Friday, July 25, 2008

Thomas De Quincey's permanent ephemera - reading 150 year old magazine articles

Wuthering Expectations seem to have been wandering away from the 19th century a bit. It's because of the upcoming* trip to Japan. I'm all kerfoozled.

Or maybe it's what I'm reading, Thomas De Quincey's bizarre, baffling Suspiria de Profundis (1845) and The English Mail-Coach (1849), nominally two sequels to his most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822).

Note the dates - the sequels, such as they are, arrive more than twenty years after the original piece. During that time, De Quincey's prose, plenty odd to begin with, has become more tangled, more obscure, more strange. Childhood memoir - the death of De Qunicey's young sister from "premature expansion of the intellect" (encephalitis), or school tales about composing Latin poetry - alternate with visionary episodes describing "The Apparition of the Brocken" or the destuction by earthquake of the Jamaican town Savannah-la-Mar, Poe's "City in the Sea" in prose.

This all ties in somehow to the visions De Qunicey has under the influence of opium. The "Dream-Fugue" that ends The English Mail-Coach may or may not pull it all together.

The Confessions is a foundational work, cemented in place by Charles Baudelaire, of Decadent literature, not a place I normally spend much time. With this later writing, De Quincey is pushing into the Visionary category, beyond reason, perhaps beyond interpretation.

The oddest thing, in a way, is that these pieces, as well as Confessions, as well as basically anything by De Quincey that anyone still reads, are magazine articles. When you received your March 1845 issue of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in the post, you would open it to find Part I of Suspiria de Profundis right up front. You can follow that with a reviews of Stephens' Book of the Farm and Lord Malmesbury's Diaries and Correspondence, an essay on "British History in the Eighteenth Century," and, you've been waiting breathlessly, I know, Part II of "German-American Romances".

It's all anonymous, except for a mediocre poem attributed to "J.D."

Most of William Hazlitt's best essays, Charles Lamb's great Elias essays, almost everything Poe wrote, healthy chunks of Emerson, Hawthorne, Carlyle, are all magazine writing, something I usually think of as ephemera. Another idea to rethink.

This might be a good place to point to praymont's attempts to improve his prose through perusal of Carlyle, Lamb, and Hazlitt. I predict success with the Hazlitt more than the others, but would love to be proven wrong. What would a contemporary Carlyle sound like? So best of luck.

* Upcoming = tomorrow.


  1. I loved those De Quincey essays. I also love the idea of them being published in magazines! Why don't we have magazines like that today? I wouldn't expect the mail coach essay to wrap everything up ... I loved those essays, but they were strange, indeed.

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  3. Yes, I'm finding that some elements of their prose style are archaic and idiosyncratic. I often have to consult a dictionary while reading Lamb, but usually for words that seem no longer to be in use; once, the dictionary provided as an example of correct usage the bit of Lamb that I had just read. You're right about Hazlitt. He's much less circuitous, much more 'on point'. I esp. liked a long extract from Hazlitt's "letter to Gifford" (a reviewer who had panned Keats' poems) that I found quoted in a letter by Keats from 1819. There, Hazlitt writes of Gifford's "mercenary malice" and adds, "Your vanity panders to your interest, and your malice truckles only to your love of Power." Ouch! 'Truckles' ... I've got to keep that one in mind.

  4. Speaking of confessions, I've never read any de Quincey--clearly I'm missing out.

    I'm pretty sure nobody should read Carlyle in the hopes of improving their prose. J. S. Mill, on the other hand...

  5. Dorothy, thanks for the useful enthusiasm. If I read some crazy thing, it may just be because I'm crazy - it's unconvincing. Your second is very helpful.

    As for an award, why thank you. I would like to thanks my lawyer, and my accountants, and my life coach. I'll have to spend some time poking around your new blog.

    I really love Lamb, more than Hazlitt, certainly more than unlovable Carlyle, but Hazlitt seems to me to be one of the earliest writers who is still very much of our time, a modernist.

    Mill - that's a good idea. So is De Quincey's brief "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth", which may even have some distant relation to the Thurber story you teach.

  6. I read De Quincey 25 years ago. You've got my attention. I should give him another go.

    You can often find bound editions of 19th magazines in used books stores. I've several years worth to The Strand that I picked up a while back. The unbound versions cost much more.

  7. That would be a good time to reread these essays - 25 years from now.