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  • Dickens’ Novels as Poetry: Allegory and Literature of the City by Jeremy Tambling
  • Leslie S. Simon
Jeremy Tambling. Dickens’ Novels as Poetry: Allegory and Literature of the City. New York and London: Routledge (Routledge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature, 13), 2015. Pp. viii + 238. $145.00; £90.00.

Jeremy Tambling opens Dickens’ Novels as Poetry in the preface-less form we have come to expect from him – in medias res, and with two fragmented sentences: “Dombey and Son (1846–8) to begin with, and poetry of the city. First, the construction of the railway, rending former squalor in two, in a ‘wild’ natural process” (2). His introductory thoughts at once recall the rhetorical urgency already witnessed in Dickens, Violence and the Modern State (1995) and Going Astray: Dickens and London (2008). And, at the same time, they strike immediately to the core of his current subject, particularly as this passage mirrors the opening of A Christmas Carol – “Marley was dead: to begin with” – which Tambling reads as a foreshadowing of the dead man’s revenant return (117). We begin in the middle of things, this study suggests, because there is no beginning, no singular origin or truth; because doing so yields the familiar uncannily foreign (and vice versa); and because speech should be understood, from the very outset, as shadow-play. The richly unsettling effect of this critical approach underscores the central argument of Tambling’s book: that the poetic language in Dickens, which emerges through various forms of allegory in the novels (dreams, jokes, riddles, fevers, hallucinations, caricatures, slips of the tongue, everyday language), prevents the narrative articulation of a “socialised, unified self” (20). Tambling follows Walter Benjamin in identifying allegory as “precisely that which shows what cannot be reconciled into a system of thought” (23) – or, as Tambling writes elsewhere, that which is beyond, underneath, “shifting, enigmatic, distorted” (60), and ultimately representative of what Freud calls the “primary process.”

Dickens’ Novels as Poetry reads as a scintillating conversation with a scholar markedly attuned to the peculiar rhythms and unconscious tics that distinguish the Dickens canon. The analysis is dense, sharp, and demanding, and by the end of the book I feel as though, by some brilliant trick, I have just re-read all the novels in the space of two-hundred pages, and with a newly re-ordered attention to their poetics of dissolution. I am still not sure if I must call Dickens a poet (as opposed to, say, a poetic novelist) in order to appreciate the allegorical pulse of his writing – but, in fact, this distinction does not seem finally to be the point. Readers should not expect to find a lengthy literature review here (past scholarship on Dickens-as-poet is barely mentioned); and Tambling offers no thoroughgoing delineation of his own uses of the terms “prose” and “poetry” until one-third of the way into the book, when a few key lines from Heidegger and T. S. Eliot are invoked (75–6). What readers should expect is a lively and exhaustive [End Page 68] post-structuralist analysis of the tension between intelligibility (associated with prose) and groundlessness (with poetry) in Dickens’s language. They should look for this analysis to proceed with a discursive virtuosity that moves fluidly between impressively broad contextual readings (inter-novelistic, inter-generational, inter-generic) and painstakingly close attention to form (down to the very letter); and they should anticipate that Tambling, in ultra-deconstructive mode, often shows rather than tells – or, to use the language of the book itself, says without saying. Throughout, Tambling provides explosive clusters of names, ideas, and images that call upon the reader – just as he claims Dickens does – to perform the “imaginary work” of supplying the often-unstated effect of the grouping (48, 50). Tambling uses the term “rend” to characterize allegory in Dickens (cited above); I would use it to describe Tambling’s own writing, which thrives on excess, as well as on the absences and disconnections that grow up organically amongst the accumulated materials of his research. This approach is at once stimulating and disorienting, as the labyrinthine associations drawn by the book can be difficult to parse – deliberately, meta...


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pp. 68-71
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