Skip to main content

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle

The British essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was the leading social critic of early Victorian England. Disseminating German idealist thought in his country, with Calvinist zeal he preached against materialism and mechanism during the industrial revolution.

Thomas Carlyle was born at Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, on Dec. 4, 1795. His father, a stonemason, was an intelligent man and a pious Calvinist. Carlyle was educated at Annan Grammar School and Edinburgh University, where he read voraciously and distinguished himself in mathematics. He abandoned his original intention to enter the ministry and turned instead first to school teaching and then to literary hackwork, dreaming all the while of greatness as a writer. A reading of Madame de Staël's Germany introduced him to German thought and literature, and in 1823-1824 he published a Life of Schiller in the London Magazine and in 1824 a translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

Meanwhile Carlyle had passed through a religious crisis similar to the one he was to describe in Sartor Resartus and had met Jane Baillie Welsh, a brilliant and charming girl, who recognized his genius and gave him encouragement and love. Through a tutorship in the Buller family Carlyle made his first trip to London, where he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other leading literary figures. He returned to Scotland, married Jane Welsh on Oct. 17, 1826, and settled first in Edinburgh and subsequently at Craigenputtock, an isolated farmhouse belonging to his wife's family. It was during this period that he wrote a series of essays for the Edinburgh Review and the Foreign Review which were later grouped as Miscellaneous and Critical Essays. Among these were essays on Burns, Goethe, and Richter and the important "Signs of the Times," his first essay on contemporary social problems.

"Sartor Resartus"

It was at Craigenputtock that Carlyle wrote Sartor Resartus, his most characteristic work. Originally rejected by London editors, it was first published in Fraser's Magazine in 1833-1834 and did not attain book form in England until 1838, after Ralph Waldo Emerson had introduced it in America and after the success of Carlyle's The French Revolution. The first appearance of Sartor Resartus was greeted with "universal disapprobation," in part because of its wild, grotesque, and rambling mixture of serious and comic styles. This picturesque and knotted prose was to become Carlyle's hallmark.

The theme of the book is that the material world is symbolic of the spiritual world of ultimate reality. Man's creeds, beliefs, and institutions, which are all in tatters because of the enormous advances of modern thought and science, have to be tailored anew as his reason perceives the essential mystery behind the natural world. Carlyle's concern is to allow for a change of forms while insisting on the permanence of spirit in opposition to the materialistic and utilitarian bias of 18th-century thought. Part of his thesis is exemplified in the career of an eccentric fictitious German professor, Teufelsdröckh, whose papers Carlyle pretends to be editing. He progresses from "The Everlasting No" of spiritual negation, through "The Centre of Indifference" of resignation, to "The Everlasting Yea," a positive state of mind in which he recognizes the value of suffering and duty over selfish pleasure.

Career in London

Carlyle came into his maturity with Sartor and longed to abandon short articles in favor of a substantial work. Accordingly, he turned to a study of the French Revolution, encouraged in the project by John Stuart Mill, who gave him his own notes and materials. As a help in his researches he moved to London, settling in Chelsea. The publication of The French Revolution in 1837 established Carlyle as one of the leading writers of the day. The book demonstrates his belief in the Divine Spirit's working in man's affairs. Carlyle rejected the "dry-as-dust" method of factual history writing in favor of immersing himself in his subject and capturing its spirit and movement—hence the focus on the drama and scenic quality of events and on the mounting impact of detail. His ability to animate history is Carlyle's triumph, but his personal reading of the significance of a great event lays him open to charges of subjectivity and ignorance of the careful study of economic and political detail so admired by later schools of historical research.

Carlyle's great popularity led him to give several series of public lectures on German literature, the history of literature, modern European revolutions, and finally, and most significantly, on heroes and hero worship. These lectures were published in 1841 as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in Literature. This work reflects his increasing hostility to modern egalitarian democracy and his stress upon the inequality of men's wisdom and the incorporation, as it were, of divine purpose. Carlyle's insistence upon the need for heroic leadership is the reason why he was attacked—often mistakenly—as an apostle of force or dictatorial rule.

Late Works

Carlyle's hero worship is responsible for the two largest projects of his later career. He first intended to rehabilitate Oliver Cromwell by means of a history of the Puritan Revolution but later narrowed his project to a collection of Cromwell's letters and speeches connected by narrative and commentary (1845). And from 1852 to 1865 he labored on a biography of Frederick the Great (1865) against the mounting uncongeniality and intractability of the subject. During these years Carlyle exerted a great influence on younger contemporaries such as Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Charles Kingsley, John Ruskin, and James Froude. He published a number of criticisms of the economic and social conditions of industrial England, among them Chartism (1839), "Latter-Day" Pamphlets (1850), and Shooting Niagara, and After? (1867). His most significant social criticism, Past and Present (1843), contrasted the organic, hierarchical society of the medieval abbey of Bury St. Edmunds with the fragmented world of modern parliamentary democracy. It hoped for a recognition of moral leadership among the new "captains of industry."

In 1865 Carlyle was elected lord rector of Edinburgh University, but in his last years he was more than ever a lonely, isolated prophet of doom. He died on Feb. 5, 1881, and was buried in Ecclefechan Churchyard.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Carlyle is still James Anthony Froude, Thomas Carlyle: A History of the First Forty Years of His Life, 1795-1835 (2 vols., 1882) and Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834-1881 (2 vols., 1884). For an account and assessment of the controversy occasioned by the biography see Waldo H. Dunn, Froude and Carlyle (1930). A short biography is Julian Symons, Thomas Carlyle: The Life and Ideas of a Prophet (1952). A good introduction to Carlyle's work is Emery Neff, Carlyle (1932). Also useful is Basil Willey, Nineteenth Century Studies (1949). Recommended for general historical background are George Macaulay Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century and After, 1782-1919 (1922; new ed. 1937); David C. Somervell, English Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1929; 6th ed. 1950); G. M. Young, Victorian England: Protrait of an Age (1936; 2d ed. 1953); and Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (1957).

Additional Sources

Campbell, Ian, Thomas Carlyle, New York: Scribner, 1975, 1974.

Clubbe, John, comp., Two reminiscences of Thomas Carlyle, Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 1974.

Conway, Moncure Daniel, Thomas Carlyle, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977.

Froude, James Anthony, Froude's Life of Carlyle, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.

Garnett, Richard, Life of Thomas Carlyle, New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Kaplan, Fred, Thomas Carlyle: a biography, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Lammond, D., Carlyle, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.

Nicoll, Henry James., Thomas Carlyle, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Sagar, S., Round by Repentance Tower: a study of Carlyle, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Thomas Carlyle." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Thomas Carlyle." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/thomas-carlyle

"Thomas Carlyle." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/thomas-carlyle

Carlyle, Thomas

Thomas Carlyle, 1795–1881, English author, b. Scotland.

Early Life and Works

Carlyle studied (1809–14) at the Univ. of Edinburgh, intending to enter the ministry, but left when his doubts became too strong. He taught mathematics before returning to Edinburgh in 1818 to study law. However, law gave way to reading in German literature. He was strongly influenced by Goethe and the transcendental philosophers and wrote several works interpreting German romantic thought, including a Life of Schiller (1825) and a translation (1824) of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister.

In 1826 he married Jane Baillie Welsh, an acidly witty, well-informed, generally disagreeable, but ambitious woman who did much to further his career. Their marriage, one of the most famous literary unions of the 19th cent. and one of the most unhappy, is meticulously documented in the more than 9,000 letters still extant that they wrote one another. The Carlyles moved to Jane's farm at Craigenputtock in 1828. There he wrote Sartor Resartus (published 1833–34 in Fraser's Magazine), in which he told his spiritual autobiography. He saw the material world as mere clothing for the spiritual one. The God of his beliefs was an immanent and friendly ruler of an orderly universe. In denying corporeal reality, Carlyle reflected his revulsion for the materialism of the age. In 1832 Ralph Waldo Emerson went to Craigenputtock and began a friendship with Carlyle that was continued in their famous correspondence.

Later Life and Works

In 1834 the Carlyles moved to London to be near necessary works of reference for the projected French Revolution. Finally completed in 1837 (the first volume had been accidentally burned in 1835), the book was received with great acclaim. Although it vividly recreates scenes of the Revolution, it is not a factual account but a poetic rendering of an event in history. Carlyle extended his view of the divinity of man, particularly in his portraits of the great leaders of the Revolution.

In subsequent works Carlyle attacked laissez-faire theory and parliamentary government and affirmed his belief in the necessity for strong, paternalistic government. He was convinced that society does change, but that it must do so intelligently, directed by its best men, its "heroes." His lectures, published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (1841), express his view that the great men of the past have intuitively shaped destiny and have been the spiritual leaders of the world.

Carlyle's other works expanded his ideas—Chartism (1840); Past and Present (1843), contrasting the disorder of modern society with the feudal order of 12th-century England; Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845); Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850); Life of John Sterling (1851); and a massive biography of a hero-king, Frederick the Great, on which he spent the years 1852–65. In 1866 his wife died, and the loss saddened the rest of his life.

Assessment

One of the most important social critics of his day, Carlyle influenced many men of the younger generation, among them Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin. His style, one of the most tortuous yet effective in English literature, was a compound of biblical phrases, colloquialisms, Teutonic twists, and his own coinings, arranged in unexpected sequences.

Bibliography

See his Reminiscences (1881) and numerous collections of his letters and his wife's; biographies by J. A. Froude (4 vol., 1882–84, repr. 1971) and D. A. Wilson (6 vol., 1923–34, repr. 1971; Vol. VI finished by D. W. MacArthur); studies by E. Neff (1932, repr. 1968), E. Bentley (1944), J. Symons (1952, repr. 1970), G. B. Tennyson (1966), and A. J. LaValley (1968); studies of the Carlyle marriage by T. Holme (1965, repr. 2000), P. Rose (1983), and R. Ashton (2003).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Carlyle, Thomas." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Carlyle, Thomas." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas

"Carlyle, Thomas." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas

Carlyle, Thomas

Carlyle, Thomas (1795–1881). Historian and man of letters. Born in Ecclefechan, the son of a strict presbyterian stonemason, and educated for the kirk at Edinburgh University, Carlyle showed a particular aptitude for mathematics, and earned a living as a tutor, schoolmaster, and journalist, developing a deep interest in contemporary German literature; his Life of Schiller appeared in 1823, his translation of Wilhelm Meister in 1824. His marriage to Jane Welsh Carlyle marked the beginning of a long, celebrated, and difficult marriage. By the late 1820s he had become a noted reviewer and commentator on contemporary politics, society, and morals, his collection Sartor resartus appearing in 1833–4. He abandoned Edinburgh for London in 1834 and began a career as a historian and political moralist. His essays on Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843) dramatized the moral demands subjects make on their rulers with remarkable power. His French Revolution (1837), his edition of Cromwell's speeches (1845), and his enormous study of Frederick the Great (1858–65) are brilliant imaginative accounts of the moral power of political leadership. By the end of his life Carlyle had become a fashionably unfashionable prophet who refused an honour from Disraeli and preferred burial at Ecclefechan to Westminster abbey.

Nicholas Phillipson

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Carlyle, Thomas." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Carlyle, Thomas." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas

"Carlyle, Thomas." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved May 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas

Carlyle, Thomas

Carlyle, Thomas (1795–1881) Scottish philosopher, critic and historian. His most successful work, Sartor Resartus (1836), combined philosophy and autobiography. His histories include The French Revolution (1837). Influenced by Goethe and the German Romantics, he was a powerful advocate of the significance of great leaders in history. He was also an energetic social critic and a proponent of moral values.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Carlyle, Thomas." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Carlyle, Thomas." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas

"Carlyle, Thomas." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved May 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas