initial A nother way to explain the anachronism of concluding "On Heroes and Hero-Worship" with Cromwell is to say that Carlyle did not consider Cromwell part of the past but a hero for the present. Since the end of 1838 he had been considering whether the Puritan era might be the subject of his next book, presenting his first public defense of Cromwell in his lectures on modern revolutions in the spring of 1839, and then concluding the lectures on heroes with Cromwell the following year (CL, 11: 246).16 Immediately after completing those lectures, he began reading extensively about the civil wars and Cromwell, whom he now regarded as the "last (King) Könning of England" (CL, 14:8, n. 4). He wanted to do more than write a history, however; he wanted quite literally to bring Cromwell back to life, to "save a hero for [his] country." 17 Convinced that "the one hope of help" for his "own poor generation ... consisted in the possibility of new Cromwells and new Puritans," he "pray[ed] daily for a new Oliver" (RWE, 328; CL, 14:184; see 210). The Puritan revolution was incomplete because the settlement of 1660 had turned back the clock and restored the old social order. Carlyle sought to complete the revolution in his own era by restoring Cromwell's reputation and encouraging the emergence of a Cromwellian hero.

To achieve this goal, Carlyle needed to create a "new [literary] form from centre to surface" that would make epic history reshape the present as well as reflect the past (LL, 1:300). Since he regarded history as epic — what the present believes to be true — history was as much concerned with the present as with the past. The problem was that, just as the Puritan revolution had been suspended by the settlement of 1660, so the making of the English epic had been suspended by the failure of English authors. England had the material for an epic history, Carlyle lamented, but English literature had failed to speak "what the gods were pleased to act"; instead of an epic or Bible, it had produced only a "Collins's Peerage and the illegible torpedo rubbish mounds" of dry-as-dust histories (Fielding and Tarr, 18). Just as [102/103] he hoped to inspire the emergence of a new Cromwell, so he hoped that his history of the Puritan revolution would provide an epic for the nineteenth century. The "seventeenth" century is "worthless," he concluded, "except precisely in so far as it can be made the nineteenth" (RWE, 328).18

Yet Carlyle did not succeed in creating the "new form" he needed. "No work I ever tried gets on worse with me than this of Cromwell," he wrote. "I know not for my life in what way to take it up, how to get into the heart of it, what on earth to do with it. For many months I have lain at it beleaguering it; literally girdling in all sides; watching if on any side there might be found admittance into it" (fol. 95 and v.). He complained repeatedly that it was "impossible" to discover the reality of Puritan history beneath the documentary "rubbish mounds" it had left behind (CL, 14:229; see LL, 1: 299, 360; RWE, 350).19 Although he wanted to believe that Cromwell could still live for the present, he discovered that his hero was locked away in the inaccessible past and often complained that the Puritan revolution could not be made as interesting as the French Revolution because it was not, like the latter, still alive in the minds of his contemporaries (CL, 11: 15, 12:305, 14:8; Fielding and Tarr, 16).20

Between 1839, when he began working on Cromwell, and 1844, when he decided merely to edit Cromwell's letters and speeches, Carlyle continued unsuccessfully to seek a literary form that would merge past and present." He tried to create scenes like the "Procession" in The French Revolution, to find a structural nucleus for the history in a list of "Moments" and a dramatic scenario, even to write "rhyme," but none of these attempts made Cromwell come alive (Forster, fols. 93, 105 v., 154; LL, 1: 299).22 The difficulties manifest themselves in a brief passage that literally attempts to revive Cromwell as a ghost speaking, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, to the modern-day sons of England:

Not Christ's Gospel now, and a Godly Ministry; but the People's Charter and Free Trade in Corn. My Poor beloved countrymen, — alas, Priests have become chimerical, and your Lords ... do stick the stubble ground with dry bushes in preservation of their partridges. [Fielding and Tarr, 16]

Instead of uniting the centuries, however, Cromwell's seventeenth-century syntax jars against the incongruous nineteenth century vocabulary, sounding ridiculous rather than portentous. Part of Carlyle's problem was that, whereas The French Revolution had been dominated by speech, he intended the book on Cromwell to be dominated by action. At one point, he attempted to emphasize action by [103/104] casting the history in the form of an epic drama in twelve acts.23 Yet, although King Charles's flight, like the "Night of Spurs" in The French Revolution, provided "a dramatic scene," on the whole he found that the history of the civil wars contained "no action" and was "not dramatic" (9-10). Cromwell's battles would provide action, but not of a very dramatic or symbolic kind, and, in the end, nearly half of the scenario dramatizes squabbles between Cromwell and Parliament, exactly what Carlyle wanted to avoid.

* * * * * *

Already in 1841, as he saw England slipping into the worst economic recession of the century, Carlyle was becoming discouraged with his failure to make any progress on Cromwell. In May of 1842, as he journeyed to and from Scotland, he was struck by the sight of idle factories in Manchester and disturbed by his encounters with impoverished farm laborers (CL, 14:178, 183-84. When the Tories finally regained power in 1841, he had predicted that Peel would quickly abrogate the Corn Laws, but Peel was slow to act (CL, 13:139).24 In the spring of 1842, Parliament once again refused to receive a Chartist petition, and that summer riots and disturbances spread throughout the country, even into his native Annandale (CL, 14:214). Carlyle concluded that England needed a "very different sort" of prime minister, "a new Oliver" (CL, 14:184; see 24, 39, 224).

In August, on the anniversary of Peterloo, Carlyle noted, there was a workers' insurrection in Manchester (Bliss, 152). Five days later, noting that the insurrection was still going on, he informed Jane Carlyle that he was "writing, writing; God knows at what precisely" (Bliss, 153). He had begun Past and Present.25 Determined to use the past to address the nation on the subject of this crisis, he abandoned Cromwell and the seventeenth century in favor of Abbot Samson and the twelfth. While visiting sites associated with Cromwell that autumn, he saw in the contrast between the St. Ives workhouse and the nearby ruins of the abbey of St. Edmund the relationship between past and present he had been seeking to illustrate.26 After trying to write about Cromwell for more than three years without success, he completed Past and Present, his most powerful piece of social criticism, in just a few months.

While the use of the past in Past and Present was to provide him with the vision of an alternative society that had been lacking in Chartism, Carlyle also needed to determine how to address his audience. By addressing existing political parties in Chartism, he had confined himself [104/105] to the factional politics of the present. In Past and Present he turned to England's ruling classes, the aristocratic landowners and middle-class industrialists themselves, rather than to the parties that represented them in Parliament. While Chartism sought to create radical Tories, Past and Present would attempt to transform wealthy industrialists into captains of industry.

This strategy evolved in dialogue with the critics of Chartism, particularly William Sewell in the Quarterly Review and Herman Merivale in the Edinburgh Review. Although Sewell and Carlyle had little in common, each found something to like about the other. Carlyle had little respect for Sewell's Pusey-inspired faith in the Church of England, but he preferred Sewell's belief in a dead religion to Merivale's radical "atheism" (CL, 12:282; see 292). For Carlyle, Merivale's insistence that government intervention could not eliminate hunger was tantamount to arguing that since "starvation and misery among the poorer classes is perpetual and eternal ... all good Government consists in uniting of the monied classes to keep down that one miserable class, and make the pigs die without squealing" (CL, 12:204; see 2o6, 264, 282, 291-92).28 Carlyle would borrow Sewell's theological discourse to counter the bloodless reasoning of Merivale's utilitarianism and to provide an ethical center for his analysis of contemporary society.

At the same time, Carlyle did not intend to address the Tories again; instead, he envisioned a governing class that would combine the hierarchical leadership and religious faith of the Tories with the Whig Radicals' industry and drive for reform. Rather than appealing to politicians, he would appeal to industrialists, demanding that they make principles of justice the foundation of their business practices: "we must have industrial barons, of a quite new suitable sort; workers loyally related to their taskmasters, related in God . . . not related in Mammon alone! This will be the real aristocracy" (CL, 13:317). Carlyle wrote this to James Garth Marshall of the Marshall family that had already been influenced by his writings and had attempted to implement some of his principles at Temple Mill. In Carlyle's letters to Marshall, which are clearly intended to inspire Marshall to become a captain of industry, we can see Carlyle beginning to envision the principal audience of Past and Present. In men like Marshall and the Quaker manufacturer mentioned in Chadwick's report for the Poor Law Commission, Carlyle thought he saw the "beginning of a real Industrial Baronhood" (CL, 13:325).29

In 1842 when he began Past and Present, Carlyle had every reason [105/106] to believe that his analyses and solutions would be taken seriously; his reputation had never been greater, and his authority was already being used to support calls for reform. The previous October, he learned that the editor of the Manchester Times had reprinted his description of the riots that had touched off the French Revolution as a "Plea for the Poor" (CL, 13:278). Later that autumn, in the conclusion of his essay on The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, he made his first public attempt to make the past speak to the present when he ironically compared the "divine right" of country squires — the staunchest defenders of the Corn Laws — to profit at the expense of the poor to the divine right of kings (CME, 4: 2 59) . The satirical passage was taken up by the newspapers and widely reprinted under the title "The Divine Right of Squires." Carlyle was clearly pleased that a "word of [his]" might "help to relieve the world from an unsupportable oppression" (CL, 14:7). He was also pleased when his sister asked if he were going to be made "king." Although he replied that there was no "danger" of that eventuality, he had, in fact, long enjoyed imagining what he 30 would do if "they were to make [him] Cromwell of it all" (CL, 14:47). He knew he could not be made king, but he could at least use his words to inspire another to become the new Cromwell.

Contents last modified 2001; reformatted 2006 & 2015