[Illustration: ROOM IN DOVE COTTAGE OCCUPIED BY WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE, AND DE QUINCEY.]
Works.—Nearly all De Quincey’s writings were contributed to magazines. His first and greatest contribution was The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published in the London Magazine. These Confessions are most remarkable for the brilliant and elaborate style in which the author’s early life and his opium dreams are related. His splendid, yet melancholy, dreams are the most famous in the language.
De Quincey’s wide reading, especially of history, supplied the material for many of them. In these dreams he saw the court ladies of the “unhappy times of Charles I.,” witnessed Marius pass by with his Roman legions, “ran into pagodas” in China, where he “was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms,” and “was buried for a thousand years, in stone coffins, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids” in Egypt.
His dreams were affected also by the throngs of people whom he had watched in London. He was haunted by “the tyranny of the human face.” He says:—
“Faces imploring, wrathful, despairing,
surged upwards by thousands,
by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite,
my mind tossed, and surged with the ocean.”
Sound also played a large part in the dreams. Music, heart-breaking lamentations, and pitiful echoes recurred frequently in the most magnificent of these nightly pageants. One of the most distressing features of the dreams was their vastness. The dreamer lived for centuries in one night, and space “swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity.”
To present with such force and reality these grotesque and weird fancies, these vague horrors, and these deep oppressions required a powerful imaginative grasp of the intangible, and a masterly command of language.
In no other work does De Quincey reach the eminence attained in the Confessions, although his scholarly acquirements enabled him to treat philosophical, critical, and historical subjects with wonderful grace and ease. His biographer, Masson, says, “De Quincey’s sixteen volumes of magazine articles are full of brain from beginning to end.” The wide range of his erudition is shown by the fact that he could write such fine literary criticisms as On Wordsworth’s Poetry and On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth, such clear, strong, and vivid descriptions of historical events and characters as The Caesars, Joan of Arc, and The Revolt of the Tartars, and such acute essays on unfamiliar topics as The Toilette of a Hebrew Lady, The Casuistry of Roman Meals, and The Spanish Military Nun.
He had a contemplative, analytic mind which enjoyed knotty metaphysical problems and questions far removed from daily life, such as the first principles of political economy, and of German philosophy. While he was a clear thinker in such fields, he added little that was new to English thought.