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Some of his jealous comrades inaugurated what he described as a state of "warfare at a public school." He was threatened with immediate "annihilation"; but fortunately for English literature, the threat was never carried out.
He next spent a year or more at a private school in Wiltshire, the chief recommendation of which was its religious character. He disliked the school, as it afforded only a narrow field for the display of his attainments. Without effort he stood at the head. His attainments in Greek now equalled his attainments in Latin. "At thirteen," he says, "I wrote Greek with ease; and at fifteen my command of that language was so great that I not only composed Greek verses in lyric metres, but would converse in Greek fluently and without embarrassment." This fluency he acquired by his habit of turning the daily papers into Greek. "That boy," said one of his masters to a stranger, "that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.”
The year 1800 De Quincey designates as the period of his entry into the world. He was invited by Lord Westfort, a young friend of his own age, to accompany him on a visit to Ireland. The various experiences of the next few months lifted him to what he calls "premature manhood," for he was yet but fifteen years of age. He was invited to court entertainments; he passed a short time in "the nation of London." More than all, he met on a boat a young lady of great beauty and culture, who inspired him with a new and uplifting reverence for woman. This incident fixed, as he thought, a great era of change in his life. "Ever after, throughout the period of youth," he
said, "I was jealous of my own demeanor, reserved and awe-struck, in the presence of woman; reverencing often not so much them as my own ideal of woman latent in them. For I carried about with me the idea, to which I often seemed to see an approximation, of
'A perfect woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and command.'"
After spending some weeks in Ireland, where he met a number of the most distinguished men of the day, he returned to England and passed several months at the residence of Lady Carbery, an intimate friend of his mother's. Chiefly through the influence of De Quincey's mother, Lady Carbery had become deeply interested in religion. Wishing to ground herself more thoroughly in theological lore, she consulted her youthful but scholarly friend. She was advised to study the Greek Testament; and under his enthusiastic tuition she made rapid progress. She called him her "Admirable Crichton." As will be readily understood, these were days of rapid improvement and great happiness to De Quincey; and when he left the park gates of Laxton, it was not without forebodings for the future.
He was now, late in 1800, placed in the Manchester Grammar School. He was thoroughly dissatisfied with the school; and when his mother, after a year and a half, refused to listen to his pleas for removal, he formed the desperate resolution to run away. He went to Wales, where he tramped over the country at will, often, for the sake of economy, sleeping under the open sky and dining on the blackberries by the roadside. At length growing tired of this wandering life, which, however, was not with
out interesting adventures, he determined to seek his fortune in London. He ceased writing to his mother; and thus depriving himself of the small stipend that had been allowed him, he was brought to the verge of beggary and starvation in the great metropolis. The incidents of his London vagrancy his sleeping on the straw in Brunell's office, his efforts to borrow money, and his acquaintance with the poor outcast Ann of Oxford Street, who once saved his life are all graphically and pathetically told in his " 'Confessions." Finally he was discovered and reclaimed by his friends.
In December, 1803, De Quincey entered Worcester College, Oxford. He was connected with the university for five years, but finally left it without a degree. He led a life of great retirement. He calculates that for the first two years he spoke less than a hundred words. But his morbid seclusion and silence were not spent in idleness. He had an insatiable thirst for reading and books; and to increase his library he sorely stinted his wardrobe. He lamented the excessive devotion to Latin and Greek, and the utter neglect of English literature at the university. He stoutly maintained the superiority of modern over ancient literature. "We engage," he said, "to produce many scores of passages from Chaucer, not exceeding fifty to eighty lines, which contain more of picturesque simplicity, more tenderness, more fidelity to nature, more felicity of sentiment, more animation of narrative, and more truth of character than can be matched in all the 'Iliad ' or the Odyssey.'"
In 1808 he left Oxford, to which he professed to owe nothing. Of its vast riches he took nothing away.
seeking relief from neuralgic pain, he resorted to laudanum; and, like Coleridge, he became henceforth an opium fiend. It never gained quite so complete a mastery over him as over his illustrious contemporary; but for more than fifty years, sometimes in enormous quantities, it remained a necessity with him. He became, in some measure, the apologist of opium, to which he addresses more than one eloquent but unpleasing apostrophe.
Before his connection with Oxford ceased, he had already met several writers destined to achieve great distinction. On one of his frequent visits to London, he met Charles Lamb. In 1807 he met Coleridge and Wordsworth, to whom he had been especially attracted by the "Lyrical Ballads." The poems in this volume had been to him as "the ray of a new morning." It is a striking proof of his literary insight and courageous independence that he championed Wordsworth's poetry at a time when it was almost universally decried.
In November, 1809, De Quincey took up his residence at Grasmere, occupying the pretty cottage that Wordsworth had just left for Allan Bank. Here, first as a bachelor and afterward as a married man, he lived till his removal to Edinburgh in 1830. He devoted himself to study, particularly to German metaphysics, with great assiduity. He associated on terms of intimacy with all the other celebrities of the Lake District, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and Wilson. For a time he was almost utterly prostrated from the use of opium. A quart of ruby-colored laudanum in a decanter and a book of German metaphysics by its side these he mentions as sure indications of his being in the neighborhood.
In his "Literary Reminiscences," one of the most interesting volumes of his collected works, De Quincey dwells principally on this period of his life. Nowhere else do we find life in the Lake District so finely portrayed. The sketches of Coleridge and Wordsworth are extended and exquisite studies, though at times there is a suggestion of venom in his treatment of these great writers. His early reverence for Wordsworth, whose hospitality he frequently enjoyed, was little short of idolatry; but in later years, owing apparently to the poet's self-complacent unresponsiveness, De Quincey became estranged almost to the point of bitterness.
The inherited means, which De Quincey had hitherto lived upon, were now exhausted. Under the stress of domestic necessities, he roused himself, by a prodigious effort, from the intellectual torpor to which the opium habit had reduced him. In 1821 he began his literary career with his "Confessions of an Opium-Eater," which appeared in the London Magazine anonymously. The "Confessions" were honestly autobiographical; and besides many interesting facts of his early life, they told of the growing power of the terrible drug, and described, in passages of almost incomparable splendor, the nightly visions that came to him waking and sleeping. The articles, both for their style and matter, attracted general attention, and opened to him the best magazines of the day. He wrote about one hundred and fifty articles, which taken together, with the exception of two or three unimportant books, constitute his literary remains.
In 1824 he published an article on Goethe, based on Carlyle's translation of "Wilhelm Meister." The article