In transcribing the following material from The Reader, an interesting, unfortunately short-lived intellectual magazine of the 1860s, I have used the Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. The full-text version is generally accurate, and the one common OCR error here takes the form of turning the letter “e” as “o.” I corrected the scanning errors, and for ease of reading I have added a few paragraph breaks. If you come upon any errors I have missed, please do not hesitate to let the editors of this site know. — George P. Landow
E QUINCEY'S writings hardly belong to what can be called "current literature." They are now rather a portion of that past English literature of which we are proud as a national inheritance. Hence the completion of the collected edition of De Quincey's works in fifteen volumes by Messrs. A. and C. Black of Edinburgh is a topic rather for our leading article than for one of our reviews. But it is an event that ought not to go by unchronicled. A few years ago, while De Quincey was yet alive, the only collected edition of his writings was an American edition, which had been very creditably undertaken by an American publisher in order to moet the demand in the United States caused by De Quincey's fame. Based on this edition there at last came forth a British edition, superintended by De Quincey himself, and all but finished when he died. The present is a reissue of that edition, with improvements and additions. The fifteen volumes ought to be in every library that aims at containing what is most excellent in English literature. For De Quincey is one of our classics, one of our real immortals, and his remains are one of the richest and most peculiar bequests that have recently fallen in to the great accumulation of our standard English prose. Whoever knows not De Quincey has his education in our higher English literature still to complete.
What a strange life was De Quincey's! A dream rather than a lifb, a passive flitting to and fro, almost a disembodied existence, unbound, unregulated by any of the ties and punctualities that bind and regulate ordinary lives! The end of it is within recent recollection. You were walking, perhaps, with a bend in one of the quiet country-lanes near Edinburgh; and there passed you timidly a strange diminutive creature, with his hat hung on the back of his head, at whom you could not help looking back, and whom, when you did look back, you found also stopping, as if in suspicious alarm, and looking back at you. “That is De Quincey," your friend would whisper; and the diminutive creature would hastily move on, as if fearful of being caught, and disappear round the first turning, the rim of his hat still sloping back over his shabby coat-collar. And so, in wanderings about in the lanes and country-roads near Edinburgh, in the vicinity of which he then had his home — varied by occasional disappearances, during which he could not be traced — were passed the last years of a man who, some fifty years before, had boon the companion of Wordsworth and Southey and Coleridge in the Lake-district, who had thereafter started out from that illustrious group as an intellectual notability sui generis, and who, for thirty years or more, had been famous in London and everywhere as the English Opium-eater, and one of the finest writers in the English language. Quietly and furtively, with all this retrospect of notoriety behind him, like some small and enfeebled ticket-of-leave man, amazingly afraid of the police, and dimly conscious that they might still have a right to him, did De Quincey flit about lanes and country-roads in his last obscuro retreat— occasionally clutched and borne away in a cab (which was the only way of securing him) to be the lion of an Edinburgh evening-party, when, after he had discoursed most beautiful talk for hours, the problem would arise how on earth to get him away again. At last, on impulse or on suasion, "out into the Night," as the German novelists have it, he would go; and what became of him no one know, and no one cared.
And yet this strange life must, from first to last, havo been a life of singular industry and labour. This singular being, this migratory and almost disembodied intellect, this little wandering anatomy, topped with a brain, whom a habit of opium-eating contracted in its early youth had loosened, as it seemed, from all the social realities of life, and almost from all sense of worldly responsibility, had been leading an indefatigable life of its own — all observation, all memory, all reverie, all speculation. Howsoever and whensoever he had acquired his scholarship, there wore few such learned and accomplished men in his day as De Quincey. He had read enormously, without ever seeming to have books by him, much less a library. He had made himself his own encyclopaedia, and, wherever he was, could quote all that he wanted to quote, dates and references included, from memory. Then, not belonging to the world, but only as some merely intellectual spirit moving about in the world, he had taken note of everything in it, serious or humorous, and had forgotten nothing that he had once noted. With a memory thus full and ever becoming fuller, and with a tendency at the same time to investigation, reasoning, and fantastic constructions of his own ideas, he had, nearly all his life, and in the main for the mere purpose of earning the necessary sustenance of bread or opium, been in the habit of throwing off — nay, not throwing off, for they were carefully written, with corrections and interlineations — articles for magazines and other periodicals. Each article, when written, seems to havo been thrown over his shouldor, unregistered, unfiled, uncared-for; and yet, incessantly and laboriously, he was writing fresh articles. Of books, or things originally shaped as books, he gave but one or two to the world; his whole literary life was a succession of articles for periodicals. It seemed to be the same to him whore his articles went, provided they brought him the small immediate paymenths wanted — whether to periodicals of note or to obscure periodicals; and it is one of the oddest things we know that this English literary celobrity, this veteran man of genius, whose services the greatest periodicals in the land might have been glad to command at any price, should havo spent some of his last years in composing articles for local periodicals, posting the packets of manuscript at the Lasswade post-office, and fearing lost, from being too late, they should be rejected altogether. Not till the very end of his life, and then probably less on his own motion than on the urging of friends, did he set about collecting his scattered papers, or indicating, from the lists in his memory, from what miscellaneous quarters they might be collected. And yet these scattered articles in all sorts of periodicals for some thirty or forty years were what De Quincey was and now is to the world; and the fifteen volumes in which they are now collected are, with the exception of a book or two, and some articles left out as scarcely worth reprinting, De Quincey's total remains.
It is seldom that an author attempts a classification of his own writings, and more seldom still that a classification which an author does propose of his own writings is satisfactory to others. De Quincey, howover, in the preface to the collected edition of his writings which he himself superintended, proposed a classification of these writings which cannot be improved upon. Neither in that edition nor in the present is the classification followed in the actual arrangement of the volumes — probably for the practical reason, that the classes of writings theoretically discriminated shade into each other; but, theoretically, the classification is perfect; and, had it been possible, we should have preferred an arrangement of the writings according to it to any other arrangement except the strictly chronological. In a collected edition of an author's writings, and especially in a posthumous edition, the chronological arrangement, where possible, is always the very best. Leaving that matter, however, let us attend to De Quincey's theoretical distribution of the contents of these fifteen volumes. they might be distributed, he said, into three classes: —I. Writings of fact, reminiscence, and historical narration. Under such a head, theugh not precisely so named, De Quincey included a large and very interesting portion of the contents of these fifteen volumes, he cited the "Autobiographic Sketches" as an example. These " Autobiographic Sketches" contain recollections of his own life, and of his acquaintance with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and others; but thero are, in the fifteen volumes, many papers of the same order, not autobiographic, but more generally historical or biographic, which are extremely substantial and valuable. All De Quincey's literary biographies are worth reading; and we recollect his sketch of Bentley's life as especially interesting and therough. On the whole, we will make but one remark on this portion of De Quincey's writings; and that is that, whereas we have found that the statements of all opiumn-eaters of facts relating to themselves are to be received with caution, or even, where they aro very picturesque, are to be punctually disbelieved, we have found, on the other hand, that, in general matters of history, opium-eaters are not necessarily inventive, but may bo extraordinarily exact and accurate.
II. Speculative writings, or writings addressed to the purely rational faculty. A large proportion of De Quincey's writings are of this kind; and, in our opinion, these — or these others in which criticism and speculation are blended with biography and history — are among his best. His was, indeed, a singularly subtle and, as the Germans say, spitzfindig intellect; and, out of the class of expressly systematic thinkers, we do not know a recent writer whose investigations of vexed problems are finor and more ingenious, or, what is more, whose conclusions are more distinct and trustworthy than De Quincey's. He reminds us here, both in matter and in manner, of Coleridge — whom, indeed, in the main, he resembled more than he resembled any other of his predecessors; and we would say of him, as we would say of Coleridge, that whoever is investigating any question ought to make a point of seeing whether this thinker has said anything about it — confident that, if he has, he has gone into the vory crevices of the subjoct, and made deep and exquisite incisions in the right direction. In all matters relating, in particular, to literary criticism, and the philosophy of style and literature, De Quincey, like Coleridge, is masterly; and his essays on such subjects are worth a score of the older English treatises on Rhetoric. Nor, though De Quincey's method is subtle, are his conclusions unsound or merely ingenious. His “Letters to a young man whose education has been neglected” are replete with good sense, and are about the wisest advices on the subject of literary culturo we have ever read.
III. Imaginative Prose-Writings. De Quinccy claimed to be a practitioner of a style of imaginative and rhythmical, or highly impassioned prose, of which, in universal literature, there had been fow precedents; and, as examples of such prose-poetry, he pointed to passages in his "Confessions of an Opium-Eater," and still more confidently to his "Suspiria de Profundi's." There is no doubt that he was right, and that from these and other writings of De Quincey specimens may be cited of what may be called prose-rhapsody or rich and weirdly prose-phantasy, such as can bo cited from no other English prose-writer. Nor, whatever may be the intrinsic value of this style of writing is that value abated by the fact that De Quincey, as a critic of his own writings, was aware of the peculiarity of this portion of them.
All in all, since Coleridge's death, we know of no English writer, speculative in the cast of his genius, without being expressly systematic, whose remains are a more valuable bequest to British Literature than these of De Quincey. He died in the same year with Lord Macaulay; and, while all Britain was ringing with proclamations of the national loss sustained by Lord Macaulay's death, the sole tribute to poor old De Quincey was the tribute of a fow short and scattered obituary notices in the newspapors. The difference was proper as regarded the relative social importance of the two lives. And yet, perhaps, the worth of Lord Macaulay's literary remains, as compared with these of De Quincey, is as the worth of some highly burnished mass of a metal of gold and copper mixed, compared with the worth of an equal mass of pure white silver worked into foliage and frosted filagree.
“de Quincey’s Remains.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (May 1863): 519-20. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street.” Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 23 July 2016.
Last modified 22 June 2016