Thomas De Quincey.

The art of conversation ; and other papers online

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Spirit ! has then this universe no end ! " And the Form
answered and said, " Lo ! it has no beginning."

Suddenly, however, the heavens above us appeared lo be
emptied, and not a star was seen to twinkle in the mighty
abyss ; no gleam of light to break the unity of the infinite
darkness. The starry hosts behind us had all contracted
into an obscure nebula : and at length that also had
vanished. And I thought to myself, " At last the universe
has ended :" and I trembled at the thought of the illimit-
able dungeon of pure, pure darkness which here began to
imprison the creatior ; I shuddered at the dead sea of


nothing, in whose unfathomable zone of blackness the jewel
of the glittering universe seemed to be set and buried for
ever ; and through the night in which we moved I saw the
Form which still lightened as before, but left all around it
unilluminated. Then the Form said to me in my anguish
— " Oh ! creature of little faith ! Look up ! the most
ancient light is coming 1" I looked ; and in a moment
came a twilight — in the twinkling of an eye a galaxy —
and then with a choral burst rushed in all the company of
stars. For centuries grey with age, for millennia hoary
with' antiquity, had the starry light been on its road to us ;
and at length out of heights inaccessible to thought it had
reached us. JSTow then, as through some renovated century,
we flew through new cycles of heavens. At length again
came a starless interval ; and far longer it endured, before
the beams of a starry host again had reached us.

As we thus advanced for ever through an interchange of
nights and solar heavens, and as the interval grew still
longer and longer before the last heaven we had quitted
contracted to a point, and as once we issued suddenly from
the middle of thickest night into an Aurora Borealis, the
herald of an expiring world,' and we found throughout this
cycle of solar systems that a day of judgment had indeed
arrived ; the suns had sickened, and the planets were
heaving — rocking, yawning in convulsions, the subterrane-
ous waters of the great deeps were breaking up, and light-
nings that were ten diameters of a world in length ran
along — from east to west — from Zenith to Nadir ; and
here and there, where a sun should have been, we saw in-
stead through the misty vapour a gloomy, ashy, leaden
corpse of a solar body, that sucked in flames from the
perishing world, but gave out neither light nor heat ;
and as I saw, through a vista which had no end, mountain


towering above mountain, and piled up with what seemed
glittering snow from the conflict of solar and planetary-
bodies ; then my spirit bent under the load of the universe,
and I said to the Form, " Kest, rest ; and lead me no
farther : I am too solitary in the creation itself ; and in its
deserts yet more so : the full world is great, but the empty
world is greater ; and with the universe increase its

Then the Form touched me like the flowing of a breath,
and spoke more gently than before : — " In the presence oi
God there is no emptiness : above, below, between, and'
round about the stars, in the darkness and in the light,
dwelleth the true and very Universe, the sum and fountain
of all that is. But thy spirit can bear only earthly images
of the unearthly ; now then I cleanse thy sight with
euphrasy ; look forth, and behold the images." Immedi-
ately my eyes were opened ; and I looked, and I saw as it
were an interminable sea of light — sea immeasurable, sea
unfathomable, sea without a shore. All spaces between all
heavens were fiUed with happiest light : and there was a
thundering of floods : and there were seas above the seas,
and seas below the seas : and I saw all the trackless regions
that we had voyaged over : and my eye comprehended the
farthest and the nearest : and darkness had become light,
and the light darkness : for the deserts and wastes of the
creation were now filled with the sea of light, and in this
sea the suns floated like ash-grey blossoms, and the planets
like black grains of seed. Then my heart comprehended
that immortality dwelled in the spaces between the worlds,
and death only amongst the worlds. Upon all the suns
there walked upright shadows in the form of men : but
they were glorified when they quitted these perishable
worlds, and when they sank into the sea of light ; and the


murky plaPxets, I perceived, were but cradles for tlie iu-
fant spirits of the universe of light. In the ^aarahs of
the creation T saw — I heard — I felt — the glittering — the
echoing — the breathing of life and creative power. The
suns were but as spinning-wheels, the planets no more than
weavers' shuttles, in relation to the infinite web which com-
poses the veil of Isis ;* which veil is hung over the whole
creation, and lengthens as any finite being attempts to raise
it. And in sight of this immeasurability of life, no sad-
ness could endure ; but only joy that knew no limit, and
happy prayers.

But in the midst of this great vision of the Universe the
Form that lightened eternally had become invisible, or had
vanished to its home in the unseen world of spirits : I was
left alone in the centre of a universe of life, and I yearned
after some sympathizing being. Suddenly from the starry
deeps there came floating through the ocean of light a
planetary body; and upon it there stood a woman whose
face was as the face of a Madonna ; and by her side there
stood a child, whose countenance varied not, neither was
it magnified as he drew nearer. This child was a king, for
I saw that he had a crown upon his head : but the crown
was a crown of thorns. Then also I perceived that the
planetary body was our unhappy earth ; and, as the earth

* On this antique mode of symbolizing the mysterious Nature which
is at the heart of all things and connects all things into one whole,
possibly the reader may feel not unwilling to concur with Kant's re-
inark at page 197 of his Critik der UrtheilsJcraft : "Perhaps in all
human composition there is no passage of greater sublimity, nor
amongst all subhme thoughts any which has been more sublimely
expressed, than that which occurs in the inscription upon the temple
of Isis (the Great Mother — Nature) : lam whatsoever is — whatsoever
has heen — whatsoever shall he : and the veil which is over my counte-
nance, no mortal hand has ever raised^


drew near, this child who had come forth from the stari-y
deeps to comfort me threw upon me a look of gentlest pity
and of unutterable love, so that in my heart I had a
sudden rapture of joy such as passes all understanding,
and I awoke in the tumult of my happiness.

I awoke : but my happiness survived my dream ; and I
exclaimed — Oh ! how beautiful is death, seeing that we
die in a world of life and of creation without end 1 and I
blessed God for my life upon earth, but much more for the
life in those unseen depths of the universe which are
emptied of all but the Supreme Eeality, and where no
earthly life nor perishable hope can enter.


" Ah ! " said the imprisoned bird, " how unhappy were
1 in my eternal night, but for those melodious tones which
sometimes make their way to me like beams of light from
afar, and cheer my gloomy day. But I will myself repeat
these heavenly melodies like an echo, until I have stamped
them in my heart ; and then I shall be able to bring com-
fort to myself in my darkness ! " Thus spoke the little
warbler, and soon had learned the sweet airs that were sung
to it with voice and instrument. That done, the curtain
was raised ; for the darkness had been purposely contrived
to assist in its instruction. man ! how often dost thou
complain of overshadowing grief and of darkness resting
upon thy days ! And yet what cause for complaint, unless
indeed thou hast failed to learn wisdom from suffering ?
For is not the whole sum of human life a veiling and an
obscuring of the immortal spirit of man 1 Then £rst, when
the fleshly curtain falls away, may it soar upwards into a
region of happier melodies !



Ephemera die all at sunset, and no insect of this class
has ever sported in the beams of the morning sun.* Hap-
pier are ye, little human ephemera ! Ye played only in
the ascending beams, and in the early dawn, and in the
eastern light ; ye drank only of the prelibations of life ;
hovered for a little space over a world of freshness and of
blossoms ; and fell asleep in innocence before yet the morn-
ing dew was exhaled !


A delicate child, pale and prematurely wise, was com-
plaining on a hot morning that the poor dew-drops had
been too hastily snatched away, and not allowed to glitter
on the flowers like other happier dew-drops t that live the
whole night through, and sparkle in the moonlight and
through the morning onwards to noon-day. " The sun,"
said the child, " has chased them away with his heat, or
swallowed them in his wrath." Soon after came rain and
a rainbow ; whereupon his father pointed upwards : " See,"
said he, "there stand thy dew-drops gloriously re-set — a
glittering jewellery — in the heavens ; and the clownish
foot tramples on them no more. By this, my child, thou
art taught that what withers upon earth blooms again in
heaven." Thus the father spoke, and knew not that he
spoke prefiguring words : for soon after the delicate child.

* Some class of ephemeral insects are bom about five o'clock in
the afternoon, and die before midnight, supposing them to Hve to
old age.

t If the dew is evaporated immediately upon the sun-rising, rain
End storm follow in the afternoon ; but, if it stays and glitters for a
long time after sunrise, the day continues fair.


with the morning brightness of his early wisdom, was ex-
haled, like a dew-drop, into heaven.


We should all think of death as a less hideous object, if
it simply untenanted our bodies of a spirit, without corrupt-
ing them ; secondly, if the grief which we experience at the
spectacle of our friends' graves were not by some confusion
of the mind blended with the image of our own ; thirdly,
if w^e had not in this life seated ourselves in a warm domes-
tic nest, which we are unwilling to quit for the cold blue
regions of the unfathomable heavens ; finally, if death were
denied to us. Once in dreams I saw a human being of
heavenly intellectual faculties, and his aspirations were
heavenly ; but he was chained (methought) eternally to the
earth. The immortal old man had five great wounds in
his happiness — five worms that gnawed for ever at his
heart : he was unhappy in spring-time, because that is a
season of hope, and rich with phantoms of far happier
days than any which this aceldama of earth can realize.
He was unhappy at the sound of music, which dilates the
heart of man into its whole capacity for the infinite, and he
cried aloud — " Away, away ! Thou speakest of things
-which throughout my endless life I have found not, and
shall not find ! " He was unhappy at the remembrance of
earthly affections and dissevered hearts : for love is a plant
w^hich may bud in this life, but it must flourish in another.
He was unhappy under the glorious spectacle of the starry
host, and ejaculated for ever in his heart — " So then, I am
parted from you to all eternity by an impassable abyss :
the great universe of suns is above, below, and round about
me : but I -am chained to a little ball of dust and ashes."
He was unhappy before the great ideas of Virtue, of


Truth, and of God ; because he knew how feeble are the
approximations to them which a son of earth can make.
But this was a dream : God be thanked, that in reality-
there is no such craving and asking eye directed upwards
to heaven, to which death will not one day bring an
answer !


Happy is every actor in the guilty drama of life, to
^^^hom the higher illusion within supplies or conceals the
external illusion ; to whom, in the tumult of his part and
its intellectual interest, the bungling landscapes of the
stage have the bloom and reality of nature, and whom,
the loud parting and shocking of the scenes disturb not in
his dream !


In Suabia, in Saxony, in Pomerania, are towns in which
fire stationed a strange sort of officers — valuers of author's
flesh, something like our old market-lookers in this town.*
They are commonly called tasters (or Prcegustatores) because
they eat a mouthful of every book beforehand, and tell the
people whether its flavour be good. We authors, in spite,
call them reviewers : but I believe an action of defamation
would lie against us for such bad words. The tasters
write no books themselves j consequently they have the
more time to look over and tax those of other people. Or, if
they do sometimes write books, they are bad ones : which

* " JlarJcet-loohers^^ is a provincial term (I know not whether used
in London) for the public officers who examine the quality of the pro-
visions exposed for sale. By this town I suppose John Paul to mean
Bayreuth, the place of his residence.


again is very advantageous to them ; for who can under-
stand the theory of badness in other people's books so well
as those who have learned it by practice in their own ?
They are reputed the guardians of literature and the literati
for the same reason that St. Nepomuk is the patron saint of
bridges and of all who pass over them — viz., because he
himself once lost his life from a bridge.


Hippel, the author of the book " Upon Marriage," says
— " A woman, that does not talk, must be a stupid
woman." But Hippel is an author whose opinions it is
more safe to admire than to adopt. The most intelligent
women are often silent amongst women ; and again the
most stupid and the most silent are often neither one nor
the other except amongst men. In general the current
remark upon men is valid also with respect to women —
that those for the most part are the greatest thinkers who
are the least talkers ; as frogs cease to croak when light is
brought to the water edge. However, in fact, the dispro-
portionate talking of women arises out of the sedentariness
of their labours ; sedentary artisans, as tailors, shoemakers,
weavers, have this habit as well as hypochondriacal ten-
dencies in common with women. Apes do not talk, as
savages say, that they may not be set to work ; but
women often talk double their share — even because they


Nothing is more moving to man than the spectacle of
reconciliation : our weaknesses are thus indemnified and
are not too costly — being the price we pay for the hour
of forgiveness : and the archangel, who has never felt
anger, has reason to envy the man who subdues it. When


thou forgivest, — the man, who has pierced thy heart,
stands to thee in the relation of the sea-worm that per-
forates the shell of the mussel, which straightway closes
the wound with a pearl.

Tlie graves of the best of men, of the noblest martyrs,
are, like the graves of the Herrnhuters (the Moravian
Brethren), level and un distinguishable from the universal
earth : and, if the earth could give up her secrets, our
whole globe would appear a Westminster Abbey laid flat.
Ah ! what a multitude of tears, what myriads of bloody
drops have been shed in secrecy about the three corner
trees of earth — the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, and
the tree of freedom — shed, but never reckoned ! It is
only great periods of calamity that reveal to us our great
men, as comets are revealed by total eclipses of the sun.
Not merely upon the field of battle, but also upon the
consecrated soil of virtue, and upon the classic ground of
truth, thousands of nameless heroes miist fall and struggle
to build up the footstool from which history surveys the
one hero, whose name is embalmed, bleeding — conquering
— and resplendent. The grandest of heroic deeds are those
which are performed within four walls and in domestic
privacy. And, because history records only the self-sacri-
fices of the male sex, and because she dips her pen only
in blood, therefore is it that in the eyes of the unseen
spirit of the world our annals appear doubtless far more
beautiful and noble than in our own.


Man upon this earth would be vanity and hoUowness,
dust and ashes, vapour and a bubble, were it not that he
felt himself to be so. That it is possible for him to



harbour such a feeling, — this, by implying a comparison of
himself with something higher in himself, this is it which
makes him the immortal creature that he is.

The earth is every day overspread with the veil of night
for the same reason as the cages of birds are darkened —
viz., that we may the more readily apprehend the higher
harmonies of thought in the hush and quiet of darkness.
Thoughts, which day turns into smoke and mist, stand
about us in the night as lights and flames : even as the
column which fluctuates above the crater of Vesuvius, in
the daytime appears a pillar of cloud, but by night a pillar
of fire.


Look up, and behold the eternal fields of light that lie
round about the throne of God. Had no star ever appeared
in the heavens, to man there would have been no heavens ;
and he would have laid himself down to his last sleep, in a
spirit of anguish, as upon a gloomy earth vaulted over by
a material arch — solid and impervious.


To die for truth — is not to die for one's country, but to
die for the world. Truth, like the Venus de Medici, will
pass down in thirty fragments to posterity : but posterity
will collect and recompose them into a goddess. Then
also thy temple, eternal Truth ! that now stands half
below the earth, made hollow by the sepulchres of its
witnesses, will raise itself in the total majesty of its pro-
portions y and will stand in monumental granite ; and
every pillar on which it rests, will be fixed in the grave of
a martyr.



Why is it that the most fervent love becomes more
fervent by brief interruption and reconciliation ? and why
must a storm agitate our affections before they can raise
the highest rainbovr of peace ? Ah ! for this reason it is —
because all passions feel their object to be as eternal as
themselves, and no love can admit the feeling that the
beloved object should die. And under this feeling of imper-
ishableness it is that we hard fields of ice shock together
so harshly, whilst all the while under the sunbeams of a
little space of seventy years we are rapidly dissolving.


But for dreams, that lay mosaic worlds tesselated with
flowers and jewels before the blind sleeper, and surround
the recumbent living with the figures of the dead in the
upright attitude of life, the time would be too long before
we are allowed to rejoin our brothers, parents, friends :
every year we should become more and more painfully
sensible of the desolation made around us by death, if
sleep — the ante-chamber of the grave — were not hung by
dreams with the busts of those who live in the other


There are two very different classes of philosophical
heads, which, since Kant has introduced into philosophy
the idea of positive and negative quantities, I shall willingly
classify by means of that distinction. The positive intellect
is, like the poet, in conjunction with the outer world, the
father of an inner world ; and, like the poet also, holds up
a transforming mirror in which the entangled and distorted


members as they are seen in our actual experience enter
into new combinations which compose a fair and luminous
world : the hypothesis of Idealism (i.e. the Ficht^an sys-
tem), the Monads and the Pre-established Harmony of
Leibnitz — and Spinozism are all births of a genial moment,
and not the wooden carving of logical toil. Such men
therefore as Leibnitz, Plato, Herder, &c., I call positive
intellects ; because they seek and yield the positive ; and
because their inner world, having raised itself higher out
of the water than in others, thereby overlooks a larger
prospect of island and continents. A negative head, on
the other hand, discovers by its acuteness — not any posi-
tive truths but the negative (i.e. the errors) of other people.
Such an intellect, as for example Bayle, one of the greatest
of that class — appraises the funds of others, rather than
brings any fresh funds of his own. In lieu of the obscure
ideas which he finds he gives us clear ones : but in this
there is no positive accession to our knowledge ; for all that
the clear idea contains in development, exists already by
implication in the obscure idea. Negative intellects of
every age are unanimous in their abhorrence of everything
positive. Impulse, feeling, instinct — everything in short
which is incomprehensible, they can endure just once —
that is, at the summit of their chain of arguments as a sort
of hook on which they may hang them, but never after-


That, for which man offers up his blood or his property,
must be more valuable than they. A good man does not
fight with half the courage for his own life that he shows
in the protection of another's. The mother, who will
hazard netting for herself, will hazard all in defence of her


cliild : in sliort, only for the nobility within us, only for
virtue, will man open his veins and offer up his spirit : but
this nobility, this virtue, presents different phases : with
the Christian martyr it is faith ; with the savage it is
lionour ; with the republican it is liberty.


Amongst tlie arts connected with the elegancies of social
life, in a degree which nobody denies, is the art of conver-
sation ; but in a degree which almost everybody denies, if
one may judge by their neglect of its simplest rules, this
same art is not less connected with the uses of social life.
Neither the luxury of conversation, nor the possible benefit
of conversation, is to be found under that rude administra-
tion of it which generally prevails. Without an art, with-
out some simple system of rules, gathered from experience
of such contingencies as are most likely to mislead the
practice, when left to its own guidance, no act of man nor
effort accomplishes its purposes in perfection. The saga-
cious Greek would not "So much as drink a glass of wine
amongst a few friends without a systematic art to guide
him, and a regular form of polity to control him, which art
and which polity (begging Plato's pardon) were better than
any of more ambitious aim in his Kepublic. Every sym-
posium had its set of rules, and rigorous they were ; had
its own symposiarch to govern it, and a tyrant he was.
Elected democratically, he became, when once installed, an
autocrat not less despotic than the King of Persia. Pur-
poses still more slight and fugitive have been organized into
arts. Taking soup gracefully, under the difficulties opposed


to it by a dinner dress at that time fashionable, was reared
into an art about forty-five years ago by a Frenchman, who
lectured upon it to ladies in London ; and the most bril-
liant duchess of that day, viz., the Duchess of Devonshire,
was amongst his best pupils. Spitting, if the reader will
pardon the mention of so gross a fact, was shown to be a
very difficult art, and publicly prelected upon about the
same time, in the same great capital. The professors in
this faculty- were the hackney-coachmen ; the pupils were
gentlemen, who paid a guinea each for three lessons ; the
chief problem in this system of hydraulics being to throw
the salivating column in a parabolic curve from the centre
of Parliament Street, when driving four-in-hand, to the foot
pavements, right and left, so as to alarm the consciences of
guilty peripatetics on either side. The ultimate problem,
which closed the curriculum of study, was held to lie in
spitting round a corner ; when that was mastered, the pupil
was entitled to his doctor's degree. Endless are the pur-

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Online LibraryThomas De QuinceyThe art of conversation ; and other papers → online text (page 11 of 25)