Thomas Carlyle on Oliver Cromwell: “There is Nothing that can Withstand Him”

Eric Jon Phelps
By Eric Jon Phelps October 21, 2010 17:15 Updated

Thomas Carlyle on Oliver Cromwell: “There is Nothing that can Withstand Him”

Oliver Cromwell, 1653

Oliver Cromwell, 1653

“THE Scotch People, the first beginners of this grand Puritan Revolt, which we may define as an attempt to bring the Divine Law of the Bible into actual practice in men’s affairs on the Earth, are still one and all resolute for that object; but they are getting into sad difficulties as to realising it.  Not easy to realize such a thing:  besides true will, there need heroic gifts, the highest that Heaven gives, for realising it!  Gifts which have not been vouchsafed [for] the Scotch People at present. . . .

“The faults or misfortunes of the Scotch People, in their Puritan business, are many:  but properly their grand fault is this, That they have produced for it no sufficiently heroic man among them. No man that has an eye to see beyond the letter and the rubric; to discern, across many consecrated rubrics of the Past, the inarticulate divineness too of the Present and the Future, and dare all perils in the faith of that!  With Oliver Cromwell born a Scotchman; with a Hero King and a unanimous Hero Nation at his back, it might have been far otherwise.  With Oliver born Scotch, one sees not but the whole world might have become Puritan; might have struggled, yet a long while, to fashion itself according to that divine Hebrew Gospel,—to the exclusion of other Gospels not Hebrew, which also are divine, and will have their share of fulfillment here!—But of such issue [a Scottish Oliver Cromwell] there is no danger! . . .

“The meaning of the Scotch Covenant was, That God’s divine Law of the Bible should be put in practice in these Nations:  verily it, and not the Four Surplices at Allhallowtide, or any Formula of cloth or sheepskin here or elsewhere which merely pretended to be it.  But then the Covenant says expressly, there is to be a Stuart King in the business:  we cannot do without our Stuart King! Given a divine Law of the Bible on one hand, and a Stuart King, Charles the First or Charles Second, on the other:  alas, did History ever present a more irreducible cast of equations in this world?  I pity the poor Scotch Pedant Governors; still more the poor Scotch People who had no other to follow! . . .

“Human crimes are many:  but the crime of being deaf to God’s Voice, of being blind to all but parchments and antiquarian rubrics when the Divine Handwriting is abroad on the sky,—certainly there is no crime which the Supreme Powers do more terribly avenge! . . .

“[Lieutenant General of Horse] Wooden Ludlow gives note of another very singular interview he himself had with Cromwell, ‘a little after,’ in those same days or hours [1650 AD].  Cromwell whispered him in the House; they agreed ‘to meet that afternoon in the Council of State’ in Whitehall, and there withdraw into a private room to have a little talk together.  Oliver had cast his eye on Ludlow as a fit man for Ireland, to go and second [Lieutenant General] Ireton there; he took him, as by appointment, into a private room, ‘the Queen’s Guardchamber’ to wit; and there very largely expressed himself.  He testified the great value he had for me, Ludlow; combatted my objections to Ireland; spake somewhat against Lawyers, what a tortuous ungodly jungle English Law was; spake of the good that might be done by a good and brave man;—spake of the great Providences of God now abroad on the Earth; in particular ‘talked for almost an hour upon the Hundred-and-tenth Psalm;’ which to me, in my solid wooden head, seemed extremely singular.

“Modern readers, not in the case of Ludlow, will find this fact illustrative of Oliver.  Before setting out on the Scotch Expedition, and just on the eve of doing it, we too will read that Psalm of Hebrew David’s, which had become English Oliver’s:  we will fancy in our minds, not without reflections and emotions, the largest soul in England looking at this God’s World with prophet’s earnestness through that Hebrew Word,—two Divine Phenomena accurately correspondent for Oliver; the one accurately the prophetic symbol and articulate interpretation of the other.  As if the Silences had at length found utterance, and this was their Voice from out of old Eternity:

The LORD said unto my Lord:  Sit thou at my right hand until I make thine “enemies thy footstool.  The Lord shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion:  “rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.  Thy people shall be willing in the day of “thy power; in the beauties of holiness, from the womb of the morning:  thou has “the dew of thy youth.  The Lord has sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest “forever after the order of Melchizedek.  The Lord, at thy right hand, shall strike “through Kings in the day of his wrath.  He shall judge among the Heathen; he shall “fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many “countries.  He shall drink of the brook in the way:  therefore shall he lift up the “head.”  [Quoted from the King James Authorized English Version of the Bible, 1611, in its present edition of 1769]

In such spirit goes Oliver Cromwell to the Wars.  ‘A god-intoxicated man,’ as Novalis elsewhere phrases it.  I have asked myself, If anywhere in Modern European History, or even in ancient Asiatic, there was found a man practising this mean World’s affairs with a heart more filled by the Idea of the Highest?  Bathed in the Eternal Splendours,—it is so he walks our dim Earth:  this man is one of few.  He is projected with a terrible force out of the Eternities, and in the Times and their arenas there is nothing that can withstand him.  It is great:—to us it is tragic; a thing that should strike us dumb!  My brave one, thy old noble Prophecy is divine; older than Hebrew David:  old as the Origin of Man;—and shall, though in wider ways then thou supposest, be fulfilled!—”

Thomas Carlyle, Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches: With Elucidations, (London: Chapman & Hall, 1898), Vol. III of V, pp. 1, 2, 3, 5-6.

Eric Jon Phelps
By Eric Jon Phelps October 21, 2010 17:15 Updated
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