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Poetry Dickens Didn't Write

When we were beginning to add verse by Dickens to the Verse collection, we decided, after careful research and thoughtful discussion, to omit five poems occasionally attributed to Dickens. Though these poems, in different ways, have appeared to offer valuable insights into Dickens’s poetic themes and language, we remain unconvinced that he wrote the rhyming verse of a particular piece, composed a poetic structure, or was the author at all. Because Dickens Search prioritises the examination of words by Dickens in as close to their original publication condition as possible, we could not include the following:

1. Lord Bateman (1839)

One of the most hilarious Dickens-affiliated poems I have ever read is 'Lord Bateman' (1839), a collaboration between George Cruikshank, Charles Dickens, and Dickens's brother-in-law Henry Burnett. The idea was not the trio’s own, as it derives from the traditional ballad 'Young Beichan' (Child Ballad 53, with several variants) (Constantine, 192). Like many other English folk songs, it was only recorded in the nineteenth century as interest in the genre intensified.

While the story was old, the Cockney language adopted in the 1839 publication was comically new, transforming the transatlantic love of an English nobleman-adventurer and a Moorish princess from a romance into a farce.

Why not add it?

Oh, we want to, but while Dickens penned the initial prose introduction and deliberately belaboured and conflicting editorial apparatus for the poem, such as notes and asides, it was Cruikshank who wrote the verses and illustrations with Burnett composing the tune.

Thackeray eventually created illustrations for a subsequent version of the poem, published posthumously in 1889, that eliminated the Cockney language (Patten).

While we feel the introduction and notes by Dickens do need to be uploaded and would be incomprehensible without the verse it accompanies, we don’t want another author’s poetry in the collection. Therefore, 'Lord Bateman' will likely be uploaded when we work on Dickens’s introductions or editorial work, rather than his lyric productions.

2. 'Little Nell’s Funeral' (1849)

This one is tricky, because Dickens did write the words, in chapter seventy-two of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). However, he did not write this passage as a poem, but as prose. R.H. Horne turned it into poetry as 'Nelly's Funeral', an example of Dickens's elegant prose in volume 1 of A New Spirit of the Age (1844) (66-67). Retitled, this passage seems to have next appeared in poetic form in the American collection Echoes of Infant Voices (1849), edited by M.A.H., as "Little Nelly's Funeral." Later, it was included in the American anthology series One Hundred Choice Selections in Poetry and Prose (No. 3, 1871) as seen above. The compiler Phineas Garrett argued, 'In its most pathetic and beautiful passages, the prose of Dickens runs easily and naturally into rhyme and meter, and shows him to be a poet no less than a novelist, of high order' (72). Garrett does not contest that Dickens’s original intention was for this scene to function as prose, not poetry per se.

Let us bury 'Little Nell'

Admitting the lyrical quality of this part of Dickens’s 1841 novel, we contend that Dickens did not compose this arrangement himself. If we included it for its lyrical qualities, any section of Dickens’s prose works could be transformed into (and categorised as) a poem, which defeats the purpose of studying his poetry in relation to deliberate participation in the genre. This eloquent prose section will, of course, appear when we upload the entire novel of The Old Curiosity Shop as the serials and first British edition.

3. 'The Children' (1871)

Another poem widely attributed to Dickens in nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals (the first half of which appears above in the 27 September 1879 issue of the Leamington Spa Courier, BNA) was the eight-stanza reflection on parenthood entitled 'The Children'. Eloquently and pathetically, a father reflects on the lessons his children teach him through their expressions of love as they bid him goodnight. The second stanza emphasises his hopes and fears for them:

And when they are gone, I sit dreaming

Of my childhood, too lovely to last;

Of love that my heart will remember

When it wakes to the pulse of the past,

Ere the world and its wickedness made me

A partner of sorrow and sin, -

When the glory of God was about me,

And the glory of gladness within. (47)

Especially following Dickens’s death in 1870, these verses were cherished by devotees as beautifully expressing the author’s fervent Christian faith and concern for his extensive family.

Dickinson, not Dickens

Yet Dickens never actually wrote any part of this poem, which is by the similarly named Charles M. Dickinson (1842-1924), American author of Poems of Home Life (1871), the collection in which 'The Children' initially appeared. Furthermore, Dickens’s son Charles Dickens Jr. obligingly wrote a letter on 29 October 1887 at the request of Dickinson, which emphatically denied both that his father ever wrote the poem and also mocked the 'apocryphal' rumour that it was found in Dickens’s desk after his death (Dickens Jr., 'NOTE'). Dickinson published this letter as an endnote to the later collection rather pointedly entitled The Children and Other Verses (1889).


4. 'The Turtle Dove' (1817?)

Published in the True Sun on 13 March 1832, 'The Turtle Dove' is a poem hilariously parodying Romantic sentiment and extolling the virtues of Warren’s Blacking Polish. To be sung to the tune of 'Jessie, the Flower o’ Dunblane', it begins,

As lonely I sat on a calm summer’s morning,

To breathe the soft incense that flow’s on the wind;

I mus’d on my boots in their bright beauty dawning,

By Warren’s Jet Blacking – the pride of mankind.

Based on its reference to blacking, recalling Dickens’s boyhood toil, and comedic tone, some Dickens scholars have believed this might have been the young Dickens’s first foray into print, predating the short story 'A Dinner at Poplar Walk' (The Monthly Magazine, December 1833). As recently as 2003, John Drew believed he had established that the poem might have been by Dickens.

Little Dickens could not have written it

However, Drew later retracted this claim in a 2013 footnote to the same article, after finding 'The Turtle Dove' published in newspapers from as early as 1817, which are now searchable in online databases. Dickens would have been five at the time of its publication, as discovered by Drew (the example above is from The Hampshire Chronicle, 12 October 1818, BNA). The poem, however, can still be found in anthologies of Dickens's early writing such as The Bill of Fare, O'Thello & Other Early Works (Juvenilia Press).

5. 'Things That Can Never Die' (1862)

Occasionally known by other titles such as 'Things That Never Die' or 'The Pure! The Bright! The Beautiful!', this poem has frequently been attributed to Dickens. Besides being widely republished in British and American newspapers throughout the 1860s and 1870s, it underwent several musical settings during the late nineteenth century. Dramatically warbled from the lips of singers and greeted with rapturous delight by audiences as the actual words of Charles Dickens, this poem touched many with its emphatic message that death cannot eliminate all the delights - and sorrows - of life, love, and spiritual experience.

Dickens edited, but did not write it

However, as blogger Russell A. Potter has previously noted, this poem was actually written by children's author and hymn-writer Sarah Doudney (1841-1926) and published in All the Year Round on 21 June 1862 under the title 'Imperishable,' as seen above. Such was the emotional appeal both of the poem and of its editor, Dickens, that the one soon was attributed to the other, a mistake that continues to be perpetuated among Dickensians. 

So much for the poems we have excluded! The next blog posts will discuss some of Dickens’s actual poetry, including verses performed musically or recited, and new productions we have discovered or made widely available online for the first time.

How to Cite:

Craig, Lydia. 'Poetry Dickens Didn't Write.' Dickens Search. 11 July 2021. Accessed [date]. https://dickenssearch.com/poetry-dickens-didnt-write.

Works Cited

Constantine, Mary-Ann. Fragments and Meaning in Traditional Song: From the Blues to the Baltic. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Dickens Jr., Charles. 'NOTE.' The Children and Other Verses. Cassell & Company, Limited, 1889.

Dickinson, Charles M. 'The Children.' Poems of Home Life. American Tract Society, 1871.

---. The Children and Other Verses. Cassell & Company, Limited, 1889.

Doudney, Sarah. 'Imperishable.' All the Year Round. Edited by Charles Dickens. 21 June 1862.

Horne, R.H. ‘Charles Dickens.' A New Spirit of the Age. Smith, Elder, & Co., 1844.

Garrett, Phineas. 'Little Nell’s Funeral.' One Hundred Choice Selections in Poetry and Prose. No. 3. P. Garrett & Co., 1871.

Patten, Robert. 'Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman, The.' The Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens. Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference. Accessed 9 July 2021. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198662532.001.0001/acref-9780198662532-e-0272.

Potter, Russell A. 'A "poem by Dickens" - not!' 23 April 2018. Epistemophilia (blog): http://epistem-o-philia.blogspot.com/2018/04/the-pure-bright-beautiful.html

'The Turtle Dove.' True Sun (13 March 1832).