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13 January, 2012
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
The tragic figure of the queen drawn to execution through the
roaring mob inspired Carlyle with what is surely his most
The august shadow of the Bible is dimly apprehended as the words
ascend upwards and upwards with simple sublimity to the awful
Nothing he wrote in all his multitudinous volumes surpasses this
"Beautiful Highborn that wert so foully hurled low!
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.
"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
"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
"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
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.
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.
"'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
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!
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:—
"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.'"
"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.
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!
"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
"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
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
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
Your loving old
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."