The Praise of Dickens
by Paul Elmer More
And the faults of this passage point to some of the factors that go to the making of style. Manifestly, there must be no false emphasis, no straining for effect beyond the needs of the time and place, no appearance of uneasiness, but quiet assurance and self-subordination. The law of style may be defined as the rule of Apollo: Nothing too much; it is the art first of all of dealing frankly with the commonplace and the trivial without being common or mean. And it does not end here. In the more important passages, where direct pathos or humour or strong emotion of any kind is expressed, other qualities may conceal the absence of style; but where elevation is to be attained without this immediate appeal, nothing can take the place of the law of fitness and balance. I was struck while reading David Copperfield with the comparison of a scene in that book with a similar scene in Henry Esmond. Both have to do with the coming of a son to the home of a buried mother, who in life had suffered cruel wrong and bereavement, and only in the grave had found peace. There is here no occasion for passionate tears, but only that pathos of reflection which subdues the heart and sweetens memory. To read the closing sentences of Thackeray and Dickens side by side is a practical lesson in language:
Might she sleep in peace--might she sleep in peace; and we, too, when our struggles and pains are over! But the earth is the Lord's as the heaven is; we are alike his creatures here and yonder. I took a little flower off the hillock and kissed it, and went my way, like the bird that had just lighted on the cross by me, back into the world again. Silent receptacle of death; tranquil depth of calm, out of reach of tempest and trouble! I felt as one who had been walking below the sea, and treading amidst the bones of shipwrecks.So Esmond turns away from the burial ground of the convent at Brussels. The page in David Copperfield is almost as well known:
From the moment of my knowing of the death of my mother, the idea of her as she had been of late had vanished from me. I remembered her, from that instant, only as the young mother of my earliest impressions, who had been used to wind her bright curls round and round her finger, and to dance with me at twilight in the parlour. What Peggotty had told me now, was so far from bringing me back to the later period, that it rooted the earlier image in my mind. It may be curious, but it is true. In her death she winged her way back to her calm untroubled youth, and cancelled all the rest.The passage from Thackeray may be commonplace in thought and a little over-sweet in sentiment, but the language has an unmistakable charm; whereas it seems to me that any one who is not conscious of something discordant in the close of Dickens' paragraph, in the false cadences and in the impropriety of the word cancelled, must be equally dull to the truer and finer harmonies of language. And this passage is thoroughly typical of Dickens in his moods of reflective elevation.
Not all the modern praise of Dickens, to be sure, displays this perversity, and, whatever may be said against Mr. Chesterton's ebullition of doubtful epigrams, at least he has avoided the error of choosing the shortcomings of Dickens for commendation. Rightly he lays stress on the superb irresponsibility of Dickens' world, and the divine folly of his characters. "Dickens's art," he says, "is like life, because, like life, it is irresponsible .... Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; ... the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest." And again he stresses rightly the democratic nature of his genius: "Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community .... His power, then, lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncommon the things dose to the common mind." I am inclined to think that in his analysis of this genuine, not condescending, democracy, Mr. Chesterton has found the real key to most that attracts and repels us in the novels; yet even here he has not quite escaped the malign influence that lies in wait for the critic of Dickens. Why must Mr. Chesterton imply on every page that great art is always, like that of Dickens, democratic? It is, on the contrary, a simple statement of fact to say that in practically all the living literature of the past the predominant note has been aristocratic. Who, to take a single illustration, is not acquainted with the outrageous contempt of the Elizabethan playwrights for the multitude whose taste they were in part compelled to conciliate? Walt Whitman knew this well enough, and divided literature into two great epochs, the aristocratic of the past, and the democratic which was to spring from his own example. Tolstoy knows it, and finds Shakespeare merely tiresome.
The currents of ruling opinion are, indeed, likely here to introduce confusion into any mind, for the question is not without complications. Mr. Chesterton, with his own pungency of epithet, designates the democratic element in literature as the "pungent and popular stab," and finds that the universal test of what may be called popular, of the people, is whether it employs vigorously the extremes of the tragic and the comic. Barring the loose use of the word "tragic," the definition is excellent, and undoubtedly in the judgments of the heart the people is right. From this source of power the maker of books will sever himself only to his own great peril. The demand for simple uncontrolled emotions, for clear moral decisions meting out happiness to the good and misery to the evil, (which is something quite different from tragedy,) the call for immediacy of effect and the direct use of the material of life--all this is the democratic soil from which literature must spring. Without this it lacks sap and the comfort of sweet reality. We feel the partial want of such a basis in the French classical drama, splendid as the work of that courtly age otherwise is.
Yet there is an odd paradox connected with this emotional root of letters: while it alone gives life, it cannot keep alive. Racine has outlived and will long outlive all the merely popular dramas ever written; one can foresee a time when Milton will be more read than Bunyan; the enjoyment of Gray's poems already is wider and less artificial than the taste for ballads which sprang warm from the communal heart. The straight-forward appeal to the passions, the pathos and humour of the moment, have a strange trick of becoming obsolete with the passing of time and the change of circumstance. What threw the Globe Theatre into spasms of tears and laughter is, I suspect, not always the part of Shakespeare that moves us most to-day. The preservative of letters, what indeed makes literature, is the addition of all those qualities that, for the sake of comparison, we may call aristocratic,--the note of distinction which is concerned more with form than with substance, the reflective faculty which broods over the problems of morality, the questioning spirit which curbs spontaneity, the zest of discrimination which refines broad effects to the nuance, the power of fancy which transforms the emotions into ideas. In a word, the aristocratic element denotes self-control, discipline, suppression.
Now discipline and suppression Dickens never acquired, whether in art or character. No writer of England ever underwent in his life so sharp a contrast of neglect and celebrity, and the effect of either condition upon him is equally significant. His father, it is well known, furnished a model for the glorious, but rather uncomfortable, Mr. Micawber; his mother apparently was a heartless woman. Out of the shifting, and sometimes shifty, scenes of his youth, one experience stands out--his apprenticeship in a blacking factory, which he was later to describe as David Copperfield's slavery in the bottling establishment of Murdstone & Grinby. In a bit of autobiography which he once confided to his friend Forster, he shows how painfully he remembered the waste and degradation of that time:
No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sank into this companionship; compared these every-day associates with those of my happier childhood; and felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man crushed in my breast. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written .... From that hour until this at which I write, no word of that part of my childhood which I have now gladly brought to a close has passed my lips to any human being. I have no idea how long it lasted; whether for a year, or much more, or less. From that hour until this my father and my mother have been stricken dumb upon it. I have never heard the least allusion to it, however far off and remote, from either of them. I have never, until I now impart it to this paper, in any burst of confidence with any one, my own wife not excepted, raised the curtain I then dropped, thank God.He learned much in those dismal days--the foul spots of London, the slime of the river, the inside of Marshalsea prison (where his father was), the pawnshops, and decayed lodging houses; but one thing he did not learn--the chastening of spirit that suffering is supposed to bestow. He came up from that descent into ignominious drudgery in a state of nervous exacerbation. The memory of it rankled in his breast, and he never forgave his mother for her willingness to abandon him to that base misery. In his art he would describe the spectacle of poverty with enormous gusto, but the dull, aching resignation at the core of it and its discipline he left for others to lay bare.
A few years of miscellaneous occupation followed, as schoolboy, lawyer's clerk, and reporter; and then, in 1834, at the age of twenty-two, he began to publish the Sketches of Boz. Two years later Pickwick opened its career in monthly numbers, and soon raised the author to an incredible pitch of popularity. Wealth came to him almost at a bound, while he was still little more than a boy, and overweening fame as it came to no other man, even in those days of sudden celebrity. And it cannot be said that the effect upon him was wholly agreeable. Magnanimous in many ways, no doubt he always remained, and lovable to a few people, even to Carlyle, who could write of him after his death as "the good, the gentle, high-gifted, ever-friendly, noble Dickens--every inch of him an honest man"; but it is true, nevertheless, that his vanity was brought by all this egregious adulation to a state of unwholesome irritability. Applause could not reach him quickly enough and loud enough, and in the end he was almost ready to give up authorship for the noisier excitement of public recitation. There are many accounts of his manner of reading, or, more properly, acting; it was emphatic, intense; if anything, over-dramatic, like his writing. "I had to go yesterday to Dickens's Reading," writes Carlyle; he "acts better than any Macready in the world; a whole tragic, comic, heroic, theatre visible, performing under one hat, and keeping us laughing--in a sorry way, some of us thought--the whole night." Alas, how sorry a way! It is not only the waste of so splendid talents that we regret, but there is something distressful in the very thought of this great man brutalising his face to the likeness of Bill Sykes, or mopping and mowing as Fagin, out of the mere craving for publicity. To me, at least, it is one of the many painful chapters in our literary annals. And I think he could not have so paltered with his genius if his characters had ever been other than the product of a stupendous dramatic egotism.
Neither suffering nor prosperity brought him the one gift denied at his birth, intellectual pudor, and the absence of that restraining faculty passed, as how could it help passing, into his work. We are permitted to-day to use the word gentleman only at our risk, and the saying has gone abroad that it is vulgar to speak of vulgarity. Nevertheless it is merely idle to conceal the fact, as is commonly done in recent criticism, that a strain of vulgarity runs through Dickens. It is not that his characters belong for the most part to low life, but rather that they do not all move in that sphere. For the grace and ease that are born of voluntary self-discipline he had no measure, and the image of the gentleman which springs from that source he had no power of evoking. He was, with one or two doubtful and insignificant exceptions, equally unqualified to create or to satirise such a character. In all his novels you will meet with no Henry Esmond or William Dobbin, no, nor any Major Pendennis or Marquis of Steyne, for these also are the result of discipline, however selfish its end may have been. Unfortunately you will come here and there upon some distorted shadow of them which only betrays where the master's cunning failed. I do not see why we should refuse the word vulgarity where it so eminently belongs.
To the same cause must be attributed the absence in Dickens of that kind of tragedy which involves the losing contest of a strong man with destiny and his triumph through spiritual discipline. His nearest approach to the tragic is in the character of Bradley Headstone, but even here the second element is wanting, and there is more of pain than of liberation in the breaking of that obstinate soul. It may be said that this is not the proper field of the novelist, inasmuch as genuine tragedy requires also an instrument of ideal elevation which lies scarcely within the reach of prose fiction. So far Dickens was saved by his limitations from an attempt that would have been at best but a questionable success. In place of tragic awe, he has given us tears. I know that much of his pathos has grown stale with time, as that emotion is strangely apt to grow; yet here and there it still touches us in his stories as freshly almost as when they first came to the reader in monthly instalments; and, after all, they are but of yesterday. Most of us may find Dora, the child-wife, anything rather than pathetic, but there are few who will withhold their tears from the death of Little Nell. Here is no conflict, no bitter and triumphant self-suppression; it is the picture of perfect meekness and gentleness fading flower-like in the breath of adversity. At his best there is a tenderness in the pathos of Dickens, a divine tenderness, I had almost said, which no other of our novelists has ever found. Who has been able to harden his heart when Copperfield, after the shame of Emily, talks with Mr. Peggotty and Ham on the seashore? and when the old man, being asked whether they will desert the stranded boat that has been their home, replies?--
Every night, as reg'lar as the night comes, the candle must be stood in its old pane of glass, that if ever she should see it, it may seem to say, "Come back, my child, come back!' If ever there's a knock, Ham (partic'ler a soft knock), arter dark, at your aunt's door, doen't you go nigh it. Let it be her--not you--that sees my fallen child!And again there is the same touch of human delicacy when, in the presence of David, the broken girl, discovered at last, sinks in her uncle's arms: "He gazed for a few seconds in the face; then stooped to kiss it--oh, how tenderly!--and drew a handkerchief before it." The beauty of the gesture is all the finer because it follows the coarsely conceived and coarsely written interview with the impossible Rosa Dartie. Nor was Ham, the lover of the girl, without something of that great-hearted tenderness. His death, with his enemy's, in the storm may border on melodrama, but it cannot blunt the memory of his last message to Emily, his parting with David by the boat-house, and then--
With a slight wave of his hand, as though to explain to me that he could not enter the old place, he turned away. As I looked after his figure, crossing the waste in the moonlight, I saw him turn his face towards a strip of silvery light upon the sea, and pass on, looking at it, until he was a shadow in the distance.These things came to Dickens at times, and they give him freedom of the company of the greatest.
But if his pathos too often failed from some fault of taste, his humour was incessant and sure. I do not mean the mere ludicrousness of situation--the amiable Mr. Pickwick caught at eavesdropping, or the dashing Mr. Winkle on horseback, although there is abundance of this, too, in Dickens that has not grown stale--but the deeper and more thoroughly English humour of character. He is a humourist in the manner of Ben Jonson and Smollett and Sterne and a long line of others--the greatest of them, some think, and, alas that it should be so, the last, for with his followers, of whom Gissing is a type, a new spirit of sympathy enters hostile to the old spontaneous joy. It was not for nothing that his favourite reading as a child and as a man was the great novel writers of the eighteenth century. From their hands he received the art which his genius was to develop in a hundred ways. Humours, as Walpole observed, are native to England, being the product of a government which allows the individual to develop without restraint. Quite as often, I should say, they are in reality the escape in one direction of faculties otherwise pent up and oppressed--the exaggeration of some whim or eccentricity until the whole demeanour of a man is dominated by it. Their very essence, at least as they come to us in art, is the insolence of irrepressible life. Sometimes Dickens descends into mere parrot-like reiteration of a phrase, such as "Barkis is willin' "or "I never will desert Mr. Micawber," but more commonly he invents a wonderful variety in sameness.
In one particular, in what may be called the humour of trade, Dickens is supreme. Others have seen the fruitfulness of this theme. Indeed, as Hazlitt remarks, "the chief charm of reading the old novels is from the picture they give of the egotism of the characters, the importance of each individual to himself, and his fancied superiority over every one else. We like, for instance, the pedantry of Parson Adams, who thought a schoolmaster the greatest character in the world, and that he was the greatest schoolmaster in it." Or, if we come to Dickens' own day, there is such a pedantic humourist as the Gypsy, who communicated to Borrow the secrets of rat-catching, and "spoke in the most enthusiastic manner of his trade, saying that it was the best trade in the world and most diverting, and that it was likely to last for ever." These characters are common enough everywhere, but in Dickens they flourish with extraordinary exuberance. Who can name them all?--from old Jack Bamber, the lawyer's clerk in the Pickwick Papers, with his doddering delight in the mouldering chambers and sordid tragedies of the Inns, to Durdles, the stone-cutter in Edwin Drood, with his grotesque complacency "down in the crypt among the earthy damps there, and the dead breath of the old 'uns"--who can count them? What horror or pain or dull subjection can diminish their infinite zest in living? It has always seemed to me that Jasper's complaints about the cramped monotony of his existence and the need of subduing himself to his vocation were a species of treachery to the genius of his creator, a sign that the author's peculiar power was passing away, or, at least, suffering a change. Only when we come to Durdles do we recognise the real Dickens again, or to Sapsea enlarging gloriously on the education to be derived from auctioneering, or to Tartar fitting up his room like a ship's cabin so as to have a constant opportunity of knocking his head against the ceiling.
And this special quality of humour, shown by a man's exultation in his trade, leads to a trait of Dickens which might easily be overlooked. Commonly--always, I think, when most characteristic--he describes his people from the outside and not from within. Let us not be deceived by that "pungent and popular stab"; these emotions that touch us so quickly are not what the characters themselves would feel, but what Dickens, the great egotistic dramatic observer, felt while looking out upon them. This pathos is not the actual grief of one bewildered and crushed by circumstances; it is the yearning for tears, the gooyimoros of the strong, impregnable heart. Do you suppose that Smike ever knew in his own breast the luxury of sorrow he gave to his creator and still gives to the reader? His misery, I fear, was of a dumber, grimier sort.
And so with those characters that merge into the pedantry of humour, to repeat Hazlitt's happy phrase. It is the democracy of Dickens that called them into birth, no doubt, but something else entered into their composition in the end--the great joy of creation which made it impossible for the author to abide within their vexed circle. Possibly old Weller got such hilarious glee out of the misdoings of his wife and Stiggins as his words import, but what of a thousand weaker souls who hug the evil conditions of their lot? There is the ragged stoker in The Old Curiosity Shop, who nourishes a romantic comfort from his sympathy with the cinders and the roaring furnace that have been his whole existence. There is "No. 20," who became so inured to the Fleet that within its walls was freedom and all without was prison. And there is the sublime Quilp, almost the highest stroke of the master. He is brother to all the spooks and goblins of the credulous past, a pure creature of fairyland. His trade is malice, and the sheer exhilaration of evil never received a more perfect expression. Wickedness in him, losing its sullen despair, is turned to a godlike amusement. I cannot be persuaded that Mrs. Quilp really suffered on that memorable occasion when she sat up all night, while her crooked lord smoked and imbibed grog; the pleasure of watching his fantastic features must have counteracted all sense of fatigue. In fact, we are told that she loved him to the end. It was unpardonable in Dickens to bring him to that fear and death in the slime of the river. Here he was misled by that other democratic instinct which demands the punishment of the malefactor, and if Dickens in creating Quilp had at all entered into the reality of evil, this grewsome climax would have been appropriate. But Quilp, the gay magician of malice, who breathed fire and whose drink was boiling rum--to think of him perishing in the cold element of water! A mere novice could have contrived his taking off better. There is a description of him in his solitary lair that suggests his true end:
Mr. Quilp once more crossed the Thames and shut himself up in his Bachelor's Hall, which, by reason of its newly erected chimney depositing the smoke inside the room and carrying none of it off, was not quite so agreeable as more fastidious people might have desired. Such inconveniences, however, instead of disgusting the dwarf with his new abode, rather suited his humour; so, after dining luxuriously from the public-house, he lighted his pipe, and smoked against the chimney until nothing of him was visible through the mist but a pair of red and highly inflamed eyes, with sometimes a dim vision of his head and face, as, in a violent fit of coughing, he slightly stirred the smoke and scattered the heavy wreaths by which they were obscured. In the midst of this atmosphere, which must infallibly have smothered any other man, Mr. Quilp passed the evening with great cheerfulness; solacing himself all the time with the pipe and the ease-bottle; and occasionally entertaining himself with a melodious howl, intended for a song .... Thus he amused himself until nearly midnight, when he turned into his hammock with the utmost satisfaction.That was the time and the scene for the catastrophe. In a wild burst of flame he and his guilty haunt should have disappeared forever, while his wife and accomplices looked on in terror, wondering if they beheld his distorted countenance still grimacing at them out of the ascending smoke. But it was notoriously the way of Dickens to bring his people to an impossible conclusion. Quilp he could drown, while of Micawber he made a dignified magistrate and of Traddles a prosperous lawyer.
So it is that the emotions in Dickens' work are quick to life, whereas the people are external to us, if not unreal; to make the inevitable comparison, we seem to have known Dickens' characters, Thackeray's we have lived. And this goes with the surprising diversity of judgments you may read in his admirers. Take the three critical studies that lie before me at the present moment---by Prof. A. W. Ward, Mr. Chesterton, and Gissing--and you will find them in a state of most bewildering disagreement. To Mr. Chesterton the epitaph of Sapsea on his wife is a bit of "beatific buffoonery," the true essential Dickens, whereas Gissing will none of it, and thinks it transcends the limits of art. Gissing can put no faith in Mr. Peggotty, whereas Professor Ward finds this whole episode of Emily and her uncle the most perfect part of the book. Only he would exclude Rosa Darfie, who to Mr. Chesterton is one of Dickens' "real characters.'' Gissing rejoices to see Pecksniff in the end "felled to the ground," whereas Mr. Chesterton deems the penalty one of the peculiar blemishes in Dickens' denouements. And so on through the list. Most astonishing of all, both Gissing and Professor Ward find special beauty in that story of "Doady" and Dora which to most readers, certainly, is an utterly tiresome piece of mawkishness.
Now there has been no such divergence of opinion among the admirers of Thackeray or Scott or any other of the great novelists. And the reason for it in the case of Dickens is plainly this, that his characters are so constructed that they will not bear analysis. Probably most people would join in calling Sam Weller (unless that honour is reserved for old Weller) the finest conception in Dickens, as his humour is the least subject to the disillusion of repetition. And yet, can any one really believe, if to his peril he stops to reflect, that such a union of innocence and worldly knowledge ever existed in a single breast? These conflicting judgments mean simply that the critical faculty has been at its dissolving work, not steadily, but at intervals, destroying the illusion where it touched and leaving other parts untroubled. For there is a right and a wrong way to read, or at least to enjoy, Dickens, as I have in my own experience, if I may be allowed the egotism, emphatically discovered. A number of years ago, when I was living in the remote seclusion of Shelburne, about the only novels at my command were a complete set of Dickens in the village library. One day, being hungry for emotion, I started on these volumes, and read them through--read as only a starved man can read, without pause and without reflection, with the smallest intermissions for sleep. It was an orgy of tears and laughter, almost immoral in its excess, a joy never to be forgotten. Well, I have been reading the novels again, slowly now, and weighing their effect--and in comparison how meagre my pleasure is!
But the old way was the right way, I think, and he who opens his Dickens must be ready to surrender himself unreservedly to the magician's spell. And then, what a place is this into which he is carried! Who, while the charm is upon him, for any realism of art would exchange the divine impertinence of a world inhabited by Mrs. Gamp, and Richard Swivelier, and the Marchioness, and Mark Tapley, and Toots, and Mantilini, and Mrs. Nickleby, and the fat boy--but the list is as endless as the master's hand was indefatigable. "The key of the great characters of Dickens," says Mr. Chesterton, "is that they are all great fools." If one were asked to sum up in a single phrase the effect of all this mad variety of humours, one might call it the actual evocation into life of that doctrine of Folly which Erasmus taught in his Stultitiae Laus, some four centuries ago. We see the preacher in his pulpit, expounding his lesson in examples that Holbein limned so astutely; we hear him contrast the feeble generation of the calculators and the sane with the large-hearted children of folly--poets and martyrs, whimsicals and originals, and all those whom the world esteems mad, but who follow who knows what divine deep-seated guidance: "Quod si mortales prorsus ab omni sapientiae commercio temperarent, ac perpetuo mecum aetatem agerent, ne esset quidem ullum senium, verum perpetua iuventa fruerentur felices." And this should be the motto for all the mystae who have been sealed into the fellowship of that secret knowledge: "Ut nihil est stultius praepostera sapientia, ita perversa prudentia nihil imprudentius." Nothing, indeed, is more foolish than the preposterous wisdom, nothing more imprudent than the perverse prudence, which would withdraw a man from the untroubled fruition of all that Dickens has so bountifully provided.
 Charles Dickens: A Critical Study, by G. K. Chesterton. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1906.
 There lies before me now a little book called Tolstoy on Shakespeare (Funk & Wagnails Co.), containing three essays by Tolstoy, Ernest Crosby, and Bernard Shaw, respectively. The first reports thus on reading the greatest of Shakespeare's plays: "Not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irrestible repulsion and tedium." The second, extolling the democracy of Milton, Shelley, and Burns, begins his destructive criticism: "But Shakespeare?--Shakespeare? where is there a line in Shakespeare to entitle him to a place in this brotherhood? Is there anything in his plays that is in the least inconsistent with all that is reactionary?" As for Mr. Shaw, it is well known that his complaint against the elder dramatist is chiefly because he was not like Mr. Shaw. But there is also in his hatred a touch of the same feeling that moves Tolstoy. One need not be a blind worshipper of Shakespeare to resent such small talk as this. And is it not time that somebody spoke the truth about Tolstoy? I do not mean the author of Anna Karenina, but the critic who makes the taste of an illiterate Russian peasant the criterion of art and who preaches the gospel of peace in the spirit of malignant iconoclasm. Why should we show respect for this portentous charlatanry? I cannot see that the sacrifices of Tolstoy's life absolve him from such a charge. Quite the best thing in Mr. Chesterton's book is the contrast between reformers such as Gorky, who write of Creatures that Once were Men, and Dickens, across all whose sketches of the unfortunate might be written the title, Creatures that Still are Men.
 Yet Mr. Andrew Lang, in his Letters to Dead Authors, vows he is no more touched by Little Nell than by her lacrimose sisters.
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