Carlyle examines various heroic forms in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Heroism exhibits itself in gods, poets, warriors, priests, prophets and kings. Carlyle connects the concept of heroism with myth, describing the legends of Nordic gods. He also connects heroism with reality, describing the lives of famous poets whose writings have influenced the entire globe. His examination of the characters of priests and poets etc. highlights their impact upon a nation's character and culture. In his description of the man of letters, the writer, Carlyle stresses the innate nature of heroes. Their words are spoken out of necessity and a desire to communicate deeper thoughts with others, perhaps through divine intervention. The restrictive nature of communication and language often forces these prophetic, heroic thoughts into formulas and artificiality. These formulas enable mass communication, though the pure strength of these visionary ideas cannot be properly expressed through language, which restricts their thoughts.

It was in virtue of his sincerity, of his speaking still in some sort from the heart of Nature, though in the current artificial dialect, that Johnson was a Prophet. Are not all dialects "artificial"? Artificial things are not false;-nay every true Product of Nature will infallibly shape itself; we may say all artificial things are, at the starting of them, true. What we call "Formulas" are not in their origin bad; they are indispensably good. Formula is method, habitude; found wherever man is found. Formulas fashion themselves as Paths do, as beaten Highways, leading towards some sacred or high object, whither many men are bent. Consider it. One man, full of heartfelt earnest impulse, finds-out a way of doing somewhat, — were it of uttering his soul's reverence for the Highest, were it but of fitly saluting his fellow man. [p.180]

If Carlyle views dialect and communication as artificial and dominated by formulas, how does his writing fit this description or defy it? Is Carlyle a hero for his prophetic thoughts and influential writings? How is he conforming the formula?

Carlyle later describes the poet as a hero, using Dante and Shakespeare as embodiments of this heroism. His description of Shakespeare includes the impact of his writings upon society, but also includes a statement concerning his silence and lack of communication: "How much in Shakespeare lies hid; his sorrows, his silent struggles known to himself; much that was not known at all, not speakable at all: like roots, like sap and forces working underground! Speech is great; but Silence is greater" (p. 108).

Why is silence greater than speech? What does this say about the nature of writing and communication in general? All of Carlyle's described heros are men are communicators — prophets, priests, kings, who speak to masses of people. Carlyle does not describe the hero as a hermit or solitary scientist. Is this because they do not interact with enough people to be considered heroes, or because they lack communication skills?

Are heroes predestined to share their wealth of knowledge with others? Carlyle describes this calling upon individuals in his conversation about Dante: "It was perhaps delineated in no human soul with such depth of veracity as in this of Dante's; a man sent to sing it, to keep it long memorable" (p.97). Clearly Dante is selected to "sing" these wonderful ideas, as though he is divinely chosen. As listeners and readers, are we merely following the formula or path described on page 180? Do heroes lead us along these paths? Is there anything problematic with this description of Carlyle's?


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

Last modified 20 April 2004