A great stylist, really. He wrote at a very high rhetorical pitch, full of epic similes and exclamation points. Some passages sound like they should be declaimed. Except the weight is undercut by his irony and humor, to the extent that it’s often hard to tell if he means to be taken entirely seriously. (Or, as I suspect is the case with Sartor Resartus, it’s all meant seriously, and the irony is meant not to undercut the ideas but to conceal their outrageousness). Carlyle’s essay on Mirabeau, written around the same time as The French Revolution, is an extreme example of his style – one does not so much read as decode it.
An example of Carlyle at his best. It is the evening of the 8th of Thermidor. Robespierre and most of his allies will be dead within 48 hours. Here’s Carlyle:
“Robespierre, for his part, glides over at evening to his Jacobin House of Lords; unfolds there, instead of some adequate resolution, his woes, his uncommon virtues, incorruptibilities; then secondly, his rejected screech-owl Oration; - reads this latter over again; and declares that he is ready to die at a moment’s warning. Thou shalt not die! shouts Jacobinism from its thousand throats. ‘Robespierre, I will drink the hemlock with thee’, cries Painter David, ‘Je boirai la cigue avec toi’; - a thing not essential to do, but which, in the fire of the moment, can be said.”
Why look, there’s everything I mentioned. E.g., the epic similes: the “Jacobin House of Lords” in place of the Hall of the Jacobin Society, and “Jacobinism”, not an –ism at all but some group of assembled Jacobinists, certainly with fewer than 1,000 throats. The novelistic characterization is good, with Robespierre’s pettiness, ego, and self-pity deftly sketched. The last line is unusually zingy, almost an aphorism. Or a punchline.
I can read this sort of stuff at length with great gusto.
Modern Library edition, p. 692.