Thomas Carlyle: literary achievements and influence

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      Thomas Carlyle was in the van of Victorian era and his voice resounded in his generation with more force and aroused wider echoes than any other. Although Carlyle lived to feel the influence of the scientific movement of the mid-century, he remained in spirit and attitude a revolutionary of the older period. He was not an abstract revolutionary, not a mere literary radical like Charles Lamb. He was thoroughly imbued with the revolutionary spirit. Dissatisfied with modern commercialism and a champion of the simplicities of life, he represented the idealistic reaction against the ethos of the Victorian era. Looking at his works as a whole, we are struck by the burning ethical enthusiasm that lights up every utterance. As a writer, he is indeed very great; less imposing than Ruskin but endowed with an incisive force.


Carlyle lived to feel the influence of the scientific movement of the mid-century, he remained in spirit and attitude a revolutionary of the older period.
Thomas Carlyle

      When Carlyle came up to London with Sartor Resartus (1833) in his pocket, Coleridge was the dominant spiritual force among those of the younger generation. Both he and Coleridge were impatient with the cause and effect of philosophy of the eighteenth century and both of them valued German idealism as providing the basis of a vital and practical religion. The hero in Sartor Resartus is supposed to be a German professor who has written a philosophical book on clothes, their origin and their influence. The idea comes, in fact, from Swift but Carlyle makes use of it to express the doctrines of German transcendentalism. He is concerned to pierce through the exterior to the inward essence. The whole book is written in a tone of intense and imaginative irony.


      The years of his maturity consist of three considerable historical studies The French Revolution (1837), Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845), Frederick Second (1853-1865). There are various essays on social politics: Chartism (1839), Heroes and Hero- worship (1841), Past and Present (1843). All the works even the historical ones are animated by the same spirit filled with the same ideas. Carlyle was both a satirist and prophet. He expounded his doctrines on the conduct of individual man and the organisation of society. Although he had freed himself from dogma, he remained very religious. He rejected the letter of Christianity, but retained the spirit. He fought against materialism and against the utilitarians who had only material progress in mind. He believed that present society was evil. Beneath the surface of apparent prosperity was frightful poverty.


      These passionate ideas are expressed in an eccentric and powerful style into which enter several elements borrowed from German language but which on the whole is entirely personal. This powerful style recalling that of the Hebrew prophets, surprises by its lyrical charm, its continual coining of new words and expressions, its personifications of abstract qualities. It is endowed with an intense life and animated by a rugged humour and by the gift of comic exaggeration.

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