Dickens’ Novels as Poetry: Allegory and the Literature of the City

Charles Dickens’s enjoyment of reading, and the inspiration he took from it, has been granted as close to consensual critical agreement as is perhaps possible. Few critics, however, have attempted to so comprehensively read Dickens’s own reading as Jeremy Tambling. Tambling’s most recent work explores Dickens’s unconscious poetics in his representation of the urban, through Dickens’s interest in literature and popular song, as well as examining the processes of his humour in the extensive puns, jokes and grotesques in the author’s novels. Tambling explicitly “speculates” on Dickens’s own reading throughout (3), in both senses of the word; he suggests texts that Dickens may be familiar with, either through similarities reverberating through Dickens’s own prose, or through evidence accumulated in an extensive reading of letters to and from Dickens. This speculation also works in the sense of Tambling’s desire to accrue a valuable insight into Dickens’s work through the perspectives and tensions these comparative analyses reveal. Tambling carefully draws out the rich intertextuality of Dickens’s prose; in the first five pages alone, comparisons with nearly twenty texts are located across Dickens’s fiction, but this strength is also the book’s weakness, occasionally reading more like a list than analysis.

Tambling’s “first reason for calling [Dickens’s] novels ‘poetry’” is that they are an “excess in the mode of prose statement” (6). Harold Skimpole of Bleak House (1852-53) is provided as an apt example of this when Skimpole notes the ‘unconscious poetry’ of a butcher who calls the money he is owed “a little bill … to make the payment appear easier to both of us” (BH, 15.240). Tambling’s definition of poetry is one of everyday language, gestures and actions in Dickens’s prose, “the poetry of ordinary urban existence” (6), in which the city forms an integral part of this definition of Dickensian poetics. Comparing Dickens’s work with definitions of poetry from poets and critics (including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Bakhtin and Walter Benjamin, to name but a few), enables Tambling to frame Dickens’s novels within a wider poetic tradition. Tambling draws on his wide knowledge of Dickens’s work to provide examples of a Dickensian poetry which both fit the definitions of the above writers while encouraging an expanded understanding of the term. Tambling’s readings are generally successfully evidenced through their juxtaposition with texts known to have been in Dickens’s possession, or letters to and from the author. Using comparative literature to justify and explain why he examines Dickens’s prose as poetry, Tambling goes on to take “language as poetry (a) when it focuses on detailed themes and (b) where it exceeds conscious control or any unifying intention of shaping the work” (8). Taking this statement of intent as his starting point, Tambling constructs a reading of Dickens’s work against the kind of formalist analysis which leans on “the writer’s intention” (8), instead examining language’s relation to the unconscious.

Dickens’ Novels as Poetry is divided into four parts, each approaching this poetry differently. Part I, “Writing Styles: Romantic and Baroque” focuses closely on the influence of Dickens’s reading of Romantic writing and eighteenth-century texts on his writing. The section profitably includes discussions about Hogarth’s influence on Dickens’s representations of caricature, allegory and the grotesque, situating the power of Dickens’s humour within existing literary constructs. Part II, “Poetry and the City” builds on the analysis of Dickens’s reading of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets to locate the creation of a new poetic language, reminiscent of short-hand and advertising jargon, through the urban characters of earlier novels (Mr Pecksniff, Mrs Gamp, Jingle and the Wellers).  Arguing for the perceived “failure of language to create and to bring about change in the face of overwhelming social realities” (24), Part II uses Paul Dombey’s death to step into Part III’s “Opening Words,” which works with the introductory passages of later novels, starting with Dombey and Son (1848) and ending with Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). Tambling discusses the poetry of Dickens’s first lines and opening chapters, finding that “these openings have the characteristic that much appearing later on is implicit in them” (172), especially the rivers of Great Expectations (1860-61) and Our Mutual Friend, which the novel reader cannot always appreciate until a second reading. This works particularly well, with Tambling’s close readings of a number of opening chapters disclosing a desire to know with an inability to read what has happened, a narrative that knows more than the subject can. Part IV, “Dickens and the Poetry of Dreams,” the consideration of which also permeates the previous chapters, “show[s] people held by a language so powerful they cannot account for it and by a past they cannot know, and entering from that into a dream-reality with the power of terror” (24). This is where Tambling’s use of Freudian and psychoanalytic theory is at its most powerful, examining representations of consciousness in Oliver Twist (1837-39), David Copperfield (1849-50) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).

Tambling’s most successful analyses emerge from the transformation of our own readings of Dickens through these comparative approaches. While not claiming to stand in for ‘the reader,’ I found myself reading Dickens’s prose more closely for poetic or literary echoes, and this transformed my appreciation of internal rhymes in much of Dickens’s prose, highlighted in italics by Tambling. Tambling’s approach really shines when he maintains an extended focus on single texts, drawing on their pertinence to Dickens’s work. His analysis of Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751) reveals images of decay that also run through Dickens’s urban representations, locating in the image of a crumbling house an anticipation of the House of Clennam in Little Dorrit (1855-57), and developing into readings of caricature and allegorical city spaces which resonate with Dickens’s fiction. Less positively, Tambling’s prose occasionally struggles to make its own analysis understood. Much of the writing is convoluted to the point of requiring multiple readings, which does not help during Tambling’s use of theory to expand on or sustain his textual analysis, especially when what is being scrutinised is not clearly represented. For example, in an analysis of “the relationship of language to any reality and the reality of Todgers’s as a linguistic creation” (93) in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), Tambling draws on the first eight paragraphs of the chapter, yet does not provide the excerpt he spends several pages discussing. While Tambling justifies his selective quotations as “bring[ing] out their poetry which responds to places” (93), larger excerpts might have helped lend force to conclusions drawn through close textual analysis. This said, Tambling’s analysis is worth excavating, creating provocative new readings of Dickens’s literary language and landscape.

While the book’s issues of urban decay and unconscious psychological markers of language are, of course, significant to scholars of Wilkie Collins and the sensation novel more widely, Tambling’s criticism holds specific points of interest. The textual juxtapositions are mainly between Dickens’s own novels, Shakespeare, and a number of ballads and plays known to Dickens, but Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) is compared with The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Much has been made in critical study about the similarities of The Moonstone and Edwin Drood, but Tambling uses his own methodologies to bring further insight to the usual comparisons of colonialism, opium and psychology between the two novels.1  Providing examples of the collapsing of names and selves under the influence of opium, through an examination of the Puffer Princess’s naming of Drood as “Eddy,” “Edwin” and “Ned,” (ED, 14.161), Tambling suggests that Edwin Drood’s “opium brings out identity as always in flux” (206). Drugging in Edwin Drood has the force of ‘doubling by splitting,’ which Tambling locates in the “cases of drunkenness and in others of animal magnetism [where] there are two states of consciousness which never clash” (ED, 3.24). Tambling argues that The Moonstone’s Ezra Jennings uses opium to read and deduce the novel’s mysteries, contesting Jenny Bourne Taylor’s assertion that Jennings can be interpreted as Franklin Blake’s unconscious. Jennings, Tambling suggests, is more like a superego, because he knows, “making everything in the text more controlled, more monologic” (209). Franklin Blake’s drugged ramblings can be written down and translated to yield a “single meaning,” which Tambling notes is “appropriate for a detective novel” (209). These different approaches by the two authors, wherein Collins’s “singleness” of character differs from Dickens’s “non-reconcilable ‘double consciousness’” (210), are further evidenced through a comparison to Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, and John Harmon’s struggle to recollect his thoughts after he has been drugged.

Dickens’ Novels as Poetry contributes a new look at Dickens’s prose style and his literary influences to the critical scene, and provides an alternate approach to the current vogue for contextualization and materiality. Tambling presents a convincing case for a Dickensian poetics, and its response to the “double nature” (168) of identities and images. One occasionally wishes that this central thesis and the readings it presents were a little clearer, with Tambling’s writing sometimes obscuring the power of his argument. For those who would like to return to Dickens’s own reading and the resonances of this in his writing, however, this is recommended reading.

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  1. Criticism dealing with these issues in Collins’s and Dickens’s works is as diverse as Jenny Bourne-Taylor’s classic In the Secret Theatre of Home (Routledge, 1988), which considers psychological interpretations of The Moonstone, to Saverio Tomaiuolo’s recent Victorian Unfinished Novels: The Imperfect Page (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), which explicitly compares Collins’s novel to Edwin Drood. []