The great cultural critics of history have the ability to transport their readers to a specific time and place while seamlessly commenting on nature of the society. From Walter Benjamin's Paris to Joan Didion's California, their taut exposition makes even the least worldly reader an instant expert, even a participant, in the culture at hand. Thomas Carlyle, in "Signs of the Times," so describes Victorianism from within:

With individuals, in like manner, natural strength avails little. No individual now hopes to accomplish the poorest enterprise single-handed and without mechanical aids; he must make interest with some existing corporation, and till his field with their oxen. In these days, more emphatically than ever, "to live, signifies to unite with a party, or to make one." Philosophy, Science, Art, Literature, all depend on machinery. No Newton, by silent meditation, now discovers the system of the world from the falling of an apple; but some quite other than Newton stands in his Museum, his Scientific Institution, and behind whole batteries of retorts, digesters, and galvanic piles imperatively "interrogates Nature," who however, shows no haste to answer. In defect of Raphaels, and Angelos, and Mozarts, we have Royal Academies of Painting, Sculpture, Music; whereby the languishing spirits of Art may be strengthened, as by the more generous diet of a Public Kitchen. Literature, too, has its Paternoster-row mechanism, its Trade-dinners, its Editorial conclaves, and huge subterranean, puffing bellows; so that books are not only printed, but, in a great measure, written and sold, by machinery. National culture, spiritual benefit of all sorts, is under the same management. No Queen Christina, in these times, needs to send for her Descartes; no King Frederick for his Voltaire, and painfully nourish him with pensions and flattery: any sovereign of taste, who wishes to enlighten his people, has only to impose a new tax, and with the proceeds establish Philosophic Institutes. Hence the Royal and Imperial Societies, the Bibliothèques, Glyptothèques, Technothèques, which front us in all capital cities; like so many well-finished hives, to which it is expected the stray agencies of Wisdom will swarm of their own accord, and hive and make honey. In like [102/103] manner, among ourselves, when it is thought that religion is declining, we have only to vote half-amillion's worth of bricks and mortar, and build new churches. In Ireland it seems they have gone still farther, having actually established a "Penny-a-week Purgatory-Society"! Thus does the Genius of Mechanism stand by to help us in all difficulties and emergencies, and with his iron back bears all our burdens.

Carlyle uses the intellectual heroes of the past to contrast the mechanization he sees around him. By assuming some shared knowledge between himself and his readers, as in his allusion to "King Frederick for his Voltaire," he builds a relationship with his reader, allowing him to use more precise descriptions of the "the Times" to propel his own argument.


1. Is Carlyle's use of individuals like Newton, Raphael, Mozart, and Voltaire a sound argument or an example of hyperbole?

2. To what effect does Carlyle use the repetition of the suffix "-thèques," ("like so the Bibliothèques, Glyptothèques, Technothèques")?

3. "Literature too, has its Paternoster-row mechanism, its Trade-dinners, its Editorial conclaves, and huge subterranean puffing bellows; so that books are not only printed, but in a great measure, written and sold, by machinery." In the above sentence Carlyle uses the language of the publishing business to explain its mechanization. How does Thomas Wolfe employ this strategy in "The Pump House Gang"?

4. Carlyle concludes this paragraph with a characterization of machinery as a hero, "the Genius of Mechanism." How does this summarize his reflections? Does this characterization offer a value judgment of mechanization?

Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified 11 October 2007