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the genius of England, much liker a greedy ostrich intent on provender and a whole skin mainly, stands with its other extremity sunward ; with its ostrich-head stuck into the readiest bush, of old church-tippets, king-cloaks, or what other 'sheltering fallacy' there may be, and so awaits the issue. The issue has been slow; but it is now seen to have been inevitable. No ostrich, intent on gross terrene provender, and sticking its head into fallacies, but will be awakened one day, in a terrible à posteriori manner, if not otherwise.” You see how the idea strikes him, lays hold of him, moves him to peal after peal of wild, sad laughter, will not leave him till he has worked it out from the sticking of the ostrich-head into the bush to the awakening of the bird under the birch-rods of destiny.
I cannot refrain from quoting another example of Carlyle's humour from the History of the French Revolution. “Sovereigns die and sovereignties : how all dies, and is for a time only; is a 'time-phantasm,' yet reckons itself real ! The Merovingian kings, slowly wending on their bullockcarts through the streets of Paris, with their long hair flowing, have all wended slowly on-into eternity. Charlemagne sleeps at Salzburg, with truncheon grounded; only fable expecting that he will awaken. Charles the Hammer, Pepin bow-legged, where now is their eye of menace, their voice of command ? Rollo and his shaggy Northmen cover not the Seine with ships; but have sailed off on a longer voyage. The hair of Tow-head (Tête d'étoupes) now needs no combing; Iron-cutter (Taillefer) cannot cut a cobweb; shrill Fredegonda, shrill Brunhilda have had out their hot life-scold, and lie silent, their hot life-frenzy cooled.” Here he starts with the most solemn of all subjects, the great mysteries of time, and death, and eternity. The picture, so intensely real, with its bullock-carts, and streets of Paris, and long-haired kings, and so purely ideal in the “ wending on” of these into eternity, is humorous to begin with; and so soon as the odd names of the Merovingians occur to him, the sense of fun gets complete possession of his mind, and he must tell us that Tow-head's hair now “needs no combing,” and Iron-cutter “cannot cut a cobweb.” Evidently, before he reached this point, his sides were shaking, and there is no reason to doubt that Carlyle writes as he talks, with perpetual dramatic sympathy, and with intermittent bursts of laughter.
In the last extract the sense of mystery is seen associated with the sense of fun. The reader of Sartor Resartus need not be reminded that a feeling of the mystery of things is one of Mr. Carlyle's deepest characteristics. Here again, very notably, he resembles Shakespeare. It is the mystery of common things, of facts quite on the surface, that oppresses both these miraculous men. The old, old tale that we ripe and ripe, and then rot and rot—that we fat all things to fat ourselves, and fat ourselves for worms—that we are such things as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep-strikes Shakespeare and Carlyle as inexpressibly wonderful. Shakespeare, the greater and perhaps fundamentally the more earnest of the two, contemplates the mystery oftenest with reference to the future. He thinks of the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns, of the dreams that may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil. Carlyle's sense of wonder dwells more on the past. That any man or thing was for a time visible, and then was “swallowed” of darkness, interests him without end. If Friar Bacon's brass head, in Greene's comedy, had spoken to him, he certainly would not have let it crack from want of respectful appreciation of its remarks, "time is” and “time was.” Most people, however, agree with the simple-minded watcher that, if the head really had nothing more original or important to say than this, it was not worth while to waken his overworn master to hear it; and to those who
The French Revolution.
have not Carlyle's sense of wonder, and are destitute of humour, his perpetual amazement at, and frequent specification of, the fact that the Merovingian kings, the builders of Stonehenge, and our ancestors in general, were once extremely alive, and are now perfectly dead, is apt to seem sheer ineptitude. But this is a shallow account of the matter. If the obviousness of facts is to neutralise their wonderfulness, Hamlet's moralising on the skull of Yorick will come under the imputation of platitude.
It has been objected to the History of the French Revolution that one may read it without obtaining any definite idea of the chronological sequence of events—without obtaining, in one word, the kind of acquaintance with the French Revolution which would be useful in a competitive examination. It is, I admit, advisable for one who knows nothing of recent French history to read some other account of the Revolution before taking up Carlyle's. But with careful reading and careful meditating, all the main facts of the business, linked together in chronological and even in organic sequence, are found to be in the book itself. While we read, no doubt, we are apt to overlook dates and other specifications, just as in any exciting crisis we are apt to overlook the lapse of time ; but the dates are given ; and as we rehearse the whole in memory–Bastille, Constitution, Guillotine—we feel that we have not a less, but a more correct idea of the whole affair than we could have derived from a common-place history. You do not really learn what kind of thing an eruption of Vesuvius is by being told that at 2 a.m. the lava overflowed the crater, at 1 p.m. it had reached a neighbouring valley, at 6 p.m. so many tons of ashes had fallen; you must see it in the work of some painter or some poet, who can show you the mountain's blaze as it reddens the heavens and incarnadines the sea. Statistical history cannot describe a French Revolution. “So soon,” says Carlyle, “as history can philosophically
delineate the conflagration of a kindled fire-ship, she may try this other task. Here lay the bitumen-stratum, there the brimstone one; so ran the vein of gunpowder, of nitre, terebinth, and foul grease : this, were she inquisitive enough, history might partly know. But how they acted and re-acted below decks, one fire-stratum playing into the other, by nature and the art of man, now when all hands ran raging, and the flames lashed high over shrouds and topmast: this let not history attempt. The fire-ship is old France, the old French form of life; her crew a generation of men. Wild are their cries and their ragings there, like spirits tormented in that flame." Still more expressive, if possible, is the similitude with which Carlyle helps us to realise the paroxysms of the Revolution—that of winds raising the sands of the desert, and whirling them round and round in Sahara-waltz. Exactly such an ambient atmosphere of gloom, of heat, of wild haste, of terror, enveloped the twenty-five millions who whirled round in the delirium of the Revolution. A grander, more apt, or more impressive similitude does not exist in literature.
Such is this great and memorable Book. It is not without its defects; but be they what they may, it is among the Mont Blancs and Kanchinjingas of the literature of the world.
TN the interval between the French Revolution and Past T and Present, Carlyle gave to the world his short treatise on Chartism and his Lectures on Heroes and Heroworship. The former is remarkable for the bold sympathy it evinces with the working classes, and the enthusiasm of admiring hope with which it contemplates the industrial outbursts occasioned by the great mechanical inventions and appliances of the early part of the present century. Carlyle seems as yet to have had no serious misgiving as to the effect of mechanical development in depressing the spiritual energy of the nation. The awakening of a great manufacturing city to the industry of a new day, its ten thousand spindles going off “ like the boom of an Atlantic tide,” was still regarded by him as sublime. The victory of rectitude and excellence over Mammon and brute force he exultingly expected, and to those who shook the head and spoke of the problem of elevating the masses as insoluble, he administered rebukes like this :
THE WORD “IMPOSSIBLE.” It is not a lucky word this same impossible : no good comes of those who have it so often in their mouth. Who is he that says always, There is a lion in the way ? Sluggard, thou must slay the lion then; the way has to be travelled ! In art, in practice, innumerable critics will demonstrate that most things are henceforth impossible; that we are got, once for all, into the region of perennial common-place, and must contentedly continue there. Let such critics demonstrate; it is the nature of them :