Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Reginald Brimley Johnson
Thomas De Quincey (17851859)
[Thomas De Quincey was born in Manchester, 15th August 1785, being the fifth son of Thomas Quincey, a merchant of some literary taste, who died in 1792. After a varied experience of school life, he ran away, in 1802, from the Manchester Grammar School, and spent a year in North Wales and London, as described in the Confessions. In 1803 he went to Oxford, where he neglected his schools and made few acquaintances, but set himself to the study of German, and began to take opium. After leaving the University he took a house in the Lake Country, where he married in 1816. Three years later monetary losses obliged him to accept the post of editor of the Westmoreland Gazette. He soon moved to London, however, and began working for the magazines.
His papers, which touch on an immense variety of subjects, appeared for the most part in The London Magazine, from 18211824; Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine, 18261849; Taits Edinburgh Magazine, 18341852; and Hoggs Instructor, 1851 and 1852. He contributed also to the Encyclopædia Britannica (7th ed. 18271842); and published Klosterheim, or The Masque in 1839, and The Logic of Political Economy in 1844.
In 1828 he went to Edinburgh, and after losing his wife, took a cottage at Mavis Bank, Lasswade, for his daughters, and himself lived partly with them and partly in lodgings in the city until his death, 8th August 1859.]
Unpropitious as these conditions may appear, they were nevertheless of material assistance towards the development of his genius. During those thirty and odd years he had observed mankind under a variety of conditions, and gained an unusually wide acquaintance with literature, both classical and modern. His strong memory and historical insight enabled him to use this knowledge as a means of enriching his style; while the necessities of finishing for the press, and satisfying magazine editors, restrained the excess of elaboration and wire-drawing to which he was naturally addicted.
For my own part, he says, without breach of truth or modesty, I may affirm that my life has been 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, even from my schoolboy days . I have passed more of my life in absolute and unmitigated solitude, voluntarily and for intellectual purposes, than any person I have ever met with, heard of, or read of.
He was before all things a student who, though supremely interested in his fellow-creatures, both individually and in masses, was entirely without a sense of responsibility towards his generation. His writings are pre-eminently exegetical, lacking in the imperative mood. He analyses, interprets, or expounds after his subtle, philosophic, though somewhat eccentric and paradoxical manner; taking nothing for granted, probing into everything he touches, and illuminating it by some flash of originality. Though not always a sound thinker, he marshals his arguments with an orderly precision, which is invaluable in a good cause. Exactness, carried to the verge of pedantry, is the conspicuous merit of his style; which is further strengthened by a scrupulous attention to the conditions of effective comparison, and by the explicitness with which his statements and clauses are connected. Even his grammar and punctuation are singularly clear and careful.
Beneath this vigorous intellectuality lurks a curiously deliberate and dæmonic kind of humour, which largely consists in the sudden introduction of an unexpected point of view, the use of dignified language for the discussion of trivialities, and the application of artistic or professional terms to records of crime and passion. On such occasions he may be said to parody his own manner with conspicuous success. Unfortunately he sometimes descends to a style of button-hole facetiousness, caught perhaps from his boisterous friend Wilson, which is entirely out of place in his writings, and seems, for the time being, to destroy his usually fine sense of artistic propriety.
Composition, indeed, with De Quincey was in the highest sense of the word an art. He had what he called an electric aptitude for seizing analogies, or a logical instinct for feeling in a moment the secret analogies or parallelisms that connect things else apparently remote, and his erudition furnished a plentiful supply of recondite metaphors, personifications, and figures of speech. His vocabulary was copious, and he had a marked fondness for the Latin portion of it, which assisted his precision, his humour, and the stately rhythm in which he delighted.
His style is essentially decorative, and he aims consciously at sublimity of thought and diction. He does not shrink from daring appeals to the infinite, and risks bewildering his reader by dizzy flights to the uttermost limits of time and space. He builds up his sentences and his paragraphs with a sensitive ear for the music of words. One phrase seems like the echo of another, and even the impression of distance in sound is cunningly produced. His finest passages are distinguished by the crowded richness of fancy, the greater range and arbitrariness of combination, which are the peculiar attributes of poetry.
At times, indeed, he becomes obscure from over-elaboration; and there can be no doubt that his digressions are too frequent and too lengthy. The tendency towards verbosity, however, is considerably checked by his intellectual alertness, and by his preference for miniatures, narrative and philosophic.
De Quincey of course was not the first writer of impassioned prose. He shared the reaction of his day against the severer classicism of the eighteenth century, preferring rather the ornate manner of Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, and their contemporaries; and following somewhat closely in the steps of Jean Paul Richter. He claimed only to be the author of a mode of impassioned prose ranging under no precedents that he was aware of in any literature, of which, as Professor Minto has pointed out, the speciality consists in describing incidents of purely personal interest in language suited to their magnitude as they appear in the eyes of the writer. The splendour of his style prepares the reader to be attracted, and he has moreover the wisdom to avoid comparing his experiences to those of others, or suggesting that they are in themselves extraordinary.
Such are the characteristics of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, by which De Quincey introduced himself to the public, the Suspiria de Profundis, the opium dreams of The English Mail Coach, and many of the autobiographic sketches. The first-named, considered merely as confessions, are not so remarkable as those, for instance, of Rousseau. The story is comparatively commonplace, the attitude is less morbidly frank, and the author is in no sense the emotional mouthpiece of his generation.
While writing of himself, he naturally spoke also of his friends and contemporaries, and the frankness with which he did so has earned for him the reputation of spitefulness. But he lived so entirely out of the world, that he probably did not realise the wisdom and kindness of reticence, while for posterity his acute revelations are both interesting and valuable. He wrote able biographies, moreover, of a number of classical, historical, and literary personages; though these are somewhat marred by a tendency to dwell too much on disputed points. His most ambitious attempt, The Cæsars, is very unequal.
Indeed, historical speculation and research seem to have had a fascination for him, and in this region his wide reading and acuteness enabled him to question received theories, and support paradoxes with ingenuity and vigour; while his treatment of some passages of history is romantic and imaginative. The character of The Spanish Military Nun, for instance, is drawn with delicate sympathy, and the paper on Joan of Arc is almost perfect.
His biographical and historical essays contain a good deal of the criticism which he has elsewhere expounded in a more connected form. As a critic, he is illuminating, erudite, and thoughtful; but decidedly untrustworthy. He is childishly prejudiced, especially with regard to anything French; and his mental solitariness, which stood in the way of improvement in this matter, led him at other times into the most astounding critical blunders. His essays on the science and principles of literature are original and penetrating, though a little digressive. He asserts that many of his ideas came from Wordsworth. His most noted contributions to the subject are: the distinctions between the literature of knowledge and of power, between the organic and the mechanic aspects of style, and the development of Wordsworths utterance that language is the incarnation rather than the dress of thoughts.
De Quincey is further known for his excursions into German literature. Explanations have been offered of his treatment of Kant and Goethe, which are assuredly required; but, these questions apart, he shared with Coleridge the honour of opening English eyes to the treasures of German thought and genius. His various tales from the German are permeated with the weird, romantic spirit of their originals, and his own novels, The Avenger and Klosterheim, were evidently written under the same influence, though the latter is also curiously reminiscent of Mrs. Radcliffe.
His contributions to philosophy, in which he was largely an interpreter of the Germans, are somewhat difficult to estimate. My proper vocation, he remarks pathetically, was the exercise of the analytic understanding. Now, for the most part, analytic studies are continuous, not to be pursued by fits and starts, or fragmentary efforts; and it was of these alone that he was capable during the greater part of his life. However, his System of the Heavens and The Palimpsest of the Human Brain are suggestive; and, though his interpretations may be questioned, it remains a fact that he was one of the first to recognise Kants greatness, and did much to make him known in England. His translation of the Idea of a Universal History was an important service to the philosophy of the subject.
The Logic of Political Economy and the Templars Dialogues contain his most strictly scientific work, in which he appears chiefly as an exponent of Ricardo. His lucidity of style is here particularly helpful, and Mill, though differing from him on certain principles, adopts some of his illustrations, and treats his work with respect.
The genius of De Quincey, like all genuine manifestations, cannot be dismissed with a label or crowded into a pigeon-hole. He was associated with the Lake School, and sympathised with many of their aims; but as a scholar in many fields, and a master of English prose, he stands alone.