In the realm of the cerebral, whose denizens include the philosopher, the scientist, the scholar, the literary artist, and the intellectual, the sage is a minority. Thought to possess wisdom, the sage, in conveying this wisdom, frequently eschews logic, close argument, sometimes even lucid utterance. All this, along with his propensity for prophecy, makes him a rare figure.

Who qualifies as a sage? In the Symposium, Plato held that the sage had what the philosopher sought—wisdom. In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson presented himself as a sage, though not everyone finds Emerson’s high-blown pronouncements persuasive. H.L. Mencken, in his day known as the Sage of Baltimore, was a variant type, the sage as both critic and comedian. Yet in his serious aspect, Mencken, sage-like in his agnosticism, could write:

No one knows Who created the visible universe, and it is infinitely improbable that anything properly describable as evidence on the point will ever be discovered. No one knows what motives or intentions, if any, lie behind what we call natural laws. No one knows why man has his present form. No one knows why sin and suffering were sent into this world—that is, why the fashioning of man was so badly botched.

In The Victorian Sage (1965), John Holloway writes that “though the sage may indeed provide us with real knowledge, there is difficulty not only about its proof, but also—and a more central one—about its exact meaning.” What distinguishes the sage, Holloway holds, “is that he seems to have glimpsed something not conspicuous to the common eye,” while his “main task is to quicken his reader’s perceptiveness; and he does this by making a far wider appeal than the exclusively rational appeal.”

Unaligned with party or school, the sage tends to be sui generis. Because his outlook is his own, and absolutely unique, the sage must devise a style to express that outlook. Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), the dominant figure in Holloway’s book, wrote in a style taken in part from the Bible, heavily laced with metaphor and simile, especially those featuring water, fire, and animal imagery. John Holloway writes of Carlyle’s prose that “a wild passionate energy runs through it, disorderly and even chaotic but leaving an indelible impression of life, force, vitality.”

Views about Thomas Carlyle have differed radically. Harriet Martineau said he was “the man who has most essentially modified the mind of his time… . Whether we call him philosopher, poet, or moralist, he is the first teacher of our generation.” Dickens, who gleaned much from Carlyle’s French Revolution for his own A Tale of Two Cities, jokingly claimed to have been reading him for the 500th time. Macaulay thought Carlyle a man who, lacking vision, could “neither see nor do any great thing.” Edgar Allen Poe loathed him. Nietzsche felt much the same. Yet George Eliot wrote of him: “There is hardly a superior or active mind of his generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived.” And, finally, for the blurb no writer would ever wish: Carlyle’s 4,000-page biography, Frederick the Great, was Adolf Hitler’s favorite book.


The son of a Scottish stone mason of strong Calvinistic belief, Carlyle was sent off to school to prepare for the ministry, for which he felt he had no vocation. He later read law at Edinburgh University, but the law, too, was not for him. He taught school, tried his hand at journalism, underwent spiritual struggles that sent him into depression. He felt the stirrings of ambition, but to what end? Like many a misfit, Thomas Carlyle was suited only to be a writer.

He set out writing for the great English magazines of the day: Edinburgh Review, Fraser’s Magazine, later MacMillan’s, and others. Initially he wrote chiefly about German literature, which had excited his intellectual interest. Goethe, whom he called “the noblest of all Literary Men,” was the only living god in his pantheon. He wrote critically on Voltaire and Diderot. His first book, Sartor Resartus (or “The Tailor Repatched”), was rejected by more than one publisher, and instead ran in Fraser’s during 1833–34 as a series of separate essays.
It first came out as a book, with an enthusiastic introduction by Emerson, in Boston in 1836.

Sartor Resartus purports to be a philosophy of clothes written by one Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (German for devil’s dung) of the University of Weissnichtwo (meaning “I know not where”). It was written in the tradition of Robert Burton’s An Anatomy of Melancholy and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, with touches of Jonathan Swift added—and so the book is far from straightforward. In this work of fiction, an editor seems to be attempting to piece together Professor Teufeldröckh’s thesis on clothes. This fictitious editor, we are supposed to believe, is dealing with an elusive but obviously significant text. We readers are meant struggle along with him, and a genuine struggle it is.

Had I been a publisher in 1833, I, too, would have had no difficulty in rejecting Carlyle’s manuscript, for Sartor Resartus is a great hodgepodge, of interest chiefly for the light it throws on Carlyle’s later thought. The following passage, for example, could stand as a gloss on Carlyle’s career: “More specially it may now be declared that Professor Teufelsdröckh’s acquirements, patience of research, philosophic and even poetic vigor, are here made indisputably manifest; and unhappily no less his prolixity and tortuosity and manifold inaptitude; that, on the whole, as in opening new mine-shafts is not unreasonable, there is much rubbish in his book, though likewise specimens of almost invaluable ore.”

And so it is with the writings of Carlyle, whose work is the most mixed of mixed bags. He can write truly wretched sentences, with capricious capitalization, puzzling punctuation, exotic vocabulary. A sample sentence: “For on this ground, as the prompt nature of Hunger is well known, must a prompt choice be made: hence have we, with wise foresight, Indentures and Apprenticeships for our irrational young; whereby, in due season, the vague universality of a Man shall find himself ready moulded into a specific Craftsman; and so thenceforth work, with much or with little waste of Capability, as it may be; yet not with the worst waste, that of time.” As William Hazlitt said of Jeremy Bentham, so one can say of the Carlyle of Sartor Resartus, his language “darkens knowledge.”

John Stuart Mill, early in life Carlyle’s friend and aide, wrote to suggest that he ease up on the irony and sarcasm and asked whether things could not be “as well or better said in a more direct way?” Carlyle replied: “I never know or can even guess what or who my audience is, or whether I have any audience: thus too naturally I adjust myself on the Devil-may-care principle. Besides I have under all my gloom genuine feeling of the ludicrous; and could have been the merriest of men, had I not been the sickest and saddest.”

Amid the muddle, gold nuggets do turn up. “The man who cannot laugh is not only fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; but his whole life is already a treason and a stratagem.” Nine pages later, Carlyle writes that “the Journalists are now the true Kings and Clergy”—an observation that, for prophecy, is two centuries ahead of its time. Sartor Resartus also presages many of Carlyle’s continuing preoccupations: his insistence on the limits of logic, his distrust of what he called “mechanisms,” or attempts to plug in reform programs inconsistent with human desires; his denunciation of skepticism, which he called “a chronic atrophy and disease of the whole soul”; and his reverence for work and the fulfillment of duty.

A much more accessible book than Sartor Resartus is On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841). Twenty-eight English and 25 American editions have been made of it. The book has never been out of print. Yet it, too, blends the dazzling with the slightly deranged.

On Heroes and Hero-Worship is divided into six chapters or lectures: the hero as divinity (Odin), prophet (Mahomet), poet (Dante, Shakespeare), priest (Luther, Knox), man of letters (Johnson, Rousseau, Burns), king (Cromwell, Napoleon). All of Carlyle’s heroes, like himself, come of families of lowly status. They all have an unshakeable earnestness: “a deep, great, genuine sincerity, is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic.” All have “the great heart, the deep-seeing eye.” They are conspicuously different, and their difference commands, if not necessarily worship, then surely obedience. 

“Society,” Carlyle writes, “is founded on Hero-worship.” Not to recognize the true hero is proof of a man’s “own littleness.” The history of the world, he holds, is the combined biographies of great men: “We all love great men: love, venerate and bow down submissive before great men; nay can we honestly bow down to anything else?” A good part of the trouble of his own day, Carlyle argues, is that “Heroes have gone out; Quacks have come in.”

The cult of the great man has come under deep suspicion in the past century, which provided too many monstrous examples of figures who would qualify under Carlyle’s definition of great men. The hero, Carlyle writes, “is the missionary of order.” Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Mao all brought order—and with it limitless destruction and death. Nor can the sincerity of any of these tyrants be questioned. Would Carlyle have understood that the last great man, of thought and of action, of the 20th century was Winston Churchill, who met none of his qualifications?


Earlier, in 1826, Carlyle married Jane Welsh, the daughter of a Scottish physician and a student of Carlyle’s friend Edward Irving. A young woman of high spirit and literary ambition, Jane Welsh was much taken by Carlyle’s learning. “Carlyle’s unsuitability as a suitor had been apparent from the beginning,” writes Fred Kaplan, his most recent biographer. “With his constant complaints about his health, his rustic manners, and his lack of a practical vocation, he had little to recommend him except his ‘genius,’ his aggressive compliments, and his desire to serve.” Against her mother’s orders,  Jane continued to write to Carlyle. The courtship was lengthy; Jane, along with having doubts about Carlyle, is said also to have been fearful of sex. No one knows for certain, but their subsequent marriage, which produced no children, may never have been consummated.

“It is interesting that Carlyle, usually so imperious, often adopted a weak, pleading tone to his wife during the time of courtship,” wrote A.O.J. Cockshut, “though this did not prevent him from being a masterful, difficult and irritable husband and, in spite of their strong mutual affection, their marriage was full of quarrels and misunderstandings.” Jane never achieved her literary ambitions but instead gave herself over to aiding Carlyle in achieving his. The couple was apart for long stretches, often at times when his wife most needed Carlyle’s support. While at home, Carlyle was never short of complaints. As Jane wrote in one of her letters, he was distressed by “men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, wagons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, doorbells, gentleman raps, twopenny-post-raps and footmen-showers-of raps.” He never bothered to hide his admiration for the society hostess Lady Harriet Ashburton. With her jealousy over Lady Harriet, her constant health problems, her sadness over her thwarted ambitions, Jane Carlyle could not herself have been easy to live with. “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another,” Samuel Butler remarked, “and so make only two people miserable and not four.”

In his Reminiscences, Carlyle referred to Jane as “My Incomparable One” and “my noble one” and “my heroic Darling.” There he wrote, “She flickered round me, like perpetual radiance; and in spite of my glooms and my misdoings, would at no moment cease to love and help me.” Jane Carlyle died in 1866, 15 years before Carlyle, who frequently bemoaned her loss and who turned out to be a better widower than husband.

Financial worry marked Carlyle’s life through the early years of his marriage, and in the hope of putting it at bay, he turned in 1841 to writing The French Revolution, which he hoped to complete in one year but required three. Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), wrote about the French Revolution while it was still in progress. Alexis de Tocqueville, in the ninth chapter of Book II of The Ancient Regime and the French Revolution (1856), provided the most economical and balanced account of the revolution. Thomas Carlyle, writing about the revolution roughly 40 years after its conclusion, wrote about it with the richest palette, coloring its events and personalities with his own vivid, sometimes overheated imagination.

The first of Carlyle’s three-volume history, given the title of The Bastille, began well, until he showed it to John Stuart Mill, who had been helpful in loaning Carlyle his own books on the subject and who offered to critique it. Mill’s maid, noting the manuscript lying about, took it for wastepaper and burned it as kindling. “How well do I still remember that night when he came to tell us,” Carlyle wrote in his Reminiscences, “pale as Hector’s ghost, that my unfortunate First Volume was burnt. It was like a half sentence of death to us both [Carlyle and his wife]; and we had to pretend to take it lightly, so dismal and ghastly was his horror at it, and try to talk of other matters.” The penitent Mill sent 200 pounds to aid Carlyle in his reworking the lost portion of the manuscript, of which he kept 100. Carlyle went on writing his second volume, The Constitution, at first not having the fortitude to return to rewriting his destroyed pages, which he eventually did. At the close of a third year, he completed The Guillotine, his third and final volume.

The French Revolution was well received. Mill called it “this most original book, adding that “this is not so much a history, as an epic poem … the history of the French Revolution and the poetry of it, both in one; and on the whole no work of greater genius, either historical or poetical, has been produced in this country for many years.” The still young William Makepeace Thackeray, praising the book in the London Times, noted that it “possesses genius” and reads like “prose run mad,” adding that the style was nonetheless suitable to the madness of the subject. Thackeray compared Carlyle’s portraits of the leading figures in the revolution to the equivalent of Rembrandt in prose. The ever-faithful Emerson meanwhile arranged for the book to be published in America. “How great he was!” wrote Oscar Wilde, who was said to have memorized large portions of the book. “He made history a song for the first time in our language. He was our English Tacitus.”


The French Revolution has now been reissued in three handsome volumes by Oxford University Press. The footnotes, the preponderance of them in French, take up more pages than does Carlyle’s text. The book itself is a reminder of G.M. Young remarking that “being published by Oxford University Press is rather like being married to a duchess: the honor is almost greater than the pleasure.”

Mark Cumming and David R. Sorensen, the editors of the new edition of The French Revolution, remark on the inconsistency of Carlyle’s prose in this history: “Telling the stories of the Revolution forced Carlyle to draw on all his strengths as a writer: his intensely visual sense of reality, his ability to make history immediate by immersing his readers in the sights and sounds of the moment, his gift for concentrated, suggestive, metaphorical forms of expression, his deft sense of language and register, his immense vocabulary, and his vast stock of verbal allusions.” Much of the work is written in the present tense, to intensify the sense of immediacy in his rapid-fire descriptions of key figures and accounts of crucial incidents.

The cast of characters is familiar enough: Mirabeau, Danton, Marat, the Abbyé Sieyès, Dr. Joseph Guillotin, Foulon, Talleyrand, Necker, Lafayette, Robespierre, with Napoleon lurking in the background through all three volumes. More familiar, certainly, than the vocabulary Carlyle uses to describe them and their activities: edacy, jurant, foisonless, dubistating, fustigation, stoud, allelew, falchion, fanprandes, to cite only a few samples certain to send one to the dictionary. One encounters brilliant aphorism: “Where a will to quarrel is, there is a way,” and “If all wars, civil and other, are misunderstandings, what a thing must right-understanding be!” Lovely touches are everywhere tossed off. A letter is sent from the king to one of his ministers that he “will merely crush together, into his pocket, like a bill he does not mean to pay.” Of Louis XV, Carlyle writes that he “means well, had he any fixed meaning.” Brilliant portraits play through the book’s pages: of the heroic Mirabeau, of the cold-blooded Robespierre, of the hopeless Louis XV, the hapless Marie Antoinette, and several others.

In The French Revolution, Carlyle had set out to write a work that would combine his own ideas of history and poetry, and of the poetry implicit in history. As for his view of the revolution, he neither approved nor condemned it, but felt it was nonetheless necessary. The Bourbon monarchy, in his view, had become stale and corrupt, and with it the vain and selfish French aristocracy. Yet the revolutionaries themselves were unable to understand the true nature of their revolution, which soon enough lapsed into barbar-ous slaughter. “Never was a nation [France] worse prepared with individual strength or light of any kind for a bursting asunder of all old bounds and habits,” he wrote. “The old Sansculottes had only the strength to kill and to die.” As the editors of the Oxford edition note: “Carlyle addressed himself not to a preexisting body of conservatives or radicals, but to a wide audience of believers and honest doubters, respecters of authority and disbelievers in worn-out authority.”

The sage Carlyle performs throughout The French Revolution. He was early in condemning political reforms that violated human nature, argued against the notion that coarse prosperity was the proper end of human beings, analyzed how greatly a nation’s elites could be out of touch with the people they wished to govern. Consider, for a single example, his treatment of the revolutionary group known as the Girondins, whom Carlyle calls “pedants of revolution, if not Jesuits of it,” and who remind one of the progressives of our own day. Carlyle accuses them of being “strangers to the people they would govern; to the thing they have come to work in. Formulas, Philosophies, Respectabilities, what has been written in Books, and admitted by the Cultivated Classes; this inadequate Scheme of Nature’s working is all that Nature, let her work as she will, can reveal to these men.” The Girondins suffer not only from a deeply false vision, but also from a “fatal poorness of character, for that is the root of it.” They too will meet “the national razor,” as the guillotine came to be called, an early and prophetic instance of the propensity of revolutions for devouring their own adherents.

Carlyle viewed his book not as a work of traditional history, the standard dreary, dry analysis of cause and effect, but as an epic poem. “It is a wild, savage Book,” he wrote, “itself a kind of French Revolution, and it has come hot out of my soul; born in blackness, whirlwind and sorrow.” Many otherwise literary people have been put off by the over-richness of Carlyle’s prose. I myself found I could not read more than 15 or 20 pages of it in a single seating. Lytton Strachey is doubtless correct in arguing that “it is almost as fatal to have too much genius as too little,” and that in Thomas Carlyle’s case “the excellence, though it is undoubtedly there, is a fitful and fragmentary one.”

The French Revolution is a work one struggles to get through yet feels well rewarded for having done so. Its author, meanwhile, remains one of the strangest figures in English literature, a persistent moralist, obdurate in his opinions, not always intelligible, yet, somehow, indispensable.

Photo Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

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