Great prose, or not?

by Mikhail Simkin

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is the worst writer in history of letters. An annual wretched writing contest was established in his honor. In contrast, Charles Dickens is one of the best writers ever. Can you tell the difference between their prose?

Each excerpt below is either from Bulwer-Lytton or from Dickens. After each quote choose the author. Hit the Submit button when done. The quiz will be graded and you will see the correct answers.

It was a dark night, though the full moon rose as I left the enclosed lands, and passed out upon the marshes. Beyond their dark line there was a ribbon of clear sky, hardly broad enough to hold the red large moon. In a few minutes she had ascended out of that clear field, in among the piled mountains of cloud. There was a melancholy wind, and the marshes were very dismal. A stranger would have found them insupportable, and even to me they were so oppressive that I hesitated, half inclined to go back. But, I knew them well, and could have found my way on a far darker night, and had no excuse for returning, being there. So, having come there against my inclination, I went on against it.

1. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

It was one of those nights, half dim, half glorious, which mark the early decline of the year. Nature seemed restless and instinct with change; there were those signs in the atmosphere which leave the most experienced in doubt, whether the morning may rise in storm or sunshine. And in this particular period, the skiey influences seem to tincture the animal life with their own mysterious and wayward spirit of change. The birds desert their summer haunts; an unaccountable inquietude pervades the brute creation; even men in this unsettled season have considered themselves, more (than at others) stirred by the motion and whisperings of their genius. And every creature that flows upon the tide of the Universal Life of Things, feels upon the ruffled surface, the mighty and solemn change, which is at work within its depths.

2. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

It was wretched weather; stormy and wet, stormy and wet; and mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets. Day after day, a vast heavy veil had been driving over London from the East, and it drove still, as if in the East there were an Eternity of cloud and wind. So furious had been the gusts, that high buildings in town had had the lead stripped off their roofs; and in the country, trees had been torn up, and sails of windmills carried away; and gloomy accounts had come in from the coast, of shipwreck and death. Violent blasts of rain had accompanied these rages of wind, and the day just closed as I sat down to read had been the worst of all.

3. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

Much in him was a type, or rather forerunner, of the intellectual spirit that broke forth when we were children, among our countrymen, and is now slowly dying away amidst the loud events and absorbing struggles of the awakening world. But in one respect he stood aloof from all his tribe in his hard indifference to worldly ambition, and his contempt of fame. As some sages have seemed to think the universe a dream, and self the only reality, so in his austere and collected reliance upon his own mind the gathering in, as it were, of his resources, he appeared to consider the pomps of the world as shadows, and the life of his own spirit the only substance. He had built a city and a tower within the Shinar of his own heart, whence he might look forth, unscathed and unmoved, upon the deluge that broke over the rest of earth.

4. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

I was so filled with the play, and with the past - for it was, in a manner, like a shining transparency, through which I saw my earlier life moving along - that I don't know when the figure of a handsome well-formed young man dressed with a tasteful easy negligence which I have reason to remember very well, became a real presence to me. But I recollect being conscious of his company without having noticed his coming in - and my still sitting, musing, over the coffee-room fire.

5. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

In the country of --- there is a sequestered hamlet, which I have often sought occasion to pass, and which I have never left without a certain reluctance and regret. It is not only (though this has a remarkable spell over my imagination) that it is the sanctuary, as it were, of a story which appears to me of a singular and fearful interest; but the scene itself is one which requires no legend to arrest the traveller's attention. I know not in any part of the world, which it has been my lot to visit, a landscape so entirely lovely and picturesque, as that which on every side of the village I speak of, you may survey.

6. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

In every rage of wind and rush of rain, I heard pursuers. Twice, I could have sworn there was a knocking and whispering at the outer door. With these fears upon me, I began either to imagine or recall that I had had mysterious warnings of this man's approach. That, for weeks gone by, I had passed faces in the streets which I had thought like his. That, these likenesses had grown more numerous, as he, coming over the sea, had drawn nearer. That, his wicked spirit had somehow sent these messengers to mine, and that now on this stormy night he was as good as his word, and with me.

7. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

I have had a classical education, seen the world, and mixed in decent society; you, too, had not been long a member of our club before you distinguished yourself above us all. Fortune smiled on your youthful audacity. You grew particular in horses and dress, frequented public haunts, and being a deuced good-looking fellow, with an inborn air of gentility and some sort of education, you became sufficiently well received to acquire in a short time the manner and tone of a - what shall I say? - a gentleman, and the taste to like suitable associates. This is my case too! Despite our labours for the public weal, the ungrateful dogs see that we are above them; a single envious breast is sufficient to give us to the hangman.

8. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

The horseman fell into a reverie, which was broken by the murmur of the sunny rivulet, fretting over each little obstacle it met, the happy and spoiled child of Nature! That murmur rang on the horseman's ear like a voice from his boyhood, how familiar was it, how dear! No tone of music - no haunting air, ever recalled so rushing a host of memories and associations as that simple, restless, everlasting sound! Everlasting! - all had changed,- the trees had sprung up or decayed,--some cottages around were ruins, - some new and unfamiliar ones supplied their place, and on the stranger himself - on all those whom the sound recalled to his heart, Time had been, indeed, at work, but with the same exulting bound and happy voice that little brook leaped along its way.

9. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders' webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village - a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there - was invisible to me until I was quite close under it.

10. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

It was a murky confusion - here and there blotted with a colour like the colour of the smoke from damp fuel - of flying clouds, tossed up into most remarkable heaps, suggesting greater heights in the clouds than there were depths below them to the bottom of the deepest hollows in the earth, through which the wild moon seemed to plunge headlong, as if, in a dread disturbance of the laws of nature, she had lost her way and were frightened. There had been a wind all day; and it was rising then, with an extraordinary great sound. In another hour it had much increased, and the sky was more overcast, and blew hard.

11. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton

Although this work is full of faults,- though the characters are unnatural, the plot utterly improbable, the thoughts hackneyed, and the style ungrammatical,- yet we would by no means discourage the author from proceeding; and in the mean while we confidently recommend his work to the attention of the reading public.

12. Dickens Bulwer-Lytton