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

I. Carlyle

§ 6. Sartor Resartus

Apart from his essays, the work Carlyle takes his place as the English representative of German romanticism is Sartor Resartus, an immediate product of his affectionate study of Jean Paul. The ideas, form, the very style, of this work, which repelled many when it first appeared and had made the search for a publisher dishearteningly difficult, have all the stamp of Jean Paul on them. But, into the German Fabric, which has more consistency of plan, and a more original imaginative basis than it is usually credited with, Carlyle wove his own spiritual adventures, which had already found expression in a cruder and more verbose form in an unfinished autobiographical novel, Wotton Reinfred. Sartor Resartus falls into two parts, a disquisition on the “philosophy of clothes”— which, doubtless, formed the original nucleus of the book— and an autobiographic romance, modelled, to a large extent, on the writings of Jean Paul. The philosophy of clothes left most of Carlyle’s contemporaries cold; and indeed, to his early critics, it seamed lacking in originality, as a mere adaptation of an idea from Swift’s Tale of a Tub; in their eyes, it was overshadowed by the subjective romance, as it seems to have been in the case of Carlyle himself as he proceeded with it. The German village of Entepfuhl took on the colouring of Ecclefechan; the German university, the name of which Teufelsdröckh forbears to disclose, was suggested by what Carlyle had experienced in Edinburgh; the clothes-philosophy made way, more and more, for a vivid depiction of the spiritual and moral crisis in the author’s own life. The three chapters, “The Everlasting No,” “Centre of Indifference” and “The Everlasting Yea,” were have seen, an epitome of what Carlyle had himself come through acutely in 1821. Here, moreover, and not in its metaphysics, lay the significance of Sartor Resartus for more than one generation of young Englishmen; in Carlyle’s cry of defiance—for defiance it was, rather than meek resignation—in his “Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe!” “Love not Pleasure; love God. This is the Everlasting Yea, wherein all contradiction is solved; wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him,” they found a veritable finger-post pointing to the higher moral and spiritual life. Here was a basis for that new spiritual idealism, based on suffering and resignation, but “strong in will to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,” which, later was to pass into the poetry of In Memoriam, and into the more assured optimism of Browning.

In 1833, the Carlyles’ six years’ exile in their Dumfriessgire Patmos came to an end; after a few months’ trial of Edinburgh, which proved unsatisfactory, the migrated—with no more than two hundred pounds to their credit—to London. “the best place,” as he realised, “for writing books, after all the one use of living.” In many, 1834, they took up their abode at 5 Cheyne row, Chelsea, which remained their home for the rest of their lives. Although London meant an accession of new friends, and the stimulus of congenial intercourse, Carlyle, life had by no means yet passed into smoother waters. For the first time, in fact, financial difficulties began seriously to press on him. Sartor had begun to appear in Frase’s Magazine before the move was made; but, owing to what the editor regarded as its dubious quality, it was not paid for at the full rate, and the result went far towards justifying the editorial attitude. The publication met, indeed, with a storm of disapprobation, one critic even dismissing it as “a heap of clotted nonsense.” There seemed little hope that it would ever attain to book-form at all; and it might have taken much longer to do so had not Emerson taken the initiative in America; Sartor Resartus appeared as a book in New York in 1836, in London in 1838. Meanwhile, however, Carlyle, having more or less turned his back on German literature and German though, was deep in a historical work, the subject of which was the French revolution.