Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Carlyle: The Hero as Poet

On May 12, 1840, Thomas Carlyle gave his third lecture in his series on Heroes. Titled "The Hero as Poet," it looked into the lives of Dante and Shakespeare. His previous lectures, he said, dealt with the production of older ages, "not be be repeated in the new." Divinity as hero and prophet as hero would never happen again, he said. Mankind had advanced to the point where he no longer stooped to such low intellectual things. Or, "if we do not now reckon a Great Man literally divine, it is that our notions of God, of the supreme unattainable Fountain of Splendor, Wisdom, and Heroism, are ever rising higher...."

Ah, but the poet! He believed we would always have poet-heroes. "...the hero...can be Poet, Prophet, King, Priest or what you will according to the kind of world he finds himself born into." Concerning the poet, what would it take to turn a poet into a hero—or maybe a hero into a poet. Carlyle says
I confess, I have no notion of a truly great man that could not be all sorts of men. The Poet who could merely sit on a chair, and compose stanzas, would never make a stanza worth much. He could not sing the Heroic warrior, unless he himself were at least a Heroic warrior too. I fancy there is in him the Politician, the Thinker, Legislator, Philosopher;—in one or the other degree, he could have been, he is all these.
So I conclude he picks Dante and Shakespeare, not because of the greatness of their poetry, but because of the greatness of their lives. Or, perhaps he would say their poetry was great because they were great men and heroes, capable of fulfilling many roles in life. He doesn't completely dismiss aptitude, saying both of these men obviously had aptitude for poetry. And in good Carlylean characteristic, he can't help but bring Goethe into the equation when discussing aptitudes. I think, by the time I finish all of Carlyle's works, I shall be very tired of hearing about Goethe.

Dante he (Carlyle) likes because he rose from some limitations to be able to write his book. Although he was born upper class, the political machinations of Florence drug him down. He was, however, a bright light in a dark age. His life was from 1265 and spanned a mere 56 years, into into the next century, which was squarely in the Dark Ages (or Middle Ages if you prefer). Thus his accomplishment was even bigger because of these handicaps. And best of all, Dante was sincere in what he did. As mentioned before, sincerity is akin to greatness as the mark of the hero.

Shakespeare, Carlyle says, "has given us the Practice of body" whereas Dante "has given us the Faith or soul." Shakespeare worked as the Renaissance was unfolding, which gave him advantages Dante didn't have. Although, Macaulay said that the mark of a greater poet was a great work produced in a civilized age. Easy for a poet to produce a great work in a dark age, harder in a civilized age. How exactly a civilized age is supposed to hinder a poet is something I haven't quite figured out, but I'm not calling Macaulay wrong. Shakespeare clearly wrote in an age more civilized than the age of Dante's labors. Those more astute than I will have to figure out which had the greater environmental handicap.

Carlyle believes Shakespeare could have done so much more than he did, in terms of politics or public leadership. The greatness of his verse demonstrates this. In the end he says, "Yet I call Shakspeare [sic] greater than Dante, in that he fought truly, and did conquer."

As was his way, Carlyle did not confine himself to these two giants of the world of the poets. Goethe, as I already mentioned; Mirabeau, Tieck, and even Napoleon are all mentioned in almost the same breath as the hero as poet. These lines of reasoning aren't developed much, though perhaps I need to go back and see about that.

This is a lecture/chapter I wan to re-read, in quiet tranquility, with no deadlines or distractions. I think it has much more to inform me that I haven't comprehended.


Ram said...

Nicely posted

Dragos said...

I think that Macaulay says that it is easier to create a great work in a dark age than in a civilized age, because in a dark age there is no competition and your work will be regarded as a "great work" more readily.