Autobiography of Dr. Alexander Carlyle, Minister of Inveresk

With Memorials of the Men and Events of his Time. Boston : Ticknor & Fields. 12mo. pp. 480.
Who was he ? and what was he like ? — Sir Walter Scott answered these interrogatories more than thirty years ago, in this wise. He says, in his “ Review of the Life and Works of John Home,”—“Dr. Carlyle was, for a long period, clergyman of Musselburgh ; his character was as excellent as his conversation was amusing and instructive; his person and countenance, even at a very advanced age, were so lofty and commanding, as to strike every artist with his resemblance to the Jupiter Tonans of the Pantheon.”
Sixty years ago, this old Scottish clergyman sat down, one January day, in Musselburgh, and began to write his “Autobiography.” He had lived seventy-nine years among scenes of great interest, and had known men of remarkable genius. He wrote and died. The manuscript he left has been often read and enjoyed by clever men and women, who in their turn have gone to the churchyard to sleep with the venerable old man the story of whose life they had perused. Sir Walter himself once caught a glimpse of the time-stained sheets. All are now dead who could by any chance be pained by the publication of facts in which their relatives took part long years ago. So the world has now another volume to add to the store of biography, and the future historian will have another treasury of facts from which to illumine his pages.
Himself the son of a clergyman, Alexander Carlyle had a good school-drilling in Prestonpans, where he was born. One of the stories of his childhood is very amusing, inasmuch as it pictures a dozen old women listening to young Alexander, aged six, who reads the Song of Solomon to them in a graveyard, he all the while perched on a tombstone. My Lord Grange was the principal man in Prestonpans parish ; and Master Carlyle, with his excellent father, had great reverence for the patron who had been the cause of the family’s transplantation from Annandale. My Lady was a very lively person, daughter of the man who shot President Lockhart in the dark because he had infuriated him in an arbitration case in the court. This great family attracted the boyish wonder of young Carlyle, and some of the gossiping stories that he heard in his father’s house made his juvenile ears tingle. Poor Lady Grange! Quarrelling with her husband one day, on his return from London, where pretty Fanny Lindsay, who kept a coffee-house in the Haymarket, had bewitched him, she never knew peace again. Her temper, never very Soothing or placable, got entire possession of her life, and she rained stormy gusts of passion on her guilty lord. He trembled and endured, till he found a razor concealed under his wife’s pillow, and then he determined to remove his violent helpmeet to a safe seclusion. By main force, with the aid of accomplices, he seized the lady in his house in Edinburgh, and bore her through Stirling to the Highlands. Thence she was taken to St. Kilda's desolate island, far off in the Western Ocean, and there kept for the remainder of her days, scantily furnished with only the coarsest fare. Her condition was most wretched to the last. In those days, licentiousness and religious enthusiasm were not incompatible associates, and Lord Grange frequently spent his evenings with the Minister of Prestonpans, praying, and settling high points of Calvinism with the old pastor. Good Mrs. Carlyle used to complain that they did not part without wine, and that late hours were consequent upon the claret they liberally imbibed after their pious discussions.
Dr. Doddridge’s famous Colonel Gardiner came to reside in Minister Carlyle’s parish, and told the story of his remarkable conversion, with his own lips, to the clergyman. The book which turned him from his wicked career was Gurnall’s “ Christian Armor,” a volume placed many years before, by a mother’s hand, in his trunk, and until then neglected. Young Carlyle heard Gardiner tell the story of his change of life several times to different sets of people, and he thought Doddridge had marred the tale by introducing the incident of a blaze of light, which the Colonel himself never spoke of having seen, when he related his conversion.
When Alexander was eleven years old, he took a little journey with his father and another clergyman by the name of Jardine ; and the two pious, elderly gentlemen, having a great turn for fun and buffoonery, made sport wherever they went. Turning their wigs hind-part foremost, and making faces, they delighted in diverting the children they encountered on the way.
Of many of the incidents of the Porteous Mob young Carlyle was a witness. He was in the Tolbooth Church, at Edinburgh, when Robertson, a condemned smuggler, who was brought in to listen to the discourse and prayers before execution, made his escape. The congregation were coming into church while all the bells were ringing, when the criminal, watching his opportunity, sprang suddenly over a pew, and was next heard of in Holland. When, a few weeks afterwards, Wilson, another smuggler, was executed, Carlyle, with some of his school-fellows, was in a window on the north side of the Grass-Market, and heard Porteous order his guard to fire on the people. A young lad, who had been killed by a slug entering his head, was brought into the house where the boys were on that occasion.
In the summer of 1737, young Carlyle might have been seen during the eveninghours walking anxiously about the Prestonpans fields. That season he had lost one of his fellow-pupils and dearest friends, and they had often agreed together that whichever might die first should appear there to the other, and reveal the secrets beyond the harrier. And so the survivor paced the meadows, hoping to meet his old companion, who never appeared. In November of that year he was at college, and his acquaintance with Robertson, afterwards the eminent historian, then began. John Home, celebrated at a later period as the author of “Douglas,” also became an intimate friend. He now decided to choose a profession, and had wellnigh concluded an agreement with two surgeons to study theirs, when he became disgusted with the meanness of the doctors, who had bought for dissection the body of a child of a poor tailor for six shillings, the price asked being six shillings and sixpence, from which they made the needy man abate the sixpence. Turning from the niggardly surgeons, he enrolled his name as a student of divinity, and was frequently in Edinburgh attending the lectures at Divinity Hall. Wonderfully cheap was the living in those days, when, at the Edinburgh ordinaries, a good dinner could be had for fourpence, small beer included. John Witherspoon, years after a member of the American Congress, then a frank, generous young fellow, was a companion of Carlyle at this period, and they often went fishing together in the streams near Gifford Hall.
The city of Glasgow, whither young Carlyle had gone to pursue his studies, was at this time far inferior in point of commerce to what it afterwards became. The tobaccotrade with the American colonies and the traffic in sugar and rum with the West Indies were the chief branches of business. Carlyle did not find the merchants of those days interesting or learned people, though they held a weekly club, where they discussed the nature and principles of trade, and invited Alexander to join it. But he found life in Glasgow very dull, and was constantly complaining that there was neither a teacher of French nor of music in the town. There was but one concert during the two winters he spent there. Post-chaises and hackney-coaches were unknown, their places being supplied by three or four old sedan-chairs, which did a brisk business in carrying midwives about in the night, and old ladies to church and the dancing - assemblies. The principal merchants began their business early in the morning, and took dinner about noon with their families at home. Afterwards they resorted to the coffee-house, to read the newspapers and enjoy a bowl of punch. Until an arch fellow from Dublin came to be master of the chief coffee-house, nine o’clock was the hour for these worthy mercantile gentlemen to be at home in the evening. The seductive Irish stranger began his wiles by placing a few nice cold relishing things on the table, and so gradually led the way to hot suppers and midnight symposia. Towards the end of his college-session, Carlyle was introduced to a club which gave him great satisfaction. The principal member was Robert Simson, the celebrated mathematician. Simson was a great humorist, and was particularly averse to the company of ladies. Matthew Stewart, afterwards Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh, was a constant attendant at this club.
On the breaking out of the Rebellion of 1745, the young divinity-student, having returned to Edinburgh, joined the Volunteers, and entered warmly into all the bustle and business of those exciting days. In the Battle of Prestonpans he took part, and was active to the end. When Prince Charles Edward issued a proclamation of pardon to the Volunteers, Carlyle went down to the Abbey Court to see him. The Prince mounted his horse, while the young man stood by, and rode away to the east side of Arthur’s Seat. Charles was at that time a good-looking gentleman, of about five feet ten inches, with dark red hair and black eyes.
One Monday morning in October, a hundred and fifteen years ago, young Carlyle set out for Rotterdam, on his way to Leyden, to join the British students there. Among them he found Charles Townshend and John Wilkes, names afterwards famous m English politics. With Wilkes he became intimate, and many a spirited talk they had together in their daily rambles.
But we cannot dwell upon the incidents of Carlyle’s student-life on the Continent. Soon after his return to Scotland he made acquaintance with Smollett, whose lively, agreeable manners rendered him universally popular. Thomson, the author of “The Seasons,” and Armstrong the poet, were also at this time among his friends. In 1740 he preached his first sermon before the Presbytery of Haddington, and got “universal approbation,” especially from one young lady, to whom he had been long attached. Robertson the historian and Home the dramatist were now among his neighbors, and no doubt used their influence in getting the young clergyman a living. He finally settled at Inveresk, where his life was a very pleasant round of cares and duties. Hume, Adam Smith, Blair, Smollett, and Robertson now figure largely in his personal record, so that he had no lack of genial companions. Adam Smith he describes as “ a very absent man in society, moving his lips, talking to himself, and smiling, in the midst of large companies." Robertson was a very different person, and held all the conversation-threads in his own fingers,— forgetting, alas ! sometimes, that he had not been present in many a scene which he described as an eye-witness.
Carlyle went some distance on the way toward London with Home, when he carried his tragedy of “ Douglas ” for examination to the critics. Six other clergymen accompanied the precious manuscript on that expedition, and the fun was prodigious. Garrick read the play and pronounced it totally unfit for the stage! “ Douglas ” was afterwards brought out in Edinburgh with unbounded success. David Hume ran about crying it up as the first performance the world had seen for half a century.
Carlyle’s visit to Shenstone is very graphically described in the "Autobiography." The poet was then "a large, heavy, fat man, dressed in white clothes and silver lace.” One night in Edinburgh, Dr. Rob" ertson gave a small supper-party to “ the celebrated Dr. Franklin,” and Carlyle met him that evening at table. They came together afterwards several times.
But we must refer our readers to the book itself, our limits not allowing more space for a glance at one of the most entertaining works in modern biography.