Thursday, January 7, 2021

Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship

"On all sides, are we not driven to the conclusion that, of the things which man can do or make here below, by far the most momentous, wonderful and worthy are the the things we call Books! Those poor bits of rag-paper with black ink on them;--from the Daily Newspaper to the sacred Hebrew Book, what have they not done, what are they not doing!" [From the lecture on the Man of Letters, p. 164 in my edition]

As a book-person, I can forgive Carlyle quite a lot given this praise, this enthusiasm, so extravagantly expressed, for books. And indeed, there are only two things for which one might need to forgive Carlyle. It's just that they are: the form and the content!

On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History is based on a series of lectures Carlyle gave in London over three weeks, on Tuesdays and Fridays, in May of 1840. It comes early, but not at the beginning of his career; his one novel, Sartor Resartus, is by then six years old; his history of the French Revolution had come out three years earlier. He had given educational public lectures before, but this is the first set he published. Carl Niemeyer, who wrote the introduction to my volume, says the lectures must have been rewritten after they were given. We know that the lectures lasted an hour when he gave them, but read these aloud and they take well over an hour. It was a format he found congenial; several of his later books were given first as lectures and then published.

The Form

Ah, the Carlylean style. Here's another example, also from the Man of Letters lecture, ostensibly describing Samuel Johnson's prose style: [p.183]

"They are sincere words, those of his; he means things by them. A wondrous buckram style,--the best he could get to then; a measured grandiloquence, stepping or rather stalking along in a very solemn way, grown obsolete now; sometimes a tumid size of phraseology not in proportion to the contents of it: all this you will put-up with. For the phraseology, tumid or not, has always something within it."

One may wonder, though, do I see Johnson's style here described or do I see Carlyle's? Well, Carlyle means things by his words, and sincerity is a great watchword with him. Buckram is stiff and a little coarse in his weave. Hmm. There's grandiloquence to be sure, and well, perhaps the prose is just a little swollen in its phraseology. Maybe it's a style you can put-up with. But still it does always have something in it... 😉

I don't know. The prose might drive you mad, of course, but I find it entertaining in its extravagance. It takes a little getting used to, but is not difficult after that. Granted, it is extreme, even compared to how we otherwise perceive Victorian prose. Still an influential prose style. I've been thinking about returning to Carlyle since reading Moby-Dick a year ago.

The prose is a bit catching, though, a thing to be watched out for. I'm no minimalist, but in writing this I see semi-colons, colons, exclamation marks, an apostrophizing ah, neologisms, italicizing words for emphasis. I fear I might even resort to the dreaded semi-colon-dash;--a thing, a thing of terror to grammarian purists, a thing no longer approved, no longer recommended, perhaps, no longer even allowed!

Heh. And it's not just nowadays we recognize the danger (though maybe also the fun): even the arch-Victorian Matthew Arnold said, 'Flee Carlylese as the very devil!'*

The Content

I started reading this book once before, but punted on it. I don't really remember why, and since, as I do occasionally with abandoned books, I had stripped the bookmark from it, for reuse, I also don't know where. But for the reasons given above, I doubt it was the style. I love Sartor Resartus and have read it a few times; I enjoyed Carlyle's book on the French Revolution and weirdly have its epilogue nearly memorized. ('Toilsome was our journeying together.') Carlyle's form--in measured doses--works for me.

No, I'm pretty sure it was the content. While I don't mind celebrating excellence, I'm pretty allergic to the worship of Great Men (and such worship is nearly always--as it is here--men.) Carlyle is not a systematic thinker--and that's a good thing--because if he had a system, he would talk himself out of his own occasional good instincts. 

The great men in this are divided into six categories, as Divinity--Odin; as Prophet--Mohammad; as Poet--Dante and Shakespeare; as Priest--Luther and Knox; as Man of Letters--Samuel Johnson, but also Robert Burns; and as King--Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon. You may wonder about Odin, but Carlyle adheres to a euhemerizing read of the Heimskringla, and thinks Odin was a real person before he was a god.

Niemeyer observes in his introduction that for Carlyle all of these figures are men who started with little or nothing and made good by their hard work and native genius, that even the 'kings' started from nothing. I also add, for a Victorian and a protestant Scot, he's surprisingly tolerant of the Catholic Dante, and even the Muslim Mohammad. 

But those are the good moments. He's not generally tolerant. His approval of theocracy; his willingness to allow law to be subverted in the interest of great men is hard to swallow, especially after yesterday's events. "He was ready to glorify every historic vagabond!" wrote Henry James, Sr. You'd like to think he would see through some of the bad ones, but you just can't be sure. Reading it led to me write out a bunch of notes: p.62, wrong! p.99, horrible! But I won't reproduce them here.

So, though this is probably his most famous work, I might recommend Sartor Resartus, the story of Herr Teufelsdrockh, Professor of Clothes, instead...

This was the last book of 2020 for me. On to the new year!


*From Frederic Harrison's Studies in Early Victorian Literature (1896):

"Carlyle, if not the greatest prose master of our age, must be held to be, by virtue of his genius and mass of stroke, the literary dictator of Victorian prose. And, though we all know how wantonly he misused his mighty gift, though no one now would venture to imitate him even at a distance, and though Matthew Arnold was ever taking up his parable--'Flee Carlylese as the very devil!'--we are sliding into Carlylese unconsciously from time to time,..."

With that triple anaphora on 'though' and setting off Arnold's quote with dashes, I suspect Harrison was quite consciously sliding into Carlylese. Anyhoo I know I've read that line of Matthew Arnold's somewhere before, but in googling (well, really, Duckduckgo-ing) this was the only source for it I could find. Maybe it's the earliest mention of something Arnold said in conversation regularly? I would be curious though to know if it appears somewhere in Arnold's own writing.


  1. Google and JSTOR both have On Heroes as Carlyle's fourth most famous book, which sounds right to me.

    Carlyle was a huge eye-opener to me, reading beyond Sartor Resartus. Many subsequent works by other people made a lot more sense. Hard Times and Walden for example.

    1. Yeah, Carlyle is big, bigger than is generally realized these days. It was actually French Revolution first for me, a long time ago now, well before I read either Hard Times or Walden, e.g.

      Of course he's irritating. I was actually doing pretty well with him this time, and then working on the post over a couple days, I planned on finishing it on Wednesday, but then s**t happened, and by the time I finished it yesterday, I was feeling a bit grumpy...

  2. admittedly i haven't read much C, but what i've seen has been pretty maddening... i recall thinking that he was being sarcastic for a while; my brain isn't big enough to handle all the words and to actually see if he's really saying something at the same time... maybe after i grow up...

    1. He is pretty maddening, though I do think you can get past the prose style pretty easily. The rest of it, I don't know...