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De Quincey's 'Immortal Druggist' and Wordsworth's 'Power of Music.' (Thomas De Quincey's quotations from William Wordsworth's 'Power of Music')

In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), De Quincey four times quotes a phrase from Wordsworth's poem `Power of Music'. The first and most prominent occurrence of the phrase is in De Quincey's account of his first purchase of opium. `My road homewards', he writes,

lay through Oxford-street, and near the stately Pantheon," (as Mr Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist's shop. The druggist - unconscious minister of celestial pleasures! - as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dun and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday: and, when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do. and furthermore, out of my shilling, returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.(1)

Of the three later occurrences of the quotation, the first accompanies a passage casting doubt on the `mortal' nature of the druggist: on a subsequent visit to London, De Quincey `sought him near the stately Pantheon, and found him not', suspecting him to have `evanesced, or evaporated';(2) the second emphasizes that in 1812 the author has been taking opium `unblushingly ever since "the rainy Sunday," and "the stately Pantheon," and the beatific druggist" of 1804';(3) and the third states that by 1816, `no "little" receptacle [of opium] would answer my purpose, who was at a distance from the "stately Pantheon," and all druggists (mortal or otherwise)'.(4)

It seems always to have been assumed that the point of the quotation, which is from line 3 of Wordsworth's poem (the italics in the first occurrence are De Quincey's), is merely topographical; though it also displays, in a mildly humorous manner, De Quincey's well-known admiration for Wordsworth,s poetry. Comparison of the poem with De Quincey's description of the `immortal druggist' and his wares, however, reveals deeper significance, and may help to explain why De Quincey so persistently associates a phrase from the poem with the origin and progress of his addiction. De Quincey's use of `Power of Music', indeed, suggests an ironic reading whereby Wordsworth's blind fiddler may be viewed as the purveyor of a drug as fascinating and addictive as opium.

Like De Quincey's druggist, Wordsworth's street-musician is to be found

Near the stately Pantheon. . . In the strect that from Oxford hath borrowed its name.

(lines 3-4)(5)

Like the druggist, he has a dual nature, being simultaneously human and superhuman or even divine: for he is placed in ordinary surroundings and receives money -

He stands, back,d by the wall; - he abates not his din; His hat gives him vigour, with boons dropping in,

(lines 25-6) - but he is also, emphatically,

An Orpheusi An Orpheusi! - yes, Faith may grow bold, And take to herself all the wonders of old; -

(lines 1-2) and he is `a centre of light' for his audience.

Although Wordsworth commends the fiddler and his `blest' audience, his account of the music is notably ambivalent. On the one hand, its `power' and `empire' offer its fascinated hearers temporary relief from their cares:

The weary have life, and the hungry have bliss; The mourner is cheared, and the anxious have rest; And the guilt-burthened Soul is no lopnger opprest.

(lines 10-12)

On the other hand, it traps people, causing them to neglect their duties: the `errand-bound Prentice' is `caught - and his time runs to waste'; the Newsman is `stopped - though he stops on the fret'; and the Lamp-lighter is `in the net!' It renders them passive and defenceless (`If a thief could be here he might pilfer at ease') and narrows their vision: the Lass `sees the Musician, 'tis all that she sees'. There are hints of insidious moral damage, as we are invited to contemplate

A Mother, whose Spirit in fetters is bound, While she dandles the Babe in her arms to the sound.

(lines 39-40)

The last stanza portrays the audience as blissfully indifferent to nearby traffic and the restless desires it typifies:

Now, Coaches and Chariots, roar on like a stream; Here are twenty souls happy as Souls in a dream[.]

(lines 41-2)

The similarities between this portrayal of music and the account of opium given in De Quincey's Confessions are obvious. For De Quincey, opium is `a panacea . . . for all human woes'; it is `the secret of happiness'. It gives both temporary bliss and relief from guilt: it is apostrophized as

just, subtle and mighty opium! that to the hearts of the rich and poor alike . . . bringest an assuaging balm, eloquent opiumi! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed clean from blood.(6)

Like the fiddler's music, opium consoles the mourner, `call[ing] into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties, and the blessed household countenances, cleansed from the "dishonours of the grave"'. Its `trances, or profoundest reveries', can sometimes keep the author sitting at his window `from sun-set to sun-rise, motionless, and without wishing to move' - aloof, like Wordsworth's `Souls in a dream', from `the uproar of life . . . the tumult, the fever, and the strife'.(7)

Yet opium-use leads to `the neglect or procrastination of each day's appropriate duties'; the opium-eater `lies in sight of all that he would fain perform' but is `powerless as an infant, and cannot even attempt to rise'. Like the Mother in Wordsworth's poem, he is fettered: the opiumeater has `fetter[ed] himself with . . . a seven-fold chain'; he is chain[ed] . . . down from motion'; and claiming to have given up the drug, De Quincey tells us that he has `untwisted, almost to its final links, the accursed chain which fettered me'.(8) Both works note the accessibility of their pleasures, for better or worse, to the poor: De Quincey's discovery that `happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket' recalls Wordsworth's observation that `the one-pennied Boy has his penny to spare' to reward the fiddler.(9)

Strangely, when De Quincey introduces into `The Pleasures of Opium' a passage on the psychology of musical experience, he asserts that

with the exception of the fine extravaganza on that subject in Twelfth Night, I do not recollect more than one thing said adequately on the subject of music in all literature.(10)

and a footnote refers us, for that `one thing', to the passage on `Traverne Musicke' in Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici(ii.9). Had De Quincey temporarily forgotten Wordsworth's eulogy of similarly popular music in `Power of Music', or is this an implied criticism of the poem which he had, with such curious appositeness, quoted a few pages earlier?

(1) Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings, ed. G. Lindop (Oxford, 1985), 38. The passage appears unchanged in the expanded 1856 version: see D. Masson (ed.), Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey (Edinburgh,1889-90), iii.380. (2) Confessions, 38; Collected Writings, iii.380. (3) Confessions, 51; Collected Writings, iii.397. (4) Confessions, 61; Collected Writings, ii.410. (5) The text is taken from William Wordsworth, Poems, in Two Volumes, and Other Poems, ed.J. Curtis (Ithaca, 1983), 236-8. (6) Confessions, 49; Collected Writings, iii.395-6. (7) Confessions, 48; Collected Writings, iii.395. (8) Confessions 67, 4, 2; Collected Writings, iii.211 (the first and second passages were excluded from the 1856 revision). (10) Confessions, 45; Collected Writings, iii.390.
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Author:Lindop, Grevel
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Words:1279
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