DE QUINCEY, THOMAS (1785-1859)
Lot 122
DE QUINCEY, THOMAS (1785-1859) AUTOGRAPH DRAFT OF A POEM ABOUT BELSHAZZAR, KING OF BABYLON, [?c.1821]
Sold for £15,000 (US$ 25,580) inc. premium
Lot Details
DE QUINCEY, THOMAS (1785-1859)
AUTOGRAPH DRAFT OF A POEM ABOUT BELSHAZZAR, KING OF BABYLON, some 75 lines in hexameters, with extensive autograph corrections, deletions and insertions preserving reconsidered readings and with a long prose passage concerning Christianity and Judaism, 2 pages, quarto, on both sides of the same leaf, extensive light staining (?with tea) as almost 'called-for' with De Quincey manuscripts, text entirely readable, no watermark, no date [possibly as early as 1821]

Thus in Fire, and Fire, did Cyrus of Elam
Thus, when the word [gap] did Cyrus of Elam
On a festal night break in with roar and fierce alalagmos
Over Babylon's walls; over tower and turret of entrance
Over helmed heads; over plumes; over carnage of Armies.
Idle the spearman's spear, Assyrian scymetar idle
Broken the bow-string of the Mesopotamian archer...

THIS IS THE ONLY KNOWN SUBSTANTIAL ORIGINAL VERSE BY THOMAS DE QUINCEY.

It was published from this manuscript by Grevel Lindop in The Works of Thomas De Quincey. Lindop described the manuscript in a letter as both 'remarkable' and 'astonishing' and 'in a way the most extraordinary De Quincey manuscript I have ever seen.' The only other original verse by De Quincey consists of a two-line parody of William Shenstone and 'nine undistinguished lines about Senacherib.' Otherwise there is only a 96-line virtual translation 'Anna Louisa' from a German original.

Lindrop also commented (The Works) that 'the poem elaborates its material imaginatively in ways which recall Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). The imagery of "fever" and "delir[i]um", the "labyrinthine apartments", "spaces abysmal" and "galleries [which] ran high overhead through an endless...Mass of stair cases climbing; till sight grew dizzy with effort" powerfully suggest "The Pains of Opium" and the "Piranesi" passage...in particular.' He also suggests that De Quincey's sources were the Bible, Herodotus's Histories, and Xenophon, Cyropaedia. Given his reverence for and friendship of poets, it is perhaps surprising that De Quincey did not develop a talent for poetry.

Lindop speculates that the poem might have had some connection with the hugely successful exhibition of John Martin's painting 'Belshazzar's Feast' at the British Institution in London in 1821; another possible source for De Quincey's interest in the theme may have been through his acquaintance with Washington Allston who worked sporadically after 1803 on a painting of the same subject, which was unfinished at his death in 1844.

PROVENANCE: Sotheby's [thought to be the sale of the A.H. Japp Papers], 4 December 1973, part of lot 125 - a group of drafts in which this item is mentioned: 'a heavily revised draft for a blank verse poem on Cyrus and Belshazzar, written on both sides of a quarto leaf, with a long prose note on Christianity in relation to Judaism subsequently written in the blank spaces of his poetical draft'; sold to John Wilson; Kenneth Rendell.

REFERENCES: Grevel Lindop, The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, 1993; The Works of Thomas De Quincey, 21 volumes, general editor Grevel Lindop, 2000-2003, volume 20, pp. 333-338; Index of English Literary Manuscripts, Volume IV, 1800-1900, Part I, compiled by Barbara Rosenbaum and Pamela White, DeQ 220.
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