IHAS: Poet
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Scottish philosopher, writer, historian, and critic, Thomas Carlyle dominated European and American thought in the 1830's and 1840's. A passionate Germanophile, his translations of Schiller, Goethe, and other German Romantics were profoundly influential on both sides of the Atlantic and formed a linked between German, English, and ultimately American Romantic thought. To these he added his own masterpieces, THE HISTORY OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION (1837), ON HEROES AND HERO-WORSHIP (1840), PAST AND PRESENT (1843) and his spiritual autobiography, SARTOR RESARTUS (1833).

Educated at Edinburgh University, Carlyle abandoned his plans for entering the ministry in favor of a career in literature. He married Jane Welsh in 1826, who for the next forty years remained his personal and intellectual helpmate. An accomplished author herself and an energetic, witty woman who numbered among her friends, the Brownings, Mazzini, Tennyson, and the Gilchrists, she devoted much of her life with Carlyle to domestic chores and to assuaging the humors of her temperamental spouse. When she died in 1866, Carlyle mourned "a blow that shattered his whole existence into immeasurable ruin."

His flamboyant prose with its focus on the individual and personal viewpoints-- "history is the essence of immunerable biographies"--transformed the way historical narrative would be written; his sympathy for the industrial poor would influence successive generations of social novels; and his study of medieval abbey life offered a new perspective on machinery, craftsmanship, and industrial progress. Increasingly, however, he grew conservative in his thoughts, alienating a poet of democracy like Walt Whitman with his racist views of African-Americans and his criticism of the American experiment.

Go Next Carlyle &
American Renaissance

Yet despite the reservations about Carlyle's democratic theories which he expressed in DEMOCRATIC VISTAS, Whitman, like Emerson, Fuller, and many other thinkers of the American Renaissance found Carlyle to be the key to European Romanticism. It was in Carlyle's translations that Whitman first encountered German literature and he shared with the English philosopher a fondness for the Folk Movement, a love of Robert Burns and a passion for the common man. But the correspondences go even deeper. From Carlyle's pantheon of heroes--religious founders, prophets, and poets, Whitman gained inspiration for creating his own identity: the modern Poet-Prophet of the Self. From SARTOR RESARTUS, whose satire Whitman reviewed as "weird, grotesque," but whose admixture of ecstasy and pain, real and surreal, boasting and brag, sounded a sympathetic chord, Whitman may well have found the energy to proclaim in LEAVES OF GRASS: "I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."

Carlyle's prestige as an historian and his reputation as a social prophet and critic were unassailable in hislifetime, though since his death in 1881 critical opinion has viewed his work --especially his beliefs in authoritarian leadership--with increasing unease, particularly after the abominations of Fascism. Nevertheless, he remains admired as a prose writer of genius, who had the courage to use grand rhetoric with great abandon--reveling in exclamatory turbulence, emotional evocations, and clever coinages of words.

As Margaret Fuller had written in THE DIAL of 1841: "Where shall we find another who appeals so forcibly, so variously to the common heart of his contemporaries?"

Go Next Passages



"The Bastille is besieged! on, then, all Frenchmen that have hearts in your bodies! Roar with all your throats of cartilage and metal, ye sons of liberty; stir spasmodically whatsoever of utmost faculty is in you, soul, body, or spirit, for it is the hour! Smite thou, Louis Tournay, cartwright of the Marais, old soldier of the Régiment Dauphiné, smite at that outer drawbridge chain, though fiery hail whistles around thee! Never, over nave or felloe, did thy ax strike such a stroke. Down with it, man; down with it to Orcus; let the whole accursed edifice sink thither and tyranny be swallowed up forever!"


"Thus had the Everlasting No (das ewige nein) pealed authoritatively through all the recesses of my Being, of my ME; and then was it that my whole ME stood up, in native God-created majesty, and with emphasis recorded its Protest. Such a Protest, the most important transaction in Life, may that same Indignation and Defiance, in a psychological point of view, be fitly called. The Everlasting No had said, 'Behold thou art fatherless, outcast, and the Universe is mine' (the Devil's); to which my whole Me now made answer: 'I am not thine, but Free, and forever hate thee!'

It is from this hour that I incline to date my Spiritual New-birth or Baphometic Fire-baptism; perhaps I directly thereupon began to be a Man."


"Poetry, therefore, we call musical thought. The Poet is he who thinks in that manner. At bottom, it turns still on the power of intellect; it is a man's sincerity and depth of vision that makes him a Poet. See deep enough, and you see musically; the heart of Nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it...."

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