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t has become a commonplace to say that Dickens is poetic. The French critic Hippolyte Taine was probably the first who identified in the Revue des deux mondes (1856) and next in his classic Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863, English translation 1871-4) poetic imagination as the source of Dickens's greatness (Schlicke 130). In modern criticism, Dickens's literary techniques have also been characterized as poetic. In his study Dickens the Novelist F. R. Leavis calls Dickens “the incomparable Victorian master of poetic expression.” For Walter Allen Dickens is poetic “by virtue of the intensity of his visual sense and his awareness of relationships below the conscious level.” (274-75). Edgar Johnson wrote about Dickens as “one of the great poets of the novel.” Similarly, David Gervais, the author of the essay “The Prose and Poetry of Great Expectations” points to Dickens's “lyrical tone” and “the pondering rhythms. ” [Bloom 107]

Dickens, like Shakespeare, had a unique gift for poetic language, which is manifested in his elaborate and often symbolic or parabolic plots. His prose, although it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, maintains an extraordinarily poetic quality. Dickens employed an astonishing range of poetic devices, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, rhythm and even disguised blank verse, symbol, metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche. Dickens's power of writing springs not only from the acute social concerns he dealt with, but also from the ingenuity of his verse-like narration which is achieved by rhythm and rhyme cadence.

Unfortunately, Jordans' title — Dickens Novels as Verse — misleads in two respects. The book does not concern itself with the full run of Dickens's novels, from Pickwick to Drood, but focuses on three later novels: A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1865). In the second place, the book does not attempt to address all of the poetic features that one may notice in Dickens's writing. Rather, it offers an occasionally interesting repackaging of New Criticism's standard assemblage of images and motifs, which the author describes as “Symptomatic,” “Surface,” or “Non-Substantive” Reading, a lens that is different from that of J. Hillis Miller in his quest for the meaning behind Dickens's repetitions:

I would like to call attention to J. Hillis Miller and his work on image patterns — in Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958) and in Fiction and Repetition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982) — because a few readers of this book in typescript told me that it echoes him. The compliment is misplaced, I think. Hillis Miller typically insists that repeating elements in novels are only worth talking about if they are substantive, if they contribute to whatever it is a book could be said to "mean"; and, according to Hillis Miller, all repeating elements, because they repeat, are substantive, are meaningful. [9]

The author, who claims to distance himself from earlier scholarship on Dickens's use of poetic devices, promises to explore a few of Dickens's novels as lyric verse. In the “Introduction,” he admits frankly that the word “verse” in the title “is there out of desperation: I cannot think of any label that efficiently and accurately puts what I'm talking about into tablet form. What concern me are patterns of repetition that give casual coherence to sprawling narratives without compromising one's sense of their sprawl” (1). After encountering such a statement of the author' desperation, readers may find themselves somewhat confused, even though further on the author tries to elucidate his purpose. “Basically, the book sets out to advertise the importance — in the metaphoric sense of the word — in Dickens novels of the repetition of substantively incidental patterns in topics” (1). In other words, despite its title, the book is NOT about Dickens novels as verse. Perhaps it should have been titled, say, Non-substantive Organizations in Dickens Novels.

Jordan is clearly determined not to go beyond the limits of his primary design to investigate the non-substantive patterns in Dickens novels. The purpose of the work appears to show that Dickens's novels “are made up of the same things that make great verse great: intricate, largely unnoticeable tissues of alliteration-like patterning that thread throughout the work and give narratively insignificant coherence to it” (back page blurb). Jordan claims that “there exist in novels kinds of linguistic repetition that are insignificant— in the literal sense — yet significant in the metaphorical sense” (9). However, concluding the “Introduction,” the author puzzles the readers by asserting that the non-substantive patterns of repetition in Dickens's novels have no real significance; “they do not 'mean', and most certainly do not instruct.” They are like alliteration or meter in a verse, but are “narratively 'unnecessary',” and create “non-substantive coherence” for the inquisitive reader (8). In carrying out his project Jordan does manage to provide insights into the verse-like cadence of three later Dickens's novels.

The close readings of the three Dickens's novels closely resemble those of New Criticism, although Jordan distances himself from such an approach. The analysis focuses on the repeatibility and similarity of the syntactic and semantic patterns of Dickens's prose. Jordan is interested how and why Dickens, who had a unique feel for rhythm, rhyme, and recurring images, deployed certain words or word patterns in his novels. Jordan is also interested in these incidental patterns which bind together Dickens's narrative. He claims convincingly that in his terms Dickens novels are verse-like, and draws attention to “the poetic rhythms” in Dickens novels, which might be an important area of research, but also an arid one, if one does not formulate pertinent conclusions.

Jordan offers tight analyses of specific passages such as the justly famous openings ofA Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, examining the prose excerpts as if they were lyric poems, pointing out patterns and repetitions that have gone largely unnoticed, or at least unremarked upon. This criticism, then, is not conventional literary discourse, but rather concentrates on Dickens's impressionistic use of language such as rhyme and repetition to enable the reader to make connections. One comes away from reading Jordan's analyses with a renewed appreciation — particularly in Great Expectations — of Dickens's skilled use of rhetorical devices as he employs subtle paranomasia and equivoque, variation through synonyms, and repetition of grammatical structures to shape the reader's interpretation at an almost subliminal level. Despite its major limitations, we believe that the book could prove useful when teaching any of these three novels in a university class.

The strongest arguments in favor of the approach Jordan advances in his analysis of the patterns of repetition in the syntax of the opening paragraphs of A Tale of Two Cities, and in his noting the role played by wheels and wheeled-vehicles such as carriages, stage-coaches, and tumbrels, for which by virtue of his very name Sydney Carton (“Cart-on”) is destined from his initial appearance in the novel, when he rescues Darnay from the charge of treason by having the court note the likeness between himself and the accused. The frequency of wheeled vehicles and their association with important events such as the vehicular accident that befalls Gaspard's child in Saint Antoine, argues Jordan, imprints their image as markers or signs upon the reader's consciousness as “agents of coherence” (16) that pull a disparate work such as a serialised novel together:

the complex ways that they intertwine with other incidental topics and motifs . . . make the final instance of the pattern, Sydney Carton's final journey on a cart, feel like the inevitable and earned consequence of all that preceded it.

I take as evidence for the assertion in my last sentence the fact that no critic, as far as I can tell, has ever mentioned the relationship between Carton's surname and what he does before he dies; this, despite the ensconced, always inadequate-seeming commonplace of Dickens criticism that his characters' names somehow encapsulate or are perfect miniature expressions of their personalities. [15]

Jordan notes other such instances of “subliminally patterning” paragraphs in the novel (repetitions that are syntactical as well as verbal) and up-down movements such as stairs that ultimately anticipate the guillotine itself: staircases, steps aboard ship, the steps at the maison dieu in Paris, and the steps leasing up to the platform of execution:

To be sure, the instances of stairs . . . do not testify in and of themselves to the notion that incidental references to stairs are a full-fledged motif and not merely matter concomitant to the narrative (as kissing is to love stories and horses are to westerns). [17]

Although Jordan suggests that many Victorian novels might be laden with references to carriages and stairs, since carriages and stairs were obviously commonplace in the nineteenth century, the concentration of references to these features of daily life may be purely coincidental, but there do seem, for example, to be a surprising number scenes in rooms overlooking the ground level, whether it be Carton's rooms, or the Marquis' bedroom in his chateau, or (oddly enough) Darnay's cell in La Force. All of these sweeping staircases culminate in the fifty-step wooden staircase which Carton ascends, which is also the culmination of “rising-to-fall/falling-to-rise” (25) images, which Jordan discusses for some eight pages before analyzing the syntactical patterns and repetitions of the novel's opening paragraphs.

Likewise, in the analysis of Dickens's last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, which Jordan rather oddly places before that of Great Expectations, Jordan offers an exquisite reading of the recurrent motifs of wood and furniture, dust, floating and/or disembodied faces, fishing-for-men, and slavery. Dickens's fascination with freakish and bizarre characters and situations is well known. Wooden legs and dead bodies appear not only in Our Mutual Friend, but in his many other novels. J. Hillis Miller compared pertinently Our Mutual Friend to “cubist collage.” Its structure is formed by the juxtaposition of incompatible fragments in a pattern of disharmony or mutual contradiction.” (284) It should be noted that collage aesthetic plays an important role in modernist poetry and fiction. Of course, investigating Dickens's style in light of modernist poetics was beyound of the scope of the reviewed book, however, a reader may be struck that the texture of Dickens's later novels exhibits a mutability of motifs and book-length patterns that may anticipate some of the works of the modernists. The narratively insignificant coherence and inclusion of tissues of verse-like patterning can be found, e.g. in James Joyce's Ulysses.

Jordan's emphasis on the intricate patterning of Dickens novels which has verse-like quality is convincing and well proven. Admittedly, we do not normally read novels for patterns, we read them primarily for plots, characterisation, suspense, atmosphere, etc. However, on subsequent readings, we begin to appreciate the novel's patterns of repetition. Certain patterns of repetitions are appealing and aesthetically pleasing and reinforce coherence and verisimilitude to sprawling narratives.

In sum, although this ambitious book does not fulfill its title's promise, it is not entirely disappointing. Dickens Novels as Verse puts a new spin on Dickens studies, and provides readers with a deeper understanding of certain manifestations of the poetic quality of Dickens's distinctive style of writing, although the book displays no interest in many other verse-like qualities of Dickens's novels. Unfortunately, the book lacks a firm conclusion, a unit that would sum up synthetically what the author has said in the three analytical chapters and drive home the book's overaching argument. Because of the length and scope of Jordan's account, the poetic density of the full range of Dickens's novels awaits a more comprehensive study.


Allen, Walter. The English Novel. A Short Critical History. New York: Durton, 1954.

Bloom, Harold, ed., Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. Modern Critical Interpretations. Edited and with an Introduction by Harold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2000.

Jordan, Joseph P. Dickens Novels as Verse. Madison and Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson U. P.; Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012. Pp. 145. (Cloth) ISBB 978-1-61147-5241-1.

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.

Jordan, Joseph P.Dickens Novels as Verse. Madison and Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson U. P.; Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.

Leavis, F. R., and Q. D. Leavis. Dickens the Novelist. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Schlicke, Paul, ed. Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999.

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Last modified 20 April 2014