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Outlines of English and American Literature
Thomas de Quincey
by Long, William J.


It used to be said in a college classroom that what De Quincey wrote was seldom important and always doubtful, but that we ought to read him for his style; which means, as you might say, that caviar is a stomach-upsetting food, but we ought to eat a little of it because it comes in a pretty box.

To this criticism, which reflects a prevalent opinion, we may take some exceptions. For example, what De Quincey has to say of Style, though it were written in style-defying German, is of value to everyone who would teach that impossible subject. What he says or implies in "Levana" (the goddess who performed "the earliest office of ennobling kindness" for a newborn child, lifting him from the ground, where he was first laid, and presenting his forehead to the stars of heaven) has potency to awaken two of the great faculties of humanity, the power to think and the power to imagine. Again, many people are fascinated by dreams, those mysterious fantasies which carry us away on swift wings to meet strange experiences; and what De Quincey has to say of dreams, though doubtful as a dream itself, has never been rivaled. To a few mature minds, therefore, De Quincey is interesting entirely apart from his dazzling style and inimitable rhetoric.

To do justice to De Quincey's erratic, storm-tossed life; to record his precocious youth, his marvelous achievements in school or college, his wanderings amid lonely mountains or more lonely city streets, his drug habits with their gorgeous dreams and terrible depressions, his timidity, his courtesy, his soul-solitude, his uncanny genius,--all that is impossible in a brief summary. Let it suffice, then, to record: that he resembled his friend Coleridge, both in his character and in his vast learning; that he studied in profound seclusion for twenty years; then for forty years more, during which time his brain was more or less beclouded by opium, he poured out a flood of magazine articles, which he collected later in fourteen chaotic volumes. These deal with an astonishing variety of subjects, and cover almost every phase of mental activity from portraying a nightmare to building a philosophical system. If he had any dominating interest in his strange life, it was the study of literature.

Typical Works

The historian can but name a few characteristic works of De Quincey, without recommending any of them to readers. To those interested in De Quincey's personality his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater will be illuminating. This book astonished Londoners in 1821, and may well astonish a Bushman in the year 2000. It records his wandering life, and the alternate transport or suffering which resulted from his drug habits. This may be followed by his Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths), which describes, as well as such a thing could be done, the phantoms born of opium dreams. There are too many of the latter, and the reader may well be satisfied with the wonderful "Dream Fugue" in The English Mail Coach.

As an illustration of De Quincey's review of history, one should try Joan of Arc or The Revolt of the Tartars, which are not historical studies but romantic dreams inspired by reading history. In the critical field, "The Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth," "Wordsworth's Poetry" and the "Essay on Style" are immensely suggestive. As an example of ingenious humor "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" is often recommended; but it has this serious fault, that it is not humorous. For a concrete example of De Quincey's matter and manner there is nothing better than "Levana or Our Ladies of Sorrow" (from the Suspiria), with its mater lachrymarum Our Lady of Tears, mater suspiriorum Our Lady of Sighs, and that strange phantom, forbidding and terrible, mater tenebrarum Our Lady of Darkness.

De Quincey's Style

The style of all these works is indescribable. One may exhaust the whole list of adjectives--chanting, rhythmic, cadenced, harmonious, impassioned--that have been applied to it, and yet leave much to say. Therefore we note only these prosaic elements: that the style reflects De Quincey's powers of logical analysis and of brilliant imagination; that it is pervaded by a tremendous mental excitement, though one does not know what the stir is all about; and that the impression produced by this nervous, impassioned style is usually spoiled by digressions, by hairsplitting, and by something elusive, intangible, to which we can give no name, but which blurs the author's vision as a drifting fog obscures a familiar landscape.

Notwithstanding such strictures, De Quincey's style is still, as when it first appeared, a thing to marvel at, revealing as it does the grace, the harmony, the wide range and the minute precision of our English speech.

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