A Tale of Two Cities

(Warning: plot spoiler!)

I finished re-reading A Tale of Two Cities the other night. Reading it took a bit of effort sometimes, but it was worth it in the end!

It’s not lightweight, either in size or in content. Dickens isn’t known for his brevity! From my experience, there is also always an element of darkness in his books, and always an element of the grotesque and the unpleasant. In A Tale of Two Cities, evil is on prominent display. Wading through many words, and wading through much ugliness, can take effort.

It’s certainly not all hard work, however. For one thing, Dickens has a sense of humour, which adds sparkle to his writing. Here’s a little gem for you: “Mr Cruncher himself always spoke of the year of our Lord as Anna Dominoes: apparently under the impression that the Christian era dated from the invention of a popular game, by a lady who had bestowed her name upon it.”

Moreover, Dickens knows how to tell a good story (even if it sometimes requires wading). In fact, being Dickens, he is not content to weave a simple story with a few characters.  A lot is going on, and somehow it’s all tied together. Mr Cruncher’s “fishing” may seem like an unconnected aside, but it, too, has its part to play in time….

Evil doesn’t have a pretty face in A Tale of Two Cities. You can see the indefensible way in which the nobility treated the poor, see the lives those masses had to live, lives that were scarcely worth living, and yet not condone the revolution that ensued, but turn from it, too, as if with a shudder. And that, I think, is what Dickens intended. He is clear that the evils of the revolution are the direct result of the evils before the revolution, but that such results cannot be condoned any more than the previous evils could be. I think that in life one of the bad effects of a messy, sin-filled situation is the temptation to respond to it with something else that’s wrong, just wrong in a different way. A Tale of Two Cities shows just how disastrous giving in to that temptation can be. 

But in the midst of all the evil–both the general evils of the revolution and the specific evils of twisted individuals–there are characters to warm to, characters who are praiseworthy. There is one in particular who touches me, one whose story crowns A Tale of Two Cities: Sydney Carton. Carton, that dissolute man with the devil-may-care attitude, that “man of  good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.” The man who loves Lucie Manette but who knows—quite rightly—that he is unworthy to ask for her love in return. But the man whose sad, wasted life eventually ends in an explosion of glory as he gives his life to save the life of Lucie’s husband. I can’t do justice to Dickens’ storytelling in attempting to explain it myself. The end didn’t take me by surprise, but it still brought tears.

So, A Tale of Two Cities isn’t a lightweight story. But it is a vivid portrayal of humanity at its vilest and its noblest, and its depiction of the horror of that evil, and the beauty of that good, makes it worthwhile indeed.

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Prayer: Two Poems

Fear not. These have not been written by me!

Instead, they come from the pens of two great British poets–men who are famous, and rightly so.

The first in an excerpt from Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). He was Poet Laureate, so he knew what he was doing when he wielded that pen of his. I leap straight from that, however, into confessing that I have not read Idylls of the King. I have, however, been familiar with this excerpt from it since I was twelve. Or thereabouts. It’s a striking description of the importance of prayer.

More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.

For what are men better than sheep or goats

That nourish a blind life within the brain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer

Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

For so the whole round earth is every way

Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

Isn’t that beautiful? And convicting? “More things are wrought by prayer/Than this world dreams of”.

The image of the fountain is so fitting. A fountain is constant. Every morning finds it lifting up its water to the heavens; every evening finds its water splashing into the pool below, while more rises. A fountain doesn’t have on days and off days. It doesn’t promise that its water will rise and fall this week, only to get to the end of the week and realise that it hasn’t.

I’ve had to refresh my memory when it comes to metrical patterns and form. Having done so, I can now tell you (in case you were wondering) that this poem is written in iambic pentameter, which means that it follows a pattern of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable and that that pattern repeats itself five times in every line. If we put the stressed syllables in bold typeface, the second line would look like this:  “Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice“.  If you think that there’s something different about the first line, you’re quite right. It only has three pairs of syllables, not five, because the excerpt has actually broken into the middle of a line. Even though the poem is unrhymed, or blank, the rhythm keeps you going and gives that sense of satisfaction and completion.

The second poem is quite different. Here, we’re leaping back a couple of centuries to George Herbert (1593-1633), an Anglican priest and poet (good combination, that). If the previous poem tells us what prayer does, this one tells us what prayer is:

Prayer (I)

Prayer, the church’s banquet, angel’s age,

God’s breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth

Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six-days world transposing in an hour,

A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

Exalted manna, gladness of the best,

Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,

The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,

The land of spices; something understood.

Different, but so beautiful. And all he’s doing (all–oh the irony) is giving us a list–chiming off vivid descriptions, metaphors, of prayer. “The soul in paraphrase”–isn’t that striking and lovely?

You can see the difference between the two poems not only in content, but also in poetic form. I believe this second one is an English sonnet, which means that it has fourteen lines and follows the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg.  So, lines one and three rhyme with each other (“age” and “pilgrimage”) as do lines two and four (“birth” and “earth”), and the next two groups of four lines also rhyme that way within themselves–in theory, anyway! I think Herbert does something different with the rhyme scheme in lines 9-12. The last two lines, evidently much less social creatures, just rhyme with each other.

As to the rhythm, broadly speaking this too is following iambic pentameter in terms of the stressed and unstressed beats, although when I was sounding it out, it didn’t seem perfect, and Wikipedia kindly confirmed for me that while English sonnets do generally follow iambic pentameter, some degree of latitude is permitted. We won’t begrudge Mr Herbert that poetic leeway.

My favourite part of this poem is right at the end–“Something understood”. That pause just before it, where the semicolon is, makes for such a feeling of completion when I get to those last two words. Yes, this is just where it should end. It doesn’t need a word more or less. It’s perfect.

Unlike our actual prayers, which are often halting and incomplete and misguided and far from “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss”. But God still understands. Is it God’s understanding that Herbert is referring to in those last words? I don’t know. Either way, it’s true.

And if I have done nothing else, at least you now know that Gerald Manley Hopkins isn’t the only poet I enjoy!

Death by Living

I was looking forward to reading N.D. Wilson’s latest, Death by Living: Life is Meant to be Spent. A lot. I’d previously read his Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, and neither before or since had I read a book quite like it–a book that amused me and surprised me and I think slightly shocked me in places, and that used words in glittering ways and that showed beauty and that required the services of my underlining pencil. (That was a lot of “ands”.) So when some dear friends bought me Death by Living as a birthday gift, I was happy. Very.

Life is meant to be spent. Spent, not hoarded. Sacrificed, poured out, like Mary’s alabaster jar. Lived, with fierce enthusiasm and deep gratitude, towards God and towards others.

Christian Living 101, right?

Kind of.

You may not have read it quite like this before. And not just because Wilson is a pro when it comes to using words–his writing is captivating and a far cry from “anaesthetic writing” (Orwell’s term)–but because he can paint a picture of the beauty of living life this way, and because he can hit hard. And he’s funny and sometimes random and he likes parenthetical comments (as do I).

It’s a book of memories–of thanksgivings for long-past deliverances, of cities and grandparents and little children who love stories. Wilson weaves thoughts and stories, in and out, in and out.

I loved Death by Living, although I wasn’t as dazzled by it as I was by Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. I think that was partly because this time I knew what to expect of the authorial hands that I was in. I had buckled my seatbelt before the ride this time. Nor did I underline as many parts. There was more narrative and there was less that jumped out at me, but what did jump out at me, was relevant–in a way, too relevant.

If I had read it when my little boat of life was gently floating along a quiet stream with me reclining inside threading a daisy chain, perhaps I would have been enthused when I put it down. Instead, I ached.

Because life hasn’t been just so easy recently. I finished Death by Living knowing something of how strenuous it would be to put into practice. I so often want to hoard my life, to look after my own self-interests, to preserve my right to whine when life is hard, to “get through” grimly rather than with joy. So when I finished, I felt I was yearning for the beauty, but drawing back from the fight. Hence, I think, the ache.

But it’s not possible to have the one without the other. One can’t have the joy and beauty of a life poured out, a life of thanksgiving and laughter, without dying to self again and again.

What Wilson says about life is true, I know.

Or do I?

Wilson would disagree:

If you think it, live it. If you don’t live it, you don’t really think it. You are not what you think (or what you think you think). You are not what you say you are. You are what you do. You are Adam, charged to name yourself. But you cannot do it with words made noise–only with words made flesh.

Ouch.

And when he says something like this:

When faced with unpleasantness (trouble) there are only two ultimate responses (with many variations). On the one hand, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” On the other, “Curse God and die.” Variations on the latter can include whining, moping, self-pity, apathy, or rage. Variations of the former can include laughter, song, retellings, and an energetic attack of obstacles.

If God gives you (or makes you) a joke, what are you meant to do in response? (Receive it. Laugh.)

If God gives you an obstacle, what are you meant to do in response? (Receive it, Climb it. Then laugh.)

If God gives you more profound hardship, what are you meant to do in response? (Receive it. Climb it. Then Laugh. Exhibit A: His Son.)

then I know I need grace. Much of it.

(And don’t we all?)

Wilson doesn’t pretend that death by living isn’t hard. But he knows that it’s worth it.

Name that Friend

It was a spur-of-the-moment comment. The sort of thing that one says in a lighthearted conversation. But the sequels of delight that ensued were rather more of an excited reaction that I had anticipated.

My friend and I had been talking about my blog. I’d left a little comment just for her in a previous post. I hadn’t used her name, I explained as we talked, because I’m trying to avoid giving away too many personal details here, tiny though my corner of the internet is. It was then that I suggested giving her a pseudonym. She didn’t just squeal–she leaped around.

Well, after that, what could I do? A pseudonym she clearly must have. But what?

I could have re-christen her by simply picking a somewhat random first name. Anne. Rebekah. Phoebe. But that’s a bit strange. It needed to have some meaning behind it.

How about something literary? What Jane Austen character is she most like?

I thought about Jane. I think this particular friend is rather more outgoing that Jane (ok, she’s definitely more outgoing than Jane), but, like Jane, she has a tendency to think well of people. I tease her that she can never meet someone whom she doesn’t think is “lovely.” Furthermore, I could say to her, as Lizzy said to Jane, “Till I have your goodness, I can never have your happiness.” But still, I thought, Jane is a plain name. Safe, it’s true, but not very exciting.

Perhaps something a bit more fantastic? Lady So-and-So? The Duchess of Somewhere?

I wasn’t not convinced.

Maybe I could throw in some Latin, for a sophisticated feel? It seemed to work for my blog title. A brief foray on google translate, however, was not promising.

Shall I tell you what I wanted to call her? Promise you won’t snigger? I admit it does sound like the sort of name a six-year-old would think of, but it stuck in my head.

Sparkle.

I know, I know.

But why?

Because she really does sparkle. She has a joyful heart, and it shows.

Because she adds a sparkle to my life. (Oh, so much.)

And so, I thought, it fitted her–it fitted her like my ring fits my finger.

But a little doubt remained. What if she didn’t think it was a good fit? Ought I to run the risk of announcing her new name to the world, only to find out that she didn’t actually like it? I wanted to surprise  her, but in the end I thought it was more important to make sure she was happy with her name.

We laughed as we talked about possibilities this evening. Names were suggested. Names were ruled out. She seemed ok with Jane, and she said she had warmed to Sparkle, but she didn’t seem to love either of them. We kept them in the list, however, throughout our deliberations, and in the end, those two names remained, along with one more: Samantha. She’d suggested Sam, Frodo’s loyal sidekick, and I’d decided it needed to be more distinctively feminine.

And so this is what we came up with: SJ. The S can stand for both Samantha and Sparkle, and the J for Jane.

She liked it. I liked it.

And so, I’d like to introduce you to SJ. She’s already popped up briefly on my blog here and here, and now here she is again–a post of her own, a name of her own. A friend I’m so thankful to have.