Thomas Carlyle

Decorative Initial The sage completes the pattern established by Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets by following visionary threats with visionary promises. The fourth chapter of Isaiah promises all the virtuous in Jerusalem, who "shall be called holy" (4:3), that the Lord will "create upon every dwelling place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defence" (4:5), and the thirty-fifth chapter prophesies that the desert will blossom and the blind will see and the lame will rise up restored. Chapter 58 promises the righteous that when they do God's will, "then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily" (58:8). The solacing visions of the Old Testament prophet compensate for his dire warnings, his visions of peace, security, abundance, and health for those of plague and fire.

In order to complete the prophetic pattern, the secular sages emulate Daniel, Hosea, and Isaiah and offer visions of good that they promise will be fulfilled when their listeners return to the ways of God and nature. For example, Carlyle's "Signs of the Times," which we may take as the first fully developed example of this genre, follows its interpretations, diagnoses, and warnings about the condition of England with words of hope. "We are but fettered," says Carlyle, "by chains of our own forging, and which, ourselves also can rend asunder. This deep, paralysed subjection to physical objects comes not from Nature, but from our own unwise mode of viewing Nature" (27.80-81).

Even machine and mechanism do not reign supreme, however much they might now afflict and even imprison us: "If Mechanism, like some glass bell, encircles and imprisons us; if the soul looks forth on a fair heavenly country which it cannot reach, and pines, and in its scanty atmosphere is ready to perish, — yet the bell is but of glass; one bold stroke to break the bell in pieces, and thou art delivered!"' (27.81)

After claiming that his audience can repair the old temples and recover the wisdom and spiritual health of the ancients, Carlyle insists:

Nor are these the mere daydreams of fancy; they are clear possibilities; nay, in this time they are even assuming the character of hopes. Indications we do see in other countries and in our own, signs infinitely cheering to us, that Mechanism is not always to be our hard taskmaster, but one day t o be our pliant, all-ministering servant; that a new and brighter spiritual era is slowly evolving itself for all men" (27.81).

In Past and Present Carlyle similarly promises his contemporaries "a 'Chivalry of Labour,' and an immeasurable Future which it is to fill with fruitfulness and verdant shade," though he admits they now find themselves only standing on the "threshold, nay as yet outside the threshold" (10.277) of such a blessed time. He therefore closes Past and Present with a paragraph whose first description of the new labor rises to a visionary crescendo of hope:

noble fruitful Labour, growing ever nobler, will come forth, — the grand sole miracle of Man; whereby Man has risen from the low places of this Earth, very literally, into divine Heavens. Ploughers, Spinners, Builders; Prophets, Poets, Kings; Brindleys and Goethes, Odins and Arkwrights; all martyrs, and noble men, and gods are of one grand Host; immeasurable; marching ever forward since the beginnings of the World. The enormous, all-conquering, flame-crowned Host, noble every soldier in it; sacred, and alone noble (10.298).

This passage exemplifies many of the individual stylistic and rhetorical devices that characterize the sage's prophetic closure. First of all, Carlyle employs a complex sentence structure that builds to a rhetorical climax, and he also makes use of a grammatical series that heaps up examples. In addition, he combines these stylistic and rhetorical patterns with imagery of spiritual progress and the heavens. The dawning of a new day, ascent to heaven, or emphasis upon sun or stars also commonly appear in such closes.

John Ruskin

Decorative Initial Ruskin, a master of the closing rhetorical flourish, employs many of these devices throughout Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, and his other writings. For example, he ends his chapter "Of the Foreground" in the first volume of Modern Painters with such a combination of rhetorical climax and closing mention of a star. According to him, everything in nature teaches us the lessons

that the work of the Great Spirit of nature is as deep and unapproachable in the lowest as in the noblest objects; that the Divine mind is as visible in its full energy of operation on every lowly bank and mouldering stone, as in the lifting of the pillars of heaven, and settling the foundation of the earth; and that to the rightly perceiving mind, there is the same infinity, the same majesty, the same power, the same unity, and the same perfection, manifest in the casting of the clay as in the scattering of the cloud, in the mouldering of the dust as in the kindling of the daystar. (3.492 — 93)

Ruskin similarly combines his characteristic rhetorical flourishes with such prophetic revelations of God's presence throughout The Stones of Venice. A fine example of such prophetic closure appears, for instance, in the last sentences of "The Throne," which opens the second volume. In this chapter he has contrasted conventional attitudes toward Venice with the reality of its humble origins, after which in his role as prophet and sage he points out "the value of the instance thus afforded to us at once of the inscrutableness and the wisdom of the ways of God."

If two thousand years ago we could have seen the "slow settling of the slime of those turbid rivers into the polluted sea" and the resulting formation of a "lifeless, impassable, unvoyageable plain," how little we would have understood

the glorious aim which was then in the mind of Him in whose hands are all the comers of the earth! how little imagined that ... there was indeed a preparation, and the only preparation possible, for the founding of a city which was to be set like a golden clasp on the girdle of the earth, to write her history on the white scrolls of the sea-surges, and to word it in their thunder, and to gather and give forth, in world-wide pulsation, the glory of the West and of the East, from the burning heart of her Fortitude and Splendour! (10.145).

Thus playing the sage, Ruskin interprets the significance of an apparently unimportant set of islands in the Venetian lagoon. Any historian, or even anyone with antiquarian interests, could thus have pointed to those islands that provided the first seeds of Venice and its empire. What distinguishes this passage from such straightforward historical discussions, of course, is both that Ruskin finds in these historical facts a divine plan and that he presents his interpretation of it with a dramatic rhetorical flourish alluding to the Bible. As Cook and Wedderbum, Ruskin's editors, point out, the phrase "in whose hands are all the comers of the earth" alludes to Revelation 7:1, and Ruskin uses this allusion as a means of indicating to many of his Victorian readers that they have encountered matters of divine law and inspired prophecy. In fact, the crescendo of lush writing to which the sentence builds finds its justification in the supposed fact that it moves from mere earthly historical matters t o the divine laws that, Ruskin claims, they embody.

Ruskin, who is never shy about claiming that he can read divine intention, frequently ends his chapters with such biblical allusion or by pointing to the presence of God. The second volume of The Stones of Venice characteristically closes upon such a note. Briefly turning away from his main subject, Ruskin pleads for the preservation of Venice and its works of art, which are threatened by man and time and the elements, and as he so frequently does, he cites his own experience to indicate the value of what his contemporaries allow to be destroyed. He mentions several state rooms in the Ducal Palace

that were full of pictures by Veronese and Tintoret, that made their walls as precious as so many kingdoms; so precious, indeed, and so full of majesty, that sometimes when walking at evening on the Lido, whence the great chain of the Alps, crested with silver clouds, might be seen rising above the front of the Ducal Palace, I used to feel as much awe in gazing on the building as on the hills, and could believe that God had done a greater work in breathing into the narrowness of dust the mighty spirits by whom its haughty walls had been raised, and its burning legends written, than in lifting the rocks of granite higher than the clouds of heaven, and veiling them with their various mantle of purple flower and shadowy pine. (10.43-39)

Once again, by indicating the presence of God in unexpected places and things, Ruskin produces a positive note on which to close his discussion, for by insisting upon God's role in creating both Venetian art and the origins of the city, he manages to demonstrate what inspiring, what wonderful, things happen when man does not fall away from God but follows the divine within him — as Ruskin claims to do when writing The Stones of Venice.

Henry David Thoreau

Decorative Initial Thoreau uses similar shifts of tone and rhetoric to close his exercises in this form of writing. The lyrical "Walking" concludes with the hope of an earthly Eden: "So we saunter toward the Holy land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn" (226). "Slavery in Massachusetts," which is more properly a pronouncement of the sage, uses the beauty of nature to suggest a positive vision and a possible good after much pointed satire and bitter invective.1. Walking toward a pond, Thoreau confesses that the crimes of his society spoil his pleasure in nature: "Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her." He then remembers that "the other day" he scented a water lily, "the emblem of purity," which served to show him "what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth," and he therefore realizes: "What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men" (108) .

"The Last Days of John Brown," which presents the great abolitionist in terms of Christian and even Christic martyrdom, argues that in his death Brown achieved a true victory of the spirit. The essential part of John Brown, claims Thoreau, still remains alive and indeed grows ever stronger throughout the land.

Therefore, although he has heard that Brown died on the gallows, he refused and still refuses to believe it:

On the day of his translation, I heard, to be sure, that he was g, but I did not know what that meant; I felt no sorrow on that account; but not for a day or two did I even hear that he was dead, and not after any number of days shall I believe it. Of all the men who were said to be my contemporaries, it seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who had not died. . . I never hear of any particularly brave and earnest man, but my first thought is of John Brown, and what relation he may be to him. I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than he ever was. He has earned immortality. He is not confined to North Elba nor to Kansas. He is no longer working in secret. He works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on this land. [152-53]

'A Plea for Captain John Brown," which presents its subject as the contemporary incarnation of Christ, again uses this imagery of visionary promise when Thoreau translates Brown from earth to heaven and from a human being and hero into an angelic presence: "Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an Angel of Light" (137).


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Last modified 14 July 2008