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decorated inititial 'A't age fourteen Thomas Carlyle set out on foot with a companion to enroll in Edinburgh University, 100 miles away. The walk took five days. When they reached the university city, Tom and his friend (a few years older) registered for classes and arranged for board and room. Five years later, Carlyle was graduated but not with the degree in theology planned for originally.

Much has been written about the influences literary, religious, familial and others that shaped Carlyle's life and work. German Romantics (Herder, Fichte, Novalis and especially Goethe). Scot Presbyterianism, a stern father and assorted ill health contributed, write scholars, to Carlyle's matter and notorious style. But no one has considered Carlyle's first extended trip away from home. One is impressionable at age 14; for all his life up to 1809, he had lived in Ecclefechan and its immediate environs. Ecclefechan [see Ordnance Survey map] was and remains a small village 100 miles southwest of Edinburgh. Though Tom's route is not precisely known, the corridor he is likely to have followed is sited with history and filled with names resonant to sensitive ears. Today's maps of Scotland mark numerous Roman forts, roads and camps, one such structure only a few miles east of Ecclefechan. Castle ruins are numerous as are abbeys, kirks and cairns.

As with most of Scotland, this region is hilly, ruggedly so; and steep as topographic lines crowd closely together in some areas. Hills 1500' to 1900' are common. Tumbling down, through and around these hills are waters, runs, esks and rivers. Lochs nestle in pockets. "Walds," "holms," and forests indicate the dense woods or as suffixes to city names suggest the frequency of this feature. The names of other geographic or geologic features stud the landscape and the language-conscious 14-year-old ( he was eventually to become fluent in seven languages) must have registered their music: Muckle Snab, Stibblegill Head, Piks Knowe, Drygutter Brae, Burntbot Plantel, Mellion Muir, Meg's Shank, Glensaxon Fill, Jock's Hope, Mosspeeble, Cartin Tooth, Minton Kames, and the list goes on. The names--gnarly, brusque, wry, and, "for a' tha', " poetic--came at the 14-year-old lad in unending succession as he paced his way (through history and imagery) to the capital. Could he have remained indifferent to them?

As complex (and contradictory) as are the elements making Tom's character are the influences on his style. The sermons he listened to while a boy attending Presbyterian church (see Encyclopaedia Britanica) — and reinforced by his strict, even dour, Calvinist father — fixed in Carlyle's mind and memory the rhythms and crescendoes of oratorical periods; these came naturally to the Scot as he rounded into the Victorian sage [see Holloway's book with that title] from Sartor Resartus, Past and Present, Heroes and Hero Worship and Frederick the Great.

W.W.Waring, in his brief study of Carlyle, quotes from the latter's Two Notebooks: "Every man that writes is writing a new Bible, or a new Apocrypha." [p. 59] Tom knew his Bible and despite rejecting the religion of his father never left the principles and metaphors of his early exposure to the church. But Carlyle's whole practice was founded on the observation and poetic exploitation of specific incidents, telling details, concrete images. Though Carlyle was dyspeptic and subject to depression, he was neither blind, nor deaf, nor dumb. Five days on the road to Edinburgh , his first lone extended experience of the world outside of Ecclefechan were not blanks to him. The hills and valleys of Scotland were alive to his senses, affective to his imagination. Again Waring, commenting on Carlyle's biographical method:

he sought out the believable anecdote in preference to the cold fact. That he found sensual, personal involvement [mine] necessary for his writing of biographies explains the emotional and editorial intrusions of his personality into what he writes better than do charges of irresponsibility, physical illness or psychological disorder. [81]

Emphasizing as I have Carlyle's career-long practice of seeking colorful, energetic and specific details would be misleading if I left the reader thinking Carlyle was a "realistic" writer concerned mainly with filling his essays, fiction, histories and biographies with merely acute observations of setting and character. Carlyle hated such writing of the eighteenth century. Rather, Carlyle, always the sage of Ecclefechan, sought the noumenal in the phenomenal [see Kant and Fichte], but for "noumenal" substitute "spiritual." It is through concrete details that the writer ("poet," Carlyle called him) can envision true reality behind or within the world of common but precisely selected objects and actions. " 'Rightly viewed,' states Teufelsdroeckh,' no meanest object is insignificant, all objects are windows, through which the philosophic eye looks into Infinitude itself.' " [Sartor Resartus, Oxford World Classics, p. 36]

Carlyle, overnighting at inns and farmhouses, made his way to Edinburgh in November of 1809. Teufelsdröckh, a transparent disguise of Carlyle, noted that "'[a]ny road, this simple Entepuhl [Ecclefechan?] road, will lead you to the end of the World.'"


Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Biography

Last modified: 25 February 2002