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If now we seek to sum up our author's doing and not doing in this work, the statement should be somewhat as follows: he has succeeded, first and best of all, in making a generous and liberal failure. This is not ironical; the attempt to exhibit a large order in history is the prime attraction of his book, as his ardent faith in the existence of such order was its inspiration. Besides this, he has succeeded in urging impressively three things ; — the great uses of the understanding in civilization ; the legitimacy of doubt; and, lastly, the evils of that false protection which robs men of the natural disciplines of their life in seeking to supersede the action of individual thought and will by the determinations of society as a unit. Curious it is, too, that this writer, who began at the outset by reducing the individual to helpless, imbecile dependence upon a supposed “state of society," proceeds to find the chief of all ills in the suppression of individual freedom, and fears nothing so much as that total action of society which expresses itself in government. But it is this hearty sympathy with individual thought and freedom which largely helps to make his work valuable. So much, and perhaps more, may be said in his favor. On the other hand, no less must be said than that our author not only fails to throw history into moulds of scientific order and shapeliness, but he falls short of sound discrimination and sound logic in the discussion of every minor topic; so that he has not written a page which can be read with entire satisfaction. Accord to him the highest degree of pamphleteer merit, and you have done him full justice. Consider him as a philosopher, and you must call his work a medley, a jumble, a hotch-potch. Measure it by far lower standards ; begin by disclaiming for the author all that his admirers chiefly claim for him, and you may then read him with pleasure, and even approach, now and then, to admiration.
Art. IV. -- DE QUINCEY.
The Works of THOMAS DE QUINCEY. Twenty-two volumes. Boston:
Ticknor and Fields.
Thomas De QUINCEY, as he himself tells us in his “ Confessions," was the son of a plain English merchant, who died when he was about seven years old, leaving him to the care of four guardians, and heir to a moderate estate. We have not the means of knowing the place or year of his birth. His father was strongly attached to literary pursuits; but from his mother, whom he calls a truly intellectual woman, he may have inherited a large portion of his mental powers.
Sent to various schools, he was early distinguished for his classical attainments. At fifteen, he not only composed Greek lyric verses, but could converse in Greek fluently, and, in the language of his master, “could harangue an Athenian mob better than others could address an English one.” And this implies a knowledge not only of the classic language of the masters in literature, but a familiarity with the most idiomatic Greek. The results of these early acquirements appear in the Hellenisms with which his writings are studded, in his happy use of derivatives from Greek roots, and in his fondness for the disputations, not to say sophistical habits, of the Attic authors.
At the age of seventeen, in consequence of a dispute with his guardian, he ran away from school, and began a career of vagrancy, poverty, and suffering. For some time he wandered about in North Wales, subsisting on berries, or such chance sums as he could earn by writing letters for the Welch cottagers. We next find him a stroller of the still more solitary streets of London. For upwards of sixteen weeks he suffered the physical anguish of hunger to an intense degree, a few fragments of bread from a breakfast-table constituting his whole support. To this enforced abstinence he ascribes a painful affection of the stomach in after years, which drove him to the daily use of opium; and to these early sufferings we owe two of the most pathetic episodes of his writ
ings, his boyish intimacy with Ann, and with the lonely childhousekeeper of his protector's town residence. “From this forlorn child I learned, that she had slept and lived there alone, for some time before I came; and great joy the poor creature expressed when she found that I was in future to be her companion through the hours of darkness. The house was large, and from the want of furniture the noise of the rats made a prodigious echoing on the spacious staircase and hall; and amidst the real fleshly ills of cold, and I fear hunger, the forsaken child had found leisure to suffer still more from the self-created one of ghosts. We lay upon the floor, with a bundle of cursed law papers for a pillow, but with no other covering than a sort of large horseman's cloak.”
After various negotiations with Jews, and bickerings with his guardians, who had cut down his allowance to £100 per annum, he was finally reconciled to his friends and sent to the University. For years after he had quitted “stony-hearted Oxford Street,” and was living in prosperity, he tells us that he looked into myriads of female faces in the great London thoroughfares, in the hope of finding his youthful and unfortunate benefactress, Ann. “I now wish,” he adds at a later period, “ to see her no longer, but think of her more gladly, as one long since laid in the grave;- in the grave, I would hope, of a Magdalen, — taken away before injuries and cruelty had blotted out and transfigured her ingenuous nature, or the brutalities of ruffians had completed the ruin they had begun.”
In the autumn of 1804, during his college life, he first took opium, to relieve a toothache. That his pain was mitigated was a trifle compared with the immense positive effects it produced in his mental state. To this unfortunate accident, and more unfortunate dream, is to be traced the formation of the habit of opium-eating, to which he yielded for many years. Many misconceptions have existed as to the reasons of his indulgence. An honest review and fair estimate of these circumstances is but justice to a great man. He tells us, in his “ Confessions,” that it is well that “ nothing is more revolting to English feelings than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers, or scars, and tearing away that “decent drapery' which time or indulgence to human frailty may have drawn over them. Guilt and misery shrink, by a natural instinct, from public notice : they court privacy and solitude; and even in the choice of a grave will sometimes sequester themselves from the general population of the church-yard, as if declining to claim fellowship with the great family of man, and wishing – in the affecting language of Mr. Wordsworth —
• Humbly to express
A penitential loneliness.'” Yet the interests of society should be allowed to outweigh the feelings and preferences of the individual, and the record of so dearly bought an experience as the opium-eater's is of too great possible benefit to others to justify concealment.
De Quincey adds:
“ Infirmity and misery do not, of necessity, imply guilt. They approach or recede from the shades of that dark alliance, in proportion to the probable motives and prospects of the offender, and the palliations, known or secret, of the offence ; in proportion as the temptations to it were potent from the first, and the resistance to it, in act or in effort, was earnest to the last.”
With these deprecatory remarks, we shall call attention to three circumstances in the opium-eater's history, which seem to have been overlooked by many reviewers.
Firstly, that in the beginning he became acquainted with the seductive effects of opium accidentally.
Secondly, that he was driven to its daily use by severe physical suffering.
Thirdly, that by superhuman efforts he twice succeeded in leaving off the habit; and also, that if he relapsed, so far as we have any record, he descended, at least, from eight thousand drops of laudanum a day to eighty, and never ceased to struggle, though with shattered strength, against his mighty adversary.
After his first unlucky discovery of the pleasing mental exhilaration produced by opium, De Quincey, for some years, indulged only occasionally in a debauch, - as he well calls it; generally on Saturday night, or some convenient evening, when he could enjoy the divine combination of psychical bliss produced by the drug, and by listening to the Italian opera. 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 condi. tion 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,