When I was a kid, I would transcribe poetry and prose that caught my eye or ear or both into journals, over and over sometimes. I would write them in intricate and involved cursive, like a medieval monk copying the Bible. As a consequence, certain lines of literature are embedded in my psyche.

Chapter Three of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, titled “The Night Shadows,” begins with a passage that was revelatory when I read it in high school. It rang my bell. I resonated with the images and with the ideas because other people did seem inscrutably mysterious to me – one of the reasons perspective in writing craft interests me.

The passage doesn’t fit. It disrupts the flow of the narrative, abruptly shifting from third-person point of view to first. It’s the only instance of this slip of the authorial mask in the story.

It jarred me.

I remember that even though it was decadessssss ago. As in multiple of them.

It jarred me because I’d only just been riding along with Mr. Jarvis Lorry and Jerry Cruncher on their way to Dover in Chapter Two, and then, at the top of Chapter Three, comes Mr. Dickens, lamenting the loss of loved ones, reflecting on the eternal enigma of individuality, emphasizing the inscrutable nature of other people and his own hidden self in relation to them.

He spoke to me. Directly to me.

I’m not sure I’d ever experienced that before in literature, or at least it never registered, though my grandmother’s bedtime stories were always from her to me, and she frequently included me as a character, instilling in me an early love of the meta. Maybe that’s why I’ve always enjoyed chummy authors who welcome me into their stories.

Dickens knew the awfulness of feeling alone, cut off, knew the creeping sensation that others are destined to remain enigmas despite your best efforts to understand them, and so he interrupts his story about the best of times and the worst of times to confide in me, personally, “Just between you and me, we’re all lonely. Cherish those mysterious others who choose to be lonely with you.”

I can see the influence of this passage in my current WIP Queen Hag. At the heart of my protagonist Savvy’s horror is her inability to see the world as the people around her do, her suspicion that she is missing something that they intuitively understand, and her fear that she is fundamentally unequipped to fix that flaw, to her detriment. She’s haunted by the mystery of others. And mystery is at the heart of all our fears.

From Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Chapter 3, “The Night Shadows”

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

What about you? Do you have any poems or passages that live rent-free in your head? Tell me in the comments or email me at holler@autumnthewriter.com.