The works which rank next to The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater are all largely autobiographical, and reveal charming glimpses of this dreamy, learned sage. Those works are Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths), The English Mail Coach, and Autobiographic Sketches. None of them contains any striking or unusual experience of the author. Their power rests upon their marvelous style. Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow in Suspiria de Profundis and the Dream Fugue in the Mail Coach are among the most musical, the most poetic, and the most imaginative of the author’s productions.
General Characteristics.—De Quincey’s essays show versatility, scholarly exactness, and great imaginative power. His fame, however, rests in a large degree upon his style. One of its most prominent characteristics is, precision. There are but few English essayists who can compare with him in scrupulous precision of expression. He qualifies and elaborates a simple statement until its exact meaning becomes plainly manifest. His vocabulary is extraordinary. In any of the multifarious subjects treated by him, the right word seems always at hand.
Two characteristics, which are very striking in all his works, are harmony and stateliness. His language is so full of rich harmonies that it challenges comparison with poetry. His long, periodic sentences move with a quiet dignity, adapted to the treatment of lofty themes.
De Quincey’s work possesses also a light, ironic humor, which is happiest in parody. The essay upon Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts is the best example of his humor. This selection is one of the most whimsical:—
“For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he come, to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop.”
De Quincey’s gravest fault is digression. He frequently leaves his main theme and follows some line of thought that has been suggested to his well-stored mind. These digressions are often very long, and sometimes one leads to another, until several subjects receive treatment in a single paper. De Quincey, however, always returns to the subject in hand and defines very sharply the point of digression and of return. Another of his faults is an indulgence in involved sentences, which weaken the vigor and simplicity of the style.
Despite these faults, De Quincey is a great master of language. He deserves study for the three most striking characteristics of his style,—precision, stateliness, and harmony.
The tide of reaction, which had for same time been gathering force, swept triumphantly over England in this age of Romanticism.