The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

I. Carlyle

§ 1. Goethe on Carlyle

WHEN Goethe, in 1827, declared Carlyle—the Carlyle of the Life of Schiller—to be “a moral force of great significance,” he showed, as often in his judgments of men, an insight which, at the same time, was prophetic; for Carlyle, unquestionably, was the strongest moral force in the English literature of the nineteenth century. In an age which dealt pre-eminently in ethical and religious ideas; an age in which the intellectual currency was expressed in terms of faith and morality, rather than of abstract metaphysics; when the rapid widening of knowledge was viewed in many quarters with suspicion and apprehension; and, especially, when the newborn science of biology appeared as a sinister force threatening the very foundations of belief—in such an age, Carlyle was a veritable leader to those who walked in uncertainty and darkness. He laughed to scorn the pretensions of scientific materialism to undermine man’s faith in the unseen; he heaped obloquy on the much vaunted science of political economy; he championed the spiritual against the material, demanded respect for justice and for the moral law and insisted on the supreme need of reverence—reverence, as Goethe had taught him, not merely for what is above us, but, also, for what is on the earth, beside us and beneath us. Nowadays, when the interest in many of these questions has ceased to be a burning one, when a tolerance, not far removed from indifference, has invaded all fields of mental and moral speculation, and when a calmer historical contemplation of human evolution has taken the place of the embittered controversy of Victorian days, Carlyle’s power over men’s minds is, necessarily, no longer what it was. But it is, perhaps, just on this account the easier to take a dispassionate view of his life and work, to sum up, as it were, and define his place in the national literature. Such is the chief problem which we propose to deal with in the present chapter.