Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Thomas Carlyle (17951881)
[The life of Carlyle, though unusually copious documents exist on it, is almost entirely what he would himself have called a soul-history; and its external facts can be summarised very briefly. He was born at Ecclefechan, in Dumfriesshire, on 4th December 1795. His father, James Carlyle, was a stone-mason; his mothers name was Margaret Aitken. He was sent to school at Annan, whence in 1809 he went to the University of Edinburgh. Five years later he returned to his old school as mathematical master, leaving it in 1816 for similar work in Kirkcaldy. But neither teaching, at least school teaching, nor divinity, nor law, to all of which he turned, suited his faculties and desires. When he was about twenty-three he settled uneasily to literary hack-work in Edinburgh for some years, and was tutor in the Buller family for some more. On 17th October 1826 he married Jane Baillie Welsh, with whom he had long carried on a curious courtship. She had a small property at Craigenputtock in his native county, and there, two years after the marriage, they went, settling for six more. In 1834 Carlyle finally came to London, establishing himself very soon in the house in Cheyne Row, which was his abode for nearly fifty years, till his death on 5th February 1881. His wife had died fifteen years earlier, on 21st April 1866, during his absence at Edinburgh to be installed in the rectorship of the University. Almost all the outward details of Carlyles life are the dates of his works, of which these are the most importantLife of Schiller (1825), Sartor Resartus (1834), The French Revolution (1837), Miscellanies (including some of his very best work, essays and reviews written for the most put at Craigenputtock) (1838), Chartism (1839), Past and Present (1843), Oliver Cromwells Letters and Speeches (1845), Latter-day Pamphlets (1850), Life of Sterling (1851), and Frederick the Great (1866).]
OF the difficulty which must so frequently occur in a collection like the presentthe difficulty of separating the literary and the extra-literary characteristics of its subjectsfew more obvious instances can have occurred than the case of Carlyle. In hardly any English writer were personal and literary character more closely and strongly blended; and in absolutely none has such a flood of lightwhether it can be called white or dry light is another questionbeen thrown within a few years after his death. And yet it would be from the point of view of space clearly impossible, and from the point of view of strict critical propriety very doubtfully proper, to handle the history of his life or the matter of his works very fully here. Fortunately there is a way of escape open which may carry us safe past rather than through personalities and politics. Carlyles attitude in regard to both, though a very singular, a very striking, and in many points to some it would seem a shocking attitude, was not really very complicated or difficult to understand; and much of the endless discussion about it has arisen from an obstinate determination to stick to particulars instead of taking the matter in general. As to personality, it must be remembered that he was, like Dr. Johnson, whom he in so many ways resembled, a man of extremely strong constitution, both mentally and physically, in whom there were, notwithstanding his strength, curious twists and chronic paroxysms of mental and bodily disease. The violent personal flings, the astonishingly inadequate personal estimates, the contrast between theoretical stoicism and practical impatience of quite small ills, the denunciation of selfishness coupled with constant adjustment of the whole conduct to more or less selfish considerations, all become plain enough when this is remembered. So too in regard to the selection and treatment of literary subjects, the gaps and inequalities, the inconsistencies and the lapses in both, will become sufficiently intelligible if it be remembered that Carlyle felt hardly any interest in anything but mans relation to the standards of right and wrong conduct as an individual, and his relation to his fellows as a political animal. For anything not at once or easily adjustable to one or other of these two points of viewif indeed they be twohe cared nothing at all; and when he said anything about such things he was quite as likely to talk nonsense as not. But as a matter of fact he very seldom did touch any such subjects except in passing flings; and from Sartor Resartus to Friedrich he is always, whatever may be his nominal theme, busied with one or other of the two things which solely interested himethical and religious conduct in the individual, and political history in the general.
Even if there had not been other reasons, such as his poverty, his distaste for any of the regular professions, and the character of the particular literary journey-work, which, when he took to literature, at first fell in his way, this fact would probably have prevented him from being a very precocious writer. Unless he had been a zealot with a cut-and-dried formula, or a mere glib-tongued quackneither of which it may be hoped even an intelligent enemy of his would call himhe could not have acquired the fund of material or the special power of expression necessary to enable him to handle such subjects without a long course of study. And it is very unlikely that even then he would have had his lips touched, in the old phrase, except in peculiarly favourable circumstances. Accordingly we do not find him doing anything that was really characteristic till he had settled in the solitude of Craigenputtock. He was thirty-three when he went there, he was nearly forty when he left it; it is historically certain that very much of his best and most characteristic work was done there in the complete form; and there can be little doubt that a great deal more was done in essence or in germ. He had thoroughly matured that gospel of his which no two people succeed in formulating in quite the same way, but which may at least be safely said to be antithetic and antipathetic to all the gospels, materialist, hedonist, liberal-political, common-sense, philosophical, and religious, of the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries. He had also thoroughly matured and become perfectly master of the style in which to preach that gospel.
That this style, which here chiefly interests us, was not his style, at least his literary style, from the first has always been well known; the single document of the Life of Schiller, with not a little in the translations, being quite sufficient to show it. That its development was wholly or almost wholly due to his study of German and his practice in German translation, as used to be asserted, is an opinion which has long been losing ground among impartial students. That German writers, and especially Richter, had something, and even a great deal to do with it no one of course, except out of mere paradox, would deny. It is in the last degree improbable that Sartor Resartus would ever have been planned if Jean Paul had never written, and anyone can see how deep the impress must have been of the struggle to write such a book, not merely on German models, but as it were in the very phrase that a German philosopher of a Richterian type would himself use.
But there is very much in Carlyles style in which after a good deal of reading of German, including Richter himself, it is difficult to recognise any strong Teutonic influence. Here, it seems far more traceable partly to individual genius, partly to sources the outcome of which is noticeable in not a little earlier Scottish literature, especially that of the seventeenth century, A discussion between Carlyle and Sir Thomas Urquhart on the subject of Cromwell is rather alarming to imagine, but the language of the two disputants would have had more points than one of resemblance; and though the Presbyterian divines, of whom Sir Thomas styled himself the lash, would certainly, if they could, have subjected Carlyle to condign punishment for heresy, the speech of judges and prisoner would have shown the same kinship. The fact, however, is that the actual idiosyncrasy and genius of Carlyle were far too strong to show more than traces of any such influence. He had, in the quotation which was such a favourite with himself, fire enough within him to digest the most rugged material that was subjected to its operation.
It is more difficult to speak briefly and positively of the merits and defects of the literary medium thus produced. If, as some hold, the excellence of a style lies wholly or almost wholly in the suitableness of it to the persons who write, and the things written about, then indeed it would be difficult to measure or qualify praise as applied to this. In Sartor Resartus it is not quite satisfactorily to be judged, for the thing avows itself as an extravaganza, and the note is therefore deliberately, almost ostentatiously, forced, as if the conflict and confluence of the personal feelings and experiences narrated and the attempt to narrate them in an external and quasi-philosophical manner, found relief in the splash and spume of words. But there is nothing of this in the French Revolution, and the Miscellanies or Essays, in which two books it can hardly be questioned that the very best and maturest work of the author as literature is to be found. Such a coincidence of style, man, and subject as is to be found throughout the first book, and in the best pieces (the Burns, the Diderot, the Dr. Francia, and others too many to name) of the second, is rarely to be found in any literature. And in these two books is to be found also, more perfectly perhaps than before or since, a certain manner of conceiving, conducting, and concluding a subject which is not mere style, and for which no single word exists in English, if it exists in any language. Very picturesque writers are often charged, and sometimes charged very justly, with neglecting to inform themselves thoroughly. It is notorious that this could never be said of Carlyle. The enormous pains which he took to master his materials can no more be denied than the strength and brightness of the lines and colours in which he threw the phantasma thus obtained before the eyes of the reader. It was never in these days, whatever might sometimes happen when he had descended at once into the vale of years and the valley of the shadow of Frederick, a mere heap or handful of details; it was, in little or in large, in three volumes or in thirty pages, an image, a re-creation, of the subject.
To this, no doubt, the style proper contributed. Some of what now seem its tricks, such as the use of capital initials, were, it should be remembered, common typographical habits quite up to and in some cases past the close of the last century. Others, such as the frequent apostrophes and aposiopeses, the dropping of conjunctions, pronouns, verbs, the quaint conversion of any noun into a verb, and any combination of nouns for the uses more commonly observed by a noun and adjective, are very old devices in English, more liberally and continuously used. More questionable perhaps, is the entire freedom of using foreign words themselves, or literal English translations of foreign words. But the former could find abundant and the latter not infrequent authority, especially in the seventeenth century. Sir Roger LEstrange has things which may be almost called Carlylisms; so have the earlier preachers.
It was with Chartism perhaps that the danger of self-caricature, which is incident to or rather inseparable from all the more lawless and highly coloured styles, first became evident in Carlyle, for Sartor Resartus, as above remarked, must be excluded from comparison. In Chartism too the comparative inferiority of his treatment when it was not applied to some large subject yielding native material, also made itself felt. The Lectures on Heroes taught the same lesson by a comparative, and Past and Present by an eminent recovery of felicity and ease. Hardly anything better in the way of example of the authors marvellous faculty of historical presentment can be found than the better parts of Past and Present. But it may be doubted whether the Cromwell, wonderful tour de force as it is, did not aggravate his tendencies to certain mannerisms. Here, it must be remembered, continuous narrative, positive reconstruction on the large scale, was only occasionally possible; most of the work consisted of scholia, scraps of comment, piecings together of original speech or chronicle. The increase of jerky, and spasmodic phrase which is so apparent in Latter-day Pamphlets, miraculous as they are in some respects, may be partly put down to this practice. But the Sterling once more pointed the moral, just indicated, of the importance to Carlyle of a definite subject. This little book is beyond all doubt the piece of his work in which his style and handling, if not most brilliant, are most finished, mellow, and mature. He was to relapse somewhat in the Frederick, a strange Herculean task which ten or, still more, twenty years earlier might have been his masterpiece, but which now showed that the material was a little too much for the workmanship, the crotchet and paradox sometimes not lightly enough touched for success. He did nothing of great moment afterwards, yet never did even he show his almost magical power of setting the phantasmagoria of the past at work better than in the delightful paraphrase of the Heimskringla which he called The Early Kings of Norway.
It is, however, impossible to deny in a review of the prose styles of English and their achievements, that Carlyles was formed on a perilous principle or disregard of principle, and that it set a still more perilous example for imitation. When his early contemners sometimes asserted that what he wrote was not English at all, they could show cause for their assertion by appeal to the English of a full century and a half, though it would have gone harder with them if that prescription had not been admitted. His language was like a mercenary army formed of all sorts of incongruous and exotic elements; it was dangerous to the institutions and inhabitants of the realm, and it would obey absolutely none save its own general, nor always him. His peculiarities lent themselves with terrible ease to that self-caricature which has been mentioned; his personifications and abstractions, especially in books like Chartism and the Pamphlets, became sometimes irritating, and sometimes merely tiresome; the deliberate avoidance of simplicity, directness, proportion, form, could not but sometimes vex and oftener pall upon the taste. And his imitators (paying tribute at once to the greatness of his idiosyncrasy and to the questionable nature of his method), were and are nearly the most intolerable writers of English that England has ever seen. It is even very probable that his extreme mannerism has had much to do with the comparative eclipse which has come upon his popularity, though no doubt many causes have helped that.
Still that would be but a narrow and pedantic criticism which, reviewing the army of English letters even from the strictest standpoint of style, should fail to recognise in Carlyle probably the greatest irregular of whom that army can boast, perhaps the greatest irregular to be found in any literary history. In such literatures as I can pretend to have critically studied I can remember none so utterly daring in his neglect of all accepted rules and models, none half so triumphant in his neglect. The quaintest tricks of Euphuism in prose and Gongorism in verse, the most audacious bearding of Academic senators by French Romantics, are tame and timid beside the writing of Sartor Resartus in the days when Southey, Hallam, Jeffrey, Lockhart, represented the regular standard of English prose, and when even daring innovators or anarchists went no further than De Quincey in one direction, Wilson in another, and Landor in a third. Anarchy is never an unmixed good; they would have colour for their opinion who said that at best it can be not an unmixed evil. And in archaism as in innovation, in importation of foreign elements as in gymnastics with native materials, Carlyles method was almost wholly anarchical. But as no criticism of art and especially of literary art is sound which refuses to take cognizance of means, of authority, of precedent, of rule, so none can be really satisfactory which refuses to look at the result. And the result in the best examples of Carlyles work is not less than magnificent.
It is impossible to read him at this best without that sentiment of enthusiasm, which, though at a first perusal it may be a fallible and even a rather suspicious guide, is the surest test of literary excellence when it renews itself at each fresh reading after or through a long course of years. And the number of such passages in him is so great, the variety of them so remarkable, that twenty times the space here open would not avail to give them. For it is one of Carlyles characteristicsit is hardly a peculiarity, since it appears in most great writersthat when he is at his worst he is most monotonous, and most various when he is at his best.