Henry David Thoreau and Matthew Arnold

Decorative Initial The second component of those strategies that constitute the prophetic pattern takes the form of directly opposing the audience, often by making it the object of explicit attack. As Thoreau, one of the most aggressive of sages, points out, people do not like to hear hard truth, but telling it to them is the sage's duty and prerogative: "All simple and necessary speech between men is sweet; but it takes calamity, it takes death or great good fortune commonly to bring them together. We are sages and proud to speak when we are the bearers of great news, even though it be hard; to tell a man of the welfare of his kindred in foreign parts, or even that his house is on fire, is a great good fortune, and seems to relate us to him by a worthier tie" ("Reform and the Reformers," 189). Thoreau, in fact, foreshadows modern biblical scholars, who trace the notion of the prophet to the Hebrew idea of precisely such a messenger and bringer of news1.

The stance of the Old Testament prophet and the Victorian sage, however, involves more than announcing something important. One can join with his fellows when he conveys good news or bad, and telling someone that his house is on fire requires little more than a loud voice, but when one announces to his contemporaries that they unknowingly stand in burning houses and that their ignorance or evil kindled the flames, a particular posture becomes necessary. Thus, in Jeremiah 5:25 the inspired prophet announces to the Israelites: "Your iniquities have turned away these things, and your sins have withholden good things from you."

Like the Old Testament prophet, therefore, the Victorian sage positions himself in conscious opposition to his audience or entire society. Even Emerson, who rarely writes as a sage, draws several times upon his knowledge of the prophetic tradition to describe aspects of the sage's method or ideas associated with it. In "The Young American" he urges upon his audience the "need of a withdrawal from the crowd, and a resort to the fountain of right, by the brave. The timidity of our public opinion, is our disease, or, shall I say, the publicness of opinion, the absence of private opinion. Good-nature is plentiful, but we want justice, with heart of steel, to fight down the proud" (227). The center of such a belief that one must inevitably stand apart from the mass of men to speak the truth derives ultimately, I suspect, from the more radical portions of Puritan and evangelical Protestantism.2 In its later, dechristianized form it appears as an Emersonian romantic individualism that assumes "the private mind has the access to the totality of goodness and truth, that it may be a balance to a corrupt society; and to stand for the private verdict against popular clamor, is the office of the noble" ("The Young American," 227). The essentially Protestant roots of such Emersonian individualism appear in his assertion that "to believe in your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius" ("Self-Reliance," 259).

Thoreau, who openly opposes and even attacks his audience in his antislavery writings, explains:

If ... we find a certain Few standing aloof from the multitude — not allowing themselves to be carried along by the current of Popular feeling, we may fairly conclude that they have good reason for so doing — that they have looked farther into the subject than others," and in "Popular Feeling" he argues for his assumption that individuals tend to be superior to the masses of their fellows with the following analogy: "Those in the stream ate not aware of the cataract at hand, but those on the bank have it in full view. Whose is the wisest and safest course?" [Early Essays, 24]

Thoreau opens "Walking" by taking precisely such a stance, for he announces: "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness" and to consider man as "part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." He emphasizes that he wishes to make "an extreme statement," an emphatic one, "for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that" (194). After announcing his theme in a relatively neutral tone, Thoreau abruptly becomes hostile and attacks his audience. Although he has immediately revealed that he would oppose the view of man as entirely a social being, he unexpectedly shows both that he himself stands apart from society and that he perceives its members as enemies.

As we see from Thoreau's example, one of the simplest and yet most powerful means by which the sage can distance himself from his audience is to use the second-person pronoun. In "Reform and Reformers," Thoreau makes clear that an unwillingness to set oneself apart from others when necessary, say when one must save them from themselves by warning them of impending disaster, marks conservatives, who "naturally herd together for mutual protection" and naturally employ the first-person-plural pronoun: "They say We and Our, as if they had never been assured of an individual existence. Our Indian policy, our coast defences, our national character. They are what are called public men, fashionable men, ambitious men, chaplains of the army or navy; men of property, standing and repectability, for the most part, and in all cases created by society. Sometimes even they are embarked in 'Great Causes' which have been stranded on the shores of society in a previous age, carrying them through with a kind of detected and traditionary nobleness" (181).

Such direct attack upon the audience is exemplified in Arnold's "My Countrymen," the opening chapter of Friendship's Garland: "You seem to think that you have only got to get on the back of your horse Freedom, or your horse Industry, and ride away as hard as you can, to be sure of coming to the right destination. If your newspapers can say what they like, you think you are sure of being well advised. That comes of your inaptitude for ideas, and aptitude for clap-trap" (5.22; italics added). In the succeeding chapters of Friendship's Garland, which purport to be letters to Arnold from Arminius, Baron von Thunder-ten-Tronckh, he adopts a manner more characteristic of the eighteenth-century satirist than of the Victorian sage since the harsh satire and pointed criticism supposedly come from an outsider. In the opening chapter, in contrast, such direct criticism comes explicitly from the writer himself, and the tone therefore resembles that found in the Victorian sermon or Old Testament prophecy more than in Swift or Pope.

Henry David Thoreau and John Ruskin

Decorative Initial Most writings of the nineteenth-century sages do not, however, employ the second-person simply in a simple, direct attack upon the audience. Instead, they move back and forth between allying themselves with their audience and pulling away to attack it by shifting between you and we. Ruskin follows this manner of proceeding learned from Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and other Hebrew prophets. Like them he adroitly positions himself in relation to his audience. Only rarely in "Traffic" — for example, when he mentions that worship of the golden idols of Mammon is forbidden to "us" — does Ruskin place himself in the same position as his listeners. Only then does he permit them to take him as a man like them. On the other hand, gestures of opposition, rhetorical strategies that place him at a distance from his listeners, occur frequently in the course of his attack upon his audience and what he terms "this idol of yours" (18.457). Such risky rhetorical strategies both set this genre off from most other literary forms and inevitably require special techniques to avoid alienating the sage's intended audience. In other words the crucial difficulty in thus positioning the prophetic voice outside and above the society of the sage's intended listeners is that he must find a way to be superior to them, and to convince them that he is superior to them, without alienating them. Or, to state this fundamental problem in slightly different terms: the audience is willing to pay attention only to someone extraordinary and set apart from the majority of men, but any claim that one possesses special insight threatens to drive it away.

This characteristic positioning of himself as sage in relation to his listeners appears earlier in "Traffic" when Ruskin first instructs them that England will inevitably pass away and then, moving to solace his listeners, reassures them that they have such a dilemma only because they have been deluded by those Others, by the false prophets of laissez faire capitalist economics. Ruskin opens this attack by forcing his listeners to realize that worshipping material success inevitably impoverishes a large portion of English society, after which he anticipates his audience's objections, openly admitting its hostility to him and his revelation: "You will tell me I need not preach against these things, for I cannot mend them. No, good friends, I cannot; but you can and you will; or something else can and will. Even good things have no abiding power — and shall these evil things persist in victorious evil?" (18.455). Arguing that all history shows that change must come to men and societies, Ruskin adds that "it is yours to determine whether change of growth, or change of death" (18.455). Having briefly joined with his listeners when telling them that they can choose their own destinies, he immediately draws apart from them as, again striking the prophet's stance, he places contemporary phenomena in the context of eternity. "Shall the Parthenon," he asks, "be in the ruins on its rock, and Bolton Priory in its meadow, but these mills of yours be the consummation of the buildings of the earth, and their wheels as the wheels of eternity?" ( 18. 455 )

Having first complimented his listeners when he joined with them in the promise that they could choose their own fates, he withdraws from them to place the Signs of the Times within the context of ancient history and eternity. Ruskin then again draws close to his audience by partially absolving it for the present condition of England when he admits that his listeners have not wished to harm others: "I know that none of the wrong is done with deliberate purpose. I know, on the contrary, that you wish your workmen well; that you do much for them, and that you desire to do more for them, if you saw your way to such benevolence safely." Continuing to mix absolution and blame, he adds that he realizes that "even all this wrong and misery are brought about by a warped sense of duty." Then, after having partially absolved his listeners from blame for their treatment of British workers, Ruskin adopts the first-person-plural pronoun to join momentarily with his audience when he claims that "all our hearts have been betrayed by the plausible impiety of the modern economist, telling us that 'To do the best for ourselves, is finally to do the best for others'. Friends, our great Master said not so; and most absolutely we shall find this world is not made so" 18.455-56). Exchanging the second- for the first-person pronoun, Ruskin tries to loosen his audience's allegiance to utilitarian economics, for one way that the sage gains the assent of his listeners is to compliment them or promise them hope after having revealed their perilous condition.

In "A Plea for Captain John Brown," Thoreau follows a very similar strategy in defending the great abolitionist3. He begins one movement or section of the "Plea" gently enough, aligning himself with his listeners and readers when he tells them, "Our foes are in our midst and all about us." Claiming that hardly a house "but is divided against itself," Thoreau finds the cause, the foe, in "the all but universal woodenness of both head and heart ... which is the effect of our vice" and which breeds "fear, superstition, bigotry, persecution, and slavery of all kinds." Like Ruskin, Thoreau finds the root of the problem in a "worship of idols." Brown, he argues, was an exception, a true believer, "for he did not set up even a political graven image between him and his God." Having gently broached the topic of his audience's political, moral, and spiritual corruption, he then intensifies the charges by making them specific, after which he sets Brown apart from his audience. At this point Thoreau begins a new paragraph that violently attacks contemporary churches — and his audience as well. Brown set up no idols between himself and God; the churches, which betray Christ, do: "A church that can never have done with excommunicating Christ while it exists! Away with your broad and flat churches, and your narrow and tall churches! Take a step forward, and invent a new style of outhouses. Invent a salt that will save you, and defend our nostrils" (120). Thoreau's Swiftian analogy between his satiric target and excrement, like his impatient parody of high-, low-, and broad church parties, climaxes in his use of you and your, since these pronouns emphasize that his audience is under direct attack. The audience Thoreau emphasizes, offends "our nostrils. "

In A Tale of a Tub Swift pointed out that satire is a glass, a mirror, in which a man sees every face but his own. As these examples from Ruskin and Thoreau reveal, the sage creates a different kind of satire from that found in neoclassical writers, for he in essence grabs the individual members of his audience by the scruff of the neck and forces them to see themselves in his dark mirror.


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Last modified 14 July 2008