Inaugural Address and Sir Walter Scott by Thomas Carlyle

by Paul Mathers

ImageOne imagines the moment when Dr. Eliot is presenting his list of books to Collier and Sons.

“And this title simply must be in the series. Everyone must read this.”

“But, Dr. Eliot, then this volume will only be around 300 pages. It will look odd on the shelf and Gatsby wont want to buy it and cut all the pages.”

“Ah. Well, I’m sure I can scrape together a few more short pieces by x.”

This has happened more than twice in this series. Although, in the case of Carlyle, I didn’t mind it so much.

The Inaugural Address was a hoot! Carlyle was appointed Rector at the University of Edinburgh late in life. The only official duty of the position was to give an Inaugural Address. Granted it was 1836 when people may have been less jaded, and granted it was a group of young people who genuinely wanted to be there, and granted he worked the crowd (“Edinburgh crowds are the best crowds! Hey, anyone here like John Knox and Oliver Cromwell? Give it up for the Puritans, Scots!” Not actual quotes, but also not terribly inaccurate paraphrases of some bits), but still this was a crowd that I genuinely would have like to have been a part of.

Here is an actual excerpt from the speech:

“There is such a thing as a man endeavoring to persuade himself, and endeavoring to persuade others, that he knows things, when he does not know more than the outside skin of them; and yet he goes flourishing about with them [Hear, hear, and a laugh]. There is also a process called cramming, in some Universities [A laugh]- that is, getting-up such points of things as the examiner is likely to put questions about. Avoid all that, as entirely unworthy of an honorable mind. Be modest, and humble, and assiduous in your attention to what your teachers tell you, who are profoundly interested in trying to bring you forward the right way, so far as they have been able to understand it.”

It goes on and on like that. I have to restrain myself from quoting more. It would not be difficult to find yourself wanting to quote the whole thing. Not only was Carlyle that charismatic (note the cheers and laughs at moments that might not elicit more than a smirk in the aforementioned jaded present day), but the speech is that packed with wisdom. It was a delight to read, something I will read again, and something I would highly recommend to young people.

Needless to say, I did not find this to be the filler material.

When I began his piece on Sir Walter Scott, I thought, “Wait a minute. Is this a book review? For a book that we have not been called upon to read?”

Yes and no. Also, even the portion to which the answer is “yes” serves a higher function. Carlyle speaks to those who criticize the “warts and all” school of biography. He defends this version of the telling of a life of a heroic figure by suggesting that it adds rather than demerits their heroic standing in that it humanizes. Therefore, it is a more efficacious way of elevating the human spirit, by suggesting the attainability of greatness. I would agree with him entirely with one small caveat. There is a difference between a “warts and all” biography and a “taking them down a notch” biography. I suspect that the latter had not yet been invented in Carlyle’s day or, at least, if they were, were only circulated in humbler circles.

Carlyle then goes on to give a sort of digest of the Life of Scott. It is engaging, but also just as human as his build up might suggest. We read a passage about the young Scott’s drinking parties. We hear of his visits with the prince and their gift of story-telling. We hear of how Scott handles fame, with vigor in output, tolerance with the deluge of guests, and more than a jot of foolishness in regards to his finances.

Carlyle takes a break at this point to turn his critique to the man’s oeuvre. He notes that his work, while ripping good reading in his time and wildly popular, lacks the enduring quality of speaking to the human experience. He says that Scott wrote people from the inside out rather than the outside in and thereby never reach their heart. There is nothing instructive to life, virtue, religion, or consolation in this cold universe. In an unnerving moment, Carlyle speculates that few people will be reading him two centuries hence (which is roughly right now) and that Scott will become a museum piece, something that people liked 200 years ago (I thought of some of our own highly popular novelists of the day).

He ends with a disconsolate excerpt from Scott’s journal on the death of his wife. This serves to thrust the point home in a heart-breakingly, almost monstrous way, of the potential here versus the execution. Scott’s private words of grief echo one of my deepest fears. Scott’s public works of publication… I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to reading in my lifetime.

As far as filler material goes, this was the best of the series thus far. I greatly enjoyed Carlyle although I still wonder why he is here and The Iliad or Candide or countless other works of great value did not make the cut. But such, I suppose, is the shifting nature of opinion over time.