Shaped by sadness
SEAMUS PERRY Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas de Quincey
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.