Saintsbury’s Corrected Impressions and Carlyle

by Mark Wallace

George Saintsbury’s essays on Carlyle in Corrected Impressions (1895) are interesting to me for several reasons. Firstly, he gives a picture of Carlyle’s reputation at the time, placing it at a very low ebb, saying that the general opinion was that ardent admiration for C. was evidence of entering into a ‘fossil stage of intellectual existence’. This, on first glance, goes against what I said in the ‘Reception History’ chapter of my thesis, where I noted several examples of literary works and figures of the time whose intellectual development had been heavily influenced by C. I knew of such attitudes as delineated by Saintsbury, but felt they had been over-emphasized. Carlyle’s real reputation death came later, when those whom he had influenced died out. In the 1890s, his reputation had declined, but it didn’t know it yet – i.e., the people who had read him earnestly in the 1860s and 1870s were till writing and still, expressly or implicitly, paying homage to Carlyle. The very year Impressions came out also say the publication of Doyle’s Stark Munro Letters, on whose relation to Carlyle I posted earlier. So the fruits of the anti-Carlyle spirit of the 1890s was more apparent in later work, where Carlyle simply ceased to exist as a direct influence.

Saintsbury declares himself an unregenerate Carlylean. One of his reasons is that, whatever his failings, it must be remembered that ‘like Henry the Eighth, he “loved a man.”‘ Saintsbury impressed me with his summing up of the two most important lessons of Carlyle:

Never mistake the amount, infinitesimal if not “minus, of your own personal worth and importance in this world,” on the one hand, and “Never care for any majority of other infinitesimals who happen to be against you,” on the other.

This is good, perhaps especially as it points to the great tensions and contradictions in Carlyle. These two maxims are not quite mutually contradictory, but they are close. You are of no importance, but, by the same token, neither is anybody else, or even large groups of anybody elses. Is this an injunction to humility or arrogance? Carlyle would have said the former: ‘People should be more modest’, he said somewhere (Can’t find the ref. In Allingham’s Diary?) Modesty is called for in the cosmic context, but in the inter-personal context quite the reverse is sanctioned. But a certain disrespect for reigning ideologies and ideals in one’s interpersonal context is not always a bad thing, and if admixed with a cosmic humility, then the balance might be the right one.