Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle, 1795–1881, English author, b. Scotland.

Early Life and Works

Carlyle studied (1809–14) at the Univ. of Edinburgh, intending to enter the ministry, but left when his doubts became too strong. He taught mathematics before returning to Edinburgh in 1818 to study law. However, law gave way to reading in German literature. He was strongly influenced by Goethe and the transcendental philosophers and wrote several works interpreting German romantic thought, including a Life of Schiller (1825) and a translation (1824) of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister.

In 1826 he married Jane Baillie Welsh, an acidly witty, well-informed, generally disagreeable, but ambitious woman who did much to further his career. Their marriage, one of the most famous literary unions of the 19th cent. and one of the most unhappy, is meticulously documented in the more than 9,000 letters still extant that they wrote one another. The Carlyles moved to Jane's farm at Craigenputtock in 1828. There he wrote Sartor Resartus (published 1833–34 in Fraser's Magazine), in which he told his spiritual autobiography. He saw the material world as mere clothing for the spiritual one. The God of his beliefs was an immanent and friendly ruler of an orderly universe. In denying corporeal reality, Carlyle reflected his revulsion for the materialism of the age. In 1832 Ralph Waldo Emerson went to Craigenputtock and began a friendship with Carlyle that was continued in their famous correspondence.

Later Life and Works

In 1834 the Carlyles moved to London to be near necessary works of reference for the projected French Revolution. Finally completed in 1837 (the first volume had been accidentally burned in 1835), the book was received with great acclaim. Although it vividly recreates scenes of the Revolution, it is not a factual account but a poetic rendering of an event in history. Carlyle extended his view of the divinity of man, particularly in his portraits of the great leaders of the Revolution.

In subsequent works Carlyle attacked laissez-faire theory and parliamentary government and affirmed his belief in the necessity for strong, paternalistic government. He was convinced that society does change, but that it must do so intelligently, directed by its best men, its "heroes." His lectures, published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (1841), express his view that the great men of the past have intuitively shaped destiny and have been the spiritual leaders of the world.

Carlyle's other works expanded his ideas—Chartism (1840); Past and Present (1843), contrasting the disorder of modern society with the feudal order of 12th-century England; Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845); Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850); Life of John Sterling (1851); and a massive biography of a hero-king, Frederick the Great, on which he spent the years 1852–65. In 1866 his wife died, and the loss saddened the rest of his life.


One of the most important social critics of his day, Carlyle influenced many men of the younger generation, among them Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin. His style, one of the most tortuous yet effective in English literature, was a compound of biblical phrases, colloquialisms, Teutonic twists, and his own coinings, arranged in unexpected sequences.


See his Reminiscences (1881) and numerous collections of his letters and his wife's; biographies by J. A. Froude (4 vol., 1882–84, repr. 1971) and D. A. Wilson (6 vol., 1923–34, repr. 1971; Vol. VI finished by D. W. MacArthur); studies by E. Neff (1932, repr. 1968), E. Bentley (1944), J. Symons (1952, repr. 1970), G. B. Tennyson (1966), and A. J. LaValley (1968); studies of the Carlyle marriage by T. Holme (1965, repr. 2000), P. Rose (1983), and R. Ashton (2003).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Thomas Carlyle: Selected full-text books and articles

Thomas Carlyle: The Life and Ideas of a Prophet By Julian Symons Oxford University Press, 1952
The Two Carlyles By Osbert Burdett; Lancelot Andrewes Faber & Faber Limited, 1930
FREE! Thomas Carlyle: How to Know Him By Bliss Perry Bobbs-Merrill, 1915
Carlyle till Marriage (1795-1826) By David Alec Wilson Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1923
Librarian's tip: "Carlyle at His Zenith (1848-53)" and "Carlyle to Threescore and Ten" are also available in this series
FREE! The French Revolution: A History By Thomas Carlyle Harper and Brothers, vol.1, 1851
Reminiscences By Thomas Carlyle; K. J. Fielding; Ian Campbell Oxford University Press, 1997
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
FREE! On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History By Thomas Carlyle Frederick A. Stokes & Brother, 1888
FREE! History of Friedrich the Second Called Frederick the Great By Thomas Carlyle Harper and Brothers, vol.1, 1866
FREE! Latter-day Pamphlets By Sir David Ramsay; Lord Rea; Thomas Carlyle Phillips, Sampson, and Company, vol.3, 1850
Men of Letters, Writing Lives: Masculinity and Literary Auto/Biography in the Late-Victorian Period By Trev Lynn Broughton Routledge, 1999
Librarian's tip: "Froude's Carlyes" begins on p. 81 and "Revelations on Ticklish Topics" begins on p. 140
Carlyle and Mill: An Introduction to Victorian Thought By Emery Neff Columbia University Press, 1926 (2nd Rev. edition)
The Carlyle Encyclopedia By Mark Cumming Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 15 "Thomas Carlyle Prophet"
FREE! Early Letters of Thomas Carlyle By Thomas Carlyle; Charles Eliot Norton Macmillan & Co., 1886
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Victorian Critics of Democracy: Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, Stephen, Maine, Lecky By Benjamin Evans Lippincott H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1938
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