Thomas Carlyle Essay - Critical Essays

Carlyle, Thomas


Thomas Carlyle 1795-1881

Scottish philosopher, social critic, essayist, historian, biographer, translator, and editor.

For additional information on Carlyle's life and works, see .

Carlyle achieved literary notoriety for his penetrating and often scathing criticism of Victorian society. His writings demonstrate his opposition to the Victorian emphasis on the logical and mechanical nature of the universe and his feelings against democracy in Britain. In conveying these views, Carlyle developed a writing style so distinct that it has been referred to as "Carlylese," and such works as Sartor Resartus (1833-34) and The French Revolution (1837) are often regarded as revolutionary in both their prose and their content. Carlyle's methods and themes met with mixed and extreme reactions in his time and continue to fascinate twentieth-century scholars.

Biographical Information

Carlyle was born in 1795 in Ecclefechan, Scotland, to James Carlyle, a stonemason, and Margaret Aitken Carlyle. He studied mathematics at Edinburgh University, but he left before earning his degree. Making a break with his Calvinist upbringing and family tradition, Carlyle chose not to become a clergyman, instead earning his living as a tutor at Annan and then as a schoolmaster at Kirkcaldy School. After returning to Edinburgh in 1818, Carlyle wrote occasional book reviews but grew increasingly depressed by his uncertainty regarding his vocation and religion. In the early 1820s, Carlyle appears to have undergone a spiritual conversion, which he later described in Sartor Resartus as a realization of a sense of individual freedom. In 1826, he married Jane Welsh, whom he had courted for some time. After publishing several essays, Carlyle attempted with much difficulty to place Sartor Resartus. It was finally accepted by Fraser's Magazine in 1833. Following a move to Chelsea, Carlyle began work on The French Revolution. It was published in 1837 and brought Carlyle recognition as a major literary figure. Most of Carlyle's major works were produced before the death of his wife—these works include On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (originally a series of lectures, published in 1841), Past and Present (1843), Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), The Life of John Sterling (1851), and History of Friedrich II. of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great (1858-65). Carlyle was devastated by the death of his wife in 1866, and his literary output after her death is small. Carlyle died in 1881.

Major Works

The publication of Sartor Resartus established Carlyle as a social critic, though the work was received with much confusion because of its unique literary style. The title of the work means "the tailor re-tailored" and highlights the main theme of the work: that social customs and religious and political institutions are merely the "clothing" of essential realities. The book is presented as the efforts of a nameless editor, aided by a German colleague, to summarize the life and theories of the German Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (devil's dung). Teufelsdröckh's philosophy stresses that just as clothes go out of fashion, so do ideas and institutions, and they also must be reenvisioned or retailored. Therefore, the significance of being able to see through these symbols, or clothes, is emphasized throughout the work. Carlyle's literary style in this volume presents as many challenges to the reader as does his format in that it heavily employs allusion, metaphor, and other techniques that have been described as "eccentricities" and "syntactical aberrations."

In addition to this philosophy, sometimes characterized as a religious vision without a personal God, Carlyle also developed distinct ideas about the political, social, and economic troubles of his day. In The French Revolution, Carlyle sympathized with the revolutionaries to some extent but despised anarchy and appeared to fear the rule of the people. In On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Carlyle presented the view that the vast majority of people are unsuited to rule and instead need heroes to provide solid leadership. Additionally, in the essay "Chartism" (1839), Carlyle used the Chartist movement as an example of a threatening revolution in England and advocated British imperialism as the antidote for England's problems—problems that, in Carlyle's view, stemmed from democracy and attempts at reform. Similarly, in Past and Present, Carlyle questioned democracy and analyzed the problems of workers in England. Some have suggested that in this work Carlyle foresaw the growth and development of the Labor Party in England.

Critical Reception

Just as readers and critics in Carlyle's time found Sartor Resartus perplexing, modern scholars disagree on Carlyle's intention in this work. The "Clothes Philosophy" has been discussed at length by critics, and many have a common understanding of its emphasis on symbolism, the idea that the world's institutions cloak a deeper, divine reality. Yet it is the method Carlyle used to convey this message—particularly the interplay between the Editor and the anonymous colleague—that is problematic for many critics. Lee C. R. Baker, for example, argues that the Editor's apparent skepticism about embracing Teufelsdröckh's philosophy (which would seem to undercut Carlyle's aim of getting the reader to embrace this philosophy) is actually ironic. The use of irony is necessary, Baker states, in order to help "bring forth the reader's own understanding of the Clothes Philosophy." D. Franco Felluga, however, maintains that efforts like Baker's to impose order or a "stable system of thought" on Sartor are attempts to "retailor" the work. Felluga argues that Carlyle's goal is to expose "all systems as limiting and false."

The French Revolution examines this period of history in a manner that took Carlyle's contemporary critics off guard. A review in the Athenaeum in 1837 charges Carlyle with carrying "quaintness, neologism and a whimsical coxcombery" through three volumes of "misplaced persiflage and flippant pseudo-philosophy." Modern scholars have been a bit more kind. Robert W. Kusch reviews Carlyle's marriage of metaphor and theme throughout the work and praises this union as Carlyle's "artistry at its best." With On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, it is the message, more than the method, that has attracted critical attention. Ernst Cassirer explains that Carlyle sought to "stabilize the social and political order" in England and was convinced that hero worship was the best way to achieve this aim. Tracing the effects of Carlyle's views into the twentieth century, Cassirer links him to National Socialism and even to Hitler, and claims that for Carlyle history was identified with great men without whom there would be only stagnation. David J. Delaura takes another view of Heroes, arguing that the unity of the lectures stems from Carlyle's efforts to "define the characteristics, the message, and the social role of the prophet." In examining these features, Delaura argues, Carlyle revealed himself as the hero of Heroes, as a prophet, "at times the prophet whose wise and healing word the age looked for."

Principal Works

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship [translator; from Wilhem Meisters Lehrjahre by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe] (novel) 1824

The Life of Friedrich Schiller (biography) 1825

"Burns" (essay) 1828

"Signs of the Times" (essay) 1829

"Boswell's Life of Johsnon" (essay) 1832

*Sartor Resartus (prose) 1836 The French Revolution (history) 1837

"Sir Walter Scott" (essay) 1838

**Critical and Miscellaneous Essays. 4 vols. (essays) 1838-39

"Chartism" (essay) 1839 On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History(lectures) 1841

Past and Present (prose) 1843 Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches. 2 vols. [editor] (letters and speeches) 1845

Latter-Day Pamphlets (prose) 1850 The Life of John Sterling (biography) 1851

"Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question" (essay) 1853 The Collected Works of Thomas Carlyle. 16 vols.(prose, history, essays, biography, and translations) 1857-58

History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great. 6 vols. (biography) 1858-65

"Shooting Niagra: And After?" (essay) 1867

Reminiscences (memoir) 1881

The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834-1872. 2 vols. (letters) 1883

Early Letters of Thomas Carlyle. 2 vols. (letters) 1883 Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle. 3 vols.

[editor, with James Anthony Froude] (letters and memoirs) 1883

Correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle (letters)1887

The Works of Thomas Carlyle. 30 vols. (prose, history, essays, biographies, and translations) 1896-99

The Love Letters of Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh. 2 vols. (letters) 1909

Letters of Thomas Carlyle to John Stuart Mill, John Sterling, and Robert Browning (letters) 1923

*This work was originally published in the periodical Fraser's Magazine in 1833-34.

**The essays in this collection were first published in periodicals.


The Athenaeum (review date 1837)

SOURCE: A review of The French Revolution, in The Athenaeum, May 20, 1837, pp. 353-55.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers a negative assessment of The French Revolution, describing Carlyle's history as "flippant pseudo-philosophy" and condemning his use of German idiomatic expressions and style.]

Originality of thought is unquestionably the best excuse for writing a book; originality of style is a rare and a refreshing merit; but it is paying rather dear for one's whistle, to qualify for obtaining it in the university of Bedlam. Originality, without justness of thought, is but novelty of error; and originality of style, without sound...

(The entire section is 4094 words.)

Frederick William Roe (essay date 1910)

SOURCE: "The English Essays," in Thomas Carlyle as a Critic of Literature, The Columbia University Press, 1910, pp. 114-38.

[In the following essay, Roe discusses the only three essays Carlyle wrote on "English subjects," including Burns, Boswell's Life of Johnson, and Sir Walter Scott. Roe praises the critical method employed by Carlyle but acknowledges that in the case of the essay on Johnson, Carlyle assesses the man and his ideas rather than his literary influence.]

Carlyle wrote but three essays on English subjects, "Burns," "Boswell's Life of Johnson" and "Sir Walter Scott." He proposed to write others, notably one on Byron and another on...

(The entire section is 9506 words.)

Stanley T. Williams (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: "Carlyle's Past and Present: A Prophecy," in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 1, January, 1922, pp. 30-40.

[In the following essay, Williams analyzes Carlyle's Past and Present, arguing that it provides "'a piercing glance into the feudal age, " an "acute critique upon contemporary England," and a glimpse into the future in which Carlyle foresees the rise of the Labor Party.]

One day when Mr. Arthur Henderson was stating in no uncertain terms what would be acceptable to the British Labor Party, a member of the audience was moved to quote to his neighbor a sentence from Carlyle's Past and Present: "Some 'Chivalry of...

(The entire section is 4230 words.)

Ernst Cassirer (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "The Preparation: Carlyle," in The Myth of the State, Yale University Press, 1946, pp. 189-223.

[In the following essay, Cassirer studies Carlyle's views on hero-worship, noting that Carlyle regarded hero-worship as a means of stabilizing the social and political disorder of his time. Cassirer also reviews the influence of Goethe and Fichte on Carlyle.]

Carlyle's Lectures on Hero Worship

When Thomas Carlyle on May 22, 1840, began his lectures On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History he spoke to a large and distinguished audience. A "mob of London society" had assembled to listen to the speaker. The lectures...

(The entire section is 14071 words.)

Francis X. Roellinger, Jr. (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "The Early Development of Carlyle's Style," in PMLA, Vol. LXXII, No. 5, December, 1957, pp. 936-51.

[In the following essay, Roellinger asserts that the eccentric style of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus is absent from Carlyle's earlier writings. Roellinger maintains that a review of Carlyle's early writings shows that Carlyle "first mastered a rather conventional style, " patterns of which remain largely unbroken until the late 1820s.]

In his admirable lectures, The Problem of Style, J. Middleton Murry illustrates one of the most common meanings of the word "style" by this remark: "I know who wrote the article in last week's Saturday...

(The entire section is 7453 words.)

David J. Delaura (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Ishmael as Prophet: Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Self-Expressive Basis of Carlyle's Art," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XI, No. 1, Spring, 1969, pp. 705-32.

[In the following essay, Delaura argues that the unity of Carlyle's lectures on heroes and hero-worship is based in Carlyle's attempt to identify the personal characteristics, message, and role of the prophet. Furthermore, Delaura suggest that at times Carlyle presented himself as a prophet.]

No reader of Thomas Carlyle's lectures On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, delivered in May 1840, has missed the crucial unifying theme of the possibility of...

(The entire section is 12784 words.)

Robert W. Kusch (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Eighteenth Century as 'Decaying Organism' in Carlyle's The French Revolution," in Anglia, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 4, 1971, pp. 456-70.

[In the following essay, Kusch examines the interplay between metaphor of the eighteenth century as a "decaying organism " and theme of decay advancing toward "spontaneous combustion " in Carlyle's The French Revolution.]

If a poet is a man who sees in metaphor a primary way of knowing and uses language for evocation as well as description, then Carlyle was one of the great poets of the nineteenth century. Other scholars have said as much, and John Holloway, in The Victorian Sage, has classified some lines of...

(The entire section is 5493 words.)

Lee C. R. Baker (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Open Secret of Sartor Resartus: Carlyle's Method of Converting His Reader," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 218-35.

[In the following essay, Baker attempts to identify the questionable function of the British Editor in Sartor Resartus. Baker argues that the Editor's apparent skepticism, which seems to undermine Carlyle's goal of converting readers to the "Clothes Philosophy, " is actually irony needed to help the reader understand Carlyle's philosophy.]


Carlyle's purpose in writing Sartor Resartus is to convert British readers to the Clothes Philosophy. He indicates his...

(The entire section is 7036 words.)

Roderick Watson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Carlyle: The World as Text and the Text as Voice," in The History of Scottish Literature, Volume 3, edited by Douglas Gifford, Aberdeen University Press, 1988, pp. 153-68.

[In the following essay, Watson examines the events in Carlyle's life which led him to the philosophy presented in Sartor Resartus. Watson then studies that philosophy as Carlyle reveals it through the course of Sartor, noting that Carlyle's vision is a religious one, without the concept of a personal God, a vision in which it becomes essential to recognize the power of symbols and to be able to see through them.]

Carlyle occupies a unique place in British cultural history. As...

(The entire section is 7045 words.)

Wendell V. Harris (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Interpretive Historicism: 'Signs of the Times' and Culture and Anarchy in Their Contexts," in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 44, No. 4, March, 1990, pp. 441-64.

[In the following essay, Harris examines the rhetorical strategies used by Carlyle in "Signs of the Times, " and argues that while the essay may appear to be controversial and "extravagant, " when seen within the context of the time and culture in which the essay was written, "Signs of the Times " is actually rather mild and not as revolutionary as it may seem.]

To adapt Northrop Frye's metaphor, Carlyle's stock has been steadily falling. To the contemporary reader his works are...

(The entire section is 8817 words.)

Michael Cotsell (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Carlyle, Travel, and the Enlargements of History," in Creditable Warriors, Vol. 3, 1830-1876, edited by Michael Cotsell, The Ashfield Press, 1990, pp. 83-96.

[In the following essay, Cotsell investigates the impact of Carlyle's travels upon his writing and concludes that Carlyle's "sense of the world, as it reveals itself in his travel and other writings, " is larger than the "single vision of imperial rule " which he applauds and advocates in much of his writing.]

It is indeed an "extensive Volume", of boundless, almost formless contents, a very Sea of Thought; neither calm nor clear, if you will; yet wherein the toughest pearl-diver may...

(The entire section is 5617 words.)

Elizabeth M. Vida (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: An introduction to Romantic Affinities: German Authors and Carlyle; A Study in the History of Ideas, University of Toronto Press, 1993, pp. 3-8.

[In the following essay, Vida surveys the influence of German literature and Romanticism on the views of Carlyle.]

In affirming that any vestige, however feeble, of this divine spirit, is discernible in German poetry, we are aware that we place it above the existing poetry of any other nation. (Carlyle, 'State of German Literature')

To ascertain Carlyle's approach to his German Romantic sources must be the starting-point for their revaluation. Did Carlyle have a...

(The entire section is 2570 words.)

D. Franco Felluga (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Critic's New Clothes: Sartor Resartus as 'Cold Carnival'," in Criticism, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 583-99.

[In the following essay, Felluga maintains that some critics have attempted to "retailor" Sartor Resartus by viewing the work as "an ornate and stable system of thought. " Felluga states that these reviewers have failed to address "Carlyle's carnivalesque efforts to expose all systems as limiting and false. "]

Hans Christian Andersen's tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes," provides me with a parable for what I find questionable in certain previous treatments of Sartor Resartus. As the story goes,


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John B. Lamb (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Carlyle's 'Chartism,' the Rhetoric of Revolution, and the Dream of Empire," in Victorians Institute Journal, Vol. 23, 1995, pp. 129-50.

[In the following essay, Lamb contends that Carlyle, in his essay "Chartism, " exploited what had become the "myth of the French revolution, " in order to paint the Chartism movement in revolutionary terms and to thereby highlight its significance. Carlyle sought, Lamb argues, to advocate British imperialism as a cure for the country's social and economic distress, of which Chartism was a manifestation.]

Thomas Carlyle's "Chartism" first appeared in December 1839, a crucial moment in the debate over Parliamentary reform...

(The entire section is 7157 words.)

Further Reading


Adrian, Arthur A., and Vonna H. Adrian. "Frederick the Great: 'That Unutterable Horror of a Prussian Book.'" In Carlyle Past and Present: A Collection of New Essays, edited by K. J. Fielding and Rodger L. Tarr, pp. 177-97. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1976.

Examines Carlyle's attraction to the Prussian emperor Frederick the Great as a subject of biography, and argues that, while Frederick's forceful ruling style appealed to Carlyle's political convictions, it was the emperor's "personal circumstances and qualities" (which Carlyle felt he shared with his hero) that drew Carlyle to Frederick.


(The entire section is 716 words.)