In The French Revolution Carlyle makes a characteristic satirical use of the biblical episode of the brazen serpent for France's representative assembly: "The States-General, created and conflated by the passionate effort of the whole Nation, is there as a thing high and lifted up. Hope, jubilating, cries aloud that it will prove a miraculous Brazen Serpent in the mess; whereon whosoever looks, with faith and obedience, shall be healed of all woes and serpent bites" (2.151). Carlyle employs all these elements of the original type when he explains with a characteristic blend of wry irony and sympathy that the EstatesGeneral will prove, if nothing else, "a symbolic Banner" around which the "exasperated complaining Twenty-five Millions, otherwise isolated and without power, may rally, and work — what it is in them to work. If battle must be the work, as one cannot help expecting, then it shall be a battle-banner' (2.151).

The Victorian sage follows his usual strategy of taking some historical fact, casting it in terms borrowed from the Old Testament or similar ancient mythos, and finally emphasizing its spiritual meaning. In this instance he once again reveals the presence in history of one of his most basic beliefs, that men require symbols to live and act. Carlyle, who knows the fate of the Estates-General and its members — many were consudmed in the Reign of Terror — uses the image of the brazen serpent to comment ironically upon this first attempt to cure the ills of misgovemment.

For those Frenchmen who had lost faith in govemment, the political assembly seemed an act of faith that might cure their nation's ills; for those who believed that they or the nation had erred and fallen away from the ways of justice, it promised a means of earthly redemption. But the original brazen serpent was a divinely instituted type, whereas men alone made the Estates-General. Although both type and antitype seemed particularly unlikely to cure men's ills, they did so because they originated with God. By comparing the legislative assembly to the brazen serpent, Carlyle emphasizes both that it is equally unlikely to do good and that it does not derive from God. Furthermore, since the brazen serpent as a type was fulfilled by the Crucifixion, Carlyle's citation of the brazen serpent also suggests the eventual fate of the Estates-General. Carlyle, who was always sympathetic to any acts offaith, introduces the Estates-General to his reader in terms of a typological allusion which emphasizes this element of giving faith. His complex manipulations of the hermeneutic tradition associated with this type enables him to suggest the inevitable shortcomings of this goveming body. (170-71).


Landow, George. Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980). Follow for complete on-line version].

Last modified 23 October 2002