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

Carlyle and 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 and charging its members with having abandoned the ways of God and truth had always been the function of Old Testament prophets, and 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 and 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, and reprovers of idolatry, iniquity, and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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, and 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 and 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 and 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; and 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 and iniquity, and denunciations of divine vengeance upon them; but intermixed with encouraging intimations of mercy, and 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 and glorious times to the church of God.

This prophetic pattern of interpretation, attack upon the audience (or those in authority), warning, and 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 — and contemporary understanding of biblical prophecy — also provide the ultimate source of the discontinuous, episodic structures found in this genre and 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 and 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, and retrograde leaps and 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 and digressions, in which the prophets, whilst they really have before their eyes some object of more remote time, suddenly leave it, and 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 and convince them.

Vitringa might be describing Past and 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 and typological exegetics. Carlyle and Ruskin draw heavily upon typological exegesis in their characteristic works. Nonetheless, their writing as sages derives far more importantly from late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attitudes toward Old Testament prophecy. Although scriptural typology accounts for both the sage's general attitude toward interpretation and 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 and vision, and 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 and positive, even visionary statement, that is frequently accompanied by (2) a parallel alternation of attacks upon the audience and 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 and coherence; (5) a reliance upon grotesque contemporary phenomena, such as the murder of children, or grotesque metaphor, parable, and analogy; (6) satiric and idiosyncratic definitions of key terms; (7) and an essential reliance upon ethos, or the appeal to credibility. The first five of these techniques obviously derive from the prophetic pattern, and 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, and Wordsworth all draw upon the traditions of Old Testament prophecy and 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 and 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 and the Victorian sage. Milton, of course, describes himself in Paradise Lost and 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 and 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, and 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 and prevents his producing the abrasive effect of the sage.


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Last modified 14 July 2008