In Past and Present, Thomas Carlyle describes the ruins of the abbey at St. Edmundsbury:

The Burg, Bury, or ‘Berry’ as they call it, of St. Edmund is still a prosperous brisk Town; beautifully diversifying, with its clear brick houses, ancient clean streets, and twenty or fifteen thousand busy souls, the general grassy face of Suffolk; looking out right pleasantly, from its hill-slope, towards the rising Sun: and on the eastern edge of it, still runs, long, black and massive, a range of monastic ruins; into the wide internal spaces of which the stranger is admitted on payment of one shilling. Internal spaces laid out, as present, as a botanic garden. Here stranger or townsman, sauntering at his leisure amid these vast grim venerable ruins, may persuade himself that an Abbey of St Edmundsbury did once exist; nay there is not doubt of it: see here the ancient massive Gateway, of architecture interesting to the eye of Dilettantism; and farther on, that other ancient Gateway, now about to tumble, unless Dilettantism, in these very months, can subscribe money to cramp it and prop it!

Carlyle later expands on his description of the abbey:

And yet these grim old walls are not a dilettantism and dubiety; they are an earnest fact. It was a most real and serious purpose they were built for! Yes, another world it was, when these black ruins, white in their new mortar and fresh chiseling, first saw the sun as walls, long ago. Gauge not, with thy dilettante compasses, with that placid dilettante simper, the Heaven’s- Watchtower of our Fathers, the fallen God’s-Houses, the Golgotha of true Souls departed!


1. What is Carlyle’s purpose in contrasting the abbey when it was first built with its present condition? How does his description of the two differ? If he is cautioning the reader to not read it as simply a symbol of dilettantism, how is he using the figure of the abbey?

2. The opening description of the abbey strings several adjectives together (“long black and massive” and “vast grim venerable ruins”). What function does this serve in light of his rhetorical purpose?

3. The parallel construction he uses in the final sentence of the second passage (“the Heaven’s- Watchtower of our Fathers, the fallen God’s-Houses, the Golgotha of true Souls departed!”) names the abbey in three different ways. How does each epithet add to his argument?

Last modified 22 September 2003