Article abstract: As the most eminent man of letters in the Victorian age, Carlyle thundered against what he saw as the materialism and moral decadence of the age. The uniqueness of his vivid and emphatic style, and his ability to re-create the flavor and feeling of historical events, have earned for him a place among the masters of English prose.
Thomas Carlyle was born in the Scottish village of Ecclefachan on December 4, 1795. His father was a stonemason who later became a small farmer, and Thomas was the eldest child of a large, close-knit family. The influence of his early upbringing, in an atmosphere of stern piety and moral rectitude, was to remain with him all of his life.
Carlyle was educated at the local Annan Academy, as a preparation for his entry into Edinburgh University in November, 1809, at the age of thirteen. He was an able student, reading widely in English literature and excelling in the study of mathematics. He also developed the habit of supplementing his formal studies with long periods of solitary reading. In 1814, he became a tutor of mathematics at Annan School, and in the following year accepted a teaching post at Kirkcaldy. Carlyle disliked teaching, however, and resigned his position in 1818. With no clear vocation (he rejected the career which was expected of him, in the Church), he faced an uncertain future. For several difficult and frustrating years, during which he often complained of ill health, he survived by private tutoring and translating.
In 1819, he began his study of German philosophy and literature, and in 1820 his first-published work, a series of anonymous biographical essays, appeared in the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia. These were followed by his biography of the German poet Johann von Schiller, which appeared in the London Magazine in 1823, and a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821). In 1826, he married Jane Welsh, an intelligent and talented young woman who came from a respected and fairly prosperous family in Haddington, which was a short distance from Edinburgh. They had first met five years previously; Carlyle, nearly six feet tall, with thick brown hair, intense blue eyes, and a strong jaw, had cut an impressive and unusual figure.
By 1827 Carlyle had become a regular contributor to the prestigious Edinburgh Review, and the groundwork for his major achievements of the next thirty years had been laid. The world would soon hear from this strong-willed, self-reliant, and hardworking Scotsman, a man who in his personal life could be sarcastic, irritable, and impatient, but who also possessed great kindness, loyalty, and a capacity for close and enduring friendships.
From 1828 to 1834, the Carlyles lived at the farm of Craigenputtoch in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. It was here that Carlyle wrote his first major work, Sartor Resartus. Although the manuscript was completed by 1831, Carlyle was initially unable to find a publisher. It was eventually published in magazine form in London in 1833-1834, and the first book edition appeared in the United States in 1836, through the help of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Sartor Resartus remains the most widely read of Carlyle’s works and contains the essence of the philosophy which he espoused throughout his life. It is an extraordinary combination of novel—including strong autobiographical elements—and essay, written in Carlyle’s characteristic exclamatory, oratorical style, full of imagery and metaphor, a style so distinct that it came to be known as “Carlylese.” The central idea of Sartor Resartus is that man must learn to distinguish between external appearances and true reality. Because everything in the time and space world is an emblem, or reflection, of an internal, spiritual condition, it is necessary to perceive the workings of spiritual laws in material forms and events. Carlyle calls this “Natural Supernaturalism,” and he develops the argument in terms of an extended metaphor of clothing. Outer appearances are like clothing; they obscure the essential reality which is hidden within them.
In 1834, the Carlyles moved to Chelsea, London, and in the following year Carlyle commenced work on his history of the French Revolution. Disaster struck when the entire manuscript of the first volume was inadvertently used by a maid to light the fire (an act for which Carlyle’s friend John Stuart Mill, to whom Carlyle had lent the manuscript, accepted responsibility). Only a few fragments survived. Yet Carlyle, undaunted, rewrote the entire manuscript, and The French Revolution was published in three volumes in 1837. The vivid and dramatic...