Precipitate, determined, absolute
In bending all around him to his will,
    Inflammable and volatile
        And furiously driven,
    Prone to pity and self-pity,
        Oblivious yet acute,
Cruel to his wife, kind to the destitute,
             A man of style
                 And skill
        And fueled propensity
    To slog on mile by soggy mile
    Crackling with charged intensity,
                 And all the while
Keen eyes fixed on the goals toward which he’d striven,
Fame and its fortunes, charity, Gad’s Hill,

Dickens was steadied, somewhat, by routine
Keeping his reckless energy on track,
    A morning shower, quick, ice-cold,
        Then breakfast, then ascending
    To wrestle at his writing desk
        With how to set the scene
For tension, sentiment, an unforeseen
             And manifold
        Of twists and turns, grotesque
    Incinerations, crimes of old,
    Kind quirks that verge on the burlesque
             Just as they’re told
To move the heart, and move it toward an ending,
To keep the pages turning to the back

(Not to imply his urgent fluency
Spared him the chosen trials of the trade,
    The fundamental restlessness,
        Dead hours, dead days, dead weeks,
    The sharp downspirals of depression
        And pained uncertainty,
The getting up then coming back to see
             What little mess
                 We’ve made
        Or haven’t, the obsession
    Guttering till our dark distress
    Snuffs out another fruitless session
             Where more is less,
When skies clear, from the valleys rise the peaks,
The dam breaks and the images cascade),

Then stop for lunch, done writing for the day
At two or three, and after a hearty feed
    Launch vigorous activity,
        A long and fast-paced walk
    Through fields and lanes, or streets and parks,
        Then home to, fiercely, play
At cricket, pocket billiards, or croquet,
             And after tea
        With more communal larks,
    As brisk conviviality
    Strikes brilliant conversational sparks,
Brings drink and food and funny games and talk
All wreathed in smoke, according to his need,

Or, if he had the numbers, organize
His family and friends into a troupe
    To take a part and break a leg
        For dramaturgic purpose,
    Staging whatever he’d select
        While he would scrutinize
And drill the children, prompt and tyrannize
             (But never beg)
                 The group
        To quickening effect,
    As he, both fuse and powder keg,
    Would blaze away, and thus infect
             Augustus Egg
And Forster and Frank Stone and Uncle Porpoise
Till they would conquer, since they must not stoop,

Or drop by places where he’d find his friends,
The Athenaeum, or the Parthenon,
    The Garrick, where the smoke was thick
        And he could have his say
    Among the clubby tight connections
        Frank bonhomie extends,
Denounce what someone mindlessly defends
             Or parry Sic
                 Et Non,
        Discuss the next elections,
    The latest play, the lunatic
    Love-muddled slapstick indirections
             Of some sidekick
As, effervescent, wired, on bright display,
The Sparkler sparkled evenings, on and on,

Or supervise a testimonial
Dinner to benefit some pressing cause,
    Old actors or the Ragged Schools,
        Reforming prostitutes,
    Clean water and less filthy air
        (His ceremonial
Issues were native, not colonial),
             To torch the fools’
                 Dumb laws
        (Sunday restrictions) where
    Flammable, drain the worst cesspools,
    Build decent housing (Columbia Square),
             Rhetorical tools
Full bore, “Thanks to you all, thanks to Miss Coutts,”
A last drumroll, the punchline, the applause,

Though for long stretches he would spend his days
On one consuming project (still in his prime,
    Or so he thought, strength could be found,
        Plus he had many bills),
    Like editing a magazine
        For fiction, reviews of plays,
Opinionated letters, brave essays
             To clear the ground,
                 The grime,
        The soot, to fix the scene,
    So Household Words, then All the Year Round
    Would flash together, burnished clean
             And market-bound,
With help from his assistant, W. H. Wills,
Another number, ship-shape, out on time,

Or dragging his Dramatic Company
On tour again (no other thrill would suffice—
    He missed the stage lights, burned to go,
        And tickets always sold
    For amateur theatricals
        Where a happy few could see
A cast of odd, esteemed celebrity
             Braving the snow
                 And ice
        To not turn cannibals
    Despite The Frozen Deep), just so
    Feeling would fill the meeting halls
             And only grow
To warm his Wardour, dying in the cold,
Rapt with the ardors of self-sacrifice,

And then there were the constant public readings
That drove and drained him in his latter years,
    So lucrative, he would insist
        He must go on despite
    Exhaustion, bravely take the stage
        For ritual proceedings
(Doctors objected, he ignored their pleadings,
             Proudly dismissed
                 Their fears),
        The great man of the age
    A spectacle (as he’d persist
    The characters leapt off the page)
             Not to be missed,
The desk, the hat, the gloves, the even light,
The sure crescendo, the held breath, the cheers,

All so addictive, apple of every eye,
Charley was their darling, he was adored,
    They found it riveting, sublime,
        Loved the trial in Pickwick,
    Loved to pity the little tykes
        Like Copperfield, whose “I”
Was him, and Tiny Tim, “who did not die”
             This Christmastime
                 (They roared),
        Shuddered in fear when Sikes
    Would finish Nancy one more time
    (She pleads, he lifts the club, he strikes,
             He flees the crime)
As, murderer and murdered, he felt sick,
His body suffered as their spirits soared,

Then, too, because of or despite it all,
The man was always moving, in nervous flight
    From boredom or mortality,
        To witness, sundry-wise,
    The elemental earthly show,
        Summoned by the call
Of roaring water to watch Niagara fall
             All majesty
                 And might
        Shimmer-spanned by rainbow
    After rainbow, ceaselessly
    Crashing a hundred feet below,
             Where he could see
Tremendous ghosts of spray and mist arise,
Veils of the first things, darkness, depth, God, light,

Or drawn to clamber, one sharp winter night,
Accompanied by guides, his pregnant wife,
    Georgina, “Pickle,” a fat stranger,
        Up Mount Vesuvius,
    Intentionally starting late
        To climb in fading light
(He timed it to the moonrise, it was tight)
             Despite all danger
                 To life
        And limb, as if dumb fate
    Were some benevolent arranger,
    Though told they really shouldn’t wait
             He wouldn’t change or
Waver, pressed on (“Good Lord deliver us,”
The sherpas prayed) as wind cut like a knife,

The litters with the women in them veered,
The porters stumbled, cursing, shrieked advice,
    The fat man’s litter wobbled, hovered,
        While, creeping, up they went
    (Descent posed the real risk of falling,
        When Pickle disappeared,
Slipping right down a slope that, as he feared,
             Was slickly covered
                 In ice,
        Wildly cannonballing
    Out of sight, to be recovered),
    To where a smoke-filled, sulfurous, appalling
             Plain discovered
Gigantic cinders, with flakes of fire, hell-sent,
Rained down to scorch an anti-paradise,

And where great sheets of flame streamed forth he must,
True to his own wild way, rashly ascend
    To see the molten crater churning,
        Must crawl right to the brim
    And, singeing, linger there (although
        He found having to trust
His weight to the thinness of the trembling crust
             A touch concerning),
        ed, boiling gulf below,
    Then, giddy, roll back down, returning
    Blackened, smoking from head to toe,
             His clothes still burning,
But all in every moment, being him,
Dickens on fire, as always, right to the end.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 8, on page 29
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