Wow! Phew! Ding bloody Dong!
Sixty years on and I didn’t know what I had missed. Dickens in a rage. Dickens in a fury. Dickens bare to the world. Dickens at his best. If he hadn’t written anything more than the first fifteen hundred words of this instalment he would still be the greatest of writers, railing against injustice and poverty and those who ignored it.a manifesto for a religious crusade.
From the accidental dropping of a barrel of wine in an empty street he builds up a picture of a mob coming to life as hungry and despairing people grovel down in the cobbles to take up whatever they can of the luxury spread out before them using fingers and cupped hands, head shawls and old chipped mugs. Every rivulet that runs its way between the ankle-breaking cobbles is dammed up and drained dry. Barrel staves are sucked of their lees like a thirsty man attacking a cactus. Folks dance and sing, laugh and embrace not believing their luck and for a short while the street lives.
Just as suddenly as the barrel fell to the ground silence and gloom are restored to the street as the erstwhile companions end their celebration and return to their individual lives as if nothing had happened and each carries on fighting for personal survival in an uncaring world, the woman to her pot af warm ashes, the man to his sawing and “men with bare arms, matted locks, and cadaverous faces, who had emerged into the winter light from cellars, moved away to descend again;”
In less than a page Dickens has set a scene in an unknown space and time. It could be Paris or the streets of Seven Dials or Rats Castle, possibly the backend of the Bowery, or the poorer parts of Berlin or Moscow. Wherever it is the description of people lapping up wine from the street, along with the filth and grime which is never cleaned up presents us with a picture of absolute despondency and despair.
Out of his short description Dickens takes us into his most intimate thoughts on politics, religion and social commentary using the incident of the wine barrel as a ‘fabric’ from which he draws many threads. It is difficult to know where to start, much less to end so I will take hold of one strand and see where it goes.
The spilled wine we learn is a metaphor for blood. “….one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine lees—BLOOD.” Later the joker is treated as a fool but is there more to this image. The ” long squalid bag ” may look like a nightcap but it is also a monk’s hood. This is a dual allusion to two Christian images, the Juggling Jester and the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast.
The Juggling Jester is an old mediaeval story about a clumsy monk who is useless at anything else but juggling and secretly offers up his juggling to Mary in the monastery chapel by night. The story varies in its detail but the moral drawn is that everyone has some talent to offer and it should be accepted. (In my own context I heard it delivered as a homily in school assembly) In the case of our joker he performs a small dance and ends up with a shoe in his hand, yet another biblical allusion where Boaz removes a shoe in the marketplace as a gesture of publicly accepting responsibility for Ruth. Dancing is also the monk’s talent in one version of the story. The fool, like most fools in the sense of a jester, is making a point for which he accepts responsibility
At Belshazzar’s feast the writing, Mene Mene Yekel Upharsin, is a warning that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire is to be over-run and obliterated by the Medes and Persians, just as in the future the French Kingdom will fall. Dickens uses Biblical references, possibly subconsciously, to describe coming events but that is not all.
The blood in the street is carried, in stains, on the hands, feet and faces of the people who have cleaned up the street with their mouths. They have been washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb, notwithstanding the filth on the road, yet they can only return to their squalid homes where nothing has changed. They have not been renewed or saved and Dickens gives vent to his own anger against those who should “..avoid preaching, heavy moralising and calls for penitence.” (Tomalsin page 204)
In his anaphoric peroration about Hunger he uses the image of Apocalyptic Horsemen from Revelations “—cold, dirt, sickness, ignorance, and want, were the lords in waiting on the saintly presence—nobles of great power all of them; but, most especially the last.”, to drive home his belief that hunger is the pre-eminent evil “…and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sign, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere.”
The black horse makes wheat and barley expensive but abjures “..Thou hurt not the oil and wine” the luxuries of life are there for those who can afford them. Hunger can’t afford them, and so more hunger follows.
I can see Dickens sitting at his desk writing this and with every repetition of the word hunger, hammering his fist down on the surface with “eyes of fire”. Hunger is seen everywhere, “Hunger pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no
offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s
shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in
every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the
roasting chesnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomies in every farthing
porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.”
In all he uses the word ‘hunger’ seven times as if he were opening up the seven seals from which the horsemen came. Every place he looks in the street tells him that hunger is the enemy to defeat else, following Joel’s advice, “Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears; Let the weak say, ‘I am strong.’”
“The trade signs ….were, all, grim illustrations of Want. The butcher and the porkman painted up, only the leanest scrags of meat; the baker, the coarsest of meagre loaves. The people rudely
pictured as drinking in the wine-shops, croaked over their scanty measures of thin wine and
beer, and were gloweringly confidential together. Nothing was represented in a flourishing condition, save tools and weapons; but, the cutler’s knives and axes were sharp and bright, the
smith’s hammers were heavy, and the gunmaker’s stock was murderous.”
The last two repetitions of hunger carry inside themselves yet more of bible imagery.
“Hunger rattled his dry bones,” when put into the context of “Hunger was shred into atomies in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.” gives an extraordinary allusion to Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.
At first I assumed ‘Atomies” were atoms but a quick consult of Chambers 1910 returns “A walking skeleton” ‘Husky’ isn’t a deep throat as Chambers has but “Abounding in husks” (Walkers 1848) which makes the ‘French fries’ in a farthing porringer into pieces of potato peeling indifferently burned with a few drops of oil.
More of these religious ideas follow with the introduction of Defarge who accosts the fool Gaspard and berates for writing ‘blood’ on the wall. After rubbing the word out “ ..he wiped his soiled hand upon the joker’s dress, such as it was—quite deliberately, as having dirtied the hand on his account;”
A Pontius Pilate moment, ‘It has nothing to do with me.’
Dickens himself was not overtly religious, nor am I, but all these allusions and more, have me wondering just how deeply he tapped into an unsuspected cultural form when he wrote this marvellous piece.