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

I. Carlyle

§ 3. Life of Schiller

Heartily weary of school-teaching, Carlyle, once more, made an effort towards a profession; he returned with his friend Irving to Edinburgh, and, in September, 1818, took up the study of law. But he soon found that law had even less grip on him than had his previous studies for the church; and, gradually, he drifted into the undefined, and, for a man of Carlyle’s temperament infinitely disheartening and uphill, profession of the “writer of books.” His task was the harder, as he had already begun to be tortured by dyspepsia, and by the melancholy and depression which that disease brought in its train. Nevertheless, he made a beginning towards a literary activity with a number of articles contributed to Sir David Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopaedia; this was the merest hackwork, but, at least, it was hackwork honestly performed. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1820, when at home in Dumfriesshire, he entered on a systematic study of the German language, and threw himself with passionate ardour into the works of the new writers, from whom Madame de Staël’s book had led him to hope that he would find guidance. And, in his early efforts to make money by his pen, it was only natural that he should have turned his German studies to account; while translating—again for Brewster—Legendre’s Elements of Geometry and Trigonometry, he found time to write an essay on Goethe’s Faust, which appeared in The New Edinburgh Review in April, 1822. But his first serious task as an interpreter of German literature was a Life of Schiller, the German writer to whom, as was to be expected, he had been first attracted. This is an excellent piece of work, if it be remembered how meagre were the materials at his disposal; and it is hardly surprising that Schiller’s personality—in which Carlyle saw mirrored his own early struggles—and Schiller’s work as a historian, are more adequately treated than are his dramatic poetry or aesthetic studies. Carlyle’s Life of Schiller came out serially in The London Magazine in 1823 and 1824, and appeared in book form in 1825. Meanwhile, he had turned to Goethe, and translated, not without occasional secret misgivings, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which was published in 1824. This was followed by four volumes entitled German Romance, which included stories by Musäus—something of an intruder in this circle of romanticists—Fouqué, Tieck, Hoffmann, Richter, as well as the continuation of Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, the translation of which was, naturally, more to his mind than that of the Apprenticeship had been. German Romance appeared in 1827, and found little favour with the reading public; but in that same year Carlyle had begun to write the remarkable series of essays on German literature, contributed to The Edinburgh Review, Foreign Review and Foreign Quarterly Review, which now form a considerable part of Critical and Miscellaneous Essays.