Shaped by sad­ness

SEA­MUS PERRY Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas de Quincey

The Oldie - - BOOKS - by Frances Wil­son

On 3rd June 1792, a bright and sunny day, Thomas, aged six, crept up the ser­vants’ stair­case of the fam­ily home and let him­self into the bed­room where his nine-year-old sis­ter El­iz­a­beth lay un­mov­ing, hav­ing died quite un­ex­pect­edly the day be­fore.

‘En­ter­ing, I closed the door so softly, that, although it opened upon a hall which as­cended through all the sto­ries, no echo ran along the silent walls. Then turn­ing round, I sought my sis­ter’s face. But the bed had been moved, and the back was now turned. Noth­ing met my eyes but one large win­dow wide open, through which the sun of mid­sum­mer at noon­day was show­er­ing down tor­rents of splen­dour. The weather was dry, the sky was cloud­less, the blue depths seemed the ex­press types of in­fin­ity; and it was not pos­si­ble for eye to be­hold or for heart to con­ceive any sym­bols more pa­thetic of life and the glory of life.’

His mem­oir, writ­ten years af­ter­wards, goes on im­pres­sively to re­call the sounds of na­ture that the child heard through the win­dow – ‘a wind that had swept the fields of mor­tal­ity for a hun­dred cen­turies’ – and then, rather less im­pres­sively, his glimpse of divine pres­ence, be­fore the abrupt in­ter­rup­tion of a foot upon the stair breaks the vi­sion. ‘I kissed the lips that I should kiss no more, and slunk like a guilty thing

with stealthy steps from the room.’

It was from this en­counter that De Quincey would date the for­ma­tion of his mind, and rightly so: in many ways, his loss of in­no­cence be­sides the eerily windswept dead sis­ter be­came the tem­plate for all the most sig­nif­i­cant ex­pe­ri­ences that were to fol­low, as though his life were a se­ries of re-plays of a child­hood dev­as­ta­tion that could never be made good. As Frances Wil­son re­minds us in her darkly at­mo­spheric bi­o­graph­i­cal study, De Quincey’s phras­ing has in mind the ghost of Ham­let’s fa­ther, who ‘started like a guilty thing/upon a fear­ful sum­mons’: the pal­pa­ble but wholly elu­sive sense of trans­gres­sion and be­ing called to ac­count runs through the great­est of his works like a key­note. He was ex­tremely clever and very well read, a ver­sa­tile writer who could turn his hand to al­most any­thing, and whose works fill 21 vol­umes in the mod­ern schol­arly edi­tion; but the hall­mark of his strange and com­pul­sive ge­nius is re­ally the very op­po­site of va­ri­ety, and its ori­gins lay in these ear­li­est mem­o­ries. Few writ­ers (be­fore the 20th cen­tury, any­way) can have writ­ten quite so in­sis­tently out of a sense of their own dam­age.

Shake­speare is not the only source for the phrase ‘guilty thing’: Wordsworth uses it too – ‘our mor­tal Na­ture/did trem­ble like guilty thing sur­prised’; and one of the great suc­cesses of this book is to show just how de­ci­sively Wordsworth shaped De Quincey’s thoughts about the last­ing ef­fect of trou­bling ex­pe­ri­ence. The book is struc­tured around a se­ries of par­al­lels with Wordsworth’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal epic The Pre­lude, a work which Wordsworth never pub­lished in his life­time but which De Quincey was priv­i­leged to be shown in man­u­script; and Wil­son per­sua­sively con­veys that his ac­quain­tance with it changed ev­ery­thing. Wordsworth was the first great English writer to teach that the child­hood you had made the adult you are, and De Quincey was his first ded­i­cated stu­dent. The dif­fer­ence be­tween them was that Wordsworth was about noth­ing if he was not about grow­ing up, be that a brave step for­ward or a dev­as­tat­ing loss of pow­ers; and De Quincey never re­ally grew up. As his daugh­ter per­cep­tively re­marked, ‘no one will make much of out my fa­ther who does not take in the ex­treme mix­ture of child­ish folly joined to a great in­tel­lect’.

He is more than a min­now be­side the Wordswor­thian tri­ton. His mas­ter­piece is the work he re­mains best known for, the Confessions of an English Opi­umEater, writ­ten when he was still a young

man, full equally of ex­otic power and do­mes­tic com­edy; but the es­says in On

Mur­der, the daz­zling ac­count of the gate­keeper in Mac­beth and the ex­ten­sive au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ings, all show his er­ratic bril­liance to good ad­van­tage, while the in­com­plete and frag­men­tary se­quel to Confessions,

Sus­piria De Pro­fundis (from which the episode of El­iz­a­beth’s deathbed comes) is an ex­tra­or­di­nary med­i­ta­tion on the shap­ing in­flu­ence of un­hap­pi­ness.

His life, as Frances Wil­son mem­o­rably evokes it, was com­pletely chaotic and of­ten shame­fully ir­re­spon­si­ble, and his prose style is no less all over the place, lurch­ing from purple prose to face­tious re­mark to plan­gent thren­ody in the course of a page. But for all that, as Co­leridge said of Wordsworth, ‘he is him­self’, and Wil­son’s vivid and finely writ­ten book is a charis­matic ac­count of some­one who de­serves still to be read.

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