By D.D. Devlin
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Extra info for De Quincey, Wordsworth and the Art of Prose
16 For De Quincey casuistry provides 'a special fulness of light' to those who wish to fulfil their duties; for George Eliot and for us (but not for De Quincey) the nineteenth-century novel could provide that light. 36 De Quincey, Wordsworth and the Art of Prose In autobiography, too, Wordsworth's example coloured De Quincey's practice; and again De Quincey's reputation has suffered in the twentieth century: his Confessions are not considered confessional enough. Virginia Woolf complained that he suffered from 'a tendency to meditative abstraction'; that when he tried to tell the truth about himself 'he shrank from the task with all the horror of a well-bred English gentleman', and that he lacked the candour which led Rousseau to reveal what was ridiculous, mean and sordid in himsel( She takes down as evidence and tries to use against him his remark that nothing was more revolting than 'the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral vices and scars'; and by judging his autobiographical writings by standards which he would have neither understood nor relished, she fails to see his originality, his indebtedness to Wordsworth and, through him, to eighteenth-century biographical convention.
But the Wordsworth influence which shaped De Quincey's progress and achievement as prose-writer and critic did not come only from Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude: Lyrical Ballads also packed a 'Preface'. De Quincey's thinking on criticism took shape not only from Wordsworth's poetical example but from the critical comments and theories of the 1800 'Preface', the 'Essay, Supplementary to the Preface' (1815) and from the three Essays Upon Epitaphs, only the first of which was published in De Quincey's lifetime, in Coleridge's issue of The Friend for 22 February, 1810.
Wordsworth's 'Preface' may have been injudicious, but De Quincey flirted briefly with one of its theories. Wordsworth was to fit to metrical arrangement 'a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation'; he had chosen low and rustic life because 'in that condition the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity . . and speak a plainer and more emphatic language', and because such people 'convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions'.