Thomas Carlyle was, in many ways, intensely dissatisfied with the state of his nation. Carlyle, who is known to speak out as the voice of the poor and hopeless, makes another attempt to open the United Kingdom's eyes in his essay Past and Present. In the first section of the essay, entitled "Midas" (aptly named after the king who wanted everything that he touched to turn into gold) Carlye discusses the situation of the poor in England. The essay uses bold examples to bring to light the fact that though England is "the wealthiest of all nations," it does not want to listen to the plight of its poor.

I found the follow passage to be the key argument of "Midas:"

You have to admit that the working body of this rich English Nation has sunk or is fast sinking into a state, to which, all sides of it considered, there was literally never any parallel. At Stockport Assizes, — and this too has to reference to the present state of trade, being of date prior to that, — a Mother and a Father are arraigned a found guilty of poisoning three of their children, to defraud a "burial society" of some [money] due on the death of each chilled: they are arraigned, found guilty,; and the official authorities, it is whispered, hint that perhaps the case is not solitary, that perhaps you had better not probe farther into that department of things.

In this passage, Carlye astutely summons the idea that although the poor are being forced to do brutal things, such as killing their own children, in order to survive, the government turns a blind eye to the causes of the brutality. It is far easier to view the poor as savages, and sinners, then to understand that perhaps they are simply humans, humans who have been forgotten.

Questions

1. Carlye here uses the second person, addressing us in the essay. Is this method effective, and if so why?

2. At various points throughout "Midas" Carlye's tone does not stay consistent. At times he narrates passively, almost impartially, and at other points (such as on the top of page 261), his tone becomes excitable, and he uses exclamations of "O!" Does this inconsistency in tone make the essay more real to the reader, or is it instead distracting?

3. In the last paragraph of the essay, Carlyle makes clear to us why he uses the title Midas. What do you see the coloration to be, are Midas' long ears meant to represent England's poor?

4. In the above passage, the "authorities" say that perhaps it is better not to "probe farther into that department of things," in regards to the murders of the children. What does this mean? What would Carlyle argue lead the parents to kill their own children?


Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified 21 September 2003