Thomas Carlyle.

Reminiscences by Thomas Carlyle online

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In the summer of 1871 Mr. Carlyle placed in my hands
a collection of MSS. of which he desired me to take
charge, and to publish, should I think fit to do so, after
he was gone. They consisted of letters written by his
wife to himself and to other friends during the period of
her married life, with the " rudiments " of a preface of his
own, giving an account of her family, her childhood, and
their own experience together from their first acquaint-
ance till her death. They were married in 1826; Mrs.
Carlyle died suddenly in 1866. Between these two
periods Carlyle's active literary life was comprised ; and
he thought it unnecessary that more than these letters
contained should be made known, or attempted to be
made known, about himself or his personal history. The
essential part of his life was in his works, which those who
chose could read. The private part of it was a matter in
which the world had no concern. Enough would be
found, told by one who knew him better than any one


else knew him, to satisfy such curiosity as there might
be. His object was rather to leave a monument to a
singularly gifted woman, who, had she so pleased, might
<^ have made a name for herself, and for his sake had volun-
tarily sacrificed ambition and fortune.

The letters had been partially prepared for the press
by short separate introductions and explanatory notes.
But Cariyle warned me that before they were published
they would require anxious revision. Written with the
unreserve of confidential communications, they contained
anecdotes, allusions, reflections, expressions of opinion
and feeling, which were intended obviously for no eye
save that of the person to whom they were addressed.
He believed at the time I speak of, that his own life was
near its end, and seeing the difficulty in which I might be
placed, he left me at last with discretion to destroy the
whole of them, should I find the task of discriminating
too intricate a problem.

The expectation of an early end was perhaps suggested
by the wish for it. He could no longer write. His hand
was disabled by palsy. His temperament did not suit
with dictation, and he was impatient of an existence which
he could no longer turn to any useful purpose. He lin-
gered on, however, year after year, and it gradually be-
came known to him that his wishes would not protect him
from biographers, and that an account of his life would


certainly be tried, perhaps by more than one person, A
true description of it he did not beUeve that any one
could give, not even his closest friend ; but there might
be degrees of falsity ; and since a biography of some kind
there was to be, he decided at last to extend his original
commission to me, and to make over to me all his private
papers, journals, notebooks, letters, and unfinished or
neglected writings.

Being a person of most methodical habits, he had
preserved every letter which he had ever received of not
entirely trifling import. His mother, his wife, his broth-
ers, and many of his friends had kept as carefully every
letter from himself. The most remarkable of his contem-
poraries had been among his correspondents — English,
French, Italian, German, and American. Goethe had
recognised his genius, and had written to him often,
advising and encouraging. His own and Mrs. Carlyle's
journals were records of their most secret thoughts. All
these Mr. Carlyle, scarcely remembering what they con-
tained, but with characteristic fearlessness, gave m.e leave
to use as I might please.

I Material of such a character makes my duty in one
respect an easy one. I have not to relate Mr. Carlyle's
history, or describe his character. He is his own biog-
rapher, and paints his own portrait. But another diffi-
culty arises from the extent of the resources thrown open


to me. His own letters are as full of matter as the richest
of his published works. His friends were not common
men, and in writing to him they wrote their best. Of
the many thousand letters in my possession, there is hardly
one which either on its special merits or through its con-
nection with something which concerned him, does not
deserve to be printed. Selection is indispensable ; a
middle way must be struck between too much and too
little. I have been guided largely, however, by Carlyle's
personal directions to me, and such a way will, I trust, be

Meanwhile, on examining the miscellaneous MSS. I
found among them various sketches and reminiscences,
one written in a notebook fifty years ago on hearing in
London of his father's death ; another of Edward Irving ;
another of Lord Jeffrey ; others (these brief and slight), of
Southey and Wordsworth. In addition there was a long
narrative, or fragments of a narrative, designed as material
for the introduction to Mrs. Carlyle's letters. These letters
would now have to be rearranged with his own ; and an
introduction, under the shape which had been intended for
it, would be no longer necessary. The " Reminiscences "
"appeared to me to be far too valuable to be broken up and
employed in any composition of my own, and I told Mr.
Carlyle that I thought they ought to be printed with the
requisite omissions immediately after his own death. He


agreed with me that it should be so, and at one time it
was proposed that tlie type should be set up while he was
still alive, and could himself revise what he had written.
He found, however, that the effort would be too much for
him, arfd the reader has here before him Mr. Carlyle's own
handiwork, but without his last touches, not edited by
himself, not corrected by himself, perhaps most of it not
intended for publication, and written down merely as an
occupation, for his own private satisfaction.

The Introductory Fragments were written immedi-
ately after his wife's death ; the account of Irving belongs
to the autumn and winter which followed. So singular
was his condition at this time, that he was afterwards un-
conscious what he had done ; and when ten years later I
found the Irving MS. and asked him about it, he did not
know to what I was alluding. The sketch of Jeffrey was
written immediately after. Some parts of the introduc-
tion I have reserved for the biography, into which they
will most conveniently fall ; the rest, from the point where
they form a consecutive story, I have printed with only
a few occasional reservations. " Southey " and " Words-
worth," being merely detached notes of a few personal
recollections, I have attached as an appendix.

Nothing more remains to be said about these papers,
save to repeat, for clearness sake, that they are published
with Mr. Carlyle's consent but without his supervision.


The detailed responsibility is therefore entirely my own.
I will add for the convenience of the general public, the
few chief points of his outward life. He was the son of
a village mason, born at Ecclefechan in Annandale,
December 4, 1795. He was educated first at' Eccle-
fechan school. In 1806 he was sent to the Grammar
School at Annan, and in 1809 to Edinburgh University.
In 18 14 he was appointed mathematical usher at Annan,
and in 18 16 schoolmaster at Kirkcaldy. In 1818 he gave
up his situation, and supported himself by taking pupils
at Edinburgh. In 1822 he became private tutor in the
family of Mr. Charles Buller, Charles Buller the younger,
who was afterwards so brilliantly distinguished in Par-
liament, being his pupil. While in this capacity he wrote
his " Life of Schiller," and translated " Wilhelm Meister."
In 1826 he married. He lived for eighteen months at
Comley Bank, on the north side of Edinburgh. He then
removed to Craigenputtoch, a moorland farm in Dum-
friesshire belonging to his wife's mother, where he re-
mained for seven years, writing " Sartor Resartus " there,
and nearly all his Miscellanies. In 1834 he left Scotland
and settled in London, 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea ; and
there continued without further change till his death.









Page 184, third line from bottom, for '* Z^J ca datne la mano"
read " La ci darem la mauo."





On Tuesday, Jan. 26, 1832, I received tidings that my
dear and worthy father had departed out of this world.
He was called away by a death apparently of the mildest,
on Sunday morning about six. He had taken what was
thought a bad cold on the Monday preceding, but rose
every day and was sometimes out of doors. Occasionally
he was insensible (as pain usually soon made him of late
years), but when spoken to he recollected himself. He
was up and at the kitchen fire (at Scotsbrig"), on the
Saturday evening about six, but was evidently growing
fast worse in breathing. " About ten o'clock he fell into
a sort of stupor," writes my sister Jane, " still breathing
higher and with greater difficulty. He spoke little to any
of us, seemingly unconscious of what he did, came.ov^
the bedside, and offered up a prayer to Heaven in such
accents as it is impossible to forget. " He departed
almost without a struggle," adds she, "this morning at
half-past six." My mother adds, in her own hand, " It
is God that has done it. Be still, my dear children,

* Written in London in January 1832.

* A farm near Ecclefechan occupied by James Carlyle during the last six
years of his life.


Your affectionate mother. God support us all." The
funeral is to be on Friday, the present date is Wednesday-
night. This stroke, altogether unexpected at the time,
but Avhich I have been long anticipating in general, falls
heavy on me, as such needs must, yet not so as to stun
me or unman me. Natural tears have come to my relief.
I can look at my dear father, and that section of the past
which he has made alive for me, in a certain sacred sanc-
tified light, and give way to what thoughts rise in me
without feeling that they are weak and useless.

The time till the funeral was past I instantly deter-
mined on passing with my wife only, and all others were
excluded. I have written to my mother and to John,'
have walked far and much, chiefly in the Regent's Park,
and considered about many things, if so were that I might
accomplish this problem, to see clearly what my present
calamity means — what I have lost and what lesson my
lo 5 was to teach me. •

As for the departed we ought to say that he was taken
home " like a shock of corn fully ripe." He " had finished
the work that was given him to do " and finished it (very
greatly more than the most) as became a man. He was
summoned too before he had ceased to be interesting — to
be loveable. (He was to the last the pleasantest man I
had to speak with in Scotland.) For many years too he
had the end ever in his eye, and was studying to make
all preparation for what in his strong way he called often
" that last, that awful change." Even at every new part-
ing of late years I have noticed him wring my hand with

' Mr. Carlyle's brother.


a tenderer pressure, as if he felt that one other of our few
meetings here was over. Mercifully also has he been
spared me till I am abler to bear his loss ; till by mani-
fold struggles I too, as he did, feel my feet on the Ever-
lasting rock, and through time with its death, can in some
degree see into eternity with its life. So that I have
repeated, not with unwet eyes, let me hope likewise not
with unsoftened heart, those old and for ever true words,
" Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord ; they do rest
from their labours, and their works follow them." Yes,
their works follow them. The force that had been lent
my father he honourably expended in manful welldoing,
A portion of this planet bears beneficent traces of his
strong hand and strong head. Nothing that he under-
took to do but he did it faithfully and like a true man. I
shall look on the houses he built with a certain proud
interest. They stand firm and sound to the heart all ov-f|^
his little district. No one that comes after him will ever
say, " Here was the finger of a hollow eye-servant."
They are little texts for me of the gospel of man's free
will. Nor will his deeds and sayings in any case be found
unworthy — not false and barren, but genuine and fit.
Nay, am not I also the humble James Carlyle's work ? I
owe him much more than existence, I owe him a noble
inspiring example (now that I can read it in that rustic
character). It was he exclusively that determined on
educating me ; that from his small hard-earned funds sent
me to school and college, and made me whatever I am or
may become. Let me not mourn for my father, let me
do worthily of him. So shall he still live even here in


me, and his worth plant itself honourably forth into new

1 purpose now, while the impression is more pure and
clear within me, to mark down the main things I can
recollect of my father. To myself, if I live to after years,
it may be instructive and interesting, as the past grows
ever holier the farther we leave it. My mind is calm
enough to do it deliberately, and to do it truly. The
thought of that pale earnest face which even now lies
stiffened into death in that bed at Scotsbrig, with the In-
finite all of worlds looking down on it, will certainly
impel me. Neither, should these lines survive myself
and be seen by others, can the sight of them do harm to
anyone. It is good to know how a true spirit will vindi-
cate itself with truth and freedom through what obstruc-
tions soever ; how the acorn cast carelessly into the
wilderness will make room for itself and grow to be an
oak. This is one of the cases belonging to that class,
" the lives of remarkable men," in which it has been said,
" paper and ink should least of all be spared." I call a
man remarkable who becomes a true workman in this
vineyard of the Highest. Be his work that of palace
building and kingdom founding, or only of delving and
ditching, to me it is no matter, or next to none. All
human work is transitory, small in itself, contemptible.
Only the worker thereof and the spirit that dwelt in him
is significant. I proceed without order, or almost any
forethought, anxious only to save what I have left and
mark it as it hes in me.


In several respects I consider my father as one of the
most interesting men I have known. He was a man of
perhaps the very largest natural endowment of any it has
been my lot to converse with. None of us will ever forget
that bold glowing style of his, flowing free from his untu-
tored soul, full of metaphors (though he knew not what a
metaphor was) with all manner of potent words which he
appropriated and applied with a surprising accuracy you
often would not guess whence — brief, energetic, and which
I should say conveyed the most perfect picture, definite,
clear, not in ambitious colours but in full white sunlight,
of all the dialects I have ever listened to. Nothing did I
ever hear him undertake to render visible which did not
become almost ocularly so. Never shall we again hear
such speech as that was. The whole district knew of it
and laughed joyfully over it, not knowing how otherwise
to express the feeling it gave them ; emphatic I have
heard him beyond all men. In anger he had no need of
oaths, his words were like sharp arrows that smote into
the very heart. The fault was that he exaggerated (which
tendency I also inherit) yet only in description and for the
sake chiefly of humorous effect. He was a man of rigid,
even scrupulous veracity. I have often heard him turn
back when he thought his strong words were misleading,
and correct them into mensurative accuracy.

I call him a natural man, singularly free from all man-
ner of affectation ; he was among the last of the true men
which Scotland on the old system produced or can pro-
duce ; a man healthy in body and mind, fearing God, and
diligently working on God's earth with contentment, hope,


and unwearied resolution. He was never visited with
doubt. The old theorem of the universe was sufficient
for him ; and he worked well in it and in all senses suc-
cessfully and wisely — as few can do. So quick is the
motion of transition becoming, the new generation almost
to a man must make their belly their God, and alas, find
even that an empty one. Thus, curiously enough and
blessedly, he stood a true man on the verge of the old,
while his son stands here lovingly surveying him on the
verge of the new, and sees the possibility of also being
true there. God make the possibility, blessed possibility,
into a reality.

A virtue he had which I should learn to imitate. He
never spoke of what was disagreeable and past. I have
often wondered and admired at this. The thing that he
had nothing to do with, he did nothing with. His was a
healthy mind. In like manner I have seen him always
when we young ones, half roguishly, and provokingly
without doubt, were perhaps repeating sayings of his, sit
as if he did not hear us at all. Never once did I know
him utter a word, only once, that I remember, give a look
in such a case.

Another virtue the example of which has passed
strongly into me was his settled placid indifference to
the clamours or the murmurs of public opinion. For the
judgment of those that had no right or power to judge
him, he seemed simply to care nothing at all. He very
rarely spoke of despising such things. He contented
himself with altogether disregarding them. Hollow bab-
ble it was for him, a thing, as Fichte said, that did not


exist ; das gar nicht cxistirte. There was something
truly great in this. The very perfection of- it hid from
you the extent of the attainment.

Or rather let us call it a new phasis of the health
which in mind as in body was conspicuous in him. Like
a healthy man, he wanted only to get along with his task.
Whatsoever could not forward him in this (and how could
public opinion and much else of the like sort do ?) was of
no moment to him, was not there for him.

This great maxim of philosophy he had gathered by
the teaching of nature alone — that man was created to
work — not to speculate, or feel, or dream. Accordingly
he set his whole heart thitherwards. He did work wisely
and unweariedly {Ohne Hast abcr oJine Rast) and perhaps
performed more with the tools he had than any man I
now know. It should have made me sadder than it did
to hear the young ones sometimes complaining of his slow
punctuality and thoroughness. He would leave nothing
till it was done. Alas ! the age of substance and solidity
is gone for the time ; that of show and hollow superficial-
ity — in all senses — is in full course.

And yet he was a man of open sense ; wonderfully so.
I could have entertained him for days talking of any mat-
ter interesting to man. He delighted to hear of all things
that were worth talking of: the mode of living men had
— the mode of working ; their opinions, virtues, whole
spiritual and temporal environments.

It is some two years ago (in summer) since I enter-
tained him highly — he was hoeing turnips and perhaps I
helped him — with an account of the character and manner



of existence of Francis Jeffrey. Another evening he en-
joyed — probably it was on this very visit — with the heart-
iest rcHsh my description of the people, I think, of Tur-
key. The Chinese had astonished him much. In some
magazine he had got a sketch of Macartney's " Embassy,"
the memory of which never left him. Adam Smith's
" Wealth of Nations," greatly as it lay out of his course,
he had also fallen in with, and admired and understood
and remembered so far as he had any business with it. I
once wrote him about my being in Smithfield Market
seven years ago, of my seeing St. Paul's. Both things in-
terested him heartily and dwelt with him. I had hoped
to tell him much of what I saw in this second visit, and
that many a long cheerful talk would have given us both
some sunny hours, but es kojinte nimmer seyji. Patience !
hope !

At the same time he had the most entire and open con-
tempt for all idle tattle ; what he called clatter. Any
talk that had meaning in it he could listen to. What had
no meaning in it — above all, what seemed false — he abso-
lutely could and would not hear, but abruptly turned
aside from it, or if that might not suit, with the besom
of destruction swept it far away from him. Long may we
remember his " I don't believe thee ; " his tongue-paral-
ysing, cold, indifferent " Hah ! " I should say of him as
I did of our sister ' whom we lost, that he seldom or never
spoke except actually to convey an idea. Measured by
quantity of words, he was a talker of fully average copi-
ousness \ by extent of meaning communicated, he was

' Margaret, who died in 1831.


the most copious I have Hstcncd to. How in few sen-
tences he would sketch you off an entire biography, an
entire object or transaction, keen, clear, rugged, genuine,
completely rounded in. His words came direct from the
heart by the inspiration of the moment.

" It is no idle tale," he said to some laughing rustics
while stating in his strong way some complaint against
them, and their laughter died into silence. Dear, good
father ! There looked honestly through those clear ear-
nest eyes a sincerity that compelled belief and regard.
" Moffat," said he one day to an incorrigible reaper,
" thou hast had every feature of a bad shearer — high,
rough, and little on't. Thou maun alter thy figure or
slant the bog," pointing to the man's road homewards.

He was irascible, choleric, and we all dreaded his
wrath, yet passion never mastered him or maddened him.
It rather inspired him with new vehemence of insight and
more piercing emphasis of wisdom. It must have been a
bold man that did not quail before that face when glowing
with indignation, grounded, for so it ever was, on the
sense of right and in resistance of wrong. More than
once has he lifted up his strong voice in tax courts and the
like before "the gentlemen" (what he knew of highest
among men,) and rending asunder ofificial sophisms, thun-
dered even into their deaf ears the indignant sentence of
natural justice to the conviction of all. Oh, why did we
laugh at these things while we loved them ? There is a
tragic greatness and sacredness in them now.

I can call my father a brave man [ein tapferer). Man's
face he did not fear ; God he always feared. His rever-

• /



ence I think was considerably mixed with fear ; yet not
slavish fear, rather awe, as of unutterable depths of silence
through which flickered a trembling hope. How he used
to speak of death, especially in late years — or rather to be
silent, and look at it ! There was no feeling in him here
that he cared to hide. He trembled at the really terrible ;
the mock terrible he cared nought for. That last act of
his life, when in the last agony, with the thick ghastly va-
pours of death rising round him to choke him, he burst
through and called with a man's voice on the Great God
to have mercy on him — that was like the epitome and
concluding summary of his whole life. God gave him
strength to wrestle with the King of Terrors, and as it
were even then to prevail. All his strength came from
God and ever sought new nourishment there. God be
thanked for it.

Let me not mourn that my father's force is all spent,
that his valour wars no longer. Has it not gained the vic-
tory ? Let me imitate him rather. Let his courageous
heart beat anew in me, that when oppression and opposi-
tion unjustly threaten, I too may rise with his spirit to
front them and subdue them.

— On the whole, ought I not to rejoice that God was

Online LibraryThomas CarlyleReminiscences by Thomas Carlyle → online text (page 1 of 37)