ith passion and wit, Thomas Carlyle responds to an increasingly mechanical society, an intellectual environment dependent on machines and iron instead of emotion and the subtle power of the human mind, in his essay "Signs of the Times." Using hyperbole and repetition, Carlyle's piece contains the energy and fervor of its author, rhythmically escalating in force to match the tempo of the content, endlessly listing examples to reinforce an all-encompassing mechanization. In this style, Carlyle laments the changes that come from industrialization — the replacement of great teachers with buildings, the depersonalization of printing and text, and the rapid increase in hollow places of learning. In the passage below, Carlyle tirelessly lists arenas in which mechanism's iron hand has interfered, demonstrating that no area of knowledge will remain sacred and timeless, consistent throughout mankind's journey, but that when technology changes, so too will other areas of life follow.
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 Bibliotheques, Glyptotheques, Technotheques, 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 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.
In the passage above, those places that Carlyle denounces for their increasing universality might be praised today, such as libraries and philosophic institutes, but it is the rapidness of their installment that Carlyle criticizes, the thoughtlessness with which they are built and then forgotten about.
1. Carlyle often unnecessarily capitalizes words and phrases throughout the passage, such as "Museum," "Public Kitchens," and "Philosophic Institutes." What effect does this have on your reading of the passage and the tone of the piece?
2. Syntactically, Carlyle repeats a similar pattern of subject and verb, often introducing multiple subjects in a row before introducing the verb that connects them all. In such sentences as "Philosophy, Science, Art, Literature, all depend on machinery," and "National culture, spiritual benefit of all sorts, is under the same management," this can be observed. How does this manipulation of rhythm mimic the subject of the passage?
3. What is the importance of the analogy of the beehives and honey, the only example of figurative language in the passage?
4. Carlyle is openly nostalgic of the past, praising Newton's discovery of gravity and former monarchs' relationships with philosophers. What impact do these references to the past have?
5. In "The Hero as Man of Letters," Carlyle praises the printing press for its ability to advance literature. Here, however, he is skeptical of books that are "written and sold by machinery." Are the subjects of his respective praise and scorn different, or is there a fine line he is attempting to illustrate at which point printing can become an evil? Where is that line?
Last modified 9 October 2007