Thomas De Quincey

How to write English

Among world-wide objects of speculation, objects rising to the dignity of a mundane or cosmopolitish value, which challenge at this time more than ever a growing intellectual interest, is the English language. Why particularly at this time? Simply, because the interest in that language rests upon two separate foundations: there are two separate principles concerned in its pretensions; and by accident in part, but in part also through the silent and inevitable march of human progress, there has been steadily gathering for many years an interest of something like sceptical and hostile curiosity about each of these principles, considered as problems open to variable solutions, as problems already viewed from different national centres, and as problems also that press forward to some solution or other with more and more of a clamorous emphasis, in proportion as they tend to consequences no longer merely speculative and scholastic, but which more and more reveal features largely practical and political. The two principles upon which the English language rests the burden of its paramount interest, are these:—first, its powers, the range of its endowments; secondly, its apparent destiny. Some subtle judges in this field of criticism are of opinion, and ever had that opinion, that amongst the modern languages which originally had compass enough of strength and opulence in their structure, or had received culture sufficient to qualify them plausibly for entering the arena of such a competition, the English had certain peculiar and inappreciable aptitudes for the highest offices of interpretation. Twenty-five centuries ago, this beautiful little planet on which we live might be said to have assembled and opened her first parliament for representing the grandeur of the human intellect. That particular assembly, I mean, for celebrating the Olympic Games about four centuries and a half before the era of Christ, when Herodotus opened the gates of morning for the undying career of history, by reading to the congregated children of Hellas, to the whole representative family of civilisation, that loveliest of earthly narratives, which, in nine musical cantos, unfolded the whole luxury of human romance as at the bar of some austere historic Areopagus, and, inversely again, which crowded the total abstract of human records, sealed[2] as with the seal of Delphi in the luxurious pavilions of human romance.

[Footnote 1: This fragment appeared in The Instructor for July, 1853. The subject was not continued in any form.—H.]

[Footnote 2: ‘Sealed,’ &c.:—I do not believe that, in the sense of holy conscientious loyalty to his own innermost convictions, any writer of history in any period of time can have surpassed Herodotus. And the reader must remember (or, if unlearned, he must be informed) that this judgment has now become the unanimous judgment of all the most competent authorities—that is, of all those who, having first of all the requisite erudition as to Greek, as to classical archaeology, &c., then subsequently applied this appropriate learning to the searching investigation of the several narratives authorised by Herodotus. In the middle of the last century, nothing could rank lower than the historic credibility of this writer. And to parody his title to be regarded as the ‘Father of History,’ by calling him the ‘Father of Lies,’ was an unworthy insult offered to his admirable simplicity and candour by more critics than one. But two points startle the honourable reader, who is loathe to believe of any laborious provider for a great intellectual interest that he can deliberately have meant to deceive: the first point, and, separately by itself, an all-sufficient demur, is this—that, not in proportion to the learning and profundity brought to bear upon Herodotus, did the doubts and scruples upon his fidelity strengthen or multiply. Precisely in the opposite current was the movement of human opinion, as it applied itself to this patriarch of history. Exactly as critics and investigators arose like Larcher—just, reasonable, thoughtful, patient, and combining—or geographers as comprehensive and as accurate as Major Rennel, regularly in that ratio did the reports and the judgments of Herodotus command more and more respect. The other point is this; and, when it is closely considered, it furnishes a most reasonable ground of demur to the ordinary criticisms upon Herodotus. These criticisms build the principle of their objection generally upon the marvellous or romantic element which intermingles with the current of the narrative. But when a writer treats (as to Herodotus it happened that repeatedly he treated) tracts of history far removed in space and in time from the domestic interests of his native land, naturally he misses as any available guide the ordinary utilitarian relations which would else connect persons and events with great outstanding interests of his own contemporary system. The very abstraction which has silently been performed by the mere effect of vast distances, wildernesses that swallow up armies, and mighty rivers that are unbridged, together with the indefinite chronological remoteness, do already of themselves translate such sequestered and insulated chambers of history into the character of moral apologues, where the sole surviving interest lies in the quality of the particular moral illustrated, or in the sudden and tragic change of fortune recorded. Such changes, it is urged, are of rare occurrence; and, recurring too often, they impress a character of suspicious accuracy upon the narrative. Doubtless they do so, and reasonably, where the writer is pursuing the torpid current of circumstantial domestic annals. But, in the rapid abstract of Herodotus, where a century yields but a page or two, and considering that two slender octavos, on the particular scale adopted by Herodotus, embody the total records of the human race down to his own epoch, really it would furnish no legitimate ground of scruple or jealousy, though every paragraph should present us with a character that seems exaggerated, or with an incident approaching to the marvellous, or a catastrophe that is revolting. A writer is bound—he has created it into a duty, having once assumed the office of a national historiographer—to select from the rolls of a nation such events as are the most striking. And a selection conducted on this principle through several centuries, or pursuing the fortunes of a dynasty reigning over vast populations, must end in accumulating a harvest of results such as would startle the sobriety of ordinary historic faith. If a medical writer should elect for himself, of his own free choice, to record such cases only in his hospital experience as terminated fatally, it would be absurd to object the gloomy tenor of his reports as an argument for suspecting their accuracy, since he himself, by introducing this as a condition into the very terms of his original undertaking with the public, has created against himself the painful necessity of continually distressing the sensibilities of his reader. To complain of Herodotus, or any public historian, as drawing too continually upon his reader’s profounder sensibilities, is, in reality, to forget that this belongs as an original element to the very task which he has undertaken. To undertake the exhibition of human life under those aspects which confessedly bring it into unusual conflict with chance and change, is, by a mere self-created necessity, to prepare beforehand the summons to a continued series of agitations: it is to seek the tragic and the wondrous wilfully, and then to complain of it as violating the laws of probability founded on life within the ordinary conditions of experience.]

That most memorable of Panhellenic festivals it was, which first made known to each other the two houses of Grecian blood that typified its ultimate and polar capacities, the most and the least of exorbitations, the utmost that were possible from its equatorial centre; viz., on the one side, the Asiatic Ionian, who spoke the sweet musical dialect of Homer, and, on the other side, the austere Dorian, whom ten centuries could not teach that human life brought with it any pleasure, or any business, or any holiness of duty, other or loftier than that of war. If it were possible that, under the amenities of a Grecian sky, too fierce a memento could whisper itself of torrid zones, under the stern discipline of the Doric Spartan it was that you looked for it; or, on the other hand, if the lute might, at intervals, be heard or fancied warbling too effeminately for the martial European key of the Grecian muses, amidst the sweet blandishments it was of Ionian groves that you arrested the initial elements of such a relaxing modulation. Twenty-five centuries ago, when Europe and Asia met for brotherly participation in the noblest, perhaps,[3] of all recorded solemnities, viz., the inauguration of History in its very earliest and prelusive page, the coronation (as with propriety we may call it) of the earliest (perhaps even yet the greatest?) historic artist, what was the language employed as the instrument of so great a federal act? It was that divine Grecian language to which, on the model of the old differential compromise in favour of Themistocles, all rival languages would cordially have conceded the second honour. If now, which is not impossible, any occasion should arise for a modern congress of the leading nations that represent civilisation, not probably in the Isthmus of Corinth, but on that of Darien, it would be a matter of mere necessity, and so far hardly implying any expression of homage, that the English language should take the station formerly accorded to the Grecian. But I come back to the thesis which I announced, viz., to the twofold onus which the English language is called upon to sustain:—first, to the responsibility attached to its powers; secondly, to the responsibility and weight of expectation attached to its destiny. To the questions growing out of the first, I will presently return. But for the moment, I will address myself to the nature of that DESTINY, which is often assigned to the English language: what is it? and how far is it in a fair way of fulfilling this destiny?

[Footnote 3: Perhaps, seriously, the most of a cosmopolitical act that has ever been attempted. Next to it, in point of dignity, I should feel disposed to class the inauguration of the Crusades.]

As early as the middle of the last century, and by people with as little enthusiasm as David Hume, it had become the subject of plain prudential speculations, in forecasting the choice of a subject, or of the language in which it should reasonably be treated, that the area of expectation for an English writer was prodigiously expanding under the development of our national grandeur, by whatever names of ‘colonial’ or ‘national’ it might be varied or disguised. The issue of the American War, and the sudden expansion of the American Union into a mighty nation on a scale corresponding to that of the four great European potentates—Russia, Austria, England, and France—was not in those days suspected. But the tendencies could not be mistaken. And the same issue was fully anticipated, though undoubtedly through the steps of a very much slower process. Whilst disputing about the items on the tess apettiele, the disputed facts were overtaking us, and flying past us, on the most gigantic scale. All things were changing: and the very terms of the problem were themselves changing, and putting on new aspects, in the process and at the moment of enunciation. For instance, it had been sufficiently seen that another Christendom, far more colossal than the old Christendom of Europe, might, and undoubtedly would, form itself rapidly in America. Against the tens of millions in Europe would rise up, like the earth-born children of Deucalion and Pyrrha (or of the Theban Cadmus and Hermione) American millions counted by hundreds. But from what radix? Originally, it would have been regarded as madness to take Ireland, in her Celtic element, as counting for anything. But of late—whether rationally, however, I will inquire for a brief moment or so—the counters have all changed in these estimates. The late Mr O’Connell was the parent of these hyperbolical anticipations. To count his ridiculous ‘monster-meetings’ by hundreds of thousands, and then at last by millions, cost nobody so much as a blush; and considering the open laughter and merriment with which all O’Connell estimates were accepted and looked at, I must think that the London Standard was more deeply to blame than any other political party, in giving currency and acceptation to the nursery exaggerations of Mr O’Connell. Meantime those follies came to an end. Mr O’Connell died; all was finished: and a new form of mendacity was transferred to America. There has always existed in the United States one remarkable phenomenon of Irish politics applied to the deception of both English, Americans, and Irish. All people who have given any attention to partisanship and American politics, are aware of a rancorous malice burning sullenly amongst a small knot of Irishmen, and applying itself chiefly to the feeding of an interminable feud against England and all things English. This, as it chiefly expresses itself in American journals, naturally passes for the product of American violence; which in reality it is not. And hence it happens, and for many years it has happened, that both Englishmen and Americans are perplexed at intervals by a malice and an acharnement of hatred to England, which reads very much like that atrocious and viperous malignity imputed to the father of Hannibal against the Romans. It is noticeable, both as keeping open a peculiar exasperation of Irish patriotism absurdly directed against England; as doing a very serious injustice to Americans, who are thus misrepresented as the organs of this violence, so exclusively Irish; and, finally, as the origin of the monstrous delusion which I now go on to mention. The pretence of late put forward is, that the preponderant element in the American population is indeed derived from the British Islands, but by a vast overbalance from Ireland, and from the Celtic part of the Irish population. This monstrous delusion has recently received an extravagant sanction from the London Quarterly Review. Half a dozen other concurrent papers, in journals political and literary, hold the same language. And the upshot of the whole is—that, whilst the whole English element (including the earliest colonisation of the New England states at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and including the whole stream of British emigration since the French Revolution) is accredited for no more than three and a half millions out of pretty nearly twenty millions of white American citizens, on the other hand, against this English element, is set up an Irish (meaning a purely Hiberno-Celtic) element, amounting—oh, genius of blushing, whither hast thou fled?—to a total of eight millions. Anglo-Saxon blood, it seems, is in a miserable minority in the United States; whilst the German blood composes, we are told, a respectable nation of five millions; and the Irish-Celtic young noblemen, though somewhat at a loss for shoes, already count as high as eight millions!

Now, if there were any semblance of truth in all this, we should have very good reason indeed to tremble for the future prospects of the English language throughout the Union. Eight millions struggling with three and a half should already have produced some effect on the very composition of Congress. Meantime, against these audacious falsehoods I observe a reasonable paper in the Times (August 23, 1852), rating the Celtic contribution from Ireland—that is, exclusively of all the Ulster contribution—at about two millions; which, however, I view as already an exaggeration, considering the number that have always by preference resorted to the Canadas. Two millions, whom poverty, levity, and utter want of all social or political consideration, have reduced to ciphers the most absolute—two millions, in the very lowest and most abject point of political depression, cannot do much to disturb the weight of the English language: which, accordingly, on another occasion, I will proceed to consider, with and without the aid of the learned Dr Gordon Latham, and sometimes (if he will excuse me) in defiance of that gentleman, though far enough from defiance in any hostile or unfriendly sense.


MLA Citation

De Quincey, Thomas. “How to write English.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 3 Jun 2015. 22 Feb 2024 <>.

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