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- The English Mail-Coach and Joan of Arc - 1/22 -






Some portions of this Introduction have been taken from the Athenĉum Press _Selections from De Quincey_; many of the notes have also been transferred from that volume. A number of the new notes I owe to a review of the _Selections_ by Dr. Lane Cooper, of Cornell University. I wish also to thank for many favors the Committee and officers of the Glasgow University Library.

If a word by way of suggestion to teachers be pertinent, I would venture to remark that the object of the teacher of literature is, of course, only to fulfill the desire of the author--to make clear his facts and to bring home his ideas in all their power and beauty. Introductions and notes are only means to this end. Teachers, I think, sometimes lose sight of this fact; I know it is fatally easy for students to forget it. That teacher will have rendered a great service who has kept his pupils alive to the real aim of their studies,--to know the author, not to know of him.








Thomas de Quincey was born in Manchester on the 15th of August, 1785. His father was a man of high character and great taste for literature as well as a successful man of business; he died, most unfortunately, when Thomas was quite young. Very soon after our author's birth the family removed to The Farm, and later to Greenhay, a larger country place near Manchester. In 1796 De Quincey's mother, now for some years a widow, removed to Bath and placed him in the grammar school there.

Thomas, the future opium-eater, was a weak and sickly child. His first years were spent in solitude, and when his elder brother, William, a real boy, came home, the young author followed in humility mingled with terror the diversions of that ingenious and pugnacious "son of eternal racket." De Quincey's mother was a woman of strong character and emotions, as well as excellent mind, but she was excessively formal, and she seems to have inspired more awe than affection in her children, to whom she was for all that deeply devoted. Her notions of conduct in general and of child rearing in particular were very strict. She took Thomas out of Bath School, after three years' excellent work there, because he was too much praised, and kept him for a year at an inferior school at Winkfield in Wiltshire.

In 1800, at the age of fifteen, De Quincey was ready for Oxford; he had not been praised without reason, for his scholarship was far in advance of that of ordinary pupils of his years. "That boy," his master at Bath School had said, "that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one." He was sent to Manchester Grammar School, however, in order that after three years' stay he might secure a scholarship at Brasenose College, Oxford. He remained there-- strongly protesting against a situation which deprived him "of _health_, of _society_, of _amusement_, of _liberty_, of _congeniality of pursuits_"--for nineteen months, and then ran away.

His first plan had been to reach Wordsworth, whose _Lyrical Ballads_ (1798) had solaced him in fits of melancholy and had awakened in him a deep reverence for the neglected poet. His timidity preventing this, he made his way to Chester, where his mother then lived, in the hope of seeing a sister; was apprehended by the older members of the family; and through the intercession of his uncle, Colonel Penson, received the promise of a guinea a week to carry out his later project of a solitary tramp through Wales. From July to November, 1802, De Quincey then led a wayfarer's life. [Footnote: For a most interesting account of this period see the _Confessions of an English Opium-Eater_, Athenĉum Press _Selections from De Quincey_, pp. 165-171, and notes.] He soon lost his guinea, however, by ceasing to keep his family informed of his whereabouts, and subsisted for a time with great difficulty. Still apparently fearing pursuit, with a little borrowed money he broke away entirely from his home by exchanging the solitude of Wales for the greater wilderness of London. Failing there to raise money on his expected patrimony, he for some time deliberately clung to a life of degradation and starvation rather than return to his lawful governors.

Discovered by chance by his friends, De Quincey was brought home and finally allowed (1803) to go to Worcester College, Oxford, on a reduced income. Here, we are told, "he came to be looked upon as a strange being who associated with no one." During this time he learned to take opium. He left, apparently about 1807, without a degree. In the same year he made the acquaintance of Coleridge and Wordsworth; Lamb he had sought out in London several years before.

His acquaintance with Wordsworth led to his settlement in 1809 at Grasmere, in the beautiful English Lake District; his home for ten years was Dove Cottage, which Wordsworth had occupied for several years and which is now held in trust as a memorial of the poet. De Quincey was married in 1816, and soon after, his patrimony having been exhausted, he took up literary work in earnest.

In 1821 he went to London to dispose of some translations from German authors, but was persuaded first to write and publish an account of his opium experiences, which accordingly appeared in the _London Magazine_ in that year. This new sensation eclipsed Lamb's _Essays of Elia_, which were appearing in the same periodical. The _Confessions of an English Opium-Eater_ was forthwith published in book form. De Quincey now made literary acquaintances. Tom Hood found the shrinking author "at home in a German ocean of literature, in a storm, flooding all the floor, the tables, and the chairs--billows of books." Richard Woodhouse speaks of the "depth and reality of his knowledge. ... His conversation appeared like the elaboration of a mine of results. ... Taylor led him into political economy, into the Greek and Latin accents, into antiquities, Roman roads, old castles, the origin and analogy of languages; upon all these he was informed to considerable minuteness. The same with regard to Shakespeare's sonnets, Spenser's minor poems, and the great writers and characters of Elizabeth's age and those of Cromwell's time."

From this time on De Quincey maintained himself by contributing to various magazines. He soon exchanged London and the Lakes for Edinburgh and its suburb, Lasswade, where the remainder of his life was spent. _Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine_ and its rival _Tatt's Magazine_ received a large number of contributions. _The English Mail-Coach_ appeared in 1849 in Blackwood. _Joan of Arc_ had already been published (1847) in _Tait_. De Quincey continued to drink laudanum throughout his life,--twice after 1821 in very great excess. During his last years he nearly completed a collected edition of his works. He died in Edinburgh on the 8th of December, 1859.


The Opium-Eater had been a weak, lonely, and over-studious child, and he was a solitary and ill-developed man. His character and his work present strange contradictions. He is most precise in statement, yet often very careless of fact; he is most courteous in manner, yet inexcusably inconsiderate in his behavior. Again, he sets up a high standard of purity of diction, yet uses slang quite unnecessarily and inappropriately; and though a great master of style, he is guilty, at times, of digression within digression until all trace of the original subject is lost.

De Quincey divides his writings into three groups: first, that class which "proposes primarily to amuse the reader, but which, in doing so, may or may not happen occasionally to reach a higher station, at which the amusement passes into an impassioned interest." To this class would belong the _Autobiographic Sketches_ and the _Literary Reminiscences_. As a second class he groups "those papers which address themselves purely to the understanding as an insulated faculty, or do so primarily." These essays would include, according to Professor Masson's subdivision, (a) Biographies, such as _Shakespeare_ or _Pope_--_Joan of Arc_ falls here, yet has some claim to a place in the first class; (b) Historical essays, like The _Cĉsars_; (c) Speculative and Theological essays; (d) Essays in Political Economy and Politics; (e) Papers of Literary Theory and Criticism, such as the brilliant discussions of _Rhetoric, Style_, and _Conversation_, and the famous _On the Knocking at the Gate in 'Macbeth_.' As a third and "far higher" class the author ranks the _Confessions of an English Opium-Eater_, and also (but more emphatically) the _Suspiria de Profundis_. "On these," he says, "as modes of impassioned prose ranging under no precedents that I am aware of in any literature, it is much more difficult to speak justly, whether in a hostile or a friendly character."

Of De Quincey's essays in general it may be said that they bear witness alike to the diversity of his knowledge and the penetrative power of his intellect. The wide range of his subjects, however, deprives his

The English Mail-Coach and Joan of Arc - 1/22

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