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

naturally expected him to recognize her devotion and to value her society beyond all others. She had just cause of complaint, and a remarkable power, as her letters prove, of seeing things plainly and despising sentimental consolations. She was childless, and had time to brood over her wrongs. She formed a little circle of friends, attached to her rather than to her husband; and to one of them, Giuseppe Mazzini, she confided her troubles in 1846. He gave her admirable advice; and the alienation from her husband, though it continued still to smoulder, led to no further results. A journal written at the same time gives a painful record of her sufferings, and after her death made Carlyle conscious for the first time of their full extent. The death of Lady Ashburton in 1857 removed this cause of jealousy; and Lord Ashburton married a second wife in 1858, who became a warm friend of both Carlyles. The cloud which had separated them was thus at last dispersed. Meanwhile Carlyle had become absorbed in his best and most laborious work. Soon after the completion of the Cromwell he had thought of Frederick for his next hero, and had in 1845 contemplated a visit to Germany to collect materials. He did not, however, settle down finally to the work till 1851. He shut himself up in his study to wrestle with the Prussian Dryasdusts, whom he discovered to be as wearisome as their Puritan predecessors and more voluminous. He went to Scotland to see his mother, to whom he had always shown the tenderest affection, on her deathbed at the end of 1853. He returned to shut himself up in the “sound-proof room.” He twice visited Germany (1852 and 1858) to see Frederick’s battlefields and obtain materials; and he occasionally went to the Ashburtons and his relations in Scotland. The first two volumes of Frederick the Great appeared in 1858, and succeeding volumes in 1862, 1864 and 1865. The success was great from the first, though it did little to clear up Carlyle’s gloom. The book is in some respects his masterpiece, and its merits are beyond question. Carlyle had spared no pains in research. The descriptions of the campaigns are admirably vivid, and show his singular eye for scenery. These narratives are said to be used by military students in Germany, and at least convince the non-military student that he can understand the story. The book was declared by Emerson to be the wittiest ever written. Many episodes, describing the society at the Prussian court and the relations of Frederick to Voltaire, are unsurpassable as humorous portraiture. The effort to fuse the masses of raw material into a well-proportioned whole is perhaps not quite successful; and Carlyle had not the full sympathy with Frederick which had given interest to the Cromwell. A hero-worshipper with half-concealed doubts as to his hero is in an awkward position. Carlyle’s general conception of history made him comparatively blind to aspects of the subject which would, to writers of other schools, have a great importance. The extraordinary power of the book is undeniable, though it does not show the fire which animated the French Revolution. A certain depression and weariness of spirit darken the general tone.

During the later labours Mrs Carlyle’s health had been breaking. Carlyle, now that happier relations had been restored, did his best to give her the needed comforts; and in spite of his immersion in Frederick, showed her all possible attention in later years. She had apparently recovered from an almost hopeless illness, when at the end of 1865 he was elected to the rectorship of the university of Edinburgh. He delivered an address there on the 2nd of April 1866, unusually mild in tone, and received with general applause. He was still detained in Scotland when Mrs Carlyle died suddenly while driving in her carriage. The immediate cause was the shock of an accident to her dog. She had once hurt her mother’s feelings by refusing to use some wax candles. She had preserved them ever since, and by her direction they were now lighted in the chamber of death. Carlyle was overpowered by her loss. His life thenceforward became more and more secluded, and he gradually became incapable of work. He went to Mentone in the winter of 1866 and began the Reminiscences. He afterwards annotated the letters from his wife, published (1883) as Letters and Memorials. He was, as Froude says, impressed by the story of Johnson’s “penance” at Uttoxeter, and desired to make a posthumous confession of his shortcomings in his relations to his wife. A few later utterances made known his opinions of current affairs. He joined the committee for the defence of Governor Eyre in 1867; he also wrote in 1867 an article upon “shooting Niagara,” that is, upon the tendency of the Reform Bill of that year; and in 1870 he wrote a letter defending the German case against France. The worth of his Frederick was acknowledged by the Prussian Order of Merit in 1874. In the same year Disraeli offered him the Grand Cross of the Bath and a pension. He declined very courteously, and felt some regret for previous remarks upon the minister. The length of his literary career was now softening old antipathies, and he was the object of general respect. His infirmities enforced a very retired life, but he was constantly visited by Froude, and occasionally by his disciple Ruskin. A small number of other friends paid him constant attention. His conversation was still interesting, especially when it turned upon his recollections, and though his judgments were sometimes severe enough, he never condescended to the scandalous. His views of the future were gloomy. The world seemed to be going from bad to worse, with little heed to his warnings. He would sometimes regret that it was no longer permissible to leave it in the old Roman fashion. He sank gradually, and died on the 4th of February 1881. A place in Westminster Abbey was offered, but he was buried, according to his own desire, by the side of his parents at Ecclefechan. He left Craigenputtock, which had become his own property, to found bursaries at the university of Edinburgh. He gave his books to Harvard College.

Carlyle’s appearance has been made familiar by many portraits, none of them, according to Froude, satisfactory. The statue by Boehm on the Chelsea Embankment, however, is characteristic; and there is a fine painting by Watts in the National Portrait Gallery. J. McNeill Whistler’s portrait of him is in the possession of the Glasgow corporation.

During Carlyle’s later years the antagonism roused by his attacks upon popular opinions had subsided; and upon his death general expression was given to the emotions natural upon the loss of a remarkable man of genius. The rapid publication of the Reminiscences by Froude produced a sudden revulsion of feeling. Carlyle became the object of general condemnation. Froude’s biography, and the Memorials of Mrs Carlyle, published soon afterwards, strengthened the hostile feeling. Carlyle had appended to the Reminiscences an injunction to his friends not to publish them as they stood, and added that no part could ever be published without the strictest editing. Afterwards, when he had almost forgotten what he had written, he verbally empowered Froude to use his own judgment: Froude accordingly published the book at once, without any editing, and with many inaccuracies. Omissions of a few passages written from memory at a time of profound nervous depression would have altered the whole character of the book. Froude in this and the later publications held that he was giving effect to Carlyle’s wish to imitate Johnson’s “penance.” No one, said Boswell, should persuade him to make his lion into a cat. Froude intended, in the same spirit, to give the shades as well as the lights in the portrait of his hero. His admiration for Carlyle probably led him to assume too early that his readers would approach the story from the same point of view, that is, with an admiration too warm to be repelled by the admissions. Moreover, Froude’s characteristic desire for picturesque effect, unchecked by any painstaking accuracy, led to his reading preconceived impressions into his documents. The result was that Carlyle was too often judged by his defects, and regarded as a selfish and eccentric misanthrope with flashes of genius, rather than as a man with many of the highest qualities of mind and character clouded by constitutional infirmities. Yet it would be difficult to speak too strongly of the great qualities which underlay the superficial defects. Through long years of poverty and obscurity Carlyle showed unsurpassed fidelity to his vocation and superiority to the lower temptations which have ruined so many literary careers, His ambition might be interpreted as selfishness, but certainly