- “Dog Sleep”:Creaturely Exposure in De Quincey and Wordsworth
Alone, idle, and always near danger, savage man must like to sleep, and be a light sleeper like animals which, thinking little, sleep so to speak all the time they do not think.—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Second Discourse (1755)1
I don’t underestimate it. I know it takes courage. But let us suppose for a moment that someone had it, this courage de luxe to follow them, in order to know forever (for who could forget it again or confuse it with anything else?) where they creep off afterward and what they do with the rest of the long day, and whether they sleep at night. That especially should be ascertained: whether they sleep.—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)2
Hardly an unknown link to scholars before then, by the 1990s a number of readers had noted with new intensity how closely Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) shadows the Romantic “Lake Poets” as its model. The range of associations and incidents in Confessions conjure up “Wordsworth’s abjected other,” in the language of Alan Bewell.3 The text calls “on the major tropes of Romanticism that Wordsworth and Coleridge had long established”—including a string of events wherein, as Josephine McDonagh goes on to say in her 1994 study,
A youthful spirit is oppressed by social institutions—not unlike Wordsworth in The Prelude, which De Quincey had [End Page 391] read in 1810; he wanders alone in the countryside and the city; he befriends the poor and dispossessed (such as the prostitute, Ann)—whose noble spirits resemble those of the rural peasants in Lyrical Ballads; he recounts his opium dreams, yet more graphically than Coleridge; and so on.4
Structurally, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater proceeds in musical terms as a kind of whole-scale thematic fugue upon the theme of Wordsworthian marginal encounters.5
Along with the Scottish Blackwood’s critics whose number he would later join, De Quincey’s negative modeling after Wordsworth in Confessions places him among the first writers and critics to trade on the idea of a branded “Wordsworthian” romanticism.6 By this, I mean the since-reified notion of Wordsworth not as an ambitious idiosyncrasy in literary history (the basic aegis under which stewards of literary decorum as different as Coleridge and Francis Jeffrey viewed him)—but as the schematically harmonious, idealizing poet made to represent an entire pole of the imagination in contrast with everything more fragmented, unclassifiable, and dark. In juxtaposing his wandering early life of abjections with mature Wordsworth’s secured safety, his psychotropic visions and nightmares to Wordsworth’s visionary sobriety, and Confessions’ cosmopolitan orientalism to Wordsworth’s Lake District provincial domestic life, the same De Quincey who so admired and was drawn by Wordsworth’s singularity has rendered the most influential (because admiring) caricature of the poet. Yet rather than stop at finding in this overwhelming pattern solely an inscription of the shape of conventionalized Wordsworth, at the same time I will argue that a few key passages in De Quincey track the unofficial, uncanny Wordsworth best: nowhere are the poet’s least assimilated effects reproduced more unnervingly. The disclosure of Wordsworth’s true originality—often only negatively sensed by others who alternately “worship” or denigrate nature and Wordsworth’s so-called nature poetry7—is found in recurrent gestures toward somatism and in-difference that yield what Paul H. Fry in his 2008 study of Wordsworth entitles The Poetry of What We Are: “the leveling of consciousness effected by the refusal to acknowledge a hierarchy of being, with its description of the human in its nonhuman, somatic registers.”8
This essay offers an associated, but slightly different, disclosure of Wordsworth’s permanent originality and its almost inevitable, internally wrought sequence of normative distortions. I follow a theme of creaturely animal life within the corpus of Wordsworth and De Quincey, as two romantic authors known primarily for thinking about animals in [End Page 392] anthropocentric and metaphorical registers instead. Yet it is on these very terms that I will show how De Quincey’s...