Thomas Carlyle

This Scotsman changed history (Figure 11.3). Keir Hardie, former collier, self-taught Latinist99 and founder of the Independent Labour Party, believed that Carlyle’s ideas had protected the British left from what he saw as the dangers

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), photographed on 31st July 1854. Public Domain image. Wikicommons

FIGURE 113 Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), photographed on 31st July 1854. Public Domain image. Wikicommons.

of revolutionary dialectical materialism by stressing ‘the spiritual side of man’s being; showing how all material things are but useful in so far as they serve to aid in developing character’.100 In 1906, when Labour MPs and the Liberals who had supported the 1903 Lib-Lab pact were polled, they named Carlyle, the Bible and Ruskin as the reading matter that had influenced them most.101 The Dumfriesshire railway poet, Alexander Anderson, typically praised Carlyle (also from Dumfriesshire): ‘One man, white-haired, with misty, flashing eyes/ Looms from the rest, in life’s toil sublime,/And all that hath the power to make us wise’.102 The docker Ben Tillett recalls being ‘spellbound by the dark fury’ of Carlyle’s spirit.103

The book by Carlyle all of them read was Past and Present (1843), which Ralph Waldo Emerson called Carlyle’s ‘Iliad of English woes’.104 In its first two chapters, Carlyle’s lament for the condition of the British working class is structured around two mythical figures. In chapter I, ‘Midas’, Carlyle argues that industrial capitalism, however bad for the workers who are banned from touching the enchanted fruit of the wealth they produce, is also bad for the rich Master Workers. They may touch the fruit but are impoverished morally.

In the midst of plethoric plenty, the people perish; with gold walls, and full barns, no man feels himself safe or satisfied. Workers, Master Workers, Unworkers, all men, come to a pause; stand fixed, and cannot farther. Fatal paralysis spreading inwards, from the extremities, in St. Ives workhouses, in Stockport cellars, through all limbs, as if towards the heart itself. Have we actually got enchanted, then; accursed by some god?105

He concludes the extraordinary rhetoric of this chapter with a resume of the myth:

Midas longed for gold, and insulted the Olympians. He got gold, so that whatsoever he touched became gold,—and he, with his long ears, was little the better for it. Midas had misjudged the celestial music-tones; Midas had insulted Apollo and the gods: the gods gave him his wish, and a pair of long ears, which also were a good appendage to it. What a truth in these old Fables!106

Carlyle’s class-oriented use of Midas proved influential, probably suggesting to George Eliot the climactic moment when Silas Marner the weaver, who works 16 hours a day, finds the toddler who will give his life love, joy and purpose: instead of the golden coins which had been stolen from him, he discovers ‘a sleeping child—a round, fair thing with soft yellow rings all over its head’.107 But Carlyle’s use of the Sphinx, who gives her name to the title of chapter II, was to resonate even more profoundly.

Carlyle describes the Sphinx, whose face looks as seductive as a lovely woman’s, but whose animal body contains ‘a ferocity, fatality, which are infernal’.108 Carlyle imagines her putting the ‘riddle of Destiny’ to the 27 million inhabitants of the country: how to live in true accordance with Nature, Truth and Eternal Justice: ‘What is justice? that, on the whole, is the question of the Sphinx to us. The law of Fact is, that justice must and will be done. The sooner the better; for the Time grows stringent, frightfully pressing!’109 Oedipus solved the riddle, but nevertheless suffered downfall. The Sphinxriddle, Carlyle says, was first put by the ‘poor Manchester operatives’ who gathered at Peterloo:

They put their huge inarticulate question, “What do you mean to do with us?” in a manner audible to every reflective soul in this kingdom; exciting deep pity in all good men, deep anxiety in all men whatever ... All England heard the question: it is the first practical form of our Sphinx-riddle. England will answer it; or, on the whole, England will perish.110

We shall return to the influence of Carlyle subsequently, in Chapter 23.

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