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Significant Scots
Thomas Carlyle



Four Scotchmen, bore within the limits of the same hundred years, all in the first rank of writers, if not of thinkers, represent much of the spirit of four successive generations. They are leading links in an intellectual chain.

David Hume (1711-1776) remains the most salient type, in our island, of the scepticism, half conservative, half destructive, but never revolutionary, which marked the third quarter of the eighteenth century. He had some points of intellectual contact with Voltaire, though substituting a staid temper and passionless logic for the incisive brilliancy of a mocking Mercury ; he had no relation, save an unhappy personal one, to Rousseau.

Robert Burns (1759-1796), last of great lyriste inspired by a local genius, keenest of popular satirists, narrative poet of the people, spokesman of their higher as of their lower natures, stood on the verge between two eras. Half Jacobite, nursling of old minstrelsy, he was also half Jacobin, an early-born child of the upheaval that closed the century; as essentially a foe of Calvinism as Hume himself. Master musician of his race, he was, as Thomas Campbell notes, severed, for good and ill, from his fellow Scots by an utter want of their protecting or paralysing caution.

Walter Scott (1771-1832), broadest and most generous, if not loftiest of the group—" no sounder piece of British manhood," says Carlyle himself in his inadequate review, " was put together in that century "—the great revivalist of the mediaeval past, lighting up its scenes with a magic glamour, the wizard of northern tradition, was also, like Burns, the humorist of contemporary life. Dealing with Feudal themes, but in the manner of the Romantic school, he was the heir of the Troubadours, the sympathetic peer of Byron, and in his translation of Goetz von Berlichingen he laid the first rafters of our bridge to Germany.

Thomas Carlyle (1796-1881) is on the whole the strongest, though far from the finest spirit of the age succeeding—an age of criticism threatening to crowd creation out, of jostling interests and of surging streams, some of which he has striven to direct, more to stem. Even now what Mill twenty-five years ago wrote of Coleridge is still true of Carlyle: "The reading public is apt to be divided between those to whom his views are everything and those to whom they are nothing." But it is possible to extricate from a mass of often turbid eloquence the strands of his thought and to measure his influence by indicating its range.


The following record of the leading event of Carlyle's life and attempt to estimate his genius rely on frequently renewed study of his work, on slight personal impressions —"vidi tantum"—and on information supplied by previous narrators. Of these the great author's chosen literary legatee is the most eminent and, in the main, the most reliable. Every critic of Carlyle must admit as constant obligations to Mr. Froude as every critic of Byron to Moore or of Scott to Lockhart. The works of these masters in biography remain the ample storehouses from which every student will continue to draw. Each has, in a sense, made his subject his own, and each has been similarly arraigned.

I must here be allowed to express a feeling akin to indignation at the persistent, often virulent attacks directed against a loyal friend, betrayed, it may be, by excess of faith and the defective reticence that often belongs to genius, to publish too much about his hero. But Mr. Froude's quotation, in defence, from the essay on Sir Walter Scott requires no supplement: it should be remembered that he acted with the most ample authority; that the restrictions under which he was at first entrusted with the MSS. of the Reminiscences and the Letters and Memorials (annotated by Carlyle himself, as if for publication) were withdrawn; and that the initial permission to select finally approached a practical injunction to communicate the whole. The worst that can be said is that, in the last years of Carlyle's career, his own judgment as to what should be made public of the details of his domestic life may have been somewhat obscured; but, if so, it was a weakness easily hidden from a devotee.

My acknowledgments are due for several of the Press comments which appeared shortly after Carlyle's death, more especially that of the St. James's Gazette, giving the most philosophical brief summary of his religious views which I have seen; and for the kindness of Dr. Eugene Oswald, President of the Carlyle Society, in revising my proof-sheets, and supplying me with numerous valuable hints, especially in matters relating to German History and Literature. I have also to thank the Editor of the Manchester Guardian for permitting me to reproduce the substance of my article in its columns of February 1881. That article was largely based on a contribution on the same subject, in 1859, to Mackenzie's Imperial Dictionary of Biography.

I may add that in the distribution of material over the comparatively short space at my command, I have endeavoured to give prominence to facta less generally known, and passed over slightly the details of events previously enlarged on, as the terrible accident to Mrs. Carlyle and the incidents of her death. To her inner history I have only referred in so far as it had a direct bearing on her husbanda life. As regards the itinerary of Carlyle's foreign journeys, it has seemed to me that it might be of interest to those travelling in Germany to have a short record of the places where the author sought his "studies" for his greatest work.

Chapter 1 (pdf)

Chapter 2 (pdf)

Chapter 3 (pdf)

Chapter 4 (pdf)

Chapter 5 (pdf)

Chapter 6 (pdf)

Chapter 7 (pdf)

Chapter 8 (pdf)

Chapter 9 (pdf)

Chapter 10 (pdf)

Appendix (pdf)

Early Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle
Together with a few of later years and some of Thomas Carlyle edited by David G. Ritchie, M.A. (1889) (pdf)

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