One central problem of Carlyle as a political sage appears in his use of extended types, such as the brazen serpent. Although he writes with the language and rhetoric of the Old Testament prophet — particularly when he lambasts his contemporaries for their "brutish forgettings of the true God" — he lacks the one thing Jeremiah and Isaiah believed they had, the details of a specific religious ritual to which they could call back the Jews who had fallen away from the true God. He effortlessly dismisses all "liturgies and litanies," just as he also brushes away "respectable Hebrew and other fetishes" (20.278), but he cannot replace them with anything to which his contemporaries can give their allegiance. In the end, we realize that it is not the Railway King's non-existent monument which must be a true brazen serpent but Carlyle's Latter-Day Pamphlet entitled "Hudson's Statue." His pamphlet, which both wams the public about the consequences of false worship and instructs them in true belief, exists as the antitype, the true fulfillment, ofthe original brazen serpent.

Unfortunately for Carlyle, the existence of an authentic typological relation necessary to make his own work a true brazen serpent requires both a God and a Christ, and he does not really believe in either one in anything like the normal sense — in the sense, that is, which typology requires. Consequently, Carlyle's wonderfully proficient manipulation of the brazen serpent results in the kind of complex image which arises only near the end of a tradition. Like many authors who employ secularized types, he uses them because they permit him to conjure up the imaginative power of a belief system without having to endorse it. Stated in the baldest possible terms, a secularized or extended type uses the materials of christological typology for effect. Hence it is a "decadent" technique in so far as one defines that term to imply, not moral value, but something appearing near the end of an intellectual, artistic, or other tradition.

As one might expect from such self-reflective and often ironic handling of a tradition, Carlyle's brazen-serpent passage in "Hudson's Statue", like many of his secularized types, demands that the reader be well acquainted with the fine points of typological exegetics. A second representative fact that becomes apparent when we look closely at the Carlylean secularized type is that this image comes to the reader laced with ironies and double meanings, not all of which he intended.

References

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].


Victorian Overview Thomas Carlyle Hudson's Statue

Last modified 23 October 2002