he year that Latter-Day Pamphlets appeared, 1850, marked the end of thirteen years of economic and political disturbance and the beginning of a period of economic prosperity and political calm that endured until new appeals for reform, culminating in the Reform Bill of 1867, again disturbed the nation. Apart from a few months in 1851, during which he wrote The Life of John Sterling, Carlyle was occupied during most of this period with the writing of Frederick the Great. Neither work directly addressed the political issues of the day as Chartism, Past and Present, and Latter-Day Pamphlets had done, but they continued to explore the problem of authority by returning to the relationship between father and son that had preoccupied him in his early career. In The Life of John Sterling, Carlyle plays the role of father attempting to conceive a literary son; in Frederick the Great, he envisions a son seeking to obtain the authority of the father.
Fathering the Literary Son: The Life of John Sterling
In writing The Life of John Sterling, Carlyle was authoring the myth of Sterling's literary career just as in life he had attempted to father Sterling as a literary son. John Sterling rewrites the career paradigm that Carlyle had created in the 1820s. Like Sartor Resartus, the biography is in three parts and traces the hero's discovery of his literary vocation. Both Teufelsdröckh and Sterling are political radicals who reject a religious career in favor of a literary one. But, while Sartor Resartus ends just as Teufelsdrbckh is about to author a "new mythus," The Life of John Sterling shows what happens when the author actually tries to create the new mythus: he fails. [142/143]
Carlyle uses the life of Sterling to explore his own dilemma, arguing both that the literary career is the only one open to men of talent and that it does not satisfy the need for action. He seems to be choosing between making a final attempt to assume an active role in the political arena and withdrawing from it altogether, as literature could not be effective. Writing to his influential friend Harriet Baring of his "disgust with [the] trade," he wondered if he should "squeeze into Parlt. itself, and there speak Pamphlets, hot, and hot, right from the heart" (Wilson, 5:7 [Although the quotation appears in a passage in which Wilson cites a letter of 1847, the reference to Pamphlets suggests a later date, probably 1850. Wilson's documentation is scanty, and it seems likely that he has run together quotations from two different letters here.]). "Throughout the 1840s," Kaplan concludes, "the prospect of becoming a man of action, a public actor rather than a private thinker, had attracted him strongly.... Given his friendship with Bingham Baring and his relationship with Peel, the possibility of a new career in public service was more than wishful thinking" (361). Although Carlyle hoped that the Northcote-Trevelyan Report (1854) would lead to the appointment of civil servants by merit, he also continued to complain that, like Burns and Sterling, he was excluded from government by his class origins, that "Fate ... allowed [him] no other" profession (Wilson, 5:121-22; see also 5:85; Reid, 1:494-95; Shepherd, 2:152; Kaplan, 397; and Fielding, "Carlyle's Unpublished Comments on the Northcote-Trevelyan Report."). As in Latter-Day Pamphlets, he argues that because the major professions are not open to earnest young men like Sterling-who is best suited for a public life as a member of Parliament-they are forced to make a living in literature (LJS, 39-42). In The Life of John Sterling, he writes an apologia for the nineteenth-century man of letters.
In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle had projected an image of himself as the rebellious son who rejects his father's faith but then attempts to recuperate the transcendental through literature. In place of his religious father, James Carlyle, he had adopted a literary godfather, Goethe. With the "Reminiscence of James Carlyle," Carlyle turned from fiction to history, rejecting the transcendentalism of Goethe and the Germans in favor of his father's preference for the "real." On Heroes and Hero-Worship had further deemphasized the importance of literature by excluding Goethe and replacing him with men of letters who could not create a new mythus. The Life of John Sterling consolidates this process by replacing the earlier triad of Thomas Carlyle/son, James Carlyle/father, Goethe/ godfather with the triad of Sterling/son, Thomas Carlyle/father, Coleridge/ godfather. Carlyle's satiric portrait of Coleridge and "transcendental moonshine" is a displaced repudiation of the German transcendentalism of Goethe, who had influenced the [143/144] young Carlyle just as Coleridge had influenced Sterling. The Carlyle of The Life of John Sterling, moreover, is no longer a rebellious son, but the father who leads Sterling back to reality, reenacting the moment when he had submitted to the law of the father after writing the "Reminiscence of James Carlyle."
The first half of The Life of John Sterling closely parallels the narrative pattern of Sartor Resartus and Carlyle's career paradigm. Carlyle, like the Editor of Sartor, had known the subject of his biography personally and uses his letters and writings to compose the narrative of his life. Like Teufelsdröckh, Sterling "renounce[s]" the law and finds himself unable to discover a suitable profession (LJS, 40; see 38). Teufelsdröckh believes that he has recovered paradise in the heavenly love of Blumine, whom he compares to the "moon," but then learns that his discovery is a mere "calenture" (SR, 139, 147); Sterling falls for Coleridge's "transcendental moonshine" only to discover that Coleridge's teachings are "fatal delusion[s]" and "fatamorganas" (LJS, 60; emphasis added). Teufelsdröckh is a radical sansculotte who travels to Paris at the time of the 1830 revolt; in the same year, Sterling allies himself with the philosophic radicals and becomes involved in an abortive Spanish rebellion. Like Teufelsdröckh, he wanders endlessly in search of health and, after the Spanish debacle, which ended in the execution of the rebels, reaches the conclusion that his radicalism is a "Philosophy of Denial," an Everlasting No (LJS, go). In response to this crisis, Sterling, like Teufelsdröckh, who mounts the "higher sunlit slopes" of the "Everlasting Yea" and becomes an author, discovers that "his true sacred hill" is literature (SR, 184; LJS, 266; see LaValley, 304, 308). Robert Keith Miller is misled by Carlyle's preference for prose over poetry into concluding that Carlyle was opposed to Sterling's choice of literature for a career, but the narrative represents Carlyle, notwithstanding his ambivalence toward literature, pushing Sterling toward that career in preference to the religious vocation (41).
The second half of The Life of John Sterling represents what might be regarded as a continuation of Sartor Resartus, in which Teufelsdröckh fails to become a paternal authority and to author a new mythus. Instead of producing a Palingenesia, Sterling produces only a meager quantity of essays, poems, and tales, which are almost entirely ignored by the public. This is in keeping with Carlyle's abandonment of the transcendental aspirations of Sartor after the death of his father. Yet although Carlyle had abandoned these transcendental aspirations, he had continued to hope that he might become a literary father. Even though Sterling fails to become a father, he becomes a model for literary sons, those who might recognize Carlyle's authority and enable him to become a father himself.
Carlyle depicts his relationship with Sterling as the relationship of [144/145] father and son, of hero and hero-worshipper. Sterling plays the role of audience for Carlyle's writings, their relationship beginning with an exchange of letters on Sartor Resartus. Although, in their first exchanges, Sterling shows his inclination to adopt an independent critical position, Carlyle soon is able to regard him as his ideal reader, a son who finds in him the kind of father that he wants to be. By 1840, Sterling is Carlyle's most approving reader, telling him that he, considers the Miscellaneous Essays "the book of the last 25 years in England" and publishing the "first generous human recognition" of his work (Tuell, 309; LJS, 191; see CL, 11: 191-92). The Life of John Sterling both describes how Carlyle attempted to father Sterling's career by persuading him to give up religion, or at least the Church of England, in favor of literature, and shapes the narrative of Sterling's career itself' so as to make it fulfill this desire.
Carlyle wrote his narrative to correct Julius Hare's biography, which, Carlyle claims, misleadingly represents Sterling "as a clergyman merely" (3). Because Hare views Sterling from the point of view of Christian orthodoxy, he inevitably represents Sterling's career as a "defeat of faith," whereas Carlyle wishes to argue that his abandonment of conventional Christianity enabled him to become in the end a "victorious believer" (5, 6). Sterling had been attacked in 1848 by the high church English Review in an article entitled "On Tendencies towards the Subversion of Faith." The cause was then taken up by the even more fervent Evangelical paper, The Record, which attacked him repeatedly in the spring of 1849. One of his worst offenses was that he "did not scruple to avow that he regard[ed] Carlyle as being a truly inspired Isaiah!" (Tuell, 364). Carlyle begins his narrative by insisting that Sterling's interest in organized religion and theological issues ended when he resigned his curacy in 1835, shortly before they first met, that "during eight months and no more had he any special relation to the Church" (3). However, recent studies have established that, although health prevented Sterling from retaining his curacy, he still considered himself a clergyman and a follower of Coleridge when he met Carlyle in 1835 and that he sustained his connection with the church until at least 1839. Only in 1840, when he published defenses of Strauss and Carlyle, did he part with his more orthodox friends, and, even so, he continued to interest himself in theological issues.
Carlyle shaped the biography by pushing back to 1835-37 the date of Sterling's conversion to literature and by suppressing evidence of his continuing interest in theology. As Carlyle prepared to write by rereading Sterling's Essays and Tales, he was already looking for signs of heterodoxy, insisting in a comment written in the margin of the book that "This man must soon leave the Church" (Tuell, 344). Even before Sterling takes up religion, Carlyle is insisting that his only "solid fruit lie[s] in Literature" (74). As early as 1837, just two years [145/146] after Sterling had given up his curacy, Carlyle claims, "he began to look on Literature as his real employment," he "felt more and more as if authentically consecrated to the same," and he learned to look at "Literature as his work in the world" (144, 152, 157). Nonetheless, the evidence of Sterling's continuing interest in religion and his indecision about his vocation force Carlyle to push back the date of Sterling's conversion, and, in discussing 1841, he finds it necessary to assert that "Literature was still his constant pursuit" and that "we now hear nothing more" of Strauss and church matters (221, 222). In order to compensate for these difficulties, he gives prominence to those letters and episodes that emphasize his influence on Sterling and Sterling's literary interests. He reprints only those portions of Sterling's critique of Sartor Resartus that bear on its artistry, suppressing "several pages on'Personal God"' and quotes Sterling's assurance that his "thoughts have ... been running more on History and Poetry than on Theology and Philosophy" (116, 139; see 138. Another instance of Carlyle's shaping of Sterling's biography is discussed by Anne Skabarnicki in "Too Hasty Souls.")
At this point, Carlyle's shaping of Sterling's career in the biography nearly merges with his attempt to shape Sterling's career in life. Finding Sterling intelligent and earnest, Carlyle was respectful of his orthodoxy but encouraged every sign that he was abandoning theology for literature: "One of the announcements you made me was as welcome as any other: that you were rather quitting Philosophy and Theology. I predict that you will quit them more and more" (CL, 9:117-18). Carlyle makes it clear that he had actively striven to shape Sterling's beliefs, countering Sterling's concern about his "pantheism" with "flippant heterodoxy" and discouraging religious discussion by resolving to "suppress" all conversations "on the Origin of Evil" as 11 wholly fruitless and worthless" (LJS, 124, 130-31). He even went so far as to encourage Sterling to stop using the title "Reverend" on the title pages of his books (CL, 12:6, 322). Most importantly, he persuaded Sterling of the importance of Goethe. At first, Sterling had regarded Goethe as too pagan, but Carlyle convinced him of Goethe's higher spirituality by describing how his mentor had "save[d] him from "destruction" and provided him with a higher kind of faith (CL, 9:38o, n. 12, 381; LJS, 147). Even though by 1840 Carlyle had himself lost some of his enthusiasm for Goethe, his letters to Sterling made belief in this literary father an article of faith (CL, 11:216-17, IL3:321-22, 14:24, 73). Sterling relented, and he was soon following in Carlyle's footsteps as a translator and critic of German literature. [146/147]
Carlyle tries to counteract the tendency toward transcendentalism implicit in his insistence on the value of Goethe and literature by attempting to persuade Sterling, at the same time, that prose is superior to poetry. Carlyle makes the same objections to poetry and aestheticism that he had made to Coleridgean moonshine, criticizing Sterling's letters on Italian art as "nebulous" and suppressing his aesthetic appreciations as capitulations to the century's "windy gospels" of "Art" (175, 174; see 164). Carlyle's caricature of Coleridge, like that in his letters of 1824, condemns him because his poetic speculations draw his followers into an endless circuit of desire for the transcendent and prevent them from achieving closure in action.fn7 Carlyle argues, accordingly, that in an era of "revolutionary overturnings" prose alone achieves closure by producing something outside of itself, by doing battle: only the "Intelligible word of command, not musical psalmody and fiddling [i.e., poetry], is possible in this fell storm of battle" (196).
Yet, although Carlyle converts Sterling from religion to literature in the first half of the biography, he cannot, in the second half, convert him from poetry to prose. When, at the beginning of 1837, Carlyle encouraged Sterling to switch from theology to "poetry and history," his emphasis was on the latter, for by the end of the year he was discouraging him from writing verses (CL, 9:379). While Carlyle advised all poets of his acquaintance, except possibly Tennyson, to adopt prose, he seems to have hoped that he might really succeed with Sterling, and he persisted in his advice for at least five years. Carlyle gave Sterling this advice repeatedly between 1837 and 1842, and he may well have given it both before and after those dates (CL, 10: 12829, 234-35, 12:187, 263, 321, 348, 13:132, 14:22, 23).
A good example of his advice to aspiring poets may be found in his exchange of letters with W. C. Bennett. In 1847, Bennett sent Carlyle a sonnet, and Carlyle replied with his customary advice on seeking a better career than literature. When, in 1853, Bennett sent a pamphlet on educational reform, Carlyle replied enthusiastically that it was "much more melodiously 'poetical' . than the best written verses are" (Shepherd, 2:9, 135). Yet, although The Life of John Sterling represents Sterling as asking the question "Write in Poetry; write in Prose?" the question is really Carlyle's (195). At first, Sterling tries to satisfy his new friend, reporting in 1837, for example, that his new writings for Blackwood are "prose, nay extremely prose" (147). But, in spite of Carlyle's harsh criticisms and advice to the contrary, he persists in writing verse (CL, 12:320-22, 14:21-25; LJS, 250). Finally, acknowledging that Sterling is becoming "set more and more toward Poetry" and that "With or without encouragement, he [is] resolute to persevere," Carlyle concedes that "if a man write in metre, this sure enough was the way to try doing it" and in retrospect decides that he ought to have been more definite in affirming Sterling's poetic vocation (204, 250, 216-17; see CL, 13:132). His acquiescence to Browning, after reading Men and Women (1.855), is phrased in almost the same way: "I do not at this point any longer forbid you verse, as probably I once did. I perceive it has grown to be your dialect, it comes more naturally than prose.... Continue to write in verse, if you find it handier" (LMSB, 299-300).
The question turns out to be not "prose or poetry" but whether Sterling was a "true son" who accepted Carlyle's authority or a "mutinous rebel" who denied it (264). Sterling lives in an era of revolution [147/148] when sons do not respect the authority of their fathers. Instead of being a disciple who conforms to authority as he might have in an era of faith, Sterling is a rebellious son — a "Radical," and an "emblem" of the era of revolution — who cannot make himself submit to his literary father (36, 5-6, 267). He criticizes Sartor Resartus, persists in his Coleridgean transcendentalism and in writing verse, even doubts the heroism of Cromwell. Like Teufelsdröckh, the young colt who breaks his constraining neck-halter, Sterling is an escaped "Arab courser ... Roaming at full gallop over the heaths" (40). The emphasis on wasted energy, however, suggests that Sterling is more like Farmer Hodge's emancipated horse in Latter-Day Pamphlets than the coltish Teufelsdröckh of Sartor Resartus. Indeed, Carlyle would have Sterling, like the emancipated slave, brought under the law of the father, "trained to saddle and harness" (40). Whereas in Sartor Resartus Carlyle focuses on the son's need to rebel and turn to literature as a means of recapturing the transcendental idyll from which he has been sundered by the father, in The Life of John Sterling the rebellious son becomes a past self for whom his present self lays down the paternal law. Yet, just as Carlyle's literary persuasion was unable to lay down the law for blacks and Celts, so it cannot constrain Sterling to submit to his authority and give up poetry.
Born of the era of revolution, Sterling remains an eternal wanderer. He cannot achieve closure by writing a myth that enables action; he is, like Childe Roland, fit only to "fail" with his fellow questers. Whereas Teufelsdröckh's wanderings presumably end when he becomes an author, Sterling's continue, even increase, after he is converted to literature; his five major "peregrinities" are emblems of his restless, "nomadic" character: "He could take no rest, he had never learned that art; he was, as we often reproached him, fatally incapable of sitting still" (155, 26; see 30, 40, 91, 92, 96, 102, 104, 121, 133, 134, 184, 266; CL, 8:50). The relationship between ill-health and wandering in The Life of Schiller, as well as that between ill-health and selfconsciousness in "Characteristics," now manifest themselves in the life of Sterling, whose "bodily disease was the expression, under physical conditions, of the too vehement life which ... incessantly struggled within him" (155)
Yet Carlyle ultimately concludes that Sterling is not a "mutinous rebel," that he is both "filial" and "submissive," because in this "Talking Era ... the anarchic, nomadic, entirely aerial" career of "Literature" is the "only one completely suited" to him (264, 43). His decision to [148/149] write poetry is not an evasion of the call to battle, but the only possible form of action for a man of his sensibility: he is finally a "victorious doer" because life's "battle shaped itself for" him "chiefly in the poetic form" (6, 222). Sterling must wander endlessly because, even though he can stop being a rebellious son, he cannot become an authoritative father. Like Carlyle, he discovers that literature is no more capable of escaping the endless circuit of desire than is Coleridgean religion. In his final effort to conform to the law of his literary father, Sterling attempts in his last work, Cour-de-Lion, to write a Homeric epic, but this work is left incomplete at his death, literally without closure (255).
Instead of blaming himself for directing Sterling into the fruitless pursuit of literature, Carlyle condemns Coleridge for leading him into the "deserts" of theology and failing to bring him to "new firm lands of Faith beyond" (60). Yet, as Clough was to charge (perhaps with this passage in mind), Carlyle was equally guilty of leading a younger generation "into the desert and ... [leaving] them there," no longer sons but not yet fathers (Hale, 46). If Carlyle could still claim to recall his preexistence in paradise, the doubly belated literary son could only recall the wanderings of exile. If Carlyle could in a limited way engender progeny like Sterling, Sterling could not accomplish even that; his writings all fall "dead-born" (250). Yet the Sterling of this biography is an avatar of Carlyle, not the Carlyle who believed he could become a procreative father, but the Carlyle who so often felt his works were born dead.
The Life of John Sterling also expresses the irony that, whereas Carlyle had sought to father a king, to shape Peel in the image of Cromwell, he had only succeeded in fathering a man of letters, shaping Sterling in his own image. A heroic soul born in the nineteenth century, it suggests, will not possess the vigor of the Puritan general, but will instead suffer the debility of the man of letters too enfeebled by consumption to perform the duties of a parish curate. Whereas Carlyle had once hoped that heroism could be recovered by replacing the hero as man of letters with the hero as king, he now seems to conclude that only the diminished heroism of the man of letters is any longer possible. In the end, The Life of John Sterling is not just an apologia for the man of letters but an elegy for heroism.
* * * * * *
The rhetoric of The Life of John Sterling signals Carlyle's withdrawal from public controversy. Instead of the angry prophet addressing a fallen nation, here he is a melancholy memoirist recalling and defending [149/150] a beloved friend. Whereas in his previous works he had debated with his audience, 'The Life of John Sterling excludes its readers: all of the conversation is between Carlyle and Sterling (106, 124, 252). Undoubtedly because it was a much "gentler business" than "The Negro Question" and Latter-Day Pamphlets, because he did not have an antagonistic relation with the man he wrote of, Carlyle found the book easier to write than those more controversial works (Sadler, 286; see Kaplan, 372, Rem., 127). The reviewers immediately noticed the change in tone and praised its calm, its tenderness, its freedom from "rant, eccentricity, and extravagance" (Dixon, 1088; see 1090). Other reviews noting the change in tone include Gilfillan, esp. 717; "The Life of John Sterling," Examiner, esp. 659; "John Sterling and His Biographers," Dublin University Magazine, esp. 185-86; George Eliot (in Seigel, Critical Heritage, 377); Francis Newman (in Seigel 380); John Tulloch (in Seigel, 393). Of course, Carlyle was only half pleased that a book he considered "light" and unimportant received a better reception than his other recent works (Marrs, 685).
Although Carlyle isolated himself from his audience by avoiding a direct engagement with them, he also continued to isolate himself by attacking their most cherished beliefs. The religious reviews, recognizing that in spite of its milder tone The Life of John Sterling took up the attack on the Church of England and orthodox Christianity where "Jesuitism" had left off, were "in a terrible humour" with him (LL, 2:97). In The Life of John Sterling, they claimed, Carlyle had finally revealed himself as a demon-a "Mephistopheles," a "Satan," a "Herod" — who delighted in leading an innocent young clergyman into the paths of heterodoxy (North British Quarterly, 245; Christian Observer and Advocate, in Seigel, Critical Heritage, 403, 405). The North British Quarterly and George Gilfillan in the Eclectic Review charged him with "Nihilism" and "despair" (North British, 245; Gilfillan, 721, 720). Even the Spectator, which had published Carlyle's articles on Ireland in 1848 and attributed "an attractive charm" to the new book, complained that he "has no right ... to weaken or destroy a faith which he cannot or will not replace with a loftier" (Brimley, 1024). Carlyle concluded that the "review newspaper and world [were] all dead against" him, that "though no one hates" him "nearly everybody of late takes [him] on the wrong side, and proves unconsciously unjust to" him (LL, 2:139-40). Indeed, his "Heterodoxy" probably cost him a government pension and election as rector of the University of Glasgow. Prince Albert had proposed the pension, but Lord Aberdeen turned it down on the grounds of Carlyle's "Heterodoxy" (NL, 2:157). When Carlyle was nominated for the office of rector of the University of Glasgow, the Scottish papers attacked him for denying "that the revealed Word of God is 'the way, the truth, the life"' (Wilson, 5:13 1; see NL, 2:170-70).
Although he frequently took up his pen in the early 1850s to address the religious and political questions of the day, his writings all led to the same issue as the manuscript known as "Spiritual optics." This manuscript does not mention The Life of John Sterling or the controversy it aroused, but it clearly refers to it when Carlyle asks
Why ... men shriek so over creeds?" But he makes little headway toward producing an effective reply; instead of producing an effective response to his critics, he gets locked up in the contradiction between his beliefs that cultural values are relative and that they are transcendental. Finding himself at a dead end, he abruptly concludes, "alas, not a word of this is coming rightly from my heart; nor is it tending (naturally) toward any good or even perceptible goal whatever!
In another manuscript, he again finds himself drawn to contemporary subjects, even though he was writing history — "modern Dundases with their appointments to India . . . the Pig-Iron interests . . . the reduced Whiskey interests" — he concludes that it is "much better that we say nothing, Altim Silentium (Tarr, "The Guises, 19). Concerned, like The Life of John Sterling, with the problem of jesuitism, this manuscript records the attempt of the Catholic Guise family to repress the truth of the Reformation, a process that only brings back the repressed truth with greater violence in the French Revolution (27, 61; the same point is made in FG, 1: 2 23). Comparisons with the French Revolution of 1789 appear throughout (e.g., 39, 45, 46). Instead of trying to make himself heard over what he thought of as the Babelian din of London, he sought isolation from it by having a soundproof room constructed at the top of his house and withdrawing into the world of Frederick the Great.
Frederick the Great was not admired by all, but it created still less controversy than the Life of John Sterling. Indeed. during the thirteen years he worked on Frederick, Carlyle managed to avoid almost all public controversy. Carlyle published a few very minor writings between the time he completed The Life of John Sterling and 1855, when he became immersed in Frederick the Great, and after 1855 there is little in the way even of manuscripts addressing current issues. Only "Ilias (Americana) in Nuce" (1.863), which was only half a page long and was aimed primarily at America, not England, sought controversy. As a prodigy of scholarship and a heroic act of writing, it helped restore Carlyle's reputation as an historian and a man of letters. Those who had parted from Carlyle could not be won back by it, but those who wished to think well of the hallowed man of letters could do so. If in 1854 he was found too heterodox to be elected rector of the University of Glasgow, by 1866, after the appearance of Frederick, he was elected, by a huge margin, rector of the University of Edinburgh.
Contents last modified 2002; reformatted 2006 & 2015