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Daniel Sanjiv Roberts, Revisionary Gleam: De Quincey, Coleridge and the High Romantic Argument. Liverpool University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0853238049. Price: £16.99 (US$24.95).

  • Laura Roman

…plus d’informations

  • Laura Roman
    Worcester College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

'A paradox', De Quincey tells us, 'is simply that which contradicts the popular opinion—which in too many cases is the false opinion.' If we take the question of literary influence, the popular opinion for the past century has believed Wordsworth to be the paramount influence on De Quincey's literary career. However, what from many perspectives and opinions ought to be more obvious is the influence of Coleridge.

The affinities between De Quincey and Coleridge find expression in many well-known contexts. They can be traced back to De Quincey's generous offer of the £300 gift (perhaps at this point a subconscious recognition of an affinity) before the commencement of his own literary career. It was Coleridge De Quincey used as his gauge in assessing his own addiction in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and again, when he began composition on the sequel, Suspiria de Profundis in the summer of 1844, when he asked his editors at Blackwood's for a copy of Gillman's biography. Coleridge also influences the unpublished 'Introductory Notice' to Suspiria.

However, Coleridge's influence, which has been crucial in establishing De Quincey as a literary critic, has not until now received full critical attention. Daniel Sanjiv Roberts fills this void in his wonderfully exhaustive study, Revisionary Gleam: De Quincey, Coleridge and the High Romantic Argument. In this book, Roberts maps out De Quincey's critical development by taking into account the nuances of Coleridge's influence, beginning with the impact of Coleridge's contributions to the Lyrical Ballads, De Quincey's meeting with Wordsworth as interpreted through his meeting with Coleridge, and his analysis of overlooked writing by De Quincey such as his essays on 'Style' and 'Rhetoric' that define his position as literary critic. Roberts makes full use of De Quincey's Diary of 1803, which provides us with images of characters he later develops as well as notions of language, such as the nature of 'poetic diction' that he later develops into critical theories. Roberts draws on these sources as well as unpublished manuscripts. He seeks to revise our understanding of De Quincey's literary career by looking at his relations with Coleridge primarily and then, Wordsworth, Burke, Kant and the Liverpool literary society of Roscoe to map out De Quincey's critical development with regard to political concerns of revolution, reform and colonial expansion. Roberts draws our attention to overlooked aspects of De Quincey's early politics and reminds us of De Quincey's role as a political journalist, as well as his position as the mediator of Kant in England after Coleridge.

In the first chapter, Roberts draws attention to the impressions De Quincey had formed of Coleridge prior to their meeting and as recorded in his 1803 Diary. There De Quincey wrote: 'I walk home thinking of Coleridge;—am in transports of love and admiration for him . . . go to bed . . . still thinking of Coleridge who strikes me (as I believe he always did) with a resemblance to my mysterious character.' His mysterious character is an image of a man 'darkly wonderful' as recorded in his 1803 Diary:

Last night too I image myself looking through a glass. 'What do you see?' I see a man in the dim and shadowy perspective and (as it were) in a dream. He passes along in silence, and the hues of sorrow appear on his countenance. 'Who is he?' A man darkly wonderful—above the beings of this world; but whether that shadow of him, which you saw, be ye shadow of a man long since passed away or of one yet hid in futurity, I may not tell you. There is something gloomily great in him; he wraps himself up in the dark recesses of his own soul; he looks over all mankind of all tongues—languages—and nations 'with an angel's ken'; but his fate is misery such as ye world knoweth not; and upon his latter days (and truly on his whole life) sit deep clouds of mystery and darkness and silence.  [1]

This passage from De Quincey's 1803 Diary is a key to understanding the intricate and subtle relationship De Quincey shares with Coleridge first in their affinities in personality. When we look at this passage closely it becomes a premonition of what De Quincey would become in his later year—a self-perception that finds expressions in poetic characters such as the Dark Interpreter from Suspiria. As Roberts argues, De Quincey is here indulging in a gothic strain that he associates with Coleridge and the character of the Ancient Mariner. Roberts draws attention to the description of Coleridge painted by Richard Holmes, where Coleridge sees himself as his own Mariner, with 'Mind shipwrecked by storms of doubt, now mastless, now rudderless, shattered—pulling in the dead swell of a dark & windless Sea.' This personal affinity in character that De Quincey recognised upon their meeting can be seen as existing behind the intellectual affinities and connexions that find expression in De Quincey's language and politics. These are the subjects that shape the rest of Revisionary Gleam.

Roberts then looks at the politics of the Lake School. He argues that Wordsworth and Coleridge continued their interest in politics following the failure of the French Revolution. De Quincey's theoretical grounding as a political journalist comes from Coleridge, derived from his 'radical past as well as his later conservative rationalisations and suppressions of the past.' Roberts advances that De Quincey uses Coleridge to understand Wordsworth's politics and that the subsequent importance of his involvement in TheConvention of Cintra pamphlet comes partly through this 'involuted' relationship. This chapter expands into several following that delve into the intricate influences on De Quincey's language and politics.

Roberts progresses on to De Quincey's early reading of the Lyrical Ballads to contextualize its role in his literary development. He refers to De Quincey's testimony that reading the Lyrical Ballads was 'the greatest event in the unfolding of my mind' and goes on to look at his early correspondence with Wordsworth as well as his later integration into the poet's family circle. Roberts looks at why De Quincey was so attuned to the reception of Lyrical Ballads and attempts to uncover some of the likely contexts in which De Quincey encountered the Lyrical Ballads. Roberts draws attention to De Quincey's encounter in 1801 with the Liverpool literary circle including William Roscoe and James Currie, indicating that De Quincey's attitude to them involves an implicit but suppressed connection with Lyrical Ballads; that such an attitude 'is crucially revelatory of the shifting ideological significance of the work for De Quincey.' By looking at the Lyrical Ballads within context, Roberts suggests a more 'politicised view of De Quincey's childhood reading and imagination than has hitherto been obtained.'

This chapter leads into a subsequent chapter on 'Language and Cultural Politics', where Roberts looks at the roots of De Quincey's language and linguistic theory, again grounded on his reading of the Lyrical Ballads. As Roberts argues, De Quincey's early encounter with Lyrical Ballads as evidenced in his 1803 Diary and his early correspondence with Wordsworth show him to be aware of the politico-linguistic implications borne by this collaborative work. De Quincey's thinking on language runs along similar lines to those rehearsed for him by Wordsworth and Coleridge. De Quincey pays greater credit to Wordsworth, but as Roberts illustrates, it is Coleridge's example that is more important for his thinking of language, and finally bears fruit in his tacit adoption of Coleridge's important and influential conception of 'culture' in De Quincey's late essay on 'Language' for Hogg's Instructor in 1851.

In the next chapter, Roberts looks at De Quincey and Coleridge as mediators of Kant in England. According to Roberts, Coleridge's influence on De Quincey is nowhere more evident than in the latter's reading of Kant and of the German literature and philosophy in general. In 1823 in his 'Letters to a Young Man' De Quincey subtly refers to Coleridge in his claim to 'leave transcendentalism to me and other young men.' De Quincey waited for Coleridge's death before asserting his charges of plagiarism that he brought forward in 1834. As Roberts states, 'De Quincey's revelation of Coleridge's plagiarisms is taken to be the betrayal of one initiate into German literature by another, thereby proclaiming his own predominance in the field.' However, De Quincey's exposure of Coleridge's German plagiarisms has drawn attention to this aspect of their common interests. Their early recognition and knowledge of the importance of the German idealist philosophers and Kant for their age creates one of the most important and everlasting affinities between them, despite the 'rivalry' at the time.

Finally, in the last chapter, on 'De Quincey as Critic', Roberts moves from the subject of Kant back to the subject of language. He looks at the 'politico-critical figure of Coleridge' as related to De Quincey's essays on 'Style', 'Rhetoric' and 'Language'—De Quincey's major critical statements—in order to achieve a politicised conception of De Quincey's critical status. Following on from his earlier chapter on the politics of language, he concludes by looking at how De Quincey's theory of literary style works as a political critique in addressing the terms of the debate on poetic diction contested by Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Roberts has written wonderfully and exhaustively on the complex subject of De Quincey's theories of language and politics by tracing his ideas back to their primary influences in Coleridge. Revisionary Gleam is a very scholarly and intricately written study that reshapes our perception of De Quincey. As work on the Pickering and Chatto 21-volume edition continues, the affinities between De Quincey and Coleridge will continue to emerge when presently unpublished material is made available. Roberts was the first to address and redefine the critical paradox of the greater influence on De Quincey of the Lyrical Ballads authors, and we look forward to his forthcoming volume of the Autobiographic Sketches.

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