Carlyle's Laugh

NONE of the many sketches of Carlyle that have been published since his death have brought out quite distinctly enough the thing which struck me more forcibly than all else, when in the actual presence of the man; namely, the peculiar quality and expression of his laugh. It need hardly be said that there is a great deal in a laugh. One of the most telling pieces of oratory that ever reached my ears was Victor Hugo’s vindication, at the Voltaire Centenary in Paris, of the smile of Voltaire. Certainly Carlyle’s laugh was not like that smile, but it was something as inseparable from his personality, and as essential to the account, when making up one’s estimate of him. It was as individually characteristic as his face or his dress, or his way of talking or of writing. It seemed indeed indispensable for the explanation of all of these. I found in looking back upon my first interview with him that all I had known of Carlyle through others, or through his own books, for twenty-five years, had been utterly defective, —had left out, in fact, the key to his whole nature, — inasmuch as nobody had ever described to me his laugh.

It is impossible to follow the matter further without a little bit of personal narration. On visiting England for the first time in 1872, I was offered a letter to Carlyle, and declined it. Like all of this generation, I had been under some personal obligations to him for his early writings, — though in my case this debt was trifling compared with that due to Emerson, — but his Latter Day Pamphlets and his reported utterances on American affairs had taken away all special desire to meet him, besides the ungraciousness said to mark his demeanor toward visitors from the United States. Yet when I was once fairly launched in that fascinating world of London society where the American sees, as Willis used to say, whole shelves of his library walking about in coats and gowns, this disinclination rapidly softened. And when Mr. Froude kindly offered to take me with him on one of his afternoon visits to Carlyle, and further proposed that I should join them in their habitual walk through the parks, it was not in human nature — or at least in American nature — to resist.

We accordingly went after lunch, one day in May, to Carlyle’s modest house in Chelsea, and found him in his study, reading — by a chance very appropriate for me — in Weiss’s Life of Parker, He received us kindly, but at once began inveighing against the want of arrangement in the book he was reading, the defective grouping of the different parts, and the impossibility of finding anything in it, even by aid of the index. He then went on to speak of Parker himself, and of other Americans whom he had met. I do not recall the details of the conversation, but to my surprise he did not say a single really offensive or ungracious thing. If he did, it related less to my countrymen than to his own, for I remember his saying some rather stern things about Scotchmen. But that which saved these and all his sharpest words from being actually offensive was this, that after the most vehement tirade he would suddenly pause, throw his head back, and give as genuine and kindly a laugh as I ever heard from a human being. It was not the bitter laugh of the cynic, nor yet the big-bodied laugh of the burly joker; least of all was it the thin and rasping cackle of the dyspeptic satirist. But it was a broad, honest, human laugh, which, beginning in the brain, took into its action the whole heart and diaphragm, and instantly changed the worn face into something frank and even winning, giving to it an expression that would have won the confidence of any child. Nor did it convey the impression of an exceptional thing that had occurred for the first time that day, and might never happen again. It rather produced the effect of something habitual; of being the channel, well worn for years, by which the overflow of a strong nature was discharged. It cleared the air like thunder, and left the atmosphere sweet. It seemed to say to himself, if not to us, “ Do not let us take this too seriously ; it is my way of putting things. What refuge is there for a man who looks below the surface in a world like this,except to laugh nowand then ? ” The laugh, in short, revealed the humorist ; if I said the genial humorist, wearing a mask of grimness, I should hardly go too far for the impression it left. At any rate it shifted the ground, and transferred the whole matter to that realm of thought where men play with things. The instant Carlyle laughed, he seemed to take the counsel of his old friend Emerson, and to write upon the lintels of his doorway, “ Whim.”

Whether this interpretation be right or wrong, it is certain that the effect of this new point of view upon one of his visitors was wholly disarming. The bitter and unlovely vision vanished ; my armed neutrality went with it, and there I sat talking with Carlyle as fearlessly as if he were an old friend. The talk soon fell on the most dangerous of all ground, our civil war, which was then near enough to inspire curiosity ; and he put questions showing that he had, after all, considered the matter in a sane and reasonable way. He was especially interested in the freed slaves and the colored troops ; he said but little, yet that was always to the point, and without one ungenerous word. On the contrary, he showed more readiness to comprehend the situation, as it existed after the war, than was to be found in most Englishmen at that time. The need of giving the ballot to the former slaves he readily admitted, when it was explained to him ; and he at once volunteered the remark that in a republic they needed this, as the guarantee of their freedom. “ You could do no less,” he said, for the men who had stood by you.” I could scarcely convince my senses that this manly and reasonable critic was the terrible Carlyle, the hater of “ Cuffee ” and “ Quashee ” and of all republican government. If at times a trace of angry exaggeration showed itself, the good, sunny laugh came in and cleared the air.

We walked beneath the lovely trees of Kensington Gardens, then in the glory of an English May ; and I had my first sight of the endless procession of riders and equipages in Rotten Row. My two companions received numerous greetings, and as I walked in safe obscurity by their side, I could cast sly glances of keen enjoyment at the odd combination visible in their looks. Froude’s fine face and bearing have since then grown familiar to Americans, and he was irreproachably dressed; while probably no salutation was ever bestowed from an elegant carriage on an odder figure than Carlyle. Tall, very thin, and slightly stooping; with unkempt, grizzly whiskers pushed up by a high collar, and kept down by an ancient felt hat; wearing an old faded frock coat, checked waistcoat, coarse gray trowsers, and russet shoes; holding a stout stick, with his hands encased in very large gray woolen gloves, — this was Carlyle. I noticed that when we first left his house, his aspect attracted no notice in the streets, being doubtless familiar in his own neighborhood; but as we went farther and farther on, many eyes were turned upon him, and men sometimes stopped to gaze at him. Little he noticed it, however, as he plodded along with his eyes cast down or looking straight before him, while his lips poured forth an endless stream of talk. Once and once only he was accosted, and forced to answer ; and I recall it with delight us showing how the unerring instinct of childhood coincided with mine, and pronounced him not a man to be feared.

We passed a spot where some nobleman’s grounds were being appropriated for a public park ; it was only lately that people had been allowed to cross them, and all was in the rough, preparations for the change having been begun. Part of the turf had been torn up for a roadway, but there was a little emerald strip where three or four ragged children, the oldest not over ten, were turning somersaults in great delight. As we approached, they paused and looked shyly at us, as if uncertain of their right on these premises ; and I could see the oldest, a sharp-eyed little London boy, reviewing us with one keen glance, as if selecting him in whom confidence might best be placed. Now I am myself a child-loving person ; and I had seen with pleasure Mr. Froude’s kindly ways with his own youthful household : yet the little gamin dismissed us with a glance and fastened on Carlyle. Pausing on one foot, as if ready to take to his heels on the least discouragement, he called out the daring question, “ I say, mister, may we roll on this here grass ?” The philosopher faced round, leaning on his staff, and replied in a homelier Scotch accent than I had yet heard him use, “ Yes, my little fellow, r-r-roll at discraytion ! ” Instantly the children resumed their antics, while one little girl repeated meditatively, " He says we may roll at discraytion ! ” — as if it were some new kind of ninepin-ball.

Six years later I went with my friend Conway to call on Mr. Carlyle once more, and found the kindly laugh still there, though changed, like all else in him, by the advance of years and the solitude of existence. It could not be said of him that he grew old happily, but he did not grow old unkindly, I should say ; it was painful to see him, but it was because one pitied him, not by reason of resentment suggested by anything he said. He announced himself to be, and he visibly was, a man left behind by time and waiting for death. He seemed in a manner sunk within himself; but I remember well the affectionate way in which he spoke of Emerson, who had just sent him the address entitled The Future of the Republic. Carlyle said, “ I’ve just noo been reading it; the dear Emerson, he thinks the whole warrld’s like himself; and if he can just get a million people together and let them all vote, they ’ll be sure to vote right and all will go vara well ; ” and then came in the brave laugh of old, but briefer and less hearty by reason of years and sorrows.

One may well hesitate before obtruding upon the public any such private impressions of an eminent man. They will always seem either too personal or too trivial. But I have waited in vain to see some justice done to that side of Carlyle here portrayed ; and since it has been very commonly asserted that the effect he produced on strangers was that of a rude and offensive person, it seems almost a duty to testify to the very different way in which one American visitor saw him. An impression produced at two interviews, six years apart, may be worth recording, especially if it proved strong enough to outweigh all previous prejudice and antagonism.

In fine, I should be inclined to appeal from all Carlyle’s apparent bitterness and injustice to the mere quality of his laugh, as giving sufficient proof that the gift of humor underlay all else in him. All his critics, as it seems to me, treat him a little too seriously. No matter what his labors or his purposes, the attitude of the humorist was always behind. As I write, there lies before me a scrap from the original manuscript of his French Revolution, — the page being written, after the custom of English authors of half a century ago, on both sides of the paper, — and as I study it, every curl and twist of the handwriting, every backstroke of the pen, every substitution of a more piquant word for a plainer one, bespeaks the man of whim. Perhaps this quality came by nature through a Scotch ancestry ; perhaps it was strengthened by the accidental course of his early reading. It may be that it was Richter who moulded him, after all, rather than Goethe; and we know that Richter was defined by Carlyle, in his very first literary essay, as “ a humorist and a philosopher,” putting the humorist first. The German author’s favorite type of character — seen to best advantage in his Siebenkäs of the Blumen, Frucht und Dornenstücke — came nearer to the actual Carlyle than most of the grave portraitures yet executed. He, as is said of Siebenkäs, disguised his heart beneath a grotesque mask, partly for greater freedom, and partly because he preferred to whimsically exaggerate human folly rather than to share it (dass er die menschlicke Thorheit mehr travestiere als nachahme). Both characters might be well summed up in the brief sentence which follows : “ A humorist in action is but a satirical improvisatore ” (Ein handelnder Humorist ist blos ein satirischer Improvisatore). This last phrase, " a satirical improvisatore,” seems to me better than any other to describe Carlyle.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson.