In the following passage Carlyle's Sartor Resartus formulates the socially constructed aspect of the text's central metaphor of clothes:

All visible things are emblems; what thou seest is not there on its own account; strictly taken, is not there at all: Matter exists only spiritually, and to represent some Idea, and body it forth. Hence Clothes, as despicable as we think them, are so unspeakably significant. Clothes, from the King's mantle downwards, are emblematic, not of want only, but of a manifold cunning Victory over Want. On the other hand, all Emblematic things are properly Clothes, thought-woven or hand-woven: must not the Imagination weave Garments, visible Bodies, wherein the else invisible creations and inspirations of our Reason are, like Spirits, revealed, and first become all-powerful; the rather if, as we often see, the Hand too aid her, and (by wool Clothes or otherwise) reveal such even to the outward eye? "Men are properly said to be clothed with Authority, clothed with Beauty, with Curses, and the like. Nay, if you consider it, what is Man himself, and his whole terrestrial Life, but an Emblem; a Clothing or visible Garment for that divine ME of his, cast hither, like a light-particle, down from Heaven? Thus is he said also to be clothed with a Body.

Language is called the Garment of Thought: however, it should rather be, Language is the Flesh-Garment, the Body, of Thought. I said that Imagination wove this Flesh-Garment; and does not she? Metaphors are her stuff: examine Language; what, if you except some few primitive elements (of natural sound), what is it all but Metaphors, recognized as such, or no longer recognized; still fluid and florid, or now solid-grown and colorless? If those same primitive elements are the osseous fixtures in the Flesh-Garment, Language, — then are Metaphors its muscles and tissues and living integuments. An unmetaphorical style you shall in vain seek for: is not your very Attention a Stretching-to? The difference lies here: some styles are lean, adust, wiry, the muscle itself seems osseous; some are even quite pallid, hunger-bitten and dead-looking; while others again glow in the flush of health and vigorous self-growth, sometimes (as in my own case) not without an apoplectic tendency. Moreover, there are sham Metaphors, which overhanging that same Thought's-Body (best naked), and deceptively bedizening, or bolstering it out, may be called its false stuffings, superfluous show-cloaks (Putz-Mante), and tawdry woollen rags: whereof he that runs and reads may gather whole hampers,—and burn them. ["Prospective, Book I, Chapter 11, 56-57]

Carlyle's trope of the "tailor retailored" draws upon an eighteenth-century concept of linguistic style, prominently developed by Pope and Swift. Pope, for example, comments in "An Essay on Criticism" (1709):

But true Expression, like th'unchanging Sun,
Clears, and improves whate'er it shines upon,
It gilds all objects, but it alters none.
Expression is the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent, as more suitable;
A vile conceit in pompous words express'd,
Is like a clown in regal purple dress'd:
For diff'rent styles with diff'rent subjects sort,
As several garbs with country, town, and court. [ll. 317-325]

Language styles thought as a social hierarchy, "sorting" different linguistic modes from different subjects. Having said this, felicitous expression is a fallible social register that can be clouded over or obscured like "th'unchancing sun." The pliability of language opens the subversive possibility of social cross-dressing, so to speak. The ridiculousness of a clown wearing "regal purple" is sometimes less apparent than "A vile conceit in pompous words express'd."

Carlyle endows the trope that "Language is called the Garment of Thought" with a more substantial social materiality than did previous users of the analogy. On the one hand, clothes are visual emblems or representations of social relationships ("of a manifold cunning Victory over Want"). On the other hand, clothes take on a "reality" because such symbolic tokens are the only metaphors that society has to work with. While Pope reads style as surface phenomenon that can be corrected by underlying social paradigms and models of refinement, Carlyle sees style internalized as the stuff that social bodies are made of. The social nature of language is both wholly contingent and absolutely determining.

Questions (page references refer to the Oxford World Classics edition)

1. How does Carlyle paradoxically formulate clothes as both the "show of things" and a determining social sign (56-7, 155, 205)?

2. How does the density of Carlyle's writerly style relate to the agenda of his transcendental aesthetics, or metaphysical "Philosophy of Clothes?"

3. What is the significance of Carlyle's mysticism (52-3, 87, 129, 149, 194)?

4. What is Carlyle's polemical axe to grind in aligning Teufelsdrockh with the Sansculottists rather than the Adamites (47-8)?

5. How does Carlyle formulate the editorial frame as an alibi by which writers stand in for readers and vice versa? How do the internal relationships among text, reader, and editor blur the bounds of biography and autobiography (42, 58-62, 91, 150-1)?

6. Why did Carlyle publish Sartor Resartus in book form in America before doing so in England?


Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified: 23 September 2006