Page images
[ocr errors]




ART. I.-Selections, Grave and Gay, from Writings published and unpublished by Thomas De Quincey. Edinburgh and London, 1854-60. 14 vols. 12mo.


HE position of De Quincey in the literature of the present day is remarkable. We might search in vain for a writer who, with equal powers, has made an equally slight impression upon the general public. His style is superb: his powers of rea soning unsurpassed: his imagination is warm and brilliant, and his humour both masculine and delicate. Yet with this singular combination of gifts, he is comparatively little known outside of that small circle of men who love literature for its own sake, which, in proportion to the population, is not an increasing class. Of the causes which contributed to this result, such as depended on his own character will develop themselves in the course of our remarks. Of the others, it is sufficient to point out these two, that he neither completed any one great work, nor enjoyed the advantage of being represented by any great periodical; a circumstance which has sometimes given permanence and unity to a writer's reputation as effectively as independent authorship. That his essays are not, in general, upon popular subjects is of course another element in the case; although they only require to be read to show how easily a man of genius can lubricate the gravest topics by his own overflowing humour, without making the slightest approximation to either flippancy or coarseness. As we fancy, however, that even less is known of his birth, parentage, and education, than of his literary remains, we shall endeavour to make our sketch of him complete by prefacing our critical remarks with a brief memoir of his earlier career as far as it can be extracted from the fragmentary materials which he has left us.


The subject of this article was born at The Farm,' a country house occupied by his father near Manchester, on the 15th of August, 1785. But his earliest recollections were of Greenhays,' a villa near the same town, where he was brought up in all the comfort and elegance of the household of an opulent English merchant. His family was of Norwegian origin, but, as he assured George III., had been in England since the Conquest. Thomas was the fifth of eight children, and, if his own reminiscences are to Vol. 110.-No. 219. be


be credited, was a warmhearted but musing, imaginative, and rather weakly child. The death of two elder sisters before he had completed his sixth year left a lasting impression on his mind; and he has described, in language of great force and beauty, his sensations at the funeral of one, and the singular dreams with which his first experience of death inspired him. His father died when Thomas was in his seventh year, leaving Greenhays, with a fortune of 16007. a-year, to his widow. This father the child had scarcely ever seen. Business kept him constantly abroad; and the only means by which he contrived to see his family at all was by meeting them occasionally at a watering-place, to which Thomas was considered too young to be taken. But Mr. De Quincey's death brought back another comparative stranger to the family hearth, in the shape of the eldest boy, then about twelve years of age, who had been educated at Louth Grammar School. The advent of this brother precipitated De Quincey's 'Introduction to the world of strife,' an initiation which he admits was not without considerable advantage both to his moral and physical constitution. His natural addiction to loneliness and dreaming, combined with grief for his sisters' loss, was generating in him an unwholesome condition of both mind and body, which his brother's arrival rudely, but opportunely, dissipated. De Quincey says himself, in reference to this period of his childhood, that he thanks Providence for four things-first, that he lived in a rustic solitude; secondly, that the solitude was in England; thirdly, that his infant feelings were moulded by the gentlest of sisters,' instead of horrid pugilistic brothers;' finally, that he and they were members of a pure, holy, and magnificent Church.' But our readers must not suppose that De Quincey had any real doubt about the paramount utility of a public school education; though at the age of six years 'the world of strife,' as opened to him by his elder brother, proved anything but soothing to his feelings. This brother seems, in all respects, to have been a remarkable boy. He read lectures on physics to the rest of the nursery. He endeavoured to construct an apparatus for walking across the ceiling like a fly, first on the principle of skates, and subsequently upon that of a humming-top. He was profound on the subject of necromancy, and frequently terrified his young admirers by speculating on the possibility of a general confederation of the ghosts of all time against a single generation of men. He made a balloon; and wrote, and in conjunction with his brothers and sisters performed, two acts of a tragedy, in which all the personages were beheaded at the end of each act, leaving none to carry on the play, a perplexity which ultimately caused 'Sultan Amurath' to be abandoned to the housemaids. In all these matters,


« PreviousContinue »