[Chapter 3, note 24, of the author's Carlyle and the Search for Authority, which the Ohio State University Press published in 1991. It appears in the Victorian web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright. not in print version indicates a link to material not in the original print version. GPL]

There have been a number of discussions of Carlyle's use of epic devices and the influence of Homer on his writings, but little on his conception of epic until Mark Cumming's A Disimprisoned Epic. I would suggest that Carlyle did not so much attempt to make the The French Revolution epic because he read Homer, but read Homer because he wanted to make his next work epic (see LaValley, 139-52; Farrell, 215-31; Clubbe, "Carlyle as Epic Historian" and "Epic Heroes"; J. Rosenberg, 39-48; Cumming, "Disimprisonment of Epic").

In the early nineteenth century, there were nearly as many definitions of epic as there were critics and no consensus on what constituted the epic canon. Thus, while Carlyle drew on recent scholarship, he had considerable freedom in how to define epic (Foerster, 31-34-1 see also Jenkyns, chap. 9; Turner, chap. 4). Mark Cumming's study confirms and provides considerable evidence beyond that presented here that Carlyle was reshaping epic to suit his own literary ends. Cumming demonstrates how Carlyle combines romance, satire, elegy, farce, tragedy, emblem, fragment, allegory, phantasmagory, and so on to create a heterogeneous form. However, I would note that Cumming tends to discuss these genres as opposed pairs, pitting a univocal against a multivocal, or closed versus open, form (emblem versus fragment, for example, or allegory versus phantasmagory). Cumming suggests that multivocality undermines univocality, whereas I find that the desire for univocality and closure persists in tension with multivocality.


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Last modified 26 October 2001