In his essay, "Chartism," Carlyle attacks utilitarianism and addresses the condition of England, including various areas he believes are in great need of reform. In section 10 of his essay, Carlyle discusses the issues of universal education and emigration. In the following passage which occurs in the introductory portion of section 10, entitled "Impossible," Carlyle exercises powerful rhetoric to urge his readers to action and declares the possibility of social reform which passivity and inaction prevent.

It is not a lucky word this same impossible: no good comes of those that have it so often in their mouth. Who is he that says always, There is a lion in the way? Sluggard, thou must slay the lion, then; the way has to be travelled! In Art, in Practice, innumerable critics will demonstrate that most things are henceforth impossible; that we are got, once for all, into the region of perennial commonplace, and must contentedly continue there. Let such critics demonstrate; it is the nature of them: what harm is in it? Poetry once well demonstrated to be impossible, arises the Burns, arises the Goethe. Unheroic commonplace being now clearly all we have to look for, comes the Napoleon, comes the conquest of the world... Listen to a thinker of another sort: 'All evil, and this evil too, is as a nightmare; the instant you begin to stir under it, the evil is, properly speaking, gone.' Consider, O reader, whether it be not actually so? Evil, once manfully fronted, ceases to be evil; there is generous battle-hope in place of dead passive misery; the evil itself has become a kind of good.

To the practical man, therefore, we will repeat that he has, as the first thing he can 'do,' to gird himself up for actual doing; to know well that he is either there to do, or not there at all. Once rightly girded up, how many things will present themselves as doable which now are not attemptable! — Thomas Carlyle, Chartism, p. 220

Discussion Questions

1. Why does Carlyle specifically refer to three literary and historic figures (Burns, Goethe, and Napoleon) in the above passage? What effect do these allusions to such central figures have upon the reader? How does this relate to his following arguments about education?

2. How do central Carlyle's points and reasoning reflect the influence of German Romanticism?

3. In the above passage, Carlyle cleverly presents the possibility of accomplishing initiatives formerly deemed as impossible and the transformation from an evil into a "kind of good" when recognized and addressed. How does this passage reflect Carlyle's larger arguments for social reform? How does Carlyle's likening of an "evil" to a "nightmare" until adequately confronted demonstrate the relevancy of his writings to the course's theme of fantasy versus realism?


Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified 25 February 2003