On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History.
By THOMAS CARLYLE. 1841.
ALTHOUGH the name of Thomas Carlyle is rarely mentioned in the critical journals of this country, there is no living writer who is more sure of immediate attention from a large circle of readers, or who exercises a greater influence than he in these United States. Since the publication of his article on the characteristics of our time in the Edinburgh Review, and afterwards of the Sartor, this influence has been deepening and extending year by year, till now thousands turn an eager ear to the most distant note of his clarion. To be and not to seem; to know that nothing can become a man which is not manlike; that no silken trappings can dignify measures of mere expediency; and no hootings of a mob, albeit of critics and courtiers can shame the truth, or keep Heaven’s dews from falling in the right place; that all conventions not founded on eternal law are valueless, and that. the life of man, will he or no, must tally with the life of nature; —this creed indeed is none of the newest! No! but as old and as new as truth itself, and ever needing, to be reënforced. It is so by Carlyle with that depth of “truthful earnestness” he appreciates so fully in his chosen heroes, as also with a sarcastic keenness, an overflow of genial wit, and a picturesque skill in the delineation of examples, rarely equalled in any age of English literature.
How many among ourselves are his debtors for the first assurance that the native disdain of a youthful breast for the shams and charlatanries that so easily overgrow even our free society was not without an echo. They listened for the voice of the soul and heard on every wind only words, words. But when this man spoke every word stood for a thing. They had been taught that man belonged to society, the body to the clothes. They thought the reverse, and this was the man to give distinct expression to this thought, which alone made life desirable.
Already he has done so much, that he becomes of less importance to us. The rising generation can scarcely conceive how important Wordsworth, Coleridge, and afterwards Carlyle were to those whose culture dates farther back. A numerous band of pupils already, each in his degree, dispense bread of their leaven to the children, instead of the stones which careful guardians had sent to the mill for their repast.
But, if the substance of his thought be now known to us, where shall we find another who appeals so forcibly, so variously to the common heart of his contemporaries. Even his Miscellanies, though the thoughts contained in them have now been often reproduced, are still read on every side. The French Revolution stands alone as a specimen of the modern epic. And the present volume will probably prove quite as attractive to most readers.
Though full of his faults of endless repetition, hammering on a thought till every sense of the reader aches, and an arrogant bitterness of tone which seems growing upon him (as alas! It is too apt to grow upon Reformers; the odious fungus that deforms the richest soil), though, as we have heard it expressed, he shows as usual “too little respect for respectable people,” and like all character-hunters, attaches an undue value to his own discoveries in opposition to the verdict of the Ages, the large residuum of truth we find after making every possible deduction, the eloquence, the wit, the pathos, and dramatic power of representation, leave the faults to be regarded as dust on the balance.
Among the sketches, Odin is much admired, and is certainly of great picturesque beauty. The passages taken from the Scandinavian Mythology are admirably told . Mahomet is altogether fine. Dante not inaccurate, but of little depth. Apparently Mr. Carlyle speaks in his instance from a slighter acquaintance than is his wont. With his view of Johnson and Burns we were already familiar; both are excellent, as is that of Rousseau, though less impressive than are the few touches given him somewhere in the Miscellanies. Cromwell is not one of his best, though apparently much labored. He does not adequately sustain his positions by the facts he brings forward.
This book is somewhat less objectionable than the French Revolution to those not absolutely unjust critics, who said they would sooner “dine for a week on pepper, than read through the two volumes.” Yet it is too highly seasoned, tediously emphatic, and the mind as well as the style is obviously in want of the verdure of repose. An acute observer said that the best criticism on his works would be his own remark, that a man in convulsions is not proved to be strong because six healthy men cannot hold him. We are not consoled by his brilliancy and the room he has obtained for an infinity of quips and cranks and witty turns for the corruption of his style, and the more important loss of chasteness, temperance, and harmony in his mind observable since he first was made known to the public.
Yet let thanks, manifold thanks, close this and all chapters that begin with his name.
A Year’s Life. By JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL. Boston: C. C.
Little and James Brown. 1841.
WE are late in a notice of this volume. But not only do we consider this delay complimentary as intimating that we suppose the book still fresh in the public mind, but, in truth, we are timid with regard to all comments upon youthful bards. We doubt the utility whether of praise or blame. No criticism from without is of use to the true songster; he sings as the bird sings, for the sake of pouring out his eager soul, and needs no praise. If his poetic vein be abundant enough to swell beyond the years of youthful feeling, every day teaches him humility as to his boyish defects; he measures himself with the great poets; he sighs at the feet of beautiful Nature; his danger is despair. The proper critic of this book would be some youthful friend to whom it has been of real value as a stimulus. The exaggerated praise of such an one would he truer to the spiritual fact of its promise, than accurate measure ment of its performance. To us it has spoken of noble feelings, a genuine love of beauty, and an uncommon facility of execution. Neither the imagery nor the music are original, but the same is true of the early poems of Byron; there is too much dwelling on minute yet commonplace details, so was it with Coleridge before be served a severe apprenticeship to his art. The great musicians composed much that stands in the same relation to their immortal works that those productions perhaps may to those of Mr. Lowell’s riper age; superficial, full of obvious cadences and obvious thoughts; but sweet, fluent, in a large style, and breathing the life of religious love.
WE have never ackowledged the receipt from Mr. Bixby of Lowell, of copies from his editions of Hayward’s Faust, and Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child. It is ungrateful not to express the pleasure we felt in such works being made accessible to innumerable inquirers who were ever pursuing the fortunate owners of the English copies. All translations of Faust can give no better idea of that wonderful work than a Silhouette of one of Titian’s beauties; but we much prefer the prose translation to any of the numerous metrical attempts which are an always growing monument to the power of the work, which kindles its admirers to attempt the impossible. We cannot but wonder that any one who aims at all at literary culture can remain ignorant of German, the acquisition of which language is not a year’s labor with proper instruction, and would give them access to such wide domains of thought and knowledge. But if they will remain, from indolence, beggars, this translation will give them the thought, if not the beauty, of Goethe’s work.
The Correspondence is as popular here as in Germany, but we intend in the next number of the Dial to give a brief notice of Bettina Brentano, and the correspondence with Günderode, which she is now publishing in Germany. It is to be hoped she will translate that also into the same German English of irresistible naiveté, of which she has already given us a specimen.
The Hour and the Man. By HARRIET MARTINEAU.
THIS work, whose very existence tells a tale of heroic cheerfulness, such as its author loves to celebrate, would do honor to her best estate of health and hopeful energy. It has all the vivacity, vigor of touch, and high standard of character, which commanded our admiration in Ella of Garveloch; the sweetness and delicate sentiment of the Sabbath Musings; the lively feeling of Nature and descriptive talent which were displayed in her work on this country. The book is overladen with incident and minute traits of character, yet is in these respects a great improvement on Deerbrook. As an artist Miss Martineau wants skill in selection among her abundant materials, and in effective grouping of her figures; but this, should life be prolonged, she seems likely to attain. The conception of Toussaint’s character is noble and profound; its development and execution by new circumstances on the whole managed with skill, though the impression is somewhat marred where an attempt is, made to heighten it by surrounding him with objects of luxury. This part is not well managed, and produces an effect, probably very different from what the writer intended. The men are not real live men, but only paper sketches of such; but in this Miss Martineau only shares the failure of all her contemporaries. Scott was the only heir of Fielding’s wand. This novel deserves a place in the next rank to those which made the modern novel no unworthy successor to the ancient drama.
Tennyson’s Poems. —Stirling’s Poems. —Festus.
THE pleasure we have derived from all of these books is such that we are most desirous they may be made accessible to readers in general. The rivers of song have dwindled to rills, and the ear is very impatient during the long intervals, that it misses entirely the melody of living waters. Tennyson is known by heart, is copied as Greek works were at the revival of literature; nothing has been known for ten years back more the darling of the young than these two little volumes. “If you wish to know the flavor of strawberries or cherries, ask children and birds.” We understand he is preparing for a new edition, which will, we hope, be extensively circulated in this country.
The Sexton’s Daughter is better known than Stirling’s other poems. Many of them claim a tribute which we hope to reader in the next number.
Of Festus, too, we shall give some account and make many extracts, as we understand the first edition is already sold in England, and we do not hope to see one here as yet.
Source: The Dial (July 1841) pp. 131-135