FROM end to end of our long gallery of national portraits of British authors, ranging through five hundred years from Chaucer to Tennyson, we shall not pause before a more interesting group than that of the great writers who lived in the opening of our nineteenth century.
Only one other group is more remarkable—the starry constellation of
Elizabeth—by virtue of the loftier reach, and wider range, and towering majesty of Shakspeare and Bacon.
Here is Wordsworth, little suspected as greatest amongst many great by his earlier contemporaries, with head slightly bowed, and look of solemn thought, plodding along his most cheerless way, smiling at times with a consciousness of the 'all hail hereafter' that he should yet live to hear: but doing his work dutifully while it was day, no matter though he should go to sleep without his fame.
Coleridge, the 'noticeable man with large grey eyes,' in which there glittered the spirit of Eld, and glorious brow, and face as of an angel.
Byron, darkly passionate and miserably peevish, with the taste of his own life bitter in his mouth: speaking his new decrees to the world of poetry in the name of a capital 'I,' and fulminating like a live crater on those who would not bow and believe; eager to storm the heights of Parnassus, but unwilling to take his seat there, unless he reigned alone; pursued all his upward way by the gnawing consciousness that every step which lifted him higher over the heads of men only served to expose his poor lame foot! Lamb, with that quick keen face, gleaming eyes, and stammering tongue; with a deep dark tarn of tears in his heart, for all that sunny sweetness overflowing the face; hiding his secret skeleton with all sorts of flowers and queerest, quips of frolic and fun; his Quaker primness giving such piquancy to his sly jests: his tender insertion of the hook into his victim, as old Isaac advises respecting the worm, 'as though you loved it.' Sydney Smith, with his rare, honest, hearty English presence, and ringing mirth into which he put his
whole heart; turning his humour to useful purposes, with all the jollity of Mark Tapley under difficulties.
Tom Moore, gay and glittering; a very humming-bird of song, fluttering from flower to flower, sipping their sweetnesses, and repaying them with a tiny music; all sparkle, and colour, and motion; caught amongst the strings of Erin's harp, and making melody with the touch of wings rather than with the cunning fingers of some mighty bard who crowded his life into his play. Southey, all dignity and distance to strangers, with an air of lofty regard, and a look as though his spirit had reined back the head, like a horse thrown on its haunches.
Honest Walter Scott, every inch the Laird, with his strong Border physiognomy; no
nimbus round his brow, but a head and shoulders that can bear a world of toil and trouble; a healthy stalwart man.
Shelley, the beautiful Damon 'unconditioned;' with eternal youth in his look; a spirit of good in the presence of suffering humanity; a fair fiend with a foul tongue in the presence of that holy Saviour whose earthly form he could not recognise.
Godwin, stately and cold as a Greek bust; 'all was picture' as he passed his eyes over the map of life; there was nothing real for him but that which is to be.
Christopher North, a man of larger mould, with the head of a hero and heart of a lion; a form that might have stood first as the live figure-head of the Norseman's war-ship; moving into the fight chanting some old runic rhyme, with fire in eye, and foam on lip, and battle-axe in hand; large in look, ruddy and radiant with life; a commanding spirit that rode as on wings over the buoyant animal forces, which reared and plunged 'like proud seas under it,' and bore it on to many victories. Keats, leaning his chin on hand, and luxuriating in his languorous sense of beauty; looking on external nature with the large eyes and clinging love of those who are not long for this life. Talfourd, youthful and in listening attitude, with looks made radiant by reflected light.
Hazlitt, gloomy and defiant, ever standing on guard ready to defend Napoleon.
Many other striking faces attract us in this group; but there is one that just now holds our attention more than all the rest
—the portrait, of a small man with a large brain, oppressive in brow, and peering out of eyes that have seen much sorrow. The head shows a want of animal force behind.
The mouth is drawn down noticeably at the corners. The eyes look out of two rings of darkness.
A spirit of singular temper and strange experience! This is Thomas de Quincey.
Let us look at his portrait a little further; it is that of a man to know more about.
Although De Quincey bas not written one of the world's great
works—not having finished his 'De Emendatione Humani Intellectus'—he has left us in possession of a vast and delightful body of writings, unique in character and supreme in kind.
He was a man very aptly and richly endowed for a historical critic, and as a writer of narrative from personal or national history; one of those writers, rare in kind, who, like Mr Ruskin, possess the better half of the complete critic nature, having the creative intellect.
If a hundred of the world's best. authors had to be named by us publicly, De Quincey
should be one. Privately, we place him amongst the first fifty!
De Quincey was yet a young man in the great dawn of new life that rose over the world with the French Revolution, touching with strange glamour the eyes of the young, till they saw apocalyptic visions; touching the faces of men, till many caught a glimpse of the coming universal brotherhood, in what seemed a millennial light; touching the lips of common men with fire, till they too shared in the general inspiration, and prophesied; touching the old world with such a gleam of glory, it appeared as though the new heavens were already beginning to arch over the new earth.
Yet in that time, when humanity seemed marching to a nobler music, towards a splendid future, and 'triumphant looks' were the 'common language' of all eyes, De Quincey was not carried away to the same height as the rest of his contemporaries.
He, too, was young and had the heart that could leap with the new life; but he had also the brooding thought, and the serene eye that could take a wide survey over the empires of time and change.
He knew that the world was not thus awake and ready when the real Saviour came in the person of that blessed babe of Bethlehem; and he waited to know what this new-born babe of liberty should prove, as it grew in stature and in years, before he went far from his way to bend the knee or lift up the 'All hail.'
So that, when his contemporaries came back from their jaunt in the land of splendid phantoms, they found De Quincey standing on the ancient ways, holding fast by the deeper foundation of things, and silently communing with his subtle sense.
To be sure, it must be admitted that be had been making a phantom-world of his own to dwell in, with the aid of opium, to pass some of the time away, being very lonely.
Nevertheless, his nature had a certain firm rootage in all that is most enduring, which kept it from being swayed by the tricksy tendencies of the time, as many were; and when the strife and conflict moved over the face of the great deep of revolution in France and political life at home, his lifeblood was instantly drawn to the heart of his own country; his first thought was to wonder what it all boded for her; and thenceforth he stood sentinel in her cause.
Speaking of the way in which the foundations of his moral being were laid, he says:—
'Were I to return thanks to Providence for all the separate blessings of my early situation, I would single out these four as worthy of special commemoration: That I lived in a rustic solitude; that this solitude was in England; that, my infant feelings were moulded by the gentlest of sisters; finally that I and they were dutiful and loving members of a pure, holy, and magnificent Church.'
His steadier footing and surer eye in a time of tumult, were undoubtedly one result of this early life.
He loved England devotedly, and was English, soul and body. His sense of the gorgeous in sound, which held solemn revel in the processional pomp of his noblest prose, was fed by the lofty strains of a grand church music.
His dwelling in solitude calmed and enlarged his mental life, and empowered him to give us the following description of a child's sense of solitude:—
'God speaks to children also in dreams, and by the oracles that lurk in darkness.
But in solitude, above all things, when made vocal to the meditative heart by the truths and service of a national church, God holds with little children 'communion undisturbed.' Solitude, though it may be silent as light, is like light the mightiest of agencies; for solitude is essential to man.
All Men come into this world alone; all leave it alone. Even a little child has a dread, whispering consciousness, that if he should be summoned to travel into God's presence, no gentle nurse will be allowed to lead him by the hand; nor mother to carry him in her arms;
nor little sister to share his trepidations. King and priest, warrior
and maiden, philosopher and child—all must walk those mighty galleries
alone. The solitude, therefore, which in this world appals or
fascinates a child's heart, is but the echo of a far deeper solitude
through which he has already passed, and of another solitude, deeper
still, through which he has to pass: reflex of one solitude; prefiguration of another.'
This passage brings us naturally to the life De Quincey lived, and to that early portion of which he has written so eloquently. He was born on the 15th of August 1785, at 'The Farm,' a country house near Manchester.
He came into the world, as he tells us, on the happiest tier in the social scaffolding for all good influences; his family position being neither too high nor too low; neither too rich nor too pool;
high enough to see models of good manners, of self-respect and simple
dignity, and obscure enough to be left in the sweetest of solitudes.
A happy state enough, but one into which sorrow and death would come!
Thomas de Quincey was a small sensitive child, with a big
brain and a nervous system not sufficiently well covered in by the robuster
physique which ensures so much immunity in the happy unconsciousness of strong, healthy childhood.
He appears to have been born with a liability to that 'weird seizure' spoken of by Tennyson in 'The Princess.' Many persons, especially poets, have felt this ' weird seizure,' whereby some echo-life of a world not realized seems to break in upon this life suddenly and in the midst of men and things, as well as in solitude.
De Quincey lived this echo-life mentally all through his pilgrimage; but we imagine it must have been very strong on him during his early years.
He symbols this experience for those who have never felt it, in his way of writing any given subject,
dually,—first the reality, and then the for-off echo in spirit-world.
In him this is connected with a tendency to trance, and we find him in his sixth year struck down in a trance by the side of his little sister, who lay all in
white; dead in the glorious summer weather; and one of his many noble prose poems is written as the echo of this experience, occurring twelve years after the real affliction:—
'Once again, after twelve years' interval, the nursery of my childhood expanded before me; my sister was moaning in bed; and I was beginning to be restless with fears not intelligible to myself.
Once again, the elder nurse, but now dilated to colossal proportions, stood as upon some Grecian stage with her uplifted hand, and like the superb Medea towering amongst her children in the nursery of Corinth, smote me senseless to the ground.
Again, I am in the chamber with my sister's corpse; again the pomps of life rise up in silence; the glory of summer, the Syrian sunlights, the frost of death.
Dream forms itself mysteriously within dream; within these Oxford dreams remoulds itself continually, the trance in my sister's chamber, the blue heavens, the everlasting vault, the soaring billows, the throne steeped in the thought (but not the sight) of "who might sit thereon," the flight, the pursuit, the irrecoverable steps of my return to earth.
Once more, the funeral procession gathers; the priest in his white surplice stands waiting with a book by the side of an open grave; the Sacristan is waiting with his shovel; the coffin has sunk; the dust to dust has descended.
Again I was in the church on a heavenly Sunday morning. The golden sunlight of God slept amongst the heads of His apostles, His martyrs, His saints; the fragment from the litany, the fragment from the clouds, awoke again the lawny beds that went up to scale the heavens, awoke again the shadowy arms that went downward to meet them.
Once again arose the swell of the anthem, the burst of the Hallelujah chorus, the storm, the trembling movement of the choral passion, the agitation of my own trembling sympathy, the tumult of the choir, the wrath of the organ.
Once more I, that wallowed in the dust, became he that rose up to the clouds; and now all was bound up into unity; the first stage and the last were melted into each other as in some sunny glorifying haze.
For high in heaven hovered a gleaming host of faces, veiled with wings around the pillows of the dying children.
And such beings sympathize equally with sorrow that grovels and with sorrow that soars.
Such beings pity alike the children that are languishing in death, and the children that live only to languish in tears.'
One trait which De Quincey relates of his mother sheds a vivid light on his own character.
He says she thought much less of her own children than of other people's, and had a shy timidity on the subject, as though she half apologized to the world for having produced them.
He largely inherited this feeling, and laboured under its influence right through life; more especially as he came in contact with that wonderful brother of his who tyrannized over him so naturally, by sheer force of character.
If De Quincey remained a dreamer to the end, it was not his brother's fault.
If his spirit never worked its way fully into the world of action, through the 'gateways of the senses, to flash out in dilated eye and nostril, corded sinews, clenched hands, and great deeds, it was not because this resolute brother spared any effort to make a man of him, in his way of bringing him up to the mark.
A great contrast to little Thomas was this sturdy cloud-compeller, who loved to ride on the whirlwind and direct the storm, and who had a genius for mischief, an absolute inspiration for creating the chariot in which he was to ride, the storm he was to drive, or say storms, for he could have driven tempests four-in-hand.
He despised the younger sensitive plant of the family, and was frank enough to show it on all occasions and in all possible ways.
For a time the younger brother courted his contempt, as his only means of finding refuge and repose from the storm and strife of the turbulent soul who would otherwise try to force him into a seat at his side on his whirlwind journeys.
'O! heavens! there is no saying how far the horrid man might go in his unreasonable demands upon me. I groaned under the weight of his expectations; and if I laid but the first round of such a staircase, why, then, I saw in vision a vast Jacob's ladder towering upwards to the clouds, mile after mile, league after league, and myself running up and down this ladder, like any fatigue party of Irish hodmen, to the top of any Babel which my wretched admirer might, choose to build.'
De Quincey's narrative of life with his brother, and their fights with the factory boys, is one of the choicest bits of writing in all his works.
Over the surface of a deep, quiet stream of knowledge, and wise thinking, and kindliest feeling, there run the most delicious ripples of humour, touched with a rare radiance.
The origin of the quarrel might be thought incommensurate with the length of the war.
It began by a factory boy shouting derisively as the two brothers passed by, 'Holloa, bucks!'
But, as De Quincey remarks, the uninitiated that think so will be wrong.
'The word "dandies," which was what the villain meant, had not then been born.
"Bucks" was the nearest word at hand in his Manchester vocabulary; he gave all he could, and let us dream the rest.'
But in the next moment he discovered that the brothers wore boots, which was unpardonable to his democratic sense, and so he consummate his crime by saluting them, as 'Boots! boots!'
'My brother made a dead stop, surveyed him with intense disdain, and bade him draw near, that he might give his flesh to the fowls of the air.'
The boy declined to accept the invitation. A shower of stones followed, and war was proclaimed.
The younger De Quincey did not see that they had suffered an unpardonable offence in being called 'bucks,' while the fact of the 'boots' was patent to everybody.
His brother, however, soon rectified his views, and impressed him with 'a sense of paramount duty to his brother, which was threefold.
First, it seems that I owed military allegiance to him, as my commander-in-chief, whenever we "took the field."
Secondly, by the law of nations, I being a cadet of my house, owed suit and service to him, who was its head; and he assured me that twice a year, on
my birthday and on his, he had a right, strictly speaking, to make me lie down, and to set his foot upon my neck.
Lastly, by a law not so rigorous, but valid amongst gentlemen—viz., "by the
comity of nations "—it seems I owed eternal deference to one so much older than myself, so much wiser, stronger, braver, more beautiful, and more swift of foot.'
And so the battles raged day by day, sometimes twice; and Rome's immortal three men never kept the bridge of old more valiantly than the two brothers kept the bridge at Greenhays, save on those occasions when they exercised the undoubted right, guaranteed to every Briton by Magna
Charta—to run away.
Once the younger brother was taken prisoner, and seen to the intense disgust of the elder, in the arms of the female enemy, being kissed breathless.
Upon which he showed clearly, in his orders of the day, that frightful consequences must inevitably ensue if major-generals (as a general principle ) should allow themselves to be kissed by the enemy.
In this campaign the elder brother showed his great capacities for command.
If he had lived, there can be little doubt that his qualities would have given the world assurance of a remarkable man, and made a similar impression on the minds of others to that which he produced on the mind of his young admiring, slave.
He would have made a great man of action, being immeasurably active, able, aspiring, confident, and most fertile in resources.
Books he hated, except such as he had written, himself, and these were on all subjects known, and various unknown.
'On necromancy,' says De Quincey, 'he was very great; witness his profound work, though but a fragment, and unfortunately, long since departed to the bosom of Cinderella, entitled, "How to raise a Ghost; and when you've got him down, how to keep him down."
Then he had a startling and wonderful speculation, with which he would thrill the hearts of his young auditory, on the possibility (not at all unlikely, he affirmed) that a federation, or solemn league and conspiracy, might take place amongst the infinite generations of ghosts against the single generation of men at any one time composing the garrison of this earth.
He would explain the phrase for expressing that a man had died, 'he has gone over to the great majority,' until his hearers easily comprehended the appalling state of the case, and saw that should the ghosts combine, we should be left in a fearful minority.
He was thoroughly beaten himself, however, on one subject, much to the joy of the youngsters, though he personally would never own to defeat.
One of the family had been admiring and envying the flies for their powers of walking on the ceiling. 'Pooh!' he replied, 'they are impostors; they pretend to do it, but they can't do it as it ought to be done. Ah! you should see
me standing upright on the ceiling, with my head downwards, for half-an-hour together, meditating profoundly.'
Sister Mary remarked that she would like to see him in that position.
'If that is the case,' he said, confident as some Norse Skrymner, 'it's very well that all is ready, except as to a strap or two.' Being a good skater, he had fancied that something might be done on that principle.
He tried, but finding he could not get sufficient impetus to start, he gave it up, or came down, explaining that the friction was too retarding from the plaster of Paris; the case would be different if the ceiling were coated with ice.
So he changed his plan, and made an apparatus for getting himself launched like a humming-top.
He would then 'spin upon his own axis, and sleep upon his own axis—perhaps he might even dream upon it;' and he laughed at 'those scoundrels the flies,' that never improved in their pretented art, nor made anything of it.'
The apparatus, however, would not work; a fact evidently owing to the stupidity of the gardener.
There was nothing now, if he clung to the top principle, save being kept up by incessant whipping; but that, of course, no gentleman should submit to.
'It was well,' remarks De Quincey, 'that my brother's path in life diverged from mine, else I should infallibly have broken my neck in confronting perils which brought neither honour nor profit.'
De Quincey remembered little of his father, who was an Indian merchant.
The one sole memorial which restored his image to him, was the memory of the night on which he came home to die.
The listening during long hours for the sound of wheels and horses' feet—the sudden emerging of horses' heads from the gloom of the
lane—the glory of the dying day; followed by the stillness, and white pillows, and white face of the dying
man,—these things made an impression for life, and created countless shadowy pictures and endless echoes in dreamland.
We shall not be able to follow De Quincey on his entrance into the world of strife during his early schoolboy years.
His family removed from Manchester to Bath, at the Grammar School of which town he made enemies by the quality of his Latin verses.
At fifteen years of age, he accompanies a young friend, Lord Westport, with his tutor, to Ireland.
In this chapter of the book of his life, which he has entitled, 'I enter the world,' he receives his first revelation of womanly beauty or girlish loveliness, as first seen in the dawnlight of love, which became another force in what he calls his premature manhood.
This was under peculiar circumstances, in which a sister of the Countess of Errol had taken his part:—
'Heavens! what a spirit of joy and festal pleasure radiated from her eyes, her step, her voice, her manner!
She was frisk, and the very impersonation of innocent gaiety. Like Spenser's Bradamant, with martial scorn she couched her lance on the side of the party suffering wrong.
Never, until this hour, had I thought of women as objects of a possible interest, or of a reverential love.
Now it first struck me that life might owe half its attractions and all its graces to female companionship.
This was, in a proper sense, a revelation; it fixed a great era of change in my life; and this new born idea being agreeable to the uniform tendencies of my own
nature—that is, lofty and aspiring—it governed my life with great power, and with most salutary effects.'
All readers of De Quincey's works will return again and again to this first volume, with its pathetic or humorous episodes of the beloved sister so early 'wede awa;' the stalwart brother, who was also doomed to an early death; and 'poor Pink,' whose bones have lain for many and many a year at the bottom of the Atlantic: and its account of blind guardians and stupid pedagogues, who chafed the proud young spirit into a more morbid sensitiveness.
Next we find him at Laxton teaching Greek to Lady Carbery, so that they might make their own translation of certain Bible words, regarding which our precocious commentator was deep in speculation.
This picture of learnèd boy and learning beauty is pleasant to us, as undoubtedly the task was to the youthful tutor.
He had got into paradise; lighted by the smile of kindness, goodness, and loveliness.
Alas, not for long! Those persecuting guardians summoned him forth, and stood waving their infernal fiery sword over the gate of his garden of Eden.
Just as he seemed getting so near to the perfect light they would hurl him into the outer darkness.
They sent him back to school; so much they could do. But they could not keep him there.
His spirit had become too enlarged for the old bonds, through its late experience; he could not stand them now, and so he ran away.
On the last night, we find him again overcome by the tendency to trance.
The 'weird seizure' takes him, and the echo-life breaks in, in shape of a memory of 'St Paul's Whispering Gallery.
What echo-voices, at the other end of the life-gallery, would repeat, in eternal thunders, the consequences of that deed done so silently in the quiet summer, dawn?
He knew not, but prayed, and went on.
It was in 1802 he set out for a walking-tour through Wales, with very small means of subsistence.
Sometimes he slept in first-class hotels, sometimes in the heather an a hill-side, fearing lest, 'whilst my sleeping face was upturned to the stars, some one of the many little Brahminical-looking cows on the Cambrian hills, one or other, might poach her foot into the centre of my face; sometimes he dined for sixpence, sometimes for nothing on the berries off the hedge; sometimes his dinner was earned by writing letters for cottagers, and love-letters for sweethearts.
Gradually he drifts into London, to suffer that strangest of all written experience of life in the great city.
His sufferings were self-inflicted. He had plenty of friends, as the world goes, but from these he shrank.
He was heir to a considerable fortune. He had learning which might have been turned into money.
But he was under his 'burden of the Incommunicable,' and he suffered in silence.
He drank to the dregs of that bitterness which it is to be homeless, friendless, foodless in that wilderness of life, wealth, and human habitations.
The gnawings of hunger, the torments of the money-lenders, the pangs of a proud spirit, preyed on him for months of famishing days and shivering nights.
The trial of cold seems to have stuck him more than the horror of hunger.
A more killing curse, he says, does not exist for man or woman, than the bitter combat between the weariness that prompts sleep, and the keen searching cold that forces you to wake and seek warmth in weary weary exercise.
However, an asylum from the open air, even without bed or blankets, was better than a stone doorstep.
And a strange asylum was his, in that, forlorn large house, whose tenants were chiefly rats.
There he lay down at night with the poor forsaken child; a bundle of law papers for a pillow; the little one creeping close to him for warmth and protection against the ghosts which she dreaded so much.
Poverty brought him into companionship with strange bedfellows, and made him acquainted with the wandering children of night.
The account which he gives of 'poor Ann' will make all tender hearts yearn with a prayer that some ministering spirit of God may have seen her soul's immortal jewel amidst the mirk and mire of London, and saved it to shine in a heavenly setting.
To the wearing pain of this period, De Quincey attributes in great part his incentive to opium-eating.
The unnatural state produced morbid desires. The calamity struck root so deeply into his physical constitution as to grow there, and spring up, overshadowing his life to the end.
What a revelation it seemed, that first taking of opium! What an immortal and beneficent agent of exalted pleasure!
A panacea for sorrow and suffering, heartache and brainache—exemption from pain and human woes. You swallowed a little of the dark drug, and lo, the inner spirit's eyes were
opened—a fairy ministrant had burst into wings, waving a wondrous wand—a fresh tree of knowledge had yielded its fruit, and it seemed good as it was beautiful! There was indeed a discovery.
'Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle; and peace of mind sent down by the mail.'
De Quincey is eloquent upon the pleasures of opium, and is careful to point out the difference between its effects and those of alcohol.
It does not make the spirit of a man drunk, nor rouse the animal passions.
It produces a lull in the action of the lower human faculties, and leaves the divine part free and paramount; 'the moral affections are in a state
of cloudless serenity, and high over all the great light of the majestic intellect.'
The spirit reigns as it were gathered up and suspended from the work of its ordinary bodily functions, while, the brain in its trance is still left with sufficient consciousness of what is taking place in spirit-world to give us a glowing report.
But, in consequence of this suspension of the ordinary intercourse of mind and
matter—this partial disintegration of soul and body—we find that the opium-eater cannot bring his
visions—'brighter than madness or the dreams of wine'—home to us who are left standing on our earth.
The mind was too far divorced from the executive powers of the brain.
The dreaming brain was not sufficiently conscious to become a perfect mirror of the waking spirit, and so there can be no full and steady revelation of the beauty which the spirit may have seen.
There only remains the daze of some unremembered brightness—hauntings of the memory, shadowy dim, and perplexing.
The magnificent imagery of the night, that rose to music in cloud-towers, and fairy palaces, star-crowned, so that angel-forms might step down to earth by them, are all gone in the morning like a mirage of the desert, and the bright creations have left their beholder all the darker in the shadows which they throw behind them.
De Quincey maintains that his opium-eating arrested the early workings
of pulmonary disease, which we think not at all unlikely. So far so
good—arrested disease means returning health—if opium can do this on a
small scale, as we know it does, why should it not on a large scale?
Let it have full credit. But, for any mental inspiration, we
denounce it not as a gross, but most ethereal, humbug!
That Duke of Norfolk who was the partizan friend of Fox, Burke, and Sheridan, used to say, 'Next Monday, wind and weather permitting, I purpose to be drunk.'
In like manner, De Quincey used to appoint his days of festal joy in the
opium-eater's paradise. He has left us one transfixing picture of him self opiatized, and listening to Grassini
singing. 'Shivering with expectation I sat, when the time drew near for
her golden epiphany;
shivering I rose from my seat, incapable of rest, when that heavenly and harp-like voice sang its own victorious welcome in its prolusive
threttánelo, threttánelo.' De Quincey's opium-eating, or rather laudanum-drinking, rose at one time to 8,000 drops a day.
He conquered his habit more than once, but found he could not live without his drug.
We get a curious glimpse of the effect of his constant habit of taking laudanum on the mind of his little one in later years. She had lifted wondering and longing eyes many a time as the dose was swallowed, and her inquiries had to be answered. She was told that her father took it to make him better in health, over which she pondered in her wise way, until her belief in its power was worthy of the child of such a father. One day the house was thrown into a little flutter of excitement about a wounded bird.
No one appeared to know what medical treatment to adopt. Little M——, on going to bed, flung her arms round her father's neck, and whispered that he was to 'mend' the bird with 'yoddonum.'
Our author has left as eloquent a record of the pains of opium as of its pleasures.
Troubled by the phantoms of departed powers to attempt the work that was never to be
done,—his visions of the night thronged with dreadful faces and wrathful
terrors—his persistent old enemy the Malay, and the leering oily eves of that accursed crocodile, always in
full pursuit,—he now found there was hell as well as heaven in his land of dreams.
His description culminates in one of his most splendid passages of impassioned prose:—
Then Suddenly would come a dream of far different
character—a tumultuous dream-commencing with music such as now I often heard in
sleep—music of preparation and of awakening suspense.
The undulations of fast-gathering tumults were like the opening of the Coronation Anthem, and like that, gave the feeling of a multitudinous movement of infinite cavalcades filing off, and the tread of innumerable armies.
The morning was come of a mighty day—a day of crisis and of ultimate hope for human nature, then suffering mysteries eclipse, and labouring in some dread extremity. Somewhere, but I know not
where—somehow, but I knew not how—by some beings, but I knew not by
whom—a battle, a strife, an agony, was travelling through all its
stages—was evolving itself like the catastrophe of some mighty drama, with which my sympathy was the more insupportable, from deepening confusion as to its local scene, its cause, its nature, and its undecipherable issue.
I (as isusual in dreams, where, of necessity, we make ourselves central to every movement) had the power, and yet had not the power, to decide it.
I had the power, if I could raise myself to will it; and yet again had
not the power, for the weight of twenty Atlantics was upon me, or the
oppression of inexpiable guilt. "Deeper than ever plummet sounded" I
lay inactive. Then, like a chorus, the passion
deepened. Some greater interest was at stake, some mightier cause,
than ever yet the sword had pleaded, or trumpet had proclaimed. Then
came sudden alarms; hurryings to and fro, trepidations of innumerable fugitives; I knew not whether from the good cause or the bad; darkness and lights; tempest and human faces; and at last with the sense that all was lost, female forms, and the features that were worth all the world to me; and but a moment
allowed—and clasped hands, with heart-breaking partings, and then—everlasting farewells; and, with a sigh such as the cares of hell sighed when the incestuous mother uttered the abhorred name of death, the sound was
reverberated—everlasting farewells! and again, and yet again
With this picture—sublime as the Last Judgement of Tintoret—we close our notice of what the writer calls 'that impassioned paranthesis in my life.'
De Quincey, who had the gift of a genuine insight wheresoever he turned his eye, had been one of the earliest to recognise in Wordsworth's poetry a new dawn of promise.
Not one of those false auroras that mock the world, which thinks a new dawn has streamed up the east, when it is only some reflected flush of a great sunset of poetry going down in the west.
He felt this was the genuine thing, quite as much by the cold, bracing breath of a robuster health, as by the colours that it painted on the clouds.
Such was his admiration of the new poetry, which few people knew or cared anything about, that on two occasions he went as far as the head of Coniston Lake, on his way to Grasmere.
But such was his awe of meeting, with the new poet, that once he looked up to the pass of Coniston-head not daring to enter the mountain-gates; and once he went forward to the gorge of Hammerscar, where the vale of Grasmere suddenly breaks upon the eye in all its surprising beauty; saw the little white cottage of Wordsworth gleaming from amidst the trees; had not heart to proceed; and went back again, feeling foolish.
Years later, however, he gathered courage to make his way into the poet's presence, and thought his head and face like a portrait of Milton; his form was not the gainliest, having stooping shoulders: nor were his legs sightly to look at, but rare good ones to 'go,' if De Quincey's calculation be right,
that they had carried their owner some 175,000 to 180,000 miles. The expression of his face was winningly sweet when he smiled, and his eyes at times wore a solemn spiritual radiance.
Clarkson said of Wordsworth's wife, that she could only say, 'God bless you,' and De Quincey found her presence a silent blessing; her manner simple, frank, gracious; herself a 'perfect woman nobly planned' to carry out the divine meaning of a wife.
He has also made a striking portrait of Wordsworth's sister, 'impassioned Dorothy,' with her face of Egyptian brown, 'her wild eyes, glancing quickness of motion, and the subtle fire of heart and mind burning within her, and glowing through her!
What a wife she might have made for the chosen man who should have been
worthy of her!
It was in the year 1809 that De Quincey first saw Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey.
Learning that Coleridge was in straitened pecuniary circumstances, he generously presented him with £500 out of his own patrimiony, which was small.
After leaving Oxford he went to live in the lake country, taking possession of Wordsworth's cottage in Grasmere.
There he dwelt for many years. He married in 1816, and published his 'Confessions' in the 'London Magazine ' in 1821.
He lived to the age of 74, and died at Edinburgh, December 8, 1859.
What De Quincey says of Charles Lamb, in respect to his literary position, applies in a large measure to himself.
His works belong to a class that is doomed to be for ever unpopular, and for ever interesting.
They attract the few by the same means as they repel the many. They have special charms for the initiated; special qualities of affinity and claims on kinship.
The loud world does not hear their shyest appeals, and lowest , sweetest voice.
Their wisdom is too profound for the surface-skimmer. Their inspired self-communion, and nearness to nature, are equally remote from the life of the world in general.
Many readers will set cut with De Quincey on some subject, who will leave him shortly, very weary and disgusted.
They were in search of the sensational. He does not keep up with their mental movements.
He was born before railways, and still prefers going afoot. He is not the man to do their business; he is not a business-man.
He does not hurry, sweating and toiling along the dry and dusty highway, with the view of reaching the goal in the directest route and shortest space of time, as though there were not a minute to live.
There are such things as green lanes to turn down, and turf to cool your feet on, and stiles to mount, and nuts to crack by the way; such things as flowers to catch the eye, and brooks and birds to fill the ear, and many other things to make you linger.
Railway cuttings may lie in straight lines, his way does not. He moves and wanders according to the De Quincian line of beauty.
He will go round and round a subject, and loiter from point to point, making what the hasty reader thinks the most unseasonable remarks in the most provokingly cool way.
And this will be the crowning charm with those who are en rapport with the personality and character of the writer.
There have been critics so dull and prosy as to wonder what was the meaning and intention of the 'English Mail Coach,' and the 'Glory of Motion.'
Men, doubtless, with immortal spirits, but their wings were not yet grown, or the flesh was too superabundant for them to be exalted to the proper ethereal height.
What to them was the ride of a young man on the top of a coach, though that coach was the Royal Mail, though its motion was of the swiftest, and the night memorably solemn?
They could not flap their wings in exultation at the flight, or see a vision of sudden death in an accident that never happened!
Their nerves were not strain to the point at which we see by spirit-sight-they could not follow the glorious dreamer into his enchanted land of dreams, where the thoughts and feelings of day become the glorified apparitions of the night, and walk in spiritual attire and splendour.
But to De Quincey that mail-coach was alive—alive with the news it carried, the story of
Talavera—he rode on it as borne between the wings of a mighty victory flying by night through the sleeping land, that should start to its feet at the words they came to speak.
He tells us that it was worth five years of life to ride on the coach that bore to the heart of the country such spirit-stirring and world-shaking news as that of Trafalgar, or Waterloo, and see the face of England lighted up, rich and poor, with one heart, one pride , one glory .
They bear laurels in token of those that have been so painfully won; and all eyes dance with new life at the sight, as the coach rolls along in the calm summer sundown.
Heads of all ages at every window, and lusty cheers of greeting; smiling women wave their handkerchiefs; men throw up their hats, and lame beggars their
sticks; the boys and the dogs run from end to end of the village.
Is it nothing to sit on that coach and see such a sight, and be the bearer of such tidings?
At one village where the coach stopped , a poor woman, seeing De Quincey with a paper in his hand, came to him.
It was the news of Talavera. She had a son there in the 23rd Dragoons.
This regiment had made a sublime charge that day, and come back one in four!
De Quincey told her of the victory, but
'I told her not of the bloody price that had been paid.
I showed her not the funeral banners under which the noble regiment lay sleeping.
But I told her how those dear children of England, officers and privates, had leaped their horses over all obstacles as gaily as hunters to the morning's chase.
I told her how they rode their horses into the mists of death (saying to myself, but not saying to
her) and laid down their young lives for thee, O mother England! as
willingly—poured out their noble blood as cheerfully—as ever, after a long day's sport, when infants, they had rested their wearied heads upon their mother's knees, or sunk to sleep in her arms.
Strange it is, she seemed to have no fear of her son's s safety. Fear was swallowed up in joy so absolutely, that, in the mere simplicity of her fervent nature, the poor woman threw her arms round my neck, as she thought of her son, and gave to
me the kiss which secretly was meant for him.'
Such was the passionate heat of the time, such the glamour of eye and quickness of feeling, when De Quincey rode his famous ride, and had his 'vision of sudden death.'
A thousand times did he see the image of the young girl within the shadow of dreadful and inexorable ruin; now in a pleasure-boat about to be run down by some tremendous hull at sea; now sinking in quicksands, with only one fair white arm lifted in vain to heaven.
'A thousand times, amongst the phantoms of sleep, have I seen thee entering the golden gates of the
dawn—with the secret word riding before thee, with the armies of the grave behind thee; seen thee sinking, rising, raving, despairing; a thousand times in the worlds of sleep have seen thee followed by God's angel through storms; through desert seas; through the darkness of quicksands; through dreams, and the dreadful revelations that are in
dreams—only that at the last, with one sling of his victorious arm, he might snatch thee back from ruin, and might emblazon in thy deliverance the endless resurrections of his love.'
In his Essay on War, De Quincey writes that which is calculated to startle all devout believers in the peace-at-any-price principles.
His first proposition is, that war cannot be abolished, and his second, that it ought not to be abolished.
We quote its solemn conclusion:—
'A great truth it was which Wordsworth uttered, whatever might be the expansion which he allowed to it, when he said that
"God's most perfect instrument;
In working out a pure intent,
Is man—arrayed for mutual slaughter;
Yes, Carnage is His daughter."
There is a a mystery in approaching this aspect of the case which no man has read fully.
War has a deeper and more ineffable relation to hidden grandeurs in man, than has yet been deciphered.
To execute judgments of retribution upon outrages offered to human rights or to human dignity, to
vindicate the sanctities of the altar and the sanctities of the hearth—these are functions of human greatness which war has many times assumed and many times faithfully discharged.
But behind all these there towers dimly a greater. The great phenomenon of war it
is—this, and this only-which keeps open in man a spiracle—an organ of
respiration—for breathing a transcendent atmosphere, and dealing with an idea that else would
perish—viz., the idea of mixed crusade and martyrdom, doing and suffering, that finds its realization in such a battle as that of
Waterloo—viz., a battle fought for interests of the human race, felt even where they are not understood; so that the tutelary angel of man, when be traverses such a dreadful field, when he reads the distorted features, counts the ghastly ruins, sums the hidden anguish; and the harvests
"Of horror breathing from the silent ground,"
nevertheless, speaking as God's messenger, blesses it, and calls it very good.'
Yet, although he cannot see 'as in a map the end of all' war, De Quincey recognises signs that the enthusiastic may interpret, in that direction, dawn-gleams of the day that is to be.
While enlarging the means of war, we have really been narrowing the ground.
We have agreed to put down the coarse brutalities of the battle-field; war is now carried on with much less degradation of the moral nature; and thus is likely to make nations less blind to its horrors, and cause them to shrink from it, unless it be the last resort; and inspired from outraged righteous feelings.
Looking back along the past, with its battle-fields by the way, we cannot help knowing that war in our time has a less savage aspect, a quicker conscience, and a clearer eye.
We have amended it. Civilisation has the power of rendering war less frequent, for it brings more light and skill to bear upon the untying of national knots such as used to be blindly cut by the sword, in the dark.
It has the power of empannelling a larger jury than of old, instead of allowing a couple of kings to order two nations a bath of blood at will.
And here we cannot help remarking how right and natural is the instinct of nations that rises up in revolt, alarmed at the resurrection of Bonapartism, which means war at the will or necessities of one man, uncurbed by the checks and safeguards of constitutional government.
It often needs the arresting hands of many, the wisest and best, to prevent nations rushing into unrighteous war; human nature cannot afford to leave such momentous issues to the madness, despair, or wilfulness of one man, whether it be Bonaparte or Romanoff.
So long as there are self-elected Emperors and Czars crowned with unlimited and irresponsible power, so long will unrighteous wars he possible and righteous war necessary; because so far civilisation does not bring into action all its possible means of restraining war.
This is a question of national nature and the state of society; but we know instinctively that so long as there are Napoleon dynasties in this world, the only chance for the lamb lying down peacefully beside the lion will be inside of him after being eaten.
The battle of right and wrong will go on, and take shape on trampled fields, and the dark cloud of war will blot out of human faces all the lineaments of common brotherhood.
And so long as war will not be ignored on the side of wrong and despotism, it cannot, must not, be ignored on the side of progress, freedom, and right.
We spoke of De Quincey as a great master of narrative art.
This is especially manifest in his account of the 'Spanish Military Nun,' and the 'Flight of the Tartars.'
The first, written with his brightest and most felicitous touch, is a marvellously graphic story of Kate or Kitty, or 'Pussy,' who was the child of some Spanish hidalgo.
Placed in a convent, she grew up all force, and fire, and fun; ran away; made herself a suit of male clothing: became a page; slew a man in a sword-encounter, and only escaped hanging by consenting to marry a lady who had fallen in love with her; escaped from the marriage, and became a trooper in the regiment commanded by her own
brother, to whom she was unknown; killed her own brother unwittingly in a duel in the dark; made a long and ghastly journey over the Andes; killed another man or two in fair fight, and was again saved from the scaffold by another woman who had fallen in love with her; came home; was received in the arms, clasped to the heart of Pope and King; made her peace with the Church, but found no rest for the sole of her foot; and wandered out into the world once more, to disappear, no one to this day knowing how.
A most singular narrative of events that occurred two hundred and fifty years ago, rendered with the true dash of delight, and a great gusto of power.
Here is one scene from the heights of the Andes. Kate had stood on many a peak of peril, but never on one more appalling.
She and two poor starved deserters are trying to make their way home:—
'Upon the highest rock Kate mounted to look around her, and she
saw—oh, rapture at such an hour!—a man sitting on a shelf of rock, with a gun by his side.
Joyously she shouted to her comrades, and ran down to communicate the good news.
Here was a sportsman, watching, perhaps, for an eagle; and now they would have relief.
One man 's cheek kindled with the hectic of sudden joy, and he rose eagerly to march.
The other was fast sinking under the fatal sleep that frost sends before herself as the merciful minister of death; but hearing in his dreams the tidings of relief, and assisted by his friends, he also staggeringly arose.
It could not be three minutes' walk, Kate thought, to the station of the sportsman.
That thought supported them all. Under Kate's guidance they soon unthreaded the labyrinth of rocks so far as to bring the man in view.
He had not left his resting-place; their steps on the soundless snow, naturally, he could not hear.
Kate hailed him; but so keenly was he absorbed in some speculation, or in the object of his watching, that be took no notice of them, not even moving his head.
Coming close behind him, Kate touched his shoulder, and said, "My friend, are you sleeping?"
Yes, he was sleeping—sleeping the sleep from which there is no awaking; and the slight touch of Kate having disturbed the equilibrium of the corpse, down it rolled on the snow: the frozen body rang like a hollow cylinder; the face uppermost, and blue with mould, mouth open, teeth ghastly and bleaching in the frost, and a frightful grin upon the lips.
This dreadful spectacle finished the struggles of the weaker man, who sank and died at once.
The other, after one spasm of morbid strength, also died without further struggle.
And Kate stood alone amidst death and desolation, far above the region of eternal snow.'
De Quincey says there is a portrait of his 'bonny Kate' in existence.
A few years ago one was to be found at Aix-la-Chapelle. If so, the
publishers of his works ought to get a photograph. We should like to
see how the magnificent 'Pussy' looked!
The 'Revolt of the Tartars' is a subject equally remote and is successfully brought home to us.
We know of nothing in all history more affecting than this flight of a people from Russia to China, marking every step of the way across the pathless deserts of Central Asia with wreck and
ruin—unrolling for thousands of miles one vast panorama of calamity—hurrying on with famine in front and a fierce foe close
behind—falling by tens of thousands to the frost and sword—emerging at last from the dreadful desert of Kobi with staring eyes and lolling tongues, and rushing altogether, pursuers and pursued, into the lake of Tengis, the waters of which were soon incarnadined with blood as the wild Bashkirs took their valedictory vengeance on the poor fugitives, who had at length reached the shadow and shelter of the Great Wall.
Six hundred thousand had started; but only two hundred and sixty thousand arrived in the land of promise.
De Quincey's slow, sustained, pursuing, long-continued method of following a subject attains its climax in his power of dealing with the feeling of terror.
He has the faculty of skilfully moving a horror with all the success of Webster.
He has learned a strange secret in his world of dreams. The fascination he exercises belongs to dream-world, and the only resemblance we can name occurs, to us only in dreams.
We suppose that most persons have some time or other been followed by the fixed deliberate look of such eyes as can magnetize us in
dream-land,—slow, but certain as death; and knowing we cannot escape, they triumph in our terror, creep along our blood, and, with their cold glitter, grasp us by the very heart till life stands still to listen.
With such a potency of quiet power can De Quincey arrest us, body and soul, and make the blood run cold, the nerves prick, the hair take supernatural life; and the hotter we get, the more coolly and quietly will he proceed with his story.
Anything more horribly interesting than his description of Williams, and the murder of the Marrs, never froze the blood or held the spirit petrified in terror's hell of cold.
It was not life-blood, he tells us, that ran in his veins, such as could kindle into a blush of shame, but a sort of green sap.
His eyes seemed frozen and glazed as if their light were all converged upon some victim lurking in the background.
Yet the oiliness and snaky insinuation of his demeanour counteracted the repulsiveness of his ghastly face.
If you had run against him in the crowded street, he would have offered the most gentlemanly apologies.
With his heart full of a hellish purpose, he would have paused to express a hope that the mallet under his coat, his hidden implement of murder, had not hurt you!
We know of no romance that can curdle the blood, or quicken the flesh into
goose-pimples, as does this terrible reality in the hands of De Quincey, whilst he follows him through the crowded street on his way to kill, decked out in long rich cloth coat with silk linings, nearing his victims surely and unconscionably as doom; it being Saturday night, and to-morrow the day of
rest—their day of rest! Fearful is the picture he draws of the happy home of the Marrs—the ruddy husband bustling about the shop working cheerily for wife and
child—the wife young, lovely and loving—the child asleep in its cosy
cradle—and their murderer watching opposite on the dark side of the street, like the devil watching Eden with all hell in his heart; for Marr had been Williams' successful rival.
Terrible the picture of life and death, with the servant breathing hard on the outside of the door; the murderer, red from his bloody work, breathing hard on the
inside—both listening all they can—she having a presentiment that a murderer is the only living being then in the house of her master and mistress.
Still more harrowing is the scene of the murderer at work in the parlour of Williamson's public-house, with his intended victim watching him on the stairs, the two only thirteen feet apart.
Then the horribly silent race for a life betwixt the murderer, almost jubilant amidst the blood and gold below, and the journeyman working hard in the bed-room above to make a rope ladder 'whereby he may save himself and the
child,—'pull journeyman, pull murderer,'—the rope not quite finished when he hears the murderer creeping up stealthily towards him through the darkness.
And all the little light touches which De Quincey puts in to show the fiendishness of Williams, as an epicurean of murder, with a perfect artistic taste and a voluptuous sense of satisfaction when his work was thoroughly done.
It is a page if from a dreadful book, written in characters that glow frightfully
vivid as they are freshly illuminated by the light which the writer so deliberately and searchingly throws into the dark places of a most devilish nature.
We are no great admirers of the Essay on Murder considered as one of the fine arts.
Humour only serves to make the subject too ghastly. Our readers will, however, perceive that there is plenty of the sensational in De Quincey's narratives; sensational in subject, though not in style.
Indeed, the three we have dwelt upon beat most of the novelists in thrilling interest.
Without pretending to follow our author over the wide range of his writings, we must make mention of one or two more of his essays before closing our account.
As Christians, we owe him our best thanks for his exposure of the myth of the Essenes as fathered by Josephus, and adopted, without further inquiry, by Strauss in his 'Life of Jesus.'
De Quincey shows conclusively enough, that if the Essenes were not Christians in disguise, then there was a Christianity before Christ; and we all know what that means.
But he also shows as conclusively, that they were Christians who bowed the head while the fury of the storm passed over, as soldiers may lie down to let the shower of grape go by; and shut themselves up into a secret society to nurture the young life of the new faith; and that so successfully as to blind their contemporaries with a change of name.
Josephus is condemned out of his own mouth; the doctrines which he puts forth as those of the Essenes are proved to be those of Christ's followers, and none else.
Such a sect as this supposed could not have existed contemporaneously with Christ and His disciples without the one hearing of the other, and yet there is not even the mention of their name in the New Testament.
So far as Josephus could obtain his glimpse from the outside, they were one in doctrine and character.
He tells us they 'have a greater affection for one another than the other sects have.'
'They are despisers of riches, having one patrimony among all the brethren.'
'They have no certain city, but many of them dwell in every city.'
They travel without scrip or purse; and when they come to a strange city, they go in to such as they never knew before.
Their piety towards God is very extraordinary—praying in the morn while it is yet dark.
They are eminent for fidelity, and are the ministers of peace.
They avoid swearing, but whatever they say is firmer than an oath.
And, although tortured, 'yet could they not be made to flatter their tormentors, or to shed a tear, but they smiled in their very torments.'
In all these traits, and in others, we see the early Christians living their life to the letter.
But where can any other sect be found that we can identify? The Christians had to baffle, and they did baffle, even Josephus.
He did not recognise them, but we do, by the very signs which he gives us.
We know better than he the meaning of his report. We have the key of the lock which he could not pick.
We must give one specimen of De Quincey's subtlety in criticism.
It is from the famous paper on the 'Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth:—'
'All action in any direction is best expounded, measured, and made apprehensible by reaction.
Now, apply this to the case of Macbeth. Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible.
Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires.
They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is "unsexed;" Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly revealed.
But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear.
The murderers and the murder must be insulated—cut off by an immeasurable gulf from the ordinary tide and succession of human
affairs—locked up and sequestered in some deep recess: we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested, laid asleep, tranced, racked into a dread armistice; time must he annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion.
Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds; the knocking at the gate is heard, and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced, the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish, the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live first make us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that has suspended them.
O mighty Poet!'
We are tempted to add, 'O great and surprisingly subtle commentator!'
De Quincey was a wonderful talker, as those of our readers know who ever had the good fortune to sit with the 'old man eloquent,' by winter fire-light or summer twilight, in his Lasswade home, and who have seen the grief-worn face grow glorified, the immortal spirit within the thin, weak mortal form kindling its clay, soaring for a while triumphant over all the suffering and the pain.
Strange light would stream through the rents of ruin; strange music come from unknown sources, till the listener felt himself caught up into an enchanted place, where the touch of transfiguration had fallen on both.
He was not a talker like Coleridge, who, as Hazlitt said, consented at any time to lose the ear of posterity for the sake of a chance listener.
In his early years he had quite neglected the power of conversation, and looked upon it, he tells us, as one of the dull necessities of business.
He thought the world talked too much already for him to swell the hubbub.
Yet, as it was vain to try and persuade the world into adopting his view of the matter, he re-studied the subject on principles of art.
A new feeling dawned on him, of a secret magic lurking in the life, quickness, and ardour of conversation, quite apart from any which belonged to books, arming a man with new forces, and not merely with a new dexterity in wielding old ones.
'I felt that, in the electric kindling of life between two minds, there sometimes arise glimpses and shy revelations of affinity, suggestion, relation, analogy, that could not have been approached through any avenues of methodical study.
Great organists find the same effect of inspiration, the same result of power, creative and revealing, in the mere movement and velocity of their own voluntaries, like the heavenly wheels of Milton throwing off fiery flakes and bickering flames.'
Having fathomed the secret capabilities of conversation as an art, he looks round for the great artist, but does not find the perfect, master.
He shows felicitously enough why Dr Johnson must have been for ever maimed as a great conversationalist:—
'He had no eye for the social phenomena rising around him. He had little interest in man; no sympathy with human nature in its struggles, or faith in the progress of man.
And the reason that he felt thus careless, was the desponding taint in his blood.
It is good to be of a melancholic temperament, as all the ancient physiologists held; but only it the melancholy is balanced by fiery aspiring qualities, not when it gravitates essentially to earth.
Hence the drooping, desponding character, and the monotony of the estimate which Dr Johnson applied to life.
We are all in his view, miserable, scrofulous wretches; the
"strumous diathesis" was developed in our flesh, or soon would be; and but for his piety, which was the best indication of some greatness latent within him, he would have suggested to all mankind a nobler use for garters than any which regarded knees.
In fact, I believe that but for his piety he would not only have counselled hanging in general, but hanged himself in particular.
Now, this gloomy temperament, as a permanent state, is fatal to the power of brilliant conversation.'
De Quincey could not find his great artist, we say; others will fancy they found such
an one in himself; for he felt the necessary interest in man, all his hopes as well as fears.
He talked from the heart as well as the head; and his conversation sprang like a fountain of earnestness.
He never talked without having something to say; nor was he afflicted with what Coleridge called the 'mouth diarrhœa;' neither was his conversation an apotheosis of self-assertiveness.
In whatsoever direction he turned, whether to speak or write, he had the power of vitalizing with new life, and enriching all he looked upon.
No matter into what solitude or wilderness he penetrates, there will be the movement of new life at once visible, and a glow as of dawn in the desert.
He has a shrewd eye for 'keeking' into corners, and the patience of spirit that can wait long in ambush to pounce on the error as it passes by.
No shepherd ever better knew the face of a particular sheep that he wanted from the flock, than De Quincey knows the lie that is trying to pass muster for truth.
He has an eye almost Shakspearian for detecting the true features of a man who may stand afar off, half-hidden under the veil of distance.
He has a sure grasp of reality, and can estimate at their true value the glitter and graces, the tinsel and powder, and fluttering affectations of the 'teacup times.'
Pope feels hollow in his grip. And although a genuine Tory, De Quincey could judge between Milton and Johnson, and assign to each his proper pedestal.
He had no favourites merely because of their politics, nor were his own politics of the kind that forms a science of expediency.
He loved England, and all that was genuinely English. That was the tap-root of his Toryism.
He was not a Tory through blindness, but because the tendencies of revolution in his time aroused all conservative instincts.
He belonged to a class of thinkers in politics who dwelt apart from the tumult of party warfare, and do not contend for its prizes in the arena.
But they silently influence their own circles, each in his own way, and send forth ripples of power that go to the outermost edge of society.
They are as springs of healing, watering the roots of the national life; sooner or later they bring the
world round to them, and mould its final thought and feeling. The practical efficiency of their creed cannot be gauged on the surface of things; down in the deeps we may see it constitutes just the element that enriches our country beyond all blessings of a purely democratic form of Government, and is of more value than the eternal see-saw of Whig and Tory which is popularly supposed to preserve the balance of power.
De Quincey has been falsely charged with a proneness to attack old friends when he was only
biting playfully. For example, speaking of Wordsworth's great good luck and felicitous fortune, he says, 'So true it is, that just as Wordsworth needed a place and a fortune, the holder of that place or fortune was immediately served with a notice to surrender it.
So certainly was this impressed upon my belief as one of the blind necessities, making up the prosperity and fixed destiny of Wordsworth, that, for
myself, had I happened to know of any peculiar adaptation in an estate or office of mine to an existing need of Wordsworth's, forthwith, and with the speed of a man running for his life, I would have laid it down at his feet.
'Take it,' I should have said; ' take it, or in three weeks I shall be a dead man.'
In conclusion, we have done no justice to our author's learning or humour; to his conjectural audacity and hypothetical felicities; or to his estimates of antique character.
But we trust that we have written enough to make his works more widely known.
In a time when we have so much sham brilliancy and false vivacity, deadly-liveliness and
forcible-feebleness,—when the penny-a-liner sits in the high places of
literature,—we turn to these books with a pleasant sense of relief.
We are heartily sick of the smell of Cockneydom; its slang and smartness; its knowingness and insincerity, and find it delightful to renew acquaintanceship with the style of a writer who is not smart nor fast but always an English gentleman, with a stately touch of the school in which manners are a sort of surface Christianity.
He can be playful without losing his own dignity, and natural without forfeiting our respect.
By his innate nobility of thought and chivalry of feeling, as well as by his wealth of learning, he is the very man to lead us into the lofty society of the good and
great,—poets and patriots; fit to exalt the deliverer Joan d'Arc, or abase the pretensions of a Parr.
Accordingly, we welcome him as one of the great leaders in literature, and, instead of regretting what he has not done, we rejoice in what he has bequeathed to us, and would have others share in our joy.
We owe the first edition of De Quincey's collected works to the perseverance and research of Mr Fields, the Boston publisher.
This latest edition—published by the Messrs Black—is both handsome in appearance and cheap in price.
It includes a new volume of De Quincey's articles from the 'Encyclopædia Britannica,' together with a paper on Political Parties, not before published; whilst the label of printed contents at the back of each volume is a handy improvement.