Decorative Initial In the Old Testament the prophet's chief taskinvolves communicating a divine warning to an erring, disobedient people. As Hosea exclaims, "O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity" (14:1). Compared to most prophetic warnings, this by Hosea strikes one as rather mild, and Joel, speaking with the words of God, sounds a more strident note: "Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand" (2:1). Micah, who promises dreadful punishment for falling away from the Lord, presents an even more terrifying vision to warn his listeners away from sin:

"Hear, all ye people; hearken, O earth, and all that therein is.... For, behold, the Lord cometh forth out of his place, and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains shall be molten under him, and the valleys shall be cleft, as wax before the fire, and as the waters that are poured down a steep place. For the transgression of Jacob is all this, and for the sins of the house of Israel" (1:2-4).

Nonetheless, no matter how terrifying are his visions of punishment, the prophet presents them to offer his listeners one more chance to survive, for his portrayals of a vengeful God paradoxically derive from that God's mercy. According to Ezekiel, the Lord promises,

"I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways.... Repent, and turn yourselves from your transgressions; so your iniquity shall not be your ruin.... I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God; wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye" (18:30, 32). The prophet's harsh pronouncements offer an undeserved second chance.

This situation in which the prophet, an outsider, comes forth to testify of God's imminent punishment to those in power becomes paradigmatic for Carlyle, who alludes to it frequently. In Past and Present, for example, he presents the Peterloo Massacre as a crucial event that prompts the prophet to come forward. This work opens, as we have already observed, with Carlyle pointing to a situation that demands his interpretation, and when it mentions the Peterloo Massacre he repeats the set of techniques with which he began — but with a difference, for he now adds the prophet's warning. First he announces his subject, and then he suggests that something about it is not understood: "Some thirteen unarmed men and women cut down, — the number of the slain and maimed is very countable: but the treasury of rage, burning hidden or visible in all hearts ever since, more or less perverting the effort and aim of all hearts ever since, is of unknown extent." Third, he underlines the importance of the situation by alluding to the Book of Daniel:

"In all hearts that witnessed Peterloo, stands written, as in fire-characters, or smoke-characters prompt to become fire again, a legible balance account of grim vengeance; very unjustly balanced, much exaggerated, as is the way with such accounts: but payable readily at sight, in full with compound interest!" Fourth, he again provides a voice for inarticulate phenomena, in this case for the workers, many of whom lie dead: "And this is what these poor Manchester operatives, with all the darkness that was in them and round them, did manage to perform. They put their huge inarticulate question, 'What do you mean to do with us?' in a manner audible to every reflective soul in this kingdom. [10.1-17.

All England heard the question, though few understood it; all England saw the fire-letters, the writing on the wall, though few grasped its meaning. Fifth and finally, the sage warns of imminent, inevitable judgment. "All England heard the question," says Carlyle. "England will answer it; or, on the whole, England will perish" (10.17). This is the basic message of the sage: reform or perish. It is the message, for example, of Ruskin in The Stones of Venice and of Thoreau in all his antislavery speeches and essays. Their interpretations, like those of Carlyle, reveal that their contemporaries have abandoned or fallen away from the divine laws that inform the universe and that without such guides they are wandering toward a dreadful destruction.

Carlyle makes the biblical origins of this technique quite clear t o his reader, for he points out in detail the situation in which his warning is announced. And the situation is the same, urges Carlyle, with nations. The ancient guides — "Prophets, Priests, or whatever their name" — warned nations when they took the wrong path, but the "modern guides of Nations ... Journalists, Political Economists, Politicians, Pamphleteers, have entirely forgotten this, and are ready to deny this" (10.28). One cannot deny truth, however, and survive for long. "When a Nation is unhappy, the old Prophet was right and not wrong in saying to it: Ye have forgotten God, ye have quitted the ways of God, or ye would not have been unhappy. It is not according to the laws of Fact that ye have lived and guided yourselves, but according to the laws of Delusion, Imposture, and wilful and unwilful Mistake of Fact" (10.28). Pointing out that established authorities have failed to warn his contemporaries, Carlyle justifies his enterprise; pointing out what the prophets did for their people, the spiritual predecessors of his British audience, both indicates the nature of his task and further justifies it. He then uses additional devices to win the audience's favor, making up for the abrasive tone of his warning, a warning that necessarily contains an attack upon his audience, by disclaiming his own responsibility for his dire message:

It is Fact, speaking once more, in miraculous thunder-voice, from out of the centre of the world; — how unknown its language to the deaf and foolish many; how distinct, undeniable, terrible and yet beneficent, to the hearing few: Behold, ye shall grow wiser, or ye shall die! . . . Such is the God's-message to us, once more, in these modern days. [10.29-30]

It is fact, rather than Carlyle, he claims, that conveys this warning; he is a mere translator. By employing the first-person plural pronoun, he joins with the audience and thus implicitly admits some responsibility for the present situation. Several times later in Past and Present, Carlyle repeats the prophetic pattern, following interpretation and diagnosis by prophetic warning. (See, for example, 10.142-44 and 176.) His elaborate repetitions of the prophet's warning are well suited to the episodic or segmented structure of prophecy and of course contribute to it.

Although both nineteenth- and twentieth-century sages thus speak or write as ventriloquists for mute phenomena, the modems, who tend to collapse the various parts of the prophetic pattern into one another, rarely make the kind of explicit warnings that Carlyle, Arnold, and Ruskin do. Instead, their often gloomy portraits of contemporary men and mores warn by implication: If you do not change things, these banalities, these horrors, will be even more common in your future than they are now; indeed, they will be your future. Didion's "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" and "White Album," and Wolfe's "Pump House Gang," "Put-Together Girl," and "Noonday Underground," all accost the reader with representative situations that both permit us to perceive cultural crisis better and warn us about our future.


Victorian Web Genre and Mode Next contents

Last modified 14 July 2008