THOMAS CARLYLE, 1795-1881
[Illustration: THOMAS CARLYLE. From the painting by James McNeil Whistler, Glasgow Art Galleries.]
Life.—Thomas Carlyle, who became one of the great tonic forces of the nineteenth century, was also most interested in spiritual growth. He specially emphasized the gospel of work as the only agency that could develop the atmosphere necessary for such growth, and, though deeply religious, he cared little for any special faith or creed.
The son of a Scotch stone mason, Thomas Carlyle was born in 1795 at Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire. At the age of fourteen, the boy was ready for the University of Edinburgh, and he walked the eighty miles between it and his home. After he was graduated, he felt that he could not enter the ministry, as his parents wished. He therefore taught while he was considering what vocation to follow.
In 1821 he met Jane Welsh, a brilliant and beautiful girl, descended on her father’s side from John Knox and on her mother’s from William Wallace. With the spirit of Wallace, she climbed in her girlhood up to places that a boy would have considered perilous. When she was forbidden to take up such a masculine study as Latin, she promptly learned to decline a Latin noun. Carlyle had much trouble in winning her; but she finally consented to be his wife, and they were married in 1826. In 1828 they went to live for six lonely years on her farm at Craigenputtock, sixteen miles north of Dumfries, where it was so quiet that Mrs. Carlyle said she could hear the sheep nibbling the grass a quarter of a mile away. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited them here and formed a lifelong friendship with Carlyle. It was here that Carlyle fought the intense spiritual battle of his early life, here that he wrote his first great work, Sartor Resartus, which his wife pronounced “a work of genius, dear.”
It would be difficult to overestimate the beneficent influence which Mrs. Carlyle exerted over her husband in those trying days of poverty and spiritual stress. When her private correspondence was inadvisedly published after his death, she unwittingly became her husband’s Boswell. For many years after the appearance of her letters, his personality and treatment of her were more discussed than his writings. Her references to marital unhappiness were for awhile given undue prominence; but with the passing of time there came a recognition of the fact that she was almost as brilliant a writer as her husband, that, like him, she was frequently ill, and that in expressing things in a striking way, she sometimes exercised his prerogative of exaggeration. “Carlyle has to take a journey always after writing a book,” she declared, “and then gets so weary with knocking about that he has to write another book to recover from it.” She once said that living with him was as bad as keeping a lunatic asylum.