3. His Criticism
From "Thomas De Quincey" by H.S. Davies

De Quincey's literary criticism differs from that of Lamb and Hazlitt in that it was only fitfully directed upon the actual works, the writings themselves. He wrote nothing like Lamb's essays on the Elizabethans, or Hazlitt's lectures on Shakespeare and his studies of contemporary writers in The Spirit of the Age. There is but one Shakespearean study, 'On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth', remarkable in its way, but brief and restricted in scope. There is one long essay 'On Milton', two on Pope, 'The Poetry of Pope' and 'Lord Carlisle on Pope', and nothing else substantial on any of our older writers. There are striking and illuminating observations in all these essays, but in all of them also a tendency to slide away into digressions, often attempting, rather in the manner of Coleridge, large philosophic generalisations about the principles of literature and criticism.

In his writings on contemporaries, his tendency was to slide away from their actual work, but in another direction, into the details of their personalities and lives. Of this, the outstanding example is his long series of essays on Words-worth and Coleridge, and the other writers of the Lake school. (The dozen or so essays in this group are often collected under the title Recollections of the Lake Poets, as in the edition by E. Sackville — West ( 1948). Only one of them, 'On Wordsworth's Poetry', even tries to deal with the poetry as such, and on the whole it fails to make clear why he had been so swiftly carried away by it as a boy. All the rest are mainly studies in personalities and biographies, even 'William Wordsworth', in which he draws upon his preview of The Prelude in manuscript only for information about the life, never for criticism of the poetry. One is left with a sense of opportunity missed, a revelation never made concerning the kind of impact made by the poetry on one of its earliest disciples. On the other hand, the impulse which carried De Quincey towards biography was also valuable to us, and entirely natural to him. Not only had he lived in intimate friendship with his subjects, but he was also a gifted observer of human brings, of their appearances, manners, conduct, and — a rarer gift — of those traits which are revealed in their bodily postures and gestures. For example, he records that:

the total eject of Wordsworth's person was always worst in a state of motion . . . This was not always perceptible, and in part depended (I believe) upon the position of the arms; when either of these happened (as was very customary) to be inserted into the unbuttoned waistcoat, his walk had a wry or twisted appearance, and not appearance only — for I have known it, by slow degrees, to edge his companion from the middle to the side of the highroad. Meantime, his face — that was one which would have made amends for greater defects of figure.

Of Dorothy Wordsworth, he wrote with the same un-flattering but revealing perception:

Her manner was warm and even ardent; her sensibility seemed constitutionally deep; and some subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her, which, being alternately pushed forward into a conspicuous expression by the irrepressible instincts of her temperament, and then immediately checked, in obedience to the decorum of her age and sex . . . gave to her whole demeanour, and to her conversation, an air of embarrassment, and even of self-conflict, that was almost distressing to witness.

It is not surprising that observations of such penetration and candour, published while their subjects were still living, should have given some offence. But there is little doubt that they are true in themselves, and they were not made entirely for their own sake; they are aspects of the larger picture which De Quincey built up of the remarkable relationship between Wordsworth and his sister, and of the special influence she had exercised on his work. This opportunity, of observing the Wordsworth circle from within, was certainly not missed, but recorded with perception and often with astringent objectivity.

There are similar compensations in his digressions into the philosophy of literary art. True, they divert him from the actual writings of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and the rest, but they have their own interest, being rarely less than ingenious, and sometimes illuminating. A few, moreover, serve to throw light on his own experience of writing. Perhaps the best known of them is a distinction between 'the literature of knowledge' and 'the literature of power'. It had been suggested to him in conversation by Wordsworth, but he made it his own by elaborating it over a long period of years. It appears first in 'Letters to a Young Man, published in 1828, and again as an extensive digression in 'The Poetry of Pope', published in 1848. The essential difference is that the function of 'the literature of knowledge' is to teach, to convey information, while that of 'the literature of power' is to move, to expand and exercise the reader's 'latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite'. From this follows a characteristic difference between the two kinds of writing in their capacity for survival:

Hence the pre-eminency over all authors that merely teach of the meanest that moves, or that teaches, if at all, indirectly by moving. The very highest work that has ever existed in the Literature of Knowledge is but a provisional work . . . Let its teaching be even partially revised, let it be but expanded, nay, even let its teaching be but placed in a better order, and instantly it is superseded. Whereas the feeblest works in the Literature of Power, surviving at all, survive as finished and unalterable among men.

The fate of De Quincey's own writings is enough to illustrate this principle, and to confirm its general accuracy. Whenever he wrote to instruct, whenever his subject lay mainly in the field of erudition, he has been superseded; but whenever his material was taken from his own experience, from what he had seen and lived through for himself, his writing has retained a life and power of its own.

Another of his theories about the nature of literature was concerned with 'rhetoric', of which conception, set out in a treatise entitled 'Rhetoric' in 1828, was so eccentrically personal that it can only have been an expression of his own experience of literary creation. He rejected several accepted notions of rhetoric: it was not, for example, the mere addition of ornament to plain matter, nor was it the art of persuasion by sophistry, nor again identical with highly emotive utterance. His own definition was based upon a distinction between two opposing conditions in which any subject might exist. Much might be known about it, and with certainty; and in this condition, it would leave no scope for rhetoric. On the other hand, fixed and certain knowledge about it might be lacking, so that consideration of It must necessarily move among mere guesses and the weighing of probabilities; and in this case, the art of rhetoric might legitimately be used in swaying belief to one side or the other. He himself never suggested, perhaps never consciously realized, how nearly this view of the function of rhetoric coincided with his definition of 'the literature of power'. The consistency of his thinking depended much more upon the unconscious similarities of his insights and intuitions than upon his perception of logical relations between them. But it is clear that for him, rhetoric, like 'power', was conceived as the antithesis of fixed and certain knowledge; its sphere of operation was the same as that of literary 'power', and its function was to exercise and expand latent capacities of the mind. Two descriptions of rhetoric given in the essay show more concretely how he conceived its mode of operation. In one, he says that it is 'to hang upon one's own thoughts as an object of conscious interest, to play with them, to watch and pursue them through a maze of inversions, evolutions, and harlequin changes'. in the second, he points to the absence of true rhetoric in French prose-writers, for 'there is no eddying about their own thoughts; no motion of fancy self-sustained from its own activities; no flux and reflux of thought, half meditative, half capricious'. of however slender use these definitions and descriptions of rhetoric may be in general, they could hardly be bettered as characterisations of one outstanding quality in De Quincey's own writing. Those parts of it which remain the most readable, which have the 'power' to survive, are precisely those in which his mind gave itself Up to this free imaginative play. Some aspect of his subject, or often some digression which it suggested to him, was picked up and carried along in the 'flux and reflux of thought, half meditative, half capricious', and what he had begun as forced labour came to life under his hand.

The third of his more notable contributions to literary theory was at once the most original, and the one most nearly related with his own writing. It was a close concern with the special qualities of prose and the technique of writing it. This is a subject not very fully treated by most theorists of literature, partly, no doubt, because they have usually ranked prose so far below verse as to make it beneath the dignity of their notice, but also perhaps because the structural aspects of prose are more fluid and complex than those of verse, and so more difficult to discuss. De Quincey forcefully corrects both errors in 'Philosophy of Herodotus' (Masson, vol. vi, p. 100):

if prose were simply the negation of verse, were it the fact that prose had no separate laws of its own, but that to be a composer of prose meant only his privilege of being inartificial, his dispensation from the restraints of metre, then, indeed, it would have been a slight nominal honour to have been the Father of Prose. But this is ignorance, though a pretty common ignorance. To walk well it is not enough that a man abstain from dancing. Walking has rules of its own the more difficult to perceive or to practise as they are less broadly prononces. To forbear singing is not, therefore, to speak well or to read well: each of which offices rests upon a separate art of its own. Numerous laws of transition, connexion, preparation, are different for a writer in verse and a writer in prose. Each mode of composition is a great art; well executed, is the highest and most difficult of arts.

Scattered liberally through his essays are reflections on these 'laws' of prose, not only in English, but in Latin, Greek, French and German. He wrote on diction, the 'choice of words', and his comments on the functions of Romance and Teutonic words in English, especially in the third 'Oxford' paper and 'The Poetry of Wordsworth', have hardly been bettered since. But it was above all with what might be called the prosody of prose that he concerned himself, and some of his most perceptive and original observations are on the inner harmonies of sentence-structure, such as this in the third 'Oxford' paper (Masson, vol. ii, p. 65):

The two capital secrets in the art of prose composition are these: 1st, The philosophy of transition and connection, or the art by which one step in an evolution of thought is made to arise out of another: all fluent and effective composition depends on the connexions; 2ndly, The way in which sentences are made to modify each other; for the most powerful effects in written eloquence arise out of this reverberation, as it were, from each other in a rapid succession of sentences . . .

It is worth remarking again the consistency of his intuitions: this notion of 'reverberation' between sentences looks very like a structural aspect of that 'flux and reflux of thought' which was at the heart of his special definition of rhetoric. And in his comments on the style of his contemporaries his more abstract doctrines on prose are applied with the same kind of consistency to concrete cases. Thus, in 'Charles Lamb' (Masson, vol. v, pp. 231-2):

Hazlitt was not eloquent, because he was discontinuous. No man can be eloquent whose thoughts are abrupt, insulated, capricious, and (to borrow an impressive word from Coleridge) non-sequacious. Eloquence resides not in separate or fractional ideas, but in the relation of manifold ideas, and in the mode of their evolution from each other. It is not enough that the ideas should be many, and their relation coherent; the main condition lies in the key of the evolution, in the law of the succession.

In Lamb's prose, he found some great merits, but also this characteristic defect:

Lamb had no sense of the rhythmical in prose composition. Rhythmus, or pomp of cadence, or sonorous ascent of clauses, in the structure of sentences, were effects of art as much thrown away upon him as the voice of the charmer upon the deaf adder. We ourselves, occupying the very station of polar opposition to that of Lamb — being as morbidly, perhaps, in the one excess as he in the other — naturally detected this omission in Lamb's nature at an early stage of our acquaintance.

The cause of this deficiency in Lamb, he insisted, was his lack of any response to music; whereas he himself was deeply interested in it throughout his life, and to this interest certainly owed much of his feeling for phrasing and structure in prose. The terms which naturally occur to him in speaking of it are often of musical origin: 'key of the evolution', 'rhythmus, or pomp of cadence, sonorous ascent of clauses'; and in some of his descriptions of music he almost exactly reproduces his doctrines on the prosody of prose, as in the following passage, from 'On Style' (Masson, vol. x, p. 136):

A song, an air, a tune — that is, a short succession of notes revolving rapidly upon itself — how could that, by Possibility, offer a field of compass sufficient for the development of great musical effects The preparation pregnant with the future; the remote correspondence; the questions, as it were, which to a deep musical sense are asked in one passage, and answered in another; the iteration and ingemination of a given effect, moving through subtle variations that sometimes disguise the theme, sometimes fitfully reveal it, sometimes throw it tumultuously to the blaze of daylight: these and ten thousand forms of self-conflicting musical passion, what room could they find, what opening, what utterance in so limited a field as an air or song ?

The kind of prose which emerged from this sense of musical structure and almost symphonic complexity was specially fitted to be the instrument of De Quincey's most powerful autobiographical writings, in 'The Confessions and 'Suspiria de Profundis'. Indeed no other kind would have served his purposes there, in a genre for which, in his general introduction to the collected edition of his works in 1858, he modestly claimed originality for himself, under the title of 'impassioned prose'. But the same virtues were capable of more supple and rapid effects when they were needed. His narrative prose is also admirably swift and effective, when employed on a suitable subject. It is seen at its worst in his fiction, for there he was haunted by a crazy admiration for the most outrageous kind of German romantic writing, the results of which can be seen by the curious in his Klosterheim. But it is at its best in parts of The Confessions, and in 'The English Mail-Coach', which recreates the romance of that mode of travel in its heyday, just before it was displaced by the railways. It contains one of the best descriptions in English of a fast ride by night on a crack mail-coach, and of a hair's breadth escape from a mortal accident. There are also at least two pieces of historical writing in which his narrative power is seen to the full: 'The Spanish Military Nun', and 'Revolt of the Tartars'. The first describes, at headlong pace, the adventures of a nun dressed as a soldier in a journey through South America; the second recounts the almost epic exodus of the Kalmuck Tartars from the Volga to China in 1771. In both, he had sources for the facts, in French and in German, but he used them with a free imagination, and to splendid effect. The second, especially, is a piece of his writing which has not received its due. It ends with an appalling, but magnificent description of the final massacre of the fleeing Tartars by their Bashkir pursuers in the bloodstained waters of Lake Tengis, under the very eyes of the Chinese Emperor.

It is one of the curious traits in De Quincey's character that though himself gentle to a degree, diminutive in person, and elaborately courteous in manner, he was strangely fascinated by scenes of violence. In 1818 he was for a short time editor of the Westmorland Gazette; instead of printing news of the day and political articles, as the proprietors wished, he filled his columns with long reports of lurid crimes collected from all over the country. Four years later, he published his most famous piece of literary criticism, a short essay on the 'Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth'. It is as different from any other piece of Shakespearean criticism in English as it is typical of De Quincey, for it contains a digression, written with almost more care and interest than the main theme, and this digression is about a specially bloodthirsty murder. The dramatic problem, as De Quincey posed it, was his own strong feeling that the knocking reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness'. For years he had been unable to find a rational cause for this feeling, until, in 1812, the same knocking on a door in the silence of the night had followed after a multiple murder in London. 'The same incident', De Quincey observes, 'did actually occur which the genius of Shakespeare had invented; and all good judges, and the most eminent dilettanti acknowledged the felicity of Shakespeare's suggestion as soon as it was actually realized.' Its dramatic and imaginative function in the play, he thought, was to emphasize the enormity and inhumanity of Duncan's murder: 'the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.' In Shakespearean criticism, thus was an isolated lucky hit, so far as De Quincey was concerned. And it remained isolated because what had really caught his imagination was not Shakespeare and Shakespearean interpretation, but the odd notion that there might, after all, be an imaginative, even an artistic side to the most brutal murders — a side which would serve to explain to himself his own interest in them. The digression on the London murder tumbles suddenly, accidentally (though by a significant accident), on this idea:

'In 1812 Mr. Williams made his debut on the stage of the Ratcliffe Highway, and executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders, by the way, I must observe that in one respect they have had an ill effect by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied with anything that has been since done in that line.'

It was this half-fanciful, but also half-serious notion of connoisseurship, dilettantism in murder, that De Quincey picked up, and made the basis of a series of three papers on 'Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts', the first in 1827, the second in 1839, while the third was specially written in 1854 for the collected edition of his works: it was a series of accounts of actual murders, notable for their ferocity (including those of the immortal artist Williams, and it shows De Quincey's narrative power at its gloomy best.

In some ways, these strange productions anticipate the literature of crime and violence which has become so large a part of popular fiction since Poe. But De Quincey's attitude towards his own interest in such themes was far more complex. He recognized its force, but at the same time saw that it was at odds with his fastidious sense of gentleness and culture. This deep-seated duality of feeling appears in his treatment of the subject as a continual colouring or irony, almost of mock-morality, in which the moral issues are ingeniously reversed, as in the passage from the second paper on 'Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts' (Masson, vol. xiii, p. 56):

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to thing little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon his downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.

The same half-serious, half-jesting mock-morality was elaborated into a formal defence of this new field of artistic criticism. In the first of his papers, he compared murders with large fires in respect of their artistic merits, and described an occasion when he had been taking tea with Coleridge, who was discussing Plato; news had been brought that a large building was on fire nearby, and the whole party had rushed out to see it, 'as it promised to be a conflagration of merit'. He himself had been compelled to leave before the climax, but meeting Coleridge afterwards, he had asked 'how that very promising exhibition had terminated'. 'Oh, sir', said he, 'it turned out so ill that we damned it unanimously'. This did not mean, he points out that Coleridge was incendiary-minded, or lacking in moral feeling.

'Virtue was in no request. On the arrival of the fire-engines, morality had devolved wholly on the insurance office. This being the case, he had a right to gratify his taste He had left his tea, was he to have nothing in return;

From examples such as these, De Quincey elicited a novel general principle:

Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey); and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it — that is, in relation to good taste.

This seems to be the first use of the word 'aesthetic' in this sense in English — it is seven years earlier than the first examples given in the Oxford English Dictionary. De Quincey must certainly be credited, among his contributions to literary criticism, with having been the first to advance a theory which was to acquire great influence later in the nineteenth century, and not only in England, the theory that developed into the richer formulations of Pater and Baudelaire, and then into the vulgarized formula of 'art for art's sake'.

But this tentative and ironic aestheticism is not merely a curious fact in literary history. It is also striking evidence of the strength of the tensions within his own personality, of the strange contrast between the humdrum domesticity of his outward life, and the exotic violence of his inner world. Of this tension, the curious papers on 'Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts' are but a minor product. Its major expression is in the Confessions and their continuations, for there, without the disguise of ironic humour, he tries to explore and explain, above all to himself, the destiny which had placed such a gulf between his outward and inward lives.

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