Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thomas de Quincey, Essays on Rhetoric, Style, and Language

Thomas de Quincey, Essays on Style, Rhetoric, and Language, ed. Fred N. Scott, Ph. D., Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1893.

The De Quincey stock, supposed to be of Norse extraction, had many branches, of which the American family, represented by the elder Josiah Quincy, had alone arrived at any great distinction. (Introduction, ix)

The tasks of the school-room were, as he has recorded in his ‘Confessions of an Opium-Eater,’ far below his capabilities. At thirteen he had mastered Greek, writing it with careless ease. At fifteen, when he entered the Manchester School, his command of the language, he tells us, was so great, that he not only composed Greek verses in lyric metres, but by extemporaneous translation from the newspapers, had acquired the ability to converse in Greek fluently and without embarrassment. “That boy,” said his teacher to a stranger, “could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.” (x)

From July to November, 1802, De Quincey tramped about the North of Wales. As long as the weather would permit, he lived in the open air, sleeping at night in a small tent which he carried about with him. Of the many incidents of his outing, the most important was his meeting with one De Haren, of whom we know nothing, save that having a trunkful of German books, he introduced De Quincey to the German language and read with him a good deal of German literature. During this time De Quincey was in contrast fear lest his guardians should send him back to the Grammar School The idea was so hateful to him, that he resolved finally to bury himself in the solitude of London, until, having attained his majority, he should be free to pursue his studies where he chose. (xi)

A delicately organized, highly educated young man of seventeen, he attached himself, much as a lost dog would do, to a disreputable lawyer of the name of Brunell. He ate chance fragments form his patron’s table, and by night slept in the lawyer’s great, empty, rat-haunted house. During the day he walked the street, or sat on the benches in the parks. The Bohemian life endured for some months before he was by accident discovered by his friends, and persuaded to return home. (xi)

His guardians now giving their consent to his attending the University, in 1805 he went to Oxford. His life while there, however, was so little less secluded than it had been in London that he afterward declared he owed nothing to the University. If he owed anything it was his acquaintance with a German named Scwartzburg, with whom he studied Hebrew and read German philosophy. When he came up for his examinations his paper aroused great expectations among his examiners; but, with characteristic timidity, for some slight reason he failed to appear at the oral examination, an din consequence did not obtain his degree. (xi-xii)

Although it was many years before De Quincey called public attention to himself, he began even while yet a resident at Oxford, to form the acquaintance of eminent men of letters. With Wordsworth he had opened correspondence as early as 1803. During a visit to London he called upon Charles Lamb. In 1805, conceiving a violent admiration for Coleridge, who was than in Malta, De Quincey was for starting at once for that island merely to get a glimpse of the poet. This impulse was not followed, but two years later he met Coleridge… (xii)

In Wordsworth’s cottage at Grasmere which he had rented upon the poet’s removal to Allen Bank, he spent his time in reading German philosophy, principally the works of Kant, and planning books which never got themselves written. At one time he meditated coming to America to bury himself in the forest solitudes and there digest the Kantian philosophy. Instead, he married, in 1816, Miss Margaret Simpson, daughter of a neighboring landholder, and cultivated the acquaintance of distinguished neighbors… The was during this period that the opium habit came upon him. He had begun to take opium as a medicine as early as 1803, … From 1813, however, he took the drug for its own sake, and took it in large and rapidly increasing quantities, until in 1817-19, to the great distress of his wife and friends, his subjection to its influence was complete. (xii-xiii)

In that periodical, in September, 1821, appeared the ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,’ and immediately upon its appearance De Quincey’s reputation as a new force in English prose literature, was solidly established. (xiii)

In 1826, through Wilson’s influence, he became a regular contributor to Blackwood’s Magazine. This connection, which brought him frequently to Edinburgh, at length led him to move to that city with his family. (xiii)

De Quincey’s wife died in 1840. Three years later, he rented a small cottage at Lasswade, seven miles distant from Edinburgh, and moved into it with his children, though retaining a room in the city in which to do his work and store his innumerable paper. The remainder of his life was almost barren of events. A few visits to Glasgow, a journey to Scotland to see his married daughter and his grandchildren, an occasional struggle with his old enemy opium—these were the sole interruptions in the quiet current of his life. … he died at his lodgings in Edinburgh, December 8, 1859, in his seventy-fifth year. (xiv)

…a very little man (about five feet three or four inches); his countenance the most remarkable for its intellectual attractiveness that I have ever seen. His features, though not regular, were aristocratically fine, and an air of delicate breeding pervaded the face. (xiv)

De Quincey’s personality was a curious and perplexing compound of timidity, unsophistication, humor, gloominess, sociability, temper, gentleness, and prejudice. He was so shy, that, when passing a London cabstand, “he refrained, with nervous solicitude, form any gesture that might warrant any driver in concluding himself summoned.” In money matters his innocence was such, that he once attempted to exchange a fifty-pound note for a handful of shillings. Most of his writings are pervaded by a humorous spirit, but any direct attempt at the humorous generally results in flat failure. It is not too much to say that he had no fund of moral seriousness, nor any views of politics or social matters in which he earnestly believed. (xv)

De Quincey did not have the philosophic cast of intellect; he never succeeded in getting more than a superficial idea of the Kantian philosophy; but in his time it was something that a man of letters should be able to read Kant at all, and, that he should be able to write about him sympathetically in clear English prose, was, for the future of German ideas in England, an advantage hardly to be overrated. (xvi)

The quality which distinguishes De Quincey as a writer of prose, is his ability to conceive, in language, a constructive whole of a musical order. “The more exquisite passages,” says Leslie Stephen, “are intended to be musical compositions, in which words have to play the part of notes.” (xvi-xvii)

He was passionately fond of Beethoven. (xvii)

“Humbler writers,” … They no more think of weaving whole paragraphs or chapters into complex harmonies, than an ordinary pedestrian of ‘going to church in a galliard and coming home in a coranto.’ Even our great writers generally settle down to a stately, but monotonous gait, after the fashion of Johnson or Gibbon, or, are content with adopting a style as transparent and inconspicuous as possible.” (xvii)

Had De Quincey’s scientific faculty equaled his powers of construction, he might have produced a treatise on style as important for the history of criticism as Aristotle’s ‘Rhetoric’ or ‘Poetics.’ But his learning and his methods of investigation were in no sense scientific. (xviii)

The slightest suggestion sufficed to set him off upon a long digression. (xviii)

‘Essay on Style’ … Like the other essays of this volume, it completes but a part of the originally projected plan. As usual, De Quincey, starting in without any well-defined conception of his subject-matter, allows his ideas to shape themselves as he goes alont. (xviii)

It is certain, for instance, that to the deep sincerity of British nature, and to that shyness or principle of reserve which is inseparable form self-respect, must be traced philosophically the churlishness and unsocial bearing for which, at one time, we were so angrily arraigned by the smooth south of Europe. (1)

…we feel ashamed for the obstinate obtuseness of our country in regard to one and the most effective of the Fine Arts. It will be understood that we speak of Music. In Painting and in Sculpture it is now past disputing that, if we are destined to inferiority at all, it is an inferiority only to the Italians of the fifteenth century—an inferiority which, if it were even sure to be permanent, we share with all the other malicious nations around us. on that head we are safe. And in the most majestic of the Fine Arts,--in Poetry,--we have a clear and vast pre-eminence as regards all nations. … therefore… we cannot be allowed to suppose any general defect of sensibility as a cause of obtuseness with regard to music. (3)

A song, an air, a tune,—that is, a short succession of notes revolving rapidly upon itself,—how could that, by possibility, offer a field of compass sufficient for the development of great musical effects? The preparation pregnant with the future; the remote correspondence; the questions, as it were, which to a deep musical sense are asked in one passage and answered in another; the iteration and ingemination of a given effect, moving through subtle variations that sometimes disguise the theme, sometimes fitfully reveal it, sometimes throw it out tumultuously to the blaze of daylight: these and ten thousand forms of self-conflicting musical passion,--what room could they find, what opening, what utterance, in so limited a field as an air or song? … Yet exactly upon this level is the ordinary state of musical feeling throughout Great Britain; and the howling wilderness of the psalmody in most parish churches of the land countersigns the statement. … in the worst case we have the satisfaction of knowing, though Jean Jacques Rousseau, and by later evidences, [5] that, sink as we may below Italy and Germany in the sensibility to this divne art, we cannot go lower than France. (5)

In proportion, therefore, as the English people have been placed for two centuries and a quarter (i.e. since the latter decennium of James the First’s reign) under a constant experience of popular eloquence thrown into all channels of social life, they must have had peculiar occasion to feel the effects of style. But to feel is not to feel consciously. Many a man is charmed by one cause who ascribes the effect to another. Many a man is fascinated by the artifices of composition who fancies that it is the subject which has operated so potently. And even for the subtlest of philosophers who keeps in mind the interpenetration of the style and the matter it would be as difficult to distribute the true proportions (7)

In the senate, and for the same reason in a newspaper, it is a virtue to reiterate your meaning: a tautology becomes a merit: variation of the words, … A man who should content himself with a single condensed enunciation of a perplexed doctrine would be a madman… Like boys who are throwing the sun’s rays into the eyes of mob by means of a mirror, you must shift your lights and vibrate your reflections at every possible angle, if you would agitate [8] the popular mind extensively. (7-8)

But, return being impossible in the case of a spoken harangue, where each sentence perishes as it is born, … It is for the benefit of both that the weightier propositions should be detained before the eye a good deal longer than the chastity of taste or the austerity of logic would tolerate in a book. (8)

Generally and ultimately it is certain that our British disregard or inadequate appreciation of style, though a very lamentable fault, has had its origin in the manliness of the British character; in the sincerity and directness of the British taste; (10)

The next writers of distinction who came forward as rhetoricians were Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy and Milton in many of his prose works. They labour under opposite defects. Burton is too quaint, fantastic, and disjointed; Milton too slow, solemn, and continuous. In the one we see the flutter of a parachute; in the other the stately and voluminous gyrations of an ascending balloon. Agile movement, and a certain degree of fancifulness, are indispensable to rhetoric. But Burton is not so much fanciful as capricious; his motion is not the motion of freedom, but of lawlessness; he does not dance, but caper. Milton, on the other hand, polonaises with a grand Castilian air, in paces too sequacious and processional; even in his passages of merriment, and when stung into a quicker motion by personal disdain for an unworthy antagonist, his thoughts and his imagery still appear to move to the music of the organ. (159)

Jeremy Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne; who, if not absolutely the foremost in the accomplishments of art, were undoubtedly the richest, the most dazzling, and, with reference to their matter, the most captivating, of all rhetoricians. (161)

Sir Thomas Browne, deep, tranquil, and majestic as Milton, silently premeditating and “disclosing his golden couplets,” as under some genial instinct of incubation; Jeremy Taylor, restless, fervid, aspiring, scattering abroad a prodigality of life, not unfolding but creating, with the energy and the “myriad-mindedness” of Shakespeare. (162)

The only very obvious defects of Taylor were in the mechanical part of his art, in the mere technique. He writes like one who never revises, nor tries the effect upon his ear of his periods as musical wholes, and in the syntax and connexion of the parts seems to have been habitually careless of slight blemishes. (166)


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