Some Thoughts on De Quincey.

From: Literary Sketches (1888)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Swan Sonnenschein Lowrey & Co. 1888 London

Some Thoughts on De Quincey.

DE QUINCEY is of those writers who win the approbation of the literary critic by the brilliancy of their style, but at the same time incur the censures of the moralist by their shortcomings in matters of conduct and teaching. Intellectual Hedonism, or lotus-eating, is the crime which has been generally laid to his charge, and to which he has himself in some measure pleaded guilty; his indulgence in opium and his failure to complete any work of magnitude being regarded as the direct result of that “vein of effeminacy “by which, according to one of his critics, “his mind was traversed.” His philosophy has been described by Gilfillan6 as nothing better than “a sublime gossip”; while, in spite of the somewhat qualified blessing bestowed on him by the Quarterly Review2, earnest politicians, even on the Tory side, have usually looked with distrust on the transcendental Toryism of which he was an exponent. It cannot be denied that there was a certain instability in De Quincey’s character which partly justifies the adverse judgment so often passed on him; great as his powers were, he seems to have been incapable of turning them to any immediate practical purpose; he was diffident, dilatory, unbusinesslike. In him, if ever in mortal man,

“The native hue of resolution
Was sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;”

and, as a consequence of this, he was utterly deficient in practical enterprise and moral enthusiasm.

  “At my time of life,” he says (six-and-thirty years of age), “it cannot be supposed that I have much energy to spare; and therefore let no man expect to frighten me, by a few hard words, into embarking any part of it upon desperate adventures of morality.” But though the weakness of De Quincey in moral fibre is thus unhappily placed beyond dispute, there is nevertheless something rather ridiculous in the solemn and admonitory tone which many of his critics have thought it advisable to adopt in reference to his use of opium and his outspoken confession of that habit. A nation which for commercial purposes forces the import of opium on other countries, in spite of the protest of their native rulers, ought not to be squeamish on the subject of opium-eating, as discussed by one who has practised it; and the position of De Quincey on this point is that of a literary Publican among Pharisaic critics. Nor is it at all clear that his censors are right in supposing that his intellectual productions were injuriously affected by his opium-eating. It is true that in his autobiographical writings he drew a terrible picture of “the pains of opium,” and that in one passage he attributes to opium the failure of his desire to construct a great philosophical work which was to have been entitled De Emendatione Humani Intellectus;” but on the other hand we may well doubt if De Quincey’s genius was really suited to a labour of this kind, or if the work, supposing it had ever been accomplished, would have been half as valuable as the Confessions of an Opium-eater, and the Suspiria de Profundis. For, after all, it is surely a mere quibble and play upon words to say that De Quincey left no “great work,” as if great works were measured only by the number of their pages or the consistency of their philosophic teaching! That is a very true and important distinction, which De Quincey himself pointed out,3 between the “literature of knowledge,” whose function is merely to teach, and the “literature of power” which is able to move. It is to the latter class that De Quincey’s prose-poems belong, and though their mere bulk is not great, they may justly claim to be one of the supreme achievements of nineteenth-century literature, We can hardly doubt that De Quincey was partly thinking of his own case when, in his article on Professor Wilson, he defended his friend from this same charge of desultory writing. He admits that by increased energy and steadier application he might have produced an enormous and systematic book, but then he remembers the Greek proverb—”Big book, big nuisance,” and concludes that the Professor did wisely in leaving his works in short and detached papers, instead of “conglutinating them into one vast block.” Let us therefore not grieve overmuch at the loss of the De Emendatione Humani Intellectus, for we may rest assured that in his “impassioned prose” De Quincey has left us the best work of which he was capable; and if it was through opium-eating that he expressed his thoughts in this form instead of in a philosophical treatise, it must be admitted that literature owes something to opium. But most great writers have a habit of thus meditating and musing on some phantom work, beside and beyond their actual achievements; witness the Eureka of Edgar Poe, and the Complete Theory of Mind with which Shelley hoped some day to enrich the philosophical world,—and the cautious critic will be on his guard against attributing too much importance to any such unrealized intentions.

  De Quincey’s admirers have been at some pains to refute the fallacious yet rather prevalent notion that he was only a sublime dreamer and prose-poet; and certainly the wide scope of his genius is almost the first point that arrests the attention of a careful reader. From earliest youth he had read books of all sorts, with extraordinary avidity, and, as he himself tells us, could never enter a great library without “pain and disturbance of mind,” when he sorrowfully calculated that even a long life would only suffice for a perusal of a very small portion of existing literature. Aided by a marvellous memory, he thus accumulated a vast store of knowledge on a great variety of subjects, and being also possessed of a keen critical instinct, he was enabled to use his encyclopædic treasures of information with great judgment and effect. Whether recording personal studies and anecdotes; or giving his opinion on some weighty question of theology or political economy; or throwing light on some point of classical learning, which had baffled the grammarians themselves; or expounding the mysteries of casuistry, secret societies, and the “dark sciences” of the Middle Ages; or holding forth on the elegancies of rhetoric and style; or introducing English readers to German literature;—in any and all of these subjects he was equally at his ease. Had he lived six centuries earlier, he would have been a mighty sage and alchemist; living in the nineteenth century, he was the magazine-writer par excellence, and found a ready medium for his oracular utterances in the columns of Blackwood, Tait, and the Old London magazine. In none of his essays, perhaps, is his multifarious learning so apparent as in the Letters to a Young Man whose education has been neglected. How any such belated youth could be expected to follow De Quincey in the various branches and avenues of knowledge to which his attention is invited, must remain a matter of conjecture; Lord Macaulay’s schoolboy himself would have been scarcely equal to De Quincey’s requirements; and it might even be conjectured that the “Young Man” in question was Lord Macaulay’s schoolboy, whose education, according to De Quincey’s severe standard, needed complete readjustment and revision.

  The juxtaposition in De Quincey’s genius of imaginative and critical powers is a very noticeable and important characteristic; in all his chief writings we see, as his biographer4has clearly pointed out, “the logical or quantitative faculty, working alongside the dreaming, or purely abstractive faculty, without sense of discord.” The grave and stately Suspiria de Profundis are thus relieved by occasional flashes of humour and intellectual subtlety; while the critical essays, on their part, are full of passages of high poetical power. Yet it must be admitted that De Quincey’s chief and final claim to literary immortality must be based less on this analytic faculty, in which he has been equalled or excelled by many other writers, than on that peculiar phantasy, that meditative and imaginative spirit in which he has few rivals. His various writings are valuable chiefly in proportion to the presence of this spirit; the vast range of learning and the discriminating judgment, indispensable though they were even in the elaboration of the prose-poems, are of secondary and subsidiary importance, and his contributions to literature in this department might have been supplied equally well from other sources; but as a dreamer and prose-poet he occupies a position from which he is not likely to be deposed.

  The key to a correct appreciation of De Quincey’s philosophical opinions is by no means difficult to discover. The venerable and the picturesque-these were the two qualities that profoundly influenced the emotional element in his nature, and enlisted his services as a general rule in the orthodox and constitutional cause. He tells us that his mind, like that of Sir Thomas Browne, “almost demanded mysteries,” and that his faith was that “though a great man may, by a rare possibility, be an infidel, an intellect of the highest order must build upon Christianity.” He heartily joined in the royalist sentiment that the Puritan creed “ was not a religion for a gentleman,” since all sectarianism “must appear spurious and mean in the eye of him who has been bred up in the grand classic forms of the Church of England or the Church of Rome.” His politics, for the same reason, were those rather of a mystic than of one personally interested in the questions at stake; and though his regard for rank and his veneration for solemn ceremonies and traditional form made him nominally a Tory, there are many indications in his writings that he had a keen eye for any picturesque elements even in the Radicalism which he denounced. He warmly defended the characters of Milton and Cromwell from the aspersions cast on them by Royalist writers, and argued, in his essay on the Falsification of English History, that in the seventeenth century democratic or popular politics were identical with patriotism, though he would not make the same admission concerning the events of his own age. But, however contemptuously earnest-minded reformers may look on such half-hearted principles as these, none can deny De Quincey the merit of possessing one solid quality, which must be held to outweigh many political sins. Little liking as he had for the programme of modern democracy, his personal sympathies were at all times warm and sincere, for, owing to his own intimacy with poverty and suffering, he was quite free from the least taint of Pharisaism or class prejudice. “Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto,”—this was his creed in all personal intercourse, whatever transcendental Toryism he might preach in his politics. “Plain human nature,” he says, “in its humblest and most homely apparel, was enough for me;” and there are few nobler passages in his Confessions than those which show him in this humane aspect, whether comforting the friendless child in the deserted house in Greek Street, or pacing Oxford Street in company with the outcast Ann, or haunting the London markets on a Saturday night and advising some poor family as to the best mode of laying out their scanty wages. How keenly he sympathised with the sufferings of the poor may be seen from a remark recorded by one who knew him in his later life.5 “All that I have ever had enjoyment of in life, the charms of friendship the smiles of women, and the joys of wine, seem to rise up to reproach me for my happiness when I see such misery, and think there is so much of it in the world.” In one passage of his works he speaks of the brutal spirit of the world which can look “lightly and indulgently on the afflicting spectacle of female prostitution as it exists in London and in all great cities;” in another he rejoices at the interference of Parliament to amend the “ruinous social evil” of female labour in mines. Corporal punishment was another barbarism, utterly distasteful to his humane and gentle disposition; he insists, as a great principle of social life, that “all corporal punishments whatsoever, and upon whomsoever inflicted, are hateful, and an indignity to our common nature,” and adds that among the many cases of reforms destined to failure, “this one, at least, never can be defeated, injured, or eclipsed.” This noble pity for suffering humanity was one of the most striking features of De Quincey’s character, and ought not to be lightly passed over by those who would gain a clear impression of him. It will be found that he was not altogether the mere Hedonist that the reader is tempted at first sight to believe him.

  In his literary criticism, as in his political opinions, De Quincey was a worshipper of the grand and the sublime. He regarded Jeremy Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne as the richest and loftiest of English prose authors; while in poetry he paid especial homage to the sovereignty of Shakspere’s power, the sublimity of Milton’s conceptions, and Wordsworth’s meditative beauty. His dislike of the eighteenth century school was so strong as to make him unjust in some of his criticisms, notably those on Pope and Samuel Johnson; and though he is always interesting and acute in his literary judgments, and sometimes, as in his essay on Shelley, shows an instinctive insight and sympathy which was scarcely to be expected where there was such diversity of character between the critic and his subject, he was as a rule too wayward to be a very trustworthy authority. His love of paradox of ten led him into difficult or untenable positions; as when he pronounced the sect of the Essenes to be identical with that of the early Christians; or in his still more famous contention that Judas Iscariot was no traitor, but a single-hearted and over-eager enthusiast who sought to precipitate his Master into action under the belief that he was aiming at an earthly and political kingdom; or, once again, in his defence of the principle of duelling as one of the glories of modern times, the absence of which in antiquity was a “foul blot” on the moral grandeur of the Greeks and Romans. Owing to his length of life De Quincey was able, when publishing the collected edition of his writings, to take a retrospect of his various criticisms, and in some cases, as in that of Dr. Parr, he had the satisfaction of pointing to the fulfilment of a literary prophecy. But there were some points, especially his depreciation of Goethe, in which he must have felt that his early judgment was very far from being confirmed by the general verdict of time and public opinion.

  A belief has sometimes been expressed that De Quincey was capable of writing a great historical work, as, for instance, on the fall of the Roman Empire. “Especially was he qualified,” says Gilfillan,1“by his superb classical learning, by the taste and tendency of his mind, by the graver graces of his diction, by his intimacy with the spirit and philosophy of Roman story, and by his belief in the Christian faith, for the proud task of writing the history of the Fourth Monarchy. Gibbon has not nearly exhausted the magnificent theme.” It is worth noting, in connection with this opinion, that De Quincey himself ref erred to this epoch as the greatest of historical subjects; “On its own separate account,” he wrote in his essay on The Cæsars, “the decline of this throne-shattering power must and will engage the foremost place among all historical reviews.” But there are many reasons which make it difficult to believe that De Quincey was the right person for such a task. In the first place he had not the patience and accuracy of research which are indispensable to the historian; colossal as his memory was, his characteristic disdain of books of reference must inevitably have led him astray. Then, again, he has no real belief in the substantial truth of history, which, as he says, “being built partly, and some of it altogether, upon anecdotage, must be a tissue of falsehoods,” since all dealers in anecdotes are tainted with exaggeration. It would certainly have been vain to expect strict historical impartiality in a writer of De Quincey’s emotional temperament, as may be inferred from his outspoken remarks on the rights and wrongs of Richard Bentley’s long struggle with Trinity College, where after stating his own opinion that Bentley was in the right and the College in the wrong, he proceeds as follows:7—“But, even if not, I would propose that at this time of day Bentley should be pronounced right, and his enemies utterly in the wrong. Whilst living, indeed, or whilst surviving in the persons of his friends and relations, the meanest of little rascals has a right to rigorous justice. But when he and his are bundled off to Hades, it is far better, and more considerate to the feelings of us public, that a little dog should be sacrificed than a great one; for by this means the current of one’s sympathy with an illustrious man is cleared of ugly obstructions.” This is no doubt partly humorous, yet it is really illustrative of the spirit of much of De Quincey’s work, and it suggests alarming reflections as to what would have been the fate of the “little dogs” of the Roman Empire, under a historian whose conscience was so elastic and accommodating. He himself has divided history into three classes, the narrative, the philosophic, and the scenical—to the last-mentioned of which his own historical sketches undoubtedly belong. “Histories of this class,” he says, “proceed upon principles of selection, presupposing in the reader a general knowledge of the great cardinal incidents, and bringing forward into especial notice those only which are susceptible of being treated with distinguished effect.” On this principle De Quincey seized on the picturesque characters and striking scenes of the period of which he treated, and it is this that lends so great a charm to his historical essays on The Cæsars, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, The Revolt of the Tartars, and other subjects. There is little doubt that in confining himself to this sort of “scenical history” he gauged his own powers accurately.

  In his views of nature De Quincey was a mystic, like Hawthorne, rather than a close observer. He had wandered much in his early days about the coach-roads and by-paths of England and Wales, but his knowledge of foreign lands was derived solely from books of travel, of which he was a great reader. In this way his mind had become familiar with “those sublime natural phenomena “ to which there are so many references in his books-the sandy deserts of Africa; the solitary steppes of Asia; the silence of Lapland; the Canadian forests; the gorgeous sunsets of the West Indies; and other similar scenes. It has been remarked8 that he is fond, of using similitudes drawn from characteristics of animal life; and in his account of the exhibitions in the Roman amphitheatre he enumerates with much zest the strange animals, “specious miracles of nature brought together from arctic and from tropic deserts,” then first presented to the gaze of the Roman populace. But this knowledge was certainly derived almost exclusively from book-lore; indeed, he candidly admits in one of the footnotes which he frequently appended to his writings that “grosser ignorance than his own in most sections of natural history is not easily imagined,” though he claims to be possessed of various odd fragment!” of this kind of knowledge, gleaned here and there in his solitary rambles. In the Appendix to his Confessions he wrote a beautiful and pathetic account of the death of a little bird, which had been given to one of his children by a neighbour, but he was compelled to confess that he could not “ornithologically describe or classify the bird,” beyond the suggestion that it belonged to the family of finches, “either a goldfinch, bullfinch, or at least something ending in inch.” In fact, Dr. Johnson’s famous remark about Goldsmith’s zoological knowledge might be equally well applied to De Quincey, though it must be remembered to the credit of the latter that he did not attempt to write a History of Animated Nature. His treatment of nature, as of history, was “scenical”; he seized with rapid intuition on such majestic or picturesque features as struck his fancy in his reading or observation, and reproduced them with wonderful effect in the gorgeous imagery of his prose poems.

  But whatever doubts we may reasonably feel concerning De Quincey’s capabilities as critic, historian, and naturalist, there can be no question of his supremacy in one branch of psychology which he made peculiarly his own—the study of dreams and certain solemn and mysterious phenomena of the human mind. The inclination to reverie, strongly ingrained in his nature, was quickened and fostered by various circumstances and incidents of his boyhood, of which he has given us an account, in his autobiographical sketches, love, grief, and solitude being foremost among these influences; while the habit of opium-eating, acquired in early manhood, gave an additional stimulus to the meditative and dreaming faculty. No writer has ever analysed and reproduced these mental phenomena so marvellously as De Quincey has done in his Suspiria de Profundis, and many passages of his Confessions, Autobiography, and other works. His eye is extraordinarily keen to mark those sublime aspects and phases of external nature which exercise a potent though inexplicable influence on the thoughtful mind-the deep unbroken quietude of the early summer morning; the solemn thoughts of death aroused by the pomp of the summer noon, or the hours immediately succeeding to sunset; the sense of pathos excited by the appearance of the earliest spring flowers, or by the occasional brief resurrection of summer in the closing autumn days. “It is all but inconceivable,” he says, “to men of unyielding and callous sensibilities, how profoundly others find their reveries modified and overruled by the external character of the immediate scene around them.” His ear, too, was almost preternaturally sensitive to the influences of sound; whether in listening to the “ pealing anthems “of some mountain stream, or to the music of Beethoven, or to the thrilling voice of Grassini, or to the melody of the Italian language talked by Italian women in the gallery of the Opera House. “Impassioned dancing, sustained by impassioned music,” so he tells us in his Autobiography, was the most interesting and affecting scene which the world could offer him, “exciting and sustaining the very grandest emotions of philosophic melancholy to which the human spirit is open.” Again, what writer has noted with such profound insight those grand and pathetic features of modern life, which escape the remark of less imaginative observers, such as the sense of mystery and immensity inspired by a great city, and the magnetic attraction it exercises on the surrounding country; or the “glory of motion,” revealed to De Quincey in the fiery speed, picturesque surroundings, and perfect organization of the English mail-coaches? Nor is this peculiar faculty of De Quincey’s genius manifested only in the elaborate dream-fugues and opium-visions by which his name is best known; but also in his record of many passing incidents amidst the wanderings and reveries of his early life, where themes otherwise trivial and commonplace are glorified and exalted by the power of this poetic gift. To take one instance out of many, there is the account given in the Confessions of De Quincey’s departure from Wales, when he deemed it necessary to commence a London life-an important occasion, no doubt, in the career of a young man, but by no means a rare or unusual experience. Yet on this seemingly slight foundation how wonderful a structure is reared of “tumultuous vision” and dim presentiment! There is nothing in all his writings more impressive than the description of that calm, pensive; ghost-like November day, on which he set out on his journey with thoughts divided between the pastoral solitudes of Wales and the fierce tumults of London; or the night of storm that followed, as, filled with “heart-shaking reflections,” he waited at the Shrewsbury inn for the mail-coach that was to carry him from this point to his destination. It is this power of suggesting mysterious analogies between the realms of sense and the realms of spirit that constitutes De Quincey one of the supreme mystics of literature; it is this that makes his best writings unique and imperishable, in spite of his desultory methods of workmanship and lack of philosophic steadfastness. “Of this,” he says, “let every one be assured—that he owes to the impassioned books which he has read many a thousand more of emotions than he can consciously trace back to them. Dim by their origination; these emotions yet arise in him, and mould him through life like forgotten incidents of his childhood.” A similar importance is claimed by De Quincey for the phenomena of dreams, as, being the “one great tube through which man communicates with the shadowy,” on which account the. Dreaming faculty was to him a possession of the utmost dignity and consequence. He considered even Richter too elaborate- and too artificial “to realize the grandeur of the shadow” in his dream-studies; and he complains of Swedenborg as “rending the veil” from the spiritual world, and carrying an earthy atmosphere “into regions which, by early connections with the sanctities of death, have a hold upon the reverential affections such as they seldom lose.” There is a sublime pathos and intellectual grandeur in De Quincey’s visions which is not to be found in the fantastic conceptions of Coleridge or any other member of the opium-eating brotherhood of dreamers.

  Well adapted for powerful expression of this meditative psychology was De Quincey’s literary style. According to his own definition of rhetoric as “the art of aggrandizing and bringing out into strong relief, by means of various and striking thoughts, some aspect of truth which of itself is supported by no spontaneous feelings, and therefore rests upon artificial aids,” he must himself be classed as a rhetorician, the follower of Jeremy Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne, to whom he awards the spolia opima of English prose literature. Among the artificial aids of which he not unfrequently availed himself, the foremost were that “ elaborate stateliness,” the use of which, provided that the occasion be seasonable, he expressly approves in his essay on Rhetoric, and that ornate and effective “word-painting” which is a well-known feature of his writings. Though he was not in the strict sense a poet, having even in his youthful days discovered that, possible as it would be for him to win a place among the soi-disant poets of the day, poetry was not his natural vocation,—he none the less devoted all a poet’s care to the structure of his sentences, and the arrangement of his words, and felt all a poet’s jealous regard for the sanctity of his mother-tongue. “If there is one thing in this world,” he says, “which, next after the flag of his country and spotless honour, should be holy in the eyes of a young poet, it is the language of his country.” It has been recorded of De Quincey9 that he had a strange habit of smoothing and cleaning the greasy Scotch paper-money which offended his fastidious taste, and of polishing and brightening silver before he parted with it—a practice which may be regarded as typical of the indefatigable care lavished on his writings before he gave them currency. In his essay on Style he speaks with unusual severity of the carelessness and lazy indifference shown by most writers in the moulding of their sentences, adding, with obvious reference to himself, that he had known an author “so laudably fastidious in this subtle art as to· have recast one chapter of a series no less than seventeen times; so difficult was the ideal or model of excellence which he kept before his mind.” Some readers, perhaps, will think that De Quincey employed the ornament derived from the inversion of words till it became almost an affectation: especially in such phrases as that in which he describes opium as “an engine so awful of consolation and support; or, “simply as an anodyne it was, under the mere coercion of pain the severest; “a form of sentence of which countless examples might be gathered from his writings. Nor is his own grammatical accuracy, strict as he was in theory, at all times unimpeachable; his weakness consisting, as Professor Minto has pointed out, in a careless and ambiguous use of the participle, almost inexplicable in a writer of De Quincey’s calibre. An instance may be seen in the following sentence, from which the subordinate parts are omitted. “I remember even yet that when first arrayed, at four years old, in nankeen trousers, all my female friends filled my pockets with half-crowns,”—a remark which, while testifying to the generosity of the ladies in question, seems to 1eave their age and costume open to grave misconstruction. But a more serious fault in De Quincey’s literary style, inasmuch as it was not, like that I have just mentioned, an occasional peccadillo, but a natural and ineradicable blemish, was his frequent discursiveness, springing no doubt from the immense stores of anecdote and general knowledge with which his mind was filled, and of which he was too often tempted to disburden himself. His so-called Autobiography, for example, does indeed contain a good deal of information about himself, but there is also a vast amount of gossip on a variety of other subjects, one whole chapter being devoted to a description of an eccentric young woman whom De Quincey styles “the Female Infidel,” and two others to a history of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It might have been better for De Quincey if, like Demosthenes, he had had a Phocion to “prune his periods.” “The body has an awfu’ sight o’ words,” was the remark of a Scotch cook who had been accustomed to receive her orders direct from De Quincey; and if he used circumlocution in the process of ordering dinner, he indulged in far wider flights in his literary and biographical essays. It is somewhat amusing to find him, in his article on Style, insisting strongly on the “vast importance of compression,” and the “culture of an unwordy diction.”

  I have already remarked on the co-existence in De Quincey’s mind of the imaginative and logical faculties, once thought to be antagonistic and incompatible. A similar conjunction of opposite qualities is observable in his literary style, where a vein of broad humour, expressed in familiar and colloquial language, runs side by side with the gravity of his most solemn imagery, recalling the reader now and again from the phantasies of the dreamer to the actualities of every-day life, much in the same way as the “knocking at the gate” in Macbeth, according to De Quincey’s own analysis, serves to re-establish, in the minds of the audience, the existence of the world in which they live, after a parenthesis of the world of darkness. There is, and will probably always be, considerable difference of opinion concerning the quality of De Quincey’s peculiar and characteristic humour, some of his critics being inclined to value it very highly, while others will allow him credit for nothing better than a “sarcastic pungency” of a distinctly second rate order.10 In this respect he certainly appears in quite a different character from that which is usually ascribed to the opium-eating visionary; for his humour, if such it is to be called, so far from being pensive or subdued in tone, is keen, bold, and at times almost irrepressible, harping persistently on the subject of merriment, and recurring to it again and again with manifest enjoyment. This humorous spirit is seen at its best and brightest in the essays on Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts, Coleridge and Opium-eating, Sortilege and Astrology, or the tale of The Spanish Military Nun; but it will be found scattered here and there throughout all De Quincey’s writings, and it must be admitted that it occasionally degenerates into something very like mere boisterous slang and badinage, offending the taste of the reader, whose mind has perhaps been just attuned to the stately rhythm of some highly wrought passage, by the bathos of the sudden descent from the celestial to the commonplace. But such cases are the exception; for as a rule De Quincey’s humour is not only delightful in itself, but does good service by acting as a foil to his higher qualities.

  In one of his many footnotes De Quincey has given an excellent definition of genius as distinguished from talent. “Talent,” he asserts, “is intellectual power of every kind, which acts and manifests itself by and through the will and the active forces. Genius, as the verbal origin implies, is that much rarer species of intellectual power which is derived from the genial nature—from the spirit of suffering and enjoyment, from the spirit of pleasure and pain, as organized more or less perfectly; and this is independent of will. It is a function of the passive nature.” Judged by this distinction—and it would be difficult to find a sounder one—De Quincey must always be classed with men of genius rather than with men of talent, for the spontaneity of his writings is fully as apparent as their power. Though he was largely indebted to the accession of learning and literary taste, and to the external embellishments of his brilliant rhetorical fancy, yet his success was primarily due to his imaginative subtlety, to the inspiration that is inborn, rather than to the culture that can be acquired. Thus it was that though his life was cast in an age of mighty intellects, with some of whom he was himself closely associated, he preserved to the end his own individuality and independence, setting the stamp of his peculiar genius clearly and unmistakably upon every page of his works. The only writer of this century, or indeed of any century, to whom he bears much affinity, is Coleridge; and even here the similarity, though very striking as regards the general disposition and mode of life, does not extend to the manner of thought and expression. A reader of De Quincey’s biographical essay on Coleridge11 must be struck by the fact that much of what he says of Coleridge’s dreamy nature and dilatory habits would apply equally well to himself; and in both cases the use of opium brought an aggravation of the evil. The same resemblance may be traced in the prodigious memory, great conversational powers, and general literary scope of the two authors. De Quincey has himself remarked that he “read for thirty years in the same track as Coleridge-that track in which few of any age will ever follow us, such as German metaphysicians, Latin schoolmen, thaumaturgic Platonists, religious mystics.” Finally the same reproach has been commonly urged against both, of having wasted their fine powers in trivial and desultory occupations, and of having left no great monumental work. It has been my endeavour to show that this assertion, as regards De Quincey at any rate, is only true in the very limited sense that he instinctively preferred to throw his writings into the form of short papers, rather than bulky volumes. Those who condemn him on this account should remember Addison’s satire on the tendency to estimate the value of books by their quantity rather than their quality. “I have observed,”12 he says, “ that the author of a folio, in all companies and conversations, sets himself above the author of a quarto, the author of a quarto above the author of an octavo, and so on, by a gradual descent and subordination to an author in twenty-fours. In a word, authors are usually ranged in company after the same manner as their works are upon a shelf.” It is only by the adoption of some such criterion as this, that De Quincey’s masterpieces can be ruled out of the category of great works.


1 “Gallery of Literary Portraits.”
2 July 1861.
3 Collected Works, viii. 3-11.
4 “Life of De Quincey,” by H. A. Page. 1877.
5 “Personal Recollections of De Quincey,” by J. R. Findlay. 1886.
6 “Gallery of Literary Portraits.”
7 “Essay on Richard Bentley.”
8 Cf. Chapter on De Quincey in Professor Minto’s Manual of Prose Literature.
9 Cf. Page’s “Life of De Quincey,” ii. 145.
10 Cf. Westminster Review, April, 1854.
11 Vol. ii. “Lake Poets.”
12 Spectator, No. 529.

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