I admit to pleasures that some literary academics frown on. Sure, I love the classics, but I also like books about scandal and skullduggery. Bob Woodward’s Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi; Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Ed Wood; and Penny Stallings’ Rock’N’Roll Confidential are fun to read.
Perhaps this is why, when I am called upon to name my favorite writer associated with the so-called “Lake Poets” of the 1800’s (William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, sometimes Percy Bysshe Shelley), I will tell you that I like Thomas deQuincey.
Not a poet himself, deQuincey wrote most of his prose for magazines and newspapers. Much of these works were later collected and published as books. DeQuincey’s best known work is Confessions of an Opium Eater. By today’s standards it’s a rather tame tale, but it was considered edgy in its own time. There is evidence that both Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire were influenced by deQuincey to try the narcotic. Besides using opium in his autobiographical account, deQuincey raised eyebrows when he told his readers about a prostitute he befriended. Apparently, sex was not involved; people just didn’t admit to “slumming” back then.
Indeed, deQuincey’s life experience was well rounded. Born in 1785, the son of a successful linen merchant in Manchester, England, Thomas deQuincey was an exceptionally bright student. He excelled at Latin and Greek but became restless and ran away from home, first to Wales, then London. Refusing help from his family, he lived in poverty in London, reading books and hitting the streets. He eventually enrolled in Worcester College in Oxford, studied there from 1804 to 1808. During this time, he wrote fan mail to Wordsworth, tried opium for the first time, finally met Wordsworth, inherited a large sum of money when his father died, and left college without a degree. From there he went to live in a cottage in the Lake District where he began his associations with the famous poets about whom he would later reminisce. Over the next few years, deQuincey gradually spent all of his money, and when he married Margaret Simpson in 1817, he turned to writing for magazines to earn a living.
My favorite deQuincey book is the aforementioned Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, in which he dishes on both the good and bad qualities of the literary masters, recognizing the public’s taste for tell-all and presaging the frankness of more modern biographies.
DeQuincey called Samuel Taylor Coleridge “the largest and most spacious intellect … that has yet existed amongst men.” He clearly respected this man who penned The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but he does not shy away from discussing Coleridge’s addiction to opium or the accusation that Coleridge may have, on rare occasion, translated ancient texts and used them in his writing without acknowledging their origin. When the Royal Institute commissioned Coleridge to give a series of lectures in London, the use of opium debilitated him so often that he had to cancel scheduled appearances. Keep in mind, this was after Coleridge had done much to enrich the world of literature. DeQuincey gives us a picture of an overmedicated Coleridge, sad and degraded like the latter-day Jack Kerouac, in bed clothes and a nightcap, “surrounded by handkerchiefs … shouting from the attics … down three or four flights of stairs … ‘Mrs. Brainbridge! I say, Mrs. Brainbridge!’ … his soul attendant, whose dwelling was in the subterranean regions of the house.”
As for William Wordsworth, deQuincey was in such awe of his talent that it took years of correspondence by mail before he could build up the nerve to meet Wordsworth in person. This didn’t stop deQuincey from telling us that several women confided with him, behind Wordsworth’s back, that Wordsworth had ugly legs. What made the poet’s legs so ugly is not explained.
In a later chapter, called The Estrangement from Wordsworth, deQuincey says that, although Wordsworth was “a man of principle and integrity … in many respects, of amiable manners,” but that “men of extraordinary genius and force of mind are far better as objects for distant admiration than as daily companions.” The chief complaint in this chapter is Wordsworth’s tendency to ignore others’ opinions on the effects of “form and color” in the natural beauty of nature. According to deQuincey, Wordsworth seemed to believe he had a lock on this kind of knowledge and would rudely turn away from anyone else who tried their hand at it.
Robert Southey fares much better in deQuincey’s Recollections, evidently having no addictions nor ugly legs. Thus it is proved again that normalcy is a barrier to great fame. Southey seems to have been too busy to sit around discussing escoteric themes all day. In fact, deQuincey marvels at Southey’s well-kept schedule and industrious habits. He reports that Southey always arose from bed around 8:00 AM and made it a point to write until breakfast at 9:00 AM. It seems that Southey even had a goal to write so many lines of poetry or prose before breakfast, and what surprises De Quincey even more is that this writing almost always turned out to be good. Furthermore, Southey receives many letters and always makes it a point to answer them all, the same day he receives them. The only problem deQuincey can find with the disciplined scholar who penned The Battle of Blenheim is that he will not, or cannot, enage in as lofty and prolonged conversation as Wordsworth, preferring to budget his time and conserve his speech.
I don’t want to give the impression that deQuincey’s Recollections is all gossip and derision. The book transported me into the fascinating world of the Lake Poets — the scenery, habits, customs, and humanity of the time and place; long walks in the countryside, sometimes miles, from one town to another; the warm simple pleasures of the Wordworths and their guests at tea or supper; or deQuincey’s thrill at hearing these intellects speak critically of their government (De Quincey himself had little interest in politics and had always assumed that men of Lake Poet stature were unreserved supporters of royalty), all make this book quite satisfying for anyone interested in this time period and these writers.
If deQuincey were alive today, would he write for People Magazine? Maybe, but I must say that his 19th Century style can be a dense forest at times. I found myself re-reading certain paragraphs to make sure I understood what deQuincey was saying. Other times, he goes off on tangents and takes a whole page to make a point that today’s magazines would dash off in a couple of sentences. It’s all worth it, though. DeQuincey’s Recollection of the Lakes and the Lake Poets held my attention and was an enjoyable read.