The Addicted Life of Thomas De Quincey

Chasing the dragon into a new literary realm.

By Colin Dickey

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Thomas de Quincey, by Sir John Watson-Gordon, c. 1864.

Thomas de Quincey, by Sir John Watson-Gordon, c. 1864. National Portrait Gallery, London.

To eat. Begin with that verb: not “opium-addict,” nor “smoker” or “drinker”—though this last was most appropriate, since for most of his life Thomas De Quincey preferred laudanum, opium dissolved in an alcohol solution. No, none of these; he called it Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the “eating” being an oblique reference, most likely, to Turkish addicts who were known to eat bitter cakes of solid opium. De Quincey sought to align himself with these mysterious (at least to English audiences) figures of the “Orient,” all the better to heighten the exoticism of the dreams and visions that make up theConfessions. The term “English opium-eater” may be a contradiction in terms, but it’s a hallmark of De Quincey’s style: baroque but lucid, layering meaning and allusion through an unexpected turn of phrase.

No one before had written (in English) so frankly about opium addiction, as De Quincey was himself well aware: “I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess, not yet recorded of any other man.” He stressed “recorded” because, as he writes in a footnote, “there is one celebrated man of the present day who, if all be true which is reported of him, has greatly exceeded me in quantity.” This was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of course, but while Coleridge may have written under the influence of opium, he never took the drug as his explicit subject.

It fell, then, to De Quincey to chase the dragon into an entirely new literary realm. De Quincey became part of the golden age of the English essay that included writers like William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, but his work was unlike the controlled form of those other essayists. “Nothing, indeed,” De Quincey writes in the opening of the Confessions, “is more revolting to English feelings, than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars,” before plunging into a style both ecstatic and erudite, that roams from obscure classical references to impressionistic nightmares to carefully reasoned observations of early nineteenth century England. As The Scotsman would write of De Quincey in their obituary of him: “He is the absolute creator of a species of ‘impassioned prose’ which he seemed born to introduce, and in which he has no prototype, no rival no successor.”

He adopted the “confessional” form from St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but his essay is not a traditional autobiography: it relates only those early instances of his life which relate to his opium addiction—if anything, it is an autobiography of opium, not the writer himself. And while it’s also true that De Quincey had nothing like a “rival,” as The Scotsman put it, it’s clear that De Quincey did have his successors, chiefly in the evolution of the urban peripatetic. His friend J. R. Findlay later recalled that De Quincey “confessed to occasional accesses to an almost irresistible impulse to flee to the labyrinthine shelter of some great city like London or Paris—there to dwell solitary amid a multitude, buried by day in the cloister-like recesses of mighty libraries, and stealing away by night to some obscure lodging.” Walking through a nightmare city recording his observations with a dispassionate but empathetic eye, De Quincey found kinship with Irish refugees and prostitutes: “Being myself, at that time of necessity a peripatetic, or a walker of the streets, I naturally fell in more frequently with those female peripatetics who are technically called street-walkers.” De Quincey is the first modern flâneur, and his influence can be felt from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Baudelaire, from the French Surrealists and Walter Benjamin to W. G. Sebald.


The Confessions’ subtitle is as important as its title: “Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar.” De Quincey is no illiterate junkie or uneducated hustler. The vision of opium addiction he presents is from the vantage point of someone who has the education and reflection to understand what he’s done to himself, and to place it in a larger literary and cultural context. The young De Quincey had managed to impress both William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, despite being more than a decade younger. He gradually inserted himself into Wordsworth’s circle, living with them at Grasmere for several years (Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy wrote to a friend at one point, “We feel often as if he were one of the Family—he is loving, gentle and happy—a very good scholar, and an acute Logician.”), but the elder poet himself never came to treat De Quincey as an equal—after they’d been friends for five years Wordsworth still condescended to him. This blow to his self-worth may account for De Quincey’s early inability to capitalize on his latent talent.

His collision course with drug addiction lay in two halves of De Quincey that had been with him since childhood. First, his capacity for intense and lucid dreams; he would later recall one of his earliest memories of a “remarkable dream of terrific grandeur” when he was less than two years old. The second was his constitution; throughout his life De Quincey was plagued by illness, shooting pains in his stomach that made it difficult to eat or lie down. He was sickly throughout his life, and it was this unrelenting illnesses that led a friend, when De Quincey was nineteen years old, to suggest opium. “Opium!,” De Quincey later recalled. “I had heard of it as I had heard of manna or ambrosia, but no further: how unmeaning a sound it was at that time! what solemn chords does it now strike upon my heart! what heart-quaking vibrations of sad and happy remembrances!”

Opium addiction was poorly understood in Britain in the early nineteenth century. The drug was in widespread use and unlicensed—it was used to treat everything from diabetes to syphilis to constipation—and the mechanism of its addictive properties was so poorly understood (and would be so for decades) that withdrawal symptoms were often mistaken for consumption, the remedy being to take more opium. But it deleterious effects weren’t entirely unknown; among those who claimed to have tried to dissuade De Quincey from taking the drug was none other than Coleridge himself, who later stated he “pleaded with flowing tears, and with an agony of forewarning.” Even if true, Coleridge’s entreaties had little effect.

De Quincey’s description of discovering opium remains one of the literary masterpieces in the history of drug experiences:

I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium-taking, and what I took I took under every disadvantage. But I took it—and in an hour—oh, heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed.

De Quincey continued, throughout the 1810’s, to build his reputation as a friend and colleague of Wordsworth and Coleridge with an astute and encyclopedic mind—all the while managing not to produce any actual writing. And he continued to self-medicate his various ailments with increasing doses of laudanum. Even watching Coleridge deteriorate wasn’t enough to keep De Quincey from following in his footsteps: with a junkie’s logic De Quincey maintained he was in control of the drug for much of his life. Whatever else opium was, it was not an intoxicant; he saw it strongly opposed to wine, in that it didn’t dull one’s senses but heighten them. “Whereas wine disorders the mental faculties, opium, on the contrary (if taken in a proper manner), introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony. Wine robs a man of his self-possession; opium greatly invigorates it.” In reality, it gradually consumed him, and every time he tried to cut back he suffered severe withdrawal. He still held much literary promise, and editors like William Blackwood of Blackwood’s continued to believe in him (“Whatever you choose to send,” Blackwood wrote to De Quincey in 1820, “be it long or short—will always be acceptable.”), but he was alienating these professional connections one by one with his procrastination and unreliability.

He finally turned his fortunes around in 1820 through an act of mental jiu-jitsu: if opium was what prevented him from writing, he would turn the tables and write about it. “Opium,” he wrote to William Blackwood, “has reduced me for the last six years to one general discourtesy of silence. But this I shall think of with not so much pain, if this same opium enables me (as I think it will) to send you an article.” Long his artistic nemesis, it had now become his subject. For all its drawbacks, opium had one beneficial effect for De Quincey, that of acting as the ice-axe to free the frozen sea within him. Opium, as it happens, does not enhance one’s dreams, it suppresses them, so that it’s really as one gradually comes off of the drug that those dreams come flooding back with heightened urgency and intensity. It also seems to have freed him from the need to produce a grand, unified and cohesive philosophical treatise; part of what would come to define De Quincey’s style are his fragmentary tangents, his proto-stream of consciousness style that allowed him to move rapidly between dream, memory, and philosophy.

Though De Quincey had promised the “opium article” initially to Blackwood’s, a strained relationship led him instead to their rival, The London Magazine, who brought out the first part of the Confessions in September of 1821. Signed anonymously and buried midway down the table of contents; it was an instant success, and the next month the second part was prominently featured in the magazine.


The young De Quincey had wanted to be Wordsworth, but the Confessions is in many ways the complete antithesis of Wordsworth’s writing: prose, not poetry; urban, not rural; eschewing transcendence in favor of the darker side of English society. Most significantly, its approach to time was radically different. For Wordsworth, in poems like “Tintern Abbey” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the moment of epiphany came through recollection, and pleasure came from those moments, “In vacant or in pensive mood,” when memories flashed “upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.” There was a magical frisson in a memory recollected at leisure over the space of years, and that gap of time was necessary to an ability to process the beauty of those past moments.

De Quincey found in opium a completely different relationship to the world around him. Speaking of the impact of music while on the drug, he writes: “Now opium, by greatly increasing the activity of the mind generally, increases, of necessity, that particular mode of its activity by which we are able to construct out of the raw material of organic sound an elaborate intellectual pleasure.” Opium, in other words, could render the same kind of epiphany Wordsworth sought in recollection, but could do so in real time. Under opium, according to De Quincey, “Space also it amplifies by degrees that are sometimes terrific. But time it is upon which the exact and multiplying power of opium chiefly spends its operation. Time becomes infinitely elastic, stretching out to such immeasurable and vanishing termini, that it seems ridiculous to compute the sense of it on waking by expressions commensurate to human life.” In these passages, De Quincey is closer to Virginia Woolf than Wordsworth, and particularly that modernist conception of time as bifurcated between, as Virginia Woolf put it in Orlando, the “time of the clock” and the “time of the mind.”

But this wasn’t the only way opium’s effect on De Quincey’s memory manifested itself, for memories continued to intrude powerfully on him throughout his life and his writing. Not as pleasant interludes, as they had with Wordsworth, but as fantastical nightmares. Midway through the Confessionshe describes a night time visit from a wandering, wordless Malay. Real or not, the Malay, De Quincey writes, “(partly from the picturesque exhibition he assisted to frame, partly from the anxiety I connected with his image for some days) fastened afterwards upon my dreams, and brought other Malays with him, worse than himself, that ran ‘a-muck’ at me, and led me into a world of troubles.” The image of this nocturnal visitor, which continued to be “a fearful enemy for months,” haunted De Quincey as so many images haunted him—he could turn a news report of a crocodile attack in Egypt into a scene of nightmarish despair, just as he could take a near collision while riding on a mail-coach and spin from it a “dream fugue” on the theme of “sudden death,” in which “a vast necropolis rising upon the far-off horizon—a city of sepulchres” overwhelms De Quincey’s mind.

Ultimately, for all its shocking revelation, Confessions is bound by moral conventions of the time: it follows an arc of rise, fall and redemption. The highs are met with the lows and terrors and demons of the drug, and we are assured, by the essay’s end, that De Quincey has kicked the drug (this was never true). So while Confessions has remained the work he’s best known for, in many ways it was its 1845 sequel, Suspiria de Profundis, that fully captured the depth and range of De Quincey’s opium deliriums. Written not as an unknown youth but as an established author whose public was hungry for more, he could afford to take liberties. While Confessions follows an established narrative arc,Suspiria is wild, untamed (in part because of editing disagreements between De Quincey and his Blackwood’s editor), sprawling and hallucinatory, where De Quincey describes his vision of Levana, the goddess of the nursery, and the Three Graces: The Lady of Tears (“She it is that night and day raves and moans, calling for vanished faces.”), the Lady of Sighs (“And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium.”), and a third, unnamed sister (“She is the defier of God. She also is the mother of lunacies, and the suggestress of suicides… she can approach only those in whom a profound nature has been upheaved by central convulsions; in whom the heart trembles and the brain rocks under conspiracies of tempest from without and tempest from within.”).

De Quincey continued to write, gradually overcoming his habitual procrastination and inability to make good on promises. He struggled throughout much of his life with both poverty and addiction, and did not achieve recognition or financial stability until late in his life, when his Collected Works began to appear. Bringing the Confessions back into popular imagination, and contextualizing it within a larger body of singular essay writing, the public could not buy them fast enough. (Henry Crabb Robinson spoke for many of his former friends when he wrote, “I long for the rest of De Quincey, and yet I neither love nor respect the man; I admire only the writer.”) Much of that work was dreck, including hack novels written primarily for money (“20 novels would not task me so heavily as one Opium Eater,” he wrote at one point), and some of his lesser essays. But those volumes also included a number of essays that have long been over-shadowed by the Confessions—his satirical masterpiece “On Murder As Considered One of the Fine Arts,” and his recollections (not always flattering) of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Erudite, engaging, and biting, these works help fill out the life of a long misunderstood scholar—one who changed the face of the essay and of our understanding of addiction. But, then as now, it’s not the scholar of the Confessions’ subtitle that attracts readers, but the Opium-Eater himself.