We now begin the study of the last of the three stages in the battle between paganism and idealism. Having seen something of its primitive and classical forms, we took a cross section of it in the seventeenth century, and now we shall review one or two of its phases in our own time. The leap from the seventeenth century to the twentieth necessarily omits much that is vital and interesting. The eighteenth century, in its stately and complacent fashion, produced some of the most deliberate and finished types of paganism which the world has seen, and these were opposed by memorable antagonists. We cannot linger there, however, but must pass on to that great book which sounded the loudest bugle-note which the nineteenth century heard calling men to arms in this warfare.
Nothing could be more violent than the sudden transition from Samuel Pepys, that inveterate tumbler in the masque of life, whose absurdities and antics we have been looking at but now, to this solemn and tremendous book. Great in its own right, it is still greater when we remember that it stands at the beginning of the modern conflict between the material and spiritual development of England. Every student of the fourteenth century is familiar with two great figures, typical of the two contrasted features of its life. On the one hand stands Chaucer, with his infinite human interest, his good-humour, and his inexhaustible delight in man’s life upon the earth. On the other hand, dark in shadows as Chaucer is bright with sunshine, stands Langland, colossal in his sadness, perplexed as he faces the facts of public life which are still our problems, earnest as death. There is no one figure which corresponds to Chaucer in the modern age, but Carlyle is certainly the counterpart of Langland. Standing in the shadow, he sends forth his great voice to his times, now breaking into sobs of pity, and anon into shrieks of hoarse laughter, terrible to hear. He, too, is bewildered, and he comes among his fellows “determined to pluck out the heart of the mystery”—the mystery alike of his own times and of general human life and destiny.
The book is in a great measure autobiographical, and is drawn from deep wells of experience, thought, and feeling. Inasmuch as its writer was a very typical Scotsman, it also was in a sense a manifesto of the national convictions which had made much of the noblest part of Scottish history, and which have served to stiffen the new races with which Scottish emigrants have blended, and to put iron into their blood. It is a book of incalculable importance, and if it be the case that it finds fewer readers in the rising generation than it did among their fathers, it is time that we returned to it. It is for want of such strong meat as this that the spirit of an age tends to grow feeble.