Carlyle as a Letter-Writer
MOST persons — perhaps because, consciously or unconsciously, they hold the opinion of George Eliot, that serious subjects should not be discussed in letters — try to entertain their correspondents, when they sit down to write a friendly letter. Famous writers are no exception to this rule. Horace Walpole adapts his materials with the nicest art; Gray is seldom elegiac in prose; and Chesterfield, not content with urging his son to “ sacrifice to the Graces,” makes his own epistles an oblation on the altar of those ladies. It is evident that the younger Pliny chooses his best stylus, whether a Tuscan villa, or the eruption of Vesuvius, or a Corinthian statuette form his theme; and the fact that all is composed in fear of Cicero and to the glory of the Latin language cannot have made the composition less acceptable to his contemporaries. The letters of Charles Lamb, the “ argument” of whose life was suited to a Greek tragedy, must often have carried sunshine — quaintly filtered through Lamb’s personality — to people who, had they but known it, were far better off than their correspondent. Cowper, the best of English letter-writers, was also one of the most cheerful, and in some of the last communications with his friends, before the darkness had quite settled over him, showed himself touchingly conscious of the social bond. It was nearly always dark with Cowper when he was addressing the Reverend John Newton, the evil genius who tried to be bis good genius; but let it be remembered that Cowper wrote to Newton the escape of the hares, — a miniature Gilpin in prose. Most of what came from Olney and Weston, indeed, gave and repeated an impression of sprightly serenity that — except in the letters to Newton — seldom allowed itself to be clouded with the fear which so often kept Cowper trembling. When Madame de Sévigné smiles through her tears, her face turned always toward her daughter, we love her most. We do not feel that she is not making the best of things, but merely that the gayety of her century, thus dashed, is brought nearer the key of our own.
Looked at from this point of view of good spirits, whether real or benevolently feigned, Carlyle is in blackest contrast to the genial tradition of letter-writing. As early as when he was with the Bullers at Kinnaird, he had frightened his family with an eloquent diagnosis of the torments of dyspepsia, and afterward often practiced a becoming caution in complaining too loudly of anything to them. Toward the world in general, however, and toward his brother John — who alone of the family lived in the world — he seldom observed such care. What he felt, he thought; and what he thought, he wrote. The denunciatory mood was frequent with Carlyle, and it would be easy to collect enough of his secular anathemas for a droll sort of commination service. Men, women, and children, if they disturbed him, came in for his curse. All annoyances spoke to Carlyle and his wife through a megaphone, and were proclaimed by them through a Still larger variety of the same instrument. Every cock that crowed near their house was a clarion out of time, and the “ demonfowls ” were equaled by dogs, of which each had to their ears the barking power of Cerberus. When Carlyle traveled, fierce imprecations upon everything viatic were wafted back from every stage to the poor " Goody " in Cheyne Row, often while she was facing alone the problem of fresh paint and paper. On the only occasion I can now recall of Carlyle himself being at home during repairs, they were to him what a convulsion of nature would be to most of us. and his outcries were of cosmic vehemence and shrillness. In these wild splutterings of genius, a maid servant was a “ puddle,” a “ scandalous randy,” or even a “ sluttish harlot; ” a man servant was a “ flunkey,” and if he waked Carlyle too early in the morning he was a “ flunkey of the devil.” Rank, wealth, and worldly respectability were, it need not at this day be said, no defense against these grotesque indictments. The clergy and lovers of the clergy — unless, indeed, they happened to be anæmic and “Socinian” — were always accused of “ shovel-hattedness.” Persons who, from Plato to Scott, waged no visible warfare with their own souls, and lived their lives without stated conversion from “ the everlasting No,” were rarely acceptable to Carlyle. Any man of his acquaintance who, besides being thus at ease in Zion, had also gathered worldly gear, was apt, according to Carlyle, to have lost his humanity in “ gigmanity.” London, in the word he gladly borrowed from Cobbett, was a “ monstrous wen ; ” Europe, “ a huge suppuration ; ’ mankind, “ mostly fools ; ” and the world at large, “ a dusty, fuliginous chaos.”
If, in moods which give forth such words, Carlyle seems to write with a quill plucked from the fretful porpentine, a new book of Lamentations might be gathered from his other frequent and familiar condition. This was the state of body and soul which moved him to sorrow and repining over himself, England, and the world. If he had never made his great success in literature, these wailing cries might plausibly be assigned to the disappointed ambitions of a man whose lot was even more embittered by dyspepsia. But in this respect the tone of the apprentice, throughout a wearifully long apprenticeship, was strangely like that of the past master in literature, who for the last twenty years of his life was the most eminent of English writers. There is doubtless a habit of mourning as of rejoicing, and habit counted for much with Carlyle. Yet what I am disposed to contend is that though Aladdin’s lamp had lighted him to a success even earlier than Sheridan’s or Kipling’s, his books and letters would still from time to time have sounded the whole gamut of Jeremiah. It was in his Scotch blood that thus they should, — in his Puritan spirit and his Puritanical digestion. In short, Carlyle’s melancholy was from temperament far more than from circumstance, — a spiritual habitude to which he was destined and born.
See the sparks fly upward in March, 1822: “Art is long and life is short; and of the three score and ten years allotted to the liver, how small a portion is spent in anything but vanity and vice, if not in wretchedness, and worse than unprofitable struggling with the adamantine laws of fate! I am wae when I think of all this, but it cannot be helped.” More than forty years after, the sad-eyed victor in his chosen field reminds us that he, more than most men, is born to trouble. In 1865 he writes to Emerson from Annandale : “ I live in total solitude, sauntering moodily in thin checkered woods, galloping about, once daily, by old lanes and roads, oftenest latterly on the wide expanses of Solway shore (when the tide is out!) where I see bright busy Cottages far off, houses over even in Cumberland, and the beautifulest amphitheatre of eternal Hills, — but meet no living creature; and have endless thoughts as loving and as sad and sombre as I like.” This is none the less (perhaps, rather, the more) sad, for all the wide and shining landscape. A few lines later Carlyle says : “ You perceive me sufficiently at this point of my Pilgrimage, as withdrawn to Hades for the time being; intending a month’s walk there, till the muddy semi-solutions settle into sediment according to what laws they have, and there be perhaps a partial restoration of clearness.” The voice of 1865, though early in the interim it gained its individual accent, is still the voice of 1822.
Malice was operant in this choice of a passage from one of Carlyle’s letters to Emerson, to show the frequent hue of his spirit. For not only is the mere thought of Emerson a cause of cheer to most men, — to Carlyle himself it usually brought comfort, — but Carlyle had adopted Emerson, or more nearly adopted him than any one else except Sterling, into the close communion of his own family, toward whom he generally showed compunction in the matter of invective and lament. Yet in writing to Emerson and to them he would sometimes forget his restraint, and, while eating his heart, would invite them to the same repast. It has been said that Froude made an exceptionally gloomy selection from Carlyle’s correspondence, and that Mr. Norton’s volumes give a fairer view of the habitual tone of his spirits. So far as they are concerned with Emerson and with Carlyle’s kindred, an explanation of the higher average of cheerfulness has already been offered. But even in these letters, and still more in the rest of Mr. Norton’s selections, one is tempted to inquire whether he did not intend (and very properly) to redress the balance which Froude had unduly weighted on the other side.For the essence and gist of Carlyle’s published writings — books, letters, and journals — is that “ it is not a merry place, this world; it is a stern and awful place.” Much that is meat to other men was poison, or tinctured with poison, to him. “ My letter, you will see ” (he wrote to his brother John in 1828),
“ ends in sable, like the life of man. My own thoughts grow graver every day I live.” He could, and did, suck melancholy from his own successful lectures. from his own hooks and the books of others, from the state of the nation and the state of his own health, from society, from solitude. Craigenputtoek, high on the moors between Dumfriesshire and Galloway, and sixteen miles from the town of Dumfries, has always seemed to me the right scenic background for Carlyle. The stone farmhouse, surrounded by a few acres of land reclaimed from peat bog, stands in the midst of bleak hills, seven hundred feet above the level of the sea. This is the right scenery for Carlyle, and many of his most characteristic letters, from whatever places written, carry with them a feeling of the north, November, and the moors. Had Froude left any gaps in his biography, they might be bridged with sighs.
Persons who talked with Carlyle, or who heard him talk, often received a different impression. This was, no doubt, partly because his pentecostal gift excited him to a variety and fire of speech for which he afterward paid the penalty of a natural enough reaction ; partly, also, because the sense of humor never deserted him at those moments, and rich gusts of laughter swept away boding prophecy, fierce invective, and the whole symbolic apparatus of Carlylean denunciation. Humor, indeed, is always to be reckoned with in Carlyle ; and his letters, like his books, abound in a range of it —seldom genial — that extends from the grim to the farcical. But you cannot hear a man laugh in print; and where in a Carlyle conversation the stage direction would be, “ Exit laughing,” in a Carlyle letter it appears, “ Exit groaning” or “Exit swearing.” The writer “ laughs off,” as Macbeth and Macduff “ fight off ; ” and the reader hears but the ghost of a laugh, — a faint, imagined reverberation.
Hence, loathèd Melancholy, and a truce to sable. I have, perhaps, made too much of a striking characteristic, however indubitable, of a great writer. The famous rat was not always gnawing at the pit of his stomach ; and when neither the mood of vituperation nor the mood of lament was upon him, he was of too vigorous and too honest a mind not to discuss with comparative calmness many subjects that interested him. What did interest him and what did n’t, what appears in his letters and what is never seen there, would make a catalogue fairly descriptive of Carlyle’s intellectual and moral constitution. Food and raiment he seldom writes of, save as necessities of life. No Christmas gastronomy in his letters, no rule for “ cooking a chub,” no incipient essay on roast pig. As Carlyle’s pen is never occupied with cards, one concludes that “ old women to play whist with of an evening,” so much desired by a certain delightful letter-writer, were not a desideratum with him. Women, in fact, play no dominantly feminine part in his life. Love, as a passion, he apparently does not understand. He gave no more sensitive response to the fine arts than Emerson, in whose books there are many “blind places,”—so says Mr. Chapman in his original and important essay on Emerson, — " like the notes which will not strike on a sick piano.” To name the theatre is, with Carlyle, to scorn it. Goethe himself could not make him care for plays or play-acting. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister he learned to admire, although, had any other written it, the book would have had from him the treatment it got from Wordsworth. If we may believe Froude, Carlyle called some of the most noteworthy French novels “ a new Phallus worship, with Sue, Balzac, and Co. for prophets, and Madame Sand for a virgin.” Poetry, art allied to his own, interests Carlyle only through its thought or its lesson. In the actual affairs of life, he desires neither money, rank, nor political power. He gives no adherence to any religious creed, political faith, or party leader. He often feels himself in a “ minority of one.” but on a certain occasion doubles the number, to include Emerson.
Here may end, without special reason for ending, the catalogue of negatives by which people learn to know Carlyle in his letters. Shorter, not less impressive or informing, is the list of positives. Words Carlyle must have had at least a sneaking fondness for. He does not admit it, but he uses words and phrases in a way that tells its own story to those upon whose ears his noblest strains fall like music. Very often, as he intended, the words stand for facts, which he loved, and for which he was proud to tell his love. Purity, honor, and truth are dear to Carlyle, and he celebrates them in his letters. Pauvre et triste humanité, although it often moves him to scorn, never quite loses its hold upon him : his letters are a crowded thoroughfare of human beings, who live again at his touch. Good sayings — pious, shrewd, sage, or humorous, as the case may be — this eloquent talker rolls under his tongue, especially when they are in the speech of the Scottish people. His taste for humor is catholic enougli to relish jokes ; and he himself, unclannish chiefly in that, jokes without difficulty. Strength of any kind bulks so large in Carlyle’s esteem that the historian of Cromwell and Friedrich has often been accused of making might his right. After years of what he felt to be misrepresentation, he endeavored to set things straight by declaring that right, in the long run, was pretty sure to be mighty. However this may be, the strength of contemporary leaders was likely, by his thinking, to be founded on unrighteousness ; and it was easier for him to worship his heroes through the long nave of the past. There was an altar for Cromwell, but — alas that it should have been so — there was none for Lincoln.
Although these positives are lengthening themselves out, there must be mention here of the mother, wife, family, and friends, who figure so engrossingly in Carlyle’s correspondence. I think we gather from the grand total of documents in the case that he loved his mother more deeply and singly than he loved any other person. Yet for his wife he had a strong, often disquieted affection. The expression of this in his letters to her, which are as remarkable for emotion as for a very high order of writing, is of course less checkered than it could have been in the faring together of two such yoke - fellows. In the action of temperament upon temperament, similia similibus non curantur. During the long episode of Gloriana, it is often possible to read between the lines of Carlyle’s letters to his wife. After the death of the first Lady Ashburton, however, occurs the most striking passage of selfaccusation to be found in any letter before the death of Mrs. Carlyle. Carlyle writes to her on the 11th of July, 1858 :
“All yesterday I remarked, in speaking to —, if any tragic topic came in sight, I had a difficulty to keep from breaking down in my speech, and becoming inarticulate with emotion over it. It is as if the scales were falling from my eyes, and I were beginning to see in this, my solitude, things that touch me to the very quick. Oh, my little woman ! what a suffering thou hast had, and how nobly borne! with a simplicity, a silence, courage, and patient heroism which are only now too evident to me. Three waer days I can hardly remember in my life ; but they were not without worth either ; very blessed some of the feelings, though many so sore and miserable. It is very good to be left alone with the truth sometimes, to hear with all its sternness what it will say to one.”
It is often to be noted that no great moment finds Carlyle without a great word. Moving as is the utterance just quoted, it is dumb in comparison with this, written after the death of Mrs. Carlyle : “ Not for above two days could I estimate the immeasurable depths of it, or the infinite sorrow which had peeled my life all bare, and in a moment shattered my poor world to universal ruin.” Mother, wife, family, and one or two friends, then, were very dear to Carlyle. “ Love me a little,” he writes once to Emerson. Next to these few persons, nature had perhaps the strongest sway over him ; and the strange, beautiful landscapes that shine out from some of his darkest letters would be enough to found a reputation on. The phrases live in one’s memory as if they had line and color.
Two main facts detach themselves, I think, from these imperfect suggestions of what Carlyle’s letters contain and what they are vacant of. In the first place, no one can doubt that although — except in writing to the Annandale kin — Carlyle seldom attempts to control himself, is seldom interesting or entertaining of set purpose, he is yet, for interest and entertainment, a letter-writer among a thousand. Single-minded and single-hearted, true as the very truth, in the words of his mouth he utters the meditations of his heart. Gifted with eloquence, with humor, with pathos, with eyes that see everything and a memory that loses nothing, with an energy of speech which (compared with that given to the majority of his fellow creatures) is clearly superhuman, Carlyle uses his amazing literary vehicle as an Arabian magic carpet to transport him to his correspondent. The letter is the writer ; the word is the man.
So much for one fact. The other, not now stated for the first time, is that Carlyle, in his familiar letters as in his published works, presents the curious combination of mystic and realist. The world that can be tested by the senses is, in Carlyle’s belief, only the vesture, sometimes muddy, sometimes clear, of the divine principle. For many readers, the expression of this ruling idea of Carlyle and his work is confused not only by apparently contradictory phrasings, but by the shifting of his conception of God between theism and pantheism. When, however, Carlyle utters himself most earnestly and most characteristically on this cardinal point of his belief, no manner of man can misunderstand him. “ Matter,” exclaims lie, “ exists only spiritually, and to represent some idea and body it forth. Heaven and Earth are but the time-vesture of the Eternal. The Universe is but one vast symbol of God ; nay, if thou wilt have it, what is man himself but a symbol of God ? Is not all that he does symbolical, a revelation to sense of the mystic Godgiven force that is in him ? — a gospel of Freedom, which he, the 'Messias of Nature,’ preaches as he can by act and word.” It was only to be expected that the favorite quotation of a man whose high belief can be stated thus, of a man who regarded time as an illusion, should be the lines from Shakespeare’s Tempest : —
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
Now, although it is proverbially difficult to prove a negative, the ease with which a negative can be stated should be equally matter of proverb. Accordingly, we find that Carlyle, in his letters, a hundred times denounces the world as he sees it for once that he describes, or even suggests, the world as he would see it. Silent heroes should be the rulers of England. Silent heroes are rare birds, even among the dead. Instead of them, talking parliamentarians are at the head of things ; and Carlyle has to say what he thinks of Gladstone and Disraeli, the alternately ruling talkers. When, in 1874, Disraeli proposed to grant him a pension and bestow on him also the Grand Cross of the Bath, he wrote to John Carlyle: " I do, however, truly admire the magnanimity of Dizzy in regard to me. He is the only man I almost never spoke of except with contempt.
Men of letters fare no better than men of action. They should be priests, in white, unspotted robes. What does Carlyle find them ? In 1824, after pinning Coleridge, De Quincey, Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt fiercely to the page, he writes to Miss Welsh : “ ' Good heavens ! ’ I often inwardly exclaim, ‘ and is this the literary world ? ’ This rascal rout, this dirty rabble, destitute not only of high feeling and knowledge or intellect, but even of common honesty ! The very best of them are ill-natured weaklings. They are not red-blooded men at all.
. . . Such is the literary world of London ; indisputably the poorest part of its population at present.” So Carlyle wrote of writers when he was putting on his literary armor, and not very differently when he was putting it off. His Hero as Man of Letters was almost invariably seen at a distance, either of time or space. He spitted Coleridge on his sharpest spear, and two blasting, withering descriptions of Charles Lamb — with forty years between them for reflection — remain to the everlasting hurt of Carlyle’s own reputation.
Vitriol blesseth neither him that gives nor him that takes, yet Carlyle stayed to the end of his many days essentially high-minded. Honorable, simple, helpful, charitable in deed though not in word, he was seen at the limit of his course to have a better heart, a character less deteriorated, than many a man — no less good at the start — who has indulged himself with " omitting the negative proposition.” The habit of scorn would in the long run have been more harmful to character than the habit of tolerance and facile praise, except that Carlyle had an extraordinarily high standard of principle and performance, and held to it not only in his judgment of others, but also in what he exacted of himself. The fact that Carlyle never tried to reconcile the inconsistency (as it may have seemed to some persons) between the Deity of his worship and the symbolic manifestations of that Deity in a world so little to Carlyle’s liking no doubt helped him to keep his spiritual integrity.
In company and contrast with the mysticism of Carlyle’s thought — idealism ” is the better word, if it be strictly interpreted — is the eager realism of his literary methods. As a result of this piquant union, Carlyle means one thing to one man, and another, quite different thing to another man. The Carlyle of X, the strait idealist, is a moonish philosopher, to be shunned by A, the strait realist, who rejoices in the closely packed narrative, the wild action, and the portraits of men and women, that make but a trivial appeal to X. This union of natures is plain enough in Shakespeare, in whom nothing surprises. The hand which gave us the Tempest gave us also Juliet’s nurse and Hotspur’s description of “ a certain Lord.” Too often, however, the idealist’s grasp of the concrete is wavering and intermittent ; too often the soul of the realist needs little feeding.
Carlyle vibrated between these two elements of his nature, and fortified one with the other. When, after burrowing in the dust-heap of the past or fishing into “ the general Mother of Dead Dogs,” he had brought to light some pearl (or, it might be, only some oyster-shell) of fact, he often improved the opportunity to show the larger significance of the little gleam or glint of reality. It was the defect of a fine quality that, in his later work, and especially in Frederick, he spent himself on irrelevant facts which helped to make Carlyle’s longest book a splendid failure, with episodes of indubitable success.
The looser form of the letter more properly admits the isolated concrete. Shrewd, welcome bits of fact are everywhere in Carlyle’s letters ; everywhere, too, are those other expressions of a great realist, — vividly “ composed “elements of landscape, and portraits that give every token of life except breath. As with every artist, whatever lie depicts takes color from him, and is seen through his temperament. In the summer of 1837 Carlyle writes to Sterling from Scotsbrig : “ One night, late, I rode through the village where I was born. The old kirkyard tree, a huge old gnarled ash, was nestling itself softly against the great twilight in the north. A star or two looked out, and the old graves were all there, and my father and my sister ; and God was above us all.” Here be worn, familiar things. Gray has been to the village churchyard at the hour of parting day, and a procession has followed in his footsteps. But this kirkyard. where Carlyle has since laid himself down with his kindred, is Carlyle’s.
The reappearance (usually heightened or elaborated) of bits of prospect or topography first recorded in Carlyle’s letters is an interesting characteristic of his writing. His first visit to Paris was of much service to him in fixing the places and scenes of The French Revolution ; the trip into the country of Cromwell’s birth and the examination of Naseby field come into sight again in the book, — witness especially the “ Cease your fooling,” and the troopers’ teeth that bit into Carlyle’s memory; and a number of rough drafts for details of Frederick appear in letters from the Continent. A brief note, during a visit to Mr. Redwood in 1843, of the Glamorganshire “ green network of intricate lanes, mouldering ruins, vigorous vegetation good and bad,” was afterward dilated (in the Life of Sterling) into the spacious and beautiful landscape beginning; “ Llanblethian hangs pleasantly, with its white cottages, and orchard and other trees, on the western slope of a green hill ; looking far and wide over green meadows and little or bigger hills, in the pleasant plain of Glamorgan.”
Distinguished as are Carlyle’s portraits of places, it is probably his portraits of persons that abide longest and most completely in the memories of most readers. Robespierre. Mirabeau and Mirabeau père, Frederick and Frederick William, — it is one sign of Carlyle’s power that he can make subordinate characters salient and still bring out his hero, — Voltaire, Cromwell, and the Abbot Samson, are a few of the pictures that line his galleries. Wonderful as are these renderings of men he never saw, his sketches of men he had known are almost literally “ speaking likenesses.” Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Mazzini, Louis Napoleon, are among the many who are painted to a miracle in Carlyle’s letters. Behold a great American, in a letter to Emerson : —
“ Not many days ago I saw at breakfast the notablest of all your Notabilities, Daniel Webster. He is a magnificent specimen ; you might say to all the world, This is your Yankee Englishman, such Limbs we make in Yankeeland ! As a Logic-fencer, Advocate, or Parliamentary Hercules, one would incline to back him at first sight against all the extant world. The tanned complexion. that amorphous craglike face ; the dull black eyes under their precipice of brows, like dull anthracite furnaces, needing only to be blown ; the mastiffmouth. accurately closed : — I have not traced as much of silent Berserker-rage, that I remember of, in any other man.
‘ I guess I should not like to be your nigger !
At the risk of numbering this paper with the books of Chrysippus, we must look again at the portrait of De Quincey, which is, perhaps, the artist’s chief triumph. Although it is to be found in the Reminiscences, it yet belongs here well enough, for that book is not so much a book as a long, rambling letter, partly of remorse, partly of pity, from Carlyle to himself. “ He was a pretty little creature,” says this terrible, sad old man, remembering after forty years, “ full of wire-drawn ingenuities ; bankrupt enthusiasms, bankrupt pride ; with the finest silver-toned low voice, and most elaborate gently-winding courtesies and ingenuities of conversation : ‘ What would n’t one give to have him in a Box. and take him out to talk ! ’ (That was Her criticism of him; and it was right good.) A bright, ready and melodious talker ; but in the end an inconclusive and long-winded. One of the smallest man-figures I ever saw ; shaped like a pair of tongs; and hardly above five feet in all: when he sat, you would have taken him, by candlelight, for the beautifullest little Child ; blue-eyed, blonde-haired, sparkling face, — had there not been a something too, which said, ‘Eccovi, this Child has been in Hell! ’ ” One would he sure, without other evidence than “ Her criticism ” in this description, which is also a " character,” — to use the old word, —that She, too. had been terrible. The broken order. the curious punctuation, the capitals and italics, the leave of absence granted to the verb, the quick interjections, all taken together make the passage a concentrated example of Carlyle’s vox humana style, — of his writing when it is most like speech, sublimated.
In his use of persons, as of places, there are pregnant comparisons to be made between Carlyle’s first study and the final portrait. Sterling and old Sterling are cases in point; Coleridge, perhaps, the best instance of all. The main lines and the personal atmosphere, always visible. I think, in the sketch, are reproduced by Carlyle in the finished work. But in the heightening of lights, in the deepening of shade, in composition, above all, he makes many changes, which almost invariably result in greater intensity of effect.
From such comparisons, if patiently conducted, might come luminous comment on the question of Carlyle’s style, — a question more vexed than the Bermoothes.
So far and so much for Carlyle’s general aspect as a letter-writer. I have tried to show that, in addressing himself to a very few friends, and especially to his own family, he displays a different set of qualities. The difference between his vehemence toward the world at large and his gentleness toward his mother sometimes seems as marked as that between the two visions of the prophet Jeremiah: the one a seething caldron, the face thereof from the north; the other, a rod of an almond tree. The world, in truth, for this peasant of genius, was, to the considerable degree in which he remained a peasant, an assemblage of persons and things to be approached with many reserves and a deal of more or less violent disapproval. Annandale, contrariwise, was an honest, strength - giving corner of the world, which did for him through life the office of the earth to Antæus. He went back to it so often that he never lost his native accent, and, in certain respects, the point of view to which he was born. So long as Carlyle’s mother lived, there was rarely a year in which he did not make a pilgrimage to Scotsbrig; and, after she died, he went oftener to her grave than most sons, dwelling at a distance from their mothers, visit them in life. Scotsbrig also came to him in the shape of letters, as well as in the unsentimental (though, rightly beheld, not unpathetic) guise of oatmeal, bacon, clothes, and what not. The Carlyles held that good meal could not be bought in Condon ; so, when the barrel wasted, it was filled again from home. One farbrought fowl we all remember as the epic subject of a letter from Mrs. Carlyle in Chelsea to her sister-in-law in Scotland. Carlyle had his clothes made in Annan, partly from thrift, partly from distrust of London tailors.
However much he depended on the people and the kindly fruits of his native soil, however much the exclusiveness of the Carlyles may have been only that common to all Scotch peasant families, it is still hard to credit — though on the excellent authority of Mrs. Oliphant — that their mutual love was not “by ordinar,” even among Scotch peasants. Especially is it difficult of credence that the attachment of Carlyle and his mother was not as rare as it was beautiful. In 1832, after the death of his father, he writes to his brother Alick, at Scotsbrig: “ O let us all be gentle, obedient, loving to our Mother, now that she is left wholly to our charge! ‘Honour thy Father and thy Mother’: doubly honour thy Mother when she alone remains.” For twenty years this double honor was more than trebly paid. The son writes once to his mother: “ Since I wrote last I have been in Scotsbrig more than in London.” And so it often is to the end, — and after. Dreaming and waking, he looks far up across England and the Solway. In the spring, the plough and the sower pass between his eyes and the page of Cromwell or The French Revolution ; in the autumn, he has a vision of the yellow fields, of “ Jamie’s ” peat-stack, and the “ cauldron ” singing under his mother’s window. The mother’s trembling thought of her children answers their love for her. “ She told me the other day ” (writes one of Carlyle’s sisters), “ the first gaet she gaed every morning was to London, then to Italy, then to Craigenputtock, and then to Mary’s, and finally began to think them at hame were, maybe, no safer than the rest. When T asked her what she wished me to say to yon, she said she had a thousand things to say if she had you here ; ‘ and thou may tell them, I’m very little fra’ them.’ ”
As from his first clear earnings Carlyle sent his father a pair of spectacles, and his mother “a little sovereign to keep the fiend out of her hussif,” so throughout he never forgot her in the least or the greatest particular. From year to year he sent her money and tobacco, — which they often smoked together in the farmhouse, — books and comforts and letters. The letters, of course, were far the best of all to her. Often as they came, they could not come often enough. In 1824 Margaret Carlyle wrote to her son: “Pray do not let me want food; as your father says, I look as if I would eat your letters. Write everything and soon.” Everything and soon it always was ; and in these many letters Carlyle strove to bring near to the untraveled ones at home all that he was seeing and doing. One means of doing this was to describe interesting places in terms of Annandale. Thus, in telling his sister Jean about Naseby, he wrote : —
“ Next day they drove me over some fifteen miles off to see the field of Naseby fight — Oliver Cromwell’s chief battle, or one of his chief. It was a grand scene for me — Naseby, a venerable hamlet, larger than Middlebie, all built of mud, but trim with high peaked roofs, and two feet thick of smooth thatch on them, and plenty of trees scattered round and among. It is built as on the brow of the Hagheads at Ecclefechan ; Cromwell lay with his back to that, and King Charles was drawn up as at Wull Welsh’s — only the Sinclair burn must be mostly dried, and the hollow much wider and deeper.”
Carlyle knew that his mother would be eager to hear of Luther and Lutherland. In September of the last year but one of her life, he writes to her from Weimar that “Eisenach is about as big as Dumfries; ” that a hill near by is “somewhat as Locherbie hill is in height and position.” The donjon tower of the Wartburg (which he translates for her. Watch Castle) stands like the old Tower of Repentance on Hoddam Hill, where his mother had visited him during his “russet-coated idyll” there, many years before. “ They open a door, you enter a little apartment, less than your best room at Scotsbrig, I almost think less than your smallest, a very poor low room with an old leaded lattice window; to me the most venerable of all rooms I ever entered.” That afternoon they drive to Gotha in a “ kind of clatch.” Carlyle helps out his English for his mother with bits of their common Doric, and falls unconsciously into Scotch locutions, such as “ you would be going ” or “you would be doing,” when he means “you are likely to go ” or “ likely to do. ” In larger matters it is the same. Carlyle may have been chanting the Miserere to some correspondent, but if he writes to his mother on the same day the note changes to Sursum corda, even though it must visibly struggle up from the depths. Nor do the Immensities and the Eternities appear in his letters to her. In these the Lord her God is also his God.
The belief in personal immortality came to Carlyle, so far as I can discover, but dimly and infrequently. This chill lack of faith, so common in our day, sharpened the dread of his mother’s death. So early as 1844 he writes in his Journal : “ My dear old mother has, I doubt, been often poorly this winter. They report her well at present: but, alas ! there is nothing in all the earth so stern to me as that constantly advancing inevitability, which indeed has terrified me all my days.” Yet. in Carlyle’s letters after her death, a dovelike peace seems to brood over his deep sorrow. With Roman piety he records the death-trance, sixteen hours long, in which his mother, her face “ as that of a statue,” lay waiting for the end. It was another
and all Carlyle’s words about that holy parting are grave and sweet.
Whatever of loveliness there may have been in the life together of Carlyle and his wife, — and there was much, in spite of all that, has been said to the contrary, — in death they were far divided. She lies with her gentle forbears in the abbey kirk at Haddington ; he, in Ecclefechan kirkyard with his peasant forbears. When Carlyle was dying, the Lord remembered for him the kindness of his youth, — his mother might have believed, — and “ his mind seemed to turn altogether to the old Ecclefechan days.” Said his niece, Mrs. Alexander Carlyle, in a letter soon to be published: “ He often took Alick for his father (uncle Sandy), and he would put his arms round my neck and say to me, ‘ My dear mother.’ ”
Great writer as Carlyle is, many critics feel that he can never become classical. The word “classic,” as Sainte-Beuve has pointed out, is a stretchable term; but very possibly the Soudanese lexicographer, descended from a native of New Zealand, will label many of Carlyle’s phrases “ post-classical,” and place him with Browning and Ruskin, who felt his influence, in the Silver Age of English. Certainly, the Soudanese Quintilian will do well to tell his pupils the story of Erasmus’s ape, and warn them against the danger of imitating Carlyle. Classical or post-classical, Carlyle’s name is as closely linked with the French Revolution and the Life of Oliver Cromwell as is the name of Thucydides with the Peloponnesian War, that of Tacitus with the Emperors of the Julian line, or that of Gibbon with the Decline and Fall of their Empire. Yet even if Carlyle’s historical titles were torn from his grant of immortality, he would survive as one of the most remarkable of English letter-writers.
Charles Townsend Copeland.