t the same time that he was moving from Craigenputtoch to London, Carlyle was shifting his concept of the literary text from the transcendental novel toward epic history. After the crisis of 1832, he began to seek a new form that would enable him to overcome the shortcomings of Sartor Resartus. The "great maxim" of his father's philosophy, he had written in "The Reminiscence of James Carlyle," was "That man was created to work, not to speculate, or feel, or dream" (5)- Yet in Sartor Resartus he had written a book founded on dreams and speculation rather than the "practical and real" enjoined by his father (18). In "On Biography," the first essay he wrote after the death of his father, he criticized novelists for revealing "Nothing but a pitiful Image of their own pitiful Self, with its vanities, and grudgings, and ravenous hunger of all kinds" (CME, 3:58; see 49). The metaphor of hunger in this sentence connects novel writing both with the Cagliostric quackery that eats and destroys rather than creates, and with the important theme of cannibalism in The French Revolution, which will be discussed below (see also CL, 6:396). Carlyle frequently complained in his letters of the 183os that hunger might drive him from the profession of literature. One could argue, ofcourse, that hunger forced him to stay with it. Since he had always thought of the artwork he longed to create as a novel — he once described Sartor as a "Didactic Novel" — this statement marks a significant alteration in his conception of the literary work (CL, 6:396). Instead, he would now create an epic, for epics, in contrast to novels, were "Histories, and understood to be narratives offacts" (CME, 3:49-50).24
Carlyle's representation of epic had as much to do with contemporary Homeric scholarship as with Homer's works and the epic tradition. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, scholars were seeking to replace the conception of Homer as the "Ideal ancient sage" with the "historically plausible ancient poet: a representative or even a colletive name for the Greek people in their most primitive stage of development" (Grafton et al., 10). Like biblical scholars and students of folk literature, they were abandoning the idea that these texts were authored by individuals, as modern poems were. The shift in Homeric criticism paralleled the shift from Percy's minstrel theory to Ritson's "productions of obscure or anonymous authors" (Hustvedt, 265). These two areas of study come together with biblical criticism in Herder's comparison of Homer, early Hebrew poets, and German folk songs (Myres, 75, 80).
When Carlyle compared the Iliad to a collection of "ballad delineations" like the legends of Robin Hood (which had been edited by Ritson in 1795), he was only echoing what was by then the commonplace that Homer's writings were collections of "songs and rhapsodies" produced by generations [55/56] of "folk" (HL, 16).27 Friedrich Wolf, who was at the forefront of this movement, argued further that the Iliad had been created by collecting songs composed in a preliterate era (Turner, 138-47; see Foerster, 59-60, 72-73; as Turner notes, Carlyle was an exception among early Victorians in his acceptance of Wolf's hypothesis. Carlyle may have accepted it in part because Goethe had hailed it; see Myres, 86; Grafton et al., 27). Consequently, the collectors who gathered the songs were more like editors than authors, as the materials came from a body of already existing folk material, not from their own imaginations (Myres, 49, 86). Under the influence ofthis movement, the idea that the Homeric epics were, like the Bible, not works of imaginative fiction but repositories of folk beliefs about the nature of the universe and a history of a people, became commonplace (Turner, 140, 154; jenkyns, 197, 204; Myres, 81).29 Typical was Wolf's mentor, Christian Heyne, who, as Carlyle observed, "read in the writings of the Ancients ... their spirit and character, their way of life and thought" (CME, 1: 3 5 1). This conception of epic as a totalizing worldview — "how the World and Nature painted themselves to the mind in those old ages" — appears early in Carlyle's writings (CME, 1:351; see 3:161; TNB, 187). It also was something of a commonplace (Turner, 136; Myres, 63). This understanding of Homer underlay Carlyle's assertion in "On Biography" that "All Mythologies were once Philosophies; were believed: the Epic Poems of old time, so long as they continued epic ... were Histories, and understood to be narratives of facts" (CME, 3:49-50). We see here the term "epic" taking over the role played by "myth" in Carlyle's earlier writings. In 1828, he had written that the Faust legend was a "Christian mythus," an "embodiment of a highly remarkable belief," which in this sense "may still be considered true," and, of course, he had used the term "Mythus" in Wotton Reinfred to denote a cultural belief (CME, 1: 154-55). Epic takes the place of myth, enabling Carlyle to emphasize a text's factual and historical basis rather than its transcendental and imaginative qualities.
Epic, as Carlyle represents it, fulfills his claim that literature could replace religion. The canons by which Carlyle decided that a text was an epic had more to do with whether the text functioned as a sacred work than with whether it possessed all the formal characteristics of epic. In "On Biography," he claimed that, along with the Iliad, the Hindu scriptures (the Shaster) and the Koran were the most authentic epics (CME, 3:51). He considered a text like the Nibelungenlied a "Northern Epos" or "German Iliad" because it was "common property and plebian," a foundational cultural text that was widely read and believed (CME, 2:270, 218). He did not attempt to explain how the people acquired this belief or the process of inspiration that gave these texts transcendental authority, but, by extending the scholarly analogy between the Iliad and the Bible, he suggested that epic history is a form of revelation.
The second half of Carlyle's statement in "On Biography," that epics were "histories"-a statement in keeping with the widely held belief that the Homeric poems were historical suggests that epics manifest belief as it is enacted in history (Turner, 136-37). He argued that we discover the beliefs of the Greeks not in what they said, but in how they acted, the history of their actions in the war with Troy. The epic poet would be a historian who records not what he imagines, like the [56/57] novelist, but the history of his culture, like Homer. By the time Carlyle wrote "The Diamond Necklace" in 1833, he had redefined poetry, particularly epic poetry, as history, and history as poetry: "The story of the Diamond Necklace is all told ... with the strictest fidelity; yet in a kind of musical way: it seems to me there is no Epic possible that does not first of all ground itself on Belief" (CL, 7:61; see CME, 3:329).
Carlyle had not always regarded history as epic or revelation. His youthful enthusiasm for history reflected little more than a cuitural bias against fiction shared by Calvinists and utilitarians alike (see CL, 1: 354-55). In the early 1820s, he did not even consider history a literary form; a letter to his brother, for example, distinguishes Gibbon's Decline and Fall from "general literature" (CL, 2:467-68). After the Leith Walk experience of 1822 and his discovery of Goethe and Schiller, literature completely replaced history in his praises; from 1823 until he began reading up on the French Revolution in 1832, his letters, which had previously recommended long lists of histories, hardly mention them. By 1830, when he wrote "Thoughts on History," however, he had begun to consider history an art. His second essay on history ("Quae Cogitavit" [18331, now known as "On History Again") went further, arguing, under the influence of the Germans, that history was the primary form of knowledge: 'All Books, therefore, were they but Song-books or treatises on Mathematics, are in the long run historical documents.... History is not only the fittest study, but the only study, and includes all others whatsoever" (CME, 3:167-68). Carlyle no longer regarded history as an alternative to fiction or literature, but as the fundamental literary form.
Carlyle's model for the epic historian is the editor or collector who gathers songs and rhapsodies together in a single text. In On Heroes and Hero-Worship, he was to argue that Dante did not create his epic through a private act of imagination, but set down the beliefs of his culture: the Divine Comedy, he wrote, "belongs to ten Christian centuries, only the finishing of it is Dante's" (HHW, 98). Similarly, Reinecke Fuchs is a collective myth "fashion[ed] ... together" from two centuries of European culture (CME, 2:322, 275) — just as there was no single Homer or Moses who authored the Iliad and the Pentateuch, so there was "no single author" who created Reinecke Fuchs or the mythus of Christianity embodied in The Divine Comedy. The single author who sets out self-consciously to create an epic by employing epic machinery and epic form, but does not believe in the epic myth, will fall. Carlyle's principal criterion for inclusion in or exclusion from the epic canon is whether or not the author is "fatal[ly] conscious" that he is writing an [57/58] epic (HL, 52). On this basis, he includes the Bible, the Iliad, the Shaster, the Koran, the Nibelungenlied, Reinecke Fuchs, The Divine Comedy, and Ebenezer Elliot's "Enoch Wray," but excludes the Aeneid, the Lusiad, the Epigoniad, and Paradise Lost. In fact, for Carlyle, epics begin to lose their epic status once they are written down. When editors decide to collect and record epic songs, they have become conscious that an epic exists; only when epic retains its origins as unselfconscious song, when it remains musical (i.e., oral), can a poem be truly epic (HGL, 63; HL, 22). Carlyle accepted Wolf's hypothesis that Homer could not write (see HL, 17). He also associated the invention of writing, especially of printing, with the onset of the modern era (see SR, 40, 246; HGL, 5).
Thus, Carlyle attempted to solve the hermeneutic dilemma of historical interpretation through the figure of the historian as editor who composes an epic out of a collection of songs and rhapsodies. In "On History," he had argued that the Enlightenment idea of history as "philosophy teaching by experience" assumed that experience presents no problems of interpretation, and countered that "Before philosophy can teach by Experience, the Philosophy has to be in readiness, the Experience be gathered and intelligibly recorded" (CME, 2:85). Since experience requires interpretation, writing history becomes the process of interpreting the texts that constitute the historical record. In "On History Again," he represents historians as continuously interpreting and reinterpreting the historical record: "Thus, do not the records of a Tacitus acquire new meaning, after seventeen hundred years, in the hands of a Montesquieu?" (CME, 3:175). Whereas the fictitious Editor of Sartor Resartus had patched together the life and opinions of Teufelsdröckh out of his own speculations like a novelist, the historian, like Dante or Homer, patches together epic history out of the recorded experiences and activities of a culture. As he put it in "Cagliostro," the quack works in "the element of Wonder" and the "infinitude of the Unknown"; the "Genuine ... artist or artisan, works in the finitude of the Known" (CME, 3:294).
The drive toward transcendence as a recuperation of home in Sartor Resartus had instead returned Carlyle to the prison of solipsism. Paradoxically, in order to commune with fellow human beings, he had to become alienated from the transcendental totality of the family idyll, to discover himselfas historically contingent. This is not to say, however, that Carlyle's move to London and his subsequent writings enabled him to avoid the potential authoritarianism that may cause individuals seeking to force others to accept their transcendental authority to turn against one another. The drive to achieve transcendence in Sartor Resartus would persist in his histories (see Ragland-Sullivan, 272). [58/59] Carlyle's idealist conception of history as revelation tends to negate historical time.34 Since history records enacted belief, and beliefs are authored by transcendental authority, Carlyle represented history as revelation (CME, 2:94, 3:53-54, 176, 250; SR, 177, 254; see Moore, "Carlyle and Fiction" 135ff; Shine, Carlyle' Fusion of Poetry, 55-56; Baker, 3 5-3 7; Sigman, 2 5 2; J. Rosenberg, 49-5 1; McGowan, chap. 3). Yet epic history can possess transcendental authority only insofar as it coincides with a divine order that is itself ahistorical. This coinciaence would exist for only a moment because the historical development of beliefs and institutions always moves away from ahistorical authority. Nonetheless, Carlyle never took the final step leading him to a more radical historicism that would regard even temporary coincidence of transcendental authority and historical form illusory.
Rather, he shared with his contemporaries a tendency to regard history as moving toward a state of ahistorical transcendence. Even in Mill's "Spirit of the Age," as well as the St. Simonian writings on which it was based, Carlyle found corroboration for the cyclical model of history that he had found in the writings of the Germans, a temporal cycle in which "transitional" and "natural" states of society alternate (Newspaper Writings, 252). These models of history are not dialectical; they hypostatize the elements of cultural consensus of certain eras in order to posit epochs of "nature," "belief," or "culture," while they treat historical change as characteristic only of intermediate periods of "transition ... .. unbelief," or "anarchy." The former are idyllic and timeless states, like Teufelsdröckh's childhood or his transcendence of time and space in the Everlasting Yea. History is confined to the transitional period that by its nature is regarded as having no coherence or center. This model tends to posit three stages, a period of unbelief or transition coming between periods of belief or nature; one never finds the cycle represented in the converse manner, as a period of cultural consensus sandwiched between two periods of change. Carlyle and his contemporaries universally considered themselves to be living in a period of transition; in effect, they felt that they lived in an era saturated with history, overwhelmed by time. Able to discover transcendence only in the past, they envisioned history as moving out of itself toward a future belief, nature, culture-a renewed transcen dence that escapes history (see Houghton, Victorian Frame, 1-4).36
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In the essays following "On Biography "-"Boswell's Life of Johnson," "Diderot," "Count Cagliostro," and "The Diamond Necklace" — Carlyle followed Schiller's path from "the love of contemplating or painting things as they should be"-the metaphysical speculations of Sartor Resartus — to "the love of knowing things as they are" — to history (LS, 84)- Since epic must record the beliefs of an epoch as they are enacted in its history, Carlyle would turn to the history of his own era, more specifically, the eighteenth century, the era in which history and revolution asserted themselves and destroyed the transcendental idyll. The sequence of essays he wrote during this period moves from Johnson, who nearly escapes history, to Cagliostro and the principals of the Diamond Necklace affair, who are at one with the era.
The essay on Johnson, written soon after James Carlyle's death, was virtually a tribute to Carlyle's father. (He began it by February 16, 1832, a month after his father's death; CL, 6:124). In the reminiscence, he had compared his father to Samuel Johnson, and later in life he noted that his feelings about his father were "traceable" in the essay on Johnson (Rem., 7; CL, 6:105).) Both Johnson and James Carlyle, as Carlyle represents them, resisted the historical tendencies of their time, sustaining religious belief in an atheistic era (Rem., 10; CME, 3:89, 105). The anecdote in which Carlyle recalls how Johnson had atoned for slighting his father also represents Carlyle's desire to atone for writing fiction, which his father had considered 'false and criminal" (CME, 3:129-30; Rem., 9). When he writes that Johnson never rose into "the region of Poetic art," he is not demeaning his literary achievements but shifting allegiance from poetry to prose; the only "Poetry" his father liked, the reminiscence records, was "Truth and the Wisdom of Reality" (CME, 3: 126; Rem., 8). just two months after finishing "Boswell's Johnson," Carlyle was advising Ebenezer Elliot to exchange his rhymes for prose, and from this time forward he recommended prose, the medium of "reality," over verse, the medium of speculation (CME, 3: 165).
After the essay on Johnson, Carlyle turned to figures who are embedded in the history of the French eighteenth century. Whereas Johnson resisted the process of historical change, his contemporary Diderot contributed to the general progress of decay. Rather than a godlike authority who pierces through immediate circumstances to the transcendental, Diderot is constituted by and limited to his own historical circumstances: the "most gifted soul appearing in France of the Eighteenth Century . . . thinks of the things belonging to the French eighteenth century, and in the dialect he has learned there" (CME, 3:229). Cagliostro is not only determined by historical circumstances, he has no self apart from them (see Vanden Bossche, "Fictive Text"). The lives of empty illusion led by Cagliostro, Cardinal de Rohan, Marie Antoinette, the Countess Lamotte, and the other [60/61] participants in the Diamond Necklace affair reflect an era in which substance has disappeared and only the surface of history remains. "The Diamond Necklace" concludes with an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of this history-bound world of imposture, a prophecy of the French Revolution.
Just four days after he announced his intention to leave Craigenputtoch while working on "Cagliostro" in anuary 1833, Carlyle sent Mill a request for a long list of books on the French Revolution (CL, 6:302). Throughout 1833, he read extensively on the revolution, steadily becoming convinced that he should write a history of it. In September, he wrote to Mill that it seemed to him "as if the right History ... of the French Revolution were the grand Poem of our Time; as if the man who could write the truth of' that, were worth all other writers and singers" (CL, 6:446). In October, he further expanded his idea of epic history: "One of the questions that oftenest presents itself, is How Ideals do and ought to adjust themselves with the Actual? ... my value for the Actual (in all senses), for what has realized itself continues and increases: and often I ask myself, Is not all Poetry the essence of Reality ... and true History the only possible Epic?" (CL, 7:24)His history of the French Revolution would attempt to represent the process through which, as the title of the second chapter of his history ("Realised Ideals") was to indicate, a people tried to realize a new ideal, a new belief. Two months later, while working on "The Diamond Necklace," his "first . . . experiment" at writing poetical history, he claimed that he was trying to see "whether by sticking actually to the Realities of the thing with as much tenacity and punctuality as the merest Hallam, one could not in a small way make a kind of Poem of it" (CL, 7:266, 57; see 61).
Having determined to write an epic history, he now sought to prepare himself by a close study of the Iliad, which Schiller had deemed a "model" epic (LS, i 19). During the first four months of 1834, lie read four books of the Iliad, perhaps more, in Greek, and the entire poem in Johann Voss's German translation along with the commentaries of Christian Heyne, Richard Payne Knight, and Thomas Blackwell." The letters mention only the first four books, but Clubbe reasonably suggests that Carlyle read as far as book 6 ("Carlyle as Epic Historian," 126). The commentaries mentioned here are the ones he requested in a letter to Henry Inglis (CL, 7:92, 137-38; see 132). He may have read others from his own library or from other sources. It is certain, for example, that he had read Wolf by the time he lectured on the history of literature in 1838, for he refers to him there, and it seems most likely that he read him in 1834 during his period of concentrated Homer study (HL, 16-19). As he began his Homer studies, he heard that Sartor Resartus was meeting "with the most unqualified disapproval" and subsequently learned that one of Fraser's oldest subscribers threatened to cancel his subscription "If there [was] any more of that d-d stuff " (CL, 7:81, 175; see 125, 139). If Carlyle had had any doubts about the change of direction he [61/62] had taken, he now set them aside. He moved to London in May 1834 and soon after began working on The French Revolution. Writing now with an eye toward his audience, he observed happily that Jane found it a "more readable kind of Book" than Sartor Resartus and became confident it would be "Quite an Epic Poem of the Revolution" (CL, 7:314, 3o6).
Contents last modified 2001; reformatted 2006 & 2015