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When twenty-eight years old, a painful malady of the stomach forced him to the daily employment of increasing doses of laudanum for relief. The habit thus fully formed, he went on for ten years, in fair health, and much of the time in a state of mental exaltation, or ecstasy. Finally his visions began to grow terrible instead of pleasant. “Horror shed its sad funeral blights upon the gorgeous mosaics of his dreams.”
Convinced that his sufferings were due to opium, and that they were steadily advancing to an inevitable doom, he succeeded, after a period of terrible suffering, in freeing himself from his chains.
“ Think of me as of one, even when four months had passed, still agitated, writhing, throbbing, palpitating, shattered ; and much, perhaps, in the condition of him who has been racked. If the opiumeater has been taught to fear and tremble, enough has been effected. But he may say, that the issue of my case is at least a proof, that opium, after a seventeen years' use and an eight years' abuse of its powers, may still be renounced. One memorial of my former condition still remains ; my dreams are not yet perfectly calm ; the dread swell and agitation of the storm have not wholly subsided ; the legions that encamped in them are drawing off, but not all departed; my sleep is tumultuous, and, like the gates of Paradise to our first parents when looking back from afar, it is still — in the tremendous line of Milton
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.'” Yet this much-abused body was but lately octogenary, and the brain subjected to such fearful strain produced essays and criticisms abated in no wise from the vigor of his earlier compositions. With respect to two much-disputed points, then, we can draw only the following conclusions, — that the immoderate, habitual use of opium is not essentially destructive to body or mind, and that the peculiar power and charm of De Quincey's writings are not due to opium alone, but to the innate genius and wide-reaching scholarship of their author. That his style has been rendered discursive and dreamy by the drug, we do not deny.
The versatility of genius rarely confines itself to single, sustained efforts. That faculty, if we may so call it, is to be measured by the breadth as well as the depth of its powers, by its ability to overlook narrow bounds, and take a comprehensive view of all subjects, as well as to reach by intuition the centre of an individual thought. Measured thus, we shall find De Quincey discursive to a rare degree. Few scholars have attacked more branches of knowledge, and few written well upon more various topics, than the English opium-eater. If critics wonder that, with his splendid talents, he has not done more, we may wonder that, under so many depressing circumstances, he has done so much.
It will be advantageous to view his productions under different lights, and to attempt a classification of them. So far as we are aware, De Quincey has written only two complete stories, of considerable length : “Klosterheim” and “ The Avenger.”
While his versatile pen leaps from Charlemagne to Joan of Arc, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, from the pagan oracles and sphinx's riddles to orthographic mutineers, and to murder as one of the fine arts, we shall find most of his writings reducible to the class of essays on some of the following topics, which we shall consider in their order:- autobiographical sketches; reviews of literature, poetry, and philosophy, ancient, modern, and contemporaneous; essays on the classics, on abstruse subjects of antiquity, and on the daily life of the ancients ; didactic, practical, religious; dramatic, humorous, and pathetic pieces.
The personal narrations, which furnish us with all we know of this remarkable man, are full and numerous. The “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” and “Suspiria de Profundis," “ Life and Manners,” the “ Literary Reminiscences," and “ Selections Grave and Gay,” comprise the sum of his autobiographical writings. They contain many interesting particulars of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey, and of life at Grasmere and Rydal Mount, mingled with charming descriptions of the scenery of the lakes, and anecdotes of the early days of the author. In the latter there is some repetition, which is inevitable from the disconnected manner in which the articles were written for different reviews. His youthful reverence for Wordsworth, and his subsequent intimacy with him, are among the most interesting incidents. The Opium-Eater and Suspiria form one of the most beautiful and unique volumes of his writings. We would gladly quote his ingenious comparison of the human brain to an ancient palimpsest, but we must confine ourselves to a short extract on the private life of the opium-eater.
He describes his cottage-library as a modest room, containing about five thousand volumes.
“ Therefore, painter, make it populous with books; and furthermore paint me a good fire; and furniture plain and modest, befitting the unpretending cottage of a scholar. And near the fire paint me a teatable, and two cups and saucers; and, if you know how to paint such a thing symbolically, or otherwise, paint me an eternal tea-pot; for I usually drink tea from eight o'clock at night to four in the morning. And, as it is very unpleasant to make tea, or pour it out for one's self, paint me a lovely young woman sitting at the table. Paint her arms like Aurora's, and her smiles like Hebe's. ..... Paint a glass as much like a wine-decanter as possible, and into this you may put a quart of ruby-colored laudanum ; that, and a book of German metaphysics placed by its side, will sufficiently attest my being in the neighborhood.”
His reviews of literature, poetry, and philosophy extend through a number of volumes, and include essays on Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Goldsmith, Keats, Shelley, Goethe, Schiller, Homer, Plato, Cicero, Foster, Hazlitt, Lamb, Landor, Southey, Wordsworth ; on Hamilton, Mackintosh, Kant, Herder, Jean Paul, Lessing, Bentley, Parr, Coleridge, and many others. His mature knowledge, ripe scholarship, and delicate perception evolve some new fact, or some beauty which had failed to impress before, from every subject he touches. His appreciation is generous, his criticism goodnatured, and his satire softened by that familiarity with infirmity and suffering which gives to most of his compositions their tender tone.
De Quincey has a peculiar fancy for metaphysical investigation. Spinoza amuses his weary hours, and Kant refreshes his mind, as some men are rested by a mathematical problem. Political economy, too, has been among his favorite lighter studies, as he terms them. A good acquaintance with German literature has made him keenly sensible of its defects, as well as its excellences; and he does not hesitate to tell us that no German prose-writer has any conception of style. His mind is too Saxon and straightforward to follow the lead of such indiscriminating admirers as the modern German enthusiasts in England, or to sanction the corruption of our vernacular with those double words and long-winded phrases which were rendered fashionable by Carlyle.
His essays on the classics are mainly on Homer and the Homeridæ ; Greek tragedy; the Antigone of Sophocles; Plato's Republic; the philosophy of Herodotus, and of Roman history. His early proficiency in humane studies, and especially his intimate knowledge of Greek, — that master-key of all succeeding learning, — have been corrected and confirmed by an acquaintance with the mediæval writers. The narrowness of a verbal critic he avoids, by his talent for generalization. Though almost a Scaliger in minute classical knowledge, he has all the philosophy of Niebuhr in his estimate of events and their causes. The papers on the unity of the Iliad, and the causes of the neglect of tragedy among the Greeks, are masterly productions.
Yet this singular mind is constantly overstepping the common bounds of inquiry, and seeking the essence of such ancient mysteries as the pagan oracles and the Sphinx's riddles; or searching for the hidden connection between the Essenes and modern secret societies. The essays on Judas Iscariot, the toilette of a Hebrew lady, and the knocking at the door in Macbeth, are subjects which would hardly be thought of by other men.
But it is his power of reproducing in modern dress the private manners and daily life of the ancients, that constitutes to us the great charm of De Quincey's classical pieces. Of this his essays on “Dinner, Real and Reputed,” and on “ The Cæsars,” are examples in different ways. Few men, comparatively, possess this power. It was, in a good degree, the characteristic of Becker, in his Charicles and Gallus, though his careful collation of authorities constitutes the chief value of his immortal works to the scholar. Still more do the smooth narrative of “The Last Days of Pompeii,” the truly classic chasteness of Landor's imaginary conversations, and the brilliant imagination of Kingsley in his “ Hypatia,”
revive for us the habits, the looks, and the thoughts of a Grecian or Alexandrian citizen. “ Probus” and “ Zenobia” are fine examples of careful or impassioned writing on similar subjects, by a native author. Yet De Quincey has the happiest faculty of translating the slang of the ancient world by that of the modern, — the cockneyisms of Rome by those of London. We seem to see the poor Roman take his frugal jentaculum, or prandium, and while away the day until the grateful hour of cæna arrived.
“ Thus we have brought down our Roman friend to noonday, and to this moment the poor man has had nothing to eat.' But meantime what has he been about since perhaps six or seven in the morning ? ..... Why, reader, this illustrates one of the most interesting features in the Roman character. The Roman was the idlest of men. “Man and boy,' he was an idler in the land. He called himself and his pals,
rerum dominos, gentemque togatam,' — the gentry that wore the toga.' Yes, and a pretty affair that “toga' was. Just figure to yourself, reader, the picture of a hard-working man, with horny hands, like our hedgers, ditchers, weavers, porters, &c., setting to work on the high-road in that vast sweeping toga, filling with a strong gale like the mainsail of a frigate. Conceive the roars with which this magnificent figure would be received into the bosom of a poor-house detachment sent out to attack the stones on some new line of road, or a fatigue party of dustmen sent upon secret service. Had there been nothing left as a memorial of the Romans but that one relic, — their immeasurable toga,
– we should have known that they were born and bred to idleness. In fact, except in war, the Roman never did anything at all but sun himself. Ut se apricaret was the final cause of peace in his opinion; in literal truth, that he might make an apricot of himself. The public rations at all times supported the poorest inhabitant of Rome, if he were a citizen. .....
“ With the lark it was that the Roman rose. Why did he do this ?
that ? Because his worthy mother earth could not afford him candles. She, good lady, would certainly have shuddered to hear any of her nations asking for candles. •Candles !' she would have said, “who ever heard of such a thing? And with so much excellent daylight running to waste, as I have provided gratis !' The Roman, therefore, who saw no joke in sitting round a table in the dark, went off to bed as the darkness began. Everybody did so. Old Numa Pompilius himself was obliged to trundle off in the dusk.”