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The now famous biography of Thomas Carlyle, by Mr. Froude, shed a new light on the eccentric Scotch essayist, and in some respects changed the impressions produced by his own “Reminiscences” and the Letters of his wife. It is with the aid of those two brilliant and interesting volumes on Carlyle’s “Earlier Life” and “Life in London,” issued about two years after the death of their distinguished subject, that I have rewritten my own view of one of the most remarkable men of the nineteenth century.

Of the men of genius who have produced a great effect on their own time, there is no one concerning whom such fluctuating opinions have prevailed within forty years as in regard to Carlyle. His old admirers became his detractors, and those who first disliked him became his friends. When his earlier works appeared they attracted but little general notice, though there were many who saw in him a new light, or a new power to brush away cobwebs and shams, and to exalt the spiritual and eternal in man over all materialistic theories and worldly conventionalities.

Carlyle’s “Miscellanies”–essays published first in the leading Reviews, when he lived in his moorland retreat–created enthusiasm among young students and genuine thinkers of every creed. Lord Jeffrey detected the new genius and gave him a lift. Carlyle’s “French Revolution” took the world by surprise, and established his fame. His “Oliver Cromwell” modified and perhaps changed the opinions of English and American people respecting the Great Protector. It was then that his popularity was greatest, and that the eccentric genius of Cheyne Row, so long struggling with poverty, was assured of a competence, and was received in some of the proudest families of the kingdom as a teacher and a sage. Thus far he was an optimist, taking cheerful views of human life, and encouraging those who had noble aspirations.

But for some unaccountable reason, whether from discontent or dyspepsia or disappointment, or disgust with this world, Carlyle gradually became a pessimist, and attacked all forms of philanthropy, thus alienating those who had been his warmest supporters. He grew more bitter and morose, until at last he howled almost like a madman, and was steeped in cynicism and gloom. He put forth the doctrine that might was right, and that thrones belong to the strongest. He saw no reliance in governments save upon physical force, and expressed the most boundless contempt for all institutions established by the people. Then he wrote his “Frederic the Great,”–his most ambitious and elaborate production, received as an authority from its marvellous historical accuracy, but not so generally read as his “French Revolution,” and not, like his “Cromwell,” changing the opinions of mankind.

Soon after this the death of his wife plunged him into renewed gloom, from which he never emerged; and he virtually retired from the world, and was lost sight of by the younger generation, until his “Reminiscences” appeared, injudiciously published at his request by his friend and pupil Froude, in which his scorn and contempt for everybody and everything turned the current of public opinion strongly against him. This was still further increased when the Letters of his wife appeared.

Carlyle’s bitterest assailants were now agnostics of every shade and degree, especially of the humanitarian school,–that to which Mill and George Eliot belonged. It was seen that this reviler of hypocrisy and shams, this disbeliever in miracles and in mechanisms to save society, was after all a believer in God Almighty and in immortality; a stern advocate of justice and duty, appealing to the conscience of mankind; a man who detested Comte the positivist as much as he despised Mill the agnostic, and who exalted the old religion of his fathers, stripped of supernaturalism, as the only hope of the world. The biography by Froude, while it does not conceal the atrabilious temperament of Carlyle, his bad temper, his intense egotism, his irritability, his overweening pride, his scorn, his profound loneliness and sorrow, and the deep gloom into which he finally settled, made clear at the same time his honest and tender nature, his noble independence, his heroic struggles with poverty of which he never complained, his generous charities, his conscientiousness and allegiance to duty, his constant labors amid disease and excessive nervousness, and his profound and unvarying love for his wife, although he was deficient in those small attentions and demonstrations of affection which are so much prized by women. If it be asked whether he was happy in his domestic relations, I would say that he was as much so as such a man could be. But it was a physical and moral impossibility that with his ailments and temper he _could_ be happy. He was not sent into this world to be happy, but to do a work which only such a man as he could do.

So displeasing, however, were the personal peculiarities of Carlyle that the man can never be popular. This hyperborean literary giant, speaking a Babylonian dialect, smiting remorselessly all pretenders and quacks, and even honest fools, was himself personally a bundle of contradictions, fierce and sad by turns. He was a compound of Diogenes, Jeremiah, and Dr. Johnson: like the Grecian cynic in his contempt and scorn, like the Jewish prophet in his melancholy lamentations, like the English moralist in his grim humor and overbearing dogmatism.

It is unfortunate that we know so much of the man. Better would it be for his fame if we knew nothing at all of his habits and peculiarities. In our blended admiration and contempt, our minds are diverted from the lasting literary legacy he has left, which, after all, is the chief thing that concerns us. The mortal man is dead, but his works live. The biography of a great man is interesting, but his thoughts go coursing round the world, penetrating even the distant ages, modifying systems and institutions. What a mighty power is law! Yet how little do we know or care, comparatively, for lawgivers!

Thomas Carlyle was born in the year 1795, of humble parentage, in an obscure Scotch village. His father was a stone-mason, much respected for doing good work, and for his virtue and intelligence,–a rough, rugged man who appreciated the value of education. Although kind-hearted and religious, it would seem that he was as hard and undemonstrative as an old-fashioned Puritan farmer,–one of those men who never kiss their children, or even their wives, before people. His mother also was sagacious and religious, and marked by great individuality of character. For these stern parents Carlyle ever cherished the profoundest respect and affection, regularly visiting them once a year wherever he might be, writing to them frequently, and yielding as much to their influence as to that of anybody.

At the age of fourteen the boy was sent to the University of Edinburgh, with but little money in his pocket, and forced to practise the most rigid economy. He did not make a distinguished mark at college, nor did he cultivate many friendships. He was reserved, shy, awkward, and proud. After leaving college he became a school-teacher, with no aptness and much disdain for his calling. It was then that he formed the acquaintance of Edward Irving, which ripened into the warmest friendship of his life. He was much indebted to this celebrated preacher for the intellectual impulse received from him. Irving was at the head of a school at Kirkcaldy, and Carlyle became his assistant. Both these young men were ambitious, and aspired to pre-eminence. Like Napoleon at the military school of Brienne, they would not have been contented with anything less, because they were conscious of their gifts; and both attained their end. Irving became the greatest preacher of his day, and Carlyle the greatest writer; but Carlyle had the most self-sustained greatness. Irving was led by the demon of popularity into extravagances of utterance which destroyed his influence. Carlyle, on the other hand, never courted popularity; but becoming bitter and cynical in the rugged road he climbed to fame, he too lost many of his admirers.

In ceasing to be a country schoolmaster, Carlyle did not abandon teaching. He removed to Edinburgh for the study of divinity, and supported himself by giving lessons. He had been destined by his parents to be a minister of the Kirk of Scotland; but at the age of twenty-three he entered upon a severe self-examination to decide whether he honestly believed and could preach its doctrines. Weeks of intense struggle freed him from the intellectual bonds of the kirk, but fastened upon him the chronic disorder of his stomach which embittered his life, and in later years distorted his vision of the world about him. At the recommendation of his friend Irving, then preacher at Hatton Gardens, Carlyle now became private tutor to the son of Mr. Charles Buller, an Anglo-Indian merchant, on a salary of L200; and the tutor had the satisfaction of seeing his pupil’s political advancement as a member of the House of Commons and one of the most promising men in England.

About this time Carlyle, who had been industriously studying German and French, published a translation of Legendre’s “Elements of Geometry;” and in 1824 brought out a “Life of Schiller,” a work that he never thought much of, but which was a very respectable performance. In fact, he never thought much of any of his works: they were always behind his ideal. He wrote slowly, and took great pains to be accurate; and in this respect he reminds us of George Eliot. Carlyle had no faith in rapid writing of any sort, any more than Daniel Webster had in extempore speaking. After he had become a master of composition, it took him thirteen years of steady work to write “Frederick the Great,”–about the same length of time it took Macaulay to write the history of fifteen years of England’s life, whereas Gibbon wrote the whole of his voluminous and exhaustive “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in twenty years.

“Schiller” being finished, Carlyle was now launched upon his life-work as “a writer of books.” He translated Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister,” for which he received L180. I do not see the transcendent excellence of this novel, except in its original and forcible criticism, and its undercurrent of philosophy; but it is nevertheless famous. These two works gave Carlyle some literary reputation among scholars, but not much fame.

Although Carlyle was thus fairly embarked on a literary career, the “trade” of literature he always regarded as a poor one, and never encouraged a young man to pursue it as a profession unless forced into it by his own irresistible impulses. Its nobility he ranked very high, but not its remunerativeness. He regarded it as a luxury for the rich and leisurely, but a very thorny and discouraging path for a poor man. How few have ever got a living by it, unless allied with other callings,–as a managing clerk, or professor, or lecturer, or editor! The finest productions of Emerson were originally delivered as lectures. Novelists and dramatists, I think, are the only class, who, without doing anything else, have earned a comfortable support by their writings. Historians have, with very few exceptions, been independent in their circumstances.

In the year 1826, at the age of thirty-one, Carlyle married Jane Welsh, the only child of a deceased physician of Haddington, who had some little property in expectancy from the profits of a farm in the moorlands of Scotland. She was beautiful, intellectual, and nervously intense. She had been a pupil of Edward Irving, who had introduced his friend Carlyle to her. On the whole, it was a fortunate marriage for Carlyle, although it would have been impossible for him to have or to give happiness in constant and intimate companionship with any woman. He was very fond of his wife, but in an undemonstrative sort of way,–except in his letters to her, which are genuine love-letters, tender and considerate. As in the case of most superior women, clouds at times gathered over her, which her husband did not or could not dissipate. But she was very proud of him, and faithful to him, and careful of his interest and fame. Nor is there evidence from her letters, or from the late biography which Froude has written, that she was, on the whole, unhappy. She was very frank, very sharp with her tongue, and sometimes did not spare her husband. She had a good deal to put up with from his irritable temper; but she also was irritable, nervous, and sickly, although in her loyalty she rarely complained, while she had many privations to endure,–for Carlyle until he was nearly fifty was a poor man. During the first two years of their residence in London they were obliged to live on L100 a year. He was never in even moderately easy circumstances until after his “Oliver Cromwell” was published.

After his marriage, Carlyle lived eighteen months near Edinburgh; but there was no opening for him in the exclusive society there. His merits were not then recognized as a man of genius in that cultivated capital, as it pre-eminently was at that time; but he made the acquaintance of Jeffrey, who acknowledged his merit, admired his wife, and continued to be as good a friend as that worldly but accomplished man could be to one so far beneath him in social rank.

The next seven years of Carlyle’s life were spent at the Scotch moorland farm of Craigenputtock, belonging to his wife’s mother, which must have contributed to his support. How any brilliant woman, fond of society as Mrs. Carlyle was, could have lived contentedly in that dreary solitude, fifteen miles from any visiting neighbor or town, is a mystery. She had been delicately reared, and the hard life wore upon her health. Yet it was here that the young couple established themselves, and here that some of the young author’s best works were written,–as the “Miscellanies” and “Sartor Resartus.” From here it was that he sent forth those magnificent articles on Heyne, Goethe, Novalis, Voltaire, Burns, and Johnson, which, published in the Edinburgh and other Reviews, attracted the attention of the reading world, and excited boundless admiration among students.

The earlier of these remarkable productions, like those on Burns and Jean Paul Richter, were free from those eccentricities of style which Carlyle persisted in retaining with amazing pertinacity as he advanced in life,–except, again, in his letters to his wife, which are models of clear writing.

The essay on “German Literature” appeared in the same year, 1827,–a longer and more valuable article, a blended defence and eulogium of a _terra incognita_, somewhat similar in spirit to that of Madame de Stael’s revelations twenty years before, and in which the writer shows great admiration of German poetry and criticism. Perhaps no Englishman, with the possible exceptions of Julius Hare and Coleridge,–the latter then a broken-down old man,–had at that time so profound an acquaintance as Carlyle with German literature, which was his food and life during the seven years’ retirement on his moorland farm. This essay also was comparatively free from the involved, grotesque, but vivid style of his later works; and it was religious in its tone. “It is mournful,” writes he, “to see so many noble, tender, and aspiring minds deserted of that light which once guided all such; mourning in the darkness because there is no home for the soul; or, what is worse, pitching tents among the ashes, and kindling weak, earthly lamps which we are to take for stars. But this darkness is very transitory. These ashes are the soil of future herbage and richer harvests. Religion dwells in the soul of man, and is as eternal as the being of man.”

In this extract we see the optimism which runs through Carlyle’s earlier writings,–the faith in creation which is to succeed destruction, the immortal hopes which sustain the soul. He believed in the God of Abraham, and was as far from being a scoffer as the heavens are higher than the earth. He had renounced historical Christianity, but he adhered to its essential spirit.

The next article which Carlyle published seems to have been on Werner, followed the same year, 1828, by one on Goethe’s “Helena,”–a continuation of his “Faust.” This transcendent work of German art, which should be studied rather than read, is commented on by the reviewer with boundless admiration. If there was one human being whom Carlyle worshipped it was the dictator of German literature, who reigned at Weimar as Voltaire had reigned at Ferney. If he was not the first to introduce the writings of Goethe into England, he was the great German’s warmest admirer. If Goethe had faults, they were to Carlyle the faults of a god, and he exalted him as the greatest light of modern times,–a new force in the world, a new fire in the soul, who inaugurated a new era in literature which went to the heart of cultivated Europe, weary of the doubts and denials that Voltaire had made fashionable. It seemed to Carlyle that Goethe entered into the sorrows, the solemn questionings and affirmations of the soul, seeking emancipation from dogmas and denials alike, and, in the spirit of Plato, resting on the certitudes of a higher life,–calm, self-poised, many-sided, having subdued passion as he had outgrown cant; full of benignity, free from sarcasm; a man of mighty and deep experiences, with knowledge of himself, of the world, and the whole realm of literature; a great artist as well as a great genius, seated on the throne of letters, not to scatter thunderbolts, but to instruct the present and future generations.

The next great essay which Carlyle published, this time in the Edinburgh Review, was on Burns,–a hackneyed subject, yet treated with masterly ability. This article, in some respects his best, entirely free from mannerisms and affectation of style, is just in its criticism, glowing with eloquence, and full of sympathy with the infirmities of a great poet, showing a remarkable insight into what is noblest and truest. This essay is likely to live for style alone, aside from its various other merits. It is complete, exhaustive, brilliant, such as only a Scotchman could have written who was familiar with the laborious lives of the peasantry, living in the realm of art and truth, careless of outward circumstances and trappings, and exalting only what is immortal and lofty. While Carlyle sees in Goethe the impersonation of human wisdom,–in every aspect a success, outwardly and inwardly, serene and potent as an Olympian deity,–he sees in Burns a highly gifted genius also, but yet a wreck and a failure; a man broken down by the force of that degrading habit which unfortunately and peculiarly and even mysteriously robs a man of all dignity, all honor, and all sense of shame. Amid the misfortunes, the mistakes, and the degradations of the born poet, whom he alike admires and pities and mildly blames, he sees also the noble elements of the poet’s gifted soul, and loves him, especially for his sincerity, which next to labor he uniformly praises. It was the truthfulness he saw in Burns which constrained Carlyle’s affection,–the poet’s sympathy and humanity, speaking out of his heart in unconscious earnestness and plaintive melody; sad and sorrowful, of course, since his life was an unsuccessful battle with himself, but free from egotism, and full of a love which no misery could crush,–so unlike that other greatest poet of our century, “whose exemplar was Satan, the hero of his poetry and the model of his life.” In this most beautiful and finished essay Carlyle paints the man in his true colors,–sinning and sinned against, courageous while yielding, poor but proud, scornful yet affectionate; singing in matchless lyrics the sentiments of the people from whom he sprung and among whom he died, which lyrics, though but fragments indeed, are precious and imperishable.

In the same year appeared the Life of Heyne,–the great German scholar, pushing his way from the depths of poverty and obscurity, by force of patient industry and genius, to a proud position and a national fame. “Let no unfriended son of genius despair,” exclaims Carlyle. “If he have the will, the power will not be denied him. Like the acorn, carelessly cast abroad in the wilderness, yet it rises to be an oak; on the wild soil it nourishes itself; it defies the tempest, and lives for a thousand years.” The whole outward life of Carlyle himself, like that of Heyne, was an example of heroism amid difficulties, and hope amid the storms.

The next noticeable article which Carlyle published was on Voltaire, and appeared in the Quarterly Review in 1829. It would appear that he hoped to find in this great oracle and guide of the eighteenth century something to admire and praise commensurate with his great fame. But vainly. Voltaire, though fortunate beyond example in literary history, versatile, laborious, brilliant in style,–poet, satirist, historian, and essayist,–seemed to Carlyle to be superficial, irreligious, and egotistical. The critic ascribes his power to ridicule,–a Lucian, who destroyed but did not reconstruct; worldly, material, sceptical, defiant, utterly lacking that earnestness without which nothing permanently great can be effected. Carlyle says:–

“Voltaire read history, not with the eye of a devout seer, or even critic, but through a pair of mere anti-Catholic spectacles. It is not a mighty drama, enacted on the theatre of infinitude, with suns for lamps and eternity as a background, whose author is God and whose purport leads to the throne of God, but a poor, wearisome debating-club dispute, spun through ten centuries, between the Encyclopedie and the Sorbonne.”

Carlyle’s essays for the next two years, chiefly on German literature, which he admired and sought to introduce to his countrymen, were published in various Reviews. I can only allude to one on Richter, whose whimsicality of style he unconsciously copied, and whose original ideas he made his own. In this essay Carlyle introduced to the English people a great German, but a grotesque, whose writings will probably never be read much out of Germany, excellent as they are, on account of the “jarring combination of parentheses, dashes, hyphens, figures without limit, one tissue of metaphors and similes, interlaced with epigrammatic bursts and sardonic turns,–a heterogeneous, unparalleled imbroglio of perplexity and extravagance.” There was another, on Schiller, not an idol to Carlyle as Goethe was, yet a great poet and a true man, with deep insight and intense earnestness. “His works,” said Carlyle, “and the memory of what he was, will arise afar off, like a towering landmark in the solitude of the past, when distance shall have dwarfed into invisibility many lesser people that once encompassed him, and hid them forever from the near beholder.”

Thus far Carlyle had confined himself to biography and essays on German literature, in which his extraordinary insight is seen; but now he enters another field, and writes a strictly original essay, called “Characteristics,” published in the Edinburgh Review in the prolific year of 1831, in which essay we see the germs of his philosophy. The article is hard to read, and is disfigured by obscurities which leave a doubt on the mind of the reader as to whether the author understood the subject about which he was writing,–for Carlyle was not a philosopher, but a painter and prose-poet. There is no stream of logic running consistently through his writings. In “Characteristics” he seems to have had merely glimpses of great truths which he could not clearly express, and which won him the reputation of being a German transcendentalist. Its leading idea is the commonplace one of the progress of society, which no sane and Christian man has ever seriously questioned,–not an uninterrupted progress, but a general advance, brought about by Christian ideas. Any other view of progress is dreary and discouraging; nor is this inconsistent with great catastrophes and national backslidings, with the fall of empires, and French Revolutions.

We note at this time in Carlyle’s writings, on the whole, a cheerful view of human life in spite of sorrows, hardships, and disappointments, which are made by Divine Providence to act as healthy discipline. We see nothing of the angry pessimism of his later writings. Those years at Craigenputtock were healthy and wholesome; he labored in hope, and had great intellectual and artistic enjoyment, which reconciled him to solitude,–the chief evil with which he had to contend, after dyspepsia. His habits were frugal, but poverty did not stare him in the face, since he had the income of the farm. It does not appear that the deep gloom which subsequently came over his soul oppressed him in his moorland retreat. He did not sympathize with any religion of denials, but felt that out of the jargon of false and pretentious philosophies would come at last a positive belief which would once more enthrone God in the world.

After writing another characteristic article, on Biography, he furnished for Fraser’s Magazine one of the finest biographical portraits ever painted,–that of Dr. Johnson, in which that cyclopean worker stands out, with even more distinctness than in Boswell’s “Life,” as one of the most honest, earnest, patient laborers in the whole field of literature. Carlyle makes us almost love this man, in spite of his awkwardness, dogmatism, and petulance. Johnson in his day was an acknowledged dictator on all literary questions, surrounded by admirers of the highest gifts, who did homage to his learning,–a man of more striking individuality than any other celebrity in England, and a man of intense religious convictions in an age of religious indifference. We now wonder why this struggling, poorly paid, and disagreeable man of letters should have had such an ascendency over men superior to himself in learning, genius, and culture, as Burke and Gibbon doubtless were. Even Goldsmith, whom he snubbed and loved, is now more popular than he. It was the heroism of his character which Carlyle so much admired and so vividly described,–contending with so many difficulties, yet surmounting them all by his persistent industry and noble aspirations; never losing faith in himself or his Maker, never servilely bowing down to rank and wealth, as others did, and maintaining his self-respect in whatever condition he was placed. In this delightful biography we are made to see the superiority of character to genius, and the dignity of labor when idleness was the coveted desire of most fortunate men, as well as the almost universal vice of the magnates of the land. Labor, to the mind of Johnson as well as to that of Carlyle, is not only honorable, but is a necessity which Nature imposes as the condition of happiness and usefulness. Nor does Carlyle sneer at the wedded life of Johnson, made up of “drizzle and dry weather,” but reverences his fidelity to his best friend, uninteresting as she was to the world, and his plaintive and touching grief when she passed away.

Carlyle in this essay exalts a life of letters, however poorly paid (which Pope in his “Dunciad” did so much to depreciate), showing how it contributes to the elevation of a nation, and to those lofty pleasures which no wealth can purchase. But it is the moral dignity of Johnson which the essay makes to shine most conspicuously in his character, supported as he was by the truths of religion, in which under all circumstances he proudly glories, and without which he must have made shipwreck of himself amid so many discouragements, maladies, and embarrassments,–for his greatest labors were made with poverty, distress, and obscurity for his companions,–until at last, victorious over every external evil and vile temptation, he emerged into the realm of peace and light, and became an oracle and a sage wherever he chose to go.

Johnson was the greatest master of conversation in his day, whose detached sayings are still quoted more often than his most elaborate periods. I apprehend that there was a great contrast between Johnson’s writings and his conversation. While the former are Ciceronian, his talk was epigrammatic, terse, and direct; and its charm and power were in his pointed and vehement Saxon style. Had he talked as he wrote, he would have been wearisome and pedantic. Still, like Coleridge and Robert Hall, he preached rather than conversed, thinking what he himself should say rather than paying attention to what others said, except to combat and rebuke them,–a discourser, as Macaulay was; not one to suggest interchange of ideas, as Addison did. But neither power of conversation nor learning would have made Johnson a literary dictator. His power was in the force of his character, his earnestness, and sincerity, even more than in his genius.

I will not dwell on the other Review articles which Carlyle wrote in his isolated retreat, since published as “Miscellanies,” on which his fame in no small degree rests,–even as the essays of Macaulay may be read when his more elaborate History will lie neglected on the shelves of libraries. Carlyle put his soul into these miscellanies, and the labor and enjoyment of writing made him partially forget his ailments. I look upon those years at Craigenputtock as the brightest and healthiest of his life, removed as he was from the sight of levities and follies which tormented his soul and irritated his temper.

Carlyle contrived to save about L200 from his literary earnings, so frugal was his life and so free from temptations. His recreation was in wandering on foot or horseback over the silent moors and unending hills, watered by nameless rills and shadowed by mists and vapors. His life was solitary, but not more so than that of Moses amid the deserts of Midian,–isolation, indeed, but in which the highest wisdom is matured. Into this retreat Emerson penetrated, a young man, with boundless enthusiasm for his teacher,–for Carlyle was a teacher to him as to hundreds of others in this country. Carlyle never had a truer and better friend than Emerson, who opened to him the great reward of recognition in distant America while yet his own land refused to take knowledge of him; and this friendship continued to the end, an honor to both,–for Carlyle never saw in Emerson’s writings the genius and wisdom which his American friend admired in the Scottish sage. Nor were their opinions so harmonious as some suppose. Emerson despised Calvinism, and had no definite opinions on any theological subject; Carlyle was a Calvinist without the theology of Calvinism, if that be possible. He did not, indeed, believe in historical Christianity, but he had the profoundest convictions of an overruling God, reigning in justice, and making the wrath of man to praise Him. Carlyle, too, despised everything visionary and indefinite, and had more respect for what is brought about by revolution than by evolution. But of all things he held in profoundest abhorrence the dreary theories of materialists and political economists. It was the spirit and not the body which stood out in his eyes as of most importance; it was the manly virtues which he reverenced in man, not his clothes and surroundings. And it was on this lofty spiritual plane that Carlyle and Emerson stood in complete harmony together.

I cannot quit this part of Carlyle’s life without mention of what I conceive to be his most original and remarkable production,–“Sartor Resartus,”–The Stitcher Restitched: or, The Tailor Done Over,–the title of an old Scotch song. It is a quaintly conceived reproduction of the work of an imaginary German professor on “The Philosophy of Clothes,”–under which external figure he includes all institutions, customs, beliefs, in which humanity has draped itself, as distinguished from the inner reality of man himself. “The beginning of all Wisdom,” he says, “is to look fixedly on Clothes, or even with armed eyesight, till they become _transparent_.” And thus, in grotesque fashion, with amazing vigor he ranges the universe in search of the Real. In one of his letters to Emerson, Carlyle, discussing a project of lecturing in America, takes on his sartorial professor’s name, and writes: “Could any one but appoint me Lecturing Professor of Teufelsdroeckh’s Science,–‘Things in General’!” This work was written in his remote solitude, yet not published for years after it was finished,–and for the best of reasons, because with all his literary repute Carlyle could not find a publisher. The “Sartor” was not appreciated; and Carlyle, knowing its value, locked it up in his drawer, and waited for his time.

The “Sartor Resartus” is a sort of prose poem, written with the heart’s blood, vivid as fire in a dark night; a Dantean production; a revelation probably of the author’s own struggles and experiences from the dark gulf of the “Everlasting Nay” to the clear and serene heights of the “Everlasting Yea.” To me the book is full of consolation and encouragement,–a battle of the spirit with infernal doubts, a victory over despair, over all external evils and all spiritual foes. It is also a bold and grotesque but scorching sarcasm of the conventionalities and hypocrisies of society, and a savage thrust at those quackeries which seem to reign in this world in spite of their falsity and shallowness. It is not, I grant, easy to read. It is full of conceits and affectations of style,–a puzzle to some, a rebuke to others. “Every page of this unique collection of confessions and meditations, of passionate invective and solemn reflection,” is stamped with the seal of genius, and yet was the last of Carlyle’s writings to be appreciated. I believe that this is the ordinary fate of truly original works, those that are destined to live the longest, especially if they burn no incense to the idols of prevailing worship, and be characterized by a style which, to say the least, is extraordinary. Flashy, brilliant, witty, yet superficial pictures of external life which everybody has seen and knows, are the soonest to find admirers; but a revelation of what is not seen, this is the work of seers and prophets whose ordinary destiny has been anything other than to wear soft raiment and sit in king’s palaces. The “Sartor” was at last, in 1833-1834, printed in Fraser’s Magazine, meeting no appreciation in England, but very enthusiastically received by Emerson, Channing, Ripley, and a group of advanced thinkers in New England, through whose efforts it was published here in book form. And so, in spite of timid London publishers, it drifted back to London and a slow-growing fame. In our time, sixty years later, it sells by scores of thousands annually, in cheap and in luxurious editions, throughout the English-speaking world.

In respect of early recognition and popularity, Carlyle differs from his great contemporary Macaulay, who was so immediately and so magnificently rewarded, and yet received no more than his due as the finest prose writer of his day. Macaulay’s Essays are generally word-pictures of remarkable men and remarkable events, but of men of action rather than of quiet meditation. His heroes are such men as Clive and Hastings and Pitt, not such men as Pascal or Augustine or Leibnitz or Goethe. But Carlyle in his heroes paints the struggling soul in its deepest aspirations, and the truths evolved by profound meditations. These are not such as gain instant popular acceptance; yet they are the longer-lived.

The time came at last for Carlyle to leave his retirement among moors and hills, and in 1831 he directed his steps to London, spending the winter with his wife in the great centre of English life and thought, and being well received; so that in 1834 he removed permanently to the metropolis. But he was scarcely less buried at his modest house in Chelsea than he had been on his farm, for he came to London with only L200, and was obliged to practise the most rigid economy. For two years he labored in his London workshop without earning a shilling, and with a limited acquaintance. Not yet was his society sought by the great world which he mocked and despised. He fortunately had the genial and agreeable Leigh Hunt for a neighbor, and Edward Irving for his friend. He was known to the critics by his writings, but his circle of personal friends was small. He was more or less intimate with John Stuart Mill, Charles Austin, Sir William Molesworth, and the advanced section of the philosophical radicals,–the very class of men from whom he afterwards was most estranged. None of these men forwarded his fortunes; but they lent him books, and helped him at the libraries, for no carpenter can work without tools.

The work to which Carlyle now devoted himself was a history of the French Revolution, the principal characters of which he had already studied and written about. It was a subject adapted to his genius for dramatic writing, and for the presentation of his views as to retribution. His whole theology, according to Froude, was underlaid by the belief in punishment for sin, which was impressed upon his mind by his God-fearing parents, and was one of his firmest convictions. The French were to his mind the greatest sinners among Christian nations, and therefore were to reap a fearful penalty. To paint in a new and impressive form the inevitable calamities attendant on violated law and justice, was the aspiration of Carlyle. He had money enough to last him with economy for two years. In this time he hoped to complete his work. The possibility was due to the intelligent thrift of his wife. Commenting on one of her letters describing their snug little house, he writes:–

“From birth upwards she had lived in opulence; and now, for my sake, had become poor,–so nobly poor. Truly, her pretty little brag [in this letter] was well founded. No such house, for beautiful thrift, quiet, spontaneous, nay, as it were, unconscious–minimum of money reconciled to human comfort and human dignity–have I anywhere looked upon.”

He devoted himself to his task with intense interest, and was completely preoccupied.

In the winter of 1835, after a year of general study, collection of material and writing, and at last “by dint of continual endeavor for many weary weeks,” the first volume was completed and submitted to his friend Mill. The valuable manuscript was accidentally and ignorantly destroyed by a servant, and Mill was in despair. Carlyle bore the loss like a hero. He did not chide or repine. If his spirit sunk within him, it was when he was alone in his library or in the society of his sympathizing wife. He generously writes to Emerson,–

“I could not complain, or the poor man would have shot himself: we had to gather ourselves together, and show a smooth front to it,–which happily, though difficult, was not impossible to do. I began again at the beginning, to such a wretched, paralyzing torpedo of a task as my hand never found to do.”

Mill made all the reparation possible. He gave his friend L200, but Carlyle would accept only L100. Few men could have rewritten with any heart that first volume: it would be almost impossible to revive sufficient interest; the precious inspiration would have been wanting. Yet Carlyle manfully accomplished his task, and I am inclined to think that the second writing was better than the first; that he probably left out what was unessential, and made a more condensed narrative,–a more complete picture, for his memory was singularly retentive. I do not believe that any man can do his best at the first heat. See how the great poets revise and rewrite. Brougham rewrote his celebrated peroration on the trial of Queen Caroline seventeen times. Carlyle had to rewrite his book, but his materials remained; his great pictures were all in his mind. In this second writing there may have been less emotion,–less fire in his descriptions; but there was fire enough, for his vivacity was excessive. Even _his_ work could be pruned, not by others, but by himself. “The household at Chelsea was never closer drawn together than in those times of trial.” Carlyle lost time and spirits, but he could afford the loss. The entire work was delayed, but was done at last. The final sentence of Vol. III. was written at ten o’clock on a damp evening, January 14, 1837.

This great work, the most ambitious and famous of all Carlyle’s writings, and in many respects his best, was not received by the public with the enthusiam it ought to have awakened. It was not appreciated by the people at large. “Ordinary readers were not enraptured by the Iliad swiftness and vividness of the narrative, its sustained passion, the flow of poetry, the touches of grandeur and tenderness, and the masterly touches by which he made the great actors stand out in their individuality.” It seemed to many to be extravagant, exaggerated, at war with all the “feudalities of literature.” Partisans of all kinds were offended. The style was startlingly broken, almost savage in strength, vivid and distinct as lightning. Doubtless the man himself had grown away from the quieter moods of his earlier essays. Froude quotes this from Carlyle’s journal: “The poor people seem to think a style can be put off or on, not like a skin but like a coat. Is not a skin verily a product and close kinsfellow of all that lies under it, exact type of the nature of the beast, not to be plucked off without flaying and death? The Public is an old woman. Let her maunder and mumble.”

But the extraordinary merits of the book made a great impression on the cultivated intellects of England,–such men as Jeffrey, Macaulay, Southey, Hallam, Brougham, Thackeray, Dickens,–who saw and admitted that a great genius had arisen, whether they agreed with his views or not. In America, we may be proud to say, the work created general enthusiasm, and its republication through Emerson’s efforts brought some money as well as larger fame to its author. Of the first moneys that Emerson sent Carlyle as fruits of this adventure, the dyspeptic Scotchman wrote that he was “half-resolved to buy myself a sharp little nag with twenty of these trans-Atlantic pounds, and ride him till the other thirty be eaten. I will call the creature ‘Yankee.’ … My kind friends!” And _Yankee_ was duly bought and ridden.

Carlyle still remained in straitened circumstances, although his reputation was now established. In order to assist him in his great necessities his friends got up lectures for him, which were attended by the _elite_ of London. He gave several courses in successive years during the London season, which brought him more money than his writings at that time, gave him personal _eclat_, and added largely to his circle of admirers. His second course of twelve lectures brought him L300,–a year’s harvest, and a large sum for lectures in England, where the literary institutions rarely paid over L5 for a single lecture. Even in later times the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, which commanded the finest talent, paid only L10 to such men as Froude and the archbishop of York.

But lecturing, to many men an agreeable excitement, seems to have been very unpleasant to Carlyle,–even repulsive. Though the lectures brought both money and fame, he abominated the delivery of them. They broke his rest, destroyed his peace of mind, and depressed his spirits. Nothing but direst necessity reconciled him to the disagreeable task. He never took any satisfaction or pride in his success in this field; nor was his success probably legitimate. People went to see him as a new literary lion,–to hear him roar, not to be edified. He had no peculiar qualification for public speaking, and he affected to despise it. Very few English men of letters have had this gift. Indeed, popular eloquence is at a discount among the cultivated classes in England. They prefer to read at their leisure. Popular eloquence best thrives in democracies, as in that of ancient Athens; aristocrats disdain it, and fear it. In their contempt for it they even affect hesitation and stammering, not only when called upon to speak in public, but also in social converse, until the halting style has come to be known among Americans as “very English.” In absolute monarchies eloquence is rare except in the pulpit or at the bar. Cicero would have had no field, and would not probably have been endured, in the reign of Nero; yet Bossuet and Bourdaloue were the delight of Louis XIV. What would that monarch have said to the speeches of Mirabeau?

After the publication in 1837 of the “French Revolution,”–that “roaring conflagration of anarchies,” that series of graphic pictures rather than a history or even a criticism,–it was some time before Carlyle could settle down upon another great work. He delivered lectures, wrote tracts and essays, gave vent to his humors, and nursed his ailments. He was now famous,–a man whom everybody wished to see and know, especially Americans when they came to London, but whom he generally snubbed (as he did me) and pronounced them bores. It was at this time that he made the acquaintance of Monckton Milnes, afterward Lord Houghton, who invited him to breakfast, where he met other notabilities,–among them Bunsen the Prussian Ambassador at London; Lord Mahon the historian; and Mr. Baring, afterward Lord Ashburton, the warmest and the truest of his friends, who extended to him the most generous hospitalities.

Carlyle was now in what is called “high society,” and was “taking life easy,”–writing but little, yet reading much, especially about Oliver Cromwell, whose Life he thought of writing. His lectures at this period were more successful than ever, attended by great and fashionable people; and from them his chief income was derived.

While collecting materials for his Life of Cromwell, Carlyle became deeply interested in the movements of the Chartists, composed chiefly of working-men with socialistic tendencies. He was called a “radical,”–and he did believe in a radical reform of men’s lives, especially of the upper classes who showed but little sympathy for the poor. He was not satisfied with the Whigs, who believed that the Reform Bill would usher in a political millennium. He had more sympathy with the “conservative” Tories than the “liberal” Whigs; but his opinions were not acceptable to either of the great political parties. They alike distrusted him. Even Mill had a year before declined an article on the working classes for his Review, the Westminster. Carlyle took it to Lockhart of the Quarterly, but Lockhart was afraid to publish it. Mill, then about to leave the Westminster, wished to insert it as a final shout; but Carlyle declined, and in 1839 expanded his article into a book called “Chartism,” which was rapidly sold and loudly noticed. It gave but little satisfaction, however. It offended the conservatives by exposing sores that could not be healed, while on the other hand the radicals did not wish to be told that men were far from being equal,–that in fact they were very unequal; and that society could not be advanced by debating clubs or economical theories, but only by gifted individuals as instruments of Divine Providence, guiding mankind by their superior wisdom.

These views were expanded in a new course of lectures, on “Heroes and Hero Worship,” and subsequently printed,–the most able and suggestive of all Carlyle’s lectures, delivered in the spring of 1840 with great _eclat_. He never appeared on the platform again. Lecturing, as we have said, was not to his taste; he preferred to earn his living by his pen, and his writings had now begun to yield a comfortable support. He received on account of them L400 from America alone, thanks to the influence of his friend Emerson.

Carlyle now began to weary of the distraction of London life, and pined for the country. But his wife would not hear a word about it; she had had enough of the country, at Craigenputtock. Meanwhile preparations for the Life of Cromwell went on slowly, varied by visits to his relatives in Scotland, travels on the Continent, and interviews with distinguished men. His mind at this period (1842) was most occupied with the sad condition of the English people,–everywhere riots, disturbances, physical suffering and abject poverty among the masses, for the Corn Laws had not then been repealed; and to Carlyle’s vision there was a most melancholy prospect ahead,–not revolution, but universal degradation, and the reign of injustice. This sad condition of the people was contrasted in his mind with what it had been centuries before, as it appeared from an old book which he happened to read, Jocelin’s Chronicles, which painted English life in the twelfth century. He fancied that the world was going on from bad to worse; and in this gloomy state of mind he wrote his “Past and Present,” which appeared in 1843, and created a storm of anger as well as admiration. It was a sort of protest against the political systems of economy then so popular. Lockhart said of it that he could accept none of his friend’s inferences except one,–“that we were all wrong, and were all like to be damned.”

Gloomy and satirical as the book was, it made a great impression on the thinkers of the day, while it did not add to the author’s popularity. It seemed as if he were a prophet of wrath,–an Ishmaelite whose hand was against everybody. He offended all political parties,–“the Tories by his radicalism, and the Radicals by his scorn of their formulas; the High Churchman by his Protestantism, and the Low Churchman by evident unorthodoxy.” Yet all parties and sects admitted that much that he said was true, while at the same time they had no sympathy with his fierce ravings.

For ten years after the publication of the “French Revolution” Carlyle assumed the functions of a prophet, hurling anathemas and pronouncing woes. To his mind everything was alike disjointed or false or pretentious, in view of which he uttered groans and hisses and maledictions. The very name of a society designed to ameliorate evils seemed to put him into a passion. Every reformer appeared to him to be a blind teacher of the blind. Exeter Hall, then the scene of every variety of social and religious and political discussion, was to him a veritable pandemonium. Everybody at that period of agitation and reform was giving lectures, and everybody went to hear them; and Carlyle ridiculed them all alike as pedlers of nostrums to heal diseases which were incurable. He lived in an atmosphere of disdain. “The English people,” said he, “number some thirty millions,–mostly fools.” His friends expostulated with him for giving utterance to such bitter expressions, and for holding such gloomy views. John Mill was mortally offended, and walked no more with him. De Quincey said, “You have made a new hole in your society kettle: how do you propose to mend it?”

Yet all this while Carlyle had not lost faith in Providence, as it might seem, but felt that God would inflict calamities on peoples for their sins. He resembled Savonarola more than he did Voltaire. What seemed to some to be mockeries were really the earnest protests of his soul against universal corruption, to be followed by downward courses and retribution. His mind was morbid from intense reflection on certain evils, and from his physical ailments. He doubtless grieved and alienated his best friends by his diatribes against popular education and free institutions. He even appeared to lean to despotism and the rule of tyrants, provided only they were strong.

Thus Carlyle destroyed his influence, even while he moved the mind to reflection. It was seen and felt that he had no sympathy with many movements designed to benefit society, and that he cherished utter scorn for many active philanthropists. In his bitterness, wrath, and disdain he became himself intolerant. In some of his wild utterances he brought upon himself almost universal reproach, as when he said, “I never thought the rights of negroes worth much discussing, nor the rights of man in any form,”–a sentiment which militated against his whole philosophy. In this strange and unhappy mood of mind, the “Latter Day Pamphlets,” “Past and Present,” and other essays were written, which undermined the reverence in which he had been held. These were the blots on his great career, which may be traced to sickness and a disordered mind.

In fact, Carlyle cannot be called a sound writer at any period. He contradicts himself. He is a great painter, a prose-poet, a satirist,–not a philosopher; perhaps the most suggestive writer of the nineteenth century, often giving utterance to the grandest thoughts, yet not a safe guide at all times, since he is inconsistent and full of exaggerations.

The morbid and unhealthy tone of Carlyle’s mind at this period may be seen by an extract from one of his letters to Sterling:–

“I see almost nobody. I avoid sight, rather, and study to consume my own smoke. I wish you would build me, among your buildings, some small Prophet Chamber, fifteen feet square, with a flue for smoking, sacred from all noises of dogs, cocks, and piano-fortes, engaging some dumb old woman to light a fire for me daily, and boil some kind of a kettle.”

Thus quaintly he expressed his desire for uninterrupted solitude, where he could work to advantage.

He was then engaged on Cromwell, and the few persons with whom he exchanged letters show how retired was his life. His friends were also few, although he could have met as many persons as pleased him. He was too much absorbed with work to be what is called a society man; but what society he did see was of the best.

At last Carlyle’s task on the “Life of Oliver Cromwell” was finished in August, 1845, when he was fifty years of age. It was the greatest contribution to English history; Mr. Froude thinks, which has been made in the present century. “Carlyle was the first to make Cromwell and his age intelligible to mankind.” Indeed, he reversed the opinions of mankind respecting that remarkable man, which was a great accomplishment. No one doubts the genuineness of the portrait. Cromwell was almost universally supposed, fifty years ago, to be a hypocrite as well as a usurper. In Carlyle’s hands he stands out visionary, perhaps, but yet practical, sincere, earnest, God-fearing,–a patriot devoted to the good of his country. Carlyle rescued a great historical personage from the accumulated slanders of two centuries, and did his work so well that no hostile criticisms have modified his verdict. He has painted a picture which is immortal. The insight, the sagacity, the ability, and the statesmanship of Cromwell are impressed upon the minds of all readers. That England never had a greater or more enlightened ruler, everybody is now forced to admit,–and not merely a patriotic but a Christian ruler, who regarded himself simply as the instrument of Providence.

People still differ as to the cause in which Cromwell embarked, and few defend the means he used to accomplish his ends. He does not stand out as a perfect man; he made mistakes, and committed political crimes which can be defended only on grounds of expediency. But his private life was above reproach, and he died in the triumph of Christian faith, after having raised his country to a higher pitch of glory than had been seen since the days of Queen Elizabeth.

The faults of the biographer centre in confounding right with might; and this conspicuously false doctrine is the leading defect of the philosophy of Carlyle, runs through all his writings, and makes him an unsound teacher. If this doctrine be true, then all the usurpers of the world from Caesar to Napoleon can be justified. If this be true, then an irresistible imperialism becomes the best government for mankind. It is but fair to say that Carlyle himself denied this inference. Writing of Lecky’s having charged him with believing in the divine right of strength, he says:–

“With respect to that poor heresy of might being the symbol of right ‘to a certain great and venerable author,’ I shall have to tell Lecky one day that quite the converse or _re_verse is the great and venerable author’s real opinion,–namely, that right is the eternal symbol of might; … in fact, he probably never met with a son of Adam more contemptuous of might except when it rests on the above origin.”

Yet the impression of all his strongest work is the other way.

Certain other kindred doctrines may be inferentially drawn from Carlyle’s defence of Cromwell; namely, that a popular assembly is incapable of guiding successfully the destinies of a nation; that behind all constitutions lies an ultimate law of force; that majorities, as such, have no more right to rule than kings and nobles; that the strongest are the best, and the best are the strongest; that the right to rule lies with those who are right in mind and heart, as he supposed Cromwell to be, and who can execute their convictions. Such teachings, it need not be shown, are at war with the whole progress of modern society and the enlightened opinion of mankind.

The great merit of Carlyle’s History is in the clearness and vividness with which he paints his hero and the exposure of the injustice with which he has been treated by historians. It is an able vindication of Cromwell’s character. But the deductions drawn from his philosophy lead to absurdity, and are an insult to the understanding of the world.

It was about this time, on the conclusion of the “Cromwell,” when he was on the summit of his literary fame, and the world began to shower its favors upon him, that Carlyle’s days were saddened by a domestic trouble which gave him inexpressible solicitude and grief. His wife, with whom he had lived happily for so many years, was exceedingly disturbed on account of his intimate friendship with Lady Ashburton. Nothing can be more plaintive and sadly beautiful than the letters he wrote to her on the occasion of her starting off in a fit of spleen, after a stormy scene, to visit friends at a distance; and what is singular is that we do not find in those letters, when his soul was moved to its very depths, any of his peculiarities of style. They are remarkably simple as well as serious.

Carlyle’s friendship for one of the most brilliant and cultivated women of England, which the breath of scandal never for a moment assailed, was reasonable and natural, and was a great comfort to him. He persisted in enjoying it, knowing that his wife disliked it. In this matter, which was a cloud upon his married life, and saddened the family hearth for years, Mrs. Carlyle was doubtless exacting and unreasonable; though some men would have yielded the point for the sake of a faithful wife,–or even for peace. There are those who think that Carlyle was selfish in keeping up an intercourse which was hateful to his wife; but the Ashburtons were the best friends that Carlyle ever had, after he became famous,–and in their various country seats he enjoyed a hospitality rarely extended to poor literary men. There he met in enjoyable and helpful intercourse, when he could not have seen them in his own house, some of the most distinguished men of the day,–men of rank and influence as well as those of literary fame.

Until this intimacy with the Ashburtons, no domestic disturbances of note had taken place in the Carlyle household. The wife may occasionally have been sad and lonely when her husband was preoccupied with his studies; but this she ought to have anticipated in marrying a literary man whose only support was from his pen. Carlyle, too, was an inveterate smoker, and she detested tobacco, so that he did not spend as much time in the parlor as he did in his library, where he could smoke to his heart’s content. On the whole, however, their letters show genuine mutual affection, and as much connubial happiness as is common to most men and women, with far more of intimate intellectual and spiritual congeniality. Carlyle, certainly, in all his letters, ever speaks of his wife with admiration and gratitude. He regarded her as not only the most talented woman that he had ever known, but as the one without whom he was miserable. They were the best of comrades and companions from first to last, when at home together.

For a considerable period after the publication of the Life of Cromwell, Carlyle was apparently idle. He wrote for several years nothing of note except his “Latter Day Pamphlets” (1850), and a Life of his friend John Sterling (1851), to whom he was tenderly attached. It would seem that he was now in easy circumstances, although he retained to the end his economical habits. He amused himself with travelling, and with frequent visits to distinguished people in the country. If not a society man, he was much sought; he dined often at the tables of the great, and personally knew almost every man of note in London. He sturdily took his place among distinguished men,–the intellectual peer of the greatest. He often met Macaulay, but was not intimate with him. I doubt if they even exchanged visits. The reason for this may have been that they were not congenial to each other in anything, and that the social position of Macaulay was immeasurably higher than Carlyle’s. It would be hard to say which was the greater man.

It was not until 1852 or 1853, when Carlyle was fifty-eight, that he seriously set himself to write his Life of Frederic II., his last great work, on which he perseveringly labored for thirteen years. It is an exhaustive history of the Prussian hero, and is regarded in Germany as the standard work on that great monarch and general. The first volume came out in 1858, and the last in 1865. It is a marvel of industry and accuracy,–the most elaborate of all his works, but probably the least read because of its enormous length and scholastic pedantries. It might be said to bear the same relation to his “French Revolution” that “Romola” does to “Adam Bede.” In this book Carlyle made no new revelations, as he did in his Life of Cromwell. He did not change essentially the opinion of mankind. Frederick the Great, in his hands, still stands out as an unscrupulous public enemy,–a robber and a tyrant. His crimes are only partially redeemed by his heroism, especially when Europe was in arms against him. There is the same defect in this great work that there is in the Life of Cromwell,–the inculcation of the doctrine that might makes right; that we may do evil that good may come,–thus putting expediency above eternal justice, and palliating crimes because of their success. It is difficult to account for Carlyle’s decline in moral perceptions, when we consider that his personal life was so far above reproach.

Although the Life of Frederick is a work of transcendent industry, it did not add to Carlyle’s popularity, which had been undermined by his bitter attacks on society in his various pamphlets. At this period he was still looked up to with reverence as a great intellectual giant; but that love for him which had been felt by those who were aroused to honest thinking by his earlier writings had passed away. A new generation looked upon him as an embittered and surly old man. His services were not forgotten, but he was no longer a favorite,–no longer an inspiring guide. His writings continued to stimulate thought, but were no longer regarded as sound. Commonplace people never did like him, probably because they never understood him. His admirers were among the young, the enthusiastic, the hopeful, the inquiring; and when their veneration passed away, there were few left to uphold his real greatness and noble character. One might suppose that Carlyle would have been unhappy to alienate so many persons, especially old admirers. In fact, I apprehend that he cared little for anybody’s admiration or flattery. He lived in an atmosphere so infinitely above small and envious and detracting people that he was practically independent of human sympathies. Had he been doomed to live with commonplace persons, he might have sought to conciliate them; but he really lived in another sphere,–not perhaps higher than theirs, but eternally distinct,–in the sphere of abstract truth. To him most people were either babblers or bores. What did he care for their envious shafts, or even for their honest disapprobation!

Hence, the last days of this great man were not his best days, although he was not without honor. He was made Lord Rector of the University of Edinburgh, and delivered a fine address on the occasion; and later, Disraeli, when prime minister, offered him knighthood, with the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath and a pension, which he declined. The author of the “Sartor Resartus” did not care for titles. He preferred to remain simply Thomas Carlyle.

While Carlyle was in the midst of honors in Edinburgh, his wife, who had long been in poor health, suddenly died, April 21, 1866. This affliction was a terrible blow to Carlyle, from which he never recovered. It filled out his measure of sorrow, deep and sad, and hard to be borne. His letters after this are full of pathos and plaintive sadness. He could not get resigned to his loss, for his wife had been more and more his staff and companion as years had advanced. The Queen sent her sympathy, but nothing could console him. He was then seventy-one years old, and his work was done. His remaining years were those of loneliness and sorrow and suffering. He visited friends, but they amused him not. He wrote reminiscences, but his isolation remained. He sought out charities when he himself was the object of compassion,–a sad old man who could not sleep. He tried to interest himself in politics, but time hung heavy on his hands. He read much and thought more, but assumed no fresh literary work. He had enough to do to correct proof-sheets of new editions of his works. His fiercest protests were now against atheism in its varied forms. In 1870, Mr. Erskine, his last Scotch friend, died. In 1873 he writes: “More and more dreary, barren, base, and ugly seem to me all the aspects of this poor, diminishing quack-world,–fallen openly anarchic, doomed to a death which one can wish to be speedy.”

Poor old man! He has survived his friends, his pleasures, his labors, almost his fame; he is sick, and weary of life, which to him has become a blank. Pity it is, he could not have died when “Cromwell” was completed. He drags on his forlorn life, without wife or children, and with only a few friends, in disease and ennui and discontent, almost alone, until he is eighty-five.

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps on this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

The relief came at last. It was on a cold day in February, 1881, that Lecky, Froude, and Tyndall, alone of his London friends, accompanied his mortal remains to Ecclefechan, where he was buried by the graves of his father and mother. He might have rested in the vaults of Westminster; but he chose to lie in a humble churchyard, near where he was born.

“In future years,” says his able and interesting biographer, “Scotland will have raised a monument over his remains; but no monument is needed for one who has made an eternal memorial for himself in the hearts of all to whom truth is the dearest possession.

“‘For, giving his soul to the common cause, he won for himself a wreath which will not fade, and a tomb the most honorable,–not where his dust is decaying, but where his glory lives in everlasting remembrance. For of illustrious men all the earth is the sepulchre; and it is not the inscribed column in their own land which is the record of their virtues, but the unwritten memories of them in the hearts and minds of all mankind.'” [1]

[Footnote 1: Quoted by Froude from the Funeral Oration of Pericles in honor of the Athenians slain during the first summer of the Peloponnesian War, as given by Thucydides,–“their,” “they,” etc. being changed to “his,” “he,” etc.]

Thomas Carlyle will always have an honorable place among the great men of his time. He was pre-eminently a profound thinker, a severe critic, a great word-painter,–a man of uncommon original gifts, who aroused and instructed his generation. In the literal sense, he was neither philosopher nor poet nor statesman, but a man of genius, who cast his searching and fearless glance into all creeds, systems, and public movements, denouncing hypocrisies, shams, and lies with such power that he lost friends almost as fast as he made them,–without, however, losing the respect and admiration of his literary rivals, or of the ablest and best men both in England and America. Although no believer in the scientific philosophies of our time, he was a great breaker of ground for them, having been a pioneer in the cause of honest thinking and plain speaking. His passion for truth, and courage in declaring his own vision of it, were potent for spiritual liberty. He stands as one of the earliest and stoutest champions of that revolt against authority in religious, intellectual, and social matters which has chiefly marked the Nineteenth Century.




Among the eminent men of letters of the present century, Thomas Babington Macaulay takes a very high position. In original genius he was inferior to Carlyle, but was greater in learning, in judgment, and especially in felicity of style. He was an historical artist of the foremost rank, the like of whom has not appeared since Voltaire; and he was, moreover, no mean poet, and might have been distinguished as such, had poetry been his highest pleasure and ambition. The same may be said of him as a political orator. Very few men in the House of Commons ever surpassed him in the power of making an eloquent speech. He was too impetuous and dogmatic to be a great debater, like Fox or Pitt or Peel or Gladstone; but he might have reached a more exalted and influential position as a statesman had he confined his remarkable talents to politics.

But letters were the passion of Macaulay, from his youth up; and his remarkably tenacious memory–abnormal, as it seems to me–enabled him to bring his vast store of facts to support plausibly any position he chose to take. At fifty years of age, he had probably read more books than any man in Europe since Gibbon and Niebuhr; he literally devoured everything he could put his hands upon, without cramming for a special object,–especially the Greek and Latin Classics, which he read over and over again, not so much for knowledge as for the pleasure it gave him as a literary critic and a student of artistic excellence.

Macaulay was of Scotch descent, like so many eminent historians, poets, critics, and statesmen who adorned the early and middle part of the nineteenth century,–Scott, Burns, Carlyle, Jeffrey, Dundas, Playfair, Wilson, Napier, Mackintosh, Robertson, Alison; a group of geniuses that lived in Edinburgh, and made its society famous,–to say nothing of great divines and philosophers like Chalmers and Stewart and Hamilton. Macaulay belonged to a good family, the most distinguished members of which were clergymen,–with the exception of his uncle, General Macaulay, who made a fortune in India; and his father, the celebrated merchant and philanthropist, Zachary Macaulay, who did more than any other man, Wilberforce excepted, to do away with the slave-trade, and to abolish slavery in the West India Islands.

Zachary Macaulay was the most modest and religious of men, and after an eventful life in Africa as governor of the colony of Sierra Leone, settled in Clapham, near London, with a handsome fortune. He belonged to that famous evangelical set who made Clapham famous, and whose extraordinary piety and philanthropy are commemorated by Sir James Stephen in one of his most interesting essays. They resembled in peculiarities the early Quakers and primitive Methodists, and though very narrow were much respected for their unostentatious benevolence, blended with public spirit.

Macaulay was born at Rothley Temple, in Leicestershire, Oct. 25, 1800, but it was at Clapham that his boyhood was chiefly spent. His precocity startled every one who visited his father’s hospitable home. At the age of three he would lie at full length on the carpet eagerly reading. He was never seen without an open book in his hands, even during his walks. He cared nothing for the sports of his companions. He could neither ride, nor drive, nor swim, nor row a boat, nor play a game of tennis or foot-ball. He cared only for books of all sorts, which he seized upon with inextinguishable curiosity, and stored their contents in his memory. When a boy, he had learned the “Paradise Lost” by heart. He did not care to go to school, because it interrupted his reading. Hannah More, a frequent visitor at Clapham and a warm friend of the family, gazed upon him with amazement, but was too wise and conscientious to spoil him by her commendations. At eight years of age he also had great facility in making verses, which were more than tolerable.

Zachary Macaulay objected to his son being educated in one of the great schools in England, like Westminster and Harrow, and he was therefore sent to a private school kept by an evangelical divine who had been a fellow at Cambridge,–a good scholar, but narrow in his theological views. Indeed, Macaulay got enough of Calvinism before he went to college, and was so unwisely crammed with it at home and at school, that through life he had a repugnance to the evangelical doctrines of the Low Church, with which, much to the grief of his father, he associated cant, always his especial abhorrence and disgust. While Macaulay venerated his father, he had little sympathy with his views, and never loved him as he did his own sisters. He did his filial duty, and that was all,–contributed largely to his father’s support in later life, treated him with profound respect, but was never drawn to him in affectionate frankness and confidence.

It cannot be disguised that Macaulay was worldly in his turn of mind, intensely practical, and ambitious of distinction as soon as he became conscious of his great powers, although in his school-days he was very modest and retiring. He was not religiously inclined, nor at all spiritually minded. An omnivorous reader seldom is narrow, and seldom is profound. Macaulay was no exception. He admired Pascal, but only for his exquisite style and his trenchant irony. He saw little in Augustine except his vast acquaintance with Latin authors. He carefully avoided writing on the Schoolmen, or Calvin, or the great divines of the seventeenth century. Bunyan he admired for his genius and perspicuous style rather than for his sentiments. Even his famous article on Bacon is deficient in spiritual insight; it is a description of the man rather than a dissertation on his philosophy. Macaulay’s greatness was intellectual rather than moral; and his mental power was that of the scholar and the rhetorical artist rather than the thinker. In his masterly way of arraying facts he has never been surpassed; and in this he was so skilful that it mattered little which side he took. Like Daniel Webster, he could make any side appear plausible. Doubtless in the law he might have become a great advocate, had he not preferred literary composition instead. Had he lived in the times of the Grecian Sophists, he might have baffled Socrates,–not by his logic, but by his learning and his aptness of illustration.

Macaulay entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1818, being a healthy, robust young man of eighteen, after five years’ training in Greek and Latin, having the eldest son of Wilberforce for a school companion. Among his contemporaries and friends at Cambridge were Charles Austin, Praed, Derwent Coleridge, Hyde Villiers, and Romilly; but I infer from his Life by Trevelyan that his circle of intimate friends was not so large as it would have been had he been fitted for college at Westminster or Eton. Nor at this time were his pecuniary circumstances encouraging. After he had obtained his first degree he supported himself, while studying for a fellowship, by taking a couple of pupils for L100 a year. Eventually he gained a fellowship worth L300 a year, which was his main support for seven years, until he obtained a government office in London. He probably would have found it easier to get a fellowship at Oxford than at Cambridge, since mathematics were uncongenial to him, his forte being languages. He was most distinguished at college for English composition and Latin declamation. In 1819 he wrote a poem, “Pompeii,” which gained him the chancellor’s medal,–a distinction won again in 1821 by a poem on “Evening,” while the same year gave him the Craven scholarship for his classical attainments. He took his bachelor’s degree in 1822, and was made a fellow of Trinity College. He did not obtain his fellowship, however, until his third trial, being no favorite with those who had prizes and honors to bestow, because of his neglect of science and mathematics.

As a profession, Macaulay made choice of the law, being called to the bar in 1826, and at Leeds joined the Northern Circuit, of which Brougham was the leading star. But the law was not his delight. He did not like its technicalities. He spent most of his time in his chambers in literary composition, or in the galleries of the House of Commons listening to the debates. He never applied himself seriously to anything which “went against the grain.” At Court he got no briefs, but his fellowship enabled him to live by practising economy. He also wrote occasional essays–excellent but not remarkable–for Knight’s Quarterly Magazine. It was in this periodical, too, that his early poems were published; but he did not devote much time to this field of letters, although, as we have said, he might undoubtedly have succeeded in it. His poetry, if he had never written anything else, would not be considered much inferior to that of Sir Walter Scott, being full of life and action, and, like most everything else he did, winning him applause. Years later he felt the risk of publishing his “Lays of Ancient Rome;” but as he knew what he could do and what he could not do, or rather what would be popular, he was not disappointed. The poems were well received, for they were eminently picturesque and vital, as well as strong, masculine, and unadorned; the rhyme and metre were also felicitous. He had no obscurities, and the spirit of his Lays was patriotic and ardent, showing his love of liberty. I think his “Battle of Ivry” is equal to anything that Scott wrote. Yet Macaulay is not regarded by the critics as a true poet; that is, he did not write poetry because he must, like Burns and Byron. His poetry was not spontaneous; it was a manufactured article,–very good of its kind, but not such as to have given him the fame which his prose writings made for him.

It was not, however, until his article on Milton appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1825, that Macaulay’s great career began. Like Byron, he woke up one morning to find himself famous. Everybody read and admired an essay the style of which was new and striking. “Where did you pick up that style?” wrote Jeffrey to the briefless barrister. It transcended in brilliancy anything which had yet appeared in the Edinburgh or Quarterly. Brougham became envious, and treated the rising light with no magnanimity or admiration.

Of course, the author of such an uncommon article as that on Milton, the praise of which was in everybody’s mouth, had invitations to dinner from distinguished people; and these were most eagerly accepted. Macaulay rapidly became a social favorite, sought for his brilliant conversation, which was as remarkable for a young man of twenty-six as were his writings in the foremost literary journal of the world. He was not handsome, and was carelessly dressed; but he had a massive head, and rugged yet benevolent features, which lighted up with peculiar animation when he was excited. One of the first persons of note to welcome him to her table was Lady Holland, an accomplished but eccentric and plain-spoken woman, who seems to have greatly admired him. He was a frequent guest at Holland House, where for nearly half-a-century the courtly and distinguished Lord Holland and his wife entertained the most eminent men and women of the time. This gratified young Macaulay’s inordinate social ambition. He scarcely mentions in his letters at this time any but peers and peeresses.

And yet he did not court the society of those he did not respect. He was not a parasite or a flatterer even of the great, but met them apparently on equal terms, as a monarch of the mind. He was at home in any circle that was not ignorant or frivolous. He was more easy than genial, for his prejudices or intellectual pride made him unkind to persons of mediocrity. It was a bold thing to cross his path, for he came down like an avalanche on those who opposed him, not so much in anger as in contempt. I do not find that his circle of literary friends was large or intimate. He seldom alludes to Carlyle or Bulwer or Thackeray or Dickens. He has more to say of Rogers and Lord Jeffrey, and other pets of aristocratic circles,–those who were conventionally favored, like Sydney Smith; or those who gave banquets to people of fashion, like Lord Lansdowne. These were the people he loved best to associate with, who listened to his rhetoric with rapt admiration, who did not pique his vanity, and who had something to give to him,–position and _eclat_.

Macaulay was not a vain man, nor even egotistical; but he had a tremendous self-consciousness, which annoyed his equals in literary fame, and repelled such a giant as Brougham, who had no idea of sharing his throne with any one,–being more overbearing even than Macaulay, but more human. This new rival in the Edinburgh Review, of which for a long time Brougham had been dictator, was, much to Jeffrey’s annoyance, not convivial. He did not drink two bottles at a sitting, but guarded his health and preserved his simple habits. Though he speaks with gusto of Lord Holland’s turtle and turbot and venison and grouse, he was content when alone with a mutton-chop and a few glasses of sherry, or the October ale of Cambridge, which was a part of his perquisites as Fellow. He was very exclusive, in view of the fact that he was a poor man, without aristocratic antecedents or many powerful friends. Outside the class of rank and fashion, his friends seem to have been leading politicians of the Liberal school, the stanch Whigs who passed the Reform Bill, to whom he was true. To his credit, his happiest hours were spent with his sisters in the quiet seclusion of his father’s modest home. All his best letters were to them; and in these he detailed his intercourse with the great, and the splendor of their banquets and balls.

Macaulay’s rise, after he had written his famous article on Milton, was rapid. The article itself, striking as it is, must be confessed to be disappointing in so far as it attempted to criticise the “Paradise Lost” and Milton’s other poems. Macaulay’s genius was historical, not critical; and the essay is notable rather for its review of the times of Charles I. and Archbishop Laud, of the Puritans and the Royalists, than for its literary flavor, except as a brilliant piece of composition. It was, however, the picturesque style of the new writer which was the chief attraction, and the fact that the essay came from so young a man. Macaulay followed the Milton essay with others on Macchiavelli, Dryden, Hallam’s “Constitutional History,” and on history in general, which displayed to great advantage his unusual learning, his keen historic instinct, and his splendor of style. He became the most popular contributor to the Edinburgh Review, which was beginning to be dull and heavy; and this kept him before the eyes of politicians and professional men.

Macaulay’s ambition was now divided between literature and politics. His first appearance as a public speaker was at an annual anti-slavery convention in London, in 1826, when he made a marked impression. He eagerly embraced the offer of a seat in the House of Commons, which was secured to him in 1830; and as soon as he entered Parliament he began to make speeches, which were carefully composed and probably committed to memory. At a single bound he became one of the leading orators of that renowned assembly. Some of his orations were masterpieces of argument and rhetoric in favor of reform, and of all liberal movements in philanthropy and education. In the opinion of eminent statesmen he was the most “rising” member of the House, and sure to become a leader among the Whigs. But he was poor, having only about L500 a year–the proceeds of his fellowship and his literary productions–to support his dignity as a legislator and meet the calls of society; so that in 1833 he was rewarded with an office in the Board of Control, which regulated the affairs of India; this doubled his income, and made him independent. But he wanted an office in which he could lay up money for future contingencies. Therefore, in 1834, he gladly resigned his seat in Parliament and accepted the situation of a member of the Supreme Council of India, on a salary of L10,000 a year, L7000 of which he continued to save yearly; so that at the end of four years, when he returned to England, he had become a rich man, or at least independent, with leisure to do whatever he pleased.

In India, as chairman of the Board of Education, as legal adviser of the Council, and in drafting a code of penal laws for that part of the Empire, he was very useful,–although as a matter of fact the new code was too theoretically fine to be practical, and was never put in force. His personal good sense was equal to his industry and his talents, and he preserved his health by strict habits of temperance. Even in that tropical country he presented a strong contrast to the sallow, bilious officials with whom he was surrounded, and in due time returned to England in perfect health, one of the most robust of men, capable of indefinite work, which never seemed to weary him.

But in Calcutta, as in London, he employed his leisure hours in writing for the Edinburgh Review, and gave an immense impulse to its sale, for which he was amply rewarded. Brougham complained to Jeffrey that his essays took up too much space in the Review, but the politic editor knew what was for its interest and popularity. Macaulay’s long articles of sometimes over a hundred pages were received without a murmur; and every article he wrote added to his fame, since he always did his best. His essays in 1830 on Southey and Montgomery, and one in 1831 on Croker’s edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, were fierce, scathing onslaughts, even cruel and crushing,–revealing Macaulay’s tremendous powers of invective and remorseless criticism, but reflecting little credit on his disposition or his judgment. His Hampden (1831) and his Burleigh (1832) remain among his finest and most inspiring historical paintings. His first essay on Lord Chatham (1834) is a notable piece of characterization; the one on Sir James Mackintosh (1835) is a most acute and brilliant historical criticism; the one on Lord Bacon (1837) is striking and has become famous, but shows Macaulay’s deficiency in philosophic thought, besides being sophistical in spirit; and the article on Sir William Temple (1837)–really a history of England during the reign of William III.–is thoroughly fine.

Macaulay’s residence in India, so far as political ambition was concerned, may have been a mistake. It withdrew him from an arena in which he could have risen to great distinction and influence as a parliamentary orator. He might have been a second Fox, whom he resembled in the impetuosity of his rhetoric, if he had also possessed Fox’s talents as a debater. Yet he was not a born leader of men. As a parliamentary orator he was simply a speech-maker, like the Unitarian minister Fox, or that still abler man the Quaker Bright, both of whom were great rhetoricians. It is probable that he himself understood his true sphere, which was that of a literary man,–an historical critic, appealing to intelligent people rather than to learned pedants in the universities. His service in India enabled him to write for the remainder of his life with an untrammelled pen, and to live in comfort and ease, enjoying the _otium cum dignitate_, to which he attached supreme importance,–so different from Carlyle, who toiled in poverty at Chelsea to declare truth for truth’s sake, grumbling, yet lofty in his meditations, the depth of which Macaulay was incapable of appreciating.

It is, then, as a man of letters rather than as a politician that our author merits his exalted fame. Respectable as a member of the House of Commons, or as a jurist in India in compiling a code of laws, yet neither as a statesman nor as a jurist was he in his right place. The leaders of his party may have admired and praised his oratory, but they wanted something more practical than orations,–they wanted the control of men; and so, too, the government demanded a code which would exact the esteem of lawyers and meet the wants of India rather than a composition which would read well. But as an historical critic and a luminous writer, Macaulay had no superior,–a fact which no one knew better than himself.

In 1838, on his return from India,–where he had regarded himself as in honorable exile,–Macaulay had accumulated a fortune of L30,000, to him more than a competency. This, added to the legacy of L10,000 which he had received from his uncle, General Macaulay, secured to him independence and leisure to pursue his literary work, which was paramount to every other consideration. If both from pleasure and ambition there ever was a man devoted heart and soul and body to a literary career, it was Macaulay. Nor would he now accept any political office which seriously interfered with the passion of his life. Still less would he waste his time at the dinner parties of the great, no longer to him a novelty. He was eminently social by nature, and fond of talk and controversy, with a superb physique capable of digesting the richest dishes, and of enduring the fatigues and ceremonies of fashionable life; but even the pleasures of the banquet and of cultivated society, to many a mere relaxation, were sacrificed to his fondness for books,–to him the greatest and truest companionship, especially when they introduced him to the life and manners of by-gone ages, and to communion with the master-minds of the world.

For relaxation, Macaulay preferred to take long walks; lounge around the book-stalls; visit the sights of London with his nieces; invite his intimate friends to simple dinners at The Albany; amuse himself with trifles, especially in company with those he loved best, in the domestic circle of his relatives, whom he treated ever with the most familiar and affectionate sympathy,–so that while they loved and revered him, they had no idea that “Uncle Tom” was a great man. His most interesting letters were to his sisters and nieces, whose amusement and welfare he had constantly in view, and who were more to him than all the world besides. Indeed, he did not write many letters except to his relatives, his publishers, and his intimate friends, who were few, considering the number of persons he was obliged to meet. He was a thoroughly domestic man, although he never married or wished to marry.

It surprises me that Macaulay’s intercourse with eminent authors was so constrained. He saw very little of them; but while he did not avoid talking with them when thrown among them, and keeping up the courtesies of life even with those he thoroughly disliked, I cannot see any evidence that he sought the society of those who were regarded as his equals in genius. He liked Milman and Mackintosh and Napier and Jeffrey and Rogers, and a few others; but his intimate intercourse was confined chiefly to these and to his family.

Macaulay’s fame, however, was substantially founded and built. Sydney Smith’s witty characterization of him is worth recalling:–

“I always prophesied his greatness from the first moment I saw him, then a very young and unknown man on the Northern Circuit. There are no limits to his knowledge, on small subjects as well as great; he is like a book in breeches.

“Yes, I agree, he is certainly more agreeable since his return from India. His enemies might have said before (though _I_ never did so) that he talked rather too much; but now he has occasional flashes of silence that make his conversation perfectly delightful. But what is far better and more important than all this is, that I believe Macaulay to be incorruptible. You might lay ribbons, stars, garters, wealth, title, before him in vain. He has an honest, genuine love of his country; and the world could not bribe him to neglect her interests.”

Macaulay now devoted several weeks of every year to travel, visiting different parts of England and the Continent as the mood took him. In the autumn of 1838 he visited Italy, it would seem for the first time, and was, of course, enchanted. He appreciated natural scenery, but was not enthusiastic over it; nor did it make a very deep impression on him except for the moment. He loved best to visit cities and places consecrated by classical associations.

While at Rome, Macaulay received from Lord Melbourne the offer of the office of Judge Advocate; but he unhesitatingly declined it. The salary of L2500 was nothing to a scholar who already had a comfortable independence; and the duties the situation imposed were not only uncongenial, but would interfere with his literary labors.

In February, 1839, he returned to London; and now the pressure on him by his political friends to re-enter public life was greater than he could resist. He was elected to Parliament as one of the members from Edinburgh, and gave his usual support to his party. In September he became War Secretary, with a seat in the Whig Cabinet under Lord Melbourne. Consequently he suspended for a while his literary tasks, conducting the business of his department with commendable industry, but without enthusiasm. In the session of 1840 and 1841, during the angry discussions pertaining to the registration of votes in Ireland, he gave proof of having profited by the severe legal training he had received from his labors in India. During these years he found time to write a few reviews, the one on Lord Olive being the most prominent.

The great subject of political agitation at this period was the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Whig leaders had lost the earnestness which had marked their grand efforts when they carried the Reform Bill of 1832, and were more indifferent to further reforms than suited their constituents; so that, at a dangerous financial crisis in 1841, the direction of public affairs fell into the hands of the Tories, under Sir Robert Peel. This great man not only rescued the nation from its fiscal embarrassments, but having been convinced by the arguments of Cobden of the necessity of repealing the Corn Laws, he carried through that great reform, to the disgust of his party and to his own undying fame. I have treated of this period more at large in another volume of this series.[2]

[Footnote 2: Beacon Lights of History: European Leaders.]

Macaulay was not much moved by the fall of the ministry to which he belonged, and gladly resumed his literary labors,–the first fruits of his leisure being an essay on Warren Hastings, a companion piece to the one on Clive.

These East Indian essays constitute the most picturesque and graphic account of British conquests in that ancient land that has been given to the public. Macaulay’s intimate knowledge of the ground, and his literary resources, enabled him to picture the dazzling successes of Clive and Hastings; so that the careers of those superb military chieftains and commercial robber-statesmen, in securing for their country the control of a distant province larger than France, and in enriching the British Empire and themselves beyond all precedent in conquest, stand splendidly portrayed forever.

Macaulay had now taken apartments in The Albany, on the second floor, to which he removed his large library, and in which he comfortably lived for fifteen years. His article on Warren Hastings was followed by that on Frederic the Great. His numerous articles in the Edinburgh Review had now become so popular that there was a great demand for them in a separate form. Curiously enough, as in the case of Carlyle, it was in America that the public appreciation of these essays first took the form of book publication; and Macaulay’s “Miscellanies” were published in Boston in 1840, and in Philadelphia in 1842. As these volumes began to go to England, for Macaulay’s own protection they were republished by Longman, revised by the author, in 1843, and obtained an immediate and immense sale,–reaching one hundred and twenty thousand copies in England,–which added to the fame and income of Macaulay. But he was never satisfied with the finish of his own productions; the only thing which seemed to comfort him was that the last essays were better than the first. In addition to his labors for the Edinburgh, was the publication of a volume of his poems in 1842, which was also enthusiastically received by his admirers. His last notable essays were a chivalrous article on Madame D’Arblay (January, 1843); an entirely charming account of Addison and the wits of Queen Anne’s reign (July, 1843); an interesting review of the Memoirs of Barere, the French revolutionist and writer (April, 1844); and finally a second article on Lord Chatham (October, 1844), which is considered finer than the first one written twenty years earlier. More and more, however, the project of writing a History of England had taken possession of him, and he began now to forego all other literary occupation, and to devote all his leisure time to that great work.

During much of the time that Macaulay had continued writing his reviews, at the rate of about two in a year, he was an active member of Parliament, frequently addressing the House of Commons, and earning the gratitude of the country by his liberal and enlightened views,–especially those in reference to the right of Unitarians to their chapels, to the enlarged money-grant given to the Irish Roman Catholic Maynooth College, and to the extension of copyrights. He rarely spoke without careful preparation. His speeches were forcible and fine. In the higher field of debate, however, as we have already intimated, he was not successful. In 1845 Sir Robert Peel retired, the Whigs again coming into power; and in 1846 Macaulay accepted the office of Paymaster of the Forces, because its duties were comparatively light and would not much interfere with his literary labors, while it added L2000 a year to his income. During the session of 1846 and 1847, while still in Parliament, he spoke only five times, although the House was ever ready to listen to him.

In the year 1847 the disruption of the Scotch Church was effected, and in the bitterness engendered by that movement Macaulay lost his popularity with his Edinburgh constituents. He seemed indifferent to their affairs; he answered their letters irregularly and with almost contemptuous brevity. He had no sympathy with the radicals who at that time controlled a large number of votes, and he refused to contribute towards electioneering expenses. Above all, he was absorbed in his History, and had lost much of his interest in politics. In consequence he failed to be re-elected, and not unwillingly retired to private life.

Macaulay now concentrated all his energies on the History, which occupied his thoughts, his studies, and his pen for the most part during the remainder of his life. The first two volumes were published in the latter part of 1848; and the sale was immense, surpassing that of any historical work in the history of literature, and coming near to the sale of the novels of Sir Walter Scott. The popularity of the work was not confined to scholars and statesmen and critics, but it was equally admired by ordinary readers; and not in England and Scotland alone, but in the United States, in France, in Holland, in Germany, and other countries.

The labor expended on these books was prodigious. The author visited in person nearly all the localities in England and Ireland where the events he narrated took place. He ransacked the archives of most of the governments of Europe, and all the libraries to which he could gain access, public and private. He worked twelve hours a day, and yet produced on an average only two printed pages daily,–so careful was he in verifying his facts and in arranging his materials, writing and rewriting until no further improvement could be made.

This book was not merely the result of his researches for the last fifteen years of his life, but of his general reading for nearly fifty years, when everything he read he remembered. Says Thackeray, “He reads twenty books to write a sentence; he travels one hundred miles to make a line of description.” The extent and exactness of his knowledge were not only marvellous, but almost incredible. Mr. Buckle declared that Macaulay was perfectly accurate in all the facts which Buckle had himself investigated to write his “History of Civilization;” and so particular was he in the selection of words that he never allowed a sentence to pass muster until it was as good as he could make it. “He thought little of reconstructing a paragraph,” says his biographer, “for the sake of one happy illustration.” He submitted to the most tiresome mechanical drudgery in the correction of his proof-sheets. The clearness of his thought amid the profusion of his knowledge was represented in his writing by a remarkable conciseness of expression. His short, vigorous sentences are compact with details of fact, yet rich with color. His terseness has been compared to that of Tacitus. His power of condensation, aptness of phrase and epithet, and indomitable industry made him a master of rhetorical effect, in the use of his multifarious learning for the illustration of his themes.

As soon as his last proof-sheet had been despatched to the printers, Macaulay at once fell to reading a series of historians from Herodotus downward, to measure his writings with theirs. Thucydides especially utterly destroyed all the conceit which naturally would arise from his unbounded popularity, as expressed in every social and literary circle, as well as in the Reviews. Like Michael Angelo, this Englishman was never satisfied with his own productions; and the only comfort he took in the impossibility of realizing his ideal was in the comparison he made of his own works with similar ones by contemporary authors. Then he was content; and then only appeared in his letters and diary that good-natured, self-satisfied feeling which arose from the consciousness that he was one of the most fortunate authors who had ever lived. There was nothing cynical in his sense of superiority, but an amiable self-assertion and self-confidence that only made men smile,–as when Lord Palmerston remarked that “he wished he was as certain of any one thing as Tom Macaulay was of everything.” This self-confidence rarely provoked opposition, except when he was positive as to things outside his sphere. He wrote and talked sensibly and luminously on financial and social questions, on art, on poetry and the drama, on philosophy and theology; but on these subjects he was not an authority with specialists. In other words, he did not, so to speak, know everything profoundly, but only superficially; yet in history, especially English history, he was profound in analysis as well as brilliant in the narration of facts, even when there was disagreement between himself and others as to inductions he drew from those facts,–inductions colored by his strong prejudices and aristocratic surroundings.

Macaulay was not always consistent with his own theories, however. For instance, he was a firm believer in the progress of society and of civilization. He saw the enormous gulf between the ninth and the nineteenth centuries, and the unmistakable advance which, since the times of Hildebrand, the world had made in knowledge, in the arts, in liberty, and in the comforts of life, although the tide of progress had its ebb and flow in different ages and countries. Yet when he cast his eye on America, where perhaps the greatest progress had been made in the world’s history within fifty years, he saw nothing but melancholy signs of anarchy and decay,–signs portending the collapse of liberty and the triumph of ignorance and crime. Thus he writes in 1857 to an American correspondent:–

“As long as you have a boundless extent of fertile and unoccupied land, your laboring population will be far more at ease than the laboring population of the Old World; but the time will come when wages will be as low, and will fluctuate as much, with you as with us. Then your institutions will fairly be brought to the test. Distress everywhere makes the laborer mutinous and discontented, and inclines him to listen with eagerness to agitators who tell him that it is a monstrous iniquity that one man should have a million, while another cannot get a full meal. In bad years there is plenty of grumbling here, and sometimes a little rioting; but it matters little, for here the sufferers are not the rulers. The supreme power is in the hands of a class deeply interested in the security of property and the maintenance of order; accordingly the malcontents are restrained. But with you the majority is the government, and has the rich, who are always in a minority, absolutely at its mercy. The day will come when the multitude of people, none of whom has had more than a half a breakfast, or expects to have more than a half a dinner, will choose a legislature. Is it possible to doubt what sort of legislature will be chosen? On the one side is a statesman preaching patience, respect for vested rights, strict observance of the public faith; and on the other a demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalists and usurers, and asking why anybody should be permitted to drink champagne and ride in a carriage, while thousands of honest folks are in want of necessaries: which of the two candidates is likely to be preferred by a working-man who hears his children cry for more bread? There will be, I fear, spoliation. The spoliation will increase the distress; the distress will produce fresh spoliation. There is nothing to stop you; your Constitution is all sail and no anchor. Either civilization or liberty will perish. Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand, or your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the twentieth century as the Roman Empire was in the fifth.”

I do not deny that there is great force in Macaulay’s reasoning and prophecy. History points to decline and ruin when public virtue has fled and government is in the hands of demagogues; for their reign has ever been succeeded by military usurpers who have preserved civilization indeed, but at the expense of liberty. Yet this reasoning applies not only to America but to England as well,–especially since, by the Reform Bill and subsequent enactments of Parliament, she has opened the gates to an increase of suffrage, which now threatens to become universal. The enfranchisement of the people–the enlarged powers of the individual under the protection and control of the commonwealth–is the Anglo-Saxon contribution to progress. It is dangerous. So is all power until its use is learned. But there is no backward step possible; the tremendous experiment must go forward, for England and America alike.

Macaulay himself was one of the most prominent of English statesmen and orators, in 1830, 1831, and 1832, to advocate the extension of the right of suffrage and the increase of popular liberties. All his writings are on the side of liberty in England; and all are in opposition to the Toryism which was so triumphant during the reign of George III. Why did he have faith in the English people of England, and yet show so little in the English people of America? He believed in political and social progress for his own countrymen; why should he doubt the utility of the same in other countries? If vandalism is to be the fate of America, where education, the only truly conservative element, is more diffused than in England, why should it not equally triumph in that country when the masses have gained political power, as they surely will at some time, and even speedily, if the policy inaugurated by Gladstone is to triumph? For England Macaulay had unbounded hope, because he believed in progress,–in liberty, in education, in the civilizing influence of machinery, in the increasing comforts of life through the constant increase of wealth among the middle classes, and especially through the power of Christianity, in spite of the dissensions of sects, the attacks of crude philosophers, socialists, anarchists, scientists, and atheists, from one end of Christendom to the other. Why should he not have equal faith in American civilization, which, in spite of wars and strikes and commercial distresses and political corruption, has yet made a marked progress from the time of Jefferson, the apostle of equality, down to our day,–as seen especially in the multiplication of schools and colleges, in an untrammelled and watchful press, and in the active benevolence of the rich in the foundation of every kind of institution to relieve misery and want? The truth is that he, in common with most educated Englishmen of his day,–and of too many even of our own day,–cherished a silent contempt for Americans, for their literature and their institutions; and hence he was not only inconsistent in the principles which he advocated, but showed that he was not emancipated, with all his learning, from prejudices of which he ought to have been ashamed.

As time made inroads on Macaulay’s strong constitution, he gave up both politics and society in the absorbing interest which he took in his History, confining himself to his library, and sometimes allowing months to pass without accepting any invitation whatever to a social gathering. No man was ever more disenchanted with society. He begrudged his time even when tempted by the calls of friendship. When visitors penetrated to his den, he bowed them out with ironical politeness. He had no favors to ask from friends or foes, for he declined political office, and was as independent as wealth or fame could make him. In 1849 he was made Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, and the acclamations following his address were prodigious. Lord John Russell gave to Macaulay’s brother John a living worth L1100. Macaulay himself was offered the professorship of History at Cambridge. In one year he received for the first edition of his third and fourth volumes of the History, published in 1855, L20,000 in a single check from Longman. At the age of forty-nine, he writes in his diary: “I have no cause for complaint,–tolerable health, competence, liberty, leisure, dear relatives and friends, and a very great literary reputation.”

With all this prosperity, Macaulay now naturally set up his carriage. He dined often with the Queen, and was a great man, according to English notions, more even from his wealth and social position than from his success in letters. Lord John Russell pressed him to accept a seat in his cabinet, but “I told him,” Macaulay writes, “that I should be of no use,–that I was not a debater; that it was too late to become one; that my temper, taste, and literary habits alike prevented.” He was, however, induced to become again a member of Parliament, and in 1852 was elected once more for Edinburgh, which had repented of its rejection of him in 1847. But he insisted on perfect independence to vote as he pleased. He regarded this re-entrance into public life as a great personal sacrifice, since it might postpone the appearance of his next two volumes of the History. His election, however, was received with great acclamation. Even Professor Wilson, the most conservative of Scotch Tories, voted for him. It was not a party victory, but purely a personal triumph.

A serious illness now follows,–a weakness of the heart, from the effects of which Macaulay died a few years afterwards. He retires to Clifton, and gives himself up to getting well, visiting Barley Wood, and driving in his private carriage among the most interesting scenery in the west of England. But he was never perfectly well again, although he continued to work on his History. His intimate friends saw the change in him with sadness, but he himself was serene and uncomplaining. Although he suffered from an oppression of the chest, he still on great occasions addressed the House. His mind was clear, but his voice was faint. The last speech he made was in behalf of the independence of the Scottish Church. The strain of the House of Commons proved to be too great for his now enfeebled constitution. “Nor could he conceal from himself and his friends,” says Trevelyan, “that it was a grievous waste, while the reign of Anne still remained unwritten, for him to consume his scanty stock of vigor in the tedious and exhaustive routine of political existence; waiting whole evenings for the vote, and then … trudging home at three in the morning through the slush of a February thaw.” He therefore spared himself as a member of Parliament, and carefully husbanded his powers in order to work upon his book. He gave himself more time for his annual vacation, yet would write when he could on the subjects which engrossed his life. His labors were too severe for his strength, but he worked on, and even harder and harder.

At length on the 25th of November, 1855, Macaulay sent to the printer the last twenty pages of his History, and an edition of twenty-five thousand was ordered. Within a generation one hundred and forty thousand copies of the work were sold in the United Kingdom alone. Six rival translators were engaged in turning it into German; and it was published in the Polish, the Danish, the Swedish, the Italian, the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Hungarian, the Russian, and the Bohemian languages, to say nothing of its immense circulation in the United States. Such extraordinary literary popularity was accompanied by great honors. In 1857 Macaulay was created a British Peer and elected Lord High Steward of the borough of Cambridge. The academies of Utrecht, Munich, and Turin elected him to honorary membership. The King of Prussia made him a member of the Order of Merit. Oxford conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Civil Law, and he was elected president of the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh. He could have little more in the way of academic and governmental honors.

The failing health of Macaulay now compelled him to resign his seat in the House of Commons. It was also thought desirable for him to vacate his apartments at The Albany, which he had occupied for fifteen years, that he might be more retired and perhaps more comfortable. His friends, at the suggestion of Dean Milman, selected a house in Kensington, the rooms of which were small, except the library, which opened upon a beautiful lawn, adorned with flowers and shrubs; it was called Holly Lodge, and was very secluded and attractive. Here his latter days were spent, in the society of his nieces and a few devoted friends, and in dispensing simple hospitalities. His favorite form of entertainment was the breakfast, at which his guests would linger till twelve, enchanted by his conversation, for his mind showed no signs of decay.

From this charming retreat Lord Macaulay very seldom appeared in London society. Years passed without his even accepting invitations. An occasional night at a friend’s house in the country, one or two nights at Windsor Castle, and one or two visits to Lord Stanhope’s seat in Kent in order to consult his magnificent library, were the only visits which Macaulay made in the course of the year. He always had a dislike of visiting in private houses, much preferring hotels, where he could be free from conventional life.

Macaulay was always careful in his expenditures, wasting nothing that he might enjoy the pleasure of charity,–for he gave liberally, especially to needy and unfortunate men of letters. Once he gave L100 to a total stranger who implored his aid. In his household he was revered, for he was the kindest and most considerate of masters, while his relatives absolutely worshipped him. At home he made no claim to the privileges of genius; he had few eccentricities; he never interfered with the pleasures of others; he never obtruded his advice, or demanded that his own views or tastes should be consulted; he was especially careful not to wound the feelings of those with whom he lived. Children were his delight and solace. Over them he seemed to have unbounded influence. He would spend the half of a busy day in playing with them, and in inventing new games for their diversion. One of his pleasures was to take them to see the sights of London. His sympathies were quick and generous; although apparently so cynical in his opinions of books, he was always affected at any touches of pathos, even to tears.

It was hard for Macaulay to realize that the time had come when he must leave untold that portion of English history with which he was more familiar than any other living man; but he submitted to the inevitable without repining. He had done what he could. Even when he was compelled to give up his daily task, his love of reading remained; a book was his solace to the last. He had no extensive acquaintance with the works of some of the best writers of his own generation, preferring the classic authors of antiquity, and of England in the time of Anne. He did not relish Coleridge or Carlyle or Buckle or Ruskin, or indeed any writer who seemed to strain after originality of style, in defiance of the old and conservative canons. He preferred Miss Austen to Dickens. He felt that he owed a great debt to the master-minds of by-gone ages, who reached perfection of style, so far as it can be attained. Even the English writers of the reign of Anne, to his mind, have never been surpassed. His admiration for Addison was unbounded. Dryden and Pope to him were greater poets than any who have succeeded them. Such a poet as Tennyson or Wordsworth he pretended he did not understand. He wanted transparent clearness of expression. Browning would have been to him an abomination. He despised the poetry of his own age, with its involved sentences, its obscurity, and its strange metres. His own poetry was as direct as Homer, as simple as Chaucer, and as graphic as Scott.

In 1859, Macaulay contrived to visit once more the English lakes and the western highlands, where he was received with great veneration, being recognized everywhere on steamers and railway stations. But his cheerfulness had now departed, although he made an effort to be agreeable. In December of this year he ceased writing in his diary. The physicians pretended to think that he was better, but fainting fits set in. On Christmas he said but little, and was constantly dropping to sleep. His relatives did not seem to think that he was in immediate danger, but the end was near. He died without pain, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on the 9th of January, 1860, having for pall-bearers the most illustrious men in England. He rests in the Poet’s Corner, amid the tombs of Johnson and Garrick, Handel and Goldsmith, Gay and Addison, leaving behind him an immortal fame.

And what is this fame? It is not that of a philosophical historian like Guizot, for his History is not marked by profound generalizations, or even thoughtful reflections. He was not a judicial historian like Hallam, seeking to present the truth alone; for he was a partisan, full of party prejudices. Nor was he an historian like Ranke, raking out the hidden facts of a remote period, and unveiling the astute diplomacy of past ages. Macaulay was a great historical painter of the realistic school, whose pictures have never been surpassed, or even equalled, for vividness and interest. In this class of historians he stands out alone and peerless, the most exciting and the most interesting of all the historians who have depicted the manners, the events, and the characters of a former age,–never by any accident dull, but fatiguing, if at all, only by his wealth of illustration and the over-brilliancy of his coloring. He is the Titian of word-painting, and as such will live like that immortal colorist. Critics may say what they please about his rhetoric, about his partial statements, about his want of insight into deep philosophical questions; but as a painter who made his figures stand out on the historical canvas with unique vividness, Macaulay cannot fail to be regarded, as long as the English language is spoken or written, as one of the great masters of literary composition. This was the verdict pronounced by the English nation at large; and its great political and literary leaders expressed and confirmed it, when they gave him fortune and fame, elevated him to the peerage, bestowed on him stars and titles, and buried him with august solemnity among those illustrious men who gave to England its power and glory.




Great men are more distinguished by range and extent than by originality. If we require the originality which consists in weaving, like a spider, their web from their own bowels; in finding clay and making bricks and building the house; no great men are original. Nor does valuable originality consist in unlikeness to other men. The hero is in the press of knights and the thick of events; and seeing what men want and sharing their desire, he adds the needful length of sight and of arm to come at the desired point. The greatest genius is the most indebted man. A poet is no rattle-brain, saying what comes uppermost, and, because he says everything, saying at last something good; but a heart in unison with his time and country. There is nothing whimsical and fantastic in his production, but sweet and sad earnest, freighted with the weightiest convictions and pointed with the most determined aim which any man or class knows of in his times.

[Footnote 3: Reprinted from “Representative Men,” by permission of Messrs. HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN, AND CO., publishers of Emerson’s works.]

The Genius of our life is jealous of individuals, and will not have any individual great, except through the general. There is no choice to genius. A great man does not wake up on some fine morning and say, ‘I am full of life, I will go to sea and find an Antarctic continent: to-day I will square the circle: I will ransack botany and find a new food for man: I have a new architecture in my mind: I foresee a new mechanic power:’ no, but he finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries. He stands where all the eyes of men look one way, and their hands all point in the direction in which he should go. The Church has reared him amidst rites and pomps, and he carries out the advice which her music gave him, and builds a cathedral needed by her chants and processions. He finds a war raging: it educates him, by trumpet, in