Thomas Carlyle: Essays & Biography

Instructor: Debbie Notari
Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish essayist and biographer who lived at the beginning of the nineteenth century. His writings and philosophies were complex. In this lesson, we will get to know Carlyle's life and works.


Early Days

Thomas Carlyle was born in 1795 in Scotland. He was raised with a strong work ethic. His early years were normal, as he attended local grammar schools until he was ready to attend the University of Edinburgh. Carlyle was quite good at math, though he initially decided to become a minister. However, Carlyle did not receive a degree, but became a math tutor and teacher. Soon he realized that the ministry was not the best choice of a career for him as his theological beliefs had changed.

Next Steps

After he began tutoring, he met an intellectual, Edward Irving, and the two became friends for life. He and Edward thought alike. Unfortunately, during this time, Thomas began suffering from a stomach ailment called 'dyspepsia' that he dealt with for the rest of his years.

Thomas dabbled in writing articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, and spent much of his time reading and studying on his own, particularly German language and literature. He became acquainted with the philosophies of Goethe, and formed a religious belief that blended some traits of Calvinism, the Metaphysical, and Romanticism. In 1826, Carlyle married a lovely writer named Jane Baillie Welsh, who became his lifelong love. When they were absent from each other, they wrote many love letters.

His Writing

After suffering from some depression, in 1836, Carlyle outlined his beliefs in a satire, Sartor Resartus, identifying with the main character, Teufelsdröckh. At first, he had difficulty finding a publisher for his work and actually had to publish the novel bit by bit in a periodical. Carlyle not only read German literature - he translated it and was beginning to receive acclaim for his work. He studied transcendentalism and highly respected Goethe. During these years, Carlyle tried to find a balance between his spiritual beliefs and his intellectualism.

Personal Difficulties

Carlyle and Jane lived off and on at a farm she inherited called 'Craigenputtock,' especially in times of financial difficulty and grief. The isolation of the farm caused them to quarrel, though. It was a hard time in their lives. Carlyle would ride horses alone and read for several hours each day. Also, Jane tended to suffer from various illnesses. Carlyle's father died in 1832, much to his grief.

When Carlyle was steeped in writing, it was more difficult for Jane to be around him, and as she was ill so much of the time, she decided to go back to Scotland to recuperate. After her departure, Carlyle may have had an affair with a woman named Lady Ashburton, but regardless, the two were very close. This caused a rift between him and Jane that began to heal only after Lady Ashburton's death in 1857. He and Jane became very close again and continued sending their famous letters - enough to fill forty volumes of books!

Works and Famous Friends

Carlyle finished his three volumes called The French Revolution. He also spent time conducting lectures called On Heroes, and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Other famous works of Carlyle's were Life and Letters of Oliver Cromwell, Frederick the Great, and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

Many famous people visited Carlyle throughout his lifetime, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson - an ardent admirer -, Tennyson, Dickens, Browning, Ruskin and Darwin. Carlyle's influence was immeasurable.

Carlyle's Philosophies

Carlyle was a conservative, particularly more so as he aged. He saw keenly into the societal problems of his era, and voiced them. He sometimes wrote seeking the rights of the poor. Not everyone agreed with his analysis, nor his historical compilations, but they did respect his intellect and ideas. Carlyle was a complicated man of contrasts - he had ideals as to how people should be treated, yet he could be critical. He championed the poor, yet almost 'worshipped' strength. He deeply loved his wife, but their relationship was often a battle. Even today, people are seeking to fully understand him.

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