William Gass died a few days ago, and, as I do when a writer I value dies, I returned to his work. I read around in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and then A Temple of Texts, where, in the essay "The Sentence Seeks Its Form", I read:
Between Shakespeare and Joyce, there is no one but Dickens who has an equal command of the English language.
That sentence from A Temple of Texts most struck me, though, because not long before reading it, I had just finished reading one of Dickens's least popular novels, Barnaby Rudge, and as always when reading Dickens, even when my interest in the events or characters lagged, I was thrilled by his sentences. From his earliest days, Dickens was among the most popular writers in English, and yet now, in an era when endless lines of bland prose scroll across our eyes, I can't help but wonder at the fact of his popularity, given that he wrote such marvelously rich, complex sentences. It is unthinkable today. Not only do few people want to luxuriate in complex sentences, but few readers even know how to read them. Today, popular writers must stick to “shorter, cleaner sentences, without unneeded words" ("unneeded" being a code always in need of deciphering, as, like "cleaner", it refers not to words but to assumptions and prejudices), and even the most valorized of American lit'ry writers tend toward the short, sharp, chopped.
Reading Barnaby Rudge, I noted passage after passage that I wanted to savor and study. I won't go over them all here, but a few seem worthy of public mention.
First, an aside: What of the novel as a whole? Its most remarkable quality beyond the sentences is what is most famous about it: The hundreds of pages detailing events during the Gordon Riots. One of the reasons Barnaby Rudge likely remains among Dickens's least-read novels is that its characters are not especially memorable. As characters in novels go, they're fine, but one of the things we read Dickens for is the rich, comic, emotionally affecting, often heightened qualities of his characters. For me, there is none of that in Barnaby Rudge. This makes sense when the novel's origin is considered: It was early in Dickens's career, and is, indeed, one of the earliest novels he conceived. What kept him thinking about it during all the years he wasn't writing it was not any one character, but rather the riots, and particularly the burning of Newgate prison. Those events obsessed him, and he researched them with energy and effort. This material is gripping and vivid, a truly great feat of narrative storytelling. That feat relies on a roving point of view. In his indispensible biography of Dickens as a writer, Michael Slater quotes from a letter Dickens wrote to a reader who complained that he had not focused enough on historical figures such as John Wilkes, a letter Slater says "shows [Dickens's] own awareness of that extraordinary quality much found in his writing that we have come to perceive as proto-cinematic":
In this kind of work the object is, – not to tell everything, but to select the striking points and beat them into the page with a sledge-hammer. . . . No man in the crowd who was pressed and trodden here and there, saw Wilkes. No looker-on from a window . . . beheld an Individual, or anything but a great mass of magistrates, rioters, and soldiery, all mixed up together. Being always in one or the other of these positions, my object has been to convey an idea of multitudes, violence and fury: and even to lose my own dramatic personae in the throng, or only see them dimly, through the fire and smoke.While the most interesting character in Barnaby Rudge is the raven Grip (a likely inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe's raven; Poe wrote a review of Barnaby Rudge), the most impressive writing in the book is the material around the riots, and Dickens's determination to portray the riots panoramically, and to give the reader an imaginative experience of "a great mass of magistrates, rioters, and soldiery, all mixed up together" gives the latter half of the novel much force and power.
Now, though, to some sentences...
A paragraph from Chapter XVIII:
To be shelterless and alone in the open country, hearing the wind moan and watching for day through the whole long weary night; to listen to the falling rain, and crouch for warmth beneath the lee of some old barn or rick, or in the hollow of a tree; are dismal things—but not so dismal as the wandering up and down where shelter is, and beds and sleepers are by thousands; a houseless rejected creature. To pace the echoing stones from hour to hour, counting the dull chimes of the clocks; to watch the lights twinkling in chamber windows, to think what happy forgetfulness each house shuts in; that here are children coiled together in their beds, here youth, here age, here poverty, here wealth, all equal in their sleep, and all at rest; to have nothing in common with the slumbering world around, not even sleep, Heaven’s gift to all its creatures, and be akin to nothing but despair; to feel, by the wretched contrast with everything on every hand, more utterly alone and cast away than in a trackless desert; this is a kind of suffering, on which the rivers of great cities close full many a time, and which the solitude in crowds alone awakens.What struck me with this paragraph is the extraordinary structure, the way that Dickens uses both repetition and deferral. The punctuation allows repetition both within and between sentences. The misery of the scene depicted grows ever more vivid as the words accumulate, so that by the time we reach the end of the first sentence, there is great pathos in the phrase a houseless rejected creature. That phrase reiterates where we began (shelterless and alone), but by the time we get to it, it has gained the force of all the other phrases and clauses, which may seem to an aspiring writer of bestsellers be "unneeded words", but which are in fact very much needed for the sake of the force they bring. That force would be less were the sentence split into smaller pieces or were it written in a more straightforward syntax, because while we may not read word by word, we do, if we're not skimming, read phrase by phrase and clause by clause, and so the movement of phrases and the movement of clauses is an important tool with which the writer manipulates the reader's imagining. Further, here we have a sentence with commas, semi-colons, and a dash. Each is used masterfully to guide the pace. The semi-colons separate ideas gently but firmly, while the dash is like a machete sweeping through the accumulated brush.
The second sentence picks up the form of the first and continues the structure internally: To pace, to watch, to think, to have nothing in common, to feel. There are other internal repetitions: echoing, counting, twinkling, slumbering, suffering and the set that is nothing, nothing, everything. The sentence is crowded to bursting, and that crowdedness fits with the grand claim of force at its end ("this is a kind of suffering, on which the rivers of great cities close full many a time") and echoes in form what its final words state to the readers, each of whom reads alone, imagining the solitude of one in a crowd.
A brief sentence from Chapter XLIV, set here simply for appreciation: "The population dealt in bones, in rags, in broken glass, in old wheels, in birds, and dogs."
(Note the rhythm, note the setting up and then disturbing of expectations.)
The end of a paragraph from Chapter L:
Covered with soot, and dirt, and dust, and lime; their garments torn to rags; their hair hanging wildly about them; their hands and faces jagged and bleeding with the wounds of rusty nails; Barnaby, Hugh, and Dennis hurried on before them all, like hideous madmen. After them, the dense throng came fighting on: some singing; some shouting in triumph; some quarrelling among themselves; some menacing the spectators as they passed; some with great wooden fragments, on which they spent their rage as if they had been alive, rending them limb from limb, and hurling the scattered morsels high into the air; some in a drunken state, unconscious of the hurts they had received from falling bricks, and stones, and beams; one borne upon a shutter, in the very midst, covered with a dingy cloth, a senseless, ghastly heap. Thus—a vision of coarse faces, with here and there a blot of flaring, smoky light; a dream of demon heads and savage eyes, and sticks and iron bars uplifted in the air, and whirled about; a bewildering horror, in which so much was seen, and yet so little, which seemed so long, and yet so short, in which there were so many phantoms, not to be forgotten all through life, and yet so many things that could not be observed in one distracting glimpse—it flitted onward, and was gone.Here is another fine example of Dickens's energetic mounding of detail. The first two sentences are impressive, but it is the last sentence that most thrills me with its use of dashes to set off a parenthetical series of phrases and clauses moderated and mediated by commas and semi-colons. Why bother with such a parenthetical mound? we might wonder, but again we must remember Dickens's desire for panorama, for widescreen scope. The action of the mob is not a linear, simple action. It is a simultaneous mash of action that no one perspective could capture, and so it would be false to say, "Thus, it flitted onward and was gone" without exploding that unified perception of movement with the kaleidescope of fractals Dickens sets between the dashes.
Sections of two paragraphs from Chapter LXIV:
The flames roared high and fiercely, blackening the prison-wall, and twining up its lofty front like burning serpents. At first they crowded round the blaze, and vented their exultation only in their looks: but when it grew hotter and fiercer—when it crackled, leaped, and roared, like a great furnace—when it shone upon the opposite houses, and lighted up not only the pale and wondering faces at the windows, but the inmost corners of each habitation—when through the deep red heat and glow, the fire was seen sporting and toying with the door, now clinging to its obdurate surface, now gliding off with fierce inconstancy and soaring high into the sky, anon returning to fold it in its burning grasp and lure it to its ruin—when it shone and gleamed so brightly that the church clock of St. Sepulchre’s, so often pointing to the hour of death, was legible as in broad day, and the vane upon its steeple-top glittered in the unwonted light like something richly jewelled—when blackened stone and sombre brick grew ruddy in the deep reflection, and windows shone like burnished gold, dotting the longest distance in the fiery vista with their specks of brightness—when wall and tower, and roof and chimney-stack, seemed drunk, and in the flickering glare appeared to reel and stagger—when scores of objects, never seen before, burst out upon the view, and things the most familiar put on some new aspect—then the mob began to join the whirl, and with loud yells, and shouts, and clamour, such as happily is seldom heard, bestirred themselves to feed the fire, and keep it at its height.Here we see the difference again between dashes and semi-colons, with the difference highlighted by the use of dashes in the first paragraph and semi-colons in the second. The first paragraph, slashed by dashes, feels more violent and panoramic, while the second paragraph brings in some order and focus, but without losing force.
Although the heat was so intense that the paint on the houses over against the prison, parched and crackled up, and swelling into boils, as it were from excess of torture, broke and crumbled away; although the glass fell from the window-sashes, and the lead and iron on the roofs blistered the incautious hand that touched them, and the sparrows in the eaves took wing, and rendered giddy by the smoke, fell fluttering down upon the blazing pile; still the fire was tended unceasingly by busy hands, and round it, men were going always.
A paragraph from Chapter LXV:
Now, now, the door was down. Now they came rushing through the jail, calling to each other in the vaulted passages; clashing the iron gates dividing yard from yard; beating at the doors of cells and wards; wrenching off bolts and locks and bars; tearing down the door-posts to get men out; endeavouring to drag them by main force through gaps and windows where a child could scarcely pass; whooping and yelling without a moment’s rest; and running through the heat and flames as if they were cased in metal. By their legs, their arms, the hair upon their heads, they dragged the prisoners out. Some threw themselves upon the captives as they got towards the door, and tried to file away their irons; some danced about them with a frenzied joy, and rent their clothes, and were ready, as it seemed, to tear them limb from limb. Now a party of a dozen men came darting through the yard into which the murderer cast fearful glances from his darkened window; dragging a prisoner along the ground whose dress they had nearly torn from his body in their mad eagerness to set him free, and who was bleeding and senseless in their hands. Now a score of prisoners ran to and fro, who had lost themselves in the intricacies of the prison, and were so bewildered with the noise and glare that they knew not where to turn or what to do, and still cried out for help, as loudly as before. Anon some famished wretch whose theft had been a loaf of bread, or scrap of butcher’s meat, came skulking past, barefooted—going slowly away because that jail, his house, was burning; not because he had any other, or had friends to meet, or old haunts to revisit, or any liberty to gain, but liberty to starve and die. And then a knot of highwaymen went trooping by, conducted by the friends they had among the crowd, who muffled their fetters as they went along, with handkerchiefs and bands of hay, and wrapped them in coats and cloaks, and gave them drink from bottles, and held it to their lips, because of their handcuffs which there was no time to remove. All this, and Heaven knows how much more, was done amidst a noise, a hurry, and distraction, like nothing that we know of, even in our dreams; which seemed for ever on the rise, and never to decrease for the space of a single instant.Consider what we can see if we emphasize a few words:
Now, now, the door was down. Now they came rushing through the jail, calling to each other in the vaulted passages; clashing the iron gates dividing yard from yard; beating at the doors of cells and wards; wrenching off bolts and locks and bars; tearing down the door-posts to get men out; endeavouring to drag them by main force through gaps and windows where a child could scarcely pass; whooping and yelling without a moment’s rest; and running through the heat and flames as if they were cased in metal. By their legs, their arms, the hair upon their heads, they dragged the prisoners out. Some threw themselves upon the captives as they got towards the door, and tried to file away their irons; some danced about them with a frenzied joy, and rent their clothes, and were ready, as it seemed, to tear them limb from limb. Now a party of a dozen men came darting through the yard into which the murderer cast fearful glances from his darkened window; dragging a prisoner along the ground whose dress they had nearly torn from his body in their mad eagerness to set him free, and who was bleeding and senseless in their hands. Now a score of prisoners ran to and fro...One of the impressive qualities of the riot scenes in Barnaby Rudge is how Dickens controls our perception of time, not only between events, but within single paragraphs such as this. The nows are insistent, putting a present within the past tense; the verbs are progressive, with no end in sight, confirming the final sentence of the paragraph: "All this, and Heaven knows how much more...seemed for ever on the rise, and never to decrease for the space of a single instant."
Part of a paragraph from Chapter LXVIII:
The tumbling down of nodding walls and heavy blocks of wood, the hooting and the execrations of the crowd, the distant firing of other military detachments, the distracted looks and cries of those whose habitations were in danger, the hurrying to and fro of frightened people with their goods; the reflections in every quarter of the sky, of deep, red, soaring flames, as though the last day had come and the whole universe were burning; the dust, and smoke, and drift of fiery particles, scorching and kindling all it fell upon; the hot unwholesome vapour, the blight on everything; the stars, and moon, and very sky, obliterated;—made up such a sum of dreariness and ruin, that it seemed as if the face of Heaven were blotted out, and night, in its rest and quiet, and softened light, never could look upon the earth again.A particularly fine example of what I think of as Dickens's deferral technique, piling up images and information before explaining how they fit together or what they add up to. There are two major sections of the sentence:
- The tumbling down...obliterated;
- —made up such a sum...the earth again.
We don't know what all the stuff of 1 adds up to until we read 2, yet there is so much detail to 1 that by the time we get to 2, it may be a blur in our imagination. Yet isn't that perfectly appropriate for "a sum of dreariness and ruin"? The scene is overwhelming, and the structure of the sentence makes sure it is so for the reader. What the sentence tells us about is a blotting out, and the first part of the sentence overloads the reading experience and may achieve something like a blotting out effect, especially on a first reading.
Dickens uses his punctuation to help us, though. He never seeks to be obscure. The semi-colon partners with a dash like a traffic cop holding hands with a tour guide, both helping us find our way in the journey from the beginning of the sentence to its end.
7. A Coda
(Gass would have written with much greater insight into these sentences than I have. Alas, he is gone now, and we are left on our own to seek out remarkable prose.)
William Gass, from "The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence" in Life Sentences:
In the aesthetically interesting sentence...every materiality of language is employed to build a body for the meaning that will realize the union of thought and thing that paradise apparently forgot to promise us, and give consciousness the solid presence it constantly yearns for and will never quite realize.