Shortly after its appearance in the year Queen Victoria came to the throne (1837), Thackeray reviewed The French Revolution, the work that made Carlyle famous, and he began by pointing out that "it has raised among the critics and the reading public a strange storm of of applause and discontent." Readers loved The French Revolution, or they hated it.
To hear one party you would swear that the author was but a dull madman, indulging in wild vagaries of language and dispensing with common sense and reason, while, according to another, his opinions are little short of inspiration, and his eloquence as unbounded as his genius. We confess, that in reading the first few pages, we were not a little inclined to adopt the former opinion, and yet, after perusing the whole of this extraordinary work, we can allow, almost to their fullest extent, the high qualities with which Mr. Carlyle's idolators endow him.
Part of the explanation for such widely differing reactions to Carlyle, Thackeray explained, lay in the sage's use of Kantian and Post-Kantian philosophy, something of which almost all English reviewers were ignorant; Thackeray, who had been educated in Germany, was not.
An even more important cause of consternation lay in Carlyle famous (or infamous) style: "Never," claims Thackeray, who finally defends Carlyle's manner of writing, "did a book sin so grievously from outward appearance, or a man's style so mar his subject and dim his genius. It is stiff, short, and rugged, it abounds with Germanisms and Latinisms, strange epithets, and choking double words, astonishing the admirers of simple Addisonian English, to those who love history as it gracefully runs in Hume, or struts pompously in Gibbon — no such style is Mr. Carlyle's" (229). After quoting at legnth from Carlyle's narration of the fall of the Bastille," Thackeray asks, did the painter Salvator Rosa ever "dash" a more spirited battle sketch? The two principal figures o the piece, placed in skilful relief, the raging multitude and the sombre fortress admirably laid down! . . . The whole style of the fall of the fortress and its defenders is told in a style simultabneously pictureque and real. . . . This is prose run mad — no doubt of it — according to our notions of the sober gait annd avocations of hoomely prose; but is there not method in it, and could sonber prose have described the incident in briefer words, more emphatically, or more sensibly? (241)
As a way of experiencing what comntemporaries found so unusual in Carlyle's style, see if you can locate examples of characteristics to which Thackeray points:
- strange epithets
- choking double words
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Ballads and Miscellanies. Volume 13 of The Works. 13 Vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1899.
Last modified: 23 October 2002