Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
CARLYLE—THE SAGE OF CHELSEA
 JOHN KEATS was little more than a month old, when far away across
the Border another little baby boy was born. His parent, too
were simple folk, and he, too, was born to be great.
This boy's name was Thomas Carlyle. His father was a stone-mason
and had built with his own hands the house in which his son
Thomas was born. The little village of Ecclefechan was about six
miles from the Solway Firth, among the pasture lands of the bale
of Annan. Here Thomas grew to be a boy running about barefooted
and sturdy with his many brothers and sisters, and one step-
brother older than himself.
But he did not run about quite wild, for by the time he was five
his mother had taught him to read and his father had taught him
to do sums, and then he was sent to the village school.
James Carlyle was a good and steady workman. Long afterwards his
famous son said of him, "Nothing that he undertook to do but he
did it faithfully and like a true man. I shall look on the
houses he built with a certain proud interest. They stand firm
and sound to the heart all over his little district. No one that
comes after him will ever say, 'Here was the finger of a hollow
eye-servant.' They are little texts to me of the gospel of man's
free will." But there were meanwhile many little
 folks to
clothe, many hungry little mouths to fill, so their clothes were
of the plainest, and porridge and milk, and potatoes forming
their only fare. "It was not a joyful life," says Thomas—"what
life is?—yet a safe, quiet one; above most others, or any others
I have witnessed, a wholesome one."
Between the earnest and frugal father and mother and their
children there was a great and reverent though quiet love, and
poor though they were, the parents determined that their children
should be well taught, so when Thomas was ten he was sent to a
school at Annan some five miles away, where he could learn more
than in the little village school.
On a bright May morning Thomas set out trotting gayly by his
father's side. This was his first venture into the world, and
his heart was full of hopes just dashed with sadness at leaving
his mother. But the wonderful new world of school proved a
bitter disappointment to the little fellow. He had a violent
temper, and his mother, fearing into what he might be led when
far from her, made him promise never to return a blow. Thomas
kept his promise, with the result that his fellows, finding they
might torment him with safety, tormented him without mercy.
In a book called Sartor Resartus which Carlyle wrote later, and
which here and there was called forth by a memory of his own
life, he says:
"My schoolfellows were boys, most rude boys, and obeyed the
impulse of rude nature which bids the deer herd fall upon any
stricken hart, the duck flock put to death any broken-winged
brother or sister, and on all hands the strong tyrannise over the
So Thomas at school was unhappy and lonely and tormented. But
one day, unable to bear the torment longer, he flew at one of the
biggest bullies in the school.
 The result was a fight in which Thomas got the worst, but, he had
shown his fellows what he could do, he was tormented no longer.
Yet ever afterwards he bore an unhappy remembrance of those days
After three years his school-days came to an end. He was not yet
fourteen, but he had proved himself so eager a scholar that his
father decided to send him to college and let him become a
So early one November morning he set out in the cold and dark
upon his long tramp of more than eighty miles to Edinburgh. It
was dark when he left the house, and his father and mother went
with him a little way, and then they turned back and left Tom to
trudge along in the growing light, with another boy a year or two
older who was returning to college.
Little is known of Carlyle's college days. After five years'
study, at nineteen he became a schoolmaster, still with the
intention of later becoming a minister as his father wished. But
for teaching Carlyle had no love, and after some years of it,
first in schools and then as a private tutor, he gave it up. He
gave up, too, the idea of becoming a minister, for he found he
had lost the simple faith of his fathers and could not with good
conscience teach to others what he did not thoroughly believe
himself. He gave up, too, the thought of becoming a barrister,
for after a little study he found he had no bent for law.
Already he had begun to write. Besides other things he had
translated and published Wilhelm Meister, a story by the great
German poet, Goethe. It was well received. The great Goethe
himself wrote a kind letter to his translator. It came to him,
said Carlyle, "like a message from fairyland." And thus
encouraged, after drifting here and there, trying first one thing
and then another, Carlyle gave himself up to literature.
 Meanwhile he had met and loved a beautiful and clever lady named
Jane Walsh. She was above him in station, witty, and sought
after. Admiring the genius of Carlyle she yet had no mind she
said to marry a poor genius. But she did, and so began a long
mistake of forty years.
The newly married couple took a cottage on the outskirts of
Edinburgh, and there Carlyle settled down to his writing. But
money coming in slowly, Carlyle found he could no longer afford
to live in Edinburgh. So after a year and a half of cheerful,
social life, surrounded by many cultured friends, he and his wife
moved to Craigenputtock, a lonely house fourteen miles from
Dumfries, which belonged to Mrs. Carlyle. Here was solitude
indeed. The air was so quiet that the very sheep could be heard
nibbling. For miles around there was no house, the post came
only once a week, and months at a time would go past without a
visitor crossing the doorstep.
To Carlyle, who hated noises, who all his life long waged war
against howling dogs and "demon" fowls, the silence and
loneliness were delightful. His work took all his thoughts,
filled all his life. He did not remember that what to him was
simply peaceful quiet was for his witty, social wife a dreary
desert of loneliness. Carlyle was not only, as his mother said,
"gey ill to deal wi'," but also "gey ill to live wi'." For he
was a genius and a sick genius. He was nervous and bilious and
suffered tortures from indigestion which made him often gloomy
It was not a happy fortune which cast Jane and Thomas Carlyle
together into this loneliness. Still the days passed not all in
gloom, Thomas writing a wonderful book, Sartor Resartus, and Jane
using all her cleverness to make the home beautiful and
comfortable. For they were very poor, and Jane, who before her
 no knowledge of housekeeping, found herself obliged
to cook and do much of the housework herself.
Nearly all Carlyle's first books had to do with German
literature. He translated stories from great German writers and
wrote about the authors. And just as Byron had taught people on
the Continent to read English literature, so Carlyle taught
English people to read German literature. He steeped himself so
thoroughly in German that he himself came to write English, if I
may so express it, with a German accent. Carlyle's style is
harsh and rugged. It has a vividness and picturesqueness all his
own, but when Carlyle began to write people cared neither for his
style nor for his subjects. He found publishers hard to
persuade, and life was by no means easy.
When Sartor was finished Carlyle took it to London, but could
find no one willing to publish it. So it was cut up into
articles and published in a magazine "and was then mostly laughed
at," says Carlyle, and many declared they would stop taking the
magazine unless these ridiculous papers ceased. Not until years
had passed was it published in book form.
I do not think I can make you understand the charm of Sartor. It
is a prose poem and a book you must leave for the years to come.
Sartor Resartus means "The tailor patched again." And under the
guise of a philosophy of clothes Carlyle teaches that man and
everything belonging to him is only the expression of the one
great real thing—God. "Thus in this one pregnant subject of
Clothes, rightly understood, is included all that men have
thought, dreamed, done, and been."
The book is full of humor and wisdom, of stray lightenings, and
deep growlings. There are glimpses of "a story" to be caught to.
It is perhaps the most Carlylean book Carlyle ever wrote. But
let it lie yet awhile on your bookshelf unread.
 At the end of six years or so Carlyle decided that Craigenputtock
was of no use to him. He wanted to get the ear of the world, to
make the world listen to him. It would not listen to him when he
spoke from a far-off wilderness. So he made the great plunge,
and saying good-by to the quiet of barren rock and moorland he
came to live in London. He took a house in Cheyne Row in
Chelsea, and this for the rest of his life was his home. But at
first London was hardly less lonely than Craigenputtock. It
seemed impossible to make people want either Carlyle or his
books. "He had created no 'public' of his own," says a friend
who wrote his life, "the public which existed could not
understand his writings and would not buy them, nor could he be
induced so much as to attempt to please it; and thus it was that
in Cheyne Row he was more neglected than he had been in
Still in spite of neglect Carlyle worked on, now writing his
great French Revolution. He labored for months at this book, and
at length having finished the first volume of it he lent it to a
friend to read. This friend left it lying about, and a servant
thinking it waste paper destroyed it. In great distress he came
to tell Carlyle what had happened. It was a terrible blow, for
Carlyle had earned nothing for months, and money was growing
scarce. But he bravely hid his consternation and comforted his
friend. "We must try to hide from him how very serious this
business is to us," were the first words he said to his wife when
they were alone together. Long afterwards when asked how he felt
when he heard the news, "Well, I just felt like a man swimming
without water," he replied.
So once more he set to work rewriting all that had been lost. In
1837 the book was published, and from that time Carlyle took his
place in the world as a man of genius. But money was still
scarce, so as a means of making some,
 he gave several courses of
lectures. But he hated it. "O heaven!" he cries, "I cannot
speak. I can only gasp and write and stutter, a spectacle to
gods and fashionables,—being forced to it by want of money."
One course of these lectures—the last—was on Heroes and Her
Worship. This may be one of the first of Carlyle's book that you
will care to read, and you may now like to hear what he has to
say of Samuel Johnson in The Hero as a Man of Letters.
"As for Johnson, I have always considered him to be, by nature,
one of our great English souls. A strong and noble man; so much
left undeveloped in him to the last; in a kindlier element what
might he not have been,—Poet, Priest, Sovereign Ruler! On the
whole, a man must not complain of his 'element," or his 'time' or
the like; it is thriftless work doing so. His time is bad; well
then, he is there to make it better!—
"Johnson's youth was poor, isolated, hopeless, very miserable.
Indeed, it does not seem possible that, in any of the
favourablest outward circumstances, Johnson's life could have
been other than a painful one. The world might have had more
profitable work out of him, or less; but his effort against the
world's work could never have been a light one. Nature, in
return for his nobleness, had said to him, 'Live in an element of
diseased sorrow.' Nay, perhaps the sorrow and the nobleness were
intimately and even inseparably connected with each other. . . .
"The largest soul that was in all England; and provision made for
it of 'fourpence halfpenny a day.' Yet a giant, invincible soul;
a true man's. One remembers always that story of the shoes at
Oxford; the rough, seamy-faced, raw-boned College Servitor
stalking about, in winter season, with his shoes worn out; how
the charitable Gentleman Commoner secretly places a new pair at
his door, and the raw-boned Servitor, lifting them,
 looking at
them near, with his dim eyes, with what thought,—pitches them
out of window! Wet feet, mud, frost, hunger, or what you will;
but not beggary: we cannot stand beggary! Rude stubborn self-
help here; a whole world of squalor, rudeness, confused misery
and want, yet of nobleness and manfulness withal.
"It is a type of the man's life, this pitching away of the shoes,
an original man;—not a second hand, borrowing or begging man.
Let us stand on our own basis, at any rate! On such shoes as we
ourselves can get. On frost and mud, if you will, but honestly
on that;—On the reality and substance which nature gives us, not
on the semblance, on the thing she has give another than us!-
"And yet with all this rugged pride of manhood and self-help, was
there ever soul more tenderly affectionate, loyally submissive to
what was really higher than he? Great souls are always loyally
submissive, reverent to what is over them; only small souls are
otherwise. . . .
"It was in virtue of his sincerity, of his speaking still in some
sort from the heart of Nature, though in the current artificial
dialect, that Johnson was a Prophet. . . . Mark, too, how little
Johnson boasts of his 'sincerity.' He has no suspicion of his
being particularly sincere,—of his being particularly anything!
A hard-struggling, weary-hearted man, or 'scholar' as he calls
himself, trying hard to get some honest livelihood in the world,
not to starve, but to live,—without stealing! A noble
unconsciousness is in him. He does not 'engrave Truth on his
watch-seal'; no, but he stands by truth, speaks by it, works and
lives by it. Thus it ever is. . . .
"Johnson was a Prophet to his people: preached a Gospel to
them,—as all like him always do. The highest Gospel he preached
we may describe as a kind of moral Prudence: 'in a world where
much is to be done, and little is to be known,' see how you will
do it! A thing
 well worth preaching. 'A world where much is to
be done, and little is to be known,' do not sink yourselves in
boundless, bottomless abysses of Doubt. . . .
"Such Gospel Johnson preached and taught;—coupled with this
other great Gospel. 'Clear your mind of Cant!' Have no trade
with Cant: stand on the cold mud in the frosty weather, but let
it be in your own real torn shoes: 'that will be better for
you,' as Mahomet says! I call this, I call these two things
joined together, a great Gospel, the greatest perhaps that was
possible at that time."
I give this quotation from Heroes because there is, in some ways
a great likeness between Johnson and Carlyle. Both were sincere,
and both after a time of poverty and struggle ruled the thought
of their day. For Carlyle became known by degrees, and became,
like Johnson before him, a great literary man. He was sought
after by the other writers of his day, who came to listen to the
growlings of the "Sage of Chelsea."
Carlyle, like Johnson, was a Prophet with a message. "Carlyle,"
says a French writer, "has taken up a mission; he is a prophet,
the prophet of sincerity. This sincerity or earnestness he would
have applied everywhere: he makes it the law, the healthy and
holy law, of art, of morals, of politics."
And through all
Carlyle's exaggeration and waywardness of diction we find that
note ring clear again and again. Be sincere, find the highest,
and worship it with all thy mind and heart and will.
And although for us of to-day the light of Carlyle as a prophet
may be somewhat dimmed, we may still find, as a great man of his
own day found, that the good his writings do us, is "not as
philosophy to instruct, but as poetry to animate."
Carlyle went steadily on with his writing. In the
 summer he
would have his table and tray of books brought out into the
garden so that he could write in the open air, but much of his
work, too, was done in a "sound proof" room which he built at the
top of the house in order to escape from the horror of noise.
The sound-proof room was not, however, a great success, for
though it kept out some noises it let in others even worse.
When visitors came they were received either indoors or in the
little garden which Carlyle found "of admirable comfort in the
smoking way." In the garden they smoked and talked sitting on
kitchen chairs, or on the quaint china barrels which Mrs. Carlyle
named "noblemen's seats."
Among the many friends Carlyle made was the young poet Alfred
Tennyson. Returning from a walk one day he found a splendidly
handsome young man sitting in the garden talking to his wife. It
was the poet.
Here is how Carlyle describes his new friend: "A fine, large-
featured, dime-eyed, bronze-coloured, shaggy-headed man is
Alfred; dusty, smoky, free and easy; who swims outwardly and
inwardly with great composure in an articulate element as of
tranquil chaos and tobacco smoke; great, now and then when he
does emerge; a most restful, brotherly, whole-hearted man." Or
again: "Smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical,
metallic, fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that
may lie between. I do not meet in these late decades such
company over a pipe. We shall see what he will grow to."
Although Carlyle was older than Tennyson by fourteen years, this
was the beginning of a friendship which strengthened with years
and lasted when they were both gray-haired men. They talked and
smoked and walked about together often at night through the lamp-
lit streets, sometimes in the wind, and rain, Carlyle crying out
as they walked along against the dirt and squalor and noise of
 London, "that healthless, profitless, mad and heavy-laden place,"
"that Devil's Oven."
Carlyle and Tennyson talked and smoked together.
The years passed and Carlyle added book to book. Perhaps of them
all that which we should be most grateful for is his Life and
Letters of Cromwell. For in this book he set Cromwell in a new
light, a better light than he had ever been set before. Carlyle
is a hero worshiper, and in Cromwell as a hero he can find no
fault. He had of course his faults like other men, and he had no
need of such blind championship. For in his letters and
speeches, gathered together and given to the world by Carlyle, he
speaks for himself. In them we find one to whom we may look up
as a true hero, a man of strength to trust. We find, too, a man
of such broad kindliness, a man of such a tender human heart that
we may love him.
Another great book was Carlyle's History of Frederick the Great.
It is a marvelous piece of historical work, and as volume after
volume appeared Carlyle's fame steadily rose.
"No critic," says his first biographer, Froude, "no critic after
the completion of Frederick, challenged Carlyle's right to a
place beside the greatest of English authors, past and present."
He was a great historian, but in the history he gives us not dead
facts, but living, breathing men and women. His pages are as
full of color and of life as the pages of Shakespeare.
The old days of struggle and want were long over, but the
Carlyles still lived the simple life in the little Chelsea house.
As another writer
has quaintly put it, "Tom Carlyle lives in
perfect dignity in a little 40 pound house in Chelsea, with a
snuffy Scotch maid to open the door; and the best company in
England ringing at it."
Then in 1865 Carlyle was chosen Lord Rector of Edinburgh
University, and although this could add little to
 his fame, he
was glad that his own country had recognized his greatness.
Fifty years before, he had left the University a poor and unknown
lad. Now at seventy-one, a famous man, he returned to make his
speech upon entering his office as Rector.
This speech was a splendid success, his reception magnificent, "a
perfect triumph," as a friend telegraphed to Mrs. Carlyle waiting
anxiously for news in London. For a few days Carlyle lingered in
Scotland. Then he was suddenly recalled home by the terrible
news that his wife had died suddenly while out driving. It was a
crushing blow. Only when it was too late did Carlyle realize all
that his wife had been to him. She was, as he wrote on her
tombstone, "Suddenly snatched away from him, and the light of his
life as if gone out."
The light indeed had gone out. The rest of his life was a sad
twilight, filled with cruel remorse. He still wrote a little,
and friends were kind, but his real work in life was done, and he
felt bitterly alone.
Honors were offered him, a title if he would, a pension. But he
declined them all. For fifteen years life dragged along. Then
at the age of eighty-five he died.
He might have lain in Westminster among the illustrious dead.
But such had not been his wish, so he was buried beside his
father and mother in the old churchyard at Ecclefechan.
BOOKS TO READ
Stories from Carlyle, by D. M. Ford.
Readings from Carlyle, by W. Keith Leask.