A Literary Anatomy of Fog, Part 1: Dickens


Gerhard Richter: Iceberg in Mist

A glance at a few of my other posts will reveal my obsession with language that is uncertain, blurred, and vague. Ambiguity is too clear for me. I’m less interested in multiple meanings than in language whose meaning shades into nonmeaning—where the reader is confronted with, not alternatives, but a blur that must be acknowledged as such.

So you can imagine my glee last weekend, when quite by coincidence I stumbled onto a couple poems that take fog as their central concern; the next day, two more literary examples came to mind. It was as if I’d been visited by an albatross, “the bird/That brought the fog and mist.“

So over the next few posts, I’d like to wander through this sea of fog—not above it, like the figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, but through it, because, I imagine, the best way to know fog is to get lost in it.

The examples I have in mind engage fog variously, as subject matter, as metaphor, and as a model for the poetic process. I’ll start with the most famous and probably most straightforward example, the almost cinematic opening paragraphs of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

The telegraphese of the opening lines sounds very much like a description from a screenplay: “London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.” Also notice that the first paragraph doesn’t contain a single grammatically complete sentence. Most obviously, there’s the repetition of  the word “fog,” pervasive like fog itself. Finally, in the final paragraph, there are the quasi-redundancies, “The raw afternoon is rawest…” etc. With these simple tools, Dickens captures the dreary scene, vivid in its fogginess, while simultaneously intimating the murky, inefficient bureaucracy of the Court of Chancery.


Up next: Francis Ponge’s "The Trees Delete Themselves Inside a Fog-Sphere”

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