The Idol Worshiper

~ Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson ~

It’s hard sometimes to understand the enthusiasms of others. It can be especially difficult to sympathize with the fleeting and fashion-driven passions of the young. What forty-seven-year-old doesn’t blush at certain things he obsessed about when he was seventeen? But novelty can make admirers of people who ought by the logic of their own character to find no very fervent interest in the shiny new thing.

Consider the case of Thomas De Quincey. As described in Frances Wilson’s excellent biography, he became a teenage disciple of William Wordsworth after reading poems from the Lyrical Ballads in manuscript. It was the turning point of his life. Within a few years young De Quincey had so far insinuated himself into his guru’s family that he came to live with them, stood godfather to one of their children, and took over the lease of Dove Cottage at Grasmere when they moved out. And yet it’s hard to imagine two writers of the English Romantic period more different from one another than Wordsworth and De Quincey.

Wordsworth was a gangly hill walker with self-aggrandizing poetical theories who posed as a Cumbrian shepherd-philosopher and champion of rural England in his verse but who refused social contact with the love-match wife of De Quincey because she was the daughter of a peasant. He was, by his own estimate, a literary and moral genius whose exquisite attunement to the zephyrs of poesy set him apart from the multitude like a swan amid throngs of cormorants. If his poetry was not entirely an exercise in sentimentality, it was still boring enough to get him made Laureate.

De Quincey, by contrast, was a sort of gremlin, less than five feet tall, with a giant’s head atop a child’s body. Intellectually gifted, he was shy and weak and seemed to take pleasure in the contempt of others. Shocked as a boy by the death and at-home autopsy of his sister Elizabeth, he was fascinated by violence and murder all his life. Nursed on Arabian Nights and the novels of Ann Radcliffe, De Quincey suffered Piranesian visions of infinite ladders, infinite rooms, and infinite seas even before he became the Opium Eater of his famous Confessions. He felt himself haunted by a double self he called the “Dark Interpreter.”

There was more of Coleridge in him than of Wordsworth. In fact, De Quincey usurped the place Coleridge once held in Wordsworth’s circle. Wordsworth never considered De Quincey anything more than a disappointing acolyte but Coleridge saw that De Quincey’s “façade of meekness disguised turbulence and ferocity.” That ferocity emerged when, sick of life in the great man’s shadow, De Quincey took an axe to the sacred grove of his idol and chopped down Wordsworth’s beloved orchard at Dove Cottage. He later observed that “men of extraordinary genius and force of mind are far better as objects for distant admiration than as daily companions.”

But De Quincey wasn’t altogether ferocious. He had been briefly homeless on the streets of London and had lived sympathetically among uneducated thieves and prostitutes. He loved children and would spend hours playing with the little Wordsworths. De Quincey’s letters to young John show real tenderness, and he shed more tears at the death of four-year-old Catherine than her father did. Unlike Wordsworth, De Quincy also had a sense of humor, as I rediscovered while reading some of the better passages from Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts to my family at the dinner table.

In midlife De Quincey traded the Lake District for Edinburgh. He published essays (often dishing on Wordsworth and Coleridge) in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and London Magazine. His wife died in her forties. With the younger of their eight children in the care of the grown ones, De Quincey frequently relocated under cover of night to keep ahead of creditors and disgruntled landlords who held his papers for ransom. He claimed debtor’s sanctuary at Holyrood Abbey, only to find himself sued for debt by fellow asylum seekers, forcing him to flee again. His friends often regretted taking him in since he might come for an evening but stay six months. “The first difficulty,” one recalled, “was to induce him to visit you. The second was to reconcile him to leaving.”

For all his youthful adulation of the man, it’s hard to say what De Quincey got from Wordsworth beyond a second-rate father figure and marketable memories. If Wordsworth’s was the spirit of the age, it wasn’t near kin to De Quincey’s own spirit. His lineage as a writer seems to derive more straightforwardly from Jonathan Swift and the gothic novelists of the late eighteenth century; it leads on from himself to Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Louis Stevenson, and perhaps Conan Doyle. Jorge Luis Borges claimed De Quincey as an influence.

As it happens, I was first introduced to De Quincey in my teens. His writing was an adolescent enthusiasm that Frances Wilson’s book has helped to revive in me, without a blush. It was that flashy title Confessions of an English Opium Eater and the Chinese dragon on the cover that first hooked me, and I still own the Penguin paperback copy I bought in 1989. I was mesmerized by De Quincey’s drug-fueled dreamscapes and just able to catch some of the baroque music of his language. Impressionable as I was, I can at least report that reading it did not turn me into an opium addict.

Asked if he had tempted others into falling prey to his notorious infirmity, De Quincey answered: “Teach opium-eating! Did I teach wine drinking? Did I reveal the mystery of sleeping? Did I inaugurate the infirmity of laughter?”

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