It was in the summer of 1821 that some workmen, employed in quarrying stone upon the slope of a limestone hill at Kirkdale, in Yorkshire, came accidentally upon the mouth of a cavern. Overgrown with grass and bushes, the mouth of this cave in the hill-side had been effectually closed against all intruders, and it was not strange that its existence had never been suspected. The hole was small, but large enough to admit a man on his hands and knees; and the workmen, creeping in through the opening, found that it led into a cavern, broad in some parts, but low throughout. There were only a few spots where a man could stand upright; but it was quite extensive, with branches opening out from it, some of which have not yet been explored. The whole floor was strewn, from one end to the other, with hundreds of bones, like a huge dog-kennel. The workmen wondered a little at their discovery, but, remembering that there had been a murrain among the cattle in this region some years before, they came to the conclusion that these must be the bones of cattle that had died in great numbers at that time; and, having so settled the matter to their own satisfaction, they took little heed to the bones, but threw many of them out on the road with the common limestone. Fortunately, a gentleman, living in the neighborhood, whose attention had been attracted to them, preserved them from destruction; and a few months after the discovery of the cave, Dr. Buckland, the great English geologist, visited Kirkdale, to examine its strange contents, which proved indeed stranger than any one had imagined; for many of these remains belonged to animals never before found in England. The bones of Hyenas, Tigers, Elephants, Rhinoceroses, and Hippopotamuses were mingled with those of Deer, Bears, Wolves, Foxes, and many smaller creatures. The bones were gnawed, and many were broken, evidently not by natural decay, but seemed to have been snapped violently apart. After the most complete investigation of the circumstances, Dr. Buckland convinced himself, and proved to the satisfaction of all scientific men, that the cave had been a den of Hyenas[A] at a time when they, as well as Tigers, Elephants, Rhinoceroses, etc., existed in England in as great numbers as they now do in the wildest parts of tropical Asia or Africa. The narrow entrance to the cave still retained the marks of grease and hair, such as one may see on the bars of a cage in a menagerie against which the imprisoned animals have been in the habit of rubbing themselves constantly, and there were marks of the same kind on the floor and walls.
[Footnote A: Among the other facts showing that Kirkdale Cave had been the den of these animals, and not tenanted as their home by any of the other creatures whose remains occurred there, were the excrements of the Hyenas found in considerable quantity by Dr. Buckland, and identified as such by the keeper of a menagerie. Any one who may wish to read the whole history of Dr. Buckland's investigations of this matter, showing the patience and sagacity with which he collected and arranged the evidence, will find a full account of Kirkdale Cave and other caverns containing fossil bones in his "Reliquiae Diluvianae."]
It was evident that the Hyenas were the lords of this ancient cavern, and the other animals their unwilling guests; for the remains of the latter were those which had been most gnawed, broken, and mangled; and the head of an enormous Hyena, with gigantic fangs found complete, bore ample evidence to their great size and power. Some of the animals, such as the Elephants, Rhinoceroses, etc., could not have been brought into the cave without being first killed and torn to pieces, for it is not large enough to admit them. But their gnawed and broken bones attest, nevertheless, that they were devoured like the rest; and probably the Hyenas then had the same propensity which characterizes those of our own time, to tear in pieces the body of any dead animal, and carry it to their den to feed upon it apart.
While Kirkdale Cave was evidently the haunt of Hyenas chiefly, other caverns in Germany and France were tenanted in a similar manner by a gigantic species of Bear. Their remains, mingled with those of the animals on which they fed, have been found in great numbers in the Cavern of Gailenreuth, in Franconia. The subjoined wood-cut shows the head of this formidable beast, which must have exceeded in size any Bear now living. Indeed, although there were many smaller kinds, and the other types of the Animal Kingdom in the Tertiaries seem to approach very nearly both in size and general character their modern representatives, yet, on the whole, the earlier Mammalia were giants in comparison with those now living. The Mastodon and Mammoth, as compared with the modern Elephant, the Megatherium, as compared with the Sloths of present times, the Hyenas and Bears of the European caverns, and the fossil Elk of Ireland, by the side of which even the Moose of our Northern woods is belittled, are remarkable instances in proof of this. One cannot but be struck with the fact that this first representation of Mammalia, the very impersonation of brute force in power, size, and ferocity, immediately preceded the introduction of man, with whose creation intelligence and moral strength became the dominant influences on earth.
Among these huge Tertiary Mammalia, one of those most common on the North-American continent seems to have been the Mastodon. The magnificent specimens preserved in this country are too well known to require description. The remains of the Rhinoceros occur also in the recent Tertiary deposits of North America, though as yet no perfect skeletons have been found. The Edentata, now confined to South America and the western coast of Africa, were also numerous in the Southern States during that time; their remains have been found as far north as the Salt Lick in Kentucky. But we must not judge of the Tertiary Edentata by any now known to us. The Sloths, the Armadillos, the Ant-Eaters, the Pangolins, are all animals of rather small size; but formerly they were represented by the gigantic Megatherium, the Megalonyx, and the Mylodon, some of which were larger than the Elephant, and others about the same size of the Rhinoceros or Hippopotamus. The subjoined wood-cut represents a Mylodon in the act of lifting himself against the trunk of a tree.
They were clumsy brutes, and though their limbs were evidently built with reference to powerful movements, perhaps climbing, or at least rising on their hind quarters, the act of climbing with them cannot have had anything of the nimbleness or activity generally associated with it. On the contrary, they probably were barely able to support their huge bodies on their hind limbs, which are exceedingly massive, and on the stiff, heavy tail, while they dragged down with their front limbs the branches of the trees, and fed upon them at leisure. The Zooelogical Museum at Cambridge is indebted to the generosity of Mr. Joshua Bates for a very fine set of casts taken from the Megatherium in the British Museum. They are now mounted, and may be seen in one of the exhibition-rooms of the building. Large Reptiles, but very unlike those of the Cretaceous and Jurassic epochs, belonging chiefly to the types of Turtles, Crocodiles, Pythons, and Salamanders, existed during the Tertiary epochs. The wood-cut below represents a gigantic Salamander of the Tertiary deposits. It is a curious fact, illustrative of the ignorance of all anatomical science in those days, that, when the remains of this reptile (Audrias, as it is now called) were first discovered toward the close of the seventeenth century, they were described by old Professor Scheuchzer as the bones of an infant destroyed by the Deluge, and were actually preserved, not for their scientific value, but as precious relics of the Flood, and described in a separate pamphlet, entitled, "Homo Diluvii Testis." Among the Tertiary Reptiles the Turtles seem to have been a very prominent type, by their size as well as by their extensive distribution. Their remains have been found both in the far West and in the East. The fossil Turtles of Nebraska are well known to American naturalists; but the Oriental one exceeds them in size, and is, indeed, the most gigantic representative of the order known thus far. A man could stand under the arch of the shield of the old Himalayan Turtle preserved in the British Museum.
It would carry me too far, were I to attempt to give anything more than the most cursory sketch of the animals of the Tertiary age; and, indeed, they are so well known, and have been so fully represented in text-books, that I fear some of my readers may think even now that I have dwelt too long upon them. Monkeys were unquestionably introduced upon earth before the close of the Tertiaries; some bones have been found in Southern France, and also on Mount Pentelicus in Greece, in the later Tertiary deposits; but these remains have not yet been collected in sufficient number to establish much more than the fact of their presence in the animal creation at that time. I do not offer any opinion respecting the fossil human bones so much discussed recently, because the evidence is at present too scanty to admit of any decisive judgment concerning them. It becomes, however, daily more probable that facts will force us sooner or later to admit that the creation of man lies far beyond any period yet assigned to it, and that a succession of human races, as of animals, have followed one another upon the earth. It may be the inestimable privilege of our young naturalists to solve this great problem, but the older men of our generation must be content to renounce this hope; we may have some prophetic vision of its fulfilment, we may look from afar into the land of promise, but we shall not enter in and possess it.
The other great types of the Animal Kingdom are very fully represented in the Tertiaries, and in their general appearance they approach much more closely those of the present creation than of any previous epochs. Professor Heer has collected and described the Tertiary Insects in great number and variety; and the Butterflies, Bugs, Flies, Grasshoppers, Dragon-Flies, Beetles, etc., described in his volumes, would hardly be distinguished from our own, except by a practised entomologist. Among Crustacea, the Shrimp-like forms of the earlier geological epochs have become much less conspicuous, while Crabs and Lobsters are now the prominent representatives of the class. Among Mollusks, the Chambered Shells, hitherto so numerous, have become, as they now are, very few in comparison with the naked Cephalopods. The Nautili, however, resemble those now living in the Pacific Ocean; and some fragments of the Paper-Nautilus have been found, showing that this delicate shell was already in existence. There is one very peculiar type of this class, belonging to the Tertiaries, which should not be passed by unnoticed. It partakes of the character both of the Cretaceous Belemnites and of the living Cuttle-Fish, and is known as the Spirulirostra. Another very characteristic group among the Tertiary Shells is that of the Nummulites, formerly placed by naturalists in immediate proximity with the Ammonites, on account of their internal partitions. This is now admitted to have been an error; their position is not yet fully determined, but they certainly stand very low in the scale, and have no affinity whatever with the Cephalopods. The subjoined wood-cut represents one of these Shells, so numerous in the Tertiaries that large masses of rock consist of their remains. The Univalve Shells or Gasteropods of the Tertiaries embraced all the families now living, including land and fresh-water Shells as well as the marine representatives of the type. Some of the latter, as, for instance, the Cerithium, are accumulated in vast numbers. The limestone quarries out of which Paris is chiefly built consist wholly of these Shells. The fresh-water basins were filled with Helices, one of which is represented in the following wood-cut, with Planorbis, Limnaeus and other Shells resembling those now so common in all our lakes and rivers, and differing from the living ones only by slight specific characters. The Bivalves also have the same resemblance to the present ones, including fresh-water Mussels as well as the marine Clams and Oysters. Among Radiates, the higher Echini (Sea-Urchins) have become numerous, while the other Echinoderms of all families abound. Corals include, for the first time, the more highly organized Madrepores.
In the Tertiaries we see the dawn of the present condition of things, not only in the character of the animals and plants, but in the height of the mountains and in the distribution of land and sea.
Let us give a glance at the continents whose growth we have been following, and see what these more recent geological epochs have done for their completion. In Europe they have filled the basin in Central France, and converted all that region into dry land: they have filled also the channel between France and Spain; they have united Central Russia with the rest of Europe by the completion of Poland, and have greatly enlarged Austria and Turkey; they have completed the promontories of Italy and Greece, and have converted the inland sea at the foot of the Jura into the plain of Switzerland. But this fruitful period in the progress of the world, when the character of organic life was higher and the physical features of the earth more varied than ever before, was not without its storms and convulsions. The Pyrenees, the Apennines, the Alps, and with them the whole range of the Caucasus and Himalayas, were raised either immediately after the Cretaceous epoch, or in the course of the Tertiaries. Indeed, with this most significant passage in her history, Europe acquired all her essential characters. There remained, it is true, much to be done in what is called by geologists "modern times." The work of the artist is not yet finished when his statue is blocked out and the grand outline of his conception stands complete; and there still remained, after the earth was rescued from the water, after her framework of mountains was erected, after her soil was clothed with field and forest, processes by which her valleys were to be made more fruitful, her gulfs to be filled with the rich detritus poured into them by the rivers, her whole surface to be rendered more habitable for the higher races who were to possess it.
We left America at the close of the Carboniferous epoch. A glance at the geological map will show the reader that during the Permian, Triassic, and Jurassic epochs little was added to the United States, though here and there deposits belonging to each of them crop out. In the Cretaceous epoch, however, large tracts of land were accumulated, chiefly in the South and West; and during the Tertiaries the continent was very nearly completed, leaving only a narrow gulf running up to the neighborhood of St. Louis to be filled by modern detritus, and the peninsula of Florida to be built by the industrious Coral-Workers of our own period. The age of the Alleghany chain is not yet positively determined, but it was probably raised at the close of the Carboniferous epoch. Up to that time, only the Laurentian Hills, the northern side of that mountainous triangle which now makes the skeleton, as it were, of the United States, existed. The upheaval of the Alleghanies added its eastern side, raising the central part of the continent so as to form a long slope from the base of the Alleghanies to the Pacific Ocean; but it was not until the Tertiary Age that the upheaval of the great chain at the West completed the triangle, and transformed that wide westerly slope into the Mississippi Valley, bounded on one side by the Alleghanies, and on the other by the Rocky Mountains.
It is my belief, founded upon the tropical character of the Fauna, that a much milder climate then prevailed over the whole northern hemisphere than is now known to it. Some naturalists have supposed that the presence of the tropical Mammalia in the Northern Temperate Zone might be otherwise accounted for,—that they might have been endowed with warmer covering, with thicker hair or fur. But I think the simpler and more natural reason for their existence throughout the North is to be found in the difference of climate; and I am the more inclined to this opinion because the Tertiary animals generally, the Fishes, Shells, etc., in the same regions, are more closely allied in character to those now living in the Tropics than to those of the Temperate Zones. The Tertiary age may be called the geological summer; we shall see, hereafter, how abruptly it was brought to a close.
One word more as to the relation of the Tertiary Mammalia to the creation which preceded them. I can only repeat here the argument used before: the huge quadrupeds characteristic of these epochs make their appearance suddenly, and the deposits containing them follow as immediately upon those of the Cretaceous epoch, in which no trace of them occurs, as do those of the Cretaceous upon those of the Jurassic epoch. I would remind the reader that in the central basin of France, in which Cuvier found his first Palaeotherium, and which afterwards proved to have been thickly settled by the early Mammalia, the deposits of the Jurassic, Cretaceous, and Tertiary epochs follow each other in immediate, direct, uninterrupted succession; that the same is true of other localities, in Germany, in Southern Europe, in England, where the most complete collections have been made from all these deposits; and there has never been brought to light a single fact leading us to suppose that any intermediate forms have ever existed through which more recent types have been developed out of older ones. For thirty years Geology has been gradually establishing, by evidence the fulness and accuracy of which are truly amazing, the regularity in the sequence of the geological formations, and distinguishing, with ever-increasing precision, the specific differences of the animals and plants contained in these accumulations of past ages. These results bear living testimony to the wonderful progress of the kindred sciences of Geology and Palaeontology in the last half-century; and the development-theory has but an insecure foundation so long as it attempts to strengthen itself by belittling the geological record, the assumed imperfection of which, in default of positive facts, has now become the favorite argument of its upholders.
THE NEW SANGREAL.
"Show me the Sangreal, Lord! Show me Thy blood! Thy body and Thy blood! Give me the Quest! Lord, I am faint and tired; my soul is sick Of all the falseness, all the little aims, The weary vanities, the gasping joys, The slow procession of this satiate world! Dear Lord, I burn for Thee! Give me Thy Quest! Down through the old reverberating time, I see Thy knights in wonderful array Go out to victory, like the solemn stars Fighting in courses, with their conquering swords, Their sad, fixed lips of purity and strength, Their living glory, their majestic death. Give me Thy Quest! Show me the Sangreal, Lord!"
He lay upon a mountain's rocky crest, So high, that all the glittering, misty world, All summer's splendid tempests, lay below, And sudden lightnings quivered at his feet; So still, not any sound of silentness Expressed the silence, nor the pallid sun Burned on his eyelids; all alone and still, Save for the prayer that struggled from his lips, Broken with eager stress. Then he arose. But always, down the hoary mountain-side, Through whispering forests, by soft-rippled streams, In clattering streets, or the great city's roar, Still from his never sated soul went up, "Give me Thy Quest! Show me the Sangreal, Lord!"
Through all the land there poured a trumpet's clang, And when its silvery anger smote the air, Men sprang to arms from every true man's home, And followed to the field. He followed, too,— All the mad blood of manhood in his veins, All the fierce instincts of a warring race Kindled like flame in every tingling limb, And raging in his soul on fire with war. He heard a thousand voices call him on: Lips hot with anguish, shrieking their despair From swamps and forests and the still bayous That hide the wanderer, nor bewray his lair: From fields and marshes where the tropic sun Scorches a million laborers scourged to work; From homes that are not homes; from mother-hearts Torn from the infants lingering at their breasts; From parted lovers, and from shuddering wives; From men grown mad with whips and tyranny; From all a country groaning in its chains. Nor sleep, nor dream beguiled him any more; He leaped to manhood in one torrid hour, And armed, and sped to battle. Now no more He cried or prayed,—"Show me the Sangreal, Lord!"
So in the front of deadly strife he stood; The glorious thunder of the roaring guns, The restless hurricane of screaming shells, The quick, sharp singing of the rifle-balls, The sudden clash of sabres, and the beat Of rapid horse-hoofs galloping at charge, Made a great chorus to his valorous soul, The dreadful music of a grappling world, That hurried him to fight. He turned the tide, But fell upon its turning. Over him Fluttered the starry flag, and fluttered on, While he lay helpless on the trampled sward, His hot life running scarlet from its source, And all his soul in sudden quiet spent, As still as on the silent mountain-top; So still that from his quick-remembering heart Burst that old cry,—"Show me the Sangreal, Lord!"
Then a bright mist descended over him, And in its central glory stood a shape, Wounded, yet smiling. With His bleeding hands Stretched toward that bleeding side, His eyes divine Like a new dawn, thus softly spake the Lord:— "The blood poured out for brothers is my blood; The flesh for brothers broken is my flesh; No more in golden chalices I dwell, No longer in a vision, angel-borne: Here is the Sangreal, here the Holy Quest. Thy prayer is heard, thy soul is satisfied: Come, my beloved! I am come for thee. As first I broke the bread and poured the wine, So have I broken thee and poured thy life, So do I bless thee and give thanks for thee, So do I bear thee in my wounded hands." Smiling, He stooped, and kissed the tortured brow, And over all its anguish stole a smile; The blood-sealed lips unclosed; the dying breath Sighed, like the rain-sound in a summer wind, Sobbing, but sweet,—"I see the Sangreal, Lord!"
THOMAS DE QUINCEY.
In the notice of so memorable a man, even the briefest prelusive flourish seems uncalled for; and so indeed it would be, if by such means it were meant simply to justify the undertaking. In regard to any of the great powers in literature there exists already a prevailing interest, which cannot be presumed to slumber for one moment in any thinking mind.[A] By way of notification, there is no need of prelude. Yet there are occasions, as, for example, the entrances of kings, which absolutely demand the inaugural flourish of arms,—which, like the rosy flood of dawn, require to be ushered in by a train of twilight glories. And there are lives which proceed as by the movements of music,—which, must therefore be heralded by overtures: majestic steppings, heard in the background, compel us, through mere sympathy with their pomp of procession, to sound the note of preparation.
[Footnote A: "In any thinking mind." Yet it must be confessed that there does exist a woful ignorance or negligence concerning De Quincey in quarters from which better things might be expected. Misappreciation it cannot be called, where no trouble has been taken to estimate claims that needed only to be weighed to be truly valued. Up to this time, there has never been published in England a single essay on the life or the genius of De Quincey that indicated even a good acquaintance, on the part of the writer, with that author's works; and in such a case, of course, not much could be looked for in the way of just interpretation. Gilfillan did him gross injustice: indeed, from what he condescended to say of the man, it would be difficult to conjecture that a greater than Gilfillan was there. And, will the reader believe it? in Professor Craik's "English Literature"—a work of great excellence—the name of De Quincey is not mentioned! "Sam Johnson," says Craik, "was the last king that sat upon the throne of English prose literature." Let it be that Sam was a proper king; yet it is just as true that De Quincey was legitimately his successor. First, in the matter of time: Sam died in 1784, and De Quincey was born in 1785, just in time to continue the regal line. What was it, again, that entitled Johnson to kingly honors? Was it learning? De Quincey was as erudite. Was it his style? There is no writer in the language who in that matter may look down on De Quincey.
If there ever was a writer "damned with faint praise," it was De Quincey. Some stupid writer for the London "Athenaeum," for instance, dared to compliment the poor "opium-chewer" after the following style:—"He possessed taste, but he lacked creative energy; and his subtle and highly refined intellect was ingenious and acute rather than powerful." This reminds me of a criticism once passed upon Shakspeare by a mere pedagogue, to the effect that the great poet had considerable genius, but very little taste!]
Else I should plunge in medias res upon a sketch of De Quincey's life; were it not a rudeness amounting to downright profanity to omit the important ceremony of prelibation, and that at a banquet to which, implicitly, gods are invited. The reader will assuredly unite with me in all such courtesies,—
"Neu desint epulis rosae";
particularly as the shade we deal with can be evoked only by peculiar incantations,—only the heralding of certain precise claims will this monarch listen to as the just inferiae, the fitting sacrifice or hecatomb of our homage.
The key-note of preparation, the claim which preeminently should be set forth in advance, is this: that De Quincey was the prince of hierophants, or of pontifical hierarchs, as regards all those profound mysteries which from the beginning have swayed the human heart, sometimes through the light of angelic smiles lifting it upwards to an altitude just beneath the heavens, and sometimes shattering it, with the shock of quaking anguish, down to earth. As it was the function of the hierophant, in the Grecian mysteries, to show the sacred symbols as concrete incarnations of faith, so was it De Quincey's to reveal in open light the everlasting symbols, universally intelligible when once disclosed, which are folded in the involutions of dreams and of those meditations which most resemble dreams; and as to the manner of these revelations, no Roman pontifex maximus, were it even Caesar himself, could have rivalled their magisterial pomp.
The peculiarities of his life all point in the direction here indicated. It was his remarkable experience which furnished him the key to certain secret recesses of human nature hitherto sealed up in darkness. Along that border-line by which the glimmerings of consciousness are, as by the thinnest, yet the most impervious veil, separated from the regions of the unexplored and the undefinable, De Quincey walked familiarly and with privileged eye and ear. Many a nebulous mass of hieroglyphically inscribed meanings did he—this Champollion, defying all human enigmas, this Herschel, or Lord Rosse, forever peering into the obscure chasms and yawning abysses of human astronomy—resolve into orderly constellations, that, once and for all, through his telescopic interpretation and enlargement, were rendered distinct and commensurable amongst men. The conditions of his power in this respect are psychologically inseparable from the remarkable conditions of his life, two of which are especially to be noticed. First, a ruling disposition towards meditation, constituting him, in the highest sense of the word, a poet. Secondly, the peculiar qualities which this singular mental constitution derived from his use of opium,—qualities which, although they did not increase, or even give direction to his meditative power, at least magnified it, both optically, as to its visual capacity, and creatively, as to its constructive faculty. These two conditions, each concurrent with the other in its ruling influence, impart to his life a degree of psychological interest which belongs to no other on record. Nor is this all. The reader knows how often a secondary interest will attach to the mightiest of conquerors or to the wisest of sovereigns, who is not merely in himself, and through his own deeds, magnificent, but whose glory is many times repeated and piled up by numerous reverberations of itself from a contemporary race of Titans. Thus, doubtless, Charles V., although himself King of Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and a portion of Italy, gloried in the sublime empery of the Turkish Solyman, as by some subtile connection of fate sympathetic with his own. A secondary interest of this nature belongs to the life of De Quincey,—a life which inclosed, as an island, a whole period of English literature, one, too, which in activity and originality is unsurpassed by any other, including the names of Scott and Dickens, of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb, and Southey, of Moore, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. His connection with very many of these was not simply that of coexistence, but also of familiar intercourse.
Between De Quincey's life and his writings it is impossible that there should be any distraction of interest, so intimately are the two interwoven: in this case more so than in that of any known author. Particularly is this true of his more impassioned writings, which are a faithful rescript of his all-impassioned life. Hierophant we have called him,—the prince of hierophants,—having reference to the matter of his revelations; but in his manner, in his style of composition, he is something more than this: here he stands the monarch amongst rhapsodists. In these writings are displayed the main peculiarities of his life and genius.
But, besides these, there is a large section of his works, the aim of which is purely intellectual, where feeling is not at all involved; and surely there is not, in either ancient or modern literature, a section which, in the same amount of space, exhibits the same degree of intense activity on the part of the analytic understanding, applied to the illustration of truth or to the solution of vexed problems. This latter class is the more remarkable from its polar antithesis to the former; just as, in his life, it is a most remarkable characteristic of the man, that, rising above all other men through the rhapsodies of dreams, he should yet be able truly to say of himself that he had devoted a greater number of hours to intellectual pursuits than any other man whom he had seen, heard of, or read of. A wider range is thus exhibited, not of thought merely, but also of the possible modes of expressing thought, than is elsewhere to be found, even in writers the most skilled in rhetorical subtilty. The distance between these two opposites De Quincey does not traverse by violent leaps; he does not by some feat of legerdemain evanish from the fields of impassioned eloquence, where he is an unrivalled master, to appear forthwith in those of intellectual gymnastics, where, at least, he is not surpassed. He is familiar with every one of the intervening stages between the rhapsody and the demonstration,—between the loftiest reach of aspirant passion, from which, with reptile instinct, the understanding slinks downwards to the earth, and that fierce antagonism of naked thoughts, where the crested serpent "mounts and burns." His alchemy is infinite, combining light with warmth in all degrees,—in pathos, in humor,[A] in genial illumination. Let the reader, if he can, imagine Rousseau to have written "Dinner, Real and Reputed," or the paper on "The Essenes," in both of which great erudition is necessary, but in which erudition is as nothing when compared to the faculty of recombining into novel forms what previously had been so grouped as to be misunderstood, or had lacked just the one element necessary for introducing order. To have written these would have entitled Rousseau to a separate sceptre. Or, moving into a realm of art totally distinct from this, suppose him to have been the author of "Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts": that would mount a new plume in Rousseau's hat. But I happen just now to be reminded of another little paper, numbering about six pages, entitled, "On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth": give him that, too. Why, the little French king is beginning to assume an imperial consequence! We beg the reader's pardon for indulging in comparisons of this nature, which are always disagreeable; but we have this excuse, that the two writers are often mentioned as on the same level, and with no appreciation of that unlimited range of power which belongs to De Quincey, but not at all to Rousseau. All but one of the trophies which we have hypothetically transferred to the Frenchman adorn a single volume out of twenty-two, in the Boston edition. Nor is this one imperial column adorned by these alone: there are, besides,—alas for Rousseau!—two other spolia opima by which the French master is, in his own field, proved not the first, nor even the second,—proximus, sed non secundus,—so wide is the distance between De Quincey and any other antagonist. These two are the essays respectively entitled, "Joan of Arc," and "The English Mail-Coach."
[Footnote A: Of De Quincey's humor, a friend once remarked to me, that it always reminded him of an elephant attempting to dance. Now, without any doubt, an elephant could dance after an elephantine fashion; but surely you would never catch him going through the movements of a jig or a Virginia "breakdown." He never lets you forget that he is an elephant. So with De Quincey. Levity is an element farthest removed from his humor; in fact, whenever he allows himself to indulge in humor at all, you may be sure that murder is going on somewhere in the vicinity, a tragedy of pretty frequent occurrence in De Quincey's works.
There was sufficient humor in De Quincey to have endowed a dozen Aristophaneses. There was something, too, in its order, by which it resembled the gigantesque features of the old Greek master. I will illustrate my meaning by a single instance from each. In Aristophanes's "Clouds," Strepsiades is being initiated into the Socratic Phrontisterium, and in the course of the ceremony Socrates directs his pupil's attention to the moon for certain mysterious purposes. But the moon only reminds Strepsy of numerous imperturbable duns that storm about his ears with lunar exactness, (literally so, since the Greeks paid, or refused to pay, regularly on the last day of the month,)—and here it is that the opportunity is offered for a monstrous stroke of humor; for, at this crisis, Strepsy is made to exclaim, "Some magic is it, O Socrates, about the moon? Well! since you are up to that sort of thing, what do you say, now, to a spell by which I could snap the old monster out of her course for a generation or so?" Now for the parallel case from De Quincey. It is from his paper on "California," a politico-economical treatise. The author's object is to illustrate the fact that scarcity of gold is not due to its non-existence, but to the difficulty of obtaining it. "Emeralds and sapphires," says he, "are lying at this moment in a place which I could indicate, and no policeman is on duty in the whole neighborhood to hinder me or the reader from pocketing as many as we please. We are also at perfect liberty to pocket the anchors of Her Majesty's ship the Victoria, (one hundred and twenty guns,) and to sell them for old iron. Pocket them by all means, and I engage that the magistrate sitting at the Thames police-office will have too much respect for your powers to think of detaining you. If he does, your course is to pocket the police-office, and all which it inherits. The man that pockets an anchor may be a dangerous customer, but not a customer to be sneezed at." This strikes us as very similar to Strepsiades's bagging the moon.]
It is impossible to be exhaustive upon such a subject as that which I have undertaken. I shall select, therefore, two prominent centres, about which the thoughts which I wish to present naturally revolve: De Quincey's childhood, and his opium-experiences.
Thomas de Quincey—hierophant, rhapsodist, philosopher—was born at Greenhay, then a suburb of Manchester, in Lancashire County, England, on the 15th of August, 1785. According to his own account, the family of the De Quinceys was of Norwegian origin; and after its transfer to France, in connection with William the Norman, it received its territorial appellation from the village of Quincy, in Normandy. Thence, at the time of the Norman Invasion, it was transplanted to England, where, as afterwards in Scotland, it rose to the highest position, not merely in connection with a lordly title and princely estates, but chiefly on account of valuable services rendered to the State, and conferring preeminence in baronial privilege and consideration.
So sensitive was De Quincey, even at the early age of fifteen, on the point of his descent, lest from his name he might be supposed of French extraction, that, even into the ears of George III. (that king having, in an accidental interview with him at Frogmore, suggested the possibility of his family having come to England at the time of the Huguenot exodus from France) he ventured to breathe the most earnest protest against any supposition of that nature, and boldly insisted upon his purely Norman blood,—blood that in the baronial wars had helped to establish the earliest basis of English constitutional liberty, and that had flowed from knightly veins in the wars of the Crusades. Robert De Quincey came into England with William the Conqueror, uniting with whose fortunes, he fared after the Conquest as a feudal baron, founding the line of Winchester; and that he was a baron of the first water is evident from the statement of Gerard Leigh,—that his armorial device was inscribed (and how inscribed, if not memorially and as a mark of eminent distinction?) on the stained glass in the old church of St. Paul's.
And here it is proper that the reader's attention should be momentarily diverted to the American branch of this family, at the head of which stands the Hon. Josiah Quincy, (the aristocratic De being omitted,)—a branch which fled from England in the early part of the seventeenth century, to avoid a strife which had then become too intense and fiery to admit of reconciliation, and which, indeed, a few years after their withdrawal, culminated in civil war. As illustrating the inevitableness of any great moral issue, no matter how vast the distance which at a critical moment we may put between it and ourselves,—as indicating how surely the Nemesis, seemingly avoided, but really only postponed, will continue to track our flying footsteps, even across the barren wastes of ocean, that ought, if anything could, to interpose an effectual barrier between us and all pursuers, and, having caught up with us in our fancied retreat, will precipitate upon our devoted heads its accumulated violence,—as demonstrating thus the melancholy persistence with which that ugly Sphinx who impersonates Justice in our human affairs doggedly insists on having her questions answered, and, coming by a circuitous route upon those who by good luck have escaped her direct path, through an incarnation of unusual terror compels her dread alternative,—it is interesting to note how this same family, separated by over seven generations from one political revolution, the momentous crisis of which was by them successfully evaded, are now, after an interval of unsound and hollow peace, compelled to witness the precise reiteration of that storm, in the very land to which they fled for refuge,—a reiteration that repeats, only on a different stage, and under an aggravation of horror as to minute details, not merely two antagonistic races corresponding on either side to those which met in battle on Marston Moor, but also interests far outweighing any that could possibly attach to a conflict between royalty and democracy.
But the Earls of Winchester, in England, whatever may have been their prosperity during the nine or ten generations after the Conquest, came suddenly to an abrupt termination, abutting at length on some guilty traitor in the line, who, like a special Adam for the family, involved in his own ruin that prosperity which would else have continued to his successors. The dissevered fragments of the old feudal estate, however, remained in possession of separate members of the family, as De Quincey tells us, until the generation next preceding his own, when the last vestige slipped out of the hands of the one sole squire who, together with the name, held also some relic of its ancient belongings. But above the diluvial wreck of the Winchester estates there has arisen an estate far more royal and magnificent, and beneath a far-reaching bow of promise, sealed in magical security against a similar disaster. For just here, where every hold is lost upon the original heritage, is the family freshly grounded upon a second heritage,—one sublime in its order above that of all earthly possessions, one that is forever imperishable,—namely, the large domain which the gigantic intellect of Thomas De Quincey has absolved from aboriginal darkness and brought under distinct illumination for all time to come. These are the vast acres over which human pride must henceforth soar,—acres that have been, through the mighty realizations of human genius, built out into the mysterious ocean-depths of chaotic Nature, and that have in some measure bridged over infinite chasms in thought, and by just so far have extended the fluctuating boundaries of human empire. And for De Quincey himself, in view of that monumental structure which rises above the shattered wrecks of his poor, frail body, as above the mummied dust of Egyptian kings remain eternally the pyramids which they wrought in their lifetime, we find it impossible to cherish a single regret, that, possibly, by the treasonable slip of a predecessor, he may have been robbed of an earldom,—or even that, during a life which by some years overlapped the average allotment to humanity, and through which were daily accumulating the most splendid results in the very highest departments of philosophy and art, these accumulations nevertheless went on without any notable recognition from a court the most liberal in all Europe; no badge of outward knighthood coming to him through all these years, as formerly to Sir Thomas Browne for his subtile meditations, and to Sir William Hamilton for his philosophic speculations. The absence of such merely nominal titles excites in us no deep regret; there is in them little that is monumental, and the pretty tinsel, with which they gild monuments already based on substantial worth, is easily, and without a sigh, exchanged for that everlasting sunshine reflected from the loving remembrances of human hearts.
But at the same time that we so willingly dispense with these nominal conditions in the case of De Quincey,—though, assuredly, there was never a man upon earth whom these conditions, considered as aerial hieroglyphs of the most regal pomp and magnificence, would more consistently fit,—we cannot thus easily set aside those other outward conditions of affluence and respectability, which, by their presence or absence, so materially shape and mould the life, and particularly in its earliest tendencies and impulses,—in that season of immature preparation when the channels of habit are in the process of formation, and while yet a marvellous uncertainty hangs and broods over the beginnings of life, as over the infant rivulet yet dandled and tended by its mountain-nurses. For, although there are certain elements which rigidly and by a foreseen certainty determine its course, as, for instance, an extraordinary vantage-height of source, securing for it the force and swiftness of a torrent,—yet how shifting are the mountain-winds, chilling into frosty silence or quickening with Favonian warmth, and how shifting the flying clouds, which, whether marshalled in mimic tournament above it, or in the shock of a real conflict, forever sway its tender fountains! Thus, even in inexperienced childhood, do the scales of the individual destiny begin, favorably or unfavorably, to determine their future preponderations, by reason of influences merely material, and before, indeed, any sovereignty save a corporeal one (in conjunction with heavenly powers) is at all recognized in life. For, in this period, with which above all others we associate influences the most divine, "with trailing clouds of glory," those influences which are purely material are the most efficiently operative. Against the former, adult man, in whom reason is developed, may battle, though ignobly, and, for himself, ruinously; and against the latter oftentimes he must struggle, to escape ignominious shipwreck. But the child, helpless alike for both these conflicts, is, through the very ignorance which shields him from all conscious guilt, bound over in the most impotent (though, because impotent and unconscious, the least humiliating) slavery to material circumstance,—a slavery which he cannot escape, and which, during the period of its absolutism, absorbs his very blood, bone, and nerve. To poverty, which the strong man resists, the child succumbs; on the other hand, that affluence of comfort, from which philosophy often weans the adult, wraps childhood about with a sheltering care; and fortunate indeed it is, if the mastery of Nature over us during our first years is thus a gentle dealing with us, fertilizing our powers with the rich juices of an earthly prosperity. And in this respect De Quincey was eminently fortunate. The powers of heaven and of earth and—if we side with Milton and other pagan mythologists in attributing the gift of wealth to some Plutonian dynasty—the dark powers under the earth seem to have conjointly arrayed themselves in his behalf. Whatever storms were in the book of Fate written against his name they postponed till a far-off future, in the mean time granting him the happiest of all childhoods. Really of gentle blood, and thus gaining whatever substantial benefits in constitutional temperament and susceptibilities could be thence derived, although lacking, as Pope also had lacked, the factitious circumstance and airy heralding of this distinction, he was, in addition to this, surrounded by elements of aristocratic refinement and luxury, and thus hedged in not merely against the assault, in any form, of pinching poverty, (as would be any one in tolerably comfortable circumstances,) but even against the most trivial hint of possible want,—against all necessity of limitation or retrenchment in any normal line of expenditure.
He was the son of a merchant, who, at the early age of thirty-nine, died, leaving to his family—a wife and six children—an estate yielding annually an income of sixteen hundred pounds. And as at his father's death De Quincey was seven years old, we may reasonably infer, that, during this previous period, while his father was still living, and adding to this fixed a fluctuating income from his yearly gains, (which to a wholesale merchant of his standing were considerable,) the family-fortunes were even more auspicious, amounting to the yearly realization of between two and three thousand pounds, and that at a time when Napoleon had not as yet meddled with the financial affairs of Europe, nor by his intimidations caused even pounds and shillings to shrink into less worth and significance than they formerly had,—in view of which fact, if we are to charge Alexander the Great (as in a famous anecdote he was charged) with the crime of highway-robbery, as the "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles" in the way of crowns and a few dozen sceptres, what a heinous charge must be brought against this Corsican as universal pickpocket! This pecuniary depreciation De Quincey himself realized some years later, when, determining to quit school, he thought himself compelled[A] to cut off all communication with his guardians, and gave himself up to a Bohemian life among the Welsh mountains, wandering from one rustic valley to another with the most scanty means of support,—for just then the Allies were in full rig against France, and the shrinkage of guineas in our young wanderer's pocket became palpably evident in view of the increased price of his dinner.
[Footnote A: But afterwards he discovered his mistake, and that it was only by the lack on his part of that frankness which the kindness of his guardians deserved that he had brought so much misery upon himself in after-life. His younger brother, Richard,—the Pink of the "Autobiographic Sketches,"—made the same mistake, a mistake which in his case was never rectified, but led to a life of perilous wanderings and adventures.]
The time did come at length when the full epos of a remarkable prosperity was closed up and sealed for De Quincey. But that was in the unseen future. To the child it was not permitted to look beyond the hazy lines that bounded his oasis of flowers into the fruitless waste abroad. Poverty, want, at least so great as to compel the daily exercise of his mind for mercenary ends, was stealthily advancing from the rear; but the sound of its stern steppings was wholly muffled by intervening years of luxurious opulence and ease.
I dwell thus at length upon the aristocratic elegance of De Quincey's earliest surroundings, (which, coming at a later period, I should notice merely as an accident,) because, although not a potential element, capable of producing or of adding one single iota to the essential character of genius, it is yet a negative condition—a sine qua non—to the displays of genius in certain directions and under certain aspects. By misfortune it is true that power may be intensified. So may it by the baptism of malice. But, given a certain degree of power, there still remains a question as to its kind. So deep is the sky: but of what hue, of what aspect? Wine is strong, and so is the crude alcohol but what the mellowness? And the blood in our veins, it is an infinite force: but of what temper? Is it warm, or is it cold? Does it minister to Moloch, or to Apollo? Will it shape the Madonna face, or the Medusa? Why, the simple fact that the rich blue sky over-arches this earth of ours, or that it is warm blood which flows in our veins, is sufficient to prove that no malignant Ahriman made the world. Just here the question is not, what increment or what momentum genius may receive from outward circumstances, but what coloring, what mood. Here it is that a Mozart differs from a Mendelssohn. The important difference which obtains, in this respect, between great powers in literature, otherwise cooerdinate, will receive illustration from a comparison between De Quincey and Byron. For both these writers were capable, in a degree rarely equalled in any literature, of reproducing, or rather, we should say, of reconstructing, the pomp of Nature and of human life. In this general office they stand together: both wear, in our eyes, the regal purple; both have caused to rise between earth and heaven miracles of grandeur, such as never Cheops wrought through his myriad slaves, or Solomon with his fabled ring. But in the final result, as in the whole modus operandi, of their architecture, they stand apart toto coelo. Byron builds a structure that repeats certain elements in Nature or humanity; but they are those elements only which are allied to gloom, for he builds in suspicion and distrust, and upon the basis of a cynicism that has been nurtured in his very flesh and blood from birth; he erects a Pisa-like tower which overhangs and threatens all human hopes and all that is beautiful in human love. Who else, save this archangelic intellect, shut out by a mighty shadow of eclipse from the bright hopes and warm affections of all sunny hearts, could have originated such a Pandemonian monster as the poem on "Darkness"? The most striking specimen of Byron's imaginative power, and nearly the most striking that has ever been produced, is the apostrophe to the sea, in "Childe Harold." But what is it in the sea which affects Lord Byron's susceptibilities to grandeur? Its destructiveness alone. And how? Is it through any high moral purpose or meaning that seems to sway the movements of destruction? No; it is only through the gloomy mystery of the ruin itself,—ruin revealed upon a scale so vast and under conditions of terror the most appalling,—ruin wrought under the semblance of an almighty passion for revenge directed against the human race. Thus, as an expression of the attitude which the sea maintains toward man, we have the following passage of AEschylian grandeur, but also of AEschylian gloom:—
"Thou dost arise And shake him from thee; the vile strength he wields For earth's destruction thou dost all despise, Spurning him from thy bosom to the skies, And send'st him, shivering in thy playful spray, And howling, to his gods, where haply lies His petty hope in some near port or bay, And dashest him again to earth: there let him lay!"
Who but this dark spirit, forever wooing the powers of darkness, and of darkness the most sullen, praying to Nemesis alone, could, with such lamentable lack of faith in the purity and soundness of human affections, have given utterance to a sentiment like this:—
"O love! no habitant of earth thou art,— An unseen seraph we believe in thee"?
or the following:—
"Who loves, raves,—'tis youth's frenzy," etc.?
"Few—none—find what they love or could have loved, Though accident, blind contact, and the strong Necessity of loving having removed Antipathies"?
This, then, is the nearest approach to human love,—the removal of all antipathies! But even these
"recur erelong, Envenomed with irrevocable wrong: And circumstance—that unspiritual god And miscreator—makes and helps along Our coming evils with a crutch-like rod, Whose touch turns hope to dust,—the dust which all have trod."
De Quincey, on the other hand, in whose heart there was laid no such hollow basis for infidelity toward the master-passions of humanity, repeated the pomps of joy or of sorrow, as evolved out of universal human nature, and as, through sunshine and tempest, typified in the outside world,—but never for one instant did he seek alliance, on the one side, with the shallow enthusiasm of the raving Bacchante, or, on the other, with the overshadowing despotism of gloom; nor can there be found on a single page of all his writings the slightest hint indicating even a latent sympathy with the power which builds only to crush, or with the intellect that denies, and that against the dearest objects of human faith fulminates its denials and shocking recantations solely for the purposes of scorn.
Whence this marked difference? To account for it, we must needs trace back to the first haunts of childhood the steps of these two fugitives, each of whom has passed thence, the one into a desert mirage, teeming with processions of the gloomiest falsities in life, and the other—also into the desert, but where he is yet refreshed and solaced by an unshaken faith in the genial verities of life, though separated from them by irrecoverable miles of trackless wastes, and where, however apparently abandoned and desolate, he is yet ministered unto by angels, and no mimic fantasies are suffered to exercise upon his heart their overmastering seductions to
"Allure, or terrify, or undermine."
Whether the days of childhood be our happiest days, is a question all by itself. But there can be no question as to the inevitable certainty with which the conditions of childhood, fortunate or unfortunate, determine the main temper and disposition of our lives. For it is underneath the multitude of fleeting proposals and conscious efforts, born of reason, and which, to one looking upon life from any superficial stand-point, seem to have all to do with its conduct, that there runs the undercurrent of disposition, which is born of Nature, which is cradled and nurtured with us in our infancy, which is itself a general choice, branching out into our specific choices of certain directions and aims among all opposite directions and aims, and which, although we rarely recognize its important functions, is in all cases the arbiter of our destiny. And in the very word disposition is indicated the finality of its arbitraments as contrasted with all proposition.
Now, with respect to this disposition: Nature furnishes its basis; but it is the external structure of circumstance, built up or building about childhood,—to shelter or imprison,—which, more than all else, gives it its determinate character; and though this outward structure may in after-life be thoroughly obliterated, or replaced by its opposite,—porcelain by clay, or clay by porcelain,—yet will the tendencies originally developed remain and hold a sway almost uninterrupted over life. And, generally, the happy influences that preside over the child may be reduced under three heads: first, a genial temperament,—one that naturally, and of its own motion, inclines toward a centre of peace and rest rather than toward the opposite centre of strife; secondly, profound domestic affections; and, thirdly, affluence, which, although of all three it is the most negative, the most material condition, is yet practically the most important, because of the degree in which it is necessary to the full and unlimited prosperity of the other two. For how frequent are the cases in which the happiest of temperaments are perverted by the necessities of toil, so burdensome to tender years, or in which corroding anxieties, weighing upon parents' hearts, check the free play of domestic love!—and in all cases where such limitations are present, even in the gentlest form, there must be a cramping up of the human organization and individuality somewhere; and everywhere, and under all circumstances, there must be sensibly felt the absence of that leisure which crowns and glorifies the affections of home, making them seem the most like summer sunshine, or rather like a sunshine which knows no season, which is an eternal presence in the soul.
As regards all these three elements, De Quincey's childhood was prosperous; afterwards, vicissitudes came,—mighty changes capable of affecting all other transmutations, but thoroughly impotent to annul the inwrought grace of a pre-established beauty. On the other hand, Byron's childhood was, in all these elements, unfortunate. The sting left in his mother's heart by the faithless desertion of her husband, after the desolation of her fortunes, was forever inflicted upon him, and intensified by her fitful temper; and notwithstanding the change in his outward prospects which occurred afterwards, he was never able to lift himself out of the Trophonian cave into which his infancy had been thrust, any more than Vulcan could have cured that crooked gait of his, which dated from some vague infantile remembrances of having been rudely kicked out of heaven over its brazen battlements, one summer's day,—for that it was a summer's day we are certain from a line of "Paradise Lost," commemorating the tragic circumstance:—
"From morn till noon he fell, from noon till dewy eve— A summer's day."
And this allusion to Vulcan reminds us that Byron, in addition to all his other early mishaps, had also the identical clubfoot of the Lemnian god. Among the guardians over Byron's childhood was a demon, that, receiving an ample place in his victim's heart, stood demoniacally his ground through life, transmuting love to hate, and what might have been benefits to fatal snares. Over De Quincey's childhood, on the contrary, a strong angel guarded to withstand and thwart all threatened ruin, teaching him the gentle whisperings of faith and love in the darkest hours of life: an angel that built happy palaces, the beautiful images of which, and their echoed festivals, far outlasted the splendor of their material substance.
"We,—the children of the house,—" says De Quincey, in his "Autobiographic Sketches," "stood, in fact, upon the very happiest tier in the social scaffolding for all good influences. The prayer of Agur—'Give me neither poverty nor riches'—was realized for us. That blessing we had, being neither too high nor too low. High enough we were to see models of good manners, of self-respect, and of simple dignity; obscure enough to be left in the sweetest of solitudes. Amply furnished with all the nobler benefits of wealth, with extra means of health, of intellectual culture, and of elegant enjoyment, on the other hand we knew nothing of its social distinctions. Not depressed by the consciousness of privations too sordid, nor tempted into restlessness by privileges too aspiring, we had no motives for shame, we had none for pride. Grateful, also, to this hour I am, that, amidst luxuries in all things else, we were trained to a Spartan, simplicity of diet,—that we fared, in fact, very much less sumptuously than the servants. And if (after the manner of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius) I should return thanks to Providence for all the separate blessings of my early situation, these four I would single out as worthy of special commemoration: that I lived in a rural solitude; that this solitude was in England; that my infant feelings were moulded by the gentlest of sisters, and not by horrid pugilistic brothers; finally, that I and they were dutiful and loving members of a pure, holy, and magnificent church."
Let the reader suppose a different case from that here presented. Let him suppose, for instance, that De Quincey, now arrived at the age of seven, and having now at least one "pugilistic brother" to torment his peace, could annul his own infancy, and in its place substitute that of one of the factory-boys of Manchester, of the same age, (and many such could be found,) among those with whom daily the military predispositions of this brother brought him into a disagreeable conflict. Instead of the pure air of outside Lancashire, let there be substituted the cotton-dust of the Lancashire mills. The contrast, even in thought, is painful. It is true that thus the irrepressible fires of human genius could not be quenched. Nay, through just these instrumentalities, oftentimes, is genius fostered. We need not the instance of Romulus and Remus, or of the Persian Cyrus, to prove that men have sometimes been nourished by bears or by she-wolves. Nevertheless, this is essentially a Roman nurture. The Greeks, on the contrary, laid their infant heroes on beds of violets,—if we may believe the Pindaric odes,—set over them a divine watch, and fed them with angels' food. And this Grecian nurture De Quincey had.
And not the least important element of this nurture is that of perfect leisure. Through this it is that we pass from the outward to the subjective relations of De Quincey's childhood; for only in connection with these has the element just introduced any value, since leisure, which is the atmosphere, the breathing-place of genius, is also cap and bells for the fool. In relation to power, it is, like solitude, the open heaven through which the grandeurs of eternity flow into the penetralian recesses of the human heart, after that once the faculties of thought, or the sensibilities, have been powerfully awakened. Sensibility had been thus awakened in De Quincey, through grief occasioned by the loss of a sister, his favorite and familiar playmate,—a grief so profound, that he, somewhere, in speaking of it, anticipates the certainty of its presence in the hour of death; and thought, also, had been prematurely awakened, both under the influence of this overmastering pathos of sorrow, and because of his strong predisposition to meditation. Both the pathos and the meditative tendencies were increased by the halcyon peace of his childhood. In a memorial of the poet Schiller, he speaks of that childhood as the happiest, "of which the happiness has survived and expressed itself, not in distinct records, but in deep affection, in abiding love, and the hauntings of meditative power." His, at least, was the felicity of this echoless peace.
In no memorial is it so absolutely requisite that a marked prominence should be given to its first section as in De Quincey's. This is a striking peculiarity in his life. If it were not so, I should have seriously transgressed in keeping the reader's attention so long upon a point which, aside from such peculiarity, would yield no sufficient, at least no proportionate value. But, in the treatment of any life, that cannot seem disproportionate which enters into it as an element only and just in that ratio of prominence with which it enters into the life itself, No stream can rise above the level of its source. No life, which lacks a prominent interest as to its beginnings, can ever, in its entire course, develop any distinguishing features of interest. This is true of any life; but it is true of De Quincey's above all others on record, that, through all its successive arches, ascending and descending, it repeats the original arch of childhood. Repeats,—but with what marvellous transformations! For hardly is its earliest section passed, when, for all its future course, it is masked by a mighty trouble. No longer does it flow along its natural path, and beneath the open sky, but, like the sacred Alpheus, runs
"Through caverns measureless to man, Down to the sunless sea."
Yet, amid the "briny tides" of that sea, amid turmoil and perplexity and the saddest of mysteries, it preserves its earliest gentleness, and its inward, noiseless peace, till once more it gushes up toward the sweet heaven through the Arethusan font of death. Easily, then, is it to be seen why De Quincey himself continually reverted, both in his conscious reminiscences and through the subconscious relapses of dreams, from a life clouded and disguised in its maturer years, to the unmasked purity of its earliest heaven. And what from the vast desert, what from the fatal wreck of life, was he to look back upon, for even an imaginary solace, if not upon the rich argosies that spread their happier sails above a calmer sea? We are forcibly reminded of the dream which Milton[A] gives to his Christ in the desert, hungry and tired:—
"There he slept, And dreamed, as appetite is wont to dream, Of meats and drinks, Nature's refreshment sweet. Him thought he by the brook of Cherith stood, And saw the ravens with their horny beaks Food to Elijah bringing even and morn, Though ravenous, taught to abstain from what they brought: He saw the prophet also, how he fled Into the desert, and how there he slept Under a juniper, then how, awaked, He found his supper on the coals prepared, And by the angel was bid rise and eat, And eat the second time after repose, The strength whereof sufficed him forty days; Sometimes that with Elijah he partook, Or as a guest with Daniel at his pulse."
[Footnote A: Paradise Regained, Book II.]
If the splendors of divinity could be so disguised by the severe necessities of the wilderness and of brutal hunger as to be thus solicited and baffled even in dreams,—if, by the lowest of mortal appetites, they could be so humiliated and eclipsed as to revel in the shadowy visions of merely human plenty,—then by how much more must the human heart, eclipsed at noon, revert, under the mask of sorrow and of dreams, to the virgin beauties of the dawn! with how much more violent revulsion must the weary, foot-sore traveller, lost in a waste of sands, be carried back through the gate of ivory or of horn to the dewy, flower-strewn fields of some far happier place and time!
The transition from De Quincey's childhood to his opium-experiences is as natural, therefore, as from strophe to antistrophe in choral antiphonies. Henceforth, as the reader already understands, we are not permitted to look upon a simple, undisguised life, unless we draw aside a veil as impenetrable as that which covers the face of Isis or the poppy-sceptred Demeter. Under this papaverian mask it is likely to be best known to the reader; for it is under the title of "Opium-Eater" that he is most generally recognized. It was through his Opium-Confessions, popular both as to matter and style, that he first conciliated and charmed the reading public,—and to such a degree that great expectations were awakened as to anything which afterwards he might write. This expectation heightens appreciation; and in this case it helped many a metaphysical dose down the voracious throat of the public, without its being aware of the nauseating potion, or experiencing any uncomfortable consequences. The flood of popularity produced by the Opium-Confessions among that large intellectual class of readers who, notwithstanding their mental capacity, yet insist upon the graces of composition and upon a subject of immediate and moving interest, was sufficient to float into a popular haven many a ship of heavier freightage, which might else have fallen short of port.
The general interest which is manifested in De Quincey personally is also very much due to the fact that he was an opium-eater, and an opium-eater willing to breathe into the public ear the peculiarities of his situation and its hidden mysteries, or "suspiria de profundis." This interest is partly of that vulgar sort which connects itself with all mysterious or abnormal phenomena in Nature or in the human mind, with a "What is it?" or a spiritual medium, and which is satisfied with a palpable exhibition of the novelty; and partly it is of a philosophical order, inquiring into the causes and modes of the abnormal development. It is rarely the case that human vision is especially or deliberately directed to the sun or the moon, except at the marvellous season of eclipse, when interest is awakened by the novelty of the appearance among the vulgar, and among philosophers by the unusual nature of the phenomenon, demanding explanation. Then it is that the people inhabiting this globe are excited by something which calls off their attention from terrestrial trifles to that which connects them with unknown worlds. If we had been born Hindoos, we should, at such times, exhibit our skittish tendencies, "shying" at the sun-eating monster with nervous apprehension, and should doubtless do our best, through horrid yells and tintinnabulations, towards getting up a tremendous counter-irritation upon the earth that should tell mightily on the nerves of this umbratilous tiger in the heavens. But since we are neither Hindoos nor Egyptians, nor skittish heathen of any sort, we take defiant attitudes and look through smoked glasses. At any rate, it is only at such times that we pay particular attentions, by way of courtesy, to foreign worlds. And of all the creatures of God which come within the circle of human knowledge or notice, which is it that may be said to enjoy the most continuous round of attentions, and to live in excitement the most nearly approaching to perpetual? It is the comet, which no sooner gets out of reach of our flying compliments than she becomes the pet of Jupiter's magnificent citizens, or calls forth deprecating murmurs from our shy sister Venus, and Mercury, our milder brother, who, from all such mischiefs, creeps as nearly as possible under the paternal wings of the Sun. No one of these erratic visitors can remember the time when she was not making a stir somewhere in the universe, or when a cloudy night, intercepting her from vision, would not have been as surely execrated as are the colds which afflict prima donnas.
Strikingly similar to our interest in these heavenly bodies is that which we manifest in mortal men. Here, too, it is the darkened orb or the eccentric comet that bespeaks especial notice. Judged by this interest, considered in its vulgar aspects, De Quincey would suffer gross injustice. Externally, and at one period of his life, I am certain that he had all the requisite qualifications for collecting a mob about him, and that, had he appeared in the streets of London after one of his long sojourns amongst the mountains, no unearthly wight of whatever description, no tattered lunatic or Botany-Bay convict, would have been able to vie with him in the picturesque deshabille of the whole "turnout." Picture to yourself the scene. This "king of shreds and patches"—for, to the outward sense, he seems that now—has been "at large" for days, perhaps for two or three weeks; he has been unkennelled, and, among the lawless mountains, has felt no restraint upon his own lawlessness, however Cyclopean. Doubtless he has met with panthers and wolves, each one of whom will to its dying day retain impressive recollections of the wee monster, from which they fled as a trifle too uncanny even for them. As to his subsistence during these rambles, it would be very difficult to say how he managed that affair, at these, or indeed at any other times; and it may be that the prophetic limitation of a fast to forty days is now the urgent occasion of his return from vagabondism. One thing we may be sure of,—that he has made plentiful use of a certain magical drug hid away in his waistcoat-pocket. Like Wordsworth's brook, he has been wandering purposely and at his own sweet will, or rather where his feet have taken him; and he has laid him down to sleep wherever sleep may have chanced to find him.
The result we have here, in this uncouth specimen of humanity, in the matted hair, the soiled garments, and the straggling gait; and what gives the finishing touch to this grotesque picture is his utter unconsciousness of the ludicrous features of his situation, as they appear to other eyes. Soon, it is true, he will go through an AEson-like rejuvenation; for, in a certain cottage, there are hearts that anxiously await his return, and hands ready to fulfil their oft-repeated duties in the way of refitting him out for another tramp. But, before this transformation is effected, let us suppose the case of his being set down in the streets of London, somewhere in the vicinity of Cheapside. What an eddying of stragglers about this new-found focus of attraction! what amazement, and curiosity to find him out, if, indeed, he be find-out-able, and not, as the unmistakable papaverian odor suggests, some Stygian bird, hailing from the farther side of Lethe. But, Stygian or not, neither Hermes nor Pan (nor Panic, his namesake) could muster such a rabble at his heels, supposing him to appear on Cheapside!
In his innermost sensibilities he would have shrunk from this vulgar notice as from pollution itself. It would be monstrous to conceive of him in such situations, except for the purpose of showing that he had very much in his outward habit that would readily attract such a notice. In the same light we are to regard some illustrations which J. Hill Burton has given in "The Book-Hunter" of similar features in his character, and which I take the liberty of introducing here; for, although they have appeared in "Blackwood," and more lately in a book-form, they are still unpublished to many of my readers.
Thus, we have him pictured to us as he appeared at a dinner, "whereto he was seduced by the false pretence that he would there meet with one who entertained novel and anarchical views regarding the 'Golden Ass' of Apuleius. The festivities of the afternoon are far on, when a commotion is heard in the hall, as if some dog or other stray animal had forced its way in. The instinct of a friendly guest tells him of the arrival; he opens the door, and fetches in the little stranger. What can it be? A street-boy of some sort? His costume, in fact, is a boy's duffle great-coat, very threadbare, with a hole in it, and buttoned tight to the chin, where it meets the fragments of a party-colored belcher handkerchief; on his feet are list shoes, covered with snow, for it is a stormy winter night; and the trousers,—some one suggests that they are inner linen garments blackened with writing-ink, but that Papaverius never would have been at the trouble so to disguise them." De Quincey, led on by the current of his own thoughts,—though he was always too courteous to absorb the entire conversation,—talks on "till it is far into the night, and slight hints and suggestions are propagated about separation and home-going. The topic starts new ideas on the progress of civilization, the effect of habit on men in all ages, and the power of the domestic affections. Descending from generals to the specials, he could testify to the inconvenience of late hours: for was it not the other night, that, coming to what was, or what he believed to be, his own door, he knocked and knocked, but the old woman within either couldn't or wouldn't hear him, so he scrambled over a wall, and, having taken his repose in a furrow, was able to testify to the extreme unpleasantness of such a couch?"
"Shall I try another sketch of him, when, travel-stained and foot-sore, he glided in on us one night like a shadow, the child by the fire gazing on him with round eyes of astonishment, and suggesting that he should get a penny and go home,—a proposal which he subjected to some philosophical criticism very far wide of its practical tenor. How far he had wandered since he had last refreshed himself, or even whether he had eaten food that day, were matters on which there was no getting articulate utterance from him. How that wearied, worn little body was to be refreshed was a difficult problem: soft food disagreed with him; the hard he could not eat. Suggestions pointed at length to the solution of that vegetable unguent to which he had given a sort of lustre, and it might be supposed that there were some fifty cases of acute toothache to be treated in the house that night. How many drops? Drops! nonsense! If the wineglasses of the establishment were not beyond the ordinary normal size, there was no risk,—and so the weary is at rest for a time.
"At early morn, a triumphant cry of 'Eureka!' calls me to his place of rest. With his unfailing instinct he has got at the books, and lugged a considerable heap of them around him. That one which specially claims his attention—my best-bound quarto—is spread upon a piece of bedroom-furniture readily at hand, and of sufficient height to let him pore over it as he lies recumbent on the floor, with only one article of attire to separate him from the condition in which Archimedes, according to the popular story, shouted the same triumphant cry. He had discovered a very remarkable anachronism in the commonly received histories of a very important period. As he expounded it, turning up his unearthly face from the book with an almost painful expression of grave eagerness, it occurred to me that I had seen something like the scene in Dutch paintings of the Temptation of St. Anthony."
I cannot refrain from quoting from Mr. Burton one more example, illustrative of the fact that De Quincey, in money-matters, considered merely the immediate and pressing exigencies of the present. "He arrives very late at a friend's door, and on gaining admission,—a process in which he often endured impediments,—he represents, with his usual silver voice and measured rhetoric, the absolute necessity of his being then and there invested with a sum of money in the current coin of the realm,—the amount limited, from the nature of his necessities, which he very freely states, to seven shillings and sixpence. Discovering, or fancying he discovers, that his eloquence is likely to prove unproductive, he is fortunately reminded, that, should there be any difficulty in connection with security for the repayment of the loan, he is at that moment in possession of a document which he is prepared to deposit with the lender,—a document calculated, he cannot doubt, to remove any feeling of anxiety which the moat prudent person could experience in the circumstances. After a rummage in his pockets, which develops miscellaneous and varied, but as yet by no means valuable, possessions, he at last comes to the object of his search, a crumpled bit of paper, and spread it out,—a fifty-pound bank-note! All sums of money were measured by him through the common standard of immediate use; and, with more solemn pomp of diction than he applied to the bank-note, might he inform you, that, with the gentleman opposite, to whom he had hitherto been entirely a stranger, but who happened to be the nearest to him at the time when the exigency occurred to him, he had just succeeded in negotiating a loan of two-pence."
These pictures, though true to certain phases of De Quincey's outward life, are yet far from personally representing him, even to the eye. They satisfy curiosity, and that is about all. As to the real character of the man, they are negative and unessential; they represent, indeed, his utter carelessness as to all that, like dress, may at pleasure be put on or off, but "the human child incarnate" is not thus brought before us. For, could we but once look upon his face in rest, then should we forget these inferior attributes; just as, looking upon the Memnonian statues, one forgets the horrid nicknames of "Shandy" and "Andy" which they have received from casual travellers, observing merely their grotesque features. Features of this latter sort "dislimn" and yield, as the writing on palimpsests, to the regal majesty of the divine countenance, which none can look upon and smile. Let me paint De Quincey's face as at this moment I seem to see it. It is wrinkled as with an Homeric antiquity; arid it is, and sallow, as parchment. Through a certain Bedouin-like conformation,—which, however, is idealized by the lofty, massive forehead, and by the prevailing subtilty of the general expression,—it seems fitted to desert solitudes; and in this respect it is truly Memnonian. In another respect, also, is it Memnonian,—that, whenever should rest upon its features the morning sunlight, we should surely await its responsive requiem or its trembling jubilate. By a sort of instinctive palmistry (applied, not to the hands, but to the face) we interpret symbols of ineffable sorrow and of ineffable peace. These, too, are Memnonian,—as is also that infinite distance which seems to interpose between its subtile meanings and the very possibility of interpretation. This air of remoteness, baffling the impertinent crowd not less effectually than the dust which has gathered for centuries about the heads of Sphinxes, is due partly to the deeply sunken eyes beneath the wrinkled, overarching forehead; partly it arises from that childlike simplicity and sweetness which lurk in gentle undulations of the features,—undulations as of happy wavelets set in motion ages since, and that cannot cease forever; but chiefly it is born of a dream-like, brooding eternity of speculation, which we can trace neither to the eye alone, nor to the mouth, but rather to the effect which both together produce in the countenance.
This is the face which for more than half a century opium veiled to mortal eyes, and which refuses to reveal itself save through hints the most fugitive and impalpable. Here are draperies and involutions of mystery from which mere curiosity stands aloof. This is the head which we have loved, and which in our eyes wears a triple wreath of glory: the laurel for his Apollo-like art, the lotos-leaf for his impassioned dreams, and roses for his most gentle and loving nature.
How much of that which glorified De Quincey was due to opium? Very little as to quality, but very much as to the degree and the peculiar manner in which original qualities and dispositions are developed, for here it is that the only field of influence open to abnormal agencies lies. Coleridge, as an opium-eater, is the only individual worthy of notice in the same connection. Had he also confessed, it is uncertain what new revelations might have been made. It is certain that opium exercised a very potent effect upon him; for it was generally after his dose that his remarkable intellectual displays occurred. These displays were mostly confined to his conversations, which were usually long-winded metaphysical epics, evolving a continued series of abstractions and analyses, and, for their movement, depending upon a sort of poetic construction. A pity it is that we must content ourselves with empty descriptions of this nature. Here, doubtless, if anywhere, opium was an auxiliary to Coleridge. For a laudanum negus, whatever there may be about it that is pernicious, will, to a mind that is metaphysically predisposed, open up thoroughfares of thought which are raised above the level of the gross material, and which lead into the region of the shadowy. Show us the man who habitually carries pills of any sort in his waistcoat-pocket, be they opium or whatever else, and we can assure you that that man is an aerobat,—that somehow, in one sense or another, he walks in the air above other men's heads. Whatever disturbs the healthful isolation of the nervous system is prosperous to metaphysics, because it attracts the mental attention to the organism through which thought is carried on. Numerous are the instances of men who would never have been heard of as thinkers or as reflective poets, if they had had sufficient muscular ballast to pull against their teeming brains. The consequence of the disproportion has been that the superfluous brain has exhaled, as a mere necessity.[A] If Tacitus had fared in any sort like his brother,—if there had been anything like an equitable division between them of muscle and brain, it is more than probable that we should have lost the illustrious historian.
[Footnote A: It has been adduced as an important proof of the soul's immortality, that frequently, as physical power declines, the mind exhibits unusual activity. But the argument moves in the opposite direction. For of what sort is this unusual activity? That which results from unbalanced nerves; and the indications are that not only are the physical harmonies disturbed, but that the same disturbing cause has impaired the delicate adjustments of thought itself. Sometimes there is manifested, towards the near approach of death, an almost insane brilliancy; as, for instance, in the case of a noted theologian, who occupied the last minutes of his ebbing life with a very subtile mathematical discourse concerning the exceeding, the excruciating smallness of nothing divided into infinitesimal parts. And strange as it may seem, I once heard this identical instance cited as a triumphant vindication of the most sublime article of either Pagan or Christian faith. Nay, from the lips of a theological professor, the fragmentary glimmerings of a maniac's mind have been adduced for precisely the same purpose.]
Coleridge was indolent from temperament, a disposition which was increased by opium. Hence De Quincey was of the opinion that it injured Coleridge's poetic faculties; which probably was the case, since in genuine poetry the mind is prominently realistic, its motions are all outward, and therefore excessive indolence must of necessity be fatal.
De Quincey's physical system, on the contrary, seemed preconformed to opium: it demanded it, and would be satisfied with nothing else. No temptation so strong could have been presented to Coleridge. De Quincey really craved the drug. His stomach was deranged, and was still suffering from the sad results of his youthful wanderings in London. It seems almost as if fate had compelled the unfortunate course into which he finally drifted. The craving first appeared in the shape of a horrid gnawing at the stomach; afterwards this indefinite yearning gave place to a specific one, which was unmistakable in its demands. Daily, like the daughters of the horse-leech, it cried, "Give, give!" Toward the last, this craving became, in De Quincey's solemn belief, an animal incarnate, and the opium-eater reasoned after the following fashion:—It is not I that eat, it is not I that am responsible either for the fact of eating or the amount; am I the keeper of this horrid monster's conscience? He even carried the conceit so far as to consider a portion of each meal as especially devoted to this insane stomachic reveller, just as a voracious Greek or Roman would have attributed no small part of his outrageous appetite to the gods, as eating by proxy through the mouths of mortals. This is almost as bad as the case reported of Stonewall Jackson, who, it is said, religiously believed that whatever he ate was, by some mysterious physiological economy, conveyed into his left leg.
No less was De Quincey psychologically preconformed to opium. The prodigious mental activity so early awakened in him counteracted the narcotic despotism of the drug, and made it a sort of ally. The reader sees from this how much depends upon predispositions as to the effect of opium. De Quincey himself says that the man whose daily talk is of oxen will pursue his bovine speculations into dreams. Opium originates nothing; but, given activity of a certain type and moving in a certain direction, and there will be perhaps through opium a multiplication of energies and velocities. What was De Quincey without opium? is, therefore, the question preliminary to any proper estimate as to what in him was due to opium. This question has already been answered in the remarks made concerning his childhood. His meditative tendencies were especially noticed as most characteristic. There was besides this a natural leaning toward the mysterious,—the mysterious, I mean, as depending, not upon the terrible or ghostly, or upon anything which excites gloom or fear, but upon operations that are simply inscrutable as moving in darkness. Take, for example, the idea of a grand combination of human energies mustered together in secret, and operating through invisible agencies for the downfall of Christianity,—an idea which was conveyed to De Quincey in his childhood through the Abbe Baruel's book exposing such a general conspiracy was existing throughout Europe: this was the sort of mystery which arrested and engrossed his thoughts. Similar elements invested all secret societies with an awful grandeur in his conception. So, too, the complicated operations of great cities such as London, which he call the "Nation of London," where even Nature is mimicked, both in her strict regularity of results, and in the seeming unconsciousness of all her outward phases, hiding all meaning under the enigmas that defy solution. In order to this effect it was absolutely necessary that there should be not simply one mystery standing alone by itself, and striking in its portentous significance; there must have been more than this,—namely, a network of occult influences, a vast organization, wheeling in and out upon itself, gyrating in mystic cycles and epicycles, repeating over and again its dark omens, and displaying its insignia in a never-ending variety of shapes. To him intricacy the most perplexing was also the most inviting. It was this which lent an overwhelming interest to certain problems of history that presented the most labyrinthian mazes to be disinvolved: for the demon that was in him sought after hieroglyphics that by all others had been pronounced undecipherable; and not unfrequently it was to his eye that for the first time there seemed to be an unknown element that must be supplied. Such a problem was presented by the religious sect among the Hebrews entitled the Essenes. Admitting the character and functions of this sect to have been those generally ascribed to it no special importance. But the idea once having occurred to De Quincey that the general assumption was the farthest removed from the truth,—than there was an unknown x in the problem, which could be satisfied by no such meagre hypothesis,—that, to meet the urgent demands of the case, there must be substituted for this Jewish sect an organization of no less importance than the Christian Church itself,—that this organization, thus suddenly brought to light, was one, moreover, that, from the most imperative necessity, veiled itself from all eyes, uttering its sublime articles of faith, and even its very name, to itself only in secret recesses of silence:—from the moment that all this was revealed to De Quincey, there was thenceforth no limit to his profound interest. Two separate essays he wrote on this subject,[A] of which he seemed never to tire.
[Footnote A: Yet, marvellous as it may seem, he wrote the second without being distinctly conscious of having written a previous one. It was no uncommon thing for him to forget his own writings. In one case it is known that for a long time he persisted in disowning his production. His American editor—a fact which is little known—selected, from among the mass of periodical writings in the various magazines for which De Quincey wrote, those which, having no other clue to guide him than, their peculiar style, he judged to have proceeded from De Quincey's pen. In one instance,—as to the "Traditions of the Rabbins,"—after considerable examination, he still hesitated, and finally wrote to De Quincey, to set himself right. The latter disowned the essay: he had forgotten it. Mr. F., however, after another examination, concluded, that, notwithstanding De Quincey's denial of the fact, he must have written it; accordingly, at his own risk, he published it. Afterwards De Quincey owned up, and ever after that referred all disputed cases of this nature to his Boston publishers.]