In Victorian prose literature, Thomas Carlyle is often looked upon as a vigorous prophet and preceptor. His doctrinalism in the perspective of growing Victorian materialism is powerfully voiced in his celebrated lectures On Heroes and Hero worship. The work actually comprises six lectures, delivered by Carlyle in 1840, and it was published in 1841.
In this series of lectures, Carlyle’s theme is the history of man, particularly of the great man in different capacities. The great man, in his conception, is the hero of the world, and he may function in any sphere of activities, religious, literary, social, or political. In his lectures, Carlyle treats the six different capacities of the hero-the hero as divinity, the hero as prophet, the hero as poet, the hero as priest, the hero as man of letters and the hero as king.
In his treatment of the hero, Carlyle discusses some personalities as eminent in specific capacities. He deals with Odin and paganism (of Scandinavian mythology) as ‘divinity’, the Islam preceptor Mahomet, as ‘prophet’, Dante and Shakespeare, as ‘poet’, Luther and Knox, as ‘priest’, Johnson, Rousseau and Burns as ‘man of letters’ and Cromwell and Napolean, as ‘king’. In all these cases, his objective is to prove vigorously that ‘Universal
History, the history of what man accomplished in this world, is at the bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here’.
Carlyle’s example in each type is well chosen and his mode of approach has a characteristic force that deeply stirs. What is more, Carlyle’s essays, though originally delivered as lectures, never appear formal, scholastic, but remain all through spontaneous and even colloquial. Of course, his style is occasionally rich and roundabout and becomes rather intricate for common readers. This is, however, typical of Carlyle’s prose style.
Heroes and Hero-worship remains an outstanding prose-work. of a considerable significance for Victorian literature. Through a varied selection of heroes, Carlyle here presents his own conception of the hero, which is sufficiently large and flexible. He has effectively used his portraits of the poet, the priest, the politician, and others to establish his central doctrine about the manifestation of heroism in different directions. He imposes his meaning and interpretation in his own manner and this is the Carlylean characteristic which is found to influence a number of his contemporary prose writers, including Ruskin and Arnold.