Craigenputtock Blog


A True European

Thomas Carlyle's works and thoughts deeply impacted on literary, philosophical and political history.

He was a true European who built links between the histories, the literatures and the leading intellectual forces of Scotland, England, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Russia and even America. The resulting impact was worldwide.

First and foremost, Carlyle dominated literary life in the United Kingdom for a very long time. From his home bases in Craigenputtock and Chelsea, the Scotsman Carlyle became the most influential Victorian writer of the British Isles. He was personally acquainted with and highly respected, if not revered, by other literary, philosophical and political icons such as John Stuart Mill - whose housemaid accidentally burned the sole copy of the manuscript of The French Revolution so that Carlyle had to write it anew - Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles and Erasmus Darwin, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Martineau, George Meredith, Alfred Tennyson, William Makepiece Thackeray and William Wordsworth. Carlyle was a source of inspiration to Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Ford Madox Brown and William Holman Hunt.

Carlyle always remained faithful to his native Scotland. In 1828 Carlyle wrote an essay on Scotland's national poet Robert Burns which was to become a standard text on Burns for many decades during the 19th century. Towards the end of his career, in 1865, he was elected Rector of Edinburgh University. During his London years, he also showed a particular interest in Irish conditions. Also, Carlyle successfully campaigned for the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery in London, the London Library and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, three cultural institutions that owe their very existence to him.

Carlyle's highly distinctive literary style - soon branded Carlylese – was immensely innovative and encouraged a whole host of other writers to follow his lead. He also coined a number of terms and phrases of some importance, such as 'captains of industry', the 'cash nexus' (used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto), and perhaps most intriguingly of all two words that were to become of abiding importance to succeeding generations, 'industry' and 'environment'.

Carlyle's historical studies led to a new understanding if not a fundamental reappraisal of the French Revolution, Oliver Cromwell, and Frederick the Great. He put French figures such as Diderot, Marie-Antoinette, Mirabeau, Napoleon, Rousseau and Voltaire in a new light, and in many important ways helped other Victorian writers to develop responses to the literary, cultural, and intellectual legacies of the Enlightenment as a key period in the development of Western civilisation.

Carlyle's ideas on society, economy and politics influenced socialists, communists, nationalists, some right-wing extremists, and environmentalists. The extent to which he was read and respected by people of hugely divergent and at times conflicting political persuasions is quite staggering. Numerous academic studies collectively demonstrate that Carlyle must be without question one of the greatest writers of all time. However, it is fair to say that knowledge and understanding of the full extent of Carlyle's influence is far from complete and it is likely that over coming decades studies of his legacy will significantly extend the sphere of his influence, showing how Carlyle's work reached not only generations of writers and thinkers in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, and Europe, but also extended to India and China.

America's pre-eminent philosopher, essayist and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was deeply impressed by Carlyle's early writings. Their later disagreement on societal issues did not prevent them from maintaining close personal contact. Carlyle exerted a deep influence on countless other American thinkers and writers including the great poet Walt Whitman. Carlyle also took an interest in political developments in Russia and counted Ivan Turgenev and Italian idealist and nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini among his friends.

In the political field, Carlyle directly inspired the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, the radical social reform ideas of John Ruskin, the utopian communism of William Morris and the Christian Socialist movement led by Charles Kingsley and Frederick Denison Maurice. In his early years, Carlyle had sympathised and corresponded with the Saint-Simonians.

Through translations and critical works, Carlyle transmitted the ideas of Goethe, Schiller and numerous other German writers to the English-speaking audience. Due to his campaigning for German literature, his monumental and enthusiastic biography of emperor Frederick the Great and his own latter-day authoritarian tendencies, he gained popularity with German thinkers, also in the Nazi era - although Friedrich Nietzsche, who owes more to Carlyle than he admits, denounced Carlyle as a romantic, a rhetorician, and a hypocrite. In 1874, Carlyle was awarded the famous Prussian Order of Merit. Famously, Goebbels tried to raise Hitler's spirits by reading from Frederick the Great in the Berlin bunker during the last days of WW2.

Carlyle's life and works were analysed and commented upon in countless biographies and studies by English-speaking authors such as James Anthony Froude and David Alec Wilson, but also by leading continental historians such as Hippolyte Taine from France, Pieter Geyl from Holland, and the anti-Nazi French Jew who greatly admired and wrote extensively about Carlyle, Victor Basch.

In the 20th century, Carlyle's works were translated into numerous languages and popular anthologies were widely read around the world.

The personal lives of Thomas and Jane Carlyle, which are extremely well documented, thanks to the survival of the main part of their extensive correspondence, are a literary theme in their own right. Biographies of Jane and household histories were written by Rosemary Ashton, Trudy Bliss, N. Brysson Morrison, Elizabeth A. Drew, Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson, Thea Holme, Leonard Huxley and Mrs Alexander Ireland.

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