Not "Forsworn with Pink Ribbons": Hannah More, Thomas De Quincey, and the Literature of Power
Daniel Sanjiv Roberts
Queen's University, Belfast
De Quincey's conception of the literature of "power" as opposed to that of "knowledge," has proved to be one of the most influential of romantic theories of literature, playing no small part in the canonization of Wordsworth. De Quincey's early acquaintance with the Lyrical Ballads was made through the Evangelical circles of his mother, who was a follower of Hannah More and a member of the Clapham sect. In later years, however, De Quincey repudiated his early Evangelical upbringing and wrote quite scathingly of the literary pretensions of Hannah More. This paper attempts to uncover the revisionary nature of De Quincey's later reminiscences of More and to indicate thereby the covert influence of Evangelical thinking on his literary theorizing. Far from absolving literature of politics, however, colonialist and nationalist imperatives typical of Evangelical thinking may be seen to operate within the spiritualized and aesthetic sphere to which literary power is arrogated by De Quincey.
Reviewing Hannah More's career for Tait's Edinburgh Magazine in the wake of her death in 1833, Thomas De Quincey advised the literary speculator who had possibly invested in her works, "to sell now, for assuredly five years will bring them down to a heavy discount" (9: 328). De Quincey, who prided himself on being something of a collector whose chief interests were in Wordsworth and Milton, could speak here not only as a literary evaluator, the kind of liberal reviewer favored by Tait's, but also as an eminent theoretician whose distinction between the literature of knowledge and the literature of power may be recognized as a crucial intervention in the construction of the notion of "Literature" during the Romantic period. De Quincey's disparagement of Hannah More's literary efforts and his advice to investors in her works to "sell now" anticipates the Arnoldian distancing of culture from Evangelicalism in its Victorian phase that Hannah More's later career, which seems to turn its back on her earlier interests, has been seen to attest. More's own subscription to the prevalent mode of conversion narratives common to Evangelical discourse may be adduced to explain the pervasiveness of this interpretative tradition. And while More's later life did take a new direction in terms of her Evangelical humanitarianism, yet she maintained social relations with a wide range of powerful and influential people and De Quincey who visited her often reminds us of the "polished society," "the legions of gay people […] at Barley Wood," whose very superiority drove the socially awkward Joseph Cottle away from regular attendance there (9: 347, 356).
De Quincey's article on More may be seen as an attempt to bury More's literary efforts along with her and as seeking to promote instead the much greater literary power which he discerned in Wordsworth's poetry. Yet as I would like to propose here, De Quincey's own attachment to the Wordsworth circle (as an early admirer of the Lyrical Ballads) as well as his later literary career and theorizing are all deeply influenced by his own Evangelical upbringing, indicating thereby a far more complicated relationship between his version of literary ideology and the Evangelical ethos which he is presumed to have overcome in achieving its formulation. The entire field has been polarized by Romantic tendencies towards the secularization of literature, but as I shall suggest, the terms of this polarization were under construction in the early part of the period, and therefore require to be handled carefully when speaking of the relationship between Evangelicalism and literary discourse. In proposing such a relationship, I will draw upon the important figure of Hannah More—herself a successful poet and dramatist as well as an educationalist and Evangelical leader—as a crucial link between the literary and the religious spheres which De Quincey complicates in his literary theorizing.
De Quincey's rebellious adolescence—marked by his disobedience to his mother and his flight from Manchester Grammar School—and his later descriptions of these events have been interpreted largely as a rejection of mother's Evangelical attitudes while his position in later life seems to have moved towards that of High Anglicanism. Within this framework, Evangelicalism takes the blame for an imputed narrowness of sensibility and theological rigidity which the young De Quincey was always already beyond. In a somewhat isolated article on the persistence of De Quincey's Evangelicalism, "Pursuing the Throne of God: De Quincey and the Evangelical Revival," Grevel Lindop has usefully pointed to the Evangelical sources by which De Quincey came to read the Lyrical Ballads, first in a stray manuscript copy of "We are Seven," and later in both the early editions of that work ("Pursuing," 97-111). The influential publisher of the Lyrical Ballads, Joseph Cottle, was himself an Evangelical, an acquaintance of Hannah More under whose sway De Quincey's mother had come. Cottle, who was in the habit of circulating manuscripts amongst his acquaintances, had himself sent a copy of the Lyrical Ballads, roughly delineating the route by which De Quincey came to encounter these poems. In the Confessions and elsewhere, De Quincey often represents his admiration for the Lyrical Ballads as the "birth" or an "awakening" of his literary existence, recasting the teleology of Wordsworth's "Intimations Ode," and invoking thereby an originary point of literary development which negates his earlier literary interests by positing an interpretative starting-point which the critical tradition has largely accepted. Yet it should be noted that De Quincey's 1803 Diary in which his famous letter to Wordsworth was drafted, places Wordsworth in a list of poets (1: 15), several of whom such as Spenser, Milton, Thomson, and Collins were clearly candidates for the well marked Evangelical literary canon that was being formed at this time, and the simple level of humanitarianism at which the Lyrical Ballads could be read allowed for the easy absorption of Coleridge and Wordsworth into an Evangelical poetic ideal.
Thus, De Quincey's youthful correspondence from the age of seventeen with Wordsworth following the publication of the Lyrical Ballads and commencing with his declaration of "reverence for the astonishing genius displayed in these poems," has documented, as Margaret Russett points out, the birth of canonical Romanticism for generations of literary scholars (14). Yet it should be noted that these letters to Wordsworth are fairly symptomatic of Evangelical epistolary habits of the period with a gradual though evident conversional drift as well as a recognition of Wordsworth himself as an appropriate moral and intellectual guide for the self-confessedly confused and naive boy. Barry Symonds's edition of De Quincey's Diary has revealed the extent to which the young De Quincey was prone to sexual fantasizing and was a regular user of prostitutes—an early tendency towards excess that was reflected in the literary sphere by his avid reading of sensational "Gothic" romances. In the 1800 "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had notably condemned the "frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse"—precisely the kind of reading that De Quincey was devouring—as a "degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation" (Wordsworth and Coleridge, 249). Within this context, Wordsworth's appeal to the young De Quincey assumes the appearance of a spiritual counterweight to the more outrageous stimuli for which the future opium-eater was clearly developing a taste. Literary and spiritual values are deeply involved in each other as De Quincey, to quote from his first letter to Wordsworth, is "persuaded that the dignity of your moral character sets you as far above the littleness of any vanity which could be soothed by applause feeble and insignificant as mine." De Quincey's anxiety that his admiration may be construed as flattery, that most insidious of worldly devices in the eyes of Evangelicals, dictates an assumed spiritual loftiness in Wordsworth which is contrasted to his own humility in thus approaching the poet. This in turn prompts a further self-abasement when De Quincey, "the meanest of God's creatures," considers the incongruity of his own claims to such a society as Wordsworth's. Despite his evident lack of accomplishment then, De Quincey offers himself to Wordsworth's notice on the grounds
that my life has been passed chiefly in the contemplation and altogether in the worship of nature—that I am but a boy and have therefore formed no connection which could draw you one step further from the sweet retreats of poetry to the detested haunts of men—that no one should ever dare, in confidence of any acquaintance he might have had with me, to intrude on your hallowed solitude—and lastly that you would at any rate have an opportunity of offering to God the pleasant and grateful incense of a good deed—by blessing the existence of a fellow-creature.
The entire passage is constructed in a tangibly Evangelical register, but the direct opposition of the "sweet retreats of poetry" to the "detested haunts of men" may serve to remind us here that far from being antithetically disposed to poetry, the Evangelicals of this time, as the cultural historian Rosman has pointed out, often regarded poetry as a meditative and introspective genre readily lending itself to spiritual benefits against the wickedness of the world. Journals such as the Evangelical Magazine regularly printed and reviewed verse as part of their standard digest of beneficial reading material (Rosman 178). De Quincey's description of the beneficial and healing effects of Wordsworth's poetry on himself rehearses the folklore of the spiritual efficacy of much Evangelical publication, as More's major biographer, M. G. Jones, and others have recorded of More's Repository Tracts and other publications (Jones 146-47). The opposition of worldly vanity with poetic practice was in many ways a typically Evangelical response to poetry, perhaps recognizably so to Wordsworth as may be suggested from his modest repudiation of such homage and his insistence on the distinction between a man's character and his writings, "however miscellaneous or voluminous" they were (Wordsworth, Letters 1: 401). Moreover, De Quincey's eager request to be accepted as a "friend" in the manner of many an Evangelical epistolary fraternizer with the leading figures of the movement, was gently but firmly rejected by Wordsworth: "a sound and healthy friendship is the growth of time and circumstance" (Wordsworth, Letters 1: 400) but De Quincey was very welcome (if he did not have any other worldly obligations) to visit with the Wordsworths at Grasmere.
Rather than inaugurating an ostracism from his mother's Evangelical circles, De Quincey's gradual absorption into the Wordsworth circle over 1807-09 was achieved with every evidence of interest and respect for his new associations from his family, including his mother and sisters, Jane and Mary. Mrs. Quincey's Evangelical mentor, Hannah More, was well known to the Lake poets, Coleridge and Southey in particular, who had even considered dedicating their play The Fall of Robespierre (1796) to her (Southey 1: 217). De Quincey's introduction to Coleridge, his first step towards intimacy with the poets, came in 1807 via Cottle's letter of introduction while the poet was in Nether Stowey. Thereafter, the ubiquitous Cottle assisted De Quincey's generous impulse of unconditionally loaning Coleridge the princely sum of £300—a considerable portion of his patrimony—to assist in his literary endeavors (needless to say a loan never repaid by Coleridge). This exceptionally charitable impulse on the part of the young De Quincey might be seen to have owed its origins to the traditions of philanthropy common in Evangelical circles which relied on generous funding from private sources (Oishi 56-70). One might have expected that the notoriously strict Mrs. Quincey would have objected to this sizeable financial commitment from her son, but there does not seem to be any evidence that she objected to this recklessly impulsive loan.
Perhaps too, as the nature of the Lake Poets' politics began to be discussed, there was a corresponding familial concern for De Quincey's literary associates, and in 1809 Hannah More herself visited De Quincey while he was on holiday at his family home in Westhay reputedly to disabuse him of "infidel philosophy" (9: 335). In the event, De Quincey not only assured her of the theological soundness of his philosophical pursuits, but even found an opportunity to outdo her in patriotism by insisting on the superiority of English military strength to all that France and Buonaparte could offer. (Thereafter, according to De Quincey, More would consult him for synthetic analyses of difficult philosophers such as Kant and Hume—philosophical influences which admittedly remain well concealed in her work). In 1811, Mrs. Quincey visited Thomas in Grasmere where he had taken over Dove Cottage, and brought along donations from Hannah More to the Wordsworths for the Sunday School that Dorothy and Mary were establishing in Grasmere. The Quincey women made quite a stir in the little community and the elegance of their presence at the local (Anglican) church was commented upon with admiration by Sara Hutchinson. Mrs. Quincey listened to Wordsworth on the issue of the Peninsular campaign and seemed to have found no difficulty in reconciling the politics of The Convention of Cintra with her Evangelicalism, while Coleridge obtained subscriptions and the esteem of the Quincey women despite his dilatory publication of The Friend. In 1813 or 1814, De Quincey met Mrs. Siddons at Barley Wood and he later commented tellingly on More's ability to leave unruffled the more liberal religious views of privileged visitors such as Mrs. Siddons whose beliefs might have been seen as inimical to the strictly defined Evangelical view of salvation:
Mrs. Siddons obviously thought Hannah More a person who differed from the world chiefly by applying a greater energy, and sincerity, and zeal, to a system of religious truth equally known to all. Repentance, for instance—all people hold that to be a duty; and Mrs. Hannah More differed from them only by holding it to be a duty of all hours, a duty for youth not less than for age. But how much would she have been shocked to hear that Mrs. Hannah More held all repentance, however indispensable, yet in itself, and though followed by the sincerest efforts at reformation of life, to be utterly unavailing as any operative part of the means by which man gains acceptance with God.
Hannah More's renunciation of poetry after the 1790s when she turned to tract writing and prose has been seen as a watershed mark between her earlier literary existence (involving perhaps the most successful of Romantic tragedies, Percy, as well as her equally celebrated poetry-writing and bluestocking activities), and her turn to Evangelical seriousness which supposedly precluded such activity. This renunciation on the part of Evangelicalism's most popular writer reinforces the dividing line between Evangelicalism and culture which becomes recognizable in the Victorian period. Yet renunciation may not always imply denunciation and I would suggest that More's repudiation of her earlier literary endeavours may be understood as a typically confessional gesture on her part and that she herself retained a significant regard for poetry and literature that deserves better recognition. In 1801—shortly after the second edition of Lyrical Ballads which so excited De Quincey—More employed her enhanced fame to reissue her earlier writings in eight volumes, reprinting her drama Percy and her blue-stocking poetry among other works. Far from attacking the literary establishment, More argued for its material advance in some respects, characteristically pointing out that, thanks to the spirit of Evangelical improvement, "vanity and flattery are now less generally ostensible even in the most indifferent authors than they were formerly in some of the best" (1: iii). Despite her vocal and well-publicized opposition to public entertainments like many other Evangelicals who earned the movement a puritanical reputation, More felt she could, without inconsistency, offer her own play safely between the boards of a book on account of its moral tendencies which would be evident from a reading of it as opposed to the rather more dangerous viewing of it as a theatrical spectacle. While More professed to have relinquished the "delusive and groundless hope, that the stage, under certain regulations might be converted into a school of virtue" (2: 1), she was able nevertheless to publish her dramatic and poetic writings without embarrassment and see them through several profitable editions.
Similarly, her novel Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1808) was designed to counteract the viciousness of romantic novels such as those disseminated by circulating libraries to unsuspecting young women and, once more, she made a success of the venture, selling over 30,000 copies in thirty editions. Yet the anonymity of Coelebs (a useful ploy for an author testing the waters) impelled one curious reversal of fortune for More: not only was her work attacked in the Edinburgh and London reviews, which mistook her puritanical outlook for Methodism, but even Evangelicals discovered the work to be coarse and vain, and it was the Christian Observer, the Evangelical organ edited by Zachary Macaulay, which delivered the coup de grace to More's counter-romantic intentions when it discovered the book to be wanting in "taste and strict moral delicacy" and "apt to be vulgar": harsh criticism from a quarter which More could hardly ignore. Bitterly disappointed with this reception, More fired off several letters to the Christian Observer, alternately justifying and apologizing for her work but decisively refusing to write a novel again despite much importuning from readers and publishers alike (Jones 198).
More's biographer, Jones, paints the standard view of Evangelical relations with Romanticism when he describes the new literature of the period as providing
a severe test of an elderly lady's adaptability to new forms and new ideas. Evangelicals who were courageous enough to read Coleridge, Wordsworth, De Quincey, or Byron, Shelley, and Keats found themselves reading literature which profoundly shocked them, for the Romantic poets, though they did not speak with one voice, were to a man antagonistic to Evangelicalism and the Evangelical plan.
Jones's introduction of De Quincey into the list of canonical romantics points to an important, but as I would argue, ever-to-be-doubted, source for his view of these literary relations. De Quincey's versions of literary history are strongly revisionist along typically High Romantic lines and demand rigorous interrogation at all times. While Evangelicals by and large were duly shocked by the likes of Byron or Wollstonecraft for certain, it should not be forgotten that the Victorian respectability and even popularity of Wordsworth and Coleridge were established in the context of the newly Evangelized Victorian reading public. More's own deeply favourable response to Wordsworth's Excursion was attested by James Hogg and De Quincey. The former reported that More had found it incredible that "these noble Miltonic lines had been written by a man whom the reviewers had been assailing for years" (Hogg 153-54). By contrast, De Quincey's sardonic remark to Dorothy that Wordsworth had "made a conquest of Holy Hannah" was not likely to endear himself with either party. To Dorothy, De Quincey also wrote derisively about the popularity of Coelebs, perhaps with an eye to establishing himself as a Wordsworthian supporter in the competition to achieve a solid readership with the more religious-minded audience that Wordsworth might have sought at this point.
More's allegedly contemptuous attitude to poetry was declared, according to De Quincey in 1833, in the form of a would-be "brilliant propos" which unfortunately failed to make its mark. The use of certain illustrations from poetry in the course of a conversation had caused More, it seems, to exclaim: "Poetry! oh! as to poetry, I forswore that, and I think everybody else should forswear it, together with pink ribbons." Declining to enter the fray for reasons of mere social courtesy, De Quincey was reconciling himself to the unchallenged passage of this scandalous remark when, in his words,
forth stepped a young lady, "severe in youthful beauty," and with a modest but yet not a timid air, put in this unanswerable demurrer:—"Really, Mrs. Hannah More, I could never presume so far as to look upon anything in the light of a trifle which Milton had not disdained to spend his life in cultivating. Surely I ought not to rank the Paradise Lost with pink ribbons?"
The clear demarcation by biographers and critics between the early and late phases of More's career may be seen to follow along the lines laid down by De Quincey's anecdote, which depicts a forbidding More distancing herself from the realm of poetry, that realm forsworn with her girlish interests. De Quincey's anecdote, however, opens out to other interpretative possibilities as well. Firstly, it should be noted that if More was effectively silenced by the young woman's retort, the only obvious reason for this was that she did in fact accept Milton as worthy of serious consideration. A more skeptical response might have pointed out the well-known fact that Paradise Lost was the fruit of Milton's political disappointment, rather than the object of a dedicated literary career in the first place. As Coelebs, the eponymous hero of More's 1808 novel recognized
Milton was an enthusiast both in religion and politics. Many enthusiasts with whom he was connected, doubtless condemned the exercise of his imagination in his immortal poem as a crime, but his genius was too mighty to be restrained by opposition, and his imagination too vast and powerful to be kept down by a party.
Milton's endurance for More was thus the direct result of his transcendence of politics and religion by virtue of unstoppable literary genius rather than by any professional commitment on his part.
De Quincey's anecdote suggests therefore that the unanswerableness of the young woman's repartee derived from the fact that More's own works consistently attested to her own great admiration for Milton. De Quincey slants the anecdote, however, by his gratuitous citation in this context of Wordsworth's diagnostic test of "a luxurious and feeble condition of society." Such a condition was clearly evident when poetry, which represented "the grandest functions of the human mind," was degraded into a "trivial ornament." Nonetheless, as a disciple of Wordsworth's, De Quincey had "learned to view [poetry] as the science of human passion in all its fluxes and refluxes." Such a view of poetry, however, as De Quincey makes clear, was not far from the Evangelical notion of human nature as being corrupt, no doubt, but by that very token "originally and indefeasibly" possessed of "some unspeakable grandeur." More's imputed trivialization of poetry meant that despite her lip-service to "the dignity of human nature, [...] such, however, was her inconsistency that the very art which kept the golden keys for unlocking the whole economy of the human heart [...] was dismissed to her chiffonier, or rag depot" (9: 346). Thus poetry, which in De Quincey's idealist conception held the golden keys to a prelapsarian glimpse of uncorrupted human nature, was overlooked in More's scheme despite her own Evangelical view of nature. Far from seeking to effect a separation between religion and poetry, in other words, More ought to have welcomed the better deployment of the latter to the ends of the former.
Having allowed De Quincey to expose More's theological inconsistency thus, it might be only fair to turn the tables somewhat on her inquisitor and ask the question whether in fact the evidence of More's career bears out the dismissal of literary value implicitly attributed to her by De Quincey. More herself ceased to write poetry following her absorption into the Evangelical fold. Yet, as has been pointed out, the Evangelicals were not necessarily antithetical to poetry and indeed formed their own recognizable canon of poetry, Milton and Cowper being the chief luminaries in their constellation of poets. More's evident abnegation of poetry incidentally followed the fiasco of her patronage of Yearsley and this may go some way towards explaining her distaste for the literary establishment from the 1790s. Yet More's remarks as quoted by De Quincey may possibly be clarified by comparison with her advice to young women in her 1799 Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education. The suggestion that poetry was to be forsworn with "pink ribbons" suggests strongly that More's advice as overheard by De Quincey was in the first place directed to women rather than men, as More's distinctly gender-differentiated programme of regenerating national virtue clearly marks out. In the Strictures, More warns female readers of the dangers of excessive sensibility with obvious consequences for recognized habits of women's reading practices: "Though their imagination [that is, that of women] is already too lively, and their judgement naturally incorrect; in educating them we go on to stimulate the imagination, while we neglect the regulation of the judgment" (Selected Writings 169). Hence it follows that women should read less imaginative literature and devote more time to what More terms "serious study." However, as More makes clear, this was "by no means intended to exclude works of taste and imagination, which must always make the ornamental part, and of course a very favourable part of female studies. It is only suggested that they should not form them entirely" (Selected Writings 168).
That More's position was one that she maintained with some consistency and indeed implanted within a larger Evangelical thesis may be ascertained by turning to chapter 29 of Coelebs, in which the eponymous hero of the novel engages in an argument with the narrowly Calvinistic Mr. Tyrell who represents the possible tyrannies of religion. Tyrell's concern that his nephew has been corrupted by a taste for literary books and poetry is countered in no uncertain terms by the Evangelical Mr. Stanley and Coelebs himself. As Stanley argues, "I rather consider a blameless poet as the auxiliar of virtue. Whatever talent enables a writer to possess an empire over the heart, and to lead the passions at his command, puts it in his power to be of no small service to mankind" (2: 31). Coelebs himself carries the imperial dimensions of Stanley's argument regarding "an empire over the heart" to its logical conclusion in the Evangelical civilizing mission:
Works of imagination have in many countries been a chief instrument of civilization. Poetry has not only preceded science in the history of human progress, but it has in many countries preceded the knowledge of the mechanical arts [...]. For my own part, in my late visit to London, I thought the decline of poetry no favourable symptom.
The metropolitan decline of poetry thus radiates out into the peripheries of civilization threatening the larger Evangelical project of spiritual colonization which embraced the ends of the earth. By "touch(ing) the passions" and "lead(ing) them on the side of virtue," in the words of Stanley (speaking clearly for More), poetry could be seen to address the underlying problems of class disaffection and revolutionary enthusiasm which More herself sought to address in her writings. Yet poetry, like all earthly commodities, must be subjected to a strict moral economy; "by allowing a little of their leisure, and of their leisure only, to such amusements" (Coelebs 2: 30), poetry could regenerate the taste of the youth and preserve them from the idleness and sensuality of the age.
Turning from More's concerns with female education to De Quincey's Letters to a Young Man whose Education has been neglected (1823), it becomes evident that More's programme is not as far from De Quincey's corresponding one, directed to young men, as his essay on More might give us to understand. In the Letters, De Quincey provides his first formulation of the distinction between the Literature of power and books of knowledge, poetry in this scheme representing power, and knowledge, the antithesis of power. I have argued elsewhere that De Quincey's chief object of reference here in terms of the literature of knowledge is Kant and that his distinction does not so much seek to disparage knowledge but rather to promote the power which he felt to be represented most strongly in modern times by Wordsworth (Roberts 95-106). De Quincey's advice to young men to learn German in order to read the philosophy of Kant but to return to English for their poetry thus repeats the duality but inverses the emphasis of More's programme. However, De Quincey's impatience with the notion of "pleasure" as definitive of "literature"—as the classic dichotomy of pleasure versus profit would have it—prompts him to offer coincidentally the very same example as his young delightful acquaintance of More's salon, that of Paradise Lost. Clearly, Paradise Lost was not to be read merely for pleasure nor even for profit, but as De Quincey sagely offers, for its "power." De Quincey's notion of Milton's power corresponds in this way to More's view of Milton's disciplinary transcendence of enthusiasm by the exercise of his imagination.
In subjecting the study of literature to a larger programme involving the ends of nationality, spirituality and empire, it may be recognized that De Quincey's championing of Wordsworth shares several features of More's Evangelical deployment of literature. For instance, in his 1838 proposal to William Tait to edit Wordsworth's poetry for "purchasers of the lowest rank" De Quincey clearly replaces Wordsworthian poetry for the humbler fare offered by More in her Tracts and other politically quiescent writings. Yet Wordsworthian poetry represented a higher function than mere counter-revolutionary fabular work such as More's could offer as it addressed itself to the growing numbers as De Quincey recognized of "grave meditative men in the class of mechanics and artizans both here and in the American United States, and through our vast colonial empire" (qtd. in Roberts 289). Such men had already suppressed their revolutionary enthusiasm and were casting about for more exalted literary work to cater to their meditative and spiritual capacities. With due annotation from an editor such as De Quincey, familiar as he was with Wordsworth's habits of thought, to compensate for the lack of classical education on the part of such an audience, Wordsworth's poetry could be powerfully and profitably directed towards their readership.
Given the fundamental similarity between More's and De Quincey's conceptions of the function of literature, the strong antipathy that the opium-eater displayed towards holy Hannah remains somewhat puzzling. No doubt De Quincey's literary chauvinism combined with More's lack of sophistication could go far to explain the harshness of De Quincey's estimate of her abilities. Yet a further motivation may be located in More's regulation of literature within her intellectual programme to a space of "leisure only." Such an economy could make no sense to the professional man of letters which De Quincey fashioned himself as. The point is made effectively in his "Letters to a Young Man" which argues with Coleridge on precisely this point. Whereas, like More, Coleridge believed that significant literary activity could be reconciled with a separate employment, and a few hours of well-spent "leisure" amidst the society of one's family, De Quincey held that
literature must decay unless we have a class wholly dedicated to that service, not pursuing it as an amusement only with wearied and pre-occupied minds. The reproach of being a "nation boutiquiere" now so eminently inapplicable to the English, would become indeed just, and in the most unfortunate sense just, if, from all our overstocked trades and professions, we could not spare men enough to compose a garrison on permanent duty for the service of the highest purposes which grace and dignify our nature.
De Quincey's reconciliation of the profession of literature with its spiritual validation—bristling as it does with nationalistic pride and militaristic antagonism—refuses to demarcate the religious and the literary spheres. More tellingly, however, his remark on the obscurity of some of Wordsworth's poetry, that "this is no more than that inevitable gloom of murkiness which besieges all very profound descents into our human nature," anticipating the Empsonian valuation of ambiguity, illuminates his view regarding the lucidity of More's writing. The best that he could finally say of More's works was that "the very dilution of their thoughts recommends them, and adapts them to those who would shrink from severer or profounder speculations […]. Still, even thus, Mrs. H. More is not destined to any long existence. The species, the class of such writers, it is true, will always be in demand; but the individual perishes, because each successive generation looks for specific adaptation to itself, for illustrations drawn from the objects moving upon its own peculiar field of experience, and possessing that sort of interest which is always attached pre-eminently to a living writer" (9: 357). That More herself might be considered vastly more successful as a literary professional in her own time than either De Quincey or Wordsworth and that she yet regarded literature as an optional part of her spiritual programme is a small reminder of the reconfigurations undergone by romanticism through literary history.
I would like to thank the organizers of the Religion and Romantic (Re)Vision Conference for a stimulating event.
Recent critical recognition of De Quincey's relevance to modern academic constructions of literature may be found in E. Michael Thron's "Thomas De Quincey and the Fall of Literature," Jonathan Bate's "The Literature of Power: Coleridge and De Quincey," as well as the chapter on "Power and Knowledge" in my own work, Revisionary Gleam.
See Doreen Rosman, Evangelicals and Culture for a useful account of this phenomenon which has often impoverished literary-historical understanding of the period.
More's biographers have tended to divide her career into two phases, literary and religious, with her movement towards evangelicalism implicating an abnegation of the beau monde in which she earlier moved. For examples of this tendency, see her major biographers, M. G. Jones and Mary Alden Hopkins. In the words of Jones, "The second half of Hannah More's life was in manifest contrast to that of her earlier years. Her interest in literature and the stage was replaced by an interest in philanthropy and an absorption in religion [...]" (77). Similarly, in a chapter entitled "Hannah's Changing Interests," Hopkins avers: "The focus of Hannah's attention shifted during a period of about ten years from enjoyment of London society to concentration on humanitarian projects. She felt her way slowly into this second phase of her life, losing her interest in superficial social relations and drawing into the scope of her benevolent activities the ignorant, the under-privileged, the enslaved, the heathen, and other unfortunates" (143).
These narratives may broadly be discerned in the biographies by Horace Eaton and Grevel Lindop. My recent work, Revisionary Gleam, seeks to question some aspects of these narratives; see 95-106.
While Lindop's argument has insightfully focused on a reading of De Quincey's confessional writings in the light of the "largely forgotten traditions of earnest self-examination and apocalyptic fervour fostered by [...] the so-called Clapham Sect and their followers," it clearly recognizes but does not choose to interrogate the discrepancy between the presumed rigidity of Evangelical culture (as represented in the strictures of Mrs. Quincey) and its part in mediating and delivering the decisive literary influence which De Quincey represented as "the greatest event in the unfolding of my own mind."
While accepting and propagating the two-part separation of More's career along the literary-religious divide, Jones also records More's continued interest in literature and her catholic reading tastes right until her death (Jones 222).
Coeleb's spirited response to Tyrrel's imputation that literature was harmful on account of its tendency to lead readers astray from virtue clearly indicates the moderation of Hannah More's views despite her suspicion of the mischief wrought by culpable writers and also provides a handy list of favourite poets among evangelical circles:
"Show me any one instance of good that ever was achieved by any one poet," said Mr. Tyrrel, " and I will give up the point; while on the other hand, a thousand instances of mischief might doubtless be produced."
"The latter part of your assertion, Sir," said I, "I fear is too true; but to what evil has elevation of fancy led Milton, or has Milton led his readers? In what labyrinths of guilt did it involve Spenser or Cowley? Has Thomson or has Young added to the crimes, or the calamities of mankind? Into what immoralities did it plunge Gray or Goldsmith? Has it tainted the purity of Beattie in his Minstrel, or that of the living minstrel of the LAY? What reader has Mason corrupted, or what reader has Cowper not benefited?".
As Coelebs argues in More's novel, "Milton was an enthusiast in religion and politics. Many enthusiasts with whom he was connected, doubtless condemned the exercise of his imagination in his immortal poem as a crime; but his genius was too mighty to be restrained by opposition, and his imagination too vast and powerful to be kept down by a party" (2: 17). Thus while the power of imagination is irrepressible, breaking out of the narrow confines of "enthusiasm," it yet exerts a remissive control in shaping the progress of civilization.
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De Quincey, Thomas. The Works of Thomas De Quincey. 21 vols. Ed. Frederick Burwick. Gen. Ed. Grevel Lindop. Volume 3. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2000. All references to De Quincey's Works are given by volume and page number.
De Quincey, Thomas. Works. Ed. Grevel Lindop, Robert Morrison, Barry Symonds. Gen. Ed. Grevel Lindop. Vol. 9.
De Quincey, Thomas. "Sketches of Life and Manners: From the Autobiography of an English Opium-Eater." Tait's Edinburgh Magazine 7:80 (1840): 525-32.
Lindop, Grevel."Pursuing the Throne of God: De Quincey and the Evangelical Revival." The Charles Lamb Bulletin 52 (1985): 97-111.
Oishi, Kaz. "Coleridge's Philanthropy: Poverty, Dissenting Radicalism, and the Language of Benevolence." The Coleridge Bulletin 15 (2000): 56-70.
Roberts, Daniel Sanjiv. Revisionary Gleam: De Quincey, Coleridge and the High Romantic Argument. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2000.
Russett, Margaret. De Quincey's Romanticism: Canonical Minority and the Forms of Transmission. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. DOI:10.1017/CBO9780511582974
Ryan, Robert. "The Uses of Wordsworth's Religion." Plenary talk. Religion and Romantic (Re)Vision Conference. Oxford University. 22-23 July 2000.
Thron, E. Michael. "Thomas De Quincey and the Fall of Literature." Thomas De Quincey: Bicentenary Studies. Ed. R.L. Snyder. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985. 3-19.
Wordsworth, William, and Dorothy Wordsworth. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Ed. Chester Shaver. 8 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967-93.
|Auteur :||Daniel Sanjiv Roberts|
|Titre :||Not "Forsworn with Pink Ribbons": Hannah More, Thomas De Quincey, and the Literature of Power|
|Revue :||Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 25, février 2002|
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