Shadowbox: What Immortal Hand Or Eye?

In 1832 there were no Dickens classics.

Dumas had yet to invent The Three Musketeers, The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Man In The Iron Mask – and much of his own mythology into the bargain. Victor Hugo was a journalist, Gaston Leroux not yet born, Jules Verne a mere stripling with no thought of fantastic voyages.Mysteries of London, a Penny Dreadful

Even the Penny Dreadful (such as The Mysteries of London) was yet to slouch into existence.

But literature in 1832 was more than the preserve of just a few well-heeled individuals.

A trade had arisen during the 17th century of chapbooks, hand-printed paperbacks sold from ass-back by travelling pedlars. The rise of the industrialised working class also led to a basic education being delivered to the workers.

And once you learn to read, you want more books.

Comedies of manners; tragedies, based on those who had something to lose; exposure of injustices; tracts against slavery; political attacks; sales pitches; journeys of exploration.

Hand coloured print, about 1830.  © Victoria & Albert Museum, LondonDiscovering the rest of the planet’s multitude of people didn’t stop us from cataloguing their differences, quaint ways and funny customs. All this was entertainment, and the unwritten works of countless theatres, magic-lantern showmen, circus troupes and travelling players must have thrilled with tales of pirates and Hottentots, Egyptian pharaohs and the like (if the stories we have from the High Middle Ages are anything to go by).

Sir Walter Scott died in 1832. Jane Austen had already passed on, and Émile Zola had yet to be born. Victor Hugo had just published Notre Dame de Paris, known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

“Usually, the murmur that rises up from Paris by day is the city talking; in the night it is the city breathing; but here it is the city singing.
Listen, then, to this chorus of bell-towers – diffuse over the whole the murmur of half a million people – the eternal lament of the river – the endless sighing of the wind – the grave and distant quartet of the four forests placed upon the hills, in the distance, like immense organ-pipes – extinguish to a half light all in the central chime that would otherwise be too harsh or too shrill; and then say whether you know of anything in the world more rich, more joyous, more golden, more dazzling, than this tumult of bells and chimes – this furnace of music – these thousands of brazen voices, all singing together in flutes of stone three hundred feet high, than this city which is but one orchestra – this symphony which roars like a tempest.” ― Victor Hugo

But common reference works were fewer. The Bible, the works of Shakespeare (sonnets and all), hymns sung in church and often learned by rote because you’d not be taught how to read, nor write.

Few people in western Europe would have read the Koran, the Mahabharata, or the Art of War – not even those gilded few who went to school or university. You’d have studied Latin, or Greek, reading Homer’s Iliad and the plays of Aristophanes. You’d read Shakespeare, and Chaucer, and Coleridge.

British Library Chaucer ManuscriptSo what of literature in 1832?

What would Louis Beauregard remember by rote, as he lies in his bed in Paris, sleepless with remorse?

…Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy dead in silence like to death…
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Grief

Fear death? – to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin…
– Robert Browning, Prospice

Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear:
And one to me are shame and fame.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brahma

Chatterton, oil on canvas by Henry Wallis, 1856 (c) Tate Gallery

Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: Dreadful Symmetry.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email.


  1. “Tyger, tyger, burning bright. . .” is the opening stanza of one of my perhaps all-time favorite poems by William Blake. So perfectly did he capture the essence of the most mighty of the apex predators with the beauty of his language.

    It wasn’t until I was sufficiently mauled in public by my Jesuit masters in high school, that I finally began to develop an appreciation for poetry, as I felt it to be too squishy in its meaning. Or maybe I was being deliberately obtuse. My teachers, in their wisdom, taught me how to think and later on, I discovered an unholy passion for D. H. Lawrence’s poetry, so sublime in his language and descriptive, as to be wholly erotic, whilst everyone in the room keeps their clothes on. A neat trick.

    Reading Dickens, Shakespeare, Bacon, Voltaire, Dostoevsky, Gogol, is also an attempt to know the people who inhabit those countries of origin. The richness and splendor of English literature, when it jumped the pond, landed squarely in the Colonies, but migrated first to the Deep South, I believe. You probably know all of this; you constantly amaze me with your knowledge; I love reading about the time of Louis Beauregard! Thank you!

    • Thanks! Although I have to admit the knowledge isn’t all mine – it’s the skill acquired through an archaeology degree, reading widely to bring together supporting statements for essays and suchlike. Might as well use that skill on the blog – it would only go to waste otherwise!
      I got hooked on William Blake because of his mysticism, so much more interesting than Wordsworth (who I was studying at the time). Then Yeats, and a much later appreciation of Shelley (who I rate higher than Byron).
      Lawrence, too, lyrical and sublime. Another late favourite is Larkin, whom everyone thinks they know because of his “robust” language…

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: