22 APRIL 1882, Page 14


THOMAS CARLYLE.* [SECOND NOTICE.] THERE can be no manner of doubt that Mr. Froude has donee his work admirably, nay, if anything were perfeet, perfectly. The biographer is scarcely seen at all. The subject of the bio-

• lhomas Corlyls: a History of the First Forty Years of his Life, 1795-1835. By James Anthony Fronde, M.A. 2 vols. With Portraits aid &chimp. London : Long:liana, Green, and Co. graph), is delineated with all the force of his own vivid self-

portraiture, and not without the help of all the circa mstauce which left its impress upon him, or on which he left his own impress.

The one thing upon which we differ from Mr. Froude, and differ more and more, the more we study all these strange re- cords of a strange and even unique character, is his impression that Carlyle was really deeply possessed with a gospel or message that he was bound to deliver, that he was in this sense a veritable prophet, and one straiteued in spirit till he had found a response in man. That one or two very important truths had gained a complete possession of his imagination is, of course, obvious. He saw with a vividness which hardly any of us, even with his help, realise, that almost all serious speech is a sort of venture, an attempt to embody something much deeper than itself, which at best it can only indicate, not ade- quately express. He saw with absolute insight the helpless- ness of mere institutions to cure evils which are deep-rooted in the characters of those who work the institutions. Be felt, often with a humorous indignation, sometimes only with an in- -dignant humour, the falsehood of the moral standards by which men measure each other ; and he hated the conventional respectabilities at the bottom of middle-class morality, with a hatred almost too savage to be consistent with anything like a true perspective in his views of life. Further, he believed in the duty of doing thoroughly whatever you take in hand to do at all, as the first of human duties ; and to this great article of his screed, he no doubt added, with profound confidence in the early part of his life, but with very much less distinctness, as it seems to us, towards its close, a faith in the providence of God, in the immortality of the human soul, and in the transcendental realities behind all the time-phenomena, as he called them, which are presented to us in history and in experience. But take all these beliefs together, and they form a very vague and ambiguous sort of gospel, almost all the elements of which, except, perhaps, the gospel of thoroughness in work, were embarrassed by all sorts of doubts, to which Carlyle found no answer ; and yet of the embarrassment of these doubts he became more and more conscious as his life went on. For -example, he never could get himself quite clear as to what he called his "creed of Natural Supernaturalism." Late in his own life he declared, with a perfectly absurd dogmatism in- .deed,—at least, Mr. Froude asserts that he dogmatically laid it down,—that " it is as certain as mathematics, that no such thing" as the special miraculous occurrences of sacred history " ever has been, or can be." But when he came 'to work out what he meant by his own natural supernaturalism,

he got quite out of his depth. " Is not every thought," he wrote, in his Journal in 1830, " properly an inspiration ?

'Or how is one thing more inspired than another P Much in this." If there were really much in this, then surely all Carlyle's own teaching was wrong, for the Whigs and ;the fanatics, and the materialists and utilitarians, and all -whom he denounced as the false teachers of the age, were, in that case, just as much speaking from inspiration, as he him- :self when he uttered the oracles of his own practical tran- scendentalism. Indeed, his whole early teaching really rested on the principle of the immutable hostility of good and evil, but

-what with his "natural supernaturalism," and his admiration -for Goethe's calm indifference to the moral struggles of his age, he soon began to question whether there were not some -.common measure between sin and righteousness ; and we find speculations like the following, not only scattered constantly -through his journals, but bearing the most remarkable fruits in his later histories and moral essays :- "What is art and poetry ? Is the beautiful really higher than the good ? A higher form thereof ? Thus were a poet not only a priest, but a high priest. When Goethe and Schiller say or insinuate that art is higher than religion, do they mean perhaps this ? That whereas religion represents (what is the essence of truth for man) the good as infinitely (the word is emphatic) different from the evil, but sets them in a state of hostility (as in heaven and hell), art like- wise admits and inculcates this quite infinite difference, but without hostility, with peacefulness, like the difference of two poles which cannot coalesce, yet do not quarrel—nay, should not quarrel, for both are essential to the whole. In this way is Goethe's morality to be considered as a higher (apart from its comprehensiveness, nay, uni- versality) than has hitherto been promulgated ? Sehr eineeitig ! Yet perhaps there is a glimpse of the truth here." (Vol. II., p. 93-4.) This was written at the end of 1830. Again, at the end of 1831, we read :—

"This I begin to see, that evil and good are everywhere, like shadow and substance ; inseparable (for men), yet not hostile, only opposed. There is considerable significance in this fact, perhaps the

new moral principle of our era. (I-Tow It w;:s familiar to Goethe's

mind." (Vol. II., p. 22S.)

And this thought certainly took more and more possession of Carlyle, touching with uncertainty half his most fiery moral judgments, and maturing ultimately, as we see in his Life of Sterling, into a " steady resolution to suppress " all discussions

as to either the personality of God or the origin of moral evil, as "wholly fruitless and worthless." Indeed, the nearest

approach to anything like a gospel on these deeper subjects, which Carlyle found himself able to preach in later life, is con- tained in the following ambiguous answer to a young man, the

son of an old friend, who wrote to him on the subject of prayer :—

" THOMAS CARLYLE TO GroacE A. Dust.ts.

" Chelsea, June 9, 1870.

" Dear Sir,—You need no apology for addressing me ; your letter itself is of amiable, ingenuous character ; pleasant and interesting to me in no common degree. 1 am sorry only that I cannot set at rest, or settle into clearness, your doubts on that important subject. What I myself practically, in a half-articulate way, believe on it I will try to express for you. First, then, as to your objection of setting up our poor wish or will in opposition to the will of the Eternal, I have

not the least word to say in contradiction of it. And this seems to close, and does, in a sense though not perhaps in all senses, close the question of our prayers being granted, or what is called ' hoard ;' but that is not the whole question. For, on the other hand, prayer is, and remains always, a native and deepest impulse of the soul of man ; and correctly gone about, is of the very highest benefit (nay, one might say, indispensability) to every man aiming morally high in this world. No prayer, no religion, or at least only a dumb and lamed one ! Prayer is a turning of one's soul, in heroic reverence, in infinite desire and endeavour, towards the Highest, the All-Excellent, Omni- potent, Supreme. The modern Hero, therefore, ought not to give up praying, as ho has latterly all but done. Word..? of prayer, in this epoch, I know hardly any. But the act of prayer, in great moments, I believe to be still possible ; and that one should gratefully accept such moments, and count them blest, when they come, if come they do—which latter is a most rigorous preliminary question with us in all cases. Can I pray in this moment' (much as I may wish to do so) ? `If not, then NO !' I can at least stand silent, inquiring, and not blasphemously lie in this Presence ! On the whole, Silence is the one safe form of prayer known to me, in this poor sordid era— though there aro ejaculatory words, too, which occasionally rise on one, with a felt propriety and veracity ; words very welcome in such ease ! Prayer is the aspiration of our poor, struggling, heavy-laden soul towards its Eternal Father ; and, with or without words, ought not to become impossible, nor, I persuade myself, need it ever. Loyal sons and subjects can approach the King's throne who have no request' to make there, except that they may continue loyal. Cannot they ?" (Vice. IL, pp. 21-2.)

That seems to show that in spite of Carlyle's rough way of treating Sterling's charge of Pantheism—" Suppose it were Pot- theism, if the thing is true !" —he did to the last retain his belief in a Divine Will higher than the human will, and quite distinct from it. But gladly admitting and even maintaining this as we do, it is clear enough that Carlyle's "gospel " was overshadowed, even for himself, by such a crowd of ambiguities and difficulties, by such confusions between naturalism and supernaturalism, between the lower and the higher nature, between God and man, between morality and art, between impulse and inspira- tion, between fate and free-will, that he had very little heart left for genuine religions appeal to any one, and could not even persuade himself to make much of an effort to rescue even his most intimate friend, Edward Irving, from his fanatical delusions about the gift of tongues. Once, indeed, Carlyle seems to have told Irving his mind pretty freely, but never again, even though he felt a strong impulse at the last to make one more sally against the superstitions in which he saw Irving more and more involved. Here, at least, it was not for want of deep convic- tion, but probably for want of confidence in his own power to express his too negative convictions in any form which would persuade one who believed as fervently as Irving did in the Christian revelation. Carlyle writes to his wife, of a meeting with Irving in 1831, as follows :—" The good Irving looked at me wistfully, for he knows I cannot take miracles in ; yet he looks

so piteously, as if he implored me to believe. Oh dear, oh dear ! was the Devil ever busier than now, when the Supernatural must either depart from the world, or reappear there like a chapter of Hamilton's Diseases (;1" Felitoles ?" But none the less, he spoke his mind freely to Irving only once, and never

again took heart to preach his gospel,—if he had one,—to his old friend.

The truth is that the more we study Carlyle, the less we believe that the word "prophet," and the language concerning a " message " which he had to deliver, in any proper sense describe him and his work. He knew very vaguely what he believed to be true, though he knew very vividly indeed what it was that he held to be utterly false, and from his heart re- pudiated. But even as to that perfectly distinct and negative part of his creed, even as to his hatred of what he persisted, with his usual unfortunate insistence on a humorous satirical expression of his own, in calling "gigmanity,"—the morality, namely, of the class which believes in keeping a gig as a sign of respectability,—which he dubbed " gigmanity " by way of a joke, which was well enough for once, but in oppres- sively bad taste when made to ring perpetually in all his friends' ears through years of private correspondence,—we do not believe that Carlyle's denunciations of woes, represented a gospel at all. Doubtless, he detested the conventional concep- tion of "respectability" as the characteristic of people who could make a show in the world. He looked upon that con- ception with supreme and absolute scorn, as well as with a certain indignant horror. But was his denunciation of it truly religious ? Did he desire to denounce it, mainly because he wished to substitute in every human breast the higher and truer idea respecting moral worth ? We doubt it. We do not in the least mean that he did not wish to substitute this. Of course he did. But what occupied him, what possessed his imagination, what fired his pen, was not, after all, love of the true idea, but hatred of the false. He shows not half so much trace of the desire to redeem man by planting the true belief, as passionate possession with the miserableness and con- temptibleness of those who are deluded by the false belief. And how do we judge of this ? Why, thus : that hardly anywhere in all these letters and journals do we find Carlyle fastening with delight on traces of the nobler and truer standard of thought (at least outside his own clan), while we constantly find him fastening with a sort of fever of excitement on traces of the ignoble and false standard. Where in the world could Carlyle have found nobler evidence of this higher standard of worth than in the works of the great genius of his age, Sir Walter Scott? Yet, what does he say of these works ?-

"It is a damnable heresy in criticism to maintain either expressly or implicitly that the ultimate object of poetry is sensation. That of cookery is such, but not that of poetry. Sir Walter Scott is the great intellectual restaurateur of Europe. He might have been numbered among the Conscript Fathers. He has chosen the worser part, and is only a huge Publicanus. What are his novels—any one of them ? A bout of champagne, claret, port, or even ale drinking. Are we wiser, better, holier, stronger ? No. We have been amused." (Vol. I., p. 371) " Walter Scott left town yesterday on his way to Naples. He is to proceed from Plymouth in a frigate, which the Government have given him a place in. Much ran after here, it seems ; but he is old and sick, and cannot enjoy it ; has had two shocks of palsy, and seems altogether in a precarious way. To me he is and has been an object of very minor interest for many, many years. The novelwright of his time, its favourite child, and therefore an almost worthless one. Yet is there something in his deep recogni- tion of the worth of the past, perhaps better than anything be has expressed about it, into which I do not yet fully see. Have never spoken with him (though I might sometimes without great effort) ; and now probably never shall." (Vol. II., p. 208.) It is curious, by the way, that Carlyle, an immense reader, appears to have been wholly ignorant of the meaning of the word " publicanus," and to have confounded it with the English word " publican." Bat it is much more curious that lie should have passed so grossly false a judgment on Sir Walter Scott. For if ever there were a man whose writings showed a profound appreciation of moral worth as distinct from conventional worth, it was Sir Walter Scott. Again, take the case of Wordsworth. If ever a man held and preached Carlyle's own transcendental doctrine, both as a creed and as a practical rule of life, it was Wordsworth. Wordsworth genuinely held and embodied in his own life the spiritual view of things, and he genuinely abhorred the life of luxury, and loved the life of " plain living and high thinking." In a word, Wordsworth was a poetical Carlyle, without Carlyle's full insight into the superficialities and conventionalities of bodies politic, but otherwise a genuine and powerful spiritual ally. But what does Carlyle think of Wordsworth ? Instead of delighting to detect in him a kindred spirit, he writes of him in this way:— "Sir Wm. Hamilton's supper (three nights ago) has done me mis- chief will hardly go to another. Wordsworth talked of there (by Captain T. Hamilton, his neighbour). Represented verisimilarly enough as a man fall Of English prejudices, idle, alternately gossiping to enormous lengths, and talking, at rare intervals, high wisdom ; on the whole, endeavdaring to make out a plausible life of halfness in the Tory way, as so many on all sides do. Am to see him if I please to go thither ; would go but a shortish way for that end." (Vol. II., pp. 338-9.) And it is the same throughout. What Carlyle feels to be false,

he denounces with all the eloquence of a great imagination. But the evidence that what he is driving at, is, not the dis- semination of a gospel of new truth to his fellow-men, but rather the intellectual annihilation of an error for which he feels the utmost scorn, lies in the fact that he never seems to have felt the slightest affinity for those contemporaries who really held with him, but only a profound scorn for those contemporaries who lived in the mists of the illusions which he contemned.

On the whole, this admirable life of Carlyle in his early years, —and a more admirable life we cannot imagine,—impresses us profoundly with the belief that the prophetic side of his mind hardly existed ; that he was a man of very rare genius, who had not so much a message to his fellow-men, which he was prompted by love for them to deliver, as a haunting vision of the exceeding emptiness of the com- moner forms of human life, and who was brimfull of the scorn which that emptiness deserved,—which scorn the in- tensity of his own imagination compelled him to embody in words. But of grave desire to redeem mankind by per- suading them to accept even this message, of passionate craving to find others possessed with the same creed, of eager spiritual sympathy with those who preached anything at all analogous to it,—and there were many contemporaries who did so,—we can find no trace at all. Therefore we deny Carlyle the name of a prophet. His was the inspiration of genius, not the inspira- tion which comes of the love of God or man. He was, no doubt, " straitened " till his genius found utterance, as all men of genius are. But of the true preacher who yearns to see his- truth conveying to other minds the illumination it has con- veyed to his own, we can see no sign at all in these delightful and vivid volumes. Even to his wife, it is pretty clear that Carlyle failed altogether to convey any helpful sense of the divine character of the message which he supposed himself to have delivered to the world at large.