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

I. Carlyle

§ 14. Frederick the Great

The most ambitious of Carlyle’s work had still to come, The History of Friedrich II of Prussia, called Frederick the Great. The first volume appeared in 1858, the sixth and last in March, 1865. There has been much difference of opinion concerning Carlyle’s Frederick, much questioning of the wisdom which led him to spend many years of racking labour, torments and misery over the production of this work. It was asserted quite openly in the sixties and seventies, and it is a very generally held opinion to-day, that the result of those labours was in no fair proportion to what they meant to the author. It cannot be said that Carlyle has uttered any very final word about his hero; it is doubtful if any of the acknowledged standard writings on Frederick in our day would have been essentially different had Carlyle never laboured. At most, he has been commended by German historians for his vivid and accurate accounts of Frederick’s decisive battles. In point of fact, Carlyle had once more set out, in his imperturbable romantic way, to do something more than make known to the world “what had happened.” Not but what he was, in respect of the truth of history, just as conscientious in his way as historians of the scientific school are. This is to be seen in the unwearying labour with which he collected his materials, poring over libraries of “dull books”; and in his efforts, notwithstanding that travel was to him a torture, to see with his own eyes the backgrounds against which Frederick’s life was played, the battlefields on which he fought. But there was another purpose which, in the first instance, moved him to undertake the work; he set out with the object of demonstrating the heroic in Frederick, of illustrating his thesis of “the hero as king.” He had written his previous histories—The French Revolution and Cromwell—with similar preconceived ends; but there was an essential difference in these cases, in so far as hypotheses and fact are dovetailed into one another. The French revolution, in reality, was an illustration of the nemesis of misrule; and Cromwell was well adapted to the rôle of Carlylean strong man; whereas, it is very much open to question if the friend and patron of the French encyclopedists, the extremely practical and hard-headed ruler who built up the modern Prussian state, could be adjudged a hero in Carlyle’s sense at all. Thus, the history suffers from a too apparent dissonance; it suffers, also, from a certain futility in its author’s efforts to make it throw a shadow across the world of his own day. For just as The French Revolution was intended to be an overwhelming object-lesson to an England which Carlyle believed to be rushing blindly into the whirlpool of chartism, so, his Frederick the Great was intended to clinch his gospel of might as right, to be an embodiment, in its highest form, of the ideal of romantic individualism. Of all men of the past, none, it seems to us, was less suited to such an interpretation than Frederick the Great. There are, however, many pages in this history which bear witness to the cunning of the artist; the gallery of living portraits is even wider than that in the first history, the battle scenes are on a grander scale.