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The Hesperian

by Willa Cather

From The Hesperian, 22 (March 1, 1891):  3-4.


Perhaps no man who has ever stood before the public as an English author was thoroughly un English as Thomas Carlyle. His life, his habits, and his literature were most decidedly German. The mansion on Piccadilly, the sedate tea parties, the literary clubs, and even the coveted tomb in old Westminster, so dear to the heart of ever Englishman, were things of no moment to Carlyle. He was a recluse, not that he had any aversion for men, but that he loved his books and loved Nature better. He saw little of society; yet, though he never bent his knee to it, he never trampled upon its laws. He was merely indifferent to it, for he was one of the few men who can live utterly independent of it, while those who condemn it most severely, cling to it as the only thing which can give them zest or ambition enough to live. He respected social laws, for they are the outgrowth of man's honest sentiments of what is best to be done in his conduct toward his fellows. He revered any production of the hand or of the mind of man, be it some old rune cut upon stone in an English forest, or a social code which allotted to his higher, stronger nature and passions the same sphere of action as to every coal heaver on the street of London. He said but little of the great vices of the time or of the wrongs which he himself suffered. He bore no sense of enmity toward any one; he only pitied,—with all the strength of his great heart,—pitied everything that lived.

Carlyle posed but poorly as a political economist. His love and sympathy for humanity were boundless, and he understood great minds and earnest souls as no other man ever has. In this lay his power as a biographer and as a historian. He could understand how the Marsellaise might set men's hearts on fire; the storming of the Bastile, and the revolt of the women, pictures after his own heart, in which the hot blood of the old sea kings still raged. The passions and the sincerity of the French revolution made it sacred to him. But of the liberals of his own country, men who demanded rights but never shed one drop of honest blood in defense of them; whose revolts were mere riots, instigated neither by principle nor by patriotism, but by sullen anger; whose aspirations rose from an ale glass, and found their tomb therein—of these he understood nothing; they were dark enigmas to him; he was "above them all, alone with the stars." Moreover, Carlyle was not a practical man. He knew, for instance, that education is the right of every man, and that it is the most potent factor in the suppression of crime. But when the English liberals rushed upon him, asking whether education should be compulsory; at what age this compulsory education should begin; at whose expense; and whether the schools should be sectarian, he was utterly aghast. He was only an awkward fellow, born a peasant, and a peasant always, with a great genius, and a soul sincere as truth itself. He could handle the most profound problem in metaphysics delicately enough, but he was dull and bungling when he tried to grasp political theories. Perhaps the gist of the whole matter was, that he was always looking for a cause, or for its effect in everything, both of which are somewhat difficult to find in mdern English politics. He was always dreaming too, one half his heart was always in Valhalla. The best traits of character, and the strongest powers of his mind belonged to other times and to other people.

He went far out into one of the most desolate spots of Scotland, and made his home there. There among the wild heaths, and black marshes, and grim dark forests, which have remained unchanged since the time of the Picts and the Saxons, he did his best work. He drew his strength from those wild landscapes; he breathed into himself the fury of the winds; the strength of the storm went into his blood. Carlyle was the greatest painter in England. His pictures were not wild sketches of imagination, but were photographs from nature.

Like Scott, he lived much in the open air, and might be seen evening after evening striding the heath, or climbing the rocky hills, his tall, angular figure, braced to the wind, standing out sharply against the stormy red sunset.

It is well known that Carlyle's married life was not stictly a happy one, and the Mrs. Carlyle sometimes complained bitterly of his indifference to her. The wife of an artist, if he continues to be an artist, must always be a secondary consideration with him; she should realize that from the outset. Art of every kind is an exacting master, more so even than Jehovah. He says only, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Art, science, and letters cry, "Thou shalt have no other gods at all." They accept only human sacrifices. There are few women who love an abstract ideal well enough to see this, fewer still who like Mary Shelley, will honor it, and submit to such treatment without jealousy. It is very likely that Carlyle used violent language when interrupted in one of the soliloquies of Teufelsdrockh to be informed that his coffee was ready. Very liekly Mrs. Carlyle was much hurt and grieved; she certainly made excellent coffee. She would have liked it better if he had lived in London, and put on a white tie and a dress coat, and gone to the receptions. She hated this solitude which was her husband's inspiration, and indeed it must have been very unpleasant for her. The lack of harmony in their conjugal relations was due to the faults of neither, but was merely a very unfortunate circumstance.

Carlyle's was one of the most intensely reverent natures of which there is any knowledge. He saw the divine in everything. His every act was a form of worship, yet it was fortunate that he did not ever the ministry. He would have been well enough in the pulpit, though he would have preached on Scandinavian mythology, and on the Hindoo, as well as on the Hebrew faith; but he could never have smiled benignly at the deaconess' tea parties, nor have praised the deacon's stock, nor have done the thousand other little things requisite for success. The minister of to-day should be as shrewd a wire-puller as the politician. He would have gone to the kirk with the very best intentions, and, being suddenly struck with some idea while ascending his pulpit stairs, would have made an eloquent and powerful address upon the doctrines of Buddha, at which his audience would either have gone to sleep, or have been shocked, as they happened to feel listless or irritable. He was too passionately, too intensely religious to confine himself to any one creed. He could never see why Saint Peter's and the Coliseum shouldalways frown at each other as they stand there in Rome, with the graves of two faiths between; one dying, one long since dead; he loved them both so well. Even the scars of barbarian swords upon the polished marble he half revered; they were honest arms which struck those blows.

This reverential seriousness of disposition was characteristic of him in literature, as in everything else. He never strove to please a pampered public. His genius was not the tool of his ambition, but his religion, his god. Nothing has so degraded modern literature as the desperate efforts of modern writers to captivate the public, their watching the variation of public taste, as a speculator watches the markets. When Orpheus sings popular ballads upon the street corners, he is a street singer, nothing more. The gates of hell do not open at his music any more, nor do the damned forget their pain in its melody. Carlyle went out alone into the solitude and wrestled with his great ideas, finding them difficult to express in words, so great, so ungainly were they. He little cared whether his books were popular, whether they were even read. He wrote only that which was in him and which must be written. In vain his publishers groaned over his "terrible earnestness;" he would not laugh for them. He was always down in the chamber of the fates, at the roots of Vgdrasil, the tree of life, which the Norns water day and night, one with honey and two with gall, and it was a terrible thing to him that it was so. Milton says that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, who sings of the descent of the gods to men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl. He is the last poet who has thought so, and he is the last poet who has given us an epic.

Carlyle's was one of the most unhappy temperaments. He never saw things as others did; his wild fancy and bad digestion distorted everything. In writing, he does not willfully exaggerate; he only portrays things as they seemed to him. Like the old Anchorites of the Thebiad, he kept upon his knees within his narrow cell until the outside world looked supernatural to him. The little difficulties of his life were to him actual demons and powers of darkness sent to torment him. His dyspepsia was an actual Tophet. How far his ill health may have influenced his writings is not known. Certainly not so far as some critics claim, who assert that "Sartor Resartus" is but the result of a year of miserable health, the morbid fancies of a sick man. If so, it is a new and pleasing feature of bad gastronomy.

He was proud to the extreme, but his love was predominant even over his pride. He, himself, would suffer any privation rather than sacrifice an ideal but for his brother's sake he wrote for money. It seemed to him like selling his own soul. He wrote article after article for reviews, and cut up his great thoughts to fit the pages of a magazine. No wonder he hated it; it was like hacking his own flesh, bit by bit, to feed those he loved.

Throughout his entire life he was tormented by interference. He was not the kind of a man to be popular, for he was unwise enough to stand aloof from all sects and all parties. None defended him. No one creed nor the doctrines of any one sect were broad enough to hold him. Like the lond survivor of some extinct species, the last of the mammoths, tortured and harassed beyond all endurance by the smaller, though perhaps more perfectly organized offspring of the world's maturer years, this great Titan, son of her passionate youth, a youth of volcanoes, and earthquiakes, and great, unsystematized forces, rushed off into the desert to suffer alone.

He died as he lived. Proudly refusing a tomb in Westminster, as did one other great English writer, he was buried out on the wild Scotch heath, where the cold winds of the North sea sing the chants of Ossian among the Druid pine. He lies there on the wild heath, the only thing in the British Isles with which he ever seemed to harmonize. He dreamed always in life great, wild, maddening dreams; perhaps he sleeps quietly now,—perhaps he wakes.