- The Art of Murder and Ars Rhetorica: De Quincey’s Essay as Mock-Encomium
Introduction: Blackwood’s, murder, and rhetoric
One of the thornier problems of “on murder considered as one of the Fine Arts” is its liberal mixing of real and fictional violence. In the essay, which appeared in the February 1827 edition of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, De Quincey mixes examples from the Bible and Antiquity with murders having taken place not long ago in modern Britain, cases that his readers would no doubt remember vividly and to which he refers by name.1In spite of the potential sting of its subject matter, however, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” was warmly received upon publication, and has remained one of De Quincey’s most popular essays ever since. This is perhaps for the very simple reason that it is genuinely funny. Even for contemporary readers, its comedy is something more than the proverbial sum of tragedy and time. And yet this essential feature of “On Murder”—its unlikely humor—is rarely explored in discussions of the essay. If it is mentioned at all, such acknowledgments often consist of no more than an offhand allusion to the “satirical” nature of the work, though just what is being satirized remains unclear. Most often, the word satirical is being used merely as a synonym for humorous, with only a handful of critics having undertaken seriously the task of approaching “On Murder” as satire and of identifying its object.
These critics include John Whale,2Joel Black,3and Frederick Burwick,4 [End Page 309] who have each suggested that De Quincey may be critiquing the morbid voyeurism of British reading audiences, or that “On Murder” may constitute a satire of Kant’s aesthetic theory. However, for reasons that will become clear, this reading of “On Murder” as hidden attack is not wholly plausible, and the essay’s humor is better described as parodic rather than satiric in aim. The idea of his condemning readers’ fascination with violence, especially, is difficult to believe for anyone familiar with De Quincey’s personal interests and body of work; and, in any case, the sanctimony of an indictment of public morals would hardly have been de bon ton in the pages of Blackwood’s. Nor was the conceit of murder-connoisseurship particularly shocking or new. On the contrary, it was a common source of fun at the magazine, and the “Noctes Ambrosianæ” series, one of Blackwood’s more experimental endeavours, had already touched on the idea of murder-connoisseurship some years earlier. Robert Morrison cites the “Noctes” installment of April 1824, by John Wilson, as a possible source, given that Wilson speaks both of fires and of crime as possible aesthetic subjects, as De Quincey would likewise do in “On Murder.”5But there is also an earlier “Noctes” installment, from the May 1823 edition, in which contributor Gibson Lockhart makes light of the same subject.6The piece opens with one character explaining how he has come to town solely in order to watch a very promising hanging. “You like to see such things?” asks another; “[y]ou take pleasure in them?”7He replies that he does, and a third character chimes in that he has seen over a hundred different hangings, “besides plenty of shootings—and all manner of outlandish doings—guillotine—sword—axe.”8What follows is a lively critical discussion of good and bad public executions, and the merits of one form over another (“a beheading for my siller,” opines one speaker).9Clearly, the idea of violence as spectacle—and of the critics at Blackwood’s discussing that spectacle as they would any new book or performance on offer—was a running joke at the magazine, into which “On Murder” inserts itself merely as one more, fuller iteration.
One parodic form in particular, that of the mock-encomium, allows us to account for the essay’s humor in a way that does not rely on a target of [End Page 310] attack. The mock-encomium was a literary exercise that borrowed the form of the ode in order to praise a...