De Quincey’s Portrait by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

The only one which can be considered satisfactory is that of which a copy is prefixed to these Volumes. It is from a steel engraving by Frank Croll, taken at Edinburgh from a daguerreotype by Howie in 1850.

DE QUINCEY’S own opinion of it is expressed to me in the amusing letter which was published in The Instructor (New Series, vol. vi. p. 145).

TO THE EDITOR OF THE INSTRUCTOR.

September 21, 1850.

My Dear Sir,–I am much obliged to you for communicating to us (that is, to my daughters and myself) the engraved portrait, enlarged from the daguerreotype original. The engraver, at least, seems to have done his part ably. As to one of the earlier artists concerned, viz. the sun of July, I suppose it is not allowable to complain of him, else my daughters are inclined to upbraid him with having made the mouth too long. But, of old, it was held audacity to suspect the sun’s veracity:–‘Solem quis dicere falsum audeat!’ And I remember that, half a century ago, the Sun newspaper, in London, used to fight under sanction of that motto. But it was at length discovered by the learned, that Sun junior, viz. the newspaper, did sometimes indulge in fibbing. The ancient prejudice about the solar truth broke down, therefore, in that instance; and who knows but Sun senior may be detected, now that our optical glasses are so much improved, in similar practices? in which case he may have only been ‘keeping his hand in’ when operating upon that one feature of the mouth. The rest of the portrait, we all agree, does credit to his talents, showing that he is still wide-awake, and not at all the superannuated old artist that some speculators in philosophy had dreamed of his becoming.

As an accompaniment to this portrait, your wish is that I should furnish a few brief chronological memoranda of my own life. That would be hard for me to do, and when done, might not be very interesting for others to read. Nothing makes such dreary and monotonous reading as the old hackneyed roll-call, chronologically arrayed, of inevitable facts in a man’s life. One is so certain of the man’s having been born, and also of his having died, that it is dismal to lie under the necessity of reading it. That the man began by being a boy–that he went to school–and that, by intense application to his studies, ‘which he took to be his portion in this life,’ he rose to distinction as a robber of orchards, seems so probable, upon the whole, that I am willing to accept it as a postulate. That he married–that, in fulness of time, he was hanged, or (being a humble, unambitious man) that he was content with deserving it–these little circumstances are so naturally to be looked for, as sown broadcast up and down the great fields of biography, that any one life becomes, in this respect, but the echo of thousands. Chronologic successions of events and dates, such as these, which, belonging to the race, illustrate nothing in the individual, are as wearisome as they are useless.

A better plan will be–to detach some single chapter from the experiences of childhood, which is likely to offer, at least, this kind of value–either that it will record some of the deep impressions under which my childish sensibilities expanded, and the ideas which at that time brooded continually over my mind, or else will expose the traits of character that slumbered in those around me. This plan will have the advantage of not being liable to the suspicion of vanity or egotism; for, I beg the reader to understand distinctly, that I do not offer this sketch as deriving any part of what interest it may have from myself, as the person concerned in it. If the particular experience selected is really interesting, in virtue of its own circumstances, then it matters not to whom it happened. Suppose that a man should record a perilous journey, it will be no fair inference that he records it as a journey performed by himself. Most sincerely he may be able to say, that he records it not for that relation to himself, but in spite of that relation. The incidents, being absolutely independent, in their power to amuse, of all personal reference, must be equally interesting [he will say] whether they occurred to A or to B. That is my case. Let the reader abstract from me as a person that by accident, or in some partial sense, may have been previously known to himself. Let him read the sketch as belonging to one who wishes to be profoundly anonymous. I offer it not as owing anything to its connection with a particular individual, but as likely to be amusing separately for itself; and if I make any mistake in that, it is not a mistake of vanity exaggerating the consequence of what relates to my own childhood, but a simple mistake of the judgment as to the power of amusement that may attach to a particular succession of reminiscences.

Excuse the imperfect development which in some places of the sketch may have been given to my meaning. I suffer from a most afflicting derangement of the nervous system, which at times makes it difficult for me to write at all, and always makes me impatient, in a degree not easily understood, of recasting what may seem insufficiently, or even incoherently, expressed.–Believe me, ever yours,

THOMAS DE QUINCEY.

This letter was a preface to ‘A Sketch from Childhood,’ of which the first and second parts appeared in that Volume.

After this came a blank of six months–a whole Volume containing nothing. In Volume VIII. (January, 1852), ‘A Sketch from Childhood’ was resumed with the following whimsical apology. It then ran for five months consecutively:–

(January, 1852.)

I understand that several readers of my Sketch from Childhood have lodged complaints against me for not having pursued it to what they can regard as a satisfactory close. Some may have done this in a gentle tone, as against an irreclaimable procrastinator, amiably inclined, perhaps, to penitence, though constitutionally incapable of amendment; but others more clamorously, as against one faithless to his engagements, and deliberately a defaulter. Themselves they regard in the light of creditors, and me as a slippery debtor, who, having been permitted to pay his debts by instalments–three, suppose, or four:–has paid two, and then absconded in order to evade the rest. Certainly to this extent I go along with them myself, that, in all cases of a tale or story moving through the regular stages of a plot, the writer, by the act of publishing the introductory parts, pledges himself to unweave the whole tissue to the last. The knot that he has tied, though it should prove a very Gordian knot, he is bound to untie. And, if he fails to do so, I doubt whether a reader has not a right of action against him for having wantonly irritated a curiosity that was never meant to be gratified–for having trifled with his feelings–and, possibly, for having distressed and perplexed his moral sense; as, for instance, by entangling the hero and heroine (two young people that can be thoroughly recommended for virtue) in an Irish bog of misfortunes, and there leaving them to their fate–the gentleman up to his shoulders, and the poor lady, therefore, in all probability up to her lips. But, in a case like the present, where the whole is offered as a sketch, an action would not lie. A sketch, by its very name, is understood to be a fragmentary thing: it is a torso, which may want the head, or the feet, or the arms, and still remain a marketable piece of sculpture. In buying a horse, you may look into his mouth, but not in buying a torso: for, if all his teeth have been gone for ten centuries, which would certainly operate in the way of discount upon the price of a horse, very possibly the loss would be urged as a good ground for an extra premium upon the torso. Besides, it is hard to see how any proper end could be devised for a paper of this nature, reciting a few incidents, sad and gay, from the records of a half-forgotten childhood, unless by putting the child to death; for which denouement, unhappily, there was no solid historical foundation.

Right or wrong, however, my accusers are entitled to my gratitude; since in the very fact of their anger is involved a compliment. By proclaiming their indignation against the procrastinating or absconding sketcher, they proclaim their interest in the sketch; and, therefore, if any fierce Peter Peebles should hang upon my skirts, haling me back to work, and denouncing me to the world as a fugitive from my public duties, I shall not feel myself called upon to contradict him. As often as he nails me with the charge of being a skulker from work in meditatione fugae, I shall turn round and nail him with the charge of harbouring an intense admiration for me, and putting a most hyperbolical value upon my services; or else why should he give himself so much trouble, after so many months are gone by, in pursuing and recapturing me? On this principle, I shall proceed with others who may have joined the cry of the accusers, obediently submitting to their pleasure, doing my best, therefore, to supply a conclusion which in my own eyes had not seemed absolutely required, and content to bear the utmost severity of their censure as applied to myself, the workman, in consideration of the approbation which that censure carries with it by implication to the work itself.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *