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In his essay on ‘The Negro Question’ (1850), J. S. Mill refers dismissively to Carlyle’s ‘pet theory […] about work’.1 His attack proceeds on a familiar utilitarian basis: if authority is to be invoked in the matter of a social question, we need to know its source, its legitimacy and the limits of its jurisdiction. In colonial contexts, as discussed in Chapters 3, 4 and 6, the Gospel of Work was indeed an instrument of domination, which was all the more pernicious for its vagueness. It is in his overall account of Carlylean thought that Mill misleads, largely because he resorts to caricature. By presenting his antagonist as a practitioner of metaphysical moonshine, he neglects the complex influence of Carlyle’s social placing, and the nuances of his philosophical position. This is most apparent when he lambasts Carlyle for suggesting an equivalence between ‘such work […] as is done by writers’ and ‘real labour’, the latter being ‘the exhausting, stiffening, stupefying toil of many kinds of agricultural and manufacturing labours’.
An important ethical question is at stake: Mill rightly calls out Carlyle’s audacity in preaching to people about their working conditions. And he legitimately questions the implication that authorship is equivalently punishing – not least since Carlyle was addressing harshly indentured plantation workers, including former slaves. What he misses, all the same, is the less hieratic position that motivates Carlyle’s pronouncements: his concern to forge a connection between the transcendental function and the material world, so that ‘ordinances’ can flow in more than one direction. And while the tendency remains to regard Carlyle as a secular prophet, pronouncing from on high, his social background casts that role in a different light. A university-educated man of letters, with decidedly aristocratic social connections, he was nevertheless the son of a poor man, who was first a jobbing stonemason, then a builder and finally a farmer. By implication, Mill’s jibe about ‘stupefying toil’ falls wide of the mark. From his youth, Carlyle had a better acquaintance with such labour than Mill credits. But apart from being a case of social misrecognition, the exchange reveals an enduring blind-spot about the varieties of labour admitted by Carlyle’s Gospel.
Virginia Woolf once observed that ‘there is something incongruous, unfitting, about the term “craftsmanship” when applied to words’. Spoken as part of a late BBC broadcast on ‘Craftsmanship’ (1937), her thoughts bear on the legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement, notably the persistent comparison of literature to practical activities such as weaving. Gladstone, as we have seen, suppresses the cunning in craft in favour of a manual dexterity reconciled with paternal oversight. For Morris, the ‘stones close-fitting’ of Odysseus’s ‘well-builded’ (13:340) house symbolise a holistic civilisation: ‘cunning’ he can accept in return for the dramatic fruits of its mischief. Woolf, by contrast, suspects a futility for the writer in eliminating the ‘draught between the frames of the windows’. While this seems at odds with her tactile delight in setting up a handpress for the Hogarth venture, and with the equally Morrisian flavour of the painted surfaces created by her friends at Charleston, she evidently senses a threat to truth: ‘“craft”’, she notes ‘[…] means in the first place making useful objects out of solid matter – for example, a pot, a chair, a table’, and ‘In the second place, […] cajolery, cunning, deceit.’ Pressing language into instrumental service, it follows, compromises its most valued function: ‘words’, she warns, ‘never make anything that is useful; and words are the only things that tell the truth’.
Woolf’s portrayal of artistic enterprise in To the Lighthouse (1927) broadly anticipates this account: Lily Briscoe’s abstraction in colour resists both the art-as-toil thesis, and the heroic cast of Mr Ramsay’s brain-work. The interrupted dignity of Wagnerian ‘hammering’ that runs through the opera scene in The Years (1937) signals a related ambivalence. Woolf was not alone in repudiating the craft ideal: Wyndham Lewis expresses similar sentiments in describing the Omega Workshops as ‘Mr Roger Fry’s little belated Morris movement’. Indeed, the art and literature of the 1920s tend to evoke intellectualism, a defiant restoration of the mind’s independence over the body. In the familiar account, modernist writers installed Bergsonian perceptualism, self-conscious artifice, machine-worship, and abstraction, in place of the Ruskinian ‘hand’. The many amputees produced by the Great War complicated the very idea of embodied human agency: the Siemens-Schuckertwerke Universal Arm, for instance, linked worker prostheses directly to the parts of machines.
Even where the emphasis of previous chapters has been on sheer toil or invigorating labour, my examples have been closely tracked by discourses of manual skill and apprenticeship. Part III considers a more fully realised version of this craft-consciousness, where the emphasis falls on the associated malleability of words. Chapter 5 explores the most popular of these literary-artisanal tropes: namely, the implied connection between the writer and the blacksmith. Running from late Dickens, through late Ruskin, to Hopkins, it demonstrates a common attraction to the idea of the literary artificer, albeit one that is troubled by the forge’s Promethean glow. While Salmon demonstrates the foundational role of ‘Carlyle’s invocation of literary ‘guilds’ and ‘apprenticeships’ in Sartor Resartus’, the following discussion reveals how these models became instrumental at the level of their linguistic tooling. This effect is also derived from Carlyle, but rather than feeding into the novelistic tradition of self-development, it fosters here a resurgent trope of linguistic making, which gradually intersects with the Arts and Crafts movement in the last decades of the century. The chapter charts an early encounter between these approaches through the pages of Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), a novel highly sensitised to languages of labour, but also – as we shall see – to distinctions between licensed and unlicensed tooling.
The stakes involved in this turn towards literary handicraft are worth considering. Reflecting on a fashionable turn towards artisanal versions of literature, David Masson observes in 1873 that the ‘poems and songs’ of the Anglo-Saxons ‘were made – were actually fabricated for them out of their language by word-smiths’. Masson’s last term appears in the OED as the first instance of its use. As such it evokes the period’s revived interest in Old English, a language whose compound methods of word formation inspire both the morphology of this coinage, and an associated challenge to reified distinctions between culture and craft. Such thinking inspires, in turn, a new generation of ‘word-smiths’, each of whom presses archaic linguistic resources into the service of analogies between literary composition and metalwork.
Though not alone among political liberals in celebrating Carlyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning seems an unlikely admirer of his labour theory. He assumes a masculine identity, after all, and a performance based in strength and able-bodiedness. By contrast, her most productive period coincided with the years she spent in confinement as ‘a confirmed invalid’. Undeterred, Barrett Browning confesses herself ‘an adorer of Carlyle’, even keeping an image of him in her bedchamber. Writing to Robert Browning early in their courtship, she calls him ‘the great teacher of the age’. Perhaps she sensed an opportunity to please by praising his friend; but the affectionate bias runs first and foremost in the other direction. As Rosemary Ashton observes, it was not her lover’s esteem, but Carlyle’s modest praise of Browning’s poetry that ‘predisposed her to like and admire him’. Indeed she had already committed herself in critical prose, having anonymously co-written a laudatory essay on ‘Thomas Carlyle’ for R. H. Horne’s compendium A New Spirit of the Age (1844).
Carlyle’s insistent allusion to the ‘man’ of letters understandably distracts critics from his influence on a poet better known for lamenting a dearth of literary ‘grandmothers’. But the clues are not entirely hidden. Barbara Dennis observes that ‘Elizabeth admired the “strong man” in politics’, while Angela Leighton notes her related attraction to father figures. Several recent studies have begun to explore and clarify the connection with Carlyle more directly. Beverly Taylor assesses Barrett Browning’s engagement with ‘the hero as poet’, while Marjorie Stone sees the figure of Romney in Aurora Leigh (1856) as a kind of distillation of the Carlylean emphasis on ‘labour and action’, a reading that assigns Aurora the utopian side of his prophetic creed, and posits a ‘subversion’ of his ‘authoritative stance’. This chapter extends recent treatment of Carlylean legacies, but does so less in relation to models of heroism than in addressing the material and workaday aspects of Barrett Browning’s proposition that poets should be ‘workers’. Equally, it broadens attention beyond the field of Aurora Leigh – where Carlylean influence interacts complexly with other, not always consistent, strands such as Romney’s Fourieurist socialism – to include an earlier generic field. This reveals Carlyle’s literary Gospel of Work as an effect negotiated in the messy ‘real time’ of daily epistolary labour.
Without exactly coining the phrase, Carlyle’s Past and Present stands as an irregular summation of the Gospel of Work. To ‘[k]now thy work and do it’, he avers, is ‘The latest Gospel in this world’ (10:196). Work operates here as an absolute good – indeed, as ‘Religion’ (10:200) – and the dividing lines are correspondingly stark: on the one hand he invokes the ‘unworking Dilettantism’ of a partridge-trapping aristocracy (10:182); and, on the other, regiments of diligent but unemployed workers (10:197). Only, Carlyle begins at the edges to nibble away at this definitional absolutism. And it is here that he addresses the more specific concerns of this book. As Chapter 1 demonstrates, the implication of his conviction that ‘a man perfects himself by working’ (10:196) is that authors too must consider their status as workers. By 1843, Carlyle was still quoting Goethe, notably his injunction to ‘Work, and despair not’ (10:135). But the distinction advanced ‘between work and sham-work, between speech and jargon’ (25:196), imperils the place of poetry and fiction in his economy of values. Though admitting that ‘The spoken Word, the written Poem, is said to be an epitome of the man’, he is still drawn to ask, ‘how much more the done Work’ (10:158). Equally, his wry allusion to the pitiful ‘day’s-wages of John Milton’s day’s-work, named Paradise Lost’ (10:19) betrays an anxiety not only about literary rewards, but about the equivalence of different ‘day’s work’. The aim here is not to repeat the well-known story of Carlyle’s increasing and oddly self-defeating Philistinism, but to probe the uncertainties that shadow his categorical rhetoric, and the ways these condition his vocational placing.
Once Carlyle’s difficulties in satisfying himself are understood, it is easier to appreciate the ironies of his legacy, and the forms of projection it invites. At the level of direct influence, several Carlylean preoccupations recur across the cases surveyed in later chapters.
Basil Bunting’s short poem ‘What the Chairman Told Tom’ (1965) stages a one-sided exchange between a self-styled authority figure and a poet. ‘Poetry?’ the Chairman exclaims, ‘It’s a hobby’: ‘It’s not work. You dont sweat’ [sic]. The pompous tone and shifting argument lend the sense of a voice designed to bring suspicion of the arts into disrepute. At the same time, the poem puts up an uneasy sort of resistance. While the indignant query ‘How could I look a bus conductor | in the face | if I paid you twelve pounds?’ is transparently cynical, it also hangs awkwardly in the air. Tom might argue that poetry has been mischaracterised, that poetry is ‘work’ after all. But it isn’t obvious what counterclaims would convince the Chairman. Should Tom advance an alternative conception of work, one suited to the poet’s labour? Or should poetic effort be reshaped to fit an existing definition? If the first option sounds overly ambitious, the second gives too much away. Tom might defend poetry on its own terms, as something other than work; but he would do so at the risk of reducing it to a distraction, akin to the ‘model trains’ the Chairman recommends as a more wholesome hobby.
The poem addresses the vexed relationship between the value accorded to work in modern British society and the unstable basis for valuing literary endeavour. Such problems are not new: the spectre of the idle artist has haunted the terms of public debate for centuries. In 1904, W. B. Yeats wrote that ‘to articulate sweet sounds together | Is to work harder’ than to ‘scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones’, ‘and yet | Be thought an idler by the noisy set | of bankers, school masters, and clergymen’.3 The speaker in Vladimir Mayakovsky’s ‘The Poet Worker’ (1918) complains that ‘They shout at a poet: “Why aren’t you doing a real job, working a lathe, bolt and nuts? […]”’. Yeats and Mayakovsky were writing at the end of a period during which writers sought solutions to problems of cultural self-definition. And yet, anything like Mayakovsky’s answer that ‘We smooth brains with the file of our tongue’ seems out of reach for Bunting’s Tom.
In the first and second parts of this chapter, on William Gladstone and John Ruskin, the emphasis shifts to a more gestural or performative approach. The question of demonstrating work arises again, but rather than representing physical tasks in their association with the labouring classes, they are here displaced and refracted through the body of the middle-class writer, a figure who selectively performs that work in a personal capacity. As Siskin pertinently observes, georgic literary forms offered a ‘means by which the work of writing itself came to be seen as a potentially heroic activity’. This development underpins the turn towards ‘husbandry’ apparent in my examples, and in the case of Gladstone, there are links between Virgilian precedent and ‘the promotion of landowners’ virtues’ or ‘nation building’. Only, there is less emphasis in this case on an interaction between ‘the heroic and the professional’; and little on deploying the georgic as ‘a tool in the making of modern professionalism’. The georgic operates here not so much to symbolise and empower ‘professional’ labours than to displace disembodied work. In that way, it re-fashions literature in its own image.
In this respect, georgic tropes interact with a cluster of mid nineteenth-century movements, beginning with revived interest in the Greek gymnasium. As if avoiding Charles Kingsley’s ‘Isle of Tomtoddies’ – a place of ‘all heads and no bodies’ – the followers of Muscular Christianity extended these principles of physical wellbeing into a broader field of human experience. Glimpses of a more integrated human life are equally prevalent in American literature, owing largely to the legacies of Carlylean idealism and the New England culture of unified sensibility. So writes Thoreau: ‘Can there be any greater reproach than an idle learning? ‘Learn to split wood, at least.’6 Far from defending the literary life by re-describing it as ‘work’, he accepts the customary slur of an idle distraction, proposing instead that writers atone for their defective calling by doing something else with compensating vigour. This spectacle of the author as labourer endures on both sides of the Atlantic well beyond the century’s close. By contrast with the fashion for depicting authors at their desks, it is an outdoor tradition. In this respect, the writer is seen demonstrably ‘at work’, but in an unaccustomed arena.
Carlyle and Brown typically address labour in a form that is physically manifest, while sending attention away from the body of the observing writer in favour of a diverting spectacle. The next two chapters cover situationally diverse examples that mark a distinct change. Instead of referring ‘real’ physical work elsewhere, they hold on to it, and in the process keep the body of the writer centre-stage. Chapter 3 explores a crucial, but paradoxical case. During her years as an invalid, Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt imprisoned by her bodily circumstances. She was correspondingly keen to develop a transcendental theory of poetry. Undaunted by the apparent conflict, she nevertheless embraced Carlyle’s Gospel of Work as applied to writers, drawing equally on its artisanal and toiling strands. Much of the ensuing discussion concerns the forms of associated – and conflicted – embodiment practised by her poetry and her letters. In this regard, it would be a mistake to interpret the sick body as a compliant element. As historians of Victorian invalidism have shown, there is a quality of resistance about the passivity of the sickroom. In Barrett Browning’s case, the same applies to the poetic work that happens there, sharpened and animated though it is by pain and palpitation. Rather than conceding ground, her physical withdrawal licenses and intensifies a philosophy of determined literary action.
Chapter 4 addresses personifications of a more literal ‘literary labour’, beginning with Gladstone, who combines Homeric scholarship with woodcraft, and then Ruskin, who mixes lecturing with road-mending, harbour-building and axe-work. These cases restore the theatrical emphasis and sense of demonstration discussed in Part I, but with the difference that the writer’s body becomes the interface between contemporary working practice and the ideal of a physical-cerebral self. The chapter closes with a discussion of William Morris’s integrated theories of human making and literary composition. His self-conception as a writer acquires particular significance in charting moves towards the writerly craft ethics of the late nineteenth century. As is well known, he also engaged in practical design activity through the work of Morris & Co.
In a revised edition of his influential compendium The Literary Character (1818), Isaac D’Israeli observes that it was Jean de La Bruyère who ‘discovered the world’s erroneous estimate of literary labour’. ‘There requires’, he reports, ‘a better name to be bestowed on the leisure (the idleness he calls it) of the literary character’, so ‘that to meditate, to compose, to read and to be tranquil, should be called working.’ Though translated from a seventeenth-century source, these words propound a distinctly nineteenth-century approach to the problem of writerly identity, one that foregrounds work by renaming and redefining disputed territory. D’Israeli begs the question in the process: he refers to ‘literary labour’ as if it were a settled category, and his easy movement between thinking, composing, and reading goes unexplained. But even these cross-currents are pertinent. They express enduring uncertainty about whether literary effort dwells in the mind, on the page, or elsewhere. And they evince a corrective focus on language, a medium susceptible to reform because coined and reissued by writers themselves.
Understanding such claims requires an appreciation of what authors thought the world was erroneously estimating. In Absent Minds (2006), Stefan Collini distinguishes the ways that intellectuals talk about themselves – notably, the various ‘Fall’ narratives unwittingly or deliberately perpetuated – from the historical record. This, it turns out, reveals a less tortured social experience than we tend to expect. The history of legislation governing literary reward substantiates this analysis. Discussing Talfourd’s second reform to the Copyright Act 1814, Martha Woodmansee notes the scale of its success in ‘confer[ring] dignity on the profession of authorship’. Brad Sherman and Lionel Bently, likewise, document the ‘privilege’ in law accorded to ‘the labour of mind over that of the body’. In particular, they show that a legal window opened briefly in the mid-nineteenth century, when mental labour was not just recognised by the courts but regarded as a test of ownership. This study is influenced by such revisionist accounts, but it focuses on the action of writing (and therefore ‘the writer’) rather than on the figure of the ‘intellectual’. And it proceeds on the assumption that anxieties about the life of the mind are revealing – and indeed subtly causative – even where they are misplaced. Equally, it is clear that writers’ legal advantages conferred limited reputational benefit.
The examples collected in this book address a literary rapprochement with the idea (and the practice) of skilled manual labour. Initially inspired by classical principles of united sensibility, its early Victorian form arises in Dissenting cultures of visible effort, neo-Lockean conceptions of property, prescriptions against occupational disease, and gymnastic ideas of self-culture; thereafter, it develops into a project of cerebralphysical integration, which assumes various shapes, before culminating in the Arts and Crafts (and latterly, modernist) vision of a craftsmanship that unites physical making with the mental conception. What comes into view is a sustained attempt to resolve and renovate the status of writing, a determination to make writer and writing accountable, to forge a physically legible ‘labour of mind’. The writers in question effect this outcome in different ways: through testamentary or material visualisations of literary work, writerly performances of agricultural labour or handicraft, as well as through craft-based theories of composition, literary association, linguistic tooling, and direct carving in prose.
Tracking these experiments across a hundred years illuminates a striking longevity of ideas and practices, as well as connections between apparently disparate contexts. Links emerge between Carlyle’s Teufelsdröckh on ‘Man’ as ‘a tool-using Animal’ (1:32) and Gill’s notion that ‘the tool is from the beginning that of the artist, no less than the labourer’. Others are apparent between Whistler’s rejection of hours counted at the canvas and Pound’s incongruous allusion to apprenticeship in his wartime broadcasts; between vaticism and artisanal approaches; and between the differing conceptions of an artist’s relation to a working God held by Barrett Browning, Hopkins and Gill. Meanwhile, Gladstone, Ruskin, Schreiner and Pound share an agrarianism focused both on labour value and an idea of poetic participation. As previously stated, the cases discussed are determined less by political loyalties, or a particular literary tradition, than by an evolving occupational strategy, one that responds to an inherited problem of value. In this respect, it is better to think in terms of loose formations than of a lineage or succession, though the textual and personal connections can be compelling, as suggested by Pound’s recourse to Whistler, Ruskin and Morris.
Building on connections previously discussed between poetry and weaving, this chapter addresses an equally searching comparison of writing to forge labour, one that prioritises matters of process over what Jean Baudrillard calls ‘productive finality’, but which also registers forms of visibility. Amidst the symbology of craftsmanship, the figure of the blacksmith stands out because of an enhanced power to signify and represent. Ruskin’s note on the twenty-first capital of the Doge’s Palace in Venice conveys something of this. He describes its eighth side as showing a figure who ‘[…] beats with a large hammer on a solid anvil’ under the caption ‘FABER SUM’ [I am a maker] (10:420). The Latin ‘faber’ serves a broad purpose in this respect, in that it elides the difference between ‘smith’ and the wider category, ‘maker’. This ability to speak of labour in general also influences political representations. Walt Whitman, for one, splices metallurgic figures with democratic politics, utopian com-munalism, Eastern mysticism, and erotic life, in visions of ‘[b]lacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests’. Re-domesticating this American trajectory, the radical English poet and campaigner, Edward Carpenter, sets his Towards Democracy (1883) to the ‘solid beat of steam and tilt-hammers’, while praising ‘[l]overs of all handicrafts and of labor in the open air’, chief among them ‘[t]he blacksmith’. For Carpenter, as for Morris, the image of the blacksmith becomes a symbol of socialism, a rallying cry for a newly conceived aristocracy of labour. As previously noted, Walter Crane puts his depiction of a smith fashioning a sword to a revolutionary use as the emblem on the front of a Socialist League membership card [Figure 5.1].
While the blacksmith’s ability to signify at the general and political level guarantees a prominence and potency, the questions entailed by the medium of metal are not superficial either, whether understood technically, theoretically or representationally. This applies equally to the forge’s role as an interface between manual and literary intelligence. Widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘The Village Blacksmith’ (1841) epitomises the revived image of the forge as a place of dignified, but also intelligent, labour.
As the cases of Cunningham and Elliott demonstrate, there is a strong tendency towards verbal portraiture in the method by which Carlyle isolates artisanal characteristics. This chapter turns from the case of a writer who redescribes his vocation in visual terms to that of an artist who portrays Carlyle himself, and who likewise indemnifies intellectual labour by making it visible. Ford Madox Brown is best known for his large-scale canvas, Work (1852–65) [Figure 2.1], a painting much studied by art critics, and routinely seen as visualising a central Victorian value. Yet the circumstances of its composition contain a commentary not only on the fraught connection between the labour of mind and the hand of the artist, but also on the difficulties encountered by a discourse of authenticity that relies on processes of representation, staging and demonstration.
In its final form, Work depicts a group of navvies mending a road who are watched from one side by likenesses of Carlyle and F. D. Maurice. It is an arrangement that differs markedly from the design that first inspired the commission of its patron, Thomas Plint [Figure 2.2].
Apparently unhappy with the painter figure who originally stood at the sidelines, Plint asked Brown ‘to introduce both Carlyle and Kingsley’ in substitution. He duly contacted Carlyle to arrange a sitting, and quietly discarded the suggestion of Kingsley in favour of Maurice. The legal complications arising from Plint’s death in 1861 ensured that it was not until 1865 that the painting could appear in public. In that year it was shown as the centrepiece of a one-man retrospective, ‘The Exhibition of Work, and other Paintings’ (‘The Gallery’, Piccadilly, 1865), an event whose billing simultaneously describes a specific painting and testifies to all the artistic effort it involved. The self-authored catalogue that Brown published to mark the event discloses a related double logic, resembling as it does interpretative art criticism as much as exhibition or sales description.
Among the commentaries that Brown includes, the long entry on Work stands out. Amid the action and colour of the street scene, he identifies ‘the British excavator or navvy’ as the ‘outward and visible type of work’. Meanwhile, Plint’s concern with personality recedes in favour of delineating ‘types and not individuals’.
Rather than focus on the well-known 'dignity of literature' debate, whereby authors such as Dickens sought to establish authorship as a middle-class profession, The Work of Words considers the alternative path of middle-class writers who re-presented literature as a manual craft. Unlike many works in the field, it extends beyond the mid-Victorian novel as a generic and historical focus, to address its aesthetic and political afterlife right up to the periods of Guild Socialism, modernism and European fascism. Given the tilt of world trade towards China, and more recent supply chain shocks, it is not just writers who are haunted by a lost world of material production, but much of the de-industrialised West. By studying the Victorian attempt to make composition (and related mental processes) palpable, this book takes the long view on questions that still trouble us, and responds to recent concerns, whether as manifested through the revival of craft and workshop culture, or debates about the visibility, weight and worth of the humanities.