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Sham and Insincerity and the holy ardor of a soul that loves the truth.
Birth and Parentage. - Thomas Carlyle was born at Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, on December 4, 1795. His parents were rugged, hard-working, thrifty, religious people. His mother was Margaret Aitken, the second wife of James Carlyle. She was of a gentler nature than the father and was passionately loved by her son. Carlyle called her “a woman of, to me, the fairest descent, that of the pious, the just, and wise.” She lived long enough to see her son one of the most honored of the sons of men. When the father died in 1832, Carlyle was unable to attend the funeral, so he passed the few days intervening between the announcement of the death and the funeral in writing Reminiscences of his father. This account, owing to the circumstances under which it was written, may be an exaggerated appreciation, yet it likely gives one, on the whole, a faithful picture of the life of this humble family, and is a beautiful and tender revelation of filial love. The critic who thinks of Carlyle as a gruff, sour, and hard-hearted cynic should read the Reminiscences.
A few sentences taken from this writing will throw some light on the character of James Carlyle:
“Ever at every new parting of late years I have noticed him wring my hand with a tenderer pressure; as if he felt that one other of our few meetings Here was over. Mercifully also has he been spared me, till I am abler to bear his loss; till (by manifold struggles) I too, as he did, feel my feet on the Everlasting Rock. . . . I owe him much more than exist
It was he exclusively that determined on educating me, that from his small hard-earned funds, sent me to School and College; and made me whatever I am or may become. ... Emphatic have I heard him beyond all men. This great maxim of Philosophy he had gathered by the teaching of nature alone: That man was created to work, not to speculate, or feel, or dream. ... He was irascible, choleric, and we all dreaded his wrath. Yet passion never mastered him or maddened him;
Man's face he did not fear; God he always feared : ... Let me learn of him; let me 'write my Books as he built his Houses, and walk as blamelessly through this shadow-world.' ... I know Robert Burns and I knew my Father; yet were you to ask me which had the greater natural
faculty, I might perhaps actually pause before replying! ... he was nevertheless but half-developed. We had all to complain that we durst not freely love him. . . . My heart and my tongue played freely only with my mother. ... He was always GENEROUS to me in my school expenses; never by grudging look or word did he give me any pain. With a noble faith he launched me forth into a world which himself had never been permitted to visit: let me study to act worthily of him there."
Early Education. – Carlyle was taught to read by his mother at so early an age that he could not recall the time; at five his father was teaching him arithmetic. When the mother said the boy would forget it all, the father shrewdly observed: "Not so much as they that have never learned it.” About five years later he told his young son — “Tom, I do not grudge thy schooling, now when thy Uncle Frank owns thee to be a better Arithmetician than himself."
In the Reminiscences we read:
“He took me down to Annan Academy on the Whitsunday morning, 1806; I trotting at his side in the way alluded to in Teufelsdröckh. It was a bright morning, and to me full of moment; of fluttering boundless Hopes, saddened by parting with Mother, with Home; and which afterwards were cruelly disappointed. He called once or twice in the grand schoolroom, as he chanced to have business at Annan: once sat down by me (as the master was out) and asked whether I was all well. The boys did not laugh (as I feared), perhaps durst not." This account tallies with that in the chapter on Pedagogy in Sartor Resartus, where we receive the impression that the schooldays of Carlyle were unhappy days. In Pedagogy we read, “I was among strangers, harshly, at best indifferently, disposed towards me; the young heart felt, for the first time, quite orphaned and alone." He had promised his mother to abstain from fighting. He obeyed so implicitly that he became the object of much persecution. He was considered a coward. Finally he could stand the ridicule no longer, turning upon the biggest bully of them all he kicked and struck in a frenzy of rage. He was beaten, but his tormentors ceased their bullyings. Later Carlyle spoke of the first two years in the Annan school as the most miserable of his life.
At the University. — Just before he was fourteen, Carlyle started to the University at Edinburgh. His family had the ambition of many a Scotch family — to send one at least of the sons to the university, there to be educated to become a minister of the Gospel.
One of the most tender pictures in the history of literature is that of Carlyle as he starts for his University career. ... It is early morning in November at Ecclefechan - and Edinburgh with its famous University is a hundred miles away. The father and mother have risen early to get Thomas ready — not for the cab to take him to the ' purple luxury and plush repose' of the Pullman on the Limited Express. No, Tom is going to walk - his only companion a boy two or three years older. These rugged, poor, and godly parents had long discussed the sending of Tommy to the great University. James Bell, one of the wise men of the community, had said: 'Educate a boy, and he grows up to despise his ignorant parents, but they knew that depended on the boy. “Thou hast not done so; God be thanked,' said James Caryle to his son in after years.
But let us come back to our picture. In our mind's eye we see the Scotch lad starting out on his hundred-mile trip in the mist of a foggy November morning. Almost three-score years after, Carlyle himself beautifully describes the event: 'How strangely vivid, how remote and wonderful, tinged with the views of far-off love and sadness, is that journey to me, now after fifty-seven years of time! My mother and father walking with me in the dark frosty November morning through the village to set us on our way; my dear and loving mother, her tremulous affection,' etc.”*
Carlyle, like many another man of genius, never admitted that the education furnished him by the university was valuable. While it is true that there was no great teacher to kindle the enthusiasm of the young Scotch boy, it is equally true that the university hardly deserves the condemnation that Teufelsdröckh hurls at his institution: “It is my painful duty to say that out of England and Spain ours was the worst of all hitherto discovered universities.” To the country boy the university with its students from all parts of Scotland, bent on a mission similar to his own; with its professors of learning, if not of vital force; with its great library waiting to be read by the hungry intellect - must have
* Chubb's Stories of Authors.
had a far greater influence than Carlyle was ever willing to admit. He left the university in 1814, having completed his course without taking his degree.
Getting Under Way.-- The next few years were years of experimenting. When he left the university, Carlyle still had in mind the becoming a minister. Gradually this purpose weakened, until that goal was an impossibility. His first work was teaching mathematics in the Annan school; his vacation was spent in studying German; next we find him in Kirkcaldy following Irving as teacher. After two years of teaching in this place he came to the conclusion that "it were better to perish than to continue schoolmastering," and left Kirkcaldy to spend the next three years in Edinburgh where he maintained himself by taking private pupils, at one time studying law, and all the while endeavoring to get a start in the literary life. Owing to a dyspepsia, doubtless contracted by the privations and irregularity of his life, and to the disordered condition of his philosophy of life, these years were among his most miserable.
“I was entirely unknown in Edinburgh circles; a solitary eating my own heart, misgivings as to whether there shall be presently anything else to eat, fast losing health, a prey to numerous struggles and miseries, . three weeks without any kind of sleep, from impossibility to be free of noise, ... wanderings through mazes of doubt, perpetual questions unanswered, etc.”
From 1820 to 1823 he contributed sixteen articles to the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia. These articles are not marked by special ability, but their acceptance must have greatly encouraged the struggling Carlyle. About this time he had thoughts of migrating to the New World. It is probable that it was in June, 1821, that the incident described in Sartor Resartus occurred:
"Full of such humour, and perhaps the miserablest man in the whole French Capital or Suburbs, was I, one sultry Dog-day, after much perambulation, toiling along the dirty little Rue Saint-Thomas de l'Enfer, among civic rubbish enough, in a close atmosphere, and over Pavements hot as Nebuchadnezzar's Furnace, ... when all at once there rose a Thought in me, and I asked myself: What art thou afraid of? Where
fore, like a coward, dost thou forever pip and whimper, and go cowering and trembling? Despicable biped! what is the sum-total of the worst that lies before thee? Death? Well, Death; and say the pangs of Tophet too, and all that the Devil and Man may, will, or can do against thee! Hast thou not a heart?”
This passage is often quoted as indicative of the great spiritual transformation in the life of the despondent Carlyle. It is the voice of one who has determined to close his Byron, and open his Goethe. That Goethe helped him greatly in the conquering of his doubts and skepticisms he acknowledged in a letter to the great German in 1824:
“Four years ago when I read your Faust among the mountains of my native Scotland, I could not but fancy I might one day see you, and pour out before you as before a father, the woes and wanderings of a heart whose mysteries you so thoroughly seemed to comprehend, and could so beautifully represent."
In April, 1827, he wrote his second letter to Goethe. In this letter his gratitude is even more openly expressed:
“For if I have been delivered from darkness into any measure of light, if I know aught of myself and my duties and destination, it is to the study of your writings more than to any other circumstance that I owe this; it is you more than any other man that I should thank and reverence with the feeling of a disciple to his master, nay, of a son to his spiritual father. This is no idle compliment, but a heartfelt truth.”
Carlyle's next literary work is the Life of Schiller, which, first appearing in a magazine in 1823-24, was published in book form in 1825. His translation of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship was published in Edinburgh in 1824. The revenue from these two productions together with his income as tutor to the boys of the Buller family, a position secured for him by the kind offices of his friend Irving, enabled him to assist his brother Alick to a farm and to help his brother John through the University. “What any brethren of our father's house possess," said Thomas with generous spirit, “I look on as a common stock from which all are entitled to draw." Carlyle's generosity to