W. E. B. Du Bois

E. B. Du Bois ends his chapter on education in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) with another common version of the visionary close when he invokes the situation of those who see the Promised Land at a distance. Calling like Matthew Arnold for a "higher individualism which the centres of culture protect," Du Bois suggests that the very sufferings of his people have much to offer the world of culture:

The rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living, and doing precious to all human hearts. And to themselves in these the days that try their souls, the chance to soar in the dim blue air above the smoke is to their finer spirits boon and guerdon for what they lose on earth by being black.

Arguing that the world of culture has no colorline, Du Bois moves from the literal to the symbolic and visionary: "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls." Similarly, he can summon Aristotle and Aurelius, who "come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension."

Pointing out that thus "wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil," he turns to white America and asks, "Is this the life you grudge us . . . ? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?" He alludes to the thirty-fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, in which, before Moses dies, God commands him to ascend Mount Pisgah and there grants him a sight of Canaan as a reward for his loyal service. Throughout the nineteenth century this situation provided a popular subject for hymns and sermons, and it also provided paradigms, images, and types for a wide range of religious and secular literature. [Follow for a discussion of the Pisgah Sight in Landow, Victorian Types (1980).] Within these two closing paragraphs DuBois combines the visionary promise of the Pisgah Sight with the sage's characteristic alienation between vision and satire, for although he does not always write as a sage, he occasionally employs a wide range of the same techniques and allusions. The Souls of Black Folk centers on the problem of racial relations in America the same way that Carlyle's Chartism and Past and Present center on the problem of labor relations in England. Du Bois, who cites Carlyle, clearly knows both his literary techniques and those of the evangelical tradition upon which both men draw. His commitment in this book to rational historical argument produces a work that only occasionally draws on the devices of the sage — and on that account is interesting in our context because it indicates how this genre intermingles with other forms of nonfiction.

In his ninth chapter, "Of the Sons of Master and Man," Du Bois points ' that the economic system of the American south in 1900 was not that of old industrial north or modem England and France. "It is, rather, a copy of England of the early nineteenth century, before the factory acts, — the England that wrung pity from thinkers and fired the wrath of Carlyle" (192). The "captains of industry" (193), often men from the north, turn out to be not leaders Carlyle had hoped would arise to bring peace and justice to the age, but men who care only for "dollars and dividends" (193). When describing the life of Alexander Cromwell in chapter 12, he similarly employs language, imagery, and rhetoric of Sartor Resartus, On Heroes and Hero-Worship and Past and Present.

Matthew Arnold

Decorative Initial The closing paragraph of Arnold's "Function of Criticism at the Present Time"gives the Pisgah Sight another intonation, for combines a popular evangelical commonplace with references classical pagan literature. Claiming that Periclean Athens and Elizabethan England, the "epochs of Aeschylus and Shakespeare," possess "the true life of literature," he proclaims: there is the promised land, towards which criticism can only beckon. That promised land it will not be ours to enter, and we die in the wilderness: but to have desired to enter it, to saluted it from afar, is already, perhaps, the best distinction among contemporaries; it will certainly be the best title to esteem with posterity" (3.285). Despite Arnold's rather peculiar critical blindness in failing to notice that his own age, a second renaissance, had achieved literary greatness, he forces us to admire the skill with which he presents his judgments even as we shake our heads in wonderment at his claim that criticism, the criticism he writes, is the finest creation of the age and the one that will be most valued in the future.

Unlike preachers and writers of hymns, who take the Pisgah Sight as a promise of heaven, Victorian writers and artists frequently employ it for its complex mixture of reward and punishment, fulfillment and failure. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, her husband's "Pisgah Sights" and other poems, Tennyson's "The Passing of Arthur," Ruskin's Modern Painters and Praeterita, and Arnold's own "Empedocles on Etna" all manipulate this commonplace type for its built-in ironies.

In "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" Arnold makes a slightly different use of it by situating the promised land in the past as well as in the future. God grants his prophet a sight of Canaan, the land his people will enter after his death, as reward for his obediently leading the obstinate, backsliding Hebrews out of Egypt and through the desert, but since he does not permit Moses to enter the promised land (as punishment for disobediently striking a desert rock to bring forth water), God blends punishment and reward. Some exegetes, such as the great  Evangelical Anglican preacher Henry Melvill, interpreted this incident at least in part to indicate that the Lord desired to show that all men, no matter how blessed or high in position, had to obey His word. [ full text of Melvill's sermon.] Most orthodox students of the Bible, however, concentrated upon the element of promise and took the Pisgah Sight, as it came to be known, as a type of Heaven. Both the type (Canaan) and its fulfillment (Heaven) emphasize futurity, but Arnold sees the "promised land" of culture in the past. True, he implies that such a promised land, such a Canaan of culture, will be entered in the future by another, more fortunate, generation, and he therefore establishes what is essentially a typological relation between prefiguring Periclean Athens and Elizabethan England and a future England of great culture. At the same time, however, his emphasis upon the pastness of the promised land undercuts this closing promise, perhaps unintentionally.

Coming upon Arnold's mention that "we shall die in the wilderness," one is not at first certain if he draws an analogy between his contemporaries and the Israelites born in slavery who were not fit to enter the promised land or if he intends to establish one between them (or himself) and Moses, the prophet of God and giver of the Law; but his following statement, that t hey have "saluted it from afar," seems to make clear that he sees his generation — and particularly his own criticism — in the role of Moses, who struggled with a blind, rebellious, benighted people and finally brought them in sight of the promised land, which they then had to attain by their own efforts. Such grandiose self presentation, which casts the sage in the guise of an inspired prophet, is not at all uncommon in the writings of the Victorian sages. Thoreau thus casts himself as John the Baptist to John Brown's Christ, and Ruskin presents himself, at different times and at different places in his writing, as virtually all the prophets of the Old Testament. What may surprise, of course, is that Arnold, a man deeply suspicious of the Hebraizing Evangelical Protestant tradition, should have drawn upon it both with such skill and with such lack of irony. As Geoffrey Tillotson has noted in "Matthew Arnold: The Critic and the Advocate," Arnold had a "Puritan passion for what he saw to be best, and missionary passion for making what he saw to be best prevail" Critics and Criticism in the Nineteenth Century, London, Athlone, 1951, 60.) Arnold does not always seem to be particularly comfortable using such literary structures drawn from a religious tradition upon which he so looked down, and occasionally he employs them ineffectively. The examples at which we have looked of the way he himself, Ruskin, Carlyle, and Thoreau invoke the full range of prophetic rhetoric suggest that completing the pattern involves more than a closing flourish. In fact, if the would-be sage does not have an adequate vision or promise with which to solace his readers, the attempt at closure falls rather flat, as it does at one point in Culture and Anarchy, where Arnold employs a powerful rhetorical climax as he presents his understanding of what will happen when his higher view of culture becomes accepted:

The moment this view of culture is seized, the moment it is regarded not solely as the endeavour to see things as they are, to draw towards a knowledge of the universal order which seems be intended and aimed at in the world, and which it is a man's happiness to go along with or his misery to go counter to, — to learn, in short, the will of God, — the moment, I say, culture is considered not merely as the endeavour to see and learn this, but as the endeavour, also, to make it prevail, the moral, social, and beneficent character of culture becomes manifest. (5.93)

The problem here lies in the fact that Arnold's progressive movement through higher and higher matters-, including "the will of God," ends with an unintentionally comic anticlimax because, rather than stop with some promise of future betterment for his audience, he instead informs them that they will understand that he is right. The fact that the "moral, social, and beneficent character of culture becomes manifest" when his definition of it is accepted hardly justifies the rhetorical fanfare of the sentence. One suspects that Arnold, who was so influenced by Newman and the whole High Church emphasis upon reticence and reserve, found himself unwilling — or unable to produce the positive vision necessary to complete the structure invoked. Although throughout his career >Arnold remained deeply indebted to Thomas Carlyle for individual techniques, general approach, and various major themes, he seems to have been embarrassed by such influence, in large part because he found the self-assertive, openly combative Carlyle uncosmopolitan — too Evangelical, too provincial, and too lower-class.1

Nonetheless, it is from Carlyle that Arnold learned the sage's devices and stance. One can point to other examples of one author's learning the sage's techniques, such as the prophetic pattern, from another. Ruskin, for example, followed Carlyle, particularly in his social criticism, and D. H. Lawrence in turn drew heavily upon Ruskin for his word-painting and manner of self presentation.2 But although instances of direct influence, particularly that of Carlyle, appear throughout the nineteenth-century development of this genre, they do not centrally concern us now while we are trying to map the limits of the genre itself. Similarly, although all nineteenth-century practitioners of this form of wisdom literature consciously draw upon the traditions of Old Testament prophecy, such direct indebtedness concerns us only while we observe the genre taking form. Once a genre develops, it assumes a life of its own, and those who come to it after the first generation do not necessarily concern themselves with its roots and sources. The way literary forms thus develop has important consequences for students of literature and literary traditions since it implies that later practitioners of a genre need not have a feeling for the traditions out of which it grew. Carlyle, Thoreau, Ruskin, and Arnold all knew the Old Testament prophets and conventional Victorian assumptions about them, and as it turns out, so did Lawrence, who grew up surrounded by working-class Evangelical Protestantism. But Mailer, Didion, Wolfe, and a host of other writers of nonfiction who draw upon this genre may, like most recent authors, be ignorant of biblical traditions that have had major, if indirect, impact upon their writings. In fact, as we shall observe in the next chapter, which discusses the sage's use of grotesque emblems, his characteristic techniques sometimes take on such a life of their own that later authors need have no knowledge of the original biblical and exegetical sources.


Victorian Web Genre and Mode Next contents

Last modified 14 July 2008