Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish writer, and Ralph Waldo Emerson spent many years in correspondence and Emerson also visited Carlyle abroad. Here are Emerson's personal thoughts about Carlyle:
August 26, 1833: “…Thomas Carlyle lives in the parish of Dunscore, 16 miles from Dumfires, amid wild and desolate heathery hills, and without a single companion in this region out of his own house. There he has his wife, a most accomplished and agreeable woman. Truth and peace and faith swell with them and beautify them. I never saw more amiableness than is in his countenance.
T.C. was born in Annandale. His reading multifarious, Tristram Shandy, Robinson Crusoe, Robertson’s America, Rousseau’s Confessions discovered him that he was not such an ass as he had imagined. Ten years ago he learned German. Longdon; heart of the world, wonderful only for the mass of human beings…. Splendid bridge from the new world to the old, built by Gibbon….
T.C. had made up his mind to pay his taxes to William and Adelaide Guelph with great cheerfulness as long as William is able to compel the payment, and he shall cease to do so the moment he ceases to compel them. Landor’s principle is mere rebellion, and he fears that is the American principle also. Himself worships the man that will manifest any truth to him.
Mrs. Carlyle told of the disappointment when they had determined to go to Weimar, and the letter arrived from the bookseller to say the book did not sell, and they could not go. The first thing Goethe sent was the chain she wore round her neck, and how she capered when it came! but since that time he had sent many things. Mrs. C., said, when I mentioned the Burns piece, that it always had happened to him upon those papers to hear of each two or three years after. T.C. prefers London to any other place to live in. John S. Mill the best mind he knows, more purity, more force, has worked himself clear of Benthamism.”
September 1, 1833: “…The comfort of meeting men of genius such as these is that they talk sincerely, they feel themselves to be so rich that they are above the meanness of pretending to knowledge which they have not, and they frankly tell you what puzzles them. But Carlyle – Carlyle is so amiable that I love him.”
March 29, 1837: “Carlyle again. I think he has seen, as no other in our time, how inexhaustible a mine is the language of Conversation. He does not use the written dialect of the time, in which scholars, pamphleteers and the clergy write, nor the Parliamentary dialect, in which the lawyer, the statesman, and the better newspapers write, but draws strength and mother-wit out of a poetic use of the spoken vocabulary, so that his paragraphs are all a sort of splendid conversation.”
August 9, 1837: “Carlyle: how the sight of his handwriting warms my heart at the little post-window; how noble it seems to me that his words should run out of Nithsdale or London over land and sea to Weimar, to Rome, to America, to Watertown, to Concord, to Louisville; that they should cheer and delight and invigorate me….
How noble that, alone and unpraised, he should still write for he knew not whom, and find at last his readers in the valley of the Mississippi, and they should brood on the pictures he had painted, and untwist the many-colored meanings which he had spun and woven into so rich a web of sentences; and domesticate in so many and remote heads the humor, the learning and the philosophy which, year by year, in summer and in frost, this lonely man had lived in the moors of Scotland. This man upholds and propels civilization. For every wooden post he knocks away he replaces one of stone.”
February 3, 1838: “Five days ago came Carlyle’s letter, and has kept me warm ever since with its affection and praise…”
March 5, 1838: “I have read with astonishment and unabated curiosity and pleasure Carlyle’s Revolution again, half through the second volume. I cannot help feeling that he squanders his genius. Why should an imagination such as never rejoiced before the face of God, since Shakespeare, be content to play? Why should he trifle and joke? … that there is, therefore, some inequality between his power of painting, which is matchless, and his power of explaining, which satisfies not.”
June 24, 1840: “…I know nobody among my contemporaries except Carlyle who writes with any sinew and vivacity comparable to Plutarch and Montaigne. Yet always this profane swearing and bar-room wit has salt and fire in it. I cannot now read Webster’s speeches. Fuller and Browne and Milton are quick, but the list is soon ended. Goethe seems to be well alive, no pedant. Luther too.”
July 12, 1842: “Carlyle represents very well the literary man, makes good the place of and function of Erasmus and Johnson, of Dryden and Swift, to our generation. He is thoroughly a gentleman and deserves well of the whole fraternity of scholars, for sustaining the dignity of his profession of Author in England. Yet I always feel his limitation, and praise him as one who plays his part well according to his light, as I praise the Clays and Websters. For Carlyle is worldly, and speaks not out of the celestial region of Milton and Angels.”
October 1847: “I found at Liverpool, after a couple of days, a letter which had been seeking me, from Carlyle, addressed to ‘R.W.E. on the instant when he lands in England,’ conveying the heartiest welcome and urgent invitation to house and hearth. And finding that I should not be wanted for a week in the lecture rooms, I came down to London, on Monday, and at ten at night the door was opened to me by Jane Carlyle, and the man himself was behind her with a lamp in the hall. They were very little changed from their old selves of fourteen years ago (in August) when I left them at Craigenputtock. ‘Well,’ said Carlyle, ‘here we are, shoveled together again!’ The floodgates of his talk are quickly opened, and the river is a plentiful stream. We had a wide talk that night until nearly one o’clock, and at breakfast next morning again. At noon or later we walked forth to Hyde Park, and the palaces, about two miles from here, to the National Gallery, and to the Strand, Carlyle melting all Westminster and London into his talk and laughter, as he goes. Here in his house, we breakfast about nine, and Carlyle is very prone, his wife says, to sleep till then or eleven, if he has no company. An immense talker, and, altogether, as extraordinary in that as in his writing; I think even more so. You will never discover his real vigor and range, or how much more he might do than he has ever done, without seeing him. My few hours’ discourse with him, long ago, in Scotland, gave me not enough knowledge of him; and I have now, at last, been taken by surprise by him.
He is not mainly a scholar, like the most of my acquaintances, but a very practical Scotchman, such as you would find in any saddler’s or iron-dealer’s ship, and then only accidentally and by a surprising addition the admirable scholar and writer he is….
Carlyle and his wife live on beautiful terms. Their ways are very engaging, and in her bookcase all his books are inscribed to her, as they come from year to year, each with some significant lines….
I had a good talk with Carlyle last night. He says over and over, for months, for years, the same thing, yet his guiding genius is his moral sense, his perception of the stole importance of truth and justice; and he, too, says that there is properly no religion in England.”
December 22, 1848: “…Carlyle is thought to be a bad writer. Is he? Wherever you find good writing in Dorian or Rabelaisian, or Norse Sagas, or English Bible, or Cromwell himself, ‘tis odd, you find resemblance to his style.”
October 1851: “In reading Carlyle’s Life of Sterling, I still feel, as of old, that the best service Carlyle has rendered is to Rhetoric or the art of writing. Now here is a book in which the vicious conventions of writing are all dropped; you have no board interposed between you and the writer’s mind, but he talks flexibly, now high, now low, in loud, hard emphasis, then in undertones, then laughs outright, then calmly narrates, then hints or raises an eyebrow, and all this living narration is daguerrertyped for you in his page. He has gone nigher to the wind than any other craft. No book can any longer be tolerable in the old husky Neal-on-the-Puritans model. But he does not, for all that, very much uncover his secret mind.”
December 1853: “Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson, Carlyle, and Macaulay cannot be matched in America.”
May 1859: “…And meantime here has come into the country three months ago a book of Carlyle, History of Frederick, infinitely the wittiest book that ever was written…
And this book makes no noise: I have hardly seen a notice of it in any newspaper or journal, and you would think there was no such book.”
December 1856: “Carlyle. I have neglected badly Carlyle, who is so steadily good to me. Like a Catholic in Boston, he has put himself by his violent anti-Americanism in false position, and it is not quite easy to deal with him. But his merits are over-powering, and when I read Friedrich, I forgot all else.”
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Heart of Emerson's Journals. Ed. Bliss Perry. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926. Print.