Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches . . .

THE LETTERS AND SPEECHES OF OLIVER CROMWELL; By THOMAS CARLYLE; In two volumes—vol. I. Nos. XXXIX. and XL. of Wiley & Putnam’s Library of Choice Reading. New-York, 1845.

  A long expectation is awarded at last by the appearance of this book. We cannot wonder that it should have been long, when Mr. Carlyle shows us what a world of ill-arranged and almost worthless materials he has had to wade through before achieving any possibility of order and harmony for his narrative.

  The method which he has chosen of letting the letters and speeches of Cromwell tell the story when possible, only himself doing what is needful to throw light where it is most wanted and fill up gaps, is an excellent one. Mr. Carlyle, indeed, is a most peremptory showman, and with each slide of his magic lantern informs us not only of what is necessary to enable us to understand it, but how we must look at it, under peril of being ranked as Imbeciles, Canting sceptics, disgusting Rose-water Philanthropists, and the like. And aware of his power of tacking a nickname or ludicrous picture to any one who refuses to obey, we might perhaps feel ourselves, if in his neighborhood, under such constraint and fear of deadly laughter, as to lose the benefit of having under our eye to form our judgment upon the same materials on which he formed his.

  But the ocean separates us, and the showman has his own audience of despised victims or scarce less despised pupils, and we need not fear to be handed down to posterity as “a little gentleman in a gray coat” “shrieking” unutterable “imbecilities” or with the like damnatory affixes, when we profess that, having read the book, and read the letters and speeches thus far, we cannot submit to the showman’s explanation of the lantern, but must more than ever stick to the old “Philistine” “Dilettant” “Imbecile” and what not view of the character of Cromwell.

  We all know that to Mr. Carlyle Greatness is well nigh synonymous with Virtue, and that he has shown himself a firm believer in Providence by receiving the men of Destiny as always entitled to reverence. Sometimes a great success has followed the portraits painted by him in the light of such faith, as with Mahomet, for instance. The natural autocrat is his delight, and in such pictures as that of the Monk in “Past and Present,” where the genius of artist and subject coincide, the result is no less delightful for us.

  But Mr. Carlyle reminds us of the man in a certain parish who had always looked up to one of its squires as a secure and blameless idol, and one day in church when the minister asked “all who felt in concern for their souls to rise,” looked to the idol and seeing him retain his seat (asleep perchance!) sat still also. One of his friends asking him afterward how he could refuse to answer such an appeal, he replied, “he thought it safest to stay with the Squire.”

  Mr. Carlyle’s Squires are all Heaven’s Justices of Peace or War (usually the latter); they are beings of true energy and genius, and so far as he describes them, “genuine men.” But in doubtful cases, where the doubt is between them and principles, he will insist that the men must be in the right. On such occasions he favors us with such doctrine as the following, which we confess we had the weakness to read with “sibylline execration” and extreme disgust.

  Speaking of Cromwell’s course in Ireland:

  “Oliver’s proceedings here have been the theme of much loud criticism, sibylline execration; into which it is not our plan to enter at present. We shall give these Fifteen Letters of his in a mass, and without any commentary whatever. To those who think that a land overrun with Sanguinary Quacks can be healed by sprinkling it with rose-water, these Letters must be very horrible. Terrible Surgery this; but is it Surgery and Judgment, or atrocious Murder merely? This is a question which should be asked: and answered. Oliver Cromwell did believe in God’s judgments; and did not believe in the rose-water plan of Surgery;—which, in fact, is this Editor’s case too! Every idle lie and piece of empty bluster this Editor hears, he too, like Oliver, has to shudder at it; has to think: “Thou, idle bluster, not true, thou also art shutting men’s minds against the God’s Fact; thou wilt issue as a cleft crown to some poor man some day; thou also wilt have to take shelter in bogs whither cavalry cannot follow!”—But in Oliver’s time, as I say, there was still belief in the Judgments of God; in Oliver’s time, there was yet no distracted jargon of ‘abolishing Capital Punishments,’ of Jean-Jacques Philanthropy, and universal rose-water in this world still so full of sin. Men’s notion was, not for abolishing punishments, but for making laws just: God the Maker’s Laws, they considered, had not yet got the Punishment abolished from them! Men had a notion that the difference between Good and Evil was still considerable;—equal to the difference between Heaven and Hell. It was a true notion. Which all men yet saw, and felt, in all fibres of their existence, to be true. Only in late decadent generations, fast hastening toward radical change or final perdition, can such indiscriminate mashing-up of Good and Evil into one universal patent-treacle, and most unmedical electuary, of Rousseau Sentimentalism, universal Pardon and Benevolence with dinner and drink and one cheer more, take effect in our Earth. Electuary very poisonous, as sweet as it is, and very nauseous; of which Oliver, happier than we, had not yet heard the slightest intimation even in dreams.

  The reader of these Letters, who has swept all that very ominous twaddle out of his head and heart, and still looks with a recognizing eye on the ways of the Supreme Powers with this world, will find here, in the rude Practical state, a Phenomenon which he will account noteworthy. An armed Soldier, solemnly conscious to himself that he is the Soldier of God the Just—a consciousness which it well beseems all soldiers and all men to have always;—armed Soldier, terrible as Death, relentless as Doom; doing God’s Judgments on the Enemies of God! It is a Phenomenon not of joyful nature; no, but of awful, to be looked at with pious terror and awe. Not a Phenomenon which you are called to recognize with bright smiles, and fall in love with at sight:—thou, art thou worthy to love such a thing; worthy to do other than hate it, and shriek over it? Darest thou wed the Heaven’s lightning, then; and say to it, Godlike One? Is thy own life beautiful and terrible to thee; steeped in the eternal depths, in the eternal splendors? Thou also, art thou in thy sphere the minister of God’s Justice; feeling that thou art here to do it, and to see it done, at thy soul’s peril? Thou wilt then judge Oliver with increasing clearness; otherwise, with increasing darkness, misjudge him.

  In fact, Oliver’s dialect is rude and obsolete; the phrases of Oliver, to him solemn on the perilous battle-field as voices of God, have become to us most mournful when spouted as frothy cant from Exeter Hall. The reader has, all along, to make steady allowance for that. And on the whole, clear recognition will be difficult for him. To a poor slumberous Canting Age, mumbling to itself everywhere, Peace, Peace, where there is no Peace—such a Phenomenon as Oliver, in Ireland or elsewhere, is not the most recognizable in all its meanings. But it waits there for recognition: and can wait an age or two. The Memory of Oliver Cromwell, as I count, has a good many centuries in it yet; and Ages of very varied complexion to apply to, before all end. My reader, in this passage and others, shall make of it what he can.

  But certainly, at lowest, here is a set of Military Despatches of the most unexampled nature! Most rough, unkempt; shaggy as the Numidian lion. A style rugged as crags; coarse, drossy: yet with a meaning in it, an energy, a depth; pouring on like a fire-torrent; perennial fire of it visible athwart all drosses and defacements; not uninteresting to see! This man has come into distracted Ireland with a God’s Truth in the heart of him, though an unexpected one; the first such man they have seen for a great while indeed. He carries Acts of Parliament, Laws of Earth and Heaven, in one hand; drawn sword in the other. He addresses the bewildered Irish populations, the black ravening coil of sanguinary blustering individuals at Tredah and elsewhere: “Sanguinary blustering individuals, whose word is grown worthless as the barking of dogs; whose very thought is false, representing no fact but the contrary of fact—behold, I am come to speak and to do the truth among you. Here are acts of Parliament, methods of regulation and veracity, emblems the nearest we poor Puritans could make them of God’s Law-Book, to which it is and shall be our perpetual effort to make them correspond nearer and nearer. Obey them, help us to perfect them, be peaceable and true under them, it shall be well with you. Refuse to obey them, I will not let you continue living! As articulate speaking veracious orderly men, not as a blustering murderous kennel of dogs run rabid, shall you continue in this Earth. Choose!”—They chose to disbelieve him; could not understand that he, more than the others, meant any truth or justice to them. They rejected his summons and terms at Tredah: he stormed the place; and according to his promise, put every man of the Garrison to death. His own soldiers are forbidden to plunder, by paper Proclamation; and in ropes of authentic hemp they are hanged when they do it. To Wexford Garrison the like terms as at Tredah; and, failing these, the like storm. Here is a man whose word represents a thing! Not bluster this, and false jargon scattering itself to the winds; what this man speaks out of him comes to pass as a fact; speech with this man is accurately prophetic of deed. This is the first King’s face poor Ireland ever saw; the first Friend’s face, little as it recognizes him—poor Ireland!

  The whole doctrine of which glowing morceau of eloquence lies in this trait of the revered Oliver. Not bluster this, and false jargon scattering itself to the winds; what this man speaks out of him comes to pass as a fact; speech with this man is accurately prophetic of deed.”

  Yes! Cromwell had force and sagacity to get that done which he had resolved to get done, and this is the whole truth about your admiration, Mr. Carlyle. Accordingly at Drogheda quoth Cromwell:

  “I believe we put to sword the whole number of the defendants.” * * “Indeed, being in the heat of action, I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the Town, and I think that night they put to the sword about 2,000 men, divers of the officers and soldiers being fled over the Bridge into the other part of the Town; and where about 100 of them possessed St. Peter’s Church Steeple, &c. These, being summoned to yield to mercy, refused. Whereupon I ordered the Steeple of St. Peter’s Church to be fired, when one of them was heard to say in the midst of the flames: God confound me; I burn, I burn.”

  “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future. Which are the satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.” * * “This hath been an exceeding great mercy.”

  Certainly one not of the rose-water or treacle kind. Mr. Carlyle says such measures “cut to the heart of the war” and brought peace. Was there then no crying of Peace, Peace, when there was no peace! Ask the Irish peasantry why they mark that period with the solemn phrase of Cromwell’s Curse.

  For ourselves, though aware of the mistakes and errors in particulars that must occur, we believe the summing up of a man’s character in the verdict of his time is likely to be correct. We believe that Cromwell was “a curse” as much as a blessing in these acts of his. We believe him ruthless, ambitious, half a hypocrite, (few men have courage or want of soul to bear being wholly so,) and we think it is rather too bad to rave at us in our time for canting, and then hold up the Prince of Canters for our reverence in his “dimly seen nobleness.” Dimly, indeed, despite the rhetoric and satire of Mr. Carlyle!

  In previous instances where Mr. Carlyle has acted out his predeterminations as to the study of a character, we have seen circumstances favor him at least sometimes. There were fine moments, fine lights upon the character that he would seize upon. But here the facts look just as they always have. He indeed ascertains that the Cromwell family were not mere brewers or plebeians, but “substantial gentry,” and that there is not the least ground for the common notion that Cromwell lived at any time a dissolute life. But with the exception of these emendations, still the history looks as of old. We see a man of strong and wise mind, educated by the pressure of great occasions to station of command; we see him wearing the religious garb which was the custom of the times, and even preaching to himself as well as to others—for well can we imagine that his courage and his pride would have fallen without keeping up the illusion; but we never see Heaven answering his invocations in any way that can interfere with the rise of his fortunes or the accomplishment of his plans. To ourselves the tone of these religious holdings-forth is of stuff sufficiently expressive; they all ring hollow; we have never read any thing of the sort more repulsive to us than the letter to Mr. Hammond, which Mr. Carlyle thinks such a noble contrast to the impiety of the present time. Indeed, we cannot recover from our surprise at Mr. Carlyle’s liking these letters; his predetermination must have been strong indeed. Again, we see Cromwell ruling with the strong arm, and carrying the spirit of monarchy to an excess which no Stuart could surpass. Cromwell, indeed, is wise, and the king he had punished with death is foolish; Charles is faithless, and Cromwell crafty; we see no other difference. Cromwell does not, in power, abide by the principles that led him to it; and we can’t help—so rose-water imbecile are we!—admiring those who do: one Lafayette, for instance—poor chevalier so despised by Mr. Carlyle—for abiding by his principles, though impracticable, more than Louis Phillippe, who laid them aside so far as necessary “to secure peace to the kingdom;” and to us it looks black for one who kills kings to grow to be more kingly than a king.

  The death of Charles I. was a boon to the world, for it marked the dawn of a new era, when Kings, in common with other men, are to be held accountable by God and Mankind for what they do. Many who took part in this act which did require a courage and faith almost unparalleled, were, no doubt, moved by the noblest sense of duty. We doubt not this had its share in the bosom councils of Cromwell. But we cannot sympathize with the apparent satisfaction of Mr. Carlyle in seeing him engaged, two days after the execution, in marriage treaty for his son. This seems more ruthlessness than calmness. One who devoted so many days to public fasting and prayer on less occasions, might well make solemn pause on this. Mr. Carlyle thinks much of some pleasant domestic letters from Cromwell. What brigand, what pirate fails to have some such soft and light feelings?

  In short we have not time to say all we think, but we stick to the received notions of Old Noll, with his great red nose, hard heart, long head and crafty ambiguities. Nobody ever doubted his great abilities and force of will, neither doubt we that he was made an “Instrument” just as he professeth. But as to looking on him through Mr. Carlyle’s glasses we shall not be sneered or stormed into it, unless he has other proof to offer than is shown yet. And we resent the violence he offers both to our prejudices and our perceptions. If he has become interested in Oliver or any other pet hyena, by studying his habits, is that any reason we should admit him to our Pantheon? No! our imbecility shall keep fast the door against anything short of proofs that in the Hyena a God is incarnated. Mr. Carlyle declares that he sees it, but we really cannot. The Hyena is surely not out of the kingdom of God, but as to being the finest emblem of what is divine—no! no!

  In short, we can sympathize with the words of John Maidston:

  “He (Cromwell) was a strong man in the dark perils of war; in the high places of the field, hope shone in him like a pillar of fire, when it had gone out in the others.”

  A poetic and sufficient account of the secret of his power.

  But Mr. Carlyle goes on to gild the refined gold thus:

  “A genuine King among men, Mr. Maidstone? The divinest sight this world sees, when it is privileged to see such, and not be sickened with the unholy apery of such.”

  We know you do with all your soul love kings and heroes, Mr. Carlyle, but we are not sure you would always know the Sauls from the Davids. We fear, if you had the disposal of the holy oil, you would be tempted to pour it on the head of him who is taller by the head than all his brethren, without sufficient care as to purity of inward testimony.

  Such is the impression left on us by the book thus far as to the view of its hero, but as to what such a history should be, and especially how that of Cromwell is to be treated, the reader will like to see what Mr. Carlyle himself says:

  “Histories are as perfect as the Historian is wise, and is gifted with an eye and a soul! For the leafy blossoming Present Time springs from the whole Past, remembered and unrememberable, so confusedly as we say:—and truly the Art of History, the grand difference between a Dryasdust and a sacred Poet, is very much even this:—To distinguish well what does still reach to the surface, and is alive and frondent for us; and what reaches no longer to the surface, but moulders safe underground, never to send forth leaves or fruit for mankind any more: of the former we shall rejoice to hear; to hear of the latter will be an affliction to us; of the latter only Pedants and Dullards, and disastrous malefactors to the world, will find good to speak. By wise memory and by wise oblivion: it lies all there!—Without oblivion, there is no remembrance possible. When both oblivion and memory are wise, when the general soul of man is clear, melodious, true, there may come a modern Iliad as memorial of the Past: when both are foolish, and the general soul is overclouded with confusions, with unveracities and discords, there is a ‘Rushworthian chaos.’

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

  “Ours is a very small enterprise, but seemingly a useful one; preparatory perhaps to greater and more useful, on this same matter:—The collecting of the Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, and presenting them in natural sequence, with the still possible elucidation, to ingenuous readers. This is a thing that can be done; and after some reflection, it has appeared worth doing. No great thing: one other dull Book added to the thousand, dull every one of them, which have been issued on this subject! But situated as we are, new Dulness is unhappily inevitable; readers do not reascend out of deep confusions without some trouble as they climb.

  “These authentic utterances of the man Oliver himself—I have gathered them from far and near; fished them up from the foul Lethean quagmires where they lay buried; I have washed, or endeavored to wash, them clean from foreign stupidities (such a job of buck-washing as I do not long to repeat); and the world shall now see them in their own shape. Working for long years in those unspeakable Historic Provinces, of which the reader has already had account, it becomes more and more apparent to one, That this man Oliver Cromwell was, as the popular fancy represents him, the soul of the Puritan Revolt, without whom it had never been a revolt transcendently memorable, and an Epoch in the World’s History; that in fact he, more than is common in such cases, does deserve to give his name to the Period in question, and have the Puritan Revolt considered as a Cromwelliad. which issue is already very visible for it. And then farther, altogether contrary to the popular fancy, it becomes apparent that this Oliver was not a man of falsehoods, but a man of truths; whose words do carry a meaning with them, and above all others of that time, are worth considering. His words,—and still more his silences, and unconscious instincts, when you have spelt and lovingly deciphered these also out of his words,—will in several ways reward the study of an earnest man. An earnest man, I apprehend, may gather from these word’s of Oliver’s, were there even no other evidence, that the character of Oliver and of the Affairs he worked in is much the reverse of that mad jumble of ‘hypocrisies,’ &c&c, which at present passes current as such.”

  For the rest this book is of course entertaining, witty, dramatic, picturesque, all traits that are piquant, many that have profound interest are brought out better than new. The “letters and speeches” are put into readable state and this alone is a great benefit. They are a relief after Mr. Carlyle’s high-seasoned writing, and this again is a relief after their long-winded dimnesses. Most of the heroic anecdotes of the time had been used up before, but they lose nothing in the hands of Carlyle, and pictures of the scenes, such as of Naseby fight, for instance, it was left to him to give. We have passed over the hackneyed ground attended by a torch-bearer, who has given a new animation to the procession of events, and cast a ruddy glow on many a striking physiognomy. That any truth of high value has been brought to light, we do not perceive, certainly nothing has been added to our own sense of the greatness of the times, nor any new view presented that we can adopt as to the position and character of the agents.

  We close with the only one of Cromwell’s letters that we really like. Here his religious words and his temper seem quite sincere, for the occasion was one that touched him really and nearly:

“To my loving Brother, Colonel Valentine Walton: These.

“LEAGUER BEFORE YORK, 5th July, 1644.

  “DEAR SIR:—It’s our duty to sympathize in all mercies; and to praise the Lord together in chastisements or trials, so that we may sorrow together.

  “Truly England and the Church of God hath had a great favor from the Lord, in the great Victory given unto us, such as the like never was since this War began. It had all the evidence of an absolute Victory obtained by the Lord’s blessing upon the Godly Party principally. We never charged but we routed the enemy. The Left Wing, which I commanded, being our own horse, saving a few Scots in our rear, beat all the Prince’s horse.—God made them as stubble to our swords. We charged their regiments of foot with our horse, and routed all we charged. The particulars I cannot relate now; but I believe, of twenty thousand the Prince hath not four thousand left. Give glory, all the glory, to God.—

  “Sir, God hath taken away your eldest Son by a cannon-shot. It brake his leg. We were necessitated to have it cut off, whereof he died.

  “Sir, you know my own trials this way:* but the Lord supported me with this, That the Lord took him into the happiness we all pant for and live for. There is your precious child, full of glory, never to know sin or sorrow any more. He was a gallant young man, exceedingly gracious. God give you His comfort. Before his death he was so full of comfort that to Frank Russel and myself he could not express it, ‘It was so great above his pain.’ This he said to us. Indeed it was admirable. A little after, he said, One thing lay upon his spirit. I asked him, What that was? he told me it was, That God had not suffered him to be any more the executioner of His enemies. At his fall, his horse being killed with the bullet, and as I am informed, three horses more, I am told he bid them, Open to the right and left, that he might see the rogues run. Truly he was exceedingly beloved in the Army, of all that knew him.—But few knew him; for he was a precious young man, fit for God. You have cause to bless the Lord. He is a glorious Saint in Heaven; wherein you ought exceedingly to rejoice. Let this drink up your sorrow; seeing these are not feigned words to comfort you, but the thing is so real and undoubted a truth. You may do all things by the strength of Christ. Seek that, and you shall easily bear your trial. Let this public mercy to the Church of God make you to forget your private sorrow. The Lord be your strength: so prays

“Your truly faithful and loving Brother.

  And add this noble passage in which Carlyle speaks of the morbid affection of Cromwell’s mind:

  “In those years it must be that Dr. Simcott, Physician in Huntingdon, had to do with Oliver’s hypochondriac maladies. He told Sir Philip Warwick, unluckily specifying no date, or none that has survived, ‘he had often been sent for at midnight;’ Mr. Cromwell for many years was very ‘splenetic’ (spleen-struck), often thought he was just about to die, and also ‘had fancies about the Town Cross.’†

  Brief intimation; of which the reflective reader may make a great deal. Samuel Johnson too had hypochondrias; all great souls are apt to have,—and to be in thick darkness generally, till the eternal ways and the celestial guiding-stars disclose themselves, and the vague Abyss of Life knit itself up into Firmaments for them. Temptations in the wilderness, Choices of Hercules, and the like, in succinct or loose form, are appointed for every man that will assert a soul in himself and be a man. Let Oliver take comfort in his dark sorrows and melancholies. The quantity of sorrow he has, does it not mean withal the quantity of sympathy he has, the quantity of faculty and victory he shall yet have? ‘Our sorrow is the inverted image of our nobleness.’ The depth of our despair measures what capability, and hight of claim we have, to hope. Black smoke as of Tophet filling all your universe, it can yet by true heart-energy become flame, and brilliancy of Heaven. Courage!”

  Were the flame but a pure as well as a bright flame!! Sometimes we know the black phantoms change to white angel forms; the vulture is metamorphosed into a dove. Was it so in this instance? Unlike Mr. Carlyle, we are willing to let each reader judge for himself, but perhaps we should not be so generous if we had studied ourselves sick in wading through all that mass of papers, and had nothing to defend us against the bitterness of biliousness except a growing enthusiasm about our hero.*


* I conclude the poor Boy Oliver has already fallen in these Wars,—none of us knows where, though his Father well knew.
† Sir Fulke Warwick’s Memoirs (London, 1701), p, 249.

“Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 19 December 1845, p. 1.