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Carlyle As An Inspirer Of Youth Post by :fanie Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :1369

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Carlyle As An Inspirer Of Youth

THE FINEST ENGLISH PROSE WRITER OF THE LAST CENTURY--HIS BEST
BOOKS, "PAST AND PRESENT," "SARTOR RESARTUS" AND THE "FRENCH
REVOLUTION."

As an influence in stimulating school and college students, Macaulay must be given a foremost place, but greater than Macaulay, because of his spiritual fervor and his moral force, stands Thomas Carlyle, the great prophet and preacher of the nineteenth century, whose influence will outlast that of all other writers of his time. And this spiritual potency, which resides in his best work, is not weakened by his love of the Strong Man in History or his fear of the rising tide of popular democracy, in which he saw a dreadful repetition of the horrors of the French Revolution. It was the Puritan element in his granite character which gave most of the flaming spiritual ardor to Carlyle's work. It was this which made him the greatest preacher of his day, although he had left behind him all the old articles of faith for which his forefathers went cheerfully to death on many a bloody field.

Carlyle believed a strong religious faith was vital to any real and lasting work in this world, and from the day he gave out Sartor Resartus he preached this doctrine in all his books. He was born into a generation that was content to accept the forms of religion, so long as it could enjoy the good things of this world, and much of Carlyle's speech sounded to the people of his day like the warnings of the prophet Isaiah to the Israelites of old. But Carlyle was never daunted by lack of appreciation or by any ridicule or abuse. These only made him more confident in his belief that the spiritual life is the greatest thing in this world. And he actually lived the life that he preached.

For years Carlyle failed to make enough to support himself and his wife, yet he refused a large income, offered by the LONDON TIMES for editorial work, on the ground that he could not write to order nor bend his opinions to those of others. He put behind him the temptation to take advantage of great fame when it suddenly came to him. When publishers were eager for his work he spent the same time in preparing his books as when he was poor and unsought. He labored at the smallest task to give the best that was in him; he wrote much of his work in his heart's blood. Hence it is that through all of his books, but especially through Past and Present and Heroes and Hero Worship, one feels the strong beat of the heart of this great man, who yearned to make others follow the spiritual life that he had found so full of strength and comfort.

Carlyle's life was largely one of work and self-denial. He was born of poor parents at the little village of Ecclefechan, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. His father, though an uneducated stone-mason, was a man of great mental force and originality, while his mother was a woman of fine imagination, with a large gift of story telling. The boy received the groundwork of a good education and then walked eighty miles to Edinburgh University. Born in 1795, Carlyle went to Edinburgh in 1809. His painful economy at college laid the foundation of the dyspepsia which troubled him all his days, hampered his work and made him take a gloomy view of life. At Edinburgh he made a specialty of mathematics and German. He remained at the university five years.

The next fifteen years were spent in tutoring, hack writing for the publishers and translation from the German. His first remunerative work was the translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, a version which still remains the best in English. After his marriage to Jane Welsh he was driven by poverty to take refuge on his wife's lonely farm at Craigenputtock, where he did much reading and wrote the early essays which contain some of his best work. The EDINBURGH REVIEW and FRASER'S were opened to him.

Finally, in 1833, when he was nearly forty years old, he made his first literary hit with Sartor Resartus which called out a storm of caustic criticism. The Germanic style, the elephantine humor, the strange conceits and the sledge-hammer blows at all which the smug English public regarded with reverence--all these features aroused irritation. Four years later came The French Revolution, which established Carlyle's fame as one of the greatest of English writers. From this time on he was freed from the fear of poverty, but it was only in his last years, when he needed little, that he enjoyed an income worthy of his labors.

Carlyle's great books, beside those I have mentioned, are the lives of Cromwell and of Frederick the Great. These are too long for general reading, but a single volume condensation of the Frederick gives a good idea of Carlyle's method of combining biography and history. Carlyle outlived all his contemporaries--a lonely old man, full of bitter remorse over imaginary neglect of his wife, and full also of despair over the democratic tendencies of the age, which he regarded as the outward signs of national degeneracy.

Carlyle's fame was clouded thirty years ago by the unwise publication of reminiscences and letters which he never intended for print. Froude was chosen as his biographer. One of the great masters of English, Froude was a bachelor who idealized Mrs. Carlyle and who regarded as the simple truth an old man's bitter regrets over opportunities neglected to make his wife happier. Everyone who has studied Carlyle's life knows that he was dogmatic, dyspeptic, irritable, and given to sharp speech even against those he loved the best. But over against these failings must be placed his tenderness, his unfaltering affection, his self-denial, his tremendous labors, his small rewards.

When separated from his wife Carlyle wrote her letters that are like those of a young lover, an infinite tenderness in every line. One of her great crosses was the belief that her husband was in love with the brilliant Lady Ashburton. Her jealousy was absurd, as this great lady invited Carlyle to her dinners because he was the most brilliant talker in all England, and he accepted because the opportunity to indulge in monologue to appreciative hearers was a keener pleasure to him than to write eloquent warnings to his day and generation. Froude's unhappy book, with a small library of commentary that it called forth, is practically forgotten, but Carlyle's fame and his books endure because they are real and not founded on illusion.

Carlyle opens a new world to the college student or the ambitious youth who may be gaining an education by his own efforts. He sounds a note that is found in no other author of our time. Doubtless some of this attraction is due to his singular style, formed on a long study of the German, but most of it is due to the tremendous earnestness of the man, which lays hold of the young reader. Never shall I forget when in college preparatory days I devoured Past and Present and was stirred to extra effort by its trumpet calls that work is worship and that the night soon cometh when no man can work.

His fine chapter on Labor with its splendid version of the Mason's Song of Goethe has stimulated thousands to take up heavy burdens and go on with the struggle for that culture of the mind and the soul which is the more precious the harder the fight to secure it. I remember copying in a commonplace book some of Carlyle's sonorous passages that stir the blood of the young like a bugle call to arms. Reading them over years after, I am glad to say that they still appealed to me, for it seems to me that the saddest thing in this world is to lose one's youthful enthusiasms. When you can keep these fresh and strong, after years of contact with a selfish world, age cannot touch you.

In this appeal to all that is best and noblest in youth, Carlyle stands unrivaled. He has far more heart, force and real warm blood than Emerson, who saw just as clearly, but who could not make his thought reach the reader. A course in Carlyle should be compulsory in the freshman year at every college. If the lecturer were a man still full of his early enthusiasms it could not fail to have rich results. Take, for instance, those two chapters in Past and Present that are entitled "Happy" and "Labor." In a dozen pages are summed up all Carlyle's creed. In these pages he declares that the only enduring happiness is found in good, honest work, done with all a man's heart and soul. And after caustic words on the modern craving for happiness he ends a noble diatribe with these words, which are worth framing and hanging on the wall, where they may be studied day by day:

Brief brawling Day, with its noisy phantasms, its poor paper-crown's tinsel-gilt, is gone; and divine everlasting Night, with her star-diadems, with her silences and her veracities, is come! What hast thou done, and how? Happiness, unhappiness; all that was but wages thou hadst; thou hast spent all that, in sustaining thyself hitherward; not a coin of it remains with thee; it is all spent, eaten; and now thy work, where is thy work? Swift, out with it; let us see thy work!

Sartor Resartus is very hard reading, but if you make up your mind to go through it you will be repaid by many fine thoughts and many noble passages of impassioned prose. Under the guise of Herr Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, Carlyle tells the story of his early religious doubts, his painful struggles that recall Bunyan's wrestlings with despair, and his final entry upon a new spiritual life. He wrote to let others know how he had emerged from the Valley of the Shadow of Pessimism into the delectable Mountains of Faith. Carlyle was the first of his day to proclaim the great truth that the spiritual life is far more important than the material life, and this he showed by the humorous philosophy of clothes, which he unfolded in the style of the German pedants. Carlyle evidently took great pleasure in developing this satire on German philosophy, which is full of broad humor.

The French Revolution has been aptly called "history by lightning flashes." One needs to have a good general idea of the period before reading Carlyle's work. Then he can enjoy this series of splendid pictures of the upheaval of the nether world and the strange moral monsters that sated their lust for blood and power in those evil days, which witnessed the terrible payment of debts of selfish monarchy. Carlyle reaches the height of his power in this book, which may be read many times with profit.

The sources of Carlyle's strength as a writer are his moral and spiritual fervor and his power of making the reader see what he sees. The first insures him enduring fame, as it makes what he wrote eighty years ago as fresh and as full of fine stimulus as though it were written yesterday. The other faculty was born in him. He had an eye for pictures; he described what he saw down to the minutest detail; he made the men of the French Revolution as real as the people he met on his tour of Ireland. He made Cromwell and Frederick men of blood and iron, not mere historical lay figures. And over all he cast the glamour of his own indomitable spirit, which makes life look good even to the man who feels the pinch of poverty and whose outlook is dreary. You can't keep down the boy who makes Carlyle his daily companion; he will rise by very force of fighting spirit of this dour old Scotchman.


(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Carlyle As An Inspirer Of Youth

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