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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 3 Chapter 5: The English

And yet, with all thy theoretic platitudes, what a depth of practical sense in thee, great England! A depth of sense, of justice, and courage; in which, under all emergencies and world-bewilderments, and under this most complex of emergencies we now live in, there is still hope, there is still assurance!

The English are a dumb people. They can do great acts, but not describe them. Like the old Romans, and some few others, their Epic Poem is written on the Earth’s surface: England her Mark! It is complained that they have no artists: one Shakspeare [sic]indeed; but for Raphael only a Reynolds; for Mozart nothing but a Mr. Bishop: not a picture, not a song. And yet they did produce one Shakspeare: consider how the element of Shakspearean melody does lie imprisoned in their nature; reduced to unfold itself in mere Cotton-mills, Constitutional Governments, and such like; - all the more interesting when it does become visible, as even in such unexpected shapes it succeeds in doing! Goethe spoke of the Horse, how impressive, almost affecting it was that an animal of such qualities should stand obstructed so; its speech nothing but an inarticulate neighing, its handiness mere hoofiness, the fingers all constricted, tied together, the finger-nails coagulated into a mere hoof, shod with iron. The more significant, thinks he, are those eye-flashings of the generous noble quadruped; those prancings, curvings of the neck clothed with thunder.

A Dog of Knowledge has free utterance; but the Warhorse is almost mute, very far from free! It is even so. Truly, your freest utterances are not by any means always the best: they are the worst rather; the feeblest, trivialest; their meaning prompt, but small, ephemeral. Commend me to the silent English, to the silent Romans. Nay, the silent Russians too I believe to be worth something: are they not even now drilling, under much obloquy, an immense semi-barbarous half-world from Finland to Kamtschatka, into rule, subordination, civilisation, - really in an old Roman fashion; speaking no word about it; quietly hearing all manner of vituperative Able Editors speak! While your ever-talking, ever-gesticulating French, for example, what are they at this moment drilling? - Nay, of all animals, the freest of utterance, I should judge, is the genus Simia: go into the Indian woods, say all Travellers, and look what a brisk, adroit, unresting Ape-population it is!

The spoken Word, the written Poem, is said to be an epitome of the man; how much more the done Work. Whatsoever of morality and of intelligence; what of patience, perseverance, faithfulness, of method, insight, ingenuity, energy; in a word, whatsoever of Strength the man had in him will lie written in the Work he does. To work: why, it is to try himself against Nature, and her everlasting unerring Laws: these will tell a true verdict as to the man. So much of virtue and of faculty did we find in him; so much and no more! He had such capacity of harmonising himself with me and my unalterable ever-veracious Laws; of cooperating and working as I bade him; - and has prospered, and has not prospered, as you see! - Working as great Nature bade him: does not that mean virtue of a kind; nay, of all kinds? Cotton can be spun and sold, Lancashire operatives can be got to spin it, and at length one has the woven webs and sells them, by following Nature’s regulations in that matter: by not following Nature’s regulations, you have them not. You have them not; - there is no Cotton-web to sell: Nature finds a bill against you; your ‘Strength’ is not Strength, but Futility! Let faculty be honoured, so far as it is faculty. A man that can succeed in working is to me always a man.

How one loves to see the burly figure of him, this thick-skinned, seemingly opaque, perhaps sulky, almost stupid Man of Practice, pitted against some light adroit Man of Theory, all equipt with clear logic, and able anywhere to give you Why for Wherefore! The adroit Man of Theory, so light of movement, clear of utterance, with his bow full-bent and quiver full of arrow-arguments, - surely he will strike down the game, transfix everywhere the heart of the matter; triumph everywhere, as he proves that he shall and must do! To your astonishment, it turns out oftenest No. The cloudy-browed, thick-soled, opaque Practicality, with no logic-utterance, in silence mainly, with here and there a low grunt or growl, has in him what transcends all logic utterance: a Congruity with the Unuttered! The Speakable, which lies atop, as a superficial film, or outer skin, is his or is not his: but the Doable, which reaches down to the World’s centre, you find him there!

The rugged Brindley has little to say for himself; the rugged Brindley, when difficulties accumulate on him, retires silent, ‘generally to his bed;’ retires ‘sometimes for three days together to his bed, that he may be in perfect privacy there,’ and ascertain in his rough head how the difficulties can be overcome. The ineloquent Brindley, behold he has chained seas together; his ships do visibly float over valleys, invisibly through the hearts of mountains; the Mersey and the Thames, the Humber and the Severn have shaken hands: Nature most audibly answers, Yea! The man of Theory twangs his full-bent bow: Nature’s Fact ought to fall stricken, but does not: his logic-arrow glances from it as from a scaly dragon, and the obstinate Fact keeps walking its way. How singular! At bottom, you will have to grapple closer with the dragon; take it home to you, by real faculty, not by seeming faculty; try whether you are stronger or it is stronger. Close with it, wrestle it: sheer obstinate toughness of muscle; but much more, what we call toughness of heart, which will mean persistance hopeful and even desperate, unsubduable patience, composed candid openness, clearness of mind: all this shall be ‘strength’ in wrestling your dragon; the whole man’s real strength is in this work, we shall get the measure of him here.

Of all the Nations in the world at present we English are the stupidest in speech, the wisest in action. As good as a ‘dumb’ Nation, I say, who cannot speak, and have never yet spoken, - spite of the Shakspeares and Miltons who shew us what possibilities there are! - O Mr. Bull, I look in that surly face of thine with a mixture of pity and laughter, yet also with wonder and veneration. Thou complainest not, my illustrious friend; and yet I believe the heart of thee is full of sorrow, of unspoken sadness, seriousness, - profound melancholy (as some have said) the basis of thy being. Unconsciously, for thou speakest of nothing, this great Universe is great to thee. Not by levity of floating, but by stubborn force of swimming, shalt thou make thy way. The Fates sing of thee that thou shalt many times be thought an ass and a dull ox, and shalt with a godlike indifference believe it. My friend, - and it is all untrue, nothing ever falser in point of fact! Thou art of those great ones whose greatness the small passer-by does not discern. Thy very stupidity is wiser than their wisdom. A grand vis inertiæ is in thee; how many grand qualities unknown to small men! Nature alone knows thee, acknowledges the bulk and strength of thee: thy Epic, unsung in words, is written in huge characters on the face of this Planet, - sea-moles, cotton-trades, railways, fleets and cities, Indian Empires, Americas, New-Hollands; legible throughout the Solar System!

But the dumb Russians too, as I said, they, drilling all wild Asia and wild Europe into military rank and file, a terrible yet hitherto a prospering enterprise, are still dumber. The old Romans also could not speak, for many centuries: - not till the world was theirs; and so many speaking Greekdoms, their logic-arrows all spent, had been absorbed and abolished. The logic-arrows, how they glanced futile from obdurate thick-skinned Facts; Facts to be wrestled down only by the real vigour of Roman thews! - As for me, I honour, in these loud-babbling days, all the Silent rather. A grand Silence that of Romans; - nay the grandest of all, is it not that of the gods! Even Triviality, Imbecility, that can sit silent, how respectable is it in comparison! The ‘talent of silence’ is our fundamental one. Great honour to him whose Epic is a melodious hexameter Iliad; not a jingling Sham-Iliad, nothing true in it but the hexameters and forms merely. But still greater honour, if his Epic be a mighty Empire slowly built together, a mighty Series of Heroic Deeds, - a mighty Conquest over Chaos; which Epic the ‘Eternal Melodies’ have, and must have, informed and dwelt in, as it sung itself! There is no mistaking that latter Epic. Deeds are greater than Words. Deeds have such a life, mute but undeniable, and grow as living trees and fruit-trees do; they people the vacuity of Time, and make it green and worthy. Why should the oak prove logically that it ought to grow, and will grow? Plant it, try it; what gifts of diligent judicious assimilation and secretion it has, of progress and resistance, of force to grow, will then declare themselves. My much-honoured, illustrious, extremely inarticulate Mr. Bull! -

Ask Bull his spoken opinion of any matter, - oftentimes the force of dulness can no farther go. You stand silent, incredulous, as over a platitude that borders on the Infinite. The man’s Churchisms, Dissenterisms, Puseyisms, Benthamisms, College Philosophies, Fashionable Literatures, are unexampled in this world. Fate’s prophecy is fulfilled; you call the man an ox and an ass. But set him once to work, - respectable man! His spoken sense is next to nothing, nine-tenths of it palpable nonsense; but his unspoken sense, his inner silent feeling of what is true, what does agree with fact, what is doable and what is not doable, - this seeks its fellow in the world. A terrible worker; irresistible against marshes, mountains, impediments, disorder, incivilisation; everywhere vanquishing disorder, leaving it behind him as method and order. He ‘retires to his bed three days,’ and considers!

Nay withal, stupid as he is, our dear John, - ever, after infinite tumblings, and spoken platitudes innumerable from barrel-heads and parliament-benches, he does settle down somewhere about the just conclusion; you are certain that his jumblings and tumblings will end, after years or centuries, in the stable equilibrium. Stable equilibrium, I say; centre-of-gravity lowest; - not the unstable, with centre-of-gravity highest, as I have known it done by quicker people! For indeed, do but jumble and tumble sufficiently, you avoid that worst fault, of settling with your centre-of-gravity highest; your centre-of-gravity is certain to come lowest, and to stay there. If slowness, what we in our impatience call ‘stupidity,’ be the price of stable equilibrium over unstable, shall we grudge a little slowness? Not the least admirable quality of Bull is, after all, that of remaining insensible to logic; holding out for considerable periods, ten years or more, as in this of the Corn-Laws, after all arguments and shadow of arguments have faded away from him, till the very urchins on the street titter at the arguments he brings. Logic, - , the ‘Art of Speech,’ - does indeed speak so and so: clear enough: nevertheless Bull still shakes his head; will see whether nothing else illogical, not yet ‘spoken,’ not yet able to be ‘spoken,’ do not lie in the business, as there so often does! - My firm belief is, that, finding himself now enchanted, hand-shackled, foot-shackled, in Poor-Law Bastilles and elsewhere, he will retire three days to his bed, and arrive at a conclusion or two! His three-years ‘total stagnation of trade,’ alas, is not that a painful enough ‘lying in bed to consider himself ?’ Poor Bull!

Bull is a born Conservative; for this too I inexpressibly honour him. All great Peoples are conservative; slow to believe in novelties; patient of much error in actualities; deeply and forever certain of the greatness that is in LAW, in Custom once solemnly-established, and now long recognised as just and final. - True, O Radical Reformer, there is no Custom that can, properly speaking, be final; none. And yet thou seest Customs which, in all civilised countries, are accounted final; nay, under the Old-Roman name of Mores, are accounted Morality, Virtue, Laws of God Himself. Such, I assure thee, not a few of them are; such almost all of them once were. And greatly do I respect the solid character, - a blockhead, thou wilt say; yes, but a well-conditioned blockhead, and the best-condition, - who esteems all ‘Customs once solemnly acknowledged’ to be ultimate, divine, and the rule for a man to walk by, nothing doubting, not inquiring farther. What a time of it had we, were all men’s life and trade still, in all parts of it, a problem, a hypothetic seeking, to be settled by painful Logics and Baconian Inductions! The Clerk in Eastcheap cannot spend the day in verifying his Ready-Reckoner; he must take it as verified, true and indisputable; or his Book-keeping by Double Entry will stand still. “Where is your Posted Ledger?” asks the Master at night. - “Sir,” answers the other, “I was verifying my Ready-Reckoner, and find some errors. The Ledger is - !” - Fancy such a thing!

True, all turns on your Ready-Reckoner being moderately correct, - being not insupportably incorrect! A Ready-Reckoner which has led to distinct entries in your Ledger such as these: ‘Creditor an English People by fifteen hundred years of good Labour; and Debtor to lodging in enchanted Poor-Law Bastilles: Creditor by conquering the largest Empire the Sun ever saw; and Debtor to Donothingism and ‘‘Impossible” written on all departments of the government thereof: Creditor by mountains of gold ingots earned; and Debtor to No Bread purchasable by them:’ - such Ready-Reckoner, methinks, is beginning to be suspect; nay is ceasing, and has ceased to be suspect! Such Ready-Reckoner is a Solecism in Eastcheap; and must, whatever be the press of business, and will and shall be rectified a little. Business can go on no longer with it. The most Conservative English People, thickest-skinned, most patient of Peoples, is driven alike by its Logic and its Unlogic, by things ‘spoken,’ and by things not yet spoken or very speakable, but only felt and very unendurable, to be wholly a Reforming People. Their Life as it is has ceased to be longer possible for them.

Urge not this noble silent People; rouse not the Berserkir-rage that lies in them! Do you know their Cromwells, Hampdens, their Pyms and Bradshaws? Men very peaceable, but men that can be made very terrible! Men who, like their old Teutsch Fathers in Agrippa’s days, ‘have a soul that despises death;’ to whom ‘death,’ compared with falsehoods and injustices, is light; - ‘in whom there is a rage unconquerable by the immortal gods!’ Before this, the English People have taken very preternatural-looking Spectres by the beard; saying virtually: “And if thou wert ‘preternatural?’ Thou with thy ‘divine-rights’ grown diabolic wrongs? Thou, - not even ‘natural;’ decapitable; totally extinguishable!” - - Yes, just so godlike as this People’s patience was, even so godlike will and must its impatience be. Away, ye scandalous Practical Solecisms, children actually of the Prince of Darkness; ye have near broken our hearts; we can and will endure you no longer. Begone, we say; depart, while the play is good! By the Most High God, whose sons and born missionaries true men are, ye shall not continue here! You and we have become incompatible; can inhabit one house no longer. Either you must go, or we. Are ye ambitious to try which it shall be?

O my Conservative friends, who still specially name and struggle to approve yourselves ‘Conservative,’ would to Heaven I could persuade you of this world-old fact, than which Fate is not surer, That Truth and Justice alone are capable of being ‘conserved’ and preserved! The thing which is unjust, which is not according to God’s Law, will you, in a God’s Universe, try to conserve that? It is so old, say you? Yes, and the hotter haste ought you, of all others, to be in to let it grow no older! If but the faintest whisper in your hearts intimate to you that it is not fair, - hasten, for the sake of Conservatism itself, to probe it rigorously, to cast it forth at once and forever if guilty. How will or can you preserve it, the thing that is not fair? ‘Impossibility’ a thousandfold is marked on that. And ye call yourselves Conservatives, Aristocracies: - ought not honour and nobleness of mind, if they had departed from all the Earth elsewhere, to find their last refuge with you? Ye unfortunate!

The bough that is dead shall be cut away, for the sake of the tree itself. Old? Yes, it is too old. Many a weary winter has it swung and creaked there, and gnawed and fretted, with its dead wood; the organic substance and still living fibre of this good tree; many a long summer has its ugly naked brown defaced the fair green umbrage; every day it has done mischief, and that only: off with it, for the tree’s sake, if for nothing more; let the Conservatism that would preserve cut it away. Did no wood-forester apprise you that a dead bough with its dead root left sticking there is extraneous, poisonous; is as a dead iron spike, some horrid rusty ploughshare driven into the living substance; - nay is far worse; for in every windstorm (‘commercial crisis’ or the like), it frets and creaks, jolts itself to and fro, and cannot lie quiet as your dead iron spike would!

If I were the Conservative Party of England (which is another bold figure of speech), I would not for a hundred thousand pounds an hour allow those Corn-Laws to continue! Potosi and Golconda put together would not purchase my assent to them. Do you count what treasuries of bitter indignation they are laying up for you in every just English heart? Do you know what questions, not as to Corn-prices and Sliding-scales alone, they are forcing every reflective Englishman to ask himself? Questions insoluble, or hitherto unsolved; deeper than any of our Logic-plummets hitherto will sound: questions deep enough, - which it were better that we did not name even in thought! You are forcing us to think of them, to begin uttering them. The utterance of them is begun; and where will it be ended, think you? When two millions of one’s brother-men sit in Workhouses, and five millions, as is insolently said, ‘rejoice in potatoes,’ there are various things that must be begun, let them end where they can.

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