Open main menu

Page:EB1911 - Volume 05.djvu/363

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

together. Carlyle did his duties as a schoolmaster punctiliously, but found the life thoroughly uncongenial. No man was less fitted by temperament for the necessary drudgery and worry. A passing admiration for a Miss Gordon is supposed to have suggested the “Blumine” of Sartor Resartus; but he made no new friendships, and when Irving left at the end of 1818 Carlyle also resigned his post.

He had by this time resolved to give up the ministry. He has given no details of the intellectual change which alienated him from the church. He had, however, been led, by whatever process, to abandon the dogmatic system of his forefathers, though he was and always remained in profound sympathy with the spirit of their teaching. A period of severe struggle followed. He studied law for a time, but liked it no better than schoolmastering. He took a pupil or two, and wrote articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia under the editorship of Brewster. He occasionally visited his family, and their unfailing confidence helped to keep up his courage. Meanwhile he was going through a spiritual crisis. Atheism seemed for a time to be the only alternative to his old creed. It was, however, profoundly repugnant to him. At last, one day in June 1821, after three weeks’ total sleeplessness, he went through the crisis afterwards described quite “literally” in Sartor Resartus. He cast out the spirit of negation, and henceforth the temper of his misery was changed to one, not of “whining,” but of “indignation and grim fire-eyed defiance.” That, he says, was his spiritual new-birth, though certainly not into a life of serenity. The conversion was coincident with Carlyle’s submission to a new and very potent influence. In 1819 he had begun to study German, with which he soon acquired a very remarkable familiarity. Many of his contemporaries were awakening to the importance of German thought, and Carlyle’s knowledge enabled him before long to take a conspicuous part in diffusing the new intellectual light. The chief object of his reverence was Goethe. In many most important respects no two men could be more unlike; but, for the present, Carlyle seems to have seen in Goethe a proof that it was possible to reject outworn dogmas without sinking into materialism. Goethe, by singularly different methods, had emerged from a merely negative position into a lofty and coherent conception of the universe. Meanwhile, Carlyle’s various anxieties were beginning to be complicated by physical derangement. A rat, he declared, was gnawing at the pit of his stomach. He was already suffering from the ailments, whatever their precise nature, from which he never escaped. He gave vent to his irritability by lamentations so grotesquely exaggerated as to make it difficult to estimate the real extent of the evil.

Irving’s friendship now became serviceable. Carlyle’s confession of the radical difference of religious opinion had not alienated his friend, who was settling in London, and used his opportunities for promoting Carlyle’s interest. In January 1822 Carlyle, through Irving’s recommendation, became tutor to Charles and Arthur Buller, who were to be students at Edinburgh. Carlyle’s salary was £200 a year, and this, with the proceeds of some literary work, enabled him at once to help his brother John to study medicine and his brother Alexander to take up a farm. Carlyle spent some time with the elder Bullers, but found a life of dependence upon fashionable people humiliating and unsatisfactory. He employed himself at intervals upon a life of Schiller and a translation of Wilhelm Meister. He received £50 for a translation of Legendre’s Geometry; and an introduction, explaining the theory of proportion, is said by De Morgan to show that he could have gained distinction as an expounder of mathematical principles. He finally gave up his tutorship in July 1824, and for a time tried to find employment in London. The impressions made upon him by London men of letters were most unfavourable. Carlyle felt by this time conscious of having a message to deliver to mankind, and his comrades, he thought, were making literature a trade instead of a vocation, and prostituting their talents to frivolous journalism. He went once to see Coleridge, who was then delivering his oracular utterances at Highgate, and the only result was the singularly vivid portrait given in a famous chapter in his life of Sterling. Coleridge seemed to him to be ineffectual as a philosopher, and personally to be a melancholy instance of genius running to waste. Carlyle, conscious of great abilities, and impressed by such instances of the deleterious effects of the social atmosphere of London, resolved to settle in his native district. There he could live frugally and achieve some real work. He could, for one thing, be the interpreter of Germany to England. A friendly letter from Goethe, acknowledging the translation of Wilhelm Meister, reached him at the end of 1824 and greatly encouraged him. Goethe afterwards spoke warmly of the life of Schiller, and desired it to be translated into German. Letters occasionally passed between them in later years, which were edited by Professor Charles Eliot Norton in 1887. Goethe received Carlyle’s homage with kind complacency. The gift of a seal to Goethe on his birthday in 1831 “from fifteen English friends,” including Scott and Wordsworth, was suggested and carried out by Carlyle. The interest in German, which Carlyle did so much to promote, suggested to him other translations and reviews during the next few years, and he made some preparations for a history of German literature. British curiosity, however, about such matters seems to have been soon satisfied, and the demand for such work slackened.

Carlyle was meanwhile passing through the most important crisis of his personal history. Jane Baillie Welsh, born 1801, was the only child of Dr Welsh of Haddington. She had shown precocious talent, and was sent to the school at Haddington where Edward Irving (q.v.) was a master. After her father’s death in 1819 she lived with her mother, and her wit and beauty attracted many admirers. Her old tutor, Irving, was now at Kirkcaldy, where he became engaged to a Miss Martin. He visited Haddington occasionally in the following years, and a strong mutual regard arose between him and Miss Welsh. They contemplated a marriage, and Irving endeavoured to obtain a release from his previous engagement. The Martin family held him to his word, and he took a final leave of Miss Welsh in 1822. Meanwhile he had brought Carlyle from Edinburgh and introduced him to the Welshes. Carlyle was attracted by the brilliant abilities of the young lady, procured books for her and wrote letters to her as an intellectual guide. The two were to perform a new variation upon the theme of Abelard and Héloïse. [A good deal of uncertainty long covered the precise character of their relations. Until 1909, when Mr. Alexander Carlyle published his edition of the “love-letters,” the full material was not accessible; they had been read by Carlyle’s biographer, Froude, and also by Professor Charles Norton, and Norton (in his edition of Carlyle’s Early Letters, 1886) declared that Froude had distorted the significance of this correspondence in a sense injurious to the writers. The publication of the letters certainly seems to justify Norton’s view.] Miss Welsh’s previous affair with Irving had far less importance than Froude ascribes to it; and she soon came to regard her past love as a childish fancy. She recognized Carlyle’s vast intellectual superiority, and the respect gradually deepened into genuine love. The process, however, took some time. Her father had bequeathed to her his whole property (£200 to £300 a year). In 1823 she made it over to her mother, but left the whole to Carlyle in the event of her own and her mother’s death. She still declared that she did not love him well enough to become his wife. In 1824 she gradually relented so far as to say that she would marry if he could achieve independence. She had been brought up in a station superior to that of the Carlyles, and could not accept the life of hardship which would be necessary in his present circumstances. Carlyle, accustomed to his father’s household, was less frightened by the prospect of poverty. He was determined not to abandon his vocation as a man of genius by following the lower though more profitable paths to literary success, and expected that his wife should partake the necessary sacrifice of comfort. The natural result of such discussions followed. The attraction became stronger on both sides, in spite of occasional spasms of doubt.