Carlyle, Thomas (1795--1881), a Scottish critic, essayist, and historian. He was one of the most influential British writers of the 19th century.
Carlyle believed that the important realities were spiritual, and were only clothed by the material world. He felt that duty, not pleasure, should guide men's actions. In his anger at what he interpreted to be insincerity and falseness, Carlyle often appeared to be unduly harsh and lacking in sympathy for his fellow man. Though he loved the common man as an individual, he was deeply distrustful of political democracy. He believed that some men---the “Great Men” or “Heroes” of history---are born to be leaders while others are born to be followers.
Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, the first-born of a stonemason's nine children. His father was a sternly devout Calvinist who encouraged him to enter the ministry. He attended Annan Grammar School before enrolling at Edinburgh University at the age of 14. He excelled in mathematics and left the University in 1814 to teach. In 1819 Carlyle abandoned teaching and returned to Edinburgh to study law.
Carlyle became intensely interested in German literature and philosophy, and soon realized that he preferred literature to law. He began to write articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia and did some translations from the French and the German. His German translations included Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister (1824) and German Romance: Specimens of Its Chief Authors (4 volumes, 1827). Carlyle's first book, The Life of Friedrich Schiller (1825), first ran serially in the London Magazine.
In 1826 Carlyle married Jane Baillie Welsh, a poet. The couple lived in an isolated farmhouse in Craigenputtock, Dumfriesshire, from 1828 to 1834. Carlyle struggled with poverty. He suffered from fits of depression and from dyspepsia (indigestion) that steadily grew worse. During this time he wrote essays, the most noted of which are Burns (1828) and The Signs of the Times (1829), his first essay on contemporary problems. Sartor Resartus, a philosophical satire with autobiographical elements, appeared as a serial in Fraser's Magazine (1833–34) before being published in book form in 1836. The style is characterized by the use of colloquialisms, Biblical phrases, and Germanic sentence structure.
In 1834 the Carlyles moved to the Chelsea district of London. Carlyle lectured to supplement his income from writing.
Carlyle's reputation was firmly established with The French Revolution (3 volumes, 1837). The work is less an orderly history than a series of prose poems warning of danger to England if social reforms were not undertaken. On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) is a collection of lectures delivered in 1840. Its theme of the hero's vital role in history was continued in Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845) and the six-volume life of Frederick the Great (1858--65).
Carlyle came to be known as the “Sage of Chelsea.” He was honored by an appointment as Lord Rector of the University of Edinburgh in 1865. His wife died in the same year. Carlyle's depression after her death was deepened by ill health, and his right hand was stricken by paralysis in 1872. He died in London, and was buried in Ecclefechan beside his parents. Reminiscences (written 1866, published 1881) contains sketches about himself, his family, and acquaintances.
Carlyle: Selected Works, Reminiscences and Letters (1957) is a sampling of Carlyle's works. The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle (7 volumes, 1977) is a collection of correspondence.