This is taken from Leslie Stephens' Hours in a Library.
Little more than fourteen years ago there passed from among us a man who held a high and very peculiar position in English literature. In 1821 De Quincey first published the work with which his name is most commonly associated, and at uncertain intervals he gave tokens to mankind of his continued presence on earth. What his life may have been in the intervals seems to have been at times unknown even to his friends. He began by disappearing from school and from his family, and seems to have fallen into the habit of temporary eclipses. At one moment he dropped upon his acquaintance from the clouds; at another he would vanish into utter darkness for weeks or months together. One day he came to dine with Christopher North—so we are told in the professor's life—was detained for the night by a heavy storm of rain, and prolonged his impromptu visit for a year. During that period his habits must have been rather amazing to a well-regulated household. His wants, indeed, were simple, and, in one sense, regular; a particular joint of mutton, cut according to a certain mathematical formula, and an ounce of laudanum, made him happy for a day. But in the hours when ordinary beings are awake he was generally to be found stretched in profound opium-slumbers upon a rug before the fire, and it was only about two or three in the morning that he gave unequivocal symptoms of vitality, and suddenly gushed forth in streams of wondrous eloquence to the supper parties detained for the purpose of witnessing the display. Between these irregular apparitions we are lastly given to understand that his life was so strange that its details would be incredible. What these incredible details may have been, I have no means of knowing. It is enough that he was a strange unsubstantial being, flitting uncertainly about in the twilight regions of society, emerging by fits and starts into visibility, afflicted with a general vagueness as to the ordinary duties of mankind, and generally taking much more opium than was good for him. He tells us, indeed, that he broke off his over-mastering habit by vigorous efforts; as he also tells us that opium is a cure for most grievous evils, and especially saved him from an early death by consumption. It is plain enough, however, that he never really refrained for any length of time; and perhaps we should congratulate ourselves on a propensity, unfortunate it may be, for its victim, but leading to the Confessions as one collateral result.
The life of De Quincey by "H. A. Page," published since this was written, has removed much of the mystery; and it has also done much to raise in some respects our estimate of his character. With all his weaknesses De Quincey undoubtedly was a man who could excite love as well as pity. Incapable, to a grotesque degree, of anything like business, he did his best to discharge domestic duties: he had a punctilious sense of honour, and got himself into difficulties by a generosity which was certainly not corrected by the virtue of prudence. But I will not attempt to sum up the facts, for which, as for a higher estimate than I can subscribe of his intellectual position, I gladly refer to his biography. I have only to do with the De Quincey of books which have a singular fascination. De Quincey himself gives thanks for four circumstances. He rejoices that his lot was cast in a rustic solitude; that that solitude was in England: that his 'infant feelings were moulded by the gentlest of sisters,' instead of 'horrid pugilistic brothers;' and that he and his were members of 'a pure, holy, and' (the last epithet should be emphasized) 'magnificent Church.' The thanksgiving is characteristic, for it indicates his naïve conviction that his admiration was due to the intrinsic merits of the place and circumstances of his birth, and not to the accident that they were his own. It would be useless to inquire whether a more bracing atmosphere and a less retired spot might have been more favourable to his talents; but we may trace the influence of these conditions of his early life upon his subsequent career.
De Quincey implicitly puts forward a claim which has been accepted by all competent critics. They declare, and he tacitly assumes, that he is a master of the English language. He claims a sort of infallibility in deciding upon the precise use of words and the merits of various styles. But he explicitly claims something more. He declares that he has used language for purposes to which it has hardly been applied by any prose writers. The 'Confessions of an Opium-eater' and the 'Suspiria de Profundis' are, he tells us, 'modes of impassioned prose, ranging under no precedents that I am aware of in any literature.' The only confessions that have previously made any great impression upon the world are those of St. Augustine and of Rousseau; but, with one short exception in St. Augustine, neither of those compositions contains any passion, and, therefore, De Quincey stands absolutely alone as the inventor and sole performer on a new musical instrument—for such an instrument is the English language in his hands. He belongs to a genus in which he is the only individual. The novelty and the difficulty of the task must be his apology if he fails, and causes of additional glory if he succeeds. He alone of all human beings who have written since the world began, has entered a path, which the absence of rivals proves to be encumbered with some unusual obstacles. The accuracy and value of so bold a claim require a short examination. After all, every writer, however obscure, may contrive by a judicious definition to put himself into a solitary class. He has some peculiarities which distinguish him from all other mortals. He is the only journalist who writes at a given epoch from a particular garret in Grub Street, or the only poet who is exactly six feet high and measures precisely forty-two inches round the chest. Any difference whatever may be applied to purposes of classification, and the question is whether the difference is, or is not, of much importance. By examining, therefore, the propriety of De Quincey's view of his own place in literature, we shall be naturally led to some valuation of his distinctive merits. In deciding whether a bat should be classed with birds or beasts, we have to determine the nature of the beast and the true theory of his wings. And De Quincey, if the comparison be not too quaint, is like the bat, an ambiguous character, rising on the wings of prose to the borders of the true poetical region.
De Quincey, then, announces himself as an impassioned writer, as a writer in impassioned prose, and, finally, as applying impassioned prose to confessions. The first question suggested by this assertion concerns the sense of the word 'impassioned.' There is very little of what one ordinarily means by passion in the Confessions or elsewhere. There are no explosions of political wrath, such as animate the 'Letters on a Regicide Peace,' or of a deep religious emotion, which breathes through many of our greatest prose writers. The language is undoubtedly a vehicle for sentiments of a certain kind, but hardly of that burning and impetuous order which we generally indicate by impassioned. It is deep, melancholy reverie, not concentrated essence of emotion; and the epithet fails to indicate any specific difference between himself and many other writers. The real peculiarity is not in the passion expressed, but in the mode of expressing it. De Quincey resembles the story-tellers mentioned by some Eastern travellers. So extraordinary is their power of face, and so skilfully modulated are the inflections of their voices, that even a European, ignorant of the language, can follow the narrative with absorbing interest. One may fancy that if De Quincey's language were emptied of all meaning whatever, the mere sound of the words would move us, as the lovely word Mesopotamia moved Whitefield's hearer. The sentences are so delicately balanced, and so skilfully constructed, that his finer passages fix themselves in the memory without the aid of metre. Humbler writers are content if they can get through a single phrase without producing a decided jar. They aim at keeping up a steady jog-trot, which shall not give actual pain to the jaws of the reader. They no more think of weaving whole paragraphs or chapters into complex harmonies, than an ordinary pedestrian of 'going to church in a galliard and coming home in a coranto.' Even our great writers generally settle down to a stately but monotonous gait, after the fashion of Johnson or Gibbon, or are content with adopting a style as transparent and inconspicuous as possible. Language, according to the common phrase, is the dress of thought; and that dress is the best, according to modern canons of taste, which attracts least attention from its wearer. De Quincey scorns this sneaking maxim of prudence, and boldly challenges our admiration by indulgence in what he often calls 'bravura.' His language deserves a commendation sometimes bestowed by ladies upon rich garments, that it is capable of standing up by itself. The form is so admirable that, for purposes of criticism, we must consider it as something apart from the substance. The most exquisite passages in De Quincey's writings are all more or less attempts to carry out the idea expressed in the title of the dream fugue. They are intended to be musical compositions, in which words have to play the part of notes. They are impassioned, not in the sense of expressing any definite sentiment, but because, from the structure and combination of the sentences, they harmonise with certain phases of emotion.
Briefly, De Quincey is doing in prose what every great poet does in verse. The specific mark thus indicated is still insufficient to give him a solitary position among writers. All great rhetoricians, as De Quincey defines and explains the term, rise to the borders of poetry, and the art which has recently been cultivated among us under the name of word-painting may be more fitly described as an attempt to produce poetical effects without the aid of metre. From most of the writers described under this rather unpleasant phrase he differs by the circumstance, that his art is more nearly allied to music than to painting. Or, if compared to any painters, it must be to those who care comparatively little for distinct portraiture or dramatic interest. He resembles rather the school which is satisfied by contemplating gorgeous draperies, and graceful limbs and long processions of imposing figures, without caring to interpret the meaning of their works, or to seek for more than the harmonious arrangement of form and colour. In other words, his prose-poems should be compared to the paintings which aim at an effect analogous to that of stately pieces of music. Milton is the poet whom he seems to regard with the sincerest admiration; and he apparently wishes to emulate the majestic rhythm of the 'God-gifted organ-voice of England.' Or we may, perhaps, admit some analogy between his prose and the poetry of Keats, though it is remarkable that he speaks with very scant appreciation of his contemporary. The 'Ode to a Nightingale,' with its marvellous beauty of versification and the dim associations half-consciously suggested by its language, surpasses, though it resembles, some of De Quincey's finest passages; and the 'Hyperion' might have been translated into prose as a fitting companion for some of the opium dreams. It is in the success with which he produces such effects as these that De Quincey may fairly claim to be unsurpassed in our language. Pompous (if that word may be used in a good sense) declamation in prose, where the beauty of the thought is lost in the splendour of the style, is certainly a rare literary product. Of the great rhetoricians whom De Quincey quotes in the Essay on Rhetoric just noticed, such men as Burke and Jeremy Taylor lead us to forget the means in the end. They sound the trumpet as a warning, not for the mere delight in its volume of sound. Perhaps his affinity to Sir Thomas Browne is more obvious; and one can understand the admiration which he bestows upon the opening bar of a passage in the Urn-burial:—'Now since these bones have rested quietly in the grave under the drums and tramplings of three conquests,' &c. 'What a melodious ascent,' he exclaims, 'as of a prelude to some impassioned requiem breathing from the pomps of earth and from the sanctities of the grave! What a fluctus decumanus of rhetoric! Time expounded, not by generations or centuries, but by vast periods of conquests and dynasties; by cycles of Pharaohs and Ptolemies, Antiochi and Arsacides! And these vast successions of time distinguished and figured by the uproars which revolve at their inaugurations; by the drums and tramplings rolling overhead upon the chambers of forgotten dead—the trepidations of time and mortality vexing, at secular intervals, the everlasting sabbaths of the grave!'
The commentator is seeking to eclipse the text, and his words are at once a description and an example of his own most characteristic rhetoric. Wordsworth once uttered an aphorism which De Quincey repeats with great admiration: that language is not, as I have just said, the dress, but 'the incarnation of thought.' But though accepting and enforcing the doctrine by showing that the 'mixture is too subtle, the intertexture too ineffable' to admit of expression, he condemns the style which is the best illustration of its truth. He is very angry with the admirers of Swift; De Foe and 'many hundreds' of others wrote something quite as good; it only wanted 'plain good sense, natural feeling, unpretendingness, some little scholarly practice in putting together the clockwork of sentences, and, above all, the advantage of an appropriate subject.' Could Swift, he asks, have written a pendant to passages in Sir W. Raleigh, or Sir Thomas Browne, or Jeremy Taylor? He would have cut the same figure as 'a forlorn scullion from a greasy eating-house at Rotterdam, if suddenly called away in vision to act as seneschal to the festival of Belshazzar the King, before a thousand of his lords.' And what, we may retort, would Taylor, or Browne, or De Quincey himself, have done, had one of them been wanted to write down the project of Wood's halfpence in Ireland? He would have resembled a king in his coronation robes compelled to lead a forlorn hope up the scaling ladders. The fact is, that Swift required for his style not only the plain good sense and other rare qualities enumerated, but pungent humour, quick insight, deep passion, and general power of mind, such as is given to few men in a century. But, as in his case the thought is really incarnated in the language we cannot criticise the style separately from the thoughts, or we can only assign, as its highest merit, its admirable fitness for producing the desired effect. It would be wrong to invert De Quincey's censure, and blame him because his gorgeous robes are not fitted for more practical purposes. To everything there is a time; for plain English, and for De Quincey's highly-wrought passages.
It would be difficult or impossible, and certainly it would be superfluous, to define with any precision the peculiar flavour of De Quincey's style. A few specimens would do more than any description; and De Quincey is too well known to justify quotation. It may be enough to notice that most of his brilliant performances are variations on the same theme. He appeals to our terror of the infinite, to the shrinking of the human mind before astronomical distances and geological periods of time. He paints vast perspectives, opening in long succession, till we grow dizzy in the contemplation. The cadence of his style suggests sounds echoing each other, and growing gradually fainter, till they die away into infinite distance. Two great characteristics, he tells us, of his opium dreams were a deep-seated melancholy and an exaggeration of the things of space and time. Nightly he descended 'into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that he could ever reascend.' He saw buildings and landscapes 'in proportion so vast as the human eye is not fitted to receive.' He seemed to live ninety or a hundred years in a night, and even to pass through periods far beyond the limits of human existence. Melancholy and an awe-stricken sense of the vast and vague are the emotions which he communicates with the greatest power; though the melancholy is too dreamy to deserve the name of passion, and the terror of the infinite is not explicitly connected with any religious emotion. It is a proof of the fineness of his taste, that he scarcely ever falls into bombast; we tremble at his audacity in accumulating gorgeous phrases; but we confess that he is justified by the result. The only exception that I can remember is the passage in 'The English Mailcoach,' where his exaggerated patriotism leads him into what strikes me at least as a rather vulgar bit of claptrap. If any reader will take the trouble to compare De Quincey's account of a kind of anticipation of the Balaclava charge at the battle of Talavera, with Napier's description of the same facts, he will be amused at the distortion of history; but whatever the accuracy of the statements, one is a little shocked at finding 'the inspiration of God' attributed to the gallant dragoons who were cut to pieces on that occasion, as other gallant men have been before and since. The phrase is overcharged, and inevitably suggests a cynical reaction of mind. The ideas of dragoons and inspiration do not coalesce so easily as might be wished; but, with this exception, I think that his purple patches are almost irreproachable, and may be read and re-read with increasing delight. I know of no other modern writer who has soared into the same regions with so uniform and easy a flight.
The question is often raised how far the attempt to produce by one art effects specially characteristic of another can be considered as legitimate; whether, for example, a sculptor, when encroaching upon the province of the painter, or a prose writer attempting to rival poets, may not be summarily condemned. The answer probably would be that a critic who lays down such rules is erecting himself into a legislator, when he should be a simple observer. Success justifies itself; and when De Quincey obtains, without the aid of metre, graces which few other writers have won by the same means, it is all the more creditable to De Quincey. A certain presumption, however, remains in such cases, that the failure to adopt the ordinary methods implies a certain deficiency of power. If we ask why De Quincey, who trenched so boldly upon the peculiar province of the poet, yet failed to use the poetical form, there is one very obvious answer. He has one intolerable fault, a fault which has probably done more than any other to diminish his popularity, and which is, of all faults, most diametrically opposed to poetical excellence. He is utterly incapable of concentration. He is, from the very principles on which his style is constructed, the most diffuse of writers. Other men will pack half-a-dozen distinct propositions into a sentence, and care little if they are somewhat crushed and distorted in the process. De Quincey insists upon putting each of them separately, smoothing them out elaborately, till not a wrinkle disturbs their uniform surface, and then presenting each of them for our acceptance with a placid smile. His commendable desire for lucidity of expression makes him nervously anxious to avoid any complexity of thought. Each step of his argument, each shade of meaning, and each fact in his narrative, must have its own separate embodiment; and every joint and connecting link must be carefully and accurately defined. The clearness is won at a price. There is some advantage in this elaborate method of dissecting out every distinct fibre and ramification of an argument. But, on the whole, one is apt to remember that life is limited, and that there are some things in this world which must be taken for granted. If a man's boyhood fill two volumes, and if one of these (though under unfavourable circumstances) took six months to revise, it seems probable that in later years he would have taken longer to record events than to live them. No autobiography written on such principles could ever reach even the middle life of the author. Take up, for example, the first volume of his collected works. Why, on the very first page, having occasion to mention Christendom in the fifteenth century, should he provide against some eccentric misconception by telling us that it did not, at that time, include any part of America? Why should it take considerably more than a page to explain that when a schoolmaster begins lessons punctually, and leaves off too late, there will be an encroachment on the hours of play? Or two pages to describe how a porter dropped a portmanteau on a flight of stairs, and didn't waken a schoolmaster? Or two more to account for the fact that he asked a woman the meaning of the noise produced by the 'bore' in the Dee, instead of waiting till she spoke to him? Impassioned prose may be a very good thing; but when its current is arrested by such incessant stoppages, and the beauty of the English language displayed by showing how many faultless sentences may be expended on an exhaustive description of irrelevant trifles, the human mind becomes recalcitrant. A man may become prolix from the fulness or fervency of his mind; but prolixity produced by this finical minuteness of language, ends by distressing one's nerves. It is the same sense of irritation as is produced by waiting for the tedious completion of an elaborate toilette, and one is rather tempted to remember Artemus Ward's description of the Fourth of July oration, which took four hours 'to pass a given point.'
This peculiarity of his style is connected with other qualities upon which a great deal of eulogy has been bestowed. There are two faculties in which, so far as my experience goes, no man, woman, or child ever admits his or her own deficiency. The driest of human beings will boast of their sense of humour; and the most perplexed, of their logical acuteness. De Quincey has been highly praised, both as a humorist and as a logician. He believed in his own powers, and exhibits them rather ostentatiously. He says, pleasantly enough, but not without a substratum of real conviction, that he is 'a doctor seraphicus, and also inexpugnabilis upon quillets of logic.' I confess that I am generally sceptical as to the merits of infallible dialecticians, because I have observed that a man's reputation for inexorable logic is generally in proportion to the error of his conclusions. A logician, in popular estimation, seems to be one who never shrinks from a reductio ad absurdum. His merits are measured, not by the accuracy of his conclusions, but by the distance which separates them from his premisses. The explanation doubtless lies in the general impression that logic is concerned with words and not with things. There is a vague belief that by skilfully linking syllogisms you can form a chain sufficiently strong to cross the profoundest abyss, and which will need no test of observation and verification. A dexterous performer, it is supposed, might pass from one extremity of the universe to the other without ever touching ground; and people do not observe that the refusal to draw an inference may be just as great a proof of logical skill as ingenuity in drawing it. Now De Quincey's claim to infallibility would be plausible, if we still believed that to define words accurately is the same thing as to discover facts, and that binding them skilfully together is equivalent to reasoning securely. He is a kind of rhetorical Euclid. He makes such a flourish with his apparatus of axioms and definitions that you do not suspect any lurking fallacy. He is careful to show you the minutest details of his argumentative mechanism. Each step in the process is elaborately and separately set forth; you are not assumed to know anything, or to be capable of supplying any links for yourself; it shall not even be taken for granted without due notice that things which are equal to a third thing are equal to each other; and the consequence is, that few people venture to question processes which seem to be so plainly set forth, and to advance by such a careful development.
When, indeed, De Quincey has a safe guide, he can put an argument with admirable clearness. The expositions of political economy, for example, are clear and ingenious, though even here I may quote Mr. Mill's remark, that he should have imagined a certain principle—obvious enough when once stated—to have been familiar to all economists, 'if the instance of Mr. De Quincey did not prove that the complete non-recognition and implied denial of it are compatible with great intellectual ingenuity and close intimacy with the subject-matter.' Upon this question, Mr. Shadworth Hodgson has maintained that De Quincey was in the right as against Mill, and I cannot here argue the point. I think, however, that all economists would admit that De Quincey's merits were confined to an admirable exposition of another man's reasoning, and included no substantial addition to the inquiry. Certainly he does not count as one of those whose writings marked any epoch in the development of the science—if it be a science. Admirable skill of expression is, indeed, no real safeguard against logical blunders; and I will venture to say that De Quincey rarely indulges in this ostentatious logical precision without plunging into downright fallacies. I will take two instances. The first is trifling, but characteristic. Poor Dr. Johnson used to reproach himself, as De Quincey puts it, 'with lying too long in bed.' How absurd! is the comment. The doctor got up at eleven because he went to bed at three. If he had gone to bed at twelve, could he not easily have got up at eight? The remark would have been sound in form, though a quibble in substance, if Johnson had complained of lying in bed 'too late;' but as De Quincey himself speaks of 'too long' instead of 'too late,' it is an obvious reply that eight hours are of the same length at every period of the day. The great logician falls into another characteristic error in the same paragraph. Dr. Johnson, he says, was not 'indolent;' but he adds that Johnson 'had a morbid predisposition to decline labour from his scrofulous habit of body,' which was increased by over-eating and want of exercise. It is a cruel mode of vindication to say that you are not indolent, but only predisposed by a bad constitution and bad habits to decline labour; but the advantage of accurate definition is, that you can knock a man down with one hand, and pick him up with the other.
To take a more serious case. De Quincey undertakes to refute Hume's memorable argument against miracles. There are few better arenas for intellectual combats, and De Quincey has in it an unusual opportunity for display. He is obviously on his mettle. He comes forward with a whole battery of propositions, carefully marshalled in strategical order, and supported by appropriate 'lemmas.' One of his arguments, whether cogent or not, is that Hume's objection will not apply to the evidence of a multitude of witnesses. Now, a conspicuous miracle, he says, can be produced resting on such evidence, to wit, that of the thousands fed by a few loaves and fishes. The simplest infidel will, of course, reply that as these thousands of witnesses cannot be produced, the evidence open to us reduces itself to that of the Evangelists. De Quincey recollects this, and replies to it in a note. 'Yes,' he says, 'the Evangelists certainly; and, let us add, all those contemporaries to whom the Evangelists silently appealed. These make up the "multitude" contemplated in the case' under consideration. That is, to make up the multitude, you have to reckon as witnesses all those persons who did not contradict the 'silent appeal,' or whose contradiction has not reached us. With such canons of criticism it is hard to say what might not be proved. When a man with a great reputation for learning and logical ability tries to put us off with these wretched quibbles, one is fairly bewildered. He shows an ignorance of the real strength and weakness of the position, which, but for his reputation, one would summarily explain by incapacity for reasoning. As it is, we must suppose that, living apart from the daily battle of life, he had lost that quick instinct possessed by all genuine logicians for recognising the vital points of an argument. A day in a court of justice would have taught him more about evidence than a month spent over Aristotle. He had become fitter for the parade of the fencing-room than for the real thrust and parry of a duel in earnest. The mere rhetorical flourish pleases him as much as a blow at his antagonist's heart. Another glaring instance in the same paper is his apparent failure to perceive that there is a difference between proving that such a prophecy as that announcing the fall of Babylon was fulfilled, and proving that it was supernaturally inspired. Hume, without a tenth part of the logical apparatus, would have exposed the fallacy in a sentence. Paley, whom he never tires of treating to contemptuous abuse, was incapable of such feeble sophistry. De Quincey, in short, was a very able expositor; but he was not, though under better discipline he might probably have become, a sound original thinker. He is an interpreter, not an originator of thought. His skill in setting forth an argument blinds him to its most palpable defects. If language is a powerful weapon in his hands, it is only when the direction of the blow is dictated by some more manly, if less ingenious, understanding.
Let us inquire, and it is a more delicate question, whether he is better qualified to use it as a plaything. He has a reputation as a humorist. The Essay on Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts is probably the most popular of his writings. The conception is undoubtedly meritorious, and De Quincey returns to it more than once in his other works. The description of the Williams murders is inimitable, and the execution even in the humorous passages is frequently good. We may praise particular sentences: such as the well-known remark that 'if a man once indulges himself in murder, he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking; and from that to incivility and procrastination.' One laughs at this whimsical inversion; but I don't think one laughs very heartily; and certainly one does not find, as in really deep humour, that the paradox is pregnant with further meaning, and the laugh a prelude to a more melancholy smile. Many of the best things ever said are couched in a similar form: the old remark that the use of language is the concealment of thought; the saying that the half is greater than the whole, and that two and two don't always make four, are familiar instances; but each of them really contains a profound truth expressed in a paradoxical form, which is a sufficient justification of their extraordinary popularity. But if every inversion of a commonplace were humorous, we should be able to make jokes by machinery. There is no humour that I can see in the statement that honesty is the worst policy, or that procrastination saves time; and De Quincey's phrase, though I admit that it is amusing as a kind of summary of his essay, seems to me to rank little higher than an ingenious pun. It is a clever trick of language, but does not lead any further.
Here, too, and elsewhere, the humour gives us a certain impression of thinness. It is pressed too far, and spun out too long. Compare De Quincey's mode of beating out his one joke through pages of laboured facetiousness, with Swift's concentrated and pungent irony, as in the proposal for eating babies, or the argument to prove that the abolition of Christianity may be attended with some inconveniences. It is the difference between the stiffest of nautical grogs and the negus provided by thoughtful parents for a child's evening party. In some parts of the essay De Quincey sinks far lower. I do not believe that in any English author of reputation there is a more feeble piece of forced fun, than in the description of the fight of the amateur in murder with the baker at Munich. One knows by a process of reasoning that the man is joking; but one feels inclined to blush, through sympathy with a very clear man so exposing himself. A blemish of the same kind makes itself unpleasantly obvious at many points of his writings. He seems to fear that we shall find his stately and elaborate style rather too much for our nerves. He is conscious that, as a great master of language, he can play what tricks he pleases, without danger of remonstrance. And therefore, he every now and then plunges into slang, not irreverently, as a vulgar writer might do, but of malice prepense. The shock is almost as great as if an organist performing a solemn tune should suddenly introduce an imitation of the mewing of a cat. Now, he seems to say, you can't accuse me of being dull and pompous. Let me quote an instance or two from his graver writings. He wishes to argue, in defence of Christianity, that the ancients were insensible to ordinary duties of humanity. 'Our wicked friend Kikero, for instance, who was so bad, but wrote so well, who did such naughty things, but said such pretty things, has himself noticed in one of his letters, with petrifying coolness, that he knew of destitute old women in Rome who went without tasting food for one, two, or even three days. After making such a statement, did Kikero not tumble downstairs and break at least three of his legs in his hurry to call a public meeting,' &c., &c. What delicate humour! The grave apologist of Christianity actually calls Cicero, Kikero, and talks about 'three of his legs!' Do we not all explode with laughter? A parallel case occurs in his argument about the Essenes; where he grows so irrepressibly funny as to call Josephus 'Mr. Joe,' and addresses him as follows:—'Wicked Joseph, listen to me: you've been telling us a fairy tale; and for my part, I've no objection to a fairy tale in any situation, because if one can make no use of it oneself, always one knows that a child will be thankful for it. But this tale, Mr. Joseph, happens also to be a lie; secondly, a fraudulent lie; thirdly, a malicious lie.' I have seen this stuff described as 'scholarlike badinage;' but the only effect of such exquisite foolery, within my mind, is to persuade one that a writer assailed by such weapons, and those weapons used by a man who has the whole resources of the English language at his command, must probably have been encountering an inconvenient truth. I will simply refer to the story of Sir Isaac Newton sitting all day with one stocking on and one off, in the Casuistry of Roman Meals, as an illustration of the way in which a story ought not to be told. Its most conspicuous, though not its worst fault, its extreme length, protects it from quotation.
It is strange to find that a writer, pre-eminently endowed with delicacy of ear, and boasting of the complex harmonies of his style, should condescend to such an irritating defect. De Quincey says of one of the greatest masters of the humorous:—'The gyration within which his (Lamb's) sentiment wheels, no matter of what kind it may be, is always the shortest possible. It does not prolong itself, it does not repeat itself, it does not propagate itself.' And he goes on to connect the failing with Lamb's utter insensibility to music, and indifference to 'the rhythmical in prose composition.' The criticism is a fine one in its way, but it may perhaps explain some of De Quincey's shortcomings in Lamb's peculiar sphere. De Quincey's jokes are apt to repeat and prolong and propagate themselves, till they become tiresome; and the delicate touch of the true humorist, just indicating a half-comic, half-pathetic thought, is alien to De Quincey's more elaborate style. Yet he had a true and peculiar sense of humour. That faculty may be predominant or latent; it may form the substance of a whole book, as in the case of Sterne: or it may permeate every sentence, as in Carlyle's writings; or it may simply give a faint tinge, rather perceived by subsequent analysis than consciously felt at the time; and in this lowest degree it frequently gives a certain charm to De Quincey's writing. When he tries overt acts of wit, he becomes simply vulgar; when he directly aims at the humorous, we feel his hand to be rather heavy; but he is occasionally very happy in that ironical method, of which the Essay on Murder is the most notorious specimen. The best example, in my opinion, is the description of his elder brother in the Autobiographical Sketches. The account of the rival kingdoms of Gombroon and Tigrasylvania; of poor De Quincey's troubles in getting rid of his subjects' tails; of his despair at the suggestion that by making them sit down for six hours a day they might rub them off in the course of several centuries; of his ingenious plan of placing his unlucky island at a distance of 75 degrees of latitude from his brother's capital; and of his dismay at hearing of the 'vast horns and promontories' which run down from all parts of the hostile dominions towards his unoffending little territory, are touched with admirable skill. The grave, elaborate detail of the perplexities of his childish imagination is pleasant, and at the same time pathetic. When, in short, by simply applying his usual stateliness of manner to a subject a little beneath it in dignity, he can produce the desired effect, he is eminently successful. The same rhetoric which would be appropriate (to use his favourite illustration) in treating the theme of 'Belshazzar the King giving a great feast to a thousand of his lords,' has a certain piquancy, when for Belshazzar we substitute a schoolboy playing at monarchy. He is indulging in a whimsical masquerade, and the pomp is assumed in sport instead of in earnest. Nobody can do a little mock majesty so well as he who on occasion can be seriously majestic. Yet when he altogether abandons his strong ground, and chooses to tumble and make grimaces before us, like an ordinary clown, he becomes simply offensive. The great tragedian is capable on due occasion of pleasant burlesque; but sheer unadulterated comedy is beyond his powers. De Quincey, in short, can parody his own serious writing better than anybody, and the capacity is a proof that he had the faculty of humour; but for a genuine substantive joke—a joke which, resting on its own merits, instead of being the shadow of his serious writing, is to be independently humorous—he seems, to me at least, to be generally insufferable.
De Quincey's final claim to a unique position rests on the fact that his 'impassioned prose' was applied to confessions. He compares himself, as I have said, to Rousseau and Augustine. The analogy with the last of these two writers would, I should imagine, be rather difficult to carry beyond the first part of resemblance; but it is possible to make out a somewhat closer affinity to Rousseau. In both cases, at least, we have to deal with men of morbid temperament, ruined or seriously injured by their utter incapacity for self-restraint. So far, however, as their confessions derive an interest from the revelation of character, Rousseau is more exciting almost in the same proportion as he confesses greater weaknesses. The record of such errors by their chief actor, and that actor a man of such singular ability, presents us with a strangely attractive problem. De Quincey has less to confess, and is less anxious to lay bare his own morbid propensities. His story excites compassion; and, as in the famous episode of 'Anne,' attracts us by the genuine tenderness and delicacy of feeling. He was free from the errors which make some of Rousseau's confessions loathsome, but he was also not the man to set fire, like Rousseau, to the hearts of a whole generation. His narrative is a delight to literary students; not a volcanic outburst to shake the foundations of society. Nearly all that he has to tell us is that he ran away from school, spent some time in London, for no very assignable reason, in a semi-starving condition, and then, equally without reason, surrendered at discretion to the respectabilities and went to Oxford like an ordinary human being. It is no doubt a proof of extraordinary literary power that the facts told with De Quincey's comment of rich meditative eloquence become so fascinating. Unfortunately, though he managed to write recollections which are, in their way, unique, he never achieved anything at all comparable to his autobiographic revelations. Vague thoughts passed through his mind of composing a great work on Political Economy, or of writing a still more wonderful treatise on the Emendation of the Human Intellect. But he never seems to have made any decided steps towards the fulfilment of such dreams, and remained to the end of his days a melancholy specimen of wasted force. There is nothing, unfortunately, very uncommon in the story, except so far as its hero was a man of genius. The history of Coleridge exemplifies a still higher ambition, resulting, it is true, in a much greater influence upon the thought of the age, but almost equally sad. Their lives might be put into tracts for the use of opium-eaters; and whilst there was still hope of redeeming them, it might have been worth while to condemn them with severity. Indignation is now out of place, and we can only grieve and pass by. When thousands of men are drinking themselves to death every year, there is nothing very strange or dramatic in the history of one ruined by opium instead of by gin.
From De Quincey's writings we get the notion of a man amiable, but with an uncertain temper; with fine emotions, but an utter want of moral strength; and, in short, of a nature of much delicacy and tenderness retreating into opium and the Lake district, from a world which was too rough for him. He uttered in many fragmentary ways his views of philosophy and politics. Whatever their value, De Quincey has of course no claim to be an originator. He not only had not strength to stand alone, but he belonged to a peculiar side-current of English thought. He was the adjective of which Coleridge was the substantive; and if Coleridge himself was an unsatisfactory and imperfect thinker, his imperfections are greatly increased in his friend and disciple. He shared that belief which some people have not yet abandoned, that the answer to all our perplexities is to be found in some of the mysteries of German metaphysics. If we could only be taught to distinguish between the reason and the understanding, the scales would fall from our eyes, and we should see that the Thirty-nine Articles contained the plan on which the universe was framed. He had an acquaintance, which, if his own opinion were correct, was accurate and profound with Kant's writings, and had studied Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel. He could talk about concepts and categories and schematisms without losing his head amongst those metaphysical heights. He knew how by the theoretic reason to destroy all proofs of the existence of God, and then, by introducing the practical reason, to set the existence of God beyond a doubt. He fancied that he was able to translate the technicalities of Kant into plain English; and he believed that when so translated, they would prove to have a real and all important meaning. If German metaphysics be a science, and not a mere edifice of moonshine; and if De Quincey had really penetrated the secrets of that science, we have missed a chance of enlightenment. As it is, we have little left except a collection of contemptuous prejudices. De Quincey thought himself entitled to treat Locke as a shallow pretender. The whole eighteenth century was, with one or two exceptions, a barren wilderness to him. He aspersed its reasoners, from Locke to Paley; he scorned its poets with all the bitterness of the school which first broke loose from the rule of Pope; and its prose-writers, with the exception of Burke, were miserable beings in his eyes. He would have seen with little regret a holocaust of all the literature produced in England between the death of Milton and the rise of Wordsworth. Naturally, he hated an infidel with that kind of petulant bitterness which possesses an old lady in a country village, who has just heard that some wicked people dispute the story of Balaam's ass. And, as a corollary, he combined the whole French people in one sweeping censure, and utterly despised their morals, manners, literature, and political principles. He was a John Bull, as far as a man can be who is of weakly, nervous temperament, and believes in Kant.
One or two illustrations may be given of the force of these effeminate prejudices; and it is to be remarked with regret that they are specially injurious in a department where he otherwise had eminent merits, that, namely, of literary criticism. Any man who lived in the eighteenth century was primâ facie a fool; if a free thinker, his case was all but hopeless; but if a French free thinker, it was desperate indeed. He lets us into the secret of his prejudices, which, indeed, is tolerably transparent in his statement that he found it hard to reverence Coleridge when he supposed him to be a Socinian. Now, though a 'liberal man,' he could not hold a Socinian to be a Christian; nor could he 'think that any man, though he make himself a marvellously clever disputant, ever could tower upwards into a very great philosopher, unless he should begin or end with Christianity.' The canon may be sound, but it at once destroys the pretensions of such men as Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, and even, though De Quincey considers him 'a dubious exception,' Kant. Even heterodoxy is enough to alienate his sympathies. 'Think of a man,' he exclaims about poor Whiston, 'who had brilliant preferment within his reach, dragging his poor wife and daughter for half a century through the very mire of despondency and destitution, because he disapproved of Athanasius, or because the "Shepherd of Hermas" was not sufficiently esteemed by the Church of England.' To do him justice, De Quincey admits, in another passage, that this ridicule of a poor man for sacrificing his interests to his principles was not quite fair; but then Whiston was only an Arian. When Priestley, who was a far worse heretic, had his house sacked by a mob and his life endangered, De Quincey can scarcely restrain his exultation. He admits in terms that Priestley ought to be pitied, but adds that the fanaticism of the mob was 'much more reasonable' than the fanaticism of Priestley; and that those who play at bowls must look out for rubbers. Porson is to be detested for his letters to Travis, though De Quincey does not dare to defend the disputed text. He has, however, a pleasant insinuation at command. Porson, he says, stung like a hornet; 'it may chance that on this subject Master Porson will get stung through his coffin, before he is many years deader.' What scholarlike badinage! Political heretics fare little better. Fox's eloquence was 'ditch-water,' with a shrill effervescence of 'imaginary gas.' Burnet was a 'gossiper, slanderer, and notorious falsifier of facts.' That one of his sermons was burnt is 'the most consolatory fact in his whole worldly career;' and he asks, 'would there have been much harm in tying his lordship to the sermon?' Junius was not only a knave who ought to have been transported, but his literary success rested upon an utter delusion. He had neither 'sentiment, imagination, nor generalisation.' Johnson, though the best of Tories, lived in the wrong century, and unluckily criticised Milton with foolish harshness. Therefore 'Johnson, viewed in relation to Milton, was a malicious, mendacious, and dishonest man.'
Let us turn to greater names. Goethe's best work was 'Werther,' and De Quincey is convinced that his reputation 'must decline for the next generation or two, until it reaches its just level.' His merits have been exaggerated for three reasons—first, his great age; secondly, 'the splendour of his official rank at the court of Weimar;' thirdly, 'his enigmatical and unintelligible writing.' But 'in Germany his works are little read, and in this country not at all.' 'Wilhelm Meister' is morally detestable, and, artistically speaking, rubbish. Of the author of the Philosophical Dictionary, of the 'Essai sur les Mœurs,' of 'Candide,' and certain other trifles, his judgment is that Horace Walpole's reputation is the same in kind, as the genuine reputation of Voltaire: 'Both are very splendid memoir writers, and of the two, Lord Orford is the more brilliant.' In the same tone he compares Gibbon to Southey, giving the advantage to the latter on the score of his poetical ability; and his view of another great infidel may be inferred from the following phrase. One of Rousseau's opinions is only known to us through Cowper, 'for in the unventilated pages of its originator it would have lurked undisturbed down to this hour of June, 1819.'
Voltaire and Rousseau have the double title to hatred of being Frenchmen and freethinkers. But even orthodox Frenchmen fare little better. 'The French Bossuets, Bourdaloues, Fénelons, &c., whatever may be thought of their meagre and attenuated rhetoric, are one and all the most commonplace of thinkers.' In fact, the mere mention of France acts upon him like a red rag on a bull. The French, 'in whom the lower forms of passion are constantly bubbling up, from the shallow and superficial character of their feelings,' are incapable of English earnestness. Their taste is 'anything but good in all that department of wit and humour'—the department, apparently, of anecdotes—'and the ground lies in their natural want of veracity;' whereas England bases upon its truthfulness a well-founded claim to 'a moral pre-eminence among the nations.' Belgians, French, and Italians attract the inconsiderate by 'facile obsequiousness,' which, however, is a pendent of 'impudence and insincerity. Want of principle and want of moral sensibility compose the original fundus of southern manners.' Our faults of style, such as they are, proceed from our manliness. In France there are no unmarried women at the age which amongst us gives the insulting name of old maid. 'What striking sacrifices of sexual honour does this one fact argue!' The French style is remarkable for simplicity—'a strange pretension for anything French;' but on the whole the intellectual merits of their style are small, 'chiefly negative,' and 'founded on the accident of their colloquial necessities.' They are amply compensated, too, by 'the prodigious defects of the French in all the higher qualities of prose composition.' Even their handwriting is the 'very vilest form of scribbling which exists in Europe,' and they and the Germans are 'the two most gormandising races in Europe.' They display a brutal selfishness in satisfying their appetites, whereas Englishmen at all public meals are remarkably conspicuous for 'a spirit of mutual attention and self-sacrifice.' It is enough to show the real degradation of their habits, that they use the 'odious gesture' of shrugging their shoulders, and are fond of the 'vile ejaculation "bah!"' which is as bad as to puff the smoke of a tobacco-pipe into your companion's face. They have neither self-respect nor respect for others. French masters are never dignified, though sometimes tyrannical; French servants are always, even without meaning it, disrespectfully familiar. Many of their manners and usages are 'essentially vulgar, and their apparent affability depends not on kindness of heart, but love of talking.'
The impudence of the assertions is really amusing, though one cannot but regret that the vulgar prejudice of the old-fashioned John Bull should have been embodied in the pages of a master of our language. They are worth notice because they were not special to De Quincey, but characteristic of one very intelligible tendency of his generation. De Quincey's prejudices are chiefly the reflection of those of the Coleridge school in general, though he added to them a few pet aversions of his own. At times his genuine acuteness of mind raises him above the teaching of his masters, or at least enables him to detect their weaknesses. He discovers Coleridge's plagiarisms, though he believes and, indeed, speaks in the most exaggerated terms of his philosophical pretensions; whilst, in treating of Wordsworth, he points out with great skill the fallacy of some of his theories and the inconsistency of his practice. But whilst keenly observant of some of the failings of his friends, he reproduces others in even an exaggerated type. He shows to the full their narrow-minded hatred of the preceding century, of all forms of excellence which did not correspond to their favourite types, and of all speculation which did not lead to, or start from their characteristic doctrines. The error is fully pardonable. We must not look to men who are leading a revolt against established modes of thought for a full appreciation of the doctrines of their antagonists; and if De Quincey could recognise no merit in Voltaire or Rousseau, in Locke, Paley, or Jeremy Bentham, their followers were quite prepared to retaliate in kind. One feels, however, that such prejudices are more respectable when they are the foibles of a strong mind engaged in active warfare. We can pardon the old campaigner, who has become bitter in an internecine contest. It is not quite so pleasant to discover the same bitterness in a gentleman who has looked on from a distance, and never quite made up his mind to buckle on his armour. De Quincey had not earned the right of speaking evil of his enemies. If a man chances to be a Hedonist, he should show the good temper which is the best virtue of the indolent. To lie on a bed of roses, and snarl at everybody who contradicts your theories, seems to imply rather testiness of temper than strength of conviction. De Quincey is a Christian on Epicurean principles. He dislikes an infidel because his repose is disturbed by the arguments of freethinkers. He fears that he will be forced to think conscientiously, and to polish his logical weapons afresh. He mutters that the man is a fool, and could be easily thrashed if it were worth while, and then turns back to his opium and his rhetoric and his beloved Church of England. There is no pleasanter institution for a gentleman who likes magnificent historical associations, and heartily hates the rude revolutionists who would turn the world upside down, and thereby disturb the rest of dreamy metaphysicians.
He is quite pathetic, too, about the British Constitution. 'Destroy the House of Lords,' he exclaims, 'and henceforward, for people like you and me, England will be no habitable land.' Here, he seems to say, is one charming elysium, where no rude hand has swept away the cobwebs or replaced the good old-fashioned machinery; here we may find rest in the 'pure, holy, and magnificent Church,' whose Articles, interpreted by Coleridge, may guide us through the most wondrous of metaphysical labyrinths, and dwell in a grand constitutional edifice, rich in picturesque memories, and blending into one complex harmony elements contributed by a long series of centuries. And you, wretched French revolutionists, with your love of petty precision, and irreverent radicals and utilitarians, with your grovelling material notions, propose to level, and destroy, and break in upon my delicious reveries. No old Hebrew prophet could be more indignant with the enemy who threatened to break down the carved work of his temples with axes and hammers. But his complaint is, after all, the voice of the sluggard. Let me dream a little longer; for much as I love my country and its institutions, I cannot rouse myself to fight for them. It is enough if I call their assailants an ugly name or so, and at times begin to write what might be the opening pages of the preface to some very great work of the future. Alas! the first digression diverts the thread of the discourse; the task becomes troublesome, and the labour is abruptly broken off. And so in a life of seventy-three years De Quincey read extensively and thought acutely by fits, ate an enormous quantity of opium, wrote a few pages which revealed new capacities in the language, and provided a good deal of respectable padding for magazines. It sounds, and many people will say that it is, a harsh and, perhaps they will add, a stupid judgment. If so, they may find plenty of admirers who will supply the eulogistic side here too briefly indicated. I will only say two things: first, that there are very few writers who have revealed new capacities in the language, and in English literature they might almost be counted on the fingers. Secondly, I must confess that I have often consulted De Quincey in regard to biographic and critical questions, and that though I have generally found something to admire, I have always found gross inaccuracies and almost always effeminate prejudices and mere flippancies draped in elaborate rhetoric. I take leave, therefore, to insist upon faults which are passed over too easily by writers of more geniality than I claim to possess.
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