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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Of the much discussed Carlylian Gospel of Work


That

this wave will pass may be asserted with a fulness and calmness of assurance not to be surpassed in any similar case. Carlyle's influence during a great part of the second and the whole of the third quarter of this century was so enormous, his life was so prolonged, and the general tone of public thought and public policy which has prevailed since some time before his death has been so adverse to his temper, that the reaction which is all but inevitable in all cases was certain to be severe in his. And if this were a history of thought instead of being a history of the verbal expression of thought, it would be possible and interesting to explain this reaction, and to forecast the certain rebound from it. As it is, however, we have to do with Carlyle as a man of letters only; and if his position as the greatest English man of letters of the century in prose be disputed, it will generally be found that the opposition is due to some not strictly literary cause, while it is certain that any competitor who is set up can be dislodged by a fervent and well-equipped Carlylian without very much difficulty.

He has been classed here as a historian, and though the bulk of his work is very great and its apparent variety considerable, it will be found that history and her sister biography, even when his subjects bore an appearance of difference, always in reality engaged his attention. His three greatest books, containing more than half his work in bulk,--_The

French Revolution_, the _Cromwell_, and the _Frederick_,--are all openly and avowedly historical. The _Schiller_ and the _Sterling_ are biographies; the _Sartor Resartus_ a fantastic autobiography. Nearly all the _Essays_, even those which are most literary in subject--all the _Lectures on Heroes_, the greater part of _Past and Present_, _The Early Kings of Norway_, the _John Knox_, are more or less plainly and strictly historical or biographical. Even _Chartism_, the non-antique part of _Past and Present_, and the _Latter-Day Pamphlets_, deal with politics in the sense in which politics are the principal agent in making history, regard them constantly and almost solely in their actual or probable effect on the life-story of the nation, and to no small extent of its individual members. Out of the historic relation of nation or individual Carlyle would very rarely attempt to place, and hardly ever succeeded in placing, any thing or person. He could not in the least judge literature--of which he was so great a practitioner always, and sometimes so great a judge--from the point of view of form: he would have scorned to do so, and did scorn those who did so. His deficiencies in abstract philosophy, whether political, theological, metaphysical, or other, arise directly from this--that he could never contemplate any of these things as abstract, but only in the common conduct of men towards their fellows, towards themselves, and towards God. For Carlyle never "forgot God," though he might speak unadvisedly with his lips of other men's ways of remembering Him. The "human document," as later slang has it, was in effect the only thing that interested him; and he was content to employ it in constructing human history. More than once he put his idea of this history formally under a formal title. But his entire work is a much better exposition of that idea than these particular essays; and it is not easy to open any page of it in which the idea itself is not vividly illustrated and enforced upon the reader.

But once more, this is no place for even a summary, much less for a discussion, of the much discussed Carlylian "Gospel of Work"; of its apostle's less vague, but also less disputable, condemnations of shams and cants; or of the innumerable applications and uses to which he put these doctrines. The important thing for our purpose is that these applications took form in thirty volumes of the most brilliant, the most stimulating, the most varied, the most original work in English literature. The titles of this work have been given; to give here any notion of their contents would take the chapter. Carlyle could be--as in the _Cromwell_, where he sets himself and confines himself to the double task of elucidating his hero's rugged or crafty obscurities of speech and writing and of piecing them into a connected history, or where he wrestles with the huge accumulation of documents about Frederick--as practical as the driest of Dry-as-dusts. But others could equal, though few surpass him, in this. Where he stands alone is in a fantastic fertility of divagation and comment which is as much his own as the clear, neat directness of Macaulay is his. Much of it is due to his gospel, or temper, or whatever it is to be called, of earnest suasion to work and scornful denunciation of cant; something to his wide reading and apt faculty of illustration; but most to his style.


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