Thomas Carlyle.

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

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for difficulty; the first characteristic of true greatness. A
fundamental mistake to call vehemence and rigidity strength! A man is
not strong who takes convulsion-fits; though six men cannot hold him
then. He that can walk under the heaviest weight without staggering,
he is the strong man. We need forever, especially in these
loud-shrieking days, to remind ourselves of that. A man who cannot
_hold his peace_, till the time come for speaking and acting, is no
right man.

Poor Rousseau's face is to me expressive of him. A high but narrow
contracted intensity in it: bony brows; deep, straight-set eyes, in
which there is something bewildered-looking, - bewildered, peering with
lynx-eagerness. A face full of misery, even ignoble misery, and also
of the antagonism against that; something mean, plebeian there,
redeemed only by _intensity_: the face of what is called a Fanatic, - a
sadly _contracted_ Hero! We name him here because, with all his
drawbacks, and they are many, he has the first and chief
characteristic of a Hero: he is heartily _in earnest_. In earnest, if
ever man was; as none of these French Philosophes were. Nay, one would
say, of an earnestness too great for his otherwise sensitive, rather
feeble nature; and which indeed in the end drove him into the
strangest incoherences, almost delirations. There had come, at last,
to be a kind of madness in him: his Ideas _possessed_ him like demons;
hurried him so about, drove him over steep places! -

The fault and misery of Rousseau was what we easily name by a single
word _Egoism_; which is indeed the source and summary of all faults
and miseries whatsoever. He had not perfected himself into victory
over mere Desire; a mean hunger, in many sorts, was still the motive
principle of him. I am afraid he was a very vain man; hungry for the
praises of men. You remember Genlis's experience of him. She took Jean
Jacques to the Theatre; he bargaining for a strict incognito, - "_He_
would not be seen there for the world!" The curtain did happen
nevertheless to be drawn aside: the Pit recognised Jean Jacques, but
took no great notice of him! He expressed the bitterest indignation;
gloomed all evening, spake no other than surly words. The glib
Countess remained entirely convinced that his anger was not at being
seen, but at not being applauded when seen. How the whole nature of
the man is poisoned; nothing but suspicion, self-isolation, fierce
moody ways! He could not live with anybody. A man of some rank from
the country, who visited him often, and used to sit with him,
expressing all reverence and affection for him, comes one day, finds
Jean Jacques full of the sourest unintelligible humour. "Monsieur,"
said Jean Jacques, with flaming eyes, "I know why you come here. You
come to see what a poor life I lead; how little is in my poor pot that
is boiling there. Well, look into the pot! There is half a pound of
meat, one carrot and three onions; that is all: go and tell the whole
world that, if you like, Monsieur!" - A man of this sort was far gone.
The whole world got itself supplied with anecdotes for light laughter,
for a certain theatrical interest, from these perversions and
contortions of poor Jean Jacques. Alas, to him they were not laughing
or theatrical; too real to him! The contortions of a dying gladiator:
the crowded amphitheatre looks-on with entertainment; but the
gladiator is in agonies and dying.

And yet this Rousseau, as we say, with his passionate appeals to
Mothers, with his _Contrat-social_, with his celebrations of Nature,
even of savage life in Nature, did once more touch upon Reality,
struggle towards Reality; was doing the function of a Prophet to his
Time. As _he_ could, and as the Time could! Strangely through all that
defacement, degradation and almost madness, there is in the inmost
heart of poor Rousseau a spark of real heavenly fire. Once more, out
of the element of that withered mocking Philosophism, Scepticism and
Persiflage, there has arisen in that man the ineradicable feeling and
knowledge that this Life of ours is _true_; not a Scepticism, Theorem,
or Persiflage, but a Fact, an awful Reality. Nature had made that
revelation to him; had ordered him to speak it out. He got it spoken
out; if not well and clearly, then ill and dimly, - as clearly as he
could. Nay what are all errors and perversities of his, even those
stealings of ribbons aimless confused miseries and vagabondisms, if we
will interpret them kindly, but the blinkard dazzlements and
staggerings to and fro of a man sent on an errand he is too weak for,
by a path he cannot yet find? Men are led by strange ways. One should
have tolerance for a man, hope of him; leave him to try yet what he
will do. While life lasts, hope lasts for every man.

Of Rousseau's literary talents, greatly celebrated still among his
countrymen, I do not say much. His Books, like himself, are what I
call unhealthy; not the good sort of Books. There is a sensuality in
Rousseau. Combined with such an intellectual gift as his, it makes
pictures of a certain gorgeous attractiveness: but they are not
genuinely poetical. Not white sunlight: something _operatic_; a kind
of rosepink, artificial bedizenment. It is frequent, or rather it is
universal, among the French since his time. Madame de Staël has
something of it; St. Pierre; and down onwards to the present
astonishing convulsionary 'Literature of Desperation,' it is
everywhere abundant. That same _rosepink_ is not the right hue. Look
at a Shakspeare, at a Goethe, even at a Walter Scott! He who has once
seen into this, has seen the difference of the True from the
Sham-True, and will discriminate them ever afterwards.

We had to observe in Johnson how much good a Prophet, under all
disadvantages and disorganisations, can accomplish for the world. In
Rousseau we are called to look rather at the fearful amount of evil
which, under such disorganisation, may accompany the good.
Historically it is a most pregnant spectacle, that of Rousseau.
Banished into Paris garrets, in the gloomy company of his own Thoughts
and Necessities there; driven from post to pillar; fretted,
exasperated till the heart of him went mad, he had grown to feel
deeply that the world was not his friend nor the world's law. It was
expedient, if anyway possible, that such a man should _not_ have been
set in flat hostility with the world. He could be cooped into garrets,
laughed at as a maniac, left to starve like a wild beast in his
cage; - but he could not be hindered from setting the world on fire.
The French Revolution found its Evangelist in Rousseau. His
semi-delirious speculations on the miseries of civilised life, the
preferability of the savage to the civilised, and suchlike, helped
well to produce a whole delirium in France generally. True, you may
well ask, What could the world, the governors of the world, do with
such a man? Difficult to say what the governors of the world could do
with him! What he could do with them is unhappily clear
enough, - _guillotine_ a great many of them! Enough now of Rousseau.

* * * * *

It was a curious phenomenon, in the withered, unbelieving, secondhand
Eighteenth Century, that of a Hero starting up, among the artificial
pasteboard figures and productions, in the guise of a Robert Burns.
Like a little well in the rocky desert places, - like a sudden
splendour of Heaven in the artificial Vauxhall! People knew not what
to make of it. They took it for a piece of the Vauxhall fire-work;
alas, it _let_ itself be so taken, though struggling half-blindly, as
in bitterness of death, against that! Perhaps no man had such a false
reception from his fellow-men. Once more a very wasteful life-drama
was enacted under the sun.

The tragedy of Burns's life is known to all of you. Surely we may say,
if discrepancy between place held and place merited constitute
perverseness of lot for a man, no lot could be more perverse than
Burns's. Among those secondhand acting-figures, _mimes_ for most part,
of the Eighteenth Century, once more a giant Original man; one of
those men who reach down to the perennial Deeps, who take rank with
the Heroic among men: and he was born in a poor Ayrshire hut. The
largest soul of all the British lands came among us in the shape of a
hard-handed Scottish Peasant.

His Father, a poor toiling man, tried various things; did not succeed
in any; was involved in continual difficulties. The Steward, Factor as
the Scotch call him, used to send letters and threatenings, Burns says,
'which threw us all into tears.' The brave, hard-toiling,
hard-suffering Father, his brave heroine of a wife; and those children,
of whom Robert was one! In this Earth, so wide otherwise, no shelter
for _them_. The letters 'threw us all into tears:' figure it. The brave
Father, I say always; - a _silent_ Hero and Poet; without whom the son
had never been a speaking one! Burns's Schoolmaster came afterwards to
London, learnt what good society was; but declares that in no meeting
of men did he ever enjoy better discourse than at the hearth of this
peasant. And his poor 'seven acres of nursery-ground,' - not that, nor
the miserable patch of clay-farm, nor anything he tried to get a living
by, would prosper with him; he had a sore unequal battle all his days.
But he stood to it valiantly; a wise, faithful, unconquerable
man; - swallowing-down how many sore sufferings daily into silence;
fighting like an unseen Hero, - nobody publishing newspaper paragraphs
about his nobleness; voting pieces of plate to him! However, he was not
lost: nothing is lost. Robert is there; the outcome of him, - and indeed
of many generations of such as him.

This Burns appears under every disadvantage: uninstructed, poor, born
only to hard manual toil; and writing, when it came to that, in a
rustic special dialect, known only to a small province of the country
he lived in. Had he written, even what he did write, in the general
language of England, I doubt not he had already become universally
recognised as being, or capable to be, one of our greatest men. That
he should have tempted so many to penetrate through the rough husk of
that dialect of his, is proof that there lay something far from common
within it. He has gained a certain recognition, and is continuing to
do so over all quarters of our wide Saxon world: wheresoever a Saxon
dialect is spoken, it begins to be understood, by personal inspection
of this and the other, that one of the most considerable Saxon men of
the Eighteenth century was an Ayrshire Peasant named Robert Burns.
Yes, I will say, here too was a piece of the right Saxon stuff: strong
as the Harz-rock, rooted in the depths of the world; - rock, yet with
wells of living softness in it! A wild impetuous whirlwind of passion
and faculty slumbered quiet there; such heavenly _melody_ dwelling in
the heart of it. A noble rough genuineness; homely, rustic, honest;
true simplicity of strength: with its lightning-fire, with its soft
dewy pity; - like the old Norse Thor, the Peasant-god! -

Burns's Brother Gilbert, a man of much sense and worth, has told me
that Robert, in his young days, in spite of their hardship, was
usually the gayest of speech; a fellow of infinite frolic, laughter,
sense and heart; far pleasanter to hear there, stript cutting peats in
the bog, or suchlike, than he ever afterwards knew him. I can well
believe it. This basis of mirth ('_fond gaillard_,' as old Marquis
Mirabeau calls it), a primal-element of sunshine and joyfulness,
coupled with his other deep and earnest qualities, is one of the most
attractive characteristics of Burns. A large fund of Hope dwells in
him; spite of his tragical history, he is not a mourning man. He
shakes his sorrows gallantly aside; bounds forth victorious over them.
It is as the lion shaking 'dew-drops from his mane;' as the
swift-bounding horse, that _laughs_ at the shaking of the spear. - But
indeed, Hope, Mirth, of the sort like Burns's, are they not the
outcome properly of warm generous affection, - such as is the beginning
of all to every man?

You would think it strange if I called Burns the most gifted British
soul we had in all that century of his: and yet I believe the day is
coming when there will be little danger in saying so. His writings,
all that he _did_ under such obstructions, are only a poor fragment of
him. Professor Stewart remarked very justly, what indeed is true of
all Poets good for much, that his poetry was not any particular
faculty; but the general result of a naturally vigorous original mind
expressing itself in that way. Burns's gifts, expressed in
conversation, are the theme of all that ever heard him. All kinds of
gifts: from the gracefulest utterances of courtesy, to the highest
fire of passionate speech; loud floods of mirth, soft wailings of
affection, laconic emphasis, clear piercing insight; all was in him.
Witty duchesses celebrate him as a man whose speech 'led them off
their feet.' This is beautiful: but still more beautiful that which
Mr. Lockhart has recorded, which I have more than once alluded to, How
the waiters and ostlers at inns would get out of bed, and come
crowding to hear this man speak! Waiters and ostlers: - they too were
men, and here was a man! I have heard much about his speech; but one
of the best things I ever heard of it was, last year, from a venerable
gentleman long familiar with him. That it was speech distinguished by
always _having something in it_. "He spoke rather little than much,"
this old man told me; "sat rather silent in those early days, as in
the company of persons above him; and always when he did speak, it was
to throw new light on the matter." I know not why any one should ever
speak otherwise! - But if we look at his general force of soul, his
healthy _robustness_ everyway, the rugged down-rightness, penetration,
generous valour and manfulness that was in him, - where shall we
readily find a better-gifted man?

Among the great men of the Eighteenth Century, I sometimes feel as if
Burns might be found to resemble Mirabeau more than any other. They
differ widely in vesture; yet look at them intrinsically. There is the
same burly thick-necked strength of body as of soul; - built, in both
cases, on what the old Marquis calls a _fond gaillard_. By nature, by
course of breeding, indeed by nation, Mirabeau has much more of
bluster; a noisy, forward, unresting man. But the characteristic of
Mirabeau too is veracity and sense, power of true _insight_,
superiority of vision. The thing that he says is worth remembering. It
is a flash of insight into some object or other: so do both these men
speak. The same raging passions; capable too in both of manifesting
themselves as the tenderest noble affections. Wit, wild laughter,
energy, directness, sincerity: these were in both. The types of the
two men are not dissimilar. Burns too could have governed, debated in
National Assemblies; politicised, as few could. Alas, the courage
which had to exhibit itself in capture of smuggling schooners in the
Solway Frith; in keeping _silence_ over so much, where no good speech,
but only inarticulate rage was possible: this might have bellowed
forth Ushers de Brézé and the like; and made itself visible to all
men, in managing of kingdoms, in ruling of great ever-memorable
epochs! But they said to him reprovingly, his Official Superiors said,
and wrote: 'You are to work, not think.' Of your _thinking_-faculty,
the greatest in this land, we have no need; you are to gauge beer
there; for that only are _you_ wanted. Very notable; - and worth
mentioning, though we know what is to be said and answered! As if
Thought, Power of Thinking, were not, at all times, in all places and
situations of the world, precisely the thing that _was_ wanted. The
fatal man, is he not always the _un_thinking man, the man who cannot
think and _see_; but only grope, and hallucinate, and _mis_see the
nature of the thing he works with? He missees it, mis_takes_ it as we
say; takes it for one thing, and it _is_ another thing, - and leaves
him standing like a Futility there! He is the fatal man; unutterably
fatal, put in the high places of men. - "Why complain of this?" say
some: "Strength is mournfully denied its arena; that was true from of
old." Doubtless; and the worse for the _arena_, answer I!
_Complaining_ profits little; stating of the truth may profit. That a
Europe, with its French Revolution just breaking out, finds no need of
a Burns except for gauging beer, - is a thing I, for one, cannot
_rejoice_ at! -

Once more we have to say here, that the chief quality of Burns is the
_sincerity_ of him. So in his Poetry, so in his Life. The Song he
sings is not of fantasticalities; it is of a thing felt, really there;
the prime merit of this, as of all in him, and of his Life generally,
is truth. The Life of Burns is what we may call a great tragic
sincerity. A sort of savage sincerity, - not cruel, far from that; but
wild, wrestling naked with the truth of things. In that sense, there
is something of the savage in all great men.

Hero-worship, - Odin, Burns? Well; these Men of Letters too were not
without a kind of Hero-worship: but what a strange condition has that
got into now! The waiters and ostlers of Scotch inns, prying about the
door, eager to catch any word that fell from Burns, were doing
unconscious reverence to the Heroic. Johnson had his Boswell for
worshipper. Rousseau had worshippers enough; princes calling on him in
his mean garret; the great, the beautiful doing reverence to the poor
moonstruck man. For himself a most portentous contradiction; the two
ends of his life not to be brought into harmony. He sits at the tables
of grandees; and has to copy music for his own living. He cannot even
get his music copied. "By dint of dining out," says he, "I run the
risk of dying by starvation at home." For his worshippers too a most
questionable thing! If doing Hero-worship well or badly be the test of
vital wellbeing or illbeing to a generation, can we say that _these_
generations are very first-rate? - And yet our heroic Men of Letters do
teach, govern, are kings, priests, or what you like to call them;
intrinsically there is no preventing it by any means whatever. The
world _has_ to obey him who thinks and sees in the world. The world
can alter the manner of that; can either have it as blessed continuous
summer sunshine, or as unblessed black thunder and tornado, - with
unspeakable difference of profit for the world! The manner of it is
very alterable; the matter and fact of it is not alterable by any
power under the sky. Light; or, failing that, lightning: the world can
take its choice. Not whether we call an Odin god, prophet, priest, or
what we call him; but whether we believe the word he tells us: there
it all lies. If it be a true word, we shall have to believe it;
believing it, we shall have to do it. What _name_ or welcome we give
him or it, is a point that concerns ourselves mainly. _It_, the new
Truth, new deeper revealing of the Secret of this Universe, is verily
of the nature of a message from on high; and must and will have itself
obeyed. -

My last remark is on that notablest phasis of Burns's history, - his
visit to Edinburgh. Often it seems to me as if his demeanour there
were the highest proof he gave of what a fund of worth and genuine
manhood was in him. If we think of it, few heavier burdens could be
laid on the strength of a man. So sudden; all common _Lionism_, which
ruins innumerable men, was as nothing to this. It is as if Napoleon
had been made a King of, not gradually, but at once from the Artillery
Lieutenancy in the Regiment La Fère. Burns, still only in his
twenty-seventh year, is no longer even a ploughman; he is flying to
the West Indies to escape disgrace and a jail. This month he is a
ruined peasant, his wages seven pounds a year, and these gone from
him: next month he is in the blaze of rank and beauty, handing down
jewelled Duchesses to dinner; the cynosure of all eyes! Adversity is
sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity,
there are a hundred that will stand adversity. I admire much the way
in which Burns met all this. Perhaps no man one could point out, was
ever so sorely tried, and so little forgot himself. Tranquil,
unastonished; not abashed, not inflated, neither awkwardness nor
affectation: he feels that _he_ there is the man Robert Burns; that
the 'rank is but the guinea-stamp;' that the celebrity is but the
candle-light, which will show _what_ man, not in the least make him a
better or other man! Alas, it may readily, unless he look to it, make
him a _worse_ man; a wretched inflated wind-bag, - inflated till he
_burst_ and become a _dead_ lion; for whom, as some one has said,
'there is no resurrection of the body;' worse than a living
dog! - Burns is admirable here.

And yet, alas, as I have observed elsewhere, these Lion-hunters were
the ruin and death of Burns. It was they that rendered it impossible
for him to live! They gathered round him in his Farm; hindered his
industry; no place was remote enough from them. He could not get his
Lionism forgotten, honestly as he was disposed to do so. He falls into
discontents, into miseries, faults; the world getting ever more
desolate for him; health, character, peace of mind all gone; - solitary
enough now. It is tragical to think of! These men came but to _see_
him; it was out of no sympathy with him, nor no hatred to him. They
came to get a little amusement: they got their amusement; - and the
Hero's life went for it!

Richter says, in the Island of Sumatra, there is a kind of
'Light-chafers,' large Fire-flies, which people stick upon spits, and
illuminate the ways with at night. Persons of condition can thus
travel with a pleasant radiance, which they much admire. Great honour
to the Fire-flies! But - ! -



[_Friday, 22nd May 1840_]

We come now to the last form of Heroism; that which we call Kingship.
The Commander over men; he to whose will our wills are to be
subordinated, and loyally surrender themselves, and find their welfare
in doing so, may be reckoned the most important of Great Men. He is
practically the summary for us of _all_ the various figures of
Heroism; Priest, Teacher, whatsoever of earthly or of spiritual
dignity we can fancy to reside in a man, embodies itself here, to
_command_ over us, to furnish us with constant practical teaching, to
tell us for the day and hour what we are to _do_. He is called _Rex_,
Regulator, _Roi_: our own name is still better; King, _Könning_, which
means _Can_-ning, Ableman.

Numerous considerations, pointing towards deep, questionable, and
indeed unfathomable regions, present themselves here: on the most of
which we must resolutely for the present forbear to speak at all. As
Burke said that perhaps fair _Trial by Jury_ was the Soul of
Government, and that all legislation, administration, parliamentary
debating, and the rest of it, went on, in 'order to bring twelve
impartial men into a jury-box;' - so, by much stronger reason, may I
say here, that the finding of your _Ableman_ and getting him invested
with the _symbols of ability_, with dignity, worship (_worth_-ship),
royalty, kinghood, or whatever we call it, so that _he_ may actually
have room to guide according to his faculty of doing it, - is the
business, well or ill accomplished, of all social procedure whatsoever
in this world! Hustings-speeches, Parliamentary motions, Reform Bills,
French Revolutions, all mean at heart this; or else nothing. Find in
any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise _him_ to the
supreme place, and loyally reverence him: you have a perfect
government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence,
voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can
improve it a whit. It is in the perfect state: an ideal country. The
Ablest Man; he means also the truest-hearted, justest, the Noblest
Man: what he _tells us to do_ must be precisely the wisest, fittest,
that we could anywhere or anyhow learn; - the thing which it will in
all ways behove us, with right loyal thankfulness, and nothing
doubting, to do! Our _doing_ and life were then, so far as government
could regulate it, well regulated; that were the ideal of

Alas, we know very well that Ideals can never be completely embodied
in practice. Ideals must ever lie a very great way off; and we will
right thankfully content ourselves with any not intolerable
approximation thereto! Let no man, as Schiller says, too querulously

Online LibraryThomas CarlyleSartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history → online text (page 38 of 43)