The opium eater crossed us once
with a dazzling path, and hath
as suddenly left us darkling.
--Charles Lamb, letter to Wordsworth
I hereby bequeath you the most frustrating case of my career, the baffling phantom, absurd goblin, and born wanderer of alleyways known as Thomas De Quincey. This De Quincey, famously laudanum-laced poet, is almost impossible to track, a slithering enigma, whose escape routes multiply everywhere he turns. He is a spectre who casts no shadows. His children, pack of mischievous urchins, have invented a number of games which leave us laughingstocks. On the sole occasion I recall the debtor standing before us, these little schemers put on innocent faces and contended he was a visiting relative. De Quincey himself slipped from the room unnoticed, as if liquid. I confess to wondering if his essence consists of smoke wisps, or if he is made of rain, able to dissolve his body at will. I trust you will have better luck than I—I, sir, have thoroughly given up hope.
THE MISSING ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER SPITS ON HIS CRITICS WITH A MAELSTROM
Despite its potency, inducing controversy and inspiring life-endangering experimentation in English Society, the genius of De Quincey was wasted, irreparably lost on prominent critics. Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the Confessions were “composed by his pet baboon.” “Written throughout in a tone of apology for a secret, selfish, suicidal debauchery,” wrote The Eclectic Review. “A fragment of autobiography in emulation of Coleridge's diseased egotism,” wrote Crabb Robinson. The missing De Quincey proceeds down a staircase inside a giant whirlpool, where he has been for some time amounting a riposte for such shortsighted accounts, foamings of the mouth which flatly failed to appreciate his fantastical flights, his liquid, dreamy reveries, his daring, imperiling gothic descents.
inversions, evolutions, and harlequin changes...every pulse and each separate influx is a step upwards...from earth to mysterious altitudes...
De Quincey turns away from us, a small man precariously balanced on a ladder of harlequin changes in a gale, a misleading ladder that keeps growing, taller, thinner, its rungs misshapen at his heels, its rails bending, like a magic trick that somehow still upholds his weight. The house must to him look most small now. Watching him rise connects us to the sublime, the infinite. This shakiest of ladders strains with his weight, tips toward the topplingdown worst. The ladder extends into the sky until we barely see him, senescent on flimsy, limitless scaffolding, the slight fire of him appearing to enter a door in the lost citadel of a cloud.
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE MAN IN THE MOON
“Picturesquely enveloped in his nightcaps,” a glowingly pale Coleridge rose slowly to the podium, De Quincey assures us, but “often seemed to labour under an almost paralytic inability to raise the upper jaw from the lower.” To see Coleridge in this light explains centuries of silence and a history of missing communications from the true man in the moon. To those of us long in wait for a word from him, one might read “Kubla Khan” and note the lunar innuendos of its pleasure dome. Bedridden in the attic like any man in the moon should be, Coleridge was known to shout down at his sole attendant, Mrs. Brainbridge, in the basement three floors below, just as the moon might shout at the earth, “Mrs. Brainbridge! I say, Mrs. Brainbridge!” Help from many brains and bridges--just what a sad or lazy moonman needs. Need more proof? There were rumors he sleptwalk with a lantern on the roof. And Coleridge alone wrote how the moon could partake in the murmur of an unwrinkled lake, how it was suffused over a sapphire heaven.
DE QUINCEY ACCIDENTALLY ENTERS AN ANGEL'S HOUSE
In another fitful, difficult life, De Quincey's a soot-covered sweep with narcolepsy, constantly surprised on sloping, high-pitched roofs by the heads of angels leering out of chimneytops. “Blake! Is that you playing tricks again?” he inquires. Blue angels with burning spheres clenched in their teeth, heavenly ones who vanish as he dives down after them. He finds himself falling into a house which is not a house, a houseful of stratosphere, blue sky, vaults of cumulus. See him skydive, laughing as he freefalls, pulling the ripcord from a parachute he has no business in the world having, landing softly in a meadow of daffodils.