Thomas Carlyle's "Signs of the Times," his critique of the effects of the industrial revolution on the way people think and act, grounds most of its persuasive power in an authoritative appeal to 'the imperishable dignity of man' and to 'the high vocation to which, throughout this his earthly history, he has been appointed' [p. 116]. Compared to the extreme ferocity of Jonathan Swift's surreal satire or to the calmness and reasonableness of Samuel Johnson's sensible argumentations, Carlyle's prose style seems to address the central topic of the dangerous mechanization of human inwardness in the most direct, straightforward, and even confrontational way. As the following passage demonstrates, however, Carlyle's cogent strategy retains, in its peculiar use of rhetorical questions, metaphors and literary tropes, some elements of both of his predecessors.

Consider the great elements of human enjoyment, the attainments and possessions that exalt man's life to its present height, and see what part of these he owes to institutions, to Mechanism of any kind; and what to the instinctive, unbounded force, which Nature herself lent him, and still continues to him. Shall we say, for example, that Science and Art are indebted principally to the founders of Schools and Universities? Did not Science originate rather, and gain advancement, in the obscure closets of the Roger Bacons, Keplers, Newtons; in the workshops of the Fausts and the Watts; wherever, and in what guise soever Nature, from the first times downwards, had sent a gifted spirit upon the earth? Again, were Homer and Shakspeare members of any beneficed guild, or made Poets by means of it? Were Painting and Sculpture created by forethought, brought into the world by institutions for that end? No; Science and Art have, from first to last, been the free gift of Nature; an unsolicited, unexpected gift; often even a fatal one. These things rose up, as it were, by spontaneous growth, in the free soil and sunshine of Nature. They were not planted or grafted, nor even greatly multiplied or improved by the culture or manuring of institutions. Generally speaking, they have derived only partial help from these; often enough have suffered damage. They made constitutions for themselves. They originated in the Dynamical nature of man, not in his Mechanical nature. Or, to take an infinitely higher instance, that of the Christian Religion, which, under every theory of it, in the believing or unbelieving mind, must ever be regarded as the crowning glory, or rather the life and soul, of our whole modern culture: How did Christianity arise and spread abroad among men? Was it by institutions, and establishments and well-arranged systems of mechanism? Not so; on the contrary, in all past and existing institutions for those ends, its divine spirit has invariably been found to languish and decay. It arose in the mystic deeps of man's soul; and was spread abroad by the preaching of the word," by simple, altogether natural and individual efforts; and flew, like hallowed [108/109] fire, from heart to heart, till all were purified and illuminated by it; and its heavenly light shone, as it still shines, and (as sun or star) will ever shine, through the whole dark destinies of man. Here again was no Mechanism; man's highest attainment was accomplish, Dynamically, not Mechanically. [pp. 108-09]

Just like Samuel Johnson, who invites the reader to follow his sober considerations, Carlyle makes a skilful use of compelling poetic images. For example, he makes science and art become unexpected gifts from the soil and sunshine of nature, and he represents Christianity as a flying hallowed fire able to light man's destiny. On the other hand, in providing good examples to sustain his points, he sometimes creates Swiftian surreal allegories by overlapping different fields of reference and by bringing together real-world persons and fictional charaters as in the case of James Watt and Dr. Faust.


1. How effective are Carlyle's resolute and steadfast answers ('No', 'Not so') to his own questions being them supported only by poetic images as counter-examples?

2. To what effect does Carlyle use authors with problematic identities such as Shakespeare and Homer as literary representatives of individuals as opposed to institutions?

3. Does Carlyle use a fervent, peremptory prose style in "Signs of the Times" as a metaphorical way to awaken men from the alienation induced by the 'age of machinery'? Would Carlyle's style be effective today?

Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified 9 October 2007