Shakespeare and Dickens
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This is not a compared book review so much as a comparison of voices. I got to thinking about this following a reference from Jargoneer to John Mullen, about Dickens being a writer to be read aloud. Among Dickens's influences was Shakespeare. References and images from Shakespeare pepper Dickens entire work. I've been reading only Dickens from the beginning of the year and I've become sensitised to his rhythms.
When Dickens is writing from the heart, reaching for an emotional power of expression in his own voice, and succeeding in avoiding the baleful influence of Carlyle, his writing takes on a splendid power of rhythm. Here he is on the clock of St Paul’s:
Heart of London, there is a moral in thy every stroke! As I look on at thy indomitable working, which neither death, nor press of life, nor grief, nor gladness out of doors will influence one jot, I seem to hear a voice within thee which sinks into my heart, bidding me, as I elbow my way among the crowd, have some thought for the meanest wretch that passes, and, being a man, to turn away with scorn and pride from none that bear the human shape.
It’s in moments like this that Dickens is at his most Shakespearean. Look at this:
Heart of London,
There is a moral in thy every stroke!
As I look on at thy indomitable working,
Which neither death, nor press of life, nor grief,
Nor gladness out of doors will influence one jot,
I seem to hear a voice within thee which
Sinks into my heart, bidding me,
As I elbow my way among the crowd,
Have some thought for the meanest wretch that passes,
And, being a man, to turn away
With scorn and pride from none that bear the human shape.
It’s iambic blank verse, generally pentameter, but occasionally alternating with tetrameter or hexameter: the rhythm of Shakespeare. It’s as if Dickens has absorbed Shakespeare’s influence to an extent where it seeps unnoticed into his writing.
Iambic pentameter is also the rhythm of natural spoken English. We produce iambic pentameter all the time without realizing it. Oliver has just said the following sentences as I write: I think I’ll just pop out and by some fags. I’m going to clean the bathroom after this. Both writers employ the same means: at moments of specific power, they reach down into the natural rhythms of the language, the rhythms based on the breath and pulse of the spoken word.
What a wonderful insight, Tomcat! If I happened across the lines you quoted from Dickens set out in verse form this way, but with no other explanation, I would probably assume they came from a Shakespeare play. Maybe Richard III - that one is full of references to clocks and time.
Oliver's lines, probably not ;-) but you're absolutely right about the rhythm.
I agree. This is an amazing insight! You have given me a whole different way to look at Dickens.
this really is a brilliant insight. Having recently read Heany's Beowulf I have an increased appreciation for verse and how a great tale can be told in verse. In our day the tales we read are inevitably in novel form.
Given this "new" reading of Dickens we can view other writers in like vain. They may not be "children of Shakespeare" but the great writers- the ones who appreciate language - ie Sebald, for one, comes to mind - one could revisit their work and treat each sentence as a line of poetry.
That is so strange. I always thought of Dickens as more like ee cummings, in terms of prosody. Cf. the opening of Hard Times.
what I want is
teach these boysandgirls nothing but
alone are wanted in
nothingelse will everbe
Edited to note that formatting and typography were completely destructed during the upload process, thus invalidating this entire posting.
That is a nice reworking of Dickens!
Indeed. Really great prose often approaches verse. I haven't read Sebald, but Henry James and George Elliot are two writers who immediately spring to mind whose prose is verse-like.
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