Thomas De Quincy Macbeth Essay Conclusion

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  
D Q popular reputation is largely due to his autobiographical essays,—to his ‘Confessions.’ Whatever may be the merits of his other writings, the general public, as in the case of Rousseau, of Dante, of St. Augustine, and of many another, has, with its instinctive and unquenchable desire for knowledge of the inner life of men of great emotional and imaginative power, singled out De Quincey’s ‘Confessions’ as the most significant of his works. There has arisen a popular legend of De Quincey, making him (not unlike Dante, who had seen hell with his bodily eyes) a man who had felt in his own person the infernal pangs and pleasures consequent upon enormous and almost unique excesses in the use of that Oriental drug which possesses for us all such a romantic attraction. He became the “English Opium-Eater”; and even the most recent and authoritative edition of his writings, that of the late Professor Masson, did not hesitate in advertisements to avail itself of a title so familiar and so sensational.
  To a great degree, this feeling on the part of the public is natural and proper. De Quincey’s opium habit, begun in his youth under circumstances that modern physicians have guessed to be justifiable, and continued throughout the remainder of his life,—at first without self-restraint, at last in what was for him moderation,—has rendered him a striking and isolated figure in Western lands.
  We have a right eagerly to ask: On this strongly marked temperament, so delicately imaginative and so keenly logical, so receptive and so retentive, a type alike of the philosopher and the poet, the scholar and the musician—on such a contemplative genius, what were the effects of so great and so constant indulgence in a drug noted for its power of heightening and extending, for a season, the whole range of the imaginative faculties?
  Justifiable as such feelings may be, however, they tend to wrong De Quincey’s memory and to limit our conceptions of his character and genius. He was no vulgar opium drunkard; he was, to all appearances, singularly free even from the petty vices to which eaters of the drug are supposed to be peculiarly liable. To be sure, he was not without his eccentricities. He was absent-mindedly careless in his attire, unusual in his hours of waking and sleeping, odd in his habits of work, ludicrously ignorant of the value of money, solitary, prone to whims, by turns reticent and loquacious. But for all his eccentricities, De Quincey—unlike Poe, for example—is not a possible object for pity or patronage; they would be foolish who could doubt his word or mistrust his motives. He was “queer,” as most great Englishmen of letters of his time were; but the more his at first enigmatic character comes to light, through his own letters and through the recollections of his friends, the more clearly do we see him to have been a pure-minded and well-bred man, kind, honest, generous, and gentle. His life was almost wholly passed among books,—books in many languages, books of many kinds and times. These he incessantly read and annotated. And the treasures of this wide reading, stored in a retentive and imaginative mind, form the basis of almost all his work that is not distinctly autobiographical.
  De Quincey’s writings, as collected by himself (and more recently by Professor Masson), fill fourteen good-sized volumes, and consist of about two hundred and fifteen separate pieces, all of which were contributed to various periodicals between 1813, when at the age of thirty-eight he suddenly found himself and his family dependent for support on his literary efforts, to his death in 1859. Books, sustained efforts of construction, he did not except in a single instance, and probably could not, produce; his mind held rich stores of information on many subjects, but his habit of thought was essentially non-consecutive and his method merely that of the brilliant talker, who illumines delightfully many a subject, treating none, however, with reserved power and thorough care. His attitude toward his work, it is worth while to notice, was an admirable one. His task was often that of a hack writer; his spirit never. His life was frugal and modest in the extreme; and though writing brought him bread and fame, he seems never, in any recorded instance, to have concerned himself with its commercial value. He wrote from a full mind and with genuine inspiration, and lived and died a man of letters from pure love of letters and not of worldly gain.
  As we have noticed, it is the autobiographical part of De Quincey’s writing—the ‘Confessions’ of one who could call every day for “a glass of laudanum negus, warm, and without sugar”—that has made him famous, and which deserves first our critical attention. It consists of four or five hundred pages of somewhat disconnected sketches, including the ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ and ‘Suspiria de Profundis.’ De Quincey himself speaks of them as “a far higher class of composition” than his philosophical or historical writings,—declaring them to be, unlike the comparatively matter-of-fact memoirs of Rousseau and St. Augustine, “modes of impassioned prose, ranging under no precedents that I am aware of in any literature.” What De Quincey attempted was to clothe in words scenes from the world of dreams,—a lyric fashion, as it were, wholly in keeping with contemporary taste and aspiration, which under the penetrating influence of romanticism were maintaining the poetical value and interest of isolated and excited personal feeling.
  Like Dante, whose ‘Vita Nuova’ De Quincey’s ‘Confessions’ greatly resemble in their essential characteristics of method, he had lived from childhood in a world of dreams. Both felt keenly the pleasures and sorrows of the outer world, but in both contemplative imagination was so strong that the actual fact—the real Beatrice, if you will—became as nothing to that same fact transmuted through idealizing thought. De Quincey was early impressed by the remarkable fashion in which dreams or reveries weave together the separate strands of wakeful existence. Before he was two years old he had, he says, “a remarkable dream of terrific grandeur about a favorite nurse, which is interesting to myself for this reason,—that it demonstrates my dreaming tendencies to have been constitutional, and not dependent on laudanum.” At the same age he “connected a profound sense of pathos with the reappearance, very early in the spring, of some crocuses.” These two incidents are a key to the working of De Quincey’s mind. Waking or sleeping, his intellect had the rare power of using the facts of life as the composer might use a song of the street, building on a wandering ballad a whole symphony of transfigured sound, retaining skillfully, in the midst of the new and majestic music, the winning qualities of the popular strain. To such a boy, with an imaginative mind, an impassioned nature, and a memory which retained and developed powerfully year by year all associations involving the feelings of grandeur, magnificence, or immensity,—to such a boy, life and experience were but the storing up of material which the creative mind might weave into literature that had the form of prose and the nature of poetry.
  De Quincey shared Dante’s rare capacity for retaining strong visual images, his rare power of weaving them into a new and wonderful fabric. But De Quincey, though as learned and as acute as Dante, had not Dante’s religious and philosophical convictions. A blind faith and scholastic reason were the foundations of the great vision of the ‘Divine Comedy.’ De Quincey had not the strong but limited conception of the world on which to base his imagination, he had not the high religious vision to nerve him to higher contemplation, and his work can never serve in any way as a guide and message to mankind. De Quincey’s visions, however, have the merit of not being forced. He did not resolve to see what faith and reason bade him.
  While all controlled reasoning was suspended under the incantation of opium, his quick mind, without conscious intent, without prejudice or purpose, assembled such mysterious and wonderful sights and sounds as the naked soul might see and hear in the world of actual experience. For De Quincey’s range of action and association was not as narrow as might seem. He had walked the streets of London friendless and starving, saved from death by a dram given by one even more wretched than he, only a few months after he had talked with the king. De Quincey’s latent images are therefore not grotesque or mediæval, not conditioned by any philosophical theory, not of any Inferno or Paradise. The elements of his visions are the simple elements of all our striking experiences: the faces of the dead, the grieving child, the tired woman, the strange foreign face, the tramp of horses’ feet. And opium merely magnified these simple elements, rendered them grand and beautiful without giving them any forced connection or relative meaning. We recognize the traces of our own transfigured experience, but we are relieved from the necessity of accepting it as having an inner meaning. De Quincey’s singular hold on our affection seems, therefore, to be his rare quality of presenting the unusual but typical dream or reverie as a beautiful object of interest, without endeavoring to give it the character of an allegory or a fable.
  The greater part of De Quincey’s writings however are historical, critical, and philosophical in character rather than autobiographical; but these are now much neglected. We sometimes read a little of ‘Joan of Arc,’ and no one can read it without great admiration; the ‘Flight of the Tartars’ has even become a part of “prescribed” literature in our American schools; but of other essays than these we have as a rule only a dim impression or a faint memory. There are obvious reasons why De Quincey’s historical and philosophical writings, in an age which devotes itself so largely to similar pursuits, no longer recommend themselves to the popular taste. His method is too discursive and leisurely; his subjects as a rule too remote from current interest; his line of thought too intricate. These failings, from our point of view, are the more to be regretted because there has never been an English essayist more entertaining or suggestive than De Quincey. His works cover a very wide range of subject-matter,—from the ‘Knocking on the Gate in Macbeth’ to the ‘Casuistry of Roman Meals’ and the ‘Toilet of a Hebrew Lady.’ His topics are always piquant. Like Poe, De Quincey loved puzzling questions, the cryptograms, the tangled under sides of things, where there are many and conflicting facts to sift and correlate, the points that are now usually settled in foot-notes and by references to German authorities. In dealing with such subjects he showed not only that he possessed the same keen logic which entertains us in Poe, but that he was the master of great stores of learned information. We are never wholly convinced, perhaps, of the eternal truth of his conclusions, but we like to watch him arrive at them. They seem fresh and strange, and we are dazzled by the constantly changing material. Nothing can be more delightful than the constant influx of new objects of thought, the unexpected incidents, the seemingly inexpugnable logic that ends in paradox, the play of human interest in a topic to which all living interest seems alien. There is scarcely a page in all De Quincey’s writings that taken by itself is actually dull. In each, one receives a vivid impression of the same lithe and active mind, examining with lively curiosity even a recondite subject: cracking a joke here and dropping a tear there, and never intermitting the smooth flow of acute but often irrelevant observation. The generation that habitually neglects De Quincey has lost little important historical and philosophical information, perhaps, but it has certainly deprived itself of a constant source of entertainment.
  As a stylist De Quincey marked a new ideal in English; that of impassioned prose, as he himself expresses it,—prose which deliberately exalts its subject-matter, as the opera does its. And it was really as an opera that De Quincey conceived of the essay. It was to have its recitatives, its mediocre passages, the well and firmly handled parts of ordinary discourse. All comparatively unornamented matter was, however, but preparative to the lyric outburst,—the strophe and antistrophe of modulated song. In this conception of style others had preceded him,—Milton notably,—but only half consciously and not with sustained success. There could be no great English prose until the eighteenth century had trimmed the tangled periods of the seventeenth, and the romantic movement of the nineteenth added fire and enthusiasm to the clear but conventional style of the eighteenth. Ruskin and Carlyle have both the same element of bravura, as will be seen if one tries to analyze their best passages as music. But in De Quincey this lyric arrangement is at once more delicate and more obvious, as the reader may assure himself if he re-read his favorite passages, noticing how many of them are in essence exclamatory, or actually vocative, as it were. In this ideal of impassioned prose De Quincey gave to the prose of the latter part of the century its keynote. Macaulay is everywhere equally impassioned or unimpassioned; the smooth-flowing and useful canal, rather than the picturesque river in which rapids follow the long reaches of even water, and are in turn succeeded by them. To conceive of style as music,—as symmetry, proportion, and measure, only secondarily dependent on the clear exposition of the actual subject-matter,—that is De Quincey’s ideal, and there Pater and Stevenson have followed him.
  De Quincey’s fame has not gone far beyond the circle of those who speak his native tongue. A recent French critic finds him rough and rude, sinister even in his wit. In that circle however his reputation has been high, though he has not been without stern critics. Mr. Leslie Stephen insists that his logic is more apparent than real; that his humor is spun out and trivial, his jests ill-timed and ill-made. His claim that his ‘Confessions’ created a new genre is futile; they confess nothing epoch-making,—no real crises of soul, merely the adventures of a truant schoolboy, the recollections of a drunkard. He was full of contemptuous and effeminate British prejudices against agnosticism and Continental geniuses. “And so,” Mr. Stephen continues, “in a life of seventy-three years De Quincey read extensively and thought acutely by fits, ate an enormous quantity of opium, wrote a few pages which revealed new capacities in the language, and provided a good deal of respectable padding for the magazines.”
  Not a single one of the charges can be wholly denied; on analysis De Quincey proves guilty of all these offenses against ideal culture. Rough jocoseness, diffusiveness, local prejudice, a life spent on details, a lack of philosophy,—these are faults, but they are British faults, Anglo-Saxon faults. They scarcely limit affection or greatly diminish respect. De Quincey was a sophist, a rhetorician, a brilliant talker. There are men of that sort in every club, in every community. We forgive their eccentricity, their lack of fine humor, the most rigid logic, or the highest learning. We do not attempt to reply to them. It is enough if the stream of discourse flows gently on from their lips. A rich and well-modulated vocabulary, finely turned phrases, amusing quips and conceits of fancy, acute observations, a rich store of recondite learning,—these charm and hold us. Such a talker, such a writer, was De Quincey. Such was his task,—to amuse, to interest, and at times to instruct us. One deeper note he struck rarely, but always with the master’s hand,—the vibrating note felt in passages characteristic of immensity, solitude, grandeur; and it is to that note that De Quincey owes the individuality of his style and his fame.
  There are few facts in De Quincey’s long career that bear directly on the criticism of his works. Like Ruskin, he was the son of a well-to-do and cultivated merchant, but the elder De Quincey unfortunately died too early to be of any help in life to his impulsive and unpractical boy, who quarreled with his guardians, ran away from school, and neglected his routine duties at Oxford. His admiration for Wordsworth and Coleridge led him to the Lake country, where he married and settled down. The necessity of providing for his family at last aroused him from his life of meditation and indulgence in opium, and brought him into connection with the periodicals of the day. After the death of his wife in 1840 he moved with his children to the vicinity of Edinburgh, where in somewhat eccentric solitude he spent the last twenty years of his uneventful life.

By Robert Morrison

Two hundred and one years ago this month, along the Ratcliffe Highway in the East End of London, seven people from two separate households were brutally murdered. News of the atrocities quickly spread throughout the country, generating levels of terror and moral hysteria that were not seen again until three-quarters of a century later when Jack the Ripper launched his savage career in a neighbouring East End district. Britain had no professional police force until 1829, and so the task of apprehending the killer (or killers) fell to an ill-coordinated group of magistrates, watchmen, and churchwardens who were woefully unprepared for the pressures of a major murder investigation, and who struggled to reassure a terrified populace that justice would be served. “We in the country here are thinking and talking of nothing but the dreadful murders,” wrote Robert Southey in December 1811, safe in his Keswick home three hundred miles from London, but still badly unnerved. “I…never had so mingled a feeling of horror, and indignation, and astonishment, with a sense of insecurity too.”

The killing began near midnight on Saturday, 7 December 1811, when an assassin passed quietly through the unlocked front door of Timothy Marr’s lace and pelisse shop. Once inside he bolted the door behind him and then ruthlessly dispatched all four inhabitants. When the alarm was raised and the door unlocked, eye-witnesses saw Marr’s wife Celia sprawled lifelessly. Marr himself was dead behind the store counter. His apprentice James Gowen was stretched out in the back near a door that led to a staircase. Downstairs in the kitchen, three-month-old Timothy Marr junior was found battered and dead. All four victims had their throats slashed. Twelve days later — again around midnight, again in the same East London area — it all happened a second time, on this occasion in the household of John Williamson, a publican. Williamson himself was found dead in the cellar. He had apparently been thrown down the stairs. His throat was cut. His wife Elizabeth and maid Anna Bridget Harrington were discovered on the main floor, their skulls bludgeoned and their throats slit.

Authorities quickly rounded up and interviewed dozens of people. One of them, John Williams, an Irish seaman in his late twenties, was questioned before the Shadwell magistrates on Christmas Eve, and then sent to Coldbath Fields prison to await further investigation. Suspicion grew as circumstantial evidence mounted against Williams, but before the magistrates could re-examine him, he hanged himself in his prison cell. The circumstances of his death were widely interpreted as a confession of guilt — much to the relief of some of the magistrates — and on New Year’s Eve Williams’s body was publicly exhibited in a procession through the Ratcliffe Highway before being driven to the nearest cross-roads, where it was forced into a narrow hole and a stake driven through the heart. Several officials, however, immediately raised doubts about Williams’s guilt, and in The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders (1971), P. D. James and T. A. Critchley conclude that Williams could not have acted alone, if he was involved at all, and that he may even have been murdered in his prison cell by those who were responsible, an eighth and final victim in the appalling tragedy.

To Thomas De Quincey, the finer points of the investigation mattered little. What impressed him was the audacity, brutality, and inexplicability of the crimes, and in his writings he returns over and over again to the Ratcliffe Highway, always attributing the murders solely to Williams, and exalting, ignoring, or altering details in order to exploit his deep and diverse response to the crimes. In his finest piece of literary criticism, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823), De Quincey introduces the satiric aesthetic that enables him to see Williams’s performance “on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway” as “making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied with any thing that has been since done in that line.” Yet De Quincey also peers uneasily into the mind of the killer in order to reflect on the psychology of violence. In Macbeth, he asserts, Shakespeare throws “the interest on the murderer,” where “there must be raging some great storm of passion — jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred — which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look.”

Williams is also at the heart of De Quincey’s three essays “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” In the first, published in 1827, De Quincey grazes the brink between horror and comedy as he argues with energetically ironic aplomb that “everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle… and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically…that is, in relation to good taste.” Twelve years later, in the second essay, he employs the same satiric topsy-turviness, but in this instance he inverts morality rather than suspending it. “For if once a man indulges himself in murder,” he observes coolly, “very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.” Finally, in the 1854 “Postscript,” De Quincey changes direction, returning fitfully to the black humour of the first two essays, but concentrating instead on impassioned representations of vulnerability and panic, and in particular on the horror of an unknown assailant descending on an urban household which is surrounded by unsuspecting neighbours. In its coherence, intensity, and detail, the “Postscript” is De Quincey’s most lurid investigation of violence.

The three “On Murder” essays had a remarkable impact on the rise of nineteenth-century decadence, as well as on crime, terror, and detective fiction. De Quincey is “the first and most powerful of the decadents,” declared G. K. Chesterton in 1913, and “any one still smarting from the pinpricks” of Oscar Wilde or James Whistler “will find most of what they said said better in Murder as One of the Fine Arts.” More recently, the British television drama Whitechapel (2012) has exploited De Quincey’s fascination with the Ratcliffe Highway killings, as have authors including Iain Sinclair, Philip Kerr, and Lloyd Shepherd. “May I quote Thomas De Quincey?” asks the murderer politely in Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994). “In the pages of his essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ I first learned of the Ratcliffe Highway deaths, and ever since that time his work has been a source of perpetual delight and astonishment to me.” Most compellingly, in his forthcoming thriller Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell makes De Quincey the prime suspect in a series of copy-cat murders that terrify London in 1854. Morrell’s two detectives Ryan and Becker discover that De Quincey’s “Postscript” has just been published, and that in it “the Opium-Eater described Williams’s two killing sprees for fifty, astoundingly blood-filled pages — murders that by 1854 had occurred forty-three years earlier and yet were presented with a vividness that gave the impression the killings had happened the previous night.” De Quincey’s response to Williams ranged from gruesomely vivid reportage to brilliantly satiric high jinks and penetrating literary and aesthetic criticism. In his hands, violent crime became a subject which could be detached from social circumstances and then ironized, examined, and avidly enjoyed by generations of murder mystery connoisseurs and armchair detectives who enjoy the intellectual challenge, rapt exploration, and satiric safety of murder as a fine art.

Robert Morrison is Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He has edited our edition of Thomas De Quincey’s essays On Murder, and his edition of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings is forthcoming with Oxford World’s Classics next year. Morrison is the author of The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, which was a finalist for the James Black Memorial Prize in 2010. His edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion was published by Harvard University Press in 2011. His co-edited collection of essays, Romanticism and Blackwood’s Magazine: “An Unprecedented Phenomenon” is forthcoming with Palgrave. Read his previous blog post on John William Polidori and The Vampyre.

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Image credits: (1) Newspaper illustration depicting the escape of John Turner from the second floor of the King’s Arms after he discovered the second murders December 1811. London Chronicle via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The Funeral of the Murdered Mr. and Mrs. Marr and infant Son. Published Dec 24, 1811 by G. Thompson No. 43 Long Lane, West Smithfield. London Chronicle via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Ratcliffe Highway Murders Reward poster offering 50 pounds for information on the murders of the Marr Family, December 1811, London Chronicle via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Procession to interment of John Williams. Published Jan’y 10 1812 by G Thomson no 45 Long Lane Smithfield. London Chronicle via Wikimedia Commons. (5) Book cover used with the author’s permission.


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