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with them their own refutation. The subjects were
familiar, and the fallacies were therefore powerless.
But it is a very different matter when an unrivalled
knowledge of a past time is devoted to the work of
setting the present in a false light. And this is what
Mr. Carlyle has done. He is never weary of driving
home the moral of his tale, which is simply the mani-
fold inferiority of his own country and time. Now it
is no light thing that historical facts should be dis-
torted in order that false opinions may be inculcated ;
that some chosen period or some favourite hero should
be painted in colours unduly bright, in order that the
days we live in may appear more gloomy, and the
men who rule us more incapable ; in a word, that
erroneous convictions should be fostered and ground-
less discontent awakened. Mr. Carlyle, in " Past and
Present/' sketched a lordly abbot of the middle ages,
whose munificence might contrast with the cold
charities of the nineteenth century; he now brings
Frederic before us in beautiful and commanding pro-
portions, which may dwarf into insignificance the puny
rulers of the present day. In both instances the


representations are unreal and the contrast misleading;
nor would it be a useless service to convince any
reader that the morality in which he has been taught
to believe is not a dream, that the age in which he
is fated to live is not corrupt and effete, that the
country to which he belongs is not utterly degraded
or hopelessly ruined.

"We do not propose, in these pages, to give any
continuous sketch of the events of Frederic's life.
That has been already done by many reviewers, and
the book itself has been widely read, at least those
parts of it which bear directly on Frederic's career.
Our concern is rather with Mr. Carlyle than with his
hero ; more with the causes and the political results
of Frederic's wars than with the details of the wars
themselves. For, as it seems to us, the great interest
of this book lies in the fact that it is the final and
complete development of Mr. Carlyle's views, the
latest exposition of the doctrine of hero-worship.
What manner of man then is the chosen hero, ac-
cording to this doctrine in its perfection ? To what
form of government does it lead us ? And what
effects does it tend to produce on the history of a
nation ? If we can catch any glimpse of a satis-
factory answer to these questions, we may be able
to appreciate the political value of the doctrine itself.

Beyond doubt, Mr. Carlyle has chosen a theme well
suited to a full and clear illustration of his theory,
both as regards the character of his hero, and of the
period in which he lived. The eighteenth century
Mr. Carlyle knows thoroughly, and does not in the
least admire. It is, in his eyes, " a disastrous, wrecked
inanity, not useful to dwell upon." It was " opulent
in accumulated falsities," had, indeed, grown so false
as to have lost the consciousness of being false, was
"steeped in falsity, and impregnated with it to the


very bone." Some critics have resented such sweep-
ing condemnation, and have stood up for this so much
abused century. They maintain that it must have
had something good in it, because much good came
after it ; and then they run over the great names of
which it can boast in literature, statesmanship, and
war ; and ask if a tree altogether bad could bring forth
such fruit ? Neither argument is very conclusive. The
former is an old and well-worn fallacy, post hoc ergo
propter hoc ; and as for the latter, it proves nothing
at all. The truth is that, as Mr. Carlyle puts it,
during the eighteenth century, and especially the
latter part of it, the whole fabric of society was un-
sound and decaying. Many of the men whose names
are quoted as the ornaments of the time gained their
greatest fame by their efforts to pull that fabric down.
The ruling classes were not only corrupt, but were in
a position utterly unreal, and impossible to be main-
tained. That they were blind to this, and went
fiddling and dancing to destruction, illustrates more
plainly than anything else what Mr. Carlyle calls " the
falsity " of the time. Under them, indeed, influences
were gathering, and forces were rising which they
recked not of, here to gain a calm success, there to
burst forth in storm ; but these things belong, not to
the life of the eighteenth century, but to its destruc-
tion. No ; the latter half of that century was artificial,
unreal, undignified, the only thing grand about it
was the Ke volution in which it closed. And it is
precisely because of these characteristics that it forms
a background against which heroism, or the semblance
of it, stands out in strong relief.

Many points, too, in Frederic's character become
almost heroic from contrast with the weakness and
meanness of his epoch. He was eminently clear, direct,
resolute, and largely endowed with " veracity," in the


Carlylian sense of the word ; that is, the faculty of
seeing things as they really are, a faculty by no means
to be confounded with the more vulgar virtue of
telling the truth. On the other hand, his bad qualities
bring out the doctrine of hero-worship in its full force.
In judging of characters like Mahomet and Crom-
well, whose thoughts were other than the thoughts of
common men, we are easily led into a feeling of vague
reverence, seeing much that we cannot comprehend,
and would not hastily condemn. But Frederic's was
no such mixed character. All his faults, his selfish-
ness, his tyranny, his faithlessness, are quite apparent ;
and therefore we say that Mr. Carlyle has at last chosen
a hero whose character is well calculated to bring out
the weakness as well as the strength of the gospel of
hero-worship. Which of the two it brings out more
completely we shall hereafter see.

Of the literary merits of the "Life of Frederic"
widely different opinions will be entertained. Of
course, like all the works of Mr. Carlyle, it bears un-
mistakeably the stamp of genius. Laborious research,
no uncertain mark of genius, is apparent on every
page. Certainly Mr. Carlyle does not hide this light
under a bushel. He is for ever bewailing his mighty
toils, as if he were another Hercules, and glorifying
his persevering industry. On one point connected
with Frederic's public life we should have liked greater
fulness of detail, we mean what Mr. Carlyle calls
" hypothetic diplomatic stuff/' We have several
sketches, always wonderfully graphic, of diplomatic
interviews ; but we sadly want definite accounts of
the exact nature of the negotiations carried on, and of
the treaties actually concluded. But Mr. Carlyle
avoids these things, not from laziness, but from dis-
taste. His soul abhors the intricacies of diplomacy,
,and he has little sympathy with those who do not


share this abhorrence. He directs divers sneers, not
always in the best taste, against "ingenious Herr
Professor Kanke," whose history of Frederic, we are
told, " affords mankind a wondrously distilled ' astral
spirit / a ghost-like facsimile (elegant grey ghost, with
stars dim twinkling through) of Frederic's and other
people's diplomatisings in this world." A man like
Eanke deserved more respectful mention. His re-
searches have thrown a light on Frederic's policy and
career which we suspect Mr. Carlyle would have more
highly appreciated, had it not been for the fact that
the more this hero's diplomacy is investigated, and
the more his treaties are studied, the less apparent
will become the "moderation and veracity" ascribed
to him by his English biographer. And while we are
on this subject, we must say, once for all, that Mr.
Carlyle expresses his contempt for the Prussian
" Dryasdust," including in this borrowed phrase such
men as Preuss and Jtanke, in terms which are quite
unbecoming. The Prussian Dryasdust may be tedious,
and much in want of an index, as well as of things
more important ; but surely he is laborious and accu-
rate, and, so far as facts are concerned, makes rough
places smooth for those who follow after him in a
manner which deserves thankful acknowledgment
rather than rude and scornful abuse. Even " ghost-
like facsimiles" are something to have ready made
to one's hand.

But if some students might desire fuller information
regarding great treaties, none can wish for anything
more regarding the fighting which is too often the
result of treaties. All Frederic's battles are set forth
with surprising lucidity, and in the most minute
detail. Even without the accompanying plans, the
careful reader can, from the verbal description, take
in the lie of the ground, can comprehend the general


plan of the action, and can see how each formation
and manoeuvre bears upon that plan. Minute as Mr.
Carlyle sometimes is, he never descends to the details
which make Mr. Kinglake's battle of the Alma at
once tedious, confused, and ridiculous. On the whole,
so far as we can judge, he does not exhibit the power
of seizing upon and vividly representing the essence,
as it were, of an action which was possessed in so
remarkable a degree by Sir William Napier; but
some of his battle-pieces, as Prague, Dettingen, Fon-
tenoy, seem to us not unworthy of the historian of the
Peninsular war.

We have said that Mr. Carlyle's research is visible
on every page of his book. In no way is it more
pleasantly visible than when he brings up from the
great stores of his knowledge some lively anecdote or
familiar allusion which serves to cheer the reader
during his long, and sometimes weary journeying.
We catch bright glimpses into the domestic life of
the Prussian Princesses ; bitterly sarcastic pictures of
the follies of the French Court awake our scorn and
laughter; grimly humorous, but yet indulgent sketches
of the Court of St. Petersburg, in the days of Peter
the Great, of infdme Catin, and of the more notorious
Catherine 11., excite we hardly know what various
emotions, but among them certainly that of amuse-
ment. Some of these Court-scenes, for example such
as illustrate the life and conversation of Peter the
Great, or of Augustus the Strong, are hardly suited
for quotation ; but we cannot resist giving the follow-
ing sketch of the great Czarina and her husband :

" Catharine too had an intricate time of it under the Catin ;
which was consoled to her only by a tolerably rapid succes-
sion of lovers, the best the ground yielded. ... In fine,
there has been published, in these very years, a Fragment of
early Autobiography by Catharine herself, a credible and


highly remarkable little Piece ; worth all the others, if it is
knowledge of Catharine you are seeking. A most placid,
solid, substantial young Lady comes to light there ; dropped
into such an element as might have driven most people mad.
But it did not her ; it only made her wiser and wiser in her
generation. Element black, hideous, dirty, as Lapland
Sorcery ; in which the first clear duty is to hold one's
tongue well, and keep one's eyes open. Stars, not very
heavenly, but of fixed nature, arid heavenly to Catharine,
a star or two, shine through the abominable murk : Steady,
patient ; steer silently, in all weathers, towards these !

" Young Catharine's immovable equanimity in this dis-
tracted environment strikes us very much. Peter is career-
ing, tumbling about, on all manner of absurd broomsticks,
driven too surely by the Devil ; terrific- absurd big Lapland
Witch, surrounded by multitudes smaller, and some of them
less ugly. Will be Czar of Eussia, however ; and is one's
so-called Husband. These are prospects for an observant,
immovably steady-going young Woman ! The reigning
Czarina, old Catin herself, is silently the Olympian Jove to
Catharine, who reveres her very much. Though articulately
stupid as ever, in this Book of Catharine's she comes out
with a dumb weight, of silence, of obstinacy, of intricate
abrupt rigour, which who knows but it may savour of
dumb unconscious wisdom in the fat old blockhead ? The
Book says little of her, and in the way of criticism, of praise,
or of blame, nothing whatever ; but one gains the notion of
some dark human female object, bigger than one had fancied
it before.

" Catharine steered towards her stars. Lovers were vouch-
safed her, of a kind (her small stars, as we may call them) ;
and, at length, through perilous intricacies, the big star,
Autocracy of all the Kussias, through what horrors of
intricacy, that last ! She had hoped always it would be by
Husband Peter that she, with the deeper steady head, would
be Autocrat : but the intricacies kept increasing, grew at last
to the strangling pitch ; and it came to be, between Peter
and her, 'Either you to Siberia (perhaps farther), or else I ! '
And it was Peter that had to go ; in what hideous way is
well enough known ; no Siberia, no Holstein thought to be


far enough for Peter : And Catharine, merely weeping a
little for him, mounted to the Autocracy herself. And then,
the big star of stars being once hers, she had, not in the
lover kind alone, but in all uncelestial kinds, whole nebulte
and milky- ways of small stars. A very Semiramis, or the
Louis-Quatorze of those Northern Parts. * Second Creatress
of Kussia/ second Peter the Great in a sense. To me none
of the loveliest objects ; yet there are uglier, how infinitely
uglier : object grandiose, if not great." Vol. vi. pp. 248-9.

The wretched Peter is disposed of in a few inimi-
table sentences

" Peter is an abstruse creature ; has lived, all this while,
with his Catharine an abstruse life, which would have gone
altogether mad except for Catharine's superior sense. An
awkward, ardent, but helpless kind of Peter, with vehement
desires, with a dash of wild magnanimity even : but in
such an inextricable element, amid such darkness, such pro-
vocations of unmanageable opulence, such impediments,
imaginary and real, dreadfully real to poor Peter, as made
him the unique of mankind in his time. He 'used to drill
cats,' it is said, and to do the maddest- looking things (in his
late buried- alive condition); and fell partly, never quite,
which was wonderful, into drinking, as the solution of his
inextricabilities. Poor Peter : always, and now more than
ever, the cynosure of vulturous vulpine neighbours, withal ;
which infinitely aggravated his otherwise bad case!" Vol.
vi. p. 256.

Bankrupt, chaotic, opulent in falsities, and above
all, miserably wanting in the kingly element, as the
eighteenth century undoubtedly was, there were yet
a few statesmen and soldiers in Prussia, and even in
other countries, whose occasional presence gives life
and dignity to the record. Walpole and Fleury,
unable to avert the coming evil, not brave enough to
avoid the guilt of participating in a policy they dis-
approved by a voluntary relinquishment of power, are
nevertheless forced to give place to more fiery spirits.
Kaunitz, hailed in his own day as the greatest of


diplomatists, with his rides under glass cover, and his
rash dinners on boiled capons " a most high-sniffing,
fantastic, slightly insolent shadow-king;" Belleisle,
vain, unprincipled, blustering, yet likeable in a way,
as the last of the grand old Frenchmen ; " Fiery"
Loudon, and " Cunctator " Daun ; the two Keiths,
" active " Prince Henry, every man indeed of that
stern band of warriors who surrounded Frederic all
these are brought before us living and moving, not a
trait forgotten which can give individuality to the
character. Even men long familiar to us we learn to
know better than before : Chatham again lives to
" bid England be of good cheer, and hurl defiance at
her foes ;" Wolfe, greatly daring, is borne by the
midnight flow of the St. Lawrence to the scene of his
glory and his death ; Montcalm, prophetic as his end
draws near, foretells the revolt of America and the
humiliation of England.

But not only from Courts and armies does Mr.
Carlyle gather that personal element which gives so
much interest to his History. Many of the great
names in literature light up the page, and cheer the
reader, if but for a moment, with a pleasant effect of
contrast. They are introduced for all sorts of reasons
often for no reason at all, but they are always
welcome. Their only connection with the theme may
be the time of their death, as Swift and Pope ; they
may have recorded some incident in the great struggle,
as Smollett ; like Maupertuis they may be laughed at,
with Johnson they may receive a few words of hearty
greeting ; some come and go, pleasantly but without
result, as Gellert or Zimmermann ; a few leave behind
them for ever the marks of the tread of the monarchs
of thought, as Voltaire. Kings, statesmen, warriors,
men of letters, pass in proud procession before us ;
types from every class in that strange society enliven


the scene ; and, as the stately panorama rolls on, the
gazer looks with rapt attention on a brilliant and
life-like picture of a bygone age, separated from us
by a gulf broader and deeper than could have been
the work of time alone. The historian of the great
catastrophe which closed the eighteenth century, has
in this book enabled any painstaking reader to form
for himself some idea of what was the state of the
nations which made that catastrophe inevitable.

On the other hand, it is not to be denied that many
and forcible objections can be urged against the
" Life of Frederic " as a work of art. It is often pro-
lix and often confused ; sins both of commission and
of omission are numerous. Thus the first volume is
concerned almost exclusively with the history of the
Hohenzollerns with the rise of Prussia into a nation
and a royalty. This preamble, though undoubtedly
too long, might have been made interesting had it
been written in a clear and perspicuous style. But
Mr. Carlyle's abruptness and obscurity, his trick of
telling a story by allusion, and his preposterous habit
of quotation from " Smelfungus," make it quite impos-
sible for him to render an extensive sketch of this sort
interesting or even intelligible to the general reader.
The second volume is mainly occupied in the vain
endeavour to make a hero out of that drunken savage
Frederic William ; and though enriched with much of
Mr. Carlyle's humour and genius, is, we must say, on
the whole, wearisome. Volumes three, four, and five
are the cream of the work ; for the end of the Seven
Years' War, from the battle of Torgau to the Peace of
Hubertsburg is very tedious, and the Bavarian war is
unendurable. The redeeming points in the sixth
volume are the account of the Partition of Poland,
and, perhaps, the best index that was ever put to-
gether. As a whole, the book wants proportion. We


have too much of Frederic's ancestry, far too much of
his father in particular; we have too much of his
campaigns, and too little of his internal administration.
Prolix, confused, out of proportion all this, we regret
to say, can be urged truly against the "Life of

But all other literary faults sink into insignificance
when we think of the style in which Mr. Carlyle has
seen fit to write. Why in this respect he should have
chosen so to fall away from his former self, it is hard
to tell. It is quite melancholy to compare what he
has done with what he chooses to do now. In his
early days, Mr. Carlyle wrote English as few men
have ever written it simply and clearly, yet with a
richness and power peculiarly his own. No reader
will blame us for recalling to his recollection the fol-
lowing most pathetic passage from the "Diamond
Necklace," published nearly thirty years ago :

" Beautiful High-born that wert so foully hurled low !
For, if thy Being came to thee out of old Hapsburg Dynas-
ties, came it not also (like my own) out of Heaven ? Sunt
lachrymce 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 in Imperial Schonbrunn, the winds of heaven
not to visit thy face too roughly, thy foot to light on soft-
ness, thy eye on splendour ; and then of thy death, or hun-
dred deaths, to which the Guillotine and Fouquier Tinville's
judgment-bar was but the merciful end ? Look there, 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 other 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 ? think not of these : think of HIM
whom thou worshippest, the Crucified, who also treading
the wine-press alone, fronted sorrow still deeper ; and tri-
umphed over it, and made it holy ; and built of it a ' Sanctu-
ary 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. The head is on the block ; the axe rushes
dumb lies the world ; that wild yelling world, and all its
madness, is behind thee."

To us this passage seems to fulfil all the conditions
of good writing the worthiest thoughts expressed in
appropriate and moving words. Beside it Burke's
celebrated burst of eloquence on the same sad theme
becomes tinsel ; apart from the beauty of the diction,
there is a tenderness of feeling which goes to the
heart. Nothing of a similar stamp, or at all approach-
ing to it, can be found throughout these six large
volumes ; the following, rather, is a fair specimen of
Mr. Carlyle's later style :

" When the brains are out, things really ought to die ;
no matter what lovely things they were, and still affect to
be, the brains being out they actually ought in all cases to
die, and with their best speed get buried. Men had noses
at one time, and smelt the horror of a deceased reality fallen
putrid, of a once dear verity become mendacious, phan-
tasmal ; but they have, to. an immense degree, lost that organ
since> and are now living comfortably cheek-by-jowl with
lies. Lies of that sad ' conservative ' kind, and indeed of all
kinds whatsoever : for that kind is a general mother ; and
breeds, with a fecundity that is appalling, did you heed it
much." Vol. iii. p. 337.

^Ve cannot find it in our hearts to forgive this fall-


ing away in Mr. Carlyle. Such a rare and splendid
gift was his, and to see how he has thrown it behind
him ! And the worst is, that he has done this wil-
fully, with his eyes open. Affectation, a love of
singularity, an idea that inverted sentences and un-
couth phraseology would give weight to his teaching
such have been the causes of the corruption of
Mr. Carlyle's style.

Not only has he thus deprived his readers of much
pleasure ; not only has he done himself grievous in-
justice, he has also inflicted a deep, though not, we
hope, a lasting injury, on the English language, than
which no more grievous fault can be laid to the charge
of a great author. A man like Mr. Carlyle should
look on the language in which he writes as a proud
heritage come down to him from no ignoble ancestry ;
if not by him to be improved and enriched, at least to
be preserved perfect and undefiled.

Besides this unhappy substitution of rant and fustian
for real force of expression, Mr. Carlyle's tricks of com-
position have grown into vicious prominence. The old
Smelfungus and Sauerteig device is repeated in these
volumes until it becomes irksome to a degree ; his
love of nicknames and sweeping terms of abuse has
grown to an extreme. What possible good can come
from raving against " boiling unveracities," " apes of
the Dead Sea," " putrid fermentations of mud pools,"
and so on 1 What does it all mean ? To what reader
does it convey any distinct comprehensible idea ? Nay,
these wild generalities have a directly pernicious effect.

Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 19 of 38)