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Thomas Carlyle
by [?]

Carlyle belonged to “the irritable race of poets,” albeit he seldom imitated Pope’s bad example and tortured his rugged ideas into oleaginous rhyme. There is a strange wild melody in all his work–what he would call “harmony in discord” suggesting that super-nervous temperament which is inseparable from the highest genius, and which degenerates so easily into acute neurosis–that “madness” to which wit is popularly supposed to be so “near allied.” Such natures are aeolian harps acted upon, not by “the viewless air,” but by a subtler, more impalpable power, which comes none know whence, and goes none know whither–one moment yielding soft melodies as of an angel’s lute borne across sapphire seas, the next wailing like some lost soul or shrieking like Eumenides. The “self-poised,” the “well-balanced” man, of whom you can safely predict what he will do under given conditions; the man who never bitterly disappoints you and makes you weep for very pity of his weakness, will never appall you by exhibitions of his strength. He may possess constructive talent, but never that creative power which we call genius because it suggests the genii. “No man is a hero to his valet,” says the adage. Carlyle assumes this to be the fault of the latter–due to sawdust or other cheap filling in the head of the menial. Yet, may not the valet be wiser in this matter than the world? The hero, the greatest genius, is not always aflame with celestial fire, impelled by that mysterious power which comes from “beyond the clouds”– may be, for most part, the commonest kind of clay, a creature in nowise to be worshiped. The eagle, which soars so proudly at the sun, will return to its eyrie with drooping wing; the condor, whose shadow falls from afar on Chimborazo’s alabaster brow, cannot live always in the empyrean, a thing ethereal, and back to earth is no better than a carrion crow. To genius more than to aught else, perhaps, distance lends enchantment. While we see only the bold outline of the Titan, we are content to worship– nay, insist upon it; but having scrutinized him inch by inch with a microscope, we realize that familiarity breeds contempt. Well does Christ say that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country–which is the origin of the hero and valet adage. I cannot understand why the world insists upon seeing le Grand Monarque in his night- cap and Carlyle in his chimney corner. With the harem of Byron and the drunken orgies of Burns, the poaching of Shakespeare and the vanity of Voltaire it has nothing to do–should content itself with what they have freely given it, the intellectual heritage they have left to humanity, and not pry into those frailties which they fain would hide. If Goldsmith “wrote like an angel and talked like a fool,” it was because when he wielded the pen there was only a wise man present, and all are affected more or less by the company they keep. We care not whether the gold in our coffers was mined by saint or sinner, so that it be standard coin; then what boots it what manner of men stole from heaven that Promethean fire which surges in the poet’s song, leaps in lightning-flash from the orator’s lips, or becomes “dark with excess of bright” in Carlyle’s Natural-Supernaturalism? Judge ye the work, and let the workman “growl like a collie dog” if it ease his dyspepsia!

That Carlyle was “an undignified human being,” I can well believe; for he was the wisest of his day, and dignity is the distinguishing characteristic of the dodo and the donkey. If Mr. Gosse esteems it so highly, he might procure a pot of glue and adorn his vermiform appendix with a few peacock feathers, else take lessons in posturing from the turkey- gobbler or editor of the Houston Post. Had Carlyle been born a long-eared ass, he might have been fully approved– if not altogether appreciated–by Gosse, Froude and other “critic flies.” When Doctor Samuel Johnson was told that Boswell proposed to write his life, he threatened to prevent it by taking that of his would-be biographer. It were curious to consider what “crabbed old Carlyle” would have done had he suspected the danger of falling into the hands of a literary backstairs Mrs. Grundy like Edmund Gosse! In his “Heroes and Hero Worship” he treated his colossi far otherwise than he in turn has been treated by Gosse and Froude. He first recognized the fact that they were colossi, and no fit subject for the microscope. We hear nothing from him to remind us of Lemuel Gulliver’s disgust with the yawning pores and unseemly blotches of the epidermis of that monster Brobdingnagian maid who set him astride her nipple. He reverenced them because they possessed more than the average of that intellectual strength which is not only of God, but is God; then considered their life-work as a whole, its efficient cause and ultimate consequence. He does not appear to have thought to inquire whether they had dyspepsia, and how it affected them, being engrossed in that more important question, viz., what ideas they were possessed withal, how wrought out, and what part these emanant volitions of the lords of intellect played in the mighty drama of Human Life.