Thomas De Quincey.

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at Grasmere, however, De Quincey became confirmed in the
habit, and so thoroughly was he its victim that for a season
his intellectual powers were well-nigh paralyzed ; his mind
sank under such a cloud of depression and gloom that his
condition was pitiful in the extreme. Just before his mar-
riage, in 1816, De Quincey, by a vigorous effort, partially
regained his self-control and succeeded in materially reducing
his daily allowance of the drug; but in the following year he
fell more deeply than ever under its baneful power, until in
1818-19 his consumption of opium was something almost
incredible. Thus he became truly enough the great English
Opium-Eater, whose Confessions were later to fill a unique
place in English literature. It was finally the absolute need
of bettering his financial condition that compelled De Quincey
to shake off the shackles of his vice ; this he practically
accomplished, although perhaps he was never entirely free
from the habit. The event is coincident with the beginning
of his career as a public writer. In 1820 he became a man
of letters.

As a professional writer it is to be noted that De Quincey
was throughout a contributor to the periodicals. With one
or two exceptions all his works found their way to the public
through the pages of the magazines, and he was associated
as contributor with most of those that were prominent in his
time. From 1821 to 1825 we find him residing for the most
part in London, and here his public career began. It was
De Quincey's most distinctive work which first appeared.
The London Magazine, in its issue for September, 1821, con-
tained the first paper of the Confessions of an English Of i urn-
Eater. The novelty of the subject was sufficient to obtain
for the new writer an interested hearing, and there was much
discussion as to whether his apparent frankness was genuine
or assumed. All united in applause of the masterly style
which distinguished the essay, also of the profundity and


value of the interesting material it contained. A second
part was included in the magazine for October. Other
articles by the Opium-Eater followed, in which the wide
scholarship of the author was abundantly shown, although
the topics were of less general interest.

In 1826 De Quincey became an occasional contributor to
Blackwood's Magazine, and this connection drew him to
Edinburgh, where he remained, either in the city itself or in
its vicinity, for the rest of his life. The grotesquely humor-
ous Essay on Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts
appeared in Blackwood's in 1827. In 1832 he published a
series of articles on Roman History, entitled The Ccesars.
It was in July, 1837, that the Revolt of the Tartars appeared;
in 1840 his critical paper upon The Essenes. Meanwhile
De Quincey had begun contributions to Tait's Magazine,
another Edinburgh publication, and it was in that periodical
that the Sketches of Life and Manners from the Autobiography
of an English Opium-Eater began to appear in 1834, run-
ning on through several years. These sketches include the
chapters on Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb, and Southey
as well as those Autobiographic Sketches which form such a
charming and illuminating portion of his complete works.

The family life was sadly broken in 1837 by tne death of
De Quincey's wife. He who was now left as guardian of
the little household of six children, was himself so helpless
in all practical matters that it seemed as though he were in
their childish care rather than protector of them. Scores of
anecdotes are related of his odd and unpractical behavior.
One of his curious habits had been the multiplication of
lodgings ; as books and manuscripts accumulated about him
so that there remained room for no more, he would turn the
key upon his possessions and migrate elsewhere to repeat
the performance later on. It is known that as many as four
separate rents were at one and the same time being paid by


this odd, shy little man, rather than allow the disturbance or
contraction of his domain. Sometimes an anxious journey
in search of a manuscript had to be made by author and
publisher in conjunction before the missing paper could be
located. The home life of this eccentric yet lovable man
of genius seems to have been always affectionate and tender
in spite even of his bondage to opium ; it was especially
beautiful and childlike in his latest years. His eldest
daughter, Margaret, assumed quietly the place of headship,
and with a discretion equal to her devotion she watched
over her father's welfare. With reference to De Quincey's
circumstances at this time, his biographer, Mr. Masson,
says : " Very soon, if left to himself, he would have taken
possession of every room in the house, one after another,
and ' snowed up ' each with his papers ; but, that having
been gently prevented, he had one room to work in all day
and all night to his heart's content. The evenings, or the
intervals between his daily working time and his nightly
working time, or stroll, he generally spent in the drawing-
room with his daughters, either alone or in company with
any friends that chanced to be with him. At such times,
we are told, he was unusually charming. ' The newspaper
was brought out, and he, telling in his own delightful way,
rather than reading, the news, would, on questions from this
one or that one, of the party, often including young friends
of his children, neighbors, or visitors from distant places,
illuminate the subject with such a wealth of memories, of
old stories of past or present experiences, of humor, of
suggestion, even of prophecy, as by its very wealth makes
it impossible to give any taste of it.' The description is by
one of his daughters ; and she adds a touch which is inimi-
table in its fidelity and tenderness. ' He was not,' she says,
' a reassuring man for nervous people to live with, as those
nights were exceptional on which he did not set something


on fire, the commonest incident being for some one to look
up from book or work, to say casually, Papa, your hair is on
fire; of which a calm Is it, my love ? and a hand rubbing
out the blaze was all the notice taken.' " 1

Of his personal appearance Professor Minto says :
" He was a slender little man, with small, clearly chiselled
features, a large head, and a remarkably high, square fore-
head. There was a peculiarly high and regular arch in the
wrinkles of his brow, which was also slightly contracted.
The lines of his countenance fell naturally into an expres-
sion of mild suffering, of endurance sweetened by benevo-
lence, or, according to the fancy of the interpreter, of gentle,
melancholy sweetness. All that met him seem to have been
struck with the measured, silvery, yet somewhat hollow and
unearthly tones of his voice, the more impressive that the
flow of his talk was unhesitating and unbroken."

The literary labors were continuous. In 1845 th e beauti-
ful Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths) appeared
in Blackwood's ; The English Mail Coach and The Vision of
Sudden Death, in 1849. Among other papers contributed
to Taifs Magazine, the Joan of Arc appeared in 1847.
During the last ten years of his life, De Quincey was
occupied chiefly in preparing for the publishers a complete
edition of his works. Ticknor & Fields, of Boston, the
most distinguished of our American publishing firms, had
put forth, 1851-55, the first edition of De Quincey's col-
lected writings, in twenty volumes. The first British edition
was undertaken by Mr. James Hogg, of Edinburgh, in 1853,
with the co-operation of the author, and under his direction ;
the final volume of this edition was not issued until the year
following De Quincey's death.

In the autumn of 1859 the frail physique of the now

1 De Quincey (English Men of Letters), David Masson, p. no.


famous Opium-Eater grew gradually feeble, although suffer-
ing from no definite disease. It became evident that his life
was drawing to its end. On December 8, his two daughters
standing by his side, he fell into a doze. His mind had
been wandering amid the scenes of his childhood, and his
last utterance was the cry, " Sister, sister, sister ! " as if in
recognition of one awaiting him, one who had been often in
his dreams, the beloved Elizabeth, whose death had made
so profound and lasting an impression on his imagination
as a child.

The authoritative edition of De Quincey's Works is that
edited by David Masson and published in fourteen volumes
by Adam and Charles Black (Edinburgh). For American
students the Riverside Edition, in twelve volumes (Houghton,
Mifflin & Co., Boston), will be found convenient. The most
satisfactory Life of De Quincey is the one by Masson in the
English Men of Letters series. Of a more anecdotal type
are the Life of De Quincey, by H. A. Page, whose real
name is Alexander H. Japp (2 vols., New York, 1877), and
De Quincey Memorials (New York, 1891), by the same
author. Very interesting is the brief volume, Recollections
of Thomas De Quincey, by John R. Findlay (Edinburgh,
1886), who also contributes the paper on De Quincey to the
Encyclopedia Britannica. De Quincey and his Friends, by
James Hogg (London, 1895), is another volume of recollec-
tions, souvenirs, and anecdotes, which help to make real
their subject's personality. Besides the editor, other writers
contribute to this volume : Richard Woodhouse, John R.
Findlay, and John Hill Burton, who has given under the
name " Papaverius," a picturesque description of the
Opium-Eater. The student should always remember that
De Quincey's own chapters in the Autobiographic Sketches,
and the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which are


among the most charming and important of his writings, are
also the most authoritative and most valuable sources of our
information concerning him. In reading about De Quincey,
do not fail to read De Quincey himself.

The best criticism of the Opium-Eater's work is found in
William Minto's Manual of English Prose Literature (Ginn
& Co.). A shorter essay is contained in Saintsbury's
History of Nineteenth Century Literature. A very valuable
list of all De Quincey's writings, in chronological order, is
given by Fred N. Scott, in his edition of De Quincey's
essays on Style, Rhetoric, and Language (Allyn & Bacon).
Numerous magazine articles may be found by referring to
Poole's Index.


" DE QUINCEY'S sixteen volumes of magazine articles
are full of brain from beginning to end. At the rate of
about half a volume a day, they would serve for a month's
reading, and a month continuously might be worse ex-
pended. There are few courses of reading from which a
young man of good natural intelligence would come away
more instructed, charmed, and stimulated, or, to express
the matter as definitely as possible, with his mind more
stretched. Good natural intelligence, a certain fineness of
fibre, and some amount of scholarly education, have to
be presupposed, indeed, in all readers of De Quincey.
But, even for the fittest readers, a month's complete and
continuous course of De Quincey would be too much.
Better have him on the shelf, and take down a volume
at intervals for one or two of the articles to which there
may be an immediate attraction. An evening with De
Quincey in this manner will always be profitable."

DAVID MASSON, Life of De Quincey, Chap. XI.





THERE is no great event in modern history, or, perhaps
it may be said more broadly, none in all history, from its
earliest records, less generally known, or more striking to
the imagination, than the flight eastwards of a principal
Tartar nation across the boundless steppes of Asia in the 5
latter half of the last century. The terminus a quo of this
flight and the terminus ad quern are equally magnificent
the mightiest of Christian thrones being the one, the
mightiest of pagan the other ; and the grandeur of these
two terminal objects is harmoniously supported by the 10
romantic circumstances of the flight. In the abruptness
of its commencement and the fierce velocity of its execu-
tion we read an expression of the wild, barbaric character
of the agents. In the unity of purpose connecting this
myriad of wills, and in the blind but unerring aim at a 15
mark so remote, there is something which recalls to the
mind those almighty instincts that propel the migrations of
the swallow and the leeming or the life-withering marches
of the locust. Then, again, in the gloomy vengeance of
Russia and her vast artillery, which hung upon the rear 20
and the skirts of the fugitive vassals, we are reminded of
Miltonic images such, for instance, as that of the soli-
tary hand pursuing through desert spaces and through


ancient chaos a rebellious host, and overtaking with vol-
leying thunders those who believed themselves already
within the security of darkness and of distance.

I shall have occasion, farther on, to compare this event
5 with other great national catastrophes as to the magnitude
of the suffering. But it may also challenge a comparison
with similar events under another relation, viz. as to its
dramatic capabilities. Few cases, perhaps, in romance
or history, can sustain a close collation with this as to the

10 complexity of its separate interests. The great outline of
the enterprise, taken in connection with the operative
motives, hidden or avowed, and the religious sanctions
under which it was pursued, give to the case a triple
character : i st, That of a conspiracy, with as close a unity

15 in the incidents, and as much of a personal interest in
the moving characters, with fine dramatic contrasts, as
belongs to "Venice Preserved" or to the "Fiesco"of
Schiller. 2dly, That of a great military expedition offer-
ing the same romantic features of vast distances to be

20 traversed, vast reverses to be sustained, untried routes,
enemies obscurely ascertained, and hardships too vaguely
prefigured, which mark the Egyptian expedition of Cam-
byses the anabasis of the younger Cyrus, and the
subsequent retreat of the ten thousand, the Parthian

25 expeditions of the Romans, especially those of Crassus
and Julian or (as more disastrous than any of them,
and, in point of space, as well as in amount of forces,
more extensive) the Russian anabasis and katabasis of
Napoleon. 3dly, That of a religious Exodus, authorized

30 by an oracle venerated throughout many nations of Asia,
an Exodus, therefore, in so far resembling the great
Scriptural Exodus of the Israelites, under Moses and
Joshua, as well as in the very peculiar distinction of carry-
ing along with them their entire families, women, children,


slaves, their herd of cattle and of sheep, their horses and
their camels.

This triple character of the enterprise naturally invests
it with a more comprehensive interest ; but the dramatic
interest which we ascribed to it, or its fitness for a stage 5
representation, depends partly upon the marked variety
and the strength of the personal agencies concerned, and
partly upon the succession of scenical situations. Even
the steppes, the camels, the tents, the snowy and the sandy
deserts are not beyond the scale of our modern represent- 10
ative powers, as often called into action in the theatres
both of Paris and London ; and the series of situations
unfolded, beginning with the general conflagration on
the Wolga passing thence to the disastrous scenes of
the flight (as it literally was in its commencement) 15
to the Tartar siege of the Russian fortress Koulagina
the bloody engagement with the Cossacks in the mountain
passes at Ouchim the surprisal by the Bashkirs and
the advanced posts of the Russian army at Torgau the
private conspiracy at this point against the Khan the 20
long succession of running fights the parting massacres
at the Lake of Tengis under the eyes of the Chinese
and, finally, the tragical retribution to Zebek-Dorchi at
the hunting lodge of the Chinese Emperor; all these
situations communicate a scenical animation to the wild 25
romance, if treated dramatically; whilst a higher and a
philosophic interest belongs to it as a case of authentic
history, commemorating a great revolution, for good and
for evil, in the fortunes of a whole people a people semi-
barbarous, but simple-hearted, and of ancient descent. 30

On the 2istof January, 1761, the young Prince Oubacha
assumed the sceptre of the Kalmucks upon the death
of his father. Some part of the power attached to this


dignity he had already wielded since his fourteenth year,
in quality of Vice-Khan, by the express appointment and
with the avowed support of the Russian Government.
He was now about eighteen years of age, amiable in his
5 personal character, and not without titles to respect in his
public character as a sovereign prince. In times more
peaceable, and amongst a people more entirely civilized
or more humanized by religion, it is even probable that
he might have discharged his high duties with consider-

10 able distinction ; but his lot was thrown upon stormy
times, and a most difficult crisis amongst tribes whose
native ferocity was exasperated by debasing forms of
superstition, and by a nationality as well as an inflated
conceit of their own merit absolutely unparalleled ; whilst

15 the circumstances of their hard and trying position under
the jealous surveillance of an irresistible lord paramount,
in the person of the Russian Czar, gave a fiercer edge to
the natural unamiableness of the Kalmuck disposition, and
irritated its gloomier qualities into action under the rest-

20 less impulses of suspicion and permanent distrust. No
prince could hope for a cordial allegiance from his sub-
jects or a peaceful reign under the circumstances of the
case ; for the dilemma in which a Kalmuck ruler stood
at present was of this nature : wanting the support and

25 sanction of the Czar, he was inevitably too weak from
without to command confidence from his subjects or
resistance to his competitors. On the other hand, with
this kind of support, and deriving his title in any degree
from the favor of the Imperial Court, he became almost

30 in that extent an object of hatred at home and within the
whole compass of his own territory. He was at once an
object of hatred for the past, being a living monument of
national independence ignominiously surrendered ; and an
object of jealousy for the future, as one who had already


advertised himself to be a fitting tool for the ultimate
purposes (whatsoever those might prove to be) of the
Russian Court. Coming himself to the Kalmuck sceptre
under the heaviest weight of prejudice from the unfor-
tunate circumstances of his position, it might have been 5
expected that Oubacha would have been pre-eminently
an object of detestation ; for, besides his known depend-
ence upon the Cabinet of St. Petersburg, the direct line
of succession had been set aside, and the principle of
inheritance violently suspended, in favor of his own 10
father, so recently as nineteen years before the era of his
own accession, consequently within the lively remem-
brance of the existing generation. He, therefore, almost
equally with his father, stood within the full current of
the national prejudices, and might have anticipated the 15
most pointed hostility. But it was not so : such are the
caprices in human affairs that he was even, in a moderate
sense, popular a benefit which wore the more cheering
aspect and the promises of permanence, inasmuch as he
owed it exclusively to his personal qualities of kindness 20
and affability, as well as to the beneficence of his govern-
ment. On the other hand, to balance this unlooked-for
prosperity at the outset of his reign, he met with a rival
in popular favor almost a competitor in the person of
Zebek-Dorchi, a prince with considerable pretensions to 25
the throne, and, perhaps it might be said, with equal pre-
tensions. Zebek-Dorchi was a direct descendant of the
same royal house as himself, through a different branch.
On public grounds, his claim stood, perhaps, on a footing
equally good with that of Oubacha, whilst his personal 3
qualities, even in those aspects which seemed to a philo-
sophical observer most odious and repulsive, promised
the most effectual aid to the dark purposes of an intriguer
or a conspirator, and were generally fitted to win a popular


support precisely in those points where Oubacha was
most defective. He was much superior in external ap-
pearance to his rival on the throne, and so far better
qualified to win the good opinion of a semi-barbarous
5 people ; whilst his dark intellectual qualities of Machiavel-
ian dissimulation, profound hypocrisy, and perfidy which
knew no touch of remorse, were admirably calculated to
sustain any ground which he might win from the simple-
hearted people with whom he had to deal and from the

10 frank carelessness of his unconscious competitor.

At the very outset of his treacherous career, Zebek-
Dorchi was sagacious enough to perceive that nothing
could be gained by open declaration of hostility to the
reigning prince : the choice had been a deliberate act on

15 the part of Russia, and Elizabeth Petrowna was not the
person to recall her own favors with levity or upon slight
grounds. Openly, therefore, to have declared his enmity
toward his relative on the throne, could have had no effect
but that of arming suspicions against his own ulterior

20 purposes in a quarter where it was most essential to his
interest that, for the present, all suspicions should be
hoodwinked. Accordingly, after much meditation, the
course he took for opening his snares was this: He
raised a rumor that his own life was in danger from the

25 plots of several Saissang (that is, Kalmuck nobles), who
were leagued together under an oath to assassinate him ;
and immediately after, assuming a well-counterfeited
alarm, he fled to Tcherkask, followed by sixty-five tents.
From this place he kept up a correspondence with the

30 Imperial Court, and, by way of soliciting his cause more
effectually, he soon repaired in person to St. Petersburg.
Once admitted to personal conferences with the cabinet,
he found no difficulty in winning over the Russian coun-
cils to a concurrence with some of his political views,


and thus covertly introducing the point of that wedge
which was finally to accomplish his purposes. In partic-
ular, he persuaded the Russian Government to make a
very important alteration in the constitution of the Kal-
muck State Council which in effect reorganized the whole 5
political condition of the state and disturbed the balance
of power as previously adjusted. Of this council in
the Kalmuck language called Sarga there were eight
members, called Sargatchi ; and hitherto it had been the
custom that these eight members should be entirely sub- 10
ordinate to the Khan ; holding, in fact, the ministerial
character of secretaries and assistants, but in no respect
ranking as co-ordinate authorities. That had produced
some inconveniences in former reigns ; and it was easy
for Zebek-Dorchi to point the jealousy of the Russian 15
Court to others more serious which might arise in future
circumstances of war or other contingencies. It was
resolved, therefore, to place the Sargatchi henceforward
on a footing of perfect independence, and, therefore (as
regarded responsibility), on a footing of equality with the 20
Khan. Their independence, however, had respect only
to their own sovereign ; for toward Russia they were
placed in a new attitude of direct duty and accountability
by the creation in their favor of small pensions (300
roubles a year), which, however, to a Kalmuck of that 25
day were more considerable than might be supposed,
and had a further value as marks of honorary distinction
emanating from a great empress. Thus far the purposes
of Zebek-Dorchi were served effectually for the moment :
but, apparently, it was only for the moment; since, in 30
the further development of his plots, this very depend-
ency upon Russian influence would be the most serious
obstacle in his way. There was, however, another point
carried, which outweighed all inferior considerations, as


it gave him a power of setting aside discretionally what-

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Online LibraryThomas De QuinceyRevolt of the Tartars → online text (page 2 of 9)