John Gross, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800 (1973).

Details: John Gross, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800 [first publ. Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1969] (London: Pelican 1973), 352pp.


Chapter 1: ‘The Rise of the Reviewer’
[...]
Sect. 3
Lockhart left Edinburgh for London to take up the editorship The Quarterly in 1825. Christopher North stayed on, but the early 1830s Blackwood’s had been outflanked. The new stamping-ground for riotous Tory bohemianism was Fraser’s [26] Magazine, founded in 1830 by William Maginn (1793-1842), who as ‘Sir Morgan O’Doherty’ had been one of the rowdiest participants in Noctes Ambrosianae. Maginn borrowed many features from Blackwood’s, in particular the idea of an editor (there was a fictitious one, called Oliver Yorke) as a Lord of Misrule. The magazine was crammed with doggerel, innuendo, burlesque, furious insults, scholarship run mad. The Fraserians usually collaborated on their lampoons: they presented themselves to the world as a collective entity, a gang of inseparable, insatiable boon-companions. It was a reasonably accurate picture. Carlyle, who had once spent an unhappy evening at ‘Ambrose’s Tavern’, awkwardly sipping diluted port, felt even more out of place dining with the Fraserians at their Round Table. He was repelled by the brutishness of their conversation – and it must have particularly sickened him to they had hastened the final crack-up of his friend, the preacher Edward Irving, by claiming him as one of their own. (‘Oft of a stilly night he quaffed glenlivat with the learned editor.’) As for the magazine itself, it seemed to him ‘a chaotic, fermenting dung-hill heap of compost’. But during his leanest years, also found it a valuable source of income. Unlike the staid men of the Edinburgh, at least the Fraserians were prepared to take a risk. It was in the pages of the magazine that Sartor Resartus first appeared, as a serial, not without a good many protests from irate subscribers: Carlyle alludes the outcry in the closing paragraph of the book, as he takes ironical leave of Oliver Yorke and his ‘all-too Irish mirth and madness’.

Like several of his satellites - the folklorist Crofton Croker, for instance, and F. S. Mahoney, the learned ex-Jesuit who wrote comic verse under the name of Father Prout, Maginn originally came from Cork. A child prodigy, he was already fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew when he entered Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of eleven. He went on to master an extraordinary number of languages, ancient and modern, and to graduate as a precocious LL.D. - to the Fraserians he was inevitably ‘the Doctor’. After ten in his home town, he decided to settle (if that [27] is the right, word) in London ; by this time he was an accredited member of the Blackwood’s team, having initially clambered aboard the magazine behind a smokescreen of facetious mystification which must have bewildered even Christopher North. His stamina was prodigious: he scribbled incessantly, everything from scurrilous paragraphs of political gossip to notes for his projected editions of Homer and Shakespeare. And as Dr. Johnson said of Richard Savage, ‘at no time of his life was it any part of his character to be the first of the company that desired to separate’. In the end drink got the better him, and his last few years were a reckless plunge downhill into gin-sodden obscurity. He intimidated contemporaries: one can get some idea both of his learning and of his misplaced polemical vigour from his slashing attack – a small book in itself - on the eighteenth-century Shakespearean scholar Dr Farmer. But nothing he wrote has lasted, not even the once- popular Homeric ballads which Matthew Arnold rated much higher than Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. If he and his henchmen can be said to survive anywhere, it is in the elegant, slightly mocking outline portraits by Daniel Maclise, another exile from Cork, which were the most popular single feature in Fraser’s and which remained collectors’ items for years afterwards - greatly admired, among others, by Goethe.

Maginn’s career is a reminder that economic conditions are never quite enough in themselves to account for the calamities of Grub Street. A man of his stamp would have come to grief in any period, and all the patronage in the world would hardly have sufficed to damp down his talent for self-destruction. In a sense, though, he was the last of his breed. By the 1840s the kind of raffishness which he represented was being driven steadily underground. Fraser’s quietened down and eventually re-emerged as an eminently respectable publication edited by J. A. Froude; within a year or two of Christopher North’s Blackwood’s was serializing Scenes of Clerical Life. And amid all this sobriety ‘the Doctor’ began to seem like a figure from the mercifully remote past. Only Lockhart’s spirited epitaph - ‘Here, early to bed, lies kind William Maginn’ - kept alive the legend of the brilliant might-have-been: [28 ]

For your Tories his fine Irish brain he would spin,
Who received prose and rhyme with a promising grin,
“Go ahead, you queer fish, and more power to your fin!”
But to save from starvation stirred never a pin ….

It wasn’t quite as simple as that, but an epitaph is an epitaph; and Lockhart was determined to make Maginn out as a cast-off Falstaff who had tried to put on a brave front for as long as he could:

But at last he was beat, and sought help of the bin,
(All the same to the Doctor, from, claret to gin),
Which led swiftly to gaol, with consumption therein;
It was much, when the bones rattled loose in his skin.
He got leave to die here,* out of Babylon’s din.
Barring drinks and the girls, I ne’er heard of a sin,
Many worse, better few, than bright broken Maginn.

[*Walton-on-Thames, where he is buried.]

[Sect. 4]
The average Victorian reader, if he had heard of Maginn at all, probably thought of him simply as the original of Shandon in Pendennis. Thackeray, who was nearly twenty years his junior, had first got to know him as a very young man, in 1832. He roamed around the West End with him, lent him several hundred pounds, bought control of a paper, the National Standard, and appointed him editorial consultant. Before long, however, the boot was on the other foot: Thackeray’s fortune had disappeared, and he was reduced to asking Maginn for help finding work as a journalist. In time he became a leading Fraserian, specializing in squibs aimed at Bulwer Lytton and the cult of the dandy. (His most celebrated contributions to the magazine were the Yellowplush Papers.) He acknowledged Maginn as his master; as late as 1839 he could propose a toast to him as a writer who adorned everything he touched, ‘even Homer’. But five years later, transferred his loyalties to Punch and the Morning Chronicle, he was already tut-tutting over the wild men of Fraser’s and their shameful antics. The success of Vanity Fair rounded off [29] the transformation of a middleweight humorist into illustrious man of letters. Ready at last to take stock of Youth and all its follies he embarked on The History of Pendennis.

At the outset of his foray into journalism Arthur Pendennis is taken to the Fleet to meet Charley Shandon, who together his family has been imprisoned for debt. An infant Shandon is pattering round the room; the Captain himself is sitting on his bed in a ragged dressing-gown, dashing off the prospectus for a new paper, the Pall Mall Gazette, which is to be ‘written by gentlemen for gentlemen: its conductors speak to the classes in which they live and were born’. As soon as he has handed over the manuscript he pockets his publisher’s five guineas and hurries off to spend it at the prison tavern; by the end of the day there is nothing left for his long-suffering wife except some small change. Tradition has always assumed that the Captain is meant to stand for the Doctor, and Maginn’s friends were quick to accuse Thackeray of treachery. Certainly the portrait would be highly misleading taken at face-value; Miriam Thrall, the historian of Fraser’s, has no trouble in drawing up a list of glaring disparities, and flatly denies that any direct reference to Maginn was ever intended. She suggests instead that Thackeray may have had in mind an obscure Fraserian hanger-on called Jack Sheehan. But the point is rather that Shandon is Maginn tidied up, toned down, and generally rendered fit for Victorian domestic consumption. The conventions of the time didn’t allow Thackeray to begin to do justice as a novelist to the man who had once spent a whole morning reciting Homer to him and then dragged him off to a cheap brothel in the afternoon. Maginn at least blazed away for all, he was worth, and there was a lurid pathos about his final downfall. Shandon by contrast is a mere commonplace pantomime scamp, who is bundled into the wings as soon as he has said his piece and who dies off-stage without a murmur. He has none of the bounce with which elsewhere in Pendennis Thackeray was able to endow a scapegrace like the old sponger Captain Costigan. Nor have any of the other ‘literary’ characters in the book: they represent an area of the author’s experience which he is clearly anxious to laugh oft as lightly [30] as possible. Contemporary readers may possibly have nejoyed a mild shock of recognition encountering Mr. Wagg the wit and Mr. Bludyer the critic, or following the antics of the rival publishers Bacon and Bungay and the interchangeable leader-writers Hoolan and Doolan. But there can never have been much edge to the satire even when it was topical: those routine joky names tell their own dismal story.

[…] (pp.26-31.)

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Chapter. 2: ‘Heroes as Men of Letters’
[Sect. 1]
Journalism is a career; literature is, or ought to be, a vocation. Few major nineteenth-century writers would have gone quite as far as Ruskin, who dismissed the entire output of Fleet Street as ‘so many square leagues of dirtily printed falsehood’, but most of them viewed the growth of the press as a very mixed blessing indeed. It gave them a powerful new platform, and at the same time drowned out what they were trying to say with triviality and claptrap. Nor could they take the same unalloyed pleasure that lesser men did in the improved position of authors as a social group. This kind of petty haggling over status was the epitome of half the ignoble things they were fighting against. In principle, at least, they saw themselves as witnesses to the truth, or nothing.

Of all the Victorians, none had a loftier conception of his calling than Carlyle, and none came to despise the whole trade of authorship more thoroughly. In ‘Characteristics’, written as early as 1831, he could already treat as self–evident the proposition towards which Matthew Arnold was still edging his way fifty years later. Literature was ultimately a branch of religion: moreover, ‘in our time, it is the only branch that shows any greeness; and as some think, must one day become the main stem’. But experience was to teach him that words alone will never save us; and having pitched his claim too high, he was correspondingly bitter in his revulsion. By the time he published Latter-Day Pamphlets, in 1850, the bough no longer blossomed. Instead, he now looked on literature, as a morbid substitute for reality, ‘the haven of expatriated spiritualisms, and also of expatriated vanities and prurient imbecilities: here do the windy aspirations, foiled activities, [37] foolish ambitions and frustrated energies, reduced to the vocable conditions, fly as to the refuse left …’

The notorious set of lectures On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840) mark as clear a turning-point as any in Carlyle’s shifting outlook. After considering in turn the Divinity, the Prophet, the Poet, the Priest - antique varieties of hero, all of them pretty well extinct - he comes in his fifth lecture to their one modern counterpart, who is not surprisingly ‘our most important modern person’, the Hero as Man of Letters. An ideal type, admittedly, and only very imperfectly embodied by the actual examples whom Carlyle cites, the oddly-assorted trio of Dr Johnson, Rousseau and Robert Burns. Yet even this hypothetical paragon doesn’t altogether satisfy him. Action was what the times required, unflinching leadership, blood and iron. His sixth and final lecture, misleadingly entitled ‘The Hero as King’, is a celebration of the strong man which sounds menacing chords of what was soon to be the dominant theme of his work.

There was no one clean break in his development, however. His radical impulse never entirely spent itself, while his migivings about literature as a way of life date from long before Heroes and Hero-Worship - date from the very outset of his career, in fact. Nothing in his early background had prepared him for the role of romantic artist: quite the reverse. As a student, he flatly denied having literary ambitions. He was expected to become a preacher, or failing that a teacher: if he showed a special bent, it was towards mathematics. His earliest recorded composition was a sermon, written as a college exercise at the age of fourteen, on the text ‘Before I was afflicted went astray’; his first appearance in print was in a geometry book, as ‘the ingenious young mathematician’ who solved a problem which had been baffling the author. After a few years he turned his back on teaching and abandoned mathematics, except as a pastime; but a preacher he remained. No literary form had a more obvious influence on the structure and rhythm of his essays than the sermon; and if he gradually came to use a more audacious rhetoric than any he could have heard in the pulpit, it was only, he insisted, as a [38] means to a moral end. When John Stuart Mill, in the first unclouded days of their friendship, spoke of him enthusiastically as a true artist, he was quick with his disclaimer: the future would show that he was simply ‘an honest artisan’, an unassuming craftsman - like his father, he might have added, the village stonemason from whom he had inherited his Calvinistic suspicions of artifice and make-believe.

Eventually, in middle age, those suspicions completely the better of him. But as a young man he had cast them aside: the Romantic currents which came flooding in had beaten down the sternest resistance that puritanism could offer. In his Reminiscences he admits that in his mid-twenties, when he finally gave up schoolmastering in Kirkcaldy and to Edinburgh, he was ‘intending darkly towards potential “literature”, if I durst have said or thought so’. And by literature he certainly had in mind something more than the expository criticism with which he initially made his name, more than interpreting Schiller or playing second fiddle to Goethe. For fifteen years he struggled to find the appropriate medium for his own creative gifts. There were some false starts, abandoned novels and abortive poems; the gradual mastery in his essays of a dynamic new style; and Sartor Resartus, an elaborate gothic fantasia which defies classification, but which belongs on the Fiction shelf rather more plausibly than anywhere else. Even so, until he was well his forties Carlyle was known principally as a man of letters in the unheroic sense, a commentator on other men’s books. [1] Outside all but a very restricted circle it took The French Revolution (1837) to establish his reputation as a primary a force, an artist in his own right.

He was an artist in spite of himself, with the artist’s of transforming private neurosis into meaningful public and the artist’s delight in the sheer virtuoso possibilities of his [39] medium. The old joke (John Morley’s) about him managing to compress his Gospel of of Silence into thirty-five volumes makes a serious point. If words were treacherous, they were also inexhaustibly beguiling; while the gloomy stakhanovite message of Sartor (‘Produce! Produce!) is given the lie by the playful element in Carlyle’s art, his wanton picturesque extravaagance. At the same time, no English, prose of his period, apart from Dickens’s, has more body - or, on occasion - delicacy. Legend suggests otherwise: what has come to be the stock notion of Carlylese takes far too little account the really subtle quicksilver effects at his comman, to say nothing of his genius for serio-comic caricature. That he grequently descends into bombast, no one is likely to dispute. His teutonic contortions are often unsightly, his bible-thumping repetitiousness can be maddening. But he has been made to pay altogether too heavy a price for such verbal excesses. Strip away the rant, and what remains is a daring chiaroscuro prose, flecked with satire, opening up vistas which still have the power to startle.

A mere propagandist could never have devised so potent, a style. But neither could a mere stylist. Although there were times when Carlyle apologized half-jokingly for his expletives and his syntactic oddities, he knew what he was doing when he sent the words swarming over the barricades of conventional usage. The whole structure of Johnsonian English breaking up from its foundations - revolution there as visible as anywhere else!’ Unprecedented social realities called for new modes of speech. From ‘Signs of the Times’ (1829) onwards Carlyle strove to make sense of the disordered condition of England - through images rather than reasoned arguments, but at least until Past and Present (1843), with a degree of penetration which his subsequent blusterings shouldn’t be allowed to obscure. It is dodging the issue to write him oft as an intellectual luddite. He may have used the medieval past (more compellingly, in my view, than any of his successors) as a yardstick for gauging the troubled present, but he recognized that there could be no going back. Abbot Samson was in his grave, and ‘the gospel of Richard Arkwright once [40] promulgated, no Monk of the old sort is any longer possible in the world.’ His quarrel in Past and Present was not with machinery as such, but with mechanized thinking; his anger ws directed against political cash-registers unable to reckon the cost in human terms, against a factory system which ripped up traditional loyalties without having anything to put in their place. Morality rates spoke louder than trade-figures – and even statistics, however doleful, only scratched at the surface of things:

Who shall compute the waste and loss, the obstruction sort, that was produced in the Manchester region by Peterloo alone! Some thirteen unarmed men and women cut down, - the number of the slain and maimed is very countable: but the treasury of rage, burning hidden or visible in all hearts ever since, more or lesss perverting the effort and aim of all hearts ever since, is of unknown extent

Nevertheless, revolution was not the answer: Carlyle had enough insight into the rage smouldering in his own heart to apprehend that ‘violence does even justice unjustly’. Instead, he called for strong government - which in the context of the period meant calling for factory inspectors, public parks, sanitary reform. He saluted Shaftesbury and Chadwick, and the first freedom which he proposed curtailing was the freedom to starve. There are some ugly moments in Past and Present, but on the whole the tone is humane; and if Carlyle had died at fifty, he would almost certainly be thought of today, with a few qualms and reservations, as having been on the side of the angels.

As it is, the diatribes of his later years have inevitably tended to bring the rest of his work into disrepute – and after Hitler, it is impossible to brush them aside (although professional campus Carlyleans still sometimes try). No doubt accusations of Nazism by anticipation get bandied about rather too freely nowadays, and even in Carlyle’s case they are not entirely apt; there are usually a few home truths to be winnowed from all but his most frantic outbursts, while (chiefly, perhaps, on account of his dedication to the Goethean ideal of a ‘World Literature’) he never quite lost a certain distaste [41] for the more cramping varieties of chauvinism. The Nazis though they found much to admire in him, were disappointed that he had not arrived at a full appreciation of Nordic supremacy. On the other hand it is clear that he didn’t have very far to go. His hateful views on ‘the Nigger Question’ are well known, and his conduct during the Governor Eyre case shows that he was ready, given half a chance, to put his prejudices into practice. The same is equally true of his anti-semitism. One of the less attractive medieval customs, recorded with a grim satisfaction, in Past and Present was the habit extorting money from Jews by pulling out their teeth; and a vivid passage in Froude’s biography describes Carlyle standing on the edge of Hyde Park, gazing at the Rothschild mansion and miming the same operation with an imaginary pair of pincers. More directly ominous is the letter which he sent to the German ideologue Paul Lagarde, an indubitable forerunner of the Nazis, congratulating him on ‘the fine spice of satire’ in his attacks on the Jews. Curiously enough, in the Life John Sterling (1851) he uses the actual word ‘anti-semitic’, which is generally supposed to have been coined in Germany some twenty years later: in a religious rather than a racial context, but still ...

The psychological origins of his rancour and of his infatuation with power are well worth exploring; the clues are sown thick all over Sartor in particular. What would be a mistake would be to stop there, to write him up as an isolated special case. On the contrary, he was very much a portent. He points forward, not indeed to fascism itself, since after all he never crossed over into the realm of active politics, but to the trahison des clercs, the long procession of artists and intellectuals whose hatred of the modern world has led them to flirt with brutally authoritarian regimes or to clutch at obscurantist dogma. And, as with so many of his successors, the infected areas of his work cannot simply be cordoned off from the healthy. Both are the product of the same fundamentally imperious approach to social complexities, of an imagination naturally drawn to clear-cut diagnoses and drastic solutions, impatient of hedging and compromise. It is to the credit of [42] such a man that he should nevertheless have been willing to prescribe unromantic short-term palliatives (organised emigration, elementary schools, &c.), but this was hardly his first claim on the consideration of his contemporaries, any more than it is on ours. His most enduring distinction as a social critic is to have brought into dramatic focus the disruptive effects of unrestrained laissez-faire industrialism. Trying to describe the larger forces at work in his society, fell back on metaphors of homesickness, uprooting, disaharmony. As metaphors, they are brilliantly suggestive, but as the point of departure for any kind of comprehensive political programme, they need to be handled with care. Like many other romantics, Carlyle ultimately seems to be judging society as though though it were an unsuccessful work of art, The analogy is dangerous, since social cohesion can never be as absolute as artistic unity; it will always be easy for those who dream of restoring an organic society to despair, and tempting to assume that a deliberately imposed uniformity will come to much the same thing in the end. A romantic is concerned with integrity - the integrity of a persons, integrity of a poem. But politics is the art of rough, very rough, approximations; and ever since Plato, the desire and pursuit of the whole has usually turned out, taken far enough and translated into political terms, to be a first-class recipe for totalitarianism.

In Victorian England, needless to say, Carlyle’s preaching had no such dire consequences. He was admired and applauded. By tens of thousands, hungering for a religion wth the theology left out, he was revered. His moral strenuousness and missionary fervour helped to colour the mood of an entire generation. But if his influence was immense, it was also a something-in-the-air rather than an ideology; and as his political opinions hardened, it grew more diffuse than ever. The violently reactionary views expressed in Latter-Day Pamphlets found very few takers. Among the rank and file, his his fame as a spiritual teacher continued to spread. The six-penny edition of Sartor, for instance, published the year following his dead, and nearly fifty years after the book’s first [43] appearance, sold 70,000 copies: few works as esoteric can ever have enjoyed such genuinely wide popularity. But from around 1850 he was no longer a leader of advanced opinion. Younger writers, when they paid their respects, began to insist on treating him less as an intellectual guide than as an exhilarating spectacle. George Eliot’s tribute of 1855 can stand as one of many:

It is not as not as a theorist, but as a great and beautiful human nature, that Carlyle influences us. You may meet a man whose wisdom seems unimpeachable, since you find him entirely in agreement with yourself; but this oracular man of unexceptionable opinions has a green eye, a wiry hand, and altogether a Wesen, or demeanour, that makes the world look blank to you, and whose unexceptionable opinions become a bore; while another man, who deals in what you cannot but think ‘dangerous paradoxes’, warms your heart by the pressure of his hand, and looks out on the world with so clear and loving eye, that nature seems to reflect the light of his glance upon your of own feeling. So it is with Carlyle.

We may feel that this is both letting Carlyle off rather lightly and undervaluing him at the same time, conveniently disposing of his more subversive insights. In the milder climate of the 1850s, however, apocalyptic politics inevitably no longer evoked as keen a response as they had in the crisis-torn England of the Chartists. And it surely says a good deal for the soundness of Victorian liberalism that, with all his prestige, Carlyle’s ‘dangerous paradoxes’ should have gained so few out-and-out adherents. He played an indirect part admittedly, in, fostering the spirit of fin-de-siècle imperialism, but at least as significant was his impact on Ruskin and William Morris, and through them on the course of English socialism. The strands of influence were tangled. Ruskin, one might add, had his jingoistic spasms: the proclamations of imperial destiny, in his inaugural lecture as Slade Professor at Oxford are supposed to have made a lasting impression on the young Cecil Rhodes. It was one of the privileges of a Victorian Sage to send his troops marching off in all directions at once.

Certainly Carlyle succeeded, down until the early years of the twentieth century, in exciting the admiration of the most [44] diverse types, from Thomas Hardy to Havelock Elllis, from T. H. Huxley to Proust. Even those who couldn’t bear him were often ready to concede, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, that his genius was ‘gigantic’. And he had a way meaning all things to all men: to go no further than the House of Commons, at different times Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Keir Hardie, all claimed that his writings had had a decisive effect in reshaping their lives. A full-scale history of his reputation would cut right across accepted party lines in every sense; it would contain a strong element of pathos - since he promised, innumerable hard-pressed readers more spiritual consolation than he could deliver - and an equally sizeable element of farce. In a fallen world the prophet who, so to speak, makes good is inevitably liable to end up in an anomalous position., flattering while he fulminates, cheered on by the very people he originally set out to denounce. When Carlyle substituted one brand of aggressive individualism for another, the difference wasn’t always apparent to his middle-class audience. He scolded the archetypal businessman, Plugson of Undershot, and soothed his vanity in the next breath: ‘Poor Plugson – he was a Captain of Industry, born member of the Ultimate genuine Aristocracy of this Universe, could he have known it!’ A few strokes of the pen, and for ‘Plugson of Undershot’ read ‘Sir Andrew Undershaft’. The captains of industry went away duly gratified, and Carlyle was assured of a niche in the self-made man’s pantheon. Samuel Smiles salutes him at: beginning of Thrift. Samuel Barmby, the up-and-coming tradesman in Gissing’s novel In the Year of Jubilee who was meant to embody everything complacent, half-baked and inane circa 1887, swears by ‘Carlyle and Gurty’ (‘those authors are an education in themselves’), though he isn’t shown actually reading them. Inch by inch the tremendous exhortations were whittled down to editorial talking-points, slogans for the Chamber of Commerce. And these penalties of fame were not altogether unmerited: there was a platitudinous, boosterish side to Carlyle crying out for the kind of exploitation which he underwent.

In retrospect, it is tempting to see the myth of the Hero as [45] Man of Letters as a fairly transparent exercise in self-glorification. The clouds of Immensities and Infinitudes roll away and there is Thomas Carlyle alone on the rostrum, his fashionable audience ‘all sitting quite mum, and the Annandale voice gollying at them’. An indomitable pride kept him from cashing in on his success as a lecturer, as he so easily could have done, especially when the invitations started to arrive from America . But whatever his protestations to the contrary, he had all the instincts of a spell-binder: in their original spoken form the Hero-Worship lectures, which read uninspiringly in cold print, were a dramatic performance rather than an intellectual discourse, with listeners moved to shouts of ‘Splendid!’ and ‘Devilish fine!’ or, occasionally, to cries of protest, as when a white-faced John Stuart Mill rose to his feet, calling out ‘No!’, after Bentham had been unfavourably contrasted with Mohammed. (A moment later, Islam was described as a mote effective faith than modern Christianity, but although there were half-a-dozen bishops in the auditorium, everyone sat tight.) The atmosphere was as heady as that of an opera-house; and today, certainly, nothing in the actual content of the lectures seems as gripping as the account of their reception which Carlyle sent back home to his mother. Nor, for that matter, can one readily imagine even the most benighted of modern readers turning to Sartor for the sake of its yea-saying message: such fascination as the book retains, other than as an historical document, is that of a surrealist, many-layered autobiography. The essays in social criticism are another story - and, given Carlyle’s current reputation, the intelligence and humanity of his early radicalism are what need to be stressed. But, even here, his doctrines are too disjointed to be worth considering for very in the abstract, apart from the man himself. All said and done, he survives most compellingly in what ought by rights to be his secondary works - in his Reminiscences, in the semi-autobiographical Life of Sterling, [2] in his letters, which Henry [46] James thought were the most remarkable in the language - and though a fair amount has to be aIllowed for suave Jamesian hyperbole (he was writing to Carlyle’s editor, Charles Norton), there are times when such a judgement doesn’t seem all that extravagant.

As for the literary essays, leaving aside those where was largely content to act as an intermediary for the Germans, [3] they were too violent and subjective to have much effect on the actual course of critical opinion, in spite of their undoubted merits. The sketch of Dr. Johnson (1832), for example, is much superior to Macaulay’s firework-display of the previous year. (Both men were ostensibly reviewing Croker’s edition of Boswell.) Carlyle responds to the tragic depths of Johnson’s character, and compels the reader to take them seriously, in a way that Macaulay never could. But he only sees as much as he wants to see; a rugged Carlylean hero beating a solitary path through the wilderness of unbelief. He wa too passionately involved in dramatizing his own conflicts to keep the Dr. Johnson of history steadily in view, and despite his vehemence - or because of it - his essay failed to counteract the standard nineteenth-century tradition of Johnson a lumbering eccentric, half-genius half-buffoon, which Macaulay more than anyone else had helped to establish.

Criticism in the Arnoldean sense was in fact foreign to Carlyle’s nature; he lacked the necessary patience for a sustained effort ‘to see the object as it really is’. This may well imply that his creative drive was more urgent than Arnold’s; an analogous comparison between D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot as critics suggests itself. But who can doubt that Arnold, though he owed him a heavier debt than he would willlingly admit, was right to turn his back on him? Or that he was justified when he described his gospel of Earnestness as coals to Newcastle ? Victorian England already had all the [47] fanatic it needed, and Carlyle’s potent example made it that much more difficult to discuss literature calmly, flexibly, without crippling moral preconceptions.

His influence can, however, be read in another light. The great Romantic critics left no immediate successors - and René Wellek speaks for most historians of the subject wHen he says that ‘around 1850 English criticism had reached a nadir’. This was more than a chronological fluke: it reflects the same breakdown of standards which can be seen, more familiarly, in the hideous bric-à-brac of the 1851 Exhibition. Under the circumstances, one could argue that Carlyle’s literary practice counted for a great deal more than his philistine precepts. The tone of the age was harsh, and many of his audience must have learned from him for the first time that art was something more than a luxury. With all his snarls, in fact, no writer of his generation could have done more to raise the whole moral prestige of literature. [End sect.; p.48. Note: the ensuing section deals with John Stuart Mill under the same chapter heading.]


Notes
1. It seems curious in retrospect, though it made much better sense at the time, against the background of the Quarterly or Blackwood’s, that Thackeray in 1839 should have singled out for special praise Carlyle’s detachment, his refusal to subordinate critical judgement to political bias: ‘Pray God I we shall begin ere long to love art for art’s sake. It is Carlyle who worked more than any other to give it its independence.’

2: When Mrs Carlyle was asked by a friend what Sterling had ever done in his life, that he should rate a biography, she replied: ‘Induced Carlyle somehow to write him one.’

3: This is putting it to casually: he was an interpreter as well as an intermediary, and an independent-minded one. On such matters I can merely repeat what I read, but the evidence looks impressive. See, for example, comments on the originality of his insight into Goethe’s moral in Ernst Cassirer’s The Myth of the State (1946).


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