One has just been sent out as a biblical dove, has found nothing green, and slips back
into the darkness of the ark -- Kafka

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"The English Mail-Coach" by Thomas De Quincey

The English Mail-Coach is an essay by the English author Thomas De Quincey. A "three-part masterpiece" and "one of his most magnificent works,"[1] it first appeared in 1849 in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, in the October (Part I) and December (Parts II and III) issues.
The essay is divided into three sections:
  • Part I, "The Glory of Motion," is devoted to a lavish description of the mail coach system then in use in England, and the sensations of riding on the outside upper seats of the coaches (in the author's often opium-tinged perceptions). With many digressions (on subjects ranging from Chaucer's poetry to a comparison of the River Thames with the Mississippi), De Quincey discusses the "grandeur and power" of the mail-coach ride; prior to the invention of the railroad, the mail coach represented the ultimate in transportation, in speed and force and controlled energy. Perhaps the most memorable and frequently-cited portion of Part I is De Quincey's comparison of one veteran mail-coachman to a crocodile. The crocodile-coachman's pretty granddaughter is memorialized as "Fanny of the Bath Road."
    • The concluding portion of Part I is set apart under the subtitle "Going Down with Victory," and relates the author's sensations as the mail coaches spread news of English victories in the Napoleonic Wars across England — though simultaneously spreading grief, as women learn the fates of men lost in battle.
  • Part II, "The Vision of Sudden Death," deals in great detail with a near-accident that occurred one night while De Quincey, intoxicated with opium, was riding on an outside seat of a mail coach. The driver fell asleep and the massive coach nearly collided with a gig bearing a young couple.
  • Part III, "Dream Fugue, Founded on the Preceding Theme of Sudden Death," is devoted to De Quincey's opium dreams and reveries that elaborated on the elements of Parts I and II, the mail coaches, the near accident, national victory and grief. Beginning with a quotation from Paradise Lost and a clarion "Tumultuosissimamente", the author introduces his theme of sudden death, and relates five dreams or visions of intense and exalted emotion and radiant language.
    • I — At sea, a great English man-of-war encounters a graceful pinnace filled with young women, including one mysterious, recurring, archetypal figure from the narrator's visionary experience.
    • II — In a storm at sea, the man-of-war nearly collides with a frigate, the mysterious woman clinging among its shrouds.
    • III — At dawn, the narrator follows the woman along a beach, only to see her overwhelmed by shifting sands.
    • IV — The narrator finds himself borne with others in a "triumphal car," racing miles through the night as "restless anthems, and Te Deums reverberated from the choirs and orchestras of earth." The "secret word" — "Waterloo and Recovered Christendom!" — passes before them. The car enters an enormous cosmic cathedral; with three blasts from a Dying Trumpeter, the mysterious female reappears with a spectre of death and her "better angel," his face hidden in his wings.
    • V — With "heart-shattering music" from the "golden tubes of the organ," the cathedral is filled with re-awakened "Pomps of life." The living and the dead sing to God, and the woman enters "the gates of the golden dawn...."
  • A "Postscript" concludes the whole and provides a conceptual frame for "This little paper," the unique literary artifact that precedes it.[2]
The English Mail-Coach is one of De Quincey's endeavors at writing what he called "impassioned prose," like his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Suspiria de Profundis. De Quincey had originally intended The English Mail-Coach to be one part of the Suspiria.
Its literary quality and its unique nature have made The English Mail-Coach a central focus of De Quincey scholarship and criticism.

[From Wikipedia:]
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