Carlyle & Murdered Children

Carlyle, the first of the Victorian sages, liberally salts his works with symbolical grotesques he finds in contemporary phenomena or constructs out of them, and like the Old Testament prophets, he uses such combinations of satire, symbols, and the grotesque to reveal the perilous spiritual condition of his age. Many of these grotesque Signs of the Times turn out to be obviously significant things or events, such as the Peterloo Massacre, but many others, like the Irish widow's death, exemplify matters that received comparatively little public attention. Past and Present, which in so many ways can stand as the epitome of this kind of writing, contains another instance of such sordid, disturbing, but seemingly minor phenomena. Here not criminal indifference but a hideous crime is the subject, for Carlyle points to an example of child murder for money as a Sign of the Times that sums up the spiritual state of the modern world:

At Stockport Assizes, — and this too has no reference to the present state of trade, being of date prior to that, — a Mother and a Father are arraigned and found guilty of poisoning three of their children, to defraud a "burial-society" of some 31. 8s. due on the death of each child they are arraigned, found guilty; and the official authorities, it is whispered, hint that perhaps the case is not solitary, that perhaps you had better not probe farther into that department of things.... It is an incident worth lingering on.... Such instances are like the highest mountain apex emerged into view; under which lies a whole mountain region and land, not yet emerged. [10.4]

Carlyle does not, in the manner of the reporter on the modern tabloid, use such incidents purely to arouse jaded or sick appetites. Rather he finds in such grotesqueness a symbol of the condition of England, a symptom of his age's spiritual and mental state. Carlyle's citation of the Stockport murder, Arnold's mention of similar crimes a decade later, and similar examinations of crime by Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and Kate Millett all force the reader to confront hideous evil and attempt to determine if these horrors are truly Signs of the Times. Such examination of grotesque evil plays an important part in the writings of the sage from Carlyle to the present day, for it forces upon the reader the immediate need to understand what is not ultimately understandable — the presence of pain and suffering in human existence. The very horror of such crimes makes them of interest, makes them fascinate, for we feel we must try to understand the apparently meaningless incursion of chaos into everyday life. Such symbolical grotesques inevitably direct our attention to what are essentially religious questions, but because they appear in a political context, they raise political ones as well. This particular incident of grotesque horror leads Carlyle to raise the question, once again, of what wealth means and to whom it does any good in the modern world.

Arnold and Murdered Children

More than two decades after Carlyle had drawn his audience's attention to child murder for profit, Arnold made use of infanticide as a grotesque emblem of the condition of England. In "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," which he delivered at Oxford during October 1864, he quoted a newspaper report to deflate English self-satisfaction (and hence demonstrate the need for criticism): "'A shocking child murder has just been committed at Nottingham. A girl named Wragg left the workhouse there on Saturday morning with her young illegitimate child. The child was soon afterwards found dead on Mapperly Hills, having been strangled. Wragg is in custody."' Arnold points out how "eloquent" is this newspaper account when juxtaposed with the "absolute eulogies of Sir Charles Adderley and Mr. Roebuck.... 'Our old Anglo-Saxon breed, the best in the whole world!' — how much that is harsh and ill-favoured there is in this best! Wragg!" (3.273). Arnold's tone makes this citation of child murder an even more aggressive attack upon opposing points of view than Carlyle's had been. Carlyle aimed his discussion of the Stockport murders, however, directly at his audience whereas Arnold directs his at Adderley and Roebuck, thereby permitting his Oxford audience, many of whom were opposed to them, to avoid feeling under attack.

Although the Peterloo riots had an obvious major significance to many of Carlyle's contemporaries and the grotesque incidents at Stockport and Nottingham did not, all three demand some sort of explanation because they so clearly raise major questions about the spiritual and political condition of England. Many of the most effective symbolical grotesques created from contemporary events by Carlyle and other sages, on the other hand, take the form of far more trivial phenomena that are apparently beneath the notice of serious people at least until the sage turns his attention to them and thereby transforms them into symbolical grotesques.

In fact, this identification and subsequent interpretation of trivial phenomena as the embodiments of important truths provides one of the characteristic procedures of both Victorian and modem sages. For example, immediately after Arnold has placed Wragg's act of infanticide next to claims that English stock is the world's finest, he draws attention to precisely such a trivial phenomenon — "the natural growth amongst us of such hideous names, — Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg!" According to him, such names imply "a touch of grossness in our race" and an intrinsic, "original shortcoming in the more delicate spiritual perceptions" (3.273). R. H. Super, Arnold's editor, points out that these are names of great antiquity in Britain. Therefore, Arnold's point that they represent something originally present in the nation has some grounds, though his additional claim that the increasing number of people with such names demonstrates essential flaws in the national character seems a trifle foolish and unconvincing.

As this example suggests, such interpretations of the trivial force the writer to take grave rhetorical risks since he can easily lose the confidence of his audience, but they also guarantee that, when successful, the writer will have established his claims to authority and credibility — claims that are essential in an age of transition and shaken belief. By demonstrating to the members of his audience that he can reveal such truth in unexpected places, the sage convinces them to give a hearing to his views of man, society, and culture, which might at first seem eccentric and even insane. Furthermore, by employing apparently trivial phenomena as the stuff of his symbolical grotesques (and their subsequent interpretation), the sage also obtains a ready means of mocking the shortcomings of society.

Amphibious Popes, 7-Foot Hats

Past and Present employs a series of contemporary facts to create grotesque emblems of what Carlyle finds wrong with nineteenth-century life. "Phenomena," the opening chapter of the third book of Past and Present, uses the fact of an "amphibious Pope" to epitomize what has happened to Christianity. When the pope's rheumatism made kneeling during the Corpus Christi processions difficult, his cardinals constructed "a stuffed cloaked figure, of iron and wood, with wool or baked hair; and placed it in a kneeling posture. Stuffed figure, or rump of a figure; to this stuffed rump he, sitting at his ease on a lower level joins, by the aid of cloaks and drapery, his living head and outspread hands: the rump with its cloak kneels, the Pope looks, and holds his hands spread; so the two in concert bless the Roman population on Corpus-Christi Day, as well as they can" (10.138). According to Carlyle, the pope thus sums up the entire "Scenic Theory of Worship": "Here is a Supreme Priest who believes . . . that all worship of God is a scenic phantasmagory of wax-candles, organ-blasts, Gregorian chants, massbrayings, purple monsignori, wool-and-iron rumps, artistically spread out, — to save the ignorant from worse" (10.138). Admitting the pope's charities, the bravery of his priests during a recent plague in Naples, and his wish to protect the poor and ignorant from unbelief, Carlyle nonetheless mocks him as an embodiment of "worshipping by stage-machinery" (10.139) in order to protect the established political order from proletarian rage. Such "Gregorian Chant, and beautiful wax-light Phantasmagory" hide "an Abyss, of Black Doubt, Scepticism, nay Sansculottic Jacobinism" (10.139). Carlyle thus reveals that the way the pope's infirmities were accommodated one feast day can tell us what we most need to know about the spiritual and political infirmities of the age as well. His sage's vision has in fact transformed an apparently trivial contemporary phenomenon into a Belshazzar fire-letter that warns his readers that they cannot hope to survive by using an obsolete religion to prop up an obsolete political system.

Such an attack upon the Roman church would have appealed to the many Victorian Protestants who were bitterly hostile to it, and Carlyle's particular harsh criticisms of Catholic pageantry and ritual applied to High Church Anglicanism as well. This symbolical grotesque therefore strikes one as a rather orthodox, if wonderfully effective, piece of satire in which the satirist who writes from the vantage point of society lambasts someone on the fringes. In fact, Carlyle, who writes here as a sage, follows the strategies of the Old Testament prophet and attacks his audience with a second symbolical grotesque. After pointing to the "huge Imposture" (10.140) and obsolete forms represented by the actions of the monarch's champion on Coronation Day, Carlyle directs his reader's attention to the British equivalent of the amphibious pope —

that great Hat seven feet high, which now perambulates London streets.... The Hatter in the Strand of London, instead of making better felt-hats than another, mounts a huge lath-and-plaster Hat, seven-feet high, upon wheels; sends a man to drive it through the streets; hoping to be saved thereby" (10.141).

Rather than attempting to make better hats, he instead expends all his efforts to persuade others that he has done so. "He too knows that the Quack has become God" (10.141). Unlike the grotesque emblem Carlyle locates in Rome — a grotesque his readers are only too likely to mock as having no relevance to their lot — this London one has no redeeming qualities. The creators of the amphibious pope at least tried to maintain what had once been an effective political and spiritual order in the world, but the creators of the seven-foot hat use such quackery only to make money for themselves. Carlyle therefore finds in this foolish bit of puffery a dreadful warning to his contemporaries: "To me," he says, "this all-deafening blast of Puffery, of poor Falsehood grown necessitous, of poor Heart-Atheism fallen now into Enchanted Workhouses, sounds too surely like a Doom's-blast!" (10.142), and he ends this chapter with the prophet's warning to those who have fallen away from the ways of Truth.

Oh, it is frightful when a whole Nation, as our Fathers used to say, has "forgotten God"; has remembered only Mammon, and what Mammon leads to! When your self-trumpeting Hatmaker is the emblem of almost all makers, and workers, and men that make anything, — from soul-overseerships, body-overseerships, epic poems, acts of parliament, to hats and shoe-blacking! Not one false man but does uncountable mischief how much, in a generation or two, will Twenty-seven Millions, mostly false, manage to accumulate? The sum of it, visible in every street, market-place, senate-house, circulating library, cathedral, cotton-mill, and union-workhouse, fills one not with a comic feeling! (10.144)

Ruskin, Gold, and Death

Ruskin similarly employs "found" grotesques intermingled with the sage's other techniques. For example, in Unto This Last he uses a series of these grotesques to question the validity of the way popularized versions of classical economics define value and possession. Drawing his audience's attention to the embalmed body of St. Carlo Borromeo in Milan Cathedral, Ruskin points out that it holds

a golden crosier, and has a cross of emeralds on its breast" and asks several questions: "Admitting the crosier and emeralds to be useful articles, is the body to be considered as 'having' them? Do they, in the politico-economical sense of property, belong to it? If not, and if we may, therefore, conclude generally that a dead body cannot possess property, what degree and period of animation in the body will render possession possible?

At this point Ruskin cites a second, far more grotesque phenomenon, one taken from contemporary events: "Lately in a wreck of a Californian ship, one of the passengers fastened a belt about him with two hundred pounds of gold in it, with which he was found afterwards at the bottom. Now, as he was sinking — had he the gold? or had the gold him?" (17.86). Here, in brief compass, Ruskin has an emblem of modern society and its relation to its possessions. These satirical grotesques, which play a role in Ruskinian redefinitions of economic terminology, reverberate and expand until they indict an entire society that is hurtling self-destructively into the depths in pursuit of material wealth.

Ruskin, who follows Carlyle in making use of elaborate satirical grotesques created from phenomena encountered in newspaper reports, also develops his own characteristic form based upon landscape description. His elaborate word-painting of La Riccia in the first volume of Modern Painters (3.278 80) and that of Torcello in The Stones of Venice (10.79-90) exemplify his many transformations of landscape into emblem.

Lawrence's Landscape emblems

Because we shall observe the literary techniques that make up Ruskinian word-painting in chapter 4, "The Sage as Master of Experience," I should here like to widen my range of examples and cite D. H. Lawrence, who learned his word-painting from Ruskin, to exemplify the sage's creation of symbolical grotesques from landscape. In addition to incorporating Ruskinian phenomenological descriptions of the exterior and interior worlds into his writing, Lawrence also employs Ruskinian transformation of natural phenomena into emblems. Lawrence's emblematization of landscape set pieces appears throughout both his travel writing and his fiction. In Sea and Sardinia, for example, he presents the solitary figure working within the landscape as an emblem of the old full life, which he contrasts to the life of man under industrialism. He begins, as he so frequently does in such set pieces, by presenting the scene from the vantage point of those moving through a defined space.

Soon we begin to climb to the hills. And soon the cultivation be; gins to be intermittent. Extraordinary how the healthy, moor-like hills come near the sea extraordinary how scrubby and uninhabited the great spaces of Sardinia are. It is wild, with heath and arbutus scrub and a sort of myrtle, breast-high. Sometimes one sees a few head of cattle. And then again come the greyish arable-patches, where the corn is grown. It is like Cornwall, like the Land's End region. Here and there, in the distance, are peasants working on the lonely landscape. Sometimes it is one man alone in the distance, showing so vividly in his black-and-white costume, small and far-off like a solitary magpie, and curiously distinct. All of the strange magic of Sardinia is in this sight. Among the low, moor-like hills, away in a hollow of the wide landscape one solitary figure, small but vivid black-and-white, working alone, as if eternally. There are patches and hollows of grey arable land, good for corn. Sardinia was once a great granary.

Unlike either Ruskin's or Lawrence's own pure word-painting, this passage devotes little effort to presenting visual reality. He briefly mentions an act of vision but does not present visual facts of form, color, or brightness in any detail. Instead, the narrating voice simply names the objects perceived, after which it comments in some way upon their significance. Although Lawrence organizes the narration of his encounter with the Sardinian landscape in terms of a physical movement through it, he concentrates not as in other places in his writing upon the experience of the visual facts, but rather upon the meaning that these facts have for him. Lawrence, in other words, here emphasizes an act of interpretation rather than one of visual perception.

Any attempt to present landscape can take three forms — the actual act of perception and the visual experience itself; the primary interpretation of experience (these patches of color are arable fields); and then the political, moral, or philosophical interpretation of this second level (such fields represent man in a natural relation to an unsullied nature). Lawrence, who here concerns himself with the second and third steps almost entirely, thus begins by presenting the action of the climb, then what that act of climbing first reveals — here the fact that cultivated fields become intermittent — after which the describer (or narrator) comments upon the unusual fact that the hills come so close to the sea. He next comments how "scrubby and uninhabited" are Sardinia's great spaces as if to indicate how small a role man has in this world and how little room he and his activities occupy in it. Then, after specifically naming the kind of vegetation that contributes to this overall impression of wildness, Lawrence mentions another visual act: "Sometimes one sees a few head of cattle." Next he compares the scene to the Land's End region of Cornwall, and this mention of native English landscape provides an analogy that makes the Sardinian landscape more understandable. Finally, he arrives at what turns out to be the intellectual center of this passage of description and the purpose to which it has been building: the appearance of solitary human beings working in the midst of this wild, untamed, encompassing nature that no one has yet managed to soil, exhaust, or control.

Immediately after presenting this Wordsworthian vignette, Lawrence makes a sharp contrast between it and scenes one encounters elsewhere and thereupon draws some culturally significant conclusions about this contrast.

Usually, however, the peasants of the South have left off the costume. Usually it is the invisible soldiers' grey-green cloth, the Italian khaki. Wherever you go, wherever you be, you see this khaki, this grey-green war-clothing. How many millions of yards of the thick, excellent, but hateful material the Italian Government must have provided I don't know: but enough to cover Italy with a felt carpet, I should think. It is everywhere. It cases the tiny children in stiff and neutral frocks and coats, it covers their extinguished fathers, and sometimes it even encloses the women in its warmth. It is symbolic of the universal grey mist that has come over men, the extinguishing of all bright individuality, the blotting out of all wild singleness. Oh, democracy! Oh, khaki democracy (71)

In addition to possessing the obviously Ruskinian (and Carlylean) contrast of past and present — the one organic and healthy, the other unnatural and destructive — Lawrence's description of his climb through the Sardinian hills also makes an essentially Ruskinian application of an essentially Ruskinian technique. Like Ruskin he casts himself in the role of the sage who can discern matters of grave importance to his audience in the most unlikely and even apparently trivial contemporary phenomena. Like his Victorian forebear, Lawrence proceeds by performing an act of interpretation that transforms these phenomena into an emblem of contemporary spiritual states of mind and soul. Furthermore, like Ruskin, who claimed in Modern Painters that his times, not the medieval ones, were the Dark Ages, he points to the way men clothe themselves to suggest how much his contemporaries have lost — how much the age of industrialization has taken from man and his environment.

Ruskin's Narrative Grotesques

A second form of the invented symbolical grotesque, the one that takes the form of a brief narrative, also appears in "Traffic." When Ruskin argues against those who claim that they cannot afford to create beautiful surroundings for human life, he employs a characteristic parable to reduce such opposing claims to absurdity. Suppose, he instructs his listeners, that he had been sent for "by some private gentleman, living in a suburban house, with his garden separated only by a fruit wall from his next door neighbour's" (18.438) to advise him how to furnish his drawing-room. Finding the walls bare, Ruskin suggests rich furnishings, say fresco-painted ceilings, elegant wallpaper, and damask curtains, and his client complains of the expense, which he cannot afford. Pointing out that his client is supposed to be a wealthy man, he is told:

"Ah yes," says my friend, "but do you know, at present, I am obliged to spend it nearly all on steel-traps." "Steel-traps! for whom?" "Why, for that fellow on the other side of the wall, you know: we're very good friends, capital friends; but we are obliged to keep our traps set on both sides of the wall; we could not possibly keep on friendly terms without them, and our spring guns. The worst of it is, that we are both clever fellows enough; and there's never a day passes that we don't find out a new trap, or a new gun-barrel, or something." [18.438-39]

Fifteen million a year, his client tells Ruskin, the two good neighbors spend on such traps, and he doesn't see how they could do with less, and so Ruskin the room decorator must understand why so few resources exist to beautify his client's environment.

Turning to his audience, Ruskin abandons the pose of the naif and comments in the tones of the Old Testament prophet: "A highly comic state of life for two private gentlemen! but for two nations, it seems to me, not wholly comic." Bedlam might be comic, he supposes, if it had only one madman, and Christmas pantomines are comic with one clown, "but when the whole world turns clown, and paints itself red with its own heart's blood instead of vermilion, it is something else than comic, I think" (18.278). Having first mocked with his satirical parable the intellectual seriousness of his listeners' selfjustifications for failing to spend money on beautifying their environments, Ruskin next moves from mocking to damning them. In the manner of the Old Testament prophet he demonstrates that the actions of his contemporaries reveal that they have abandoned the ways of God and are inevitably heading toward a terrible destruction.

Like most other techniques of the sage, this Ruskinian parable serves multiple functions: It simultaneously interprets the dullness of English design in terms of the nation's political, economic, and military choices and satirizes England and the English; it diagnoses his nation's ills, explains how they came about, and threatens worse disaster if proper actions are not taken; it contributes to Ruskin's position or pose as a wisdom-speaker and hence adds to his ethos; and it creates a self contained section or episode that can convince readers even if they reject Ruskin's other points in "Traffic."

Such self-contained parables, sections, and arguments typify the writing of the sage and create its characteristic discontinuity. On the one hand, this discontinuous, segmented form obviously derives from Old Testament prophecy. On the other, it is the product of romanticism's emphasis upon lyric moments and upon moments of intense experience and intense expression. Romanticism's emphasis upon these lyric bursts and visionary tableaux, a result or possibly source of making the Lyric the central form of the age, creates major problems for writers and readers, and one of the most noticeable of these was the loss of ability to read epic and similar long forms properly. Croce's reading La Divina Commedia as an assemblage of Lyric poems and brief narratives and several generations of critics' mishandling of Paradise Lost show one of the consequences of such elevation of Lyric to a dominant form, and the British romantic poet's general lack of success with the long forms embodies another. One genre in which nineteenth-century authors from Carlyle onward managed to solve the problems posed by such an emphasis upon intense passages (whether of satire or of vision) is that composed by the writings of the sage. In this form, which already takes great rhetorical risks, formal unity is often a matter of repetition and trains of imagery and paradigms, and the discontinuity, which elsewhere hinders success, here proves to promote it. The genre's rapid shifts of tone, abrupt change of vantage point, and alternation of satire and vision all lend themselves to more or less self-contained minor structures within the entire work. Within this kind of aesthetic, such compartmentalization proves an advantage because if the sage fails to convince in one section, the separation between parts serves to provide an almost entirely fresh start. Since the sage strives chiefly to change the way his audience perceives various matters, any single success in this enterprise can carry the day.


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Last modified 14 July 2008