Carlyle's Reminiscences

IN these Reminiscences 1 are etched the lineaments of many persons, obscure or notable, particularly of the author’s relatives, and of Irving, Jeffrey, Southey, and Wordsworth. Occasionally, as comment on these sketches, sparse literary criticism is furnished, and at intervals a random flash or two of the old fire flares out; but the volume has most interest as a fragmentary autobiography, and most value in furthering our acquaintance with Carlyle. It is an old man who is talking, depressed with calamity (the moaning ay de mi! too constant, too painful), garrulous, but with the secure and confiding garrulity of long fireside converse. The cumbersome detail, however, is not useless, especially that concerning his diversely branching genealogy ; it is no new thing to indicate the debt of his genius to a Scotch extraction, but tins avuncular anecdotage marks out the obligation sharply, and registers him as born in the savage and brawling border-land, lately reclaimed to civility and orderliness, —his father, as he writes, “ of the second race of religious men in Annandale.” But his father did more than transmit to him a hardy strain of blood: special traits in the taciturn, fearless, toiling, half-loved, half-feared, farmer-mason — his gift of lively, picturesque portraiture, his intensity of isolated emotion, his sombre veneration — are recognizably the son’s inheritance; and spiritual fraternity shines unmistakably in this, which was one of his last sayings to his still obscure, though man-grown child : “ Man, it’s surely a pity that thou shouldst sit yonder with nothing but the eye of Omniscience to see thee, and thou with such a gift to speak ! ” A noble type of peasanthood, worth recording in this loving sketch of him; worth reflection, too, were there space here for more than Carlyle’s self.

The ineffaceable impression left by these records as a whole is of the habitual solitude in which Carlyle dwelt, and of the fierceness, almost ferocity, of the struggle that went on in it. Not merely in youth, — “ life tinted with hues of imprisonment and impossibility, hope practically not there, only obstinacy and a grim steadfastness to strive without hope as with; ” not merely in the apprenticeship time, — “ nightly working at the thing [Schiller] in a serious, sad, and totally solitary way;” but throughout active life at least, the delirious depression of spirit and intensity of effort, from which youthful genius, uncertain of its own faculty and of the world’s opportunity, is seldom relieved, haunted him. He seized upon his work with a tenacity well-nigh savage, and his work held him like a spell of evil. During the French Revolution period, for example, he describes himself as taking his daily afternoon walk, “always heavy laden, grim of mood, sometimes with a feeling (not rebellious or impious toward God Most High), but otherwise too similar to Satan’s stepping the burning marl. Once or twice, among the flood of equipages at Hyde Park corner, I recollect sternly thinking, ’ Yes; and perhaps none of you could do what I am at.’ But generally my feeling was, ‘ I shall finish this book, throw it at your feet, buy a rifle and spade, and withdraw to the transatlantic wilderness, far from human beggaries and basenesses.’ ” For three years “ that grim book ” held him “ in a fever blaze ; ” at the end he stood leaning against a mile-stone, with his face toward Annan, whither he had gone to soothe his “ wild excitation of nerves,” his purpose to write the book, though he should die, accomplished. “ Words cannot utter the wild and ghastly expressiveness of that scene to me; it seemed as if Hades itself and the gloomy realms of death and eternity were looking out on me through those poor old familiar objects.”

The thirteen years of Friedrich were not different: “a desperate dead-lift pull all that time ; my whole strength devoted to it; alone, withdrawn from all the world, and desperate of ever getting through (not to speak of ‘ succeeding’) ; left solitary ‘with the nightmares ’ (as I sometimes expressed it) ;

‘ hugging unclean creatures ’ (Prussian blockheadism) ‘ to my bosom, trying to caress and flatter their secret out of them ! ’ ” In such a fashion, with no repose in the idea, no ease in the utterance, he struggled on alone, except for the constant attendance of “ the desperate hope,” until he got some response to his questionings; not winning it by any gracious Prospero serenity, but rather extorting the secret by putting his own life upon the rack.

The answer, however, was sufficient for himself, and has proved helpful to others. The ideal of conduct and formula of excellence he reached made him indifferent to the world’s verdict upon his life or his works* If the world judged not by his standards, its judgments were hollow. At first he had not been so wholly careless; but the “ conscript fathers ” of literature were silent. From the six copies of “poor Sartor ” sent to six Edinburgh literary friends lie got “ no smallest whisper, even of receipt, — a thing which,” he grimly adds, “ has silently and insensibly led me never since to send any copy of a book to Edinburgh, or, indeed, to Scotland at all, except in unliterary cases.” He was thus forced to a selfreliance not difficult for his nature ; and so, when Thackeray praised him in the Times, “one other poor judge voting,” he thought, “ but what is he or such as he ? ” The only true criticism for him, respecting that French Revolution spectre-drama, was his own to his wife : “ What they will do with this book none knows, my Jeannie, lass; but they have not had for a two hundred years any book that came more truly from a man’s very heart, and so let them trample it under foot and hoof as they see best! ” His final feeling towards bis works and their value to the world is shown by this remark on the Friedrich : “ It has now become Kopos to me, insignificant as the dung of a thousand centuries ago. I did get through, thank God ! Let it now wander into the belly of oblivion forever! ”

The world’s standards were not for him; nevertheless, his standards were for all the world. His equanimity in applying them would resemble that of the careless gods, were his humor not so undeniably atrabiliar, in consequence of which a greater number of fools, bores, and blockheads are here set down by name than would have been found in one of his own little German courts. This pinning of fiies in a posthumous work, with a constant “ See ! this is a fly! ” — why, even the sentimental “ Get thee gone, poor devil! ” is better stuff. As each nonentity pops into the field of vision and collapses, there comes into the mind “ Jeannie’s ” old grandfather, and how he made each new acquaintance stand up to be measured, inches being infallibly indicative ot worth, and one falls to thinking of the futility of all standards that disregard specific faculty and opportunity even in the humblest. Nor is the mensuration flawless when these tests are applied to the celebrities whom our author knew. To borrow his description of Wordsworth’s delineations, these men are seen “ only as through the reversed telescope, and reduced to the size of a mouse and its nest, or little more.” This, of De Quincey, is one of the best of such pictures : “ One of the smallest man figures I ever saw ; shaped like a pair of tongs, and hardly above five feet in all. When he sate, you would have taken him, by candle-light, for the beautifullest little child, blue-eyed, sparkling face, had there not been a something, too, which said, ‘ Eccovi, — this child has been in hell.’ ” Etched work, as has been observed above ; the acid has bitten in; the chief result is an effect. Take this of Leigh Hunt, for a pleasanter sort: “ Dark complexion, copious, clean, strong, black hair, beautifully shaped head, fine, beaming, serious hazel eyes ; seriousness and intellect the main expression of the face. He would lean on his elbow against the mantel-piece (fine, clean, elastic figure, too, he had, five feet ten or more), and look round him nearly in silence before taking leave for the night; ‘ as if I were a Lar,’ said he once, ‘ or permanent household god here ’ (such his polite, aerial-like way).” Were all these sketches as admirable, there could be only thankfulness for such naturalness, force, veracity ; but when his mind estimates while his eye sees, when he mixes judgment with his drawing,— in Coleridge, Mill, Lamb,— there is blur and error, ending often lamely and impotently in grotesque results. In singular contrast with this inability of Carlyle to distribute exact justice to men, either nobodies or notorieties, is his appreciation of those nearest to him : his father, whose natural endowment, he thinks, possibly greater than Robert Burns’s, and his wife, who exceeded, it seemed to him, “ all the Sands and Eliots and babbling coterie of celebrated scribbling women that have strutted over the world in my time, if all boiled down and distilled to essence.” In his exceeding solitariness it seemed so; for what with his fever and battle, the sufficiency to him of the solution he gave the sphinx riddle, his trust in his standards of work done and thrusting itself on the senses, life lost to his eye its true relief ; all fine and various proportions vanished in exaggerations and diminutions. In what further and worse obscurities he was involved when he passed from the individual to the mass of humanity, in Latter-Day Pamphlets and the like, these records show little sign, except for an outbreak about the “ beautiful nigger agony ” and a quaver over “ poor Davis.” Poor Davis ! much good may it do the Mississippi planter with the “drippin’ red ” hands, for such a man will never again use like language of him.

To draw this brief note upon Carlyle to a close, it is clear that our impression of his life is a painful one ; but it does not differ, we believe, in any important respect, from that of his loyal disciples in these last years. He taught us much, but at the end he stood in a tragic isolation from the men in whom the fire of his thought burned most clearly. He denounced their aims, he put their hopes from him; the trend of the new civilization, with its democracies, its philanthropies, its prosperities, was, it seemed to him, downward to the pit, and he sang his Tiresiad to the last. These autobiographic fragments, however, do something to disclose, though darkly, a unity that explains the dénoûment of his career. So to speak, his own nature imprisoned him, his own effort obstructed him, his own development dwarfed him. “ A haggard existence, that of his,” said he to Southey of Shelley. His own existence was grim and gaunt, a wrestling with far other than the angel of the Lord ; with dark spirits, indeed, “as of a man [it is his own account] shrouded since youthhood in continual gloom and grimness, set too nakedly versus the devil and all men.” His struggle was heroic, and fruitful of spiritual good to men beyond all others of his generation ; however defective in joy, in humanity, in repose, his life now takes its place among the noblest of English men of letters.

  1. Reminiscences of Thomas Carlyle. Edited by JAMES ANTHONY FROUDE. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1881.
  2. The Same. Library and Franklin Square Editions. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1881.