Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 10. De Quincey’s mastery in ornate prose

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

IX. The Landors, Leigh Hunt, De Quincey

§ 10. De Quincey’s mastery in ornate prose

The singular mixture of merits and defects which has made it necessary to tread the critical middle way with special care in the case of the two preceding writers extends, also, to the third. With De Quincey, indeed, we return to a higher general level than that to which we have had to descend in order to consider Leigh Hunt. Yet, though even Hunt’s poetical altitudes are not of the highest or loneliest, the things which have been referred to make him a poet, if not a great poet, for moments; while De Quincey not only never accomplished poetry but, as was noticed in the earlier part of this chapter, indulged in something perilously like blasphemy of it. For, to say that you might have been such a poet as your neighbours when those neighbours are such as were De Quincey’s, and that you did not choose to be, comes perilously near the unforgivable. But his prose soars into regions which Hunt could never have reached so far as form goes; while its matter, with inequalities, again perilous, in some respects, keeps an altogether higher level of intellect, scholarship, taste and so forth, than Hunt’s pleasant chatter could attain. But De Quincey’s literary history, so far as public acknowledgment goes, has been curious and contrasts rather remarkably with that of his two fellows here. Beginning distinctly late, Confessions of an English Opium Eater gave him, with all good judges, a very high position which he never wholly lost. But he did not follow it up with any substantive work; for some time, he wrote hardly anything, and scattered what he produced in miscellaneous and, most often, anonymous publications; and, till very near the close of his long life, he held a curious and rather anomalous position as a sort of amateur or freelance hovering on the outskirts of literature and “picqueering,” as they would have said in Dryden’s time, on the subject in brilliant but desultory raids. Not till near the close did he attempt “collection.”

There are probably not many experienced judges of the ways of the public in regard to literature who would not have been somewhat doubtful as to the success of collection and publication, in an unusually large number of volumes, of articles, scarcely ever connected in subject, dealing, not unfrequently, with matters not obviously popular, spread in composition over a period in which public taste had altered not a little, and pervaded by all sorts of tricks and mannerisms of style and thought. But the “fifties,” after a period in which criticism had not commanded much favour and in which it had not, perhaps, deserved much, were recovering their appetite for it; and De Quincey, whatever subject he touched, was nothing if not critical, though, as a literary critic of individuals, he was very untrustworthy. Moreover, the frequent presence in his writing of the most elaborately ornamental passages appealed to tastes which he had himself been one of the first to excite, and which had been steadily growing. The scheme—first of a selection in four volumes, then of a collection in twenty—was not interrupted by his death; and settled down, an almost unique occurrence in English literature, into other collections of sixteen and fourteen, which were again and again reprinted. It has been said, probably without exaggeration, that there was no writer more popular than De Quincey with clever boys of upper school and lower college age, from about 1855 for twenty or five-and-twenty years onward. For the succeeding period of about the same length there has been, perhaps, something of a reaction, or, at any rate, something of desuetude. W. E. Henley was fond of attacking our author as “Thomas De Sawdust,” not a very brilliant nickname, though too much in De Quincey’s own worst style. The humour of such things as the once famous On Murder has gone out of fashion. But, De Quincey has never lost a high reputation, though there have been some dissidences among estimates of him as a writer of ornate prose; and there are those who, admitting serious faults in him, decline to rest his merits merely on his prose of this kind, while joining in the fullest admiration of its qualities.

These merits are undeniable, save by those who object to ornate prose altogether; but the consideration of them has been sometimes unluckily disturbed by unnecessary and invidious comparison.

Although there is no form of criticism which the present writer dislikes so much or of which he has so low an opinion as that which endeavours to class writers in order of merit, it would perhaps be affectation, and would almost certainly be unsatisfactory to the reader, if no notice were taken here of the attempts, sometimes made by persons of distinction, to pit Landor against De Quincey, and award the first and second class to one or the other as the case may be. According to the system here preferred they are both in the first class of this special subject. If it is probable—it may not be quite certain—that De Quincey could not have written the finest passages of the Dream of Boccaccio, it is a mere fact that Landor never wrote anything like the best passages of Our Ladies of Sorrow. His imagination was too precise; it had not the “hues of sunset and eclipse” which De Quincey could command. On the other hand, there is what may be called a dewiness, a freshness of talk about natural objects in him which De Quincey has never reached; and he was incapable (at least when he was not trying to be humorous) of the false notes and glaring contrasts of colour in which De Quincey sometimes indulged. They are, in short, stars differing, not in amount, but in kind or constitution of glory. The details of this difference in rhythm, in diction and in various other rhetorical particulars are too minute and would require too much technical expatiation to be dealt with fully here. But it may be generally said, in supplement to the comparisons as little odious as possible put above, that De Quincey’s music is more complicated and sometimes more definitely of the bravura kind than Landor’s, that his diction (though Landor does not by any means disdain foreign and specially technical-botanic terms) is more composite; and that, in accordance with the stronger purely romantic strain in him (though he was, perhaps, except in the point of Latin versemaking, a better scholar than Landor), he seems more often to aim at the vague suggestion, Landor at the precise expression of thought and image.

Although, however, it would be most absurd to deny that this mastery of ornate prose is De Quincey’s chief claim to a high position in our literature, it would be almost equally unjust to admit it as the only one or even as the only one of importance. The defects which chequer even this merit to some extent, and the others to a much greater, will be faithfully dealt with; the merits; themselves demand the more distinct insistence, because, as has been said, there has, of late, been something of a tendency to neglect, if not to deny, them. They were, indeed, extraordinary qualifications for what has been called “polygraphy.” De Quincey’s reading was very wide, and, though it was sometimes desultory, it was by no means always so. His interests, though in life he was apt to seem an abstracted and unpractical creature, ranged far beyond books. Metaphysics and political economy, verbal criticism of the most minute kind and public events of all sorts, from the Williams murders to the Crimean war and the Indian mutiny; history ancient and modern, with all its “fringes” of manners, and so forth; contemporary biography; criticism of the more general and abstract kind; all these and many more formed the farrago of De Quincey’s books and articles. Despite his excessive, and often unlucky, activity in his own and other people’s business, some who knew Landor best, and admired him most, have doubted whether he was not always more or less absorbed by his own fancies, his very activities being disastrously excited and affected by the breaking off of his dreams. De Quincey, who passed through life like a kind of shadow, was constantly occupied with most unshadowlike surroundings, though no one would dream better where he—or his opium—chose.

Extreme variety of subject is, therefore, even if we confine the word subject to its lowest meaning, at least as characteristic of De Quincey’s works as of Hunt’s and Landor’s prose; in other ways, it is greater. His application of intellectual strength to most things that he touches differentiates him from the triviality of Hunt and the temperamental uniformity of Landor; the scale of his essays is far more ambitious than that of Hunt, and he escapes what, after a time, becomes the rather artificial, if not positively monotonous, form of the conversation. To this must be added the strange alternations of his handling from the most intricate and (some would say) wire-drawn logicalities to the loftiest flights of rhetoric; the curious glancing habit of mind which indulges itself in endless divagation, again less trivial than Hunt’s, but almost as active; the stores of out-of-the-way knowledge; the quaint attitudes of thought and fancy. Those who, in the days of rather idle theorising on aesthetics, insisted on the pleasures of “unexpectedness,” ought to have found them in De Quincey to an unparalleled extent, while the unexpected things include not seldom the nuggets or, rather, pockets of golden style referred to, and others of thought original and forcibly put.

His counterbalancing faults are, indeed, not small. The greatest of them all must, indeed, force itself upon almost any reader who has been gifted with, or has acquired, any critical faculty. It is what has been called, in words not easy to better, “an unconquerable tendency to rigamarole.” It has been admitted that De Quincey’s unexpectedness and divagation are often sources of pleasure; but it cannot be denied that they are often, also, sources of irritation—sometimes of positive boredom. He does not even wait for fresh game to cross the track of his original and proper quarry: he is constantly and deliberately going out of his way to seek and start it right and left. Too often this divagation takes the form of a jocularity which appears to irritate some persons almost always, and which, perhaps, few, when they have attained to years of discretion, can invariably enjoy. His taste is by no means infallible; he has some curious prejudices; and, though the protest against his treatment of personalities is not, perhaps, wholly justified, there is, certainly, too frequent reason for it.

Nevertheless, it should be impossible for anyone who takes a really historical and impartial view of English literature, and who, without the excessive “classing” of individuals deprecated above, appreciates comparison of them, to put De Quincey far below the highest rank in that literature, if he does not exactly attain to it. Lacking Landor’s poetic gift, he may be considered not his equal; if Landor’s poetry were barred, he might, with more variety of minor faults, undertake, at least, an equal fight on points of form, and have the odds on his side in point of intellectual quality. To the moral side of psychology, De Quincey did not pay much attention, though there is nothing in the least immoral about him. But his intellectual force was extraordinary, though it was so much divided and so little brought to bear on any single subject or group of subjects that it never accomplished any tangible result worthy of itself. Intellectually, he was by far the greatest of the three men already noticed in this chapter; as an artist, at his best and in his own particular line, he has hardly a superior.