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

I. Carlyle

§ 2. Carlyle’s early years

Born in the little Dumfriesshire village of Ecclefechan on 4 December, 1795, when the lurid light of the French revolution still lit up the European sky, Thomas Carlyle came of a typical lowland Scottish peasant stock, and, to the last, he remained himself a peasant, bound by a thousand clannish bonds to his provincial home. The narrow ties of blood and family always meant more to him than that citizenship of the world which is demanded of a man of genius; and, in spite of his forty years’ life in the metropolis, he never succeeded in shaking off the unpliant instincts of the south of Scotland peasant. His prickly originality and sturdy independence had something Celtic about them, and these characteristics clung to him all his life, even although he had early found an affinity in the Germanic mind. In the Dichtung und Wahrheit of Sartor Resartus and the preternaturally vivid pictures of Reminiscences, a kindly light of retrospect is thrown over Carlyle’s childhood and early life; but, none the less, the reader is conscious of the atmosphere of oppressive frugality, through which, as a child and youth, he fought his way to the light. At the grammar school of Annan, to which, after sparse educational beginnings in his native village, he was sent in 1805, he was too sensitive a child to distinguish himself other than as the tearful victim of his rougher schoolmates; and, at the early age of fourteen, he passed to the university of Edinburgh, where he attended lectures through five sessions. The Scottish universities, still medieval in character and curriculum, were then veritable bear-gardens, where the youth of the land, drawn from every rank of the population, were let loose to browse as they listed; the formalities and entrance-examinations which now guard these institutions, and have destroyed their old democratic character, were, as yet, undreamt of: but the Scottish students of the early nineteenth century enjoyed a Lernfreiheit as complete as, if, in its opportunities, more restricted than, that of German students of our own time; and Carlyle, while following, nominally, the usual courses, availed himself of this freedom to the full. Ever intolerant of teachers and of the systematic acquisition of knowledge, he benefited little from his classes in Edinburgh. Like many of our men of genius, he—one of the least academically minded of them all—always stood outside the academic pale. He had no high opinion of centres of learning, from this, his first experience—which, doubtless, provoked the outburst in Sartor, “that out of England and Spain, ours was the worst of all hitherto discovered universities”—to the day when he recalled to students of Edinburgh university, more than fifty years later, his dictum from Lectures on Heroes, that the “true university of our days is a collection of books.”

Edinburgh had thus little share in Carlyle’s development; at most, he succeeded, like his own Teufelsdröckh, “in fishing up from the chaos of the library more books perhaps than had been known to the very keepers thereof.” He had begun his studies with certain vague and half-hearted aspirations towards the ministry; but these were soon discarded. His only tie with academic learning was mathematics, for which he had a peculiar aptitude, and in which he even won the praise of his professor. He left the university in 1814 without taking a degree. On his return to Dumfriesshire, he was appointed a teacher of mathematics in Annan, in which post he succeeded a friend who was also to make some mark in the world, Edward Irving. From Annan, Carlyle, now in his twenty-first year, passed, with the help of a recommendation from his Edinburgh professor, to Kirkcaldy, whither Irving had preceded him—still as mathematical master, still without any kind of clearness as to what kind of work he was ultimately to do in the world. In Fifeshire, however, he appears to have had his first experience of romance, which presented itself to him in the shape of a pupil of higher social station than his own; Margaret Gordon, Carlyle’s first love, may, possibly, have hovered before him as a kind of model for the “Blumine” of Sartor; although it seems hardly necessary to seek any specific model for so purely “literary” a figure. No doubt, this love-affair, which, through the timely interposition of a relative of Miss Gordon, came to an abrupt end, upset many of the presuppositions with which Carlyle set out in life. Another significant event was the chance reading, in September, 1817, of Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne, then quite new, which did more than all the treasures of the university library in Edinburgh to bring order and direction into Carlyle’s intellectual world. Considerable emphasis must be laid on this, the accident of his first introduction to the literature that was to mean much to him. Madame de Staël’s work, which opened up the wonderland of German thought and poetry, not only to Carlyle, but, also, to all Europe outside Germany, was a product of German romanticism, having been written, in great measure, under the guidance of August Wilhelm Schlegel, the chief critic of that movement; it was responsible for the fact that the impress which the new literature of Germany made on the European mind was, in the main, romantic. Even Goethe and Schiller are here seen essentially as Schlegel saw them; and Carlyle, all his life long, viewed the German writers whom he loved and looked up to as his masters from the romantic angle.