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Thomas Carlyle
by [?]

It is not my present purpose to review Carlyle’s literary labors–that were like crowding the Bard of Avon into a magazine article. For 300 years the world has been studying the latter, and is not yet sure that it understands him; yet Shakespeare is to Carlyle what a graded turnpike is to a tortuous mountain path. The former deals chiefly with the visible; the latter with the intangible. The first tells us what men did; the last seeks to learn why they did it. Carlyle is the prince of critics. He is often lenient to a fault, but seldom deceived–“looks quite through the shows of things into the things themselves.” Uriel, keenest of vision ‘mid all the host of heaven, is his guardian angel. To follow him into the sanctuaries of great souls and become familiar with all their hopes and fears; to pass the portals of master minds and watch the gradual evolution of great ideas in these cyclopean workshops; to mount the hill of Mirza and from it view the Tide of Time rushing ever into the illimitable Sea of Eternity, and comprehend the meaning of that mighty farce-tragedy enacted on the Bridge of Life, were scarce so easy as listening to the buzzing of the “critic fly” or dawdling over a French novel on a summer’s day.

Carlyle is frequently called a “mystic,” and mystagogue he certainly is–a man who interprets mysteries. If the average reader urge that his interpretation is too oft an obscurum per obscurius, he might reply, in the language of that other woefully “undignified” and shockingly impolite human being, Dr. Johnson: “I am bound to find you in reasons, Sir, but not in brains.” Carlyle was regarded by those writers of his day who clung to and revered the time-worn ruts, as chief of the “Spasmodic School,” the members whereof were supposed to be distinguished by “a stained and unnatural style.” This “School,” which was satirized by Aytoun while editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, was thought to include Tennyson, Gilfillan and other popular authors of the time. I incline to the view that no writer of whom we have any knowledge exhibits less affectation in the matter of style than does the subject of this essay. It is rugged and massive; but so is his mind. It were impossible to imagine the author of “Sartor Resartus” and “The French Revolution” expressing himself in the carefully rounded periods of Macaulay, whose prose is half poetry, and whose poetry is all prose. Carlyle seems to care precious little what kind of vehicle he uses for the conveyance of ideas so long as it does not break down. All his labor “smells of the lamp”; but “the midnight oil”–of which our modern “ready writers” evidently use so little–was consumed in considering what to say rather than how to say it. Not even Shakespeare possesses so extensive a vocabulary. The technical terms of every profession and subdivision of science come trippingly to his tongue. But even the dictionary is not large enough for him, and he extends it this way and that, his daring neology creating consternation among the critic flies and other ephemera. He wrote as he thought, hence his style could not be other than natural. That of Aytoun was formed in the schools, principally modeled by masters–made to fit a procrustean bed–and was, therefore, eminently artificial. If we apply the term “unnatural” to the matter instead of the manner of Carlyle and Tennyson, then away with genius, for intellectual originality is tabooed!–no man is privileged to think his own thoughts. That is the law nowadays nowhere except in the sanctum of the Gal-Dal News, where Col. Jenkins takes the editorial eyas and teaches it to soar ln exact imitation of himself.

Whether by the “Spasmodic” method or otherwise, Carlyle dragged more true orients out of the depths than did any of his contemporaries; and that is saying much, for “there were giants in those days,” and they were neither few nor far between. The intellectual glory of the first half of the present century was scarce eclipsed by the Elizabethan era. It was in very truth “a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” Goethe and “Jean Paul” were putting the finishing touches to their work while Carlyle, then a young man, was striving to interpret these so strange appearances to the English-speaking world, to hammer some small appreciation of German literature into the autotheistic British head. Tom Moore, sweetest of mere singers, and Lord Byron, prince of poets, were but five and seven years respectively his seniors. He saw the beginning and the end of their literary labors, as of those of Macaulay and Mill, Darwin, Disraeli and Dickens. Much of his best work was done ere the death of Walter Scott, and he might have played as a school boy with the ill-fated Shelley. He had just begun his long life-labor when Longfellow and Tennyson, Hugo and Wagner came upon the scene, and together they wrought wisely and well in that mighty seed-field which is the world! What a galaxy of intellectual gods!–now all gone, returned home to High Olympus–the weird land left to the Alfred Austins, the William Dean Howells and the Ian McLarens! Gone, but not forgotten; yet the world will in time forget– even the amaranthine flowers must fade. Of them all we see but one star that blazes the brighter as the years run on, and that one long mistaken for a mere erratic comet– sans substance, or unformed nebulae hanging like a splotch of semi-luminous vapor in a great void. Year by year the voice of Carlyle rings clearer and clearer from the “Eternal Silence.” And as we listen with rapt attention to the music of the spheres becoming audible, intelligible to our dull ear–the Waterloo and Lisbon earthquakes, the Revolutions and the Warring Religions, all the glory and shame, the wild loves and bitter hatreds of humanity–even Birth and Death–but minor notes in the Grand Symphony, the Harmony of Infinitude, the little man who has undertaken the management of the microphone, without suspecting its significance, distracts us with the unwished for and utterly useless information that the Voice coming from beyond Time and Space, out of the Everlasting Deep, once “growled like a collie dog!”