Saturday, August 15, 2015

My imagination flies

‘I just said - “My imagination flies, like Noah’s dove, from the ark of my mind . . . and finds no place on which to rest the sole of her foot except Coleridge - Wordsworth and Southey.” ’ This is a young Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of English Opium-Eater, born 230 years ago today, confessing to his diary how he yearned to meet the Lake Poets. Later, of course, he would meet them; and some of his most important contributions to literature would be writing about those very poets. Unfortunately, it seems, he only kept that one diary - not published until the 20th century - for a few months in 1803.

Thomas was born in Manchester on 15 August 1785. His father, Quincey, also Thomas, was a successful merchant. In 1796, three years after the death of an elder sister and then his father, his mother moved to Bath and changed the family name to De Quincey. Thomas was enrolled in a series of schools, and proved a precocious student. During 1800-1801, he came into contact with various literary figures, and became keen on the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. Having been refused permission to enter Oxford early, he absconded from Manchester grammar in 1802. His family, accepting the decision, allowed him one guinea a week, and he set off on a walking tour in North Wales.

De Quincey, however, soon lost his regular guinea by failing to write letters home. He borrowed money, went to London, where he preferred destitution to the prospect of family constraints
. He later claimed to have been protected and comforted, innocently, by a young prostitute whom he celebrated in Confessions. Eventually, though, in early 1803, he was found by friends, and returned home. He was sent to stay in Everton, near Liverpool, for several months, and was then allowed to go to Worcester College, Oxford, on a reduced income. On the final day of his exams in 1808, he suffered a loss of nerve, and fled to London. During his student years, he had become acquainted with Coleridge and Wordsworth, and, in 1809, moved to Grasmere, in the Lake District, where he lived in Dove Cottage (once occupied by the Wordsworths - see Daffodils so beautiful). He studied German literature, planned an ambitious philosophical work, and travelled occasionally to London or Edinburgh.

De Quincey had first tried opium during a visit to London in 1804, apparently to ease the pain of toothache. By 1813, or so, his irregular use of the drug had become a daily habit. By the following year, he had begun an affair with Margaret, 18 at the time, who bore him a child in 1816. They married the following year, and would go on to have seven more children. However, De Quincey’s meagre income was failing, so he turned to journalism, finding employment as editor for a weekly Tory newspaper, The Westmorland Gazette. He proved poor at meeting deadlines, and, after a little more than a year, he relinquished the post. A position writing for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine was even more short-lived.

In the summer of 1821, he took lodgings in London, where he worked on Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, an account of his early life and opium addiction that appeared in the September and October issues of the London Magazine. His Confessions were an immediate success, and attracted nationwide attention. They were published in book form in 1822, and regularly reissued in his own life time, and ever since. Over the next five years, he published upwards of 20 essays for the magazine, but money problems persisted. In 1825, he was evicted from Fox Ghyll, Rydal (which he’d taken on when more money was coming in from the London Magazine), and went to live with Margaret’s parents. By 1830, the family had relocated to Edinburgh, where De Quincey was regularly contributing to Blackwood’s Magazine, but then mostly to Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine - often but a hair’s breadth from debtors’ prison.

From 1840 or so, De Quincey’s life became more stable, as his eldest daughter, Margaret, took charge of her father’s affairs and finances. Over the next decade and more, he published regularly: a series of reminiscences of the Lake Poets in Tait’s is considered one of his most important works. He also went back to Blackwood’s contributing several works including a sequel to Confesssions. From 1850, most of his work was being published by James Hogg in The Instructor. Ticknor and Fields of Boston, US, undertook to publish a collected edition of De Quincey’s works. The 22 volumes were poorly organised and flawed, which prompted Hogg to suggest that De Quincey himself work on a revised edition of his own writings. This task - including a much lengthened Confessions - took up most of the rest of his working life. It was while working on the fourteenth and last volume that he died, in 1859. Further information on De Quincey can be found at Wikipedia, Robert Morrison’s De Quincey website, reviews of Morrison’s biography (The English Opium Eater) such as at The Guardian or The Washington Post, or Notable Biographies. Confessions of an Opium-Eater is freely available at Internet Archive.

De Quincey kept a diary for a few short months, during his sojourn in Everton, before going to Oxford. It was first edited by Horace A. Eaton, Professor of English at Syracuse University in the US and published by Noel Douglas in 1927 as A Diary of Thomas De Quincey - Here reproduced in replica as well as in print from the original manuscript in the possession of the Reverend C. H. Steel. According to the book’s editor, the diary, 101 pages long, is contained in ‘a shabby little volume in quarto, with torn leaves and untidy scribbled pages, partly filled with a list of books’. Substantial further information about the diary can be found at the National Archives website. Here are a few sample extracts from the 1927 edition.

4 May 1803
‘Read 99 pages of “Accusg Spirit; - walked into the lanes; - met a fellow who counterfeited drunkenness or lunacy or idiocy; - I say counterfeited, because I am well convinced he was some vile outcast of society - a pest and disgrace to humanity. I was just on the point of hittg him a dab on his disgustg face when a gentleman (coming up) alarmed him and saved me trouble.’

5 May 1803
‘Last night I imaged to myself the heroine of the novel dying on an island of a lake, the chamber-windows (opening on a lawn) set wide open - and the sweet blooming roses breathing yr odours on her dying senses.[. . .]

Last night too I image myself looking through a glass. “What do you see?” I see a man in the dim and shadowy perspective and (as it were) in a dream. He passes along in silence, and the hues of sorrow appear on his countenance. Who is he? A man darkly wonderful - above the beings of this world; but whether that shadow of him, which you saw, be ye shadow of a man long since passed away or of one yet hid in futurity, I may not tell you.’

3 June 1803
‘Rise between 11 and 12 - go to W’s; - read out “Henry the Fourth”; (part 1st) which Mrs. E. pronounces “a very pretty play.” Almost immediately after this is finished  . . . dinner is announced; - I go without seeing Mr. W.; walk, by French prison and lane, to windmill on shore; - turn back along shore; cross over to French prison; - go to C’s; - dine there again by myself; - open a volume of the Encyclopaedia; read 2 pages of the life of Frederick the Great of Prussia . . . containing the origin of his acquaintance with Voltaire - his mode of spending the time as described by Voltaire; then read the article “French” (language) in the same volume; - open no other book; - go to W’s; ring and ask if the ladies are really gone, as they talked of doing, to Mossley; - find they are gone in spite of the rain; - walk to Everton; - find postman at door; - decypher a letter; - lend Miss B. 2s 3d to pay the postage of one; - the other (2s 2d) she leaves unpaid, though I offered to lend her the money; - both come from the coast of Africa; - Miss B. seems wild with joy; - has received money I suppose; I drink coffee.’

15 June 1803
I just said - “My imagination flies, like Noah’s dove, from the ark of my mind . . . and finds no place on which to rest the sole of her foot except Coleridge - Wordsworth and Southey.” This morning (and indeed many times before) I said - “Bacon’s mind appears to me like a great abyss - on the brink of which the imagination startles and shudders to look down” - Of that gilded fly of Corsica - Bonaparte - I said just now (what I have applied to others too - using it as a general curse) “May he be thirsty to all eternity - and have nothing but cups of damnation to drink.” ’

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