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De Quincey between stone and flowers

The prevailing tenor of De Quincey’s writing is upwards: a spirit of lightness pervades it. He was famously fussy and fastidious (Coleridge spoke of his being ‘even to something of old bachelor preciseness accurate … in all he does’). He was also incurably facetious and apt to flippancy. Children adored him, not excepting his own. In his writing persona, he turned all this to advantage. The material conditions under which he wrote may have caused him excruciating stress, but the writing itself came naturally to him. His command of the symbolic order of grammar was his answer to the disorder of his life. On the page, he could shape himself as he wanted to be known and believed himself to be, turning the traits which brought him censure and reproof into a source of entertainment and the occasion for applause. Both parts of the Confessions [of An English Opium-Eater] celebrate a life of truancy and delinquency: the first part, in telling the story of how he ran away from school and went wandering about Wales, and of his time as a young down and out in London; the second, in its picturesque account of his opium experiences, topped off by the rehearsal of his artfully scary dreams. Through writing about himself, De Quincey salvaged the wreck of his existence and fashioned unusual and amusing artworks from it. But whatever his subject, he performed himself in every sentence he wrote.

He took pains over the task of capturing his voice on the page, writing slowly and calculating his effects with a meticulous eye. He’d been thinking about the technical aspects of writing since he was a child. Born in 1785, he learned to write in schools where study of the classics dominated a curriculum that hadn’t changed in essence for centuries and wasn’t to change for a while yet. Clever and competitive, he excelled in the construing and pastiche of Greek and Latin texts and in the rhetorical techniques required to write model essays on set themes. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he could run effortlessly up and down the scales of late 18th-century idiom.

Prose style arises out of an accommodation between the competing claims of brevity and ornament. Everything we write tends either to the epigrammatic or to the periphrastic, the terse or the expansive, the lapidary or florid, stone or flowers. De Quincey was on the side of the flowers. Stone had reached its consummation in Johnsonian apophthegm. Amplified and projected onto the world by Boswell, it would exert its influence for decades after Johnson’s death. De Quincey grew up in the Johnsonian force field, but resisted it, developing a style that took its sustenance from pre-Augustan writers such as Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Browne. It was as if he had struck water from the Johnsonian rock, liberating the spirit of loquacity from the inert and massy block in which it had been imprisoned. Humour is integral to this radical and insurgent turn and, if we want to place De Quincey in a tradition, he flows with the current that streamed from Sterne to Dickens and onward to Joyce.

For De Quincey, writing, like conversation, was a social stage. ‘De Quincey talks to us,’ Wilson writes, ‘in the way people talk after dinner, several bottles down, when the table is cleared and the night is young.’ He thought that good prose should consist of a ‘graceful succession of sentences, long intermingled with short, each modifying the other, and arising musically by links of spontaneous connexion’. But writing also has to perform the act of thinking. Tucked away in a footnote to his essay on rhetoric, published in Blackwood’s in 1828, we find this: ‘Every truth, be it what it may, every thesis of a sentence, grows in the very fact of unfolding it … Hence, while a writer of Dr Johnson’s class seems only to look back upon his thoughts, Burke looks forward, and does in fact advance and change his own station concurrently with the advance of the sentences.’ For De Quincey, Wilson writes, ‘to see a thing grow was to catch it in a state of grace.’

De Quincey returned to the idea of writing as an organic process in an exuberant excursus on the nature of his own writing practice, at the beginning of his Suspiria de Profundis, an autobiographical essay published in 1845 as a sequel to the Confessions. Responding to ‘cynical’ and ‘surly’ readers who objected to the narrative arrangement of the earlier work, he launched into a thousand-word digression on the virtues of a digressive style. Kind readers, he said, would understand that the childhood narrative in the Confessions was included not for the ‘mere facts’ of the case ‘but because these facts move through a wilderness of natural thoughts or feelings; some in the child who suffers; some in the man who reports; but all so far interesting as they relate to solemn objects’.