Some Aspects of De Quincey

ONE good test to apply to an author is to read his works continuously, and take in a new sense the “ benefit of the doubt” which a rapid succession and contrast of one’s moods in reading must excite. In De Quincey, topics so numerous and so widely separated are discussed with such diatonic changes of manner and feeling that this test becomes unusually stimulating and useful. If we take the Confessions of an OpiumEater and follow it with, for example, the essay on Shakespeare, then pursue the fortunes of the Spanish Nun, and wind up with a careful reading of the Logic of Political Economy, we shall come away with a dazzling impression of De Quincey’s range as a thinker, a student, and a writer. But this impression does not grow proportionately stronger on reviewing the whole bulk of his writings. We gradually lose faith in the comprehensiveness which at first seemed so positive and radical a characteristic. We observe, also, that he repeats himself, that he covers large spaces with a very thin integument of thought, or with a sham, apparitional kind of humor, and that his monotony has not the charm of that other monotony belonging to the styles of more creative writers. To acknowledge this is by no means to belittle De Quincey’s claims to our remembrance, but it enables us to define some things concerning him more clearly, perhaps, than they have usually been defined.

The new Riverside edition 1 of Thom as De Quincey’s writings, which is a rearrangement of the old American issue in a multitude of volumes, places them before us in a form so greatly improved as to remind one how much an author may gain or lose by the manner of his mere physical presentation to the public. Under the new distribution the first three volumes are wholly autobiographic, including the Confessions; and the fourth comprises all the purely literary criticism excepting those chapters collected in the fifth under the head of The Eighteenth Century. Then follow in due order, each group filling one volume: Biographical and Historical Essays; Ancient History; Christianity, Paganism, and Superstition; Essays in Philosophy; Politics and Political Economy. The eleventh and twelfth volumes are assigned to Romances and Extravaganzas, and to Narrative and Miscellaneous Papers. One essay is omitted which old readers of De Quincey will perhaps be sorry to lose, that on The Traditions of the Rabbins; but as it was not written by De Quincey this is not a very serious privation. The former editor, who had to unearth many anonymous magazine articles really the work of De Quincey, was persuaded that this was also his; and after it was put into the collection and credited to him, De Quincey agreed that he must have written it. But record has now been found of the article having been contributed by another person, who also has in his favor the strong presumptive proof of having been paid for it. The gap left by the discarded essay has been filled by a fresh lucubration on Professor Wilson, overlooked by both the Boston and the Edinburgh editors, but hunted up for the present redaction, photographed from the pages of the periodical in which it originally appeared, and by that means transmitted to this country.

Very lately, while this edition of the Works has been in process of completion, a Life of De Quincey,2 authorized by his family and containing large accessions of important matter, has come to supplement our knowledge of him. The frequently reiterated idea that De Quincey had told us all that could be told about himself, and had exhausted analysis in the study of his own history, character, and genius, is somewhat fallacious. He has the appearance of considering himself objectively, but he does not really do so. As I shall presently try to show, much of the misapprehension of De Quincey that has for a long time obtained may be traced to this unfortunate semblance of self-knowledge, supported by great positiveness of statement, but concealing a very imperfect understanding of his own situation on the part of the author. Mr. Page’s biography therefore, which tells its story clearly and thoughtfully, with abundant illustration wholly new, is of great value. It is, in fact, the only complete and comprehensible account of De Quincey that has been given us. Mr. Page’s own analyses are not always as clear and searching as the subject deserves, but he has so disposed his matter, and so thoroughly availed himself of the impressions of those who knew De Quincey best, that we are able to enjoy a fresh and instructive view of a life that has greatly needed some such elucidation.

The relation of opium to De Quincey’s genius and career is of course the main occasion for misconstruction, although the world’s riper judgment will probably be that this has received more attention than it merits. For the undue prominence given to this mixed aspect De Quincey is in part responsible. He came forward in a somewhat difficult double rôle, that of the victim and the apostle of opium; and, being deeply impressed with his opium experiences and not understanding the secret of his own case, he showed great ardor in convincing the public that the operations of his mind must be looked at almost wholly with regard to the part that opium had played in them. After he had succeeded in this, he was rewarded with sharp criticism, open condemnation, or pity for his excesses. Even now, if we rely altogether upon his own exposition, we shall find it difficult to repress a certain amount of irritation, or possibly contempt, however genuine our admiration of his power or our sympathy for his distresses. In the Confessions, it is true, are to be found the cardinal points by which we may come to a right conclusion as to his opium-eating habit; but the contradiction in his statement of the motives for writing about it, the rhapsodical celebration of opium in which he indulges, and the evidences of relapse into subjection to it are forever misleading one. First, he dilates upon the Pleasures of Opium, — “just, subtile, and mighty opium,” as he calls it. “ The opium-eater,” he assures us, “feels that the diviner part of his nature is paramount; that is, the moral affections are in a state of cloudless serenity, and over all is the great light of the majestic intellect.” He afterward describes the Pains of Opium, but this reverse of the medal is as artistically molded as the obverse, and fascinates as much. It is the scenic grandeur of the horror which the writer endured that absorbs him and attracts the reader. The two things go together ; the exaltation and the despair are complemental. There would be nothing to criticise in the fact that both are wrought out with due skill; but De Quincey makes a place for criticism by complicating the theme with moral suggestions, and then disregarding them. He congratulates himself at one time that he has resisted any temptation to injure “ the impression of the history itself” or even “its effect as a composition” by “any such unaffecting details as an appeal to the unconfirmed opium-eater. . . . Not the opium-eater but the opium is the true hero of the tale.” At other times he would have us believe that he undertook the Confessions solely with the intention of clearing away the gross errors of physicians with regard to opium; and then again he says that he had no purpose at all of dealing with the powers of opium over bodily disease. Finally, after the above-mentioned self-gratulation on his having nothing to do with warning the unconfirmed opium - eater, he announces that the “ moral” of the Confessions will be found at the end.

At first there was to be no moral; now we are to have one, after all; and what does it turn out to be? Simply this: “ The moral of the narrative is addressed to the opium-eater. . . . If he is taught to fear and tremble, enough has been effected.” There is still another contradiction; for, notwithstanding that the opium-eater was to fear and tremble after reading the Confessions, De Quincey in the preface to those same Confessions, speaking of the increasing use of opium among the working people of England, entirely dissented from the opinion that its spread was in the nature of a misfortune, and thought it would be much better for the laborers to partake the “ divine luxuries of opium ” than to resort to liquor. Thirty years later be made a short addition to this preface, having forgotten about the moral, and therein declared distinctly that his purpose in the Confessions was only to emblazon the power of opium over the grand and shadowy world of dreams. When to these vacillations in regard to the moral purpose, and the lurking tone of scorn for the whole moral phase, we add the discovery made in the appendix that the author’s assumption of self-conquest was based on a merely temporary abstinence from opium, terminating in a horrible relapse, we lose patience, and are inclined to make reflections very discreditable to him. In others of his writings so often a specious and sometimes sound reasoner, it is evident that here De Quincey is saturated with the opiate influence, and unable to bring it into clear relations before his mind. He loves it, he loathes it, at alternate moments; then for a time loses himself in analyzing its effects; and once more finds himself undecided how to regard it. This, I say, is the result of Do Quincey’s own showing, even with the welldisposed and candid reader; and others, less anxious to understand him, would have some excuse for their failure. These annoying impressions are not altogether removed by Mr. Page’s account of the author, suave and charitable as it is. But the uncomfortable problem is at least reduced to its simplest terms by Surgeon-Major Eatwell’s Medical View of Mr. De Quincey’s Case, accompanying the Life as an appendix.

Charles Lamb, in his punning way, once observed that De Quincey — who was apt to dwell on his maladies in conversation — ought to have chosen “ Pain and Fuss” (Payne and Foss) for his publishers; and De Quincey himself manifests a certain humiliation, which he turns off humorously, at having to make his first claim to public attention on the score of bodily ailments. De Quincey is hardly the first eminent author who has entered literature partly with the assistance of disease; but probably of no other could it be said with severe truthfulness that he cannot be thoroughly understood without a survey of the state of his stomach. This assertion may appear absurd, or possibly cynical; but the subject is far enough from admitting of ridicule. The physiological key not only lets us into a better scrutiny of De Quincey’s mind, but it also, as Dr. Eatwell says, “removes his case from the region of ethics into that of therapeutics.”

De Quincey alludes once to his own health as being exquisite, but in a chapter of his Autobiography he suddenly refers to his “constitutional despondency ” as to something fully understood, though the expression surprises one when taken with his previous account of himself. It is to be observed further that his sister Elizabeth, who holds so large a place in his dreams, died of hydrocephalus when nine years old. The cataleptic trance into which her brother fell when he had made his way to the side of her dead body is an evidence of his sensitive brain-organization; and Dr. Eatwell dwells particularly on one part of De Quincey’s recollections of childhood as curiously showing the condition of his will. Thomas and his elder brother “Pinkey,” by way of entertainment, habitually imagined themselves the kings of two rival countries, Tigrosylvania and Gombroon, of which Thomas ruled the second. The ingenious elder brother, having got hold of Lord Monboddo’s theory, told Thomas that the people in Gombroon were not as yet so far developed as the Tigrosylvanians, and that they still carried tails, like monkeys. He therefore, “ with an air of consolation,” suggested to the unhappy young monarch of Gombroon that he “ might even now, without an hour’s delay, compel the whole nation to sit down for six hours a day ” by way of “ making a beginning.” But the thought that he was the king of a people having tails, and the prospect of that “ slow, slow process by which, in the course of many centuries, their posterity might rub them off” was to the boy Thomas De Quincey—so he tells us—“the worst form of despair.” “ I had contracted obligations to Gombroon,” he says. “ My will had no autocratic power ” to shake them off. This loss of control over the will bordered on fixed delusion or insanity. De Quincey’s father, dying as a consumptive, is described by the son as wandering much in mind and talking with persons whom he imagined to be present; and an account of Thomas De Quincey’s death, first printed in The Atlantic Monthly (1863) and now reproduced in Mr. Page’s Life, discloses the same circumstance as attending his last moments. Furthermore, the opiumeater’s eldest son, a boy of great intellectual promise, died at eighteen of a brain disorder which excited special discussion in medical journals. We may draw from the grandfather to the grandson a line representing morbid tendency in the brain, and the son must take his place between them on the same line. It was that tendency which gave him his “ constitutional determination to reverie.” Dr. Eatwell shows pretty conclusively that “ opium cannot communicate to the brain any power or faculty of which it is not already possessed,” and that De Quincey’s reason for supposing that it heightened the moral affections and sharpened the light of the intellect was that it relieved him from the overpowering and thought-annulling pressure of pain from another source. This source was a complicated disease of the stomach,—gastrodynia, which is a neuralgic trouble, being combined with ulceration. Gastrodynia, Dr. Eatwell informs us, prevails to such an extent among the Hindoos, living on vegetable food, that they are often driven by it to suicide. Cullen and Chapman, whom he does not cite, speak of its presence among the peasantry of Continental Europe as due to the constant use of vegetables and brown bread; and in the United States it has been attributed to the too frequent substitution of tea and coffee for meat, in the diet of many persons. Now De Quincey, already in ill health from too sedentary a life when he ran away from his Manchester school, in 1801, sustained himself chiefly by tea and coffee, in order to avoid expense, during his wanderings in Wales just after that escapade. When his money sank still lower, he for some weeks subsisted upon wild berries, meantime sleeping in the open air, under the shelter of a slight tent. This crude diet of raw berries might very easily, with the previous aggravations and assisted by the exposure of sleeping out-of-doors, have begun a serious disorder; and Dr. Eatwell is of opinion that it led to this same gastrodynia, known to physicians as originating from similar causes. It was soon after leaving Wales and going to London that, being obliged to endure excessive hunger, De Quincey began to have that horrible “gnawing” pain in the stomach which continued to agonize him at intervals through many years, and to relieve which he gradually formed the habit of taking opium. His first trial of the drug was quite fortuitous, having been made on the recommendation of an apothecary, to soothe what De Quincey describes as “ rheumatic pains ” in the head. But it happens that opium is the one sure specific for that ulcer of the stomach which was already torturing him, and that it has been prescribed for this purpose by high scientific authority. “ Simple gastric ulcer” Dr. Eatwell speaks of as “capable of cure under favorable conditions, yet liable to recur under any error in diet. ” The quantity of opium which De Quincey took has actually been exceeded even in the skilled treatment of other cases of the same disease; his mistake seems to have been that he did not put himself under constant medical care, and that he let the mere intrinsic pleasure of opium-taking mislead him into a reckless irregularity. But he who when a boy could submit himself so entirely to a chimera as to suffer positive anguish, long-continued, from his brother’s taunts at the Gombroonians, may easily be forgiven yielding to a constitutional infirmity of will in this case: to such a mind the marvel and the blandishment of the dreams which opium stimulated would furnish a temptation hardly to be resisted, — not to mention the physical compulsion which habitual surrender establishes. De Quincey himself frankly accepts Professor Wilson’s characterization of him as a hedonist, or seeker of pleasure. “ But in his case,” Mr. Page justly explains, “ the pleasure, if sensuous in its forms, was valued for the poetical or spiritual suggestions with which they were charged.” More than this, De Quincey’s admission that he was “little capable of encountering present pain for the sake of any reversionary benefit” can hardly be received as fair to himself.

In his tremendous though ill-managed struggles to throw off the tyranny of opium, and to a greater degree in his resolute and constant literary exertions amid the discouragements of incessant illness, De Quincey showed an admirable force of will and great power of encountering “present discomfort and pain ” for the sake of those who were dependent on him. A gentleman of leisure, a scholar projecting philosophical works, and with no purpose of becoming a writer for money, he was thrown suddenly on his own resources by the loss of his small competence after his marriage. It was then that he went up to London and, while still “unwinding the links of the accursed chain” that bound him in the spells of opium, made his first efforts as a magazinist; and for nearly forty years more he continued the battle with wonderful courage and vigor, notwithstanding the unconquerable nervous derangement which at times made it almost impossible for him to write at all. It is extremely pathetic to read of his labors in supervising the publication of his collected works, when he was seventy-two years old. All his experience appears to have taught him nothing about the peculiar operations and exactions of the press, and he is therefore in constant excitement and confusion. “It kills me to write notes. . . . I am sunk in feebleness and exhaustion.” So he writes to his publisher; yet he sends a perfect cloud of brief missives relating to all sorts of perplexities into which he has fallen as to the work in hand. He finds he has been busy with the wrong part, and that the printers are kept waiting; then he enters into long explanations, thinking that the printers can leave a gap in the volume and go on with later pages while he is filling it up. He gives such over-elaborate and involved illustrations on the proofs that he entirely obscures his meaning, and has to write a note of elucidation. In the midst of all he has attacks of illness and delirium; he loses the article which is under revision and has to search for hours in the wilderness of his papers, although the act of stooping always makes him very ill. On another occasion he scribbles hurriedly: “I have been next to distraction all day long, having been up and writing all night. I have just set fire to my hair.” This note is so badly written that he has to copy it, and in looking over the first draft, after the other has gone, he is distressed to find that something in it may be construed to the disadvantage of the printer’s boy who carried it; hence he is good enough to write another, longer message exculpating the messenger. It is hardly credible that he should have weathered so many difficulties; yet even at this time he would occasionally produce by a spurt of additional effort a fresh magazine article, entirely apart from the work of revision; and nothing is more remarkable than the unfailing amiability and consideration which he shows throughout these petty trials. He put a great many needless hindrances in his own way by his kindly or care-

less customs, one of which was invariably to assist the beggars, who learned to apply to him in great numbers. This, of course, made inroads upon his income, and entailed the necessity of all the more exertion to meet his current expenses. Another habit which must have cost him heavily in time as well as money was that of accumulating unlimited piles of papers sacred from the touch of any arranging or classifying finger. He had a Chinese veneration for all printed matter, and allowed newspapers, pamphlets, and manuscripts to collect until by a gradual process of “papering” or “snowing up,” as he called it, the whole area of his room would be occupied, excepting a small path from the door to the fire-place and another to his desk. When things had reached this pass he would, if in lodgings, turn the key and go off, leaving the deposit there for the rest of his life. When he died, there were found no less than six of these hired treasure-houses in Edinburgh and Glasgow, for which he had been paying rent for years; and he would no doubt have driven himself out of his cottage at Lasswade also, had his family not been careful to sweep the ocean of his papers back into his own study whenever it began to encroach upon other parts of the house. Eccentricities like these may be called unmanly, a criticism which has in fact been made in a recent notice of Mr. Page’s book, but it is truer and wiser to remember that De Quincey’s bodily infirmities furnished an ample explanation of them. It is an unfair overlooking of the main issue to pass strictures on these slight peculiarities and omit to lay emphasis on his almost constant amiability and gentleness, his resolute and successful maintenance of his family in the face of difficulties so great that few men could have overcome them, and his honorable scrupulosity about debt. When Crabb Robinson first met De Quincey he made an observation not mentioned in the Life, which is pertinent here. “ Like myself,” wrote Robinson in his diary, “he is an enthusiast for Wordsworth. His person is small, his complexion fair, and his air and manner those of a sickly and enfeebled man. From this circumstance his sensibility, which I have no doubt is genuine, is in danger of being mistaken for effeminateness.” It will be well also to keep this danger of misconstruction in mind when we find ourselves annoyed by recurring symptoms of weakness in De Quincey’s writings. Even the docile Crabb Robinson could not preserve his patience, in later years, after De Quincey’s disappointment in Wordsworth, and referred to “ his scandalous but painfully interesting Autobiography” with an air of superiority. Miss Martineau was equally irritated by De Quincey’s attitude in regard to the illustrious poet, and evidently colored with this prejudice her biographical notice of him published in the London Daily News, which is certainly not less disagreeable than the account of Wordsworth published by De Quincey. It cannot be called a dignified action on De Quincey’s part to blazon abroad the details that he did as to Wordsworth’s defects of personal appearance and the rest of it ; but violated taste, in this instance, served to secure strong presentation for a bitter but useful truth, namely, that the literary idol cannot always bow down to the worshiper, and that even very moderate expectations on the latter’s part are likely not to be fulfilled. De Quincey undoubtedly bad peculiar claims on Wordsworth: he had written to him while yet a boy, and at a time when enthusiastic appreciation was a rare boon and must have been an important aid to the poet; he had received a reply and been urged to come to the Lakes; and when he went thither, years afterward, to live, he not unreasonably looked forward to a cordial and perfect understanding and a long, unshadowed friendship. But there is nothing so much like the disappointments of literary men in each other, when there is any ardor in the feeling of either, as the griefs that come to a man and woman who love and are defeated in their love. These two men were in many ways widely opposed; and De Quincey, being the more feminine, felt almost the acute misery of a woman’s unrequited passion, when at last the alienation had come. What caused that alienation it is difficult to make out in all particulars. De Quincey curiously complains of female influence, attributing a secret ill-feeling on the part of the Wordsworths to idle remarks made by a housekeeper of his who put him in a false light before his friends at Allan Bank. But there are many little circumstances unrecorded, hardly noticeable, perhaps, that played an important part in the affair. De Quincey regarded Wordsworth as “the man whom of all since the flood ” he most yearned to behold, but when he came to know him he was disturbed by the stern intellectual quality, the “harsh, ascetic sublimity,” that prevailed in the Laureate’s organization and demeanor. Furthermore, he confesses that he could never have been a “humble admirer,” and, feeling a sense of equality in spite of the trembling awe with which he approached the poet, he was probably shocked by a resoluteness of assertion in Wordsworth which impressed him as arrogant. It is not inconceivable that Wordsworth, on the other hand, may have met with something in his devotee that struck him as presumption ; and it is quite clear that he must often have been annoyed by that restless sensibility in De Quincey which Crabb Robinson, as we have seen, especially noticed as very likely to call forth adverse criticism. Perhaps the fundamental unlikeness of the two men cannot be more broadly exhibited than in their modes of meeting the death of Kate Wordsworth, the poet’s little daughter. Wordsworth’s manner of taking this affliction, which did not disturb his usual course of life, may be traced in the twenty-ninth of his Miscellaneous Sonnets, —

“ Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind,”

and again in the forty-ninth. The first is a graceful, softened impression of bereavement put into satisfying artistic form. The second culminates with a maxim that in its dryness and calm prudence excites a feeling of impatience: —

“In all men sinful is it to be slow To hope, iu parents sinful above all.”

How the loss affected De Quincey, what uncontrollable grief for a season overwhelmed him, he has told in his Autobiographic Sketches. The child died suddenly, having gone to bed in seemingly good health, and breathed her last at dawn. “ Never, perhaps,” writes De Quincey, “from the foundation of those mighty hills, was there so fierce a convulsion of grief as mastered my faculties on receiving that heart-shattering news.

. . . I returned hastily to Grasmere; stretched myself every night for more than two months running upon her grave; in fact, often passed the night upon her grave . . . in mere intensity of sick, frantic yearning after the darling of my heart.” His brain and eye were so affected that he was haunted with a perfect image of the child constantly shaping itself out of natural objects at a little distance; he fell into a strange nervous sickness, under which, if continued, he felt that life could not be borne; was obliged to travel for his health ; and recovered only after four months of agony. On an occasion like this their very differences might have formed a source of mutually sympathetic accord between Wordsworth and his friend; but in many other cases they would repel, and when the breach was once made, a mass of trivial prejudices might enter in to widen it, giving weight to incidents like that of Wordsworth’s treatment of an uncut edition of Burke, in De Quincey’s library. The poet was taking tea there, and caught sight of the volumes. Looking about for something to open the leaves with, he took from the table a knife which had been used for buttering toast. After a moment’s hesitation, Wordsworth “ tore his way into the heart of the volume with this knife, that left its greasy honors behind it on every page.” De Quincey professes to have been quite indifferent to the outrage, and to mention it only as showing why Southey, who was extremely fastidious about books, could never have admitted Wordsworth to close intimacy. But it is most probable that he deceived himself, and that the knife left its indelible butyrous stain on De Quincey’s memory with much more serious results than to the pages of Burke. He even got so far in his published reminiscences as to make a fling (a Highland fling, one might call it, since it was sent from Scotland) at “ the Wordsworthian legs ” for being “not ornamental,” and to suggest with intolerable irreverence that the Laureate ought to have had another pair for evening-dress parties. Still, throughout his unpleasantries, De Quincey made no attack on the “ name and fame ” of Wordsworth, as Miss Martineau chose to intimate that he did. One gets an impression adverse to the writer, and hardly by any chance injurious to Wordsworth. Yet, on reflection, we must allow that the belittling of Wordsworth attempted in this gossiping account of him is not carried on sneakingly: at the very start the whole situation is explained, and with the utmost frankness. De Quincey admits that at times he has a sentiment almost of hatred towards his former idol. The whole disquisition on Wordsworth is a cry of passionate regret and wounded love, which others who have kept silence in similar cases ought to understand; and it would be impossible to do De Quincey justice in the matter without taking into account his singular constitution, his almost morbid sensibility, and the unhesitating confidence with which he threw his grievance before the public, not stopping to guard against the appearance of malice. The more one reads De Quincey, the more fixed grows the conviction that one cannot afford for a moment to lose sight of the man’s individuality.

To fill out our conception of this individuality, we must go back briefly to the opium complication. The warrant for the damaging effect of opium on the brain and the digestion dates back at least as far as to Avicenna; and when we read that De Quincey in 1844 distinctly apprehended lunacy from the action of opium, and that his best friends doubted whether he had known since his youth what it was to eat a good dinner, — he himself having sent to an old school-fellow, in 1847, the grim message that he had “ had no dinner since the last century,” — we may form some conception of how desperately he had tampered with himself by the inordinate use of laudanum. Four times he yielded wholly to the temptation: once in 1813-16; then in 1817-18, just after his marriage; a third time in 1824-25, after publishing the Confessions; and lastly in Edinburgh, during the years 1841-44. But, having emerged from this final relapse, he complained no more of those peculiar pains in the stomach, about which Lamb had thought he made too much “ fuss.” He lived fourteen years longer, not without frequent illness, delirium, or torpor, and turning occasionally to laudanum, which, however, he now took in small quantities and largely diluted with water; but he died without symptoms of stomach disease, and apparently from simple old age. Opium had supported him, and had even — so Dr. Eatwell maintains — cured his frightful malady. It had rendered him another great service, which he was conscious of and alludes to at length, by counteracting his inherited tendency towards consumption. If Avicenna countersigns the hostile commission of poppy-juice in sending it down to posterity, Dioscorides has the start of him in crediting it with a beneficent power in relieving chronic coughs; and Dr. Eatwell quotes Dr. Brinton as suspecting that it has long been successfully used in the treatment of phthisis. The main office of the opium, then, was not to stimulate and color De Quincey’s dreams, — though it did this too, — but to better him physically. Its effect on his power of expression was probably bad; at any rate, those parts of his writings relating to his dream-life which were written when he was freeing himself from the tyranny of opium are richer and more splendid than the first Confessions, and the language rolls upon the ear with a reverberation of strength and melody far surpassing that with which he began. But to opium, as the sustaining staff of De Quincey’s life, we owe the preservation of his exceptional mind, — one which was precocious almost to the limit of possibility, and must probably under ordinary circumstances have perished before maturity, dragged down by its abnormal development and the sensitiveness of the body in which it was lodged.

Originality, in many kinds of writing, is the maintenance of the child’s freshness of vision along with the man’s ripened perception. We know something about the peculiar value of their childhood in the later activity of some imaginative authors, but we no doubt often fail to estimate rightly the full extent of the reserved originality thus carried over from one period to the other. De Quincey is an exceptionally strong instance in point. He seems never to have altered. His own account of himself tends to show that in boyhood the same kind of questions occupied him as in subsequent years, and he had even then the same subtle way of thinking about them. Everything that happened to him in boyhood seems to have produced an impression of wonderful depth. At four years of age, seeing the house-maid about to raise her broom to destroy a spider, his sense of “ the holiness of all life ” caused him to devise instantly a piece of strategy for drawing her off: he showed her a picture, and thus attracted her attention long enough to allow of the spider’s escaping. He expressly maintains that “ into all the elementary feelings of man, children look with more searching gaze than adults;” but he was a child who also faced the most perplexing problems, and never rested satisfied with elementary feelings or superficial aspects. The house-maid, finally detecting his strategem for saving spiders, explained to him that they deserved death in punishment for the many murders they had committed and would again commit. “This staggered me,” he proceeds. “ I could gladly have forgiven the past, but it did seem a false mercy to spare one spider in order to scatter death amongst fifty flies. The difficulty which the house-maid had suggested did not depart; it troubled my musing mind to perceive that the welfare of one creature might stand upon the ruin of another, and the case of the spider remained still more perplexing to my understanding than it was painful to my heart.” With like meditativeness but also profound emotion he endured the loss of a favorite kitten, killed by a dog. In another place he says: “ The earliest incidents in my life which left stings in my memory so as to be remembered at this day [more than sixty years after] were two, and both before I could have completed my second year: namely, first, a remarkable dream of terrific grandeur about a favorite nurse; . . . and secondly, the fact of having connected a profound sense of pathos with the reappearance, very early in the spring, of some crocuses. This I mention as inexplicable; for such annual resurrections of plants and flowers affect us only as memorials, or suggestions of some higher change, and therefore in connection with the idea of death; yet of death I could, at that time, have had no experience whatever.” These things all point to an extraordinary internal life in his earliest years; and it is significant to note that in his twelfth year he was removed from the Bath Grammar School on account of an accident to his head, by which it was at first supposed that his skull had been fractured. Upon this he makes the comment: “At present I doubt whether in reality anything very serious had happened. In fact, I was always under a nervous panic for my head.” That is a curious apprehension for a boy of twelve, and shows a half-conscious knowledge of the great delicacy of his brain. Two well-known passages from the Suspiria De Profundis open still wider the gates of this “ marvelous boy’s” strange world of self-communion: “ O burthen of solitude, that cleavest to man through every stage of his being! in his birth, which has been — in his life, which is — in his death, which shall be — mighty and essential solitude! that wast, and art, and art to be; — thou broodest, like the spirit of God moving upon the surface of the deeps, over every heart that sleeps in the nurseries of Christendom. Like the vast laboratory of the air, which, seeming to be nothing, or less than the shadow of a shade, hides within itself the principles of all things, solitude for the child is the Agrippa’s mirror of the unseen universe. Deep is the solitude in life of millions upon millions, who, with hearts welling forth love, have none to love them. Deep is the solitude of those who, with secret griefs, have none to pity them. Deep is the solitude of those who, fighting with doubts or darkness, have none to counsel them. But deeper than the deepest of these solitudes is that which broods over childhood.” The other passage begins that part of the Suspiria entitled The Vision of Life: “Upon me, as upon others scattered thinly by tens and twenties over every thousand years, fell too powerfully and too early the vision of life. The horror of life mixed itself already in earliest youth with the heavenly sweetness of life; that grief, which one in a hundred has sensibility enough to gather from the sad retrospect of life in its closing stage, for me shed its dews as a prelibation upon the fountains of life whilst yet sparkling to the morning sun. I saw from afar and from before what I was to see from behind. Is this the description of an early youth passed in the shades of gloom? No; but of a youth passed in the divinest happiness.”

The solitude to which he felt that he owed so much — afterwards expressing his conviction in the general formula, “ How much solitude, so much power ” — was the loneliness in which genius is born and abides that it may be sheltered from the sophistication which too often obscures the insight into truth so soon as childhood is over. De Quincey’s inner life in boyhood was always intense, full of intricate reasoning, and charged with emotions that are constantly mounting to fever heat, precipitating crises. At fourteen, he has so far matured that “ everything connected with schools and the business of schools " has become hateful to him. At fifteen, he visits Lady Carberry, meeting her as an equal, —nay, a superior, for he is teaching her Greek and imparting to her subtle distinctions of his own manufacture respecting Christianity, Greek and English tragedy, and the philosophy of Locke, all of which she receives eagerly; and when she, thinking to compliment him, calls him her “ admirable Crichton,”the boy demurs, for two carefully selected and discriminated reasons, which he sets forth, pointing out to her that he does not think it a title honorable enough to be desired, — “which made her stare.” Within a year and a half later he goes upon that memorable wandering in Wales and to London which is so closely bound up with his opium history. With the exception of the chapter on Oxford, the picture of his boyhood and youth, and of the opium dreams therewith connected, is painted with an impressiveness and richness that elevate the most of it to something like an heroic scale. Notwithstanding that the different, parts were written at periods so distant from each other, if we leave out certain garrulities which De Quincey interjected in his old age, the whole possesses a sumptuous unity; it is full of the artistic instinct for composition; and it would be hard to find another autobiographic revelation which relies for its most solemn and unique effects upon incidents the most ordinary and slight, with such stately results. It might be supposed that some of those reminiscences which figure in the dreams had received their colossal quality from the action of opium, but large portions that have nothing to do with the dreams have precisely the same weird magnifying force. The truth is that all throughout this body of writing we meet the atmosphere of a precocious and partially morbid child’s mind, the dreams being in accord with it because they resulted from the same mind’s being put in action along the same lines of fancy and experience. We have here a disclosure of the condition of a large number of precocious minds that, lacking the force to survive, are never heard from. Strange, to think of that great freight of hidden human existence lost with the early dying, which never finds expression or place in this human world for which it was made, but is diffused among the interstellar glooms and leaves no trace! But still stranger to think that one voice should have been found, one life preserved, to tell us something of it, — enabling us to apprehend the depths of life that he all around us, unsuspected, in hearts that we could hardly penetrate even were we imaginative enough to attempt doing so!

I think the ultimate cause of De Quincey’s half unearthly spell will be found in this relation of his to a class of which he was of course an exceptional example, like all men of genius illustrating a type, yet standing high above any other instance of that type. There are minds, like Shelley’s, whose precocity is also accompanied by early production; but I doubt if this could have been so with De Quincey; for the very fact that he was to express a peculiar kind of childhood required that he should get a good distance away from it before beginning to make literature of it. His genius, in all its manifestations, depended largely on accumulation. He did not begin the account of his own early experience until he was thirty-seven years old, and did not finish it till he was sixty-five. His literary and historical essays equally demanded years of preparation, resting as they did on broad expanses of reading. Yet it remains true that he seems to have changed but little from what he was at the very first; and in the few notes of his earliest remembrances, given above, may be found the characteristics of his later career and of all his productions. The impassioned self-absorption of his first boyish griefs comes up again with a sort of volcanic outburst in his anguish at Kate Wordsworth’s death. In the pathos that he felt at seeing crocuses in the spring, when less than two years old, and in that mingled dawn of the horror as well as the sweetness of life, even in his childhood of “ divinest happiness,” we find the germ of that immensely pregnant thought of his concerning the law of antipodal associations, — one thing suggesting its opposite: the luxury and peace of a summer morning, for example, bringing with it the sense of desolation and death. This thought gives the pattern to almost all De Quincey’s most valuable suggestions. They are generally based upon some such opposition to the prevalent and obvious idea, whatever it may be, — an opposition at first striking us as captious or eccentric, but by deft touches made reconcilable with some profounder reasoning than the usual one, and hence filling us with a delighted surprise, a perception of new harmony, when accepted. This is shown in the essay On the Knocking at the Gate (in Macbeth). At first blush it seems superfluous to explain why we should be impressed by the knocking; we know already that it is because we don’t want Macbeth to be found out. But why do we wish him to be sheltered? Do we approve what he has done? De Quincey reminds us that murder “is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror,” and that up to the moment of the knocking we sympathize with the murdered man; but this sudden alarm throws our sympathy on the murderer, and thus brings home to us an additional horror of the situation which had really been left out before. It is a simple piece of reasoning, but the sudden revelation of so nice a mechanism underlying what we supposed to be an impression needing no explanation pleases the intellect. In a similar way, the presentation of Judas Iscariot as a perfectly conscientious man, who sacrificed Jesus in attempting to force him to what he thought the good of Judæa, and hung himself in remorse for the wholly unforeseen result, is something which so appeals to our sense of mercy—harmonized as it is by De Quincey with the gospel narrative— that we cannot altogether reject it, though probably very few persons have accepted it in full. The essays on the Essenes have the same sort of movement, but are less successful, for the author works himself up to such a pitch of enthusiastic purpose to convince, that he threatens us: he declares that if we do not embrace his theory, we are responsible for leaving at large and rampant an argument entirely destructive to the received tradition of the origin of the Christian church. The truth is, that if we do not accept his theory we have a sufficient shelter in the possibility that the Essenes were not nearly so much like the Christians as he supposes. De Quincey delivers his premises, often, with such a captivating roulade of words that we have to look out sharply not to be misled; for — master of logic as he is, and frequently unanswerable—there is no writer of equal prominence who more readily disarms himself in his haste to rush into discussion, carry everything before him, and sit down to the enjoyment of a triumph afterwards. The essay On War is based on a very insufficient assumption that wars are always undertaken for the most trivial reasons; and dozens of instances might be collected from De Quincey’s other writings to show how completely he can at times deceive himself, and perhaps his readers, by a faulty argument covered with plausible appeals, by timely and dazzling exhibitions of learning, or by ingenious and attractive side-issues that help him on to some conclusion which he never could have reached if he had pursued fairly the line he began upon. He had a dangerous conviction that he was almost never in the wrong. “ I was right, as I usually am,” he records, on one occasion; and on another: “ In vain I sowed errors in my premises, or planted absurdities in my assumptions. Vainly I tried such blunders as putting four terms into a syllogism, which as all the world knows ought to run on three. . . . With disgust I saw, with disgust he saw, that too apparently the advantage lay with me in the result; and, whilst I worked like a dragon to place myself in the wrong, some fiend apparently so counterworked me that I ” was always in the right. But in his published discussions De Quincey’s efforts to be in the wrong are sometimes crowned with the most brilliant success. Conversant at once with the world of affairs and with letters, De Quincey recalls the double interests of Burke, though with a flexible and fullcolored beauty of style which the statesman did not possess; but one might apply to him the converse of Macaulay’s remark on Burke, that " he chose his side like a philosopher and defended it like a fanatic.”

It is perhaps in some of his purely literary criticism that he is seen at his weakest. The article on Goethe, originally published in the Encyclopædia Britannica, is a harsh, one-sided condemnation which certainly culminates in a most inadequate inference. The three long essays on Pope seem to have been inspired by what De Quincey himself names the “sympathy of disgust.” In them the writer raises, twice or thrice, a needless outcry about the " correctness ” of Pope, and the “ French school ” in English literature. It cannot carry conviction when De Quincey says that even if an English author should have had his genius turned in a particular direction by happening to look into a French book, the mere fact that the French nation had gone in that direction first does not matter, because every nation has to pass through different periods in its literature, and the English would have come to this style sooner or later. Literary history would be a very simple thing if it could be disposed of in this way, and we should hardly need to discuss at all the relative influence of literary schools in different countries. But our opium-eater is still more unreasonable about Keats. Half of the short paper devoted to that poet is given up to disputing with Mr. Gilfillan the comparative laziness of authors, and the only part relating to Keats is a sharp expression of De Quincey’s own distaste for Endymion and his equally decided admiration of Hyperion. He thinks it mysterious that one man should have written in two styles so unlike; but this does not move him to any respect for the mind that could master them both.

Yet, whatever his foibles, De Quincey possessed in a high degree that skill for finding a new point of view which establishes new conclusions on the same ground occupied by those he opposed. This faculty for running counter to received opinions is clearly traceable in his lighter passages. If humor is the perception of incongruous resemblances, and wit the discernment of amusing differences, then De Quincey would seem to be witty rather than humorous. But it is not his wit that we feel most. Take the clever inversion in Murder as one of the Fine Arts: “ For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drink on the Sabbath, and from that to incivility and procrastination.” In this and a hundred like instances the comic element is more humorous than witty; but fantastic exaggeration takes the lead in it. De Quincey is almost never broadly funny; the fantastic and grotesque cast of his humor gives it an echo that turns into solemnity. Now, this genius for taking a fresh start, for opposition and correction, which shows even through his humor, insured him originality; but it was originality depending immediately on something which had been prepared for him to restate. The story of Apelles and Protogenes seems to ap ply; given a very fine line by Protogenes, De Quineey as Apelles could draw one still better on the panel. He had such a taste for making distinctions that he sometimes took those of other men and set them forth as his own, with all that paraphernalia of impressiveness he so well knew how to use; though it is not to be supposed that he did so with any deceptive intent. As, in his own right, he may be called a corrector of views, so — as a delegate for others who had not given their ideas the best setting — he may be looked upon as a valuable developer of views. These are his two chief functions, aside from his interpretation of precocious child-life and his magnificent narration of dreams. But this correcting tendency, united with a grim humor often taking the tone of whimsical irritation, with an arrogant sense of infallibility and with a love of displaying erudition, excites a natural opposition in some readers, and perhaps in all readers at some moments. “ I do not know any instance in the writings of an author of note,” writes Bryan Procter, “ comprehending so much pedantry, pretension, and impertinence” as the Reminiscences and Biographical Essays of De Quincey. “ They are all divergence.” Procter was evidently annoyed at De Quincey’s attempting to write Recollections of Charles Lamb, and intimates strongly that De Quincey pretended to an acquaintance with Lamb much beyond what he really had. But, though there is no doubt that Procter held the better authority to write of Lamb, and though the pompousness, the garrulity, and the querulousness that evidently troubled him are undeniable, I own to finding in De Quincey’s fragmentary glimpses of Elia a charm entirely superior to that of the song-writer’s somewhat cold and stiff biography. It is mainly a question of literary art: Procter was hampered by his indigent prose style, while De Quincey’s sketch is full of delicious modulations of light and shade; and in it you feel the personality of Lamb reflected as his own quaint visage might be seen glimmering out from some half-dimmed mirror in the halls of memory. This power of bringing us so close, — as if we had met and described the men whom he describes,— gives a value to De Quincey’s recollections of his literary acquaintance which will be even better appreciated by another generation than by our own.

The claim which De Quincey took the precaution to set up, that he had carried the composition of impassioned prose farther than any other man, may not be accepted by everybody, although Professor Masson has shown clearly how much foundation there is for it. The counter-claim of Jean Paul Richter can hardly be set aside merely on the ground that he did not understand “ the law of the too much.” But granting the undeniable achievements of De Quincey in majestically sonorous prose, — rolling with long cadences full of a profound music like that of the sea-rote, — we must also admit that these impassioned bursts are of brief duration, and that there are wide intervals in which none of this preeminent power is found. The essay on Style, by an unhappy coincidence, does not contain in all its hundred and fifty pages a single piece of signally good writing, and is full of clumsy passages, the best conceivable examples of some of those faults which the essay itself condemns; and De Quincey’s use of slang has been justly criticised. In many of the compositions, of course, there is no occasion for the highest flight of eloquence; but in the Essays in Philosophy, in the Christianity and Paganism in the Eighteenth Century, and in the Literary Criticism, there is often a tedious diffuseness. If De Quincey can burnish words until they shine like gold, and chafe his page until it breaks into fire, he is equally apt to obliterate all sense and beauty with an emmollescent gush of foolishness, erroneously supposed to be humor. But we could probably not have had De Quincey’s uniquely splendid or amusing triumphs in writing, without those failings which at other times make his productions so empty of everything we should like them to contain. The impulsiveness and sensibility that give him wings for exceptional flights seem at unfavorable times to hold him down and cause him to wander this way and that, until his mind, though always making for a single objective point, has run off into a maze of subdivisions and correlated thoughts intricate as the channels at the Delta of the Ganges.

It is partly these defects that have caused De Quincey to be underrated and looked upon too much as an opium-dreamer and an entertaining but somewhat superfluous essayist. Still other facts have prevented his acquiring an influence or following like those of Carlyle or Macaulay; namely, that he heads no great tendency and does not concentrate himself sufficiently upon any one subject to become a popular authority; that he always speaks with exacting positiveness, yet in some things flatly contradicts himself; and that — although a wide reader and well-furnished scholar— he has an unfortunate way of parading his accomplishments which gives him an appearance of something like quackery. He indulges also in vagaries that detract from his character for solidity. The papers on Murder and the account of Three Memorable Murders do not supply an excuse for their being as plausible as that of Carlyle’s equally extravagant though symbolic Sartor Resartus; they are morbid. Klosterheim and The Household Wreck have probably weakened rather than helped De Quincey’s reputation, though they are stories that must be read to the end, and in their unrelieved gloom are very impressive as well as oppressive. There is a difficulty about this group among his compositions, that in distracting his attention from graver themes he appears to be letting himself down to a sort of elaborate trifling, merely to secure popularity. The Spanish Nun has always seemed to me an intolerably prolonged exhibition of over-conscious skill and excessive mannerism, though perhaps not more so than Carlyle’s account of Cagliostro; and the discovery by somebody that The Flight of a Tartar Tribe was derived largely from a German writer throws discredit on all these foreign concoctions. Peter Bain appears to have had full faith that had De Quincey carried out his proposed philosophic work, De Emendatione Humani Intellectûs, — observe, even here he was going to correct and emend, — the result would have been of great permanent value. But the Essays in Philosophy actually prepared by De Quincey amount to almost nothing in the way of thinking. They are for the most part made up of rambling talk about Sir William Hamilton as De Quincey had seen and known him, a condensation from a Life of Kant, and Letters to a Young Man, on education, with very slight bearings on philosophy. The best of these essays is that On Suicide, in which it is proposed to measure degrees in self-murder, as we distinguish between manslaughter and murder.

English literature, in its remarkable succession of essayists from Cowley to Addison and from Addison to Johnson, Goldsmith, Macaulay, and Carlyle, continually presents to us instances of the union of literary and intellectual exercise with a striving towards the plane of imaginative production. In some instances this has been much more than a striving, as in Goldsmith’s Deserted Village and Vicar, or in Macaulay’s vigorous Lays of Ancient Rome. Carlyle, like Macaulay, comes under the head both of essayist and of historian, and his non-literary essays, his translations from the German, and Sartor Resartus establish a strong and sympathetic connection with the creative order of writing. The relative calibres of Macaulay and Carlyle can be gauged very well in their essays on history. Macaulay, accepting conveniently the definition that “history is philosophy teaching by experience,” enters at once into a brilliant review of the different kinds of history, or rather the different modes of presenting it. Carlyle, wanting the clear, cool, levigate phraseology of his lordship, takes up the very same definition with which Macaulay began, pulls it loftily to pieces, and — with oracular obscurity yet unsurpassable depth and comprehension — shows us what really are. the different kinds of history, and that they by no means depend for their virtue on the mere manner or crust with which Macaulay was so busy. From the historical studies which De Quincey left, —the Cæsars, Greece under the Romans, and so forth, —we can guess that if he had begun an essay on history in general with a quotation of the phrase “philosophy teaching by experience,” his whole paper would have been devoted to a discussion of that one thing, with copious illustrations, long reaches backwards and forwards, amusing digressions, learned allusions, and subtilizing foot-notes. We might not, in reading it, have advanced very perceptibly; but we should have been entertained, brightened, should have received many hints, each of some value, and have found ourselves at the close much encouraged and assisted to think further. The very fact that De Quincey often calls forth his reader’s opposition gives his rambling reflections a tonic efficacy.

All three of these essayists have copious and special learning, but vary amazingly among themselves in style and trend. Macaulay is the polished master of the superficial and the becoming, Carlyle the stern seeker of truthful outlines, and De Quincey the Apelles, again, who can put a line between those of the other two, which often for some nicety of æsthetic instinct will in that way be finer and more skillful than theirs. He possesses, besides, a style by many degrees more pliant than either Macaulay’s or Carlyle’s; and no other author has put the best qualities of conversation into printed form on so vast a scale as De Quincey. In this he altogether surpasses, for variety, agreeableness, and insight, the conversationist of that older trio composed of Johnson, Addison, and Goldsmith. He has sounded so many depths of feeling, risen to so many heights of perception, and explored so many wide areas and dim by-paths of knowledge that he is surely entitled to a place with Carlyle and Macaulay in a modern trio of great essayists, which will probably in due time be universally held to include the name of Thomas De Quincey.

George Parsons Lathrop.

  1. The Works of Thomas De Quincey. Riverside Edition. In Twelve Volumes. New York: Published by Hurd and Houghton. Boston: H. O. Houghton & Co. Cambridge : The Riverside Press. 1877
  2. Thomas De Quincey : His Life and Writings. With Unpublished Correspondence By H. A. PAGE. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, & Co. 1877.