If I were to only tell you that the extract, “Three Lurid Pictures”, was a characterization of three prominent people associated with the French Revolution, you might guess, incorrectly, who they might be. When I told you that the three were Robespierre, Dr. Guillotin and Honore Mirabeau, you might guess, incorrectly, that attention and volume of the eight pages would be paid to the aforementioned in the order I mentioned them. And you (probably), like me, being American, having never learned French history, while they (the French) having never forgot it, could not understand why these three and why write about the apparent least of these firstly and prominently (6 of 8 pages are dedicated exclusively to Mirabeau). In order for me to bring you, dear reader, up to my frail understanding of this subject, I’ll have to first speak of James Russell Lowell’s characterization of Thomas Carlyle. Next, I need to give his and my comparison of Carlyle to Shakespeare. And finally, I’ll select certain of Carlyle more histrionic portrayals of Mirabeau for in depth analysis. Shall we?
James Russell Lowell finds Thomas Carlyle both original (kaleidoscopic, brilliant, colorful) and thoroughly absent of any new original ideas in his later works. Carlyle’s condemnations and ridicule of shortcomings are softened by humorous sympathy and acknowledgement of mortal frailty. Lowell says, in fact, that the author’s type of humor runs and ends, as it must, into humor first cousin, cynicism (my wording here). J.R.L. continues, saying, “There are no half-tints, no gradations (in his verbal portraits of powerful and historic men and women). Carlyle’s historic compositions are wonderful prose-poems and names like Voltaire, Shakespeare, Thackeray and Homer are mentioned.
Lowell writes that one must go back to Shakespeare to find a rival to Carlyle in characterization and caricature. Once the scales are set up, our critic looks at specific attributes of both Carlyle and the Bard. Where Shakespeare portrays the ordinary strikingly, Carlyle examines the exceptional with exaggeration. Shaky expounds the graces of Nature and the evolution of character, where as Carlyle gifts his characters with full detailed representation, firstly factual, then emboldened. William Shakespeare knows the psychology of man most probably better than any practitioner today, while as Carlyle conducts a physical exam from face to follicle, from finances to feces. With the gift of song, Lowell goes on, Carlyle’s prose-poems might sail off from Shakespeare’s lake to the epic oceans of Homer.
to be continued…Mirabeau summation here next