Monday, December 27, 2010

The Work and Literary Merits of Carlyle

"He was the greatest of the Britons. Of his time-and after the British fashion of not coming near perfection; Titanic, not Olympian; a heaver of rocks  not a shaper." This is what George Meredith wrote of John Carlyle at his death. Meredith's judgment hits the bull's eye. Carlyle was certainly & Titan who worked havoc with the pet lackadaisical notions of his day. His strident envangelicism and inspired pronouncement had to be heard by his age and were also, to some extent, at least, translated into practice.
But he was a very complex figure, and sometimes his message, though loud and vehement and fiery, was none too clear. Anyway, he was an influence if not a reformer.
Garlyle started his literary career with his translation of a German work and his Life of Schiller (1823). Later he came out with a string of prose works which have made for him a secure niche in the realm of immortal writers. These works include Sartor Resartus, The French Revolution, Chartism, On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History, Past and Present, Oliver Cromwell 'sLetters and Speeches, with Elucidations; Latter Day Pamphlets; Life of John Sterling and the History of Frederick the Great.
Let us briefly discuss the more important of Carlyle's works listed above.
"Sartor Resartus":
Sartor Resartus is one of the greatest works of Carlyle. There are many who consider it to be the greatest of all. A. C. Ward observes that "it is arguably his greatest work." It was first published in America in 1836, and the English edition came only in 1838 though the work had been published serially, in Eraser's Magazine, years earlier. "Sartor Resartus" literally means "the tailor re-tailored." It was given by Carlyle to be his edition of the work of an eccentric German philosopher of the name Herr Diogenes Teufelsodrockh. In fact, however, the work is entirely his own, and contains his famous "clothes philosophy" which interprets the universe and its working, as also the affairs of men in terms of clothes. He seems to have taken a hint from Swift who in his A Tale of Tub attempted a similar thing, not without trenchant satire ranging over targets from tailor-worship to the most serious matters of religion and the spirit. The meaning of Carlyle's work is to be studied and comprehended at two levels:
(i)         First, society is interpreted as a body laden with a heavy load of clothes which signify deadening custom, officialdom, shams, and casteism. Once the clothes were somewhat useful; but by constant prolonged wear they have grown a stiff, lifeless burden which, Carlyle suggests, should be shaken off.
(ii)        Secondly, the universe is the body and time and space are its eternal garments. The real man is hidden under his clothes, the real society under custom and tradition, and the essence of the universe under the garments of time and space. This point is obviously of a mystic nature, and Carlyle has not been successful in making it too clear. He is apparently under the influence of the German transcendentalists and Goethe who put forward the same idea in describing the earth-spirit in his Faust:
I sit at the roaring loom of Time
And "weave the living garment of Cod.
A point of interest in the work is Carlyle's delineation of his early spiritual conflict, in the chapters entitled "Everlasting No" and "Everlasting Yea." The "Yea" triumphs over the "No."
"The mad primeval Discord is hushed; the rudely jumbled conflicting elements bind themselves in separate Firmaments: deep silent rock-foundations are built beneath, and the skyey vault with its everlasting Luminaries above: instead of a dark wasteful Chaos, we have a blooming, heaven-encompassed World."
"The French Revolution":
The French Revolution is the work of essentially a zestful creative artist who has turned to history. In doing so he does not strictly adhere to the minutiae of history, but nor does he falsify its major points. Lord Acton in Letters to Mary Gladstone and Lectures on the French Revolution charged Carlyle with extreme laxity in his handling of history. But Aulard, the notable French authority, has given all the credit to Carlyle for making a fairly accurate and extremely discriminating use of all the historical material then available. There is no denying the fact that Carlyle departed from the rationalistic historiographers of the eighteenth century. His very conception of history and historiography was different, "History", he said, "is the essence of innumerable biographies"; and again: "No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men." Armed with these fundamental notions, Carlyle approached a tumultuous period of French history. The results are remarkable. His work has nothing of the dead-weight of dry-as-dust factual details. It is a poem-rather a stirring drama. It reminds us, say Moody and Lovett, "of a play by Shakespeare or by Aeschylus, acted by millions of figures on a gigantic stage, [making] this the capital example in English of the dramatic portraiture of an historical era." Carlyle's imagination vitalises and vivifies the whole period. Further, he brings to bear his ethics on his study of history. "He is here," says W. J. Long, "the rreacher rather than the historian, his text is the eternal justice; and his message is that all wrong-doing is inevitably followed by vengeance."
Heroes and Hero Worship":
The series of lectures which Carlyle delivered in 1837 was rublished under this title in 1841. Carlyle was a firm believer in the rather gloomy dictum "Might is Right." He was for all-out hero worship. About this work William J. Long observes: "To get at the truth of history we must study not movements but men, and read not state papers but the biographies of heroes." His summary of history as presented in this work has six divisions: (i) The Hero as Divinity, having for its general subject Odin, the "type Norseman," who, Carlyle thinks, was some old heroic chief, afterwards deified by his countrymen; (ii) The Hero as Prophet, treating of Mahomet and the rise of Islam; (iii) The Hero as Poet, in which Dante and Shakespeare are taken as types; (iv) The Hero as P-riest, or religious leader, in which Luther appears as the hero of the Reformation, and Knox as the hero of puritanism; (v) The Hero as Man of Letters, in which we have the curious choice of Johnson, Rousseau, and Burns; (vi) The Hero as King, in which Cromwell and Napolean appear as the heroes of "reform by revolution." "The book", says Long "abounds in startling ideas, expressed with originality and power, and is pervaded thoughout by an atmosphere of intense moral earnestness."
Carlyle's zeal for hero-worship has been censured by many modern critics who see in it solid support for dictatorship and dictators of the kind of Stalin and Hitler. See for instance, Sir H. J. Grierson's Carlyle and Hitler (1930).
"Past and Present":
This work published in 1843 is a powerful indictment of almost all the pet values of the Victorian age. In it, to quote Legouis, "he contrasts the religious society of the Middle Ages, idealistic and well organized, with the materialism and anarchy of modern times." Carlyle's standard of reference was a certain Abbot Sampson who lived sometime in the twelfth century. He is evidently one of Carlyle's heroes. With his power, ability, and organizing capacity the Abbot gave stability to his society. By contrast, Carlyle shows the evils arising from the worship of the "mud-gods of modern civilisation."
"Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches" (1845):
It is one of the major works of Carlyle. William J. Long observes: "Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches is, in our personal judgment, Carlyle's best historical work. His idea is to present the very soul of the great Puritan leader. He gives us, as of first importance, Cromwell's own words, and connects them by a commentary in which other men and events are described with vigour and vividness. Cromwell was one of Carlyle's greatest heroes, and in this case he is most careful to present the facts which occasion his own enthusiasm. The result is, on the whole, the most lifelike picture of a great historical character that we possess. Other historians had heaped calumny upon Cromwell till the English public regarded him with prejudice and horror; and it is an indication of Carlyle's power that by a single book he revolutionized England's opinion of one of her greatest men."
"The Life of Sterling"-(1851):
It is a biography of Sterling who was one of the heroes who impressed and influenced Carlyle. The book has indisputable merits. And according to Hugh Walker, it is "the purest work of art Carlyle ever produced, and one of the most beautiful biographies in English,--probably the one which best of all satisfies Carlyle's own conception of what a biography ought to be."
"History of Frederick the Great" (1855-65):
This monumental work runs into six volumes; and according to A. C. Ward, it is a "monumental failure." Much labour and pain doubtlessly went into the preparation of this work. It entailed Carlyle's personal stay in Germany to study all the available material connected with the life and achievement of the great Prussian king. We agree with Compton-Rickett that Frederick is "the greatest intellectual feat performed by Carlyle." But, to quote the same critic : "The book severely taxed Carlyle's powers, as we may believe when we consider its scope and content; and it is one of the hardest to construe of the author's writings, largely because Carlyle's mannerisms of style are nowhere more abundant."
Carlyle's "Message":-
Carlyle was "a heaver of rocks." He was extremely critical of his age, and succeeded in demolishing the claptrap of traditionalised notions of the Victorian age. His age indeed was witness to unprecedented prosperity and enlightenment ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. Macaulay sang paeans to the materialistic glory of the age. But Carlyle shut his eyes on material splendour. He hated democracy, Parliament, universal franchise, all liberalism, traditional dogmas, hollow officialdom, and Mammon-worship. He favoured slavery, hero-worship, dictatorship, the doctrine of work, and so on. In religion he subjected his Calvinism to the influence of German transcendentalism and evolved a mystic creed of his own.
Below the welter of Carlyle's assertions can be discovered the sprit which is expressed by Moody and Lovett in the following words:
"This spirit may be defined as an intense moral indignation against whatever is weak or false, or mechanical, and an intense moral enthusiasm for whatever is sincere and heroically forceful."
Carlyel's "service to his age" is summed up by Moody and Lovett in this manner:
"Carlyle poured into the swirling life of his time a stream of intense moral ardour and indignation which gradually raised the level of ethical feeling. He united in remarkable degree the artistic and the moral impulse : and he is in this respect typical of the Victorian era, during which more than ever before, art was infused with moral purpose. But his nature was too extravagant, his tone too bitterly protesting, and his method too perverse to allow him to become the supremely representative figure of the age. Conformation was reserved for Alfred Lord Tennyson."
Carlyle's Style:
Carlyle's literary merit has been variously assessed. His style has struck different readers in different ways. Some have hailed it as the zealous voice of a prophet, while others have keenly disapproved of its excessive meannerisms. No doubt, the style of some of his works like the Life of Schiller is a model of clarity and simplicity, but the style of his major works like Sartor Resartus is too deficient in these
qualities. According to, Moody and Lovett, it is "a style of expression entirely without example, full of un-English idiom, of violent inversions, startling pauses, and sharp angularities-a style which he employed to rouse the attention of his reader as a series of electric shocks. This extraordinary literary instrument he continued to use for the remainder of his life. It has been said that henceforth he wrote English no more
but 'Carlylese', a style wonderfully well suited to his purpose of rousing a sluggish public out of mental and moral apathy into an alertness to great issues." Nevertheless, Carlyle had to suffer harsh criticism from his contemporaries for his peculiar style. Taine called his style "demoniacal" and Carlyle himself, "a strange animal, a relic of a lost family, a sort of mastodon who has strayed in a world not made for him." James Smetham in his Letters referred to him as a "great Gothic whale lumbering and floundering in the Northern Seas, and spouting his 'foam fountains' under the crackling Aurora and the piercing Hyperborian stars." Jefferey condemned wholesale both Carlyle and his style.       
William J. Long, comparing Carlyle's style with acaulay's, says that whereas Macaulay's style is that of an orator, Carlyle's is that of an exhorter. Macaulay is always polished to the finish, but Carlyle wants to exhort, and in his excessive enthusiasm to do so he does not bother about any convention-even the one of following the rules of grammar.
At its best, Carlyle's style has an oracular twang and a consuming intensity which illuminates as well as withers. But sometimes the elaborate apparatus misfires, and he seems to be, to use the words of Edmond Scherer, "demeaning himself like a mystagogue." When they do not seem to be performing their function, we certainly get sick of his lavishly employed capitals, compound words, inversions, personifications, ellipses, italics, and a hundred other "tricks." But we cannot always with justice deny his style the merits of intensity, imaginative power, and pictorial richness.

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