Chapter 2, Part 3 of the author's Carlyle and the Search for Authority, which the Ohio State University Press published in 1991. It appears in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright.

1. Numbers in brackets indicate page breaks in the print edition and thus allow users of VW to cite or locate the original page numbers.

2. Where possible, bibliographical information appears in the form of in-text citations, which refer to items in the list of abbreviations or to those in the bibliography at the end of each document.

3. Non-bibliographic notes appears as text links.

4. not in print version indicates a link to material not in the original print version.

5. Alwin Wee, an undergraduate in the University Scholars Program, National University of Singapore, created the electronic text using OmniPage Pro OCR software, and George P.Landow created the HTML and later CSS versions, converting footnotes, and adding links.

initial A t the same time he was formulating the history of the loss and recuperation of authority in his biographies of German writers and fictional characters, Carlyle was representing his own history in his letters and journals. Although his loss of faith and abandonment of a religious calling appears to have been a gradual process, he represented it in later years as a cataclysmic event resulting from his reading of Gibbon: "I read Gibbon, and then first clearly saw that Christianity was not true" (Allingham, Diary, 232). The authority of miracles — a form of revelation, as they manifest the divine in the realm of the human had been at the forefront of the debate on revelation since the seventeenth century. Carlyle describes Gibbon's attack on "the orthodox belief in miracles" as the central event in his loss of faith. His first reading of the Decline and Fall in its entirety-- between November 1817 and February 1818 — is almost certainly combined in his representations of the event with his decision, just a few months earlier, to abandon his studies for the ministry (CL, 1: 112, 115). Six months before he read [28/29] Gibbon, he had announced to his friend Robert Mitchell that "every, true religion is propped & bolstered, & the hand of its rivals tied up; till by nursing and fattening it has become a bloated monster that human nature can no longer look upon-and men rise up & knock its brains out" (CL, 1:99). When assessing the importance of Gibbon to this process, it is important to keep in mind that Carlyle had already decided that the religious vocation was no longer a high one, it too having been reduced to a "trade" (CL, 1: 60). Carlyle did not just accidently turn to Gibbon at this moment; he was seeking in his history the means to knock the brains out of a bloated Christianity.

Although the idea of earning his living as a writer occurred early in 1814 he envisioned himself as attaining "literary fame," and in 1817 he began his first attempts at professional writing-literature did not initially represent for Carlyle a means of achieving authority, replacing the religious vocation, and recovering the domestic idyll (Kaplan, 39). From 1817 into the mid-182os, he contemplated several careers, only slowly establishing himself as a professional writer. After rejecting schoolteaching and pursuing studies in mathematics and science that might lead to a university career, he enrolled, in 18ig, as a law student. This brief episode later enabled him to identify with Goethe and Schiller, although it is important to note that in Carlyle's case it was not the law but the religious vocation that had been imposed by paternal authority. Sartor Resartus, in representing Teufelsdröckh constrained by the law rather than religion, disguises the fact that Carlyle had rebelled against the very religious authority that he sought to recuperate.

It was not until Carlyle encountered the German Romantics that he began to represent literature as a replacement for religion. He seems to have begun learning German both to study mineralogy and to read the authors he had learned of through Mine. de Staël (CL, 5:136; see Campbell and Tarr). While Carlyle might have found the idea of literature as replacement for religion in Coleridge, he always attributed it to the Germans. Although it seems likely that he had read Coleridge's criticism, I can find no references to it in Carlyle's writings before 1823 (TNB, 46-47; Shine, Carlyle's Early Reading, 69, no. 455). He began learning German in 1819, and by the middle of 1820 was writing that German literature promised to reveal a "new Heaven and new Earth" (CL, 1:268). He learned from the Germans to represent literature as the new liturgy: from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, who tells his friend Werner that "it was the poet . . . that first formed gods for us; that exalted us to them, and brought them down to us" (WM, 1: 114); from Schiller, whom he depicted as an "Apostle" whose "creed" was "Literature" (LS, 200); and from Fichte's On the Nature of the Literary Man, which depicts authors as the "appointed interpreters" of the "Divine Idea," a "perpetual priesthood ... standing forth ... as the dispensers and living types of God's everlasting wisdom" (CME, 1: 58). [29/30] This myth of poetic inspiration and genius represented poets as transhistorical individuals whose visionary capacity gives them the transcendental authority of both prophets and kings. Since literary men were prophets who would constitute the new church, their literary productions would be its liturgy and revealed texts, replacing the discourse of Christianity with literary discourse. Carlyle consistently depicted the writers he most admired, especially Goethe, as priests and prophets, and German literature became his Bible (CL, 6:271, 7:3; SR, 252-53; see CME, 3:16, 58, 119; LS, 46; WM, 1:113. His second major review article, "The State of German Literature" (1827), summed up his view of German literature as a new religious creed, the article's conclusion equating religion and literature (CME, 3:85). Correlatively, writers, like Jeffrey, about whom Carlyle had reservations were excluded from the priesthood of literature (TNB, 175). The literary artist reinstitutes revelation, Fichte's literary man, for example, manifesting a "Divine Idea." "Every man that writes," he concluded, "is writing a new Bible; or a new Apochrypha; to last for a week, or for a thousand years" (TNB, 264). By the time he wrote his essay on Burns in 1828, he could claim that "Poetry ... is but another form of Wisdom, of Religion," and, by the 1830s, the notion that "Literature is fast becoming . . . [a] Church" in which the man of letters is "Pope" had become a commonplace in his writings (CME, 1: 314, 2:369-70; see 3:201-2; TNB, 223. The linkage between poetry and revelation, prophecy, and inspiration appears frequently in Carlyle's early writings (see TNB, 211; LS, 201; CME, 2:94-95; HGL, 5; SR, 224).

Because literature recuperates theocracy, the author is not only prophet but king, producing the texts of the law as well as of belief (CME, 2:370). just as literary authors create new beliefs and new Bibles, they also create new laws as "legislators" and lawmakers. The comparison of poet and king, ruler, lawmaker appears repeatedly in his writings. He claimed that the "writer of the first Book in a language ... must be ranked by the nation he writes for, infinitely higher than any conqueror or lawgiver" (HGL, 28). In comparing the institution of literature to the church, he had also called it "our Senate, our whole Social Constitution" (CME, 2:369). He compared Burns to a legislator and argued that Johnson's true calling was not for literature but for the more active political arena, "as Statesman (in the higher, now obsolete sense), Lawgiver, Ruler" (CME, 1: 287, 3:92; see also SR, 45; TNB, 139; HGL, 28; CME, 1: 287, 2:369, 3:92).

Goethe is "king of himself and of his world," superior to Napoleon and Charles XII, and Burns, a "Napoleon among the crowned sovereigns of modern Politics" (WM, 1: 24; CME, 1: 297) . See also CME, 2:372, 398. Shakespeare is also implicitly a king, since he "knew (kenned, which in those days still partially meant can-ned) innumerable things" (CME, 3:142-43). A journal entry made in early 1831 envisions in the poet the theocratic union of prophet and king that supplants feudal monarchy: since King William-the heir to feudal monarchy-has become a "usurper," the "only Sovereigns of the world in these days are the Literary men (were there any such in Britain), the Prophets. It is always a Theocracy; the King has to be anointed by the Priest, and now the Priest (Goethe for example) will not ... consecrate the existing King, who therefore is a usurper, and reigns only by sufferance" (TNB, 184).

In 1822, Carlyle's first article on German literature appeared, and his career as translator and promoter of German literature, a career that would continue until 1832, had begun. By early 1825, he had adopted as his "very creed" the passage-translated and quoted at length in his Life of Schiller-in which Schiller condemned hack writing and depicted literature as a high vocation, making its aim "philosophy, [30/31] religion, art" (CL, 3:271; LS, 2oo; see 201-2). Although still a hack writer, Carlyle had raised himself to the level of the translator and interpreter of the new prophets, enabling him to claim to his mother that he was after all "a kind of missionary" (CL, 4: 1 80).

The adoption of this creed-the creed that men of letters could create a new creed-was crucial to the recovery of belief Carlyle achieved during the famous Leith Walk episode in 1822. In retrospect, this episode, like his reading of Gibbon, acquired special importance for Carlyle, so much so that he claimed late in life that the Rue St. Thomas de l'Enfer episode of Sartor Resartus "occurred quite literally to myself in Lieth [sic] Walk" (TR, 49). But this event, which passed unnoticed in his letters and even in the privacy of his journal, only became significant in retrospect when combined with the discovery of the Germans (see Moore, "Carlyle's Conversion"). A new realm of possibilities had opened up in that year when he published his first essay on German literature ("Faustus") and began making the transition from student of German literature to preacher of its doctrines. Although still without his own authority, he was no longer hacking at encyclopedia articles and translations of geometry, but proclaiming a new gospel. His claim that he was "indebted to Goethe" for the Leith Walk experience suggests that what actually happened in 1822 was that he began to envision the achievement of authority through literature (Rem., 282).

By 1827, Carlyle had formulated the narrative of a career in which literature recuperates lost religious faith, enabling one to return home by recreating the lost domestic idyll. This "history" is outlined in one of his earliest letters to Goethe:

I was once an Unbeliever ... exasperated, wretched, driven almost to despair; so that Faust's wild curse seemed the only fit greeting for human life.... But now, thank Heaven, all this is altered ... I look forward with cheefulness to a life spent in Literature.... No wonder I should love the wise and worthy men by whose instructions so blessed a result has been brought about! For these men too there can be no reward like that consciousness that. . . those that are wandering in darkness turn towards them as to ... loadstars guiding into a secure home. (CL, 4:248)

In discovering his authority and creating a "period of new Spirituality and Belief, in the midst of old Doubt and Denial ... wherein Reverence [31/32] is again rendered compatible with Knowledge, and Art and Religion are one," Goethe had enabled Carlyle to establish his own authority as well (CL, 5: 106). This description appeared in a letter to Goethe describing his projected (and never completed) history of German literature. In this letter, Goethe's era explicitly succeeds an era of skepticism. A similar pattern and attitude may be seen as late as 1832 (CL, 6:123; see CME, 3:178).

Because Carlyle's authority could not take the form of the religious authority of the pious father who had never experienced doubt, he had to imagine his own authority, his ability to become a father, via the model of Goethe. In June 1824, Carlyle wrote Goethe of his need to "pour out before [him], as before a father, the woes and wanderings of a heart whose mysteries you seemed so thoroughly to comprehend" (CL 3:87; emphasis added). One must take into account the circumstance that Carlyle was a young author seeking to ingratiate himself with the master. He certainly had reservations about Goethe, but in a letter to a friend he did claim, in spite of these reservations, that he "could sometimes fall down and worship" this adopted father (CL, 2:437; see Ikeler, 27-29, 73-77). From this time forward, Carlyle adopted Goethe as his "spiritual Father" ( , 4:209; see 248, 406)The authority lost with the death of the father must be recovered in a new father figure. Just as Teufelsdr,6ckh discovers his authority in the moment that he rediscovers the presence of his father in the universe, so Carlyle's adoption of Goethe as father signified the recovery of authority that validated his literary career.

Yet if Carlyle was to be an authority in his own right, he could not be content to proclaim the gospel of German literature; he must produce his own sacred texts. So long as he could only preach the gospel of German literature and was unable to preach his own, his calling remained an "Egyptian bondage" (CL, 4:102; see 1:310, 2:145-46, 3:4, 10, 23, 5:226, 230, 214, 285-86, 303). Despite protestations that "literature is the wine of life; it will not, cannot, be its food," he had to find his food, and later Jane's as well, through writing (CL, 3: 2 44; see 5:237). But he insisted that literature, which was "another name for ... Religion," could be distinguished from "Periodical writing" (CL, 5:250-51; see 254-55; TNB, 170-71). As early as 1821, he declared that he wanted to "write a book for [his] own convenience," a longing that persisted in his subsequent desire to create "a Kunstwerk of [his] own" (CL, 1:399, 3:407). Yet, before 1830, he managed only three unsuccessful attempts to write a novel-- "Illudo Chartis," Wotton Reinfred, and an epistolary novel he proposed to coauthor with Jane Welsh (CL, 2:229-31). He did manage to complete a short story, "Cruthers and Jonson," in 1822 (published 1830). Although he could represent others recovering authority, he could not recover authority himself until he created his own authoritative text. Sartor Resartus was especially important as an attempt to break out of the bounds of political economy. With it, Carlyle not only enacted the mythology of the literary career by producing a narrative in which the hero becomes an author, he also succeeded in creating his first original work of literature. In addition to representing the recuperation of authority in the [32/33] career of Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle hoped this work would establish his own authority as a man of letters.


Victorian Website Overview Thomas Carlyle Next Contents

Last modified 5 October 2001