Carlyle Goes to the University

by Edwin Watts Chubb

One of the most tender pictures in the history of English literature is that of Carlyle as he starts for his University career. Just a boy, a child not yet fourteen! 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 Carlyle 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."

That's the picture of an unknown boy going to the University to become what every pious Scotch mother wants her boy to be—a minister of the gospel.

Here is another picture, taken about sixty years later. In a somewhat plainly furnished room in a house on a quiet street in Chelsea, a part of London, an old man "worn, and tired, and bent, with deep-lined features, a firm under-jaw, tufted gray hair, and tufted gray and white beard, and sunken and unutterably sad eyes, is returning from the fireplace, where with trembling fingers he had been lighting his long clay pipe, and now he resumes his place at a reading desk." Let us enter this room with Theodore L. Cuyler, who in his Recollections of a Long Life tells us: "Thirty years afterwards, in June, 1872, I felt an irrepressible desire to see the grand old man once more, and I accordingly addressed him a note, requesting him the favor of a few minutes' interview.... After we had waited some time, a feeble, stooping figure, attired in a long blue flannel gown, moved slowly into the room. His gray hair was unkempt, his blue eyes were still keen and piercing, and a bright hectic spot of red appeared on each of his hollow cheeks. His hands were tremulous and his voice deep and husky. After a few personal inquiries the old man broke out into a most extraordinary and characteristic harangue on the wretched degeneracy of these evil days. The prophet Jeremiah was cheerfulness itself in comparison with him.... Most of his extraordinary harangue was like an eruption of Vesuvius, but the laugh he occasionally gave showed that he was talking about as much for his own amusement as for ours."

Between these two pictures,—the one showing us the boy trudging away in the mist of the November morning, the other revealing an old man whose home in Chelsea had become the Mecca of the lovers of English literature,—what has occurred?

The young boy has finished his studies at the University; has concluded not to enter the ministry; has studied law; served as tutor; translated a masterpiece of German into English, and finally dedicated his powers to becoming a notability in English literature: wrote Sartor Resartus, the History of the French Revolution, a Life of Cromwell, a Life of Frederick the Great, and has become world-renowned as one of the great figures of the Nineteenth Century.



In 1826 occurred what Saintsbury calls the most important event in the life of Carlyle,—his marriage with Jane Welsh, a young woman who traced her ancestry back to John Knox, the rugged Scotch reformer. Jane was a keen, active, high-strung, sensitive soul. There has arisen a formidable mass of literature discussing the relationship between Thomas and Jane. Were they happy or were they miserable?

Jane Welsh was a Scotch lady whose family was socially superior to that of Carlyle's. Her father had been a physician, while Carlyle's was but a rude stone-mason,—and yet a great man. It is said she married Thomas because she was ambitious and wanted to be the wife of a famous man, and she had discovered in the unknown Thomas the marks of genius. In after years she is reported to have said: "I married for ambition. Carlyle had exceeded all that my wildest hopes ever imagined for him; and I am miserable."

Jeannie had what she had bargained for and yet she was unhappy,—why?

Carlyle was a big-hearted, hard-working, gruff, but kind-hearted individual. I have not a doubt that he loved his Jeannie. But he took no pains to show his love in those tender though trivial devotions that mean so much to the sensitive wife.

During the first few years of their married life, they lived in a lonely place and had but a scant income. We have a very interesting picture of their life at Craigenputtock. Thomas could not eat bakers' bread, so Jeannie baked. The one servant they had was not competent. It may have been this same servant that was responsible for Thomas' finding, altogether unexpectedly, of course, a dead mouse at the bottom of his dish of oatmeal. As to the bread-baking Jean has given us a very graphic account:

"Further we were very poor, and further and worst, being an only child, and brought up to 'great prospects,' I was sublimely ignorant of every branch of useful knowledge, though a capital Latin scholar, and very fair mathematician! It behooved me in these astonishing circumstances to learn to sew! Husbands, I was shocked to find, wore their stockings into holes, and were always losing buttons, and I was expected 'to look to all that;' also it behooved me to learn to cook! no capable servant choosing to live at such an out-of-the-way place, and my husband having bad digestion, which complicated my difficulties dreadfully. The bread, above all, bought at Dumfries, 'soured on his stomach' (Oh heaven!), and it was plainly my duty as a Christian wife to bake at home. So I sent for Cobbett's Cottage Economy, and fell to work at a loaf of bread. But knowing nothing about the process of fermentation or the heat of ovens, it came to pass that my loaf got put into the oven at the time that myself ought to have been put into bed; and I remained the only person not asleep in a house in the middle of a desert. One o'clock struck, and then two, and then three, and still I was sitting there in an immense solitude, my whole body aching with weariness, my heart aching with a sense of forlornness and degradation. That I who had been so petted at home, whose comfort had been studied by everybody in the house, and who had never been required to do anything, but cultivate my mind, should have to pass all those hours of the night in watching a loaf of bread, which mightn't turn out bread after all! Such thoughts maddened me, till I laid down my head on the table and sobbed aloud. It was then that somehow the idea of Benvenuto Cellini sitting up all night watching his Perseus in the furnace came into my head, and suddenly I asked myself: 'After all, in the sight of the Upper Powers, what is the mighty difference between a statue of Perseus and a loaf of bread, so that each be the thing that one's hand has found to do?' ... If he had been a woman living at Craigenputtock, with a dyspeptic husband, sixteen miles from a baker, and he a bad one, all these same qualities would have come out more fitly in a good loaf of bread.

"I cannot express what consolation this germ of an idea spread over my uncongenial life during the years we lived at that savage place, where my two immediate predecessors had gone mad, and the third had taken to drink."

While enjoying the description which Mrs. Carlyle has painted in such an entertaining manner, it is well to observe that she does not blame her husband. She seems to be writing the account while she is silently laughing at the absurd preparation her life had had for the duties of the wife of a poor man. But Mr. T.P. O'Connor, who writes in 1895, is outspoken:

"I do not want to speak disrespectfully of poor Carlyle, but in spirit it is somewhat hard to keep one's hand off him, as we reconstruct those scenes in the gaunt house at Craigenputtock. There is a little detail in one scene which adds a deeper horror. I have said that Mrs. Carlyle had to scrub the floors, and as she scrubbed them Carlyle would look on smoking—drawing in from tobacco pleasant comfortableness and easy dreams—while his poor drudge panted and sighed over the hard work, which she had never done before. Do you not feel that you would like to break the pipe in his mouth, and shake him off the chair, and pitch him on to the floor, to take a share of the physical burden which his shoulders were so much more able to bear?"

Another anecdote is that at a dinner while Carlyle was monopolizing the conversation, talking as only he could talk, he, the irritable, turned upon his wife with "Jeanie, don't breathe so hard!" And still again, we hear it said that Tennyson once remarked it was well the Carlyles had married each other for if each had married another there would have been four instead of two unhappy people. But I think the truer remark was made when Tennyson said to his son, Hallam: "Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle on the whole enjoy life together, or else they would not have chaffed one another so heartily."

The Century of some years ago contained this witty skit from the pen of Bessie Chandler:

And I sit here, thinking, thinking,
How your life was one long winking
At Thomas' faults and failings, and his undue share of bile!
Won't you own, dear, just between us,
That this living with a genius
Isn't, after all, so pleasant,—is it, Jeannie Welsh Carlyle?

However, with all that may be said to the contrary, I do not think we dare say that the marriage of Thomas and Jeannie was an unhappy one. After reading fifteen hundred pages of biography and hundreds of letters passing to and fro, I am of the belief of Mr. Tennyson, that on the whole their union was a happy one.

Shortly after Carlyle had been elected Rector of the University of Edinburgh, Jean died suddenly. While out driving one afternoon by Hyde Park, she jumped out to pick up her little dog, over whose foot a carriage had passed. She was never again seen alive. In her carriage she was found dead with her hands folded on her lap. When Carlyle heard of it he was away at Scotsbrig. Later in describing his feelings he wrote: "It had a kind of stunning effect on me. Not for above two days could I estimate the immeasurable depth of it, or the infinite sorrow which had peeled my life all bare, and a moment shattered my poor world to universal ruin." And Froude tells us that in Carlyle's old age—he lived to be eighty-five—he often broke forth in these passionate words of Burns:

Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met and never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
Thomas Carlyle

From a photograph from life



In 1834, the year of the death of Coleridge, we find Carlyle, like many another Scotchman, leaving Scotland to enter the great Babylon, London. The previous six years he had passed with his wife at Craigenputtock. He was almost forty years of age. His wife had great confidence in his ability, which up to this time the world had not recognized. So she urged him to struggle for influence and power in the great heart of the modern world. Number 5, Cheyne Row, Chelsea, is the house they selected. There for the remaining forty-seven years of his life he worked and loved and stormed. Their neighborhood was one famous in association with the names of many literati. Near by Smollett wrote Count Fathom; in the same locality More had entertained the great scholar, Erasmus; there too had once lived Bolingbroke, and earlier, the Count de Grammont; and last but not least the author of Abou Ben Adhem, Leigh Hunt.

When Emerson once suggested to Carlyle that he come over to America to lecture, Carlyle took kindly to the idea. He kept it in mind as a possibility for years, but he never carried it into effect. But he did lecture in London. His literary work was not bringing him the money he needed. His friends were struck with his ability. Why should he not lecture? This, if well managed, would bring him immediate remuneration. His friends set diligently to work, issued a prospectus, tickets at a guinea a course, and invited persons of influence to attend. Spedding wrote this letter to Monckton Milnes:

"I take the opportunity of writing to make you know, if you do not know already, that Carlyle lectures on German literature next month; the particulars you will find in the inclosed syllabus, which, if it should convey as much knowledge to you as it does ignorance to me, will be edifying. Of course, you will be here to attend the said lectures, but I want you to come up a little before they begin, that you may assist in procuring the attendance of others. The list of subscribers is at present not large, and you are just the man to make it grow. As it is Carlyle's first essay in this kind, it is important that there should be a respectable number of hearers. Some name of decided piety is, I believe, rather wanted. Learning, taste, and nobility are represented by Hallam, Rogers, and Lord Lansdowne. H. Taylor has provided a large proportion of family, wit, and beauty, and I have assisted them to a little Apostlehood. We want your name to represent the great body of Tories, Roman Catholics, High Churchmen, metaphysicians, poets, and Savage Landor. Come!"

Carlyle was busy with his French Revolution and so did not make as careful preparation as he might have made. Yet he was so full of his subject that if he could overcome the difficulties of public speaking, he was bound to be interesting. As the day approached both he and his wife grew nervous. For diversion he drew up a humorous ending: "Good Christians, it has become entirely impossible for me to talk to you about German or any literature or terrestrial thing; one request only I have to make, that you would be kind enough to cover me under a tub for the next six weeks and to go your ways with all my blessing." This fortunately he did not need to use. Mrs. Carlyle worried lest he would be late, but by dint of close attention she felt she could have him "at the place of execution" at the appointed hour. How to get him to stop at "four precisely" was another problem. One humorous suggestion was that a lighted cigar might be laid on the table before him when the clock struck the hour.

"May the First, 1837," says Professor MacMechan, "was a notable day. In the afternoon, Carlyle lectured at Almack's, and in the evening Macready produced young Mr. Browning's Strafford, for the first time, at Covent Garden. Hallam, of the Middle Ages,—'a broad, old, positive man, with laughing eyes,'—was chairman and brought the lecturer face to face with his first audience, the two hundred holders of guinea tickets. It was made up of the elements referred to in Spedding's letter. Learning, taste, nobility, family, wit, and beauty were all represented in that assembly; 'composed of mere quality and notabilities,' says Carlyle. It is easy to figure the scene; the men all clean-shaven, in the clumsy coats, high collars, and enormous neck-cloths of the period, the ladies, and there were naturally more ladies than men, following the vagaries of fashion in 'bishop' sleeves and the 'pretty church-and-state bonnets,' that seemed to Hunt at times, 'to think through all their ribbons.' We call that kind of bonnet 'coal-scuttle' now, but Maclise's portrait of Lady Morgan trying hers on before a glass justifies Hunt's epithet. The lecturer was the lean, wiry type of Scot, within an inch of six feet. In face, he was not the bearded, broken-down Carlyle of the Fry photograph, but the younger Carlyle of the Emerson portrait. Clean-shaven, as was then the fashion, the determination of the lower jaw lying bare, the thick black hair brushed carelessly and coming down on the bony, jutting forehead, violet-blue eyes, deep-set, and alert, the whole face shows the Scot and the peasant in every line. It was a striking face, the union of black hair, blue eyes, and, usually, ruddy color on the high cheek bones, 'as if painted ... at the plow's tail,' Lady Eastlake remarked, and she was an artist. Harriet Martineau remarks that he was as 'yellow as a guinea,' but this would be due to some temporary gastric disturbance. He was very nervous, as was most natural, and stood with downcast eyes, his fingers picking at the desk before him.

At the beginning his speech was broken, and his throat was dry, drink as he would; but his desperate determination not to break down carried him through. The society people were 'very humane' to him, and the lecturer had a message for them; his matter was new, his manner was interesting; he knew his subject. The rugged Scottish accent came like a welcome draught of caller air from the moorlands of Galloway, to the dwellers in London drawing-rooms, and 'they were not a little astonished when the wild Annandale voice grew high and earnest.'"

From this first venture which was so successful—he cleared one hundred and thirty-five guineas after all the expenses had been paid—Carlyle was induced to give other series in the next few years. One of the most popular books by Carlyle is Heroes and Hero Worship; this first was given in a course of lectures. When "The Hero as Man of Letters" was given, Caroline Fox, an ardent admirer of the Scot, was in attendance. She has left a vivid description of the man: "Carlyle soon appeared, and looked as if he felt a well-dressed London audience scarcely the arena for him to figure in as a popular lecturer. He is a tall, robust-looking man; rugged simplicity and indomitable strength are in his face, and such a glow of genius in it—not always smoldering there, but flashing from his beautiful gray eyes, from the remoteness of their deep setting under that massive brow. His manner is very quiet, but he speaks as one tremendously convinced of what he utters, and who had much, very much, in him that was quite unutterable, quite unfit to be uttered to the uninitiated ear; and when the Englishman's sense of beauty or truth exhibited itself in vociferous cheers, he would impatiently, almost contemptuously, wave his hand, as if that were not the kind of homage which truth demanded. He began in a rather low and nervous voice, with a broad Scotch accent, but it soon grew firm, and shrank not abashed from its great task."



On our first day's journey, wrote Mr. Duffy in the Contemporary Review, the casual mention of Edmund Burke induced me to ask Carlyle who was the best talker he had met among notable people in London.

He said that when he met Wordsworth first he had been assured that he talked better than any man in England. It was his habit to talk whatever was in his mind at the time, with total indifference to the impression it produced on his hearers. On this occasion he kept discoursing how far you could get carried out of London on this side and on that for sixpence. One was disappointed,—perhaps,—but, after all, this was the only healthy way of talking, to say what is actually in your mind, and let sane creatures who listen to make what they can of it. Whether they understood or not, Wordsworth maintained a stern composure, and went his way, content that the world went quite another road. When he knew him better, he found that no man gave you so faithful and vivid a picture of any person or thing which he had seen with his own eyes.

I inquired if Wordsworth came up to this description he had heard of him as the best talker in England.

"Well," he replied, "it was true you could get more meaning out of what Wordsworth had to say than from anybody else. Leigh Hunt would emit more pretty, pleasant, ingenious flashes in an hour than Wordsworth in a day. But in the end you would find, if well considered, that you had been drinking perfumed water in one case, and in the other you got the sense of a deep, earnest man, who had thought silently and painfully on many things. There was one exception to your satisfaction with the man. When he spoke of poetry he harangued about meters, cadences, rhythms, and so forth, and one could not be at the pains of listening to him. But on all other subjects he had more sense in him of a sound and instructive sort than any other literary man in England."

I suggested that Wordsworth might naturally like to speak of the instrumental part of his art, and consider what he had to say very instructive, as by modifying the instrument, he had wrought a revolution in English poetry. He taught it to speak in unsophisticated language and of the humbler and more familiar interests of life.

Carlyle said, "No, not so; all he had got to say in that way was like a few driblets from the great ocean of German speculation on kindred subjects by Goethe and others. Coleridge, who had been in Germany, brought it over with him, and they translated Teutonic thought into a poor, disjointed, whitey-brown sort of English, and that was nearly all. But Wordsworth, after all, was the man of most practical mind of any of the persons connected with literature whom he had encountered; though his pastoral pipings were far from being of the importance his admirers imagined. He was essentially a cold, hard, silent, practical man, who, if he had not fallen into poetry, would have done effectual work of some sort in the world. This was the impression one got of him as he looked out of his stern blue eyes, superior to men and circumstances."

I said I had expected to hear of a man of softer mood, more sympathetic and less taciturn.

Carlyle said, "No, not at all; he was a man quite other than that; a man of an immense head and great jaws like a crocodile's, cast in a mold designed for prodigious work."

"I begged him," continued Mr. Duffy, in writing of conversations with Carlyle, "to tell me something of the author of a serial I had come across lately, called Bells and Pomegranates, printed in painfully small type, on inferior paper, but in which I took great delight. There were ballads to make the heart beat fast, and one little tragedy, The Blot in the 'Scutcheon, which, though not over-disposed to what he called sentimentality, I could not read without tears. The heroine's excuse for the sin which left a blot in a 'scutcheon stainless for a thousand years, was, in the circumstances of the case, as touching a line as I could recall in English poetry:

I had no mother, and we were so young."

He said Robert Browning had a powerful intellect, and among the men engaged in literature in England just now was one of the few from whom it was possible to expect something. He was somewhat uncertain about his career, and he himself (Carlyle) had perhaps contributed to the trouble by assuring him that poetry was no longer a field where any true or worthy success could be won or deserved. If a man had anything to say entitled to the attention of rational creatures, all mortals would come to recognize after a little that there was a more effectual way of saying it than in metrical numbers. Poetry used to be regarded as the natural, and even the essential language of feeling, but it was not at all so; there was not a sentiment in the gamut of human passion which could not be adequately expressed in prose.

Browning's earliest works had been loudly applauded by undiscerning people, but he was now heartily ashamed of them, and hoped in the end to do something altogether different from Sordello and Paracelsus. He had strong ambition and great confidence in himself, and was considering his future course just now. When he first met young Browning, he was a youth living with his parents, people of respectable position among the Dissenters, but not wealthy neither, and the little room in which he kept his books was in that sort of trim that showed that he was the apple of their eyes. He was about six and thirty at present, and a little time before had married Miss Barrett. She had long been confined to a sofa by a spinal disease, and seemed destined to end there very speedily, but the ending was to be quite otherwise, as it proved. Browning made his way to her in a strange manner, and they fell mutually in love. She rose up from her sick-bed with recovered strength and agility, and was now, it was understood, tolerably well. They married and were living together in Italy, like the hero and heroine of a mediæval romance.