Thursday, January 18, 2007

5 February: Boreham on Thomas Carlyle

A Literary Calamity
On this anniversary of the death of Thomas Carlyle it is good to remember the day when, John Stuart Mill drove up to the home of the Carlyles in Cheyne Row to make an astounding confession. When Carlyle had completed the first volume of his "French Revolution," he lent the manuscript to Mill for inspection and suggestion. In some way, that has never been satisfactorily explained, Mill left it in such a position that his housemaid mistook it for waste paper, and burned it! It is to the everlasting honour of Carlyle that, although the revelation almost broke his heart, he never let Mill realise the immensity of his deprivation. Carlyle is one of the truly Homeric figures of our literary history. The interest that we feel in him is the interest that we feel in Vesuvius. Other great men are like great mountains; they leap from the common plane and stand out with grandeur and ruggedness against the horizon; but Carlyle is essentially volcanic. His personality is awe-inspiring; his temperament is fiery; his utterance is like a turgid flow of lava. He holds for us the fascination that attaches to all things that are terrible, weird, explosive. He takes knowing. The reader who picks up "Sartor Resartus" or "The French Revolution" for the first time feels that he is crossing a ploughed field in silk slippers. The going is hard and the gait ungraceful; but there is novelty in it, and after a while he gets accustomed to the rough track and begins to enjoy the smell of the upturned soil and the tang of the bracing air. Feeling a personal interest in this strange and uncouth writer, he proceeds to the biographies. Little by little he gets to know Carlyle, and for some time at any rate does not altogether like him. He contemplates the writer's personality much as a small boy contemplates a caged bear. He is glad to have seen something of him, but he does not sigh for a closer acquaintance. The great man is all snaps and snarls and grunts and growls. We are repelled by his tactlessness towards his wife, by his ill-temper towards the unfortunates who incur his displeasure, and by his constant approximation to savagery. Yet, just as, in the one case, the boy will gladly walk a good many miles to see the bear again, so in the other, we only need a fresh invitation to study Carlyle, and we cheerfully respond. The geologists have taught us that the world is all the better and all the safer for having a few volcanoes and it is certainly the better for having men of the type of Thomas Carlyle.


Carlyle stands, and stands conspicuously, among the prophets of the ages. He was, as Edmund Scherer, the French scholar, declares, the prophet of sincerity. Truth was his passion; he was tremendously in earnest. "Mr. Carlyle is no homoeopathist," said Mazzini, his Italian contemporary; "he never administers remedies for evil in infinitesimal doses; he never pollutes the sacredness of thought by outward concession or compromise with error. Like Luther, he hurls his inkstand at the devil without looking to the consequences; but he does it with such transparent sincerity that the devil himself could not be displeased as it were the moment not critical, and every blow of the inkstand a serious thing to him." There, then, stands the prophet—the prophet of sincerity—as great in his way as any prophet of the olden time! "No prophet," says Dr. Maclean Watt, "ever gripped and shook his generation with such a horny hand and such a grasp invincible." Dr. Watt contrasts Carlyle with Ruskin. "Ruskin approaches all his themes as if in broadcloth and with his gloves on; but the rugged Scotsman walks out with his budget of kingly truths, and, no matter what clothing he wears, you feel the homespun and naked grip of a strong man's influence." When Carlyle was an old man of 80, Lord Beaconsfield, in the Queen's name, offered him a peerage and an income capable of maintaining its rank and dignity. Such a distinction had never before been offered to any man of letters, and Carlyle was not unmindful of the honour done him. But he shook his shaggy old head. A prophet with a peerage and a lordly pension! "Very proper of the Queen to offer it," observed a London bus-conductor to J. A. Froude next day; "very proper of her to offer it, and more proper of he to say that he would have nothing to do with it." 'Tisn't the likes of they who can do honour to the likes of he!" Froude agreed with the conductor. "Yet," he adds, "the country was saved by the offer from the reproach of coming centuries, when Carlyle will stand among his contemporaries as Socrates stands among the Athenians, the one pre-eminently wise man to whom the rest are nothing." Thomas Carlyle as a peer of the realm would have cut an odd figure in polite society, yet we all like to think that he was excluded from that charmed circle; not by the ostracism of aristocracy, but by his own deliberate choice.

The lure of Carlyle arises in part from our invincible love of fair play. We instinctively feel that, at least in his early days, Carlyle received something less than justice. For years he lived in poverty among the moss-hags of Craigenputtock, writing the books that have taken their place among the immortals. But in those dour days, nobody recognised their worth. The honest man had put all his soul into what he had written; he would not modify a single sentence in order to render his work more acceptable to the popular palate. He had expressed himself in his own rugged way; he was too sure of himself to smooth out his style in order to harmonise it with the recognised standards. And then, with the proud consciousness of a good and honest workman, he resolved to test the market. He hoped to receive £200 for his manuscript; the publishers offered to print it if he paid them £150! A friend advised him to wait. "I will—to the end of eternity rather!" Carlyle replied. And he waited seven years, writing all the time. And when at length "Sartor Resartus" saw the light of day its reception was anything but sympathetic. One of the most influential critics of the period described it as a heap of nonsense. Through many years the judgment of those who occupy seats of authority was doubtful, if not actually hostile. A writer in Blackwood's declared bluntly that Carlyle was a blatant impostor. The London "World" assured its readers that "there is little that is extraordinary, still less that is heroic, in the character of Thomas Carlyle. Full of littleness and weakness of shallow dogmatism and blustering conceit, he must soon be forgotten—the sooner the better." Such opinions as these continued to be expressed to the end of his life, and even his biographers damned him with faint praise. It was said of Froude that he took his master's body from the grave with a pitch fork and turned it round and round to show his fellow-men, what very common clay it was.

The minds of men have revolted against this kind of thing. The world is equally shocked by fulsome eulogy and by unmerited severity. Recognising that Carlyle received less than was his due, men delight in reviewing his work and making tardy acknowledgment of his greatness. When he died, a grave in Westminster Abbey was offered, and like the peerage and the pension, declined. He had begged that he might be buried beside his father and mother in the old church yard at Ecclefechan by the Solway. For, beneath a stern and forbidding exterior, there dwelt in Carlyle a deep, rich, vein of human tenderness. It was his genuine love for his fellow-men that inspired his faith in the justice of posterity. When his contemporaries treated him with scorn, he waved his hand to the unborn generations. With all his surliness, his querulousness, his impatience and his ill-temper, he remains as Lord Morley said, one of the mightiest moral forces of all time, and his influence upon our literature is as wholesome as it is permanent.

F W Boreham

Image: Thomas Carlyle

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