Carlyle in London

OF the good and evil of modern biography the memorials of Carlyle, which these volumes 1 conclude, will be a severe test. Slowly he won his way merely by literature to a place where he had the respect of the world, the veneration of the most earnest of the younger generation, and power over all the best. He died ; and the interest of his work, which had been as real as Alexander’s, as laborious as Frederick’s, as believing as Cromwell’s, has been superseded by the interest of his life. This is temporary, of course, but the intimate knowledge that men possess in regard to his own human nature will profoundly modify the meaning of Iris books to them, and in the long run this change for better or worse will prove the significant thing. He himself taught that character is the best light by which to get ail understanding of a man’s work, and his biographer has proved faithful to that theory. He himself authorized the violation of his own thoughts, affections, and wrongdoing, in their secretest privacy. It is true that he did it in that mood of sorrow and repentance which is peculiarly liable to error of judgment, when a wise friend is a friend indeed ; but he did it. The seal that protected his married life being once broken, other seals easily gave way. There can he no question that Carlyle’s literary influence has seriously suffered in consequence; and, though our annals have been enriched by the story of a life of the highest moral interest, it is quite possible that the sacrifice has been too great. There have been men whose nature so outvalued their work that biography, while revealing their feeblenesses, has honored them ; there has been character so line that its illustration in the acts of daily life is a possession much more precious than any other record of it originally meant for the public: but Carlyle’s nature and character, taken in the whole, were not such. His virtues were completely expressed in his works, and for the most part his biography has been a lengthening history of the miserable effects of his faults upon his own and others’ lives. Could he have characterized himself with the same narrowness of heart and intellectual contempt that he exhibited toward some men whom he knew, these memorials would have furnished him matter for a more biting and a more unjust description than any he has been guilty of. What the features of it would be there is no need to outline. That he was genuine, sincere, truthful, no one will doubt; but all will remember that the same qualities in that “ poor fool ” of a Gladstone, in whom Carlyle thought all the cants of the age had become convictions, are as worthy respect. He was strenuously righteous; but so was Mill, in whom that virtue did not count for salvation in his eyes. So one might continue, were it useful to argue to the point that Carlyle did not monopolize the manliness of England. It is not strange that Froude lays stress unduly on his friend’s good traits, but it cannot be disguised that there is much need for the exercise of charity by the reader; and the proof of this is that the story touches the heart far more than it illumines, or exalts, or strengthens the Spirit.

In this narrative of the years of Carlyle’s mature life in London, one point is touched on that has never been comprehensively treated, and that is his relation to the public questions of his own time. Froude tries to make much of it, but he succeeds only in keeping up an obscure feeling that the subject is there. Every one knows what Carlyle thought, and there is a taking plausibility in the analogy Froude finds between him and the Hebrew prophets who rebuked, denounced, and exhorted the tribes that forgot God ; but the likeness would hold as well in the case of any vehement reformer who had not the power of the sword. He prophesied destruction ; and as the history of civilized man has been a series of catastrophes it is quite possible that his prophecy is true. At each new break in the old order men hope that the kingdom of God is near at hand, and we who are building on liberty, the diffusion of intelligence among all the people, and philanthropy, indulge the old belief, perhaps to no better purpose than did the men who converted the nations, who brought back antiquity, and who freed the conscience of Europe. We are engaged in a great effort of equal dignity, and Carlyle declared against us, set himself in opposition to the irresistible movement of civilization, and denounced upon us “ God’s Revenge.” So once had Savonarola done with equal sincerity, and perhaps the issue will in the end be the same to the moderns as it was to the Florentines. But in this matter Carlyle exceeded the role of the prophet ; he not only preached that no moral regeneration could come from the new expedients of politics, in a large sense, for the administration of society, but he added that such measures were foolish in their own worldly sphere. In the first part of his message he was right, — he said what every prophet declares is God’s word ; but in the second it ought now to be the devout hope of all men that he may prove a babbler. Certainly, in this province of his thought, — in his sneers at the humane efforts of his contemporaries to give manhood to all who wear the form of man, to show even in prisons some kindliness on the part of organized society toward the criminal and vicious, to insist in practical affairs that no man can be saved except by the exercise of powers that involve such freedom of thought, motive, and action as may also possibly result in his own damnation, — in all this he ran counter to the spirit of Christianity. His temper did belong in many respects to the Old Dispensation, to the rigor and bigotry of Scotch Presbyterianism, to the countryman of Knox. He was so careful that things should be done decently, that acts should be right, as to make it seem that his corner-stone was a belief in government. He had a higher regard for authority than liberty, for compulsion than persuasion, for the law than the victim ; but of the aims and methods, the aspirations and energies, of the Christ’s kingdom that cometh not by force he seems to have known little. He never was so profound a spiritualist as to make statecraft, as Plato did, a department of man’s education: to him all that was “ niggerism.” Carlyle’s convictions regarding suffrage, emancipation, prisonreform, parliamentary government, and the like topics on which he was accustomed to emit “ geyser-spouts,” as they are termed, were closely connected with his more general views of the moral order of the universe, the sources of greatness in men and nations, and the lessons of history as he read them; and to follow out these threads of union would be very helpful toward an explanation of his reactionary thought. Froude has not done this ; he plainly respects Carlyle as a political seer as well as in his capacity of “ Hebrew prophet,” but he brings nothing to support his master except a Toryish sentiment. We may fail in our elfort for the self-education of the race by devolving upon men opportunities they may abuse and responsibilities they may violate, and there are elements enough of danger in our legacy from old times as well as of our own making ; but had Carlyle been our leader in the “ Exodus from Houndsditeh,” he would have taken us hack, very surely, to the bondage of an Israelitish code, if not to the shadow of Egypt itself.

The personal element in the various memorials of Carlyle’s life has already been fully discussed in these pages. In the last forty years of his London career there is fresh illustration of his character, but no new traits appear. The impression which is most strengthened is that of the strange mingling of the rudeness of his original nature with the fineness of the high-bred civilization into which he grew. The strength of his peasant ancestry was at the core of his virtue; but as he developed, and appropriated from others, many modifications are noticeable : for one thing, he became tender. One believes he was always essentially kind ; but, as in uncultivated men, his kindness had to be appealed to in order to become active; it was not the habit of his daily life. It is as if the softening and enriching processes, that usually require the period of two or three generations to import into character the fine results of civilization, had been crowded into a single existence. This is one reason, perhaps, why the last years of his life seem morally more beautiful, as if time had done its perfect work for him. The trait which shows most plainly his peasant extraction and which clung longest to him was his peculiar appreciation of the charm of civility as he saw it in great houses. It is the more significant because he seldom gives it verbal form; be may not have known quite clearly his own feeling. It may seem a strange, an inconsistent matter ; but there can be no rational doubt that Carlyle liked to be lionized, and was willing to pay the price of physical misery for a dinner with great people. It was not the worst of faults. He would, nevertheless, probably have resented Fronde’s description of him as one of Lord Ashburton’s train ; and so far as his consciousness went the remark must be regarded as unjust, though the fact may have been as stated. However that was, he paid dearly for the episode of his friendship with that excellent nobleman. In other matters, too, especially in the ferocity of his judgments, one hears the North Briton accent. But after all, although one cannot help regretting that Froude has made so poor a use of such splendid materials, the story of this life now finished is a very noble one ; it attaches men’s hearts to a degree that is marvelous when one remembers how much there is in it which repels. Carlyle’s life, for better or worse, is now a part of his works.

  1. Thomas Carlyle. A History of his Life in London, 1834-1881. By JAMES ANTHONY FROUDE, M. A. Two volumes in one. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1884.