Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Dickensian Verse

I'm currently re-reading Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), the not too successful link between Dickens' early, shapeless novels and his later, more thematically coherent stuff. Dickens tried to build this novel around a theme -- human selfishness and hypocrisy -- but the theme was so relentlessly and unvaryingly pounded away at in the first instalments of the novel that it was in danger of being a flop; Dickens solved the problem by sending his young hero Martin to America, where attacks on American selfishness and hypocrisy would be more to the readers' liking than attacks on those problems among themselves. (Whatever you think about Anti-Americanism, the one fact is that it has always sold and always will.) But since so many of the characters are distinguished solely by their relationship to the theme of selfishness -- how selfish they are, or how unselfish they are -- the novel feels repetitive, and not worth the 800 pages expended on a very thin plot. Dickens would continue to try to build his novels around overriding themes, but his later novels have more variety in characterization and, above all, lots and lots of plot (so that the story remains exciting even if the theme doesn't particularly interest you).

One thing I've noticed about Dickens' prose is that he'll often break into what basically amounts to disguised blank verse. If you read Dickens' descriptive passages, they often have an iambic rhyhm and break down into what amounts to lines of verse; sometimes the usual ten syllables, sometimes eight, sometimes twelve. It's not actually poetry disguised as prose; there is no strict verse form or line length being followed, and Dickens doesn't use the iambic rhythm all the time -- but he does it often enough to suggest that he was doing it on purpose. Here are a few passages from Martin Chuzzlewit rearranged as verse:

...each bearing on his back a bursting chest
of oranges,
poured slowly through the narrow passages;
while underneath the archway by the public-house,
the knots of those who rested and regaled within,
were piled from morning until night.
Strange solitary pumps were found near Todgers's
hiding themselves for the most part in blind alleys...

Oh, ermined Judge whose duty to society
is, now, to doom the ragged criminal
to punishment and death,
hadst thou never, Man, a duty to discharge
in barring up the hundred open gates
that wooed him to the felon's dock,
and throwing but ajar
the portals to a decent life!

The Temple fountain might have leaped up twenty feet
to greet the spring of hopeful maidenhood,
that in her person stole on, sparkling,
through the dry and dusty channels of the Law...

It seems like Dickens turned to poetic rhythms and (to some extent) poetic line-lengths when he wanted to write in a heightened style, whether for a description or one of his Stirring Invocations. It's an interesting technique that has never quite been abandoned; a 20th-century example of the technique can be found in the play The Lion in Winter by James Goldman, where many of the lines are iambic blank verse disguised as prose.

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