De Quincey as a literary character undoubtedly stands among the foremost of English essayists. If we gauge him by the ability shown in separate passages he is as far above Addison or Macauley, as the Matterhorn is above its foot hills; though, perhaps, if we take the average of this works, and weigh his almost endless digressions against the fine passages, the other side of the balance will descend. But until we feel compelled to read everything an author has written good or bad, this latter judgment will be unjust. The time has not yet arrived when the human race resigns the prerogative of *******., that De Quincey may be ranked by the majestic peaks of the "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" and the "Vision of Sudden
(51) Death" and not the dreary desert of the "Essenes" or the essay on "Style."
De Quincey's fine passages are not such brilliant word pictures as you find in Carlyle. They are seldom eloquent, such as are found in Emerson, but they have no equal in English prose for sublimity of conception.
In a few of his essays he rivals Macauley in with and keenness, as in the Review of Schlosser's History of English Literature, and in parts of his essay on style, yet he lacks the ever present brilliancy of Macauley, yet these are but minor considerations compared with his "sky pointing peaks." Upon the claim of these he stands in the very front of English essayists. Such he was; but what might he have been, what the grand promise of his youth pointed to, we are left to conjecture. And that conjecture is worthy of notice, not merely as an idle speculation, for granting this as the logical developement of the boy De Quincey and knowing the man's character as it was, in the equation of life we may solve the unknown quantity of the influence of opium.
The boy De Quincey had a quick perception of relations, good reasoning powers and a fine command of language. He had strong emotions though not powerful desires. His feelings were mostly of the passive character. He had a profound appreciation, and this, since it did not seem to have extended so much to scenery as to the relations of the human soul, was generally mixed with sadness. Among the arts he appreciated music most fully, for the power of music rests pre-eminently in the emotions, but he stopped with the appreciation of the object. Not like Carlyle, who would hardly wait to assure himself of the sublimity of an object before he was on his knees in adoration and pulling with all his might to bring the rest of the world after him; not like Emerson, who no sooner perceived the sublime than he mounted on the wings of ecstasy, De Quincey stood before the sublime in mute appreciation. It led to no action. He was satisfied with the object itself.
De Quincey's will was weak. His brother ruled him with a rod of iron. Timid as he was he was led by his brother's influence into fights with rough factory boys. But this weakness of the will did not make him irresolute or purposeless, for he had no strong animal nature to fight against, no slothfulness of mind to overcome. All his inclinations led him to the fields of literature and thought, so that we should be perhaps better understood if we said that he was a man not of action, but of ideas.
When difficulties came upon him he did not fight with them, he endured them. He ran away from the public school, wandered over England and into Wales, lived in London, and though he often came near real starvation, it never seemed to have occurred to him to use either his hands or his pen to relieve his wants. Such he was as a boy, having a powerful intellect, strong emotions and weak a will. His emotions were the prominent side of his nature during this period, the death of his sister, in whom he was almost bound up, gave this side of his nature a tremendous impulse. He abandoned himself to his grief, and gradually comprehending for the first time the tremendous realities of life and death, he would sit for hours in the woods not thinking about them, but simply staring at them with his mental vision, and sometimes visions of wonderful grandeur would burst upon him, but gradually he outgrew these. As his studies brought him to the classics, new objects took the place of these and he rapidly developed into an enthusiastic student. At Oxford he first took opium and thereafter his life was affected by this subtle agent.
What would be the natural development of such a mind? We know the nature of the boy, we understand what motives will appeal to him, we ought to know the equation of the man. In the first place he would continue to follow literature as a profession. His will was too weak to battle very energetically with the world. His desires were too feeble to stimulate him. No profession was open to him except literature. Again he would continue a well balanced man. His will, entrenched behind his literary tastes, might be considered invulnerable. His happiness, and only happiness, would be found in study, in thought and writing. So that there was no
(52) reason in the man or circumstance that we can foresee for his becoming irresolute or enfeebled. Again, understanding as we do his great promise we should prophesy a grand literary future for him. Conversant with all the masters of style with clear ideas, he would naturally have a clear style. A deep thinker, a master of Metaphysics, he should be a true philosopher, though not an original one. Having a profound appreciation of the sublime we should expect from him magnificent descriptions of the depths and heights of human nature. Such he should have been, but he lost the balance of his mind. His will in some way had been drawn from its entrenchments and defeated. His style, instead of being clear and direct, is painfully diffusive. His thoughts gradually cease to flow and his mind becomes almost a frozen sea. The control of his mind gone it assumes again the type of the boy's mind. His sufferings at the death of his sister he lives over again in his dreams. Visions so vast that they stretch even space and time passed before him, then they changed from sublimity to endless monotony, and from monotony they sink until they become at last revolting and disgusting. The man has grappled with the genius of opium, and like the princess in the weird Arabian tale, is burnt up by his breath.
True he revolts from this extreme of degradation. He got the habit partially, but probably never completely under control, and the results stayed by him. His style is still diffusive, he loses much of his hold upon philosophy, his is so little able to give any subject concentrated attention, that he cannot even revise or collect his own writings.
Achilles was vulnerable only in the heel, and there he received the fatal arrow. So De Quincey vulnerable only through weakness of his will, unwittingly implanted an over-mastering desire in this physical nature which seemed so insignificant beside his gigantic intellect.