The English Opium EaterA Biography of Thomas De Quincey Robert MorrisonWeidenfeld & Nicholson, $37.99, 462 pp.
Some writers tower over their age while others merge with it. Wordsworth and Coleridge stand like beacons over the early nineteenth century, while a writer like Thomas De Quincey remains part of the landscape. Robert Morrison’s engaging biography of De Quincey does not try to undo this natural state of affairs by inflating its subject’s importance. At the same time, there is something powerfully unique about De Quincey that cries out for analysis. Since his death in 1859 his admirers have included Hawthorne, Poe, Woolf, and a host of other writers up to the present. They have mainly admired his writing, though he remains most famous as a drug addict.
De Quincey was born in 1785 in Manchester, England. His father was a cultured and successful linen merchant, and his mother, who lived to the age of ninety-seven, was a devoted follower of the evangelist Hannah More. The father’s literary tastes and the mother’s piety made an odd mixture in the son, who achieved dizzying heights of self-cultivation while never losing a simple Christian faith. He had a natural gift for languages, and as a teenager was fluent in Latin and Greek. These and other gifts seemed to point to a scholarly career, yet an extreme emotional waywardness kept thwarting him. He traced this inner sense of dislocation to the death of his favorite sister, Elizabeth, when they were children. When she died, he wrote, “A vault seemed to open in the zenith of the far blue sky, a shaft which ran up for ever.” This is from a passage in his Autobiographic Sketches that, like much of his writing, is stylized almost to the point of inertia, leaving no room for the simplicity of grief.
His greatest writing occurs in a very different key. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the work that made him famous, has a flat, almost pedestrian quality that holds rhetorical excess in check while allowing poetic images to appear at odd intervals. First published in a magazine in 1821, the Confessions are in two parts, the first being an account of his period of vagrancy in London after he abruptly decided to leave grammar school in Manchester. He didn’t actually take opium, or more accurately drink laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol), until well after this episode, when he was a student at Oxford. In the second part of the Confessions he describes “the pleasures and pains of opium,” and in the process “invents recreational drug taking,” as Morrison provocatively states.
He was one of the first people in England to fall under the spell of Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose poetry he read in manuscript before they were widely known. He calls his discovery of their work “the greatest event in the unfolding of my own mind,” and he spent most of his time at Oxford plotting how to introduce himself to Wordsworth. When De Quincey finally traveled to the Lake District and met his idols, Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy was struck, as everyone was, by his height (“very diminutive in person”) and found him “a remarkable instance of the power of my Brother’s poems, over a lonely and contemplative mind.” After dropping out of Oxford he settled near the Wordsworths, fell in love with a neighbor’s daughter, and married her after they had an illegitimate child. The Wordsworth circle was somewhat moralistic (in spite of Wordsworth’s own illegitimate daughter) and relations between them and De Quincey cooled without ever completely collapsing.
After getting married he tried to lead the life of a reclusive scholar, but financial problems aggravated by opium use made him turn to journalism for a living. Among scholars of the Romantic period, opinions differ over how much of his journalism is worth reading. Morrison largely abstains from value judgments about the almost two hundred essays, articles, and other pieces De Quincey wrote for magazines, preferring instead to emphasize how “the mass media that now dominates our lives developed during his lifetime.” The reference here is to Blackwood’s, the Edinburgh Review, and other phenomenally successful magazines of De Quincey’s day that defined themselves in political terms. De Quincey became adroit at adopting the political persona that each assignment required, soft-pedaling his conservative leanings when writing for liberal publications like the London Magazine and coming on like a royalist gargoyle when writing for Blackwood’s. (As a contemporary equivalent, imagine a writer whose name sits easily on the pages of both Harper’s and Commentary.)
From this mass of writing done under deadline pressure arises a small body of work that, besides the Confessions, includes essays such as “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” “The English Mail-Coach,” and “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” At their best his sentences work like musical phrases, gathering momentum and achieving a cumulative effect through repetition, among other things (this reliance on drawn-out effects makes him hard to quote in short snippets). He loved music, and in one of the most famous passages of the Confessions he describes an opium-fortified night at the London opera in terms that suggest Schopenhauer’s view of music as a form of metaphysical consolation.
Listening to the singers, he saw
the whole of my past life—not as if recalled by an act of memory, but as present and incarnated in the music: no longer painful to dwell upon: but the detail of its incidents removed, or blended in some hazy abstraction; and its passion exalted, spiritualized, and sublimed. All this was to be had for five shillings.
That drab sentence about the five shillings throws cold water on his own lyricism, making the reader believe in the intensity of what has just been described.
We are still in the midst of an age of memoirs, and De Quincey’s work, as Morrison reminds us, sits at the beginning of the modern literary memoir. De Quincey was a religious man who distrusted the attempts of Coleridge, Kant, and others to justify religion in philosophical terms. Behind the title of his own Confessions, as Morrison points out, lie the confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau, yet De Quincey brings something new to the genre. Augustine’s self-disclosure is addressed directly to God, and Rousseau’s is relentlessly pedagogical. De Quincey leaves God out of the picture, and doesn’t draw moral lessons from his ordeal. In a preface to the Confessions he does stress the fact that he is English, and that
Nothing, indeed, is more revolting to English feelings, than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars, and tearing away that “decent drapery,” which time, or indulgence to human frailty, may have drawn over them.
True, our appetite is merely whetted by these words, but they also measure the distance between what he is doing and what is commonly done in the name of autobiography today.
This biography of De Quincey does three things, the first of of them quite well. Working from recently discovered family letters and a wealth of recent scholarship, it lets us follow De Quincey on an almost daily basis as he argues with editors, moves from England to Scotland in a vain quest for ideal writing conditions, and suffers periodic imprisonment for unpaid debts. Second, beyond consolidating every known fact about De Quincey, Morrison engages in some criticism of his works and argues, perhaps unnecessarily, for his relevance to our own day. De Quincey’s charm lies more in his remoteness from our lives than in his superficial resemblance to modern drug-users such as William Burroughs or Hunter S. Thompson (both of whom are briefly adduced as disciples). Finally, Morrison demonstrates that, unlike the other two great Romantic essayists, William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, De Quincey did not write “familiar” essays or even straight autobiography. He is closer to his idol Wordsworth in the ability to write about himself in a register that hovers somewhere between bare factual reporting and the realm of myth. This more than establishes his claim on the modern reader.