Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1689
Intense stomach pains drive Thomas De Quincey, at age twenty-eight, to take opium daily for relief. He had begun taking opium almost ten years before. These stomach pains are a legacy from hardships he had endured as an adolescent. His father had died when the boy was seven years old. The young De Quincy became the responsibility of four guardians. At school, he becomes an excellent Greek scholar.
At Manchester Grammar School, he is so superior to his teachers in Greek that he soon feels a desire to leave the school. His guardians are against this plan, however, so De Quincey asks an old friend for money. He receives it and plans to make his escape from a school that he feels has nothing to offer him intellectually.
The day of De Quincey’s escape comes. The groom of his hall, who is carrying De Quincey’s book-laden trunk down a narrow stairway, slips and falls, and the trunk clatters noisily to the floor below. De Quincey is sure he will be caught. The noise, incredibly, does not arouse the curiosity of the resident master, and the youth is able to get away.
Seventeen-year-old De Quincey heads westward, walking through Wales, where, in Bangor, he takes a room. His landlady is the former servant of a bishop’s family. On one of her regular visits to the bishop’s house, she discloses that she is taking in lodgers. When she reports her disclosure to De Quincey, he takes exception to the tenor of her remarks concerning him, moves out of her house at once, and finds lodging in inns. This type of lodging is relatively expensive, so the young man soon finds himself reduced to eating only once a day—a meal of only coffee or tea. The mountain air of Wales and the walking make him abnormally hungry, so that his having to subsist off berries and charitable handouts hurts him physically. As time goes by, he manages to earn a meager living by writing letters for the illiterate and by doing odd jobs. The damage to his health, however, has been done.
De Quincey’s travels take him from Wales to London, where, utterly destitute and afraid to reveal himself to any friends of his family, he lives for several months on little more than a small ration of bread. Also, he sleeps outdoors. At last, in cold weather, an acquaintance gives him shelter in a large, almost empty house; De Quincey’s companion is a ten-year-old girl. Pains in his stomach prevent him from ever getting a proper night’s sleep; consequently, he sleeps by fits and snatches both day and night. The master of the house is a legal representative of moneylenders, but despite the man’s apparent lack of principles, De Quincey finds him generous in his way. The little girl appears to be a servant in the large house, which is situated near Soho Square.
De Quincey walks the streets and often sits all day in parks, until Ann, a sixteen-year-old streetwalker, befriends him. One night, when he has violent stomach pains, Ann spends part of her scant savings on wine and spices for him. Soon afterward, he meets an old family acquaintance who gives him money, thus ending De Quincey’s period of extreme poverty. Previously, he had been afraid to appeal to family friends for help for fear that his guardians would send him back to the grammar school. It never occurs to him that he might have taken on literary work of some kind. Now, solvent for the moment, he makes arrangements to get an advance on his patrimony, which is not legally his until his twenty-first birthday.
After saying good-bye to Ann, he takes a coach to Eton to get a signature that is required for an advance on his patrimony. At Eton he calls upon an acquaintance, young Lord Desart, who invites him to breakfast. Finding that he cannot keep down the food, he takes wine to his great comfort. Lord Desart, who is only eighteen years old, is reluctant to sign for security, but he finally consents. De Quincey returns to London, where he finds that Lord Desart’s signature does not impress the moneylenders with whom he is negotiating for the advance. Again, he is threatened with hardship; again, however, he is saved, for his reconciled relatives send him to Oxford University. Meanwhile, before he leaves London, he searches unsuccessfully for Ann. She is nowhere to be found, and he never sees her again.
De Quincey, now nineteen years old, makes frequent weekend trips to London from Oxford. One Sunday, while in the metropolis, he suffers greatly from neuralgic head pains, and a fellow student whom he encounters recommends opium for relief. He thereupon buys a small amount of laudanum, the tincture of opium, from an apothecary. He returns to his room and takes the prescribed amount. The result seems phenomenal to him; all his pain ceases, and he knows boundless pleasure. There is no intoxication, as from wine or spirits; there is only a protracted sense of being utterly at peace with the world and with himself. The opium uplifts the intellect rather than the animal spirits, and when its effect wears off, there is no period of depression, such as induced by spirits.
As a college student, De Quincey’s two great pleasures are to hear Grassini, an Italian soprano who often sings in London, and to take opium and join the Saturday night crowds in the London markets. Even greater than these pleasures, however, is that of withdrawing himself at the time when the opium has reached its maximum effect on his mind, so that he can get the most complete enjoyment from his opium-induced dreams and visions.
De Quincey leaves Oxford. In 1812, he takes a cottage, where he studies German metaphysics and continues to take opium once a week. His health is apparently never better. Even after eight years of taking opium, he is able to say that he has not become a slave to the drug; he is still able to control the amount taken and the intervals between doses.
A recurrence, in 1813, of his old stomach disorder leads De Quincey to take the drug every day. His partial addiction is a secondary reason for his increased use of opium. For two years he takes 320 grains of opium daily, but at last he is able to reduce the amount to 40 grains. Staying on that allowance, he experiences the happiest year of his life.
About this time a traveler on foot, a Malay sailor, stops for a night at the cottage. De Quincey is impressed by the aspect and garb of the traveler. Before the traveler leaves the next morning, De Quincey gives him enough opium, divided into three parts, to kill a person if taken all at once. The traveler claps all three pieces into his mouth and departs. De Quincey feels concern for several days, but to his relief he never hears or reads of the untimely death of a Malay man in his part of Great Britain.
In his little cottage in the mountains of northern England, De Quincey, in the winter of 1816-1817, knows complete happiness in his experience with opium. Deep snows, heavy rains, a snug cottage, a roaring fire, a large collection of good books, plenty of tea, and daily consumption of laudanum bring him idyllic happiness.
Matters soon begin to change. Addicted to the daily taking of opium, it becomes impossible for De Quincey to reduce his daily allowance without bringing on abnormal perspiration and excruciating abdominal pains. He soon loses interest in reading and the study of mathematics and philosophy. A friend sends him David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). The book arouses him from his lethargy long enough to write for publication on the popular subject. Then, unable to write a preface for his work, he shelves the project. He neglects household responsibilities. At night he lies awake in his bed, processions of visions passing through his mind. These visions consist largely of scenes from the English Civil War and from ancient Rome. Soon he finds it difficult to distinguish between the real and the unreal. Furthermore, other dreams and visions take him into frightful abysses. Constantly depressed, he loses all normal sense of space and time, and he often has the sensation of having lived through a millennium. Also, he finds himself able to recall insignificant events of his childhood, details that he had never been conscious of remembering.
The opium dreams are periodic: There are nights during which he dreams historical scenes; then there is a period of architectural dreams—vast piles of buildings and enormous cities; these are followed by dreams of water—lakes, lagoons, vast oceans. He next dreams of countless human faces presenting themselves in peculiar situations to his mind’s eye.
In May, 1818, De Quincey’s dream visions take on an Asian theme. At times he is in China, or in India. Where in previous dream sequences he had known only spiritual horrors, in these Asian dreams he senses physical horror from reptiles and frightful birds. In the summer of 1819, still addicted to opium, he dreams of a graveyard in his own little valley. In the dream he arises and walks out of his cottage yard to enjoy the air. He thinks he sees an Asian city and, beneath a palm tree, Ann, the streetwalker friend of his youth. She does not speak; the dream fades and he finds himself walking with her in the streets of London. In 1820, one vision is so terrifying in its profundity and breadth that he awakes and declares that he will never sleep again.
Finally, De Quincey reasons that he will surely die if he continues to take opium and that he might die in the attempt to break the habit. With so little choice, he decides to try to free himself from opium. He reduces his ration gradually and finally breaks free, thus proving to himself that an addict may end a habit of seventeen years’ duration.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support