The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

I. Carlyle

§ 8. On Heroes

Carlyle’s French Revolution is, again in the continental sense of the word, a “romatic” work; once more, as in his literary criticism, he stands out in sharp antagonism to Macaulay, the heir of rationalism, whose History of England began to appear some ten years later. The French Revolution is individualistic history, interpretative history on a subjective basis, it is as far removed form the sober ideals of a scientific age of faithful chronicling of “things as they were,” as it is from the “enlightened” history-writing of the eighteenth century. Carlyle’s work is essentially, a personal “confussion.” “You have not,” he declared to the world, “had for two hundred years any book that come more truly from a man’s very heart.” The French revolution, as Carlyle sees it becomes a vindication of the ways of God to man; a sermon on the text: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,” on the nemesis that follows the abuse of power or the neglect of the duties and responsibilities of those in whom power has been placed by Providence. And Carlyle ranges himself unmistakably on the side of that nemesis; he makes no attempt, so to speak, to write “fair” history, to hold the balance between the two great antagonistic forces that clashed in the revolution. The French Revolution, rightly read, is a declaration of its author’s convictions on problems of his own time; a solemn warning to the England of his own day to avoid a catastrophe which Carlyle believed, and never ceased to believe all his life long, was imminent. But this work is, also, something more precious than a subjective history combined with a tract for the times; it is a prose epic, a work of creative genius, in which the facts of history are illumined by the imagination of a poet. Light and shadow, colour and darkness, are distributed over the picture with the eye and the instinctive judgement of an artist. Carlyle does not dilate on motives or on theories of government; he does not even, in a straightforward way, narrate facts; he paints pictures; he brings before us only what, as it were, he has first seen with his own eyes. Setting out from the conviction that biographies are the most precious of all records of the past—or, as he put it in lectures On Heroes, “the History of the World is the Biography of Great Men”—he writes a history which is a collection of marvellously clear-cut portraits; more than this, he deals with the history of a nation itself as if it were a human biography; distils, so to speak, the life of the whole from innumerable lives of individuals. Thus, the events he has to narrate are overshadowed and dominated by the men that were responsible for them; Danton, Mirabeau, the “sea-green incorruptible” Robespierre, are masterpieces of historical portraiture; and the imaginative literature of Carlyle’s age knew nothing more graphic and unforgettable than the description of the royal flight to Varennes.

Meanwhile, until the material harvest of the labour on The French Revolution came in, Carlyle was induced, in order to keep the wolf from the door, to give several series of popular lectures in London. For the first of these, delivered in May, 1837, he utilised the materials he had gathered for a history of German literature; the second course, in the following year, was also on literature, but took a wider sweep of literary history, beginning with classical times and coming down to the eighteenth century. A third series dealt with the revolutions of modern Europe, while the fourth and last, delivered in the early summer of 1840, and published in the following year under the title On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, was most successful of all. This has always been one of Carlyle’s most attractive and popular works. It elucidates, with the help of picturesque and contrasting portraits, the cardinal doctrines of his own romantic creed of individualism, a creed which went back in its essentials to the philosophy of Fichte, namely, that personality alone matters in the world; that history is the record of the thoughts and actions of great men; and that greatness lies in the exercise of the “heroic” virtues, that is to say, in the power to renounce, coupled with the will to achieve. On the basic assumption that the quality of heroism, which makes a man a leader of men, is capable of realisation in any sphere of human activity in which the hero happens to be placed, Carlyle applied his doctrine to the most varied forms of leadership. Odin, chosen to illustrate the hero as god, gave Carlyle his first opportunity to proclaim his sympathy with the virile religion of our Germanic ancestors, a sympathy that grew with the years and found expression again in his very last work. Mahomet, the hero as prophet, led him to seek a solid foundation of sincerity for the faith of Islam. Dante and Shakespeare, again in contrasting spheres, served to illustrate the hero as vates or poet; while, for examples of the less soaring activity of the “man of letters,” Carlyle turned to the century he found it hardest to understand, and singled out as sympathetic figures against an unsympathetic background, Samuel Johnson, Rousseau and Burns. For the hero as priest, he chose Luther and John Knox; for the hero as king, Cromwell and Napoleon; but the last two lectures show some falling off in comparison with the earlier ones.

The interest in Heroes was, in the main, literary rather than historical, although, with The French Revolution, Carlyle had appeared to turn his back definitely on literary criticism; but readers, not merely of the latter work, but, also, of Heroes, began to discern a trend in his mind which was neither literary nor historical, a trend towards actuality and the present. Literature was never, indeed, for Carlyle, merely literature; its value as an aesthetic expression had always been subordinate to its potentiality as an intellectual and moral factor. Great poetry, for him, was not the embodiment of the highest beauty, but the poetry that contained the deepest lessons for mankind. So, too, had it been with history; history was not merely a record of how things had been, but, also, a writing on the wall for the benefit of the historian’s contemporaries. Carlyle’s mission in life, as he interpreted it, was, in fact, neither to be a critic of literature nor a chronicler of history; but to be a teacher and a prophet to his own time. With every new book his writing was becoming more “actual” in its aims; the past was becoming more and more a medium through which he spoke to the present.