In the section of his book titled "The Hero as Poet" Carlyle argues that in contemporary society the ideals of the hero are embodied by the poet, whose work persists through centuries and whose presence is profoundly felt at all times. He further argues that that everyone is to some extent a poet:

A vein of Poetry exists in the hearts of all men; no man is made altogether of Poetry. We are all poets when we read a poem well. The "imagination that shudders at the Hell of Dante," is not that the same faculty, weaker in degree, as Dante's own? No one but Shakespeare can embody, out of Saxo Grammaticus, the story of Hamlet as Shakespeare did: but every one models some kind of story out of it. every one embodies it better or worse.

Carlyle goes on to establish that when a poet is poet-enough to be noticed by others, he may be called a poet, and if he is further remembered, he is a great poet, and so on, building the position of the poet on a very much democratic system. How does this definition of the poet as heroic figure compare to the other figures Carlyle talks about, such as the priest, or the king? Can one type of hero be more influential than another? Can they coexist?

Although the progression from "Divinity" to "Prophet" to "Poet" is a logical one, how does the notion of poetry as art come into Carlyles argument? He addresses the ideas of an innate gift and the act of cultivating that gift, but abstracts the artist himself away from his art, leaving him a passive medium for the profound truths of nature. Would a poet like Elizabeth Barret Browning agree with him? How does Carlyle's theory fare when it is faced with the practicality of politics, such as the ideas of feminism?

Would Byatt agree with Carlyle's idea that everyone is to some extent a poet? Where does scholarship fit into this? How do we reconcile the sense of equality that Carlyle introduces with the idea of hero-worship and reverence of "great men?"


Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Last modified 20 April 2004