‘Nobody will last long who deals with much with opium: its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion’ – Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
Addict, eccentric, outcast.
This is how Thomas de Quincey is often remembered by biographers. But what other legacy has De Quincey left?
Foremost, De Quincey produced one of the most enduring pieces of autobiographical writing with his memoir, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Tragic, poetic and at times humorous, De Quincey describes both the joy and pain that comes with drug addiction. In what he calls ‘impassioned prose’, he also discusses his early years: his strict childhood in London, his time as a teenage runaway, and his friendship with a prostitute named Ann, a source of much pain. All of these experiences he believed were the underlying cause of his later drug use.
Here, he describes his relationship with opium in his distinctive impassioned style:
“Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood….” Thomas De Quincey desribing opium, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, (1821).
A Literary Friendship
It is difficult to talk about De Quincey’s life without mentioning another famous Lakes writer, William Wordsworth. A huge admirer of Wordsworth, De Quincey cites the Lyrical Ballads (1798) as helping him during bouts of depression, describing its discovery as ‘the greatest event in the unfolding of my own mind.’ After attending Oxford university, De Quincey moved to Grasmere, where he made friends with the Lakes Poets – William Wordsworth, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He even became a tenant of Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s famous home – now a popular visitor attraction. Unfortunately, De Quincey’s friendship with the poets didn’t last; he turned out to be a bit of a gossip, revealing personal details about them in his work, Recollections of the Lakes Poets. Oops!
Ultimately, De Quincey didn’t have the same prolific career as his peers, and was plagued by debt most of his life. He did, however, hold a post as Editor of the Westmorland Gazette, a publication still produced today. Plagued by illness throughout his life – no doubt made worse by his addiction – he eventually spent his last days in Edinburgh, where he died in 1859.
Thomas De Quincey is believed to have influenced many writers, including gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe – no stranger to dark subjects himself. Confessions… is also credited as having an influence on psychology and abnormal psychology, as well as attitudes towards dreams and imaginative literature. Interestingly, his exciting depictions of opium use were attributed to an increase in users, who were seemingly willing to ignore the sickness and demonic visions De Quincey describes!
A complicated man but no less a genius, Thomas De Quincey is a significant figure in the literary heritage of the Lake District.
Penny Bradshaw at University of Cumbria for her wonderful teaching on Lake District cultural heritage