The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/De Quincey, Thomas
DE QUINCEY, Thomas, English miscellaneous writer: b. Manchester, England, 15 Aug. 1785; d. Edinburgh, 8 Dec. 1859. In a striking sense, DeQuincey's life and writings are distinct; for by far the most interesting events in his life took place before 1821, the year of his first publication, after which the course of his life is of an interest wholly secondary to his writing. He was the son of Thomas DeQuincey, a well-to-do merchant, of a family that had come to England with the Conqueror. His mother was a Miss Penson, a lady of quality. He was the fifth child and second son among eight children of diverse temperaments. Most of his youth was spent at Greenhay, an estate near Manchester, where, though dominated by the will of an imperious older brother, his life was that of a shy, sensitive child, of lively imagination, and with a great love for mysterious and fanciful literature. After studying with a private tutor, he was sent to school at Bath, where he distinguished himself in Latin and Greek, and, in 1800, after a visit at Eton and a ramble in Wales with his friend, Lord Westport, to the Manchester Grammar School, to the end that he might prepare for Brasenose College, Oxford. A year and a half, however, was all that he could stand of a régime which deprived him “of health, of society, of amusement, of liberty, of congeniality of pursuits and which, to complete the precious picture, [admitted] of no variety.” Early one morning in July 1802, he ran away from his master's house, and for nearly a year lived a vagrant life. For some months he roamed about North Wales, with the knowledge of his mother and the support of his uncle, but in November he cast away this support and went to London. Here, according to his own account, he endured many hardships, was frequently obliged to sleep in the streets, to share the lot of vagrants like himself, and to resort to money-lenders for support. Through the aid of one of the latter he was finally discovered by his family. In the fall of 1803 he was sent to Worcester College, Oxford, and here he remained off and on till 1809, but never took a degree. Though little in particular is known about his life at the university, he was distinguished as an admirable Greek scholar and read prodigiously in English literature and German metaphysics. His feeling of superiority and his desire for privacy, together with a straitened income, were the reasons for his seclusion. Leaving Oxford in 1809, he went to live at Grasmere in order to be near Wordsworth and Coleridge, and in the Lake region he remained almost continuously till 1821. His life here was a very studious one, in which the most conspicuous determinant was the confirmation of his habit of opium taking. He had first experimented with the drug in 1804, at Oxford, as a relief for an attack of neuralgia, and thereafter, until 1813, took it systematically at intervals of two or three weeks simply for the pleasure that it gave. In the latter year, however, he “was attacked,” as he says, “by a most appalling irritation of the stomach, in all respects the same as that which had caused me so much suffering in youth, and accompanied by a revival of the old dreams.” It was then that he began taking opium regularly and in large quantities. To some extent he broke the habit at the time of his marriage, in 1816, to Margaret Simpson, the daughter of a farmer in his neighborhood, but the general effect was great prostration of his will, and, though in later years, he had the habit under control, he probably never altogether shook it off. It was some time before he could bring himself to do anything. His first piece of active work, after the failure of his attempt to write a philosophical work, ‘De Emendatione Humani Intellectus’ and an unfinished ‘Prolegomena to all Future Systems of Political Economy,’ was the editorship of the Westmoreland Gazette, which office he occupied about a year, 1819-20. The chief result of all this was to stimulate in him a desire to write, and in September 1821 he published in the London Magazine the first part of his most striking and popular work ‘The Confessions of an Opium-eater, being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar.’
Then began the prolific course of writing which has made DeQuincey the prince of magazine writers. It is unnecessary, from this point, to trace his career in detail. The main facts up to his death are that from 1821 to 1825 he lived chiefly in London, where he wrote a great deal for the London Magazine. Then he returned to Grasmere, whence he contributed largely to Blackwood's Magazine. In 1830 the editor, his friend John Wilson (“Christopher North,” q.v.), induced him to settle in Edinburgh, and here and at the suburb, Lasswade, he remained till his death. His articles appeared chiefly in Blackwood's, in Tait's Magazine, and, latterly, in Hogg's Weekly Instructor. His life was a very secluded one. Stories are told of his eccentricities and his absent-mindedness. His quiet was disturbed only by the death of his youngest daughter and his wife. For 20 years at Edinburgh he was obliged to support himself and his large family by his pen, but toward the last decade, legacies enabled him to live in more ease and to give his thought to a complete edition of his collected writings, of which the first volume appeared in 1853.
DeOuincey's published work contains about 150 titles, representing articles varying in length from the moderately long novel “Klosterheim” (1832), and the historical picture “The Cæsars” (1832-33), to short sketches such as “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823), and “English Dictionaries,” an incomplete note. In these articles he entered the fields of personal experience, reminiscence of personal acquaintance (chiefly of members of the “Lake” group), biography (principally English), criticism, history (largely classical, and, if modern, that of out of the way bits of information), philosophy (chiefly by way of expounding well-known men), theology (by way of argument for orthodox Christian doctrine), economics (exposition and defense of Ricardo), and, more slightly, politics, natural science, linguistics, ethics, æsthetics and fiction. A more compact arrangement of his works, that adopted by Prof. David Masson, is into autobiography, literary reminiscence and confessions; biographies and biographical sketches; historical essays and researches; speculative and theological essays; political economy and politics; literary theory and criticism; and tales, romances and prose treatises; with some miscellanea chiefly in the form of imaginative prose.
In almost all these classes DeQuincey achieved great, though unequal, success. Popularly, he is best known by the writings in which be exploited his own life and by the dream prose which resulted from his habit of opium-eating. The ‘Confessions’ is naturally his best known work, but scarcely less in interest are his autobiographical sketches. In all these he reveals himself with singular intricacy and freedom. His dream prose, which has done probably more than any other of his writings to make great his name as a stylist, is best represented by such remarkable pieces as ‘Suspiria de Profundis’ (1843), of which the most famous is “Levana and the Ladies of Sorrow.” All of them are illustrations, as it were, of the states of mind which he describes in the ‘Confessions.’ Much of the same sort of value attaches itself to the less sensational sketches of his contemporaries, and the instinct of self-revelation is here tempered by the addition of brilliant analyses of the characteristics of his great contemporaries for whom he had an intellectual fondness.
Much of DeQuincey's dream prose is sometimes included under the head of his narrative writing. His best narrative certainly has the qualities of his imaginative work. In this class are to be found his brilliant ‘Three Memorable Murders’ with its introductory extravaganza, ‘Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ (1826-27), ‘The Spanish Military Nun’ (1847), and what is probably, all in all, his masterpiece, ‘The English Mail-Coach’ (1849). Several of these narrative pieces, like the excellent ‘Flight of a Tartar Tribe’ (1837), may more properly, as regards subject, be classed as historical writings. In all these DeQuincey is always brilliant and successful. The same however, cannot be said of his attempts to write stories and novels. His essays in this field were all comparatively early, took the form of melodramatic, supernatural tales, like ‘The Fatal Marksman’ (1823), translations from the German, like ‘The Dice’ (1823), or of long turgid romances, like ‘Klosterheim’ (1832), and ‘The Avenger’ (1838).
Of as great importance as the analytical and narrative papers, though not so popularly known, are the biographical and the critical writings. These are hard to separate into distinct classes. DeQuincey was too much interested in analysis to be a strictly good biographer, and whereas the essay on Shakespeare (1838), for example, is mainly biographical, it rambles into minute questions and contains much matter of a purely critical sort. On the other hand, much of his critical work is in no sense biographical; such are his well-known essays on ‘Rhetoric’ (1828), and ‘Style’ (1840-41), and the numerous paradoxical statements of critical theory with which he frequently enlivened the pages of contemporary reviews. As good examples as any of his idea of biography and criticism may be obtained from his various essays on Pope. That of 1837 is chiefly biographical; those of 1848 and 1851 are critical, and the last, ‘Lord Carlisle on Pope,’ characteristically takes the form of dissent from an accepted view. For the most part his biography and criticism deals with English writers; outside of them, Germany is his favorite field.
DeQuincey's historical writings, in like manner, are hard to divide, and may best be treated together. Many of them, like ‘The Spanish Military Nun’ and ‘The Flight of a Tartar Tribe,’ are narrative and deal with extraordinary events. He is, however, more likely to be interested in the philosophical aspect of history, as in ‘The Philosophy of Roman History’ (1839). The best known of his writings of this class, and indeed his most ambitious piece of work, is the unfinished ‘Cæsars’ (1832-33), in which he desired “simply to characterize the office of Emperor, and to notice such events and changes as operated for evil, and for a final effect of decay, upon the Cæsars or their empire.” It is really an attempt to present a general view of “the sublimest incarnation of power, a monument of the mightiest of greatness built by human hands, which upon this planet has been suffered to appear.” DeQuincey's more strictly philosophical writings, including his discourses on economics and theology, are also numerous. They are mainly serious, discriminative, analytical and paradoxical in tone and manner. Typical examples are ‘On Hume's Argument against Miracles’ (1839), ‘Casuistry’ (1839), and ‘Judas Iscariot’ (1853).
In general, in all these writings, DeQuincey deals chiefly with intellectual conceptions and is concerned with objects only to a comparatively slight degree and for an ulterior purpose — that of showing the underlying subtlety. The apparent exceptions to this generalization lie in his descriptions of particular people, like Wordsworth, the particular scenes of such an essay as ‘The English Mail Coach,’ and the narration of historical events, all of which are, however, subordinated to an underlying “idea.” Furthermore, the purpose of DeQuincey's writing, so far as one can see, is much more intellectual than moral, though it may have secondary moral effects. Curiosity is his animus — the desire to present some new body of facts or ancient facts in a new and strange light. He enjoys what might be called intellectual sensation and loves to delve and burrow into the recesses of experience. He has frequently been called an “intellectual hedonist” and that term as well as any sums up the vast range as well as characterizes the attitude of the author toward his subjects. The main fact is that he deals in distinctions, that his interest lies in intellectual phenomena, and that he is appealed to by the logic of situations.
DeQuincey differs strikingly from such writers as Shakespeare, Addison, Johnson and Lamb, in that it is impossible to trace him through any period of apprenticeship before coming to his own. Rather he is like Swift, in that he took to publishing rather late, jumped at once into success and continued pouring out work of striking quality. Like Swift, DeQuincey, once embarked, knew no let or hindrance to the course of his expression. Unlike Swift, however, he never took an active interest in affairs and his writing is in no wise concerned with the practical movements of the time. Hence the course of his life after 1821 is, from the point of view of his work, unimportant, and any account to the last 39 years is an account of the interests of his mind. These were so varied that it is impossible to trace the history of his mind with any definiteness, but a few observations may be made. If anything, the decade between 1841 and 1850 is the most prolific, and on the whole represents the climax of his activity. In that decade, too, the prevailing interest is mainly in philosophy and criticism, whereas the preceding 10 years were particularly rich in history and biography. On the whole, setting aside such a striking performance as the ‘Confessions,’ there is a tendency toward originality. His criticism and philosophy are less formal and less of the nature of summary, while it is especially to be noted that, in narrative, his adaptations of German tales and his own German-bred romances gave place to such original pieces as ‘The English Mail Coach’ and ‘The Spanish Military Nun.’ There is in the decade between 1841 and 1650 much reversion to the original type of the ‘Confessions.’ Probably the fact that De Quincey did a good deal of hack work in the decade beginning with 1830, when he first established himself at Edinburgh, would account for the general inferiority of that decade to the following, and yet many of his best pieces belong there.
DeQuincey is usually regarded as among the English masters of prose style. The appellation, with regard to him, signifies a marvellous and unfailing command of means of expressing very minute shades of thought and feeling, combined with the power to write, on occasion, sonorously, grandly and very wittily. He is always discursive and intricate, to a degree almost unparalleled among masters of prose. As a critic he has few superiors, and as a thinker few masters in point of delicacy and exactness, but many in profundity. See Confessions of an Opium Eater, The; DeQuincey's Autobiographic Sketches.
Bibliography.— The best edition of his collected works is by David Masson (14 vols., London 1889-90). Separate editions of his more popular works are numerous. ‘Posthumous Works’ were edited by Japp (ib. 1891-93). Consult also ‘Lives’ by H. Page (2 vols., 1881); Masson (in ‘English Men of Letters Series’); Leslie Stephen (in ‘Dictionary of National Biography’); Findlay (London 1885). The best essays are by Saintsbury (in ‘Essays in English Literature,’ 1780-1860); Stephen (in ‘Hours in a Library’); Hogg, ‘DeQuincey and His Friends’ (1895).