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1804 / London

Thomas de Quincey Helps Himself

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It is so long since I first took opium that if it had been a trifling incident in my life, I might have forgotten its date—but cardinal events are not to be forgotten, and from circumstances connected with it, I remember that it must be referred to as the autumn of 1804. During that season I was in London, having come thither for the first time since my entrance at college. My introduction to opium arose in the following way. From an early age I had been accustomed to wash my head in cold water at least once a day; being suddenly seized with toothache, I attributed it to some relaxation caused by an accidental intermission of that practice, jumped out of bed, plunged my head into a basin of cold water, and with hair thus wetted went to sleep. The next morning, as I need hardly say, I awoke with excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face from which I had hardly any respite for about twenty days. On the twenty-first day, I think it was, and on a Sunday, I went out into the streets, rather to run away—if possible—from my torments, than with any distinct purpose. By accident I met a college acquaintance who recommended opium. Opium! Dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain! I had heard of it as I had of manna or of ambrosia, but no further: how unmeaning a sound was it at that time! What solemn chords does it now strike upon my heart! What heart-quaking vibrations of sad and happy remembrances! Reverting for a moment to these, I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time, and the man—if man he was—that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless—and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homeward lay through Oxford Street; and near “the stately Pantheon” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist’s shop. The druggist—unconscious minister of celestial pleasures!—as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday; and when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do—and furthermore, out of my shilling returned to me what seemed to be a real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself. And it confirms me in this way of considering him, that when I next came up to London, I sought him near the stately Pantheon, and found him not—and thus to me, who knew not his name (if indeed he had one) he seemed rather to have vanished from Oxford Street than to have removed in any bodily fashion. The reader may choose to think of him as possibly no more than a sublunary druggist: it may be so, but my faith is better: I believe him to have evanesced, or evaporated. So unwillingly would I connect any mortal remembrances with that hour and place and creature that first brought me acquainted with the celestial drug.

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Medicine
About the Text

From Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written in his periodical, The Friend, that he wished to devote a work to the power of dreams; ten years later, his former friend De Quincey published his memoir, replete with descriptions of opium-induced dreaming. Virginia Woolf called the author "an exception and a solitary." De Quincey as a literary critic is best known for his essay "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth."

Physician, heal yourself: thus you help your patient too. Let his best help be to see with his own eyes the man who makes himself well.
Friedrich Nietzsche, c. 1884
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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