Chapter One:
Carlyle on Literature: Conflicting Views

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.
— W. B. Yeats

…In Sartor Resartus, the hero’s struggles are subjects for poetic rhapsody and outrageous humor; in Latter-Day Pamphlets, Peel’s problems in­spire only tedious invective. In 1831, Carlyle’s landscape is fabu­lous and obscure, his style “jeanpaulian,” his irony playful; in 1850, he focuses only moral heat upon the prosaic, in a voice that is remarkable for its shrillness and redundancy.

This apparent contrast of early and late Carlyle disturbed his contemporaries as much as it does the modern reader. Despite an initially poor reception in England, Sartor had circulated widely among British artists and intellectuals by the 1840s…

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I pull the bedclothes to my chin,
douse the light and wait.

A pause, and then it comes:
the dog’s soft spring
up into the space where humans sleep.

He circles—once, twice—
between my feet and hers,
settles over the usual spot,
and lowers his bones.

Coiled now, nose to tail,
he breathes a single, cleansing sigh,
and ends the day for all.

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More and more I wonder
at such scenes,
at disconnection absolute:
at moments, ordinary in each time
and not so far apart,
become as alien from each other
as planets circling separate stars.

Stranger still to think of what’s to come,
of specters, queer as dreams,
who’ll roam these urban spaces
ages after we have gone.

I suppose they’ll give what pictures
of the past we leave
at best a wry and fleeting glance.

Could be they’ll question
for a moment (hardly more)
that beings so peculiar, so unconscious-strange,
once walked the selfsame earth as they.

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At nearly eighty-nine she died,
quite suddenly and alone;
on a bright mid-summer morn it was,
her loved ones far away.

Applying a touch of rouge, it seems,
her best brooch pinned in place;
right properly well turned out she was,
ready to greet old friends.

But only the bedroom mirror saw
the astonishment in her eyes;
and only the bedroom mirror caught
her image as she fell.

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So solemn it seemed scant days ago–
lovers, tear-spent
talking out last syllables
of a life together, huddled there knees to chin
in moonlit midnight,
running tongues over hollow spaces,
tasting separation’s acid
speaking epitaphs.

Now sprawled unshaven in a bed too large for one
(television in the corner flickering blue),
I feast not on sorrow only
but with surprising equal relish
on a hoard of red pistachios beside me in a jar.

Their shells and skins accumulate
in the bedclothes, on the floor:
they seem an invitation to accept,
unseemly as it is,
the queerness of the freedom after death.

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