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calm, that through centuries continued to lave, as with the quiet undulations of summer lakes, the sacred footsteps of the Cæsarean throne?”
The Emperor is to be viewed under two aspects: the office, and the man. The first was sacred and inviolable ; the second, surrounded with personal dangers in proportion to the altitude of the first.
“Gibbon has taken notice of the extraordinary situation of a subject in the Roman empire who should attempt to fly from the wrath of the crown. Such was the ubiquity of the Emperor, that this was absolutely hopeless. But the same omnipresence of imperial anger and retribution, which withered the hopes of the poor, humble prisoner, met and confounded the Emperor himself, when hurled from his giddy elevation by some fortunate rival. All the kingdoms of the earth, to one in that situation, became but so many wards of the same infinite prison. ..... Such, amidst the superhuman grandeur and consecrated powers of the Roman Emperor's office, were the extraordinary perils which menaced the individual, and the peculiar frailties of his condition.”
The Roman Imperator, placed in this extraordinary position of unlimited power, and ruling a populace which, gathered from all nations to the great centre of the empire, had lost the virtue of the republic, and added to the luxury of the Asiatic the cruelty of the barbarian, — obliged to supply them with largesses and the shows of the amphitheatre to quench their thirst for blood,- shared before long in the same passions as his degraded subjects, and, being under no restraint, exhibited to the world excesses which have been unparalleled for atrocity in subsequent times. So may be mildly judged the wickedness of the Cæsars. The theory of insanity, which De Quincey advances to palliate the terrible crimes of Caligula and other monsters, is the most grateful explanation to our shuddering humanity, which is forced to recognize such beings as men. The sketch of the career, talents, and personal peculiarities of Julius Cæsar, " that sun-bright intellect," is a fine specimen of our author's critical and appreciative, as the death-scene of Nero is of his dramatic powers.
De Quincey has neither the stately narrative of Gibbon, nor the studied antithesis of Johnson; yet he possesses a happy combination of fire and dignity. Splendor of imagination and pomp of diction are tempered by accurate scholarship and classic purity of style. We have space only for one more extract, on the Emperor Commodus mingling in the sports of the amphitheatre.
“ Invitations — and the invitations of kings are commands — had been scattered on this occasion profusely; not, as heretofore, to individuals or to families, but, as was in proportion to the occasion where an Emperor was the chief performer, to nations. People were summoned by circles of longitude and latitude to come and see — things that eye had not seen, nor ear heard of — the specious miracles of nature brought together from arctic and from tropic deserts, putting forth their strength, their speed, or their beauty, and glorifying by their deaths the matchless hand of the Roman king. There were beheld the lion from Biledulgerid, the leopard from Hindostan, the reindeer from polar latitudes, the antelope from the Zaara, and the leigh, or gigantic stag, from Britain. Thither came the buffalo, the white bull of Northumberland, the unicorn from the regions of Thibet, the rhinoceros and the river-horse from Senegal, with the elephant of Ceylon or Siam. The ostrich and the camelopard, the wild ass and the zebra, the chamois and the ibex of Angora, — all brought their tributes of beauty or deformity to these vast aceldamas of Rome: their savage voices ascended in tumultuous uproar to the chambers of the Capitol ; a million of spectators sat round them ; standing in the centre was a single statuesque figure, — the imperial sagittary, beautiful as an Antinous, and majestic as Jupiter, whose hand was so steady and whose eye so true, that he was never known to miss, and who, in this accomplishment at least, was so absolute in his excellence, that, as we are assured by a writer not disposed to flatter him, the very foremost of the Parthian archers and of the Mauritanian lancers were not able to contend with him. ..... He was the noblest artist in his own profession that the world had seen, — in archery he was the Robin Hood of Rome; he was in the very meridian of his youth ; and he was the most beautiful man of his own times. He would therefore have looked the part admirably of the dying gladiator; and he would have died in his natural vocation. But his death was destined to private malice, and to an ignoble hand.”
What we have styled De Quincey's didactic and practical pieces are those on orthography, language, rhetoric, style, and conversation, on War and Duelling, and the Letters to a Young Man. We would single out that on War, as containing the best ideas on what is now recognized as a great national necessity to purge away indolence, cowardice, and want of purpose, and to tone, with rough hand, the lax strings of civil life. The hopeless inutility of peace-societies is well illustrated also.
De Quincey ever shows himself a believer in revealed religion and a firm adherent of the Established Church. The articles on the false antagonism between the Bible and science, on Hume, and on Casuistry, are ample proof of this. The paper on the meaning of the Greek word @on — commonly translated eternity — exposes the true ground of distinction between Calvinistic and more liberal expounders, and shows the real sense of eternal, as applied to after-punishments, to be an indefinite period adapted to the needs, and good or evil status, of each individual. We would particularly commend this article to Biblical scholars and divines, for it seems to us both exact and conclusive.
The pieces entitled “ Three Memorable Murders,” and “ The Flight of a Tartar Tribe," have in them much of the dramatic element. The appalling details of cunning and wary crimes find an able chronicler in De Quincey. The flight of a nation across the weary steppes of Asia in search of a new home, the dangers which harass, the solitude which oppresses, and the horrors which encompass them, are narrated with thrilling and graphic power.
A huge, grotesque, elephantine sort of humor gambols through the queer papers on “Murder as one of the Fine Arts.” These are certainly curiosities of literature, as quaint and odd as amusing.
But we should rather place the peculiar powers of De Quincey in his pathos, than in any other characteristic of his writings. Gifted with a sensitive nature by inheritance, his pensive tendencies have been strengthened by his sufferings. He thanks God that “in my childhood I lived in the country; that I lived in solitude ; that my infant feelings were moulded by the gentlest of sisters; finally, that I and they were dutiful children of a pure, holy, and magnificent church.” A spirit of inexpressible sadness broods over many of his opium visions. Pathetic leave-takings, “everlasting farewells," and endless sorrow, mingle their tender influences with the terrible imagery of his dreams.“ The Mail-Coach” and the
“ Vision of Sudden Death” contain many wonderful passages of this mournful nature. The stories of “ The Spanish Nun” and “ The Household Wreck” are embodiments of anguish wrung to the last extremity of endurance. For quiet, natural pathos we know of few things superior to the mournful tale of the loss of George and Sarah Green in the snows of the mountains near Grasmere, and the patient waiting and childish fortitude of their bereaved little ones in their cottage at Easedale.
The loss of a sister two years older than himself, when he was six years of age, affected De Quincey with a grief whose furrows were not effaced through his whole life. Under the title of “ The Affliction of Childhood,” he describes his sufferings in so touching a manner, that we cannot forbear quoting the following passage.
“On the day after my sister's death, whilst the sweet temple of her brain was yet unviolated by human scrutiny, I formed my own scheme for seeing her once more. Not for the world would I have made this known, nor have suffered a witness to accompany me. I had never heard of feelings that take the name of “sentimental, nor dreamed of such a possibility. But grief even in a child hates the light, and shrinks from human eyes. The house was large; there were two staircases; and by one of these I knew that about noon, when all would be quiet, I could steal up into her chamber. I imagine that it was exactly high noon when I reached the chamber door ; it was locked, but the key was not taken away. Entering, I closed the door so softly, that, although it opened upon a ball which ascended through all the stories, no ecbo ran along the silent walls. Then, turning round, I sought my sister's face. But the bed had been moved, and the back was now turned. Nothing met my eyes but one large window wide open, through which the sun of midsummer at noonday was showering down torrents of splendor. The weather was dry, the sky was cloudless, the blue depths seemed the express types of infinity; and it was not possible for eye to behold or for heart to conceive any symbols more pathetic of life and the glory of life. ..... From the gorgeous sunlight I turned round to the corpse. There lay the sweet, childish figure; there the angel face; and, as people usually fancy, it was said in the house that no features had suffered any change. Had they not? The forehead, indeed, — the serene and noble forehead, - that might be the same; but the frozen eyelids, the darkness that seemed to steal from beneath them, the marble lips, the stiffening hands, laid palm to palm, as if repeating the supplications of closing anguish, — could these be mistaken for life? Had it been so, wherefore did I not spring to those heavenly lips with tears and never-ending kisses ? But so it was not. I stood checked for a moment; awe, not fear, fell upon me; and, whilst I stood, a solemn wind began to blow,
- the most mournful that ear ever heard. Mournful! that is saying nothing. It was a wind that had swept the fields of mortality for a hundred centuries. Many times since, upon a summer day, when the sun is about the hottest, I have remarked the same wind arising and uttering the same hollow, solemn, Memnonian, but saintly swell: it is in this world the one sole audible symbol of eternity. And three times in my life I have happened to hear the same sound in the same circumstances, namely, when standing between an open window and a dead body on a summer day."
In his private life De Quincey displays the sublime spectacle of humanity warring against a devil in its own heart, and casting him out at length, but by an effort which rent and defaced the walls of his physical stronghold. The aspiring, sincere, yet mournful scepticism of Shelley, the drooping sensitiveness of Keats, or the bold, defiant death of Chatterton, presents no more melancholy plases of human suffering than the life-long agony of De Quincey. We use the term agony in its true sense, — for such it was, - not simply anguish, but struggle ; no passive endurance, but active, deadly combat with a mighty foe.
When, after long dallying with the tempter, the opium-eater was daily admonished by the ever-increasing torture of his visions, and the hourly sinking of strength and nerve, that the time for the death-grapple with his shadowy enemy had arrived, with what agonies of remorse must each fatal indulgence have been contemplated ? How must each relapse have been regarded as the new era of an almost hopeless repentance ? Like Jacob wrestling with the Almighty in the darkness of the night and the desert, and refusing to yield without learning the name of his God, so were De Quincey's struggles none the less real because he contended only with a form, and not with a fleshly foe. Such hand-to-hand combats go on in many human hearts in the battle of life, of which the world knows nothing, unless the enemy prevails. In such