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De Quincey As A Master Of Style Post by :princess Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :3108

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De Quincey As A Master Of Style

HE WROTE "CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER"--DREAMED
DREAMS AND SAW VISIONS AND PICTURED THEM IN POETIC PROSE.

Of all the English writers Thomas De Quincey must be given the palm for rhythmical prose. He is as stately as Milton, with more than Milton's command of rhythm. If you read aloud his best passages, which are written in what he calls his bravura style, you have a near approach to the music of the organ. De Quincey was so nice a judge of words, he knew so well how to balance his periods, that one of his sentences gives to the appreciative ear the same delight as a stanza of perfect verse.

Ruskin had much of De Quincey's command of impassioned prose, but he never rose to the same sustained heights as the older author. In fact, De Quincey stands alone in these traits: the mass and accuracy of his accumulated knowledge; the power of making the finest distinctions clear to any reader, and the gorgeous style, thick with the embroidery of poetical figures, yet never giving the impression of over-adornment. And above all these merits is the supreme charm of melodious, rhythmical sentences, which give the same enjoyment as fine music.

Forty years ago De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was read by everyone who professed any knowledge of the masters of English literature. To-day it is voted old-fashioned, and few are familiar with its splendid imagery. His other works, which fill over a dozen volumes, are practically forgotten, mainly because his style is very diffuse and his constant digressions weary the reader who has small leisure for books.

No one, however, should miss reading the Confessions, the Autobiography and some one essay, such, for instance, as "Murder as One of the Fine Arts," or "The Flight of a Tartar Tribe," or "The Vision of Sudden Death" in An English Mail Coach. All these contain passages of the greatest beauty buried in prolix descriptions. The reader must be warned not to drop De Quincey because of his digressions. With a little practice you may skip those which do not appeal to you, and there is ample sweetness at the heart of his work to repay one for removing a large amount of husk.

De Quincey has always impressed me as a fine example of the defects of the English school and college training. Although he could write and speak Greek fluently at thirteen, and although he had equally perfect command of Latin and German, he was absolutely untrained in the use of his knowledge and he knew no more about real life when he came out of college than the average American boy of ten. With a splendid scholarly equipment at seventeen, when thrown upon his own resources in London, he came to the verge of starvation, and laid the seeds of disease of the stomach, which afterward drove him to the use of opium.

All his training was purely theoretical; in the practical affairs of life he remained to the day of his death a mere child. As he says in his Confessions, he could have earned a good living as a corrector of Greek proofs in any big London publishing house, but it never occurred to his schoolboy mind that his mastery of this difficult classical language was of any practical value. In our day De Quincey would have been the greatest magazinist of the age, because his best work was in the short essay; but it is to be feared that the publishers of his time fattened on the good things which he produced and gave small sums to the man who turned out these masterpieces with so little effort.

De Quincey was born in 1785 and died in 1859. His life was peculiar and its facts became very well known even in his own time because in his Autobiography and his Confessions he disclosed its details with the frankness of a child. These works are surcharged with some exaggeration, but in the main they ring true. As precocious as Macaulay, he had much of that author's fondness for books, and when he first went to public school at eleven years of age he had read as much as most men when they take a college degree. His mind absorbed languages without effort. At fifteen he could write Greek verse, and his tutor once remarked, "That boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one."

He lost his father at the age of seven, and his mother seems to have given little personal attention to him. He was in nominal charge of four guardians, and at seventeen, when his health had been seriously reduced by lack of exercise and overdosing of medicines, the sensitive boy ran away from the Manchester Grammar school and wandered for several months in Wales. He was allowed a pound a week by one of his guardians, and he made shift with this for months; but finally the hunger for books, which he had no money to buy, sent him to London. There he undertook to get advances from money-lenders on his expectations. This would have been easy, as he was left a substantial income in his father's will, but these Shylocks kept the boy waiting.

In his Confessions he tells of his sufferings from want of food, of his nights in an unfurnished house in Soho with a little girl who was the "slavey" of a disreputable lawyer, of his wanderings in the streets, of the saving of his life by an outcast woman whom he has immortalized in the most eloquent passages of the book. Finally, he was restored to his friends and went to Oxford. His mental independence prevented him from taking a degree, and chronic neuralgia of the face and teeth led him to form the habit of taking opium, which clung to him for life.

De Quincey was a close associate of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Lamb and others. He was a brilliant talker, especially when stimulated with opium, but he was incapable of sustained intellectual work. Hence all his essays and other work first appeared in periodicals and were then published in book form. It is noteworthy that an American publisher was the first to gather his essays in book form, and that his first appreciation, like that of Carlyle, came from this country.

Much of De Quincey's work is now unreadable because it deals with political economy and allied subjects, in which he fancied he was an expert. He is a master only when he deals with pure literature, but he has a large vein of satiric humor that found its best expression in the grotesque irony of "Murder as One of the Fine Arts." In this essay he descants on the greatest crime as though it were an accomplishment, and his freakish wit makes this paper as enjoyable as Charles Lamb's essay on the origin of roast pig.

De Quincey's fame, however, rests upon The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. This is a record unique in English literature. It tells in De Quincey's usual style, with many tedious digressions, the story of his neglected boyhood, his revolt at school discipline and monotony that had shattered his health, his wanderings in Wales, his life as a common vagrant in London, his college life, his introduction to opium and the dreams that came with indulgence in the drug. The gorgeous beauty of De Quincey's pictures of these opium visions has probably induced many susceptible readers to make a trial of the drug, with deep disappointment as the result. No common mind can hope to have such visions as De Quincey records.

His imagination has well been called Druidic; it played about the great facts and personages of history and it invested these with a background of the most solemn and imposing natural features. These dreams came to have with him the very semblance of reality. Read the terrible passages in the Confessions in which the Malay figures; read the dream fugues in "Suspira," the visions seen by the boy when he looked on his dead sister's face, or the noble passages that picture the three Ladies of Sorrow. Here is a passage on the vision of eternity at his sister's death bier, which gives a good idea of De Quincey's style:

Whilst I stood, a solemn wind began to blow--the saddest that ear ever heard. It was a wind that might have swept the fields of mortality for a thousand centuries. Many times since upon summer days, 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 great audible symbol of eternity.

It is a great temptation to quote some of De Quincey's fine passages, but most of them are so interwoven with the context that the most eloquent bits cannot be taken out without the loss of their beauty. De Quincey was a dreamer before he became a slave to opium. This drug intensified a natural tendency until he became a visionary without an equal in English literature. And these visions, evoked by his splendid imagination, are worth reading in these days as an antidote to the materialism of present-day life; they demonstrate the power of the spiritual life, which is the potent and abiding force in all literature.


(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: De Quincey As A Master Of Style

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