When Thomas Carlyle talks about the poetic vision in his lecture series On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History as a vision of acuity and depth, he conjures up an entire history of poetic thought that reveals poetry as an art, which by nature and origin, is steeped in a tradition of minute detail. In his very first lecture, "On the Hero as Divinity," Carlyle muses:
To us also, through every star, through every blade of grass, is not God made visible, if we will open our minds and eyes? We do not worship that way now: but it is reckoned still a merit, proof of what we call a "poetic nature," that we recognize how every object has a divine beauty in it; how every object is "a window through which we may look into Infinitude itself?" [p. 10]
Carlyle's above questions do not merely invoke the aims of his contemporaries (think for example of E.B. Browning's notion of the artist's double vision in Aurora Leigh or Robert Browning's descriptions in "Two in the Compagna"), but they reach back to the essence behind such poetic voices as Shakespeare, Dante, and even Donne. However, it is clear that Carlyle is attempting to highlight or exalt the poetic beliefs of the Romantics over those of any other group of poets. In fact, the above quotation seems to arise out of the very spirit of Blake's opening to his "Auguries of Innocence":
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. [lines 1-4]
Nevertheless, we do not truly see this evaluation of poetics as one which requires a Romantic vision until Carlyle's later lecture, "The Hero as Poet." In the above excerpt, it is divinity which Carlyle sees in Nature. However, in this later lecture Carlyle moves on to observe that it is actually sound which is both the essence of Nature and poetry. Thus the poet becomes the observer, the transcriber, the vessel through which the musicality of Nature makes itself known. The question then becomes is Carlyle's notion of divinity in nature equivalent to his conception of sound in nature? That is to say, if Nature is sound and music, is music the sound of the divine? At times, Carlyle's lecture on "The Hero as Poet" seems to position itself in direct correspondence to the above passage from his first lecture on "The Hero as Divinity":
All deep things are Song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us, Song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls! The primal element of us; of us, and of all things. The Greeks fabled of Sphere-Harmonies: it was the feeling they had of the inner-structure of Nature that the soul of all her voices and utterances was perfect music. Poetry, therefore, we will call musical Thought. The poet is he who thinks in that manner. At bottom, it turns still on the power of intellect; it is man's sincerity and depth of vision that makes him Poet. See deep enough, and you see musically; the heart of Nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it. [pp. 83-84]
The poetic sensibility, therefore, according to Carlyle is an ability to "see into the heart of things" (The Prelude) ; it is essentially a Wordsworthian vision in which we peer into nature whose "structure" is, as Carlyle states, essentially musical. If we, however, take Carlyle's Wordsworthian stance on poetry and poetic vision, then we must not only exalt the poet as hero merely for his ability to detect and transcribe the sound of Nature, but also for his ability to absorb, or appropriate, that sound. For example, let us take a look at the last stanza of Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper":
Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending; —
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more. [lines 25-32].
The role of the poet thus becomes for Wordsworth an act of internalization and externalization. We note that the sound of the reaper's voice becomes something which can be recalled, something which is present forever in the poet's mind, something, which as Wordsworth says, can be "recollected in tranquility" (Preface to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads). Undoubtedly, Wordsworth is pointing to a pattern in which the poet internalizes this music found in Nature and then re-externalizes it in the form of poetry. The poetry then in turn becomes in and of itself a structural web of sounds and music. Assuming then that Carlyle associates Nature's music with divinity, via the logic that poetry is sound, sound Nature, and Nature divinity, we can assert that for Carlyle the poet is the voice of the divine. Essentially, the poet is thus a prophet; he is the acute listener, the possessor of a keen vision, the mouthpiece for Nature, God, or Divinity.
In connecting Wordsworth with Carlyle, we can thus see a very clear-cut link between Carlyle's lectures on the "Hero as Poet" and the "Hero as Prophet." In what other ways do Carlyle's lecture series accrue an overarching definition of the hero? Are there any other connections between the lectures in which Carlyle finds various subdivisions for the definition of a hero, or is he using this term more loosely?
According to the Greek tradition, a hero is, of course, one step below the divine; the hero can be a hybrid, part divinity and part man, but he is certainly not at the level of a God. I have spoken of the poet and the prophet as vessels through which a divine word or song is passed. In this sense, these two hero-types appear to be true to the Greco-Roman hierarchy. Does Carlyle always adhere to this Classical notion of the hero, or does he stray from this definition, particularly in his lecture on "The Hero as Divinity"? And how far does the Wordsworthian poet keep himself from reaching a divine status in his absorption of Nature's divine music? In the final line of "The Solitary Reaper," the speaker preserves a sound which has long been dead. In this sense, he is rendering eternal that which is temporal. Does this gift of preservation account for a divine aspect in the character of the poet, or does he remain a sort of demi-god, or heroic prophet?
How does Wordsworth's notions of poetry and the poet relate to E.B. Browning's conceptions of art and transcendence in Aurora Leigh? And how do Carlyle's primary examples of Dante and Shakespeare as quintessential hero-poets fit into a Romantic discourse on poetry?
What does Carlyle mean when he says "the heart of Nature being everywhere music," and does this syntax allow for multiple meanings?
In Keats' Letters, Keats admires Wordsworth for his ability to see into the mystery of things:
We are in a Mist — We are now in that state — We feel the "burden of the Mystery," To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote "Tintern Abbey" and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. [letter to J.H. Reynolds, Teignmouth, 3 May 1818]
Nevertheless, part of the Keatsian definition of negative capability (Keats' Letters) labels truth and the universe as things which are shrouded in a never-ending, impenetrable mystery, of which we can know only partially but never fully. Does Carlyle account for the Keatsian mystery? That is to say, does the poet's acute depth of vision ever allow him to attain full knowledge? Or is the poet still at a distance from divine knowledge and truth?
Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
Last modified 20 April 2004