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Carlyle's French Revolution

From the Boston Quarterly Review for October, 1838

“What induced Thomas Carlyle to select such a subject as the French Revolution?”  we have heard asked by those who,  having read only the “Sartor Resartus,” think him a poetical mystic.  “Did he write it for bread, or from sympathy for that social movement?”  To those who know him it is plain enough that our good friend, however pinched by want, could not let out his mind to do job-work.  His Pegasus would break down at the plough.  Carlyle’s work is always, must always be, in what he does. 

He selected this subject, then, because to him there came a voice out of the chaos, we may be sure.  But further, to anyone who will review his literary course, the explanation will be clear enough of his interest in that ruin and re-creation of a social world.  The gradual progress of his studies through Voltaire and Diderot, led him to the observation of this unparalleled phenomenon.  But his taste, his instinct guided him also.  Like his master Goethe, he has always been hunting for “a bit of Nature.”  Whether he is writing of Burns or Richter, of Novalis or Elliott, of the Spirit of the Age or its Characteristics, or, finally, of Mirabeau, he everywhere shows the same longing after the genuine product of Nature.  Hypocrisy, however self-deceived and respectable, is his horror, and is greeted with nothing more civil than an “anathema marantha.”  This is his “fixed idea,” his creed;  and he clings to it with an unquestioning bigotry.  Yes! bigotry;- for noble as the creed is, it is yet a creed; and, though he might deny it, a “formula;” and his range of sympathy, his candor of judgment, and even truth of moral sentiment are narrowed by this notion.  In consequence he is prejudiced.  He trusts to his first impressions.  He casts his eye on a man with cutting penetration, and is satisfied that he knows him.  He takes him by the arm, and by the feeling of the iron or flabby muscles judges instantly of his vigor.  Truly he seems seldom much deceived by this instinctive love of nature.  Shams vanish before his glance, as gauze would in the fire.  Yet even this love of nature seems to us a kind of cant after all.  But we check ourselves; we do not like to say even thus much in the way of fault-finding with one of the truest, honestest of critics and of men.

Our student of nature had already picked up rare specimens here and there as he found them; and now at last has arrived at this grand volcanic outbreak, and sits down amid mighty heaps of most indisputable genuineness, to learn what is in man.  And truly he is nowise repelled by stench of sulphur and dreads not burns.  But there was another reason for the study of the French Revolution.  Carlyle loves man, loves the men he lives among.  He is not indifferent to the temper of his own age, and thinking it, in its philosophy and professed maxims, a peculiarly mechanical, self-conscious, and artificial one, he cannot but obey the inward behest to sound his prophecy in men’s ears, whether his fate be Cassandra’s or not.  He doubtless feels as if a sick generation needed a sanative; and what better than the pure crystal of natural feeling?  His text is certainly a healthy one, and his homilies have a freshness, as if he had dipped with a leaf from the bubbling spring.  In a word, our author probably anticipates, as many others do, that the matchless British constitution may be rent asunder by some larger growth of the social germ; and meanwhile, he may think it would be well for us not to hinder, but to aid, as we can, the process.

Carlyle, we feel sure, has dropped all conventional spectacles, and opened his eyes to the true characteristics of our times,- which is, that the “better sort” are being elbowed more and more for room by the “poorer sort,” as they step forward to gather a share of the manna on life’s wilderness.  Perhaps he thinks it high time, that they who are clad in decencies and good manners should busy themselves in teaching their brother “sans-culottes” to wear suitable garments.  We believe, then, that our author was led to a study and history of the French Revolution, because he saw it illustrating in such characters of fire the irrepressible instinct of all men to assert and exercise their natural rights; - and the absolute necessity which there is, therefore, that man’s essential equality with man should be recognized.

Mr. Carlyle has evidently done his work like a man.  He appears to have read most voraciously, and sifted most scrupulously.  And when one thinks of the multifarious mass which he must have digested in the process of composition, we cannot but equally admire his sagacity, and respect his faithfulness.  Add the consideration, that the first volume, when fully prepared, was by an unfortunate accident destroyed; and that the author, without copy or plan, was thus forced to tread over when jaded the path he had climbed in the first flush of untried adventure; and that yet with this additional labor he has only been occupied by some two years and more upon the book, and our estimate of his ability, his genius, his energy, cannot but be great.

And now what has he produced?  A history?  Theirs, Mignet, Guizot forbid!  We ourselves call this French Revolution an epic poem; or, rather say the root, trunk, and branches of such a poem, not yet fully clothed with rhythm and melody indeed, but still hanging out its tassels and budding on the sprays.  And here, by the way, may it not be asked whether Carlyle is not emphatically the English poet of our epoch?  Is he not Shelley and Wordworth combined, and greater than either?  Thus far indeed we have seen this luminary in a critical phase chiefly.  But is it not because he has read, in the life of the men he has apotheosized, true poems, incarnations of that ideal he worshipped?  It seems to us an accident, that prose and criticism, not odes and positive life, have been his vein.  Had he but form and tune, what a poet is there!  This book we say is a poem, the most remarkable of our time.  It is not like a written book; it is rather like the running soliloquy of some wonderfully living and life-giving mind, as it reads a “good formula” of history; - a sort of resurrection at the dry bones of fact at the word of the prophet.  Marvelous indeed!  It seems as if, in some camera-obscura, one was looking upon the actual world and sky and moving forms, though all silent in that show-box.  Of all books this is most graphic.  It is a series of masterly outlines a la Retzch.  Oh more, much more.  It is a whole Sistine Chapel of fresco a la Angelo, drawn with bold hand in bright lights and deep shadows.  Yet again it is gallery upon gallery of portraits, touched with the free grace of Vandyke, glowing with Tatian’s living dyes, and shining and gloomed in Rembrandt’s golden haze.  And once more, let us say in our attempt to describe this unique production, it is a seer’s second sight of the past.  We speak of prophetic vision.  This is a historic vision, where events rise not as thin abstractions, but as visible embodiments; and the ghosts of a buried generation pass before us, summoned to react in silent pantomime their noisy life.

The point of view, from which Carlyle has written his history, is one which few men strive to gain, and which fewer still are competent to reach.  He has looked upon the French Revolution, not as a man of one nation surveys the public deeds of another; nor as a man of one age reviews the vicissitudes of a time gone by.  Still less has he reviewed it as a religionist, from the cold heights, where he awaits his hour of translation, throws pitying regards on the bustling vanities of earth; or as a philanthropist, from his inflated theory of life, spies out, while he soars, the battle of ideas.  And it is not either in the passionless and pure and patient watching, with which a spirit, whose faith has passed into knowledge, awaits the harmonious unfolding of heaven’s purposes, that he has sent his gaze upon that social movement.  But it is a human spirit, that Carlyle has endeavored to enter into the conscious purposes, the unconscious strivings of human spirits; with wonder and awe at the mighty forces which work so peacefully, yet burst out so madly in one and at all times.  He has set him down before this terrible display of human energy, as at a mighty chasm which revealed the inner deeps of man, where gigantic passions heave and stir under mountains of custom; while free-will, attracted to move around the center of holiness, binds their elements of discord into a habitable world.  As a man Carlyle would study man.  It is as if he were ever murmuring to himself: “ Sons of Adam, daughters of Eve, what are ye? Angels ye plainly are not.  Demons truth cannot call you.  Strange angelic-demoniac beings, on!  On! Never fear!  Something will come of you.”  Carlyle does not pretend to fathom man.  His plummet sinks below soundings.  We do not know a writer, who so unaffectedly expresses his wonder at the mystery of man.  Now this appears to us a peculiar and a novel point of view, and a far higher one than that of the “progress of the human race.”  Not that he does not admit progress.  The poor quibbles of those, who see in one age only the transmigration of the past, do not bewilder him.  But he feels how little we can know, and do know, of this marvelous human race,- in their springs, and tendencies, and issues.  This awe of man blends beautifully with reverence for Providence.  There is no unconscious law of fate, no wild chance to him, but ever brightening “aurora splendors” of divine love.  Enough, however, of this point of view.  We will but add that its effect is to give the most conscientious desire of seeing things exactly as they are, and describing them with scrupulous truth.  Hence we suppose his intense effort to transfuse his soul, and animate the very eyes and ears of the men, who lived in that stormy time, and mingle up his whole being with theirs.  Hence, too, the pictorial statement of what he gathers by that experience; and hence, in fine, a mode of historical composition, wholly original, which must revolutionize the old modes of historicising, so “stale, flat, and unprofitable” do theories and affected clearness appear, after we have once seen this flash of truth’s sunlight into the dark cave of the buried years.

Of the spirit in which this book is written, we would say that it breathes throughout the truest, deepest sympathy with man.  Wholly free from the cant, which would whine, and slap its breast, and wring its hands, saint-like, over the weaknesses, which the canter is full of,- it yet is strict in its code of right.  Most strict indeed, though somewhat peculiar.  It is not the proper or decorous, which he prizes, but it is the true.  And of all writers he is the most unflinching  in his castigations of pretence.  He never flatters, he never minces; but yet he speaks his hard truth lovingly, and with an eye of hope.  He does not spare men, because he sees more life in them than they wrote of.  While he says to the moral paralytic, “sin no more, lest a worse thing befall thee,” he adds, “rise, take up thy bed, and walk.”  He is kind, and pitiful, and tolerant of weakness, if it only does not affect to seem what it is not, and paint the livid cheek with mock hues of health.  This leads us to say a word of his irony and humor, and he is full of both, though chiefly of the latter.  No man has a keener eye for incongruities.  It is not the feebleness of men, or the smallness of their achievements, which excites his mirth;- for where there is humbleness in the aspiration, he is of all most ready to see the Psyche in the crawling worm.  But what appears to him so droll is the complacence and boastfulness, with which crowds build their Babel to climb to heaven, and the shouts of “glory” with which they put on the cap-stone, when their tower is after all so very far beneath the clouds.  He loves so truly what is good in man, that he can afford to laugh at his meannesses.  His respect for the essential and genuine grows with his success in exposing the artificial.  Under the quaint puffings and paddings of “vanity fair,” he does really see living men.  He joins in the carnival.  He looks upon it as a masquerade, and it is with real frolic that he snatches off  the false nose or the reverend beard, and shows the real features of the dolt who would pass for a Solomon.  He evidently does enjoy a practical joke on primness.  But if he would, like the doctor in the tale, make his gouty patient hop on the heated floor, it is only for his cure.  Carlyle seems to us full of true benevolence.  He loves everything but insincerity.  This he cannot abide.  It is the very devil, and he has but one word, Apage, Satana.  He stands among the Pharisees with the indignant words bursting from his heart, “Ye Hypocrites.”  In this relation it is too true that our friend is nowise angelic, but only too much a man.  His contempt is too bitter.  We do not readily tolerate in a frail mortal the scornful mirth with which Carlyle sometimes shows us the cloven hoof under the surplice.  Not that the indignation is not merited.  But is a man ever pure enough from all taint of falsehood himself, thus to wield the spear of Michael against the dragon?  Yet honor to this brave and true man.  It is because he has struggled so hard, and withal so well, to disentangle himself from the last thread of cant, that he has so little patience with the poor flies yet buzzing in the web.  This loathing of the formal, which a vigorous nature and a bold effort have freed him from, is, we take it, the true and very simple explanation of that occasional rudeness, and even levity, with which, it must be confessed, he speaks of so-called worshippers and worship.

And this introduces us to a consideration of his religious spirit.  Some perhaps would say, that Carlyle’s writings are not baptized into that “spirit of adoption which cries, Abba, Father.”  But to us no writings are more truly reverential.  It surely is from no want of faith in the fullness of divine love, from no insensibility as to the nearness of almighty aid, from no doubt as to the destiny of the soul, and its responsibilities and perils, that he uses so little of the technical and prescribed language of piety.  Oh, how far, far from it!  But he will not name the Unnamable.  He will not express more than he feels, or desecrate by familiarity what he does feel, yet knows not how adequately to utter.  His sense is so abiding of  our present imperfect development, his hope is so vast in that good which Providence has in store in its slow but harmonious processes, that he will not “enter the kingdom of God by violence.”  To him the Infinite is ever present.  That holy and eternal life is his life,- the soul of his soul,- the love of his love,- the wisdom of his wisdom,- the power of his power- the Father.  But he strives not so much to look upon the dazzling glory of this of this central source, whence all of  good and fair streams forth;- rather with lowly eyes would he drink in the beauty rayed abroad from each object which its light vivifies and hallows.  He would worship in the longing to be true and pure, in the dutifulness, the cheerfulness, the humble joy, the patience, and the charities of daily life.  His devotedness should be his devoutness; his joy should be his thanks; his progress his confessions; his hopeful energy his prayer; and his offering of the first fruits a full developed, genial healthiness of nature.

But it would carry us too far to say the half of what we feel about this noble soul, whom we love, not for being the “healthiest of men,” for that he is not; but for the pure instinct and reposing confidence, with which being sick, as the most are, he gives himself up to the “mighty mother,” to be nursed on her bosom.

With a few words on his style, we must bid Mr. Carlyle for the present farewell, only hoping for that rich fruitage of his autumn years of which this summer flush is the promise.  Of his latter writings it would not be far from the truth to say that we like them, not by reason of the style, but in spite of them.  They are so savagely uncouth by the side of his former classic gracefulness.  It is a savage crowned with ivy though, and crushing luscious grapes as he dances.  But the Life of Schiller and the early essays had all this naked strength and free play of movement, and yet were decent.  They wore their garland of imagery like a festive wreath; and though bright and cheerful, with the melody of pipes, they had no lawless friskiness.  He has always been remarkable for the picturesqueness of the metaphors which clothed his thoughts.  But the growth of the symbolic has become ranker and ranker, until, in this last book, the very trees in full foliage are fringed with mosses.  It seems as if the axis of his mind  had shifted, and the regions of fancy had been brought from the temperate zone beneath the tropics, and hidden germs were bursting prodigally into life.  With this teeming fruitfulness and gorgeous wealth we associate the thought of miasm and disease.  One feature of his style, though, we do not like much, it is its freedom, its conversational directness, its point and spirit, its infinite variety.  How far preferable to the dandy precision of so-called elegant styles, and to the solemn dryness of so-called clear styles!  It is a delusion, however, that something of that old bewitching melody of his earlier speech has been sacrificed?  There is less to our ear of that rhythm which used to charm us, of that sound and sweep like the bursting of long-swelling billows on the broad beach.  But we have no notion meanwhile that there is any degeneracy in the artist.  We believe that there has been a progress even.  We think this present style a transition one.  It is a struggling for some adequate utterance, for some word of power which should open the deaf ear; for we must remember his countrymen have been deaf comparatively, and perhaps for the want of some free, hearty speech, less prim than suited the scholar’s garb.  Will not  this Apollo find one day the murmuring shell?  Some, wiser than we pretend to be, settle this matter of style summarily.  They will have it that Mr. Carlyle is “affected.”  We commend to all such for candid consideration these few sentences of his own. “Affectation is a cheap word and of sovereign potency, and should not be rashly applied.  Its essence is that it is assumed; the character is, as it were, forcibly crushed into some foreign mould, in the hope of being thereby re-shaped and beautified; the unhappy man persuades himself that he is in truth a new and wonderfully engaging creature, and so he moves about with a conscious air, though every movement betrays not symmetry, but dislocation.  This is to be affected, to walk in vain show.  But the strangeness alone is no proof of vanity.  Many men who move smoothly in the old established railways of custom will be found to have their affectation; and perhaps here and there some divergent genius be accused of it unjustly.  The show, though common, may not cease to be vain; nor become so for being uncommon.  Before we censure a man for seeming what he is not, we should be sure that we know what he is.”