Carlyle’s ‘Fire-Baptism’

  • Murray Roston

Abstract

The decline in Carlyle’s reputation induced by the extremist views he espoused in his later years, and intensified by the appearance, soon after his death, of Froude’s ungenerous and hastily written biography has left his image tarnished, and attempts by modern historians to restore him to his earlier eminence have achieved only limited success.1 But the ethical stimulus Carlyle provided for his fellow Victorians by his thunderous attacks upon the cant of his times, as well as the high regard in which he was held during the zenith of his career in the years 1837–50, cannot be retrospectively expunged. Initially baffling readers by its stylistic idiosyncrasy and the unconventional thrust of its rhetoric, his was a voice soon to be revered, even idolized, as that of the authentic Sage of the era. George Eliot testified to the charismatic quality of the influence he had exerted over the leading thinkers of her generation, even over those least in agreement with his opinions, for whom, she averred, the reading of Sartor Resartus had proved ‘an epoch in the history of their minds’.2 It was a tribute repeatedly echoed by such distinguished contemporaries as Matthew Arnold, Dickens and John Stuart Mill.

Keywords

Burning Vortex Manifold Retina Explosive 

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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    The oscillations in Carlyle’s reputation are documented in Jules P. Seigel (ed.), Thomas Carlyle: the Critical Heritage (London, 1971); in G.B. Tennyson, ‘Carlyle Today’, published in K.J. Fielding and Rodger L. Tarr (eds), Carlyle Past and Present: a collection of new essays (New York, 1976); in Michael Goldberg, ‘A Universal “howl of execration”: Carlyle’s Latter-day Pamphlets and their critical reception’ in John Clubbe (ed.), Carlyle and his Contemporaries (Durham, NC, 1976), and in Fred Kaplan, Thomas Carlyle: a biography (Cambridge, 1983).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    George Eliot’s unsigned review in the Leader, 27 October, 1855. The biblical background to Carlyle’s secular preaching is discussed in George P. Landow, ‘Elegant Jeremiahs: the genre of the Victorian sage’ in John Clubbe and Jerome Meckier (eds), Victorian Perspectives: six essays (London, 1989), pp. 21f.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In a letter to John Sterling who had criticized the un-Englishness of his writing, Carlyle replied by enquiring whether it was a time for purity of style when everything was in a state of flux, ‘… our Johnsonian English breaking up from its foundations, — revolution there as visible as anywhere else.’ His response implies his conscious dissociation from the Johnsonian tradition. The exchange of letters is reprinted in C.F. Harrold’s edition of Sartor Resartus (New York, 1937), pp. 305–25. For a postmodern examination of the ‘indecorousness’ of Carlyle’s style, see Geoffrey Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness: a study of literature today (New Haven, 1980), pp. 133f., as well as David Riede, The Church of Literature and Carlyle’ in Jerome J. McGann (ed.), Victorian Connections (Charlottesville, 1989), pp. 88f.Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth Barrett (Browning), in A New Spirit of the Age (New York, 1844), pp. 333f. The review was probably altered, with her permission, by her editor Richard H. Horne, but is regarded by scholars as substantially her own composition.Google Scholar
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    Thackeray’s review of The French Revolution in The Times, 3 August, 1837.Google Scholar
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    Sartor Resartus in Complete Works: the ‘University’ edition (New York, 1885), 1:168, all subsequent quotations being from this edition.Google Scholar
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    Carlyle did write some poetry, but only in an amateur way. It is available in Rodger L. Tarr and Fleming McClelland (eds), The Collected Poems of Thomas and Jane Carlyle (Greenwood, 1986).Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Fielding and Tarr, p. 18, from f. 4v of the manuscript. The Forster Collection in the Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum contains some early drafts for Carlyle’s projected biography of Oliver Cromwell, a work which he never completed.Google Scholar
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    Cf. David V. Erdman, Blake: prophet against empire (New York, 1954), a pioneer study in revealing the poet’s relationship to contemporary politics, aesthetics, and social change, and my own Prophet and Poet: the Bible and the Growth of Romanticism (London, 1965), pp. 159–71, which connected Blake’s ‘prophetic’ poems, both in their form and their passionate content, with Robert Lowth’s eighteenth-century discovery, widely influential at the time, that the basis of biblical poetry was not quantitative or accentual metre, but a loose parallelism of phrases, a fervent repetition of sentiments.Google Scholar
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    Peter Conrad, The Victorian Treasure-House (London, 1973), p. 43. Dickens was, of course, a great admirer of Carlyle, and is said to have carried a copy of the French Revolution everywhere with him on its first appearance — cf. J.A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle: a history of his life in London, 1834–1882 (London, 1910), 1:93. The early influence is discussed in Michael Slater, ‘Carlyle and Jerrold into Dickens: a study of The Chimes’ in Ada Nisbet and Blake Nevius (eds), Dickens Centennial Essays (Berkeley, 1971), pp. 184f., and more generally in William Oddie, Dickens and Carlyle: the question of influence (London, 1972) and Michael Goldberg, Carlyle and Dickens (Athens, Ga., 1972). Dickens’ most conscious imitation of Carlyle was, however, to be delayed until his Tale of Two Cities in 1859. The quotation is from Barnaby Rudge, Chapter 68. John Carey, Here Comes Dickens: the imagination of the novelist (New York, 1973), pp. 14–15, notes the prevalence of fire imagery in the novels.Google Scholar
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    The prominence of ‘light-fire’ imagery in his work has long been noted, as in John Holloway, The Victorian Sage: studies in argument (New York, 1965), pp. 28–9, and G.B. Tennyson, Sartor Called Resartus: the genesis, structure, and style of Thomas Carlyle’s first major work (Princeton, 1965), pp. 198–201. Gerry H. Brookes, The Rhetorical Form of Carlyle’s ‘Sartor Resartus’ (Berkeley, 1972) is concerned with the thematic structure of the work and only tangentially with the literary style and imagery. The final quotation on the cities is from Sartor Resartus, 1:130.Google Scholar
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    An overview of these early studies in anthropology is provided in B. Feldman and R.D. Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology, 1680–1860 (Bloomington, 1972). The passage from Jones’s essay ‘On the Gods of Greece, Italy, and India’ appears in A.M. Jones (ed.), Works (London, 1807), 3:385–6.Google Scholar
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    John Gage, 7.M.W. Turner and Solar Myth’ in The Sun is God, pp. 39f., examines the painter’s debt to Knight, Jones, and others, but makes no distinction there between the earlier and later phases of his work.Google Scholar
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    A.G.H. Bachrach offers a detailed examination of Turner’s relationship to the Dutch painters in the Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters (1976), 6:88f. On Lord Bridgewater’s loan to the British Institution, see Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll (eds), The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner (New Haven, 1984), text volume, p. 13.Google Scholar
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    Martin and Joll (eds), p. 173. John Gage’s explanation has been challenged by Andrew Wilton, Turner and the Sublime (New Haven, 1980), p. 143, who identifies as Regulus one of the small figures to the right, while Cecilia Powell has argued in her Turner in the South (New Haven, 1987), pp. 145–51, for the small figure with his arms raised at the left. But Gage’s reading is more convincing (and still generally accepted), as there is no logical justification for the artist’s placing of the main character in a peripheral, even disputable location.Google Scholar
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    Literary Gazette, 4 February, 1837.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: his life and art (New York, 1979), p. 216f., supports the view that Petworth marks the turning-point, noting how critics in 1829 responded to the new works as marking a ‘violent departure’ from his former style. Philipp Fehl, in his important essay ‘Turner’s Classicism and the Problem of Periodization in the History of Art’, Critical Inquiry, 3 (1976), 93, argues that the artist’s continued admiration for Claude militates against any interpetation of his work as adumbrating Impressionism. I am not, of course, concerned here with his relationship to that later school, but the marked stylistic change during the Petworth period, while it did not end his admiration for the classicism Claude represented, would seem to reveal an essentially new commitment within his own work. Historical aspects of this period of his career appear in Martin Butlin, Mollie Luther and Ian Warrell, Turner at Petworth (London, 1989).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    ‘Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills’, 206–13 in Complete Poetical Works (edited by Thomas Hutchinson) (Oxford, 1917), p. 552. The comparison of Turner to Shelley is discussed in Hugh Honour’s perceptive interart study, Romanticism (New York, 1979), pp. 100–2.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    French Revolution, 4:270–1.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    French Revolution, 4:385 and 3:52.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    The basic study is still C.F. Harrold, Carlyle and German Thought, 1819–1834 (New Haven, 1934). But see also Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford, 1991), especially pp. 123f. for the shift in emphasis within German philosophy of this time.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    John Gage, Color in Turner: poetry and truth (New York, 1969) examines the revolution in colour theory occurring during Turner’s lifetime and the latter’s reactions, both in theory and practice, to the various innovative ideas. Frederick Burwick has provided a detailed analysis of Turner’s colour in The Damnation of Newton: Goethe’s color theory and Romantic perception (Berlin, 1986); and see also Gerald Finley, ‘Pigment into Light: Turner, and Goethe’s Theory of Colours’, European Romantic Review, 2 (1991), 39. In 1843, Turner exhibited two paintings based upon Goethe’s theory. Shade and Darkness: the Evening of the Deluge and Light and Colour: the Morning after the Deluge, On aspects of the painter’s development as an artist, see also John Gage’s valuable study, J.M.W. Turner: ‘a wonderful range of mind’ (New Haven, 1987).Google Scholar
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    John Holloway, The Victorian Sage, especially in the opening chapter.Google Scholar
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    Cf. John P. McGowan, Representation and Revelation: Victorian realism from Carlyle to Yeats (Columbia Mo., 1986), p. 63.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    From Brooks, Signs for the Times.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Sartor Resartus, 1:168–9.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Seemingly hesitant to pronounce his own judgement, Carlyle inserts, in one of his rare references to the visual arts, a protective parenthesis: ‘Raphael, the Painters tell us, is the best of all Portrait-painters…’, Heroes and Hero-worship, 1:322.Google Scholar
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    Ronald Paulson, Turner’s Graffiti: the sun and its glosses’, in Images of Romanticism, ed. cit., pp. 167–88. Quotations from Milton’s invocation to Book 3 of Paradise Lost in Complete Poems (edited by Merritt Y. Hughes) (New York, 1957), p. 257, and Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 2:315–17, in the Twickenham edition, ed. John Butt (New Haven, 1970), p. 153. John Dixon Hunt suggests in ‘Wondrous Deep and Dark: Turner and the sublime’, Georgia Review, 30 (1976), 139, that the indefiniteness of Turner’s paintings and his preference for uncompleted sketches, which ‘… pleased me beyond the best finishing’, marked his acceptance of Burke’s theory identifying the element of suggestiveness in the sublime.Google Scholar
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    The genuineness of this painting is discussed in Butlin and Joll, p. 97. Alexander J. Finberg notes in his Life of J.M.W. Turner (Oxford, 1961) p. 476, that it was based upon a sketch made at the time of the eruption by Hugh P. Keane, Turner himself not having been present at the scene.Google Scholar
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    Sartor Resartus, 1:128. J. Hillis Miller’s recent book, Illuminations (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), pp. 135f., has noted the possibility that the sun may represent Turner’s own artistic creativity, but, as part of the deconstructionist’s untiring search for aporia, assumes that his sunsets represent the artist’s acknowledgment of his declining power. The splendour of those sunsets, however, seem to me far from pessimistic in their implications.Google Scholar
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    Sartor Resartus, pp. 167–8. For the relationship of Fichte’s philosophy to this aspect of Carlyle’s work, see Jerry A. Dibble, The Pythia’s Drunken Song: Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Sartor Resartus’ and the style problem in German idealist philosophy (The Hague, 1978). For the lengthy bibliography relating to the eighteenth-century sublime and a discussion of its place in art and literature, the reader is referred to the chapter on that theme in my Changing Perspectives.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Recorded in R.C. Trench (ed.). Letters and Memorials (London, 1897), 1:84. On the general situation at that time, cf. Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830–1870 (New Haven, 1972), pp. 54–61; E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1966); and, for the statistics of this movement into the cities, Eric E. Lampard, The Urbanizing World’ in H.J. Dyos and Michael Wolff (eds). The Victorian City: images and realities (London, 1976) 1:3–58.Google Scholar
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    Ruskin, Complete Works (edited by E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn) (London, 1903–12) 3:254. The passage was omitted from the 1846 edition onwards. The connection of this painting with Ruskin’s description of Turner was first suggested by Jack Lindsay in his J.M.W. Turner, p. 213. On Ruskin’s interpretation of the painting in pessimistic terms, probably reflecting his own mood at the time, see Elizabeth K. Helsinger’s lucid discussion, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder (Cambridge, Ma., 1982), pp. 248–9. That pessimistic reading has generally been accepted by subsequent critics, because of the scene of Cain’s murder of Abel, and the presence of the serpent and death; but, as I have indicated in my discussion of the painting, they were conventional concomitants of apocalyptic visions, when the messianic era would drive out death and sin.Google Scholar
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    Heroes and Hero-worship, 1:298. Cf. Patricia M. Ball, The Central Self: a study in Romantic and Victorian imagination (London, 1968), which discusses Carlyle’s call for ‘sincerity’ of vision in the poet.Google Scholar
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    Lady Simon’s recounting of the incident to George Richmond is recorded in A.M.W. Stirling, The Richmond Papers (London, 1926), pp. 55–6. Turner’s choice of this theme coincided with the high-point of railway expansion in England, 6,000 miles of track being completed by 1850. There is a full account in Herbert L. Sussman, Victorians and the Machine: the literary response to technology (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). How long it took before people became accustomed to the blurring of landscape at the comparatively high speeds then being achieved is evidenced in E.M. Forster’s amusing account in Howards End (Chapter 23), as Meg, reluctantly persuaded to travel in the Wilcoxes’ motor car, attempts to enjoy the scenery: ‘It heaved and merged like porridge. Presently it congealed. They had arrived.’Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Murray Roston 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Murray Roston
    • 1
  1. 1.Bar Ilan UniversityRamat GanIsrael

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