Thomas Carlyle

’Fortuna’ by Thomas Carlyle describes how no single person can change the world, and that one must not mourn that which is beyond their ability to control. 

Thomas Carlyle

Nationality: English

Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish historian, translator, and poet.

Today, he is commonly known as the "Sage of Chelsea."

’Fortuna’ by Thomas Carlyle is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, or quintains. The stanzas follow a consistent and structured rhyme scheme of ababb, alternating with different end rhymes, as the poet saw fit, within each set of lines. Carlyle has chosen not to utilize one metrical pattern in this piece but to jump back and forth between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Or more simply, between lines with four sets of beats and three. 

Additionally, there are moments such as in line three of the third stanza where there is an uneven number of syllables, coming out to seven or nine beats per line. The end of this particular line shows the use of “rising meter” in which two unstressed beats are followed by a stressed. This can also be seen in the second line of the first stanza. 

Fortuna by Thomas Carlyle


Summary of Fortuna 

Fortuna’ by Thomas Carlyle describes the fact that no single person can change the world, and that one must not mourn that which is beyond their ability to control.

The poem begins with the speaker describing how humankind, at least the majority of it, lives in a cycle of rising, toiling, and retiring for the night. This repeats over and over again as the wind blows and the frost and rainfall. He continues on to describe how there is no reason to be sad, it is a “thriftless” or indulgent emotion. One cannot alter one state of being by mourning over it. 

The second half of the poem introduces the speaker’s own experience. He believes that a life spent thinking and mourning is one wasted. He does not have time for such frivolous pursuits as he has a goal in mind. The speaker is on a journey and he is ready for anything he might be confronted with. His path is his own and just as one cannot change the trajectory of the world, his own life cannot be altered. 


Analysis of Fortuna 

Stanza One

The wind blows east, the wind blows west, 

And the frost falls and the rain: 

A weary heart went thankful to rest, 

And must rise to toil again, ’gain, 

And must rise to toil again. 

In the first stanza of ‘Fortuna’, Carlyle makes immediate use of repetition of words and phrases. This is a pattern of writing which is common throughout most of his poetic works. It is used in this instance to help create a rhythm in the text. There is a swaying motion present between the two halves of the first line, ‘The wind blows east” and “the wind blows west.” This mimics the motion of the wind itself which is traveling back and forth through the imagined landscape. 

The first lines of the poem also work to set the scene and establish a pattern of writing for the rest of the piece. While the wind is blowing there is also a falling of “frost” and “rain.” It is clear from just these two brief descriptions that the landscape is not a completely pleasant one. The weather is tiresome and somewhat degrading as the speaker describes someone who has a “weary heart.” The subject who is being described does not receive any additional details other than basic emotional traits. This allows a reader to project their own experience onto that which Carlyle’s speaker is detailing. 

The one who has a “weary heart” has come home for the day and feels “thankful” that they are getting “to rest.” The rest does not last long as this person is made to “rise to toil again, ‘gain.” This phrase, with a slight alteration, is repeated again in the fifth line of the stanza. This is another instance of Carlyle using repetition to emphasize an aspect of his verse. The words are repeated, but so too are the actions. A reader or listener must read or hear these phrases multiple times, just as the worker will rise and toil every day. 


Stanza Two 

The wind blows east, the wind blows west, 

And there comes good luck and bad; 

The thriftiest man is the cheerfulest; 

’Tis a thriftless thing to be sad, sad, 

’Tis a thriftless thing to be sad. 

The second stanza of ‘Fortuna’ begins as the first did, with the flowing phrase, “The wind blows east, the wind blows west.” Here is another moment, very similar to that which was spoken of in the previous stanza. The elements of the world are still working on the scene in the same way. Within this day “good luck and bad” are both present. They act on a man who is both the “thriftiest” and the “cheerfulest” This person is not concerned with great wealth, and through his thriftiness, he has found happiness. 

This section concludes with the poet making use of the same repetitive pattern used in the first stanza. His speaker declares that it is a “thriftless thing to be sad, sad.” It is a waste of one’s energy and time to worry about being sad. It is useless in the larger scheme of things as it will do nothing to improve one’s situation. 


Stanza Three

The wind blows east, the wind blows west; 

Ye shall know a tree by its fruit: 

This world, they say, is worst to the best;— 

But a dastard has evil to boot, boot, 

But a dastard has evil to boot. 

Once again the poet has chosen to begin the third stanza in the same way. This use of the line allows a reader to place the individual stanzas within the same world. These forces are acting on all the emotional characters Carlyle is establishing. 

His speaker states that “Ye,” addressing the listener of the poem, “shall know a tree by its fruit.” One can come to understand another person or a situation by its product. Just as an apple tree is known by the fruit which it makes. Keeping this metaphor in mind, the speaker continues on to describe a statement he sees as being common, that “This world…is worst to the best.” 

The final lines seem to contradict this statement as he speaks of a “dastard” or dishonorable person. Someone of this nature is said to have “evil to boot, boot.” There is nothing lucky about their situation, they are filled with an evil which they spread. 


Stanza Four

The wind blows east, the wind blows west; 

What skills it to mourn or to talk? 

A journey I have, and far ere I rest; 

I must bundle my wallets and walk, walk, 

I must bundle my wallets and walk. 

This stanza contains the final instance of the opening refrain, “The wind blows east, the wind blows west.” Following this now familiar phrase, the speaker asks his listeners what purpose there is to mourning. He does not believe there is any reason to sit around and “talk” about what is wrong in one’s personal life, or in the world in general. 

This way of living is emphasized when he declares that he has “A journey” to complete and far to travel before he can “rest.” He cannot afford to sit and contemplate things he cannot change. The speaker has somewhere he must be and will brave the way, stealing himself for whatever might come. 


Stanza Five

The wind does blow as it lists alway; 

Canst thou change this world to thy mind? 

The world will wander its own wise way; 

I also will wander mine, mine, 

I also will wander mine.

The final stanza of ‘Fortuna’ begins differently than those which preceded it. This change acknowledges the conclusion of the poem. The wind blows “alway” or always, and there is nothing one can do to stop it. He asks the listener if “thou” is able to “change this world to thy mind?” No is the answer he is looking for. 

There is no way to alter the world, especially not by only thinking about it. The world will do as it pleases and “wander its own wise way.” It knows better than a single person does what should and shouldn’t happen. 

In accordance with these lines, the speaker intends to live his own life as he pleases. He too will “wander” where he sees fit. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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