1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas de Quincey

Thomas de Quincey
English writer

THOMAS DE QUINCEY (1785-1859), an eminent English author, was born at Greenhay, near Manchester, on the 15th of August 1785. He was the fifth child in a family of eight (four sons and four daughters), of whom three died young. His father, descended from a Nor-man family, was an opulent merchant, who lived much abroad, partly to look after his foreign engagements, but mainly from considerations of health; he died of pul-monary consumption in the thirty-ninth year of his age, leaving his wife and six children a clear income of ¿£1600 a year. wThe widow, a woman of exceptional talent, secured to her family the enjoyment of those social and educa-tional advantages which their position and means afforded. Thomas was from infancy a shy, sensitive child, with a constitutional tendency to dreaming by night and by day ; and, under the influence of an elder brother, a lad " whose genius for mischief amounted to inspiration," who died in his sixteenth year, he spent much of his boyhood in imaginary worlds of their own creating. The amusements and occupations of the whole family, indeed, seem to have been mainly intellectual ; and in De Quincey's case, emphatically, " the child was father to the man." " My life has been," he affirms in the Confessions, " on the whole the life of a philosopher; from my birth I was made an intellectual creature, and intellectual in the highest sense my pursuits and pleasures have been." From boyhood he was more or less in contact with a polished circle; his education, easy to one of such native aptitude, was sedu-lously attended to. When he was in his twelfth year the family removed to Bath, where he was sent to the grammar school, at which he remained for about two years ; and for a year more he attended another public school at Winkfield, Wiltshire. At both his proficiency was the marvel of his masters. At thirteen he wrote Greek with ease ; at fifteen he not only composed Greek verses in lyric measures, but could converse in Greek fluently and without embarrass-ment ; one of his masters said of him, " that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one." Towards the close of his fifteenth year he visited Ireland, with a companion of his own age, Lord Westport, the son of Lord Altamont, an Irish peer, and spent there in residence and travel some months of the summer and autumn of the year 1800,—being a spectator at Dublin of " the final ratification of the bill which united Ireland to Great Britain." On his return to England, his mother having now settled at St John's Briory, a residence near Chester, De Quincey was sent to the Manchester grammar school, mainly that it might be easier for him to get thence to Oxford through his obtaining one of the school exhibitions.

Discontented with the mode in which his guardians con-ducted his education, and with some view apparently of forcing them to send him earlier to college, he left this school after less than a year's residence—ran away, in short, to his mother's house. There one of his guardians made an arrangement for him to have a weekly allowance, on which he might reside at some country place in Wales, and pursue his studies, presumably till he could go to college. From Wales, however, after brief trial, " suffer-ing grievously from want of books," he went off as he had done from school, and hid himself from guardians and friends in the world of London. And now, as he says, commenced " that episode, or impassioned parenthesis of my life, which is comprehended in The Confessions of an English Opium Eater." This London episode extended over a year or more; at the end of it the lad was recon-ciled to his guardians, and in 1803 went to Oxford, being by this time about nineteen. It was in the course of his second year at Oxford that he first tasted opium,—having taken it to allay neuralgic pains.

After finishing his career of five years at college in 1808, lie ultimately settled in 1812 to the life of a student on the borders of Grasmere, drawn thither partly by neighbourhood to Wordsworth, whom he early appreciated,—having been, he says, the only man in all Europe who quoted Wordsworth so early as 1802. Here also he enjoyed the society and friendship of Coleridge, Wilson, and Southey, as in London he had of Charles Lamb and his select circle. Here he continued his classical and other studies, especially exploring the at that time almost unknown region of German literature, and indicating its riches to English readers. Here also, in 1816, he married the "dear M," of whom a charming glimpse is accorded to the reader of the Confessions; his family came to be five sons and three daughters. For a year he edited, at Kendal, the Westmoreland Gazette. He resided till the end of 1820 at Grasmere, afterwards in London, and latterly at Lasswade near Edinburgh, or in Edinburgh. He died in that city December 8, 1859, aged seventy-four, and is buried in the West Churchyard.

During nearly fifty years De Quincey lived mainly by his pen. His patrimony seems never to have been en-tirely exhausted, and his habits and tastes were simple and inexpensive ; but he was careless to recklessness in the use of money, and debts and pecuniary difficulties of all sorts hung about him through the greater part of his life. There was, indeed, his associates affirm, an element of romance even in his impecuniosity, as there was in every-thing about him; and the diplomatic and other devices by which he contrived to keep clear of clamant creditors, while scrupulously fulfilling many obligations, often dis-armed animosity, and converted annoyance into amuse-ment. The famous Confessions of an English Opium Eater, having first appeared in The London Magazine, were pub-lished in a small volume in 1820, and attracted a very remarkable degree of attention, not simply from their dis-closures as to his excessive use of the drug, and its effects, but also by the marvellous beauty of the style of the work, its romantic episodes, and extraordinary power of dream-painting. All De Quincey's other writings appeared in periodicals — Blackwood's Magazine, Tail's Magazine, IIogg's Instructor, &c. No other literary man of his time, it has been remarked, achieved so high and universal a reputation from such merely fugitive efforts. Since his works were brought together, that reputation has been not merely maintained, but extended. The American edition of twelve volumes was reprinted in this country in 1853, under the author's own supervision, and expanded to fourteen volumes; upon his death two more volumes were made up of previously uncollected material. For range of thought and topic, within the limits of pure literature, no like amount of material of such equality of merit has pro-ceeded from any eminent writer of our day. However profuse and discursive, De Quincey is always polished, and generally exact—a scholar, a wit, a man of the world, and a philosopher, as well as a genius. He looked upon letters as a noble and responsible calling; in his essay on Oliver Goldsmith he claims for literature the rank not only of a fine art, but of the highest and most potent of fine arts; and as such he himself regarded and practised it. He drew a broad distinction between " the literature of knowledge and the literature of power," asserting that the function of the first is to teach, the function of the second to move,—maintaining that the meanest of authors who moves has pre-eminence over all who merely teach, that the literature of knowledge must perish by supersession, while the literature of power is " triumphant for ever as long as the language exists in which it speaks." It is to this class of motive literature that De Quincey's own works essentially belong ; it is by virtue of that vital element of power that they have emerged from the rapid oblivion of periodicalism, and live in the minds of a second generation of readers and admirers, as they are safe to do in those of a third and fourth. The risk of their not reaching on through succeeding time arises from their diffuseness—their power is weakened by their volume.

De Quincey has fully defined his own position and claim to distinction in the preface to his collected works. These he divides into three classes :—" first, that class which proposes primarily to amuse the reader," such as the Narratives, Autobiographic Sketches, etc. ; "second, papers which address themselves purely to the under-standing as an insulated faculty, or do so primarily," such as the essays on Essenism, the Caesars, Cicero, etc. ; and finally, as a third class, " and, in virtue of their aim, as a far higher class of compositions," he ranks those ''modes of impassioned prose ranging under no prece-dents that I am aware of in any literature," such as the Confessions and Suspiria de Profundis. The high claim here asserted has been so far questioned; and short and iso-lated examples of eloquent apostrophe, and highly-wrought imaginative description, have been cited from Eousseau and other masters of style; but De Quincey's power of sustaining a fascinating and elevated strain of " impassioned prose" is allowed to be entirely his own. In this his genius most emphatically asserts itself; if it be not admitted that in that dread circle none durst walk but he, it will be without hesitation conceded that there he moves supreme. Nor, in regard to his writings as a whole, will a minor general claim which he makes be disallowed, namely, that he " does not write without a thoughtful consideration of his subject," and also with novelty and freshness of view. " Generally," he says, "I claim (not arrogantly, but with firmness) the merit of rectification applied to absolute errors, or to injurious limitations of the truth." Another obvious quality of all his genius is its overflowing fulness of allusion and illustration, recalling his own description of a great philosopher or scholar—" Not one who depends simply on an infinite memory, but also on an infinite and electrical power of combination, bringing together from the four winds, like the angel of the resurrection, what else were dust from dead men's bones into the unity of breathing life." It is useless to complain of his having lavished and diffused his talents and acquirements over so vast a variety of often comparatively trivial and passing topics, in-stead of concentrating them on one or two great subjects. The world must accept gifts from men of genius as they offer them; circumstance and the hour often rule their form. Those influences, no less than the idiosyncrasy of the man, determined De Quincey to the illumination of such matter for speculation as seemed to lie before him; he was not careful to search out recondite or occult themes, though these he did not neglect,—a student, a scholar, and a recluse, he was yet at the same time a man of the world, keenly interested in the movements of men and in the page of history that unrolled itself before him day by day. To the discussion of things new, as readily as of things old, aided by a capacious, retentive, and ready memory, which dispensed with reference to printed pages, he brought also the exquisite keenness and subtlety of his highly analytic and imaginative intellect, the illustrative stores of his vast and varied erudition, and that large infusion of common sense which preserved him from becoming at any time a mere doctrinaire, or visionary. If he did not throw himself into any of the great popular controversies or agitations of the day, it was not from any want of sympathy with the struggles of humanity or the progress of the race, but rather because his vocation was to apply to such incidents of his own time, as to like incidents of all history, great philosophical principles and tests of truth and power. In politics, in the party sense of that term, he would probably have been classed as a Liberal Conservative or Conservative Liberal—at one period of his life perhaps the former, and at a later the latter. Originally, as we have seen, his surroundings were somewhat aristocratic, in his middle life his associates, notably Wordsworth, Southey, and Wilson, were all Tories; but he seems never to have held the extreme and narrow views of that circle. Though a flavour of high breeding runs through his writings, he has no vulgar sneers at the vulgar. As he advanced in years his views became more and more decidedly liberal, but he was ahvays as far removed from Radicalism as from Toryism, and may be described as a philosophical politician, capable of classification under no definite party name or colour. Of political economy he had been an early and earnest student, and projected, if he did not so far proceed with, an elaborate and systematic treatise on the science, of which all that appears, however, are his fragmentary Dialogues on the system of Ricardo, which John Ramsay M'Culloch pronounces " unequalled for brevity, pungency, and force." But political and eco-nomic problems largely exercised his thoughts, and his historical sketches show that he is constantly alive to their interpenetrating influence. The same may be said of his biographies, notably of his remarkable sketch of Dr Parr. Neither politics nor economics, however, exercised an absorbing influence on his mind,—they were simply provinces in the vast domain of universal specula-tion through which he ranged " with unconfined wings." How wide and varied was the region he traversed a glance at the titles of the papers which make up his collected—or more properly selected—works (for there was much matter of evanescent interest not reprinted) sufficiently shows. He was equally at home in all provinces, though never exerting his great powers so as to make himself paramount in any. Surprising as his literary achievements are, his capabilities were still greater; and the general survey leaves the impression of regret that, doing so much so well, he did not do more, or did not less better. Some things in his own line he has done perfectly; he has written many pages of magnificently mixed argument, irony, humour, and elo-quence, which, for sustained brilliancy, richness, subtle force, and purity of style and effect have simply no parallels; and he is without peer the prince of dreamers. The use of opium no doubt stimulated this remarkable faculty of reproducing in skilfully selected phrase the grotesque and shifting forms of that " cloudland, gorgeous land," which opens to the sleep-closed eye ; but the faculty itself was a speciality of his constitution, coloured by the quality of his genius, and enriched by the acquisitions of his intellect.

To the appreciation of De Quincey the reader must bring an imaginative faculty somewhat akin to his own—a cer-tain general culture, and large knowledge of books, and men, and things. Otherwise much of that slight and delicate allusion that gives point and colour and charm to his writings will be missed; and on this account the full enjoyment and comprehension of De Quincey must always remain a luxury of the literary and intellectual. But his skill in narration, his rare pathos, his wide sympathies, the pomp of his dream-descriptions, the exquisite playfulness of his lighter dissertations, and his abounding though deli-cate and subtle humour, commend him to a larger class. Though far from being a professed humourist—a character he would have shrunk from—there is no more expert worker in a sort of half-veiled and elaborate humour and irony than De Quincey; but he employs those resources for the most part secondarily. Only in one instance has he given himself up to them unreservedly and of set pur-pose, namely, in the famous Essay on Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts,—an effort which, admired and admirable though it be, is also, it must be allowed, some-what strained. He was a born critic and dreamer, a logician by instinct and culture, a student by choice, a scholar by right of conquest of the stores of many minds, a writer of English of the first quality by dint of native command of language and life-long study and practice. His style, full and flexible, pure and polished, is peculiarly his own; yet it is not the style of a mannerist,—its charm is, so to speak, latent; the form never obtrudes ; the secret is only discoverable by analysis and study. It consists simply in the reader's assurance of the writer's com-plete mastery over all the infinite applicability and re-sources of the English language. Hence involutions and parentheses, " cycle on epicyle," evolve themselves into a stately clearness and harmony; and sentences and paragraphs, loaded with suggestion, roll on smoothly and musically, without either fatiguing or cloying—rather, indeed, to the surprise as well as delight of the reader; for De Quincey is always ready to indulge in feats of style, witching the world with that sort of noble horsemanship which is as graceful as it is daring.

It has been complained that, in spite of the apparently full confidences of the Confessions and Autobiographic Sketches, readers are left in comparative ignorance, bio-graphically speaking, of the man De Quincey. Two pas-sages in his Confessions afford sufficient clues to this mystery. In one he describes himself " as framed for love and all gentle affections," and in another confesses to the " besetting infirmity" of being " too much of an eudae-monist." " I hanker," he says, " too much after a state of happiness, both for myself and others; I cannot face misery, whether my own or not, with an eye of sufficient firmness, and am little capable of surmounting present pain for the sake of any recessionary benefit." His sensi-tive disposition dictated the ignoring in his writings of traits merely personal to himself, as well as his ever-recurrent resort to opium as a doorway of escape from present ill; and prompted those habits of seclusion, and that apparently capricious abstraction of himself from the society not only of his friends, but of his own family, in which he from time to time persisted. He confessed to occasional accesses of an almost irresistible impulse to flee to the labyrinthine shelter of some great city like London or Paris,—there to dwell solitary amid a multitude, buried by day in the cloister-like recesses of mighty libraries, and stealing away by night to some obscure lodging. Long indulgence in seclusion, and in habits of study the most lawless possible in respect of regular hours or any con siderations of health or comfort,—the habit of working as pleased himself without regard to the divisions of night or day, of times of sleeping or waking, even of the slow procession of the seasons, had latterly so disinclined him to the restraints, however slight, of ordinary social inter-course, that he very seldom submitted to them. On such rare occasions, however, as he did appear, per haps at some simple meal with a favoured friend, or in later years in his own small but refined domestic circle, he was the most charming of guests, hosts, or companions, A. short and fragile, but well-proportioned frame; a shapely and compact head ; a face beaming with intellectual light, owith rare, almost feminine beauty of feature and complexion; a fascinating courtesy of manner; and a fulness, swiftness, and elegance of silvery speech,—such was the irresistible " mortal mixture of earth's mould " that men named De Quincey. He possessed in a high degree what the American poet Lowell calls "the grace of perfect breeding, everywhere persuasive, and nowhere emphatic;" and his whole aspect and manner exercised an undefinable attraction over every one, gentle or simple, who came within its in-fluence ; for shy as he was, he was never rudely shy, making good his boast that he had always made it his " pride to con-verse familiarly more socratico with all human beings—man, woman, and child "_—looking on himself as a catholic creature standing in an equal relation to high and low, to educated and uneducated. He would converse with a peasant lad or a servant girl in phrase as choice, and sentences as sweetly turned, as if his interlocutor were his equal both in position and intelligence; yet with-out a suspicion of pedantry, and with such complete adaptation of style and topic that his talk charmed the humblest as it did the highest that listened to it. His conversation was not a monologue ; if he had the larger share, it was simply because his hearers were only too glad that it should be so ; he would listen with something like deference to very ordinary talk, as if the mere fact of the speaker being one of the same company entitled him to all consideration and respect. The natural bent of his mind and disposition, and his life-long devotion to letters, to say nothing of his opium eating, rendered him, it must be allowed, regardless of ordinary obligations in life—domestic and pecuniary—to a degree that would have been not only culpable, but very highly so, in any less singularly con-stituted mind. It was impossible to deal with or judge De Quincey by ordinary standards—not even his publishers did so. Much no doubt was forgiven him, but all that needed forgiveness—and, after all, his sins were rather of omission than commission, trivial rather than heinous, trying rather than deadly—will soon be covered by the kindly oblivious veil of lapsing time, while his merits as a master in English literature will remain to be gratefully acknowledged.
A collection of De Quincey's works was published by James Hogg and Sons, Edinburgh, in 11 volumes, 1856-1800 ; and the same edition was republished by A. & C. Black, Edinburgh, with alterations and additions, in 16 volumes, 1862-1871. An American edition, issued by Ticknor & Fields, Boston, 1859-1868, extends to 20 disconnected volumes. A biography in two volumes, by H. A. Page, Thomas De Quincey, his Life and Writings, has been published by John Hogg and Co., London, 1877. (J. R. F.)

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