Thomas Carlyle’s lecture on “The Hero as Man of Letters” is essentially a paean to literature and to its writers. According to Carlyle, “Literature” pours out as “the inspired wisdom of a Heroic Soul,” the “Man-of-Letters Hero” as the “most important modern person,” a “Prophet” of modern times. Quoting from Fichte, Carlyle crowns the Man of Letters a “Priest, continually unfolding the Godlike to men” and writes that Fichte’s notion means “precisely what we here mean.” “Certainly the Art of Writing is the most miraculous of all things man has devised,” Carlyle argues, and he asks, “do not books still accomplish miracles ?” He sees writing as both a product and manifestation of the divine in his writer-hero, and then, in turn, a source of the same divine wisdom for all who read and listen.
Literature, so far as it is Literature, is an “apocalypse of Nature,” a revealing of the “open secret.” It may well enough be named, in Fichte’s style, a “continuous revelation” of the Godlike in the Terrestrial and Common. The Godlike does ever, in very truth, endure there; is brought out, now in this dialect, now in that, with various degrees of clearness: all true gifted Singers and Speakers are, consciously or unconsciously, doing so. The dark stormful indignation of a Byron, so wayward and perverse, may have touches of it; nay the withered mockery of a French sceptic, — his mockery of the False, a love and worship of the True. How much more the sphere-harmony of a Shakspeare, of a Goethe; the cathedral music of a Milton! They are something too, those humble genuine lark-notes of a Burns, — skylark, starting from the humble furrow, for overhead into the blue depths, and singing to us so genuinely there! For all true singing is of the nature of worship; as indeed all true working may be said to be, — whereof such singing is but the record, and fit melodious representation, to us. Fragments of a real “Church Liturgy” and “Body of Homilies,” strangely disguised from the common eye, are to be found weltering in that huge froth-ocean of Printed Speech we loosely call Literature! Books are our Church too.
The last sentence deserves a reiteration: books, Carlyle states, “are our Church,” are the “revelation” of the “Godlike,” of Nature’s divine secret. All of literature’s panegyrics on nature constitute its “apocalypse,” the articulation and realization of the “Godlike” in the ordinary. Only in worshipping the “Terrestrial” and the “Common,” Carlyle writes, can we experience the divine.
1. Carlyle reflects as much on nature and its divinity as he does on literature. How much of Carlyle’s “inspired wisdom” of the written word derives from its worship of nature? Does literature have value in itself?
2. In this passage, Carlyle makes allusions to various “Man of Letters Heroes”: Byron, Shakespeare, Goethe, Milton, Burns. Does our understanding of and experience with these writers contribute to our (if extant) trust in Carlyle as one of these men of letters? How?
3. Is Carlyle persuasive? Could his insistence on literature as “miracle” and as “revelation” be seen as an overstatement? Can books be churches?
Last modified 23 February 2011