Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Five sentences from Bleak House

A very quiet night. When the moon shines very brilliantly, a solitude and stillness seem to proceed from her, that influence even crowded places full of life. Not only is it a still night on dusty high roads and on hill-summits, whence a wide expanse of country may be seen in repose, quieter and quieter as it spreads away into a fringe of trees against the sky, with the grey ghost of a bloom upon them; not only is it a still night in gardens and in woods, and on the river where the water-meadows are fresh and green, and the stream sparkles on among pleasant islands, murmuring weirs, and whispering rushes; not only does the stillness attend it as it flows where houses cluster thick, where many bridges are reflected in it, where wharves and shipping make it black and awful, where it winds from these disfigurements through marshes whose grim beacons stand like skeletons washed ashore, where it expands through the bolder region of rising grounds, rich in cornfield, wind-mill and steeple, and where it mingles with the ever-heaving sea; not only is it a still night on the deep, and on the shore where the watcher stands to see the ship with her spread wings cross the path of light that appears to be presented to only him; but even on this stranger's wilderness of London there is some rest. Its steeples and towers, and its one great dome, grow more ethereal; its smoky house-tops lose their grossness, in the pale effulgence; the noises that arise from the streets are fewer and are softened, and the footsteps on the pavements pass more tranquilly away. In these fields of Mr Tulkinghorn's inhabiting, where the shepherds play on Chancery pipes that have no stop, and keep their sheep in the fold by hook and by crook until they have shorn them exceeding close, every noise is merged, this moonlight night, into a distant ringing hum, as if the city were a vast glass, vibrating.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
Just five sentences:

"A very quiet night." Stage-setting. No verb, à la the first sentences of Bleak House.

"When the moon shines very brilliantly, a solitude and stillness seem to proceed from her, that influence even crowded places full of life." Repetition joins the sentences: "very quiet," "very brilliantly." Parallelism: "solitude," "crowded places"; "stillness," "full of life." Personification with a single brushstroke: "her."

And now the third sentence, a grand display of parallelism. Part of what makes the "Not only" sentence remarkable is that despite its heavy reliance on prepositional phrases — twenty-eight of them — it moves so easily from start to finish. Note the six in a row early on: "into a fringe of trees against the sky, with the grey ghost of a bloom upon them." How does Dickens keep those sentence elements from turning into inert clutter? Partly by means of sound: the quick iambs of "a fringe of trees against the sky," the alliteration and partial rhyme of "grey ghost" and "bloom upon them." But also by means of magic.

Note too the way the elements of the third sentence — the "not onlys" and "wheres" — lengthen and diminish before coming to "rest." There's nothing absolutely predictable about that movement: the first four "where" clauses lengthen before the series ends with "the ever-heaving sea," but the first "not only" clause is longer than the second. This sort of loose progression organizes the paragraph too, with the fifth sentence a bit longer than the fourth.

In the fourth sentence, a smaller display of parallelism. Its final element — "the noises that arise from the streets are fewer and are softened, and the footsteps on the pavements pass more tranquilly away" — seems almost biblical in its balanced phrasing.

The language in these four sentences surprises again and again with its variety: "pleasant islands," "cluster thick," "black and awful," "like skeletons washed ashore," "rich in cornfield, wind-mill and steeple," "this stranger's wilderness of London," "smoky housetops," "pale effulgence."

And in the fifth sentence, an extended metaphor bringing us into the world of law, with the siren song of the Court of Chancery, and legal shepherds fleecing their sheep. Dickens though lifts the passage up at its end into a loftier music and a more exalted sort of metaphor, turning the sounds of the city into "a distant ringing hum" and the city itself into "a vast glass, vibrating" — beautiful abstractions worthy of Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery.

Okay, I'm done. Go back up and enjoy the sentences again.

[The "one great dome" is that of St Paul's Cathedral. The Court of Chancery, devoted to wills and trusts, is where such lawyers as Tulkinghorn shear their sheep "exceedingly close."]

comments: 7

Elaine Fine said...

Nothing quite catches the light like "pale effulgence."

I love the way he goes from sense to sense. First there is light, then a brief moment of murmuring weirs and whispering rushes that instantly fade into images of earth and light.

Then we hear footsteps, and suddenly the world is a crescendo of sound (with a brief moment to ponder shorn sheep).

What a beautiful passage. I just love Dickens. Thank you.

Michael Leddy said...

You're welcome, ma'am.

T. said...

I love Dickens too. And I loved this beautiful post. Made me remember why I was an English major way back when. Thanks for a little "balm for the soul" on this first night of call at the new hospital!

Michael Leddy said...

T., I'm glad I didn't go on to quote the paragraph that follows this one! (It's in Chapter 48, for anyone who wants to check.)

brownstudy said...

Thank you so much for posting these sentences and guiding us through their mysteries. God, it was fun to read, and to have you pointing out the landmarks that make this passage so special.

Makes me long so much to take literature courses again and get away from "analyzing" and "writing" security documents and user manuals.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Mike. I think it's important for all of us who care about reading to share its pleasures, among ourselves and with anyone who'll listen.

Lee said...

Great sentences. However, just imagine what an average editor would do to them today. (Or maybe an MFA lecturer...)