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Thomas de Quincey.
361 after a year and a half's experience of the school, he found his condition so intolerable that he resolved to run away. This he accordingly did, walking all the way to Chester, where his mother was then residing. He was not sent back to school; on the contrary, at the suggestion of a kindly relative, it was arranged that he should have a guinea a week allowed him for a while, and have liberty to make a short excursion. Then ensued the most romantic episode of his erratic life. He set out for Wales, and, after wandering for some time among the mountains, it struck him that he would break off all connection with his relatives, set out for London, and borrow £200 on the strength of his expectations. Having borrowed £ 12 from two friends in Oswestry, he arrived in London in November 1802. Of his strange experience there, of his negotiations with the money-lenders, of how he was often on the brink of starvation, of how he was succoured by the poor outcast Anne, he has given a full and touching account in his “Confessions of an Opium-Eater.” At length he was discovered and taken home, after going through experiences unique in their character, and leaving an indelible impress on the rest of his life. He remained with his mother for some time, after which, in 1803, he entered Worcester College, Oxford. His guardian could be prevailed upon to grant him only the shabby annual allowance of £100; but as he had recourse to his old friends the moneylenders, he was able to make himself tolerably comfortable. His University career was spent in as eccentric a manner as the rest of his life. Though he was an excellent classical scholar, he never attempted to make any figure in the studies of the place; following the bent of his own mind, he read what pleased him, and put academical routine at defiance."Oxford, ancient mother!” he exclaimed, “heavy with ancestral honours, time-honoured, and, haply it may be, time-shattered power, I owe hee nothing! Of thy vast riches I took not a shilling, though living among multitudes who owed to thee their daily bread." He speaks of the "tremendous hold taken at this time of his entire sensibilities by our own literature ; ” and he appears also to have bestowed attention on the study
of German literature and philosophy. He continued in nomi- . nal residence at the university 'till 1808, but never made any attempt to obtain a degree.
While at Oxford, De Quincey made frequent visits to Lon. don, and became acquainted with some literary celebrities. In 1809 he took up his residence in the Lake district, occupying the cottage at Grasmere which had been quitted by Wordsworth, with whom and Coleridge he had previously become acquainted. This cottage remained in his tenancy for twenty-seven years, and during twenty of these it was his principal place of abode. “From this era,” he writes, “during a period of about twenty years in succession, I may describe my domicile as being amongst the Lakes and mountains of Westmoreland. It is true, I have often made excursions to London, Bath, and its neighbourhood, or northwards to Edinburgh; and perhaps, on an average, passed one-fourth part of each year at a distance from this district; but here only it was that henceforwards I had a house and small establishment.” At Grasmere, De Quincey first became a confirmed opium-eater. He began to use the pernicious drug in 1804, but till 1812 he only took it occasionally, "fixing beforehand how often in a given time, and when, I would commit a debauch of opium." In 1813 “I was attacked," he says, "by a most appalling irritation of the stomach, in all respects the same as that which had caused me so much suffering in youth, and accompanied by a revival of the old dreams. Now then it was, viz., in the year 1813, that I became a regular and confirmed (no longer an intermit. ting) opium-eater.” His appetite for the fatal narcotic grew by what it fed on, till in 1816 he was taking the enormous quantity of 8000 drops of laudanum per day. About the end of that year he married, and by vigorous efforts succeeded in reducing his daily allowance to 1000 drops. About a year after, however, he again succumbed to the tempter, and for three or sour years took sometimes even so much as 12,000 drops per day. His affairs having become embarrassed, he made a second attempt to free himself; and so far succeeded, that, though he remained an opium-eater till the end of his life, he De Quincey's Characteristics. 363 did not again carry the practice to such an extent as to incapacitate him for literary exertion.
De Quincey's first published literary efforts appeared in the Westmoreland Gazette, which he edited for about a year, between 1819-20, for the slender remuneration of a guinea a week. In the London Magazine for 1821 appeared his most popular work, the “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.” They created, naturally enough, a great sensation, and at once gave the author widespread celebrity. In the following year they were reprinted in a separate volume. To the London Magazine De Quincey continued a frequent contributor to 1824. His other principal literary engagements may be briefly summed up. In 1826 began his contributions to Blackwood's Magazine, for which he wrote about fifty papers. In 1834 he became a writer in Tait's Magazine, to which he contributed many of his most characteristic autobiographical papers, some of which have never been reprinted, although they are well worth reprinting. In 1849 he began his connection with Hogg's Instructor, to the publisher of which, Mr. James Hogs, we are indebted for the English edition of his collected works. He also wrote certain articles in the North British Review and in the “Encyclopædia Britannica," and published in 1844 a volume on the "Logic of Political Economy.” From 1843 he lived at Lasswade, a small village near Edinburgh, in which city he died in 1859.
De Quincey's eccentric appearance and habits have made him the theme of many anecdotes and reminiscences. He was a very little, slender figure, not more than five feet high, with a finely intellectual head, and square, lofty brow. He took pleasure in alluding to his feeble constitution and slender frame. “A more worthless body than his own, the author is free to confess, cannot be. It is his pride to believe that it is the very ideal of a base, crazy, despicable, human systein, that hardly ever could have been meant to be seaworthy for two days under the ordinary storms and wear and tear of life ; and, indeed, if that were the creditable way of disposing of human bodies, he must own he should almost be ashamed to bequeath his wretched structure to any respectable dog.” Nevertheless his frame must have possessed considerable powers of endurance, for he often accompanied Wilson in his walks about the Lake district; and the man who was capable of doing that must have been no contemptible pedestrian. As a conversationist his talents were great; he would go on for hours talking in the most fascinating manner in silvery, gentle accents. His manners were extremely graceful and polished; but to many of the ordinary rules of society he paid no heed, being in these matters a law unto himself. Calling at Wilson's house in Edinburgh on one occasion to avoid a shower, he remained there for the greater part of a year, spending the earlier part of the day prostrated under the influence of opium, but recovering towards night, and delighting all by his brilliant conversation. “The time," writes Mrs. Gordon, Wilson's daughter, “when he was most brilliant was generally towards the early morning hours; and then, more than once, my father arranged his supper parties so that, sitting till three or four in the morning, he brought Mr. De Quincey to that point at which in charm and power of conversation he was so truly wonderful.” About money matters he was exceedingly negligent; those who knew him closely, it is said, laughed at the idea of coupling any notion of pecuniary or other like responsibility with his nature. Perhaps the tendency among those who have written on De Quincey has been to underrate his worldly wisdom and "knowingness.” At any rate, while reading certain reminiscences of him, one cannot help thinking that the Opium-eater sometimes laughed in his sleeve at those who were admiring his simple-mindedness.
The Opium-eater was a man of genius, if ever there was one. Most of his faults, even bis wire-drawing, his over-elaboration, his occasionally too profuse display of his knowledge, could scarcely have been committed by one less richly endowed. The crowning glory of his writings is their style, so full of involved melody, so exact and careful, so rich in magnificent apostrophes, so markedly original, so polished and elaborate. He never forgot that the prose writer, if he wishes to attain Charles Lamb.
365 excellence, must be as much of an artist as the poet, and fashion his periods and paragraphs with as much care as the poet elaborates his rhymes and cadences.
Many passages might be quoted from De Quincey of which the melody is so striking as to irresistibly attract attention, and make us linger lovingly over them apart altogether from the matter they contain. He cannot be altogether acquitted from the charge of egotism and pedantic quibbling; and it must be admitted that his humour is sometimes ponderous and far fetched. As a critic, he is in general remarkable for the breadth and fulness of his judgments; his mind had ranged over the whole world of literature, and he was singularly free from those limitations of taste which mar the work of many critics. He could read with equal pleasure Pope and Wordsworth, Coleridge and Goldsmith, Shakespeare and Milton. To say that he sometimes blundered as a critic is only to say that he was mortal-he never fully realised Goethe's genius, and he was unjust to Keats and Shelley. Some of the papers where he airs his scholarship most profusely are built up of materials obtained at second hand, but his classical erudition was certainly extraordinary for one not a scholar by profession. Altogether, this century has produced no more remarkable literary phenomenon, certainly none who has more fully developed the resources of the English language as the vehicle of harmonious prose.
The mantle of Addison and Steele sell upon three essayists who adorned the beginning of the present century, Lamb, Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt, men of very different talents and idiosyncrasies, but alike in having a genius for that inost difficult species of composition, essay-writing. Of these, the greatest was Charles Lamb (1775-1834), one of the most captivating and graceful writers of the century. His work is small in quantity, but how rare and delicate is it in quality! The son of a London lawyer's clerk, he was educated at Christ's Hospital, where he became acquainted with Coleridge, and, had not unkindly fate prevented, would have pursued his studies at Oxford or Cambridge. To one of his simple,