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was chiefly an onslaught on the great German, who was
In 1825 De Quincey brought out "Walladmor,” which he pronounced "the most complete hoax ever perpetrated." At this period there was a great demand, not only in England but on the Continent, for the Waverley novels. Accordingly, when no new work of Scott's was forthcoming in 1823, a German writer perpetrated the forgery of "Walladmor" a long-winded and stupid production. De Quincey gave it a hasty but favorable review, and as a consequence he was commissioned to translate it. He entered upon the task; but a careful examination showed him its utter worthlessness. It was too late, however, to retreat. And, accordingly, he condensed and re
wrote the book, reducing the three German volumes to two slender English ones. It thus became a forgery upon a forgery; but seeing the humorous side of the thing, De Quincey dedicated his pretended translation to the German author in a preface of excellent humor and drollery.
After 1826 his literary career is transferred from London to Edinburgh. Through the influence of Wilson, with whom he had roamed over the valleys and mountains of the Lake District, he became a contributor to Blackwood. Besides articles on Lessing and Kant, he published in 1827 his famous essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." It is a piece of sustained wit and humor. He deals with murder as some critics deal with literature he admits that morally it is not exactly to be approved; but "when tried by principles of taste, it turns out sometimes to be a very meritorious performance."
In 1830 De Quincey moved his family to Edinburgh, and ten years later he occupied the cottage of Lasswade, a few miles out of the city. His life was now one of almost unintermitting suffering and struggle. In 1835 he lost his faithful wife Margaret, to whom he was deeply attached, and who, throughout the sore trials of her domestic life, had steadfastly maintained her character as a brave and gentle woman. His health was frequently frail, and at times he succumbed to his appetite for opium. He avoided society, and it was only with difficulty that he could be entrapped for a dinner party. But through it all he continued to produce, at the rate of half a dozen a year, that marvellous series of papers that have given him an imperishable place in English literature. Besides those
already mentioned, the following are worthy of special attention: "Suspiria de Profundis," "The English Mail Coach," "Revolt of the Tartars," "On War," "Joan of Arc," "Style," "Rhetoric," "Language."
De Quincey rejects the common opinion that style is the dress of thought. To him it is something far more profound. Adopting a happy phrase of Wordsworth's, he defines style as "the incarnation of thought." He bestowed exceeding care on his composition. He had an exquisite sense of the force of words and beauty of form. He had a singularly sensitive ear and took great pains, as he tells us, not only to avoid cacophony, but also to frame musical sentences. For precision in the use of language and for melody in the structure of his periods, De Quincey takes high rank among English writers. Less monotonous than Gibbon or Macaulay, his style_varies, according to the changing thought, from the careless ease of colloquial forms to the sustained grandeur of impassioned eloquence. The Dream Fugue in "The English Mail Coach" may be described as a prose poem.
De Quincey did not begin his literary career until his mind was well stored with knowledge. His reading covered a wide field, including not only English literature and English history, but also Greek and Latin literature, German metaphysics, and a whole multitude of unusual and nondescript works. His well-kept library numbered more than five thousand volumes. His writings cover a wide range of subjects and are peculiarly rich in their allusions. History, nature, art, poetry, music, are all called upon to grace the substantial structure of his thought. His vocabulary is exceedingly copious; he not only drew on the
native Saxon and Latin elements of our language, but ruthlessly lugged in Latin, Greek, French, German, or whatever other tongue furnished him with a fitting phrase.
To De Quincey we owe an interesting distinction in literature — one that is readily applicable to his own writings. "There is first," he says, "the literature of knowledge, and, secondly, the literature of power. The function of the first is to teach; the function of the second is to move the first is a rudder, the second an oar or a sail. The first speaks to the mere discursive understanding; the second speaks ultimately, it may happen, to the higher understanding or reason, but always through the affections of pleasure and sympathy." To this latter kind of literature belong those works of De Quincey-"The Confessions," "Suspiria," "English Mail Coach," "Murder as a Fine Art," "Joan of Arc," and the "Autobiographical Sketches" and "Literary Reminiscences" - by which he will retain a permanent place among great English writers.
De Quincey can hardly be classed as a great thinker. He is ingenious and graceful rather than profound. He rarely submitted to the restraints of a strict logical method. His digressions are as frequent as those of Coleridge, but are held under better control: instead of running entirely away with him, they always return, and sometimes felicitously, to the main subject in hand. He is conscious of his digressive style and sometimes makes humorous reference to it. In his essay "On War," after being switched off for a couple of pages, he returns to the main line of thought with the remark: "This digression, now, on anecdotes, is what the learned call an excursus, and I am afraid
too long by half-not strictly in proportion. But don't mind that. I'll make it all right by being too short upon something else at the next opportunity; and then nobody can complain."
De Quincey's life was preeminently intellectual. "Without breach of truth or modesty," he says, "I may affirm that my life has been, on the whole, the life of a philosopher; from my birth I was made an intellectual creature; and intellectual in the highest sense my pursuits and pleasures have been, even from my school-boy days." Even his irrepressible humor has an eminently intellectual flavor. De Quincey was not, like Carlyle, a great moral force in the world. While capable of deep affection, he was not subject to violent outbursts of indignation at the sight of evil. He did not set himself up as a reformer. "I am too much of a eudæmonist," he said; "I hanker too much after a state of happiness for myself and others." He sought refuge from the hard conflicts of the world in the retirement of his study. He tried to smooth the path of life by tireless courtesies of manner and speech. He possessed in an eminent degree "the grace of perfect breeding, everywhere persuasive, and nowhere emphatic."
His death, which occurred Dec. 8, 1859, was calm and beautiful. His mind seemed to revert to his early associations. At the last his heart asserted its supremacy over the intellect, and his last act was to throw up his arms and exclaim, as if with a cry of surprised recognition, "Sister, sister, sister!" Perhaps it was a vision of his dearly loved sister Elizabeth, dead nearly seventy years before, who had now come to lead him beyond the river.