Dickens and the Railings of the Dead

Dickens had a very idiosyncratic eye for the metropolis in which he lived and was fond of seeking out its neglected corners. In his piece entitled ‘The City of the Absent’ (first published in the 1860s in the periodical the novelist edited, All the Year Round, but later republished posthumously in The Uncommercial Traveller (1875)), he discusses one of the ‘retired spots’ that he particularly ‘loves to haunt’, the old churchyards that can be found in the ancient commercial centre of the British capital, the City of London. In that favourite verb of his, Dickens’s ‘haunting’ plays with and puts an unusual spin on the conventional idea that these spaces might be populated by ghosts, as here it is the author himself that appears as a kind of spectre, within and yet not fully a part of the world he ‘peeps’ in upon. The churchyards, pressed in as they are by the city’s unchecked growth, go to hide, but Dickens finds them out, determined to disturb their silence:

Such strange churchyards hide in the City of London; churchyards sometimes so entirely detached from churches, always so pressed upon by houses; so small, so rank, so silent, so forgotten, except by the few people who ever look down into them from their smoky windows. As I stand peeping in through the iron gates and rails, I can peel the rusty metal off, like bark from an old tree.

Iron railings are the conduit through which this spectre spectates, delivering a sense of distanced obsession – as they do at the end of Bleak House (1852-3), when Lady Deadlock peers through the gate of another urban churchyard in an effort to unite herself with her dead past. But, in their corroded state here, Dickens borrows them to use in another strange metaphor for the provisional yet present, the ephemeral yet palpable, which straddles the organic-inorganic divide, as so much of this writer’s imagery does.

Like Thomas Hardy’s poem, ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ (1882), which I discussed in a previous blog post, Dickens is fascinated by the vicissitudes of time upon the material relics with which we commemorate those who have left us. The paradoxically tangible absence that is inherent to these kinds of space is met with a weird collection of things. As in the saturated landscapes of Tarkofsky’s film Stalker (1979), there is a constant drip, which draws rust from iron. Other metal, such as the old lead, is re-used, like the scraps of waste in Our Mutual Friend (1865), another novel in which the living take rough precedence over the dead. And then there are the tombstones themselves, which unlike those Pip misreads at the beginning of Great Expectations (1860), are completely ‘illegible’, which ‘withers’ the ‘worthies’ of centuries gone by. As the last apostrophe of this stunning set-piece in prose imagines, the departed seem to make their voices heard, despite their de-individuation, through the erosions of time. Like Hardy’s poetry about the dead and their monuments, something remains in the air whether or not anyone cares to listen for it:

The illegible tombstones are all lop-sided, the grave-mounds lost their shape in the rains of a hundred years ago, the Lombardy Poplar or Plane-Tree that was once a drysalter’s daughter and several common-councilmen, has withered like those worthies, and its departed leaves are dust beneath it. Contagion of slow ruin overhangs the place. The discoloured tiled roofs of the environing buildings stand so awry, that they can hardly be proof against any stress of weather. Old crazy stacks of chimneys seem to look down as they overhang, dubiously calculating how far they will have to fall. In an angle of the walls, what was once the tool-house of the grave-digger rots away, encrusted with toadstools. Pipes and spouts for carrying off the rain from the encompassing gables, broken or feloniously cut for old lead long ago, now let the rain drip and splash as it list, upon the weedy earth. Sometimes there is a rusty pump somewhere near, and, as I look in at the rails and meditate, I hear it working under an unknown hand with a creaking protest: as though the departed in the churchyard urged, ‘Let us lie here in peace; don’t suck us up and drink us!’

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