De Quincey recommended biography be written “con amore” and “con odio.” Love and hate. Frances Wilson delicately flavors her biography of the early-19th-century writer with both condiments but, above all, without censure. Indeed her book finishes with the rousing call to arms “We are all De Quinceyan now.”
De Quincey rendered himself eminently censurable with his masterpiece, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” In the years of his prime he was a drug fiend discriminating enough to satisfy Burroughs and Leary. He didn’t really “eat” opium, per se, but took it in the form of laudanum, the narcotic’s commonly ingested liquid form. He had pedophile tendencies — “nympholepsy,” he called it. Dead girls, particularly, fascinated him. The fetish arose, Wilson surmises, from finding himself, at age 6, alone in a sun-drenched bedroom with the corpse of his 9-year-old sister. As the twig was bent, so the tree was (mis)shaped.
De Quincey inherited a fortune and went out of his way, methodically, to waste it. His later decades (despite his toxic “eating” habits, he lived to the age of 74) were a trail of bankruptcy, debt and flitting from lodgings to lodgings. He displayed total moral indifference to his half-dozen children’s being reduced to beggary while he got on with the writing posterity now reveres him for. Who remembers good fathers?
When it came to being a husband and a father, De Quincey was even worse than his fellow addict, and erstwhile friend, Coleridge. But unlike Coleridge, he seems to have felt no real remorse, about this or much else. He saw the drug he celebrated in early life as a doorway into the palace of art. As he grew older and the addiction gripped him, he pictured intoxication as a Piranesi prison: a place of wonderful twisting passages, stairways and towers impossible to escape from.
In his most formative teenage years, vividly narrated in “Confessions,” young De Quincey bounced peripatetically between Oxford University and London’s seething Oxford Street, the northern margin of bohemian Soho. At age 17, he sparked an intense friendship with a 15-year-old street walker, Ann. When she disappeared, her ghost haunted him. He would, all his life, look into the faces of women he did not know in search of his lost nymph.
At Oxford, De Quincey disdained the final oral exams because they were not, as advertised, conducted in ancient Greek. The “hoary” university, he determined, was beneath him. “I owe thee nothing!” he dismissively informed it. This was one of many willful turns in De Quincey’s life. He had been born the son of a linen merchant enriched in the early Industrial Revolution. Thomas senior died early, leaving the care of the family to a terrifyingly evangelical mother with whom Thomas junior was, for all his life, on bad terms. It was his mother who added the absurd “De” to the family surname. He despised her for doing it but kept it. England was engaged in a never-ending war with France. It pleased him to vex the “swinish multitude” (a favorite quotation of De Quincey’s, from Burke) with that Gallic prefix.
De Quincey first took opium to relieve a toothache. It provoked a change of life and those infamous rhapsodies in “Confessions,” e.g.: “I took it — and in an hour, oh! Heavens! What a revulsion! What an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! What an apocalypse of the world within me!”
His first literary worship was of the “marvelous boy” — the phrase is from Wordsworth’s poem “Resolution and Independence” — Thomas Chatterton, the forger of antique poetry, who “ate” a lethal dose of arsenic and opium at 17, rather than face adulthood and obloquy.
It was in his later teens that De Quincey discovered his God: Wordsworth. Human nature, he believed, had changed with the publication of “Lyrical Ballads” in 1798. He wrote Wordsworth an unsolicited letter — his “first masterpiece,” Wilson calls it. It would take another four years, however, in response to a frigidly cordial reply from the great man, for him to bring himself to travel to the Lake District and have his Damascene moment.
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