The civilest way of describing an ignoramus

From the author’s footnote to Anecdotes – Juvenal in v.1 of Thomas de Quincey’s Posthumous Works:

The passion which made Juvenal a poet.‘ The scholar needs no explanation; but the reader whose scholarship is yet amongst his futurities (which I conceive to be the civilest way of describing an ignoramus) must understand that Juvenal, the Roman satirist, who was in fact a predestined poet in virtue of his ebullient heart, that boiled over once or twice a day in anger that could not be expressed upon witnessing the enormities of domestic life in Rome, was willing to forego all pretensions to natural power and inspiration for the sake of obtaining such influence as would enable him to reprove Roman vices with effect.

With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams

Some passages from Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.  I think vertiginous is one of the most abused back-cover descriptors but it fits de Quincey’s architectural nightmares too well not to use it.

Some of these rambles [through London] led me to great distances, for an opium-eater is too happy to observe the motion of time; and sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and head-lands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphynx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen.  I could almost have believed at times that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terræ incognitæ, and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London.  For all this, however, I paid a heavy price in distant years, when the human face tyrannised over my dreams, and the perplexities of my steps in London came back and haunted my sleep, with the feeling of perplexities, moral and intellectual, that brought confusion to the reason, or anguish and remorse to the conscience

comprehend the unimaginable horror which these dreams of Oriental imagery and mythological tortures impressed upon me.  Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sunlights I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled them together in China or Indostan.  From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law.  I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by parroquets, by cockatoos.  I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed.  I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me.  I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at.  I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids.  I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s, Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever. Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c., expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further and you perceive it come to a sudden and abrupt termination without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose at least that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aërial flight of stairs is beheld, and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours; and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall. With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams. In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds. From a great modern poet I cite part of a passage which describes, as an appearance actually beheld in the clouds, what in many of its circumstances I saw frequently in sleep:

The appearance, instantaneously disclosed,
Was of a mighty city—boldly say
A wilderness of building, sinking far
And self-withdrawn into a wondrous depth,
Far sinking into splendour—without end!
Fabric it seem’d of diamond, and of gold,
With alabaster domes, and silver spires,
And blazing terrace upon terrace, high
Uplifted; here, serene pavilions bright
In avenues disposed; there towers begirt
With battlements that on their restless fronts
Bore stars—illumination of all gems!
By earthly nature had the effect been wrought
Upon the dark materials of the storm
Now pacified; on them, and on the coves,
And mountain-steeps and summits, whereunto
The vapours had receded,—taking there
Their station under a cerulean sky. &c. &c.

The lines are from Wordsworth’s Excursion

From my very earliest youth it has been my pride to converse familiarly, more Socratio, with all human beings

From Thomas de Quincey’s Confesions of an English Opium-Eater:

….but another person there was at that time whom I have since sought to trace with far deeper earnestness, and with far deeper sorrow at my failure.  This person was a young woman, and one of that unhappy class who subsist upon the wages of prostitution.  I feel no shame, nor have any reason to feel it, in avowing that I was then on familiar and friendly terms with many women in that unfortunate condition.  The reader needs neither smile at this avowal nor frown; for, not to remind my classical readers of the old Latin proverb, “Sine cerere,” &c., it may well be supposed that in the existing state of my purse my connection with such women could not have been an impure one.  But the truth is, that at no time of my life have I been a person to hold myself polluted by the touch or approach of any creature that wore a human shape; on the contrary, from my very earliest youth it has been my pride to converse familiarly, more Socratio, with all human beings, man, woman, and child, that chance might fling in my way; a practice which is friendly to the knowledge of human nature, to good feelings, and to that frankness of address which becomes a man who would be thought a philosopher.  For a philosopher should not see with the eyes of the poor limitary creature calling himself a man of the world, and filled with narrow and self-regarding prejudices of birth and education, but should look upon himself as a catholic creature, and as standing in equal relation to high and low, to educated and uneducated, to the guilty and the innocent.  Being myself at that time of necessity a peripatetic, or a walker of the streets, I naturally fell in more frequently with those female peripatetics who are technically called street-walkers.


What an astonishing stimulus to latent talent is contained in any reasonable prospect of being murdered

From Thomas de Quincey’s On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts

Riding one day in the neighborhood of Munich, I overtook a distinguished amateur of our society, whose name I shall conceal. This gentleman informed me that, finding himself wearied with the frigid pleasures (so he called them) of mere amateurship, he had quitted England for the continent–meaning to practise a little professionally. For this purpose he resorted to Germany, conceiving the police in that part of Europe to be more heavy and drowsy than elsewhere. His debut as a practitioner took place at Mannheim; and, knowing me to be a brother amateur, he freely communicated the whole of his maiden adventure. “Opposite to my lodging,” said he, “lived a baker: he was somewhat of a miser, and lived quite alone. Whether it were his great expanse of chalky face, or what else, I know not–but the fact was, I ‘fancied’ him, and resolved to commence business upon his throat, which by the way he always carried bare–a fashion which is very irritating to my desires. Precisely at eight o’clock in the evening, I observed that he regularly shut up his windows. One night I
watched him when thus engaged–bolted in after him–locked the door–and, addressing him with great suavity, acquainted him with the nature of my errand; at the same time advising him to make no resistance, which would be mutually unpleasant. So saying, I drew out my tools; and was proceeding to operate. But at his spectacle, the baker, who seemed to have been struck by catalepsy at my first announce, awoke into tremendous agitation. ‘I will _not_ be murdered!’ he shrieked aloud; ‘what for will I lose my precious throat?’ ‘What for?’ said I; ‘if for no other reason, for this–that you put alum into your bread. But no matter, alum or no alum, (for I was resolved to forestall any argument on that point,) know that I am a virtuoso in the art of murder–am desirous of improving myself in its details–and am enamored of your vast surface of throat, to which I am determined to be a customer.’ ‘Is it so?’ said he, ‘but I’ll find you custom in another line;’ and so saying, he threw himself into a boxing attitude. The very idea of his boxing struck me as ludicrous. It is true, a London baker had distinguished himself in the ring, and became known to fame under the title of the Master of the Rolls; but he was young and unspoiled: whereas this man was a monstrous feather-bed in person, fifty years old, and totally out of condition. Spite of all this, however, and contending against me, who am a master in the art, he made so desperate a defence, that many times I feared he might turn the tables upon me; and that I, an amateur, might be murdered by a rascally baker. What a situation! Minds of sensibility will sympathize with my anxiety. How severe it was, you may understand by this, that for the first thirteen rounds the baker had the advantage. Round the fourteenth, I received a blow on
the right eye, which closed it up; in the end, I believe, this was my salvation: for the anger it roused in me was so great that, in this and every one of the three following rounds, I floored the baker.

“Round 18th. The baker came up piping, and manifestly the worse for wear. His geometrical exploits in the four last rounds had done him no good. However, he showed some skill in stopping a message which I was sending to his cadaverous mug; in delivering which, my foot slipped, and I went down.

“Round 19th. Surveying the baker, I became ashamed of having been so much bothered by a shapeless mass of dough; and I went in fiercely, and administered some severe punishment. A rally took place–both went down–baker undermost–ten to three on amateur.

“Round 20th. The baker jumped up with surprising agility; indeed, he managed his pins capitally, and fought wonderfully, considering that he was drenched in perspiration; but the shine was now taken out of him, and his game was the mere effect of panic. It was now clear that he could not last much longer. In the course of this round we tried the weaving system, in which I had greatly the advantage, and hit him repeatedly on the conk. My reason for this was, that his conk was covered with carbuncles; and I thought I should vex him by taking such liberties with his conk, which in fact I did.

“The three next rounds, the master of the rolls staggered about like a cow on the ice. Seeing how matters stood, in round twenty-fourth I whispered something into his ear, which sent him down like a shot. It was nothing more than my private opinion of the value of his throat at an annuity office. This little confidential whisper affected him greatly; the very perspiration was frozen on his face, and for the next two rounds I had it all my own way. And when I called time for the twenty-seventh round, he lay like a log on the floor.”

After which, said I to the amateur, “It may be presumed that you accomplished your purpose.” “You are right,” said he mildly, “I did; and a great satisfaction, you know, it was to my mind, for by this means I killed two birds with one stone;” meaning that he had both thumped the baker and murdered him. Now, for the life of me, I could not see that; for, on the contrary, to my mind it appeared that he had taken two stones to kill one bird, having been obliged to take the conceit out of him first with his fist, and then with his tools. But no matter for his logic. The moral of his story was good, for it showed what an astonishing stimulus to latent talent is contained in any reasonable prospect of being murdered. A pursy, unwieldy, half cataleptic baker of Mannheim had absolutely fought six-and-twenty rounds with an accomplished English boxer merely upon this inspiration; so greatly was natural genius exalted and sublimed by the genial presence of his murderer.

It is rebellion of the blackest die to refuse to be murdered, when a competent force appears to murder you

From Thomas de Quincey’s On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts

Hobbes, but why, or on what principle, I never could understand, was not murdered. This was a capital oversight of the professional men in the seventeenth century; because in every light he was a fine subject for murder, except, indeed, that he was lean and skinny; for I can prove that he had money, and (what is very funny,) he had no right to make the least resistance; for, according to himself, irresistible power  creates the very highest species of right, so that it is rebellion of the blackest die to refuse to be murdered, when a competent force appears to murder you. However, gentlemen, though he was not murdered, I am happy to assure you that (by his own account) he was three times very near being murdered. The first time was in the spring of 1640, when he pretends to have circulated a little MS. on the king’s behalf, against the Parliament; he never could produce this MS., by the by; but he says that, “Had not his Majesty dissolved the Parliament,” (in May,) “it had brought him into danger of his life.” Dissolving the Parliament, however, was of no use; for, in November of the same year, the Long Parliament assembled, and Hobbes, a second time, fearing he should be murdered, ran away to France. This looks like the madness of John Dennis, who thought that Louis XIV. would never make peace with Queen Anne, unless he were given up to his vengeance; and actually ran away from the sea-coast in that belief. In France, Hobbes managed to take care of his throat pretty well for ten years; but at the end of that time, by way of paying court to Cromwell, he published his Leviathan. The old coward now began to “funk” horribly or the third time; he fancied the swords of the cavaliers were constantly at his throat, recollecting how they had served the Parliament ambassadors at the Hague and Madrid. “Turn,” says he, in his dog-Latin life of himself,

“Tum venit in mentem mihi Dorislaus et Ascham;
Tanquam proscripto terror ubique aderat.”

And accordingly he ran home to England. Now, certainly, it is very true that a man deserved a cudgelling for writing Leviathan; and two or three cudgellings for writing a pentameter ending so villanously as–“terror ubique aderat!” But no man ever thought him worthy of anything beyond cudgelling.

He had left his tea. Was he to have nothing in return?

From Thomas de Quincey’s On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts:

Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle, (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey;) and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated  aesthetically, as the Germans
call it, that is, in relation to good taste.

To illustrate this, I will urge the authority of three eminent persons,
viz., S.T. Coleridge, Aristotle, and Mr. Howship the surgeon. To begin with
S.T.C. One night, many years ago, I was drinking tea with him in Berners’
Street, (which, by the way, for a short street, has been uncommonly
fruitful in men of genius.) Others were there besides myself; and amidst
some carnal considerations of tea and toast, we were all imbibing a
dissertation on Plotinus from the attic lips of S.T.C. Suddenly a cry arose
of “Firefire!” upon which all of us, master and disciples, Plato and
[Greek: hoi peri ton Platona], rushed out, eager for the spectacle. The
fire was in Oxford Street, at a piano-forte maker’s; and, as it promised to
be a conflagration of merit, I was sorry that my engagements forced me away
from Mr. Coleridge’s party before matters were come to a crisis. Some days
after, meeting with my Platonic host, I reminded him of the case, and
begged to know how that very promising exhibition had terminated. “Oh,
sir,” said he, “it turned out so ill, that we damned it unanimously.” Now,
does any man suppose that Mr. Coleridge,–who, for all he is too fat to be
a person of active virtue, is undoubtedly a worthy Christian,–that this
good S. T. C., I say, was an incendiary, or capable of wishing any ill
to the poor man and his piano-fortes (many of them, doubtless, with the
additional keys)? On the contrary, I know him to be that sort of man, that
I durst stake my life upon it he would have worked an engine in a case of
necessity, although rather of the fattest for such fiery trials of his
virtue. But how stood the case? Virtue was in no request. On the arrival
of the fire-engines, morality had devolved wholly on the insurance office.
This being the case, he had a right to gratify his taste. He had left his
tea. Was he to have nothing in return?