21 AUGUST 1936, Page 24

De Quincey : The Facts

UNTIL this year the only detailed source for the facts of De Quince2,'s life was a full-length biography, issued in an augmented edition in 1890, by Alexander Japp. This is in no way a good book ; as a portrait of the man it is much less than adequate ; as an appreciation of the writer it hardly exists ; it is a marvel of bad arrangement. Also it is syco- phantic and inaccurate. It must be many years ago now that Mr. Eaton, realising this, set himself the enormous task of amassing and sorting the complete facts—often shadowy and unseizable, almost always insufficient—of the Opium-Eater's astonishing and fascinating, if uneventful life. I italicise the word complete in order to emphasise the essential nature of this excellent book ; for, as the author points out in his preface, he has not " undertaken to elaborate at length upon " De Quincey's " mind and art."' The book, which is very long, is otherwise exhaustive, and the amateur of De Quincey can now be sure that there is no important fact about his hero's life of which he is not in full possession.

The new material which has come to light consists of the letters to William and Dorothy Wordsworth, the Diary of 1803, and a certain number of letters and MSS. in the Bairdsmith collection, to which Japp had access but of which he did not always make judicious use. This new material is at many points vital to an understanding of De Quincey, but nowhere more so than in the insight it gives us into his mind at the period of adolescence. Until the revelation of the Diary and of that first glowing letter to Wordsworth (which Japp thought lost and of which we now possess more than one rough draft, as well as the copy eventually sent), it was difficult to fit the evidently adventurous boy on to the prim, prematurely old man of the Confessions period. Now the transition is adequately accounted for : the Diary presents us with what was evidently a spiritual recuperation after the horror and misery of the London adventure--a recuperation during which De Quincey set himself to forget and to look forward. As Mr. Eaton" Observes, " De Quince), could not in any way have seen his immediate past and his immediate future as the continuous pattern which was later tO develop into the settled terrors of the next decade." And he adds later, with great acumen : " His was a nature of much reason and little judg- ment ; of long endurance and unexpected action." I feel myself that these last characteristics came into play in the mysterious .affair of the forty-guinea letter, of which I have given my own account elsewhere, but which Mr. Eaton refuses to regard as a mystery at all. He takes De Quincey's own explanation at its face value, and here—as in one or two other places—I feel that he has carried too far his determination to esehew .corm lent and explanation in favour of him statement. That eourse is sometimes the fairest, but at others it leads to flatness and unreality.

Elsewhere the exhaustive nature of Mr. Eaton's task threatens to spoil the perspective of the book, considered as a biography : the very full account of De Quincey's part in the production of Wordsworth's Convention of Cintra pamphlet, and also of his editorship of the Westmorland Gazette, will certainly bore most readers ; but as exhibitions of scholarship they are unimpeachable. In the matter of the pamphlet, Mr. Eaton Suggests that its ultimate failure, which was attributed by some (including Coleridge) to De Quincey's meddling, may have been one of the factors contributing to Wordsworth's later coldness towards De Quincey. This seems unlikely, in view of the fact that the poet testified to his satisfaction with De Quincey's help in a sentence which is a superb example of Wordsworth's conceit " Mr. De Quincey will .do me the justice to believe that,:4 reisoW*--he ira4-eoMPletery .toaster Of the subject, my expectations would high ;. and if I tOld that these were answered, ailiat:need .1Or cjauld ,bray more ? " What indeed? 1.:ater. on; in dsseussiiai of die breach, Mr. Eaton opines-that De_ Quineey's irregular marriage was the chief cause of the trouble. There is no doubt that Wordsworth took a grave view of this ; but I think that it was more probably the opium which was the decisive factor, as much with the ladies of the family as with Wordsworth himself.

I have a few bones to pick with Mr. Eaton. One concerns his astonishment (first voiced by Dykes Campbell) that Coleridge should have poured out his heart in confession to the young De Quincey so soon after first meeting him. But surely this was most natural in a man like Coleridge, who could never he bothered with mere acquaintanceship, who became intimate with people at once or not at all. His was the innocent, trustful temperament which finds it easier to confide in a complete stranger than in an old friend. Mr. Eaton seems to me to make another psychological error when, in discussing the reason for De Quincey's interest in crimes of violence, he says : " Perhaps the horrors of his own dreams may have predisposed him to dwell upon the horrors of life." But such dreams would be extremely to have this effect ; what is more probable is that vicarious violence was De Quincey's substitute for the excitement and action which was so conspicuously absent from his life. It is for analogous reasons that the law-abiding citizen of today resorts to films of gangster life.

Mr. Eaton's only definite mistake is an odd one : -lie per- petna-tes Japp's reading of the 9th " Constituent of Human Happiness," drawn up by De Quincey during his -Oxford period, as "a vast predominance of contempt." The word is plainly a misreading for " contemplation," since it is followed by the words " varied with only so muck of action as the feelings may prompt by way of relief and invigoration to the faculty of contemplation." Action would not " vary " contempt, which is in any case an emotion De Quincey could at no time have approved as a general attitude.

When -one comes to the end of this book—so careful, so laborious, so just in -tone—one cannot help feeling astonished that the author should not, while he was about - it, have attempted a more thoroughgoing criticism of the man and his writings, the more so as any .remarks he does make on the subject of De Quincey's literary efforts are both pointful and clear. It is a pity—and, in view of the author's evident critical ability, unnecessary—that a book of these dimensions should leave an impression of superficiality. The concluding chapter, in which Mr, Eaton sums up De Quincey's character and pretensions, is admirable, as far as it goes ; but one wishes that he had made his points on the way, so to speak, sub- stantiating them with details from the life and works, instead of leaving all the deductions to the reader, who is not always worthy of so high a trust. •L,