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Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
by Terence Green
Thund’rous Trumpets sound
Heralds of Doom’s own Carriage.
Beware Mammon’s Snare!
Thomas Carlyle was born in the Scottish hamlet of Ecclefechan. I tell you that not because it’s important but because I like the name. Ecclefechan. Marvellous!
His family were strict Calvinists. Everyone expected that young Tom would become a preacher when he came of age, on account of his being so opinionated and given to lecturing others on what they should be doing. But preaching can only reach the people who bother to turn up on a Sunday, and Tom wanted to tell far more people what to do, so he became a writer. He expounded on the ills of the world, lamented the condition of the poor, and constantly prophesied the collapse of society in a revolutionary conflagration brought on by its obsession with money. The ‘Cash Payment’, he wrote, had become ‘the sole nexus between man and man’, while power had been usurped by economists – those masters of the ‘dismal science’.
However, Carlyle was also a stupendously excellent historian, and his The French Revolution: A History (1837) was a best-seller. He poured every ounce of his creative energy into this magnificent work. Seeking comment on his efforts from one of the other great minds of the time, John Stuart Mill, Carlyle sent him his precious creation. Unfortunately, a maid, not being one for reading such hifalutin material, thought it would make the perfect fire-starter. Which it did. So, gritting his teeth and muttering obscenities, which no Sassenach would have understood anyway given his thick Scots accent, Carlyle wrote it all out again. As a Calvinist, he could probably see this as just one more of God’s trials, and thus feel himself blessed.
Carlyle’s writing was like nothing anyone had ever seen; it combined a preacher’s hellfire and brimstone grandiosity with the exhortatory and admonitory effervescence of a prophet. He made up words, used others he’d dug up from ancient sources, italicised wildly, and capitalised indulgently. Read! ye Sinners, the Works of this Great Man, and be Schooled!
© Terence Green 2023
Terence Green is a writer, historian, and lecturer who lives in Eastbourne, New Zealand.