Critical And Miscellaneous Essays "Silence Is Deep As Eternity; Speech Is Shallow As Time"

Thomas Carlyle

"Silence Is Deep As Eternity; Speech Is Shallow As Time"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: One of the means Carlyle had to earn a living was as a book reviewer for a number of periodicals. Using a recently published book as a peg, he would hang onto it a biography of the subject, incorporating many of his own theories and ideas. In 1837 appeared a six-volume Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Baronet by John G. Lockhart. On the theory of "Set a Scot to appreciate a Scott," Carlyle was asked to review it. His long essay appeared in the London and Westminster Review, in 1838, and was collected in book form the following year. Commenting on the instinctive tendency of people to want to look upon any man who has become distinguished, Carlyle is not willing to state that Scott was a great man, but at least he was noteworthy. Despite that fact, should someone, even Scott's son-in-law, devote six volumes, with a spill-over into a seventh not yet published, about a man who had already delineated himself in two hundred volumes of his own, and has "lived for thirty years amid the universal speech of friends?" Surely by now "he must have left some likeness of himself." In passing, Carlyle comments that the biographer has told too much. He has "been too communicative, indiscreet, and has recorded much that ought to have been suppressed." Still, the reviewer declares that it is an interesting work that can be purchased, or borrowed from a lending library, "with more than the usual assurance that even at the cost of so many volumes, he has ware for his money." In the case of the subject of the biography, Carlyle comments that he, too, wrote too much. "Our dear Fenimore Cooper" might likewise "have given us one Natty Leatherstocking." Then the reviewer reverts to an idea expressed several times before in his writing: that silence is golden. In his Journal, he declared: "Speech is human, silence is divine." In Sartor Resartus, Book III, chapter 3, he says: "Speech is Time, Silence is Eternity," and on his essay on Scott, he rephrases the idea:

There is a great discovery still to be made in literature, that of paying literary men by the quantity they do not write. Nay, in sober truth, is not this actually the rule in all writing; and moreover in all conduct and acting? Not what stands aboveground, but what lies unseen under it, at the root and subterrene element it sprang from and emblemed forth, determines the value. Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as Time.