In "Signs of the Times" (text) Carlyle argues that utilitarian values plague — and will continue to plague — modern society. He opens his essay with vitriolic criticism of contemporary prophesying and then quickly and playfully provides his own ten-page prophecy every bit as indulgent as the ones he claims to abhor. In obtuse and convoluted language, Carlyle describes the mad fervor that results from contemporary prophesying.
The case, however, is still worse with nations. For here the prophets are not one, but many; and each incites and confirms the other; so that the fatidical fury spreads wider and wider, till at last even Saul must join in it. For there is still a real magic in the action and reaction of minds on one another. The casual deliration of a few becomes, by this mysterious reverberation, the frenzy of many; men lose the use, not only of their understandings, but of their bodily senses; while the men most obdurate unbelieving hearts melt, like the rest, in the furnace where all are cast as victims and as fuel. It is grievous to think, that this noble omnipotence of Sympathy has been so rarely the Aaron's-rod of Truth and Virtue, and so often the Enchanter's-rod of Wickedness and Folly! No solitary miscreant, scarcely any solitary maniac, would venture on such actions and imaginations, as large communities of sane men have, in such circumstances, entertained as sound wisdom.
This paragraph is difficult to read because of its thorny syntax and altogether turbulent prose. Just as Carlyle attacks the act of prophesying and then goes on to deliver his own prophecy, he attacks the Mechanical Age and then writes sentences so disorienting that attention is inevitably drawn to their structure — their complicated and calculated mechanics. As the opening to an essay which argues against the all-pervasiveness of excessive material artifice, how might an introduction of high-fallutin language be an integral component of Carlyle's argument? In what way might the form of his essay provide support for its actual content?
Does Carlyle closely define the most important of his terms, such as Sympathy, Truth, Virtue, Wickedness and Folly? Why might he not want to define such terms — does linguistic vagueness help him achieve his rhetorical purpose?
Last modified 21 September 2003