Victoria’s time witnessed the breakthrough of the British intellectual. A legion of smart people, many of them from humble beginnings, now made a good living as free-lance thinkers. They were “rational, modern and well-informed” and you will find them on the Victorian Web promoting “reason and individualism rather than tradition” as well as new ways of seeing ancient concepts like morality, truth and the good (“Enlightenment,” Oxford Dictionary). It was a serious business and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, to readers of the Victorian Web, the mantra of most intellectuals, “the moral obligation to be intelligent” may sound arrogant. But we probably agree that this lofty challenge is worth a try. So, like Diogenes, we keep a distance from the mainstream and carry a lamp in the daytime, looking for an honest man.

A Smart Victorian

Left: Thomas Carlyle. Julia Margaret Cameron. 1867 Middle: Thomas Carlyle. Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm Bart., R.A. (1834-90. 1881. Right: Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Carlyle. James Abbot McNeill Whistler. 1872-73. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

But what is an honest man? How do you do it, how be it? How do we stay attuned to life and to our conscience and give our audience something valuable? How should we be smart? The Victorian Thomas Carlyle had an answer. Born at the end of the eighteenth century in a Scottish village where his father was an old-style Calvinist and stonemason, Carlyle worked to the top of European intellectual life by 1835, making his living and his mark solely through writing and lecturing. Throughout his career he was celebrated as a seer. Balanced between his small-town religious past and London’s secular whirl, Carlyle is generally agreed to have been as close as anyone to the feeling and the tensions of being a Victorian. In that world marked by equal amounts of doubt and certainty, he eschewed the old tropes and top-down formulas and even modern science and worked mightily for peace of mind. It is safe to say he saw no more inspiring vision for a modern England than his own.

Carlyle worried constantly about the new “cash nexus” in Britain, the control of society by what he called machine-thinking and the disappearance of gods and heroes, and he used every rhetorical device he knew or could invent to persuade readers to join his campaign to reclaim a transcendental sense of the divine and heal their splintered lives. Carlyle’s movement gained momentum by the year. It emboldened the young Charles Dickens to sharpen his sword against British pretense and corruption and drew Emerson to visit England in 1833 where Carlyle gave him heart to start a similar movement in America. In articles, books and pamphlets Carlyle scolded his readers that, seduced as they were by science and commerce, they had lost sight of the truth. He demanded they confess that in the midst of the industrial revolution owners had become severed from workers, servants from masters and men from themselves. A new hell was near.

He convinced intellectuals they had the power to change the lives of their readers. They called him their “Sage.” In our own time we’ve seen this too, intellectuals dedicated fully to what Carlyle called the “dangerous and discontenting occupation…writing to live.” We’ve also heard of intellectuals like him with chronic stomach pain who built a soundproof room to insulate himself from London’s intellectual wars, its noise and his troublesome marriage. In describing one of his protagonists, a wild German intellectual, he described himself “hovering between the empyrean of his fantasy and the squalid desert of reality… cherishing the loftiest thoughts…the last forlorn outpost in the war of mind against matter” (Sartor Resartus). The stakes, he said, were high: “fever paroxysms of doubt,” crying “vehemently for light.” The fate of the modern intellectual (quoted in Bayne).

The Development of his Message

The birthplace of Carlyle, Echlefechan. Harry Fenn, from a photograph by John Patrick, Century Magazine (Januart 1889). Click on image to enlarge it.

Can Carlyle show us how to be smart? How did he wield his outstanding power over words? Psychologically what propelled him and what held him back? On Google is a decorative photo of his birthplace. Imagine walking into Ecclefechan over the stream from the dusty road. It must have felt like entering a nest, and a key to Carlyle is his desire to feel protected and assured. He loved the countryside, and during his lonely rise to popularity in London he went back for a long hiatus in Scotland. One of his characteristic contrasts is a dark city versus a sunny village: the “…stifled hum of midnight…chariot-wheels of Vanity...under that hideous coverlet of vapors and putrefactions and unimaginable gases,” versus “…a toy-box…embosomed among its groves and green natural bulwarks…the canopy of blue smoke a sort of life-breath…” (Sartor Resartus). Despair and hope vied in him, and in book after book he resolved the conflict by etching the possibility of a blissful transcendence. If his readers worked hard and were truthful, they could overcome dualism, machine-thinking, even rationalism itself.

Like all intellectuals, from a young age he located his struggles in his mind more than his body. His was the fight to understand. His first theme was his parents. His mother was an embrace, happiness and love while his father represented stern control. His thinking then ripened into a mature dichotomy of life versus death. Christopher Vanden Bossche goes as far as to say that Margaret Carlyle represented his ideal of contentment and that as Thomas grew up James Carlyle became for him the destroyer of that idea. A contest like this appears for most thinkers and had its own characteristics for Victorian intellectuals as they fought their demons. J.S. Mill saw his father, the famous Utilitarian, as the enemy of emotion; George Eliot (Maryanne Evans) struggled with paternalism and her guilt over abandoning the religion of her family to become a liberal; Dickens never resolved why his parents neglected his precocious talent as a boy and forced him to work in a warehouse and live alone. Vanden Bossche shows how to resolve the opposition of female understanding versus male certainty, Carlyle added his father’s belief in “eternal structures” to his picture of the world and created his message that a state of guaranteed tranquility, a home of rightness and good could be achieved. For this utopian agenda to become fact, Carlyle planned that a modern hero would once again transmit divine authority to the people and reestablish the traditional hierarchy (Ch. 2d, “Crisis in the Career” and Ch. 3f. “Rebuilding the Social Structure”).

His debut was incredible. The French Revolution and Sartor Resartus depicted vigorously the new Europe trading free, thinking free but lost in the whirlwind. His ideas were wake-up calls, the prose irascible, original, prophetic. From 1835 to 1845, Carlyle changed Britain’s mental climate by consolidating anti-establishment forces, and the effect was comparable to Picasso’s in France or the Beats in America. Under his influence, the struggle for right ideas became so intense among intellectuals that we must wonder if it was a mistake when John Stuart Mill brought home a draft of Carlyle’s French Revolution and his maid “accidentally” burned it up.

The Doubts of Admirers

From the time of this explosion onto the scene to his death (he was 86), Carlyle was revered. But he changed and he lost some converts, as we will see. He became rigid and reactionary, disenchanted by reform and intolerant of new cultures. In 1853, he published a racist diatribe against West Indians which thrust him into a debate on human equality with the liberal John Stuart Mill. All the intellectuals took sides, with Charles Dickens dropping his usual support of the underdog to join the racist side, which gives us an idea of the pressure Victorian intellectuals experienced in their new positions as opinion-makers.

We get a close view of the way Carlyle was perceived from two men deep in the Victorian liberal establishment. Lord John Morley and John Sterling were lesser lights in the intelligentsia than Carlyle, Mill, or Dickens. Morley, a statesman and literary critic and John Sterling who had joined the clergy to figure out his spiritual questions and then left at Carlyle’s behest to become a writer, combined traditional proprieties and church attendance with support of reform and democracy. The Liberal Lord Morley spoke for all Victorian intellectuals when he said they were experiencing a “profoundly important crisis…moral and social…sailing blindfold and haphazard, without rudder or compass or chart” (196). These contemporaries can help us understand Carlyle’s response to this crisis. Both men report an essential shortcoming they found in his work. In a book length study in 1871, Morley greatly admires Carlyle for many pages but then shifts to doubt and cautions readers that “with deliberate contempt [Carlyle] thrust away from him the only instruments by which we can make sure what right is and that our social action is wise and effective” (206). Morley had thought of Carlyle as a role model but became disappointed that through his emotional prose, Carlyle was blocking people’s sight of the challenges facing Britain and from the real work it would take to rectify them. He concluded that Carlyle’s “depth of benevolent feeling is unhappily no proof of fitness for handling complex problems…” (206). Morley then brings in John Sterling who points out a reckless flaw in the protagonist of Sartor Resartus whom everyone knew was based on Carlyle. First, the self-righteous hero’s main motive is not wanting a better world but “wanting peace himself…” Second, his “fierce dissatisfaction fixes on all that is weak, corrupt, and imperfect around him; and instead of a calm and steady co-operation with all those who are endeavouring to apply the highest ideas as remedies for the worst evils, he holds himself in savage isolation…” Sterling says “the root of the matter [is] a want of sympathy with the great body of those who are now endeavouring to guide and help onward their fellow-men” (quoted in Morley 207). Morley too, chastises Carlyle for his stubbornness, calling it a “vast waste” that shows a “most grievous rejection of moral treasure.” The men agree that despite Carlyle’s coverage of all the types and classes of people in Britain, he lacked “wide sympathy and many-coloured appreciativeness” for them (Morley, 234).

The Importance of Empathy

What the men were hoping for in Carlyle as an intellectual, to think with empathy, is illuminated by George P. Landow in an introduction on the Victorian Web to the philosophy he terms ‘emotionalist’. “During the second half of the eighteenth century and throughout most of the nineteenth,” Landow explains, “sympathy … was a word of almost magical significance that described a particular mixture of emotional perception and emotional communication” (Emotionalist Moral Philosophy”). The empiricist philosopher John Locke asserted that humans at birth have no knowledge of good and evil, but these fellow Enlightenment thinkers declared that there is a capacity we are born with that can serve as a moral guide — emotion.

In an attempt to find another basis for arguments that men and women were moral beings, [philosophers led by] Lord Shaftesbury…replaced…thought with emotion… internal moral sense. Along with the Scottish school of Hume …[they] identified the moral sense with the imagination, whose job it is to make us feel the effects upon others of our actions. In other words, the sympathetic imagination, as it was called, provides the psychological mechanism of the Golden Rule.

History thus provides support for our former Carlylites who saw in his views a lack of sympathy. If we follow our imagination it can project us into others’ vantage points so we experience how it would feel to be a victim. It is good to remember this when we think about how intellectuals should conduct themselves. We can do worse than follow the humble course that another Victorian, Peter Bayne, advises in Lessons from My Masters. When his worries over Carlyle get the best of him, Bayne contrasts Carlyle’s self-centered approach with an ordinary believer who aims “to live a simple, innocent, and sincere life” (124). Morley agrees that with patience and a wider view of the world outside our own, “many exquisite flowers of character, many gracious and potent things, may still thrive in the most disordered scene….” (234). He reminds us that “in the present time for all persons of superior faculties doubt is an inevitable fate….” but asks, “why rush to praise or blame, to eulogy or reprobation, when we should do better simply to explore and enjoy” (233)?

Because of his demand for social stability, Carlyle’s works have a cataclysmic tone, and as time passed his pronouncements and warnings became rigid, driven by his unremitting sense that human nature is so intractable society must be rocked continuously by violent convulsions like the French Revolution before a final Good can happen. Bayne wanted him to consider that change is just as continuous as ferment and that, moreover, people seek — and find — the good every day. Note that Bayne’s writing has a calmness that is very un-Carlylean:

All the great operations of nature are gradual….There is a time every morning when one cannot say whether it is day or night. The trees take the summer to dress themselves, and scarcely has the rich, deep green of their midsummer robes been attained when the process of disrobing commences, and leaf after leaf continues to change, colour and to fall, until in midwinter, the branches again are bare. Such is the spiritual revolution which is at present taking place in Western Europe. [124]

Bayne says thinkers have two choices: “If honour ought to be rendered to those high minded iconoclasts who find their whole duty summed up in destruction, honour may be claimed for those who also attempt the still more difficult task of transforming the old into the new, and separating the imperishable truth from the perishable form in which men have previously apprehended it” (125).

Landow provides a link to a discussion that explains how, in a world of doubt and agitation, sympathy can inspire a patient transformation of the old into the new. “So it is with ourselves” takes us to Charles Darwin’s thoughts about the key role of sympathy in the animal world. “Darwinian Natural Selection usually brings to mind images of Tennyson's "Nature red in tooth and claw,” Landow writes, “so it is quite unexpected to discover that The Descent of Man argues that Natural Selection promotes sympathy, social feeling, unselfishness, and even self-sacrifice.” Darwin's theory links with Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth and John Ruskin in the nineteenth centuries who urge us to allow emotions and imagination to guide us in our understanding of others if we want to act morally. “Even when we are quite alone,” Darwin says, “how often do we think with pleasure or pain of what others think of us, of their imagined approbation or disapprobation; and this all follows from sympathy, a fundamental element of the social instincts. A man who possessed no trace of such instincts would be an unnatural monster.”

Carlyle’s Prose

Around 1830 Carlyle found that unique style that crashes poetry and prose together. For instance, his history of the French Revolution tells its story of violent change from multiple vantage points: inside the minds of the sans-culottes, from Paris hilltops looking down on the fray and then from even higher as if a prophet watched from a mountain. Here is his Louis XIV: “Thou, whose whole existence hitherto was a chimera and scenic show, at length becomest a reality: sumptuous Versailles bursts asunder, like a dream, into void Immensity; Time is done, and all the scaffolding of Time falls wrecked with hideous clangour round thy soul…” (20).

And his working-class rebels:

They are not tended, they are only regularly shorn. They are sent fatten battle-fields … with their bodies, in quarrels which are not theirs; their hand and toil is in every possession of man; but for themselves they have little or no possession. Untaught, uncomforted, unfed; to pine dully in thick obscuration, in squalid destitution and obstruction: this is the lot of the millions. [13]

He could write like this forever. In Latter Day Pamphlets he called the beliefs and teachings of the Church “the dead world tree…an imbroglio of torn boughs and ruined fragments, of bewildered splittings and wide-spread shivers” (333). This is a beautiful image, and I think T.S. Eliot honored it in The Wasteland as “fragments shored against my ruin,” referring to the moments of world history that sustained him in his modern crisis. In fact, Eliot and Carlyle are comparable; to borrow a phrase from David Bromwich, they were in their own ways both “conservationist toward human things” (14). But Eliot’s choices shed light on aspects of Carlyle’s work that make it frustrating. To any writer drawn to write poetry but also desiring to comment on the direction of society, Eliot advocates using both forms, prose and poetry, but separately. The way he puts it is that “in one's prose reflections, one may be legitimately occupied with ideals, whereas in the writing of verse one can deal only with actuality" (Poetry Foundation). Conversely, Carlyle made a choice to entwine the two forms in one agitated experience. Thus, two intellectuals and two ways of being smart.

Eliot used his poems to turn his thoughts inside out and put on the page what his senses and nervous system picked up in London as well as the subconscious thoughts his impressions engendered. The poems then demanded their own kind of editing. On the other hand, he wrote and edited his essays with a different kind of clarity as his aim. The essays explain what his sense impressions mean and turn his subconscious yearnings and fears into political and religious ideas that if put into effect will lead to the best environment for a man like him. Since he saw himself as a typical modern, he saw his political ideas as good for others. Carlyle promoted political ideas too, and though his ideas were not connected to an institution, many say they are like Eliot’s in their aim of order and purpose. Yet while Eliot’s way was to utilize separate forms, Carlyle’s was to combine them. Eliot’s first form, his verse, is distinctive, raw and memorable and is now honored as classically modern and his essays and lectures are credited generally with making a difference in the way moderns think. Carlyle has a more mixed reputation and his mélange of poetry and prose is what worried his Victorian peers. Morley et al. were disappointed that he barraged readers with poetic images centered around energy/decay, life/death that did not result in concrete ideas but in a kind of ecstasy. Then after 1850, Carlyle’s method became even more controversial when his feelings coalesced around one emotion, anger, his vision for the future became more myopic and his solutions took a drastic turn. If he had taken the time to express in poetry the actualities he felt and then his ideals in prose, Carlyle’s career might have been different and perhaps even more long-lasting. But then he would not have been Carlyle. But since our question is how to be smart, it is worthwhile to examine some of the specific writing choices he made.

Though mixed with reprimands, his imagery can be beautiful. His glass bell is memorable: "If Mechanism, like some glass bell, encircles and imprisons us; if the soul looks forth on a fair heavenly country which it cannot reach, and pines, and in its scanty atmosphere is ready to perish, — yet the bell is but of glass; one bold stroke to break the bell in pieces, and thou art delivered!" This is poetry with a Shakespearian flair. The first half has two charming “ifs” that head their clauses and deliver Carlyle’s sad point by being almost--but not quite--full sentences. The second clause boasts two beautiful “ands” that punctuate the soul’s defenselessness. The glass keeps us in yet it hides nothing, affording sight of everything we cannot get to. But it is only glass, so with one blow….

Embedding stirring images in his message helps Carlyle shock, convince and correct. He derived another strong one, the Irish widow, from a sociological report on poverty and health in Scotland. When the widow asks for help from Scottish charities, she and her three children are turned away. But the higher tie that binds her to her fellow-citizens is proved when she dies on the streets of typhus having infected 17 others of her Lane with fever. The image is perfect but what follows reads as less so. It is Carlyle’s need to be didactic:

For, as indeed was very natural in such cases, all government of the Poor by the Rich has long ago been given over to Supply and-demand, Laissez-faire and such like.... Depart! It is impossible!—Nay, what wouldst thou thyself have us do?” cry indignant readers. Nothing, my friends,—till you have got a soul for yourselves again. Till then all things are ‘impossible.’ Till then I cannot even bid you buy, as the old Spartans would have done, two-pence worth of powder and lead, and compendiously shoot to death this poor Irish Widow: even that is ‘impossible’ for you. Nothing is left but that she prove her sisterhood by dying, and infecting you with typhus. Seventeen of you lying dead will not deny such proof that she was flesh of your flesh; and perhaps some of the living may lay it to heart. [Past and Present, 201]

He is preaching and teaching. He is angry too like a muckraker. Yes, he is setting the bar here and we can imagine many rapt listeners as he holds forth in his Chelsea drawing room. One can understand that Dickens was inspired at these gatherings to take on the powers that be in the name of the human liberation that was now in reach. But the prose strikes us as more talk than writing. In a work by Dickens what would the Irish widow have become? We know the answer to this question because scholars agree Carlyle’s widow inspired Dickens’s Jo the street sweeper in Bleak House. Jo is so low on the social scale he gets no credit for being human, and chased by the police through London and the chapters of the novel, he has the same role as the widow: his “existence serves to connect people who otherwise couldn't and wouldn't ever meet” (Pykett). Rather than using him in a vignette, though, Dickens makes him part of a huge, irresistible narrative. When Jo dies, he is as alone as the widow and his death has the same moral purpose. This is shown by the last words of Jo’s death scene which are pure Carlylese: “Dead, your majesty. Dead my lord and gentlemen. Dead. Right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.” Dickens’s homage is proof of Carlyle’s effect on his intellectual circle, but it also shows one of them exceeding the master by concentrating his attention on the vital everyday experience of people in 1852 to make a sustained and eye-opening work.

Close attention to others makes for a different prose than books written with the purpose Sterling said was Carlyle’s, “to make peace for himself.” Carlyle saw others as very much outside himself, but one thinks of the difference empathy could have made. Compare Carlyle’s anger at his readers after he tells the widow’s story, “Nay, what wouldst thou thyself have us do? cry indignant readers. Nothing, my friends, —till you have got a soul for yourselves again. Till then all things are “impossible” to Dickens’s simple way of addressing his readers after Jo’s death, “men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts…” Certainly Dickens is sarcastic but the phrase is hopeful too and leaves a reader feeling the possibility of empathy. In sum, the opposite of Bayne’s “high minded iconoclasts who find their whole duty summed up in destruction” is the fruits that are possible when a writer pays keen attention to the life of his time, builds an answer, offers it and then goes back to work.


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Created 18 October 2016