1. The prophetic pattern
This genre, which Thomas Carlyle essentially created in "The Signs of the Times," draws upon the patterns of Old Testament Biblical prophecy, in which the prophet (for example, Jeremiah or Isaiah)
- points to some contemporary phenomena, usually a disaster of some kind;
- interprets it, showing how his peers have abandoned the ways of God and nature,
- predicts final disaster if they continue their evil course, and
- offers a hopeful vision of bliss and prosperity if they improve.
2. Characteristic literary techniques of sage-writing
Since, like the Old Testament prophet, the sages self-consciously position themselves apart from their society (or audience), they must employ devices to convince it that they deserve a hearing. Most of the following devices work by demonstrating that received opinion is incorrect and the sage has special access to some truth essential for the audience's survival:
Virtuoso acts of interpretation. Like the Old Testament prophet, the sage explains unexpected meanings in obviously important contemporary contemporary phenonomena ranging from wars and political uprisings to apparently trivial things like advertising signs and pub decorations. Why would the sages want to point to unimportant materials to show off their interpretive skills?
Grotesque analogies and examples, which take two forms — those the sage finds in contemporary life and those he invents as parables or satiric analogies: the discovered and the invented symbolical grotesque. How do these devices combine with other techniques of sage-writing like definition? What do these grotesque images and analogies tell us about what the sages think about contemporary life? How do these techniques resemble used by novelists, for example those used by Dickens in Great Expectations and Little Dorrit?
Ethos, or the appeal to credibility: the sages always try to convince the audience by a set of arguments and attacks on other views that implicitly state, "Believe me even if my ideas strike you as bizarre because I am trustworthy," All of the sage's techniques contribute to such an effect. How, then, does Ruskin create ethos differently in each of the works you have read, and how does he differ from Arnold or Carlyle? What kind of ethos does Johnson strive for? How do the sages's creation and use of ethos differ from that of novelists like Trollope, Dickens, and Gaskell?
3. The sources of the sage include
- Old Testament prophecy with its four-part pattern,
- Neoclassical satire, which provides many of the sage's satiric techniques, and
- Romantic conceptions of a sincere yet necessarily alienated imaginative figure.
- Victorian sermon tradition
Some Victorians who use and parody sage-writing techniques
- Matthew Arnold
- Max Beerbohm
- Thomas Carlyle
- Gertrude Jekyll
- Florence Nightingale
- John Ruskin
- Oscar Wilde
- George P. Landow, Elegant Jeremiahs: The Sage from Carlyle to Mailer (Cornell UP, 1986: full text in VW)
Last modified 18 January 2009