Thomas Carlyle

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The childhood of Thomas Carlyle was spent in the village of Ecclefechan, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, where his father, James Carlyle, was a stonemason. From the age of ten, Thomas Carlyle attended the grammar school at Annan, and at fourteen he was sent, on foot, to enroll in the University of Edinburgh. There he remained until 1814, when he left without a degree and became a teacher of mathematics at his old school. Subsequently, he held the mastership of a school at Kirkcaldy. His parents, who were devout Calvinists, had wanted him to study divinity and become a minister, but in 1817 he rejected this course of life. For a time, he lived in Edinburgh and desultorily read law, but he was unable to interest himself in any profession. Weakened by digestive problems and much troubled in mind by his inability to achieve philosophical or religious certitude, he underwent a period of acute strain, which culminated during the summer of 1822 in a spiritual crisis that he recorded in Sartor Resartus. By now greatly under the influence of the German philosophers, especially Johann Gottlieb Fichte, he was beginning to devise a set of beliefs acceptable to himself and was coming to realize that his vocation was literature and philosophy. Carlyle became absorbed in the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, with whom he corresponded after the publication of his English translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.

In 1826, Carlyle married Jane Welsh, an exceptionally brilliant young woman, who had been a pupil of his friend Edward Irving. Their life together seems to have been tempestuous. They lived in Edinburgh for two years and then moved to Craigenputtoch, an isolated farm in Dumfriesshire. There Carlyle worked painstakingly on the “clothes philosophy” of Sartor Resartus and consolidated his system of thought; his six years at Craigenputtoch were his time of intellectual self-discovery. A few journeys to London sufficed to win him a number of literary friends, including John Stuart Mill. In 1834, after another brief sojourn in Edinburgh, the Carlyles moved to Chelsea, London, so that he might have access to the London libraries to assemble material for The French Revolution. This historical study he finally completed early in 1837, after the terrible experience of having to rewrite the whole first volume; he had lent the manuscript to Mill, and Mill had left it with his friend Mrs. Taylor, whose servant heedlessly used it to light fires. Carlyle had no other copy and had preserved no notes. With the appearance of The French Revolution, his reputation was established. The most important of his later works were Chartism; On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History; Past and Present; and a six-volume history of Frederick the Great. Surviving his wife by almost fifteen years, Carlyle died in London on February 5, 1881. His highly indiscreet Reminiscences, edited by his official biographer, James Anthony Froude, aroused much indignation when it appeared shortly after his death.

Carlyle was a bitter enemy of conformity. He extolled government by an aristocracy of talent, despised democracy and popular political institutions, and damned the French Revolution. He admired the interdependence of classes under feudalism, preached the sacredness of work in opposition to the cult of riches, and scorned mass production as the bane of fine craftsmanship. He expressed his ideas in an intense, and often somewhat raucous, literary style.

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