Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

De Quincey's Imperial Systems

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

De Quincey's Imperial Systems

Article excerpt

MUCH OF THE BEST RECENT CRITICISM OF THOMAS DE QUINCEY HAS FOCUSED on the relationship between De Quincey and his erstwhile friend and mentor, William Wordsworth. Charles Rzepka and Alina Clej, for instance, read De Quincey's friendship and subsequent hostility to Wordsworth as an anxiety of influence, an attempt to upstage the more illustrious writer. (1) Margaret Russett, in contrast, argues that De Quincey does not attempt to avoid Wordsworth's influence, but to parasitically profit from it: De Quincey befriends the poet, inhabits his former house, and claims to interpret his genius for the popular magazine audience. (2) I find Russett's account especially compelling because it explains De Quincey's continual tendency to stake his own literary authority on other people and agencies, whether Wordsworth, Ricardo, opium, or, as this essay will argue, the English mail. (3) While the attention to the Wordsworth-De Quincey relationship provides illuminating readings of De Quincey's early career, however, focusing on the relationship between the writers has prevented critics from noticing that De Quincey's later works shift from dependence on a person such as Wordsworth to dependence on vast, impersonal national organizations.

One example from De Quincey's revised Confessions of an English Opium Eater can quickly illustrate this shift from an interpersonal to a national context. In the 1821 Confessions, when De Quincey explains his strong attraction to the Lake District, he credits Wordsworth: Wordsworth's poetry has so amazed and intrigued him that he wants not only to meet the poet, but to wander the very hills depicted in his poetry. When De Quincey revised and expanded the Confessions in 1856, however, he diminished the role of Wordsworth and of poetry more generally in drawing him to the Lakes. In 1856 Wordsworth appears (along with Anne Radcliffe and the landscape painters) as merely one of many influences provoking his curiosity. De Quincey ultimately attributes his interest in the Lakes to English administrative divisions: due to the "mere legal fiction" that the southern section of the Lakes was part of De Quincey's Lancashire home, the Lakes held "a secret fascination, subtle, sweet, fantastic, and even from [his] seventh or eighth year spiritually strong." (4) He cannot claim acquaintance with the lake region, and he cannot claim that any similarity between landscapes or peoples connects this portion of the Lakes to Lancashire. Still, writing retrospectively, De Quincey allows the legal identity of the Lakes to assign them a "spiritual" meaning even before he reads Wordsworth's poetry. Even more than literature, local culture, or any author's personal charisma, "the eccentric geography of English law" identifies De Quincey as a native of the Lakes.

In moving from Wordsworth to "English law," De Quincey refuses the organic relationship to the Lakes that Wordsworth claimed for his boyhood in The Prelude. Equally crucially for my argument here, De Quincey shifts his interest in the Lakes out of the psychological register. Passing time cannot account for this change. The Wordsworth-De Quincey friendship had already turned acrimonious by the time De Quincey published the earlier passage in 1821, and since Wordsworth was arguably more popular in 1856, after his death, than at the time of the first version of the Confessions, De Quincey stood to gain just as much cultural prestige from his claim to be the first to recognize Wordsworth's genius in 1856 as he did in 1821. (5) Instead, I will argue, De Quincey identifies with national bureaucracy because by 1856 he locates authorship within a national system of information rather than in individual genius. This redefinition of authorship culminates in De Quincey's 1849 essay, "The English Mail-Coach."

De Quincey's turn to the Mail follows a growth in the importance of such organizations in Britain following the Napoleonic wars. As imperial historian C. …

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