Works of Thomas Carlyle, What is Thomas Carlyle famous for?


What are the works of Thomas Carlyle? Information about the studies, writings, books and works of Thomas Carlyle.

Studies in German Literature.

Carlyle’s articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia (1819-1823) are conscientious and intelligent but give almost no hint of his genius or of his flamboyantly personal mature style. The fructifying element of the first ten years of Carlyle’s literary life was his absorption in German poetry and philosophy, an involvement that led him to break the mold of convention and formulate his own philosophy and style. His Life of Schiller (1825) shows the beginning of the process. Though conventionally and impersonally written, the work reflects Carlyle’s immense enthusiasm for his subject and his identification with Schiller’s idealism and with his struggles and ambitions as a writer and prophet.

In his essays on Goethe, Fichte, and Richter, Carlyle became the leading exponent in England of the new German romanticism, with its emphasis on individual imagination and emotion, and of German transcendental idealism, which stressed the primacy of mind. But Carlyle was not content merely to transmit the ideas of his masters. Ignoring Goethe’s urbanity, liberalism, and epicureanism, Carlyle underscored his doctrine of renunciation. From Kant and Fichte, Carlyle took the idea of the subjectivity of time and space—the idea that the physical world is a mere projection of an inner reality—and transposed it into his own characteristic key. He interpreted Kant’s categorical imperative as a sanction for the Calvinistic ethic of work and duty. Following Fichte, he began to formulate his idea of the hero, one who grasps the inner necessities of his times and imposes his vision on men and events by persuasion or force.

German thought gave Carlyle a point of vantage from which to attack the arid rationalism of French thought and, more important, the dominant English utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. It gave him a philosophical basis for his opposition to empiricism, mechanism, and materialism, and it showed the way to the restoration of intuition, mystery, faith, and sacredness, without a return to orthodox Christianity. The application of this transcendental view directly to problems of modern life occurs first in Signs of the Times (1829) and Characteristics (1831), in which Carlyle attacks self-consciousness, preoccupation with logical and empirical analysis, and faith in the efficacy of tinkering with the machinery of social institutions —qualities that characterize modern man.

Portrait of Carlyle in his garden at Chelsea

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Sartor Resartus.

The central book of Carlyle’s career, Sartor Resartus (1833-1834, “The Tailor Retailored”), was composed in 1830-1831, during his isolation at Craigenputtock. Its first readers received it with “unqualified disapprobation,” and Carlyle wrote to his brother, “A very singular piece I assure you! It glances from Heaven to Earth and back again in a strange satirical frenzy, whether fine or not remains to be seen.” The basic conception of the book is that all the phenomena of nature and society are merely “clothes,” the outward trappings of an invisible reality. The material world is but the covering of the spiritual world, and the institutions of society, being only old clothes, are due to be discarded when they wear out. The social clothing handed down from the past has been patched over and over and is now almost in tatters, a theme on which Carlyle plays pyro-technical variations that range from explosive humor to tragic seriousness.


Sartor Resartus is narrated by an anonymous English editor who has come into the possession of the manuscripts of the German Teufelsdrockh (devil’s dung), who is professor of Allerleiwissenschaft (things in general) at the University of Weissnichtwo (nowhere). The manuscripts, carelessly tossed together in 12 bags, form a book entitled Clothes, Their History and Influence, a brilliant chaos through which the editor gropes for the history of the author’s life and thought and adds to the confusion with leanied allusions, frequent digressions, and flights of fancy and vituperation.

The work is divided into three books. Books 1 and 3 are concerned primarily with general ideas—the spiritual nature of the world, the symbolism of matter, the inferiority of logic to spiritual insight—and the application of these ideas to society and the individual soul.

Book 2 is a disguised autobiography, in which Carlyle freely alters the outward events of his own life but remains faithful to its inner drama. He outlines the stages of this drama in three famous chapters. First, Teufelsdrockh recounts his fall into melancholy negation when he loses his sweetheart Blumine and comes to see the world as a purposeless machine of which he is the passive victim (“The Everlasting No”). Second, in his despair he wanders aimlessly from nation to nation until he discovers that if the world is only a man-destroying machine he can at least hate that fact and thus continue to exist; freed thereby from his paralysis he regains contact with the outside world (“The Centre of Indifference”). Third, he learns to renounce all expectations of personal happiness and regains his soul through work and human fellowship (“The Everlasting Yea”). The morality is close to that of the conventional Christian emphasis on self-sacrifice and duty at the expense of the body and pleasure. But God has been replaced by the abstract principle of transcendence, and the hero’s salvation comes through moral rather than religious conversion.

Carlyle’s style reached maturity in Sartor Resartus. It is a compound of traditional pulpit oratory, the language of transcendentalism, and the homely, forceful speech of Carlyle’s boyhood. It is full of jagged idioms, “German” involutions of syntax, odd compound words, and strained grammatical combinations. In its nervous intensity and aggressive individuality, Carlyle’s prose represents the breakup of the measured and cadenced prose of the Enlightenment and prepares the way for the stylistic development of such later writers as Dickens and Ruskin.

“The French Revolution.”

The public acclaim of The French Revolution (1839) was preceded by a severe trial of Carlyle’s endurance. He loaned the manuscript of the first volume to John Stuart Mill, whose maid accidentally burned it, so that Carlyle had to undertake the agonizing task of rewriting the whole from memory without the aid of notes. The most coherently organized of his works, The French Revolution constitutes one of his chief claims to literary merit. Breaking with the older tradition of English historians, Carlyle paid less attention to strictly military and political history than to the great mass movements and tides of opinion and passion that underlie specific events. With epic scope and energy he traced the revolution from its sources in the folly of the aristocracy and royal family, the misery of the poor, and the reforming zeal of men of letters, through the Reign of Terror, and to the rise of Napoleon. The dozens of richly drawn biographical sketches and scenes of mob action are saturated with his nightmare vision of violence and destruction. Carlyle saw the revolution as a necessary purgation of a sick social order and refused to treat the victims of the Reign of Terror with the sentimental pathos usually accorded to them. Although he abhorred the democracy that the revolution heralded, he saw only justice in the destruction of the old order. A tract for the times as well as a history, The French Revolution is Carlyle’s warning that if there is in England no far-reaching reform from above, there will be irresistible revolution from below.

“On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History.”

The last of four series of public lectures, On Heroes (1841) has always been popular because of its relatively colloquial and straightforward style. Carlyle treats the hero as divinity (the Teutonic god Odin), as prophet (Mahomet), as poet (Dante and Shakespeare), as priest (Luther and Knox), as man of letters (Johnson, Rousseau, and Bums), and as king (Cromwell and Napoleon). As he presents dramatic, poetically colored narratives of his heroes, Carlyle also elaborates his idea of the hero. The common quality that unites these apparently diverse men is an intellectual ability to pierce through the sham and cant that make up most of ordinary life to expose its underlying significance. The hero as writer expresses the deepest reality of his age, and the hero as man of action expresses its deepest historical necessity for change. Great men create the values by which other men exist, and their fitness to instruct or to rule justifies their claim to obedience and reverence. A great man, in short, is a direct instrument of the Divine Will, and his words and deeds have the quality of revelation. Despite the fact that in discussing his military heroes Carlyle sometimes comes close to asserting that might proves right, it remains that the ultimate source of his heroes’ authority is always spiritual.

“Past and Present.”

The essay Past and Present (1843) combines an evocative account of 12th century monastic life with incisive social criticism of modern times. Emerson described the work as an “Iliad of English woes,” but it is also a celebration of medieval England. Carlyle presents a contrast that fascinated the Victorian imagination: that between an old Saxon serf living in the Middle Ages, with its organic society, unquestioning faith, and virile enforcement of authority, and a workman in the modern age, with its fragmentation, skepticism, and vacillating leadership. The serf was restricted in many ways, but he was guaranteed food, shelter, and protection against enemies and had a permanent and recognized place in society. The modern workman, on the other hand, is free, but he is bound to society only by his exchange of labor for wages, and if he is thrown out of work he loses, at one blow, food, shelter, protection, and his place in society; his freedom is little more than freedom to starve. In opposition to the idea of freedom, Carlyle advocates a society in which all men are bound together in a web of privileges and duties and in submission to authority.


The hero of Past and Present is Samson, Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds. He is drawn from Carlyle’s reading of the 12th century Chronicle of Jocelyn of Brakeland and developed into the purest embodiment of Carlyle’s conception of the creative power of the hero. With selfless devotion, Samson gives his life to driving out sloth with energy, replacing chaos with order, and turning waste into productivity. He restores his decaying abbey, courageously and skillfully threads the tangled politics of the time, and supports an impersonal ideal of justici against pressure from both foes and friends.

Although Carlyle does not propose a return to feudalism, he insists that the problem of government—how to achieve the rule of the wise —has not changed. Political democracy, which he pessimistically sees as inevitable, will merely submerge the superior man in mediocrity, and modern society is probably doomed to centuries of degradation until the democratic experiment proves itself bankrupt. Carlyle concludes with a plea for an aristocracy of talent and dedication to come forward to save England.

Thomas Carlyle

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Later Writings.

By 1850, Carlyle had completed the most important part of his work. He had developed his characteristic style as a narrative artist and a thinker, and he had delivered the substance of his message. Although he did valuable work in the latter half of his life, he became increasingly rigid and insistent, so that he often refused to correct even errors of fact in his writings. His early radicalism hardened into a disconcerting attachment to force and authority.

The two major historical works of Carlyle’s later life show an increasingly sure faith that history is simply the biography of great men. Both works are concerned with warriors and statesmen in a revolutionary age. His Oliver Cromwell (1845) rescues Cromwell from the denunciation conventional among English historians and treats him as a divinely inspired seer who always acted from a passionate conviction that he was doing God’s will. If the picture is in the main convincing, Carlyle’s deliberate distortion of evidence has done no service to his reputation as an artist and a historian. The massive Frederick the Great (1858-1865) turns Frederick into a kind of abstract Ruler and is bloated with uncontrolled detail. Despite splendid passages it is an arid work, ridden by the thesis of Frederick’s unwavering Tightness in all that he did.

Carlyle’s later works of social criticism exhibit the same increasing rigidity. Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) goes over much the same ground as his earlier writings, but with increased asperity. Shooting Niagara, and After? (1867) is another fulmination against the spread of democracy, occasioned by the Second Reform Bill, which widened the franchise. Only in the nostalgia and tenderness of some of his Reminiscences (1866) is the genius of Carlyle evident in his old age.


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