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Neither the ‘Dream-Fugue[1]’ nor any of its five constituent transitions can be read as standalone pieces of prose or prose poetry: it is its overall structure, based on the model of the fugue, which brings the piece closer to poetry. The gradual introduction and interweaving of themes with the primary one of sudden death, the creation of contrapuncti between the moods of calm and terror, and the raising of pitch within the visions to attain a crescendo in nightmare and, finally, spiritual revelation, mimic the way melody and voice are handled in the musical form.

Since the sentence is the compositional unit of prose poetry, De Quincey’s prose, with its affinity to a classical organisation of sense and sound, becomes a natural candidate to the genre. But what distinguishes it from the writing of his precursors, especially Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor, is its essentially dream-like quality. Although the former wrote a dense meditative prose, the philosophical strain was only to enter prose poetry via German writers, and that much later, after Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

Meanwhile, De Quincey introduced his readers to a wonderful prose writer—John Paul Richter. Among his miscellany is an essay titled ‘John Paul Frederick Richter’ where De Quincey analyses the German author’s work and praises him for the “power which he possesses over the pathetic and the humourous,[2]” traits which other important prose writers like Kafka and Walser were to share. De Quincey provides his translations of several short prose pieces by Richter in ‘Analects from Richter’. Following are some excerpts[3]:

 

Imagination Untamed by the Coarser Realities of Life

Happy is every actor in the guilty drama of life, to whom the higher illusion within supplies or conceals the external illusion; to whom, in the tumult of his part and its intellectual interest, the bungling landscapes of the stage have the bloom and reality of nature, and whom the loud parting and shocking of the scenes disturb not in his dream!

 

Satirical Notice of Reviewers

In Swabia, in Saxony, in Pomerania, are towns in which are stationed a strange sort of officers — valuers of author’s flesh, something like our old market-lookers in this town. They are commonly called tasters (or Praegustatores) because they eat a mouthful of every book beforehand, and tell the people whether its flavor be good. We authors, in spite, call them reviewers: but I believe an action of defamation would lie against us for such bad words. The tasters write no books themselves; consequently they have the more time to look over and tax those of other people. Or, if they do sometimes write books, they are bad ones: which again is very advantageous to them: for who can understand the theory of badness in other people’s books so well as those who have learned it by practice in their own? They are reputed the guardians of literature and the literati for the same reason that St. Nepomuk is the patron saint of bridges and of all who pass over them — viz. because he himself once lost his life from a bridge.

 

Night

The earth is everyday overspread with the veil of night for the same reason as the cages of birds are darkened — viz. that we may the more readily apprehend the higher harmonies of thought in the hush and quiet of darkness. Thoughts, which day turns into smoke and mist, stand about us in the night as lights and flames: even as the column which fluctuates above the crater of Vesuvius, in the daytime appears a pillar of cloud, but by night a pillar of fire.

 

The Quarrels of Friends

Why is it that the most fervent love becomes more fervent by brief interruption and reconciliation? and why must a storm agitate our affections before they can raise the highest rainbow of peace? Ah! for this reason it is — because all passions feel their object to be as eternal as themselves, and no love can admit the feeling that the beloved object should die. And under this feeling of imperishableness it is that we hard fields of ice shock together so harshly, whilst all the while under the sunbeams of a little space of seventy years we are rapidly dissolving.


[1] The essay that includes the ‘Dream-Fugue,’ ‘The Vision of Sudden Death,’ is available at Project Gutenberg, along with ‘The English Mail-Coach’: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10708

[2] Ibid.

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