Carlyle’s ‘Fire-Baptism’

  • Murray Roston


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.


Club Foot Royal Academy French Revolution Brilliant Yellow British Institution 
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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
  4. 4.
    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
  5. 5.
    Thackeray’s review of The French Revolution in The Times, 3 August, 1837.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Sartor Resartus in Complete Works: the ‘University’ edition (New York, 1885), 1:168, all subsequent quotations being from this edition.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: an introduction (Minneapolis, 1983), especially pp. 601f., and Richard Rorty, The Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis, 1982), p. 92.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    French Revolution, 3:137–8.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    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
  10. 10.
    Letter to J.H. Rigg dated 5 April, 1857 in Charles Kingsley: his letters and memories of his life edited by his wife (London, 1877) 2:22–3.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    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
  12. 12.
    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
  13. 13.
    Karl Kroeber, ‘Romantic Historicism: the temporal sublime’, in Karl Kroeber and William Walling (eds), Images of Romanticism: verbal and visual affinities (New Haven, 1978) and developed in his British Romantic Art (Berkeley, 1986), pp. 143–52. The Tolstoy quotation is from the Everyman edition of War and Peace (New York, 1948), 3:319. For a comparison of this painting to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner in terms of the romantic sublime, see James B. Twitchell, Romantic Horizons: aspects of the sublime in English poetry and painting, 1770–1850 (Columbia Mo., 1983), pp. 85f. There is a useful listing of vortex and whirlwind images culled from Carlyle’s French Revolution in Chris Brooks, Signs for the Times: symbolic realism in the mid-Victorian world (London, 1984), pp. 16–17.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    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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    Shelley, The Cloud’, lines 9–12 in Complete Poetical Works (edited by Thomas Hutchinson) (Oxford, 1917).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    J. Hillis Miller, ‘ “Hierographical Truth” in Sartor Resartus: Carlyle and the language of parable’, in John Clubbe and Jerome Meckier (eds), Victorian Perspectives, p. 1.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    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
  18. 18.
    Quotations from John Walker, J.M.W. Turner (New York, 1976), pp. 55–6.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner (edited by John Gage) (Oxford, 1980), p. 99.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Literature (London, 1975); Roland Barthes, Mythologies (trans. A. Lavers) (Frogmore, 1973); and Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York, 1967). The application of these and other mythological approaches to nineteenth-century studies is exemplified in the collection of essays The Sun is God: painting, literature and mythology in the nineteenth century (edited by J.B. Bullen) (Oxford, 1989). For Victorian interest in solar mythology, which reached its peak in time for Ruskin but too late to influence Turner, see especially two essays in that collection, Dinah Birch, ‘ “The Sun is God”: Ruskin’s Solar Mythology’ and Gillian Beer, ‘ “The Death of the Sun”: Victorian Solar Physics and Solar Myth.’ There was, within science, a general interest at this time in the sun as a source of light, Sir David Brewster, Joseph Plateau, and Gustav Fechner all severely damaging their eye-sight (Plateau became permanently blind) as a result of gazing directly at it for lengthy periods in order to investigate its effect upon the eye. For details, see Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: on vision and modernity in the nineteenth century (Cambridge Ma., 1990), pp. 141f.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    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
  22. 22.
    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
  23. 23.
    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
  24. 24.
    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
  25. 25.
    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
  32. 32.
    John Holloway, The Victorian Sage, especially in the opening chapter.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Past and Present, 12:184.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Heroes and Hero-worship, 1:329 and 381.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Heroes and Hero-worship, 1:309 and 296.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    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
  40. 40.
    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
  41. 41.
    Hazlitt’s review appeared in The Champion, 12 May, 1816.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    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
  43. 43.
    On the importance of this painting in Turner’s development, see Carl Woodring, ‘Road Building: Turner’s Hannibal’, Studies in Romanticism, 30 (1991), 19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Sartor Resartus, 1:149.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Forster collection, f. 106.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Sartor Resartus, 1:200.Google Scholar
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    R.A. Foakes, The Romantic Assertion (New Haven, 1958).Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: romantic theory and the critical tradition (New York, 1958), pp. 30f. Schelling’s comment appeared in his 1807 essay ‘On the Relationship of the Creative Arts to Nature’.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    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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    John P. McGowan, Representation and Revelation, especially the perceptive opening chapter.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    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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    Anne K. Mellor, English Romantic Irony (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), pp. 5–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Jack Lindsay, J.M.W. Turner, His Life and Work: a critical biography (London, 1966), especially pp. 89f., and Gage, Color in Turner, p. 145. The mythological references appended to Turner’s later works are typified by the quotation he chose for the canvas Aeneas Relating his Story to Dido of 1850: Fallacious Hope beneath the moon’s pale crescent shone. Dido listened to Troy being lost and won. (MS. Fallacies of Hope) The quotations often became the target of satirical comment, such as the caustic remark by the critic of the Illustrated London News on 1 June, 1850: ‘… the said fallacy being any hope of understanding what the picture means.’Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    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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    Cf. Bryan Jay Wolf, Romantic Re-vision: culture and consciousness in nineteenth-century American painting (Chicago, 1982), pp. 81f.; and R.W.B. Lewis, The American Adam: innocence, tragedy, and tradition in the nineteenth century (Chicago, 1955).Google Scholar
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    George P. Landow, Images of Crisis: literary iconology 1750 to the present (Boston, 1982).Google Scholar
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    J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God: five nineteenth-century writers (New York, 1965), especially pp. 6–8.Google Scholar
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    Sartor Resartus, 1:167.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    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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    Rippingille’s account appeared some years later in the Art Journal (1860), p. 100.Google Scholar
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    C.R. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections (London, 1860), 1:202.Google Scholar
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    Lawrence Gowing, Turner: Imagination and Reality (New York, 1966), p. 45, an impressive study of Turner’s art, arguing for the artist’s use of pigment as an acknowledged ingredient of painting rather than as a camouflaged instrument for achieving mimetic effect.Google Scholar
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    Sir George Beaumont condemned the water in this picture as being ‘… like the veins on a Marble slab.’ The comment is recorded in the manuscript of Joseph Farington’s Diary in the British Museum, the entry being for 3 May, 1803. Richard L. Stein, The Ritual of Interpretation: the fine arts as literature in Ruskin, Rossetti, and Pater (Cambridge, Ma., 1975), pp. 17f., discusses the ‘religion of art’ that Ruskin attempted to create for his fellow Victorians, sometimes misusing Turner in the process. Ruskin’s own delight in detail which he transferred attributively to Turner is also examined in Robert Hewison, John Ruskin: the argument of the eye (Princeton, 1976). On the reception of this painting by Turner’s contemporaries, see J. Ziff, ‘Turner’s Slave Ship; What a Red Rag is to a Bull’, Turner Studies, 3 (1984), 28.CrossRefGoogle 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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    Sartor Resartus, 1:201.Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    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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    Sartor Resartus, 1:185.Google Scholar
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    J.A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle, Life in London, 1:65.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Murray Roston 1996

Authors and Affiliations

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

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