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Keeping Romanticism English: Thomas De Quincey meets Allan Cunningham.

This article closely examines Thomas De Quincey's account of his meeting with the Scottish poet and essayist Allan Cunningham. Read in light of recent critical attention to De Quincey's role as a popularizer and disseminator of canonical Romantic literature and aesthetics, his treatment of the meeting with Cunningham and of other experiences in Scotland engages his larger project of constructing and transmitting a specifically English Romantic canon around the figure of Wordsworth. However, careful attention to the rhetoric in this brief text reveals both the fragility of such a construction of English Romanticism and the hybridity of De Quincey's literary identity.


Recent studies of De Quincey' s work have highlighted his role in the roduction of an English Romantic canon with the figure of Wordsworth at the center. Josephine McDonagh's view of De Quincey as "a popularizer and disseminator of other people's ideas" (4) and Margaret Russet's assessment of his career as "a primal scene of criticism" (7) encourage us to read his works of literary biography as, in Russet's terms, "vehicle[s] of transmission" (6) through which the Romantic canon is brought into being. Russet attends closely to the complexities and contradictions involved in such a project of canon formation, arguing that the very "trajectory of canonization" paradoxically entails a "challenge to literary property" and even effects the "death and disfigurement of the author" (12). Her De Quincey sets about precisely this task, in which the ostensibly stabilizing process of canon formation is fraught with instability. Her reading of De Quincey's role as Wordsworth's London agent in the Convention of Cintra disaster--in which De Quincey comes to personify the contingencies of rime, the problem of distance, and "the hazards of print as alienation and deferral" (80)--suggests that projects of dissemination, like that of transmitting the Wordsworthian canon, do not follow a predictable path. Like the English Mail-Coach, dynamic material processes of spreading knowledge can take on a chaotic life and velocity of their own, running off the prescribed course and meeting resistance not anticipated.

This essay reads one of De Quincey's shorter and less often examined literary reminiscences, that of his introduction to the Scottish writer Allan Cunningham, as a disorienting bump in the road toward a Wordsworthian English Romantic canon. Both Cunningham and De Quincey wrote collective literary biographies, which, Annette Cafarelli argues, functioned as forums "for discussing theories of creativity, canon, and the place of the poet in society" (5). Both writers perform the cultural work of building the critical apparatus according to which the British literature of their age would be assessed. In what follows I argue that De Quincey frames their meeting as something of a standoff between his own "English" tastes and the threat of a competing Scottish canon potentially transmitted by Cunningham. Yet even as he attempts to record his divergence from Cunningham's allegedly "too Scottish" opinions, he reveals the instability or hybridity of his own literary and cultural identity his sense of exile from the English literary greatness that he sees as embodied in Wordsworth and that he hopes to transmit to futurity. As a result, his very attempt to secure the Wordsworth-centered Romanticism we have only fairly recently come to question opens possibilities for reading other competing literary and cultural histories of the period, and for a re-mapping of the territory of traditional British Romanticism as dynamic, diverse, and contested. De Quincey's own identity indeed becomes itself a site of such contestation.

In both the 1839 and 1854 versions of his recollections of Wordsworth, De Quincey justifies his interest in the lives of authors as crucial to the dissemination of English language and literature. (1) Authorial identity and image even become standards in the taming of colonial lands, as De Quincey demonstrates in his fantasy of a young girl confronting the terrors of the North American wilderness under the aegis of Shakespeare:
 Even in the farthest depths of Canada, many a young innocent girl,
 perhaps at this very moment--looking now with fear to the dark
 recesses of the infinite forest, and now with love to the pages of
 the infinite poet, until the fear is absorbed and forgotten in the
 love--cherishes in her heart ... the name and person of
 Shakespeare! (Recollections 144, my emphasis)

The frightened young girl turns toward the text of English literature, and the text, within the same sentence, summons the identity and bodily image of the literary hero who will guide her (and the culture she embodies (2)) not merely to safety but indeed to inevitable ideological and linguistic triumph:
 The English language is travelling fast toward the fulfillment of
 its destiny. Through the influence of the dreadful Republic that
 within the thirty last years has run through all the stages of
 infancy into the first stage of maturity, and through the English
 colonies--African, Canadian, Indian, Australian--the English
 language (and therefore English literature) is running forward
 towards its ultimate mission of eating up, like Aaron's rod, all
 other languages. Even the German and the Spanish will inevitably
 sink before it; perhaps within 100 or 150 years. (Recollections
 404-5, my emphasis)

De Quincey offers this prediction as a justification for his delving into the life of Wordsworth, who will of course play a key role in this narrative of English literary and linguistic conquest. For De Quincey writing in 1839, the "person" of a poet like Wordsworth
 is a household image, rising amongst household remembrances,
 never separated from the spirit of delight, and hallowed
 by a human love! Such a place in the affections of the
 young and the ingenious no less than of the old and philosophic,
 who happen to have any depth of feeling, will
 Wordsworth occupy in every clime and in every land; for
 the language in which he writes, thanks be to Providence,
 which has beneficently opened the widest channels for the
 purest and most elevating literature, is now ineradicably planted
 in all quarters of the earth; the echoes under every latitude of
 every longitude now reverberate English words; and all things
 tend to this result- that the English and the Spanish languages
 will finally share the earth between them. Wordsworth is peculiarly
 the poet for the solitary and the meditative; and,
 throughout the countless myriads of future America and future
 Australia, no less than Polynesia and Southern Africa,
 there will be situations without end fitted by their loneliness to
 favour his influence for centuries to come. (Recollections
 144, my emphasis)

In 1854, De Quincey would similarly predict that Wordsworth's works would be read "In the recesses of California" and "among the forests of Canada" (Recollections 405). The poet of the growth of the individual mind becomes the poet of the growth of the English language and literature. The biographical criticism practiced in the recollections thus consolidates the authorial figure of Wordsworth not only as individual genius but also as a commanding genius in the unstoppable match of English literature and culture, with De Quincey as a loyal soldier in the field.

Though perhaps rationalizing his salacious reports, De Quincey thus articulates as his purpose in writing these recollections the forging of an "imagined community" of literate English subjects around the globe. Such reproductions of the image of Wordsworth ensures, in Benedict Anderson's terms, that "in the minds of each" member of that community "lives an image of their communion" (15, my emphasis). Indeed, one could view the very purpose of Romantic literature as the forging of such a community. In The Break-up of Britain, Tom Nairn stresses the specific necessity of a "mature cultural romanticism" (114) in the formation of nationalism in the nineteenth century:
 Romanticism was the cultural mode of the nationalist dynamic, the
 cultural "language" which alone made possible the formation of the
 new inter-class communities required by it. In that context, all
 romanticism's well-known features--the search for inwardness, the
 trust in feeling or instinct, the attitude to "nature," the cult of
 the particular and mistrust of the "abstract," etc.--makes sense.

Nairn attributes the absence of nationalism in early nineteenth-century Scotland to the absence of such romanticism, though, he argues, "Because Scotland had already advanced so far, so fast- to the watershed of development and beyond--it simply did not need the kind of cultural development [romanticism] we are concerned with" (116). Whether or not Scotland needed a mature romanticism to develop a sense of nationalism, De Quincey, I hope to show, saw a connection between the development of a literature and national prestige.

Operating with such a sense of the cultural politics of Romantic poetry, De Quincey introduces the figure of Allan Cunningham in the context of a controversy regarding the relative prowesses of England and Scotland in the sphere of "rustic" literature:
 Our Scotch brethren, I say, are rather too apt to talk as if, in
 Scotland only, there were any precedents to be found of
 intellectual merit struggling upwards in the class of rustic
 poverty. Whereas there has, in England, been a larger succession of
 such persons than in Scotland. (Works 3:144)

He goes on to praise John Clare as an example of English rustic poetic greatness, citing as his virtues originality and accuracy of observation. Yet what most impresses De Quincey about Clare is his tendency to "uniformly become animated when anybody spoke to him of Wordsworth animated with the most rapturous spirit of admiration" (Works 3:145, my emphasis). He describes Clare's life as one of almost continuous misery and melancholy, interrupted only by the life-restoring capacities of conversation on Wordsworth. A large portion of Clare's claim to poetic virtue derives from his ability to choose the best English literary idol.

Allan Cunningham makes his appearance in the context of this portrait of Clare as nobly abject and melancholy worshipper of Wordsworth. The importance of this framing of the event gains clarity, as the meeting between De Quincey and Cunningham becomes, at least for De Quincey, one between English and Scottish Romantic literary canons. De Quincey views Cunningham in some ways as a kindred spirit or counterpart, citing two cases of their aesthetic sympathies (a "scorn of Ossian" and a scorn of modern allegory [Works 3:148]). In addition to such putative similarities in taste or judgment, De Quincey (at the time of writing) might also have reflected that both he and Cunningham would, a decade or so after their first meeting, attempt collective critical biographies of major and minor figures of the Romantic period. The differences between the canon each would assemble in such works become a point of contention for De Quincey.

Just after approvingly mentioning the "dark flashing guerilla eye" (Works 3:149) and genial disposition of Cunningham, De Quincey is sadly compelled to acknowledge that his fellow writer suffers from an unfortunate and apparently inexplicable "old Scottish grudge" (Works 3:150) against the English. De Quincey notes in particular the Scottish tendency to attack "us poor Oxonians" (Works 3:150). Cunningham reveals his failure to rise above this grudge most painfully for De Quincey in his literary tastes:
 I, for my part, quarreled also with his too oriental prostrations
 before certain regular authors--chiefly Sir Walter Scott and
 Southey. With respect to them, he professed to feel himself
 nobody, in a way which no large estimator of things as they
 are--of natural gifts, and their infinite distribution through an
 infinite scale of degrees, and the compensating accomplishments
 which take place in so vast a variety of forms "--could
 easily tolerate. (Works 3:153)

Though he mentions both Scott and Southey as objects of Cunningham's undue admiration, De Quincey dwells much longer on the idolatry of Scott. Moreover, he argues that this latter idolatry is all the more unmerited, for, De Quincey argues, Scott treated Cunningham with very little respect (Works 3:153). Worst of all, and unlike his rustic English counterpart Clare, Cunningham "spoke of Wordsworth ... with something like contempt" (Works 3:154). Despite his lack of egotism and otherwise laudable aesthetic sensibilities, Cunningham is guilty in De Quincey's eyes of allowing his Scottish prejudice to cloud his better literary judgment.

In 1833 Cunningham would publish in The Athenaeum his "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the Last Fifty Years." The entry on Wordsworth is far from contemptuous. It is true that Cunningham refuses to place Wordsworth above Burns in his estimation, introducing him as merely the most eminent among "Other poets than Burns" who "conceived a plan and law in nature" (718). Yet his praise of The Excursion is unmixed and high:
 The views of man, nature, and society, which this truly
 philosophical poem contains, are the offspring of deep thought and
 extensive observation. It exhibits everywhere the finest
 sensibilities, and an imagination ruled by reason and belief; it
 shows a heart alive to all the sympathies of social and domestic
 life, and appeals to all unsophisticated feelings in a way at once
 simple and sublime. (718)

Cunningham also vigorously criticizes the rough treatment received by Wordsworth in Scottish periodicals and classes him among "the Miltons and Spensers of the brightest days of British song" (718). To be sure, Cunningham's printed praise of Wordsworth does not necessarily undermine De Quincey's contention that he spoke contemptuously of him twelve years earlier, and by no means does he place Wordsworth above Scott and Bums (as De Quincey certainly would); but hot a trace of the alleged "contempt" is to be found in the Wordsworth entry of the "Biographical and Critical History," a work in which Cunningham claims to speak "with perfect honesty of purpose, and with the determination of saying nothing save what I feel and believe" (713).

De Quincey does not give in detail what Cunningham may have said about Wordsworth, so the degree of "contempt" exhibited can only be guessed. What is clear is that while Cunningham also praises Southey, his loyalty to Scott receives more critical attention from De Quincey. Whatever may have been Cunningham's real opinions, De Quincey's disapproving focus on Cunningham's admiration of Scott reveals his cultural and political investment in the transmission of an English Romantic canon? I also would contend that the episode harbors a subtext of De Quincey's anxiety over his own problematical place within the English canon he would construct and perpetuate.

This anxiety is registered in a number of places. For example, De Quincey's brief yet vigorous objection to Cunningham's putative idea "that the Scottish musical airs must have an eternal foundation in nature" (Works 3:155) suggests that he is threatened by assertions of Scottish artistic and cultural health. More significantly, a good portion of the reminiscence consists of an anecdote included as proof of English character and Scottish treachery. The story is of a disagreement, witnessed by De Quincey, between an Englishman and Scotsman in an Edinburgh coffeehouse. During the disagreement, the Englishman offers immediately to fight the Scotsman, who properly proposes another means for resolving the dispute (i.e. a duel). The Englishman brashly refuses, at which point six other Englishmen in the coffeehouse rise up in defense of the Scotsman, accuse the Englishman of dishonoring his own country by behaving so poorly, and offer to defend Scotland against their own countryman.

De Quincey includes the anecdote as a demonstration of English benevolence toward Scotland, arguing that six Scotsmen would surely not do the same for a wronged Englishman. De Quincey, however, parenthetically remarks that the offending Englishman was "possibly a Scotchman" (Works 3:151). In a footnote explaining the parentheses, he alters this "possibly" to a "probably":
 For there are no more bitter enemies of Scotland and Scotchmen, and
 all things Scotch, than banished Scotchmen--who may be called
 renegade Scotchmen. There is no enemy like an old friend; and many
 a Scotchman (or Scotsman--let us not forget that) remembers
 Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, simply as the city that ejected him.
 (Works 3:151-52, note 1)

This modification to the anecdote of course removes all English culpability from the incident, making De Quincey's case even more seemingly clear cut. Yet one cannot help but think of the English De Quincey living in Edinburgh or Glasgow and writing for Blackwood's and Tait's (where he was politically and nationally out of his element) in the aftermath of his alienation from the great English poets. Could the terms "exile" and "renegade" also call to mind De Quincey's own "banishment" from England, from Wordsworth, and from the Lake District?

As noted above, De Quincey describes Cunningham's expressions of admiration for Scott and Southey as "too oriental prostrations." The orientalism here serves not only to associate the Scottish and lower class Cunningham with a culture primitive and barbaric in De Quincey's eyes. In the dreams inspired by the infamous Malay toward the end of the Opium Confessions, the Far East becomes an archaic space in which human and other life forms breed maddeningly, subsuming individual identity in an endless proliferation of images and sounds:
 I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all
 trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all the
 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 paroquets, 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 sacrifice& I fled
 from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu
 hated me: Seeva laid in wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isas 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 sphinxes, 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 Nilotie mud. (109)

This passage introduces John Barrell's study of De Quincey's "psychopathology of imperialism," as it so succinctly encapsulates his anxieties over the security of "Englishness" itself. Barrell writes:
 The oriental is for De Quincey a name for that very power, that
 process of endless multiplication whereby the strategy of
 self-consolidation, of the recuperation or domestication of the
 other, always involves the simultaneous constitution of a new
 threat, or a new version of the old, in the space evacuated by the
 first. The Orient is the place of a malign, a luxuriant or virulent
 productivity, a breeding-ground of images of the inhuman, or of the
 no less terrifyingly half-human, which cannot be exterminated,
 except at the cost of exterminating one's self, and which cannot be
 kept back beyond the various Maginot lines, from the Vosges to the
 Tigris, that De Quincey attempts to defend against the "horrid
 enemy from Asia." (19)

If, as Barrell elsewhere argues, "oriental objects" served as "blank screens on which could be projected whatever it was that the inhabitants of Europe, individually or collectively, wanted to displace, and to represent as other to themselves" (8), De Quincey could not maintain a sense of that "otherness." The terror of this dream rests upon the threat of absorption into an alien culture. The bringing together of disparate plants, animals, gods, and mortals, as well as the blurring of temporal, geographical, and cultural differences in the passage all add up to a crisis in classification, a rampant violation of all kinds of boundaries. De Quincey's identity itself is radically destabilized as he not only shifts between active and passive voices but is transformed from priest into god, and into sacrificial victim. Calling Cunningham's prostrations "oriental" therefore registers their threat to De Quincey's sense of himself as a literate English subject. Cunningham, he remarks, expresses his abject worship of unworthy authors "in atone that too much had the sound of including, in his act of prostration, his hearer at the moment" (Works 3:153, my emphasis). What truly offends De Quincey is the expectation that he should share such heretical views -that he could be interpellated, even momentarily, into a literary value system different from the Wordsworth-centered universe he himself would spread to the corners of the earth.

This threat, I argue, hits particularly close to home. In a reminiscence of Wordsworth written shortly before the account of the meeting with Cunningham, De Quincey criticizes the poet's failure to appreciate contemporary literature. Among Wordsworth's crimes is his failure to read any of Walter Scott's novels. Also, what are we to make of De Quincey's unreliable claim that Scott treated his devotee Cunningham with insufficient respect? A charge of projection would rest mostly on speculation, but one need not look far to find another literary acolyte not properly valued by his high priest. De Quincey's one chance to work in collaboration with his idol, the Convention of Cintra pamphlet, resulted in conflict with Wordsworth, for whom he candidly claimed ultimately to feel "something, I fear, too nearly akin to vindictive hatred" (Recollections 145). Moreover, his praise for the Lakers was, of course, scandalously qualified. If De Quincey's texts put the poetic names of Wordsworth and Coleridge into circulation, also put into the mix were Coleridge the plagiarist and bad house-guest, as well as a Wordsworth known for arrogance, unpopularity among his neighbors, and a less than attractive physical appearance. Ironically, Scotland would provide at least as much of a literary home for De Quincey as England. As is well known, in addition to his contributions to the London Magazine, a huge portion of De Quincey's work would appear in Blackwood's and Tait's (where he was, due to his political leanings, doubly alien), and he would keep residences in Edinburgh.

De Quincey may have written his literary biographies with a view toward transmitting a Wordsworthian English literature all the way to the deep forests of North America--and (as I am typing this in my Oregon home) he seems to have succeeded. Yet, even after moving into Dove Cottage, he could never be permanently or fully housed in the canonical structures he helped build. What is more, he could not resist contamination by, or even immersion in, a dynamic literary culture that offered other, perhaps less properly "English," narratives of literary history, like Cunningham's. De Quincey published reminiscences of many, now largely forgotten, literary figures besides those of the Lakers. Reading some of these less scrutinized biographies may in fact aid us in the ongoing project of re-envisioning the Romantic canon he worked so hard to institute.

University of Oregon

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Barrell, John. The Infection of Thomas De Quincey : A Psychopathology of Imperialism. Yale UP, 1991.

Cafarelli, Annette Wheeler. Prose in the Age of Poets." Romanticism and Biographical Narrative from Johnson to De Quincey. U of Pennsylvania P, 1990.

Cunningham, Allan. "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the Last Fifty Years." The Athenaeum, October 5, 1833. 713-27.

De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey. 14 vols. Ed. David Masson. Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1889-1890.

--. Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Ed. Alethea Hayter. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

--. Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets. Ed. David Wright. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

McDonagh, Josephine. De Quincey's Disciplines. Oxford UP, 1994.

Nairn, Tom. The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism. London: Verso, 1981.

Richardson, Alan. Literature, Education, Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice, 1780-1832. Cambridge UP, 1994.

Russet, Margaret. De Quincey's Romanticism: Canonical Minority and the Forms of Transmission. Cambridge UP, 1997.

Schmitt, Cannon. Alien Nation: Nineteenth-Century Gothic Fictions and English Nationality. U of Pennsylvania P, 1997.


(1) Alan Richardson neatly explains the pedagogical--indeed imperialist--function assigned to literature by Romantic writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge. According to Richardson, "The poet's role was now to help fold an extended, fragmenting, increasingly far-flung social group together through creating a 'common "human" discourse' that could cut across class, age, profession, gender, geo-political and ideological lines" (265). Conceiving literature "as a socializing and socially unifying force ... Wordsworth and Coleridge (among other writers who have retrospectively come to define British 'Romanticism') not only imagined a hegermonic function for literature, but also helped make it possible, through their esthetic theory and poetic practice, for literature to seem capable of performing such a function" (266).

(2) I am here drawing on Cannon Schmitt's argument that in De Quincey's work "threatened femininity" is "employed to characterize Englishmen, and, ultimately, England herself" (16). The figure of the great English author, be he Shakespeare or Wordsworth, thus becomes a masculine hero in a romance in which he defends an English cultural unity threatened by forces of "otherness."

(3) David Masson in a footnote to the text discredits De Quincey's accusation that Scott "had not treated [Cunningham] with the respect due to a man of so much original genius" (Works 3: 153). Masson writes:
 There seems to be some private pique of De Quincey against Sir
 Walter Scott in this passage; and it is utterly untrue to the
 actual facts of the relations between Scott and Allan Cunningham,
 as they appear in Scott's various letters to Cunningham, and the
 other references to be round in Lockhart's Life of Scott. The
 relations, as they there appear, were peculiarly kindly and cordial
 on Scott's side, from his first salutation of Cunningham in London
 in 1820,--"Allan Cunningham, I am glad to see you,"--onwards.
 (Works 3: 153-54, note 1)
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Author:Meritt, Mark
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Date:Sep 22, 2001
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