Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 5, 365–368.

This famous British writer was a long-time friend of RB, and an early object of EBB’s admiration. Born at Ecclefechan, Scotland, on 4 December 1795, he was eldest of the nine children of James and Janet (née Aitken) Carlyle. His father was a mason and small farmer, providing for his family an adequate but frugal living. As a child, Carlyle showed great promise, devouring knowledge from all the books that came his way, and it was decided to send him to Edinburgh University. He enrolled in 1809, walking 100 miles to do so, and there acquired a substantial knowledge of mathematics, though his eventual goal—not given up until some years later—was the ministry. He spent a number of years as a schoolmaster and tutor, during which time he formed a close friendship with Edward Irving. The latter was to become a prominent London preacher, whose name cropped up frequently in EBB’s letters. While in his twenties, Carlyle came strongly under the influence of German literature, undertook some writing of his own, and went through a spiritual crisis later reflected in his Sartor Resartus (1833–34). On 17 October 1826, Carlyle married Jane Baillie Welsh (1801–66), daughter of a Scottish physician. The temperamental natures of both parties made the marriage a stormy one, but it endured until Mrs. Carlyle’s death in 1866. In 1834 the couple moved from Scotland to London, settling at 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, where Carlyle resided for the rest of his life. There he wrote his great historical work, The French Revolution (1837). Another memorable production, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), was based on a lecture course he had presented in the previous year. Carlyle became an outspoken writer and commentator on British political and economic issues, taking first a liberal and later a conservative viewpoint. In his writing he combined richness and complexity into a style that came to be known as “Carlylese.” He was under much financial stress during the early part of his life, and—despite later fame and honours—never received the benefits of a government pension, as did certain other literary figures. When finally offered one late in life by the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, a long-time foe, he rejected it (along with a proposed knighthood). Increasingly gloomy in his outlook during old age, he died on 5 February 1881. Despite the offer of a final resting place in Westminster Abbey, he was buried—in accordance with his own wishes—at his Scottish birthplace, Ecclefechan.

On 18 March 1881, shortly after Carlyle’s death, RB discussed him in a letter to Madame Bessie Rayner Belloc. “He confessed once to me,” RB wrote, “that, on the first occasion of my visiting him, he was anything but favourably impressed by my ‘smart green coat’—I being in riding-costume: and if then and there had begun and ended our acquaintanceship, very likely I might have figured in some corner of a page as a poor scribbling-man with proclivities for the turf and scamphood.” Carlyle, whose opinion eventually changed, was among the numerous literary acquaintances whom RB acquired shortly after the appearance of Paracelsus (1835), and he is known to have visited RB in Hatcham (G & M, p. 49), where the latter lived with his parents from 1840 until the time of his marriage. Carlyle’s first extant letter to RB (no. 822) carried criticism and encouragement based on Sordello (1840) and Pippa Passes (1841). It is noteworthy for the advice (not followed) that “your next work” should be “written in prose!” At the end of the same year, in letter 883, RB wrote to Euphrasia Fanny Haworth of having “dined with dear Carlyle and his wife … yesterday.” When Carlyle was preparing Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches: with Elucidations (1845), RB lent him a copy of Killing, no Murder (1659), (see Reconstruction, A48). A copy of the second edition of Carlyle’s Cromwell was inscribed to RB by the author on 20 June 1846 (Reconstruction, A731). In 1849 Carlyle told the Irish politician Gavan Duffy—as reported much later in Duffy’s Conversations with Carlyle (1892)—that he, Carlyle, regarded RB as one of the few current English writers from whom it was “possible to expect something” (G & M, p. 135).

As for EBB, she wrote in March 1842 (letter 931) to Mary Russell Mitford: “I am an adorer of Carlyle. He has done more to raise poetry to the throne of its rightful inheritance than any writer of the day,—& is a noble-high-thinking man in all ways. He is one of the men to whom it wd. be a satisfaction to me to cry ‘vivat’ somewhere in his hearing.” In a letter to her brother George on 30 March 1842 (no. 934), EBB noted a remark by John Kenyon that “nobody” was reading RB’s poetry. Her own comment to George was: “Mr. Carlyle is his friend—a good substitute for a crowd’s shouting!” Carlyle was among the literary figures discussed in R.H. Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age (1844), and the author drew heavily on material supplied by EBB for the sections on Carlyle (Reconstruction, D1282) and various others. Engravings for five of the eight full-page portraits appearing in A New Spirit were hung on the walls of EBB’s room at 50 Wimpole Street—those of Carlyle, RB (reproduced in vol. 3, facing p. 164), Harriet Martineau, Alfred Tennyson, and William Wordsworth. EBB sent Carlyle a copy of her Poems (1844), telling Miss Mitford on 14 August of that year: “I have taken a great gasp of courage, & sent a copy to Carlyle, .. as ‘a tribute of admiration & respect.’ I pray all the heroes that he may not devote the entrails of my votive sacrifice to make curlpapers for Mrs. Carlyle,—but can scarcely aspire to a higher destiny.” On 1 September 1844 she told Miss Mitford of receiving “kind letters from Carlyle.” However, just as he had suggested prose-writing to RB, he had written “that a person of my [EBB’s] ‘insight & veracity’ ought to use ‘speech’ rather than ‘song’ in these days of crisis.” The letters that passed between RB and EBB in 1845–46 were sprinkled with references to Carlyle. On 17 February 1845, for instance, EBB referred to herself as “a devout sitter at his feet,” and RB on 26 February 1845 said: “I know Carlyle and love him.” On the following day EBB called him “the great teacher of the age.” RB frequently mentioned visiting the Carlyle home. Carlyle’s comment on the RB-EBB marriage came quite late but was worth waiting for; on 23 June 1847 he wrote to RB: “No marriage has taken place, within my circle, these many years, in which I could so heartily rejoice: You I had known, and judged of; her too, conclusively enough, if less directly; and certainly if ever there was a union indicated by the finger of Heaven itself, and sanctioned and prescribed by the Eternal Laws under which poor transitory Sons of Adam live, it seemed to me, from all I could hear or know of it, to be this!” At this time, EBB had never met Carlyle, but the deficiency was remedied when the Brownings visited London in 1851 and when, upon their departure, he accompanied them to Paris. On 22 October 1851 EBB wrote to Miss Mitford: “Carlyle … I liked infinitely more in his personality than I expected to like him, and I saw a great deal of him for he travelled with us to Paris & spent several evenings with us, we three together. He is one of the most interesting men I could imagine even—deeply interesting to me: and you come to understand perfectly, when you know him, that his bitterness is only melancholy, & his scorn, sensibility. Highly picturesque too he is in conversation. The talk of writing men is very seldom as good.” The Brownings were with Carlyle again during their 1855 London visit. Indications are that EBB and Carlyle’s wife could have become, under different circumstances, close friends and correspondents. Their relationship was stunted, however, by the mutual dislike between Mrs. Carlyle and RB. There was frequent contact between Carlyle and RB after the latter returned to London following EBB’s death. On 4 March 1869, shortly after completion of RB’s The Ring and the Book, several notables, including RB and Carlyle, were presented to Queen Victoria. In her journal, the Queen referred to RB as “a very agreeable man” and to Carlyle as “a strange-looking eccentric old Scotchman, who holds forth, in a drawling melancholy voice, with a broad Scotch accent, upon Scotland and upon the utter degeneration of everything.” Apparently referring to the group as a whole she wrote: “It was, at first, very shy work speaking to them.” These comments are printed in The Letters of Queen Victoria, Second Series, ed. George Earle Buckle, (1926, I, 586–587). In 1877, RB published The Agamemnon of Æschylus. Both in the book’s preface and in a letter to Carlyle dated 17 October 1877, RB mentioned that Carlyle had desired (or, as the preface says, “commanded”) him to undertake the work. Although the copy of RB’s Agamemnon which presumably accompanied his 17 October letter has not been traced, RB presented and inscribed to Carlyle various other books which are listed in Reconstruction: Sordello (1840), C560; Bells and Pomegranates (1841–46), C225; and La Saisiaz and The Two Poets of Croisic (1878), C375. Letters from Carlyle to RB were among the many papers which the latter destroyed in his old age. An account is given in LRB (p. xii) of an 1884 visit to RB’s London home by T.J. Wise and F.J. Furnivall, during which Wise “saw letters of Carlyle go into the fire.” A few years after Carlyle’s death in 1881, RB reminisced extensively about him during conversations in Venice with the American painter Daniel Sargent Curtis. An account of the reminiscences appears in More Than Friend, ed. Michael Meredith (1985), pp. 168–169. (See also Reconstruction, L84.) In the conversations as reported by Curtis, RB spoke very unfavourably of Mrs. Carlyle, commented on Carlyle’s “contempt for all which he did not know or think,” and expressed admiration for his “power of description.” According to Curtis, RB “saw Carlyle a week before his death … lying comatose” and taking “no notice of anything.”


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