Excerpt: 'Autobiographic Sketches' by Thomas de Quincey


Somerset House from the River Thames, JMW Turner, 1798–1802

From Chapter VII: The Nation of London:

It was a most heavenly day in May of the year (1800) when I first beheld and first entered this mighty wilderness, the city—no, not the city, but the nation—of London. Often since then, at distances of two and three hundred miles or more from this colossal emporium of men, wealth, arts, and intellectual power, have I felt the sublime expression of her enormous magnitude in one simple form of ordinary occurrence, viz., in the vast droves of cattle, suppose upon the great north roads, all with their heads directed to London, and expounding the size of the attracting body, together with the force of its attractive power, by the never-ending succession of these droves, and the remoteness from the capital of the lines upon which they were moving. A suction so powerful, felt along radii so vast, and a consciousness, at the same time, that upon other radii still more vast, both by land and by sea, the same suction is operating, night and day, summer and winter, and hurrying forever into one centre the infinite means needed for her infinite purposes, and the endless tributes to the skill or to the luxury of her endless population, crowds the imagination with a pomp to which there is nothing corresponding upon this planet, either amongst the things that have been or the things that are. Or, if any exception there is, it must be sought in ancient Rome. [1] We, upon this occasion, were in an open carriage, and, chiefly (as I imagine) to avoid the dust, we approached London by rural lanes, where any such could be found, or, at least, along by-roads, quiet and shady, collateral to the main roads. In that mode of approach we missed some features of the sublimity belonging to any of the common approaches upon a main road; we missed the whirl and the uproar, the tumult and the agitation, which continually thicken and thicken throughout the last dozen miles before you reach the suburbs. Already at three stages’ distance, (say 40 miles from London,) upon some of the greatest roads, the dim presentment of some vast capital reaches you obscurely and like a misgiving. This blind sympathy with a mighty but unseen object, some vast magnetic range of Alps, in your neighborhood, continues to increase you know not now. Arrived at the last station for changing horses, Barnet, suppose, on one of the north roads, or Hounslow on the western, you no longer think (as in all other places) of naming the next stage; nobody says, on pulling up, “Horses on to London”—that would sound ludicrous; one mighty idea broods over all minds, making it impossible to suppose any other destination. Launched upon this final stage, you soon begin to feel yourself entering the stream as it were of a Norwegian maelstrom; and the stream at length becomes the rush of a cataract. What is meant by the Latin wordtrepidatio? Not any thing peculiarly connected with panic; it belongs as much to the hurrying to and fro of a coming battle as of a coming flight; to a marriage festival as much as to a massacre; agitation is the nearest English word. This trepidation increases both audibly and visibly at every half mile, pretty much as one may suppose the roar of Niagara and the thrilling of the ground to grow upon the senses in the last ten miles of approach, with the wind in its favor, until at length it would absorb and extinguish all other sounds whatsoever. Finally, for miles before you reach a suburb of London such as Islington, for instance, a last great sign and augury of the immensity which belongs to the coming metropolis forces itself upon the dullest observer, in the growing sense of his own utter insignificance. Every where else in England, you yourself, horses, carriage, attendants, (if you travel with any,) are regarded with attention, perhaps even curiosity; at all events, you are seen. But after passing the final posthouse on every avenue to London, for the latter ten or twelve miles, you become aware that you are no longer noticed: nobody sees you; nobody hears you; nobody regards you; you do not even regard yourself. In fact, how should you, at the moment of first ascertaining your own total unimportance in the sum of things?—a poor shivering unit in the aggregate of human life. Now, for the first time, whatever manner of man you were, or seemed to be, at starting, squire or “squireen,” lord or lordling, and however related to that city, hamlet, or solitary house from which yesterday or to-day you slipped your cable, beyond disguise you find yourself but one wave in a total Atlantic, one plant (and a parasitical plant besides, needing alien props) in a forest of America.

These are feelings which do not belong by preference to thoughtful people—far less to people merely sentimental. No man ever was left to himself for the first time in the streets, as yet unknown, of London, but he must have been saddened and mortified, perhaps terrified, by the sense of desertion and utter loneliness which belong to his situation. No loneliness can be like that which weighs upon the heart in the centre of faces never ending, without voice or utterance for him; eyes innumerable, that have “no speculation” in their orbs which he can understand; and hurrying figures of men and women weaving to and fro, with no apparent purposes intelligible to a stranger, seeming like a mask of maniacs, or, oftentimes, like a pageant of phantoms. The great length of the streets in many quarters of London; the continual opening of transient glimpses into other vistas equally far stretching, going off at right angles to the one which you are traversing; and the murky atmosphere which, settling upon the remoter end of every long avenue, wraps its termination in gloom and uncertainty,—all these are circumstances aiding that sense of vastness and illimitable proportions which forever brood over the aspect of London in its interior. Much of the feeling which belongs to the outside of London, in its approaches for the last few miles, I had lost, in consequence of the stealthy route of by-roads, lying near Uxbridge and Watford, through which we crept into the suburbs. But for that reason, the more abrupt and startling had been the effect of emerging somewhere into the Edgeware Road, and soon afterwards into the very streets of London itself; through what streets, or even what quarter of London, is now totally obliterated from my mind, having perhaps never been comprehended. All that I remember is one monotonous awe and blind sense of mysterious grandeur and Babylonian confusion, which seemed to pursue and to invest the whole equipage of human life, as we moved for nearly two [2] hours through streets; sometimes brought to anchor for ten minutes or more by what is technically called a “lock,” that is, a line of carriages of every description inextricably massed, and obstructing each other, far as the eye could stretch; and then, as if under an enchanter’s rod, the “lock” seemed to thaw; motion spread with the fluent race of light or sound through the whole ice-bound mass, until the subtile influence reached us also, who were again absorbed into the great rush of flying carriages; or, at times, we turned off into some less tumultuous street, but of the same mile-long character; and, finally, drawing up about noon, we alighted at some place, which is as little within my distinct remembrance as the route by which we reached it.

For what had we come? To see London. And what were the limits within which we proposed to crowd that little feat? At five o’clock we were to dine at Porters ——, a seat of Lord Westport’s grandfather; and, from the distance, it was necessary that we should leave London at half past three; so that a little more than three hours were all we had for London. Our charioteer, my friend’s tutor, was summoned away from us on business until that hour; and we were left, therefore, entirely to ourselves and to our own skill in turning the time to the best account, for contriving (if such a thing were possible) to do something or other which, by any fiction of courtesy, or constructively, so as to satisfy a lawyer, or in a sense sufficient to win a wager, might be taken and received for having “seen London.”

What could be done? We sat down, I remember, in a mood of despondency, to consider. The spectacles were too many by thousands; inopes nos copia fecit; our very wealth made us poor; and the choice was distracted. But which of them all could be thought general or representative enough to stand for the universe of London? We could not traverse the whole circumference of this mighty orb; that was clear; and, therefore, the next best thing was to place ourselves as much as possible in some relation to the spectacles of London, which might answer to the centre. Yet how? That sounded well and metaphysical; but what did it mean if acted upon? What was the centre of London for any purpose whatever, latitudinarian or longitudinarian, literary, social, or mercantile, geographical, astronomical, or (as Mrs. Malaprop kindly suggests) diabolical? Apparently that we should stay at our inn; for in that way we seemed best to distribute our presence equally amongst all, viz., by going to none in particular.

Three times in my life I have had my taste—that is, my sense of proportions—memorably outraged. Once was by a painting of Cape Horn, which seemed almost treasonably below its rank and office in this world, as the terminal abutment of our mightiest continent, and also the hinge, as it were, of our greatest circumnavigations—of all, in fact, which can be called classical circumnavigations. To have “doubled Cape Horn”—at one time, what a sound it had! yet how ashamed we should be if that cape were ever to be seen from the moon! A party of Englishmen, I have heard, went up Mount Aetna, during the night, to be ready for sunrise—a common practice with tourists both in Switzerland, Wales, Cumberland, &c.; but, as all must see who take the trouble to reflect, not likely to repay the trouble; seeing that every thing which offers a picture, when viewed from a station nearly horizontal, becomes a mere map to an eye placed at an elevation of 3000 feet above it; and so thought, in the sequel, the Aetna party. The sun, indeed, rose visibly, and not more apparelled in clouds than was desirable; yet so disappointed were they, and so disgusted with the sun in particular, that they unanimously hissed him; though, of course, it was useless to cry “Off! off!” Here, however, the fault was in their own erroneous expectations, and not in the sun, who, doubtless, did his best. For, generally, a sunrise and a sunset ought to be seen from the valley, or at most horizontally. [3] But as to Cape Horn, that (by comparison with its position and its functions) was really a disgrace to the planet; it is not the spectator that is in fault here, but the object itself, the Birmingham cape. For, consider, it is not only the “specular mount,” keeping watch and ward over a sort of trinity of oceans, and, by all tradition, the circumnavigator’s gate of entrance to the Pacific, but also it is the temple of the god Terminus for all the Americas. So that, in relation to such dignities, it seemed to me, in the drawing, a makeshift, put up by a carpenter, until the true Cape Horn should be ready; or, perhaps, a drop scene from the opera house. This was one case of disproportion: the others were—the final and ceremonial valediction of Garrick, on retiring from his profession; and the Pall Mall inauguration of George IV. on the day of his accession [4] to the throne. The utter _ir_relation, in both cases, of the audience to the scene, (audience I say, as say we must, for the sum of the spectators in the second instance, as well as of the auditors in the first,) threw upon each a ridicule not to be effaced. It is in any case impossible for an actor to say words of farewell to those for whom he really designs his farewell. He cannot bring his true object before himself. To whom is it that he would offer his last adieus? We are told by one—who, if he loved Garrick, certainly did not love Garrick’s profession, nor would even, through him, have paid it any undue compliment—that the retirement of this great artist had “eclipsed the gayety of nations.” To nations, then, to his own generation, it was that he owed his farewell; but, of a generation, what organ is there which can sue or be sued, that can thank or be thanked? Neither by fiction nor by delegation can you bring their bodies into court. A king’s audience, on the other hand, might be had as an authorized representative body. But, when we consider the composition of a casual and chance auditory, whether in a street or a theatre,—secondly, the small size of a modern audience, even in Drury Lane, (4500 at the most,) not by one eightieth part the complement of the Circus Maximus,—most of all, when we consider the want of symmetry or commensurateness, to any extended duration of time, in the acts of such an audience, which acts lie in the vanishing expressions of its vanishing emotions,—acts so essentially fugitive, even when organized into an art and a tactical system of imbrices and bombi, (as they were at Alexandria, and afterwards at the Neapolitan and Roman theatres,) that they could not protect themselves from dying in the very moment of their birth,—laying together all these considerations, we see the incongruity of any audience, so constituted, to any purpose less evanescent than their own tenure of existence.

Just such in disproportion as these cases had severally been, was our present problem in relation to our time or other means for accomplishing it. In debating the matter, we lost half an hour; but at length we reduced the question to a choice between Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. I know not that we could have chosen better. The rival edifices, as we understood from the waiter, were about equidistant from our own station; but, being too remote from each other to allow of our seeing both, “we tossed up,” to settle the question between the elder lady and the younger. “Heads” came up, which stood for the abbey. But, as neither of us was quite satisfied with this decision, we agreed to make another appeal to the wisdom of chance, second thoughts being best. This time the cathedral turned up; and so it came to pass that, with us, the having seen London meant having seen St. Paul’s.

The first view of St. Paul’s, it may be supposed, overwhelmed us with awe; and I did not at that time imagine that the sense of magnitude could be more deeply impressed. One thing interrupted our pleasure. The superb objects of curiosity within the cathedral were shown for separate fees. There were seven, I think; and any one could be seen independently of the rest for a few pence. The whole amount was a trifle; fourteen pence, I think; but we were followed by a sort of persecution—”Would we not see the bell?” “Would we not see the model?” “Surely we would not go away without visiting the whispering gallery?”—solicitations which troubled the silence and sanctity of the place, and must tease others as it then teased us, who wished to contemplate in quiet this great monument of the national grandeur, which was at that very time [5] beginning to take a station also in the land, as a depository for the dust of her heroes. What struck us most in the whole interior of the pile was the view taken from the spot immediately under the dome, being, in fact, the very same which, five years afterwards, received the remains of Lord Nelson. In one of the aisles going off from this centre, we saw the flags of France, Spain, and Holland, the whole trophies of the war, swinging pompously, and expanding their massy draperies, slowly and heavily, in the upper gloom, as they were swept at intervals by currents of air. At this moment we were provoked by the showman at our elbow renewing his vile iteration of “Twopence, gentlemen; no more than twopence for each;” and so on, until we left the place. The same complaint has been often made as to Westminster Abbey. Where the wrong lies, or where it commences, I know not. Certainly I nor any man can have a right to expect that the poor men who attended us should give up their time for nothing, or even to be angry with them for a sort of persecution, on the degree of which possibly might depend the comfort of their own families. Thoughts of famishing children at home leave little room for nice regards of delicacy abroad. The individuals, therefore, might or might not be blamable. But in any case, the system is palpably wrong. The nation is entitled to a free enjoyment of its own public monuments; not free only in the sense of being gratuitous, but free also from the molestation of showmen, with their imperfect knowledge and their vulgar sentiment.

Yet, after all, what is this system of restriction and annoyance, compared with that which operates on the use of the national libraries? or that again, to the system of exclusion from some of these, where an absolute interdict lies upon any use at all of that which is confessedly national property? Books and manuscripts, which were originally collected and formally bequeathed to the public, under the generous and noble idea of giving to future generations advantages which the collector had himself not enjoyed, and liberating them from obstacles in the pursuit of knowledge which experience had bitterly imprinted upon his own mind, are at this day locked up as absolutely against me, you, or any body, as collections confessedly private. Nay, far more so; for most private collectors of eminence, as the late Mr. Heber, for instance, have been distinguished for liberality in lending the rarest of their books to those who knew how to use them with effect. But, in the cases I now contemplate, the whole funds for supporting the proper offices attached to a library, such as librarians, sub-librarians, &c., which of themselves (and without the express verbal evidence of the founder’s will) presume a public in the daily use of the books, else they are superfluous, have been applied to the creation of lazy sinecures, in behalf of persons expressly charged with the care of shutting out the public. Therefore, it is true, they are not sinecures; for that one care, vigilantly to keep out the public, [6] they do take upon themselves; and why? A man loving books, like myself, might suppose that their motive was the ungenerous one of keeping the books to themselves. Far from it. In several instances, they will as little use the books as suffer them to be used. And thus the whole plans and cares of the good (weighing his motives, I will say of the pious) founder have terminated in locking up and sequestering a large collection of books, some being great rarities, in situations where they are not accessible. Had he bequeathed them to the catacombs of Paris or of Naples, he could not have better provided for their virtual extinction. I ask, Does no action at common law lie against the promoters of such enormous abuses? O thou fervent reformer,—whose fatal tread he that puts his ear to the ground may hear at a distance coming onwards upon every road,—if too surely thou wilt work for me and others irreparable wrong and suffering, work also for us a little good; this way turn the great hurricanes and levanters of thy wrath; winnow me this chaff; and let us enter at last the garners of pure wheat laid up in elder days for our benefit, and which for two centuries have been closed against our use!

London we left in haste, to keep an engagement of some standing at the Earl Howe’s, my friend’s grandfather. This great admiral, who had filled so large a station in the public eye, being the earliest among the naval heroes of England in the first war of the revolution, and the only one of noble birth, I should have been delighted to see; St. Paul’s, and its naval monuments to Captain Riou and Captain ——, together with its floating pageantries of conquered flags, having awakened within me, in a form of peculiar solemnity, those patriotic remembrances of past glories, which all boys feel so much more vividly than men can do, in whom the sensibility to such impressions is blunted. Lord Howe, however, I was not destined to see; he had died about a year before. Another death there had been, and very recently, in the family, and under circumstances peculiarly startling; and the spirits of the whole house were painfully depressed by that event at the time of our visit. One of the daughters, a younger sister of my friend’s mother, had been engaged for some time to a Scottish nobleman, the Earl of Morton, much esteemed by the royal family. The day was at length fixed for the marriage; and about a fortnight before that day arrived, some particular dress or ornament was brought to Porters, in which it was designed that the bride should appear at the altar. The fashion as to this point has often varied; but at that time, I believe the custom was for bridal parties to be in full dress. The lady, when the dress arrived, was, to all appearance, in good health; but, by one of those unaccountable misgivings which are on record in so many well-attested cases, (as that, for example, of Andrew Marveil’s father,) she said, after gazing for a minute or two at the beautiful dress, firmly and pointedly, “So, then, that is my wedding dress; and it is expected that I shall wear it on the 17th; but I shall not; I shall never wear it. On Thursday, the 17th, I shall be dressed in a shroud!” All present were shocked at such a declaration, which the solemnity of the lady’s manner made it impossible to receive as a jest. The countess, her mother, even reproved her with some severity for the words, as an expression of distrust in the goodness of God. The bride elect made no answer but by sighing heavily. Within a fortnight, all happened, to the letter, as she had predicted. She was taken suddenly ill; she died about three days before the marriage day, and was finally dressed in her shroud, according to the natural course of the funeral arrangements, on the morning that was to have been the wedding festival.

Lord Morton, the nobleman thus suddenly and remarkably bereaved of his bride, was the only gentleman who appeared at the dinner table. He took a particular interest in literature; and it was, in fact, through hiskindness that, for the first time in my life, I found myself somewhat in the situation of a “lion.” The occasion of Lord Morton’s flattering notice was a particular copy of verses which had gained for me a public distinction; not, however, I must own, a very brilliant one; the prize awarded to me being not the first, nor even the second,—what on the continent is called the accessit,—it was simply the third; and that fact, stated nakedly, might have left it doubtful whether I were to be considered in the light of one honored or of one stigmatized. However, the judges in this case, with more honesty, or more self-distrust, than belongs to most adjudications of the kind, had printed the first three of the successful essays. Consequently, it was left open to each of the less successful candidates to benefit by any difference of taste amongst their several friends; andmy friends in particular, with the single and singular exception of my mother, who always thought her own children inferior to other people’s, had generally assigned the palm to myself. Lord Morton protested loudly that the case admitted of no doubt; that gross injustice had been done me; and, as the ladies of the family were much influenced by his opinion, I thus came, not only to wear the laurel in their estimation, but also with the advantageous addition of having suffered some injustice. I was not only a victor, but a victor in misfortune.

At this moment, looking back from a distance of fifty years upon those trifles, it may well be supposed that I do not attach so much importance to the subject of my fugitive honors as to have any very decided opinion one way or the other upon my own proportion of merit. I do not even recollect the major part of the verses: that which I do recollect, inclines me to think that, in the structure of the metre and in the choice of the expressions, I had some advantage over my competitors, though otherwise, perhaps, my verses were less finished; Lord Morton might, therefore, in a partial sense, have been just, as well as kind. But, little as that may seem likely, even then, and at the moment of reaping some advantage from my honors, which gave me a consideration with the family I was amongst such as I could not else have had, most unaffectedly I doubted in my own mind whether I were really entitled to the praises which I received. My own verses had not at all satisfied myself; and though I felt elated by the notice they had gained me, and gratified by the generosity of the earl in taking my part so warmly, I was so more in a spirit of sympathy with the kindness thus manifested in my behalf, and with the consequent kindness which it procured me from others, than from any incitement or support which it gave to my intellectual pride. In fact, whatever estimate I might make of those intellectual gifts which I believed or which I knew myself to possess, I was inclined, even in those days, to doubt whether my natural vocation lay towards poetry. Well, indeed, I knew, and I know that, had I chosen to enlist amongst the soi disant poets of the day,—amongst those, I mean, who, by mere force of talent and mimetic skill, contrive to sustain the part of poet in a scenical sense and with a scenical effect,—I also could have won such laurels as are won by such merit; I also could have taken and sustained a place taliter qualiter amongst the poets of the time. Why not then? Simply because I knew that me, as them, would await the certain destiny in reversion of resigning that place in the next generation to some younger candidate having equal or greater skill in appropriating the vague sentiments and old traditionary language of passion spread through books, but having also the advantage of novelty, and of a closer adaptation to the prevailing taste of the day. Even at that early age, I was keenly alive, if not so keenly as at this moment, to the fact, that by far the larger proportion of what is received in every age for poetry, and for a season usurps that consecrated name, is not the spontaneous overflow of real unaffected passion, deep, and at the same time original, and also forced into public manifestation of itself from the necessity which cleaves to all passion alike of seeking external sympathy: this it is not; but a counterfeit assumption of such passion, according to the more or less accurate skill of the writer in distinguishing the key of passion suited to the particular age; and a concurrent assumption of the language of passion, according to his more or less skill in separating the spurious from the native and legitimate diction of genuine emotion. Rarely, indeed, are the reputed poets of any age men who groan, like prophets, under the burden of a message which they have to deliver, and must deliver, of a mission which they must discharge. Generally, nay, with much fewer exceptions, perhaps, than would be readily believed, they are merely simulators of the part they sustain; speaking not out of the abundance of their own hearts, but by skill and artifice assuming or personating emotions at second hand; and the whole is a business of talent, (sometimes even of great talent,) but not of original power, of genius, [7] or authentic inspiration.

From Porters, after a few days’ visit, we returned to Eton. Her majesty about this time gave some splendid fêtes at Frogmore, to one or two of which she had directed that we should be invited. The invitation was, of course, on my friend’s account; but her majesty had condescended to direct that I, as his visitor, should be specially included. Lord Westport, young as he was, had become tolerably indifferent about such things; but to me such a scene was a novelty; and, on that account, it was settled we should go as early as was permissible. We did go; and I was not sorry to have had the gratification of witnessing (if it were but for once or twice) the splendors of a royal party. But, after the first edge of expectation was taken off,—after the vague uncertainties of rustic ignorance had given place to absolute realities, and the eye had become a little familiar with the flashing of the jewelry,—I began to suffer under the constraints incident to a young person in such a situation—the situation, namely, of sedentary passiveness, where one is acted upon, but does not act. The music, in fact, was all that continued to delight me; and, but for that, I believe I should have had some difficulty in avoiding so monstrous an indecorum as yawning. I revise this faulty expression, however, on the spot; not the music only it was, but the music combined with the dancing, that so deeply impressed me. The ball room—a temporary erection, with something of the character of a pavilion about it—wore an elegant and festal air; the part allotted to the dancers being fenced off by a gilded lattice work, and ornamented beautifully from the upper part with drooping festoons of flowers. But all the luxury that spoke to the eye merely faded at once by the side of impassioned dancing, sustained by impassioned music. Of all the scenes which this world offers, none is to me so profoundly interesting, none (I say it deliberately) so affecting, as the spectacle of men and women floating through the mazes of a dance; under these conditions, however, that the music shall be rich, resonant, and festal, the execution of the dancers perfect, and the dance itself of a character to admit of free, fluent, and continuous motion. But this last condition will be sought vainly in the quadrilles, &c., which have for so many years banished the truly beautiful country dances native to England. Those whose taste and sensibility were so defective as to substitute for the beautiful in dancing the merely difficult, were sure, in the end, to transfer the depravations of this art from the opera house to the floors of private ball rooms. The tendencies even then were in that direction; but as yet they had not attained their final stage; and the English country dance [8] was still in estimation at the courts of princes. Now, of all dances, this is the only one, as a class, of which you can truly describe the motion to be continuous, that is, not interrupted or fitful, but unfolding its fine mazes with the equability of light in its diffusion through free space. And wherever the music happens to be not of a light, trivial character, but charged with the spirit of festal pleasure, and the performers in the dance so far skilful as to betray no awkwardness verging on the ludicrous, I believe that many people feel as I feel in such circumstances, viz., derive from the spectacle the very grandest form of passionate sadness which can belong to any spectacle whatsoever. Sadness is not the exact word; nor is there any word in any language (because none in the finest languages) which exactly expresses the state; since it is not a depressing, but a most elevating state to which I allude. And, certainly, it is easy to understand, that many states of pleasure, and in particular the highest, are the most of all removed from merriment. The day on which a Roman triumphed was the most gladsome day of his existence; it was the crown and consummation of his prosperity; yet assuredly it was also to him the most solemn of his days. Festal music, of a rich and passionate character, is the most remote of any from vulgar hilarity. Its very gladness and pomp is impregnated with sadness, but sadness of a grand and aspiring order. Let, for instance, (since without individual illustrations there is the greatest risk of being misunderstood,) any person of musical sensibility listen to the exquisite music composed by Beethoven, as an opening for Burger’s “Lenore,” the running idea of which is the triumphal return of a crusading host, decorated with laurels and with palms, within the gates of their native city; and then say whether the presiding feeling, in the midst of this tumultuous festivity, be not, by infinite degrees, transcendent to any thing so vulgar as hilarity. In fact, laughter itself is of all things the most equivocal; as the organ of the ludicrous, laughter is allied to the trivial and the mean; as the organ of joy, it is allied to the passionate and the noble. From all which the reader may comprehend, if he should not happen experimentally to have felt, that a spectacle of young men and women, flowing through the mazes of an intricate dance under a full volume of music, taken with all the circumstantial adjuncts of such a scene in rich men’s halls; the blaze of lights and jewels, the life, the motion, the sea-like undulation of heads, the interweaving of the figures, the anachuchlosis or self-revolving, both of the dance and the music, “never ending, still beginning,” and the continual regeneration of order from a system of motions which forever touch the very brink of confusion; that such a spectacle, with such circumstances, may happen to be capable of exciting and sustaining the very grandest emotions of philosophic melancholy to which the human spirit is open. The reason is, in part, that such a scene presents a sort of mask of human life, with its whole equipage of pomps and glories, its luxury of sight and sound, its hours of golden youth, and the interminable revolution of ages hurrying after ages, and one generation treading upon the flying footsteps of another; whilst all the while the overruling music attempers the mind to the spectacle, the subject to the object, the beholder to the vision. And, although this is known to be but one phasis of life,—of life culminating and in ascent,—yet the other (and repulsive) phasis is concealed upon the hidden or averted side of the golden arras, known but not felt; or is seen but dimly in the rear, crowding into indistinct proportions. The effect of the music is, to place the mind in a state of elective attraction for every thing in harmony with its own prevailing key.

This pleasure, as always on similar occasions, I had at present; but naturally in a degree corresponding to the circumstances of royal splendor through which the scene revolved; and, if I have spent rather more words than should reasonably have been requisite in describing any obvious state of emotion, it is not because, in itself, it is either vague or doubtful, but because it is difficult, without calling upon a reader for a little reflection, to convince him that there is not something paradoxical in the assertion, that joy and festal pleasure, of the highest kind, are liable to a natural combination with solemnity, or even with melancholy the most profound. Yet, to speak in the mere simplicity of truth, so mysterious is human nature, and so little to be read by him who runs, that almost every weighty aspect of truth upon that theme will be found at first sight to be startling, or sometimes paradoxical. And so little need is there for chasing or courting paradox, that, on the contrary, he who is faithful to his own experiences will find all his efforts little enough to keep down the paradoxical air besieging much of what he knows to be the truth. No man needs to search for paradox in this world of ours. Let him simply confine himself to the truth, and he will find paradox growing every where under his hands as rank as weeds. For new truths of importance are rarely agreeable to any preconceived theories; that is, cannot be explained by these theories; which are insufficient, therefore, even where they are true. And universally, it must be borne in mind, that not that is paradox which, seeming to be true, is upon examination false, but that which, seeming to be false, may upon examination be found true. [9]

The pleasure of which I have been speaking belongs to all such scenes; but on this particular occasion there was also something more. To see persons in “the body” of whom you have been reading in newspapers from the very earliest of your reading days,—those, who have hitherto been great ideas in your childish thoughts, to see and to hear moving and talking as carnal existences amongst other human beings,—had, for the first half hour or so, a singular and strange effect. But this naturally waned rapidly after it had once begun to wane. And when these first startling impressions of novelty had worn off, it must be confessed that the peculiar circumstances attaching to a royal ball were not favorable to its joyousness or genial spirit of enjoyment. I am not going to repay her majesty’s condescension so ill, or so much to abuse the privileges of a guest, as to draw upon my recollections of what passed for the materials of a cynical critique. Every thing was done, I doubt not, which court etiquette permitted, to thaw those ungenial restraints which gave to the whole too much of a ceremonial and official character, and to each actor in the scene gave too much of the air belonging to one who is discharging a duty, and to the youngest even among the principal personages concerned gave an apparent anxiety and jealousy of manner—jealousy, I mean, not of others, but a prudential jealousy of his own possible oversights or trespasses. In fact, a great personage bearing a state character cannot be regarded, nor regard himself, with the perfect freedom which belongs to social intercourse; no, nor ought to be. It is not rank alone which is here concerned; that, as being his own, he might lay aside for an hour or two; but he bears a representative character also. He has not his own rank only, but the rank of others, to protect; he (supposing him the sovereign or a prince near to the succession) embodies and impersonates the majesty of a great people; and this character, were you ever so much encouraged to do so, you, the idiotaes, the lay spectator or “assister,” neither could nor ought to dismiss from your thoughts. Besides all which, it must be acknowledged, that to see brothers dancing with sisters—as too often occurred in those dances to which the princesses were parties—disturbed the appropriate interest of the scene, being irreconcilable with the allusive meaning of dancing in general, and laid a weight upon its gayety which no condescensions from the highest quarter could remove. This infelicitous arrangement forced the thoughts of all present upon the exalted rank of the parties which could dictate and exact so unusual an assortment. And that rank, again, it presented to us under one of its least happy aspects; as insulating a blooming young woman amidst the choir of her coevals, and surrounding her with dreadful solitude amidst a vast crowd of the young, the brave, the beautiful, and the accomplished.

Meantime, as respected myself individually, I had reason to be grateful: every kindness and attention were shown to me. My invitation I was sensible that I owed entirely to my noble friend. But, having been invited, I felt assured, from what passed, that it was meant and provided that I should not, by any possibility, be suffered to think myself overlooked. Lord Westport and I communicated our thoughts occasionally by means of a language which we, in those days, found useful enough at times, and which bore the name of Ziph. The language and the name were both derived (that is, were immediately so derived, for remotely the Ziph language may ascend to Nineveh) from Winchester. Dr. Mapleton, a physician in Bath, who attended me in concert with Mr. Grant, an eminent surgeon, during the nondescript malady of the head, happened to have had three sons at Winchester; and his reason for removing them is worth mentioning, as it illustrates the well-known system of fagging. One or more of them showed to the quick medical eye of Dr. Mapleton symptoms of declining health; and, upon cross questioning, he found that, being (as juniors) fags (that is, bondsmen by old prescription) to appointed seniors, they were under the necessity of going out nightly into the town for the purpose of executing commissions; but this was not easy, as all the regular outlets were closed at an early hour. In such a dilemma, any route, that was barely practicable at whatever risk, must be traversed by the loyal fag; and it so happened that none of any kind remained open or accessible, except one; and this one communication happened to have escaped suspicion, simply because it lay through a succession of temples and sewers sacred to the goddesses Cloacina and Scavengerina. That of itself was not so extraordinary a fact: the wonder lay in the number, viz., seventeen. Such were the actual amount of sacred edifices which, through all their dust, and garbage, and mephitic morasses, these miserable vassals had to thread all but every night of the week. Dr. Mapleton, when he had made this discovery, ceased to wonder at the medical symptoms; and, asfaggery was an abuse too venerable and sacred to be touched by profane hands, he lodged no idle complaints, but simply removed his sons to a school where the Serbonian bogs of the subterraneous goddess might not intersect the nocturnal line of march so very often. One day, during the worst of my illness, when the kind-hearted doctor was attempting to amuse me with this anecdote, and asking me whether I thought Hannibal would have attempted his march over the Little St. Bernard,—supposing that he and the elephant which he rode had been summoned to explore a route through seventeen similar nuisances,—he went on to mention the one sole accomplishment which his sons had imported from Winchester. This was the Ziph language, communicated at Winchester to any aspirant for a fixed fee of one half guinea, but which the doctor then communicated to me—as I do now to the reader—gratis. I make a present of this language without fee, or price, or entrance money, to my honored reader; and let him understand that it is undoubtedly a bequest of elder times. Perhaps it may be coeval with the pyramids. For in the famous “Essay on a Philosophical Character,” (I forget whether that is the exact title,) a large folio written by the ingenious Dr. Wilkins, Bishop of Chester, [10] and published early in the reign of Charles II., a folio which I, in youthful days, not only read but studied, this language is recorded and accurately described amongst many other modes of cryptical communication, oral and visual, spoken, written, or symbolic. And, as the bishop does not speak of it as at all a recent invention, it may probably at that time have been regarded as an antique device for conducting a conversation in secrecy amongst bystanders; and this advantage it has, that it is applicable to all languages alike; nor can it possibly be penetrated by one not initiated in the mystery. The secret is this—(and the grandeur of simplicity at any rate it has)—repeat the vowel or diphthong of every syllable, prefixing to the vowel so repeated the letter G. Thus, for example: Shall we go away in an hour? Three hours we have already staid. This in Ziph becomes: Shagall wege gogo agawagay igin agan hougour? Threegee hougours wege hagave agalreageadygy stagaid. [11] It must not be supposed that Ziph proceeds slowly. A very little practice gives the greatest fluency; so that even now, though certainly I cannot have practised it for fifty years, my power of speaking the Ziph remains unimpaired. I forget whether in the Bishop of Chester’s account of this cryptical language the consonant intercalated be G or not. Evidently any consonant will answer the purpose. F or L would be softer, and so far better.

In this learned tongue it was that my friend and I communicated our feelings; and, having staid nearly four hours, a time quite sufficient to express a proper sense of the honor, we departed; and, on emerging into the open high road, we threw up our hats and huzzaed, meaning no sort of disrespect, but from uncontrollable pleasure in recovered liberty.

Soon after this we left Eton for Ireland. Our first destination being Dublin, of course we went by Holyhead. The route at that time, from Southern England to Dublin, did not (as in elder and in later days) go round by Chester. A few miles after leaving Shrewsbury, somewhere about Oswestry, it entered North Wales; a stage farther brought us to the celebrated vale of Llangollen; and, on reaching the approach to this about sunset on a beautiful evening of June, I first found myself amongst the mountains—a feature in natural scenery for which, from my earliest days, it was not extravagant to say that I had hungered and thirsted. In no one expectation of my life have I been less disappointed; and I may add, that no one enjoyment has less decayed or palled upon my continued experience. A mountainous region, with a slender population, and that of a simple pastoral character; behold my chief conditions of a pleasant permanent dwelling-place! But, thus far I have altered, that now I should greatly prefer forest scenery— such as the New Forest, or the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. The mountains of Wales range at about the same elevation as those of Northern England; three thousand and four to six hundred feet being the extreme limit which they reach. Generally speaking, their forms are less picturesque individually, and they are less happily grouped than their English brethren. I have since also been made sensible by Wordsworth of one grievous defect in the structure of the Welsh valleys; too generally they take the basin shape—the level area at their foot does not detach itself with sufficient precision from the declivities that surround them. Of this, however, I was not aware at the time of first seeing Wales; although the striking effect from the opposite form of the Cumberland and Westmoreland valleys, which almost universally present a flat area at the base of the surrounding hills, level, to use Wordsworth’s expression, “as the floor of a temple,” would, at any rate, have arrested my eye, as a circumstance of impressive beauty, even though the want of such a feature might not, in any case, have affected me as a fault. As something that had a positive value, this characteristic of the Cambrian valleys had fixed my attention, but not as any telling point of contrast against the Cambrian valleys. No faults, however, at that early age disturbed my pleasure, except that, after one whole day’s travelling, (for so long it cost us between Llangollen and Holyhead,) the want of water struck me upon review as painfully remarkable. From Conway to Bangor (seventeen miles) we were often in sight of the sea; but fresh water we had seen hardly any; no lake, no stream much beyond a brook. This is certainly a conspicuous defect in North Wales, considered as a region of fine scenery. The few lakes I have since become acquainted with, as that near Bala, near Beddkelert, and beyond Machynleth, are not attractive either in their forms or in their accompaniments; the Bala Lake being meagre and insipid, the others as it were unfinished, and unaccompanied with their furniture of wood.

At the Head (to call it by its common colloquial name) we were detained a few days in those unsteaming times by foul winds. Our time, however, thanks to the hospitality of a certain Captain Skinner on that station, did not hang heavy on our hands, though we were imprisoned, as it were, on a dull rock; for Holyhead itself is a little island of rock, an insulated dependency of Anglesea; which, again, is a little insulated dependency of North Wales. The packets on this station were at that time lucrative commands; and they were given (perhaps are [12] given?) to post captains in the navy. Captain Skinner was celebrated for his convivial talents; he did the honors of the place in a hospitable style; daily asked us to dine with him, and seemed as inexhaustible in his wit as in his hospitality.

This answered one purpose, at least, of special convenience to our party at that moment: it kept us from all necessity of meeting each other during the day, except under circumstances where we escaped the necessity of any familiar communication. Why that should have become desirable, arose upon the following mysterious change of relations between ourselves and the Rev. Mr. Gr——, Lord Westport’s tutor. On the last day of our journey, Mr. G., who had accompanied us thus far, but now at Holyhead was to leave us, suddenly took offence (or, at least, then first showed his offence) at something we had said, done, or omitted, and never spoke one syllable to either of us again. Being both of us amiably disposed, and incapable of having seriously meditated either word or deed likely to wound any person’s feelings, we were much hurt at the time, and often retraced the little incidents upon the road, to discover, if possible, what it was that had laid us open to misconstruction. But it remained to both of us a lasting mystery. This tutor was an Irishman, of Trinity College, Dublin, and, I believe, of considerable pretensions as a scholar; but, being reserved and haughty, or else presuming in us a knowledge of our offence, which we really had not, he gave us no opening for any explanation. To the last moment, however, he manifested a punctilious regard to the duties of his charge. He accompanied us in our boat, on a dark and gusty night, to the packet, which lay a little out at sea. He saw us on board; and then, standing up for one moment, he said, “Is all right on deck?” “All right, sir,” sang out the ship’s steward. “Have you, Lord Westport, got your boat cloak with you?” “Yes, sir.” “Then, pull away, boatmen.” We listened for a time to the measured beat of his retreating oars, marvelling more and more at the atrocious nature of our crime which could thus avail to intercept even his last adieus. I, for my part, never saw him again; nor, as I have reason to think, did Lord Westport. Neither did we ever unravel the mystery.

As if to irritate our curiosity still more, Lord Westport showed me a torn fragment of paper in his tutor’s hand—writing, which, together with others, had been thrown (as he believed) purposely in his way. If he was right in that belief, it appeared that he had missed the particular fragment which was designed to raise the veil upon our guilt; for the one he produced contained exactly these words: “With respect to your ladyship’s anxiety to know how far the acquaintance with Mr. De Q. is likely to be of service to your son, I think I may now venture to say that”—There the sibylline fragment ended; nor could we torture it into any further revelation. However, both of us saw the propriety of not ourselves practising any mystery, nor giving any advantage to Mr. G. by imperfect communications; and accordingly, on the day after we reached Dublin, we addressed a circumstantial account of our journey and our little mystery to Lady Altamont in England; for to her it was clear that the tutor had confided his mysterious wrongs. Her ladyship answered with kindness; but did not throw any light on the problem which exercised at once our memories, our skill in conjectural interpretation, and our sincere regrets. Lord Westport and I regretted much that there had not been a wider margin attached to the fragment of Mr. G.’s letter to Lady Altamont; in which case, as I could readily have mimicked his style of writing, it would have been easy for me to fill up thus: “With respect to your ladyship’s anxiety, &c., I think I may now venture to say that, if the solar system were searched, there could not be found a companion more serviceable to your son than Mr. De Q. He speaks the Ziph most beautifully. He writes it, I am told, classically. And if there were a Ziph nation as well as a Ziph language, I am satisfied that he would very soon be at the head of it; as he already is, beyond all competition, at the head of the Ziph literature.” Lady Altamont, on receiving this, would infallibly have supposed him mad; she would have written so to all her Irish friends, and would have commended the poor gentleman to the care of his nearest kinsmen; and thus we should have had some little indemnification for the annoyance he had caused us. I mention this trifle, simply because, trifle as it is, it involved a mystery, and furnishes an occasion for glancing at that topic. Mysteries as deep, with results a little more important and foundations a little sounder, have many times crossed me in life; one, for instance, I recollect at this moment, known pretty extensively to the neighborhood in which it occurred. It was in the county of S——. A lady married, and married well, as was thought. About twelve months afterwards, she returned alone in a post chaise to her father’s house; paid, and herself dismissed, the postilion at the gate; entered the house; ascended to the room in which she had passed her youth, and known in the family by her name; took possession of it again; intimated by signs, and by one short letter at her first arrival, what she would require; lived for nearly twenty years in this state of La Trappe seclusion and silence; nor ever, to the hour of her death, explained what circumstances had dissolved the supposed happy connection she had formed, or what had become of her husband. Her looks and gestures were of a nature to repress all questions in the spirit of mere curiosity; and the spirit of affection naturally respected a secret which was guarded so severely. This might be supposed a Spanish tale; yet it happened in England, and in a pretty populous neighborhood. The romances which occur in real life are too often connected with circumstances of criminality in some one among the parties concerned; on that account, more than any other, they are often suppressed; else, judging by the number which have fallen within my own knowledge, they must be of more frequent occurrence than is usually supposed. Among such romances, those cases, perhaps, form an unusual proportion in which young, innocent, and high-minded persons have made a sudden discovery of some great profligacy or deep unworthiness in the person to whom they had surrendered their entire affections. That shock, more than any other, is capable of blighting, in one hour, the whole after existence, and sometimes of at once overthrowing the balance of life or of reason. Instances I have known of both; and such afflictions are the less open to any alleviation, that sometimes they are of a nature so delicate as to preclude all confidential communication of them to another; and sometimes it would be even dangerous, in a legal sense, to communicate them.

A sort of adventure occurred, and not of a kind pleasant to recall, even on this short voyage. The passage to Dublin from the Head is about sixty miles, I believe; yet, from baffling winds, it cost us upwards of thirty hours. On the second day, going upon deck, we found that our only fellow-passenger of note was a woman of rank, celebrated for her beauty; and not undeservedly, for a lovely creature she was. The body of her travelling coach had been, as usual, unslung from the “carriage,” (by which is technically meant the wheels and the perch,) and placed upon deck. This she used as a place of retreat from the sun during the day, and as a resting-place at night. For want of more interesting companions, she invited us, during the day, into her coach; and we taxed our abilities to make ourselves as entertaining as we could, for we were greatly fascinated by the lady’s beauty. The second night proved very sultry; and Lord Westport and myself, suffering from the oppression of the cabin, left our berths, and lay, wrapped up in cloaks, upon deck. Having talked for some hours, we were both on the point of falling asleep, when a stealthy tread near our heads awoke us. It was starlight; and we traced between ourselves and the sky the outline of a man’s figure. Lying upon a mass of tarpaulings, we were ourselves undistinguishable, and the figure moved in the direction of the coach. Our first thought was to raise an alarm, scarcely doubting that the purpose of the man was to rob the unprotected lady of her watch or purse. But, to our astonishment, we saw the coach door silently swing open under a touch from within. All was as silent as a dream; the figure entered, the door closed, and we were left to interpret the case as we might. Strange it was that this lady could permit herself to calculate upon absolute concealment in such circumstances. We recollected afterwards to have heard some indistinct rumor buzzed about the packet on the day preceding, that a gentleman, and some even spoke of him by name as a Colonel ——, for some unknown purpose, was concealed in the steerage of the packet. And other appearances indicated that the affair was not entirely a secret even amongst the lady’s servants. To both of us the story proclaimed a moral already sufficiently current, viz., that women of the highest and the very lowest rank are alike thrown too much into situations of danger and temptation. [13] I might mention some additional circumstances of criminal aggravation in this lady’s case; but, as they would tend to point out the real person to those acquainted with her history, I shall forbear. She has since made a noise in the world, and has maintained, I believe, a tolerably fair reputation. Soon after sunrise the next morning, a heavenly morning of June, we dropped our anchor in the famous Bay of Dublin. There was a dead calm; the sea was like a lake; and, as we were some miles from the Pigeon House, a boat was manned to put us on shore. The lovely lady, unaware that we were parties to her guilty secret, went with us, accompanied by her numerous attendants, and looking as beautiful, and hardly less innocent, than an angel. Long afterwards, Lord Westport and I met her, hanging upon the arm of her husband, a manly and good-natured man, of polished manners, to whom she introduced us; for she voluntarily challenged us as her fellow- voyagers, and, I suppose, had no suspicion which pointed in our direction. She even joined her husband in cordially pressing us to visit them at their magnificent chateau. Upon us, meantime, whatever might be her levity, the secret of which accident had put us in possession pressed with a weight of awe; we shuddered at our own discovery; and we both agreed to drop no hint of it in any direction. [14]

Landing about three miles from Dublin, (according to my present remembrance at Dunleary,) we were not long in reaching Sackville Street.

Excerpted from Autobiographical Sketches, by Thomas de Quincey, first published in 1853.


[1] “Ancient Rome.”—Vast, however, as the London is of this day, I incline to think that it is below the Rome of Trajan. It has long been a settled opinion amongst scholars, that the computations of Lipsius, on this point, were prodigiously overcharged; and formerly I shared in that belief. But closer study of the question, and a laborious collation of the different data, (for any single record, independently considered, can here establish nothing,) have satisfied me that Lipsius was nearer the truth than his critics; and that the Roman population of every class— slaves, aliens, peoples of the suburbs, included—lay between four and six millions; in which case the London of 1833, which counts more than a million and a half, but less than two millions, [Note.—Our present London of 1853 counts two millions, plus as many thousands as there are days in the year,] may be taken, chata platos as lying between one fourth and one third of Rome. To discuss this question thoroughly would require a separate memoir, for which, after all, there are not sufficient materials: meantime I will make this remark: That the ordinary computations of a million, or a million and a quarter, derived from the surviving accounts of the different “regions,” apply to Rome within the Pomaerium, and are, therefore, no more valid for the total Rome of Trajan’s time, stretching so many miles beyond it, than the bills of mortality for what is technically “London within the walls” can serve at this day as a base for estimating the population of that total London which we mean and presume in our daily conversation. Secondly, even for the Rome within these limits the computations are not commensurate, by not allowing for the prodigious height of the houses in Rome, which much transcended that of modern cities. On this last point I will translate a remarkable sentence from the Greek rhetorician Aristides, [Note.—Aelius Aristides, Greek by his birth, who flourished in the time of the Antonines;] to some readers it will be new and interesting: “And, as oftentimes we see that a man who greatly excels others in bulk and strength is not content with any display, however ostentatious, of his powers, short of that where he is exhibited surmounting himself with a pyramid of other men, one set standing upon the shoulders of another, so also this city, stretching forth her foundations over areas so vast, is yet not satisfied with those superficial dimensions; that contents her not; but upon one city rearing another of corresponding proportions, and upon that another, pile resting upon pile, houses overlaying houses, in aerial succession: so, and by similar steps, she achieves a character of architecture justifying, as it were, the very promise of her name; and with reference to that name, and its Grecian meaning, we may say, that here nothing meets our eyes in any direction but mere Rome! Rome!” [Note.—This word Romae, (Romé,) on which the rhetorician plays, is the common Greek term for strength.] “And hence,” says Aristides, “I derive the following conclusion: that if any one, decomposing this series of strata, were disposed to unshell, as it were, this existing Rome from its present crowded and towering coacervations, and, thus degrading these aerial Romes, were to plant them on the ground, side by side, in orderly succession, according to all appearance, the whole vacant area of Italy would be filled with these dismantled stories of Rome, and we should be presented with the spectacle of one continuous city, stretching its labyrinthine pomp to the shores of the Adriatic.” This is so far from being meant as a piece of rhetoric, that, on the very contrary, the whole purpose is to substitute for a vague and rhetorical expression of the Roman grandeur one of a more definite character—viz., by presenting its dimensions in a new form, and supposing the city to be uncrested, as it were; its upper tiers to be what the sailors call unshipped; and the dethroned stories to be all drawn up in rank and file upon the ground; according to which assumption he implies that the city would stretch from the mare Superum to the mare Inferum, i.e., from the sea of Tuscany to the Adriatic.

The fact is, as Casaubon remarked, upon occasion of a ridiculous blunder in estimating the largesses of a Roman emperor, that the error on most questions of Roman policy or institutions tends not, as is usual, in the direction of excess, but of defect. All things were colossal there; and the probable, as estimated upon our modern scale, is not unfrequently the impossible, as regarded Roman habits. Lipsius certainly erred extravagantly at times, and was a rash speculator on many subjects; witness his books on the Roman amphitheatres; but not on the magnitude of Rome, or the amount of its population. I will add, upon this subject, that the whole political economy of the ancients, if we except Boeckh’s accurate investigation, (Die Staatshaushaltung der Athener,) which, properly speaking, cannot be called political economy, is a mine into which scarce a single shaft has yet been sunk. But I must also add, that every thing will depend upon collation of facts, and the bringing of indirect notices into immediate juxtaposition, so as to throw light on each other. Direct and positive information there is little on these topics; and that has been gleaned.

[2] “Two hours.”—This slow progress must, however, in part be ascribed to Mr. Gr——’s non-acquaintance with the roads, both town and rural, along the whole line of our progress from Uxbridge.

[3] Hence it may be said, that nature regulates our position for such spectacles, without any intermeddling of ours. When, indeed, a mountain stands, like Snowdon or Great Gavel in Cumberland, at the centre of a mountainous region, it is not denied that, at some seasons, when the early beams strike through great vistas in the hills, splendid effects of light and shade are produced; strange, however, rather than beautiful. But from an insulated mountain, or one upon the outer ring of the hilly tract, such as Skiddaw, in Cumberland, the first effect is to translate the landscape from a picture into a map; and the total result, as a celebrated author once said, is the infinity of littleness.

[4] Accession was it, or his proclamation? The case was this: About the middle of the day, the king came out into the portico of Carlton House; and addressing himself (addressing his gestures, I mean) to the assemblage of people in Pall Mall, he bowed repeatedly to the right and to the left, and then retired. I mean no disrespect to that prince in recalling those circumstances; no doubt, he acted upon the suggestion of others, and perhaps, also, under a sincere emotion on witnessing the enthusiasm of those outside; but that could not cure the original absurdity of recognizing as a representative audience, clothed with the national functions of recognizing himself, a chance gathering of passengers through a single street, between whom and any mob from his own stables and kitchens there could be no essential difference which logic, or law, or constitutional principle could recognize.

[5] Already monuments had been voted by the House of Commons in this cathedral, and I am not sure but they were nearly completed, to two captains who had fallen at the Nile.

[6] This place suggests the mention of another crying abuse connected with this subject. In the year 1811 or 1810 came under parliamentary notice and revision the law of copyright. In some excellent pamphlets drawn forth by the occasion, from Mr. Duppa, for instance, and several others, the whole subject was well probed, and many aspects, little noticed by the public, were exposed of that extreme injustice attached to the law as it then stood. The several monopolies connected with books were noticed a little; and not a little notice was taken of the oppressive privilege with which certain public libraries (at that time, I think, eleven) were invested, of exacting, severally, a copy of each new book published. This downright robbery was palliated by some members of the House in that day, under the notion of its being a sort of exchange, or quid pro quo in return for the relief obtained by the statute of Queen Anne—the first which recognized literary property. “For,” argued they, “previously to that statute, supposing your book pirated, at common law you could obtain redress only for each copy proved to have been sold by the pirate; and that might not be a thousandth part of the actual loss. Now, the statute of Queen Anne granting you a general redress, upon proof that a piracy had been committed, you, the party relieved, were bound to express your sense of this relief by a return made to the public; and the public is here represented by the great endowed libraries of the seven universities, the British Museum,” &c., &c. But prima facie, this was that selling of justice which is expressly renounced in Magna Charta; and why were proprietors of copyright, more than other proprietors, to make an “acknowledgment” for their rights? But supposing that just, why, especially, to the given public bodies? Now, for my part, I think that this admits of an explanation: nine tenths of the authors in former days lay amongst the class who had received a college education; and most of these, in their academic life, had benefited largely by old endowments. Giving up, therefore, a small tribute from their copyright, there was some color of justice in supposing that they were making a slight acknowledgment for past benefits received, and exactly for those benefits which enabled them to appear with any advantage as authors. So, I am convinced, the “servitude” first arose, and under this construction; which, even for those days, was often a fiction, but now is generally such. However, be the origin what it may, the ground upon which the public mind in 1811 (that small part of it, at least, which the question attracted) reconciled itself to the abuse was this—for a trivial wrong, they alleged (but it was then shown that the wrong was not always trivial) one great good is achieved, viz., that all over the kingdom are dispersed eleven great depositories, in which all persons interested may, at all times, be sure of finding one copy of every book published. That did seem a great advantage, and a balance in point of utility (if none in point of justice) to the wrong upon which it grew. But now mark the degree in which this balancing advantage is made available. 1. The eleven bodies are not equally careful to exact their copies; that can only be done by retaining an agent in London; and this agent is careless about books of slight money value. 2. Were it otherwise, of what final avail would a perfect set of the year’s productions prove to a public not admitted freely to the eleven libraries? 3. But, finally, if they were admitted, to what purpose (as regards this particular advantage) under the following custom, which, in some of these eleven libraries, (possibly in all,)was, I well knew, established: annually the principal librarian weeded the annual crop of all such books as displeased himself; upon which two questions arise: 1. Upon what principle? 2. With what result? I answer as to the first, that in this lustration he went upon no principle at all, but his own caprice, or what he called his own discretion; and accordingly it is a fact known to many as well as myself, that a book, which some people (and certainly not the least meditative of this age) have pronounced the most original work of modern times, was actually amongst the books thus degraded; it was one of those, as the phrase is, tossed “into the basket;” and universally this fate is more likely to befall a work of original merit, which disturbs the previous way of thinking and feeling, than one of timid compliance with ordinary models. Secondly, with what result? For the present, the degraded books, having been consigned to the basket, were forthwith consigned to a damp cellar. There, at any rate, they were in no condition to be consulted by the public, being piled up in close bales, and in a place not publicly accessible. But there can be no doubt that, sooner or later, their mouldering condition would be made an argument for selling them. And such, when we trace the operation of this law to its final stage, is the ultimate result of an infringement upon private rights almost unexampled in any other part of our civil economy. That sole beneficial result, for the sake of which some legislators were willing to sanction a wrong otherwise admitted to be indefensible, is so little protected and secured to the public, that it is first of all placed at the mercy of an agent in London, whose negligence or indifference may defeat the provision altogether, (I know a publisher of a splendid botanical work, who told me that, by forbearing to attract notice to it within the statutable time, he saved his eleven copies;) and placed at the mercy of a librarian, who (or any one of his successors) may, upon a motive of malice to the author or an impulse of false taste, after all proscribe any part of the books thus dishonorably acquired.

[7] The words genius and talent are frequently distinguished from each other by those who evidently misconstrue the true distinction entirely, and sometimes so grossly as to use them by way of expressions for a mere difference in degree. Thus, “a man of great talent, absolutely a genius” occurs in a very well-written tale at this moment before me; as if being a man of genius implied only a greater than ordinary degree of talent.

Talent and genius are in not one point allied to each other, except generically—that both express modes of intellectual power. But the kinds of power are not merely different; they are in polar opposition to each other.Talent is intellectual power of every kind, which acts and manifests itself by and through the will and the active forces.

Genius, as the verbal origin implies, is that much rarer species of intellectual power which is derived from the genial nature,—from the spirit of suffering and enjoying,—from the spirit of pleasure and pain, as organized more or less perfectly; and this is independent of the will. It is a function of the passive nature. Talent is conversant with the adaptation of means to ends. But genius is conversant only with ends. Talent has no sort of connection, not the most remote or shadowy, with the moral nature or temperament; genius is steeped and saturated with this moral nature.

This was written twenty years ago. Now, (1853,) when revising it, I am tempted to add three brief annotations:—

1st. It scandalizes me that, in the occasional comments upon this distinction which have reached my eye, no attention should have been paid to the profound suggestions as to the radix of what is meant by genius latent in the word genial. For instance, in an extract made by “The Leader,” a distinguished literary journal, from a recent work entitled “Poetics,” by Mr. Dallas, there is not the slightest notice taken of this subtile indication and leading towards the truth. Yet surely that is hardly philosophic. For could Mr. Dallas suppose that the idea involved in the word genial had no connection, or none but an accidental one, with the idea involved in the word genius? It is clear that from the Roman conception (whencesoever emanating) of the natal genius, as the secret and central representative of what is most characteristic and individual in the nature of every human being, are derived alike the notion of the genial and our modern notion of genius as contradistinguished from talent.

2d. As another broad character of distinction between genius and talent, I would observe, that genius differentiates a man from all other men; whereas talent is the same in one man as in another; that is, where it exists at all, it is the mere echo and reflex of the same talent, as seen in thousands of other men, differing only by more and less, but not at all in quality. In genius, on the contrary, no two men were ever duplicates of each other.

3d. All talent, in whatsoever class, reveals itself as an effort—as a counteraction to an opposing difficulty or hinderance; whereas genius universally moves in headlong sympathy and concurrence with spontaneous power. Talent works universally by intense resistance to an antagonist force; whereas genius works under a rapture of necessity and spontaneity.

[8] This word, I am well aware, grew out of the French word contre danse; indicating the regular contraposition of male and female partners in the first arrangement of the dancers. The word country dance was therefore originally a corruption; but, having once arisen and taken root in the language, it is far better to retain it in its colloquial form; better, I mean, on the general, principle concerned in such cases. For it is, in fact, by such corruptions, by offsets upon an old stock, arising through ignorance or mispronunciation originally, that every language is frequently enriched; and new modifications of thought, unfolding themselves in the progress of society, generate for themselves concurrently appropriate expressions. Many words in the Latin can be pointed out as having passed through this process. It must not be allowed to weigh against the validity of a word once fairly naturalized by use, that originally it crept in upon an abuse or a corruption. Prescription is as strong a ground of legitimation in a case of this nature as it is in law. And the old axiom is applicable—Fieri non debuit, factum valet. Were it otherwise, languages would be robbed of much of their wealth. And, universally, the class of purists, in matters of language, are liable to grievous suspicion, as almost constantly proceeding on half knowledge and on insufficient principles. For example, if I have read one, I have read twenty letters, addressed to newspapers, denouncing the name of a great quarter in London, Mary-le-bone, as ludicrously ungrammatical. The writers had learned (or were learning) French; and they had thus become aware, that neither the article nor the adjective was right. True, not right for the current age, but perfectly right for the age in which the name arose; but, for want of elder French, they did not know that in our Chaucer’s time both were right. Le was then the article feminine as well as masculine, and bone was then the true form for the adjective.

[9] And therefore it was with strict propriety that Boyle, anxious to fix public attention upon some truths of hydrostatics, published them avowedly as paradoxes. According to the false popular notion of what it is that constitutes a paradox, Boyle should be taken to mean that these hydrostatic theorems were fallacies. But far from it. Boyle solicits attention to these propositions—not as seeming to be true and turning out false, but, reversely, as wearing an air of falsehood and turning out true.

[10] This Dr. Wilkins was related to marriage to Cromwell, and is better known to the world, perhaps, by his Essay on the possibility of a passage (or, as the famous author of the “Pursuits of Literature” said, by way of an episcopal metaphor, the possibility of a translation) to the moon.

[11] One omission occurs to me on reviewing this account of the Ziph, which is—that I should have directed the accent to be placed on the intercalated syllable: thus ship becomes shigip, with the emphasis on gip; runbecomes rugún, &c.

[12] Written twenty years ago.

[13] But see the note on this point at the end of the volume.

[14] Lord Westport’s age at that time was the same as my own; that is, we both wanted a few months of being fifteen. But I had the advantage, perhaps, in thoughtfulness and observation of life. Being thoroughly free, however, from opinionativeness, Lord Westport readily came over to any views of mine for which I could show sufficient grounds. And on this occasion I found no difficulty in convincing him that honor and fidelity did not form sufficient guaranties for the custody of secrets. Presence of mind so as to revive one’s obligations in time, tenacity of recollection, and vigilance over one’s own momentary slips of tongue, so as to keep watch over indirect disclosures, are also requisite. And at that time I had an instance within my own remembrance where a secret had been betrayed, by a person of undoubted honor, but most inadvertently betrayed, and in pure oblivion of his engagement to silence. Indeed, unless where the secret is of a nature to affect some person’s life, I do not believe that most people would remember beyond a period of two years the most solemn obligations to secrecy. After a lapse of time, varying of course with the person, the substance of the secret will remain upon the mind; but how he came by the secret, or under what circumstances, he will very probably have forgotten. It is unsafe to rely upon the most religious or sacramental obligation to secrecy, unless, together with the secret, you could transfer also a magic ring that should, by a growing pressure or puncture, sting a man into timely alarm and warning.