Thomas Carlyle: Victorian Prophet

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Thomas Carlyle: Victorian Prophet


Timko, Michael, The World and I


Only a few authors of the British Victorian (19th-century) period are remembered and perhaps read today: Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Tennyson, and Oscar Wilde. The name of Thomas Carlyle seldom comes up, but there exists a need to "resurrect" the author and his works. His writings on many subjects-- social, economic, literary, religious--and his influence on lives and thoughts of his contemporaries, especially Dickens, makes it essential that we become familiar with both the man and his works.

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the famous 19th-century critic, historian, and sage, was born in the village of Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, the oldest of the 9 children of James Carlyle, stonemason, and Margaret (Aitken) Carlyle. After attending the local schools in Ecclefechan, at the age of 13 he walked the 84 miles to Edinburgh, and attended the University till 1814. While he did not get a degree he read voraciously in the University library, acquainting himself with a wide range of authors, a range reflected in his later writings. He first thought of becoming a minister, but he lost his orthodox beliefs and left without a degree.

Always accomplished in mathematics, he became a mathematics tutor, first at Annan Academy and, then, three years later, moved to a school in Kirkcaldy, where he renewed his friendship with Edward Irving, an old acquaintance, who later became a famous and controversial London preacher. In 1818 Carlyle returned to Edinburgh, where he tutored mathematical pupils and began reading for the law, but soon abandoned it for other pursuits, especially his study of German philosophers. It was during this time, too, that Carlyle, suffering many physical ailments which continued the rest of his life, began his career as author and critic, one that made him perhaps the best known author of the Victorian period, second only to Charles Dickens.

Irving had introduced Carlyle to Jane Baillie Welsh, daughter of the surgeon, John Welsh, and descended from John Knox. They were married on October 17, 1826, living first at Comely Bank, Edinburgh, and then in 1828 moving to Craigenputtoch, an isolated place "among miles of dreary moorland," It was during his time at the Craigenputtock farm that Carlyle wrote many of his famous essays and critical works, perhaps the best known is Sartor Resartus (1831). It was here, also, that he was visited by the famous American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1).

It was here, too, that one critic has written that Carlyle came "to the full maturity of his thought." In 1834, Carlyle moved to London, where he and Jane lived until their deaths, and wrote those works that earned him the reputation as "the Sage of Chelsea" and to become one of the most famous writers known throughout the world. Jane died in 1866 and Carlyle died on February 5, 1881. He was buried in Eccelfechan.

Carlyle's writings are difficult to classify. Unlike Dickens, who wrote and is known for his fiction, Carlyle's reputation rests on his comments on a wide range of topics, including philosophy, politics, sociology, and what might be called culture. Perhaps the three most relevant ones for our time are Sartor Resartus, Past and Present. (2)

Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored) (1832), written while he resided at Craigenputtock (3), is often called Carlyle's "intellectual and spiritual" autobiography. Carlyle himself called the book "a satirical extravaganza on things in general," and claimed that the work contained "more of my opinions on art, politics, religion, heaven, earth, and air, than all the things I have yet written."

The work itself, which Carlyle called "a didactic novel," takes the form of the effort by unnamed editor to introduce the British public to Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, a German philosopher of clothes.

The clothes, of course, stand for the present state of England, which must be "retailored." The Editor admires the philosopher's views, but he seems to have much difficulty understanding them. …

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