Monday, 9 February 2009

Thomas De Quincey and Dove Cottage

The 14 Steps

The most famous tenants of Dove Cottage were of course the Wordsworths, but the house was occupied much longer by the family of Thomas De Quincey who inhabited for almost 30 years intermittently. He'd visited the house while Wordsworth lived there, having been a fan and finally finding the courage to meet his literary idol, and while his admiration for Wordsworth waned, his love for the cottage grew. It was, if nothing else, so far north that his debtors would not make the journey to repossess his library and other belongings. In most contemporaries' accounts he is reported as being a remarkably short man, but since he was never one to flatter in his representations of his acquaintances' physical appearance maybe this was a caricatured feature, a riposte.

De Quincey is vastly entertaining to read, lambasting and debunking the Lake Poets as he is in the very process of memorialising them and cementing their reputation--it seems to me that many of the ideas, the myths, we have about poets as people today are in part De Quincey's fault, certainly he sold well enough to spread that particular virulent strain. Yet, despite being guilty of the approach to poetry I despise, I love De Quincey. I love him with the shameful lust for gossip, and because he can be as warmhearted and generous as he can spiteful. It was him that I read after my own first visit to the site. Confessions of an English Opium Eater was great, but better still the essay on Levana and the Three Mothers, which inspired Dario Argento's sprawling trilogy of films.

Since I've been here again, I'm reading the memoirs Reminiscences of the English Lake Poets. De Quincey had a great line in anecdotes, many almost definitely fabricated, and an anecdote can be a tricky beast to get down into print well. Indeed, we should never forget that he is hardly the most reliable of writers. At one point he miscalculates Wordsworth's age, despite knowing how long the poet had been resident at Dove Cottage, he doesn't appear to know Wordsworth's date of birth. But we don't read Lake Poets for an accurate or an exhaustive reportage, we read it because it contains so much flavour, and moreover--I think--because De Quincey writes so well. Most of his work, if not all, was produced at great speed to meet financial demands or the irregular Westmoreland post. It is also written to sell, containing gossip and 'colour'. There are points where you can tell that he has forgone the editing process but these are rare and show what a skilled hand he was at what we might not-inaccurately term hack writing. His sentences incorporate many clauses and he adds flourishes of parenthetical humour or exclamation. It's writing where you forget you're reading off a page and the long, dense paragraphs become long, indulgent, one-sided conversations.

De Quincey's notorious inaccuracy is easy to spot because, knowing how much readers love the local and exact, he peppers his prose with details, with measurements to the hour or inch. The effect is fantastic, we totally believe in the enormous, insatiable memory of our author, we understand his sprawling disorganised style as if we had upset a cupboard containing the whole world and its falling out upon us could not be controlled or condemned. He notes the number of stairs between the ground floor and the upstairs of Dove Cottage--14--so we feel him tripping up each step, awake to the significance; a man who knows greatness when he's near it and will never forget. A slight-of-hand of course, he had years in which to measure the rooms length and breadth and height, to count all the steps and yet he presents it as if these calculations and remembrances were burnt into his mind, singed into him then and there like a pail of hot coals on pine. Surely we would follow such a man anywhere? Into the bowels of opium dependence, into his nightmares, behind the curtain of fame to see what our heroes really are? I have a feeling even later De Quincey did no more than make an approximate guess at the dimensions of the house, I can't imagine him with a tape-measure.

There are 12 stairs to the first floor.

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