De Quincey's Critical Dilations
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JOHN W. BILSLAND De Quincey's Critical Dilations I De Quincey's blind spots and prejudices as a critic have long been recognized: in all of classical literature he had unqualified praise for only the Greek tragedy; he had little good to say of any French writing whatsoever; in German literature he fully appreciated only one author, Jean Paul Richter, finding even Goethe much overrated; he greatly admired certain works of Pope (The Rape of the Lock, Eloisa to Abelard, The Dunciad) but relegated virtually all Augustan literature to what he termed 'the minor key';' and he denied the highest experience of sublimity to all cultures other than the Hebraic and Christian.2 Nevertheless, despite his own evident and deep biases, probably no critic of his day was more aware than he of the need at all times for sympathetic responsiveness in a reader. He clearly recognized that without some harmony with the writer - a kinship of spirit, of feeling, of experience - no reader can know the full force of a work of literature. Through a lack of sympathy, he believed, Addison was incapable of appreciating Shakespeare: 'the proportions were too colossal for his delicate vision." And Bentley lacked the capacity to cope with 'an author so superhumanly imaginative as Milton: even though he was well equipped to deal with a poet of 'unimaginative good sense' such as Lucan, 'whose connexions, transitions, and all the process of whose thinking, go on by links of the most intelligible and definite ingenuity.'4 Sometimes even the most kindly disposed of readers will be unable to respond understandingly to particular works. De Quincey recognized that in old novels, for example, one frequently meets such a badly dated picture oflife that a sympathetic acceptance becomes virtually impossible: the reader ... misses the echo to that particular revelation of human nature which has met him in the social aspects of his own day; or too often he is perplexed by an expression which, having dropped into a lower use, disturbs the unity of impression; or he is revolted by a coarse sentiment, which increasing refinement has made unsuitable to the sex or to the rank of the character.5 De Quincey'5 concern with such matters stems from his conviction that by its very nature literature requires an intimate sympathy between writer UNIVERSI1Y OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 52, NUMBER 1, FALL 1982 0042..0247/8211000-0079-09)$01.50/0 «:l UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS 80 JOHN W. BILSLAND and reader. In the Autobiographical Sketches (in a passage obviously echoing Wordsworth) he speaks of poetry as 'the spontaneous overflow ofreal unaffected passion ... forced into public manifestation ofitselffrom the necessity which cleaves to all passion alike of seeking external sympathy' (I, 194). And in the third of his 'Letters to a Young Man Whose Education Has Been Neglected: as he seeks to describe the effect which King Lear has had upon him, he asks, 'when I am thus suddenly startled into a feeling of the infinity of the world within me, is this power, or what may I call it?' (x, 49). In passages like these he leaves no doubt that he views literature as essentially reciprocal: if it is to achieve its end, it demands not only that the author excite but also that the reader contribute of himself. And in the light of the Confessions and the dream visions there is nothing surprising in De Quincey's holding this view: to him 'the infmity ofthe world within' was often the most significant reality, and one might almost anticipate that he would value literature primarily for its power to bring a heightened awareness of that infinity. Throughout his own criticism De Quincey provides abundant evidence of his concern with the sympathetic responses evoked within himself by particular works. Whatever his failings as a critic he holds firmly in practice to his conviction that what matters in literature is the inner drama it excites. And since that drama depends in great part upon his own nature and past experience, he is quite prepared to introduce into his analyses deeply personal associations, the most celebrated being found, of course, in the little essay 'On the Knocking at the...