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THOMAS DE QUINCEY.
DE QUINCEY Was, like Pope, of insignificant stature, but of a singularly intelligent face. A noble brow rose over his thin, finely chiselled features, and his blue eyes glowed with an unfathomable depth. He was nervously shy, and, like Hawthorne, almost morbidly averse to every sort of publicity. His mental activity was prodigious, and at his best he deserves to rank as one of the most delightful English talkers. Both as a talker and writer he used "an awfu' sicht o' words," as a shrewd Scotch servant said of him; but they were so fastidiously chosen and so musically uttered as to be little less than charming. He was a unique personality; and beyond almost all other writers he has infused his character - idiosyncrasies and allinto his writings.
De Quincey's family was an old one. When a boy about fifteen, he once met the king near Windsor. "Did your family," his Majesty kindly inquired, "come into England with the Huguenots at the revocation of the edict of Nantes?" With a flush of pride the boy answered: "Please your Majesty, the family has been in England since the Conquest." "How do you know that?" the king again asked with a smile. "From the very earliest of all English books, Robert of Gloucester's 'Metrical Chronicle,' which was written about 1280," the young scholar replied. The aristocratic prefix de, which had
long been dropped by the family, appears to have been resuscitated by our author himself.
Thomas de Quincey was born in Manchester, the fifth of eight children, Aug. 15, 1785. His father was "a plain English merchant" of large means, esteemed for his great integrity, and strongly attached to literary pursuits. "My mother," De Quincey says, "I may mention with honor, as still more highly gifted; for though unpretending to the name and honors of a literary woman, I shall presume to call her (what many literary women are not) an intellectual woman." Her letters are characterized by strong sense and idiomatic grace.
It is peculiarly true of De Quincey that the child was father of the man. As a child he was shy, sensitive, dreamy, marvellously precocious in thought and feeling. Owing to this strange precocity, his early years brought him unwonted anguish of spirit. But the sorrow that touched him most deeply was the death of his oldest sister Elizabeth, a child of wonderful promise and beauty, to whom he was attached with all the ardor of a supersensitive nature. He stole into the room where the body was resting in almost angelic sweetness. "Awe, not fear," he says, in a passage of deep pathos, "fell upon me; and whilst I stood, a solemn wind began to blowthe saddest that ear ever heard. It was a wind that might have swept the fields of mortality for a thousand centuries -in this world the one great audible symbol of eternity." Then a trance fell upon him, attended with a magnificent vision. But at length he came to himself, kissed the lips that he should kiss no more, and stole, like a guilty thing, from the room a sad, imperishable memory in his heart.
De Quincey loved solitude, the charms of which he has often portrayed in his writings. "All day long," he says in recalling his childhood, "when it was not impossible for me to do so, I sought the most silent and sequestered nooks in the grounds about the house or in the neighboring fields. The awful stillness oftentimes of summer noons, when no winds were abroad, the appealing silence of gray or misty afternoons, these were fascinations as of witchcraft. Into the woods, into the desert air, I gazed, as if some comfort lay hid in them. I wearied the heavens with my beseeching looks. Obstinately I tormented the blue depths with my scrutiny, sweeping them forever with my eyes, and searching them for one angelic face that might, perhaps, have permission to reveal itself for a moment."
In his later childhood De Quincey passed under the absolute tyranny of "a horrid, pugilistic boy," an elder brother who had returned home from the rough discipline of a public school. "His genius for mischief," to quote the victim's humorous account written years afterward, 'amounted to inspiration; it was a divine afflatus which drove him in that direction; and such was his capacity for riding in whirlwinds and directing storms, that he made it his trade to create them, as a cloud-compelling Jove, in order that he might direct them." He despised his frail and pensive brother, and took no pains to conceal his feelings. "The pillars of Hercules," to quote the victim further, "upon which rested the vast edifice of his scorn, were these two: Ist, my physics; he denounced me for effeminacy; 2d, he assumed, and even postulated as a datum, which I myself could never have the face to re
fute, my general idiocy. Physically, therefore, and intellectually, he looked upon me as below notice; but, morally, he assured me that he would give me a written character of the very best description, whenever I chose to apply for it. 'You're honest,' he said; 'you're willing, though lazy; you would pull, if you had the strength of a flea; and, though a monstrous coward, you don't run away!""
The family now lived at Greenhay, a handsome residence a mile or so from Manchester, and the two boys, on their way to school, had to pass daily by a cotton mill. The elder brother, with uncontrollable martial propensities, stirred up a feud with the factory boys, which led every day to a pitched battle with stones. As commander-inchief, he held his timid brother to a rigid military obediThe war raged with varying fortunes, month after month. Though sometimes denounced or cashiered for cowardice, Thomas's conduct appeared on the whole commendable, and before his eighth year he was elevated by his brother to the rank of major-general. For some three years and a half the shy, timid, dreamy boy, subject to the mischievous tyranny of his brother, knew no rest day or night. It was only when his brother went to London to study drawing, that he once more regained his freedom.
In 1796, the year to which the preceding incidents have brought us, De Quincey was placed in the public school of Bath, a town to which his mother had recently removed. He brought to his new surroundings an unusual amount of information gathered from miscellaneous reading. In Latin he was recognized as little short of a prodigy and was weekly "paraded for distinction at the supreme tribunal of the school." The result may easily be foreseen.