Thomas De Quincey.

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(After a drawing by ARCHER.)

In addition to the general impression of his diminutiveness and
fragility, "lie was struck with the peculiar beauty of his head and
forehead, rising disproportionately high over his small wrinkly
visage anil gentle deep-set eyes."

i >.\\ in MASSON.







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('"I'VKIGHT, 1898, BV





IN editing an English classic for use in the secondary
schools, there is always opportunity for the expression of
personal convictions and personal taste; nevertheless, where
one has predecessors in the task of preparing such a text, it
is difficult always, occasionally impossible, to avoid treading
on their heels. The present editor, therefore, hastens to
acknowledge his indebtedness to the various school editions
of the Revolt of the Tartars, already in existence. The notes
by Masson are so authoritative and so essential that their
quotation needs no comment. De Quincey's footnotes are
retained in their original form and appear embodied in the
text. The other annotations suggest the method which the
editor would follow in class-room work upon this essay.

The student's attention is called frequently to \\\&form of
expression; the discriminating use of epithets, the employ-
ment of foreign phrases, the allusions to Milton and the
Bible, the structure of paragraphs, the treatment of incident,
the development of feeling, the impressiveness of a present
personality; all this, however, is with the purpose, not of
mechanic exercise, nor merely to illustrate "rhetoric," but
to illuminate De Quincey. It is with this intention, presum-
ably, that the text is prescribed. There is little attractive-
ness, after all, in the idea of a style so colorless and so
impersonal that the individuality of its victim is lost in its
own perfection; this was certainly not the Opium- Eater's mind
concerning literary form, nor does it appear to have been the

2* rOCM A
1L* Vri-O- : I


aim of any of our masters. Indeed, it may be well in passing
to point out to pupils how fatal to success in writing is the
attempt to imitate the style of any man, De Quincey included;
it is always in order to emphasize the naturalness and spon-
taneity of the "grand style" wherever it is found. The
teacher should not inculcate a blind admiration of all that
De Quincey has said or done ; there is opportunity, even in
this brief essay, to exercise the pupil in applying the common-
place tests of criticism, although it should be seen to as well
that a true appreciation is awakened for the real excellences
of this little masterpiece.










THOMAS DE QUINCEY" is one of the eccentric figures in
English literature. Popularly he is known as the English
Opium-Eater and as the subject of numerous anecdotes
which emphasize the oddities of his temperament and the
unconventionality of his habits. That this man of distin-
guished genius was the victim pitifully the victim of
opium is the lamentable fact; that he was morbidly shy and
shunned intercourse with all except a few intimate, congenial
friends; that he was comically indifferent to the fashion of
his dress; that he was the most unpractical and childlike of
men; that he was often betrayed, because of these peculiari-
ties, into many ridiculous embarrassments, such as are
described by Mr. Findlay, Mr. Hogg, and Mr. Burton, of
all this there can be no doubt; but these idiosyncrasies are,
after all, of minor importance, the accidents, not the essen-
tials in the life and personality of this remarkable man. The
points that should attract our notice, the qualities that really
give distinction to De Quincey, are the broad sweep of his
knowledge, almost unlimited in its scope and singularly accu-
rate in its details, a facility of phrasing and a word supply
that transformed the mere power of discriminating expression
into a fine art, and a style that, while it lapsed occasionally
from the standard of its own excellence, was generally self-
corrective and frequently forsook the levels of commonplace
excellence for the highest reaches of impassioned prose.
Nor is this all. His pages do not lack in humor humor of
the truest and most delicate type ; and if De Quincey is at


times impelled beyond the bounds of taste, even these excur-
sions demonstrate his power, at least in handling the gro-
tesque. His sympathies, however, are always genuine, and
often are profound. The pages of his autobiographic essays
reveal the strength of his affections, while in the interpreta-
tion of such a character as that of Joan of Arc, or in allusions
like those to the pariahs, defenceless outcasts from society,
by whose wretched lot his heart was often wrung, he writes
in truest pathos.

Now sympathy is own child of the imagination, whether
expressed in the language of laughter or in the vernacular of
tears; and the most distinctive quality in the mental make-up
of De Quincey was, after all, this dominant imagination which
was characteristic of the man from childhood to old age.
The Opium- Eater once defined the great scholar as " 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." Such was De Quincey himself. He was a
scholar born, gifted with a mind apt for the subtleties of
metaphysics, a memory well-nigh inexhaustible in the
recovery of facts; in one respect, at least, he was a great
scholar, for his mind was dominated by an imagination as
vigorous as that which created Macaulay's England, almost
as sensitive to dramatic effect as that which painted Carlyle's
French Revolution. Therefore when he wrote narrative, his-
torical narrative, or reminiscence, he lived in the experiences
he pictured, as great historians do ; perhaps living over
again the scenes of the past, or for the first time making
real the details of occurrences with which he was only
recently familiar.

The Revolt of the Tartars is a good illustration of his
power. Attracted by the chance reading of an obscure


French missionary and traveller to the dramatic possibilities
of an episode in Russian history, De Quincey built from the
bare notes thus discovered, supplemented by others drawn
from a matter-of-fact German archaeologist, a narrative which
for vividness of detail and truthfulness of local color belongs
among the best of those classics in which fancy helps to
illuminate fact, and where the imagination is invoked to
recreate what one feels intuitively must have been real.

The Revolt of the Tartars, while not exhibiting the highest
achievement of the author's power, nevertheless belongs in
the group of writings wherein his peculiar excellences are
fairly manifested. The obvious quality of its realism has
been pointed out already; the masterly use of the prin-
ciples of suspense and stimulated interest will hardly pass
unnoticed. A negative excellence is the absence of that
discursiveness in composition, that tendency to digress into
superfluous comment, which is this author's one prevailing
fault. De Quincey was gifted with a fine appreciation of
harmonious sound, and in those passages where his spirit
soars highest not the least of their beauties is found in the
melodiousness of their tone and the rhythmic sweetness of
their motion.

It is as a master of rhetoric that De Quincey is distin-
guished among writers. Some hints of his ability are seen
in the opening and closing passages of this essay, but to
find him at his best one must turn to the Confessions and to
the other papers which describe his life, particularly those
which recount his marvellous dreams. In these papers we
find the passages where De Quincey's passion rises to the
heights which few other writers have ever reached in prose,
a loftiness and grandeur which is technically denominated
as " sublime." In his Essay on Style, published in Black-
wood's, 1840, he deprecates the usual indifference to form, on
the part of English writers, " the tendency of the national


mind to value the matter of a book not only as paramount
to the manner, but even as distinct from it and as capable
of a separate insulation." As one of the great masters of
prose style in this century, De Quincey has so served the
interests of art in this regard, that in his own case the
charge is sometimes reversed : his own works are read
rather to observe his manner than to absorb his thought.
Yet when this is said, it is not to imply that the material is
unworthy or the ideas unsound ; on the contrary, his senti-
ment is true and his ideas are wholesome ; but many of the
topics treated lie outside the deeper interests of ordinary
life, and fail to appeal to us so practically as do the writings
of some lesser men. Of the " one hundred and fifty maga-
zine articles " which comprise his works, there are many that
will not claim the general interest, yet his writings as a
whole will always be recognized by students of rhetoric as
containing excellences which place their author among the
English classics. Nor can De Quincey be accused of sub-
ordinating matter to manner ; in spite of his taste for the
theatrical and a tendency to extravagance, his expression is
in keeping with his thought, and the material of those pas-
sages which contain his most splendid flights is appropriate
to the treatment it receives. One effective reason, certainly,
why we take pleasure in the mere style of De Quincey's
work is because that work is so thoroughly inspired witli the
Opium-Eater's own genial personality, because it so unmis-
takably suggests that inevitable "smack of individuality"
which gives to the productions of all great authors their
truest distinction if not their greatest worth.

Thomas De Quincey was born in Manchester, August 15,
1785. His father was a well-to-do merchant of literary taste,
but of him the children of the household scarcely knew ; he
was an invalid, a prey to consumption, and during their


childhood made his residence mostly in the milder climate
of Lisbon or the West Indies. Thomas was seven years old
when his father was brought home to die, and the lad, though
sensitively impressed by the event, felt little of the signifi-
cance of relationship between them. Mrs. De Quincey was
a somewhat stately lady, rather strict in discipline and rigid
in her views. There does not seem to have been the most
complete sympathy between mother and son, yet De Quincey
was always reverent in his attitude, and certainly entertained
a genuine respect for her intelligence and character. There
were eight children in the home, four sons and four
daughters ; Thomas was the fifth in age, and his relations
to the other members of this little community are set forth
most interestingly in the opening chapters of his Autobio-
graphic Sketches.

De Quincey's child life was spent in the country ; first at
a pretty rustic dwelling known as "The Farm," and after
1792 at a larger country house near Manchester, built by
his father, and given by his mother the pleasantly suggestive
name of " Greenhay," hay meaning hedge, or hedgerow.
The early boyhood of Thomas De Quincey is of more than
ordinary interest, because of the clear light it throws upon
the peculiar temperament and endowments of the man.
Moreover, we have the best of authority in our study of this
period, namely, the author himself, who in the Sketches already
mentioned, and in his most noted work, The Confessions of
an English Opium-Eater^ has told the story of these early
years in considerable detail and with apparent sincerity.
De Quincey was not a sturdy boy. Shy and dreamy, exqui-
sitely sensitive to impressions of melancholy and mystery,
he was endowed with an imagination abnormally active
even for a child. It is customary to give prominence to
De Quincey's pernicious habit of opium-eating, in attempt-
ing to explain the grotesque fancies and weird flights of his


marvellous mind in later years ; yet it is only fair to empha-
size the fact that the later achievements of that strange
creative faculty were clearly foreshadowed in youth. For
example, the earliest incident in his life that he could after-
wards recall, he describes as " a remarkable dream of terrific
grandeur about a favorite nurse, which is interesting to
myself for this reason that it demonstrates my dreaming
tendencies to have been constitutional, and not dependent
upon laudanum." 1 Again he tells us how, when six years
old, upon the death of a favorite sister three years older, he
stole unobserved upstairs to the death chamber ; unlocking
the door and entering silently, he stood for a moment gazing
through the open window toward the bright sunlight of a
cloudless day, then turned to behold the angel face upon the
pillow. Awed in the presence of death, the meaning of
which he began vaguely to understand, he stood listening
to a " solemn wind " that began to blow " the saddest
that ear ever heard." What followed should appear in
De Quincey's own words : " A vault seemed to open in the
zenith of the far blue sky, a shaft which ran up forever. I,
in spirit, rose as if on billows that also ran up the shaft for-
ever ; and the billows seemed to pursue the throne of God ;
but that also ran on before us and fled away continually.
The flight and the pursuit seemed to go on forever and ever.
Frost gathering frost, some sarsar wind of death, seemed to
repel me ; some mighty relation between God and death
dimly struggled to evolve itself from the dreadful antagonism
between them ; shadowy meanings even yet continued to
exercise and torment, in dreams, the deciphering oracle
within me. I slept for how long I cannot say: slowly I
recovered my self-possession ; and, when I woke, found my-
self standing as before, close to my sister's bed." 2 Some-

1 Autobiographic Sketches, Chap. I.

2 Ibid.


what similar in effect were the fancies that came to this
dreamy boy on Sunday mornings during service in the fine
old English church. Through the wide central field of
uncolored glass, set in a rich framework of gorgeous color,
for the side panes of the great windows were pictured
with the stories of saints and martyrs, the lad saw " white
fleecy clouds sailing over the azure depths of the sky."
Straightway the picture changed in his imagination, and
visions of young children, lying on white beds of sickness
and of death, rose before his eyes, ascending slowly and
softly into heaven, God's arms descending from the heavens
that He might the sooner take them to Himself and grant
release. Such are not infrequently the dreams of children.
De Quincey's experience is not unique ; but with him imagi-
nation, the imagination of childhood, remained unimpaired
through life. It was not wholly opium that made him the
great dreamer of our literature, any more than it was the
effect of a drug that brought from his dying lips the cry of
" Sister, sister, sister ! " an echo from this sacred chamber
of death, where he had stood awed and entranced nearly
seventy years before.

Not all of De Quincey's boyhood, however, was passed
under influences so serious and mystical as these. He was
early compelled to undergo what he is pleased to call his
"introduction to the world of strife." His brother William,
five years the senior of Thomas, appears to have been
endowed with an imagination as remarkable as his own.
" His genius for mischief," says Thomas, " amounted to
inspiration." Very amusing are the chronicles of the little
autocracy thus despotized by William. The assumption of
the young tyrant was magnificent. Along with the preroga-
tives and privileges of seniority, he took upon himself as well
certain responsibilities more galling to his half-dozen uneasy
subordinates, doubtless, than the undisputed hereditary rights


of age. William constituted himself the educational guide
of the nursery, proclaiming theories, delivering lectures,
performing experiments, asserting opinions upon subjects
diverse and erudite. Indeed, a vigorous spirit was housed
in William's body, and but for his early death, this lad also
might have brought lustre to the family name.

A real introduction to the world of strife came with the
development of a lively feud between the two brothers on
the one side, and on the other a crowd of young belligerents
employed in a cotton factory on the road between Greenhay
and Manchester, where the boys now attended school.
Active hostilities occurred daily when the two " aristocrats "
passed the factory on their way home at the hour when
its inmates emerged from their labor. The dread of this
encounter hung like a cloud over Thomas, yet he followed
William loyally, and served with all the spirit of a cadet of
the house. Imagination played an important part in this
campaign, and it is for that reason primarily that to this and
the other incidents of De Quincey's childhood prominence
is here given ; in no better way can we come to an under-
standing of the real nature of this singular man.

In 1796 the home at Greenhay was broken up. The irre-
pressible William was sent to London to study art; Mrs.
De Quincey removed to Bath, and Thomas was placed in
the grammar school of that town; a younger brother, Richard,
in all respects a pleasing contrast to William, was a sympa-
thetic comrade and schoolmate. For two years De Quincey
remained in this school, achieving a great reputation in the
study of Latin, and living a congenial, comfortable life. This
was followed by a year in a private school at Winkfield,
which was terminated by an invitation to travel in Ireland
with young Lord Westport, a lad of De Quincey's own age,
an intimacy having sprung up between them a year earlier
at I!;ith. It was in 1800 that the trip was made, and the


period of the visit extended over four or five months. After
this long recess De Quincey was placed in the grammar
school at Manchester, his guardians expecting that a three
years' course in this school would bring him a scholarship at
Oxford. However, the new environment proved wholly
uncongenial, and the sensitive boy who, in spite of his
shyness and his slender frame, possessed grit in abundance,
and who was through life more or less a law to himself, made
up his mind to run away. His flight was significant. Early
on a July morning he slipped quietly off in one pocket a
copy of an English poet, a volume of Euripides in the other.
His first move was toward Chester, the seventeen-year-old
runaway deeming it proper that he should report at once to
his mother, who was now living in that town. So he trudged
overland forty miles and faced his astonished and indignant
parent. At the suggestion of a kind-hearted uncle, just home
from India, Thomas was let off easily; indeed, he was given
an allowance of a guinea a week, with permission to go on
a tramp through North Wales, a proposition which he hailed
with delight. The next three months were spent in a rather
pleasant ramble, although the weekly allowance was scarcely
sufficient to supply all the comforts desired. The trip ended
strangely. Some sudden fancy seizing him, the boy broke
off all connection with his friends and went to London.
Unknown, unprovided for, he buried himself in the vast life
of the metropolis. He lived a precarious existence for
several months, suffering from exposure, reduced to the
verge of starvation, his whereabouts a mystery to his friends.
The cloud of this experience hung darkly over his spirit,
even in later manhood; perceptions of a true world of strife
were vivid; impressions of these wretched months formed
the material of his most sombre dreams.

Rescued at last, providentially, De Quincey spent the next
period of his life, covering the years 1803-7, in residence


at Oxford. His career as a student at the university is
obscure. He was a member of Worcester College, was
known as a quiet, studious man, and lived an isolated if not
A solitary life. With a German student, who taught him
Hebrew, De Quincey seems to have had some intimacy, but
his circle of acquaintance was small, and no contemporary
has thrown much light on his stay. In 1807 he disappeared
from Oxford, having taken the written tests for his degree, but
failing to present himself for the necessary oral examination.

The year of his departure from Oxford brought to De
Quincey a long-coveted pleasure acquaintance with two
famous contemporaries whom he greatly admired, Coleridge
and Wordsworth. Characteristic of De Quincey in many
ways was his gift, anonymously made, of .300 to his hero,
Coleridge. This was in 1807, when De Quincey was twenty-
two, and was master of his inheritance. The acquaintance
ripened into intimacy, and in 1809 the young man, himself
gifted with talents which were to make him equally famous
with these, took up his residence at Grasmere, in the Lake
country, occupying for many years the cottage which Words-
worth had given up on his removal to ampler quarters at
Rydal Mount. Here he spent much of his time in the
society of the men who were then grouped in distinguished
neighborhood ; besides Wordsworth and Coleridge, the poet
Southey was accessible, and a frequent visitor was John
Wilson, later widely known as the "Christopher North" of
Blackwood 's Magazine. Nor was De Quincey idle ; his habits
of study were confirmed; indeed, he was already a philoso-
pher at twenty-four. These were years of hard reading and
industrious thought, wherein he accumulated much of that
metaphysical wisdom which was afterward to win admiring

In 1816 De Quincey married Margaret Simpson, a farmer's
daughter living near. There is a pretty scene painted by


the author himself, 1 in which he gives us a glimpse of his
domestic life at this time. Therein he pictures the cottage,
standing in a valley, eighteen miles from any town; no spa-
cious valley, but about two miles long by three-quarters of a
mile in average width. The mountains are real mountains,
between 3000 and 4000 feet high, and the cottage a real
cottage, white, embowered with flowering shrubs, so chosen
as to unfold a succession of flowers upon the walls, and
clustering around the windows, through all the months of
spring, summer, and autumn, beginning, in fact, with May
roses and ending with jasmine. It is in the winter season,
however, that De Quincey paints his picture, and so he
describes a room, seventeen feet by twelve, and not more
than seven and one-half feet high. This is the drawing-room,
although it might more justly be termed the library, for it
happens that books are the one form of property in which
the owner is wealthy. Of these he has about 5000, collected
gradually since his eighteenth year. The room is, therefore,
populous with books. There is a good fire on the hearth.
The furniture is plain and modest, befitting the unpretending
cottage of a scholar. Near the fire stands a tea table ; there
are only two cups and saucers on the tray. It is an "eternal "
teapot that the artist would like us to imagine, for he usually
drinks tea from eight o'clock at night to four in the morning.
There is, of course, a companion at the tea table, and very
lovingly does the husband suggest the pleasant personality
of his young wife. One other important feature is included
in the scene ; upon the table there rests also a decanter, in
which sparkles the ruby-colored laudanum.

De Quincey's experience with opium had begun while he

was a student at the university, in 1804. It was first taken

to obtain relief from neuralgia, and his use of the drug did

not at once become habitual. During the period of residence

1 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Part II.


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