Confessions of an English Opium Eater Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas De Quincey

Critical Evaluation

Repugnance toward opium as well as the gothic nature of De Quincey’s prose style had obscured the reputation of Confessions of an English Opium Eater in the century after it was published. It has since been recognized as one of the most remarkable pieces of writing of the English Romantic period and as a major work of English literature. To many early readers, Confessions of an English Opium Eater represents the most garish aspects of English romanticism. The topic, opium eating, is sensationalist and unappealing. De Quincey’s prose seems feverish and overwrought. The persona of the narrator is at times self-absorbed, sentimental, erudite, digressive, and prone to Latin and literary quotations.

Modern scholars have resuscitated De Quincey’s reputation. In its genre of confessional literature, Confessions of an English Opium Eater follows in the course of such important works as the confessions of Saint Augustine and the confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Although De Quincey is clearly an imaginative author, Confessions of an English Opium Eater is painfully realistic when it discusses his opium addiction. In this sense it prefigures both the psychological literature of the twentieth century and the psychedelic journalism of the 1960’s, including works by authors such as Ken Kesey and William S. Burroughs.

De Quincey’s book remains the most arresting and touchingly human account in English literature of the widespread phenomenon of opium addiction in the early nineteenth century. Laudanam, or tincture of opium, was readily available at pharmacies in De Quincey’s time, and it was considered an effective cure for extreme headaches and depression. Writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge also...

(The entire section is 717 words.)