hroughout his essay "The Hero as Man of Letters," Thomas Carlyle displays his profound admiration for his subjects Johnson, Rousseau, and Burns with effusive and unabashedly enthusiastic prose. Carlyle's essay is essentially its own form of "hero worship," and in the passage below, he qualifies and augments his adoration of Robert Burns by filtering it through the praise of a variety of different characters. Each of these figures serves to reinforce Carlyle's own opinions, and through this splintering of himself into the diverse personages described below, Carlyle effectively creates an entire range of hero-worshippers, thus ensuring that each of his readers may find a familiar and trusted character by which to be convinced of the author's argument in favor of Burns.
You would think it strange if I called Burns the most gifted British soul we had in all that century of his: and yet I believe the day is coming when there will be little danger in saying so. His writings, all that he did under such obstructions, are only a poor fragment of him. Professor Stewart remarked very justly, what indeed is true of all Poets good for much, that his poetry was not any particular faculty; but the general result of a naturally vigorous original mind expressing itself in that way. Burns's gifts, expressed in conversation, are the theme of all that ever heard him. All kinds of gifts: from the gracefulest utterances of courtesy, to the highest fire of passionate speech; loud floods of mirth, soft wailings of affection, laconic emphasis, clear piercing insight; all was in him. Witty duchesses celebrate him as a man whose speech "led them off their feet." This is beautiful: but still more beautiful that which Mr. Lockhart has recorded, which I have more than once alluded to, How the waiters and ostlers at inns would get out of bed, and come crowding to hear this man speak! Waiters and ostlers: — they too were men, and here was a man! I have heard much about his speech; but one of the best things I ever heard of it was, last year, from a venerable gentleman long familiar with him. That it was speech distinguished by always having something in it. "He spoke rather little than much," this old man told me; "sat rather silent in those early days, as in the company of persons above him; and always when he did speak, it was to throw new light on the matter." I know not why any one should ever speak otherwise! — But if we look at his general force of soul, his healthy robustness every way, the rugged downrightness, penetration, generous valor and manfulness that was in him, — where shall we readily find a better-gifted man?
From his appeal to the thoughts of academics such as Professor Stuart to his description of the duchesses' reaction to Burns, Carlyle creates such a variety of support for his subject that it would be difficult for any reader to remain unconvinced of Burns' worth. Most affecting, perhaps, is Carlyle's relation of Mr. Lockhart's account of servants' eagerness to hear Burns speak; although his readers would not have included people who could relate personally to the "waiters and ostlers," Carlyle's inclusion of their experiences serves as a potent example of Burns' universal appeal. A man who could enrapture both powerful ladies and gentlemen and lowly stable boys would certainly have appeared to Carlyle's audience as one who possessed "a healthy robustness in every way."
1. Why doesn't Carlyle precisely attribute the quotation of the duchesses? How does this ambiguity affect our reading of the passage as a whole?
2. Some of the people to whom Carlyle refers are not especially well-known today (Professor Stuart, Mr. Lockhart), and the old man who claims to be an acquaintance of Burns' is not even named. Does Carlyle's mentioning these men make his argument more or less credible, and why?
3. Carlyle makes abundant use of exclamation points, dashes, and italics throughout this essay. How do these devices shape the flow of this passage and assist the author in accomplishing his ends? How might the effect of these devices in Carlyle's work relate to their effect in Tom Wolfe's?
4. Why does Carlyle begin this passage the way he does? What is the effect of his prefacing unchecked and widely supported praise for Burns with the claim that we, his readers, might find his views "strange"?
5. Carlyle often speaks as though he himself has heard Burns speak, but in fact he has not. In light of this fact, do his effusions appear foolish, or do they merely evidence the way the others feel about Burns and the way Carlyle himself views his subjects life and work?
Last modified 10 October 2007