Thomas Carlyle: The Critical Heritage (The Collected Critical Heritage : Victorian Thinkers)
Almost overnight, it seemed, Carlyle plunged from his position as Sage of Chelsea and Grand Old Victorian to the object of puzzled dislike, or even of revulsion. The Reminiscences had been published, warts and all, by an editor who thought his duty to give them to the public rather than to polish away the irritations, the thin-skinned sarcasms against contemporaries many of whom had died recently or had living relatives , the asides of a man recently bereaved but possessed still of such verbal gifts that a passing remark could make a very visible mark.
The Reminiscences gain much of their effect from the immediacy of the emotion which produced them. In , however, they seemed harsh, intolerant, bitter, unjustified often: to a readership that wanted the Olympian reminiscences of a Great Man of Letters, they offered instead evidence that Carlyle was an ordinary human being with sensitive nerves and a gift of speech which made his utterances memorable, even those his admirers might prefer to forget.
Carlyle was revealed as a man of temper and tantrum, of bitter exaggeration in speech and in letter though not as the man of self-deprecation and humor who emerges from so many other accounts. Froude plainly worshipped Jane Carlyle, and found Carlyle's attitude to her insufficiently respectful and neglectful in the decades of her poor health. Froude's writing, though vivid, is clearly flawed and biased, and his manipulation of evidence and documents high-handed.
The family reacted with outrage: Charles Eliot Norton's edition of the Reminiscences is a new book, an attempt to rescue Carlyle's memoirs by proper editing and delicate censorship from notoriety. The volumes of letters and papers edited by Norton and by Carlyle's new champion, his nephew Alexander Carlyle, in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries attempted to right the balance.
To some, Carlyle had been revealed as a wife-beater, a reactionary, a pig-headed, narrow, sharp-tongued man of double standards who advocated high morals and lived by low ones. To others, this portrait was an impossible travesty and in the arguments back and forth about who said what, who edited which manuscript with how much fidelity, and even over whether Carlyle ever beat his wife or indeed consummated his marriage, for the argument gained grotesque momentum once it had started , Carlyle's work, his positive contributions to his age, became blurred and almost forgotten.
And time moved on: what had been revolutionary in faded in the s and s. The s saw some revival of Carlyle's fortunes thanks to new biography above all the completion of David Alec Wilson's six-volume life and solid scholarly attention on both sides of the Atlantic, but the subject of fascism in the s and s again drove Carlyle out of fashion, despite the very dubious links people made between his later work and the National Socialism of Hitler, who may have enjoyed reading Carlyle's history of Frederick the Great, but who hardly lived up to the demands Carlyle made of a real hero.
No matter: Carlyle remained a neglected writer till the mid s; since then critical awareness of his work and its importance has risen steadily. With the publication of scholarly editions of his works, and above all of his letters, the reader stands a better chance than ever before of making an accurate and fair estimation of his importance. Any critical estimation of Carlyle must take into account the sheer scale of his work, not only in quantity but also in range. It is hard not to credit Carlyle's industry.
He was adept at several different kinds of writing, he changed his ideas over decades, he had the courage to innovate when he could have repeated formulae of previous successes. He responded freshly and memorably to the Victorian industrial urban scene when he first settled in London in the s; by the s he was part of the Victorian urban scene, even if he still thought as an outsider, an observer.
Much as he deprecated the greater part of public life and most public figures in his time, he was part of that time, and an important man who enjoyed the attention he received, while paradoxically requiring much peace, privacy, and freedom to walk the streets alone at night, like Dickens seeking inspiration and strength from the power of slumbering London. He advocated a universe of hard work and dedication to ideals, and certainly he practiced what he preached.
But what exactly did he practice? First, Carlyle practiced an incisive, satirical, perceptive journalism. He had the power to see weakness and to give it grotesque shape--in the color of the complexion of the famous "sea-green Robespierre" an indicator of character ; as the fatuous "Morrison's Pill," in Past and Present , promising a patent wonder cure for an ailment too deep-seated and complex to be cured ever by extension a rejection of political panaceas of every kind ; in the Hebrew "Old Clothes," conflating the Jewish moneylenders and parasites of society which Carlyle personally execrated with the central image in Sartor Resartus of the tattered and outworn intellectual garments of a society that desperately needed a new set; and finally, in purely invented characters, such as "Sir Jabesh Windbag" of Past and Present , empty political orators offering endless iteration instead of incisive analysis, or better still action.
By skillful and repetitive use of essentially deflationary tactics, Carlyle alerted his readers to much that was degenerate. He taught them distrust of the facile and the glib; indeed, he taught them to distrust leaders of almost every hue, even while striving to inculcate hero worship. Samuel Butler's bitter gibe that "Carlyle led us into the wilderness, and left us there" has a good basis in fact, for Carlyle's reductive political analysis was seductive in that it did much to sweep aside sham a favorite term in his vocabulary , but it also undermined confidence in all public figures.
Lacking heroes in his own time, Carlyle satisfied himself with revering heroes of the past and puncturing would-be heroes of the present. It was a dangerous, but, for many decades, a successful political stance. Second, Carlyle practiced a form of history in which carefully documented past events were to reveal a hidden construct, a deeper truth, a movement of the inevitable and the supernormal. He visited battlefields, always seeking the truth and the flavor of historical experience.
The past became real to Carlyle in the privacy of his attic study, after he had tramped the Prussian battlefields, the villages that figured in the history of Cromwellian England. In his study he surrounded himself with likenesses as he thought--often very questionably of the people he was studying, with pictures of their homes and of the places where they fought, with firsthand accounts of battles and of everyday reality.
In the study Carlyle tried to re-create reality as it was for his subjects and attempted to see life vividly through their eyes. For him, his was reality. Further, there was another deeper reality, a Garment which he had glimpsed through his reading of German Romanticism, a mystery neither understood nor controlled by clumsy humanity, but visible in glimpses to the patient historian who could interpret the mystery to the reader. Carlyle took this responsibility seriously.
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There was an enormous amount of chaff to be sifted and winnowed for the essential aspects of such history to be glimpsed, and the convolutions with which Carlyle wrote, revised, and proofread his work he drove printers to despair with his proof changes are an index of the extent to which he worked at his history and perfected the art of looking at the past from the present, somehow bending the shaft of that regard back toward the present. He lived in troubled and reforming times and, in highlighting the weaknesses and the bloodshed of the past, he tried to contribute a sense of order and structure to a process still going on, and imperfectly under control.
Third, Carlyle perfected a style which had a notable effect on his times. Its constituents are various. He drew on his early study of German for syntax and some verbal items. An early admiration of Elizabethan and Puritan authors was, by his own admission, a powerful stimulus to his style.
His peasant Scottish ancestors he also credited with a strong formative power, and it is notable that family friends spoke of the Carlyle facility for coining nicknames, which Thomas Carlyle used to devastating effect in such works as Latter-Day Pamphlets. Carlyle was, openly, a hectoring author. The suavity of earlier works such as "Signs of the Times" was replaced by infectious energy in such scenes as the storming of the Bastille in The French Revolution: the overwhelming desire to make vivid, to capture the imagination and visualizing power of the reader sweep through the pages and command attention, captivate, and compel.
Carlyle's vividness operated powerfully to command assent, both assent to long-vanished history and assent to a new vision of the present the dingy slums surrounding the Model Prisons of the Latter-Day Pamphlets , the Irish needlewoman of Past and Present. Carlyle's creation was spurred by a single item of reported news, by a single artifact a jawbone from a Cromwellian battlefield , by a single picture.
His imaginative involvement was such that it demanded a like effort from the reader, and his style is very much involved in eliciting that response. If the mind's eye is affected by the power of Carlyle's descriptive writing, so is the ear. Carlyle's verbal manipulations are those of elaboration, but the actual sentences and repetitions are such as to assault the senses. Rhetorical punctuation, repetition, orchestrated effects of imagery and symbolism suggest pictures and elicit assent more through the effect of a "mighty line" than through philosophical or logical progression; it was easy, many felt too easy, to be swept away by such passages as that describing the fall of the Bastille in The French Revolution , to mistake style for sense.
A related point was sharply made by Anthony Trollope in his celebrated satirical portrait of "Dr Pessimist Anticant" in The Warden Carlyle's Past and Present is a case in point. Clearly, he advocates moral improvement, mental bracing, order, duty, hero worship: these are not easy doctrines to translate to practice, and Carlyle lost many adherents when they found that the general prescriptions which had seemed compelling when presented with all Carlyle's skill, seemed unworkable in the less ordered and more ambiguous light of everyday. This difficulty was sensitively treated in Mrs.
Gaskell's North and South: Carlylian ideas obviously inform every part of this novel, yet the characters who try to implement Carlylian ideas in their unrefined form Thornton, Margaret find that some flexibility and some modification are required. Those who were able to adapt and adjust Carlylian principles continued to revere him as a potent influence on their thinking.
Those who could not, distrusted his writing and his ideas. What, finally, are these ideas? First, order is a central theme. Carlyle grew up in a home dominated by a system which stressed order and submission. He survived adolescent identity crisis by imposing order on his own life, and he went on to produce a critique of his times based on an awareness that disorder was threatening to overtake and destroy the advances of the Victorian age and the industrial successes it had achieved.
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In his adult life Carlyle lost no chance to show his particular brand of order in action Cromwell, Frederick, Abbot Samson and the chaos that followed loss of order. Trapped between a warm personality he gave, generously, to various objects of charity and an urgently, overwhelmingly pressing view of order, Carlyle found himself torn in his private life and, increasingly, in his public writing--torn between a vision of a freer humanity in his early works and a vision of collapsing anarchy in society in all his later ones.
Only order could stand between his society and that anarchy. Second, the energy which Carlyle saw in the world around him, whether as a result of his early scientific studies in physics or of his fascination with the German Romantics and their sense of life's Mystery, was an abiding concern.
John Ruskin: The Critical Heritage (The Collected Critical Heritage : Victorian Thinkers)
In "Signs of the Times" he saw that energy in the machines which were taking over his world; by Chartism and Past and Present the worth of those machines had become ambiguous indeed, and the dystopian vision of a world where people surrendered moral autonomy to their machines was a real nightmare for him.
Only such a surrender of oneself, he argued, could lead to the asinine lack of priorities he set about revealing in the Latter-Day Pamphlets , the general breakdown he saw around him. His rallying call to "Work and despair not," from Sartor Resartus onward, seeks to give shape to a vision of directed energy, directed to production in an ordered society, guided by a yet higher energy that is not seen and not understood, yet that is clearly there in Carlyle's world pattern.
As God or as Creator, that energy pulses through Carlyle's world, and man responds by working. The problem, always, is to channel and to understand energy, to keep control without stifling creativity. Third, Carlyle gave his age a vision of structure. His own religious position, carefully vague in its exposition, allowed readers to find in it a workable position for themselves. Injunctions to work, to obey, to reverence heroes, to fear God found echoes in many people who wished to believe, and who were captivated by the style with which Carlyle delivered these injunctions.
That they were not specifically Christian did not prevent Christians from accepting them sincerely; like Tennyson, Carlyle found the artistic means to project a message in a carefully unfocused state which suited the diverse needs of his readership. Behind his public stance lay a private world of doubt, rarely communicated, only occasionally hinted at in stray remarks that have been preserved by those who heard Carlyle make revealing comments in conversation.
The overall structure of his view of the world held firm: God at the head, planning and controlling; mankind at ground level, understanding little and requiring to understand still less, but owing reverence and obedience in the long run to a creator and in the short run to hero figures sent by that creator to give impulse to the unfocused energies of the age. In private and in public, Carlyle remained deeply skeptical of his age's achieving such a structure as he longed for, which does much to explain his growing preoccupation with forcible guidance of an apparently wayward society.
Carlyle would not have put into practice the fiercely intolerant measures he proposed for recalcitrant Negro workers in the West Indies. Faced with the reality of human suffering, he always responded with human warmth; only in the privacy of his study did abstract ideas work him into righteous frenzy, and his style made that mood the memorable one. In private life in Chelsea, he kept a much more secure balance, but this is not the side of Carlyle that survives in the public eye. Thus, the Carlyle we have seen is a mass of contradictions, and his self-doubts in old age, and his growing impatience with his era, must be linked to the fact that he was not one single individual with a clear, unchanging "message.
He did, however, retain a following; even in old age, he was still to many a figure of hope. That intellectuals should find Carlyle's solution oversimplified or crude and that the long-term appeal of his actual prescriptions has been at best patchy does little to detract from his real achievement--his original and abrasive critique of Victorian society, his emphasis on the importance of spiritual values in history and in the present, his inspiration of his contemporaries toward a world view in which the individual has a place, and with that place duties and the possibility of dignity in a fulfilled existence.
From the perspective of the late-twentieth century Carlyle can be seen without the outrage that greeted his originality. His ideas are undoubtedly oversimplified, his tolerance levels for others' ideas far too low. His vivid style can be abused, particularly in indiscriminate attack. His stubborn iteration of one point can be dangerous when that point is a weak or indefensible one. After his death his reputation suffered a remarkable eclipse. Happily, he has been rehabilitated as an important representative Victorian, and, as the discovery of his work and above all his correspondence continues, so too does the rehabilitation of his reputation.
We have passed beyond the need to venerate him as sage, of Chelsea or of Ecclefechan. Rather we see him as an emblem of the complexity, contradiction, and sometimes absurdity of the era. As the Victorian Age was untidy and contradictory, so were the original minds which responded to its needs and shaped their writing to its complex demands. In his contradictions Carlyle challenges us to a new formulation by which to judge his success, and he leaves behind an achievement sufficiently large and sufficiently diverse, as to ensure that the process of evaluation will be a long and critically challenging one.
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Thomas Carlyle: The Critical Heritage. John Ruskin: The Critical Heritage. Italy and the Wider World: It combines a shrewd insight into character, a vivid realization of the picturesque, and a singular ability to bring the past to blazing life, making it a reading experience as thrilling as any novel.
Past and present by Thomas Carlyle Book editions published between and in 5 languages and held by 4, WorldCat member libraries worldwide "This dehumanisation of society was a theme pursued in later books, such as Past and Present, in which Carlyle contrasted life in a Medieval monastery with modern society. For Carlyle the monastic community was unified by human and spiritual values, while modern culture deified impersonal economic forces and abstract theories of human 'rights' and natural 'laws'.
Communal values were collapsing into isolated individualism and ruthless laissez faire Capitalism, justified by what he called the "dismal science" of economics. Latter-day pamphlets by Thomas Carlyle editions published between and in 3 languages and held by 3, WorldCat member libraries worldwide These essays, or pamphlets," published in , are a vehement denunciation of what Thomas Carlyle believed to be the political, social, and religious injustices of the era.
The collection's best known essay is Hudson's Statue," an attack on plans to erect a monument in honor of the bankrupted financier and railway king" George Hudson. The life of John Sterling: by Thomas Carlyle editions published between and in English and held by 3, WorldCat member libraries worldwide Thomas Carlyle undertook this biography of his friend, the British author John Sterling , because he was so dissatisfied with an earlier biography of Sterling by Julius Charles Hare.
Sterling was an ordained curate at Hurstmonceux, but retired and began writing. Carlyle's biography has since become a classic and is studied more as a work of Carlyle than the life of Sterling. Sartor resartus by Thomas Carlyle Book editions published between and in 13 languages and held by 2, WorldCat member libraries worldwide Carlyle's great satire, a parody review of a supposed treatise on the "Philosophy of Clothes" by a certain "Herr Teufelsdrockh," is a humorous dissection of the follies and peculiarities of human culture and civilization.
History of Friedrich II of Prussia, called Frederick the Great by Thomas Carlyle Book editions published between and in 4 languages and held by 2, WorldCat member libraries worldwide Selections from the original work. Includes bibliographical references. Heroes and hero worship by Thomas Carlyle 93 editions published between and in 5 languages and held by 2, WorldCat member libraries worldwide What trait defines a hero? For Carlyle, it's absolute sincerity, firm belief in one's principles, and an inherent spark of the Divine. In this compelling series of lectures, delivered in , Carlyle uses various examples of great men throughout history divided into six categories and including Dante, Odin, Luther, and Napoleon, among others to convey his notion of a hero.