History of Friedrich the Second, Called Frederick the Great


By THOMAS CARLYLE. In Four Volumes. Vol. III. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1862.

ALTHOUGH History flows in a channel never quite literally dry, and for certain purposes a continuous chronicle of its current is desirable, it is only in rare reaches, wherein it meets formidable obstacles to progress, that it becomes grand and impressive ; and even in such cases the interest deepens immeasurably, when some master-spirit arises to direct its energies. The period of Frederick the Great was not one of these remarkable passages. It was marked, however, with the signs that precede such. Europe lay weltering and tossing in seemingly aimless agitation, yet in real birth-throes ; and the issue was momentous and memorable, namely : The People. From the hour in which they emerged from the darkness of the French Revolution, they have so absorbed attention that men have had little opportunity to look into the causes which forced them to the front, and made wiser leadership thenceforth indispensable to peaceful rule. The field, too, was repulsive with the appearance of nearly a waste place, save only that Frederick the Second won the surname of “ Great” by his action thereon. And it may he justly averred that only to reveal his life, and perhaps that of one other, was it worthy of resuscitation. To do this was an appalling labor, for the skeleton thereof was scattered through the crypts of many kingdoms; yet, by the commanding genius of Mr. Carlyle, bone hath not only come to his bone, but they have been clothed with flesh and blood, so that the captains of the age, and, moreover, the masses, as they appeared in their blind tusslings, are restored to sight with the freshness and fulness of Nature. Although this historical review is strictly illustrative, it is altogether incomparable for vividness and originality of presentation. The treatment of official personages is startlingly new. All ceremony toward them gives place to a fearful familiarity, as of one who not only sees through and through them, but oversees. Grave Emptiness and strutting Vanity, found in high places, are mocked with immortal mimicry. Indeed, those of the “ wind-bag ” species generally, wherever they appear in important affairs, are so admirably exposed, that we see how they inevitably lead States to disaster and leave them ruins, while their pompous and feeble methods of doing it are so put as to call forth the contemptuous smiles, yea, the derisive laughter, of all coming generations. In fine, the alternate light and shade, which so change the aspect and make the mood of human nature, were never so touched in before; and therefore it is the saddest and the merriest story ever told.
In hold and splendid contrast with this picture of national life flow the life and fortunes of Frederick. If the qualities of his progenitors prophesied tins right royal course, his portrait, by Pesne, shows him to have been conceived in some happy moment when Nature was in her most generous mood. What finish of form and feature ! and what apparent power to win ! Yet in what serene depths it rests, to be aroused only by some superb challenger! No strength of thought or stress of situation seems to have had power to line the curves of beauty. Observe, too, the fullblown mouth, which never saw' cause to set itself in order to form or fortify a purpose. When it is remembered that in opening manhood this prince was long imprisoned under sentence of death for attempting to escape from paternal tyranny, and that his friend actually died on the gallows merely for generous complicity in this offence against the state of a king, and that neither of the terrible facts left permanent trace on his countenance or cloud on his spirit, it should create no surprise that nothing but the march of time was ever visible there. Though trained in such a school, and in the twenty-eighth year of his age when he reached the throne, he yet gave a whole and a full heart to his subjects, and sought to guide them solely for their good. From this purpose he never swerved; and though his somewhat too trustful methods were rapidly changed by stern experience, his people felt more and more the consummate wisdom of his guidance, and they became unconquerable by that truth and that faith. Almost on the first day of his reign, he invited Voltaire, the greatest of literary heroes, the most adroit and successful assaulter of king-craft and priest-craft that ever lived, to his capital and to his palace; and in a most friendly spirit consulted him on the advancement of art and letters, exhausted him by the touchstone of superior capacity, and even fathomed him by a glance so keen and so covert that it always took, but never gave, and then complimented him home in so masterly a manner that he was lured into the fond belief that he had found a disciple. A mind so capacious and so reticent is always an enigma to near observers. Hence it is that the transcendently great may be more truly known to after-ages than to any contemporary. By the patient research and profound insight of Mr. Carlyle, Frederick the Great is thus rising into clear and perennial light. What deserts of dust he wrought in, and what a jungle of false growths he had to clear away, Dryasdust and Smelfungus mournfully hint and indignantly moralize,—under such significant names does this new Rhadamanthus reveal the real sins of mankind, and deliver them over to the judgment of their peers. Frederick, indeed, is among them, but not of them. The way in which he is made to come forth from the mountains of smoke and cinders remaining of his times is absolutely marvellous. As some mighty and mysterious necromancer quickens the morbid imagination to supernatural sight, and for a brief moment reveals through rolling mist and portentous cloud the perfect likeness of the one longed for by the rapt gazer, so Frederick is restored in this biography for the perpetual consolation and admiration of all coming heroes. In comprehension and judgment of the actions and hearts of men, and in vividness of writing, not that which shook the soul of Belshazzar in the midst of his revellers was more powerful, or more sure of approval and fulfilment. It is not only one of the greatest of histories and of biographies, but nothing in literature, from any other pen, bears any likeness to it. It is truly a solitary work, —the effort of a vast and lonely nature to find a meet companion among the departed.