1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/De Quincey, Thomas
DE QUINCEY, THOMAS (1785–1859), English author, was born at Greenheys, Manchester, on the 15th of August 1785. He was the fifth child in a family of eight (four sons and four daughters). His father, descended from a Norman family, was a merchant, who left his wife and six children a clear income of £1600 a year. Thomas was from infancy a shy, sensitive child, with a constitutional tendency to dreaming by night and by day; and, under the influence of an elder brother, a lad “whose genius for mischief amounted to inspiration,” who died in his sixteenth year, he spent much of his boyhood in imaginary worlds of their own creating. The amusements and occupations of the whole family, indeed, seem to have been mainly intellectual; and in De Quincey’s case, emphatically, “the child was father to the man.” “My life has been,” he affirms in the Confessions, “on the whole the life of a philosopher; from my birth I was made an intellectual creature, and intellectual in the highest sense my pursuits and pleasures have been.” From boyhood he was more or less in contact with a polished circle; his education, easy to one of such native aptitude, was sedulously attended to. When he was in his twelfth year the family removed to Bath, where he was sent to the grammar school, at which he remained for about two years; and for a year more he attended another public school at Winkfield, Wiltshire. At thirteen he wrote Greek with ease; at fifteen he not only composed Greek verses in lyric measures, but could converse in Greek fluently and without embarrassment; one of his masters said of him, “that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.” Towards the close of his fifteenth year he visited Ireland, with a companion of his own age, Lord Westport, the son of Lord Altamont, an Irish peer, and spent there in residence and travel some months of the summer and autumn of the year 1800,—being a spectator at Dublin of “the final ratification of the bill which united Ireland to Great Britain.” On his return to England, his mother having now settled at St John’s Priory, a residence near Chester, De Quincey was sent to the Manchester grammar school, mainly in the hope of securing one of the school exhibitions to help his expenses at Oxford.
Discontented with the mode in which his guardians conducted his education, and with some view apparently of forcing them to send him earlier to college, he left this school after less than a year’s residence—ran away, in short, to his mother’s house. There his mother’s brother, Colonel Thomas Penson, made an arrangement for him to have a weekly allowance, on which he might reside at some country place in Wales, and pursue his studies, presumably till he could go to college. From Wales, however, after brief trial, “suffering grievously from want of books,” he went off as he had done from school, and hid himself from guardians and friends in the world of London. And now, as he says, commenced “that episode, or impassioned parenthesis of my life, which is comprehended in The Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” This London episode extended over a year or more; his money soon vanished, and he was in the utmost poverty; he obtained shelter for the night in Greek Street, Soho, from a moneylender’s agent, and spent his days wandering in the streets and parks; finally the lad was reconciled to his guardians, and in 1803 was sent to Worcester College, Oxford, being by this time about nineteen. It was in the course of his second year at Oxford that he first tasted opium,—having taken it to allay neuralgic pains. De Quincey’s mother had settled at Weston Lea, near Bath, and on one of his visits to Bath, De Quincey made the acquaintance of Coleridge; he took Mrs Coleridge to Grasmere, where he became personally acquainted with Wordsworth.
After finishing his career of five years at college in 1808 he kept terms at the Middle Temple; but in 1809 visited the Wordsworths at Grasmere, and in the autumn returned to Dove Cottage, which he had taken on a lease. His choice was of course influenced partly by neighbourhood to Wordsworth, whom he early appreciated;—having been, he says, the only man in all Europe who quoted Wordsworth so early as 1802. His friendship with Wordsworth decreased within a few years, and when in 1834 De Quincey published in Tait’s Magazine his reminiscences of the Grasmere circle, the indiscreet references to the Wordsworths contained in the article led to a complete cessation of intercourse. Here also he enjoyed the society and friendship of Coleridge, Southey and especially of Professor Wilson, as in London he had of Charles Lamb and his circle. He continued his classical and other studies, especially exploring the at that time almost unknown region of German literature, and indicating its riches to English readers. Here also, in 1816, he married Margaret Simpson, the “dear M——” of whom a charming glimpse is accorded to the reader of the Confessions; his family came to be five sons and three daughters.
For about a year and a half he edited the Westmoreland Gazette. He left Grasmere for London in the early part of 1820. The Lambs received him with great kindness and introduced him to the proprietors of the London Magazine. It was in this journal in 1821 that the Confessions appeared. De Quincey also contributed to Blackwood, to Knight’s Quarterly Magazine, and later to Tait’s Magazine. His connexion with Blackwood took him to Edinburgh in 1828, and he lived there for twelve years, contributing from time to time to the Edinburgh Literary Gazette. His wife died in 1837, and the family eventually settled at Lasswade, but from this time De Quincey spent his time in lodgings in various places, staying at one place until the accumulation of papers filled the rooms, when he left them in charge of the landlady and wandered elsewhere. After his wife’s death he gave way for the fourth time in his life to the opium habit, but in 1844 he reduced his daily quantity by a tremendous effort to six grains, and never again yielded. He died in Edinburgh on the 8th of December 1859, and is buried in the West Churchyard.
During nearly fifty years De Quincey lived mainly by his pen. His patrimony seems never to have been entirely exhausted, and his habits and tastes were simple and inexpensive; but he was reckless in the use of money, and had debts and pecuniary difficulties of all sorts. There was, indeed, his associates affirm, an element of romance even in his impecuniosity, as there was in everything about him; and the diplomatic and other devices by which he contrived to keep clear of clamant creditors, while scrupulously fulfilling many obligations, often disarmed animosity, and converted annoyance into amusement. The famous Confessions of an English Opium Eater was published in a small volume in 1822, and attracted a very remarkable degree of attention, not simply by its personal disclosures, but by the extraordinary power of its dream-painting. No other literary man of his time, it has been remarked, achieved so high and universal a reputation from such merely fugitive efforts. The only works published separately (not in periodicals) were a novel, Klosterheim (1832), and The Logic of Political Economy (1844). After his works were brought together, De Quincey’s reputation was not merely maintained, but extended. For range of thought and topic, within the limits of pure literature, no like amount of material of such equality of merit proceeded from any eminent writer of the day. However profuse and discursive, De Quincey is always polished, and generally exact—a scholar, a wit, a man of the world and a philosopher, as well as a genius. He looked upon letters as a noble and responsible calling; in his essay on Oliver Goldsmith he claims for literature the rank not only of a fine art, but of the highest and most potent of fine arts; and as such he himself regarded and practised it. He drew a broad distinction between “the literature of knowledge and the literature of power,” asserting that the function of the first is to teach, the function of the second to move,—maintaining that the meanest of authors who moves has pre-eminence over all who merely teach, that the literature of knowledge must perish by supersession, while the literature of power is “triumphant for ever as long as the language exists in which it speaks.” It is to this class of motive literature that De Quincey’s own works essentially belong; it is by virtue of that vital element of power that they have emerged from the rapid oblivion of periodicalism, and live in the minds of later generations. But their power is weakened by their volume.
De Quincey fully defined his own position and claim to distinction in the preface to his collected works. These he divides into three classes:—“first, that class which proposes primarily to amuse the reader,” such as the Narratives, Autobiographic Sketches, &c.; “second, papers which address themselves purely to the understanding as an insulated faculty, or do so primarily,” such as the essays on Essenism, the Caesars, Cicero, &c.; and finally, as a third class, “and, in virtue of their aim, as a far higher class of compositions,” he ranks those “modes of impassioned prose ranging under no precedents that I am aware of in any literature,” such as the Confessions and Suspiria de Profundis. The high claim here asserted has been questioned; and short and isolated examples of eloquent apostrophe, and highly wrought imaginative description, have been cited from Rousseau and other masters of style; but De Quincey’s power of sustaining a fascinating and elevated strain of “impassioned prose” is allowed to be entirely his own. Nor, in regard to his writings as a whole, will a minor general claim which he makes be disallowed, namely, that he “does not write without a thoughtful consideration of his subject,” and also with novelty and freshness of view. “Generally,” he says, “I claim (not arrogantly, but with firmness) the merit of rectification applied to absolute errors, or to injurious limitations of the truth.” Another obvious quality of all his genius is its overflowing fulness of allusion and illustration, recalling his own description of a great philosopher or scholar—“Not one who depends simply on an infinite memory, but also on an infinite and electrical power of combination, bringing together from the four winds, like the angel of the resurrection, what else were dust from dead men’s bones into the unity of breathing life.” It is useless to complain of his having lavished and diffused his talents and acquirements over so vast a variety of often comparatively trivial and passing topics. The world must accept gifts from men of genius as they offer them; circumstance and the hour often rule their form. Those influences, no less than the idiosyncrasy of the man, determined De Quincey to the illumination of such matter for speculation as seemed to lie before him; he was not careful to search out recondite or occult themes, though these he did not neglect,—a student, a scholar and a recluse, he was yet at the same time a man of the world, keenly interested in the movements of men and in the page of history that unrolled itself before him day by day. To the discussion of things new, as readily as of things old, aided by a capacious, retentive and ready memory, which dispensed with reference to printed pages, he brought also the exquisite keenness and subtlety of his highly analytic and imaginative intellect, the illustrative stores of his vast and varied erudition, and that large infusion of common sense which preserved him from becoming at any time a mere doctrinaire, or visionary. If he did not throw himself into any of the great popular controversies or agitations of the day, it was not from any want of sympathy with the struggles of humanity or the progress of the race, but rather because his vocation was to apply to such incidents of his own time, as to like incidents of all history, great philosophical principles and tests of truth and power. In politics, in the party sense of that term, he would probably have been classed as a Liberal Conservative or Conservative Liberal—at one period of his life perhaps the former, and at a later the latter. Originally, as we have seen, his surroundings were aristocratic, in his middle life his associates, notably Wordsworth, Southey and Wilson, were all Tories; but he seems never to have held the extreme and narrow views of that circle. Though a flavour of high breeding runs through his writings, he has no vulgar sneers at the vulgar. As he advanced in years his views became more and more decidedly liberal, but he was always as far removed from Radicalism as from Toryism, and may be described as a philosophical politician, capable of classification under no definite party name or colour. Of political economy he had been an early and earnest student, and projected, if he did not so far proceed with, an elaborate and systematic treatise on the science, of which all that appears, however, are his fragmentary Dialogues on the system of Ricardo, published in the London Magazine in 1824, and The Logic of Political Economy (1844). But political and economic problems largely exercised his thoughts, and his historical sketches show that he is constantly alive to their interpenetrating influence. The same may be said of his biographies, notably of his remarkable sketch of Dr Parr. Neither politics nor economics, however, exercised an absorbing influence on his mind,—they were simply provinces in the vast domain of universal speculation through which he ranged “with unconfined wings.” How wide and varied was the region he traversed a glance at the titles of the papers which make up his collected—or more properly, selected—works (for there was much matter of evanescent interest not reprinted) sufficiently shows. Some things in his own line he has done perfectly; he has written many pages of magnificently mixed argument, irony, humour and eloquence, which, for sustained brilliancy, richness, subtle force and purity of style and effect, have simply no parallels; and he is without peer the prince of dreamers. The use of opium no doubt stimulated this remarkable faculty of reproducing in skilfully selected phrase the grotesque and shifting forms of that “cloudland, gorgeous land,” which opens to the sleep-closed eye.
To the appreciation of De Quincey the reader must bring an imaginative faculty somewhat akin to his own—a certain general culture, and large knowledge of books, and men and things. Otherwise much of that slight and delicate allusion that gives point and colour and charm to his writings will be missed; and on this account the full enjoyment and comprehension of De Quincey must always remain a luxury of the literary and intellectual. But his skill in narration, his rare pathos, his wide sympathies, the pomp of his dream-descriptions, the exquisite playfulness of his lighter dissertations, and his abounding though delicate and subtle humour, commend him to a larger class. Though far from being a professed humorist—a character he would have shrunk from—there is no more expert worker in a sort of half-veiled and elaborate humour and irony than De Quincey; but he employs those resources for the most part secondarily. Only in one instance has he given himself up to them unreservedly and of set purpose, namely, in the famous “Essay on Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts,” published in Blackwood,—an effort which, admired and admirable though it be, is also, it must be allowed, somewhat strained. His style, full and flexible, pure and polished, is peculiarly his own; yet it is not the style of a mannerist,—its charm is, so to speak, latent; the form never obtrudes; the secret is only discoverable by analysis and study. It consists simply in the reader’s assurance of the writer’s complete mastery over all the infinite applicability and resources of the English language. Hence involutions and parentheses, “cycle on epicycle,” evolve themselves into a stately clearness and harmony; and sentences and paragraphs, loaded with suggestion, roll on smoothly and musically, without either fatiguing or cloying—rather, indeed, to the surprise as well as delight of the reader; for De Quincey is always ready to indulge in feats of style, witching the world with that sort of noble horsemanship which is as graceful as it is daring.
It has been complained that, in spite of the apparently full confidences of the Confessions and Autobiographic Sketches, readers are left in comparative ignorance, biographically speaking, of the man De Quincey. Two passages in his Confessions afford sufficient clues to this mystery. In one he describes himself “as framed for love and all gentle affections,” and in another confesses to the “besetting infirmity” of being “too much of an eudaemonist.” “I hanker,” he says, “too much after a state of happiness, both for myself and others; I cannot face misery, whether my own or not, with an eye of sufficient firmness, and am little capable of surmounting present pain for the sake of any recessionary benefit.” His sensitive disposition dictated the ignoring in his writings of traits merely personal to himself, as well as his ever-recurrent resort to opium as a doorway of escape from present ill; and prompted those habits of seclusion, and that apparently capricious abstraction of himself from the society not only of his friends, but of his own family, in which he from time to time persisted. He confessed to occasional accesses of an almost irresistible impulse to flee to the labyrinthine shelter of some great city like London or Paris,—there to dwell solitary amid a multitude, buried by day in the cloister-like recesses of mighty libraries, and stealing away by night to some obscure lodging. Long indulgence in seclusion, and in habits of study the most lawless possible in respect of regular hours or any considerations of health or comfort,—the habit of working as pleased himself without regard to the divisions of night or day, of times of sleeping or waking, even of the slow procession of the seasons, had latterly so disinclined him to the restraints, however slight, of ordinary social intercourse, that he very seldom submitted to them. On such rare occasions, however, as he did appear, perhaps at some simple meal with a favoured friend, or in later years in his own small but refined domestic circle, he was the most charming of guests, hosts or companions. A short and fragile, but well-proportioned frame; a shapely and compact head; a face beaming with intellectual light, with rare, almost feminine beauty of feature and complexion; a fascinating courtesy of manner; and a fulness, swiftness and elegance of silvery speech,—such was the irresistible “mortal mixture of earth’s mould” that men named De Quincey. He possessed in a high degree what James Russell Lowell called “the grace of perfect breeding, everywhere persuasive, and nowhere emphatic”; and his whole aspect and manner exercised an undefinable attraction over every one, gentle or simple, who came within its influence; for shy as he was, he was never rudely shy, making good his boast that he had always made it his “pride to converse familiarly more socratico with all human beings—man, woman and child”—looking on himself as a catholic creature standing in an equal relation to high and low, to educated and uneducated. He would converse with a peasant lad or a servant girl in phrase as choice, and sentences as sweetly turned, as if his interlocutor were his equal both in position and intelligence; yet without a suspicion of pedantry, and with such complete adaptation of style and topic that his talk charmed the humblest as it did the highest that listened to it. His conversation was not a monologue; if he had the larger share, it was simply because his hearers were only too glad that it should be so; he would listen with something like deference to very ordinary talk, as if the mere fact of the speaker being one of the same company entitled him to all consideration and respect. The natural bent of his mind and disposition, and his lifelong devotion to letters, to say nothing of his opium eating, rendered him, it must be allowed, regardless of ordinary obligations in life—domestic and pecuniary—to a degree that would have been culpable in any less singularly constituted mind. It was impossible to deal with or judge De Quincey by ordinary standards—not even his publishers did so. Much no doubt was forgiven him, but all that needed forgiveness is covered by the kindly veil of time, while his merits as a master in English literature are still gratefully acknowledged.
[Bibliography.—In 1853 De Quincey began to prepare an edition of his works, Selections Grave and Gay. Writings Published and Unpublished (14 vols., Edinburgh, 1853–1860), followed by a second edition (1863–1871) with notes by James Hogg and two additional volumes; a further supplementary volume appeared in 1878. The first comprehensive edition, however, was printed in America (Boston, 20 vols., 1850–1855); and the “Riverside” edition (Boston and New York, 12 vols., 1877) is still fuller. The standard English edition is The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey (14 vols., Edinburgh, 1889–1890), edited by David Masson, who also wrote his biography (1881) for the “English Men of Letters” series. The Uncollected Writings of Thomas De Quincey (London, 2 vols., 1890) contains a preface and annotations by James Hogg; The Posthumous Writings of Thomas De Quincey (2 vols., 1891–1893) were edited by A. H. Japp (“H. A. Page”), who wrote the standard biography, Thomas De Quincey: his Life and Writings (London, 2 vols., 2nd ed., 1879), and De Quincey Memorials (2 vols., 1891). See also Arvède Barine, Neurosés (Paris, 1898); Sir L. Stephen, Hours in a Library; H. S. Salt, De Quincey (1904); and De Quincey and his Friends (1895), a collection edited by James Hogg, which includes essays by Dr Hill Burton and Shadworth Hodgson.] (J. R. F.)
- The above account has been corrected and amplified in some statements of fact for this edition. Its original author, John Ritchie Findlay (1824–1898), proprietor of The Scotsman newspaper, and the donor of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, had been intimate with De Quincey, and in 1886 published his Personal Recollections of him.