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“A subject dead is not worth presenting”: Cromwell, the Past, and the Haunting of Thomas Carlyle

  • David McAllister

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  • David McAllister
    Birkbeck, University of London

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The American Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott visited Thomas Carlyle in the summer of 1842, holding what seems to have been rather a grim conversation with the Sage of Chelsea that he described in a letter to his wife Abigail on the 2nd of July:

Ah me! Saul amongst the prophets! It must have been a dark hour with him. He seemed impatient of all interruption: faithless quite in all social reforms. His wit was sombre, severe, hopeless, his every merriment had madness in it; his humour was tragic even to tears: there lay smouldering in him a whole French Revolution—a Cromwellian Rebellion nor could the rich mellowness of his voice, deepened as it was, and made more musical by his broad northern accent, hide from me the restless melancholy, the memory feeding on Hope, the decease of all prophesy in the grave of history, wherein with his hero whom he was seeking to disinter, himself was descending—a giant mastered by the spirit of his time. . . . We had desultory talk, but none gave me pleasure. The man is sick; he needs rest, he must get that Book off his brain before he can find his better self.


If Alcott was disappointed in Carlyle, Carlyle was equally frustrated and bored by Alcott, whose visit came while Carlyle was indeed struggling to write “that Book”—his long-planned and increasingly difficult work on Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan era. In a letter to Thomas Ballantyne dated November 18, 1842, Carlyle was to describe Alcott as “a good man but a bore of the first magnitude” and dubbed him, as a result of his idealistic and evangelical vegetarianism, the “Potato Quixote” (CLO). A second visit to Chelsea ten days after the first only served to reinforce Alcott’s initial opinion: “[W]e sped no better than at first,” he wrote to Abigail on July 16; “Work! work! is with him both motto and creed; but tis all toil of the brain—a draught on the memory—a sacrifice of the living to the dead, instead of devotion to living Humanity and a taste of her enobling [sic] hopes” (85). Despite the mutual frustration engendered by the visit, Alcott’s commentary on Carlyle’s gloomy state of mind, and his identification of its roots in Carlyle’s fraught and creatively crippling relationship to Oliver Cromwell, is extraordinarily perceptive, particularly as it came from a virtual stranger. Carlyle himself had been developing a similar analysis of his position and deploying similar metaphors to describe it in a series of letters and journal entries over the previous two years, and would continue to do so until the book on Cromwell was published in 1845.[1] It is these texts, the metaphorisation of the period they describe, and the suggestion raised by Alcott that the root of Carlyle’s inability to write could be located in a damagingly unbalanced conception of the relationship between the living and the dead that form the subject of this essay.

Alcott’s belief that Carlyle’s troubles stemmed from a “sacrifice of the living to the dead” identifies something in the relationship between living writers and their dead subjects that is potentially fraught with difficulty. Both his vision of Carlyle descending into the grave with his hero, and his belief that Carlyle’s “better self” was being somehow occluded or restricted by the unwritten book that so occupied his mind, suggest that this is a relationship that can, in certain circumstances, constitute a threat to the writer. Both Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man have argued that there are certain conditions in which writing about the dead is an ethically difficult and artistically dangerous task. Carlyle’s experience offers a useful illustration of the difficulties that these theorists identify in writing about—or with—the dead, and can therefore be, to some extent, illuminated by them. In his essay on the death of Roland Barthes, Derrida discusses the “impossible choice” faced by the writer who seeks to write about a dead friend, identifying “two infidelities” that the writer must, and yet cannot, choose between (45). Should the writer choose to use only his own words, “so that what is addressed to or spoken of [the dead] truly comes from the other, from the living friend,” then he runs the risk of making the dead subject “disappear again, as if one could add more death to death and thus indecently pluralize it” (45). The other, equally unsatisfactory option is to give precedence to the dead subject’s own words, and thereby

not to say anything that comes back to oneself, to one’s own voice, to remain silent, or at the very least to let oneself be accompanied or preceded in counterpoint by the friend’s voice. Thus, out of zealous devotion or gratitude, out of approbation as well, to be content with just quoting, with just accompanying that which more or less directly comes back or returns to the other, to let him speak, to efface oneself in front of, and to follow his speech, and to do so right in front of him.


For Derrida, this ceding of the authorial voice would constitute an “excess of fidelity” to the voice of the dead other that “would end up saying and exchanging nothing. It returns to death. It points to death, sending death back to death” (45). One choice adds more death to death while the other sends death back to death; the impossibility of this choice results in aporetic stasis, “with having to do and not do both at once, with having to correct one infidelity by the other” (45). It is my contention that Carlyle experienced just such an impossible choice when trying to write about Oliver Cromwell, and that it not only threatened to cripple him as a writer—as Alcott recognised—but, because it necessitated a radical shift in his historiography, was also the principal reason for the unusual and ungainly form of the book that eventually appeared in 1845.

For Derrida, this impossible choice emerges when the living writer tries to write about a dead friend. Carlyle, of course, had a quite different relationship to Cromwell than Derrida did to Roland Barthes: where Derrida’s writing on Barthes is punctuated by recollections of conversations and journeys taken with his subject, Carlyle was forced to seek traces of Cromwell wherever he could find them: in the East Anglian villages where he had lived; in the fields of Naseby where he had fought and was rumoured eventually to have been (re)buried; and in the various relics of the man—textual, visual and material—that he could find in libraries, museums and private collections. Despite this obvious difference, this essay will demonstrate that the difficulties faced by Carlyle can be fruitfully explored using the Derridean paradigm established in “The Deaths of Roland Barthes” and Specters of Marx. It considers not only why Carlyle found it so difficult to write about Oliver Cromwell, but also why the book that finally emerged after so many years of turmoil and self-doubt bore so little resemblance to the book that Carlyle had intended to write. As its title suggests, Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches with Elucidations from Thomas Carlyle is a hybrid work: part collection of historical source-texts, part historical commentary. Carlyle had, of course, previously made use of intradiegetic editor figures in several books. However, where the English editor of Sartor Resartus and the editorial voice of Past and Present both demonstrate Carlyle’s confident ability to assimilate and shape the histories of their subjects (whether imaginary or real), and ultimately allow his own highly distinctive voice to predominate, this is not the case in the Cromwell book. Here, much of the text consists of unassimilated chunks of Cromwell’s prose. As a result, that characteristic Carlylean voice is so marginal and faintly heard as to be almost ghostly in itself, as if Carlyle had ceded the writing of his own book to his subject; “a sacrifice,” as Alcott had predicted, “of the living to the dead.”

Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches with Elucidations by Thomas Carlyle (1845, hereafter OCLS) was more successful upon its first publication than Carlyle had anticipated; it was not, however, the book he had expected to produce on the Puritan era, and was only one of what seem to have been several possible books on the subject that he had begun to write between beginning his research in 1838 and OCLS’s publication in 1845. Throughout this seven-year struggle, Carlyle figured his subject matter as something with an independent, yet fragile life of its own: I have often thought of [writing about] Cromwell and Puritans,” he wrote to Emerson on January 17, 1840, “but do not see how the subject can be presented still alive. A subject dead is not worth presenting” (CLO). The past was not a dead thing awaiting the resurrecting pen of the historian, but something “alive”: Carlyle’s fear was that in the act of writing he would kill it. John M. Ulrich has claimed that one of the defining features of Carlyle’s historiography is his sense of its paradoxical nature: that it is a task which “necessitates the ‘bodying forth’ of the past—of that which defies, by its very definition, the attempt to ‘revive’ or re-present it” (Signs of Their Times 69). Carlyle’s most self-conscious exploration of this problematic comes in the exhumation scene of Past and Present, a book that was written in the years when he was also struggling to write about Cromwell. Ulrich suggests that this scene, in which the saintly corpse of Edmund, still wrapped in its burial clothes, is exhumed by the heroic Abbot Samson, has been frequently misread. Rather than constituting a direct encounter with the truth of the past embodied in Edmund’s corpse, it actually indicates that our contact with the past can only ever be mediated: the historian can only (and need only) present history as something other, still remote, a body whose features remain covered but whose lineaments are nevertheless traceable. It is a convincing argument; yet it seems, from Carlyle’s own comments, that he wished for something more in his book about Cromwell. It was not simply enough to present Cromwell—who was perhaps the most significant of Carlyle’s Heroes—in his lineaments, mediated, dead; time and again, as I will show, Carlyle declares his intention to present Cromwell’s face and voice directly, to make him live for the reader, and bemoans the difficulties he faced in seeking to do so.

In order to avoid presenting his subject dead, and thereby, in Derridean terms, making him “disappear again,” Carlyle found that he had to try not just to speak of the dead, which had been his previous practice as a historian, but also to speak with them, for them, and, eventually, to allow them to speak for themselves. Such a task, as Derrida argues in Specters of Marx, “seems almost impossible,” and “even more difficult for a reader, an expert, a professor, an interpreter, in short for . . . a scholar”:

The reasons for this are essential. As theoreticians or witnesses, spectators, observers, and intellectuals, scholars believe that looking is sufficient. Therefore, they are not always in the most competent position to do what is necessary: speak to the specter. . . . There has never been a scholar who, as such does not believe in the sharp distinction between the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living, being and non-being . . . in the opposition between what is present and what is not, for example in the form of objectivity.

Specters 11-12

For Derrida, the scholar observes from a purportedly objective position of detachment, differentiating between being and non-being in a manner that negates his ability to engage with ghosts. Carlyle, however, wished not to believe in the stability of the oppositions held sacred by Derrida’s scholar; the distinctions between the living and the non-living, what is present and what is not, and, by extension, the present and the past were opaque for him at best: often they seemed wholly illusory. “‘The curtains of Yesterday drop down, the curtains of To-morrow roll up; but Yesterday and To-morrow both are,’” his Teufelsdröckh notes in Sartor Resartus: “‘Pierce through the Time-element, glance into the Eternal’” (192). Past and present, the living and dead do not—cannot—exist in opposition to one another for Carlyle. Nor was he by any stretch of the imagination the neutral observer of the puritan era that Derrida associates with traditional scholarship. He had an intense admiration for Cromwell as a hero and believed passionately in his contemporary political and moral relevance. He wished, as Chris Vanden Bossche notes in Carlyle and the Search for Authority, that through his words he might help usher forth another Cromwell to bring order, justice and authoritarian leadership to England (102-125), and it was this that made his ability to present Cromwell’s era as living and relevant, rather than dead and impractically other, so imperative.[2]

Even for the non-scholar, Derrida argues, the task of communing with spectres seems almost impossible. Throughout the period in which Carlyle was researching and trying to write his book on Cromwell—and in OCLS itself—he struggled to come up with what he refers to as “a new dialect,” a wholly different way to approach the writing of history that would allow the dead Cromwell to speak, and thereby bring the past into a living relationship with the present. His desire to do so constitutes a rejection of his previous historiographic approach, and it had a practical basis:

What and how great are the interests which connect themselves with the hope that England may yet attain to some practical belief and understanding of its History during the Seventeenth Century, need not be insisted on at present; such hope being still very distant, very uncertain. We have wandered far away from the ideas which guided us in that Century, and indeed which had guided us in all preceding Centuries, but of which that Century was the ultimate manifestation: we have wandered very far; and must endeavour to return, and connect ourselves therewith again!


Carlyle hoped that if he could present the past alive in his book and engender a revival of interest in the puritan age, and a greater understanding of what, in his view, were the qualities that made Cromwell “one of the greatest souls ever born of the English kin” (TC to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 26 September 1840, CLO) then he could renew his country’s connection to the virtues that animated the puritans of the past, and thereby counteract the mechanism and spiritual deadness of nineteenth-century life. “For my heart is sick and sore in behalf of my own poor generation,” he wrote to Emerson on August 29, 1842: “nay, I feel withal as if the one hope of help for it consisted in the possibility of new Cromwells, and new Puritans” (CLO). However, discovering how to write in the new dialect that would allow Cromwell to speak to the present, which would in effect necessitate resolving Derrida’s impossible dilemma, was to prove cripplingly difficult.

Carlyle had first considered writing about the Commonwealth in 1822, but it was in 1838 that he began to study the period—and particularly Cromwell’s role in it—with a view to making it the subject of his next book (Trela 1). The first fruits of his renewed interest appeared when Cromwell became the final subject in the series of lectures he gave on Heroes and Hero-Worship in 1840, and at around this time he borrowed dozens of volumes on Cromwell and the Commonwealth era from, among others, John Stuart Mill and John Forster, whose own life of Cromwell had been published in 1839. He also began to read his way through the vast collection of pamphlets and books from and about the Civil War era that were held in the British Museum. This conscientious preparatory immersion in the literature of the period was a task that he would later denounce in characteristically violent terms, both in his letters and the Introduction to OCLS, but, on 12 October 1840, he could still describe it to his brother with some enthusiasm:

I have borrowed a huge stock, Rushworths, Whitlocke’s &c &c from one Forster, all about Puritanism and Cromwell; I am even buying a few. My work thro’ winter is to be studying and re-studying that business: if I get any direct clear insight I will write about it; if not, not. Meanwhile the search, tho’ amid mountains of shot rubbish, gets more and more entertaining.


This, however, appears to have been an almost momentary gleam of satisfaction in the long and painful process of writing; just seventeen days later, Carlyle would write to the same correspondent in quite different terms:

On the whole I do not find that I make great progress in this new enterprise, sometimes no progress at all,—or even retrogress; that is to say, my interest in it threatens sometimes to decline and die!. . . . One dreadful circumstance is, that the Books, without exception, the documents &c one has to read are of a dulness to threaten locked-jaw; I never read such jumbling, drowsy, endless stupidities: “seventhly and lastly”!— Yet I say to myself a Great Man does lie buried under this waste continent of cinders, and a Great Action: canst thou not unbury them, present them visible, and so help as it were in the creation of them? We shall see.

TC to John A. Carlyle, 29 October 1840, CLO

This general type of complaint would already have been long familiar to John, whose elder brother was an inventive and persistent grumbler; however, there is a remarkable and sustained metaphoric coherence to Carlyle’s complaints over these years that deserves closer examination. Carlyle’s conception of his task as a historian of the Puritan era had become rooted in a discourse of the exhumation of the dead, and throughout the years of writing and research he repeatedly figures his subject—here both Cromwell and his “Great Action”—as a buried body.[3] Close to the outset of his project, Cromwell (and the past that he represents) is invisible but localized, discoverable but silent, buried but not dead, and certainly still capable of signifying. Carlyle imagines the writing of history as a process of exhumation and display, in terms that correspond to the practices of Derrida’s scholar: “looking is sufficient” (Specters 11) for the scholar while for Carlyle at this point in his thinking about Cromwell it is enough to “present [the past as] visible.” Despite the Gothic metaphorization of the past as a buried body, which always contains within it at least the potential for a disruptive resurrection, Carlyle envisions his task in broadly conventional terms. The relationship between historian and historical subject, between the living and the dead, is intransitive; the past is not dead and in need of resurrection, but it does lie still, awaiting silently, like Abbot Samson’s corpse, a disinterment that will “help as it were” in its creation.

As time passed, however, and his attempts to perform this scholarly task repeatedly failed, this quiescent body of the past was transformed into something altogether more active, vocal and demanding. In a letter to Jane Carlyle written in the spring of 1842, Carlyle figures Cromwell as a spectral presence who has followed him from his writing desk in Chelsea to his family’s home in Scotsbrig, where he was on holiday:

Cromwell sometimes rises upon me here; but as a thing lost in abysses; a thing sunk beyond the horizon, and only throwing up a sad twilight of remembrance!. . . . I never yet was in the right track to do that Book. Yet Cromwell is with me the fit subject of a Book, could I only say of what Book! I must yet hang by him. But indeed, if I live, a new epoch will have to unfold itself with me; there are new things, and as yet no new dialect for them.

TC to Jane Welsh Carlyle, 19 April 1842, CLO

Carlyle’s subject is no longer buried awaiting exhumation but a thing with the agency to follow him from place to place, rising upon him at unexpected moments. Like a newly-set sun, Cromwell is both absent and present simultaneously, flickering ambivalently between states that can no longer be antithetical, spectral in his indeterminacy. However, unlike most hauntings, which, particularly in the Gothic tradition from which Carlyle undoubtedly drew his imagery, are unwanted and unwelcome, Carlyle earnestly desires contact with the dead; the spectre rises upon the haunted man, but it is the haunted man who feels that he must “hang by him” and show fidelity to the ghost.

Later that summer, Carlyle sent Jane a new piece of writing in which he recounted a recent trip to the Low countries on a fast-sailing government cutter. In her reply, Jane—who was now taking her own holiday with friends in Suffolk—semi-playfully chastised him for devoting time to writing up his maritime adventures when he had a much more pressing literary task to complete: “I have only read the first two pages of your Manuscript (you idler!). . . . It will be very entertaining I have no doubt—but is it not a mere evading of your destiny to write tours just now!—with that unlaid and unlayable ghost of Cromwell beckoning you on!” (JWC to TC, 17 August 1842, CLO). Jane more explicitly figures Cromwell as a spectral presence haunting her husband, one that insistently beckons him towards an act of authorship which is described here as his “destiny,” but which seems impossible; the ghost is both unlaid, because unwritten, and unlayable because unwriteable. Driven by a compulsive desire to write on Cromwell, yet unable to find a form that would allow him to do so, Carlyle arrived at a creative impasse. “In truth, I am very miserable at present,” he wrote to John Sterling on 4 December 1843, “or call it, heavy-laden with fruitless toil; which will have much the same meaning. My abode is and has been, figuratively speaking, in the centre of Chaos; onwards there is no moving, in any yet discovered line, and where I am is no abiding” (CLO). Both Thomas and Jane conceive of this period as aporetic: Thomas figures it as a desire for movement away from chaos, Jane as a haunting by a ghost who beckons Carlyle towards authoring the book that will lay him; movement, however, is stymied, and the ghost unlayable, because Carlyle cannot find the “new dialect” that will allow him to present the spectre haunting him as “still alive”.

Jane refers to the writing of a book on Cromwell as a “destiny” that Carlyle’s brief sojourn into travel writing has merely delayed. Carlyle himself does not describe his book in quite those terms, but his confidence that he could simply abandon the subject if he should fail to get “any direct clear insight” to it certainly lessened as he became more deeply involved in his research throughout the early 1840s, and was eventually replaced by a haunted sense of compulsion. “I am doomed to write some Book about that unblessed Commonwealth,” he wrote to John Sterling on 4 December 1843, “and as yet there will no Book shew itself possible. . . . dead Heroes, buried under two centuries of Atheism, seem to whimper pitifully, ‘Deliver us, canst thou not deliver us!’—and alas what am I, or what is my father’s house?” (CLO). What Jane calls his destiny, Carlyle sees as his equally inescapable doom; there seems to be no prospect of his being able any longer simply to leave the book unwritten. We have seen how, in the letter to his brother John from 1842, Carlyle had described his motivation to write on this topic in terms of a dialogue with his self: “Yet I say to myself a Great Man does lie buried. . . . canst thou not unbury them?” By December 1843, this dialogue was being carried out between an apparently silent self and a persistently vocal other—or rather others. The “dead heroes” of the historic past were no longer content silently to await discovery by the persistent, objective scholar, but were actively haunting Carlyle’s imagination as personifications of his failure to write his book, demanding deliverance of the increasingly beleaguered writer. Carlyle no longer told himself that he had to write his impossible book; he had outsourced that function to the unquiet-because-as-yet-unwritten ghosts of those whose histories he was driven to recount.

Although Carlyle could locate Cromwell’s buried body metaphorically, he was unable to do so literally. Originally buried in Westminster Abbey in 1658, Cromwell was disinterred following the Restoration; his corpse was first hung on the gallows at Tyburn and then decapitated, and his remains were eventually buried in an unmarked grave and ultimately lost, although they were rumoured to have been reburied at Naseby field. Carlyle was well aware of this disruptive post-mortem history, which he took as an emblem of his countrymen’s short-sighted stupidity: “In other times and conditions he would have been sung of as a demigod, and here Tyburn gallows was in all ways the lot of him!” (TC to Edward Strachey, 3 November 1842, CLO). “My intolerance against the shovelhatted quacks who succeeded poor Oliver,” he wrote to Thomas Spedding on April 28, 1844, “and hung his body on the gallows, and danced round it saying ‘Aha, aha! Glory to Nell Gwynn and the new improved Defender!’—is difficult to repress within just limits” (CLO). The absence of a fixed post-mortem location for Cromwell’s body contributed to Carlyle’s sense that this was a cultural afterlife more fragile than most; not only was he without a memorialising tombstone, but there were, of course, no statues of him in any of Britain’s towns or cities. In a letter to Charles Redwood, written after Carlyle had visited the Naseby battlefield and various other sites in “Cromwell country,” Carlyle reveals his dismay at the desuetude into which his hero’s memory had fallen: “God’s Earth, which Oliver among others walked over, is still verily there; but the traces of Oliver on it are very faint indeed. Many of the people have never heard of his name; with the remainder he has dwindled mostly into a Fable, and even a dull owlish Fable,—for the English are not great hands in the Mythologic line!’ (17 September 1842, CLO). Cromwell was only barely localizable in a cultural imaginary that had largely been shaped by his enemies and detractors, and in the “inarticulate . . . spectral” (OCLS 9) histories stacked up in the British Museum that, as far as Carlyle was concerned, obscured and disfigured, rather than revealed, the man. The Introduction to OCLS makes clear the link between missing corpse and misleading corpus, with Carlyle identifying the source of many of the “foolish lies that have circulated about Oliver” in the “vituperative” biographies of him that emerged following the Restoration:

When restored potentates and high dignitaries had dug up “above a hundred buried corpses, and flung them in a heap in St. Margaret’s Churchyard,” . . . and were hanging on Tyburn gallows, as some small satisfaction to themselves, the dead clay of Oliver . . . when high dignitaries and potentates were in such a humour, what could be expected of poor pamphleteers and garreteers?


Biography and burial are presented here as being inextricably entwined: one simply extends and perpetuates a process initiated and legitimised by the other. Seen in this light, the deliverance that was demanded by the ghosts haunting Carlyle was more than simply a historiographic exhumation; it was also symbolic restitution and cultural recuperation.[4]

Carlyle repeatedly metaphorises his dislike of the ways in which Cromwell and his “Great Action” had been either forgotten or perverted in the nation’s cultural memory, and misrepresented in the historical records as an offensive mis-burial. Initially he figures these historical texts as the seemingly inoffensive “cinders,” but this is a term that euphemistically masks a keen sense of revulsion at what Carlyle sees as the symbolic insult done to Cromwell and his era. It has long been established (in relation to Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend) that “cinders” was widely understood in the mid-nineteenth century to have a double meaning, referring not only to sweepings from fireplaces, but also to the human waste that the night-men carted away from the capital’s cess pools, and which was shot into the city’s dust-yards along with the less offensive household waste (Sucksmith). From the first, then, Carlyle describes Cromwell’s symbolic burial beneath the histories he is researching with a scarcely-concealed sense of disgust, and, as he becomes more deeply involved in his research, his descriptions of the “shot-rubbish” beneath which Cromwell is buried become more nakedly cloacal. He calls the written history of Cromwell a “dung-heap” (TC to Robert Chambers, 24 May 1845, CLO), bemoans the “obscene dung-mountains” in which he has carried out “a most disgusting piece of labour” (TC to Thomas Story Spedding, 20 September 1845, CLO), and tells Emerson of the “continents of brutal wreck and dung” (TC to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 29 August 1845, CLO) that he has cleared aside in OCLS. He describes the accumulated historical writings of his predecessors in the field as “the guano dust of Past Blockheads” (TC to John Fergus, 17 July 1845, CLO), “the guano mountains of Human Stupor” (TC to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 18 April 1846, CLO) and, rather wonderfully, “the guano of two Centuries of Owls” (TC to John Harland, 2 September 1845, CLO). He also describes the process of writing the book as “like the letting of the Brook upon the Augean Stables; it is meant to tell the whole world what Cromwell is, and turn their attention and exertions towards him:—there will be mountains of dung swum away in this manner by and by, and the real face of Oliver’s History will at length become apparent to them” (TC to Edward Fitzgerald, 18 August 1845, CLO). Cromwell’s physical body had been violated and lost, while his place in the nation’s memory had been obscured by two centuries of excremental historiography.

In Looking Awry, Slavoj Žižek suggests that Lacanian psychoanalysis offers one way of understanding the “naïve and elementary” question: why do the dead return?

The answer offered by Lacan is the same as that found in popular culture: because they were not properly buried, i.e., because something went wrong with their obsequies. The return of the dead is a sign of a disturbance in the symbolic rite, in the process of symbolization; the dead return as collectors of some unpaid symbolic debt. . . . It is commonplace to state that symbolization as such equates to symbolic murder: when we speak about a thing, we suspend, place in parentheses, its reality. It is precisely for this reason that the funeral rite exemplifies symbolization at its purest: through it, the dead are inscribed in the text of symbolic tradition, they are assured that, in spite of their death, they will “continue to live” in the memory of the community. . . . the return of the dead signifies that they cannot find their proper place in the text of tradition.


For Carlyle, Cromwell occupied the uneasy position described here by Žižek; his obsequies had not been faithfully observed, his rightful place in the memory of the community had been lost, and this situation required restitution. Carlyle’s failure to resolve the dilemma of how to write about the dead without killing them again resulted in stasis, and an increasing sense that his subject was haunting him by beckoning him towards an authorial act that would restore him to his proper position in the “text of tradition.” It is a curious feature of Cromwell’s history that the disturbance of his obsequies was both literal and symbolic, but it is the symbolic mistreatment of his hero’s reputation that was most significant for Carlyle.

One reason why Cromwell haunted Carlyle in the early 1840s, then, was because of Carlyle’s perception of these slights on his memory, which, as a historian, Carlyle believed that he was in a position to resolve in such a way that not only would Cromwell be reinstated to his rightful place in the public’s estimation, but a new Cromwell would be inspired to follow his decisive and authoritarian example. Achieving the first of these tasks ought not to have proved so difficult; Carlyle had, by this stage in his career, written hundreds of thousands of words that had dealt with the dead in one way or another. His major success as a historian had, after all, been established by his delineation of a similarly vast and forbidding historical period in The French Revolution. If all that was required to restore Cromwell to his “proper place in the text of tradition” was a scholarly uncovering of his buried, dung-strewn historical remains, then Carlyle, with his keen eye for a telling detail and the vast reserves of energy that had stimulated him to rewrite the first volume of the Revolution when it was accidentally thrown onto the fire by John Stuart Mill’s maid, ought to have had relatively little trouble. Much of what he wrote in the course of his research into Cromwell was also burned, however, but this time it was the author’s hand that put the leaves into the flames, and the pages were set ablaze deliberately:

No work I ever undertook prospers so ill with me as this of the Puritans History For indeed none other was ever so difficult. . . . Ten days ago I made a fresh burnt-offering; cast, namely, into the fire, once for all, the fruit of many a long week of diligent writing: and again I am at the thing on another side.

TC to Charles Redwood, 27 December 1843, CLO

Time and again his letters describe his task as impossible, progress as a fantasy. “Do not ask me whether I yet write about Oliver,” he wrote to Thomas Erskine on 22 October 1842: “My deep and growing feeling is that it is impossible. The mighty has gone to be a ghost, and will never take body again” (CLO). “After four weary years of the most unreadable reading, [and] the painfullest poking and delving,” he wrote to Emerson a year later on 31 October 1843, “I have come at last to the conclusion that I must write a Book on Cromwell; that there is no rest for me till I do it. This point fixed, another is not less fixed hitherto, That a Book on Cromwell, is impossible” (CLO).

Why did Carlyle find his task so difficult? Why were Cromwell and the Puritans so much more resistant to Carlyle’s authorship than the French Revolution, or Abbot Samson, or, subsequently, Frederick the Great? It is here that we return to Derrida’s theory that when writing about a dead friend, the writer is faced with an impossible choice between two infidelities. Carlyle and Cromwell were not friends, but it does seem likely that there was something particular in the way that Carlyle conceived of his relationship to Cromwell that necessitated a change in his method of historiography, and which thus made writing a book on him seem “impossible.” This stemmed from a fundamental contradiction in the way that Carlyle understood Cromwell’s value and his relation to the Victorian age. In various letters of the period Carlyle makes damning comparisons between the politicians of the 1840s and his ideal leader from the past: “From no man, Peel nor Anti-Peel, do I hear the smallest whisper of any plan for dealing with the evil day which has at length come upon us. I suppose the people will revolt. . . . A Chartist Parliament, not far in the rear of that, seems likeliest to many. . . . [which] having once altogether discredited itself, there enters some kind of Cromwell (would to God we had him!), [who] drives them out with bayonets a posteriori . . .” (TC to Thomas Story Spedding, 26 June 1842, CLO). Carlyle’s admiration for Cromwell was based on his hero’s propensity for action, which contrasted sharply with the apparent sluggishness of contemporary political figures. Speech was the stock in trade of the modern politician, but, even in this, Carlyle believed, they had failed.

A Cromwell figure, on the other hand, acts decisively, and Carlyle thus found himself confronted with the task of speaking for someone whose value as a heroic exemplar derived not from what he had written or said, but from something that was not just non-verbal, but almost antithetical to language. This was the embodiment of a more general problem that Carlyle had identified at least as early as 1830 when, in “On History,” he had argued that one of the most pressing difficulties in representing the past stems from a fundamental incompatibility of history as it is written and history as it was lived: “Narrative is linear, Action is solid” (8). Any attempt, then, to represent history—in which everything happens all at once and modifies everything else that has happened or will happen—in narrative is always already hobbled; Cromwell’s genius for decisive action, combined with his inarticulacy, rendered this even more problematic. Carlyle had previously been able to shape his material in such a way that the central paradox of this view of historiography—that it seeks to body forth or revive that which necessarily defies or resists all attempts to do so—was tacitly acknowledged, as in his foregrounding of the mediated nature of all historic writing in Past and Present. Ulrich sees in this a “nihilist undercurrent” to Carlyle’s theory of history: the recognition that “if all historical truth is constructed, the only truth may well be that there is no truth” (Signs of Their Times 63). Yet this nihilism, this recognition and acceptance of his own inability to bring the reader into a direct contact with the past, was not good enough for a book on Oliver Cromwell, his ultimate hero.

The “impatient friend,” who voices much of the introduction to Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, reveals something significant about the nature of Carlyle’s connection to his dead subject. When describing the historic record as a “‘Rushworthian inarticulate rubbish-continent, in its ghastly dim twilight, with its haggard wrecks and pale shadows’” and “‘the common Kingdom of Death,’” (10) he identifies the lone living figure of the historian Carlyle, picking his way through the “‘mouldering dumb wilderness of things once alive. . . . [in the] disastrous ever-deepening Dusk of Gods and Men!’” (10):

Why has the living ventured thither, down from the cheerful light, across the Lethe-swamps and Tartarean Phlegethons, onwards to these baleful halls of Dis and the three-headed Dog? Some Destiny drives him. It is his sins, I suppose: perhaps it is his love, strong as that of Orpheus for the lost Eurydice, and likely to have no better issue!


The comparison of his authorial task to that of the mythical lover Orpheus, come to rescue his beloved from the underworld, reveals the peculiar depth of Carlyle’s feelings for Cromwell. To have treated Cromwell in the same way as his other historical subjects would, in Derrida’s terms, have been to acknowledge that “what is . . . spoken of [the dead] truly comes from the other, from the living friend,” rather than from the historic subject, and would thereby run the unacceptable risk of making Cromwell “disappear again.” The prospect of further effacing what slight traces of Cromwell still remained in Victorian England, the idea that all his labours might only result in “add[ing] more death” to Oliver’s death, might “indecently pluralize it” (“The Deaths” 45) and send this unlikely Eurydice back into the underworld was not, for Carlyle, to be countenanced. A new style of historiography was needed.

As early as 1842 Carlyle had indicated his belief that he had to find a “new dialect” for the Cromwell project, and that this would consequently be a radically different sort of book from those that he had written previously, ushering in a “new epoch” for him. This belief that the literary techniques deployed in his previous historical writing would prove insufficient for a book about Cromwell is borne out by the writings that do survive from the period, which reveal that before he would settle on the book’s final hybrid form, Carlyle, who normally had little time for anything but muscular non-fiction prose, indulged in a most un-Carlylean series of literary experiments. Trela notes that he was “continually changing his plans for the book. First it was a history, then a compilation followed by a biography, then a compilation followed by a biography and further documents” (Trela 43). Other fragments of the period suggest the variety of different ways in which he contemplated presenting his research: a twelve-act drama, and, perhaps, as a text interspersed with ballads of his own composition about Cromwell and his times (Fielding 7-8). In one passage written during the years in which he toiled, experimented, and ultimately failed to find this new dialect, he dismisses the idea of writing a history in the manner of The French Revolution: “Probably no one will ever make much of endeavouring to resuscitate (as in F.R.) the whole business—rather try to bring up the soul of it” (Fielding and Tarr 16).

In this movement away from his initial metaphorisation of his task as one of merely disinterring Cromwell’s buried corpse, and towards bringing up “the soul” of the puritan age, we are presented with a vision of the historian as a figure poised between two nineteenth-century archetypes: the body snatcher and the medium. Of course, neither was, in the early 1840s, actually in business; the body-snatching trade had been destroyed a decade earlier with the introduction of the 1832 Anatomy Act while the Hydesville events, which initiated the spiritualist movement and all its associated mediumistic phenomena, would not take place until 1848. Carlyle’s metaphorisation of his role as a historian rejects one archetype while seeming to anticipate, and in many ways to long for, the other in its inchoate struggle to allow the dead to speak to—and through—the living. This desire to write with the dead, rather than simply about them, can be seen in another significant extract from among the false starts and discarded passages of these years of writing. In it, Carlyle experiments with presenting the past dramatically, and thereby summoning the ghost of Cromwell to address the Victorian audience directly:

Enter the Ghost of Oliver Cromwell (by way of Prologue, loquitor) on another Stage than that of Dr Laud. Who art thou of friendly mortal voices that hast awoke me from the iron sleep? . . . Who art thou? What meanest thou?—Ye people and populace of this Amphitheatre, aye there you are, new English faces, male and female, beautiful, young and old, foolish and not so foolish, even as our own were! The same and yet so different. Not Christ’s Gospel now, and a Godly Ministry; but the People’s Charter and Free Trade in Corn. My Poor beloved countrymen,—alas, Priests have become chimerical, and your Lords (Law-wards) do stick the stubble ground with dry bushes in preservation of their partridges. . . . My Children, my kindred, it is a comfort to me that I am dead, that I have not again to fight, and in such a cause as yours has grown.—And say, good unchristian people, why have you summoned me into the daylight?

Fielding and Tarr 16

It is an extraordinary passage. We see here a wildly successful historian rejecting his previous medium and trying to write as a dramatist, solely, it seems, in order to rid himself of a ghost: a ghost whose clumsy dramatic speech is immeasurably less engaging than the prose that made the historian successful, but which suddenly seemed unequal to the demands that were being made of it. Carlyle had repeatedly tried, and failed, to write a conventional history or biography in which his own words would be sufficient to present his subject alive. Here he summons Cromwell’s figure from the grave and tries to put his own words into his hero’s mouth, as if this might resolve the impasse at which he found himself. Yet his summoning of the ghost of Cromwell onto the stage can only be judged as an artistic failure, as Carlyle seems to have been well aware. “What an amazing piece of work is this,” he comments after the passage, “Where will all this end; anywhere?—Ach” (Fielding 16). He doubts not only the form his attempt to present history “still alive” will take, but also, it seems, that a suitable form exists, that his journey has an endpoint, and that his haunting will not prove to be a permanent condition.

The desire to give Cromwell a voice that animates these experiments with form brings Carlyle close to prosopopoeia, the trope through which the living writer gives voice to the dead or absent other. In a celebrated essay on William Wordsworth, Paul de Man lays out in stark terms what he perceives to be the dangers of prosopopoeia. For de Man, there is a “latent threat that inhabits prosopopoeia, namely that by making the death [sic] speak, the symmetrical structure of the trope implies, that the living are struck dumb, frozen in their own death” (928). The voice of the dead can only emerge at the expense of the voice of the living, a conclusion that is strikingly borne out in Carlyle’s attempts to make Cromwell speak. In May 1842, at around the time that the first references to haunting begin to appear in his correspondence, Carlyle acknowledged that his desire to allow Cromwell to speak was accompanied by an inherent danger to his self:

One way or other I find that I must before long rid myself of that esteemed Oliver, who with his adjuncts is really threatening to burn holes in me now: such is the lot of “inarticulate genius” in this sublunary sphere;—it must either contrive to speak itself, or give up gasping, and altogether hold its jaw!.

TC to John Forster, 17 May 1842, CLO

Carlyle figures his relationship with Cromwell as a conflict, a struggle for the breath of life that is also a struggle for primacy between the two voices that are contained within the same body; the dead man here is “gasping” to speak, but perhaps also gasping for the air of survival. In a journal entry from the same year, Carlyle again betrays his anxiety about the threat to his own voice:

I have not yet got one word to stand upon paper in regard to Oliver. . . . I seem to myself at present, and for a long while past, to be sunk deep, fifty miles deep below the region of articulation; and if I ever rise to speak again must raise whole continents with me. Some hundreds of times I have felt, and scores of times I have said and written, that Oliver is an impossibility. Yet I am still found at it,—without any visible result at all!

n. TC to Thomas Erskine, October 22, 1842, CLO

Carlyle here figures himself as the buried man rather than Cromwell. It is he who is “sunk deep” and who finds himself voiceless, unable to speak, and unsure when or whether this situation is likely to change and the power of articulation will return. Unable to resolve the aporetic impossibility of trying to give voice to the inarticulate dead hero, Carlyle identifies with him; before the substitutive symmetry of prosopopoeia results in the replacement of one voice with another, it seems, in this case at least, to result in a period of doubled voicelessness, twin silences. Carlyle, a writer who cannot write, begins to figure himself as buried and voiceless: “I am down among the Ghosts and Infernal Gods, in the deep places of CHAOS,” he had written earlier that month, “uncertain whether ever I shall get up to air and utterance again or not,—most likely not. Oliver Cromwell has long been a ghost; and the very gods withstand his taking body again! I have wished a hundred times I had never heard of him, for my part” (TC to Geraldine E. Jewsbury, 13 October 1842, CLO). More than a year later, in a letter to John Sterling of 4 December 1843, the sense of reversal is complete: “as yet there will no Book shew itself possible. The whole stagnancy of the English genius, two hundred years thick, lies heavy on me” (CLO). Instead of Carlyle figuring his subject as a buried body, he figures himself lying under two hundred years of “stagnancy,” occupying precisely the same position in which he had, for so long, imaginatively placed Cromwell.

This substitution of historian and subject becomes increasingly acute throughout the years of Carlyle’s haunted inability to write the book on Cromwell, and he repeatedly links the completion of the stalled project to his own mortality, complaining to Emerson on 31 January 1844 that “I feel oftenest as if it were possibler to die oneself than to bring it into life” (CLO), and figuring the book to Fitzgerald in similarly stark terms later the same year: “I am getting a little better with my poor Cromwell in these days; I really must have done with it, if only to save my own life” (TC to Edward Fitzgerald, 26 October 1844, CLO). De Man’s belief that speaking for the dead necessitates a symmetrical silencing of the author’s own voice as he becomes “frozen in his own death” is strikingly illustrated here, as a creatively silenced Carlyle enacts a metaphoric substitution of his own body with that of his hero. It is an image that confirms Amos Bronson Alcott’s analysis of two years earlier that Carlyle’s gift of prophesy was lying dead “in the grave of history . . . wherein with his hero whom he was seeking to disinter, himself was descending” (85).

Having tried and failed to carry out one part of Derrida’s “impossible” choice by writing of Cromwell in his own words, Carlyle was forced to throw himself on the dilemma’s other horn simply to escape the destructive haunting that he found himself enduring. Ulrich sees Carlyle’s method in Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches as a way in which he struggled to “come to terms” with “his own self-consciously paradoxical view of history” as something both unapproachably distant yet alive and significant (“Thomas Carlyle” 32). This, I would argue, gives both Carlyle and his book too much credit, and fails to take into account the straits in which he found himself, and that led to his feeling of being haunted by his unwritten book; much depends on one’s view of whether an attempt to escape from a dilemma is the same thing as a struggle to resolve it. Carlyle himself describes the decision to publish the letters in terms that do not communicate any sense that this was the resolution of a debilitating intellectual and literary problem, suggesting instead that he was only too pleased to bring the Cromwell project to a close. He had described his “chief motive” in a journal entry from 8 May 1844 as “a more and more burning desire to have done with it” (n. TC to Alexander Carlyle, 3 May 1844, CLO). The title of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches with Elucidations by Thomas Carlyle betrays the extent to which Carlyle had subordinated his own voice to that of his subject in order to bring an end to his period of haunting; as Chris Vanden Bossche has pointed out, Carlyle’s self-effacement was represented typographically, by having his own words printed in smaller type than those of Cromwell (121).[5] Fielding long ago pointed out that the form of the book was as much “an evasion . . . as a solution of the problems” (14) of trying to write a conventional biography, but when we consider the book’s form in the light of Carlyle’s desire to substitute himself with his dead subject, the nature of both this evasion and solution become clear. Carlyle avoids having to find his “new dialect” by denying himself a full authorial voice, and in his “elucidations” to Cromwell’s source texts he pushes the figural logic of prosopopoeia further even than De Man had thought possible; Carlyle becomes a ghostly voice haunting the margins of his own book. When compared to the strident authorial voice found in Past and Present, or the confident voice of the English Editor in Sartor Resartus, the difference is striking. Unable to find the words with which he could make Cromwell speak, Carlyle was forced to withdraw completely and allow the dead man to speak for himself. It was only by submitting to the “inherent threat” of the trope that he was finally able to rid himself of the unlayable ghost, but in doing so he reduced his authorial voice to something almost spectral.

Derrida identifies the impossible choice traced in this essay as something that arises when one friend seeks to write about another who is no longer there to speak for him or her self; Carlyle’s experience, however, suggests that the direct, personal intimacy enjoyed by Derrida and Barthes is not a prerequisite of this dilemma. It was Carlyle’s intense hero-worship of Oliver Cromwell that prevented him from assimilating his hero’s voice into his own through his normal, mediated style of historiography, and, unable to resolve the dilemma, he eventually chose to give his book over to Cromwell’s voice almost entirely. As Derrida argues, this “excessive fidelity” to the voice of the dead other ends up “saying nothing,” and Cromwell is rarely read today. By the time of its publication, however, Carlyle was less concerned about presenting his subject alive than he was about escaping from “the impossible”: the haunting that had precipitated such a radical crisis in his conception of his authorial self that he had only been able to escape it by ceding control of his work to the voice of the dead.