Read CHAPTER X - DE QUINCEY of Essays in English Literature‚ 1780-1860 , free online book, by George Saintsbury, on

In not a few respects the literary lot of Thomas De Quincey, both during his life and after it, has been exceedingly peculiar.  In one respect it has been unique.  I do not know that any other author of anything like his merit, during our time, has had a piece of work published for fully twenty years as his, only for it to be excluded as somebody else’s at the end of that time.  Certainly The Traditions of the Rabbins was very De Quinceyish; indeed, it was so De Quinceyish that the discovery, after such a length of time, that it was not De Quincey’s at all, but “Salathiel” Croly’s, must have given unpleasant qualms to more than one critic accustomed to be positive on internal evidence.  But if De Quincey had thus attributed to him work that was not his, he has also had the utmost difficulty in getting attributed to him, in any accessible form, work that was his own.  Three, or nominally four, editions ­one in the decade of his death, superintended for the most part by himself; another in 1862, whose blue coat and white labels dwell in the fond memory; and another in 1878 (reprinted in 1880) a little altered and enlarged, with the Rabbins turned out and more soberly clad, but identical in the main ­put before the British public for some thirty-five years a certain portion of his strange, long-delayed, but voluminous work.  This work had occupied him for about the same period, that is to say for the last and shorter half of his extraordinary and yet uneventful life.  Now, after much praying of readers, and grumbling of critics, we have a fifth and definitive edition from the English critic who has given most attention to De Quincey, Professor Masson. I may say, with hearty acknowledgment of Mr. Masson’s services to English literature, that I do not very much like this last edition.  De Quincey, never much favoured by the mechanical producers of books, has had his sizings, as Byron would say, still further stinted in the matter of print, margins, and the like; and what I cannot but regard as a rather unceremonious tampering with his own arrangement has taken place, the new matter being not added in supplementary volumes or in appendices to the reprinted volumes, but thrust into or between the separate essays, sometimes to the destruction of De Quincey’s “redaction” altogether, and always to the confusion and dislocation of his arrangement, which has also been neglected in other ways.  Still the actual generation of readers will undoubtedly have before them a fuller and completer edition of De Quincey than even Americans have yet had; and they will have it edited by an accomplished scholar who has taken a great deal of pains to acquaint himself thoroughly with the subject.

Will they form a different estimate from that which those of us who have known the older editions for a quarter of a century have formed, and will that estimate, if it is different, be higher or lower?  To answer such questions is always difficult; but it is especially difficult here, for a certain reason which I had chiefly in mind when I said just now that De Quincey’s literary lot has been very peculiar.  I believe that I am not speaking for myself only; I am quite sure that I am speaking my own deliberate opinion when I say that on scarcely any English writer is it so hard to strike a critical balance ­to get a clear definite opinion that you can put on the shelf and need merely take down now and then to be dusted and polished up by a fresh reading ­as on De Quincey.  This is partly due to the fact that his merits are of the class that appeals to, while his faults are of the class that is excused by, the average boy who has some interest in literature.  To read the Essay on Murder, the English Mail Coach, The Spanish Nun, The Caesars, and half a score other things at the age of about fifteen or sixteen is, or ought to be, to fall in love with them.  And there is nothing more unpleasant for les âmes bien nees, as the famous distich has it, than to find fault in after life with that with which you have fallen in love at fifteen or sixteen.  Yet most unfortunately, just as De Quincey’s merits, or some of them, appeal specially to youth, and his defects specially escape the notice of youth, so age with stealing steps especially claws those merits into his clutch and leaves the defects exposed to derision.  The most gracious state of authors is that they shall charm at all ages those whom they do charm.  There are others ­Dante, Cervantes, Goethe are instances ­as to whom you may even begin with a little aversion, and go on to love them more and more.  De Quincey, I fear, belongs to a third class, with whom it is difficult to keep up the first love, or rather whose defects begin before long to urge themselves upon the critical lover (some would say there are no critical lovers, but that I deny) with an even less happy result than is recorded in one of Catullus’s finest lines.  This kind of discovery

    Cogit amare minus, nec bene velle magis.

How and to what extent this is the case, it must be the business of this paper to attempt to show.  But first it is desirable to give, as usual, a brief sketch of De Quincey’s life.  It need only be a brief one, for the external events of that life were few and meagre; nor can they be said to be, even after the researches of Mr. Page and Professor Masson, very accurately or exhaustively known.  Before those researches “all was mist and myth” about De Quincey.  I remember as a boy, a year or two after his death, hearing a piece of scandal about his domestic relations, which seems to have had no foundation whatever, but which pretty evidently was an echo of the “libel” (published in a short-lived newspaper of the kind which after many years has again risen to infest London) whereof he complains with perhaps more acrimony than dignity in a paper for the first time exhumed and reprinted in Professor Masson’s edition.  Many of the details of the Confessions and the Autobiography have a singular unbelievableness as one reads them; and though the tendency of recent biographers has been to accept them as on the whole genuine, I own that I am rather sceptical about many of them still.  Was the ever-famous Malay a real Malay, or a thing of shreds and patches?  Did De Quincey actually call upon the awful Dean Cyril Jackson and affably discuss with him the propriety of entering himself at Christ-church?  Did he really journey pennilessly down to Eton on the chance of finding a casual peer of the realm of tender years who would back a bill for him?  These are but a few out of a large number of questions which in idle moods (for the answer to hardly one of them is of the least importance) suggest themselves; and which have been very partially answered hitherto even of late years, though they have been much discussed.  The plain and tolerably certain facts which are important in connection with his work may be pretty rapidly summed up.

Thomas de Quincey, or Quincey, was born in Manchester ­but apparently not, as he himself thought, at the country house of Greenhay which his parents afterwards inhabited ­on 15th August 1785.  His father was a merchant, well to do but of weak health, who died when Thomas was seven years old.  Of his childhood he has left very copious reminiscences, and there is no doubt that reminiscences of childhood do linger long after later memories have disappeared.  But to what extent De Quincey gave “cocked hats and canes” to his childish thoughts and to his relations with his brothers and sisters, individual judgment must decide.  I should say, for my part, that the extent was considerable.  It seems, however, pretty clear that he was as a child, very much what he was all his life ­emphatically “old-fashioned,” retiring without being exactly shy, full of far-brought fancies and yet intensely concentrated upon himself.  In 1796 his mother moved to Bath, and Thomas was educated first at the Grammar School there and then at a private school in Wiltshire.  It was at Bath, his headquarters being there, that he met various persons of distinction ­Lord Westport, Lord and Lady Carbery, and others ­who figure largely in the Autobiography, but are never heard of afterwards.  It was with Lord Westport, a boy somewhat younger than himself, that he took a trip to Ireland, the only country beyond Great Britain that he visited.  In 1800 he was sent by his guardians to the Manchester Grammar School in order to obtain, by three years’ boarding there, one of the Somerset Exhibitions to Brasenose.  As a separate income of L150 had been left by De Quincey’s father to each of his sons, as this income, or part of it, must have been accumulating, and as the mother was very well off, this roundabout way of securing for him a miserable forty or fifty pounds a year seems strange enough.  But it has to be remembered that for all these details we have little security but De Quincey himself.  However, that he did go to Manchester, and did, after rather more than two of his three years’ probation, run away is indisputable.  His mother was living at Chester, and the calf was not killed for this prodigal son; but he had liberty given him to wander about Wales on an allowance of a guinea a week.  That there is some mystery, or mystification, about all this is nearly certain.  If things really went as he represents them, his mother ought to have been ashamed of herself, and his guardians ought to have had, to say the least, an experience of the roughest side of Lord Eldon’s tongue.  The wanderings in Wales were followed by the famous sojourn in Soho, with its waitings at money-lenders’ doors, and its perambulations of Oxford Street.  Then, by another sudden revolution, we find De Quincey with two-thirds of his allowance handed over to him and permission to go to Oxford as he wished, but abandoned to his own devices by his mother and his guardians, as surely no mother and no guardians ever abandoned an exceptionally unworldly boy of eighteen before.  They seem to have put fifty guineas in his pocket and sent him up to Oxford, without even recommending him a college, and with an income which made it practically certain that he would once more seek the Jews.  When he had spent so much of his fifty guineas that there was not enough left to pay caution-money at most colleges, he went to Worcester, where it happened to be low.  He seems to have stayed there, on and off, for nearly six years.  But he took no degree, his eternal caprices making him shun viva voce (then a much more important part of the examination than it is now) after sending in unusually good written papers.  Instead of taking a degree, he began to take opium, and to make acquaintance with the “Lakers” in both their haunts of Somerset and Westmoreland.  He entered himself at the Middle Temple, he may have eaten some dinners, and somehow or other he “came into his property,” though there are dire surmises that it was by the Hebrew door.  At any rate in November 1809 he gave up both Oxford and London (which he had frequented a good deal, chiefly, he says, for the sake of the opera of which he was very fond), and established himself at Grasmere.  One of the most singular things about his singular life ­an oddity due, no doubt, in part to the fact that he outlived his more literary associates instead of being outlived by them ­is that though we hear much from De Quincey of other people we hear extremely little from other people about De Quincey.  Indeed what we do so hear dates almost entirely from the last days of his life.

As for the autobiographic details in his Confessions and elsewhere, anybody who chooses may put those Sibylline leaves together for himself.  It would only appear certain that for ten years he led the life of a recluse student and a hard laudanum-drinker, varied by a little society now and then; that in 1816 he married Margaret Simpson, a dalesman’s daughter, of whom we have hardly any personal notices save to the effect that she was very beautiful, and who seems to have been almost the most exemplary of wives to almost the most eccentric of husbands; that for most of the time he was in more or less ease and affluence (ease and affluence still, it would seem, of a treacherous Hebraic origin); and that about 1819 he found himself in great pecuniary difficulties.  Then at length he turned to literature, started as editor of a little Tory paper at Kendal, went to London, and took rank, never to be cancelled, as a man of letters by the first part of The Confessions of an Opium-Eater, published in the London Magazine for 1821.  He began as a magazine-writer, and he continued as such till the end of his life; his publications in book-form being, till he was induced to collect his articles, quite insignificant.  Between 1821 and 1825 he seems to have been chiefly in London, though sometimes at Grasmere; between 1825 and 1830 chiefly at Grasmere, but much in Edinburgh, where Wilson (whose friendship he had secured, not at Oxford, though they were contemporaries, but at the Lakes) was now residing, and where he was introduced to Blackwood.  In 1830 he moved his household to the Scotch capital, and lived there, and (after his wife’s death in 1837) at Lasswade, or rather Polton, for the rest of his life.  His affairs had come to their worst before he lost his wife, and it is now known that for some considerable time he lived, like Mr. Chrystal Croftangry, in the sanctuary of Holyrood.  But De Quincey’s way of “living” at any place was as mysterious as most of his other ways; and, though he seems to have been very fond of his family and not at all put out by them, it was his constant habit to establish himself in separate lodgings.  These he as constantly shifted (sometimes as far as Glasgow) for no intelligible reason that has ever been discovered or surmised, his pecuniary troubles having long ceased.  It was in the latest and most permanent of these lodgings, 42 Lothian Street, Edinburgh, not at Lasswade, that he died on the 8th of December 1859.  He had latterly written mainly, though not solely, for Tait’s Magazine and Hogg’s Instructor.  But his chief literary employment for at least seven years before this, had been the arrangement of the authorised edition of his works, the last or fourteenth volume of which was in the press at the time of his death.

So meagre are the known facts in a life of seventy-four years, during nearly forty of which De Quincey, though never popular, was still recognised as a great name in English letters, while during the same period he knew, and was known to, not a few distinguished men.  But little as is recorded of the facts of his life, even less is recorded of his character, and for once it is almost impossible to discover that character from his works.  The few persons who met him all agree as to his impenetrability, ­an impenetrability not in the least due to posing, but apparently natural and fated.  De Quincey was at once egotistic and impersonal, at once delighted to talk and resolutely shunning society.  To him, one is tempted to say, reading and writing did come by nature, and nothing else was natural at all.  With books he is always at home.  A De Quincey in a world where there was neither reading nor writing of books, would certainly either have committed suicide or gone mad.  Pope’s theory of the master-passion, so often abused, justified itself here.

The quantity of work produced during this singular existence, from the time when De Quincey first began, unusually late, to write for publication, was very large.  As collected by the author, it filled fourteen volumes; the collection was subsequently enlarged to sixteen, and though the new edition promises to restrict itself to the older and lesser number, the contents of each volume have been very considerably increased.  But this printed and reprinted total, so far as can be judged from De Quincey’s own assertions and from the observations of those who were acquainted with him during his later years, must have been but the smaller part of what he actually wrote.  He was always writing, and always leaving deposits of his manuscripts in the various lodgings where it was his habit to bestow himself.  The greater part of De Quincey’s writing was of a kind almost as easily written by so full a reader and so logical a thinker as an ordinary newspaper article by an ordinary man; and except when he was sleeping, wandering about, or reading, he was always writing.  It is, of course, true that he spent a great deal of time, especially in his last years of all, in re-writing and re-fashioning previously executed work; and also that illness and opium made considerable inroads on his leisure.  But I should imagine that if we had all that he actually wrote during these nearly forty years, forty or sixty printed volumes would more nearly express its amount than fourteen or sixteen.

Still what we have is no mean bulk of work for any man to have accomplished, especially when it is considered how extraordinarily good much of it is.  To classify it is not particularly easy; and I doubt, myself, whether any classification is necessary.  De Quincey himself tried, and made rather a muddle of it.  Professor Masson is trying also.  But, in truth, except those wonderful purple patches of “numerous” prose, which are stuck all about the work, and perhaps in strictness not excepting them, everything that De Quincey wrote, whether it was dream or reminiscence, literary criticism or historical study, politics or political economy, had one characteristic so strongly impressed on it as to dwarf and obscure the differences of subject.  It is not very easy to find a description at once accurate and fair, brief and adequate, of this peculiarity; it is best hinted at in a remark on De Quincey’s conversation which I have seen quoted somewhere (whether by Professor Masson or not I hardly know), that it was, with many interesting and delightful qualities, a kind of “rigmarole.”  So far as I remember, the remark was not applied in any unfriendly spirit, nor is it adduced here in any such.  But both in the printed works, in the remembrances of De Quincey’s conversation which have been printed, in his letters which are exactly like his articles, and in those astonishing imaginary conversations attributed to him in the Noctes Ambrosianae, which are said, by good authorities, exactly to represent his way of talk, this quality of rigmarole appears.  It is absolutely impossible for him to keep to his subject, or any subject.  It is as impossible for him to pull himself up briefly in any digression from that subject.  In his finest passages, as in his most trivial, he is at the mercy of the will-o’-the-wisp of divagation.  In his later re-handlings of his work, he did to some extent limit his followings of this will-o’-the-wisp to notes, but by no means always; and both in his later and in his earlier work, as it was written for the first time, he indulged them freely in the text.

For pure rigmarole, for stories, as Mr. Chadband has it, “of a cock and of a bull, and of a lady and of a half-crown,” few things, even in De Quincey, can exceed, and nothing out of De Quincey can approach, the passages about the woman he met on the “cop” at Chester, and about the Greek letter that he did not send to the Bishop of Bangor, in the preliminary part of the Confessions.  The first is the more teasing, because with a quite elvish superfluity of naughtiness he has here indulged in a kind of double rigmarole about the woman and the “bore” in the river, and flits from one to the other, and from the other to the one (his main story standing still the while), for half a dozen pages, till the reader feels as Coleridge’s auditors must have felt when he talked about “Ball and Bell, Bell and Ball.”  But the Greek letter episode, or rather, the episode about the Greek letter which never was written, is, if possible, more flagrantly rigmarolish.  The-cop-and-bore-and-woman digression contains some remarkable description as a kind of solace to the Puck-led traveller; the other is bare of any such comfort.  The Bishop’s old housekeeper, who was De Quincey’s landlady, told him, it seems, that the Bishop had cautioned her against taking in lodgers whom she did not know, and De Quincey was very angry.  As he thought he could write Greek much better than the Bishop, he meditated expostulation in that language.  He did not expostulate, but he proceeds instead to consider the possible effect on the Bishop if he had.  There was a contemporary writer whom we can imagine struck by a similar whimsy:  but Charles Lamb would have given us the Bishop and himself “quite natural and distinct” in a dozen lines, and then have dropped the subject, leaving our sides aching with laughter, and our appetites longing for more.  De Quincey tells us at great length who the Bishop was, and how he was the Head of Brasenose, with some remarks on the relative status of Oxford Colleges.  Then he debates the pros and cons on the question whether the Bishop would have answered the letter or not, with some remarks on the difference between strict scholarship and the power of composing in a dead language.  He rises to real humour in the remark, that as “Methodists swarmed in Carnarvonshire,” he “could in no case have found pleasure in causing mortification” to the Bishop, even if he had vanquished him.  By this time we have had some three pages of it, and could well, especially with this lively touch to finish, accept them, though they be something tedious, supposing the incident to be closed.  The treacherous author leads us to suppose that it is closed; telling us how he left Bangor, and went to Carnarvon, which change gradually drew his thoughts away from the Bishop.  So far is this from being the case, that he goes back to that Reverend Father, and for two mortal pages more, speculates further what would happen if he had written to the Bishop, what the Bishop would have said, whether he would not have asked him (De Quincey) to the Palace, whether, in his capacity of Head of a House, he would not have welcomed him to that seat of learning, and finally smoothed his way to a fellowship.  By which time, one is perfectly sick of the Bishop, and of these speculations on the might-have-been, which are indeed by no means unnatural, being exactly what every man indulges in now and then in his own case, which, in conversation, would not be unpleasant, but which, gradually and diffusedly set down in a book, and interrupting a narrative, are most certainly “rigmarole.”

Rigmarole, however, can be a very agreeable thing in its way, and De Quincey has carried it to a point of perfection never reached by any other rigmaroler.  Despite his undoubted possession of a kind of humour, it is a very remarkable thing that he rigmaroles, so far as can be made out by the application of the most sensitive tests, quite seriously, and almost, if not quite, unconsciously.  These digressions or deviations are studded with quips and jests, good, bad, and indifferent.  But the writer never seems to suspect that his own general attitude is at least susceptible of being made fun of.  It is said, and we can very well believe it, that he was excessively annoyed at Lamb’s delightful parody of his Letters to a Young Man whose Education has been Neglected; and, on the whole, I should say that no great man of letters in this century, except Balzac and Victor Hugo, was so insensible to the ludicrous aspect of his own performances.  This in the author of the Essay on Murder may seem surprising, but, in fact, there are few things of which there are so many subdivisions, or in which the subdivisions are marked off from each other by such apparently impermeable lines, as humour.  If I may refine a little I should say that there was very frequently, if not generally, a humorous basis for these divagations of De Quincey’s; but that he almost invariably lost sight of that basis, and proceeded to reason quite gravely away from it, in what is (not entirely with justice) called the scholastic manner.  How much of this was due to the influence of Jean Paul and the other German humorists of the last century, with whom he became acquainted very early, I should not like to say.  I confess that my own enjoyment of Richter, which has nevertheless been considerable, has always been lessened by the presence in him, to a still greater degree, of this same habit of quasi-serious divagation.  To appreciate the mistake of it, it is only necessary to compare the manner of Swift.  The Tale of a Tub is in appearance as daringly discursive as anything can be, but the author in the first place never loses his way, and in the second never fails to keep a watchful eye on himself, lest he should be getting too serious or too tedious.  That is what Richter and De Quincey fail to do.

Yet though these drawbacks are grave, and though they are (to judge from my own experience) felt more seriously at each successive reading, most assuredly no man who loves English literature could spare De Quincey from it; most assuredly all who love English literature would sooner spare some much more faultless writers.  Even that quality of his which has been already noted, his extraordinary attraction for youth, is a singular and priceless one.  The Master of the Court of the Gentiles, or the Instructor of the Sons of the Prophets, he might be called in a fantastic nomenclature, which he would have himself appreciated, if it had been applied to any one but himself.  What he somewhere calls his “extraordinary ignorance of daily life” does not revolt youth.  His little pedantries, which to the day of his death were like those of a clever schoolboy, appeal directly to it.  His best fun is quite intelligible; his worst not wholly uncongenial.  His habit (a certain most respected professor in a northern university may recognise the words) of “getting into logical coaches and letting himself be carried on without minding where he is going” is anything but repugnant to brisk minds of seventeen.  They are quite able to comprehend the great if mannered beauty of his finest style ­the style, to quote his own words once more, as of “an elaborate and pompous sunset.”  Such a schoolmaster to bring youths of promise, not merely to good literature but to the best, nowhere else exists.  But he is much more than a mere schoolmaster, and in order that we may see what he is, it is desirable first of all to despatch two other objections made to him from different quarters, and on different lines of thought.  The one objection (I should say that I do not fully espouse either of them) is that he is an untrustworthy critic of books; the other is that he is a very spiteful commentator on men.

This latter charge has found wide acceptance and has been practically corroborated and endorsed by persons as different as Southey and Carlyle.  It would not in any case concern us much, for when a man is once dead it matters uncommonly little whether he was personally unamiable or not.  But I think that De Quincey has in this respect been hardly treated.  He led such a wholly unnatural life, he was at all times and in all places so thoroughly excluded from the natural contact and friction of society, that his utterances hardly partake of the ordinary character of men’s speech.  In the “vacant interlunar caves” where he hid himself, he could hardly feel the restraints that press on those who move within ear-shot and jostle of their fellows on this actual earth.  This is not a triumphant defence, no doubt; but I think it is a defence.  And further, it has yet to be proved that De Quincey set down anything in malice.  He called his literary idol, Wordsworth, “inhumanly arrogant.”  Does anybody ­not being a Wordsworthian and therefore out of reach of reason ­doubt that Wordsworth’s arrogance was inhuman?  He, not unprovoked by scant gratitude on Coleridge’s part for very solid services, and by a doubtless sincere but rather unctuous protest of his brother in opium-eating against the Confessions, told some home truths against that magnificent genius but most unsatisfactory man.  A sort of foolish folk has recently arisen which tells us that because Coleridge wrote “The Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan,” he was quite entitled to leave his wife and children to be looked after by anybody who chose, to take stipends from casual benefactors, and to scold, by himself or by his next friend Mr. Wordsworth, other benefactors, like Thomas Poole, who were not prepared at a moment’s notice to give him a hundred pounds for a trip to the Azores.  The rest of us, though we may feel no call to denounce Coleridge for these proceedings, may surely hold that “The Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” are no defence to the particular charges.  I do not see that De Quincey said anything worse of Coleridge than any man who knew the then little, but now well-known facts of Coleridge’s life, was entitled to say if he chose.  And so in other cases.  That he was what is called a thoughtful person ­that is to say that he ever said to himself, “Will what I am writing give pain, and ought I to give that pain?” ­I do not allege.  In fact, the very excuse which has been made for him above is inconsistent with it.  He always wrote far too much as one in another planet for anything of the kind to occur to him, and he was perhaps for a very similar reason rather too fond of the “personal talk” which Wordsworth wisely disdained.  But that he was in any proper sense spiteful, that is to say that he ever wrote either with a deliberate intention to wound or with a deliberate indifference whether he wounded or not, I do not believe.

The other charge, that he was a bad or rather a very untrustworthy critic of books, cannot be met quite so directly.  He is indeed responsible for a singularly large number of singularly grave critical blunders ­by which I mean of course not critical opinions disagreeing with my own, but critical opinions which the general consent of competent critics, on the whole, negatives.  The minor classical writers are not much read now, but there must be a sufficient jury to whom I can appeal to know what is to be done with a professed critic of style ­at least asserting himself to be no mean classical scholar ­who declares that “Paganism had no more brilliant master of composition to show than” ­Velleius Paterculus!  Suppose this to be a mere fling or freak, what is to be thought of a man who evidently sets Cicero, as a writer, if not as a thinker, above Plato?  It would be not only possible but easy to follow this up with a long list of critical enormities on De Quincey’s part, enormities due not to accidental and casual crotchet or prejudice, as in Hazlitt’s case, but apparently to some perverse idiosyncrasy.  I doubt very much, though the doubt may seem horribly heretical to some people, whether De Quincey really cared much for poetry as poetry.  He liked philosophical poets: ­Milton, Wordsworth, Shakespeare (inasmuch as he perceived Shakespeare to be the greatest of philosophical poets), Pope even in a certain way.  But read the interesting paper which late in life he devoted to Shelley.  He treats Shelley as a man admirably, with freedom alike from the maudlin sentiment of our modern chatterers and from Puritanical preciseness.  He is not too hard on him in any way, he thinks him a pleasing personality and a thinker distorted but interesting.  Of Shelley’s strictly poetical quality he says nothing, if he knew or felt anything.  In fact, of lyrical poetry generally, that is to say of poetry in its most purely poetical condition, he speaks very little in all his extensive critical dissertations.  His want of appreciation of it may supply explanation of his unpardonable treatment of Goethe.  That he should have maltreated Wilhelm Meister is quite excusable.  There are fervent admirers of Goethe at his best who acknowledge most fully the presence in Wilhelm of the two worst characteristics of German life and literature, bad taste and tediousness.  But it is not excusable that much later, and indeed at the very height of his literary powers and practice, he should have written the article in the Encyclopædia Britannica on the author of Faust, of Egmont, and above all of the shorter poems.  Here he deliberately assents to the opinion that Werther is “superior to everything that came after it, and for mere power, Goethe’s paramount work,” dismisses Faust as something that “no two people have ever agreed about,” sentences Egmont as “violating the historic truth of character,” and mentions not a single one of those lyrics, unmatched, or rather only matched by Heine, in the language, by which Goethe first gave German rank with the great poetic tongues.  His severity on Swift is connected with his special “will-worship” of ornate style, of which more presently, and in general it may be said that De Quincey’s extremely logical disposition of mind was rather a snare to him in his criticism.  He was constantly constructing general principles and then arguing downwards from them; in which case woe to any individual fact or person that happened to get in the way.  Where Wilson, the “only intimate male friend I have had” (as he somewhere says with a half-pathetic touch of self-illumination more instructive than reams of imaginative autobiography), went wrong from not having enough of general principle, where Hazlitt went wrong from letting prejudices unconnected with the literary side of the matter blind his otherwise piercing literary sight, De Quincey fell through an unswervingness of deduction more French than English.  Your ornate writer must be better than your plain one, ergo, let us say, Cicero must be better than Swift.

One other curious weakness of his (which has been glanced at already) remains to be noticed.  This is the altogether deplorable notion of jocularity which he only too often exhibits.  Mr. Masson, trying to propitiate the enemy, admits that “to address the historian Josephus as ‘Joe,’ through a whole article, and give him a black eye into the bargain, is positively profane.”  I am not sure as to the profanity, knowing nothing particularly sacred about Josephus.  But if Mr. Masson had called it excessively silly, I should have agreed heartily; and if any one else denounced it as a breach of good literary manners, I do not know that I should protest.  The habit is the more curious in that all authorities agree as to the exceptional combination of scholarliness and courtliness which marked De Quincey’s colloquial style and expression.  Wilson’s daughter, Mrs. Gordon, says that he used to address her father’s cook “as if she had been a duchess”; and that the cook, though much flattered, was somewhat aghast at his punctilio.  That a man of this kind should think it both allowable and funny to talk of Josephus as “Joe,” and of Magliabecchi as “Mag,” may be only a new example of that odd law of human nature which constantly prompts people in various relations of life, and not least in literature, to assume most the particular qualities (not always virtues or graces) that they have not.  Yet it is fair to remember that Wilson and the Blackwood set, together with not a few writers in the London Magazine ­the two literary coteries in connexion with whom De Quincey started as a writer ­had deliberately imported this element of horse-play into literature, that it at least did not seem to interfere with their popularity, and that De Quincey himself, after 1830, lived too little in touch with actual life to be aware that the style was becoming as unfashionable as it had always, save on very exceptional subjects, been ungraceful.  Even on Wilson, who was to the manner born of riotous spirits, it often sits awkwardly; in De Quincey’s case it is, to borrow Sir Walter’s admirable simile in another case, like “the forced impudence of a bashful man.”  Grim humour he can manage admirably, and he also ­as in the passage about the fate which waited upon all who possessed anything which might be convenient to Wordsworth, if they died ­can manage a certain kind of sly humour not much less admirably.  But “Joe” and “Mag,” and, to take another example, the stuff about Catalina’s “crocodile papa” in The Spanish Nun, are neither grim nor sly, they are only puerile.  His stanchest defender asks, “why De Quincey should not have the same license as Swift and Thackeray?” The answer is quick and crushing.  Swift and Thackeray justify their license by their use of it; De Quincey does not.  After which it is hardly necessary to add, though this is almost final in itself, that neither Swift nor Thackeray interlards perfectly and unaffectedly serious work with mere fooling of the “Joe” and “Mag” kind.  Swift did not put mollis abuti in the Four last years of Queen Anne, nor Thackeray his Punch jokes in the death-scene of Colonel Newcome.  I can quite conceive De Quincey doing both.

And now I have done enough in the fault-finding way, and nothing shall induce me to say another word of De Quincey in this article save in praise.  For praise he himself gives the amplest occasion; he might almost remain unblamed altogether if his praisers had not been frequently unwise, and if his exemplar were not specially vitiis imitabile.  Few English writers have touched so large a number of subjects with such competence both in information and in power of handling.  Still fewer have exhibited such remarkable logical faculty.  One main reason why one is sometimes tempted to quarrel with him is that his play of fence is so excellent that one longs to cross swords.  For this and for other reasons no writer has a more stimulating effect, or is more likely to lead his readers on to explore and to think for themselves.  In none is that incurable curiosity, that infinite variety of desire for knowledge and for argument which age cannot quench, more observable.  Few if any have the indefinable quality of freshness in so large a measure.  You never quite know, though you may have a shrewd suspicion, what De Quincey will say on any subject; his gift of sighting and approaching new facets of it is so immense.  Whether he was in truth as accomplished a classical scholar as he claimed to be I do not know; he has left few positive documents to tell us.  But I should think that he was, for he has all the characteristics of a scholar of the best and rarest kind ­the scholar who is exact as to language without failing to comprehend literature, and competent in literature without being slipshod as to language.  His historical insight, of which the famous Caesars is the best example, was, though sometimes coloured by his fancy, and at other times distorted by a slight tendency to supercherie as in The Tartars and The Spanish Nun, wonderfully powerful and acute.  He was not exactly as Southey was, “omnilegent”; but in his own departments, and they were numerous, he went farther below the surface and connected his readings together better than Southey did.  Of the two classes of severer study to which he specially addicted himself, his political economy suffered perhaps a little, acute as his views in it often are, from the fact that in his time it was practically a new study, and that he had neither sufficient facts nor sufficient literature to go upon.  In metaphysics, to which he gave himself up for years, and in which he seems really to have known whatever there was to know, I fear that the opium fiend cheated the world of something like masterpieces.  Only three men during De Quincey’s lifetime had anything like his powers in this department.  Of these three men, Sir William Hamilton either could not or would not write English.  Ferrier could and did write English; but he could not, as De Quincey could, throw upon philosophy the play of literary and miscellaneous illustration which of all the sciences it most requires, and which all its really supreme exponents have been able to give it.  Mansel could do both these things; but he was somewhat indolent, and had many avocations.  De Quincey could write perfect English, he had every resource of illustration and relief at command, he was in his way as “brazen-bowelled” at work as he was “golden-mouthed” at expression, and he had ample leisure.  But the inability to undertake sustained labour, which he himself recognises as the one unquestionable curse of opium, deprived us of an English philosopher who would have stood as far above Kant in exoteric graces, as he would have stood above Bacon in esoteric value.  It was not entirely De Quincey’s fault.  It seems to be generally recognised now that whatever occasional excesses he may have committed, opium was really required in his case, and gave us what we have as much as it took away what we have not.  But if any one chose to write in the antique style a debate between Philosophy, Tar-water, and Laudanum, it would be almost enough to put in the mouth of Philosophy, “This gave me Berkeley and that deprived me of De Quincey.”

De Quincey is, however, first of all a writer of ornate English, which was never, with him, a mere cover to bare thought.  Overpraise and mispraise him as anybody may, he cannot be overpraised for this.  Mistake as he chose to do, and as others have chosen to do, the relative value of his gift, the absolute value of it is unmistakable.  What other Englishman, from Sir Thomas Browne downwards, has written a sentence surpassing in melody that on Our Lady of Sighs:  “And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams and with wrecks of forgotten delirium”?  Compare that with the masterpieces of some later practitioners.  There are no out-of-the-way words; there is no needless expense of adjectives; the sense is quite adequate to the sound; the sound is only what is required as accompaniment to the sense.  And though I do not know that in a single instance of equal length ­even in the still more famous, and as a whole justly more famous, tour de force on Our Lady of Darkness ­De Quincey ever quite equalled the combined simplicity and majesty of this phrase, he has constantly come close to it.  The Suspiria are full of such passages ­there are even some who prefer Savannah la Mar to the Ladies of Sorrow.  Beautiful as it is I do not, because the accursed superfluous adjective appears there.  The famous passages of the Confessions are in every one’s memory; and so I suppose is the Vision of Sudden Death.  Many passages in The Caesars, though somewhat less florid, are hardly less good; and the close of Joan of Arc is as famous as the most ambitious attempts of the Confessions and the Mail Coach.  Moreover, in all the sixteen volumes, specimens of the same kind may be found here and there, alternating with very different matter; so much so, that it has no doubt often occurred to readers that the author’s occasional divergence into questionable quips and cranks is a deliberate attempt to set off his rhetoric, as dramatists of the noblest school have often set off their tragedy, with comedy, if not with farce.  That such a principle would imply confusion of the study and the stage is arguable enough, but it does not follow that it was not present.  At any rate the contrast, deliberate or not, is very strong indeed in De Quincey ­stronger than in any other prose author except his friend, and pupil rather than master, Wilson.

The great advantage that De Quincey has, not only over this friend of his but over all practitioners of the ornate style in this century, lies in his sureness of hand in the first place, and secondly in the comparative frugality of means which perhaps is an inseparable accompaniment of sureness of hand.  To mention living persons would be invidious; but Wilson and Landor are within the most scrupulous critic’s right of comparison.  All three were contemporaries; all three were Oxford men ­Landor about ten years senior to the other two ­and all three in their different ways set themselves deliberately to reverse the practice of English prose for nearly a century and a half.  They did great things, but De Quincey did, I think, the greatest and certainly the most classical in the proper sense, for all Landor’s superior air of Hellenism.  Voluble as De Quincey often is, he seems always to have felt that when you are in your altitudes it is well not to stay there too long.  And his flights, while they are far more uniformly high than Wilson’s, which alternately soar and drag, are much more merciful in regard of length than Landor’s, as well as for the most part much more closely connected with the sense of his subjects.  There is scarcely one of the Imaginary Conversations which would not be the better for very considerable thinning, while, with the exception perhaps of The English Mail Coach, De Quincey’s surplusage, obvious enough in many cases, is scarcely ever found in his most elaborate and ornate passages.  The total amount of such passages in the Confessions is by no means large, and the more ambitious parts of the Suspiria do not much exceed a dozen pages.  De Quincey was certainly justified by his own practice in adopting and urging as he did the distinction, due, he says, to Wordsworth, between the common and erroneous idea of style as the dress of thought, and the true definition of it as the incarnation of thought.  The most wizened of coxcombs may spend days and years in dressing up his meagre and ugly carcass; but few are the sons of men who have sufficient thought to provide the soul of any considerable series of avatars.  De Quincey had; and therefore, though the manner (with certain exceptions heretofore taken) in him is always worth attention, it never need or should divert attention from the matter.  And thus he was not driven to make a little thought do tyrannous duty as lay-figure for an infinite amount of dress, or to hang out frippery on a clothes-line with not so much as a lay-figure inside it.  Even when he is most conspicuously “fighting a prize,” there is always solid stuff in him.

Few indeed are the writers of whom so much can be said, and fewer still the miscellaneous writers, among whom De Quincey must be classed.  On almost any subject that interested him ­and the number of such subjects was astonishing, curious as are the gaps between the different groups of them ­what he has to say is pretty sure, even if it be the wildest paradox in appearance, to be worth attending to.  And in regard to most things that he has to say, the reader may be pretty sure also that he will not find them better said elsewhere.  It has sometimes been complained by students, both of De Quincey the man and of De Quincey the writer, that there is something not exactly human in him.  There is certainly much in him of the daemonic, to use a word which was a very good word and really required in the language, and which ought not to be exiled because it has been foolishly abused.  Sometimes, as has also been complained, the demon is a mere familiar with the tricksiness of Puck rather than the lightness of Ariel.  But far oftener he is a more potent spirit than any Robin Goodfellow, and as powerful as Ariel and Ariel’s master.  Trust him wholly you may not; a characteristic often noted in intelligences that are neither exactly human, nor exactly diabolic, nor exactly divine.  But he will do great things for you, and a little wit and courage on your part will prevent his doing anything serious against you.  To him, with much greater justice than to Hogg, might Wilson have applied the nickname of Brownie, which he was so fond of bestowing upon the author of “Kilmeny.”  He will do solid work, conjure up a concert of aerial music, play a shrewd trick now and then, and all this with a curious air of irresponsibility and of remoteness of nature.  In ancient days when kings played experiments to ascertain the universal or original language, some monarch might have been tempted to take a very clever child, interest him so far as possible in nothing but books and opium, and see whether he would turn out anything like De Quincey.  But it is in the highest degree improbable that he would.  Therefore let us rejoice, though according to the precepts of wisdom and not too indiscriminately, in our De Quincey as we once, and probably once for all, received him.