The urban idyll in 'Martin Chuzzlewit.' (novel by Charles Dickens)
In Pope's Summer, Rosalinda, like countless pastoral heroines before her, moves through the landscape and leaves a trail of forestation in her wake: 'Where-e'er you walk, cool Gales shall fan the Glade, / Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade.'(2) These lines mark the end of an era. When Romantic poets took up with pastoral, the 'romantic' idyll became a thing of the past, and the old exaggerations and complimentary excesses (secondary infections of Petrarchism) seemed to die with it. Seemed only, because pastoral hyperbole, like other Petrarchan tropes and figures, was not simply a frigid convention: it embodied real psychological truth. Because it acknowledged the subjective centrality of the beloved for the lover, it persisted (though modified) long after piping contests and other pastoral ancillaries had been discarded for their irrelevance. Writing about sentimental exaggeration in general, Schiller has observed that these 'sentiments are not only subjectively true, but also objectively they are not without value; they are sound sentiments issuing from a moral source, only reprehensible as overstepping the limits of human truth.
Without this moral reality how could they stir and touch so powerfully?.(3) Nobody knew this better than Crabbe, whom we otherwise tend to regard as one of the chief architects of the new, realistic pastoral. The exordium to The Lover's Journey reads: 'It is the Soul that sees; the outward eyes / Present the object, but the Mind descries.'(4) As if to underline the importance of this precept for the Petrarchan lover, he has the hero rechristen his Susan after Petrarch's idol:
Fair was the morning, and the month was June, When rose a Lover; Love awakens soon; Brief his repose, yet he dreamt the while Of that day's meeting, and his Laura's smile; Fancy and Love that name assigned to her, Call'd Susan in the parish-register . . .(5)
The poem presents the supervention of that Fancy and that Love upon the realities of a landscape. For as long as he anticipates his meeting with Laura, the lover's vision is tinted by pastoral hyperbole (her lips eclipse the red moss, for example); but when the encounter fails to take place, he sees the world in very different terms, and conceits of this order fall away as untenable exaggerations. And even after this final satiric deflation, pastoral hyperbole (like many other cliches ejected from serious literature) lived on in popular art, as witness parlour songs like 'Mary of Argyle': 'And I've seen an eye still brighter / Than the dewdrop on the rose'.(6)
This, then, is the context in which Dickens wrote his chapter describing the courtship of Ruth Pinch and John Westlock in Martin Chuzzlewit, an episode in which, like Crabbe, he manages deftly to retain and yet to qualify an outmoded trope, and, in the process, to rehabilitate London as a positive pole to the negative pole of Eden. Ruth makes her entry in terms that call Pope's Rosalinda to mind--but there are important and characteristic differences in the way Dickens handles the convention:
Whether there was life enough left in the slow vegetation of Fountain Court for the smoky shrubs to have any consciousness of the brightest and purest-hearted little woman in the world, is a question for gardeners, and those who are learned in the loves of plants. But, that it was a good thing for that same paved yard to have such a delicate little figure flitting through it; that it passed like a smile from the grimy old houses, and the worn flagstones, and left them duller, darker, sterner than before; there is no sort of doubt. The Temple fountain might have leaped up twenty feet to greet the spring of hopeful maidenhood, that in her person stole on, sparkling, through the dry and dusty channels of the Law; the chirping sparrows, bred in Temple chinks and crannies, might have held their peace to listen to imaginary skylarks, as so fresh a little creature passed; the dingy boughs, unused to droop, otherwise than in their puny growth, might have bent down in a kindred gracefulness, to shed their benedictions on her graceful head; old love-letters, shut up in iron boxes in the neighbouring offices, and made of no account among the heaps of family papers into which they had strayed, and of which, in their degeneracy, they formed a part, might have stirred and fluttered with a moment's recollection of their ancient tenderness, as she went lightly by. Anything might have happened that did not happen, and never will, for the love of Ruth.(7)
In adapting the pastoral convention to his narrative Dickens has first of all to bypass the incongruity of his urban environment. While the notion of the beloved as a vegetation goddess is a difficult one to swallow at the best of times, it seems infinitely more congruous in a milieu in which there is vegetation ready at hand. This is because the hyperbole of Roman pastoral drew power (and gained plausibility) from a vision of nature instinct with animistic forces. If there are nymphs and naiads at hand to do the job, one can more easily invoke them to provide a pageant of homage, as Virgil does in 'Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexim' (Eclogue II):
. . . for you the Nymphs Bring baskets, see, with lilies brimmed; for you, Plucking pale violets and poppy-heads, Now the fair Naiad, of narcissus flower And fragrant fennel, doth one posy twine--. . .(8)
The problem for Dickens was how to adapt this sort of vision to an environment in which the idea of natural homage has become doubly improbable--not only because the temper of the 1840s had little sympathy with honorific nymphs but also because transposing nymphs and other Arcadian properties into Fountain Court would run the risk of mock-heroic. In Leigh Hunt's Feast of the Poets, for example, Apollo arrives in London to a renewal of urban vegetation--'How bright looked the poets, and brisk blew the airs, / And the laurels took flow'r in the gardens and squares'.(9) This effect would have been altogether too pert to suit Dickens's purpose here. But while he rejected the belittling tactics of burlesque because they threatened to trivialize the idyll, he had also to avoid injudicious applications of pastoral to cityscape. As a friend of Leigh Hunt, Dickens would no doubt have been aware of the stigma attached to the 'Cockney School' by Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (1818) when Lockhart sneered at 'affected descriptions of flowers seen in window-pots, or cascades heard at Vauxhall'.(10) This implied that only the experience of untamed nature (like that offered by Wordsworth) could invest a poet with the right imaginative credentials, and that any fanciful efforts by a city poet to overlook his urban environment were evidence of a failure in tact. To speak of Humpstead and nymphs in the same breath, as Hunt does in one of his sonnets, was (for Lockhart) to forget too readily that the smoke of London can be seen from its heath:
It may be so,--casual though pond or brook:-- Yet not to me so full of all that's fair, Though fruit-embowered, with fingering sun between, Were the divinest fount in Fancy's nook, In which the Nymphs sit tying up their hair, Their white backs glistening through the myrtles green.(11)
Dickens thus knew that if he were to avoid urban mock-heroics or discredited suburban fantasy he would have to manage his pastoral trope with a great deal of care. Hence even while he hints that the forces of nature concentre and converge on the beloved, he avoids the declarative mode of Eclogue II, and uses subjunctives in its place: 'might have leaped'; 'might have held their peace', etc. This draws attention to the artifice by allowing it to work only at the level of fanciful supposition.
Dickens also takes care to 'urbanize' the vegetation stirred by Ruth Pinch's progress. Like Crabbe, he wants to paint what Truth will see and bards will not and his shrubs accordingly present themselves as a 'smoky', 'dingy', and 'puny' approximation to natural growth. This honesty is designed to inoculate the extravagance that slips past it, claiming with breathless Petrarchan superlatives that Ruth is 'the brightest and purest-hearted little woman in the world'. She has been deified even at the moment the plants are demoted to poor urban apologies for trees, and that one pastoral excess seeks our indulgence because it has been escorted by a sober truth. So busily does Dickens ask us to ponder whether or not Fountain Court is doing pastoral obeisance to the beloved that we take the other data on trust. The pun on 'slow' has a key function in this regard. On the one hand it testifies to slow growth, and so (indirectly) to the smoke-pall that occluded London's sunlight, and on the other it slily opens the door to a metaphor from an altogether different source. For here Dickens is not so much concerned with classical precedents for his animized shrubs as with the meretricious poetry of Erasmus Darwin--The Loves of the Plants. If plants love each other, as Darwin's Linnaean allegory claims they do, then they can also be invested with other human attributes such as perversity and slow-wittedness. The London environment is responsible for the shrubs' slow growth--of that even Mr Gradgrind would have no doubt--but, Dickens claims, they are also too stupid to respond with the prompt pastoral adoration required of them. This adoration Dickens now reconceives (ostensibly in the light of Erasmus Darwin) as a vegetable love very different from those proposed either by pastoral poets or by Darwin himself. For the pastoral poets, converging plants indexed the special power of the beloved, while Darwin was simply poeticizing perceived scientific truths. Running them together, Dickens makes fun of both, each at the other's expense. If gardeners (those empirical creatures so exquisitely acquainted with the spadeship of spades) provide an unlikely court of appeal for the truth of pastoral hyperbole, so too do those who are 'learned in the loves of plants', since those loves are nothing more than an allegorical conceit.
But even while he is having fun with pastoral convention, Dickens is secreting real epistemological truths into the game--and here we need to recall Crabbe's procedures in The Lover's Journey, as well as Dickens's own at an earlier point of the novel:
Then there were steeples, towers, belfreys, shining vanes, and masts of ships: a very forest. Gables, house-tops, garret-windows, wilderness upon wilderness. Smoke and noise enough for all the world at once.
After the first glance, there were slight features in the midst of this crowd of objects, which sprung out from the mass without any reason, as it were, and took hold of the attention whether the spectator would or no. Thus, the revolving chimney-pots on one great stack of buildings, seemed to be turning gravely to each other every now and then, and whispering the result of their separate observation of what was going on below . . . . The man who was mending a pen at an upper window over the way, became of paramount importance in the scene, and made a blank in it, ridiculously disproportionate in its extent, when he retired. The gambols of a piece of cloth upon the dyer's pole had far more interest for the moment than all the changing motion of the crowd. Yet even while the looker-on felt angry with himself for this, and wondered how it was, the tumult swelled to a roar; the host of objects seemed to thicken and expand a hundredfold; and after gazing round him, quite scared, he turned into Todgers's again.(12)
In his famous exposition of this view, Hillis Miller has observed that 'the spectator on Todgers's roof discovers something . . . disquieting. He discovers that the withdrawal of something from the scene produces not simply a blank in his consciousness, a blank which he can easily replace with his own interior life, but an unfillable gap. The exterior and visible void is "ridiculously disproportionate in its extent" because it proves to the observer his own interior nothingness. The removal of the man in the window is the removal of an irreplaceable part of himself, and the observer comes to make the discovery that he is, in one sense, nothing at all, since he is nothing in himself, and, in another sense, is everything, since he can become by turns everything he beholds.'(13) While this phenomenological virtuosity has its own fascination, the passage can be read in an altogether more straightforward way--a way which exempts the spectator from the epistemological Angst Miller ascribes to him. Dickens at first presents the urban landscape in terms so multifarious and vast that the view from Todgers's becomes a view not of a city but rather of a jungle as featureless and as intractable to human purpose as Eden will later prove to be: 'a very forest'; 'wilderness upon wilderness'. It is this, and not any sense of inner nullity, which makes the spectator focus on the man at the upper window. He provides a reassuring human presence in a landscape that (through human agency) has become as inhumane as a hostile wilderness. The meaning he confers diametrically inverts the function performed by the traditional 'figure in a landscape', since he has been inserted not to measure the sublimity which dwarfs him, but rather to domesticate and humanize it.
And this is precisely the function that Ruth discharges in her passage through Fountain Court. There is a real as opposed to a fanciful hyperbolic truth in the fact that, once a human presence has been subtracted from an inhuman setting, one experiences a palpable feeling of loss and deprivation: 'it passed like a smile from the grimy old houses, and the worn flagstones, and left them duller, darker, sterner than before'. Having established this incontrovertible truth, Dickens is able to untether his imagination. In the Fountain Court sequence, he breaks unashamedly into pastoral hyperbole once he has validated the experiential reality that underlies it--that crucial darkening-by-loss like the removal of the pen-mender from a window. We have seen how the subjunctives disingenuously rein the extravagances at the same time as they ask us to accept them, but there is also another conceit at work here. We had better call this 'epic hyperbole' so as to acknowledge its source in the Aeneid. Goddesses and heroines in Virgil are often characterized by a gait which sets them apart from the ordinary run of humanity: vera incessu patuit dea, or, in James Rhoades's rather flat-footed translation: 'She stepped no doubtful goddess'.(14) By the same token Camilla has an airy way of getting about in Book VII of the Aeneid:
. . . she might even have sped Over the unlopped harvest-blades, nor bruised The tender ears in running, or have skimmed Mid-ocean, poised upon the billow's swell, Nor in the surges dipped her flying feet. At her, astonied, youths and maidens all From house and field throng gazing, as she goes . . .(15)
Ruth has only the old buildings of London for her 'astonied' entourage, but her movement seems only a whit less ethereal: 'a delicate little figure flitting through it'; 'a little creature passed'; 'she went lightly by'. Dickens makes this nowhere more apparent than in the metaphoric association of that movement with a fertilizing stream: 'the spring of hopeful maidenhood, that in her person stole on, sparkling, through the dry and dusty channels of the Law.' Religious discourse (and its attendant folklore) abounds with similar associations of divinity and water, whether it be the story of Moses and the striking of the rock, or of the origin of Tre Fontane in Rome (three springs said to have been struck by the triple bounce of St Paul's head after his decapitation), or the events connected with St Bernadette and Lourdes. Dickens's point of departure is a graceful Cavalier compliment such as Herrick might pay his Julia, where the clothes themselves confer the liquid blessing on the progress:
When as in silks my Julia goes, Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes That liquefaction of her clothes.(16)
But he gives this graceful conceit greater urgency and vigour by allegorizing the water as something redemptive and transfiguring. The 'dry and dusty channels of the Law' are metaphorically transfused with life-giving water, and once that much has been conceded, once again, extravagant amplifications become possible, so that the dingy urban sparrows present in the 'chinks and crannies' (actual correlates of those metaphoric 'channels') yield to skylarks, traditional harbingers of dawn and spring. Although Dickens ends the paragraph with a show of packing up and dismantling all his tropes and conventions--'Anything might have happened that did not happen, and never will, for the love of Ruth'--his next sentence gives that love of Ruth the pivotal function he has just made a feint at denying: 'Something happened, too, upon the afternoon of which the history treats. Not for her love. Oh no! quite by accident, and without the least reference to her at all.' This cues in a different tonal approach to the idyll. The author now pleads his ignorance of the love-affair, and relays his data with a coy mock-bemusement. Having formally denied the conventions of pastoral, Dickens pretends that the protagonists' actions no longer seem to make sense:
But why did she run away, then? Not being ill dressed, for she was much too neat for that, why did she run away? The brown hair that had fallen down beneath her bonnet, and had one impertinent imp of false flower clinging to it, boastful of its licence before all men, that could not have been the cause, for it looked charming. Oh! foolish, panting, frightened little heart, why did she run away?(17)
Again Dickens gives us a binocular view of urban reality and pastoral convention. Ruth's bonnet is scarcely a pastoral prop, but her disarranged lock recalls the tangles of Neaera's hair in Lycidas, while the displaced wax flower supplies a nice-minded variant on the blooms that poets have envied for more intimate points of access (cf. Herrick's quatrain Upon the Roses in Julias bosome.(18) The reference to the 'panting, frightened little heart' helps focus what Dickens is offstaging by his playful mystifications, and, even though the pun stumbles on the male sex of the animal, it inevitably recalls the 'panting hart' that, in Psalm 42, longs for 'cooling streams'. Nor ought we to forget the hart and the hortus conclusus (the 'garden inclosed' in the Song of Solomon)--John Westlock overtakes Ruth, after all, in 'the sanctuary of Garden Court'.
The cooling streams evoked by the heart/hart do indeed make an appearance in the guise of an urban fountain: 'Merrily the tiny fountain played, and merrily the dimples sparkled on its sunny face. John Westlock hurried after her. Softly the whispering water broke and fell; and roguishly the dimples twinkled; as he stole upon her footsteps.'(19) This is the first of several key references that help to shape the idyll. Indeed there are very few pastorals without streams, pools, sedges, and rushes (an obvious resort in the hot landscapes of Arcadia and Sicily), and at least one famous prothalamion--Spenser's--systematically invokes a river. Having established an animistic sympathy between the 'spring of hopeful maidenhood' and the Temple fountain, which, if the pastoral notion were tenable, 'might have leaped up twenty feet' in greeting, Dickens is able to use it as a point of reference, and spin a series of incremental refrains like those of a Victorian parlour ballad--Burns's 'Flow Gently, Sweet Afton', say, where recurrent references to the stream help to organize the song: 'How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills, / Far marked with the courses of clear-winding rills'; 'Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides'; 'Flow gently, sweet Afton, amang thy green braes'.(20) Dickens grades his refrain even more systematically than this, and uses metonymic details to chart the various stages of the courtship. As Westlock moves swiftly in pursuit of Ruth, so the fountain plays with a spirited tempo; when Dickens stresses the stealth of his approach, the water obliges by breaking softly, since it has a proto-cinematic role to play in the montage of the action--that of indirect visual commentary. Dickens also uses the fountain as a surrogate source of putti and cupids, those traditional features of country idylls. While their dimpled, smiling plumpness strikes no note of incongruity in such pictures as Poussin's Flora, Dickens can hardly set them flying through the smoky air of London, and has once again to forge a resourceful compromise with what he sees before him. So it is that the fountain is cupidized: 'merrily the dimples sparkled on its sunny face'; 'roguishly the dimples twinkled'. At the moment that Tom enters the idyllic play of the narrative, the effect of the dimples is chorically enlarged, and a kind of cosmic well-being evoked only to be cut back by the limit of the basin. The surface is mock-heroic--we think, for example, of the oceanic 'tub of goldfishes' in Gray's poem--but the spirit is not. Dickens uses that curtailment not only to signal the fact that we are still in a harsh urban environment, but also to suggest that this happiness is similarly contained, privileged, and set off from the wilderness of self that surrounds it in greater London:
Merrily the fountain plashed and plashed, until the dimples, merging into one another, swelled into a general smile, that covered the whole surface of the basin.
'What an extraordinary meeting!' said Tom. 'I should never have dreamed of seeing you two together, here.'
'Quite accidental,' John was heard to murmur.
'Exactly,' cried Tom; 'that's what I mean, you know. If it wasn't accidental, there would be nothing remarkable in it.'(21)
The merging of the dimples helps underscore the narrative convergence, and the satisfaction that flows from that. In its final allotrope at the end of the chapter, the fountain connects the lovers in their disconnection, its murmur now a lullaby for the sleeping Ruth, its busyness an index to the (traditionally) wakeful lover: 'Busily the Temple fountain murmured in the moonlight, while Ruth lay sleeping with her flowers beside her; and John Westlock sketched a portrait--whose?--from memory.'(22)
According to Schiller's definitive treatment of the idyll, the genre presents 'the idea and description of an innocent and happy humanity'. He goes on to remark:
This innocence and bliss seeming remote from the artificial refinements of fashionable society, poets have removed the scene of the idyll from the crowds of worldly life to the simple shepherd's cot, and have given it a place in the infancy of humanity before the beginning of culture. These limitations are evidently accidental; they do not form the object of the idyll, but are only to be regarded as the most natural means to attain this end. The end is everywhere to portray man in a state of innocence; which means, a state of harmony and peace with himself and the external world.(23)
A corollary of this harmony, Schiller asserts, is calm:
Thus, the character of the idyll is to reconcile perfectly all the contradictions between the real and the ideal, which formed the matter of satirical and elegiac poetry, and setting aside their contradictions, to put an end to all conflict between the feelings of the soul. Thus, the dominant expression of this kind of poetry would be calm; but the calm that follows the accomplishment, and not that of indolence--the calm that comes from the equilibrium re-established between the faculties, and not from a suspending of their exercises; from the fullness of our strength, and not from our infirmity; the calm, in short, which is accompanied in the soul by the feeling of an infinite power.(24)
We have seen how Dickens has adapted his idyll to an urban environment by careful acts of acknowledgement and control: London is not denied, but it is offstaged, and mock-heroic consequences of any incongruity kept in abeyance. When he wants to stress the anti-idyllic character of other episodes of the novel, he has only to set urban circumstance at the throat of pastoral cliche: 'The bed itself was decorated with a patchwork quilt of great antiquity; and at the upper end, upon the side nearest to the door, hung a scanty curtain of blue check, which prevented the Zephyrs that were abroad in Kingsgate Street from visiting Mrs. Gamp's head too roughly.'(25)
Even so, the rural situation of pastoral, as Schiller points out, only accidentally serves its end, viz. the presentment of human innocence. It is important that the city be reclaimed from itself, and, for the right idyllic calm to prevail, reclaimed above all from its tendency to noise and speed. Dickens does this later in the idyll, when Ruth and Tom have been persuaded to enjoy a meal in John's lodging. As Ruth comes close to concentring the natural world on her person when she enters Temple Court, so Tom, the Holy Fool, comes close to purging the impurities of Temple Bar, both the actual impurities of its frenetic commerce, and the metaphoric impurities of its barbarous past, which Dickens shrewdly introduces to countervail any heady nostalgia for a pastoral 'golden age':
But he was so delighted . . . that he stopped in Temple Bar to laugh; and it was no more to Tom, that he was anathematized and knocked about by the surly passengers, than it would have been to a post; for he continued to exclaim with unabated good humour . . . and then came dodging across the crowded streets to them, with such sweet temper and tenderness . . . beaming in his face, God bless it, that it might have purified the air, though Temple Bar had been, as in the golden days gone by, embellished with a row of rotting human heads.(26)
In contrast to Mrs Gamp's meal with Betsy Prig, with its tough urban textures ('the oldest of lettuces or youngest of cabbages'(27)), John's is of a kind that might have been prepared by the hands of an Arcadian shepherdess: 'innocent young potatoes, a cool salad, sliced cucumber'.(28) Once again the urban reality of his servant (the 'fiery-faced matron in the crunched bonnet') qualifies the pastoral effect--but only up to a point. And in generating the generic calm of the idyll, Dickens once again takes care to see that city data are not so much censored as caught up in the spell:
There is little enough to see, in Furnival's Inn. It is a shady, quiet place, echoing to the footsteps of the stragglers who have business there; and rather monotonous and gloomy on summer evenings. What gave it such a charm to them, that they remained at the window as unconscious of the flight of time as Tom himself, the dreamer, while the melodies which had so often soothed his spirit, were hovering again about him! What power infused into the fading light, the gathering darkness; the stars that here and there appeared; the evening air, the city's hum and stir, the very chiming of the old church clocks; such exquisite enthralment, that the divinest regions of the earth spread out before their eyes could not have held them captive in a stronger chain!(29)
As so often in Dickens the pressure of poetic utterances behind the prose enriches and deepens its timbre. Gray's Elegy has supplied some of the details ('Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight / And all the air a solemn stillness holds'(30)), while Wordsworthian hyperbole (rather than Petrarchan or pastoral) offers a precedent for sanctifying a city at rest--the 'divinest regions of the earth' recalls the sonnet 'Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802': 'Earth has not anything to show more fair'.(31) But while Wordsworth views with his eyes, John and Ruth illustrate the old Crabbian maxim that it is the soul that sees.
While John's meal presents one image of cemented social bonds, the music in his rooms supplies another. Indeed, the very topos of the piping contest shows the importance of music to the pastoral vision, and Dickens once again forges his own Victorian paraphrase of this idea:
'Sing something to us, my dear,' said Tom. 'Let us hear your voice. Come!'
John Westlock added his entreaties, with such earnestness that a flinty heart alone could have resisted them. Hers was not a flinty heart. Oh dear no! Quite another thing.
So down she sat, and in a pleasant voice began to sing the ballads Tom loved so well. Old rhyming stories, with here and there a pause for a few simple chords, such as a harper might have sounded in the ancient time while looking upward for the current of some half-remembered legend; words of old poets, wedded to such measures that the strain of music might have been the poet's breath, giving utterance and expression to his thought; and now a melody so joyous and light-hearted, that the singer seemed incapable of sadness, until in her inconstancy (oh wicked little singer!) she relapsed, and broke the listeners' hearts again: these were the simple means she used to please them. And that these simple means prevailed, and she did please them, let the still darkened chamber, and its long-deferred illumination witness.(32)
Schiller has noted how it 'is the condition of the simple that nature should triumph over art, either unconsciously to the individual and against his inclination, or with his full and entire cognizance', adding that it must do so 'not by its blind and brutal force as a dynamical power, but in virtue of its form as a moral magnitude; in a word, not as a want, but as an internal necessity'.(33) Such reasoning urges primitivism as a corollary of the idyll, a primitivism perfectly illustrated here as it was a decade or so later in Villette: 'She sang. Her singing just affected me like the tricks of a conjuror: I wondered how she did it--how she made her voice run up and down, and cut such marvellous capers; but a simple Scotch melody, played by a rude street minstrel, has often moved me more deeply.'(34) Because Bronte and Dickens take naturalness (not technical proficiency) for their yardsticks, both Lucy and Ruth exalt musical simplicity above the roulades and fioriture which characterized the bel canto opera of the 1840s. In Dickens's idyll, indeed, simple art takes on the essentiality of life itself, and musical phrases develop a continuity with the movement of the lungs--'the strain of music might have been the poet's breath'.
The raptness (and rapture) of the idyll in Chapter 45 of Martin Chuzzlewit is to some extent serf-enclosed, but its effects extend into remaining phases of the narrative as well. Here again the city is acknowledged and simultaneously reclaimed, so that cries of street vendors coexist with gales of the kind that fan the glade in Pope's Summer:
Tom Pinch and Ruth were sitting at their early breakfast, with the window open, and a row of the freshest little plants arranged before it on the inside, by Ruth's own hands; . . . and people were crying flowers up and down the street; and a blundering bee, who had got himself in between the two sashes of the window, was bruising his head against the glass, endeavouring to force himself out into the fine morning, and considering himself enchanted because he couldn't do it; and the morning was as fine a morning as ever was seen; and the fragrant air was kissing Ruth and rustling about Tom, as if it said, 'How are you, my dears: I came all this way on purpose to salute you;' and it was one of those glad times when we form, or ought to form, the wish that every one on earth were able to be happy, and catching glimpses of the summer of the heart, to feel the beauty of the summer of the year.(35)
Those plants in pots anticipate Mr Tartar's roof garden in Edwin Drood--a favourite Dickensian topos. A differentiating factor in the treatment, however, can be traced to the narrator's use of pastoral hyperbole. The superlatives come thick and fast because it is Ruth who has been instrumental in setting up 'the freshest little plants' and, the convergent centre of an idyllic landscape once more, causes the morning to be 'as fine a morning as ever was seen'. And, ready once again to psychologize the trope, Dickens takes care to trace the idyllic sense of well-being to a head concerned, like Frost's, with 'inner weather': 'the summer of the heart'.
Schiller has said that the idyll works against its own success by confusing our orientation in time:
By the very fact that the idyll is transported to the time that precedes civilisation, it also loses the advantages thereof; and by its nature finds itself in opposition to itself. Thus, in a theoretical sense, it takes us back at the same time that in a practical sense it leads us on and ennobles us. Unhappily it places behind us the end towards which it ought to lead us, and consequently it can only inspire us with the sad feeling of a loss, and not the joyous feeling of hope.(36)
In Martin Chuzzlewit Dickens manages to invest the idyll not with an elegiac sense of innocence as something irrecoverable, but rather as a teleological point to which the entire narrative tends. For it is on Tom Pinch, on the perfect divestment of the self, that the story ends, and for its coda, Dickens re-activates the idyllic mode of Chapter 45. Ruth returns with her light, godly incessus, and, with her brother, is apotheosized in a tableau of love and trust. Music (the music that in John Westlock's lodgings had artlessly effected the union of the three) once again encompasses and unites them:
And coming from a garden, Tom: bestrewn with flowers by children's hands: thy little sister Ruth, as light of foot and heart as in old days, sits down beside thee. From the Present, and the Past, with which she is so tenderly entwined in all thy thoughts, thy strain soars onward to the Future. As it resounds within thee and without, thy kindling face looks on her with a Love and Trust, that knows it cannot die. The noble music, rolling round her in a cloud of melody, shuts out the grosser prospect of an earthly parting, and uplifts her, Tom, to Heaven!(37)
1 Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. M. Cardwell (Oxford, 1982), ch. 35.
2 Alexander Pope, Poems: A One-Volume Edition of the Twickenham Text with Selected Annotations, ed. J. Butt (London, 1963), 131.
3 Friedrich Schiller, Essays Aesthetical & Philosophical Including the Dissertation on the 'Connexion between the Animal and Spiritual in Man' (London, 1900), 327.
4 George Crabbe, The Complete Poetical Works, ed. N. Dalrymple-Champneys and A. Pollard (Oxford, 1988), ii. 132.
5 Ibid. 133.
6 A. H. Miles (ed.), Our National Songs: A Collection of One Hundred and Eighty Songs of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales (London, n.d.), 5. (On the evidence of a bookplate, the collection was published before 1889.
7 Martin Chuzzlewit, 684 (ch. 45).
8 Virgil, Poems, trans. J. Rhoades (London, 1921), 395.
9 Leigh Hunt, Poetical Works, ed. H. S. Milford (London, 1923), 145.
10 G. M. Matthews (ed.), Keats: The Critical Heritage (London, 1971), 101.
11 Hunt, Poetical Works, 236.
12 Martin Chuzzlewit, 132 (ch. 9).
13 J. Hillis Miller, 'From "Martin Chuzzlewit"', in S. Wall (ed.), Charles Dickens: A Critical Anthology (Harmondsworth, 1970), 400-1.
14 Virgil, Poems, 13.
15 Ibid. 178.
16 Robert Herrick, Poems, ed. L. C. Martin (London, 1965), 261.
17 Martin Chuzzlewit, 684-5 (ch. 45).
18 Herrick, Poems, 249.
19 Martin Chuzzlewit, 685 (ch. 45).
20 Miles, Our National Songs, 7.
21 Martin Chuzzlewit, 686 (ch. 45).
22 Ibid. 692 (ch. 45).
23 Schiller, Essays, 313.
24 Ibid. 318.
25 Martin Chuzzlewit, 743 (ch. 49).
26 Ibid. 687 (ch. 45).
27 Ibid. 747 (ch. 49).
28 Ibid. 688 (ch. 45).
29 Ibid. 690-1 (ch. 45).
30 Thomas Gray, The Poems of Gray, Collins and Goldsmith, ed. R. Lonsdale (London, 1969), 118.
31 William Wordsworth, The Poetical Works (Miscellaneous Sonnets etc.), ed. E. de Selincourt and H. Darbishire (Oxford, 1948), 181.
32 Martin Chuzzlewit, 691 (ch. 45).
33 Schiller, Essays, 267-8.
34 Charlotte Bronte, Villette, ed. H. Rosengarten and M. Smith (Oxford, 1984), 307-8 (ch. 20).
35 Martin Chuzzlewit, 727 (ch. 48).
36 Schiller, Essays, 314.
37 Martin Chuzzlewit, 832 (ch. 54).
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|Author:||Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning|
|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1994|
|Previous Article:||Alexander Pope and the Somerset family.|
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