Thomas Carlyle and His Works
by Henry D. Thoreau
Thomas Carlyle is a Scotchman, born about fifty years ago, “at Ecclefechan, Annandale,” according to one authority. “His parents ‘good farmer people,’ his father an elder in the Secession church there, and a man of strong native sense, whose words were said to ‘nail a subject to the wall.’” We also hear of his “excellent mother,” still alive, and of “her fine old covenanting accents, converting with his transcendental tones.” He seems to have gone to school at Annan, on the shore of the Solway Firth, and there, as he himself writes, “heard of famed professors, of high matters classical, mathematical, a whole Wonderland of Knowledge,” from Edward Irving, then a young man “fresh from Edinburgh, with college prizes, … come to see our schoolmaster, who had also been his.” From this place, they say, you can look over into Wordsworth’s country. Here first he may have become acquainted with Nature, with woods, such as are there, and rivers and brooks, some of whose names we have heard, and the last lapses of Atlantic billows. He got some of his education, too, more or less liberal, out of the University of Edinburgh, where, according to the same authority, he had to “support himself,” partly by “private tuition, translations for the booksellers, etc.,” and afterward, as we are glad to hear, “taught an academy in Dysart, at the same time that Irving was teaching in Kirkaldy,” the usual middle passage of a literary life. He was destined for the Church, but not by the powers that rule man’s life; made his literary début in Fraser’s Magazine, long ago; read here and there in English and French, with more or less profit, we may suppose, such of us at least as are not particularly informed, and at length found some words which spoke to his condition in the German language, and set himself earnestly to unravel that mystery — with what success many readers know.
After his marriage he “resided partly at Comely Bank, Edinburgh; and for a year or two at Craigenputtock, a wild and solitary farmhouse in the upper part of Dumfriesshire,” at which last place, amid barren heather hills, he was visited by our countryman, Emerson. With Emerson he still corresponds. He was early intimate with Edward Irving, and continued to be his friend until the latter’s death. Concerning this “freest, brotherliest, bravest human soul,” and Carlyle’s relation to him, those whom it concerns will do well to consult a notice of his death in Fraser’s Magazine for 1835, reprinted in the Miscellanies. He also corresponded with Goethe. Latterly, we hear, the poet Sterling was his only intimate acquaintance in England.
He has spent the last quarter of his life in London, writing books; has the fame, as all readers know, of having made England acquainted with Germany, in late years, and done much else that is novel and remarkable in literature. He especially is the literary man of those parts. You may imagine him living in altogether a retired and simple way, with small family, in a quiet part of London, called Chelsea, a little out of the din of commerce, in “Cheyne Row,” there, not far from the “Chelsea Hospital.