A Few Ells

thomas carlyle on history.

Statue of Thomas Carlyle, Chelsea, London. Photo: George P. Landow.

The most gifted man can observe, still more can record, only the series of his own impressions; his observation, therefore…must be successive, while the things done were often simultaneous; the things done were not in a series, but in a group. It is not in acted, as it is in written History: actual events are nowise so simply related to each other as parent and offspring are; every single event is the offspring not of one, but of all other events, prior or contemporaneous, and will in its turn combine with all others to give birth to new: it is an ever-living, ever-working Chaos of Being, wherein shape after shape bodies itself forth from innumerable elements. And this Chaos…is what the historian will depict, and scientifically gauge, we may say, by threading it with single lines of a few ells in length! For as all Action is, by nature, to be figured as extended in breadth and in depth, as well as in length…so all Narrative is, by its very nature, of only one dimension; only travels forward towards one, or towards successive points; Narrative is linear, Action is solid.

— Thomas Carlyle, “On History,” 1830

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