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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose
23. Thomas Carlyle
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

I gave you in a former letter Burke's famous passage on the fate of Marie Antoinette—in some ways the most splendid of his utterances,—and I now am going to quote to you a very great passage from Thomas Carlyle on the same tragic subject.

Courageous was it of Carlyle, who must certainly have been familiar with Burke's noble ejaculation, to challenge it with emulation; but in the result we must admit that he amply justifies his temerity.

The tragic figure of the queen drawn to execution through the roaring mob inspired Carlyle with what is surely his most overwhelming product.

The august shadow of the Bible is dimly apprehended as the words ascend upwards and upwards with simple sublimity to the awful close.

Nothing he wrote in all his multitudinous volumes surpasses this astonishing outburst:—
"Beautiful Highborn that wert so foully hurled low!

"For, if thy being came to thee out of old Hapsburg Dynasties, came it not also out of Heaven? Sunt lachrymæ rerum, et mentem mortalia tangunt. Oh! is there a man's heart that thinks without pity of those long months and years of slow-wasting ignominy;—of thy birth soft-cradled, the winds of Heaven not to visit thy face too roughly, thy foot to light on softness, thy eye on splendour; and then of thy death, or hundred deaths, to which the guillotine and Fouquier Tinville's judgment was but the merciful end?

"Look there, O man born of woman! The bloom of that fair face is wasted, the hair is grey with care; the brightness of those eyes is quenched, their lids hang drooping, the face is stony pale as of one living in death.

"Mean weeds which her own hand has mended attire the Queen of the World. The death-hurdle, where thou sittest pale, motionless, which only curses environ, has to stop—a people drunk with vengeance will drink it again in full draught, looking at thee there. Far as the eye reaches, a multitudinous sea of maniac heads, the air deaf with their triumph-yell!

"The living-dead must shudder with yet one more pang; her startled blood yet again suffuses with the hue of agony that pale face, which she hides with her hands.

"There is, then, no heart to say, 'God pity thee'?

"O think not of these: think of Him Whom thou worshippest, the Crucified—Who also treading the winepress alone, fronted sorrow still deeper, and triumphed over it, and made it holy, and built of it a Sanctuary of Sorrow for thee and all the wretched!

"Thy path of thorns is nigh ended. One long last look at the Tuileries, where thy step was once so light—where thy children shall not dwell.

"Thy head is on the block; the axe rushes—dumb lies the world; that wild-yelling world, and all its madness, is behind thee."
There is a passage in Carlyle's tempestuous narrative of the taking of the Bastille which has always seemed to me to give it the last consummate touch of greatness.

Suddenly he pauses in the turmoil and dust and wrath and madness of that tremendous conflict, and his poetic vision gazes away over peaceful France, and he exclaims:—
"O evening sun of July, how, at this hour thy beams fall slant on reapers amid peaceful woody fields; on old women spinning in cottages; on ships far out on the silent main; on balls at the Orangerie of Versailles, where high rouged Dames of the palace are even now dancing with double-jacketed Hussar-officers:—and also on this roaring Hell-porch of a Hôtel de Ville."
And a few sentences further on a heart of stone must be moved by what the archives of that grim prison-house revealed:—
"Old secrets come to view; and long-buried despair finds voice. Read this portion of an old letter.

"'If for my consolation Monseigneur would grant me, for the sake of God and the Most Blessed Trinity, that I could have news of my dear wife; were it only her name on a card, to show that she is alive! It were the greatest consolation I could receive; and I should for ever bless the greatness of Monseigneur.'

"Poor prisoner, who namest thyself Queret-Demery, and hast no other history,—she is dead, that dear wife of thine, and thou art dead! Tis fifty years since thy breaking heart put this question; to be heard now first, and long heard, in the hearts of men. "
In the reign of Louis XV. alone, there were no less than fifteen thousand lettres de cachet issued, by which anyone could be suddenly arrested, and, without trial, and, heedless of protest, imprisoned perhaps for life in the Bastille.

In the excesses of the Reign of Terror three or four thousand persons perished. Their deaths were spectacular, and have covered with execrations their dreadful executioners.

But it is right that we should remember, Antony, the life-long agony and the unutterable despair of the victims of that remorselessly cruel system which the Revolution overthrew.

The chapter on the "Everlasting Yea," in Sartor Resartus, seems to me to come nearer to the above excerpts than anything else in Carlyle, though at a perceptible distance:—
"O thou that pinest in the imprisonment of the Actual, and criest bitterly to the gods for a kingdom wherein to rule and create, know this of a truth: the thing thou seekest is already with thee, 'here or nowhere,' couldst thou only see!

"But it is with man's Soul as it was with Nature: the beginning of Creation is—Light. Till the eye have vision the whole members are in bonds. Divine moment, when over the tempest-tossed Soul, as once over the wild-weltering Chaos, it is spoken: 'Let there be Light!' Even to the greatest that has felt such moment is it not miraculous and God-announcing; even as, under simpler figures, to the simplest and least. The mad primeval Discord is hushed; the rudely-jumbled conflicting elements bind themselves into separate Firmaments: deep, silent rock-foundations are built beneath, and the skyey vault, with its everlasting Luminaries, above; instead of a dark, wasteful Chaos, we have a blooming, fertile, heaven-encompassed World.

"I, too, could now say to myself: 'Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it, in God's name! 'Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called to-day; for the night cometh wherein no man can work.'"
There is another passage in Sartor Resartus which I have always held in veneration, though the field labourer is not now so "hardly-entreated" as when Carlyle wrote of him:—
"Two men I honour, and no third. First the toilworn Craftsman that with earth-made implement laboriously conquers the earth, and makes her man's.

"Venerable to me is the hard hand; crooked, coarse; wherein notwithstanding lies a cunning virtue indefeasibly royal, as of the sceptre of this planet. Venerable too is the rugged face, all weather-tanned, besoiled, with its rude intelligence; for it is the face of a man living manlike. Oh, but the more venerable for thy rudeness, and even because we must pity as well as love thee! Hardly-entreated brother! For us was thy back so bent, for us were thy straight limbs and fingers so deformed; thou wert our conscript, on whom the lot fell, and fighting our battles wert so marred. For in thee too lay a god-created form, but it was not to be unfolded; encrusted must it stand with the thick adhesions and defacements of labour; and thy body, like thy soul, was not to know freedom. Yet toil on, toil on; thou art in thy duty, be out of it who may: thou toilest for the altogether indispensable, for daily bread.

"A second man I honour, and still more highly: him who is seen toiling for the spiritually indispensable; not daily bread, but the bread of life. Is not he too in his duty; endeavouring towards inward harmony; revealing this, by act or by word, through all his outward endeavours, be they high or low? Highest of all, when his outward and his inward endeavour are one: when we can name him artist; not earthly craftsman only, but inspired thinker, who with heaven-made implement conquers heaven for us! If the poor and humble toil that we have food, must not the high and glorious toil for him in return, that he have light, have guidance, freedom, immortality? These two, in all their degrees, I honour; all else is chaff and dust, which let the wind blow whither it listeth.

"Unspeakably touching is it, however, when I find both dignities united; and he that must toil outwardly for the lowest of man's wants, is also toiling inwardly for the highest. Sublimer in this world know I nothing than a peasant saint, could such now anywhere be met with. Such a one will take thee back to Nazareth itself; thou wilt see the splendour of heaven spring forth from the humblest depths of earth, like a light shining in great darkness."
Sartor Resartus has long taken its place among the greatest prose works of the nineteenth century, and it is a strange commentary on this mandate to us all to "produce, produce!" to find that for eleven years Carlyle could find no publisher who would give it in book form to the world!

It is a solemn reflection to think that there may be many books of eloquence and splendour that have never seen the light of publicity. Publishers concern themselves less with what is finely written than with what will best sell; and in their defence it may be acceded that some of the masterpieces of literature have at their first appearance before the world fallen dead from the press.

The first edition of FitzGerald's Omar Khayyám, issued at one shilling, was totally unrecognised, and copies of it might have been bought for twopence in the trays and boxes of trash on the pavement outside old bookshops!

But if once a work is published, time will with almost irresistible force place it ultimately in the station it deserves in the literature of the world.

Instant acceptance not seldom preludes final rejection. In the middle of the last century Martin Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy garnished every drawing-room table; and now, where is it?

Your loving old
G.P.

P.S.—Do not look for the passage on Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution, for you will not find it there, but in the "Essay of the Diamond Necklace."

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