Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Mr. Carlyle

FEW of the cheap reprints of the books of popular authors, which have of late become so common, will attract more attention or enjoy greater popularity than the collected edition of Mr. Carlyle's writings. With those who admire him most, he enjoys a reputation which is almost mystical. To numberless young and ardent readers, his writings have come as the announcement of a new gospel, nor can any one read them without a deep interest in the books, and a sincere feeling of respect for the author. Perhaps all books may be ranged under two heads—those which assume, and those which seek to establish, principles: and if the former are both more interesting and more practically important than the latter, after a certain early period of life, it cannot be denied that the influence of the latter, acting at the most susceptible and impressible age, is both wider and deeper. The great peculiarity of Mr. Carlyle's books is that it is his ambition in every case to go to the heart of the matter—to set before his reader what is vital and essential, and to leave on one side the mere husks and shells of history, biography, politics, theology, or criticism. The object is a common one
with men of any real artistic power, but no one ever effected it so completely. Mr. Carlyle has hardly ever written a page on any subject, however insignificant, which does not bear the stamp of his own character in a manner almost unexampled. He has spent his life in a protest against the Dryasdusts of politics and of literature. If people like information worked up into a vivid picture of the fact as Mr. Carlyle saw it, or a vehement set of consequences drawn therefrom, they will nowhere else find anything so. vivid. His career and present position embody more fully than those of any other man the especial advantages and disadvantages of the literary temperament—the turn of mind which leads its possessors to sit on a hill retired and make remark upon men and things instead of taking part in the common affairs of life. Mr. Carlyle, no doubt, has a warm interest in the race to which he belongs in all the phases of its existence; but he is emphatically a preacher, and not an actor, to many of his readers, far the most popular preacher known to this generation. His performances may be looked upon from two points of view, one of which regards their artistic and the other their dogmatic value.

Regarded as works of art, the best of Mr. Carlyle's writings may be put at the very head of contemporary literature. It is impossible to mention any modern book which can for an instant be compared, in some of the highest literary excellencies, to his History of the French Revolution. It gives a series of pictures and portraits so distinct, and so life-like, that they make it almost impossible to remember the scenes which they describe through any other medium. To many of its readers no other Robespierre will ever, as Mr. Carlyle himself would say, be possible, than the Robespierre who seemed to him "the meanest" of all the deputies of the Tiers Etat:—
"That anxious, slight, ineffectual-looking man, under thirty, in spectacles. His eyes (were the glasses off) troubled, careful; with upturned face snuffing dimly the uncertain future times; complexion of a multiplex atrabiliar colour, the final shade of which may be the pale sea-green. A strict-minded, strait-laced man .... whose small soul, transparent, wholesome-looking as small ale, could by no chance ferment into virulent alegar, the mother of ever new alegar, till all France were grown acetous-virulent?"
Such sentences give the impression that there is nothing more to be said on the subject. Reams of description would only weaken them; and it would be impossible for any one who had once sincerely relished and appreciated the picture which they draw to form any other satisfactory notion of the person whom they describe. The same might be said of every chapter, and almost every page, of this extraordinary book. With hardly any argument or reflection, it gives, by mere force of style, at once a picture and a theory of the French Revolution. The ages of misgovernment and corruption which laid the train, the heap of gunpowder on which the spark fell, and the final explosion, are described with just enough detail to be characteristic, and just enough generality to mark the vastness of the event. No one but a man of real and great genius could have done this. The tone in which the book is written is perhaps the most wonderful and characteristic part of it. Without levity, and without bitterness, the grotesque and somewhat contemptible aspect of the whole business is brought out with wonderful force. No such tragicomedies are to be found in the language as the accounts of the flight to Varennes, the insurrection of the women, and the innumerable takings of oaths, feasts of Reason, feast of the Supreme Being, and the other fooleries in which the silliest, if not the worst, features of French national character expressed themselves.

The book is not less remarkable as a portrait than as a picture gallery. It illustrates perhaps even better than the lectures on Hero-Worship the method by which Mr. Carlyle proceeds in estimating character. He forms to himself a conception of the man as a living whole. He tries, to use the old scholastic phrase, to see, not his qualities, but his quiddity, and he seldom fails to put before his readers a picture far more vivid than any drawn by novelists or poets. A good illustration of this may be found in a comparison of the Cagliostro of Mr. Carlyle with the Joseph Balsamo of the Memoires d'un Medecin. Mr. Carlyle's conception is as much superior in art, in possibility, in life, and spirit, to M. Dumas', as Sir Walter Scott's Puritans are superior to the absurd caricature of Felton, which is introduced into the Vingt Ans Après. The same praise must be bestowed on nearly every portrait which Mr. Carlyle has drawn. The genius with which he has, as it were, evolved Cromwell from his speeches and correspondence is admirable, and it is not too much to say that his book on the subject has given the first example of a species of biography which in intrinsic value is superior to any other yet discovered. The moral tone of Mr. Carlyle's biographies enlists his readers' sympathy as much as their intellectual excellences excite their admiration. Nothing in the main can be kinder, gentler, or more honest, than the spirit in which he judges even those whom he least likes. The worst of men are not described without a touch of sympathy. Louis XV. and Philippe Egalité themselves are condemned with an appreciation of their peculiar temptations, and nothing can exceed the fairness with which any redeeming point in conduct, or even in speech, is recognized and insisted on. No one can have studied Mr. Carlyle's writings without feeling a strong personal liking for him. If he is the most indignant and least cheerful of living writers, he is also one of the wittiest and the most humane.

When we turn from the artistic to the dogmatic point of view, our admiration of Mr. Carlyle's genius is greatly modified. That he has done some good, and even considerable good, may be admitted; but he has done it almost entirely by the vigorous manner in which he has preached doctrines in the truth of which all the world agree with him, whilst such of his views as are peculiar to himself are, for the most part, false and mischievous, not only in respect of their substance, but also in respect of the style in which they are brought forward. A large proportion of his most effective writings consists almost entirely of the inculcation of duties and virtues which have always been acknowledged as such; and with respect to which he can claim no higher merit than that of recognizing at first hand, and in an original manner, the fact that they are virtues. His vehement praises of truth, of fact, of earnestness—his doctrine that work is worship—and his denunciation of cant, of semblances, and of shams, is only an amplification of those clauses in the catechism which say that our duty to our neighbour enjoins us, amongst other things, to be true and just in all our dealings, to learn and labour truly to get our own living, and to do our duty in the state of life to which it has pleased God to call us. Mr. Carlyle is certainly entitled to the praise of having preached on a very old subject in such a manner as to arrest the attention of his congregation and to keep them wide awake, but it does not follow that he has, as so many people seem to think, made any wonderful discoveries in morality.

This recognition of Mr. Carlyle's genius, and the admission of the fact that he has done good service to society by the vigour with which he has preached all the cardinal virtues, is consistent with the belief that much of what he has written is open to grave objections. Throughout the whole of his writings he is constantly struggling to get below what is merely formal and external, and to reach the substance and, so to speak, the soul of things. To use a phrase of his own, he dwells upon the virtualities as opposed to the actualities. He does not care to know what technical description a moralist would give to the acts of Danton or Robespierre, or how he would describe the massacres of September. He inquires into the essence of men and things. Danton was a wild Titan, Robespierre a " sea-green formula," the September massacres were a bursting up of the infinite of evil that lies in man. So, too, he passes by what he calls the Delolme and Blackstone view of the English constitution. He regards England as a country in which there is a real aristocracy of labour, and a sham aristocracy of game preservers, and in which millions of day-labourers are going about crying in a more or less articulate manner to be wisely led, governed, and organized into industrial regiments.

Such a habit of mind is not without its use as a protest against dryness and priggishness. It represents, as Byronism did, a phase through which people must perhaps pass at some time or other; but if persisted in, it leads to gross injustice, absurd mistakes, and confused, useless, and broken-backed results. Both the historical and political writings of Mr. Carlyle afford many illustrations of this. The History of the French Revolution, viewed as a work of art, can hardly be over-praised; but when we look upon it as a history, it becomes all but incredible. Mr. Carlyle is quite incapable of the slightest distortion of a matter of fact; and, indeed, his native and national shrewdness and honesty entitle him to the praise of great accuracy and critical discernment, but his imagination is so enormously powerful that no amount of fact can ballast it. Whenever he writes, he creates a whole set of people who are certainly in one sense real enough, but whose identity with the historical personages whom they represent is very doubtful. His readers must feel as if they had known personally the Robespierre, the Danton, the Camille Desmoulins, and all the other personages who figure in Mr. Carlyle's pages, but they can have no confidence at all that their acquaintances are identical with the men who once went by those names. Mr. Carlyle's conception of (the Revolution itself is quite intelligible, and there is, no doubt, a true epic consistency and unity about it; but it does not follow that the thing itself was really so because a very able man can so conceive it; and if, in point of fact, the conception is false, it must be mischievous also. Take, for example, the doctrine that the triumph of the Sansculottes over the Girondins was the triumph of a fact over a formula (a view less intelligible than emphatic), and that Vergniaud, Brissot, and their party, were mere talkers and respectability-hunters. It may be true; but unless truth depends on the degree of force of character which belongs to those who search it, it may also be true that the Girondins were comparatively right in their theory, whilst the Terrorists were not only wrong, but stupidly and hopelessly wrong—at issue with fact, nature, and everything else worth caring for. The whole question resolves itself into an inquiry as to what would have happened under circumstances which, in fact, did not happen; and this is an utterly insoluble problem. Mr. Carlyle, never contented without arriving at a broad, clear, pictorial result, falsifies history even more decisively by excess of imagination than he could possibly falsify it by inaccuracy as to fact. He has far over-rated the degree of certainty which is attainable in historical inquiry. A certain number of facts may be ascertained, but they are almost always consistent with a great number of various interpretations. No man has a moral right
to reiterate his own interpretation, to enforce it with all the resources of humour and sarcasm, to construe every fact and every action in accordance with it, and thus by mere force of style to compel many persons to take his view of historical events and personages, without giving them the slightest hint that other views are equally consistent with the facts of the case.

The defects of this mode of proceeding appear more strongly in Mr. Carlyle's portraits of individuals than in his theories about events. The habit of attempting to estimate men by their essence, and not by their acts, forces those who adopt it to resort to the most meagre evidence as to what the essence of the man is. He has to be judged by his features, his complexion, the nicknames which his enemies give him, little characteristic anecdotes, and other such matters, which are, after all, better fitted for novels than for history. Some one says that Robespierre's face was verdâtre, and this furnishes Mr. Carlyle with so many sentences about the "sea-green formula," that his readers feel, at last, that if Robespierre had been sanguine, and Danton bilious, there would have been no Reign of Terror. This mode of painting characters has a strong tendency to obliterate moral distinctions. It suggests, though it certainly does not logically imply, the inference that a man has no other course than that of filling the niche which his character enables him to occupy in a dramatic manner. You may be a huge Danton, full of wild, stormy passion and savage tenderness; or you may be a meagre, strict-minded precisian, like Robespierre, with spectacles instead of eyes, and a cramp instead of a soul; but there is nothing to teach you that in either case you have duties to fulfil, and that if you cut people's heads off without any sort of excuse, it is no justification to say that, being a mere "logic-formula," you were only acting as such, or that you had a great flaming soul fresh from the heart of fact, which impelled you. There is a right and a wrong for "logic-formulas" and great flaming souls as well as for other people. Everybody has some kind of character, and where should we be if every one acted up to it, without an effort at self-control?

It is in respect to politics that Mr. Carlyle's determination to rush at once to the heart of the matter leads him into the most wonderful errors. Probably no man of genius, being at the same time a good and honourable man, ever wrote two books so unjust and injurious as Past and Present and the Latter-Day Pamphlets. Considering pictorial delineation as the true mode of arriving at political knowledge, Mr. Carlyle conceives a sturdy mill-owner, full of untutored strength, and earnestly worshipping Mammon; an idle, sauntering, sneering landowner, worshipping nothing; a Church, a Parliament, law-courts and public offices, all babbling and jangling, instead of working, "doleful creatures having the honour to be;" and having worked them up into a sort of whole with infinite picturesqueness and humour, he says, "There you have England as it is." As a counterfoil, he disinters a thirteenth-century abbot, and dresses him out with inimitable grace and skill as a representative of the time in which he lived. When he is sufficiently depicted, he says, "There you have the old heroic ages." The moral, as to the baseness of the one state of things and the healthiness of the other, follows as of course. The skill of the representation completely blinds ordinary readers to the fact that its truth and adequacy, not its ingenuity, are the real points at issue. Apart from their picturesqueness, these books are a strange mixture of poverty and audacity. An Irish widow dies of fever at Glasgow, and infects some sixteen or seventeen others, who die too; but such a thing could not have happened in the middle ages. "No human creature then went about connected with nobody .... reduced to prove his relationship by dying of typhus fever." It would be interesting to know what "the harpy Jews," whom Abbot Samson "banished bag and baggage out of the banlieue of St. Edmondsbury," thought about their connections; nor would it be undesirable to learn how many people proved their relationship by dying of infection in the great plague of 1347, which destroyed nearly 60,000 people in Norwich and London, and when, as Dr. Lingard says, the pestilence, "was chiefly confined to the lower orders, for the more wealthy, by shutting themselves up in their castles, in a great measure escaped the infection."

The only way in which it is possible to criticise Mr. Carlyle's political writings favourably is by looking on them as addressed to an imaginary audience. They show what would be the state of the country if all the good qualities of its inhabitants had died out, and all its bad ones were raised to the highest power; but they also show at every point a complete incapacity of estimating justly any subject which comes immediately under the observation of the writer. When a man or thing stands far enough from Mr. Carlyle to enable him to view it and paint it as a whole, he does so with admirable artistic effect, though with questionable correctness. When it is close to him, he is so much irritated by the irregularities and blemishes of its surface, that he never inquires what is below. He is, on the whole, one of the greatest wits and poets, but the most untrustworthy moralist and politician, of our age and nation.

Saturday Review, June 19, 1853.

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