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objected that Shakespeare wrote poetry and dramas while Carlyle writes prose? I answer that, in the old Greek sense of poet—the maker—Carlyle is a poet, and further, that there is no reason whatever, in the nature of things, why a prose writer should not avail himself, as well as a poet, of all means to hand for expressing his shades of sentiment or opinion. It may be a question whether both Mr. Carlyle and Mr. Ruskin would not have done well to write in verse; but there is no question that, preferring the liberty of prose, they are entitled to make their prose as expressive as they can. If Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Carlyle ought to have written in metrical form, it is not because their powers of expression are too great for prose—no powers of expression could be that—but because their intellectual and emotional temperament is that of the poetic seer.
In the History of the French Revolution, the Lectures upon Heroes, and Past and Present, Carlyle's style reached its highest point of development, viewed merely as style. In the biographies of Cromwell and Frederick, his language was, perhaps, more skilfully adapted to the production of particular effects,—more keen, terse, and smiting. But his florid style—his style with the young man's fondness for colour and sound still traceable in it— reached its culmination in those works. During the period when they were written he is understood to have been much influenced by the language of Jean Paul Richter. Previously he had been more closely under the mastership of Lessing and Goethe, the trenchant vigour of the former delighting him for its strength, the silvery clearness, idiomatic pith, and most expressive, though quiet, intensity of the latter realising his ideal of what was classic in prose literature. But the exhaustless fancy, hanging, as, Carlyle himself says, a diamond upon every grass-blade, of Jean Paul, had also for him a great charm, and in Sartor Resartus, the French Revolution, and Past and Present, the Literary Style. 39
fact is abundantly attested. When I mention Richter, however, I must not be supposed to allege that his influence was powerful enough to depress Carlyle's originality. There is not a chapter of the French Revolution which looks in the slightest degree like the work of any man but its author. In reading Jean Paul, it is impossible, I think, not to feel that the colour is sometimes more important than the meaning, the embroidery more precious than the stuff; but the intellectual power of Carlyle is great enough to cause his most glowing similitudes to thrill with life. In describing the language of those books, you are forced to fall back on their author's resource of metaphor, and to say that it is now like the gleaming of swords, now like the rustle and glance of jewelled garments, now terrible as the lightning, now tender as the dew, now firm, close, rapid as the tread of armed men, now wildly and grandly vague as the voice of forests or the moaning of the sea.
Mr. Hutton, whose authority on a question of literary criticism I should place as high as that of any living man, observes, respecting a passage he has just quoted from Carlyle, that its style is " crowded with stress, and making the same kind of fatiguing impression on the mind which a band-writing sloped the wrong way makes on the eye,—an impression of strain and effort." Such " over-emphasis" is, he holds, "both exhausting and unnatural," being "too crowded for nature," and missing "the neutral tints which are absolutely essential to the harmony of poetry." Mr. Hutton, in making these remarks, is engaged primarily with Mr. Browning's verse, not with Mr. Carlyle's prose, and I am not sure that he would refuse to admit that a degree of emphasis objectionable in poetry, and sometimes objectionable even in prose, might be appropriate in some kinds of prose, and pre-eminently appropriate in the description of a French Revolution. But what I would call attention to is this,—that Carlyle, while compelled by his subject to use strong terms in order to reproduce, in literature, an agitation which must have been fatiguing, or indeed agonising in reality, was fully aware, as an artist, that undertones and neutral tints were necessary to a harmony in which the reigning tone was that of terror and of tragedy. Accordingly, amid the tumult and trampling of his style, he is careful to introduce touches of tenderness, glimpses of the peace of nature which is deeper than any raging of man, snatches from that still sad music of humanity which outlasts the clash of battles and the frenzied shrieks of revolution. "In the heart of the remotest mountains rises the little Kirk; the dead all slumbering round it, under their white memorial-stones, 'in the hope of a blessed resurrection.'" Is not that a tranquillising tone—a whisper of peace amid the storm? "0 evening sun of July," he exclaims at the moment when his reader shudders at the spectacle of Paris on the evening of the fall of the Bastille, "how, at this hour, thy beams fall slant on reapers amid peaceful woody fields; on old women spinning in cottages; on ships far out in the silent main, . . . and also on this roaring hell-porch of a Hotel de Ville!" I may remark, in passing, that the author of Philochristus, consciously or unconsciously, follows Mr. Carlyle in this habit of mingling colours of the dawn with his hues of earthquake and eclipse. We are taken out by him into the silence and sunshine of the pastoral hills about Jerusalem, and shown a shepherd-boy tending his sheep, at the very moment when the crime of the crucifixion is blackening the earth.
On one other point I must say a word before leaving the History of the French Revolution, namely, its humour. To omit mention of this were to neglect to specify one of its most characteristic features. But it is difficult to describe —in fact, it is indescribable to any one who has not become acquainted with it in the book itself. To some it may seem Humour. 41
altogether offensive to associate any kind of mirth with such a subject; and I confess that the mood of scornful pity, of half-sneering sympathy, of admiration dashed with derision, and gravity varied with peals of laughter, in which the fearful tale is told, has sometimes struck me as scarcely human. But we ought to recollect that never perhaps in the history of man were the sublime of anguish and terror, and the ridiculous of imbecility, fanfaronade and pretentious foolery of all kinds, so wildly and inextricably mixed up as in the French Revolution. Some of its incidents, as the Insurrection of Women, were in themselves grotesquely humorous. Into human life in general the absurd enters largely, and no writer who has not an eye for it will truly depict life on the historical scale. It was Professor Wilson, one of the kindest-hearted of men, who said that, if we grant Wordsworth that there are things too deep for tears, we may firmly allege that there is nothing too deep for laughter. The gloom of such occurrences as the French Revolution would become oppressive and intolerable in literary delineation unless relieved by some coruscations of mirth. Mr. Ruskin, commenting on Turner's drawing of soldiers about to begin climbing the hill to their Winchelsea barracks under the lashing rain of a thunderstorm, says that the artist was "partly laughing the strange half-cruel, half-sorrowful laugh that we wonder at, also, so often in Bewick." Few things in art have ever impressed me more painfully than Bewick's apprehension of—for I cannot believe him to have had any sympathy with—that most purely diabolical of all the elements of human nature, pleasure derived from cruelty,— apprehension of it, I say, and use of it as a source of interest in his etchings; but I have never discovered even a "halfcruel" laugh in Turner: and grim, almost uncanny, as is the humour of Carlyle in the History of the French Revolution, there is no cruelty in it. I could not say the same of the humour in the Life of Frederick; but as yet Carlyle's mind was thoroughly genial and sunny, full of pity and affection, finding more in the misery of the wicked and the foolish to weep for than in their crimes or errors to curse at.
The humour of the History of the French Revolution is more akin to that of Hamlet when he jests with the ghost— a humour not inconsistent with earnestness—nay, to all appearance, dependent upon an almost spasmodic, almost maniacal, tension of brain. Carlyle's humour recalls Shakespeare's in another aspect. There is not, so far as I know, any parallel in literature to the indifference or the unconsciousness with which these two allow their most pathetic or sublime passages to be associated with some triviality or absurdity. Shakespeare is absolutely incapable of resisting the temptation to pun or otherwise play upon words. No matter what he has in hand. He makes Laertes pun upon the water that drowned his sister Ophelia; Edgar upon the "bleeding rings " of his blinded father's eyes ; Lady Macbeth upon the bloodstain with which, under the fixed eyes of murdered Duncan, she gilds the features of the sleeping grooms in proof of their guilt. Carlyle is not quite so inveterate a punster, but he occasionally perpetrates an atrocious pun, and he is equally incapable of resisting the temptation to make a joke. He speaks somewhere of a scapegrace failing to reach the goal of a noble life, and arriving "by a fatal inversion," at the "Queen's Bench gaol." A worse pun than that does not fall within the possibilities of human invention. In the concluding passage of his Life and Letters of Cromwell, in the last paragraph of the incomparable chapter which relates the death of Oliver, he places the England of his own time in contrast with England as portrayed by Milton in the following words :—" The genius of England no longer soars sunward, world-defiant, like an eagle through the storms, 1 mewing her mighty youth,' as John Milton saw her do: