n addition to contributing to poetry and the novel, typology also had an influence upon what is probably the most characteristic Victorian literary form, that kind of non-fiction best described as the creation of the Victorian Sage [bibliographical information]. This genre, which variously combines the attributes of the sermon, Jeremiad, and neo-classical satire, attempts to interpret contemporary phenomena in much the same way that the sermons of Spurgeon, Melvill, and Newman interpret scriptural fact and event. The nature of this enterprise demands that both the sage and his audience conceive of his role as a special one ­ as one, in fact, that is distinguished by his superior comprehension of the significance of transitory phenomena and their relation to eternal laws or principles. Clearly, the eighteenth-century familiar essay in which a writer addresses himself to his equals is not suited for such purposes; but the sermon, particularly the Evangelical sermon, establishes precisely the desired position of sage in relation to his readers and offers other necessary elements as well.

For example, the sage must convince his audience not only that he possesses superior vision but also that his subjects and examples are indeed significant. The Victorian preacher, who confronted the same problems, often attracted his audience's attention by identifying an interpretive crux which he presented as being especially important, intriguing, or paradoxical. In showing his congregation how unexpected truths often lay hidden in the most unexpected places -- particularly in types -- this preacher convinced his listeners that he could provide them with something of value. One important technique in this procedure takes the form of defining or redefining major terms, such as "Christian," "type," and "sacrifice." This practice effectively demonstrates that the preacher's congregation does not properly understand crucial matters: at best its members are ignorant and uninformed, at worst they find their sinful state preventing them from seeing with clear eyes. This procedure consequently demonstrates to his listeners that they need his leadership. Having established his definitions, the preacher frequently points to the literal meaning of his text and sets forth whatever lessons or problems it may contain. Then, if he concerns himself with setting forth types and shadows of Christ, the preacher again leads and entertains his audience by revealing his ability to perceive important truths in unexpected places. Some Evangelical preachers, such as Spurgeon, would also relate their personal experiences as models for their congregations, and again such a practice confirms the audience's dependent relationship. All of these matters of procedure mark the writings of the Victorian Sage, many of which bear the obvious impress of the homiletic tradition. In particular, Ruskin's Modern Painters (1843-60), The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848), and The Stones of Venice (1851-2), which employ a number of typologically supported arguments, often read like sermons about the relation of aesthetic concerns to Bible fact. When Ruskin opposes conservative notions that color is relatively unimportant in great art, he advances this aspect of his romantic art theory with a sermon on the typological significance of the rainbow . Thus, in the second volume of The Stones of Venice , when he wishes to demonstrate "the connection of pure colour with profound and noble thought" (10.174), he sounds much like any other art critic, historian, or theorist in his citations of Venetian painting and Gothic cathedrals. However, he sounds a rather different note when he sets forth "a noble reason for this universal law":

In that heavenly circle which binds the statutes of colour upon the front of the sky, when it became the sign of the covenant of peace, the pure hues of divided light were sanctified to the human heart for ever; nor this, it would seem, by mere arbitrary appointment, but in consequence of the fore-ordained and marvellous constitution of those hues into a sevenfold, or, more strictly still, a threefold order, typical of the Divine nature itself. Observe also, the name Shem, or Splendour, given to that son of Noah in whom this covenant with mankind was to be fulfilled, and see how that name was justified by every one of the Asiatic races which descended from him. Not without meaning was the love of Israel to his chosen son expressed by the coat "of many colours"; not without deep sense of the sacredness of that symbol of purity did the lost daughter of David tear it from her breast: -- "With such robes were the king's daughters that were virgins apparelled." We know it to have been by Divine command that the Israelite, rescued from servitude, veiled the tabernacle with its rain of purple and scarlet, while the under sunshine flashed through the fall of the colour from its tenons of gold. (10.174-5)

Similarly, when Ruskin argues in the concluding volume of Modern Painters (1860) that color "is the purifying or sanctifying element of material beauty" (7.417n), he again cites biblical types as evidence. In order to defend his assertion about the spiritual value of color, he explains that in one sense form is prior to color, because "on form depends existence; on colour, only purity. Under the Levitical law, neither scarlet nor hyssop could purify the deformed. So, under all natural law, there must be rightly shaped members first, then sanctifying colour and fire in them" (7.417n). Despite the fact that Ruskin had already abandoned his childhood faith two years before writing this fifth volume of Modern Painters , he still persists in citing the scriptures as though every word they contain were literally true [ See Landow, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton, 1971), 243-93]. Therefore, if the Bible contains certain incidental facts about the Levitical sacrifices, such as the way color was to be applied to them by the priest, then he draws upon such facts as if they were divinely authenticated ones. Moreover, like Keble and other Tractarians, Ruskin also accepts that the physical world bears a divine impress which the sensitive eye can read in terms of type and symbol.

The major support for his defense of color in art and nature comes again from the ninth chapter of Genesis, which relates that God made the rainbow, a natural phenomenon, as the sign of this covenant never again to destroy man by a flood:

The cloud, or firmament, . . . signifies the ministration of the heavens to man. That ministration may be in judgment or mercy­in the lightning, or the dew. But the bow, or colour of the cloud signifies always mercy, the sparing of life; such ministry of the heaven as shall feed and prolong life. And as the sunlight, undivided, is the type of the wisdom and righteousness of God, so divided, and softened into colour by means of the firmamental ministry, fitted to every need of man, as to every delight, and becoming one chief source of human beauty, by being made part of the flesh of man, -- thus divided, the sunlight is the type of the wisdom of God, becoming sanctification and redemption. Various in work -- various in beauty -- various in power. (7.418)

The rainbow, a sign of God's covenant with man, was interpreted by Christian exegetes as a type of Christ, who both brought the new covenant of grace and was Himself its sign [See George P. Landow, "The Rainbow: a Problematic Image," in Nature and the Victorian Imagination, eds. U. C. Knoepflmacher and G. B. Tennyson (Berkeley, 1977), 341-69.] What distinguishes the rainbow from almost all other types is that it is a natural phenomenon, not a unique event or person, which prefigures Christ. Strictly speaking, one might claim that only the rainbow that appeared to Noah after leaving the ark could serve as a true type, since only that particular occurrence of this natural phenomenon possesses the unique situational parallel intrinsic to a true type. Victorian interpreters, however, do not thus limit the typological significance of the rainbow to its appearance in Genesis, and therefore it serves them as a major example of something which functions typologically in both of God's books -- the Bible and the Book of Nature. Unlike most exegetes, Ruskin does not rest his interpretation solely upon the fact that God placed a covenant-sign (or contract) in the heavens and then Himself explained its significance for man. Assuming that anything which bears the impress of divine nature can be read for information about God and His laws, Ruskin here draws an elaborate analogy between natural phenomena and theological fact: bright sunlight thus turns out to be an emblem of God the Father's wisdom and righteousness, while the rainbow stands for Christ's "sanctification and redemption."

In citing the rainbow in support of his belief that color is a central, not a peripheral, element in the arts, Ruskin draws upon orthodox interpretations of this natural phenomenon. But in addition to employing straightforward applications of commonplace types, he includes evidence based on his characteristic extension of biblical typology to include looser forms of symbolism. [See Landow, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin, 370-442.] Most obviously, whereas the rainbow serves as an orthodox type of Christ, since in Noah's time it prefigured His later appearance, the sun does not prefigure God at all; rather, it symbolizes Him. Similarly, Ruskin's summoning of the tabernacle and the sacrificial hyssop, both Levitical types, uses material associated with this form of exegesis, rather than the primary type, as support for his argument. Ruskin, in other words, does not concern himself primarily with the fact that the Levitical animal sacrifice prefigures Christ's, for he employs a more elegant argument which involves analyzing facts associated with the original type. Although such procedure is quite orthodox, it does move out of clearly defined areas that receive the authentication of the New Testament. Thus, when he mentions Joseph's coat of many colors to support his contention that these bright hues symbolize divine love, he applies details associated with a type of Christ to his argument. In this case, Ruskin's point seems to be that since Jacob gave his son a brightly colored garment because he so loved Joseph, the interpreter, knowing that Joseph is a type of Christ, can take Jacob analogously as God the Father. Therefore, since both God and Jacob bestowed bright color upon those they loved -- Jacob with Joseph's robe, God with the rainbow (which is also Christ) -- color means the sanctifying element of divine love. Even in this extended chain of assumptions that Ruskin bases on a type, his main evidence still comes from the orthodox type of the rainbow. Both less central qualities or attributes associated with types, such as Joseph's coat, and facts associated with figures who do not act as types, such as the violated Tamar, function only to provide additional support in the form of analogy.

These two passages from The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters , which exemplify Ruskin's skilled application of orthodox typology in his early career, take the form of citing scriptural evidence in the midst of an apparently secular discourse. Such procedure served several rhetorical purposes, not the least of which was to shift the terms of a discussion or place it in a universal context. Such use of typologically supported arguments further provided Ruskin with a means of appealing to many present or former Evangelicals in his audience, since such argument not only used terms and reasoning known to many in his audience but also immediately demonstrated that aesthetic questions bore major spiritual importance. For Ruskin, who was trying to open the eyes of Evangelical Englishmen to the glories of art and architecture, this kind of argumentation possessed the ability to speak to Evangelicals in their own terms and thereby convince them that Gothic architecture, religious painting, and other sources of beauty, contaminated for them by a long connection with Roman Catholicism, had true religious value. The major example of this kind of typological argument in the service of the arts is "The Lamp of Sacrifice," the opening chapter in Ruskin's The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), which, unlike most of his other uses of types, takes the form of a full Evangelical sermon about typology and not just the application of it to a wider argument.

Such transfer of the arguments, imagery, and manner of proceeding of the typological sermon to art criticism represents one way in which a Victorian sage employed types. Another influence of this form of symbolism upon the writings of the sage appears in those works which interpret contemporary events much as preachers interpret ancient biblical ones. Ruskin's later writings on political economics exemplify this second effect of typology upon Victorian non-fiction, but since Thomas Carlyle, whom he accepted as his "Master," first developed this literary form, we shall briefly examine his works to observe what happens when certain habits of thought associated with typology appear in other contexts. (20)

According to Past and Present (1843), all history, and not just that detailed in the Bible, is informed by divine revelation: "Men believe in Bibles, and disbelieve in them: but of all Bibles the frightfulest to disbelieve in is this "Bible of Universal History." This is the Eternal Bible and God's-Book, "in which every born man," till once the soul and eyesight are extinguished in him, "can and must, with his own eyes, see the God's-Finger writing"! To discredit this, is an infidelity like no other" (10.240). Two events, in particular, demand that men read them for their bits of divine revelation: the French Revolution and the Peterloo Massacre. Indeed, Past and Present's third chapter reminds his readers that in "all hearts that witnessed Peterloo, stands written, as in fire-characters, or smoke-characters prompt to become fire again, a legible balance-account of grim vengeance; very unjustly balanced, much exaggerated, as is the way with such accounts: but payable readily at sight, in full compound interest! Such things should be avoided as the very pestilence!" (10.16-17). The one way a society can avoid having to make such a fearful settlement in blood and suffering, says Carlyle, is to understand what God has written in the book of history before warnings become judgments. As he points out in "Chartism" (1839), the history of revolutionary France contains multiple scripture lessons for the English reader: "France is a pregnant example in all ways. Aristocracies that do not govern, Priesthoods that do not teach; the misery of that, and the misery of altering that, are written in Belshazzar fire-letters on the history of France" (29.161-62) . The fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel relates that God's finger wrote a judgment upon Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, in fire-letters on the walls of his palace, and Carlyle, who finds himself cast into the role of Daniel and Jeremiah, tries to warn his contemporaries so that they will not have to suffer for their sins.

The distinguishing claim of Carlyle and Ruskin as sages is that they can read the Belshazzar fire-letters of past and contemporary events. Whereas Ruskin's applications of orthodox types follow the model of the Victorian preacher, these uses of extended forms of this symbolism self-consciously rely upon that of the Old Testament prophets. Like them, Carlyle and Ruskin try to make their contemporaries realize that they have abandoned the ways of God and Nature; and that unless they return to them, they will suffer terrible punishments. To convince their audience that they have a valid message, they must first demonstrate that they can perceive meaningful signs where others do not, after which they must convince them that their interpretations are correct. Therefore, a prime technique of the Victorian sage lies in his discoveries of moral, political, and spiritual law in the most apparently trivial phenomena of contemporary life. For like both preacher and prophet, the sage must convince his listeners that he has access to the grammar and dictionary of reality and hence can read the lessons of contemporary events.

Typology furnishes the Victorian sage with three kinds of assistance. First, as Ruskin's earlier writings demonstrate, he can apply orthodox types to some contemporary question, such as the value of the arts in human life. Second, as we shall observe in Chapter Five when we examine Carlylean application of political types, the sage can manipulate orthodox typology for satirical and other effects. Third, as Past and Present reveals, the sage can treat some contemporary fact or event as material for interpretation -- as a Belshazzar fire-letter. Although these events bear a serious meaning, the secular prophet who finds spiritual significance in actual historical events often adopts the tone and methods of the satirist. "Phenomena," the opening chapter of the third book of Past and Present, thus presents a series of contemporary facts as wonderfully grotesque emblems of what is wrong with the modern world . First, Carlyle presents us with the fact of an "amphibious Pope":

the old Pope of Rome, finding it laborious to kneel so long while they cart him through the streets to bless the people on Corpus-Christi Day, complains of rheumatism; whereupon his Cardinals consult;- construct him, after some study, a stuffed cloaked figure, of iron and wood, with wool or baked hair, and place it in a kneeling posture. Stuffed figure, or rump of a figure; to this stuffed rump he, sitting at his ease on a lower level, joins, by the aid of cloaks and drapery, his living head and outspread hands: the rump with its cloaks kneels, the Pope looks, and holds his hands spread; and so the two in concert bless the Roman population on Corpus-Christi Day, as well they can. . . . Here is a Supreme Priest who believes . . . that all worship of God is a scenic phantasmagory of wax-candles, organ-blasts, Gregorian chants, mass-brayings, purple monsignori, wool-and-iron rumps, artistically spread out, -- to save the ignorant from worse.... There is in this poor Pope, and his practice of the Scenic Theory of Worship, a frankness which I rather honour. (10.138-9)

For Carlyle, a rather trivial fact, such as the way a Pope's infirmities were accommodated one feast day, becomes a message written in Belshazzar fire-letters warning his contemporaries that they cannot survive by using an obsolete religion to prop up obsolete political systems.

But, "alas, why go to Rome for Phantasms walking the streets?" (10.140), asks Carlyle, who then proceeds to find them in his England. Taking "that great Hat seven-feet high, which now perambulates London Streets" (10.141), as such a grotesque emblem of England's spiritual malaise, he demonstrates that the underlying principle of modern business is, not to make better products, but to convince one's potential customers by puffery that one has done so. Both Carlyle's amphibious Pope and his seven-foot Hat represent the sage's common technique of taking some trivial event as an emblem of spiritual laws, and these contemporary examples often receive a heavy dose of satire at his hands. Other exemplary facts, such as the population of England's workhouses and the Irish widow who only convinced the inhabitants of Edinburgh of her fellow humanity by giving them typhus, are presented more somberly, though they also have satiric functions. A third form of such analogies appears in the invented fables Carlyle and Ruskin employ, which may be as grandiose as the entire story of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh or as brief as Ruskin's Goddess-of-Getting-On or his parody of the armaments race in "Traffic" (1864). Like much of what is most characteristic in the writings of Ruskin and Carlyle, such satiric fables and emblems represent an effect of scriptural typology, of course, and not that mode of symbolism itself. As many of their works demonstrate, the Victorian sage defines himself by his superior ability to make interpretations -- interpretations, readings, of all kinds of things, events, and people. Trained in techniques of Bible reading that encouraged them to take everything in the scriptures, even the most trivial detail, as bearing the impress of God, they became accustomed to finding such meanings outside the Bible as well, and this habit of mind was in complete accord with Evangelical rules of interpretation that found types reaching fulfillment in the life of the individual worshipper. What Ruskin, Carlyle, and so many other Victorians acquired from years of meditating upon the Bible was a habit of mind, an assurance that everything possessed significant meaning if only one knew how to discover it. The scriptures released their many truths once the reader understood that Christ hovered beneath the literal facts and events of the Old Testament. Even after Ruskin and Carlyle (and many other of their contemporaries) abandoned the faith which shaped these basic attitudes towards the world of man and nature, these attitudes remained. Typology, which taught so many Victorians how to interpret biblical events and those of contemporary life, often persisted after a belief in Christianity disappeared from the lives of many men and women.


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Print version published 1980; web version 1998. Last modified 14 October 2002