Thomas De Quincey (dih KWIHN-see), a close associate of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, was near the center of the Romantic movement in England. Like the other Romantics, he placed great emphasis on feeling. He was a master of the curious and obscure in literature and was a creator of a poetic prose that, in its range of diction and display of surprising fancy, is the equal of any writing of his time. It is prose written by an isolated man, a man in whom dream and vigor are not antithetical.
De Quincey was the fifth child in a family of eight children. His busy and stern parents soon alienated De Quincey, who was a sensitive and quiet child much in need of understanding. The boy’s only comfort within his own family was an unusually close devotion to one of his sisters, whose untimely death left him alone, disturbed, and morose.
Since both of De Quincey’s parents were well-educated and interested in scholarship, he at least did not lack for opportunity of study. A brilliant if somewhat unbalanced boy, he could read, write, and speak Greek “as though it were his native tongue” by the age of fifteen. Dissatisfied with the restrictions of his home and by his own shortcomings, De Quincey fled his home at the age of seventeen. For almost a year, he hid in London, where he led a frugal and difficult life of study and introspection. There, he performed his deep reading of English poets, a reading characteristic of all the Romantics. This period he later called an “impassioned parenthesis of my life.” After reconciliation with his family, he was allowed to enter Oxford University in 1803. There, he quickly won the reputation of brilliant scholar and conversationalist, but in 1808 he left without taking a degree.
When De Quincey was about twenty he began to experience severe pain. Some say it was a stomach disorder; others, that it was a combination of eyestrain and astigmatism. Upon a friend’s suggestion, he started to use laudanum (opium in alcohol) for relief from his discomfort. Apparently as a child he had been subject to deep dreams or visions; since he was not adjusted either to himself or to the people around him, it is natural to suppose that he welcomed the artificial, remote dream world into which the continued use of opium led him. Taking laudanum was a habit to which he submitted for more than twenty years; then, for no explainable reason, he disciplined himself and ceased its use. This was a period of immeasurable physical and emotional torture for De Quincey, but world literature is the richer for it.
After his university studies, he made the acquaintance of the Lake Poets, and in 1816 he married; both relations were happy ones, in part because of the charm of De Quincey’s own nature, which was courteous, playful, and firm. His life was one of much literary toil. He supported himself and his large family by contributions to Blackwood’s, Hogg’s Weekly Instructor, and other magazines, whose editors gave him—as it would appear to readers of modern periodicals—very free rein. He touched a wide variety of topics and, as in the celebrated “Flight of a Tartar Tribe,” wrote in a manner quite imaginative and fanciful.
De Quincey moved to Edinburgh, leaving behind such London friends as Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, like him masters of a colorful and personal style. It was these friends who encouraged him to write Confessions of an English Opium Eater, the work that brought him fame and assured him the attention of editors and publishers. De Quincey continued to write for periodicals until his death. It is said that when the quantity of his writing became too voluminous for his lodgings, he would simply move away from the mass and start fresh elsewhere.
Representative samples of his ability to take an assigned topic and effect a personal transmutation of it appear in “Joan of Arc” (1847) and “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827). De Quincey’s reminiscences of the Lake...
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