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THE LATTER-DAY PROPHET
E have observed the immense influence of the conversational, familiar-letter
style on modern essay writing; but while it has given us some of our most delightful literature, it is by no means the only influence we must reckon with. The influence of the pulpit has been enormous and important. In Swift we saw one form of preaching,-a preaching almost wholly destructive and devoid of personal inspiration. In Carlyle we find an original
prophet,” after the manner of the prophets of the Old Testament. As he is an original prophet he is of course debarred from a church that is trammelled by the conventions of time; and among a people whose mission in the world is not religious in the sense that the mission of the old Hebrews was religious, our prophet need not be a distinctively religious man. He is a true prophet none the less. Such was Carlyle.
Like other prophets, he must compel men. He does not win them by gentle persuasion. Rather he threatens. He forces attention by his singularity. He assumes authority, and as the mouthpiece of a Greater than himself, he speaks like a sort of tyrant, in enigmas which men must unravel for themselves, and which they do unravel in fear and trembling.
For ordinary purposes, Carlyle's style is as bad as it can be. His only excuse for capitalizing many of the words he does is his desire to make words seem to mean more than ordinarily they do mean.
His words seem to come with the utmost difficulty, and indeed we read that writing with him was a constant pain. He appears constantly to violate his own theory as expressed in Characteristics that Art should be unconscious, for in his writing he is often too painfully conscious.
We can understand Carlyle's style only when we consider its object. He was a preacher, and it was his mission to compel the attention of men to thoughts and duties he knew they would be very loath to give heed to. Oddity, mystery, abruptness, a dictatorial tone under such conditions are not only justifiable, but necessary. They constitute the best art. So long as they are not a mere affectation, but are the sign and symbol of a great utterance and a high duty, they are but the means of gaining the attention without which the whole communication of thought would have proved fruitless.
Carlyle's gospel found expression first of all in his “Sartor Resartus,” which professed to be a “philosophy of clothes.” This book was written in his most difficult style. In it his peculiar modes of expression reach their extreme, and it is not surprising that he found difficulty in getting a publisher. He went to London in quest of one, and not succeeding, he wrote his essay “ Characteristics," which was accepted at once by “ Fraser's Magazine," and published without alteration, becoming immediately popular, while
Sartor Resartus " waited long for its publisher and still longer for its audience. In “Characteristics ” Carlyle had expressed in simple and natural form, with restraint and little consciousness of effort, the heart of the philosophy which is to be found in “Sartor Resartus." have time for a book, and a book to be read line by line and accepted as a gospel, “Sartor Resartus” will well repay our effort to master it. But if, like the average reader, we have time for but a single essay, the comparatively slight unconventionality of “Characteristics” will afford all the stimulus that we shall need to rouse us to the full importance of the message the author has to convey. As a model of style, too, it is far safer for study and imitation than any other great thing Carlyle ever wrote.
If we CHARACTERISTICS 1
HE healthy know not of their health, but only
and applicable in a far wider sense than he gives it. We may say, it holds no less in moral, intellectual, political, poetical, than in merely corporeal therapeutics; that wherever, or in what shape soever, powers of the sort which can be named vital are at work, herein lies the test of their working right or working wrong.
In the Body, for example, as all doctors are agreed, the first condition of complete health is, that each organ perform its function unconsciously, unheeded; let but any organ announce its separate existence, were it even boastfully, and for pleasure, not for pain, then already has one of those unfortunate “false centres of sensibility” established itself, already is derangement there. The perfection of bodily well-being is, that the collective bodily activities seem one; and be manifested, moreover, not in themselves, but in the action they accomplish. If a Dr. Kitchiner boast that his system is in high order, Dietetic Philosophy may indeed take credit; but the true Peptician was that Countryman who answered that, “ for his part, he had no system.” (In fact, unity, agreement is always silent, or softvoiced; it is only discord that loudly proclaims itself.) So long as the several elements of Life, all fitly adjusted, can pour forth their movement like harmonious tuned strings, it is a melody and unison; Life, from its mysterious fountains, flows out as in celestial music and diapason, - which also, like that other music of the spheres, even because it is perennial and complete, without interruption and without imperfection, might be fabled to escape the ear. Thus too, in some languages, is the state of health well denoted by a term expressing unity; when we feel ourselves as we wish to be, we say that we are whole.
1 EDINBURGH REVIEW, No. 108. - 1. An Essay on the Origin and Prospects of Man. By Thomas Hope. 3 vols. 8vo. London, 1831.
2. Philosophische Vorlesungen, insbesondere über Philosophie der Sprache und des Wortes. Geschrieben und vorgetragen zu Dresden im December, 1828, und in den ersten Tagen des Januars, 1829 (Philosophical Lectures, especially on the Philosophy of Language and the Gift of Speech. Written and delivered at Dresden in December, 1828, and the early days of January, 1829). By Friedrich von Schlegel. 8vo. Vienna, 1830.
Few mortals, it is to be feared, are permanently blessed with that felicity of " having no system"; nevertheless, most of us, looking back on young years, may remember seasons of a light, aërial translucency and elasticity and perfect freedom; the body had not yet become the prison-house of the soul, but was its vehicle and implement, like a creature of the thought, and altogether pliant to its bidding. We knew not that we had limbs, we only lifted, hurled and leapt; through eye and ear, and all avenues of sense, came clear unimpeded tidings from without, and from within issued clear victorious force; we stood as in the centre of Nature, giving and receiving, in harmony with it all; unlike Virgil's Husbandmen, “ too happy because we did not know our blessedness.” In those days, health and sickness were foreign traditions that did not