De Quincey: So Original, So Truly Weird

If you saunter or dream your way along the narrow streets running east of London’s Covent Garden, drifting like a ghost amid the late-summer tourists, you may eventually come to the Café Murano at 36 Tavistock Street. Look carefully upward, and you will notice on the wall above, half-hidden between two tall windows, a discreet blue commemorative plaque that makes a startling and possibly sinister announcement. It was in this building (actually in a set of rooms at the back) that Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) wrote his disturbing masterpiece, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, in 1821.

Today this elegant quarter of bars and restaurants seems an unlikely location for opium eating. Yet it was behind this solid London brickwork that De Quincey first opened up his astonishing “apocalypse of the world within.” Here he exultantly described his first experience of drug-taking:
Heavens!…what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit!…Here was a panacea…for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be corked up in a pint bottle: and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.
The truth of De Quincey’s ecstatic discovery of opium is far more complicated than this lighthearted (and rather attractive) account would imply. For a start, the drug was not especially rare or exotic at the time, but easily obtainable from any pharmacy as a household medicine and mild painkiller, even given in small doses to babies. It was De Quincey’s sheer excess and unlikely endurance (he lived to be a ghostlike seventy-four) that, coupled with his kaleidoscopic literary powers, made him so original and so truly weird. Nor did he eat opium, but drank it in an infusion with brandy as a glowing, tea-colored, slightly bitter liquid called laudanum, and as a result he became an alcoholic as much as an addict, and what would now doubtless be called a dysfunctional personality.

In the last decades of his life he was spending £150 a year on the drug (from an income of £250), permanently in debt and pursued by creditors, continually adopting false names and shifting lodgings (he would simply abandon his rooms when they overflowed with his books and papers), often dressed in castoffs and writing barefoot (a friend observed “an army coat four times too large for him and with nothing on beneath”), and largely unable to support an ever-growing family of eight children and a suicidal wife (who died prematurely of exhaustion and typhus at the age of forty-one).

It was De Quincey’s peculiar genius to transform this pathological tragedy into something rich and strange, and to create for himself a uniquely marketable soubriquet in the journals of the day as “The English Opium Eater,” which he used for the rest of his life. The truth is, his original Confessions has no real location at all. The whole of the book is what De Quincey called “a palimpsest,” many layers of fact and fiction, pain and exultation, memory and dream, time and place, overwritten one upon another, over many years. A sequel followed in 1845, and a series of revisions as Autobiographic Sketches in 1853.

His visionary opium world, composed of “oriental imagery and mythological tortures,” remains essentially unearthly, savage, and displaced:
I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paraquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms…. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.
This is one of the many reasons it is so hard to write a plain, factual biography of De Quincey with any kind of conviction. It requires not merely scholarship, but a special mixture of imaginative agility and nimble scepticism and, one might add, the patience of a saint.

As far as one can tell, De Quincey was nineteen, a privileged student at Oxford, when he first tasted the drug, one “wet and cheerless Sunday afternoon” on a trip to London in 1804. But two years before he had run away from Manchester Grammar School, another expensive education, and had an affair with a fifteen-year-old prostitute in London, who became his famous romantic and retrospective invention “Ann of Oxford Street.” His obsession with her (and many other young women and girls, which he called his “nympholepsy,” and which may or may not have been pedophilia) also became part of his drug experience. Sometimes he looks rather like the original dropout.

Yet he did not became seriously addicted to opium until 1813, when he was twenty-eight and living in the Lake District as the increasingly frustrated amanuensis of his onetime idols, Wordsworth and Coleridge. It was not until he was thirty-six, with his wife and children and a growing mass of debts, that he again came to London and dashed off his Confessions. Presented as an artless outpouring—“guilt and misery shrink, by a natural instinct, from public notice”—it was actually commissioned as two highly professional, well-paid articles for the newly founded London Magazine. He was still completing its “sequel,” the Suspiria de Profundis (“Sighs from the Deep”), this time for Blackwood’s Magazine, when he was sixty and adrift in Scotland. The true subject of the Confessions, he now said, was not so much opium itself as the potential grandeur of the “human dreams” it inspired:
The machinery for dreaming planted in the human brain was not planted for nothing. That faculty, in alliance with the mystery of darkness, is the one great tube through which man communicates with the shadowy…the magnificent apparatus which forces the infinite into the chambers of a human brain, and throws dark reflections from eternities below all life upon the mirrors of the sleeping mind.
Paradoxically, this ingeniously extended metaphor is in fact drawn from a modern science of the external world, observational astronomy, and the advent of the great Victorian reflector telescopes—the “one great tube.” It turns out, as just one more surprise, that the penniless De Quincey had been lodging for many weeks in the Glasgow Observatory at the time he wrote Suspiria. He had simultaneously written a long article about Lord Rosse’s forty-foot “Leviathan” telescope and the discovery of an image of what he termed a cruel “monster” in the constellation of Orion.

Indeed it is easy to overlook De Quincey’s remarkable erudition, which stretched far beyond mere drug literature. He had an outstanding education (despite his truancies) in Greek and Latin, and could deliver a speech in fluent classical Greek. He had covered a vast range of miscellaneous reading (hence his constantly overflowing lodgings, in one of which he filled his bath—presumably unused—to the brim with books and magazines), and a dazzling speed and facility in journalistic writing. He was capable of turning out—or spinning out—a ten- or twenty-thousand-word article in a matter of days. Admittedly this produced many longeurs, and his prose could be as interminable as Coleridge’s talk, which De Quincey described as meandering “like some great river, the Orellana, or the St Lawrence.”

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