapperling of these times boasts chiefly of his irresistible perspicacity, his “dwelling in the daylight of truth,” and so forth; which, on examination, turns out to be a dwelling in the rush-light of “closet logic,” and a deep unconsciousness that there is any other light to dwell in or any other objects to survey with it.
  • Wonder, indeed, is, on all hands, dying out: it is the sign of uncultivation to wonder.
  • Speak to any small man of a high, majestic Reformation, of a high majestic Luther; and forthwith he sets about “accounting” for it; how the “circumstances of the time” called for such a character, and found him, we suppose, standing girt and road-ready, to do its errand; how the “circumstances of the time” created, fashioned, floated him quietly along into the result; how, in short, this small man, had he been there, could have per formed the like himself! For it is the “force of circumstances” that does everything; the force of one man can do nothing. Now all this is grounded on little more than a metaphor. We figure Society as a “Machine,” and that mind is opposed to mind, as body is to body; whereby two, or at most ten, little minds must be stronger than one great mind. Notable absurdity! For the plain truth, very plain, we think is, that minds are opposed to minds in quite a different way; and one man that has a higher Wisdom, a hitherto unknown spiritual Truth in him, is stronger, not than ten men that have it not, or than ten thousand, but than all men that have it not; and stands among them with a quite ethereal, angelic power, as with a sword out of Heaven's own armory, sky-tempered, which no buckler, and no tower of brass, will finally withstand.
  • Our “Theories of Taste,” as they are called, wherein the deep, infinite, unspeakable Love of Wisdom and Beauty, which dwells in all men, is “explained,” made mechanically visible, from “Association” and the like, ...
  • Religion in most countries, more or less in every country, is no longer what it was, and should be,—a thousand-voiced psalm from the heart of Man to his invisible Father, the fountain of all Goodness, Beauty, Truth, and revealed in every revelation of these; but for the most part, a wise prudential feeling grounded on mere calculation; a matter, as all others now are, of Expediency and Utility; whereby some smaller quantum of earthly enjoyment may be exchanged for a far larger quantum of celestial enjoyment. Thus Religion too is Profit, a working for wages; not Reverence, but vulgar Hope or Fear.
  • The true Church of England, at this moment, lies in the Editors of its Newspapers. These preach to the people daily, weekly; admonishing kings themselves; advising peace or war, with an authority which only the first Reformers, and a long-past class of Popes, were possessed of; inflicting moral censure; imparting moral encouragement, consolation, edification; in all ways diligently “administering the Discipline of the Church.”
  • Our grand business undoubtedly is, not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.
  • With what scientific stoicism he walks through the land of wonders, unwondering.


  • A man's honest, earnest opinion is the most precious of all he possesses: let him communicate this, if he is to communicate anything. There is, doubtless a time to speak, and a time to keep silence; yet Fontenelle's celebrated aphorism, I might have my hand full of truth, and would open only my little finger, may be practiced to excess, and the little finger itself kept closed. That reserve, and knowing silence, long so universal among us, is less the fruit of active benevolence, of philosophic tolerance, than of indifference and weak conviction. Honest Scepticism, honest Atheism, is better than that withered lifeless Dilettantism and amateur Eclecticism, which merely toys with all opinions; or than that wicked Machiavelism, which in thought denying every thing, except that Power is Power, in words, for its own wise purposes, loudly believes every thing: of both which miserable habitudes the day, even in England, is wellnigh over.
    • Review of Historic Survey of German Poetry, interspersed with Various Translations by W. Taylor, in The Edinburgh Review Vol. LIII (1831), p. 178.
  • It is now almost my sole rule of life to clear myself of cants and formulas, as of poisonous Nessus shirts.
    • Letter to His Wife (1835).
  • The Public is an old woman. Let her maunder and mumble.

Boswell's Life of Johnson (1832)[edit]

  • Aesop's Fly, sitting on the axle of the chariot, has been much laughed at for exclaiming: What a dust I do raise!
  • Whoso belongs only to his own age, and reverences only its gilt Popinjays or smoot-smeared Mumbojumbos, must needs die with it.
  • The stupendous Fourth Estate, whose wide world-embracing influences what eye can take in?
  • All work is as seed sown; it grows and spreads, and sows itself anew.
  • The work we desire and prize is not the courage to die decently, but to live manfully.

Sir Walter Scott (1838)[edit]

  • There is no heroic poem in the world but is at bottom a biography, the life of a man; also, it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.
  • Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as Time.
  • No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense.
  • Literature is the Thought of thinking Souls.
  • All greatness is unconscious, or it is little and naught.
  • The uttered part of a man's life, let us always repeat, bears to the unuttered, unconscious part a small unknown proportion. He himself never knows it, much less do others.
  • It can be said of him [Scott], when he departed he took a man's life along with him. No sounder piece of British manhood was put together in that eighteenth century of time.
  • Nothing that was worthy in the past departs; no truth or goodness realized by man ever dies, or can die.
  • To the very last, he had a kind of idea; that, namely, of la carrière ouverte aux talents,—the tools to him that can handle them.
    • On Napoleon; Carlyle in his essay on Mirabeau, 1837, quotes this from a "New England book".
  • Blessed is the healthy nature; it is the coherent, sweetly co-operative, not incoherent, self-distracting, self-destructive one!
  • Everywhere in life, the true question is not what we gain, but what we do.

Sartor Resartus (1833–1834)[edit]

  • The Book had in a high degree excited us to self-activity, which is the best effect of any book.
  • No man who has once heartily and wholly laughed can be altogether irreclaimably bad.
  • He who first shortened the labor of copyists by device of movable types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world: he had invented the art of printing.
  • Man is a tool-using animal...Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.
  • Be not the slave of Words.
  • Man's unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite.
  • Wonder is the basis of worship.
  • What you see, yet can not see over, is as good as infinite.
  • Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the Devil; for which reason I have, long since, as good as renounced it.
  • With stupidity and sound digestion man may front much.
  • Hadst thou not Greek enough to understand thus much: The end of man is an Action, and not a Thought, though it were the noblest.
  • Alas! the fearful Unbelief is unbelief in yourself.
  • O thou who art able to write a Book, which once in the two centuries or oftener there is a man gifted to do, envy not him whom they name City-builder, and inexpressibly pity him whom they name Conqueror or City-burner! Thou too art a Conqueror and Victor; but of the true sort, namely over the Devil: thou too hast built what will outlast all marble and metal, and be a wonder-bringing City of the Mind, a Temple and Seminary and Prophetic Mount, whereto all kindreds of the Earth will pilgrim.
  • Great men are the inspired (speaking and acting) texts of that divine Book of Revelations, wherof a chapter is completed from epoch to epoch, and by some named History.
  • Love not Pleasure; love God.
  • "Do the Duty which lies nearest thee," which thou knowest to be a Duty! Thy second Duty will already have become clearer.
  • As the Swiss inscription says: Sprechen ist silbern, Schweigen ist golden— "Speech is silvern, Silence is golden"; or, as I might rather express it: speech is of time, silence is of eternity.
  • For is not a Symbol ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the God-like?
  • The highest ensign that men ever met and embraced under, the Cross itself, had no meaning save an accidental extrinsic one.
  • That there should one Man die ignorant who had capacity for Knowledge, this I call a tragedy.
  • Philosophy complains that Custom has hoodwinked us, from the first; that we do everything by Custom, even Believe by it; that our very Axioms, let us boast of Free-thinking as we may, are oftenest simply such Beliefs as we have never heard questioned. Nay, what is Philosophy throughout but a continual battle against Custom; an ever-renewed effort to transcend the sphere of blind Custom, and so become Transcendental?
  • Innumerable are the illusions and legerdemain-tricks of Custom: but of all these, perhaps the cleverest is her knack of persuading us that the Miraculous, by simple repetition, ceases to be Miraculous.
  • Ever, as before, does Madness remain a mysterious-terrific, altogether infernal boiling-up of the Nether Chaotic Deep, through this fair-painted Vision of Creation, which swims thereon, which we name the Real.
  • But deepest of all illusory Appearances, for hiding Wonder, as for many other ends, are your two grand fundamental world-enveloping Appearances, SPACE and TIME. These, as spun and woven for us from before Birth itself, to clothe our celestial ME for dwelling here, and yet to blind it, — lie all-embracing, as the universal canvas, or warp and woof, whereby all minor Illusions, in this Phantasm Existence, weave and paint themselves. In vain, while here on Earth, shall you endeavor to strip them off; you can, at best, but rend them asunder for moments, and look through.
  • Not only was Thebes built by the music of an Orpheus; but without the music of some inspired Orpheus was no city ever built, no work that man glories in ever done.

The French Revolution. A History (1837)[edit]

online text
  • France was long a despotism tempered by epigrams.
  • For what imaginable purpose was man made, if not to be "happy"? By victorious Analysis, and Progress of the Species, happiness enough now awaits him. Kings can become philosophers; or else philosophers Kings. Let but Society be once rightly constituted,—by victorious Analysis. The stomach that is empty shall be filled; the throat that is dry shall be wetted with wine. Labour itself shall be all one as rest; not grievous, but joyous Wheat-fields, one would think, cannot come to grow untilled; no man made clayey, or made weary thereby;—unless indeed machinery will do it? Gratuitous Tailors and Restaurateurs may start up, at fit intervals, one as yet sees not how. But if each will, according to rule of Benevolence, have a care for all, then surely—no one will be uncared for. Nay, who knows but by sufficiently victorious Analysis, "human life may be indefinitely lengthened," and men get rid of Death, as they have already done of the Devil? We shall then be happy in spite of Death and the Devil.
  • No lie you can speak or act but it will come, after longer or shorter circulation, like a Bill drawn on Nature's Reality, and be presented there for payment, — with the answer, No effects.
  • To a shower of gold most things are penetrable.
  • "The people may eat grass": hasty words, which fly abroad irrevocable—and will send back tidings.
  • A whiff of grapeshot.
  • O poor mortals, how ye make this earth bitter for each other.
  • Where this will end? In the Abyss, one may prophecy; whither all Delusions are, at all moments, travelling; where this Delusion has now arrived. For if there be a Faith, from of old, it is this, as we often repeat, that no Lie can live for ever. The very Truth has to change its vesture, from time to time; and be born again. But all Lies have sentence of death written down against them, and Heaven's Chancery itself; and, slowly or fast, advance incessantly towards their hour.
  • Do nothing, only keep agitating, debating; and things will destroy themselves.
  • Battles, in these ages, are transacted by mechanism; with the slightest possible development of human individuality or spontaneity: men now even die, and kill one another, in an artificial manner.
  • History a distillation of Rumour.
  • Misery which, through long ages, had no spokesman, no helper, will now be its own helper and speak for itself.
    • ** Pt. I, Bk. VII, ch. 8.
  • He that has a secret should not only hide it, but hide that he has it to hide.
  • The All of Things is an infinite conjugation of the verb To do.
  • The difference between Orthodoxy or Mydoxy and Heterodoxy or Thy-doxy.


  • So here hath been dawning
    Another blue Day:
    Think wilt thou let it
    Slip useless away.
  • Every noble work is at first impossible.
    • From Past and Present (1843), Chapter XI : Labour
    • The Wikipedia page for Thomas Carlyle has links to the Project Gutenberg version of this book
  • He that works and does some Poem, not he that merely says one, is worthy of the name of Poet.
    • Introduction to Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845).

Chartism (1840)[edit]

  • A witty statesman said, you might prove anything by figures.
  • Democracy is, by the nature of it, a self-canceling business; and it gives in the long run a net result of zero.
  • O reader, to what shifts is poor Society reduced, struggling to give still some account of herself, in epochs when Cash Payment has become the sole nexus of man to men!
  • Cash Payment the sole nexus; and there are so many things which cash will not pay! Cash is a great miracle; yet it has not all power in Heaven, nor even on Earth. 'Supply and demand' we will honour also; and yet how many 'demands' are there, entirely indispensable, which have to go elsewhere than to the shops, and produce quite other than cash, before they can get their supply? On the whole, what astonishing payments does cash make in this world!
    • Ch. 7, Not Laissez-Faire.

Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840)[edit]

Full text online
The Hero as Divinity[edit]
Lecture I The Hero As Divinity. Odin. Paganism: Scandinavian Mythology. (5 May 1840)
  • One comfort is, that Great Men, taken up in any way, are profitable company. We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic nobleness;—in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.
  • But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it even to himself, much less to others); the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest. That is his religion; or, it may be, his mere scepticism and no-religion: the manner it is in which he feels himself to be spiritually related to the Unseen World or No-World; and I say, if you tell me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what the kind of things he will do is.
  • I here, on the very threshold, protest against it in reference to Paganism, and to all other isms by which man has ever for a length of time striven to walk in this world. They have all had a truth in them, or men would not have taken them up. Quackery and dupery do abound; in religions, above all in the more advanced decaying stages of religions, they have fearfully abounded: but quackery was never the originating influence in such things; it was not the health and life of such things, but their disease, the sure precursor of their being about to die! Let us never forget this.
  • They have their belief, these poor Thibet people, that Providence sends down always an Incarnation of Himself into every generation. At bottom some belief in a kind of Pope! At bottom still better, belief that there is a Greatest Man; that he is discoverable; that, once discovered, we ought to treat him with an obedience which knows no bounds! This is the truth of Grand Lamaism; the "discoverability" is the only error here.
The Thibet priests have methods of their own of discovering what Man is Greatest, fit to be supreme over them. Bad methods: but are they so much worse than our methods,—of understanding him to be always the eldest-born of a certain genealogy? Alas, it is a difficult thing to find good methods for!
  • It is a most earnest thing to be alive in this world; to die is not sport for a man. Man's life never was a sport to him; it was a stern reality, altogether a serious matter to be alive!
  • Men, I say, never did believe idle songs, never risked their soul's life on allegories: men in all times, especially in early earnest times, have had an instinct for detecting quacks, for detesting quacks.
  • To the wild deep-hearted man all was yet new, not veiled under names or formulas; it stood naked, flashing in on him there, beautiful, awful, unspeakable. Nature was to this man, what to the Thinker and Prophet it forever is, preternatural. This green flowery rock-built earth, the trees, the mountains, rivers, many-sounding seas;—that great deep sea of azure that swims overhead; the winds sweeping through it; the black cloud fashioning itself together, now pouring out fire, now hail and rain.
  • We call that fire of the black thunder-cloud "electricity," and lecture learnedly about it, and grind the like of it out of glass and silk: but what is it? What made it? Whence comes it? Whither goes it? Science has done much for us; but it is a poor science that would hide from us the great deep sacred infinitude of Nescience, whither we can never penetrate, on which all science swims as a mere superficial film. This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it.
  • Cannot we understand how these men worshipped Canopus; became what we call Sabeans, worshipping the stars? Such is to me the secret of all forms of Paganism. Worship is transcendent wonder; wonder for which there is now no limit or measure; that is worship.
But now if all things whatsoever that we look upon are emblems to us of the Highest God, I add that more so than any of them is man such an emblem.
  • The young generations of the world, who had in them the freshness of young children, and yet the depth of earnest men, who did not think that they had finished off all things in Heaven and Earth by merely giving them scientific names, but had to gaze direct at them there, with awe and wonder: they felt better what of divinity is in man and Nature; they, without being mad, could worship Nature, and man more than anything else in Nature.
  • What I called the perplexed jungle of Paganism sprang, we may say, out of many roots: every admiration, adoration of a star or natural object, was a root or fibre of a root; but Hero-worship is the deepest root of all; the tap-root, from which in a great degree all the rest were nourished and grown.
  • No nobler feeling than this of admiration for one higher than himself dwells in the breast of man. It is to this hour, and at all hours, the vivifying influence in man's life.
  • But I liken common languid Times, with their unbelief, distress, perplexity, with their languid doubting characters and embarrassed circumstances, impotently crumbling down into ever worse distress towards final ruin;—all this I liken to dry dead fuel, waiting for the lightning out of Heaven that shall kindle it. The great man, with his free force direct out of God's own hand, is the lightning. His word is the wise healing word which all can believe in. All blazes round him now, when he has once struck on it, into fire like his own.
  • In that strange island Iceland,—burst up, the geologists say, by fire from the bottom of the sea; a wild land of barrenness and lava; swallowed many months of every year in black tempests, yet with a wild gleaming beauty in summertime; towering up there, stern and grim, in the North Ocean with its snow jokuls, roaring geysers, sulphur-pools and horrid volcanic chasms, like the waste chaotic battle-field of Frost and Fire;—where of all places we least looked for Literature or written memorials, the record of these things was written down.
  • Mark at present so much; what the essence of Scandinavian and indeed of all Paganism is: a recognition of the forces of Nature as godlike, stupendous, personal Agencies,—as Gods and Demons. Not inconceivable to us. It is the infant Thought of man opening itself, with awe and wonder, on this ever-stupendous Universe. To me there is in the Norse system something very genuine, very great and manlike. A broad simplicity, rusticity, so very different from the light gracefulness of the old Greek Paganism, distinguishes this Scandinavian System. It is Thought; the genuine Thought of deep, rude, earnest minds, fairly opened to the things about them; a face-to-face and heart-to-heart inspection of the things,—the first characteristic of all good Thought in all times. Not graceful lightness, half-sport, as in the Greek Paganism; a certain homely truthfulness and rustic strength, a great rude sincerity, discloses itself here.
  • Innumerable men had passed by, across this Universe, with a dumb vague wonder, such as the very animals may feel; or with a painful, fruitlessly inquiring wonder, such as men only feel;—till the great Thinker came, the original man, the Seer; whose shaped spoken Thought awakes the slumbering capability of all into Thought. It is ever the way with the Thinker, the spiritual Hero. What he says, all men were not far from saying, were longing to say. The Thoughts of all start up, as from painful enchanted sleep, round his Thought; answering to it, Yes, even so! Joyful to men as the dawning of day from night;—is it not, indeed, the awakening for them from no-being into being, from death into life? We still honor such a man; call him Poet, Genius, and so forth: but to these wild men he was a very magician, a worker of miraculous unexpected blessing for them; a Prophet, a God!
  • For the Norse people, the Man now named Odin, and Chief Norse God, we fancy, was such a man. A Teacher, and Captain of soul and of body; a Hero, of worth immeasurable; admiration for whom, transcending the known bounds, became adoration. Has he not the power of articulate Thinking; and many other powers, as yet miraculous? So, with boundless gratitude, would the rude Norse heart feel. Has he not solved for them the sphinx-enigma of this Universe; given assurance to them of their own destiny there? By him they know now what they have to do here, what to look for hereafter. Existence has become articulate, melodious by him; he first has made Life alive!—We may call this Odin, the origin of Norse Mythology: Odin, or whatever name the First Norse Thinker bore while he was a man among men. His view of the Universe once promulgated, a like view starts into being in all minds; grows, keeps ever growing, while it continues credible there. In all minds it lay written, but invisibly, as in sympathetic ink; at his word it starts into visibility in all. Nay, in every epoch of the world, the great event, parent of all others, is it not the arrival of a Thinker in the world—!
  • A great soul, any sincere soul, knows not what he is,—alternates between the highest height and the lowest depth; can, of all things, the least measure—Himself! What others take him for, and what he guesses that he may be; these two items strangely act on one another, help to determine one another. With all men reverently admiring him; with his own wild soul full of noble ardors and affections, of whirlwind chaotic darkness and glorious new light; a divine Universe bursting all into godlike beauty round him, and no man to whom the like ever had befallen, what could he think himself to be?
  • suppose Odin to have been the inventor of Letters, as well as "magic," among that people! It is the greatest invention man has ever made! this of marking down the unseen thought that is in him by written characters. It is a kind of second speech, almost as miraculous as the first.
  • Transport yourselves into the early childhood of nations; the first beautiful morning-light of our Europe, when all yet lay in fresh young radiance as of a great sunrise, and our Europe was first beginning to think, to be! Wonder, hope; infinite radiance of hope and wonder, as of a young child's thoughts, in the hearts of these strong men! Strong sons of Nature; and here was not only a wild Captain and Fighter; discerning with his wild flashing eyes what to do, with his wild lion-heart daring and doing it; but a Poet too, all that we mean by a Poet, Prophet, great devout Thinker and Inventor,—as the truly Great Man ever is. A Hero is a Hero at all points; in the soul and thought of him first of all. This Odin, in his rude semi-articulate way, had a word to speak. A great heart laid open to take in this great Universe, and man's Life here, and utter a great word about it. A Hero, as I say, in his own rude manner; a wise, gifted, noble-hearted man. And now, if we still admire such a man beyond all others, what must these wild Norse souls, first awakened into thinking, have made of him!
  • I feel that these old Northmen wore looking into Nature with open eye and soul: most earnest, honest; childlike, and yet manlike; with a great-hearted simplicity and depth and freshness, in a true, loving, admiring, unfearing way.
  • They understood in their heart that it was indispensable to be brave; that Odin would have no favor for them, but despise and thrust them out, if they were not brave. Consider too whether there is not something in this! It is an everlasting duty, valid in our day as in that, the duty of being brave. Valor is still value. The first duty for a man is still that of subduing Fear. We must get rid of Fear; we cannot act at all till then.
  • I called it a small light shining and shaping in the huge vortex of Norse darkness. Yet the darkness itself was alive; consider that. It was the eager inarticulate uninstructed Mind of the whole Norse People, longing only to become articulate, to go on articulating ever farther!
  • It is a greatness not of mere body and gigantic bulk, but a rude greatness of soul. There is a sublime uncomplaining melancholy traceable in these old hearts. A great free glance into the very deeps of thought. They seem to have seen, these brave old Northmen, what Meditation has taught all men in all ages, That this world is after all but a show,—a phenomenon or appearance, no real thing. All deep souls see into that,—the Hindoo Mythologist, the German Philosopher,—the Shakspeare, the earnest Thinker, wherever he may be.
  • For the whole Past, as I keep repeating, is the possession of the Present; the Past had always something true, and is a precious possession. In a different time, in a different place, it is always some other side of our common Human Nature that has been developing itself. The actual True is the sum of all these; not any one of them by itself constitutes what of Human Nature is hitherto developed. Better to know them all than misknow them. "To which of these Three Religions do you specially adhere?" inquires Meister of his Teacher. "To all the Three!" answers the other: "To all the Three; for they by their union first constitute the True Religion."
  • No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men.
  • The history of the world is but the biography of great men.
The Hero as Prophet[edit]
Lecture II The Hero As Prophet. Mahomet: Islam. ([8 May 1840)
  • We have chosen Mahomet not as the most eminent Prophet; but as the one we are freest to speak of. He is by no means the truest of Prophets; but I do esteem him a true one. Farther, as there is no danger of our becoming, any of us, Mahometans, I mean to say all the good of him I justly can. It is the way to get at his secret: let us try to understand what he meant with the world; what the world meant and means with him, will then be a more answerable question. Our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Impostor, a Falsehood incarnate, that his religion is a mere mass of quackery and fatuity, begins really to be now untenable to any one. The lies, which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man, are disgraceful to ourselves only.
  • The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.
  • Much has been said of Mahomet's propagating his Religion by the sword. It is no doubt far nobler what we have to boast of the Christian Religion, that it propagated itself peaceably in the way of preaching and conviction. Yet withal, if we take this for an argument of the truth or falsehood of a religion, there is a radical mistake in it. The sword indeed: but where will you get your sword! Every new opinion, at its starting, is precisely in a minority of one. In one man's head alone, there it dwells as yet. One man alone of the whole world believes it; there is one man against all men. That he take a sword, and try to propagate with that, will do little for him. You must first get your sword! On the whole, a thing will propagate itself as it can. We do not find, of the Christian Religion either, that it always disdained the sword, when once it had got one.
  • I care little about the sword: I will allow a thing to struggle for itself in this world, with any sword or tongue or implement it has, or can lay hold of. We will let it preach, and pamphleteer, and fight, and to the uttermost bestir itself, and do, beak and claws, whatsoever is in it; very sure that it will, in the long-run, conquer nothing which does not deserve to be conquered. What is better than itself, it cannot put away, but only what is worse. In this great Duel, Nature herself is umpire, and can do no wrong: the thing which is deepest-rooted in Nature, what we call truest, that thing and not the other will be found growing at last.
  • We are to remember what an umpire Nature is; what a greatness, composure of depth and tolerance there is in her. You take wheat to cast into the Earth's bosom; your wheat may be mixed with chaff, chopped straw, barn-sweepings, dust and all imaginable rubbish; no matter: you cast it into the kind just Earth; she grows the wheat, — the whole rubbish she silently absorbs, shrouds it in, says nothing of the rubbish. The yellow wheat is growing there; the good Earth is silent about all the rest, — has silently turned all the rest to some benefit too, and makes no complaint about it! So everywhere in Nature! She is true and not a lie; and yet so great, and just, and motherly in her truth. She requires of a thing only that it be genuine of heart; she will protect it if so; will not, if not so. There is a soul of truth in all the things she ever gave harbor to. Alas, is not this the history of all highest Truth that comes or ever came into the world?
  • Mahomet can work no miracles; he often answers impatiently: I can work no miracles. I? "I am a Public Preacher;" appointed to preach this doctrine to all creatures. Yet the world, as we can see, had really from of old been all one great miracle to him. Look over the world, says he; is it not wonderful, the work of Allah; wholly "a sign to you," if your eyes were open!
  • His Religion is not an easy one: with rigorous fasts, lavations, strict complex formulas, prayers five times a day, and abstinence from wine, it did not "succeed by being an easy religion." As if indeed any religion, or cause holding of religion, could succeed by that! It is a calumny on men to say that they are roused to heroic action by ease, hope of pleasure, recompense, — sugar-plums of any kind, in this world or the next! In the meanest mortal there lies something nobler.
  • Mahomet himself, after all that can be said about him, was not a sensual man. We shall err widely if we consider this man as a common voluptuary, intent mainly on base enjoyments, — nay on enjoyments of any kind. His household was of the frugalest; his common diet barley-bread and water: sometimes for months there was not a fire once lighted on his hearth. They record with just pride that he would mend his own shoes, patch his own cloak. A poor, hard-toiling, ill-provided man; careless of what vulgar men toil for.
  • No Dilettantism in this Mahomet; it is a business of Reprobation and Salvation with him, of Time and Eternity: he is in deadly earnest about it! Dilettantism, hypothesis, speculation, a kind of amateur-search for Truth, toying and coquetting with Truth: this is the sorest sin. The root of all other imaginable sins. It consists in the heart and soul of the man never having been open to Truth; — "living in a vain show." Such a man not only utters and produces falsehoods, but is himself a falsehood. The rational moral principle, spark of the Divinity, is sunk deep in him, in quiet paralysis of life-death.
  • Enjoying things which are pleasant; that is not the evil: it is the reducing of our moral self to slavery by them that is.
  • We will not praise Mahomet's moral precepts as always of the superfinest sort; yet it can be said that there is always a tendency to good in them; that they are the true dictates of a heart aiming towards what is just and true.
  • On the whole, we will repeat that this Religion of Mahomet's is a kind of Christianity; has a genuine element of what is spiritually highest looking through it, not to be hidden by all its imperfections. The Scandinavian God Wish, the god of all rude men, — this has been enlarged into a Heaven by Mahomet; but a Heaven symbolical of sacred Duty, and to be earned by faith and well-doing, by valiant action, and a divine patience which is still more valiant. It is Scandinavian Paganism, and a truly celestial element superadded to that. Call it not false; look not at the falsehood of it, look at the truth of it. For these twelve centuries, it has been the religion and life-guidance of the fifth part of the whole kindred of Mankind. Above all things, it has been a religion heartily believed. These Arabs believe their religion, and try to live by it! No Christians, since the early ages, or only perhaps the English Puritans in modern times, have ever stood by their Faith as the Moslem do by theirs, — believing it wholly, fronting Time with it, and Eternity with it.
  • It was a rude gross error, that of counting the Great Man a god. Yet let us say that it is at all times difficult to know what he is, or how to account of him and receive him!
  • To fall into mere unreasoning deliquium of love and admiration, was not good; but such unreasoning, nay irrational supercilious no-love at all is perhaps still worse!—It is a thing forever changing, this of Hero-worship: different in each age, difficult to do well in any age. Indeed, the heart of the whole business of the age, one may say, is to do it well.
  • they indicate the saddest spiritual paralysis, and mere death-life of the souls of men: more godless theory, I think, was never promulgated in this Earth. A false man found a religion? Why, a false man cannot build a brick house!
  • I should say sincerity, a deep, great, genuine sincerity, is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic.
  • No, the Great Man does not boast himself sincere, far from that; perhaps does not ask himself if he is so: I would say rather, his sincerity does not depend on himself; he cannot help being sincere! The great Fact of Existence is great to him. Fly as he will, he cannot get out of the awful presence of this Reality. His mind is so made; he is great by that, first of all. Fearful and wonderful, real as Life, real as Death, is this Universe to him. Though all men should forget its truth, and walk in a vain show, he cannot. At all moments the Flame-image glares in upon him; undeniable, there, there!—I wish you to take this as my primary definition of a Great Man. A little man may have this, it is competent to all men that God has made: but a Great Man cannot be without it.
  • A gifted noble people; a people of wild strong feelings, and of iron restraint over these: the characteristic of noble-mindedness, of genius.
They are not a loquacious people, taciturn rather; but eloquent, gifted when they do speak. An earnest, truthful kind of men. They are, as we know, of Jewish kindred: but with that deadly terrible earnestness of the Jews they seem to combine something graceful, brilliant, which is not Jewish. They had "Poetic contests" among them before the time of Mahomet.
One Jewish quality these Arabs manifest; the outcome of many or of all high qualities: what we may call religiosity. From of old they had been zealous worshippers, according to their light. They worshipped the stars, as Sabeans; worshipped many natural objects,—recognized them as symbols, immediate manifestations, of the Maker of Nature. It was wrong; and yet not wholly wrong.
  • Mahomet was only fourteen; had no language but his own: much in Syria must have been a strange unintelligible whirlpool to him. But the eyes of the lad were open; glimpses of many things would doubtless be taken in, and lie very enigmatic as yet, which were to ripen in a strange way into views, into beliefs and insights one day. These journeys to Syria were probably the beginning of much to Mahomet. One other circumstance we must not forget: that he had no school-learning; of the thing we call school-learning none at all.
  • Curious, if we will reflect on it, this of having no books. Except by what he could see for himself, or hear of by uncertain rumor of speech in the obscure Arabian Desert, he could know nothing. The wisdom that had been before him or at a distance from him in the world, was in a manner as good as not there for him. Of the great brother souls, flame-beacons through so many lands and times, no one directly communicates with this great soul. He is alone there, deep down in the bosom of the Wilderness; has to grow up so,—alone with Nature and his own Thoughts. But, from an early age, he had been remarked as a thoughtful man.
  • A spontaneous, passionate, yet just, true-meaning man! Full of wild faculty, fire and light; of wild worth, all uncultured; working out his life-task in the depths of the Desert there.
  • From of old, a thousand thoughts, in his pilgrimings and wanderings, had been in this man: What am I? What is this unfathomable Thing I live in, which men name Universe? What is Life; what is Death? What am I to believe? What am I to do? The grim rocks of Mount Hara, of Mount Sinai, the stern sandy solitudes answered not. The great Heaven rolling silent overhead, with its blue-glancing stars, answered not. There was no answer. The man's own soul, and what of God's inspiration dwelt there, had to answer!
  • It has ever been held the highest wisdom for a man not merely to submit to Necessity,—Necessity will make him submit,—but to know and believe well that the stern thing which Necessity had ordered was the wisest, the best, the thing wanted there. To cease his frantic pretension of scanning this great God's-World in his small fraction of a brain; to know that it had verily, though deep beyond his soundings, a Just Law, that the soul of it was Good;—that his part in it was to conform to the Law of the Whole, and in devout silence follow that; not questioning it, obeying it as unquestionable.
  • Yet with every allowance, one feels it difficult to see how any mortal ever could consider this Koran as a Book written in Heaven, too good for the Earth; as a well-written book, or indeed as a book at all; and not a bewildered rhapsody; written, so far as writing goes, as badly as almost any book ever was!
  • Every candid eye, I think, will read the Koran far otherwise than so. It is the confused ferment of a great rude human soul; rude, untutored, that cannot even read; but fervent, earnest, struggling vehemently to utter itself in words. With a kind of breathless intensity he strives to utter himself; the thoughts crowd on him pell-mell: for very multitude of things to say, he can get nothing said. The meaning that is in him shapes itself into no form of composition, is stated in no sequence, method, or coherence;—they are not shaped at all, these thoughts of his; flung out unshaped, as they struggle and tumble there, in their chaotic inarticulate state.
  • The panting breathless haste and vehemence of a man struggling in the thick of battle for life and salvation; this is the mood he is in!
  • In the meanest mortal there lies something nobler. The poor swearing soldier, hired to be shot, has his "honor of a soldier," different from drill-regulations and the shilling a day. It is not to taste sweet things, but to do noble and true things, and vindicate himself under God's Heaven as a god-made Man, that the poorest son of Adam dimly longs. Show him the way of doing that, the dullest day-drudge kindles into a hero. They wrong man greatly who say he is to be seduced by ease.
  • by awakening the Heroic that slumbers in every heart, can any Religion gain followers.
  • To the Arab Nation it was as a birth from darkness into light; Arabia first became alive by means of it. A poor shepherd people, roaming unnoticed in its deserts since the creation of the world: a Hero-Prophet was sent down to them with a word they could believe: see, the unnoticed becomes world-notable, the small has grown world-great; within one century afterwards, Arabia is at Grenada on this hand, at Delhi on that;—glancing in valor and splendor and the light of genius, Arabia shines through long ages over a great section of the world. Belief is great, life-giving. The history of a Nation becomes fruitful, soul-elevating, great, so soon as it believes. These Arabs, the man Mahomet, and that one century,—is it not as if a spark had fallen, one spark, on a world of what seemed black unnoticeable sand; but lo, the sand proves explosive powder, blazes heaven-high from Delhi to Grenada! I said, the Great Man was always as lightning out of Heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame.
  • The Hero as Divinity, the Hero as Prophet, are productions of old ages; not to be repeated in the new. They presuppose a certain rudeness of conception, which the progress of mere scientific knowledge puts an end to. There needs to be, as it were, a world vacant, or almost vacant of scientific forms, if men in their loving wonder are to fancy their fellow-man either a god or one speaking with the voice of a god. Divinity and Prophet are past.
  • I will remark again, however, as a fact not unimportant to be understood, that the different sphere constitutes the grand origin of such distinction; that the Hero can be Poet, Prophet, King, Priest or what you will, according to the kind of world he finds himself born into. I confess, I have no notion of a truly great man that could not be all sorts of men.
The Hero as Poet[edit]
The Hero As Poet. Dante: Shakspeare
  • Of this Shakspeare of ours, perhaps the opinion one sometimes hears a little idolatrously expressed is, in fact, the right one; I think the best judgement not of this country only, but of Europe at large, is slowly pointing to the conclusion, That Shakspeare is the chief of all Poets hitherto; the greatest intellect who, in our recorded world, has left record of himself in the way of Literature. On the whole, I know not such a power of vision, such a faculty of thought, if we take all the characters of it, in any other man. Such a calmness of depth; placid joyous strength; all things imaged in that great soul of his so true and clear, as in a tranquil unfathomable sea!
  • The "imagination that shudders at the Hell of Dante," is not that the same faculty, weaker in degree, as Dante's own? No one but Shakspeare can embody, out of Saxo Grammaticus, the story of Hamlet as Shakspeare did: but every one models some kind of story out of it; every one embodies it better or worse. We need not spend time in defining. Where there is no specific difference, as between round and square, all definition must be more or less arbitrary. A man that has so much more of the poetic element developed in him as to have become noticeable, will be called Poet by his neighbors.
World-Poets too, those whom we are to take for perfect Poets, are settled by critics in the same way. One who rises so far above the general level of Poets will, to such and such critics, seem a Universal Poet; as he ought to do. And yet it is, and must be, an arbitrary distinction. All Poets, all men, have some touches of the Universal; no man is wholly made of that.
  • All old Poems, Homer's and the rest, are authentically Songs. I would say, in strictness, that all right Poems are; that whatsoever is not sung is properly no Poem, but a piece of Prose cramped into jingling lines,—to the great injury of the grammar, to the great grief of the reader, for most part! What we wants to get at is the thought the man had, if he had any: why should he twist it into jingle, if he could speak it out plainly? It is only when the heart of him is rapt into true passion of melody, and the very tones of him, according to Coleridge's remark, become musical by the greatness, depth and music of his thoughts, that we can give him right to rhyme and sing; that we call him a Poet, and listen to him as the Heroic of Speakers,—whose speech is Song.
  • Paganism we recognized as a veracious expression of the earnest awe-struck feeling of man towards the Universe; veracious, true once, and still not without worth for us. But mark here the difference of Paganism and Christianism; one great difference. Paganism emblemed chiefly the Operations of Nature; the destinies, efforts, combinations, vicissitudes of things and men in this world; Christianism emblemed the Law of Human Duty, the Moral Law of Man. One was for the sensuous nature: a rude helpless utterance of the first Thought of men,—the chief recognized virtue, Courage, Superiority to Fear. The other was not for the sensuous nature, but for the moral. What a progress is here, if in that one respect only—!
  • Europe has made much; great cities, great empires, encyclopaedias, creeds, bodies of opinion and practice: but it has made little of the class of Dante's Thought.
  • For, in fact, I say the degree of vision that dwells in a man is a correct measure of the man. If called to define Shakspeare's faculty, I should say superiority of Intellect, and think I had included all under that. What indeed are faculties? We talk of faculties as if they were distinct, things separable; as if a man had intellect, imagination, fancy, &c., as he has hands, feet and arms. That is a capital error. Then again, we hear of a man's "intellectual nature," and of his "moral nature," as if these again were divisible, and existed apart. Necessities of language do perhaps prescribe such forms of utterance; we must speak, I am aware, in that way, if we are to speak at all. But words ought not to harden into things for us. It seems to me, our apprehension of this matter is, for most part, radically falsified thereby. We ought to know withal, and to keep forever in mind, that these divisions are at bottom but names; that man's spiritual nature, the vital Force which dwells in him, is essentially one and indivisible; that what we call imagination, fancy, understanding, and so forth, are but different figures of the same Power of Insight, all indissolubly connected with each other, physiognomically related; that if we knew one of them, we might know all of them. Morality itself, what we call the moral quality of a man, what is this but another side of the one vital Force whereby he is and works? All that a man does is physiognomical of him. You may see how a man would fight, by the way in which he sings; his courage, or want of courage, is visible in the word he utters, in the opinion he has formed, no less than in the stroke he strikes. He is one; and preaches the same Self abroad in all these ways.
  • it is always a genial laughter. Not at mere weakness, at misery or poverty; never. No man who can laugh, what we call laughing, will laugh at these things. It is some poor character only desiring to laugh, and have the credit of wit, that does so. Laughter means sympathy.
Such laughter, like sunshine on the deep sea, is very beautiful to me.
  • I cannot call this Shakspeare a "Sceptic," as some do; his indifference to the creeds and theological quarrels of his time misleading them. No: neither unpatriotic, though he says little about his Patriotism; nor sceptic, though he says little about his Faith. Such "indifference" was the fruit of his greatness withal: his whole heart was in his own grand sphere of worship (we may call it such); these other controversies, vitally important to other men, were not vital to him.
  • is it not a right glorious thing, and set of things, this that Shakspeare has brought us? For myself, I feel that there is actually a kind of sacredness in the fact of such a man being sent into this Earth.
  • The Great Man here too, as always, is a Force of Nature. Whatsoever is truly great in him springs up from the inarticulate deeps.
  • Yes, truly, it is a great thing for a Nation that it get an articulate voice; that it produce a man who will speak forth melodiously what the heart of it means!
No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men.
A well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.
Originality is a thing we constantly clamour for, and constantly quarrel with…
We are firm believers in the maxim that for all right judgment of any man or thing it is useful, nay, essential, to see his good qualities before pronouncing on his bad.
It is now almost my sole rule of life to clear myself of cants and formulas, as of poisonous Nessus shirts.

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