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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Childhood of De Quincey

By Henry Mills Alden (1836–1919)

[Born in Mt. Tabor, Vt., 1836. Died in New York, N. Y., 1919. Thomas De Quincey.—The Atlantic Monthly. 1863.]

EVEN in inexperienced childhood do the scales of the individual destiny begin, favorably or unfavorably, to determine their future preponderations, by reason of influences merely material, and before, indeed, any sovereignty save a corporeal one (in conjunction with heavenly powers) is at all recognized in life. For, in this period, with which above all others we associate influences the most divine, “with trailing clouds of glory,” those influences which are purely material are the most efficiently operative. Against the former, adult man, in whom reason is developed, may battle, though ignobly, and, for himself, ruinously; and against the latter oftentimes he must struggle, to escape ignominious shipwreck. But the child, helpless alike for both these conflicts, is, through the very ignorance which shields him from all conscious guilt, bound over in the most impotent (though, because impotent and unconscious, the least humiliating) slavery to material circumstance,—a slavery which he cannot escape, and which, during the period of its absolutism, absorbs his very blood, bone, and nerve. To poverty, which the strong man resists, the child succumbs; on the other hand, that affluence of comfort, from which philosophy often weans the adult, wraps childhood about with a sheltering care; and fortunate indeed it is, if the mastery of Nature over us during our first years is thus a gentle dealing with us, fertilizing our powers with the rich juices of an earthly prosperity. And in this respect De Quincey was eminently fortunate. The powers of heaven and of earth and—if we side with Milton and other pagan mythologists in attributing the gift of wealth to some Plutonian dynasty—the dark powers under the earth seem to have conjointly arrayed themselves in his behalf. Whatever storms were in the book of Fate written against his name they postponed till a far-off future, in the mean time granting him the happiest of all childhoods. Really of gentle blood, and thus gaining whatever substantial benefits in constitutional temperament and susceptibilities could be thence derived, although lacking, as Pope also had lacked, the factitious circumstance and airy heralding of this distinction, he was, in addition to this, surrounded by elements of aristocratic refinement and luxury, and thus hedged in not merely against the assault, in any form, of pinching poverty (as would be any one in tolerably comfortable circumstances), but even against the most trivial hint of possible want—against all necessity of limitation or retrenchment in any normal line of expenditure….

The time did come at length when the full epos of a remarkable prosperity was closed up and sealed for De Quincey. But that was in the unseen future. To the child it was not permitted to look beyond the hazy lines that bounded his oasis of flowers into the fruitless waste abroad. Poverty, want, at least so great as to compel the daily exercise of his mind for mercenary ends, was stealthily advancing from the rear; but the sound of its stern steppings was wholly muffled by intervening years of luxurious opulence and ease.

I dwell thus at length upon the aristocratic elegance of De Quincey’s earliest surroundings (which, coming at a later period, I should notice merely as an accident), because, although not a potential element, capable of producing or of adding one single iota to the essential character of genius, it is yet a negative condition—a sine qua non—to the displays of genius in certain directions and under certain aspects. By misfortune it is true that power may be intensified. So may it by the baptism of malice. But, given a certain degree of power, there still remains a question as to its kind. So deep is the sky: but of what hue, of what aspect? Wine is strong, and so is the crude alcohol: but what the mellowness? And the blood in our veins, it is an infinite force: but of what temper? Is it warm, or is it cold? Does it minister to Moloch, or to Apollo? Will it shape the Madonna face, or the Medusa? Why, the simple fact that the rich blue sky overarches this earth of ours, or that it is warm blood which flows in our veins, is sufficient to prove that no malignant Ahriman made the world. Just here the question is not, what increment or what momentum genius may receive from outward circumstances, but what coloring, what mood. Here it is that a Mozart differs from a Mendelssohn. The important difference which obtains in this respect between great powers in literature, otherwise coördinate, will receive illustration from a comparison between De Quincey and Byron. For both these writers were capable, in a degree rarely equalled in any literature, of reproducing, or rather, we should say, of reconstructing, the pomp of Nature and of human life. In this general office they stand together: both wear, in our eyes, the regal purple; both have caused to rise between earth and heaven miracles of grandeur, such as never Cheops wrought through his myriad slaves, or Solomon with his fabled ring. But in the final result, as in the whole modus operandi, of their architecture, they stand apart toto cœlo. Byron builds a structure that repeats certain elements in Nature or humanity; but they are those elements only which are allied to gloom, for he builds in suspicion and distrust, and upon the basis of a cynicism that has been nurtured in his very flesh and blood from birth; he erects a Pisa-like tower which overhangs and threatens all human hopes and all that is beautiful in human love. Who else, save this archangelic intellect, shut out by a mighty shadow of eclipse from the bright hopes and warm affections of all sunny hearts, could have originated such a Pandemonian monster as the poem on “Darkness”? The most-striking specimen of Byron’s imaginative power, and nearly the most striking that has ever been produced, is the apostrophe to the sea, in “Childe Harold.” But what is it in the sea which affects Lord Byron’s susceptibilities to grandeur? Its destructiveness alone. And how? Is it through any high moral purpose or meaning that seems to sway the movements of destruction? No; it is only through the gloomy mystery of the ruin itself,—ruin revealed upon a scale so vast and under conditions of terror the most appalling,—ruin wrought under the semblance of an almighty passion for revenge directed against the human race….

De Quincey, on the other hand, in whose heart there was laid no such hollow basis for infidelity toward the master-passions of humanity, repeated the pomps of joy or of sorrow, as evolved out of universal human nature, and as, through sunshine and tempest, typified in the outside world,—but never for one instant did he seek alliance, on the one side, with the shallow enthusiasm of the raving Bacchante, or, on the other, with the overshadowing despotism of gloom; nor can there be found on a single page of all his writings the slightest hint indicating even a latent sympathy with the power which builds only to crush, or with the intellect that denies, and that against the dearest objects of human faith fulminates its denials and shocking recantations solely for the purposes of scorn.

Whence this marked difference? To account for it, we must needs trace back to the first haunts of childhood the steps of these two fugitives, each of whom has passed thence, the one into a desert mirage, teeming with processions of the gloomiest falsities in life, and the other—also into the desert, but where he is yet refreshed and solaced by an unshaken faith in the genial verities of life, though separated from them by irrecoverable miles of trackless wastes, and where, however apparently abandoned and desolate, he is yet ministered unto by angels, and no mimic fantasies are suffered to exercise upon his heart their overmastering seductions to

  • “Allure, or terrify, or undermine.”
  • Whether the days of childhood be our happiest days, is a question all by itself. But there can be no question as to the inevitable certainty with which the conditions of childhood, fortunate or unfortunate, determine the main temper and dispositions of our lives. For it is underneath the multitude of fleeting proposals and conscious efforts, born of reason, and which, to one looking upon life from any superficial standpoint, seem to have all to do with its conduct, that there runs the undercurrent of disposition, which is born of Nature, which is cradled and nurtured with us in our infancy, which is itself a general choice, branching out into our specific choices of certain directions and aims among all opposite directions and aims, and which, although we rarely recognize its important functions, is in all cases the arbiter of our destiny. And in the very word disposition is indicated the finality of its arbitraments as contrasted with all proposition.

    Now, with respect to this disposition: Nature furnishes its basis; but it is the external structure of circumstance, built up or building about childhood,—to shelter or imprison,—which, more than all else, gives it its determinate character; and though this outward structure may in after-life be thoroughly obliterated, or replaced by its opposite,—porcelain by clay, or clay by porcelain,—yet will the tendencies originally developed remain and hold a sway almost uninterrupted over life. And, generally, the happy influences that preside over the child may be reduced under three heads: first, a genial temperament,—one that naturally, and of its own motion, inclines toward a centre of peace and rest rather than toward the opposite centre of strife; secondly, profound domestic affections; and, thirdly, affluence, which, although of all three it is the most negative, the most material condition, is yet practically the most important, because of the degree in which it is necessary to the full and unlimited prosperity of the other two. For how frequent are the cases in which the happiest of temperaments are perverted by the necessities of toil, so burdensome to tender years, or in which corroding anxieties, weighing upon parents’ hearts, check the free play of domestic love!—and in all cases where such limitations are present, even in the gentlest form, there must be a cramping up of the human organization and individuality somewhere; and everywhere, and under all circumstances, there must be sensibly felt the absence of that leisure which crowns and glorifies the affections of home, making them seem the most like summer sunshine, or rather like a sunshine which knows no season, which is an eternal presence in the soul.

    As regards all these three elements, De Quincey’s childhood was prosperous; afterward, vicissitudes came,—mighty changes capable of affecting all other transmutations, but thoroughly impotent to annul the inwrought grace of a preëstablished beauty. On the other hand, Byron’s childhood was, in all these elements, unfortunate. The sting left in his mother’s heart by the faithless desertion of her husband, after the desolation of her fortunes, was forever inflicted upon him, and intensified by her fitful temper; and notwithstanding the change in his outward prospects which occurred afterward, he was never able to lift himself out of the Trophonian cave into which his infancy had been thrust, any more than Vulcan could have cured that crooked gait of his, which dated from some vague infantile remembrances of having been rudely kicked out of heaven over its brazen battlements, one summer’s day,—for that it was a summer’s day we are certain from a line of “Paradise Lost,” commemorating the tragic circumstance:

  • “From morn till noon he fell, from noon till dewy eve,—
  • A summer’s day.”
  • And this allusion to Vulcan reminds us that Byron, in addition to all his other early mishaps, had also the identical club-foot of the Lemnian god. Among the guardians over Byron’s childhood was a demon, that, receiving an ample place in his victim’s heart, stood demoniacally his ground through life, transmuting love to hate, and what might have been benefits to fatal snares. Over De Quincey’s childhood, on the contrary, a strong angel guarded to withstand and thwart all threatened ruin, teaching him the gentle whisperings of faith and love in the darkest hours of his life: an angel that built happy palaces, the beautiful images of which, and their echoed festivals, far outlasted the splendor of their material substance.