The days of the invisible are over. The proliferation of the machine has bred a mechanized mind that treats everything as if it can be broken down into clearly defined units. Nothing is free from scrutiny. In "Signs of the Times," Thomas Carlyle could be describing any mechanized society up to the present, and the problem we all have in common is our obsession with explaining everything.

In fact, if we look deeper, we shall find that this faith in Mechanism has now struck its roots down into man's most intimate, primary sources of conviction; and is thence sending up, over his whole life and activity, innumerable stems, — fruitbearing and poison-bearing. The truth is, men have lost their belief in the Invisible, and believe, and hope, and work only in the Visible; or, to speak it in other words: This is not a Religious age. Only the material, the immediately practical, not the divine and spiritual, is important to us. [p. 8]

Poetry, the workings of genius itself, which in all times, with one or another meaning, has been called Inspiration, and held to be mysterious and inscrutable, is no longer without its scientific exposition. The building of the lofty rhyme is like any other masonry or bricklaying: we have theories of its rise, height decline and fall- which latter, it would seems, is now near, among all people. Of our "Theories of Taste," as they are called, wherein the deep, infinite, unspeakable Love of Wisdom and Beauty, which dwells in all men, is "explained," made mechanically visible, from "Association" and the like, why should we say anything? [p. 9]


1. Carlyle laments the loss of belief in the invisible and the disappearance of mystery. Nothing is above explanation. How does this attitude manifest itself differently toward religion and poetry?

2. Why does Carlyle choose to capitalize certain nouns such as the "Invisible" and "Inspiration," not to mention his main target of "Mechanism?" Is it simply for emphasis? Do these ideas take on living personas?

3. Carlyle's era of men "guided only by their self-interests" who think that their "happiness depends entirely on external circumstances," resembles that of Tom Wolfe's 1960s where the youthful middle-class built their own status-spheres in an attempt to find happiness in external circumstances. What are the similarities and differences between Carlyle and Wolfe's audiences and their opinions of them?

4. Carlyle concludes his essay with several contradictory statements. He triumphantly posits that "heroic worth of our forefathers, which we have lost, we can recover." He then states that Earth's wondrous destinies are "under a higher guidance that ours." Carlyle seems to be simultaneously assured of the possibility for change and resigned to a destiny beyond man's control. Where does this conclusion leave the reader and how does it reflect upon the rest of the essay? Is he reminding us the leave some of the issue unexplained?


Text of "Signs of the Times."

Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified 7 March 2005