►→ also see ►→Thomas Carlyle: Biography
Thomas Carlyle’s essay writing career began with two pieces in the Edinburgh Review in 1827: “John Paul Friedrich Richter” and “The State of German Literature.” Reviews of books on Richter and German literature, these first essays were a hybrid of literary criticism and cultural critique. The same can be said—despite their lesser scope—of a number of essays on German literature published in the Foreign Review in 1828 and 1829. Here, and later in Fraser’s Magazine, Carlyle earned a reputation as the interpreter of German literature to England.
In “Burns” (1828), Carlyle took the publication of Lockhart’s life of Burns as an opportunity to articulate a view of Burns and biography which anticipated his own later work in that vein. Combining aphoristic style with Augustan periods, Carlyle emphasized his points with alliteration and antithesis.
Among subsequent essays which identify Carlyle’s unique tone and style are “Signs of the Times” (1829), “Thoughts on History” (1830), “Characteristics” (1831), and “Biography” (1832). “Signs of the Times” articulates an anti-utilitarian philosophy in a style both idiosyncratic and broadly allusive. Neologisms, compounds, and wordplay abound, which critics attribute in part to Carlyle’s familiarity with and love of German language and literature. “Thoughts on History,” a familiar essay manifesting the cadences of Augustan prose, classifies the sources and kinds of history but is also sprinkled with neologisms, references to “the Unknown, the Infinite in man’s life,” and social-critical asides. The essay defends the uses of the past and articulates assumptions which guide Carlyle in such later works as The French Revolution (1837).
If any single essay by Carlyle earns him the honorific, “Sage of Chelsea,” it is the aphoristic and allusive “Characteristics.” Critical of the philosophical and moral state of the modern world, Carlyle stresses the “dynamical” and the “vital,” arguing for “a spiritual principle” in society. Contrasting the health of past societies with the “maladies” and “diseases” that afflict the thought and behavior of the present, Carlyle strikes the first notes of a theme he elaborates on in Past and Present (1843). Highly figured, “Characteristics” trades heavily in images of light and darkness and oppositions of the natural and the artificial, employing metaphors of chaos and the whirlwind.
Like the essay on history, “Biography” manifests the more analytical qualities of Carlyle’s style. Subordinating as he classifies various fictional forms of the biographical, Carlyle praises “the smallest historical fact” because “it is not a dream, but a reality.”
Even more than “Thoughts on History,” “Biography” anticipates the biographies Carlyle was to write on John Sterling, Robert Burns, and Frederick the Great.
Modern critics usually class Sartor Resartus (1836) as a hybrid autobiographical novel, philosophical treatise, and cultural critique, but seen in a certain light, it also manifests its affinity with the essay form. Structurally, tonally, and specifically, it focuses on the essayist/editor/reviewer relation. The “editor,” who gathers and presents the papers of one Diogenes Teufelsdröch, is a parody of the journal editor. Teufelsdröch and his pedantic style are a caricature of the more pompous reviewer/essayist—and of Carlyle himself. The subjects Sartor Resartus treats—fashion, philosophy, and mores—are also as varied as the subjects considered in any of the early 19th– century reviews.
Originally written for John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian Westminster Review, the long essay Chartism was rejected by Mill and J.G.Lockhart, editor of the Tory Quarterly Review. Published by itself in 1839, it expresses sympathy for the conditions of the working class but is generally agreed to be an uneven work.
With his reputation assured by the publication of The French Revolution, Carlyle capitalized on that book’s popularity by developing a series of six lectures which became On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). Combining his interest in history and a focus on individuals, the six lectures expand the conception of the essay as they reflect on different ideas of the hero: as divinity, prophet, poet, priest, man of letters, and king. Structurally, On Heroes is more narrative and descriptive than Carlyle’s earlier review essays. Stylistically, the book owes a debt to the lecture hall, its emphatic and oratorical redundancies diluting some of the more Germanic features of the earlier essays.
The conservative, authoritarian tone evident in Chartism takes on a new form in On Heroes.
Somewhat in the manner of Sartor Resartus and On Heroes, Past and Present expands the notion of the essay form inasmuch as Carlyle combines historical re-creation, social analysis, and cultural criticism to descry the paradoxical prosperity amid poverty and waste that characterized England as it approached the end of the first half of the 19th century.
The latter 1840s found Carlyle contributing occasional pieces primarily to newspapers.
“Occasional Discourse on the Negro-Question” (the more offensive “Nigger” became part of the title when it was published separately in 1853) appeared anonymously in
Fraser’s Magazine in 1849. It was followed by Latter-Day Pamphlets in 1850, eight essays published separately—possibly because no periodical would print them. In “The Negro Question” Carlyle addresses the subject of West Indian slavery in intemperate and (for the 20th century) doubly repugnant terms. In this essay and the Latter-Day Pamphlets Carlyle’s frustration and cynicism with English society become prominent.
Strident, satirical, and offensive to former friends like John Stuart Mill, these essays nevertheless raise serious questions about democracy, mass persuasion, and politics in modern society.
Longer biographical essays on Sterling, Samuel Johnson, and Burns followed in the 1850s, along with the monumental History of Friedrich the Second called Frederick the Great (1858–65). Shooting Niagara: and After? appeared first in Macmillan’s Magazine in 1867 before being published separately. Critical of England’s move toward democracy and its wallowing in hypocrisy, Carlyle in this long essay nevertheless holds out some hope, should the natural aristocrats of the nation “develop themselves into something of heroic Welldoing by act and by word.”
One of Carlyle’s ablest critics, G.B.Tennyson (1966), has said that Carlyle “created the taste for serious works of nonfiction prose,” adding that he was a “pioneer” for the essay as “a form for carrying ideas to a mass audience.” Carlyle’s passionate, often irreverent tone, and what increasingly reads like oratory, nevertheless elaborates a vision and a critique of England in the middle four decades of the 19th century which remains a landmark not only of social criticism but of the powerful and persuasive force of the essay.
ED BLOCK, JR.
Born 4 December 1795 in Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire. Studied at the Annan Academy, 1805–09; University of Edinburgh, 1809–14, B.A., 1813; studied for the ministry of the Church of Scotland, 1813–18; studied Scottish law, 1819. Taught at Annan Academy, 1814–16, Kirkcaldy Grammar School, 1816–18, and privately in Edinburgh, 1818–22.
Wrote for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia; full-time writer, from 182.4, contributing to journals such as the Edinburgh Review and Fraser’s Magazine. Married Jane Welsh, 1826 (died, 1866). Lived in Craigenputtock, Dumfriesshire, 1828–34, and Chelsea, London, 1834–81. Rector, University of Edinburgh, 1866.
Awards: Prussian Order of Merit, 1874; declined a baronetcy from Disraeli. Died in London, 5 February 1881.
Essays and Related Prose
Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 4 vols., 1838
On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (lectures), 1841; edited by Michael K.Goldberg, 1993
Past and Present, 1843
Latter-Day Pamphlets (The Present Time; Model Praows; Downing Street; The New Downing Street-, Stump-Orator; Parliaments; Hudson’s Statue; Jesuitistn), 8 vols. bound into 1 vol., 1850
Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, 1853
Shooting Niagara: and After?, 1867
Rescued Essays, edited by Percy Newberry, 1892
Unpublished Lectures: Lectures on the History of Literature or the Successive Periods of European Culture, edited by R.P.Karkaria, 1892
Montaigne and Other Essays, Chiefly Biographical, 1897
Historical Sketches of Notable Persons and Events in the Reigns of James I and Charles I, edited by Alexander Carlyle, 1898
A Carlyle Reader (selections), edited by G.B.Tennyson, 1969
Other writings: the fiction work Sartor Resartus (1836), a threevolume history The French Revolution (1837), a six-volume history of Frederick the Great of Prussia (1858– 65), other works on history and biography, and several volumes of correspondence to members of his family and figures such as Goethe, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Translated Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1824)
and works by other German writers.
Collected works edition: Works (Centenary Edition), edited by H. D.Traill, 30 vols., 1896–99.
Dillon, R.W., “A Centenary Bibliography of Carlylean Studies, 1928–1974,” Bulletin of Bibliography (October-December 1975); supplements, 1975–1980, 1983
Dyer, I.W., A Bibliography of Thomas Carlyle’s Writings and Ana, New York: Octagon, 1968 (original edition, 1928)
Tarr, Rodger L., Thomas Carlyle: A Bibliography of EnglishLanguage Criticism, 1824– 1974, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976
Tarr, Rodger L., Thomas Carlyle: A Descriptive Bibliography, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, and Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989
Harrold, Charles Frederick, Carlyle and German Thought, 1819–1834, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, and London: Oxford University Press, 1934
Heffer, Simon, Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995
Holloway, John, The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument, London: Macmillan, 1953; New York: Norton, 1965
LaValley, Albert J., Carlyle and the Idea of the Modern: Studies in Carlyle’s Prophetic Literature and Its Relation to Blake, Nietzsche, Marx and Others, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1968
Leopold, Werner F., Die religiöse Wurzel von Carlyles literarischer Wirksamkeit dargestellt an seinem Aufsatz “State of German Literature” (1827), Halle: Niemeyer, 1922
Levine, George, The Boundaries of Fiction: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968
Roellinger, F.X., “The Early Development of Carlyle’s Style,” PMLA (1957)
Shine, Hill, Carlyle’s Early Reading, to 1834, with an Introductory Essay on His Intellectual Developtnent, Lexington: University of Kentucky Libraries, 1953
Sussman, Herbert L., Fact into Figure: Typology in Carlyle, Ruskin, and the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979
Taylor, Alan Carey, Carlyle, sa première fortune littéraire en France (1825–1865), Paris: Champion, 1929
Tennyson, G.B., Sartor Called Resartus: The Genesis, Structure and Style of Thomas Carlyle’s First Major Work, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966
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