Marginalia, no.229

Following the railway lines, nineteenth-century civilization was a slender-tentacled octopus extended upon an immemorial rural quiet.

~ William Irvine, Apes, Angels, and Victorians

Where this mysterious cephalopod had come from and how it had got so big, no one could say. Presumably it had crawled out of the sea one night, or perhaps it had arrived by steamer from a distant star. A few things were certain: it was accompanied by its own parasites in the form of bankers, lawyers, and insurance salesmen. It couldn’t abide the thought of unemployed children. And that film of soot we’re taught was spread all over the cities by belching late-Victorian factories? Ink.

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3 responses to “Marginalia, no.229

  1. Thanks, Ian, as always. As to railways, I should like DeQuincey to have his say here:

    ‘The modern modes of travelling cannot compare with the old mail-coach system in grandeur and power. They boast of more velocity,—not, however, as a consciousness, but as a fact of our lifeless knowledge, resting upon alien evidence: as, for instance, because somebody says that we have gone fifty miles in the hour, though we are far from feeling it as a personal experience; or upon the evidence of a result, as that actually we find ourselves in York four hours after leaving London. Apart from such an assertion, or such a result, I myself am little aware of the pace. But, seated on the old mail-coach, we needed no evidence out of ourselves to indicate the velocity. On this system the word was not magna loquimur, as upon railways, but vivimus. Yes, “magna vivimus”; we do not make verbal ostentation of our grandeurs, we realise our grandeurs in act, and in the very experience of life. The vital experience of the glad animal sensibilities made doubts impossible on the question of our speed; we heard our speed, we saw it, we felt it as a thrilling; and this speed was not the product of blind insensate agencies, that had no sympathy to give, but was incarnated in the fiery eyeballs of the noblest amongst brutes, in his dilated nostril, spasmodic muscles, and thunder-beating hoofs. The sensibility of the horse, uttering itself in the maniac light of his eye, might be the last vibration of such a movement; the glory of Salamanca might be the first. But the intervening links that connected them, that spread the earthquake of battle into the eyeballs of the horse, were the heart of man and its electric thrillings—kindling in the rapture of the fiery strife, and then propagating its own tumults by contagious shouts and gestures to the heart of his servant the horse. But now, on the new system of travelling, iron tubes and boilers have disconnected man’s heart from the ministers of his locomotion. Nile nor Trafalgar has power to raise an extra bubble in a steam-kettle. The galvanic cycle is broken up forever; man’s imperial nature no longer sends itself forward through the electric sensibility of the horse; the inter-agencies are gone in the mode of communication between the horse and his master out of which grew so many aspects of sublimity under accidents of mists that hid, or sudden blazes that revealed, of mobs that agitated, or midnight solitudes that awed. Tidings fitted to convulse all nations must henceforwards travel by culinary process; and the trumpet that once announced from afar the laurelled mail, heart-shaking when heard screaming on the wind and proclaiming itself through the darkness to every village or solitary house on its route, has now given way for ever to the pot-wallopings of the boiler. Thus have perished multiform openings for public expressions of interest, scenical yet natural, in great national tidings,—for revelations of faces and groups that could not offer themselves amongst the fluctuating mobs of a railway station. The gatherings of gazers about a laurelled mail had one centre, and acknowledged one sole interest. But the crowds attending at a railway station have as little unity as running water, and own as many centres as there are separate carriages in the train.’

  2. Ian Wolcott

    The English Mail Coach? Is that the essay? I have this impression that DeQuincey is inconsistent: superb in some cases and mediocre in others. I should count him a kindred spirit in that case, I suppose. But there’s this century-old hardback volume of DeQuincey at Green Apple Books in San Francisco that I’ve been looking at for years now and I just can’t bring myself to buy it. I’m content, I suppose, with my paperback ‘Confessions’ and my Everyman Library collection.

    • Yes, “The English Mail Coach”––a lovely thing, which my polymathic friend Henry told me I should read. I’m only now making my forays into DeQuincey, as time allows.

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