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6. The Victorian Essay I:  Thomas Carlyle –A Fundamentalist Thinker

      The lectures on the essay are meant to familiarize the student with the background ideas that shaped what is broadly called the cultural Victorian mentality (referred to as Victorianism in the introductory lectures). Also, the themes debated and shared by the Victorian thinkers can help the 20th century student of ideas connect the dominant themes of today, by comparison, to the ideas outlined in the Victorian essays studied. On the other hand, the understanding of the composition (inventio of classical rhetoric, cf. A. J. Corbett, ”Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Students”), the understanding of the structure and style characteristic for each essay as prose of ideas - completely different from what students currently analyse as ”literature”-can represent a new, useful intellectual skill which a modern ” young university scholar” had better acquire. It will be as a result of acquiring this typological essay-writing competence that the reading and writing quality of this kind of Victorian press can best be assessed by a readership ready from now on also to  appreciate more clearly and competently the journalistic prose written in the world and in Romania today, while also to better write the essay –assignments required during the Faculty years. But the major purpose of the Victorian essay analysis is to revive and review what would otherwise probably remain a dead letter file of prose writings on issues of universal human interest, irrespective of the absolutist fashions of modernism and post-modernism self- sufficiently claiming that they know and understand absolutely everything  better than the past generations did.

      Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) was in many ways the founding father of the Victorian literature of ideas. We can start by looking at his garrulousness, just as we did when we began the analysis of the novelists Dickens and Thackeray with their prolix communication in what was there termed the comic key. Carlyle’s prose is incredible being in-formed by a whole symphony of ideas which he brings to bear upon his subject and by a multiplicity of discourses vying with each other on the same stage. It is true that his texts seem meant to be physically uttered, enacted (with accompanying gestures and emotional outbursts) on a stage, by, in turn: an angry monologuist (just like the ones in Robert Browning’s impassioned dramatic monologues); a military or political leader or strategist, or any other species of public orator, a preacher, a teacher, an actor even an itinerant saltimbanque, i.e., a juggler in ideas etc. This makes Carlyle’s essays be hard reading for the unassisted student, who, especially if motivated by the rhythm and interests related to preparing for an examination, will grow impatient with Carlyle’s verbal fireworks after the first page read. If, however, Carlyle’s prose is read disinterestedly (as Matthew Arnold would put it, meaning ”with no ulterior purposes”), its incredible turns of phrase, its unexpected modulations – from oracularly held principles, through poetic argumentation, to anecdotes and real historical cases invoked as in a court room, only to descend back into the more widely and conventionally public benches usually occupied by press reporters participating in Parliament meetings, just as today, or in other important public events and milieus as TV cameramen and news editors do when they try to summarize the news and prepare a sample of lived history in a pertinent way: all these discursive stances are Carlyle’s in turn and many more in addition. And he appears not to prepare his reader for them in the least – either by more direct interventions from offstage or by observing a clearly presented plan, ever. This amounts to what N. Frye called, in the last paragraphs of his ”Anatomy of Criticism” tantrum prose. The paradox is that, for all its rhetorical skill, Carlyle’s prose is informal prose, of the ”table-talk” brand (cf. J. A. Cuddon’s Penguin ”A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory”); this prose seems rather meant to be heard in passing or overheard, in spite of the fact that Carlyle is more often than not literally thundering forth his discourses.

     The explanation of all this is to be found in what we may term Carlyle’s fundamentalism (or ideological passion and emotivity put in the service of strongly held – so strongly held that it becomes authoritarian -  belief). As any other fundamentalism, Carlyle’s own has a positive belief underlying it and a complementary… ”legion” of negations accompanying it, negations of criticised, tested, then noisily dismissed different beliefs and practices, which obviously belong to what Carlyle, in the guise of a great military commander, believes to belong to the opposite, enemy’s camp. On his battleground, Carlyle behaves as an avenging angel, first defending a set of traditional beliefs. His campaign is the campaign for idealism in an age of materialism; sometimes Carlyle dresses up as a preacher and spells his nouns with capital letters as in the older versions of the Bible, or as in the romantic German philosophers’s idiom – which he is actually copying also, in addition to the idiom of the English ”Authorised Version” of the Bible. But Carlyle had made it clear that he spoke as a free-lance man of faith who feels he stands outside the fold of any particular church, outside the Calvinistic Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland into which he had been born and for whose service he studied to become a minister before he dropped out, when coming into contact with some lay German thinkers and writers such as Fichte and Goethe, directly and in translation or popularisation contemporary works. (He himself will translate Goethe’s ”Wilhelm Meister” into English.)

      Critics gave the name of vitalism to Carlyle’s positive creed, transcendentalism  - or a popular version of metaphysics or spiritualism meant for the use of the contemporary middle-class audiences. Vitalism is another name for spiritualised humanism as the belief in man’s soul and its aspirations over against man’s other needs. For Carlyle, as is made clear in his most frequently read text ”The Everlasting Yea”, from ”Sartor Resartus (1833-4), there is an infinity dwelling in man’s chest, which should be let be and do its work, not obstructing it while catering for man’s materialistic needs. Carlyle rejects the utilitarian slogan of ”the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers”, authoritatively indicating that it is the individual, actual man who should alone form the object of the policy makers’ concern, so as to lead this man’s soul towards what Ralph Waldo Emerson would explicitely term in the contemporary 19th century America ”the over-soul”. The aim of living, Carlyle claims in ”The Everlasting Yea” is to make man blessed rather than happy, in accordance with the sublime, spiritual standard, and not the worldly, communal one which may only , if ever, make man happy. As the ending of ”The Everlasting Yea” excerpted on pages 87 – 88 of PEV I clearly shows, man can answer the challenges of life by drastically reducing his claims and improving the spiritual powers inherent in his soul. What prevents man from achieving blessedness is precisely his search for happiness – which , Carlyle has only just demonstrated this in the ”Everlasting No” and the ”Centre of Indifference”,  will only lead to alienation. Carlyle’s term for universal alienation is ”the everlasting No” : ”The Everlasting No had said: ”Behold, thou art fatherless, outcast, and the Universe is mine (the Devil’s)” . (The point is not that in the next sentence Carlyle rejects all this, but that the tonality and phrasing of these words perfectly resembles Gerard Manley Hopkins’s terrible sonnet ”No Worst, There is None” in ”Fury had shrieked ’No ling-/ ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’ ”. For all the spiritualised anguish underlying Carlyle’s own plea against materialism, he has the playwright’s instinct of dramatising and acting behind a multiplicity of masks and tonalities when taking action… against ”the sea of troubles”, as Hamlet soliloquised: so Carlyle stages an inexhaustible number of verbalised pageants, he allegorizes and metaphorically translates and slays with words his enemies in puzzling modulations and equations. in ”The Everlasting Yea” (his handbook of metaphysical belief and vitalism) Carlyle employs at a climactic moment a mathematical syllogism for his demonstration which suddenly proves both the grace and the efficiency of the best in his talent and polymorphous personality: ”So true it is, what I then said, that the Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator. Nay, unless my algebra deceive me, Unity itself divided by Zero will give Infinity” and, he continues, ”Make thy claim of wages a zero, then; thou hast the world under thy feet. Well did the Wisest of our time write: ”It is only with Renunciation (Entsagen) that Life, properly speaking, can be said to begin” [ He is quoting from Goethe who will also be invoked by Matthew Arnold, later as his inspirer] And, Carlyle declares, on the same page 88: ”What Act of Legislature was there that thou shouldst be Happy? A little while ago thou hadst no right to be at all. What if thout wert born and predestined not to be Happy, but to be Unhappy! Art thou nothing other than a Vulture, then, that fliest through the Universe seeking after somewhat to eat : and shrieking dolefully because carrion enough is not given thee? Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.” We can see the variety of Calyle’s style in this short quotation – probably the most well-known words written by Carlyle – his experience as a teacher of mathematics prompts him in his ingenious demonstration of his point; next, he merges the social and political economy issues of his day with the universal, sermonic, theological perspective, in a sentence echoing Christ’s temptation in the wilderness; in the following sentence he has the highflown courage of declaring, like a child in his wilful belief and innocence that – it is understood – Goethe was the wisest man of the time and he spells his adjective turned noun with a whimsical capital letter of respect; in the following part, he blends the judicial with the Biblical archaic language and judgment; then, like Silas Wegg and Mr. Boffin, in chapter 5, Book the First of ”Our Mutual Friend”, ”he falls into poetry”, with the image of the Vulture flying through the Universe – the Vulture and the carrion again having a Hopkinsian ring – only to culminate with an absolutely outspoken cry against Byronic romanticism and its morbid vanities, a cry to be taken up a few decades later, in 1853, more precisely, by Matthew Arnold, in his ”Preface to the First Edition of Poems”.

      And with this we arrive at the more interesting paradox of Carlyle’s creation: while opposing materialism, he was at the same time forging – as a founding father – the other  part of the official doctrine of his age, namely the high moralism of the dominant puritanical spirituality, setting the tone of the cultural polemic for the few decades to come. We can recognize not only in Matthew Arnold’ cultural criticism but also in John Ruskin’s aesthetic doctrine Carlyle’s plea in ”On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History” for an order, a higher, heroic order of great men:men of letters, poets, priests, kings, whose mission it is to save mankind in historical times, just as had done in mythical times the divinities and prophets. What is more, in giving instances and names organised in a strict repertoire of qualities and a ”scientifically understood” hierarchy, Carlyle inaugurates a whole paradigm of meritocracy which will be regarded as valid almost throughout the Victorian age, by classifiers and class-critics such as Matthew Arnold – in his ”Culture and Anarchy”, where the … ill-behaved aristocracy who has resigned from its leading dignity is called a class of barbarians ; or by John Ruskin’s canonical classification of painters, then of architecture, into first-order and second-order ones seems to observe a standard of rigid, absolute excellence inherited from Carlyle. Carlyle’s influence is no less important – via Ruskin – upon Oscar Wilde’s or William Morris’s utopian socialism, which seeks the legitimation of the individual as against the mass, average rights and aspirations advocated by the middle-class ideologues, followers of the Benthamite idealised political economy. Even today, in the American right-wing fundamentalism (you can read ”traditionalism” instead) of the New Critics John Crowe Ransom or Allan Tate, we recognise the topical position of prestige that the man of letters occupies in the modern world. (The filiation is from Carlyle, via Matthew Arnold, through T. S. Eliot the critic, both American and European, and through Ezra Pound the international Arnoldian poet. And in Britain, the contemporary trend of high culturalism inspired by F. R. Leavis and Q. D. Leavis, together with a whole now old generation of critical dames, such as Dame Helen Gardner or lords, leaders in criticism, knighted, as if  according to the elitist population of an ideal Tennyson poem addressed to ”knights and burghers, lords and dames”)

      With the high-mimetic and romance standard of heroism placing the spirituality of the cultural activist at the very top of the social pyramid, it is not to be wondered at Carlyle’s downright opposition to:

•        democracy as the rule of the masses unaware of higher civilization standards and of greater historical necessity (cf. ”Past and Present”: ”Labour” and ”Democracy” (PEV I, pp. 171- 186)

•         the age of mechanism as an age of damaging massification of the levelled human society (cf. ”Signs of the Times”, PEV I, pp 1 – 26, and especially, pages 4 and 12)

•         the laissez-faire capitalistic State with its mercantyle cynicism, which Carlyle saw as a mere way in which the lawful political leaders, the elites had chosen to resign from their traditional position in the frame of the universally valid social contract (in French, the contrat social). (cf. ”Chartism” – the excerpts in PEV I, pp. 103 –123). Here Carlyle’s vision resembles Thackeray’s frontal attack of middle-class society as ”the vanity fair where all is bought and sold”. Carlyle’s allegory however, is more apocalyptical in so far as he also opposes mercantilism in the guise of money worship or – in the next entry below

•         Mammonism: the worship of money, the new religion of the Victorian middle-class capitalistic entrepreneurs (cf. ”Past and Present”, PEV p. 1621-7).

       For all these ”ills” Carlyle’s discursive war or attrition of materialism offers positive counterparts or even solutions. Thus, he acts as what J. S. Mill indicated to be a desirable constructive thinker, in his essay on Coleridge, a thinker who does not only demolish like the negative thinkers, but after criticising puts something instead. For ”laisses-faire” Carlyle describes what ”not-laissez faire ” means;  to the Mammon worshippers he offers for contemplation the ideal ”Captains of Industry” linked to their labouring hands by a whole system of relationships amounting to respect, self-respect and, ultimately love, or agapé. (cf. ”Past and Present”, bk IV, ch. VI, PEV I, p. 186) (In John Ruskin’s text ”Unto This Last” a similar demonstration of exemplary social coexistence between full-fledged human beings is offered. This demonstration will be followed in the spirit, when not in the letter, by the socialists, Wilde and Morris.) Carlyle chastises and scourges with his verbal, satirical, merciless verbal whip only in order to purge the actually existing institutions, social leaders and ideas of whatever is harmful from the spiritualised perspective.

His general cures for the Victorian sick patient include, on the other hand:

-      The doctrine of activism, which was borrowed from Goethe, clearly expressed in ”Chartism”, recommends man to perfect himself by means of work (a doctrine subsequently taken up by the socialists of all hues from the utopians with their respect for labour’s dignifying power to the Fabian socialists such as George Bernard Shaw, to Marx himself and, in the 20th century, by the Lenininist communists who advocated work as the new …opium for the masses (to obviously replace religion), while they, the communist politicians profited behind the stage and occupied Central and Eastern Europe in the guise of liberators of the masses and the oppressed peoples creating  Soviet concentration camps everywhere in their wake). (And it was precisely for reasons such as these that when the repressive communist propaganda in Romania used another naïve Christian believer, perhaps, the poet Ioan Alexandru, to preach in the press work and obedience and the ascetical doctrine of ”less food, more spirituality” to the shamefully starving Romanian East – Europeans in the 1980s, it was precisely for this, then, that the intellectual community secretely resented and rejected this Christian preacher as a betrayer of the intellectual resistance through silence and as a mere collaborationist, which perhaps he was not.) Now Carlyle did the same in the Victorian century, when he answered in written, in his essay, from above or within the upper strata of society to the oppressed masses pressuring for justice in the street in vain, during the Chartist movement. In a way (but for nobler, idealistic reasons and without being anybody’s but his own mouthpiece) Carlyle preached what the maddened ill-informed, manipulated masses yelled  in the streets of  Bucharest in response to the disciplined long demonstration of the Romanian thinking people of the Piata Universitatii civic forum: ”Noi muncim, nu gindim”. Carlyle preached, in ”Labour” (p. 172, PEV I), the following:

       ”Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness. He has work, a life-purpose; he has found it, and will follow it!” and after some compelling poetic allegory: ”Labour is life: from the inmost heart of the Worker rises his god-given Force, the sacred celestial Life-essence breathed into him by Almighty God; from his inmost heart awakens him to all nobleness, - to all knowledge, ”self-knowledge” and much else, so soon as Work fitly begins. Knowledge? the knowledge that will hold good in working, cleave thou to that. Properly, thou hast no other knowledge but what thou hast got by working; the rest is yet all a hypothesis of knowledge; a thing to be argued in schools, a thing floating in the clouds, in endless logic-vortices, till we try it and fix it.” Doubt, of whatever kind, can be ended by Action alone.”

-      The general censorship of industrialised and urbanised modernization, being, for Carlyle, nothing but massification – inimical to man’s nature and alienating, his thinking here includes a return from the present, a radical change of direction from the material to the spiritual values. Carlyle chooses Medievalism as the cult of the discipline, morality and spiritualised order of the Middle Ages monastic culture. This will be his model fictionally typified by his 12th century excursion in ”Past and Present” into the world of monastic civilization of St. Edmundsbury as revived in that little monastery thanks to the efforts of a good leader, Abbot Samson. The virtues of the past indirectly exalted by Carlyle in Book II of ”Past and Present” are simply translations of the virtues of  Victorian puritanism, such as activism and high-minded modesty which Carlyle assumes, will naturally lead to inner-man’s spiritual progress and to more dignified and peaceful social coexistence. We have to do here with the undercurrent of utopian thinking accompanying  medievalism, just as any other form of escapism, such as that wielded by Arnold’s utopian modern age, a replica of classicist democratic culturalism, or the nostalgic return of the Pre-Raphaelites to the early Renaissance, which they would feign declare to still be part of the Middle Ages, but for investing it with the titanism in excess, as the cosmogonical theme in a lot of paintings and mystical Pre -Raphaelite poems indicate. Similarly, the Gothic architecture of an ideal Venice or of specific Italian theologian painters whom Ruskin declares ”modern” by an act of wishful thinking denotes pure cultural escapism. Not less so is the aestheticists exaggerate respect for this or that book, this or that avant-gardism recently posted from France or from Italy, the two great ”races” who inherited the legacy of the Renaissance aestheticist belief in man. In general, as Browning’s poetry or Pater’s prose profusely demonstrate too, Italy and France vye with each other for precedence in matters of cultural refinement. All this demonstrates how the Victorian cultural activists and artists, all had a sense of guilt when they turned away from the vernacular contemporary or recently past Romantic practices in all the domains towards nations, periods and places more advanced on the paths of cultural progress , seeking for sources of elevating visionarism and for professions of faith everywhere and anywhere else than in their own home about which they only wrote masked complaints or romance fairytales, like Tennyson or direct elegies, like Matthew Arnold’s stationed on Dover Beach or buried so deep in the frustrations of life.

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