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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 17: The Beginnings

What a singular shape of a Man, shape of a Time, have we in this Abbot Samson and his history; how strangely do modes, creeds, formularies, and the date and place of a man’s birth, modify the figure of the man!

Formulas too, as we call them, have a reality in Human Life. They are real as the very skin and muscular tissue of a Man’s Life; and a most blessed indispensable thing, so long as they have vitality withal, and are a living skin and tissue to him! No man, or man’s life, can go abroad and do business in the world without skin and tissues. No; first of all, these have to fashion themselves, -- as indeed they spontaneously and inevitably do. Foam itself, and this is worth thinking of, can harden into oyster-shell; all living objects do by necessity form to themselves a skin.

And yet, again, when a man’s Formulas become dead; as all Formulas, in the progress of living growth, are very sure to do! When the poor man’s integuments, no longer nourished from within, become dead skin, mere adscititious leather and callosity, wearing thicker and thicker, uglier and uglier; till no heart any longer can be felt beating through them, so thick, callous, calcified are they; and all over it has now grown mere calcified oyster-shell, or were it polished mother-of-pearl, inwards almost to the very heart of the poor man: -- yes then, you may say, his usefulness once more is quite obstructed: once more, he cannot go abroad and do business in the world; it is time that he take to bed, and prepare for departure, which cannot now be distant!

Ubi homines sunt modi sunt. Habit is the deepest law of human nature. It is our supreme strength; if also, in certain circumstances, our miserablest weakness. -- From Stoke to Stowe is as yet a field, all pathless, untrodden: from Stoke where I live, to Stowe where I have to make my merchandises, perform my businesses, consult my heavenly oracles, there is as yet no path or human footprint; and I, impelled by such necessities, must nevertheless undertake the journey. Let me go once, scanning my way with any earnestness of outlook, and successfully arriving, my footprints are an invitation to me a second time to go by the same way. It is easier than any other way: the industry of ‘scanning’ lies already invested in it for me; I can go this time with less of scanning, or without scanning at all. Nay the very sight of my footprints, what a comfort for me; and in a degree, for all my brethren of mankind! The footprints are trodden and retrodden; the path wears ever broader, smoother, into a broad highway, where even wheels can run; and many travel it; -- till -- till the Town of Stowe disappear from that locality (as towns have been known to do), or no merchandising, heavenly oracle, or real business any longer exist for one there: then why should anybody travel the way? -- Habit is our primal, fundamental law; Habit and Imitation, there is nothing more perennial in us than these two. They are the source of all Working and all Apprenticeship, of all Practice and all Learning, in this world.

Yes, the wise man too speaks, and acts, in Formulas; all men do so. In general the more completely cased with Formulas a man may be, the safer, happier is it for him. Thou who, in an All of rotten Formulas, seemest to stand nigh bare, having indignantly shaken off the superannuated rags and unsound callosities of Formulas, -- consider how thou too art still clothed! This English Nationality, whatsoever from uncounted ages is genuine and a fact among thy native People, and their words and ways: all this, has it not made for thee a skin or second-skin, adhesive actually as thy natural skin? This thou hast not stript off, this thou wilt never strip off: the humour that thy mother gave thee has to shew itself through this. A common, or it may be an uncommon Englishman thou art: but good Heavens, what sort of Arab, Chinaman, Jew-Clothesman, Turk, Hindoo, African Mandingo, wouldst thou have been, thou with those mother-qualities of thine!

It strikes me dumb to look over the long series of faces, such as any full Church, Courthouse, London-Tavern Meeting, or miscellany of men will shew them. Some score or two of years ago, all these were little red-coloured pulpy infants; each of them capable of being kneaded, baked into any social form you chose: yet see now how they are fixed and hardened, -- into artisans, artists, clergy, gentry, learned sergeants, unlearned dandies, and can and shall now be nothing else henceforth!

Mark on that nose the colour left by too copious port and viands; to which the profuse cravat with exorbitant breastpin, and the fixed, forward, and as it were menacing glance of the eyes correspond. That is a ‘Man of Business;’ prosperous manufacturer, house-contractor, engineer, law-manager; his eye, nose, cravat have, in such work and fortune, got such a character: deny him not thy praise, thy pity. Pity him too, the Hard-handed, with bony brow, rudely combed hair, eyes looking out as in labour, in difficulty and uncertainty; rude mouth, the lips coarse, loose, as in hard toil and lifelong fatigue they have got the habit of hanging: -- hast thou seen aught more touching than the rude intelligence, so cramped, yet energetic, unsubduable, true, which looks out of that marred visage? Alas, and his poor wife, with her own hands, washed that cotton neckcloth for him, buttoned that coarse shirt, sent him forth creditably trimmed as she could. In such imprisonment lives he, for his part; man cannot now deliver him: the red pulpy infant has been baked and fashioned so.

Or what kind of baking was it that this other brother-mortal got, which has baked him into the genus Dandy? Elegant Vacuum; serenely looking down upon all Plenums and Entities, as low and poor to his serene Chimeraship and Nonentity laboriously attained! Heroic Vacuum; inexpugnable, while purse and present condition of society hold out; curable by no hellebore. The doom of Fate was, Be thou a Dandy! Have thy eye-glasses, opera-glasses, thy Long-Acre cabs with white-breeched tiger, thy yawning impassivities, pococurantisms; fix thyself in Dandyhood, undeliverable; it is thy doom.

And all these, we say, were red-coloured infants; of the same pulp and stuff, few years ago; now irretrievably shaped and kneaded as we see! Formulas? There is no mortal extant, out of the depths of Bedlam, but lives all skinned, thatched, covered over with Formulas; and is, as it were, held in from delirium and the Inane by his Formulas! They are withal the most beneficent, indispensable of human equipments: blessed he who has a skin and tissues, so it be a living one, and the heart-pulse everywhere discernible through it. Monachism, Feudalism, with a real King Plantagenet, with real Abbots Samson, and their other living realities, how blessed! --

Not without a mournful interest have we surveyed this authentic image of a Time now wholly swallowed. Mournful reflections crowd on us; and yet consolatory. How many brave men have lived before Agamemnon! Here is a brave governor Samson, a man fearing God, and fearing nothing else; of whom as First Lord of the Treasury, as King, Chief Editor, High Priest, we could be so glad and proud; of whom nevertheless Fame has altogether forgotten to make mention! The faint image of him, revived in this hour, is found in the gossip of one poor Monk, and in Nature nowhere else. Oblivion had so nigh swallowed him altogether, even to the echo of his ever having existed. What regiments and hosts and generations of such has Oblivion already swallowed! Their crumbled dust makes up the soil our life-fruit grows on. Said I not, as my old Norse Fathers taught me, The Life-tree Igdrasil, which waves round thee in this hour, whereof thou in this hour art portion, has its roots down deep in the oldest Death-Kingdoms; and grows; the Three Nornas, or Times, Past, Present, Future, watering it from the Sacred Well!

For example, who taught thee to speak? From the day when two hairy-naked or fig-leaved Human Figures began, as uncomfortable dummies, anxious no longer to be dumb, but to impart themselves to one another; and endeavoured, with gaspings, gesturings, with unsyllabled cries, with painful pantomime and interjections, in a very unsuccessful manner, -- up to the writing of this present copyright Book, which also is not very successful! Between that day and this, I say, there has been a pretty space of time; a pretty spell of work, which somebody has done! Thinkest thou there were no poets till Dan Chaucer? No heart burning with a thought, which it could not hold, and had no word for; and needed to shape and coin a word for, -- what thou callest a metaphor, trope, or the like? For every word we have, there was such a man and poet. The coldest word was once a glowing new metaphor, and bold questionable originality. ‘Thy very attention , does it not mean an attentio, a stretching-to?’ Fancy that act of the mind, which all were conscious of, which none had yet named, -- when this new ‘poet’ first felt bound and driven to name it! His questionable originality, and new glowing metaphor, was found adoptable, intelligible; and remains our name for it to this day.

Literature: -- and look at Paul’s Cathedral, and the Masonries and Worships and Quasi-Worships that are there; not to speak of Westminster Hall and its wigs! Men had not a hammer to begin with, not a syllabled articulation: they had it all to make; -- and they have made it. What thousand thousand articulate, semi-articulate, earnest-stammering Prayers ascending up to Heaven, from hut and cell, in many lands, in many centuries, from the fervent kindled souls of innumerable men, each struggling to pour itself forth incompletely as it might, before the incompletest Liturgy could be compiled! The Liturgy, or adoptable and generally adopted Set of Prayers and Prayer-Method, was what we can call the Select Adoptabilities, ‘Select Beauties’ well-edited (by Œcumenic Councils and other Useful-Knowledge Societies) from that wide waste imbroglio of Prayers already extant and accumulated, good and bad. The good were found adoptable by men; were gradually got together, well-edited, accredited: the bad, found inappropriate, unadoptable, were gradually forgotten, disused and burnt. It is the way with human things. The first man who, looking with opened soul on this august Heaven and Earth, this Beautiful and Awful, which we name Nature, Universe and such like, the essence of which remains forever unnameable; he who first, gazing into this, fell on his knees awestruck, in silence as is likeliest, -- he, driven by inner necessity, the ‘audacious original’ that he was, had done a thing, too, which all thoughtful hearts saw straightway to be an expressive, altogether adoptable thing! To bow the knee was ever since the attitude of supplication. Earlier than any spoken Prayers, Litanias, or Leitourgias; the beginning of all Worship, -- which needed but a beginning, so rational was it. What a poet he! Yes, this bold original was a successful one withal. The wellhead this one, hidden in the primeval dusks and distances, from whom as from a Nile-source all Forms of Worship flow: -- such a Nile-river (somewhat muddy and malarious now!) of Forms of Worship sprang there, and flowed, and flows, down to Puseyism, Rotatory Calabash, Archbishop Laud at St. Catherine Creed’s, and perhaps lower!

Things rise, I say, in that way. The Iliad Poem, and indeed most other poetic, especially epic things, have risen as the Liturgy did. The great Iliad in Greece, and the small Robin Hood’s Garland in England, are each, as I understand, the well-edited ‘Select Beauties’ of an immeasurable waste imbroglio of Heroic Ballads in their respective centuries and countries. Think what strumming of the seven-stringed heroic lyre, torturing of the less heroic fiddle-catgut, in Hellenic Kings’ Courts, and English wayside Public Houses; and beating of the studious Poetic brain, and gasping here too in the semi-articulate windpipe of Poetic men, before the Wrath of a Divine Achilles, the Prowess of a Will Scarlet or Wakefield Pinder, could be adequately sung! Honour to you, ye nameless great and greatest ones, ye long-for-gotten brave!

Nor was the Statute De Tallagio non concedendo, nor any Statute, Law-method, Lawyer’s-wig, much less were the Statute-Book and Four Courts, with Coke upon Lyttleton and Three Estates of Parliament in the rear of them, got together without human labour, -- mostly forgotten now! From the time of Cain’s slaying Abel by swift head-breakage, to this time of killing your man in Chancery by inches, and slow heart-break for forty years, -- there too is an interval! Venerable Justice herself began by Wild-Justice; all Law is as a tamed furrowfield, slowly worked out, and rendered arable, from the waste jungle of Club-Law. Valiant Wisdom tilling and draining; escorted by owl-eyed Pedantry, by owlish and vulturish and many other forms of Folly; -- the valiant husbandman assiduously tilling; the blind greedy enemy too assiduously sowing tares! It is because there is yet in venerable wigged Justice some wisdom, amid such mountains of wiggeries and folly, that men have not cast her into the River; that she still sits there, like Dryden’s Head in the Battle of the Books, -- a huge helmet, a huge mountain of greased parchment, of unclean horsehair, first striking the eye; and then in the innermost corner, visible at last, in size as a hazelnut, a real fraction of God’s Justice, perhaps not yet unattainable to some, surely still indispensable to all; -- and men know not what to do with her! Lawyers were not all pedants, voluminous voracious persons; Lawyers too were poets, were heroes, -- or their Law had been past the Nore long before this time. Their Owlisms, Vulturisms, to an incredible extent, will disappear by and by, their Heroisms only remaining, and the Helmet be reduced to something like the size of the head, we hope! --

It is all work and forgotten work, this peopled, clothed, articulate-speaking, high-towered, wide-acred World. The hands of forgotten brave men have made it a World for us; they, -- honour to them; they, in spite of the idle and the dastard. This English Land, here and now, is the summary of what was found of wise, and noble, and accordant with God’s Truth, in all the generations of English Men. Our English Speech is speakable because there were Hero-Poets of our blood and lineage; speakable in proportion to the number of these. This Land of England has its conquerors, possessors, which change from epoch to epoch, from day to day; but its real conquerors, creators, and eternal proprietors are these following, and their representatives if you can find them: All the Heroic souls that ever were in England, each in their degree; all the men that ever cut a thistle, drained a puddle out of England, contrived a wise scheme in England, did or said a true and valiant thing in England. I tell thee, they had not a hammer to begin with; and yet Wren built St. Paul’s: not an articulated syllable; and yet there have come English Literatures, Elizabethan Literatures, Satanic-School, Cockney-School and other Literatures; -- once more, as in the old time of the Leitourgia, a most waste imbroglio, and world-wide jungle and jumble; waiting terribly to be ‘well-edited,’ and ‘well-burnt!’ Arachne started with forefinger and thumb, and had not even a distaff; yet thou seest Manchester, and Cotton Cloth, which will shelter naked backs, at two-pence an ell.

Work? The quantity of done and forgotten work that lies silent under my feet in this world, and escorts and attends me, and supports and keeps me alive, wheresoever I walk or stand, whatsoever I think or do, gives rise to reflections! Is it not enough, at any rate, to strike the thing called ‘Fame’ into total silence for a wise man? For fools and unreflective persons, she is and will be very noisy, this ‘Fame,’ and talks of her ‘immortals’ and so forth: but if you will consider it, what is she? Abbot Samson was not nothing because nobody said anything of him. Or thinkest thou, the Right Honourable Sir Jabesh Windbag can be made something by Parliamentary Majorities and Leading Articles? Her ‘immortals!’ Scarcely two hundred years back can Fame recollect articulately at all; and there she but maunders and mumbles. She manages to recollect a Shakespeare or so; and prates, considerably like a goose, about him; -- and in the rear of that, onwards to the birth of Theuth, to Hengist’s Invasion, and the bosom of Eternity, it was all blank; and the respectable Teutonic Languages, Teutonic Practices, Existences all came of their own accord, as the grass springs, as the trees grow; no Poet, no work from the inspired heart of a Man needed there; and Fame has not an articulate word to say about it! Or ask her, What, with all conceivable appliances and mnemonics, including apotheosis and human sacrifices among the number, she carries in her head with regard to a Wodan, even a Moses, or other such? She begins to be uncertain as to what they were, whether spirits or men of mould, -- gods, charlatans; begins sometimes to have a misgiving that they were mere symbols, ideas of the mind; perhaps nonentities, and Letters of the Alphabet! She is the noisiest, inarticulately babbling, hissing, screaming, foolishest, unmusicalest of fowls that fly; and needs no ‘trumpet,’ I think, but her own enormous goose-throat, -- measuring several degrees of celestial latitude, so to speak. Her ‘wings,’ in these days, have grown far swifter than ever; but her goose-throat hitherto seems only larger, louder and foolisher than ever. She is transitory, futile, a goose-goddess: -- if she were not transitory, what would become of us! It is a chief comfort that she forgets us all; all, even to the very Wodans; and grows to consider us, at last, as probably nonentities and Letters of the Alphabet.

Yes, a noble Abbot Samson resigns himself to Oblivion too; feels it no hardship, but a comfort; counts it as a still resting-place, from much sick fret and fever and stupidity, which in the night-watches often made his strong heart sigh. Your most sweet voices, making one enormous goose-voice, O Bobus and Company, how can they be a guidance for any Son of Adam? In silence of you and the like of you, the ‘small still voices’ will speak to him better; in which does lie guidance.

My friend, all speech and rumour is shortlived, foolish, untrue. Genuine work alone, what thou workest faithfully, that is eternal, as the Almighty Founder and World-Builder himself. Stand thou by that; and let ‘Fame’ and the rest of it go prating.

Heard are the Voices,
Voice of the Sages,
The Worlds and the Ages:
“Choose well, your choice is
Brief and yet endless;

Here eyes do regard you,
In Eternity’s stillness;
Here is all fulness,
Ye brave, to reward you;
Work, and despair not.” [ Goethe]

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