For the more lurid implications of the term 'Opium-Eater', De Quincey was himself responsible. And he was exaggerating, no doubt for the sake of emphasis. Solid opium was at times in his possession, and on occasions he ate it. But his regular sustenance was the less sensational tincture of laudanum, on sale in every apothecary's shop and kept in the medicine cupboard of every well-run household, much as aspirin is to-day, as the normal remedy for all kinds of aches and pains. It was recommended for such purposes to the prudent housewife in Buchan's Home Medicine, a widely used handbook of the time, but with the solemn warning that it might be abused as well as used. Its disadvantage was notoriously that some of those who took it first as a medicine might become addicted to it as a drug, and come to depend upon it, not as a palliative for a cough or a toothache, but as a means of blunting their reactions to all the stresses and tensions of their lives. This is what had happened to Coleridge when De Quincey met him — on the first day of their acquaintance, the older man solemnly warned the younger against the drug. Later the same addiction overtook other writers, Keats and Wilkie Collins among them, and many who were not writers. But De Quincey was the only one who wrote about his addiction openly, studying it with an almost clinical detachment. Indeed this air of scientific frankness, of a man laying his private secrets bare for the public good, was one of the ways in which he seems to have quieted his conscience and kept up his self-respect — and hoped to retain the respect of others.
His verdict on opium as a drug, and on himself as an addict, was that his personality had not been changed morally or mentally; that his faculties and his general health had been impaired temporarily, but not irrecoverably; and that the inevitable final pains of opium were much greater than its early pleasures. There was, however, one really important discovery, one really revealing aspect of his case': the drug had greatly intensified the workings of some faculties, especially those of memory and of dreaming, and had enabled him to discover some laws of their operation which, without this intensification, he would never have been able to observe. In giving a careful account of them, he believed that he was saying something both true and useful not only about himself, but about the growth and structure of the human personality in general. It is in this sense that the Confessions deserve to be looked on as some-thing like a prose equivalent of Wordsworth's Prelude. Both are intensely personal, yet objective in their mode of observation and presentation; both are attempts to reveal by the exploration of autobiographical material, common and fundamental aspects of the human spirit; and both are perhaps easier to understand in the light of modern psychology than they were in their own day. De Quincey's is, of course, by many degrees the lesser work, more limited in its scope, less sustained, less penetrating even at its best. But it deserves to be read and judged in the light rather of this comparison than of the more lurid expectations aroused by its title.
Compared with The Prelude, The Confessions are not merely prose: they are prosaic, at any rate in their account of the outward events of De Quincey's early life. They rehearse that first crisis, the flight from Manchester Grammar School the wanderings in Wales, and those months in London, cold and hungry, lying down at night in a bleak room lent by the agent of a money-lender, by day walking miserably through streets and parks. And here, at least, the tone rises above the prosaic, as he tells of his friendship with Ann, a girl of the streets, sixteen years old — he was seventeen himself. As two waifs in the vast friendlessness of London, they walked up and down Oxford Street, some-times sitting on steps and under porticos, always afraid of being moved on by the watchmen. One night, he was ,ill from want of food, and she fetched him a stimulant which, he firmly believed, saved his life — and paid for it herself. A few days later, he left London for a few days, and when he parted from her agreed where they should meet on his return. But she was not at their meeting-place, that night nor any other:
To this hour I have never heard a syllable about her. This, amongst such troubles as most men meet with in this life, has been my heaviest affliction. If she lived, doubtless we must have been sometimes in search of each other, at the very same moment, through the mighty labyrinths of London, perhaps even within a few feet of each other — a barrier no wider, in a London street, often amounting in the end to a separation for eternity ! During some years I hoped that she did live; and I suppose that, in the literal and unrhetorical use of the word Myriad, I must, on my different visits to London, have looked into many myriads of female faces, in the hope of meeting Ann. (Confessions, Masson, vol. iii, p. 375.)
After this story of his first visit to London, the tone of the narrative sinks again to the entirely prosaic, until it comes to his first experience of opium, while he was still at Oxford, but often spending vacations in London. At this stage, he found it not only a refuge against physical pain but a mental and physical stimulant. He would take it regularly on Saturday nights, and it would send him to the opera, or wandering among people and streets and faces, with curiously heightened sensibilities. There is a brief glimpse of has earlier days at Grasmere with the Wordsworths, and then the statement that in 1813 he had become 'a regular and confirmed (no longer intermitting opium-eater'. The immediate cause was illness, but this in turn had been brought about by his paroxysm of grief at the death of Kate Wordsworth, at the age of three. From this first period of deep addiction, when he was taking a daily dose of laudanum enough to have killed a hundred people not habituated to it, he was roused by the awful reaction of the drug itself, by 'the pains of opium'. The worst of its symptoms was an uncontrollable stream of fearful dreams, which tyrannized over him not only in sleep but in the whole of his waking life. And it is in the description of these dreams that De Quincey rises decisively above the prosaic, into his own unique kind of 'impassioned prose'. The style reflects his long and careful study of prose as an artistic medium, above all his sense of its analogies with music. Many years later, in the general preface written for his collected works, he pleaded 'the perilous difficulty besieging all attempts to clothe in words the visionary scenes derived from the world of dreams, where a single false note, a single word in the wrong key, ruins the whole music'. And the substance of the dreams was woven from his earlier life, from the formative experiences of his childhood and youth:
In the early stage of the malady, the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as never yet was beheld by waking eye, unless in the clouds . . . To my architecture succeeded dreams of lakes and silvery expanses of water. . .The waters gradually changed their character — from translucent lakes, shining like mirrors, they became seas and oceans. And now came a tremendous change, which, unfolding itself slowly like a scroll through many months, promised an abiding torment; and, in fact, it never left me, though recurring more or less intermittingly. Hitherto t human face had often mixed in my dreams, but not despotically nor with any special power of tormenting. But now that affection which I have called the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself. Perhaps some part of my London life (the searching for Ann amongst fluctuating crowds) might be answerable for this. Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to reveal itself; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces, up-turned to the heavens; faces, imploring, wrathful, despairing; faces that surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations; infinite was my agitation- my mind tossed, as it seemed, upon the billowy ocean, and weltered upon the weltering waves.(Confessions, Masson, vol. in, p. 439-41.)
The scene was an oriental one; and there also it was Easter Sunday, and very early in the morning. And at a vast distance were visible, as a stain upon the horizon, the domes and cupolas of a great city . . . And not a bow-shot from me, upon a stone, shaded by Judean palms, there sat a woman, and I looked, and it was — Ann ! She fixed her eyes upon me earnestly, and I said to her at length, 'So, then, I have found you at last'. I waited; but she answered me not a word . . . Seventeen years ago, when the lamp-light of London fell upon her face, as for the last time I kissed her lips . . . her eyes were streaming with tears. The tears were now no longer seen. Sometimes she seemed altered; yet sometimes again not altered; and hardly older. Her looks were tranquil, but with unusual solemnity of expression, and I now gazed upon her with some awe. Suddenly her countenance grew dim; and, turning to the mountains, I perceived vapours rolling between us; in a moment all had vanished; thick darkness came on; and in the twinkling of an eye I was far away from the mountains, and by lamp-light in London, walking again with Ann — just as we had walked, when both children, eighteen years before, along the endless terraces of Oxford Street.(ibid, p.446.)
The Confessions end with this procession of dreams, and with the equivocal assertion that the habit of opium had been nearly conquered. In a sense, they were unfinished, since the addiction was not conquered either. He was to go further and deeper among the pains of opium, and in to the history of his own spirit. But twenty-five years passed before the ability not only to dream but also to describe his dreams visited him again, probably what modern physicians call the period of 'withdrawal', when, after he addiction to a narcotic, the doses are suddenly reduced. In 1845, he resumed his Confessions, and thought that what he had written was the "'ne plus ultra', as regards the feeling and the power to express it, which I can ever hope to attain" . (Letter to Professor Lushington, 1845). In H. A. Page, De Quincey: his Life and Writings (1877), Vol. 1, p. 338)
Like so many of his projects, this continuation was not achieved completely. All that is left, and probably all that he wrote, is a series of fragments, linked by no coherent plan, but in some very significant ways deepening the self-analysis of the earlier work, and carrying the splendour of impassioned prose still further.
It would be a service to his reputation, even now, to link these fragments with the original Confessions in such a way as to bring out the fundamental coherence of the whole sequence — a coherence not of logical structure, but of emotion and of recollection. Certainly the beginning of such a re-arrangement would be a paper written in this Indian summer of 1845, and called 'The Affliction of Child-hood (Masson, vol. i, pp. 35-49) In it he describes, for the first time fully, the death of his specially beloved sister Elizabeth, when he was seven years old, the sister who, more than any other human being, had given him the full security of real affection. With appalling clarity he wrote of his clandestine visit to the room where her body lay in a daze of sunlight, and of his last kiss on her dead lips. And he goes on in some of his most perceptive explorations of his own memories, to explain to himself why death, and above all the death of young girls, should have become inextricably woven in his mind with the images of summer, sunlight, Palestine, Jerusalem and Easter Day. It is in this entangled mass of associations that he found the reason why he should have encountered Ann in his dreams beneath Judean palms, within sight of Jerusalem. And he became aware that her figure was, for him, but another incarnation of the sister who had died when he was a child. A third incarnation of the same image of death and the maiden was Kate Wordsworth, who had died at the age of three in 1813, and whose death had precipitated his first deep addiction to opium. In the earlier Confessions, there is an Easter-Day dream of the sun drenched churchyard among the mountains where she was buried, but it needs to be rounded out by his account of his extraordinary affection for her and his paroxysm of grief at her death, published in 1840. (Masson, vol. ii pp. 440-445.) These three girls, his sister Elizabeth, the street-girl Ann, and Kate Wordsworth were woven interchangeably into his recurring dream of death and summer — having been once roused, it never left me, and split into a thousand fantastic variations, which often suddenly re-combined, locked back into startling unity, and restored the original dream .( Levana and Our Lady of Sorrows', Masson, vol. xiii, p. 366. ) Some of the most singular and lovely of these variations are in the new fragments, to which he gave the title Suspiria de Profundis. Perhaps the best-known of all his pieces of 'impassioned prose' is the triptych of three ambiguously allegorical female figures, shadowily representing the modes of grief in despair and madness. Here is one of them:
The second Sister is called Mater Suspiriorum. Our Lady of Sighs. She never scales the clouds, nor walks abroad upon the winds. She wears no diadem. And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle- no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium. But she raises not her eyes . . . She weeps not. she groans not. But she sighs inaudibly at intervals. Her sister, Madonna, is often times stormy and frantic, raging in the highest against heaven, and demanding back her darlings. But Our Lady of Sighs never clamours, never defies, dreams not of rebellious aspirations. She is humble to abjectness. Hers is the meekness that belongs to the hopeless. Murmur she may, but it is in her sleep. Whisper she may, but it is to herself in the twilight. Mutter she does at time, but it is in solitary places that are desolate as she is desolate, in rained cities, and when the sun has gone down to his rest. (Confessions, Masson, vol. iii, p. 444.)
It would be hard to find a better example of what De Quincey himself described as 'the capital secrets' of prose for here it is by the connections between the sentences, and the reverberations between them that the effect is attained. It is, indeed, a compressed demonstration of the devices by which the implied intonation of the speaking voice may be controlled. There is inversion of the usual order — 'murmur she may'; a subtle use of parallelism and antitheses; and above all, in the last three sentences, a repetition of the same basic pattern, but with a lengthening of the variations so that they lead with musical inevitability to the final cadence. The whole effect is one rare in English prose — and perhaps not entirely to the taste of most readers and writers of English prose. In French, it can be savoured more frankly, and in Baudelaire s magnificent version of it, the strict harmony of its sentence-structure emerges even more firmly than in the original.( De Quincey's influence upon French literature was considerably greater than upon English. Musset translated the Confessions in 1828 and Balzac, Gautier and Baudelaire made more or less extensive use of the images in them.)
A few more dream-fragments in his highest strain are to be found in 'The English Mail-Coach', another product of the second period of his creative dreams. Here is one from the Dream-Fugue', which represents his last attempt to lift prose to the level of music, and which gives another variation of his endless dream of dying girls, more purely less rhetorically, than in the Suspiria:
Sweet funeral bells from some incalculable distance, wailing over the dead that dies before the dawn, awaked me as I slept in a boat moored to some familiar shore. The morning twilight even then was breaking-and, by the dusky revelations which it spread, I saw a girl, adorned with a garland of white roses about her head for some great festival, running along the solitary strand in extremity of haste. Her running was the running of panic; and often she looked back as to some dreadful enemy in the rear. But, when I leaped ashore, and followed on her steps to warn her of a peril in front, alas! from me she fled as from another peril. Faster and faster she ran; round a promontory of rocks she wheeled out of sight; in an instant I also wheeled round it, but only to see the treacherous sand gathering above her head. Already her person was buried; only the fair young head and the diadem of white roses above it were still visible to the pitying heavens; and, last of all, was visible one white marble arm. ('The English Mail Coach', Masson, vol xiii p. 321.)
For writing in this mode, De Quincey is often enjoyed, sometimes praised — and rightly, for there is nothing quite like it in English. But he is also criticized for it, on the ground that it is over-elaborate, 'Mandarin' prose. So far as this may be a matter of taste, there is no point in disputing it; but to whatever extent it may rest on preconceptions of the nature of language and of literature, it is open to argument. First, it should be remembered that modern linguistics lays stress upon the many 'registers' of a single language, and happens to describe them by a musical metaphor from one of De Quincey's favourite instruments, the organ, in which a register is a set of stops producing the same quality of sound, in the same way. There are on the organ itself registers which need to be used with discretion; but so used, they are no less elective, no less essential than others. And in prose there are kinds of registration which are only needed, only artistically justified, for a few special purposes; but for those purposes they are irreplaceable. De Quincey s own plea, of the rarity and difficulty of transcribing dreams, carries real weight. The dream rarely offers determinate shapes, hard outlines and clear-cut detail; what overwhelms in it is the atmosphere, the immense suggestion of emotion. And for the rendering of this shadowy essence, De Quincey s prose was an admirable, an indispensable medium.
Secondly, it must not be forgotten that he was not concerned with dream-writing for its own sake. It was no more, and no less, than the special material on which he founded his study of the growth of the human spirit. And just as it is possible — and very common for Wordsworth to be read for the sake of the descriptions, while their purpose is nearly overlooked, so De Quincey is too often read for the sake of his purpler passages, without regard for the explorations of which they are merely a part. No doubt the reason IS that his passages of reflection and analysis, like Wordsworth's occasional philosophic comments, are more soberly written, less superficially attractive and striking than the material on which they rest. But for him they were the Justification of this enterprise, and not in any narrowly artistic sense. In the Confessions there are some fine passages on memory, above all the memory of childhood, and its formative effect on the human personality; in its continuation, the Suspiria, there are finer still, for they gain by his deeper understanding of himself, his more sensitive evocation of the experiences which had shaped his dreams, and himself 'In The Affliction of Childhood', for example there is this profound perception:
Far more of our deepest thoughts and feelings pass to us through perplexed combinations of concrete objects, pass to us as involutes (if I may coin that word) in compound experiences incapable of being dis-entangled, than ever reach us directly, and in their own abstract shapes.
Wordsworth himself continually exemplified this vital aspect of human experience, but never defined it quite so clearly. And in this passage on his own chosen ground, the theory of dreams, De Quincey shows not only that he has something of importance to report, but also that his prose, even at its most elaborate, was no less capable of precise exposition than of visionary description: and it was so because his fine writing' depended, not on a curious choice of words, but upon the firm and supple structure of sentences musically moulded, unfolding a theme and its development to the final cadence with that special sureness of phrasing which links each moment of melody with the whole magnificent composition:
. . . countless are the mysterious handwritings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain; and, like the annual leaves of aboriginal forests, or the undissolving snows of the Himalaya, or light falling upon light, the endless strata have covered up each other in forgetfulness. But by the hour of death, but by fever, but by the searchings of opium, all these can renew strength. They are not dead, but sleeping. In the illustration imagined by myself from the case of some individual palimpsest, the Grecian tragedy had seemed to be displaced, but was not displaced, by the monkish legend; and the monkish legend had seemed to be displaced, but was not dis-placed, by the knightly romance. In some potent convulsion of the system, all wheels back into its earliest elementary stage. The bewildering romance, light tarnished with darkness, the semi-fabulous legend, truth celestial mixed with human falsehoods, these fade even of themselves as life advances. The romance has perished that the young man adored; the legend has gone that deluded the boy; but the deep, deep tragedies of infancy, as when the child's hands were unlinked for ever from his mother's neck, or his lips for ever from his sister's kisses, these remain lurking below all, and these lurk to the last. Alchemy there is none of passion or disease that can scorch away these immortal impresses . . .('The Palimpsest of the Human Brain', in Suspirfa de Profundis, Masson, vol. xiii, pp. 348-349.)
His daughter described the moment of De Quincey's death thus:
'suddenly we saw him throw up his arms, which to the last retained their strength, and say distinctly, and as if in great surprise, "Sister! sister! sister!" The loud breathing became slower and slower, and as the world of Edinburgh awoke to busy work and life, all that was mortal of my father fell asleep for ever.'
He was a man, then, who had come to know himself, and, without rhetoric, what for him would indeed lurk to the last.
|« NEXT »||« De Quincey »||« Biographies »||« Library »|