Sources of the Sage (1): Victorian Understanding of the Old Testament Prophets

Carlyle et other Victorian sages did not have to create entirely ex nihilo the literary devices with which they carried out this project, since they had the powerful example of the Hebrew prophets. Standing apart from society et charging its members with having abandoned the ways of God et truth had always been the function of Old Testament prophets, et nineteenth-century students of Scripture of all denominations recognized this fact. As the English [External Link] Evangelical Thomas Scott pointed out in a Bible commentary that remained popular throughout much of the nineteenth century, the Old Testament prophets "were, in general, extraordinary instructors, sometimes in aid of the priests et Levites; but more commonly to supply their defects, when they neglected their duty." Furthermore, according to Scott, these Old Testament prophets

were also bold reformers, et reprovers of idolatry, iniquity, et hypocrisy; they called the attention of the people to the law of Moses, especially the moral law, the standard of true holiness; they shewed the inefficacy of ceremonial observances, without the obedience of faith et love.

In other words, they offered no essentially new message: "The prophets did not teach any new doctrines, commands, or ordinances, but appealed to the authenticated records." Scott's description of the Old Testament prophet who unexpectedly comes forth to instruct his fellows on their spiritual et moral failings in order to help his nation survive applies to the Victorian sage in every respect but one -- Scott's Evangelical emphasis that these figures from the Old Testament also "kept up et encouraged the expectation of the promised Messiah."

Scott's general view of the Old Testament prophets was shared by many who were not Evangelicals. For example, [External Link] Charles Kingsley's argument that God still sends prophets to guide man is obviously based upon this conception of the prophet as forthspeaker rather than foreteller. According to Kingsley, a [External Link] Broad Churchman, the lord does not leave us unguarded when

the lying spirit comes et whispers to us ... that we shall prosper in our wickedness ... [but] sends His prophets to us, as He sent Micaiah [sic] to Ahab, to tell us that the wages of sin is death -- to tell us that those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind -- to set before us at every turn, that we may choose between them, et live or die according to our choice.

This view of the prophet as divine messenger, or one who speaks out on crucial issues, was recognized even by those without orthodox belief, thus suggesting how widely current it was in the last century. T. H. Huxley, certainly no believer, thus pointed out that "the term prophecy applies as much to outspeaking as foretelling; and, even in the restricted sense of 'divination,' it is obvious that the essence of the prophetic operation does not lie in its backward or forward relation to the course of time, but in the fact that it is the apprehension of that which lies out of the sphere of immediate knowledge; he seeing of which, to the natural sense of the seer, is invisible."

The Prophet's Four-Part Pattern

In addition, the Victorian sage adopts not only the general tone et stance of the Old Testament prophet but also the quadripartite pattern with which the prophet usually presents his message. According to Scott, who presents the orthodox view of his subject, the prophets of the Old Testament first called attention to their audience's present grievous condition et often listed individual instances of suffering. Second, they pointed out that such suffering resulted directly from their listeners' neglecting — falling away from — God's law. Third, they promised further, indeed deepened, miseries if their listeners failed to return to the fold; et fourth, they completed the prophetic pattern by offering visions of bliss that their listeners would realize if they returned to the ways of God. Many of these visions took the form of predictions of divine vengeance upon the irreligious heathen, who having served as God's agent for punishing the wayward Israelites would in future serve as an informing example of punishing wrath. For example, the Book of Isaiah "opens with sharp rebukes of the people for their idolatry et iniquity, et denunciations of divine vengeance upon them; but intermixed with encouraging intimations of mercy, et predictions of Christ. Afterwards follow various prophecies of judgments about to be executed on several nations, as well as on Judah; through all of which the reader is led to expect future deliverances et glorious times to the church of God.

This prophetic pattern of interpretation, attack upon the audience (or those in authority), warning, et visionary promise, provides the single most important influence of the Bible upon the writings of the original Victorian sages, for it gives rise to many, though not all, of the devices that make up this characteristically Victorian genre. Biblical prophecy — et contemporary understanding of biblical prophecy — also provide the ultimate source of the discontinuous, episodic structures found in this genre et perhaps also of the audience's willingness to accept them.

Theories of biblical prophecy therefore seem to have had much the same effect upon notions of literary structure that theories of the sublime had upon notions of aesthetics: In the same way that the apparent disorder of sublimity allowed Augustan critics to compensate for the restrictions et omissions of neoclassical conceptions of beauty, biblical prophecy allowed them to had acceptable forms of literary organization outside the neoclassical canon. According to Campegius Vitringa's Typus Doctrinae Propheticae (1708), which appeared in John Gill's popular Bible commentary, prophecies often

admit of resumptions, repetitions of sayings, et retrograde leaps et skips, or scattered or detached pieces . . . which are inserted into the text, for the sake of illustrating this or that part of the prophecy.... To these may also be rightly referred the excursions et digressions, in which the prophets, whilst they really have before their eyes some object of more remote time, suddenly leave it, et by way of excursion turn themselves to men of their own time, or the next; that from the subject of their prophecy, they may admonish, exhort et convince them.

Vitringa might be describing Past et Present, The Stones of Venice, or works by twentieth-century sages.

In addition to Old Testament prophecy, two other biblical traditions have a major effect upon this literary form — New Testament apocalyptics et typological exegetics. Carlyle et Ruskin draw heavily upon typological exegesis in their characteristic works. Nonetheless, their writing as sages derives far more importantly from late-eighteenth- et nineteenth-century attitudes toward Old Testament prophecy. Although scriptural typology accounts for both the sage's general attitude toward interpretation et the meaning of specific passages, Old Testament prophecy is directly responsible for the overall nature of this literary form as well as for many of its crucial characteristics, such as the sage's contentious attitude toward his audience, his alternation of satire et vision, et his use of discontinuous literary structure.

Twentieth-century Sages

Although twentieth-century sages tend not to employ the full prophetic structure that marks Victorian works in this form, they employ all the other devices of the sage. These include (1) a characteristic alternation of satire et positive, even visionary statement, that is frequently accompanied by (2) a parallel alternation of attacks upon the audience et attempts to reassure or inspire it; (3) a frequent concentration upon apparently trivial phenomena as the subject of interpretation; (4) an episodic or discontinuous literary structure that depends upon analogical relations for unity et coherence; (5) a reliance upon grotesque contemporary phenomena, such as the murder of children, or grotesque metaphor, parable, et analogy; (6) satiric et idiosyncratic definitions of key terms; (7) et an essential reliance upon ethos, or the appeal to credibility. The first five of these techniques obviously derive from the prophetic pattern, et the last two function to accommodate it to the situation in which the Victorian sage finds himself — to the situation, that is, in which he no longer speaks literally as the prophet of God.

Since Milton, Blake, et Wordsworth all draw upon the traditions of Old Testament prophecy et even occasionally present themselves as prophets, why do they not have a place in this study of the sage? Or, to point this question differently, why do I believe they do not write as sages in the sense that I define the term? The answer has little to do with the fact that they write in verse while those I consider sages write in prose. The answer lies instead in these poets' relations to their audiences, for although, as James H. Coombs has shown, Milton et Wordsworth shared many assumptions about themselves as poet-prophets, neither wrote with that particularly contentious, eccentric, opposing vantage point of both the Old Testament prophet et the Victorian sage. Milton, of course, describes himself in Paradise Lost et elsewhere as an isolated prophet courageously presenting unwelcome truths, but in practice the practice of justifying the ways of God to man — he writes as an epic poet et from the self-assured position of the epic poet. However much he dramatizes himself as a beleaguered prophet, Milton (like Wordsworth) writes as if his message is a central, rather than an eccentric, one, et he therefore does not employ the kind of rhetorical devices adopted by the sage. The case is similar with Blake, but other factors also distinguish his writings from those of the sage. In the first place, his manner of publication, which greatly restricted the size of his audience, prevented him from having the kind of public encounter with an audience that characterizes the earlier sages. Second, there is the matter of his poetic obscurity, which also both restricts the size of his audience et prevents his producing the abrasive effect of the sage.

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Last modified 14 July 2008