Thomas De Quincey Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Thomas De Quincey 1785-1859

English essayist, critic, and novelist.

A versatile essayist and accomplished critic, De Quincey used his own life as the subject of his most acclaimed work, the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), in which he chronicled his fascinating and horrifying addiction to opium. The Confessions are an insightful depiction of drug dependency and an evocative portrait of an altered psychological state. De Quincey is recognized as one of the foremost prose writers of his day; his ornate style, while strongly influenced by the Romantic authors he knew and emulated, owes much to his vivid imagination and desire to recreate his own intense personal experiences.

Biographical Information

De Quincey's life as a child figures prominently in the Confessions. He was a frail, sensitive boy who was tyrannized by an older brother. When he was seven, his beloved older sister, Elizabeth, died. In his later writings, De Quincey maintained that her death shaped his destiny because his grief caused him to seek solace in an imaginary world. This tendency to escape into reverie foreshadowed the importance of dreams and introspection to his work. At ten, he was sent to grammar school where he fared well academically but, according to his autobiographical writings, was deeply unhappy. At seventeen, he ran away from school with a copy of William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads and a collection of Greek plays. He later described his feeling of liberation in terms Wordsworth had attributed to the spirit of revolutionary France: “the senselessness of joy.” For several months he wandered throughout the country, and then traveled to London, where he hoped to study the English Romantic poets. His life during this period was one of self-imposed deprivation, and he eventually returned home. His mother, in an effort to tame her son, enrolled him at Oxford. At the university, he excelled academically but was socially isolated. De Quincey experimented with opium for the first time at Oxford: a classmate prescribed the drug for a toothache and De Quincey found that he enjoyed its effects. By 1813 De Quincey was, in his own estimation, a “regular and confirmed” opium addict. At Oxford, he abandoned poetry and, inspired by his studies of German thought, decided to become “the first founder of a true philosophy.” Whether or not opium was the cause, De Quincey, after submitting a brilliant paper, failed to appear for his final oral examination and left Oxford without completing his degree. While still at Oxford, De Quincey had written Wordsworth a glowing letter, and the poet, in turn, invited him to visit. The offer both thrilled and terrified the young man, and he chose to meet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first. Coleridge shared De Quincey's interest in metaphysics and opium but warned him about the evils of the drug. When De Quincey met Wordsworth, the poet invited him to join the Lake District's literary circle. De Quincey moved nearby, and became a frequent visitor to the Wordsworth household. De Quincey married and seemed content with family life until his opium addiction overpowered him. He had thought the drug would enhance his abilities as a philosopher; instead, he lay in bed listlessly, unable to think or move. His wife devoted herself to his recovery and, with her support, he obtained a position as editor of the Westmoreland Gazette. The simple, local newspaper soon featured De Quincey's vivid accounts of grisly murder trials, as well as essays on philology, politics, and German philosophy. De Quincey's subject matter and erratic work habits angered his employers and he was asked to resign. De Quincey agreed to leave, firmly believing that a regular routine was incompatible with the habits of a philosopher. However, because his financial situation was dire and he had a large family to support, he sought out Charles Lamb, who introduced De Quincey to London's journalistic circles and De Quincey was invited to write for London Magazine.

(The entire section is 1,315 words.)