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

I. Carlyle

§ 15. Carlyle as a moral force

In 1865, an event happened which brought peculiar gratification to Carlyle: he was invited by the students of his own university of Edinburgh to become their lord rector. At last, the prophet was to find honour in his own country. In many ways—bound as he was by every fibre of his nature to his native land—he regarded 2 April, 1866, when he delivered his inaugural address On the Choice of Books, in Edinburgh, as a kind of coping-stone to his career. The address, although it makes but ineffective reading, was a triumph in delivery. Very shortly afterwards, however, a blow fell on him of the direst kind. Before he got back to London, the news reached him that his wife had been found dead in her carriage when driving in Hyde park. “She died at London, 21 April, 1866, suddenly snatched from him, and the light of his life as if gone out.” The light of his life was very literally gone out; the remaining fifteen years he had still to live were years of gradual decadence. Still one other book it was given to him to publish, entitled The Early Kings of Norway (1875), but it has little of the old fire and strength; and his name appeared frequently attached to letters in the press. Notable among such letters was his vigorous appeal in The Times in behalf of Germany in her war with France, an appeal which, no doubt, had weight with Bismarck, when, later, he conferred on him the much prized Prussian order of merit. Disraeli made an effort to get Carlyle to accept an honour from the British government, but he declined. Years before the end, his right hand failed him and made literary work impossible, even although his intellectual power and energy remained unimpaired. His death took place on 4 February, 1881. He lies buried, not as his friends would have wished, in Westminster abbey, but with his own kinsfolk in Ecclefechan.

Carlyle is not to be regarded as a mere apostle or transmitter of German ideas and German ideals; he built up, under the stimulus, and with the help, of these ideas, a spiritual and moral world of his own. He saw human life and earthly happenings against a vast background of mystic spiritualism, of eternities and immensities; he was an individualist, to whom the development of the race depends on great personal virtues, on heroic abnegation and self-sacrificing activity. His rugged independence made it difficult for his contemporaries to “place” him; he resolutely refused to be labelled, or to be identified with any specific intellectual, literary or political creed. He would admit allegiance to no one; he treated his peers and contemporaries with crying injustice, often with quite indefensible contumely; he scorned every link with the world around him. He went through life fighting for high causes, scattering the forces of cant and unbelief, grappling, like a modern Luther, with the very devil himself. No man was ever more terribly in earnest about his “God-given hest,” than Carlyle; and yet, perhaps, none was less conscious of his own precise place and rôle in the world-history. Carlyle’s own personal convictions were full of irreconcilable contradictions. At one time, for instance, the making of books, his own craft, is endowed, in his eyes, with priesthood; at another, it is the paltriest and meanest of trades; at one time, his utterances are radical of the radical; at another, his radical friends are appalled and struck dumb by his apparent apostasy. A preacher of the virtue of silence, he himself has left us well-nigh forty volumes of printed speech; a scorner of philanthropy, he was the most generous and open-handed disburser of charity. Possibly, his own love of startling paradox and contrast led him to accentuate such antitheses in his own nature; but, perhaps, they only meant that he saw deeper into the essence of things and relationships than other men; that the irreconcilability was a mere mirage of the surface. One might fittingly apply to Carlyle the phrase with which George Brandes characterised Nietzsche; he is “an aristocratic radical”; or, as MacCunn has called him, “an anti-democratic radical.” Equally distraught was his own personal life; it was built up on dissonances. The agonies and despairs which made the life at Cheyne row often a veritable purgatory for his faithful helpmate were not all the emanation of dyspepsia and insomnia; he was the irritable man of genius, who, as his mother had discovered long before, was “gey ill to live wi.” Below all his reflections on human things and fates, there lay a deep and ineradicable discord. Outwardly, he would fain have appeared as a convinced optimist, to whom God was “in his heaven,” and all was “right with the world”; inwardly, he was often haunted with pessimistic doubts as to the right governance of the world. He proclaimed, incessantly and fervently, that “the world is God’s,” but the converse thought of the “absentee-God sitting outside the Universe and seeing it go” often tempted and assailed him. Thus, Carlyle’s “Everlasting Yea” is an “Everlasting Yea” against a background of “the Everlasting No.” He may well have cried “Love not Pleasure; love God!” but these words were originally wrung from him by bitter, enforced resignation. He had spurned mere “happiness” all his life; but it is not given to everyone who thus places himself above the common lot of men to find what he himself calls “blessedness.” And we sometimes doubt whether Carlyle ever found it. Such a struggle as is reflected in his life is, too often, the consequence when a man sees his own life-happiness slip through his fingers in the pursuit of other ideals, and when all that is left to him is to make of the stern Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren! such virtue as he can. Certainly, the higher, harmonious life, to which Goethe attained, Carlyle only saw afar off as an ideal beyond his reach. Rather, we have to think of him, even in his maturity, as he appears in early days, when he chose as a symbol of his life the burning candle with the motto: terar dum prosim

But it is just this discord, this Misston auf der grossen Laute of which Schiller sang, that gave the enormous impetus to Carlyle’s influence; it was this optimism, tossed fitfully on a vast ocean of pessimism, that acted as a tonic on the national life of the Victorian age. Carlyle’s idealism, whether in literature or in morals, was an impracticable creed, but idealisms, after all, are not there to be practicable, but, rather, to leaven the practice of life. It was this leaven that Carlyle brought to many who, in youth, fell under the spell of his teaching. We have already claimed Carlyle as the greatest moral force in the England of his day, and it is difficult to say more. His influence penetrated deep into English intellectual life, at no time over-prone to impracticable idealisms; and it acted as a deterrent and antidote to the allurements held out by Benthamism, Saint-Simonism, Comtism; it helped to counteract the secondary effects of the re-birth and advance of science—a re-birth which made appalling havoc on intellectual idealism in Germany itself. To Carlyle, the first of all practical problems was for a man to discover his appointed activity, the activity which alone is capable of destroying the canker of doubt. The life of the individual man passes, but his work remains.

  • The only happiness a brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about was happiness enough to get his work done. Not “I can’t eat!” but “I can’t work!” that was the burden of all wise complaining among men. It is, after all, the one unhappiness of a man, that he cannot work; that he cannot get his destiny as a man fulfilled. Behold the day is passing swiftly over, our life is passing swiftly over; and the night cometh when no man can work. The night once come, our happiness, our unhappiness—it is all abolished; vanished; clean gone; a thing that has been … But our work—behold, that is not abolished, that has not vanished; our work, behold it remains, or the want of it remains; for endless Times and Eternities remains; and that is now the sole question for us for evermore!
  • This was Carlyle’s firm positive faith, his panacea for the temptations and despairs that assail human life; it stands out now as his greatest message to his generation.