In a Diary kept in 1803, De Quincey had reviewed the literary projects of his boyhood. 'I have always intended of course', he wrote, 'that poems should form the corner-stone of my fame', and he gave a list of the poems, plays and tales which he had, 'at some time or other, seriously intended to execute'. so far as is known, none of them was written, and it was no great loss, for their titles suggest a dismal array of the most stilted and artificial 'romantic' themes, most of them treated 'pathetically'. At the very time when he made this list, he was growing out of these juvenile aspirations, towards the very different ambition of his idyllic years at Grasmere. The aim of his studies there, of his large library, his long leisure, was to be a great work of Philosophy, which would transform education, and re-establish mathematics in England. But this too failed to get written, and when at last he set pen to paper, it was not for the sake of fame or great ambitions, but for money. The fate that befell him was one that he both feared and despised.
In 1818, he wrote to his mother:
'Like all persons who believe themselves in possession of original knowledge not derived from books, I was indisposed to sell my knowledge for money, and to commence trading author. (A. H. Japp, De Quincey Memorials (1891), vol. 11, p. 114.)
But that was to be his trade, for the rest of his life.
In some ways he was unfitted for it, both by temperament and training. He lacked the self-discipline needed for the regular and punctual performance of routine tasks, and he had much of that ingenious indolence which knows how to avoid doing something arduous by elaborating the mere preparations for doing it. Rather than write the article expected of him, he would often compose a letter of explanation of his delay to the editor nearly as long as the article would have been, and quite as elaborate. Coleridge once described his turn of mind, rather unkindly but not inaccurately, as 'anxious yet dilatory, confused over accuracy, and at once systematic and labyrinthine'. (Letters from the Lake Poets to D. Stuart, ed E H Coleridge (1889)). When to these deficiencies of temperament there was added laudanum, it is hard to imagine a man less fitted to drive the trade of writer for periodicals. Yet for thirty years De Quincey drove this trade with outstanding success. The editors put up with his unpunctuality, his dreadfully elaborate excuses for it: or at least, when one editor could bear it no longer, that was always another to take him on. For though his manner of driving his trade was outrageously unbusiness-like, he was extremely good at it. To get an article out of him might cost ten times the trouble, but when it came it might be ten times as good as another's. The qualities of his mind and style were far above those usually found in writers for periodicals, and it was only because of the defects in his temperament that he was brought down to their level. The dilettantism which had kept him reading through the ambitious years of his youth, always preparing to write, never writing, now became an asset. He had a vast store of material, of all kinds, and a memory so tenacious that even when the need to hide from his creditors severed him from his library—as it often did—he could draw on it freely and effectively. His writing, in fact, was entirely of a piece with the whole odd pattern of his life.
It was also lucky, though perhaps it never occurred to him to think so, that he lived at a time when there was a vigorous demand for periodical writing of high quality. The great periodical magazines which had begun a century earlier were then at the height of their development, and enjoyed the support of a fairly large body of intelligent readers. A generation later, they were already in their decline, in the process of being supplanted by cheaper competitors with wider circulations and lower standards.
In that last age of great periodicals, De Quincey, with Lamb and Hazlitt, enjoyed the opportunity of continuing the tradition of essay-writing which had come down to them from Addison, Johnson and Goldsmith. Between them, they made fine and varied use of it.
In range of subject, De Quincey far surpassed Lamb and Hazlitt. To read his collected essays, even to-day, would be a liberal education of remarkable comprehensiveness. For it would include Greek literature and philosophy, much Roman history, German literature and philosophy, modern history and literature, politics and economics; even mathematics would not be wholly absent, for in his writings on economics he made some use of mathematical arguments and illustrations, along with others—such as the factors determining the price of a rhinoceros in the seventeenth century, or of a musical snuff-box on a steamboat on Lake Eyrie, entirely typical of his taste for oddities. This education, however, would be in many respects a little out-of- date. A century of scholarship, of philosophy, and of economic speculation has turned many of his essays into period pieces, of no more than historical interest. What has survived as a smaller body of writing, not very different from that of Lamb and Hazlitt: some literary criticism and biography, records of people and events he had known at first hand, and above all, autobiography. To-day, in fact, he is most readable in those writings which most involved his own experience. And it was in these that his literary achievement was the greatest.
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