Thomas De Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ is an autobiographical work which portrays both a young man’s troubled childhood, and the experience of opium addiction in his adulthood.
De Quincey was born in 1785 in Manchester. The son of Thomas Quincey – a textile importer – and Elizabeth Penson, De Quincey’s life was soon touched by bereavement. Before he was ten years old, both his father and his sister had died. His mother took on the surname De Quincey, and her son became the responsibility of four separate guardians. Through his school life, De Quincey moved through a series of high profile boarding schools – including Eton.
At around the age of seventeen De Quincey attended Manchester grammar school, and his increasingly rebellious streak came to a head. Throughout his time at the school De Quincey became frustrated at his teacher’s failure to match his prodigious ability when it came to the study of Ancient Greek language and literature. Despite the migivings of his guardians, in 1802 he secured the money from a relative to fund an escape from the school he’d come to find so unrewarding.
The first part of the book focuses on the years immediately following De Quincey leaving Manchester boarding school. As well as a vivid description of life in early nineteenth century Britain, it provides important background to the opium addiction De Quincey eventually developed and which is discussed in such detail in the second part of the book.
Setting off on foot with just his clothes and some books, De Quincey wandered west through Wales, staying in various small villages and making money by performing odd jobs for the villagers. Running out of money, De Quincey eventually left Wales for London. Quickly falling into destitution, he was forced to sleep outoors, and live off little more than a daily ration of bread.
Finally, a reconciliation with his guardians allowed De Quincey to escape poverty and begin studying at Oxford University. During this period he also formed a short lived friendship with the illustrious poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helping to develop his career as a writer.
As the years rolled by he became addicted to opium, a drug he had first experimented with during his studies at Oxford and which he claimed alleviated stomach pains which were a consequence of the life of destitution he had lived in his youth. The second part of the book focuses on the consequences of opium use in the form of laudanum. Ecstatic pain relief and a heightened perception are described, along with terrifying nightmares and troubling hallucinations.
Whether intentionally or not, the Confessions of An Opium Eater’s vivid language and loose structure give it the impression of an opium fueled dream, perhaps unsurprising given that it was written at the height of the author’s laudanum addiction. The descriptions given in the first part of the book, of destitution in London or life in boarding school, feel defined by the opium habit which affected his adult life.
It is well known that many of De Quincey’s literary contemporaries in the early nineteenth century were influenced by opium use. The Confessions of An Opium Eater is unique for so directly engaging with the experience of the drug, its effects on the psyche and prevalence throughout nineteenth century society.
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
by Thomas de Quincey