De Quincey

Citation metadata

Author: Leslie Stephen
Editors: Laurie Lanzen Harris and Sheila Fitzgerald
Date: 1983
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,809 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

[Stephen's reaction to De Quincey represents a sharp contrast to the general opinion of De Quincey critics in the nineteenth century. While Stephen acknowledges the poetic and musical qualities of De Quincey's “impassioned prose,” he ultimately maintains that De Quincey was incapable either of concentration or logical thinking.]

Little more than eleven years ago there passed from among us a man who held a high and very peculiar position in English literature. For seventy-three years De Quincey had been carrying on an operation, which, for want of a better term, we must describe as living, but which would be more fitly described by some mode of speech indicating an existence on the confines of dreamland and reality.... [He] was a strange, unsubstantial being, flitting uncertainly about in the twilight regions of society, emerging by fits and starts into visibility, afflicted with a general vagueness as to the ordinary duties of mankind, and always and everywhere taking much more opium than was good for him. (p. 310)

De Quincey implicitly puts forward a claim which has been accepted by many competent critics. They declare, and he tacitly assumes, that he is a master of the English language. He claims a sort of infallibility in deciding upon the precise use of words and the merits of various styles. But he explicitly claims something more. He declares that he has used language for purposes to which it has hardly been applied by any prose writers. The Confessions of an Opium-eater and the Suspiria de Profundis are, he tells us, “modes of impassioned prose, ranging under no precedents that I am aware of in any literature.” The only confessions that have previously made any great impression upon the world are those of St. Augustine and of Rousseau; but, with one short exception in St. Augustine, neither of those compositions contains any passion, and, therefore. De Quincey stands absolutely alone as the inventor and sole performer on a new musical instrument—for such an instrument is the English language in his hands. He belongs to a genus in which he is the only individual. The novelty and the difficulty of the task must be his apology if he fails, and causes of additional glory if he succeeds. He alone of all human beings who have stained paper since the world began, has entered a path, which the absence of rivals proves to be encumbered with some unusual obstacles. The accuracy and value of so bold a claim require a short examination. After all, every writer, however obscure, may contrive by a judicious definition to put himself into a solitary class. He has some peculiarities which distinguish him from all other mortals. He is the only journalist who writes at a given epoch from a particular garret in Grub Street, or the only poet who is exactly six feet high and measures precisely forty-two inches round the chest. Any difference whatever may be applied to purposes of classification, and the question is whether the difference is, or...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420012754