De Quincey, Thomas
English writer Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) wrote prolifically and in numerous fields, ranging from fiction to biography to economics, and often crossing genre boundaries in unclassifiable works that mixed exposition of others' ideas with autobiography and personal reflections. He remains best known, however, for a single work: Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). That work, too, was difficult to classify—it mixed autobiographical elements with description and evaluation of the effects of the addictive, analgesic, and psychoactive drug named in its title.
De Quincey was considered one of the greatest prose stylists of the English Romantic era, otherwise best known for poetry, and his imaginative, convoluted prose style, best exemplified in Confessions of an English Opium Eater but also on display in a great variety of other works that were widely read in 19th-century England and America, exerted a vast influence on later literary radicals such as American mystery pioneer and experimentalist Edgar Allan Poe and the French poet Charles Baudelaire.
Shaken by Deaths of Siblings
"Among his earliest memories were dreams," wrote De Quincey biographer Grevel Lindop—appropriate for a writer who put a powerful stream of his interior life into everything he penned. De Quincey was born Thomas Quincey in the English city of Manchester on August 15, 1785. The family later adopted the name De Quincey, hypothesizing that they were related to an old Anglo-French family named de Quincis that dated back to the time of the Norman Conquest. De Quincey's father Thomas was a cloth merchant in Manchester, the cradle of English industry, and the family lived in a pleasant country home. De Quincey was the fourth of five children; he was close to his siblings and was deeply affected by the deaths of his sisters Jane and Elizabeth during his childhood. With his brother William he created a rich fantasy life centered on the two imaginary warring kingdoms of Gombroon and Tigrosylvania. De Quincey's father died in 1793, leaving the family with sufficient financial resources for the time being.
De Quincey was educated in private schools and quickly showed a gift for language in general. When he was about eight, he impressed a local bookseller by translating a book of a Latin-language copy of the Bible into English at sight, and by the time he was 15 he could speak, read, and write ancient Greek fluently. One teacher at the Bath Grammar School remarked to a visitor that De Quincey could have given a better oration in front of an ancient Athenian mob than he, the teacher, could have done before an English one.
In 1801 De Quincey began attending the Manchester Grammar School, a prep school-like institution that could have earned him a valuable Oxford University scholarship. He learned some important literary lessons while he was there, reading the early works of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and other English Romantic poets who would greatly influence his own writing in the future. At the time, however, De Quincey was bored. He ran away from the school, defying the wishes of his mother, and wandered around the Wales region, sleeping outdoorsin order to stretch his money supply. Finally broke, he went to London to try to borrow money on the strength of his family's good name.
Things went from bad to worse. Lenders refused his applications for loans, and he nearly starved to death. He was apparently befriended by a prostitute named Ann, who at one point revived him after he collapsed on the street by spending her own meager savings on a bottle of port wine and bringing it to him. When De Quincey later returned to London to look for her, she had disappeared, and no record of her other than De Quincey's recollections has ever surfaced. Readers have occasionally wondered whether she might have been a product of De Quincey's imagination, but the details he provides in his descriptions of her are convincing ones.
Began Taking Opium
Eventually De Quincey worked out his problems with his family, and he enrolled in Oxford University's Worcester College in 1803. It was while he was a student there that his opium addiction began. At first he took the drug in the form of laudanum, a liquid tincture (an alcohol-based distillate) that he sought out for toothache relief. De Quincey's career at Oxford was mercurial; he was a brilliant student in English literature and in the Greek, Latin, and German languages. Embarking on his final exams in 1808 he started out strongly but left school before finishing, and he never received his degree.
Instead he plunged more deeply into the literary life. By the time he left Oxford, he had made the acquaintance of several of the leading writers of the day, central figures in what would be known as the Romantic movement. He donated five hundred pounds anonymously to "Kubla Khan" author and fellow opium user Samuel Taylor Coleridge when Coleridge was in dire financial straits, and he lived for a time with poet William Wordsworth and his wife. Moving frequently from place to place, De Quincey lived in absolute disorder. He accumulated a huge library of books, and his friends began to treat him as something of a mobile lending library. Sometimes he would move out of a house or country cottage when it became too clogged with his papers and unfinished projects—sometimes his landlords had a strong enough belief in his potential that they carefully stored his materials. Despite his often chaotic life, De Quincey was known as a loyal and supportive associate; when his friend John Wilson became a professor and was placed in the position of having to give lectures on subjects with which he was unfamiliar, De Quincey cheerfully ghostwrote the lectures for him.
In 1817 De Quincey married Margaret Simpson, the daughter of a farmer in the Grasmere district of northern England. They eventually had eight children. By the time of the marriage, De Quincey had burned through much of the money he had coming from his family, and his opium usage had ballooned to a massive 340 grains daily—more than 20 grams. Periodically he tried to give up the drug, but he succeeded only in lowering his intake and keeping it at a consistent level.
By the late 1810s, well into his fourth decade of life, De Quincey had written only a few articles and pamphlets despite the brilliance many friends recognized in him. But now, faced with the necessity of supporting his family, he began to contribute prolifically to magazines, submitting everything from popularizations of the theories of pioneer British economist David Ricardo, to literary criticism, to translations of German poetry and drama. His greatest success, however, came when he wrote about himself, in a dizzying style that combined erudition, flights of prose complexity, and bald honesty. His first work in this vein was Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which appeared in London Magazine in 1821 and was soon reprinted in book form. It remained the best known of all De Quincey's writings.
Described Effects of Drug
The form of Confessions of an English Opium Eater was and remains unusual; it is partly memoir and partly an exploration of the effects of a mind-altering substance. In a lengthy section of "Preliminary Confessions," De Quincey recounted the story of his wanderings as a young man, including his encounters with Ann, the London prostitute. But the bulk of the work is given over to personal descriptions of "The Pleasures of Opium" and "The Pains of Opium." At the beginning of the work De Quincey seems to promise a moralistic antidrug stance, observing that "If opium-eating be a sensual pleasure, and if I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess, not yet recorded of any other man, it is no less true, that I have struggled against this fascinating enthralment with a religious zeal, and have at length accomplished what I never yet heard attributed to any other man—have untwisted, almost to its final links, the accursed chain which fettered me."
The rest of the document, however, gives equal weight to both the positive and negative aspects of opium usage. "[T]hou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples … beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatompylos," wrote De Quincey, "and, 'from the anarchy of dreaming sleep,' callest into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties, and the blessed household countenances, cleansed from the 'dishonours of the grave.' Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!" He rhapsodized about his heightened perceptions of music while under the drug's influence.
De Quincey was equally eloquent in describing the depressive states that came with drug usage. "But for misery and suffering, I might, indeed, be said to have existed in a dormant state," he recalled. "I seldom could prevail on myself to write a letter; an answer of a few words, to any that I received, was the utmost that I could accomplish; and often that not until the letter had laid weeks, or even months, on my writing-table. Without the aid of M. [his wife], all records of bills paid, or to be paid, must have perished; and my whole domestic economy … must have gone into irretrievable confusion."
Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a major success and put De Quincey on the literary map. For the next two decades he was in demand as a contributor to England's leading periodicals. He made money off of a translation of a German hoax novel called Walladmor that had been promoted as a lost work by Scottish historical fantasy novelist Sir Walter Scott. De Quincey wrote some fiction of his own: the novel Klosterheim (1832) and short stories such as "The Household Wreck" (1838) had elements of description and fantasy that anticipated the styles and themes of avant-garde writers such as Poe and Franz Kafka. He also penned a widely read series of biographies of writers, with subjects ranging from Roman emperors to the Romantic poets he personally knew. The latter group was as unconventional in form as were his drug memoirs; De Quincey inserted himself into the narratives, producing a unique mix of biography and autobiography.
De Quincey suffered anew from the deaths of family members in the 1830s. One son, Julius, died at age four; another, William, suffered from a brain disorder and died at 18; and De Quincey lost his wife to typhus in 1837. His opium dosages increased sharply. By this time he had moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, in whose environs he spent most of the rest of his life. The aging writer once again was forced to juggle creditors, but things changed for the better when his oldest daughter, Margaret, took charge of the household.
They improved further in the 1840s and 1850s when De Quincey's reputation as one of Britain's greatest writers expanded. He gained readers in the United States, and his collected works were issued in Boston (they ran to 22 volumes) by the Ticknor, Reed and Fields publishing firm. Although it was not required to do so (Britain and the United States had no reciprocal copyright protection at the time), the firm paid DeQuincey royalties. He continued to write in his old age, and to assemble and revise his works for new collected editions. He died in Edinburgh on December 8, 1859. Many critics in the following decades thought of De Quincey as a writer of genius who had never quite reached his full potential, but a new spate of studies and biographies of the author began appearing in the late 20th century—an age sympathetic to outsider figures and to experimenters with psychoactive substances.
Dendurant, Harold O., Thomas De Quincey: A Reference Guide, G.K. Hall, 1978.
Lindop, Grevel, The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, Taplinger, 1981.
Sackville-West, Edward, Thomas De Quincey: His Life and Work, Yale University Press, 1936.
Whale, John C., Thomas De Quincey's Reluctant Autobiography, Barnes & Noble, 1984.
De Quincey, Thomas, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, full text, http://users.lycaeum.org/∼sputnik/Ludlow/Texts/Opium/prelim.html (October 3, 2006).
"Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859)," Books and Writers, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/quincey.htm (October 3, 2006).