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De Quincey’s Critical Years

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

The year 1816 was one of mental restlessness for De Quincey. Though he had lived for some time as Wordsworth’s successor at Dove Cottage, the village of Grasmere saw little of him. The Wordsworths had moved to Rydal Mount, several miles away and only a step as Lakelanders counted distance, but De Quincey seldom visited them. In April the poet wrote to a friend in Edinburgh: “Mr. De Quincey has taken a fit of solitude.” But De Quincey was less solitary than Wordsworth supposed. New ties were forming. He had become a regular visitor at Nab Cottage on the road to Ambleside, the home of John Simpson, an intelligent dalesman who read Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Addison, and of course the Bible. De Quincey found the sturdy, well read yeoman interesting and his handsome daughter Margaret still more so. She was often present at the fireside conversations of her father and the little man from Grasmere but took small part in them; it was enough for her simply to listen to the young gentleman’s fascinating talk. His musical voice also impressed her, and she had never beheld such beautiful manners.

In September of that same year De Quincey had a letter from his mother, then living near Wrington in Somersetshire. She had been grievously disappointed, she wrote, in failing to see him on her recent visit to London. Promised letters from him had not come to her at home, nor had a copy of the Courier, for which she understood he was preparing an article, been received. And then, after touching on several matters of domestic and political interest, she added a postscript which disclosed her real reason for writing to him.

She had heard a rumor which she hesitated to repeat, for she was sure there could be no truth in it. It had come to her on high authority that he was about to marry. Nothing short of an oracular voice could make the family listen to the tale, considering his want of means. If the rumor were true, however, she warned him not to overlook, in his delusion of fancy, those congruities in marriage which would be indispensable to a man of his class and temperament. She heard, moreover, that the sober judgment of his friends could not approve the step he might be contemplating. The bachelor of Grasmere must have read this part of his mother’s letter with mingled emotions. He was just then so concerned about an imminent personal event that he neglected to answer the letter. Late that autumn a son was born to him and Margaret Simpson.

If the friends of Thomas De Quincey had been disturbed at the prospect of a mesalliance, they were now shocked by his departure from convention. But for his temperamental inability to face an unpleasant situation and by decisive action end it, his present embarrassment would have been avoided. What might have passed for a regrettable indiscretion had by delay become an occasion for scandal. Though the Wordsworths had not looked with favor upon the association of De Quincey and the yeoman’s daughter, they now regarded a marriage as imperative. And so they joined with the Simpsons in an effort to bring it speedily to pass. But the bridegroom was elusive. The opium-eating philosopher procrastinated, as was his wont, in spite of his good intentions. Moreover, he had for months been drinking heavily. At last, on February 15, 1817, Thomas De Quincey and Margaret Simpson were married in Grasmere Parish Church. He was thirty-one and his bride was at least ten years younger. When a rumor of the marriage reached London, Charles Lamb is reported to have asked in some surprise: “Has the little animalcule crawled over the rubric at last?” Two weeks after the marriage, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote to her friend Mrs. Clarkson that she feared De Quincey was ruined by this marriage. To her the whole affair was “a melancholy story.” She could not understand his raptures over a girl who “was reckoned a Dunce at Grammar School,” and she predicted “that all those witcheries are ere this removed and the fireside already dull.” She continued: “They have never been seen out of doors except after the day was gone. . . . As for him, I am very sorry for him—he is utterly changed in appearance and takes largely of opium.”

According to De Quincey’s own reminiscences, there was happiness in Dove Cottage during the spring and early summer of his wedding year. The teapot was sharing honors with the laudanum decanter. Whether fact or fancy, the picture later drawn by the Opium-Eater of those evenings at home is engaging. The scholar represents himself as at ease among his books and his domestic life as roseate. He was again developing his projected system of philosophical thought which he fondly hoped might bring him renown. His wife, her infant asleep and household duties done, began reading aloud to him pages of Spinoza and Ricardo which must have been quite unintelligible to her. On occasion she would act as his amanuensis, faithfully recording long stretches of discursive comment, no less cryptic than the text. Long after she had gone to bed, he continued his reading and tea-drinking. If only he might shape his shining fabric of philosophy, the coming summer days promised to be ripe with fulfillment. Toward morning he fell asleep shepherded by radiant dreams of achievement.

These golden dreams came to nothing. By midsummer De Quincey’s creative energy was waning because of his increasing indulgence in opium; by autumn the ruby-colored liquor had become for him the quintessence of ill. That winter he entered upon a debauch which, with slight intermissions, prostrated him for months. Stupefied by the deadly drug, he lay in bed day after day, incapable of thought or motion. His faculties went into a protracted eclipse. At the same time a change came over both the form and spirit of his dreams. Fantastic pictures emerged from the hidden depths of consciousness, distorted survivals from his years of reading. Ghastly faces from hell mocked him; the tramp of Roman legions sounded in his ears; sacrificial processions of priests and their garlanded victims flashed in view. Grotesque and arabesque traceries in dress and architecture confused him. Crocodiles snapped at him on the banks of the Nile and yawning gulfs swallowed him. He was tortured on Ixion’s wheel and in Dante’s infernal pits. The weight of twenty Atlantics oppressed him. Each day was a long nightmare, and every night a lifetime. Margaret De Quincey was his good angel. Uncomplainingly she nursed her besotted husband through those dark months of agony, and was rewarded by his slow emergence into sanity. Thomas De Quincey, rescued from the pains of opium, greeted with paternal affection his first-born son William and his newborn daughter Margaret, and resolved to earn a living for his family.

An opportunity was soon offered. The Westmorland Gazette, a weekly paper recently established at Kendal, seventeen miles distant, required an editor. This Tory organ ardently supported the party’s parliamentary candidate against the Whig nominee and his paper, the Kendal Chronicle. De Quincey was a Tory by inheritance and conviction. Several prominent Westmorland Tories decided to recommend the Grasmere scholar for the vacant editorship of the Gazette, for which, at Wordsworth’s suggestion, he was an applicant. He had already contributed articles of a political and philosophical nature, and would doubtless prove an eloquent exponent of party principles. Would Mr. De Quincey undertake the editorial direction of the paper at one hundred and sixty pounds a year? If he found it impracticable to reside in Kendal, perhaps he might engage an assistant out of his salary who would drudge in the office while the editor wrote at home. De Quincey accepted. At first he visited his journalistic headquarters with fair regularity, but he soon lapsed and became more and more an absentee editor.

The Westmorland Gazette was a four-page newspaper made up of local and foreign news, editorial notes, and a liberal sprinkling of advertisements. The new editor promptly reduced the local and London news to a minimum and proceeded to fill the paper with reports of murder trials and essays on politics, philosophy, and philology. Dalesmen and housewives scanned its columns in vain for the beloved contributions on crops and poultry-raising. Gone were the old household remedies; in their place appeared dubious prescriptions. For pains of the stomach, for instance, take sixty drops of laudanum in hot or tepid water, a cure which the editor was prepared to recommend. The noteworthy feature of the Gazette under the new editor was the weekly detailed report of criminal cases in the courts, sketches which were later developed into articles on robberies and murders considered as fine arts. The farmers of Westmorland must have rubbed their eyes and wondered what had become of the personal column, the market reports, the price of cattle in Kendal last week. Why were these demoralizing stories of theft and bloodshed allowed to stain the pages of a family paper? What was all this tiresome stuff on somebody named Kant? What did they care about Potosi? And who was this Plato that the editor said would attract less attention in London than a chemical juggler?

The Whig Chronicle across the street satirically attacked De Quincey’s political comments in a special department headed “Q. in a Corner.” “Q.” replied by lecturing his rival on language and government, caustically exposing his ignorance on fundamentals. The proprietors of the Gazette viewed with alarm the growing bitterness of this controversy. Alarming too were the complaints which came to them from subscribers about the changed content and spirit of the journal. In solemn conclave the directors met and passed a formal resolution requesting the editor to restore local and London news, and expressing the hope that he would “abstain from direct remarks on any productions or observations which may appear in the Kendal Chronicle.” A few months later they politely informed Mr. De Quincey that his irregular attendance at the office was detrimental to the paper. Mr. De Quincey was convinced that regular attendance was incompatible with the habits of a philosopher. He accordingly resigned.

This editorial experience of sixteen months on a provincial newspaper started De Quincey on his lifelong career as a periodical essayist. It was his apprenticeship. While he was meditating on the prolegomena to a system of political economy, and still hesitantly regarding the profession of law, grim circumstance disclosed his true vocation. For a year or more he had earned a little money by his pen, and until he could find a magazine market for his literary wares, he must borrow or beg.

Before severing his connection with the Westmorland Gazette he wrote to his mother soliciting aid. There had been little or no communication between them since his marriage and he had much to relate. She was informed of the merits of his wife, who, though a farmer’s daughter, was all that he could desire. The coming of his two children, his own long “illness,” and the expenses incident to maintaining his modest household had exhausted his resources. Moreover, there were debts. If he might have a yearly allowance from his mother, he would escape the debtors’ prison, and be in a position to take his family to London and find work. His uncle in India, Colonel Penson, was also appealed to. That practical gentleman was told of prospective articles for Blackwood’s Magazine and The Quarterly Review. Meanwhile, De Quincey was sending him complimentary copies of the Gazette. The Colonel might see for himself that his nephew could write. A little assistance would reestablish him for life.

His mother replied sympathetically. The suggested move to London she did not approve. She would supplement his income with a small annual allowance, and so would his uncle. Besides, she would advance him money to relieve his present embarrassment. As to his wife, she was quite satisfied from his report that her condition in life was a happy and respectable one, and that she had dignified it by her conduct. Thomas De Quincey, rescued from his creditors and reconciled to his mother, was undismayed by his newspaper adventure. Edinburgh and London lured him. The metropolitan magazines might open their columns to him, and for them he would henceforth do his writing.

Blackwood’s Magazine, then in the first flush of popularity, was challenging the supremacy of Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review. Blackwood had turned his magazine over to a trinity of young literary Tories, John Wilson, or “Christopher North,” John Gibson Lockhart, and James Hogg, the “Ettrick Shepherd.” A joint contribution, conceived one evening after dinner at Wilson’s in an hour of uproarious merriment, had both amused and shocked local society. This satirical skit, entitled “The Chaldee MS.” and purporting to be the translation of an ancient document in a Paris library, was couched in Biblical language and abounded in thinly veiled allusions. All the victims except Sir Walter Scott took offense. Backed by their sympathizers far and near, they either threatened or actually brought suit for libel. The jeu d’esprit had for the time completely redeemed Blackwood’s from the charge of dullness and had immensely increased its circulation. The Tories now had a lively, interesting organ, more varied in reading matter than its didactic Whig rival, The Edinburgh Review. The leading spirit of the new magazine was “Christopher North,” poet, briefless advocate, and friend of Thomas De Quincey.

In this first lustrum of Blackwood’s popularity the ex-editor from Grasmere came to Edinburgh seeking an entree to the charmed circle of periodical writers. John Wilson introduced De Quincey to William Blackwood, who invited him to become a contributor to his magazine. During that winter of 1820-21 he renewed his associations with the Edinburgh coterie and fitfully practiced the art of hack writing. Prodded by his employer for delay in delivering promised articles, he was fertile in excuses. He assured Blackwood that never in his whole life had he worked so hard. Time was taken neither for sleeping nor eating. One single half-sheet of an article had cost him fourteen hours. Would Mr. Blackwood advance ten guineas to enable him to meet a debt? Tomorrow the article should be ready. When writing wittily, he moved slowly. Dull reviews and moralizings like those in the December number he could produce rapidly. Really, if that sort of thing were likely to continue, he, De Quincey, must become “the Atlas of the Magazine” and write it all himself! He hoped to God that one supremely stupid contributor might meet with a halter, even if it were his dear friend Wilson. The Scotsman failed to enjoy the Englishman’s humor. This untimely banter from Blackwood’s hired man provoked a sharp reprimand. The letter could be excused, wrote William Blackwood, only on the supposition that he was hardly awake when he composed it. As for Mr. De Quincey’s proffer to become “the Atlas of the Magazine,” it was time enough to undertake that burden when he should be requested to do so. The offender, stung by the retort, replied that hereafter he would not trouble Mr. Blackwood with any notes at all, sleeping or waking. It was a rash promise for so prodigal a note-writer as Thomas De Quincey. Upon the whole, the start as a Blackwood’s contributor had not been auspicious.

Edinburgh was the magazine center nearest to Grasmere and De Quincey had hoped that his engagement with Blackwood’s might be profitable and permanent. But alas, he and the publisher had failed to hit it off, and so his loose connection with the magazine was broken. Sometime he would like to return to the castle-crowned city when Blackwood’s had more need of him. Meanwhile, there was nothing to do but to try his fortune in London. His income was pitifully small for supporting a wife and three children, and his debts were accumulating. The call of London had been in his blood since boyhood. Of the three literary men left in the Lake Country since Coleridge and Wilson had gone, De Quincey was the most urban. The unsocial Wordsworth was wedded to the country, and Southey in his study at Keswick ground out books with uninspired regularity. But the scholar of Grasmere required the constant stimulus of literary activity around him and the orders for articles which he could find only in the great city. With these definite aims Thomas De Quincey came to the metropolis in the summer of 1821 and rented a little back room at Mr. Bonn’s in York Street, Covent Garden.

Fortunately for De Quincey his old friends Charles and Mary Lamb were then living in this region. De Quincey called and their former relations were renewed. He had known Lamb for many years, but not until this visit did he come unreservedly to like him. At first, Lamb’s peculiar humor—the cynical badinage, the punning, the mock seriousness—had grated on De Quincey’s acute sensibilities. Now he understood the “gentle Elia” better, counted him indeed as a friend. Lamb for his part was eager to do De Quincey a favor. He proposed to introduce his friend to the editors of the new London Magazine in which his own Elian essays were then running. This periodical, founded in 1820, was more literary than Blackwood’s and quite as modern in spirit as its northern rival. Its first editor, John Scott, who had recently met an untimely death in a duel, was an appreciative interpreter of the new literature. He had praised Keats while the Quarterly was damning him, and had welcomed to his columns such men as Lamb, Hazlitt, and Talfourd, along with lesser lights like Allan Cunningham and John Clare. Around the London Magazine a brilliant circle had formed, to which De Quincey hoped to gain admission. Another attraction was the liberal payment of contributors. De Quincey declared many years later that he would probably never have written for the press but for his poverty. He was possessed of rare personal experience and acquired knowledge, and was quite ready, under the spur of necessity, to make copy of both. At this critical juncture Charles Lamb presented his Westmorland friend to Messrs. Taylor and Hes-sey, editors and proprietors of the London Magazine. At the same time he was commended to these gentlemen by T. N. Talfourd, to whom De Quincey bore a letter from Wordsworth. The result of these overtures was that he was invited to become a contributor. And so at last De Quincey had found a way to mend his fortune and assure his fame.

The subject on which De Quincey could speak most feelingly out of an experience of seventeen years was opium-eating. On the use and abuse of the drug he was an authority. There was only one other man of genius in England who might say more, but Coleridge, voluble enough on philosophy, had written nothing on opiates. The theme awaited literary treatment. There is evidence that De Quincey, even before he went up to London that summer, had begun an essay on his celestial drug and its effects. Months before, in Edinburgh, he wrote to William Blackwood that he was working on an “opium article,” presumably for Blackwood’s Magazine. “This article,” he continued, “I execute with pleasure to myself.” His dilatory habits and painstaking method of composition left many pieces of writing in various stages of incompleteness. He must have brought with him to London a pocketful of notes. Now that he was accepted as a contributor by Taylor and Hessey, he would naturally develop the paper already begun “with pleasure” to himself. Most of the work was done in that little back room in York Street, from which was borne to the magazine office in Fleet Street the first important product of his peculiar genius. In the September number of the London Magazine, 1821, appeared “The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar” and in the October number appeared the second part of the long article. An editorial note warmly praised the anonymous contribution and promised a third part, but the confessor had exhausted his golden vein. For this famous child of his brain the author received the sum of forty guineas, approximately two hundred dollars.

Readers of the London Magazine asked themselves and others whether the entertaining “Confessions” were real or imaginary. Who was this revealer of intimate experiences, this teller of a tale that read like truth? Literary men in London, Edinburgh, at the Lakes, had no trouble in identifying the author and vouching for the dream-invested facts. Others were mystified. The poet, James Montgomery, for instance, reviewing the “Confessions” in the Sheffield Iris, intimated that the fascinating narrative was fictitious. There were critical skeptics who wrote to the unknown author through the magazine office. He replied in a lengthy letter signed xyz and addressed to the editor. The papers, he asserted, “were drawn up with entire simplicity and fidelity to the facts.” To the criticism that his pains of opium were themselves pleasurable, he answered that it had been difficult for him, writing in haste with scant memoranda, to do full justice to his sufferings. A third paper would rectify that error in emphasis. The book form of the “Confessions,” issued the next year by Taylor and Hessey, contained an appendix analyzing the author’s experience with the drug which reads like a medical report. With this statistical exposition by the Opium-Eater, in lieu of the promised third article, his readers had to content themselves. Subsequent revisions of the original “Confessions” added nothing comparable in beauty or magic to those papers rapidly composed in the dingy little room off York Street. They had immediately established Thomas De Quincey as one of the foremost writers of contemporary prose and had won for him the lasting sobriquet of “The Opium-Eater.”


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