Sunday, February 11, 2018

Tad Williams and the Rise of Epic Fantasy

Tad Williams: The Dragonbone Chair (1988)

I suppose that one advantage of the TV series Game of Thrones is that you no longer have to bother to try to explain to people what epic fantasy is.

George R. R. Martin: Game of Thrones World Map

Before that, only J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy could be said to have really broken through into popular culture, and - certainly before Peter Jackson's films - he was more the prototype and progenitor of the form than simply an example of it.

William Morris: The Roots of the Mountains (1890)

Of course, Tolkien himself would probably have pointed out how varied his sources actually were. William Morris is the principal one. Such prose romances as The House of the Wolfings (1889) and its sequel, The Roots of the Mountains (1890), gave Tolkien a good deal of his method and tone.

E. R. Eddison: The Worm Ouroboros (1926)

Then there was E. R. Eddison - The Worm Ouroboros (1926), above all. And, in a more relaxed and satirical vein, Lord Dunsany and James Branch Cabell.

Lord Dunsany: The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924)

There was a time in the late 80s and 90s when I read a great many such books (and found some unexpected fellow-fans, too: Prof. D. I. B. Smith of Auckland University's English Department, my erstwhile MA supervisor among them - my PhD supervisor Colin Manlove, too).

Colin Manlove: The Fantasy Literature of England (1999)

I never read much of Terry Pratchett or Stephen Donaldson, who were both loudly proclaimed - rather unfairly, in retrospect - as Tolkien's heirs in the 1970s (the former has enjoyed a bit of a revival of late with the very entertaining TV miniseries The Shannara Chronicles).

So who did I read back then? Here are a few of their names:

  • Louise Cooper (The Time Master Trilogy, 1986-1987.)

  • Louise Cooper: The Initiate (1986)

  • Cecilia Dart-Thornton (The Bitterbynde Trilogy, 2001-2002)

  • Cecilia Dart-Thornton: The Ill-Made Mute (2001)

  • Raymond E. Feist (The Riftworld Saga)

  • Raymond E. Feist: Magician (1982)

  • Robert Holdstock (The Mythago Cycle, 4 vols: 1984-1998)

  • Robert Holdstock: Mythago Wood (1984)

  • Guy Gavriel Kay (The Fionavar Tapestry, 3 vols: 1986-1988. )

  • Guy Gavriel Kay: The Summer Tree (1986)

  • Patricia A. McKillip (The Riddle-Master Trilogy, 1976-1979)

  • Patricia A. McKillip: The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976)

  • George R. R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire, 5 vols: 1996-2011)

  • George R. R. Martin: A Game of Thrones (1996)

  • Graham Dunstan Martin (The Soul Master, Time-Slip & The Dream Wall, 1984, 1986 & 1987)

  • Graham Dunstan Martin: The Soul Master (1984)

  • Michael Scott Rohan (The Winter of the World Trilogy: 1986-1988)

  • Michael Scott Rohan: The Forge in the Forest (1987)

  • Tad Williams (The Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Trilogy: 1988-1993)

  • Tad Williams: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (1988-93)

Some of the examples in the list below include all of the principal, Tolkien-inherited ingredients: division into a trilogy; the presence of elves, dragons, and/or otherworldly creatures; a threat from some source of 'darkness' - generally in the North; a lost heir or 'chosen one' who has to set all to rights, possibly with the help of some ring, sword, or other talisman.

So far so banal. But then there are the exceptions: the genuinely original takes on the fantasy genre. Take Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, for example. His basic notion of a wood that resists visitors is an excellent one, but combined with the discovery that (like the Tardis) this wood is bigger on the inside than the outside, and - in fact - has no effective limit in time or space, since it constitutes a kind of repository for the collective mythological memory of mankind, as far back as the last Ice Age, the working out of his story has a peculiar resonance and even symbolic truth to it.

Michael Scott Rohan takes the idea of the Ice Age more literally, and tries to recreate the vanished kingdoms of an era before the Mediterranean flooded, and when vast areas of land were laid bare by the glaciers.

Cecilia Dart-Thornton relies more on traditional ballads and folklore to shape her own narrative, while Patricia McKillip contributes a beautiful, Ursula Le Guin-like clarity to her storytelling. So, while some of the authors may be a bit perfunctory in their prose-style, it's hard to fault them for richness of invention.

Of course, any fan of the genre will immediately point out how outmoded the above list is. So many new series have appeared since the late 1990s, when I stopped even trying to keep on top of them, that I couldn't begin to discuss them even if I had the knowledge. Rest assured that the presses of the world have been busy adding to the total through all the intervening years.

So why concentrate on Tad Williams in particular, then? Not because he's so much better than the others - though he's probably the most long-winded among them (the cover of The Dragonbone Chair describes it as "the fantasy equivalent of War and Peace", and I think it's as much its length as its narrative ambition the reviewer must have had in mind).

I guess I've chosen to feature him:
  1. because (pragmatically) he's one of the few fantasy writers I've actually made an effort to keep up with since I first starting reading him in the early 90s.
  2. because (theoretically) I believe him to be the author who's tried hardest and most consistently to experiment with different levels and concepts of reality: from the celestial cyberpunk of the "Bobby Dollar" books to the copyrighted virtual reality domains of the "Otherworld" tetralogy.
The fact that, after all that, he's come back round to his starting-place, and is beginning yet another trilogy set in his Tolkien-esque kingdom of 'Osten Ard' also says something telling about the epic fantasy genre, however. Its fans are loyal and supportive - but they also tend to be resistant to change.

Unlike SF fans, who've got used to having all their expectations upset within the first few lines of each new story, Fantasy afficionados like to have horses, staffs, goblins, and elves - or some reasonable variant on same - crowd in to greet them pretty early on, regardless of how each author has chosen to account for their presence (creatures of a remote, post-nuclear-apocalypse future in Terry Pratchett; remnants of the ancient Germanic world in J. R. R. Tolkien).

Anyway, here's a reasonably comprehensive list of his thirty years of publications to date. By Tolkien's standards (at least), his protagonists do have a tendency to whine and demand instant attention to their peevish demands at inopportune moments (whether or not this represents a divergent Old World / New World set of cultural expectations I leave others to ponder). For the most part, though, he does have the ability to immerse his readers fully in a strangely believeable set of very particular fantasy worlds, and I suppose that's all one can really expect of a writer in this rather inflexible genre.

For myself, I'm a little sorry that he hasn't persevered with his virtual reality world Otherland, or even his Edwardian themed fairyland in The War of the Flowers, but with such a rate of production, it's fair to say that there are probably plenty of such departures from type to be expected from him yet!

The Shadowmarch series was a bit of a disappointment, it must be said: adding little to his earlier work on Osten Ard. The fact that he's now resumed that series - with what success it's a little early to say, though one has to salute his determination to make his evil adversaries as full of complex motivations as his "goodies". There's clearly life in the old genre yet, though of course I fully expect to be deluged by a set of suggestions for new such works and authors who have emerged over the past twenty years or so, whom I really must read in order to claim any currency at all. Bring it on!

Tad Williams (2007)

Robert Paul Williams (1957- )

  1. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn:
    1. The Dragonbone Chair. 1988. Legend Books. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1990.
    2. Stone of Farewell. 1990. Legend Books. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1991.
    3. To Green Angel Tower. Legend Books. London: Random House Group, 1993.

  2. Tailchaser's Song. 1985. Legend Books. London: Random Century Group, 1991.

  3. [with Nina Kiriki Hoffman]: Child of an Ancient City. Legend Books. London: Century, 1992.

  4. Caliban's Hour (1994)

  5. Otherland:
    1. City of Golden Shadow. Legend Books. London: Random House UK Limited, 1996.
    2. River of Blue Fire. An Orbit Book. London: Little, Brown & Company (UK), 1998.
    3. Mountain of Black Glass. 1999. An Orbit Book. London: Little, Brown & Company (UK), 2000.
    4. Sea of Silver Light. 2001. An Orbit Book. London: Time Warner Books UK, 2002.

  6. The War of the Flowers. An Orbit Book. London: Time Warner Books UK, 2003.

  7. Shadowmarch:
    1. Shadowmarch. An Orbit Book. London: Time Warner Book Group UK, 2004.
    2. Shadowplay. Orbit Book. London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2007.
    3. Shadowrise. DAW Book Collectors No. 1500. New York: DAW Books, Inc., 2010.
    4. Shadowheart. An Orbit Book. London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2010.

  8. Bobby Dollar:
    1. The Dirty Streets of Heaven. London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2012.
    2. Happy Hour in Hell. London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2013.
    3. Sleeping Late on Judgement Day. London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2014.

  9. Rite: Short Work. 2006. Burton, MI: Far Territories, 2008.

  10. A Stark and Wormy Knight: Tales of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Suspense. Ed. Deborah Beale. Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2012.

  11. The Very Best of Tad Williams (2014)

  12. The Last King of Osten Ard:
    1. The Heart of What Was Lost: A Novel of Osten Ard. London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2017.
    2. The Witchwood Crown. London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2017.

Friday, January 05, 2018

John Clare / Charles Baudelaire

William Hilton: John Clare (1820)

It's not really that I'm trying to be particularly original or provocative in comparing these two poets (perish the thought). They belong to completely different phases of the Romantic era, for a start: John Clare, the peasant poet, born in poverty in 1793 - a contemporary of Keats and Byron; Charles Baudelaire, the original poète maudit, born in the stifling heart of the bourgeoisie in 1821, and dead of alcoholism and self-abuse at the age of 46.

Étienne Carjat: Charles Baudelaire (1863)

Clare was (and remains) the patron saint of pastoral poets everywhere: a soul so pure he seemed to have come from another sphere, the pre-enclosure, peasant world of organic village life, free of the affectations of civilisation.

Baudelaire, by contrast, is the poet of drugs, sex, industrialism, city life, and the principal inspiration for the figure of the flâneur, the idle (but preternaturally observant) dandy - what the Russian critics called 'the superfluous man.' He was impecunious, self-destructive, vindictive, and relentlessly critical: of himself more than anything.

And yet, and yet. They didn't do anything quite as convenient as die in the same year, but they weren't far from it. John Clare died at 70 in 1864, Baudelaire three years later, in 1867. But then Clare spent the last 25 years of his life locked up in an asylum (from which he briefly escaped in 1841). Baudelaire, by contrast, suffered a massive stroke in 1866 and spent the last two years of his life in a succession of hospital wards.

In other words, neither of them could last in the world much beyond their mid-forties. The difference is, of course, that Clare experienced an extraordinary burst of creativity in his madhouse years - some poems written under his own name, others under that of Lord Byron, whom (some of the time) he believed himself to be.

So far so unconvincing. I agree that I haven't made a strong case, as yet, for considering them together. It's just that the other day I was reading The Wood is Sweet, a little selection of John Clare's poems made for children, and ran across one of his most famous poems, 'The Skylark':

Thomas Bewick: The Skylark (1797)

The Skylark (1835)

The rolls and harrows lie at rest beside
The battered road; and spreading far and wide
Above the russet clods, the corn is seen
Sprouting its spiry points of tender green,
Where squats the hare, to terrors wide awake,
Like some brown clod the harrows failed to break.
Opening their golden caskets to the sun,
The buttercups make schoolboys eager run,
To see who shall be first to pluck the prize —
Up from their hurry, see, the skylark flies,
And o'er her half-formed nest, with happy wings
Winnows the air, till in the cloud she sings,
Then hangs a dust-spot in the sunny skies,
And drops, and drops, till in her nest she lies,
Which they unheeded passed — not dreaming then
That birds which flew so high would drop agen
To nests upon the ground, which anything
May come at to destroy. Had they the wing
Like such a bird, themselves would be too proud,
And build on nothing but a passing cloud!
As free from danger as the heavens are free
From pain and toil, there would they build and be,
And sail about the world to scenes unheard
Of and unseen — Oh, were they but a bird!
So think they, while they listen to its song,
And smile and fancy and so pass along;
While its low nest, moist with the dews of morn,
Lies safely, with the leveret, in the corn.

This is a fairly typical Clare poem. He tends to write in standard metres - in this case heroic couplets, at other times ballad measure. His rhythms and versification tend to the traditional and unadventurous also: no sudden breaks in the iambic line, no startling rhymes (unlike his hero, Lord Byron).

So why do we love him so much? It's the detail of the lines, the sudden flashes of careful insight and genuine knowledge that one glimpses from time to time in his choice of phrases or adjectives that gives his verse its peculiar distinction.

On the one hand, it sounds a bit like a setpiece description by another of his models, James Thomson's The Seasons (1730), but the moment one goes below the surface, strange moments of vision start to appear:
Where squats the hare, to terrors wide awake,
Like some brown clod the harrows failed to break.
Clare, the 'whopstraw man,' a labourer whose job it was to harrow the harvested corn, is yet intensely aware of that 'squatting' hare - nor is it the beauty of the creature he chooses to emphasise, but its terror.

The schoolboys running to catch buttercups seem pretty conventional figures, too, until we realise that Clare is using them to construct the intense metaphor which governs the last half of his poem:
Had they the wing
Like such a bird, themselves would be too proud,
And build on nothing but a passing cloud!
They imagine themselves like the skylark, but see it solely in terms of the clouds its flight encompasses. They cannot imagine the truth that it, too, is ruled by fear and the constant threat of destruction of what it holds dearest: its nest.
So think they, while they listen to its song,
And smile and fancy and so pass along;
While its low nest, moist with the dews of morn,
Lies safely, with the leveret, in the corn.
Well, clearly the obvious comparison here is with Shelley's "Ode to a Skylark", whose first five or so lines virtually everyone who's ever read a poem in English can quote by heart:

P. B. Shelley: To a Skylark (1820)

The "schoolboy" comparison seems fairly apt, also. Shelley was 29 when he died, 27 when he published 'Ode to a Skylark.' Clare, in his mid-forties and at the heart of his powers, must have felt that he knew a good many things about birds which the younger poet had never had the chance - or possibly the desire - to learn. Even his strongest defenders would have to admit to a certain tendency towards abstraction in Shelley's verse. Clare's may be far less accomplished technically, but the precise and concrete was - in the end - all that interested him.

Let's take another tack on this poem of his, then. Here's Baudelaire's "The Albatross": :

Catherine Réault-Crosnier: L'Albatros

L'Albatros (1861)

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d'eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!
L'un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L'autre mime, en boitant, l'infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher

If you click on this link, you can find a selection of English verse translations of this immortal poem by the likes of Roy Campbell, George Dillon, and various others. Rather than add to them, I thought it might be best to provide a simple prose crib. There's a reason why many regard Baudelaire as the greatest European poet since Dante, and it isn't because he dyed his hair green and contracted syphilis: it's the sheer beauty and ease of his writing. Many of the translations on the site are very skillful, but they're still not Baudelaire.

The Albatross (1861)

Often, to amuse themselves, the crewmen
catch albatrosses, vast sea birds
who follow, indolent travelling companions,
the ship as it glides across the bitter gulfs.

Hardly have they dumped them on the deck,
than these kings of the blue, clumsy and ashamed,
let their great white wings trail pitifully
beside them like oars.

This winged traveller, how weak and foolish he is!
He, lately so beautiful, how comic and ugly!
One teases his beak with the stub of a pipe,
another mimes, limping, this invalid who once flew!

The Poet resembles this prince of the clouds
who haunts the storm and laughs at archers;
exiled on earth in the midst of catcries,
His giants' wings impede him from walking.

Just as one can hear, faintly, at the back of Clare's poem, an echo of Percy Shelley's, similarly, here, one senses the presence of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Baudelaire was pretty well-read in English literature, a pioneering translator of Poe and De Quincey (among others), and he could hardly have been ignorant of the most famous albatross in poetic history:

'God save thee, ancient Mariner,
from the fiends that plague thee thus! —
Why look'st thou so?' - With my crossbow
I shot the albatross.

That comment about how Baudelaire's ideal poet resembles the bird "qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer" [who haunts the tempest and laughs at the archer] is surely a reference to the crossbow-wielding mariner himself. But where exactly is Clare in this equation?

I guess it's in the reversal of expectations which dominates each poem. In Clare's case, the marauding schoolboys imagine that the skylark must nest in the clouds, since that's what they would do. Actually, though, it hides its nest as low down as it can, below eye level, in the corn with the rabbit and the other creeping creatures.

In Baudelaire's, the albatross is mocked because of its inability to master such simple, everyday arts as walking without stumbling across a deck. In fact it is because of its other great gifts, its giants' wings, that it cannot fit easily into a crowd, but the desire to simplify, to drag everything down to the level of the lowest common denominator is what leaves it so cruelly exposed.

Baudelaire's albatross was born to fly, and lacks the gifts for anything else. Clare's skylark is similarly gifted, but uses its flight to distract its enemies from what it most longs to protect. Both poets write out of an aching sense of loss and unbelonging. In Baudelaire's case this is expressed in loud outrage, in Clare's by the desire to hide and to escape.

If you want to understand John Clare, the first thing is to stop thinking of him as some simple, instinctive personality, lacking the art of his more self-conscious and educated contemporaries. His academy was every bit as rigorous as theirs, and his poetry - vast and uneven a bulk as there is of it - repays the same pains.

Similarly, reading Baudelaire for the cheap thrills of his iconoclasm and diablerie is mostly a waste of time. Those things are there, but it's the penetrating intensity of his intelligence and insight that gives his work its enduring power.

In both cases, paradoxically, it's sometimes best to approach these poets through their own prose. John Clare's "Journey out of Essex" - his heartbreaking account of his 1841 escape from the asylum to find his lost love, Mary Joyce (already dead for three years) - is fascinating enough. But his autobiographical and other prose notes on his life and the countryside he grew up in also have an indescribable charm of their own.

Baudelaire's prose is more multifaceted and complex, but his analyses of the paintings in successive salons show the concentrated critical intelligence which enabled him to revolutionise French - and, eventually, world - poetry. He was never really the idle druggie of legend, but rather a disciplined mind modelled on, but eventually surpassing, his hero, Edgar Allan Poe.

Both are poets not so much to read, as to reread. As soon as you've reached the end of each poem or journal entry, it's time to turn back to the beginning and start again. Only then does the peculiar light of their insight begin to communicate. These are not bodies of work one could ever exhaust.

I conclude, as usual, with a brief list of the books by each I've managed to accumulate in the last thirty-odd years of reading both:

Iain Sinclair: Edge of the Orison (2005)

John Clare

  1. Geoffrey Grigson, ed. Poems of John Clare’s Madness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949.

  2. J. W. & Anne Tibble, ed. John Clare: The Prose. 1951. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

  3. Eric Robinson & Geoffrey Summerfield, ed. John Clare: The Shepherd’s Calendar. Wood Engravings by David Gentleman. 1964. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

  4. Eric Robinson & Geoffrey Summerfield, ed. John Clare: The Later Poems. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1964.

  5. J. W. & Anne Tibble, ed. John Clare: Selected Poems. Ed. J. W. & Anne Tibble. Everyman’s Library, 563. London: J. M. Dent, 1965.

  6. David Powell, ed. John Clare: The Wood is Sweet. Introduction by Edmund Blunden. Illustrated by John O'Connor. Poems for Young Readers. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1966.

  7. Eric Robinson & Richard Fitter, ed. John Clare’s Birds. Illustrated by Robert Gillmor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

  8. Eric Robinson & David Powell, ed. John Clare: The Oxford Authors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

  9. Eric Robinson, ed. John Clare: The Parish, A Satire. Notes by David Powell. 1985. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

  10. Geoffrey Summerfield, ed. John Clare: Selected Poems. 1990. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2000.

  11. Robinson, Eric, & David Powell, ed. John Clare By Himself. Wood Engravings by Jon Lawrence. 1996. Fyfield Books. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002.

  12. J. W. & Anne Tibble, ed. John Clare: The Letters. 1951. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

  13. Mark Storey, ed. John Clare: Selected Letters. 1985. Oxford Letters & Memoirs. 1988. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

  14. J. W. & Anne Tibble. John Clare: A Life. 1932. Rev. Anne Tibble. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1972.

  15. Edward Storey. A Right to Song: The Life of John Clare. London: Methuen, 1982.

Édouard Manet: Jeanne Duval (1862)

Charles Pierre Baudelaire

  1. Y.-G. Le Dantec, ed. Baudelaire: Oeuvres. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1. 1934. Paris: Gallimard, 1944.

  2. P. Schneider, ed. Baudelaire: L’Oeuvre. Les Portiques, 16. Paris: Le Club Français du Livre, 1955.

  3. Antoine Adam, ed. Baudelaire: Les fleurs du mal: Les Épaves / Bribes / Poèmes divers / Amoenitates Beligicae. Édition illustrée. 1961. Classiques Garnier. Paris: Éditions Garnier Frères, 1970.

  4. Yves Florenne, ed. Baudelaire: Les fleurs du mal: Édition établie selon un ordre nouveau. 1857. Préface de Marie-Jeanne Durry. Le Livre de Poche, 677. Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1972.

  5. Melvin Zimmerman, ed. Baudelaire: Petits Poèmes en Prose. 1869. French Classics. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968.

  6. George Dillon & Edna St. Vincent Millay, trans. Baudelaire. Les Fleurs du Mal: Translated and Presented on Pages Facing the Original French Text as Flowers of Evil. With an Introduction and an Unusual Bibliographical Note by Miss Millay. 1936. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1962.

  7. Louise Varèse, trans. Baudelaire: Paris Spleen. 1869. A New Directions PaperBook, NDP294. 1947. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1970.

  8. Francis Scarfe, trans. Baudelaire: Selected Poems. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

  9. Clark, Carol, & Robert Sykes, ed. Baudelaire in English. Penguin Classics: Poets in Translation. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997.

  10. P. E. Charvet, trans. Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists. 1972. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

  11. Edgar Allan Poe. Histoires Extraordinaires. Trans. Charles Baudelaire. Préface de Julio Cortázár. Collection Folio, 310. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1973.

  12. Enid Starkie. Baudelaire. 1957. Pelican Biographies. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

  13. Claude Pichois. Baudelaire. Additional Research by Jean Ziegler. 1987. Trans. Graham Robb. 1989. London: Vintage, 1991.

Charles Baudelaire: "Spleen: I am like the king of a rainy country ..." (1861)

John Clare: "Lines: I Am" (1848)

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The English Opium-Eater

Thomas De Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)

Cors de chasse

Notre histoire est noble et tragique
Comme le masque d'un tyran
Nul drame hasardeux ou magique
Aucun détail indifférent
Ne rend notre amour pathétique

Et Thomas de Quincey buvant
L'opium poison doux et chaste
A sa pauvre Anne allait rêvant
Passons passons puisque tout passe
Je me retournerai souvent

Les souvenirs sont cors de chasse
Dont meurt le bruit parmi le vent

- Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools (1913)

Jean Cocteau: Guillaume Apollinaire (1917)

Hunting Horns

Our story's noble and tragic
like the deathmask of a tyrant
no drama sparked by chance or magic
no insignificant detail
can render love like this unreal

and Thomas de Quincey drinking
the sweet chaste poison of opium
dreamt all along of his poor Anne
pass on pass on everything passes
but I'll return here often

memories are hunting horns
whose sound dies softly in the wind

- trans. JR

Jean Cocteau: Opium (1930)

It's easy to forget that Thomas De Quincey is as significant a figure for French readers as he is for English ones. In fact, like Edgar Allan Poe, one could argue that they admire him more than we do: his peculiar distinction perhaps appeals more to a European audience than an Anglo-Saxon one.

Be that as it may, De Quincey (rightly or wrongly) is famous for one thing, and one thing only: his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, originally published anonymously in the London Magazine in September-October 1821, and then in book form (still anonymously) the following year.

I still remember the excitement in my house when my eldest brother finally bought a copy of the Confessions. It was a tiny World's Classics edition, and my other brother and myself were queued up to read it as soon as he finished it. It didn't take long. He said that the whole thing was totally boring, and mainly consisted of a long slanging match in which he denounced Coleridge as a mere dabbler and amateur in opium-consumption beside himself, with long computations of their respective consumption per day. There wasn't a single opium dream to be found in it, he concluded.

I had to acknowledge that he had a point when I did finally get my hands on the book. There was an awful lot of build-up before one got anywhere near the subject of opium, some of it autobiographical background, but most of it arguments with various critics, conducted with maximum pedantry and minimal good humour.

The whole thing, I concluded, was a swizz. Until I got my hands on a Penguin reprint of the first, 1822 edition, that is. Then I began to see what people had been talking about. Then, too, the strange and wistful figure of the young prostitute Ann (Apollinaire, possibly for personal reasons, misremembers it as Anne with an 'e') began to come into sharper focus.

"Ann of Oxford Street"
[idealised portrait]

De Quincey was always in debt. He wrote as rapidly as he could, for a variety of publications, essays and squibs which could be sold for just enough to stave off his creditors and keep his family alive for another day. (And then there was his opium habit to support, too).

The original two-part serial version of the Confessions had many deficiencies and lacunae (or so it seemed to him), few of which he was able to correct when it appeared in book form. He cherished the idea of a 'corrected' edition, where he would be able finally to do more than sketch the effect of opium on him, and on his half-erotic, half-idealised reveries.

That time finally came in the 1850s, when he was labouring away on a revised version of his essays and other works to date. It finally appeared, as Selections Grave and Gay from Writings Published and Unpublished by Thomas De Quincey (14 vols - Edinburgh: James Hogg, 1853-60).

This collection was initially prompted by an American edition - De Quincey's Writings (22 vols - Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1851-59) - which reprinted the original periodical versions of each of the pieces. De Quincey, after initially contracting to supply them with revised copy, failed (not atypically) to reply to any subsequent letters, thus forcing the enterprising Yankees to rely on the resources to hand.

Unfortunately De Quincey in his sixties, beaten down by fate, poverty, and protracted drug-addiction was not really the man he'd been in his vigorous thirties. The additions he made to The English Opium-Eater - some of them quite valuable and interesting in their own right - had the unfortunate cumulative effect of completely masking the dramatic impact of the first version.

In many ways the American edition remains the better of the two, therefore.

This leaves readers with the insoluble paradox of which version to read. The 1821-22 text is definitely superior in terms of design, conciseness, and poetic effect. It's very seldom reprinted, however.

The 1856 text begins very badly, with De Quincey at his most argumentative and twaddly, but then goes on to sharpen and expand on many parts of the fascinating tale of his sojourn in London as a teenage runaway from school, the period in which he met the beautiful young fifteen-year-old prostitute Ann, whom he loved in the most childlike and innocent way possible - one reason why his book appealed so much to the Victorians, with their child fixation (and to love-sick poets, such as Apollinaire - and myself - ever since).

Ann! For many years after he reached manhood, De Quincey paced the streets trying to find her, but no trace of her was ever discovered. The romantic dream of her innocent beauty in the midst of the degradation of turn-of-the-century London remains the most powerful image in his book, transmuted though it is into various strange forms in the dreams recorded in the fascinating section "The Pleasures of Opium."

The standard edition of De Quincey's Collected Writings, edited by David Masson in 1889-90, is forced to rely on the author's corrected texts for all the pieces originally included in Selections Grave and Gay (despite the undoubted superiority of some of the earlier texts).

David Masson, ed. Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey (1889-90)

For the most part this doesn't matter too much. For the Confessions, though, it does. Probably the best solution to date is that found by Malcolm Elwin in his 1956 MacDonald Illustrated Classics centennial edition, entitled Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in Both the Revised and the Original Texts, with its Sequels "Suspiria de Profundis" and "The English Mail-Coach". If you're fortunate enough to chance upon a copy of this, you're home and hosed (so to speak).

Malcolm Elwin, ed. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1956)

Failing that, the Penguin Classics edition of the Confessions is probably the best. You do need both texts: that's the conundrum. But be sure to read the first version first. Otherwise you risk being turned off altogether by the querulous garrulity of an elderly invalid rather than the rapturous, demon-haunted landscapes of a romantic poet in prose.

In either case, you will soon be making the acquaintance of the doomed, tragic Ann, a romantic heroine on a par with Wordsworth's Lucy, Coleridge's Christabel, or Emily Brontë's Cathy Earnshaw. In this case, however, she may well have been real.

James Archer: Thomas De Quincey (1855)

Thomas De Quincey

  1. De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Writings: New and Enlarged Edition. Ed. David Masson. 14 vols. 1889-90. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1896-1897:
    1. Autobiography from 1785 to 1803
    2. Autobiography and Literary Reminiscences
    3. London Reminiscences and Confessions of an Opium-Eater
    4. Biographies and Biographic Sketches (1)
    5. Biographies and Biographic Sketches (2)
    6. Historical Essays and Researches (1)
    7. Historical Essays and Researches (2)
    8. Speculative and Theological Essays
    9. Political Economy and Politics
    10. Literary Theory and Criticism (1)
    11. Literary Theory and Criticism (2)
    12. Tales and Romances
    13. Tales and Prose Phantasies
    14. Miscellanea and Index

  2. De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Writings. Ed. David Masson. 14 vols. Vol. I: Autobiography from 1785 to 1803. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1889.

  3. Eaton, Horace A., ed. A Diary of Thomas De Quincey, 1803: Here Reproduced in Replica as well as in Print from the Original Manuscript in the Possession of the Reverend C. H. Steel. London: Noel Douglas, [1927].

  4. Van Doren Stern, Philip, ed. Selected Writings of Thomas De Quincey. London: The Nonesuch Press / New York: Random House, n.d. [1939].

  5. De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Together with Selections from the Autobiography. Ed. Edward Sackville-West. London: The Cresset Press, 1950.

  6. De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in Both the Revised and the Original Texts, with its Sequels "Suspiria de Profundis" and "The English Mail-Coach". Ed. Malcolm Elwin. MacDonald Illustrated Classics. London: MacDonald & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1956.

  7. De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. 1821. Ed. Alethea Hayter. 1971. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

  8. De Quincey, Thomas. Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets. 1834-40. Ed. David Wright. 1970. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

"The Pains of Opium"
Giovanni Piranesi: Carceri [Prisons] XIV (1761)