Thomas Carlyle.

Sartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history online

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this hand, at Delhi on that; - glancing in valour and splendour and the
light of genius, Arabia shines through long ages over a great section
of the world. Belief is great, life-giving. The history of a Nation
becomes fruitful, soul-elevating, great, so soon as it believes. These
Arabs, the man Mahomet, and that one century, - is it not as if a spark
had fallen, one spark, on a world of what seemed black unnoticeable
sand; but lo, the sand proves explosive powder, blazes heaven-high
from Delhi to Grenada! I said, the Great Man was always as lightning
out of Heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they
too would flame.



[_Tuesday, 12th May 1840_]

The Hero as Divinity, the Hero as Prophet, are productions of old
ages; not to be repeated in the new. They presuppose a certain
rudeness of conception, which the progress of mere scientific
knowledge puts an end to. There needs to be, as it were, a world
vacant, or almost vacant of scientific forms, if men in their loving
wonder are to fancy their fellow-man either a god or one speaking with
the voice of a god. Divinity and Prophet are past. We are now to see
our Hero in the less ambitious, but also less questionable, character
of Poet; a character which does not pass. The Poet is a heroic figure
belonging to all ages; whom all ages possess, when once he is
produced, whom the newest age as the oldest may produce; - and will
produce, always when Nature pleases. Let Nature send a Hero-soul; in
no age is it other than possible that he may be shaped into a Poet.

Hero, Prophet, Poet, - many different names, in different times and
places, do we give to Great Men; according to varieties we note in
them, according to the sphere in which they have displayed themselves!
We might give many more names, on this same principle. I will remark
again, however, as a fact not unimportant to be understood, that the
different _sphere_ constitutes the grand origin of such distinction;
that the Hero can be Poet, Prophet, King, Priest or what you will,
according to the kind of world he finds himself born into. I confess,
I have no notion of a truly great man that could not be _all_ sorts of
men. The Poet who could merely sit on a chair, and compose stanzas,
would never make a stanza worth much. He could not sing the Heroic
warrior, unless he himself were at least a Heroic warrior too. I fancy
there is in him the Politician, the Thinker, Legislator,
Philosopher; - in one or the other degree, he could have been, he is
all these. So too I cannot understand how a Mirabeau, with that great
glowing heart, with the fire that was in it, with the bursting tears
that were in it, could not have written verses, tragedies, poems,
touched all hearts in that way, had his course of life and education
led him thitherward. The grand fundamental character is that of Great
Man; that the man be great. Napoleon has words in him which are like
Austerlitz Battles. Louis Fourteenth's Marshals are a kind of poetical
men withal; the things Turenne says are full of sagacity and
geniality, like sayings of Samuel Johnson. The great heart, the clear
deep-seeing eye: there it lies; no man whatever, in what province
soever, can prosper at all without these. Petrarch and Boccaccio did
diplomatic messages, it seems, quite well: one can easily believe it;
they had done things a little harder than these! Burns, a gifted
song-writer, might have made a still better Mirabeau. Shakspeare, - one
knows not what _he_ could not have made, in the supreme degree.

True, there are aptitudes of Nature too. Nature does not make all
great men, more than all other men, in the self-same mould. Varieties
of aptitude doubtless; but infinitely more of circumstance; and far
oftenest it is the _latter_ only that are looked to. But it is as with
common men in the learning of trades. You take any man, as yet a vague
capability of a man, who could be any kind of craftsman; and make him
into a smith, a carpenter, a mason: he is then and thenceforth that
and nothing else. And if, as Addison complains, you sometimes see a
street-porter staggering under his load on spindle-shanks, and near at
hand a tailor with the frame of a Samson handling a bit of cloth and
small Whitechapel needle, - it cannot be considered that aptitude of
Nature alone has been consulted here either! - The Great Man also, to
what shall he be bound apprentice? Given your Hero, is he to become
Conqueror, King, Philosopher, Poet? It is an inexplicably complex
controversial-calculation between the world and him! He will read the
world and its laws; the world with its laws will be there to be read.
What the world, on _this_ matter, shall permit and bid is, as we said,
the most important fact about the world. -

* * * * *

Poet and Prophet differ greatly in our loose modern notions of them.
In some old languages, again, the titles are synonymous; _Vates_ means
both Prophet and Poet: and indeed at all times, Prophet and Poet, well
understood, have much kindred of meaning. Fundamentally indeed they
are still the same; in this most important respect especially, That
they have penetrated both of them into the sacred mystery of the
Universe; what Goethe calls 'the open secret.' "Which is the great
secret?" asks one. - "The _open_ secret," - open to all, seen by almost
none! That divine mystery, which lies everywhere in all Beings, 'the
Divine Idea of the World, that which lies at the bottom of
Appearance,' as Fichte styles it; of which all Appearance, from the
starry sky to the grass of the field, but especially the Appearance of
Man and his work, is but the _vesture_, the embodiment that renders it
visible. This divine mystery _is_ in all times and in all places;
veritably is. In most times and places it is greatly overlooked; and
the Universe, definable always in one or the other dialect, as the
realised Thought of God, is considered a trivial, inert, commonplace
matter, - as if, says the Satirist, it were a dead thing, which some
upholsterer had put together! It could do no good at present, to
_speak_ much about this; but it is a pity for every one of us if we do
not know it, live ever in the knowledge of it. Really a most mournful
pity; - a failure to live at all, if we live otherwise!

But now, I say, whoever may forget this divine mystery, the _Vates_,
whether Prophet or Poet, has penetrated into it; is a man sent hither
to make it more impressively known to us. That always is his message;
he is to reveal that to us, - that sacred mystery which he more than
others lives ever present with. While others forget it, he knows
it; - I might say, he has been driven to know it; without consent asked
of _him_, he finds himself living in it, bound to live in it. Once
more, here is no Hearsay, but a direct Insight and Belief; this man
too could not help being a sincere man! Whosoever may live in the
shows of things, it is for him a necessity of nature to live in the
very fact of things. A man once more, in earnest with the Universe,
though all others were but toying with it. He is a _Vates_, first of
all, in virtue of being sincere. So far Poet and Prophet,
participators in the 'open secret,' are one.

With respect to their distinction again: The _Vates_ Prophet, we might
say, has seized that sacred mystery rather on the moral side, as Good
and Evil, Duty and Prohibition; the _Vates_ Poet on what the Germans
call the æsthetic side, as Beautiful, and the like. The one we may
call a revealer of what we are to do, the other of what we are to
love. But indeed these two provinces run into one another, and cannot
be disjoined. The Prophet too has his eye on what we are to love: how
else shall he know what it is we are to do? The highest Voice ever
heard on this earth said withal, "Consider the lilies of the field;
they toil not, neither do they spin: yet Solomon in all his glory was
not arrayed like one of these." A glance, that, into the deepest deep
of Beauty. 'The lilies of the field,' - dressed finer than earthly
princes, springing-up there in the humble furrow-field; a beautiful
_eye_ looking-out on you, from the great inner Sea of Beauty! How
could the rude Earth make these, if her Essence, rugged as she looks
and is, were not inwardly Beauty? In this point of view, too, a saying
of Goethe's, which has staggered several, may have meaning: 'The
Beautiful,' he intimates, 'is higher than the Good: the Beautiful
includes in it the Good.' The _true_ Beautiful; which however, I have
said somewhere, 'differs from the _false_ as Heaven does from
Vauxhall!' So much for the distinction and identity of Poet and
Prophet. -

In ancient and also in modern periods we find a few Poets who are
accounted perfect; whom it were a kind of treason to find fault with.
This is noteworthy; this is right: yet in strictness it is only an
illusion. At bottom, clearly enough, there is no perfect Poet! A vein
of Poetry exists in the hearts of all men; no man is made altogether
of Poetry. We are all poets when we _read_ a poem well. The
'imagination that shudders at the Hell of Dante,' is not that the same
faculty, weaker in degree, as Dante's own? No one but Shakspeare can
embody, out of _Saxo Grammaticus_, the story of _Hamlet_ as Shakspeare
did: but every one models some kind of story out of it; every one
embodies it better or worse. We need not spend time in defining. Where
there is no specific difference, as between round and square, all
definition must be more or less arbitrary. A man that has _so_ much
more of the poetic element developed in him as to have become
noticeable, will be called Poet by his neighbours. World-Poets too,
those whom we are to take for perfect Poets, are settled by critics in
the same way. One who rises _so_ far above the general level of Poets
will, to such and such critics, seem a Universal Poet; as he ought to
do. And yet it is, and must be, an arbitrary distinction. All Poets,
all men, have some touches of the Universal; no man is wholly made of
that. Most Poets are very soon forgotten: but not the noblest
Shakspeare or Homer of them can be remembered _forever_; - a day comes
when he too is not!

Nevertheless, you will say, there must be a difference between true
Poetry and true Speech not poetical: what is the difference? On this
point many things have been written, especially by late German
Critics, some of which are not very intelligible at first. They say,
for example, that the Poet has an _infinitude_ in him; communicates an
_Unendlichkeit_, a certain character of 'infinitude,' to whatsoever he
delineates. This, though not very precise, yet on so vague a matter is
worth remembering: if well meditated, some meaning will gradually be
found in it. For my own part, I find considerable meaning in the old
vulgar distinction of Poetry being _metrical_, having music in it,
being a Song. Truly, if pressed to give a definition, one might say
this as soon as anything else: If your delineation be authentically
_musical_, musical, not in word only, but in heart and substance, in
all the thoughts and utterances of it, in the whole conception of it,
then it will be poetical; if not, not. - Musical: how much lies in
that! A _musical_ thought is one spoken by a mind that has penetrated
into the inmost heart of the thing; detected the inmost mystery of it,
namely the _melody_ that lies hidden in it; the inward harmony of
coherence which is its soul, whereby it exists, and has a right to be,
here in this world. All inmost things, we may say, are melodious;
naturally utter themselves in Song. The meaning of Song goes deep. Who
is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on
us? A kind of inarticulate unfathomable speech, which leads us to the
edge of the Infinite, and lets us for moments gaze into that!

Nay all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in
it: not a parish in the world but has its parish-accent; - the rhythm
or _tune_ to which the people there _sing_ what they have to say!
Accent is a kind of chanting; all men have accent of their
own, - though they only _notice_ that of others. Observe too how all
passionate language does of itself become musical, - with a finer music
than the mere accent; the speech of a man even in zealous anger
becomes a chant, a song. All deep things are Song. It seems somehow
the very central essence of us, Song; as if all the rest were but
wrappages and hulls! The primal element of us; of us, and of all
things. The Greeks fabled of Sphere-Harmonies; it was the feeling they
had of the inner structure of Nature; that the soul of all her voices
and utterances was perfect music. Poetry, therefore, we will call
_musical Thought_. The Poet is he who _thinks_ in that manner. At
bottom, it turns still on power of intellect; it is a man's sincerity
and depth of vision that makes him a Poet. See deep enough, and you
see musically; the heart of Nature _being_ everywhere music, if you
can only reach it.

The _Vates_ Poet, with his melodious Apocalypse of Nature, seems to
hold a poor rank among us, in comparison with the _Vates_ Prophet; his
function, and our esteem of him for his function, alike slight. The
Hero taken as Divinity; the Hero taken as Prophet; then next the Hero
taken only as Poet: does it not look as if our estimate of the Great
Man, epoch after epoch, were continually diminishing? We take him
first for a god, then for one god-inspired; and now in the next stage
of it, his most miraculous word gains from us only the recognition
that he is a Poet, beautiful verse-maker, man of genius, or
suchlike! - It looks so; but I persuade myself that intrinsically it is
not so. If we consider well, it will perhaps appear that in man still
there is the _same_ altogether peculiar admiration for the Heroic
Gift, by what name soever called, that there at any time was.

I should say, if we do not now reckon a Great Man literally divine, it
is that our notions of God, of the supreme unattainable Fountain of
Splendour, Wisdom and Heroism, are ever rising _higher_; not
altogether that our reverence for these qualities, as manifested in
our like, is getting lower. This is worth taking thought of. Sceptical
Dilettantism, the curse of these ages, a curse which will not last
forever, does indeed in this the highest province of human things, as
in all provinces, make sad work; and our reverence for great men, all
crippled, blinded, paralytic as it is, comes out in poor plight,
hardly recognisable. Men worship the shows of great men; the most
disbelieve that there is any reality of great men to worship. The
dreariest, fatalest faith; believing which, one would literally
despair of human things. Nevertheless look, for example, at Napoleon!
A Corsican lieutenant of artillery; that is the show of _him_: yet is
he not obeyed, _worshipped_ after his sort, as all the Tiaraed and
Diademed of the world put together could not be? High Duchesses, and
ostlers of inns, gather round the Scottish rustic, Burns; - a strange
feeling dwelling in each that they had never heard a man like this;
that, on the whole, this is the man! In the secret heart of these
people it still dimly reveals itself, though there is no accredited
way of uttering it at present, that this rustic, with his black brows
and flashing sun-eyes, and strange words moving laughter and tears, is
of a dignity far beyond all others, incommensurable with all others.
Do not we feel it so? But now, were Dilettantism, Scepticism,
Triviality, and all that sorrowful brood, cast-out of us, - as, by
God's blessing, they shall one day be; were faith in the shows of
things entirely swept-out, replaced by clear faith in the _things_, so
that a man acted on the impulse of that only, and counted the other
non-extant; what a new livelier feeling towards this Burns were it!

Nay here in these pages, such as they are, have we not two mere Poets,
if not deified, yet we may say beatified? Shakspeare and Dante are
Saints of Poetry; really, if we will think of it, _canonised_, so that
it is impiety to meddle with them. The unguided instinct of the world,
working across all these perverse impediments, has arrived at such
result. Dante and Shakspeare are a peculiar Two. They dwell apart, in
a kind of royal solitude; none equal, none second to them: in the
general feeling of the world, a certain transcendentalism, a glory as
of complete perfection, invests these two. They _are_ canonised,
though no Pope or Cardinals took hand in doing it! Such, in spite of
every perverting influence, in the most unheroic times, is still our
indestructible reverence for heroism. - We will look a little at these
Two, the Poet Dante and the Poet Shakspeare: what little it is
permitted us to say here of the Hero as Poet will most fitly arrange
itself in that fashion.

* * * * *

Many volumes have been written by way of commentary on Dante and his
Book; yet, on the whole, with no great result. His Biography is, as it
were, irrecoverably lost for us. An unimportant, wandering,
sorrowstricken man, not much note was taken of him while he lived; and
the most of that has vanished, in the long space that now intervenes.
It is five centuries since he ceased writing and living here. After
all commentaries, the Book itself is mainly what we know of him. The
Book; - and one might add that Portrait commonly attributed to Giotto,
which, looking on it, you cannot help inclining to think genuine,
whoever did it. To me it is a most touching face; perhaps of all faces
that I know, the most so. Lonely there, painted as on vacancy, with
the simple laurel wound round it; the deathless sorrow and pain, the
known victory which is also deathless; - significant of the whole
history of Dante! I think it is the mournfulest face that ever was
painted from reality; an altogether tragic, heart-affecting face.
There is in it, as foundation of it, the softness, tenderness, gentle
affection as of a child; but all this is as if congealed into sharp
contradiction, into abnegation, isolation, proud hopeless pain. A soft
ethereal soul looking-out so stern, implacable, grim-trenchant, as
from imprisonment of thick-ribbed ice! Withal it is a silent pain too,
a silent scornful one: the lip is curled in a kind of godlike disdain
of the thing that is eating-out his heart, - as if it were withal a
mean insignificant thing, as if he whom it had power to torture and
strangle were greater than it. The face of one wholly in protest, and
life-long unsurrendering battle, against the world. Affection all
converted into indignation: an implacable indignation; slow, equable,
silent, like that of a god! The eye too, it looks-out as in a kind of
_surprise_, a kind of inquiry, Why the world was of such a sort? This
is Dante: so he looks, this 'voice of ten silent centuries,' and sings
us 'his mystic unfathomable song.'

The little that we know of Dante's Life corresponds well enough with
this Portrait and this Book. He was born at Florence, in the upper
class of society, in the year 1265. His education was the best then
going; much school-divinity, Aristotelean logic, some Latin
classics, - no inconsiderable insight into certain provinces of things:
and Dante, with his earnest intelligent nature, we need not doubt,
learned better than most all that was learnable. He has a clear
cultivated understanding, and of great subtlety; the best fruit of
education he had contrived to realise from these scholastics. He knows
accurately and well what lies close to him; but, in such a time,
without printed books or free intercourse, he could not know well what
was distant: the small clear light, most luminous for what is near,
breaks itself into singular _chiaroscuro_ striking on what is far off.
This was Dante's learning from the schools. In life, he had gone
through the usual destinies; been twice out campaigning as a soldier
for the Florentine State, been on embassy; had in his thirty-fifth
year, by natural gradation of talent and service, become one of the
Chief Magistrates of Florence. He had met in boyhood a certain
Beatrice Portinari, a beautiful little girl of his own age and rank,
and grown-up thenceforth in partial sight of her, in some distant
intercourse with her. All readers know his graceful affecting account
of this; and then of their being parted; of her being wedded to
another, and of her death soon after. She makes a great figure in
Dante's Poem; seems to have made a great figure in his life. Of all
beings it might seem as if she, held apart from him, far apart at last
in the dim Eternity, were the only one he had ever with his whole
strength of affection loved. She died: Dante himself was wedded; but
it seems not happily, far from happily. I fancy, the rigorous earnest
man, with his keen excitabilities, was not altogether easy to make

We will not complain of Dante's miseries: had all gone right with him
as he wished it, he might have been Prior, Podestà, or whatsoever they
call it, of Florence, well accepted among neighbours, - and the world
had wanted one of the most notable words ever spoken or sung. Florence
would have had another prosperous Lord Mayor; and the ten dumb
centuries continued voiceless, and the ten other listening centuries
(for there will be ten of them and more) had no _Divina Commedia_ to
hear! We will complain of nothing. A nobler destiny was appointed for
this Dante; and he, struggling like a man led towards death and
crucifixion, could not help fulfilling it. Give _him_ the choice of
his happiness! He knew not, more than we do, what was really happy,
what was really miserable.

In Dante's Priorship, the Guelf-Ghibelline, Bianchi-Neri, or some
other confused disturbance rose to such a height, that Dante, whose
party had seemed the stronger, was with his friends cast unexpectedly
forth into banishment; doomed thenceforth to a life of woe and
wandering. His property was all confiscated and more; he had the
fiercest feeling that it was entirely unjust, nefarious in the sight
of God and man. He tried what was in him to get reinstated; tried even
by warlike surprisal, with arms in his hand: but it would not do; bad
only had become worse. There is a record, I believe, still extant in
the Florence Archives, dooming this Dante, wheresoever caught, to be
burnt alive. Burnt alive; so it stands, they say: a very curious civic
document. Another curious document, some considerable number of years
later, is a Letter of Dante's to the Florentine Magistrates, written
in answer to a milder proposal of theirs, that he should return on
condition of apologising and paying a fine. He answers, with fixed
stern pride: "If I cannot return without calling myself guilty, I will
never return, _nunquam revertar_."

For Dante there was now no home in this world. He wandered from patron
to patron, from place to place; proving in his own bitter words, 'How
hard is the path, _Come è duro calle_.' The wretched are not cheerful
company. Dante, poor and banished, with his proud earnest nature, with
his moody humours, was not a man to conciliate men. Petrarch reports
of him that being at Can della Scala's court, and blamed one day for
his gloom and taciturnity, he answered in no courtier-like way. Della
Scala stood among his courtiers, with mimes and buffoons (_nebulones
ac histriones_) making him heartily merry; when turning to Dante, he
said: "Is it not strange, now, that this poor fool should make himself
so entertaining; while you, a wise man, sit there day after day, and
have nothing to amuse us with at all?" Dante answered bitterly: "No,
not strange; your Highness is to recollect the Proverb, _Like to
Like_;" - given the amuser, the amusee must also be given! Such a man,
with his proud silent ways, with his sarcasms and sorrows, was not
made to succeed at court. By degrees, it came to be evident to him
that he had no longer any resting-place, or hope of benefit, in this
earth. The earthly world had cast him forth, to wander, wander; no
living heart to love him now; for his sore miseries there was no
solace here.

The deeper naturally would the Eternal World impress itself on him;
that awful reality over which, after all, this Time-world, with its
Florences and banishments, only flutters as an unreal shadow. Florence
thou shalt never see: but Hell and Purgatory and Heaven thou shalt
surely see! What is Florence, Can della Scala, and the World and Life
altogether? ETERNITY: thither, of a truth, not elsewhither, art thou
and all things bound! The great soul of Dante, homeless on earth, made
its home more and more in that awful other world. Naturally his
thoughts brooded on that, as on the one fact important for him. Bodied

Online LibraryThomas CarlyleSartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history → online text (page 29 of 43)