Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

7790332.gif I have just finished the title essay from a collection of Thomas De Quincey’s work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; the book has three longish-essays (the title one was 80 pages) and one short one. I’m planning on reading them all, but Confessions was the reason I picked this book up. I’m not sure what attracted me to it, since confessions of drug addicts aren’t my usual thing, but I’ve heard this mentioned as an interesting essay and as an example of walking literature, and I’m fascinated by De Quincey’s time period (1785-1859), so that’s reason enough.

The essay, as you might guess from the title, tells the story of De Quincey’s addiction to opium, but it does so with lots of digressions and philosophical asides and glimpses of life in De Quincey’s time. After a brief introduction justifying his decision to write an essay that exposes his weakness, he tells of his boyhood school days and his decision to run away from school at the age of 17. He wanders through parts of Wales and ends up in London, where, he says, the seeds of his addiction were planted. He runs out of money and comes very close to starving to death, which causes him stomach problems that come back to haunt him — at which point he becomes an addict, taking opium every day to relieve the pain.

But De Quincey takes his time with the Wales and London episodes, and they are some of the most interesting sections. Particularly moving is the story of his friendship with the prostitute Anne; they offer each other companionship and aid — she saves him from starvation at one point. Tragically, De Quincey leaves London briefly to try to find some money, and when he returns he can’t find her. He mourns the loss of their friendship for the rest of his life.

De Quincey took opium regularly before he became addicted; he was careful to let enough days go by between indulgences so that the drug would maintain its potency. And he writes about the pleasures of opium quite beautifully; one of the things I like best about this essay is that De Quincey is fully honest about both the pleasures and the pains. He writes:

And, at that time, I often fell into these reveries upon taking opium; and more than once it has happened to me, on a summer-night, when I have been at an open window, in a room from which I would overlook the sea at a mile below me, and could command a view of the great town of L—-, at about the same distance, that I have sate, from sun-set to sun-rise, motionless, and without wishing to move.

A bit later he goes into raptures over the drug:

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!

He goes on like that for a full paragraph. But he is also clear about the horrors of opium addiction:

[The opium-eater] lies under the weight of incubus and night-mare; he lies in sight of all that he would fain perform, just as a man forcibly confined to his bed by the mortal languor of a relaxing disease, who is compelled to witness injury or outrage offered to some object of his tenderest love: — he curses the spells which chain him down from motion: — he would lay down his life if he might but get up and walk; but he is powerless as an infant, and cannot even attempt to rise.

He does, you will be happy to know, overcome his addiction, but he is still haunted by one of the worst effects of addiction — horrible nightmares, some of which he describes in detail.

I am looking forward to seeing what the other essays are like; he’s got a style I enjoy — digressive, allusive, difficult to categorize.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

10 responses to “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

  1. Oh, this sounds really interesting. I’ve heard of the essay but never really cared to read it. You’ve piqued my curiosity. It’s nice that he presents the good and the bad so it’s not all glorification of opium. Actually makes is sound rather horrible in the end.

  2. I’ve often wondered about this essay, perhaps because of his friendship with Coleridge, but I’ve never pursued it. Coleridge used laudanum, I believe. Not sure if that is what De Quincey used, but it was readily available and not illegal. Coleridge’s use resulted in the eventual loss of his creative imagination, but not his intellect, and he went on to write political articles, essays, and literary criticism, but little poetry.

    Eager to hear what you think about the other De Quincey essays.

  3. I do feel bad that I have never read this – it’s one of those benchmark pieces of literature. Loved to hear what you thought of it, Dorothy!

  4. Oh dear. I think I rather like the bits you quoted. I might have to read this one day.

  5. I bought this book years ago for a class, dropped the class but kept the book, then never read it. Thanks to your prompting, I’m finally going to give it a go after all these years!

  6. Stefanie — it’s only 80 pages in my edition, so why not? And I do like his prose style — it was a slow read, but slow in a good way, much to ponder.

    Jenclair — he mentions Coleridge a couple times, and he mentions Wordsworth obsessively — he was quite the WW fan, I’ve learned. Coleridge and De Quincey both took laudanum, as I understand it.

    Litlove — don’t feel bad! Your fellow bloggers will help you out :)

    Dark Orpheus — yes, do read it, if you get the urge; it’s worth it.

    Kate S. — I hope you enjoy it!

  7. I have to say that when I saw this post with the photo of the book I thought this really is not my thing. But after having read what you’ve written about it, now I am very curious. It actually sounds quite interesting and I will have to see if I can find this essay somewhere. You’ll have to share what the other essays are like as well.

  8. I wouldn’t think it was my thing, either, if I hadn’t read about it in various places over the years. It’s worth a look, especially since it’s so short.

  9. I also have this book, but the 220-page edition, after De Quincey’s fall-out with Coleridge, in this edition there is quite a bit about Coleridge (they apparently took the same drug containing opium, but Coleridge later accused De Quincey of not having morals because he became an addict), and so far its proving to be a slow read to me as well with no mention as of yet of the author’s experiences with opium.

    But knowing what lies ahead in the book, and that there is a shorter edition I will keep on reading and recommend this (shorter) version to those interested.

  10. I recently reread this work as well and, after discovering that I live next to De Quincey’s residence during a period of decline, I wrote an entry about artists writing under the influence: http://thomasapolis.wordpress.com/2010/04/27/writing-under-the-influence.

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