Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) stands, with William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, among the best essayists of the romantic era. Aside from a Gothicky novel called "Klosterheim," virtually everything De Quincey wrote was relatively short, though his range was exceptionally broad: conservative political tracts, tales of terror (the best is "The Avenger"), articles about classical literature and assorted literary reminiscences, chiefly of the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. At the end of his life, his collected works spanned 14 volumes.
This is remarkable because, for most of his adult existence, De Quincey was an opium addict, an alcoholic in all but name, and a man who spent years dodging creditors, constantly moving from one rented room to another. What money he didn't spend on laudanum - his preferred opium-alcohol mixture - he spent on buying thousands of books, many of them pricey and rare. For years he rented Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's old home in the Lake District, and essentially used it to store his library and papers. Though from an upper-middle-class family and exceptionally well educated in Latin and Greek, De Quincey nonetheless dropped out of Oxford, eventually married his housekeeper (who bore him eight children) and was regularly shamed by public announcements of his nonpayment of bills. He contributed to multiple magazines, Blackwood's being the best known, and sooner or later quarreled with nearly all his editors. In person, he was diminutive (under five feet tall) and exceptionally courtly in his manner and speech.
Today De Quincey is remembered, and by some revered, for his evocative (at times purple) prose and for two or three of the most influential works of the 19th century, the most famous being the autobiographical "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater." No less an authority than William Burroughs has called "Confessions" "the first, and still the best, book about drug addiction. . . . No other author since has given such a completely analytical description of what it is like to be a junky from the first use to the effects of withdrawal."
In this lucid, deeply researched biography, Robert Morrison makes plain that De Quincey wasn't just a recreational user, but truly a slave to his habit. He would regularly pop pills - laudanum capsules that he kept in a snuffbox - even in the presence of company. Although De Quincey tried repeatedly to break the drug's hold over him, the consequent shakes, fevers and depressions would eventually destroy his resolve. And yet two sections of "Confessions" are honestly titled: "The Pleasures of Opium" and "The Pains of Opium," for the drug lifted some of life's burdens, even as it imposed others. It also allowed for vivid, hallucinatory dreams and memories, often of the dead: the beloved sister whom De Quincey lost when young, the prostitute Ann who shared his early miseries, the 3-year-old Wordsworth daughter he played with and adored, his own deceased children. In opium visions they might all, for a moment, live again.
Throughout his life De Quincey wrote repeatedly about himself in what one might call supplements to the "Confessions." These include "Suspiria de Profundis" ("Sighs From the Depths") and "The English Mail-Coach," which opens with a paean to speed, to the thrill of racing along pitch-black roads at night, and ominously titles one chapter "The Vision of Sudden Death." If, in some lights, De Quincey may be viewed as a proto-Burroughs, as well as a British cousin to Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire, he might with a stretch even be seen as an ancestor of the J.G. Ballard who wrote "Crash."
As a practicing literary critic, De Quincey memorably distinguished between "The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power," that is, between those works that add to our stock of learning, that teach, and those that move us and affect our souls. "The Literature of Knowledge" is inherently provisional and, like any science text or cookbook, open to additions and revision; not so the "Literature of Power." As De Quincey writes, "A good steam-engine is properly superseded by a better. But one lovely pastoral valley is not superseded by another, nor a statue of Praxiteles by a statue of Michael Angelo."
This hard-scrambling journalist's other permanent contribution to scholarship - an anthology favorite - is "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth." Here De Quincey probes the "peculiar awfulness" and "a depth of solemnity" he had always felt when, after Macbeth and his wife have murdered the king, they suddenly hear the sound of knocking at the castle door. In De Quincey's view, the killing of Duncan occurs during a "suspension and pause in ordinary human concerns," in a kind of temporal "parenthesis," and the knocking signals the return to the normal goings-on of the world, while also revealing to the Macbeths the full horror of what they have just done.
Murder, in fact, always deeply fascinated De Quincey and comes to the fore in his wittiest essay, the savagely deadpan "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." Conceived as a lecture to a society of connoisseurs, it remains the foundational text for the grisly black humor of films such as "Kind Hearts and Coronets" or Patricia Highsmith's novels about the talented Mr. Ripley. As our lecturer observes: "Something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature."
Alas, the wholly aesthetic murder can be elusive: "Awkward disturbances will arise; people will not submit to have their throats cut quietly; they will run, they will kick, they will bite; and, whilst the portrait-painter often has to complain of too much torpor in his subject, the artist in our line is generally embarrassed by too much animation."
What's more, the practicing connoisseur requires firmness of character. Otherwise, "if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time."
If you've never read Thomas De Quincey, you should first pick up a good selection of his writings. Afterwards, when fascinated by the man, as you will be, turn immediately to this excellent, detailed and often harrowing biography, "The English Opium-Eater."
Dirda reviews books every Thursday in The Post.
THE ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER
A Biography of Thomas De Quincey
By Robert Morrison.
Pegasus. 462 pp. $35
For the writer and producer of Technotronic, see Jo Bogaert.
Thomas Penson De Quincey (; 15 August 1785 – 8 December 1859) was an English essayist, best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). Many scholars suggest that in publishing this work De Quincey inaugurated the tradition of addiction literature in the West.
Life and work
Child and student
De Quincey was born at 86 Cross Street, Manchester, Lancashire. His father was a successful merchant with an interest in literature who died when he was quite young. Soon after his birth the family went to The Farm and then later to Greenheys, a larger country house in Chorlton-on-Medlock near Manchester. In 1796, three years after the death of his father, Thomas Quincey, his mother – the erstwhile Elizabeth Penson – took the name "De Quincey." In the same year, De Quincey's mother moved to Bath, Somerset, and enrolled him at King Edward's School.
De Quincey was a weak and sickly child. His youth was spent in solitude, and when his elder brother, William, came home, he wreaked havoc in the quiet surroundings. De Quincey's mother (who counted Hannah More amongst her friends) was a woman of strong character and intelligence, but seems to have inspired more awe than affection in her children. She brought them up strictly, taking De Quincey out of school after three years because she was afraid he would become big-headed, and sending him to an inferior school at Wingfield in Wiltshire. It is purported that at this time, in 1799, De Quincey first read Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge.
In 1800, De Quincey, aged 15, was ready for the University of Oxford; his scholarship was far in advance of his years. "That boy," his master at Bath had said, "could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one." He was sent to Manchester Grammar School, in order that after three years' stay he might obtain a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford, but he took flight after 19 months.
His first plan had been to reach William Wordsworth, whose Lyrical Ballads (1798) had consoled him in fits of depression and had awakened in him a deep reverence for the poet. But for that De Quincey was too timid, so he made his way to Chester, where his mother dwelt, in the hope of seeing a sister; he was caught by the older members of the family, but, through the efforts of his uncle, Colonel Penson, received the promise of a guinea (£1.05) a week to carry out his later project of a solitary tramp through Wales. From July to November 1802, De Quincey lived as a wayfarer. He soon lost his guinea by ceasing to keep his family informed of his whereabouts, and had difficulty making ends meet. Still, apparently fearing pursuit, he borrowed some money and travelled to London, where he tried to borrow more. Having failed, he lived close to starvation rather than return to his family.
This deprived period left a profound mark upon De Quincey's psychology, and upon the writing he would later do; it forms a major and crucial part of the first section of the Confessions, and re-appears in various forms throughout the vast body of his lifetime literary work.
Discovered by chance by his friends, De Quincey was brought home and finally allowed to go to Worcester College, Oxford, on a reduced income. Here, we are told, "he came to be looked upon as a strange being who associated with no one." In 1804, while at Oxford, he began the occasional use of opium. He completed his studies, but failed to take the oral examination leading to a degree; he left the university without graduating. He became an acquaintance of Coleridge and Wordsworth, having already sought out Charles Lamb in London. His acquaintance with Wordsworth led to his settling in 1809 at Grasmere, in the Lake District. He lived for ten years in Dove Cottage, which Wordsworth had occupied and which is now a popular tourist attraction, and for another five years at Fox Ghyll near Rydal. De Quincey was married in 1816, and soon after, having no money left, he took up literary work in earnest.
His wife Margaret bore him eight children before her death in 1837. Three of De Quincey's daughters survived him. One of his sons, Paul Frederick de Quincey (1828–1894), emigrated to New Zealand.
In July 1818 De Quincey became editor of The Westmorland Gazette, a Tory newspaper published in Kendal, after its first editor had been dismissed. He was unreliable at meeting deadlines, and in June 1819 the proprietors complained about "their dissatisfaction with the lack of 'regular communication between the Editor and the Printer'", and he resigned in November 1819. De Quincey's political sympathies tended towards the right. He was "a champion of aristocratic privilege," reserved "Jacobin" as his highest term of opprobrium, held reactionary views on the Peterloo Massacre and the Sepoy rebellion, on Catholic Emancipation and the enfranchisement of the common people, and yet was also a staunch abolitionist on the issue of slavery.
Translator and essayist
In 1821 he went to London to dispose of some translations from German authors, but was persuaded first to write and publish an account of his opium experiences, which that year appeared in the London Magazine. This new sensation eclipsed Lamb's Essays of Elia, which were then appearing in the same periodical. The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater were soon published in book form. De Quincey then made literary acquaintances. Thomas Hood found the shrinking author "at home in a German ocean of literature, in a storm, flooding all the floor, the tables and the chairs – billows of books …" De Quincey was famous for his conversation; Richard Woodhouse wrote of the "depth and reality, as I may so call it, of his knowledge … His conversation appeared like the elaboration of a mine of results …"
From this time on De Quincey maintained himself by contributing to various magazines. He soon exchanged London and the Lakes for Edinburgh, the nearby village of Polton, and Glasgow; he spent the remainder of his life in Scotland. In the 1830s he is listed as living at 1 Forres Street, a large townhouse on the edge of the Moray Estate in Edinburgh.
Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine and its rival Tait's Magazine received numerous contributions. Suspiria de Profundis (1845) appeared in Blackwood's, as did The English Mail-Coach (1849). Joan of Arc (1847) was published in Tait's. Between 1835 and 1849, Tait's published a series of De Quincey's reminiscences of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Robert Southey and other figures among the Lake Poets – a series that taken together constitutes one of his most important works.
Along with his opium addiction, debt was one of the primary constraints of De Quincey's adult life. He pursued journalism as the one way available to him to pay his bills; and without financial need it is an open question how much writing he would ever have done.
De Quincey came into his patrimony at the age of 21, when he received £2,000 from his late father's estate. He was unwisely generous with his funds, making loans that could not or would not be repaid, including a £300 loan to Coleridge in 1807. After leaving Oxford without a degree, he made an attempt to study law, but desultorily and unsuccessfully; he had no steady income and spent large sums on books (he was a lifelong collector). By the 1820s he was constantly in financial difficulties. More than once in his later years, De Quincey was forced to seek protection from arrest in the debtors' sanctuary of Holyrood in Edinburgh. (At the time, Holyrood Park formed a debtors' sanctuary; people could not be arrested for debt within those bounds. The debtors who took sanctuary there could only emerge on Sundays, when arrests for debt were not allowed.) Yet De Quincey's money problems persisted; he got into further difficulties for debts he incurred within the sanctuary.
His financial situation improved only later in his life. His mother's death in 1846 brought him an income of £200 per year. When his daughters matured, they managed his budget more responsibly than he ever had himself.
A number of medical practitioners have speculated on the physical ailments that inspired and underlay De Quincey's resort to opium, and searched the corpus of his autobiographical works for evidence. One possibility is "a mild … case of infantile paralysis" that he may have contracted from Wordsworth's children. De Quincey certainly had intestinal problems, and problems with his vision – which could have been related: "uncorrected myopic astigmatism … manifests itself as digestive problems in men." De Quincey also suffered neuralgic facial pain, "trigeminal neuralgia" – "attacks of piercing pain in the face, of such severity that they sometimes drive the victim to suicide."
As with many addicts, De Quincey's opium addiction may have had a "self-medication" aspect for real physical illnesses, as well as a psychological aspect.
By his own testimony, De Quincey first used opium in 1804 to relieve his neuralgia; he used it for pleasure, but no more than weekly, through 1812. It was in 1813 that he first commenced daily usage, in response to illness and his grief over the death of Wordsworth's young daughter Catherine. During 1813–1819 his daily dose was very high, and resulted in the sufferings recounted in the final sections of his Confessions. For the rest of his life his opium use fluctuated between extremes; he took "enormous doses" in 1843, but late in 1848 he went for 61 days with none at all. There are many theories surrounding the effects of opium on literary creation, and notably, his periods of low usage were literarily unproductive.
He died in Edinburgh and is buried in St Cuthbert's Churchyard at the west end of Princes Street. His stone, in the southwest section of the churchyard on a west facing wall, is plain and says nothing of his work.
During the final decade of his life, De Quincey laboured on a collected edition of his works.Ticknor and Fields, a Boston publishing house, first proposed such a collection, and solicited De Quincey's approval and co-operation. It was only when De Quincey, a chronic procrastinator, failed to answer repeated letters from James Thomas Fields that the American publisher proceeded independently, reprinting the author's works from their original magazine appearances. Twenty-two volumes of De Quincey's Writings were issued from 1851 to 1859.
The existence of the American edition prompted a corresponding British edition. Since the spring of 1850 De Quincey had been a regular contributor to an Edinburgh periodical called Hogg's Weekly Instructor whose publisher, James Hogg, undertook to publish Selections Grave and Gay from Writings Published and Unpublished by Thomas De Quincey. De Quincey edited and revised his works for the Hogg edition; the 1856 second edition of the Confessions was prepared for inclusion in Selections Grave and Gay…. The first volume of that edition appeared in May 1853, and the fourteenth and last in January 1860, a month after the author's death.
Both of these were multi-volume collections, yet made no pretense to be complete. Scholar and editor David Masson attempted a more definitive collection: The Works of Thomas De Quincey appeared in fourteen volumes in 1889 and 1890. Yet De Quincey's writings were so voluminous and widely dispersed that further collections followed: two volumes of The Uncollected Writings (1890), and two volumes of Posthumous Works (1891–93). De Quincey's 1803 diary was published in 1927. Yet another volume, New Essays by De Quincey, appeared in 1966.
His immediate influence extended to Edgar Allan Poe, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Charles Baudelaire and Nikolai Gogol, but even major 20th-century writers such as Jorge Luis Borges admired and claimed to be partly influenced by his work. Berlioz also loosely based his Symphonie fantastique on Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, drawing on the theme of the internal struggle with one's self.
Main article: Thomas De Quincey bibliography
- ^de quincey. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/de_quincey (accessed: 29 June 2013).
- ^Ainsworth, Horace Eaton, Thomas De Quincey: A Biography, New York, Oxford University Press, 1936; reprinted New York, Octagon Books, 1972;
- ^Lindop, GrevelThe Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1981.
- ^Morrison, Robert. "De Quincey's Wicked Book." OUP Blog. Oxford University Press, 2013. http://blog.oup.com/2013/02/de-quinceys-confessions-english-opium-eater/
- ^The later building on the site (adjoining John Dalton Street) bears a stone inscription referring to de Quincey.
- ^ abcMorrison, Robert. "Thomas De Quincey: Chronology." TDQ Homepage. Kingston: Queen's University, 2013. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 24 December 2013.
- ^Eaton, pp. 1–40; Lindop, pp. 2–43.
- ^Morrison, Robert. "Thomas De Quincey: Biography." TDQ Homepage. Kingston: Queen's University, 2013. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 3 May 2007. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
- ^Lindop, pp. 25, 46–62 and ff.
- ^Eaton, pp. 57–87.
- ^Eaton, pp. 106–29.
- ^"Nomination for the English Lake District Cultural Landscape: An Evolving Masterpiece"(PDF) (PDF). Lake District National Park Partnership. 20 May 2015. p. 39. Retrieved 23 May 2016.
- ^Eaton, pp. 255–308.
- ^"Death of Colonel de Quincey". The New Zealand Herald. XXXI (9486). 16 April 1894. p. 5. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
- ^Liukkonen, Petri. "Thomas De Quincey". Books and Writers (kirjasto.sci.fi). Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 10 October 2014.
- ^Lindop, Grevel (September 2004). "Quincey, Thomas Penson De (1785–1859)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 4 July 2010. Online edition available by subscription
- ^Purdon, James (6 December 2009). "The English Opium Eater by Robert Morrison". The Guardian. London.
- ^Confessions was first published in London Magazine in 1821. It was published in book form the following year. (Morrison, Robert. "Thomas De Quincey: Chronology." TDQ Homepage. Kingston: Queen's University, 2013. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 24 December 2013. )
- ^Lindop. pp. 259–60.
- ^Eaton, pp. 280.
- ^Eaton, pp. 309–33 and ff.
- ^"Edinburgh Post Office annual directory, 1832-1833". National Library of Scotland. p. 153. Retrieved 2018-02-25.
- ^Thomas De Quincey, Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, David Wright, ed., New York, Penguin Books, 1970.
- ^Lindop, pp. 246, 255, 257, 269, 271 and ff., especially 319-39.
- ^Lindop, pp. 310–11; Eaton, pp. 342–3.
- ^"A Parliament for a People..."(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on 4 September 2012. Retrieved 25 September 2011.
- ^Eaton, p. 372.
- ^Eaton, pp. 429–30.
- ^C. H. Hendricks, cited in: Judson S. Lyon, Thomas De Quincey, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1969; p. 57.
- ^George M. Gould, cited in Lyon, p. 55.
- ^Philip Sandblom, Creativity and Disease, Seventh Edition, New York, Marion Boyars, 1992; p. 49.
- ^Lyon, pp. 57–8.
- ^Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, revised edition, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, Crucible, 1988; pp. 229–31.
- ^Eaton, pp. 469–82.
- ^Eaton, p. 472.
- ^Eaton, p. 525.
- Abrams, M.H. (1971). Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: Norton.
- Agnew, Lois Peters (2012). Thomas De Quincey: British Rhetoric's Romantic Turn. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Barrell, John (1991). The Infection of Thomas De Quincey. New Have: Yale University Press.
- Bate, Jonathan (1993). "The Literature of Power: Coleridge and De Quincey." In: Coleridge’s Visionary Languages. Bury St. Edmonds: Brewer, pp. 137–50.
- Baxter, Edmund (1990). De Quincey's Art of Autobiography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Berridge, Virginia and Griffith Edwards (1981). Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-century England. London: Allen Lane.
- Clej, Alina (1995). A Genealogy of the Modern Self: Thomas De Quincey and the Intoxication of Writing. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- De Luca, V.A. (1980). Thomas De Quincey: The Prose of Vision. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Devlin, D.D. (1983). De Quincey, Wordsworth and the Art of Prose. London: Macmillan.
- Goldman, Albert (1965). The Mine and the Mint: Sources for the Writings of Thomas De Quincey. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Le Gallienne, Richard (1898). "Introduction." In: The Opium Eater and Essays. London: Ward, Lock & Co., pp. vii–xxv.
- McDonagh, Josephine (1994). De Quincey's Disciplines. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- North, Julian (1997). De Quincey Reviewed: Thomas De Quincey’s Critical Reception, 1821-1994. London: Camden House.
- Oliphant, Margaret (1877). "The Opium-Eater,"Blackwood's Magazine, Vol. 122, pp. 717–41.
- Roberts, Daniel S. (2000). Reviosionary Gleam: De Quincey, Coleridge and the High Romantic Argument. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
- Russett, Margaret (1997). De Quincey’s Romanticism: Canonical Minority and the Forms of Transmission. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Rzepka, Charles (1995). Sacramental Commodities: Gift, Text and the Sublime in De Quincey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
- Saintsbury, George (1923). "De Quincey." In: The Collected Essays and Papers, Vol. 1. London: Dent, pp. 210–38.
- Snyder, Robert Lance, ed. (1985). Thomas De Quincey: Bicentenary Studies. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Stephen, Leslie (1869). "The Decay of Murder,"The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 20, pp. 722–33.
- Stirling, James Hutchison (1867). "De Quincey and Coleridge Upon Kant,"Fortnightly Review, Vol. 8, pp. 377–97.
- Frances, Wilson (2016). Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York. ISBN 978-0-374-16730-1
- Wellek, René (1944). "De Quincey’s Status in the History of Ideas,” Philological Quarterly, Vol. 23, pp. 248–72.
- Woodhouse, Richard (1885). "Notes of Conversation with Thomas De Quincey." In: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. London: Kegan Paul, pp. 191–233.
- Thomas De Quincey Homepage, maintained by Dr Robert Morrison
- Works by Thomas De Quincey at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Thomas De Quincey at Internet Archive
- Works by Thomas De Quincey at Hathi Trust
- Works by Thomas De Quincey at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Works by Thomas De Quincey at Open Library
- Thomas De Quincey elibrary PDFs of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, and The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power
- "The fascinating life of an English writer, essayist and 'opium eater'", Michael Dirda, Washington Post, 30 December 2010
- "Drugs and Words", Laura Marsh, The New Republic, 15 February 2011.
- Archival material at Leeds University Library