Saturday, May 11, 2013

On History

Carlyle in 1848
"On History," by Thomas Carlyle

A little while ago I was thinking I would try to read some old, classic-type essays for my Essay Challenge.  I picked out a little Shelley, a little Browning, I'm thinking about Coleridge....and then I thought "Aha!  I will read something by the grand-daddy of them all, the most Victorian writer that ever was: Carlyle."  Carlyle was so respected, so beloved (so controversial!), all those Victorians just thought he was super.  I decided that I would figure this out and read some Carlyle, so I checked a "Selected Works" volume out and picked out a few things to try.

I read a short early essay called "On History," which is about...history.  Why we should study it, who should write it, how excellent it is that history is currently a popular subject of study (in 1830, that is).   History is the most important kind of writing, and yet it is impossible to write an accurate history, because we can't know everything, so we're just picking out certain bits and leaving the rest unknown.

Well.  You know how some authors are super-popular in their own age, and then no one else afterwards can really see the appeal?  Carlyle must be the best example ever of such an author.  As far as I am concerned, he is almost completely impenetrable.  He uses a lot of fancy words and writes a lot of high-flown sentences, but what do they mean?  At best, they are woolly in the extreme.  (At worst, I'm afraid he reminds me of a student trying to pad out an essay.  Sorry.)  Here is a sample from "On History:"
He who should write a proper History of Poetry, would depict for us the successive Revelations which man had obtained of the Spirit of Nature; under what aspects he had caught and endeavored to body forth some glimpse of that unspeakable Beauty, which in its highest clearness is Religion, is the inspiration of a Prophet, yet in one or the other degree must inspire every true Singer, were his theme never so humble. We should see by what steps men had ascended to the Temple; how near they had approached; by what ill-hap they had, for long periods, turned away from it, and grovelled on the plain with no music in the air, or blindly struggled toward other heights.
I could absolutely read and understand Carlyle if I wanted to put in the effort.  I don't.  Sorry Carlyle, as much as I love much of Victorian literature, I do not love you. 

3 comments:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

"no one else afterwards can really see the appeal" should be taken as an exaggeration.

Amy said...

Yes, that does sound tiresome! Worse than Rousseau, I'd say. :P

Jean said...

Well, yes, it was an exaggeration, Tom. :)

Amy, I'm not touching Rousseau! No way!