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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1315

Thomas De Quincey 1785-1859

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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 publisher encouraged him to write about the subject he knew most intimately—his opium addiction. In September, 1821, the first half of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater appeared anonymously in London Magazine, and the complete Confessions was published as a single volume in 1822. With its publication, De Quincey was immediately established as a major Romantic prose author. Following his stay in London, De Quincey moved to Edinburgh, where he wrote for several journals. He disliked writing for periodicals and often stated that he composed only for money. However, the essays that were published during this period display De Quincey's virtuosity as a prose writer and his interest in a wide array of subjects. De Quincey died in 1859.

Major Works

The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and its “sequel,” Suspiria de Profundis (1845) are intensely personal chronicles of De Quincey's experiences with opium, both its physical and psychological effects. In these autobiographical writings, De Quincey attributes to his opium reveries a visionary power that informs his understanding of creativity and literary style. De Quincey published his expanded version of the Confessions in 1856, but this version is considered obscure and stylized. His numerous essays, which initially appeared in periodicals in the Lake District, London, and Edinburgh, treat a large variety of issues, both parochial and international: Britain's imperial conflicts in Asia and northern Africa, criminal violence, theological history, Enlightenment philosophy, as well as numerous more explicitly literary reviews. Among these literary essays, De Quincey's essay on William Shakespeare, “On the Knocking on the Door in Macbeth,” has received acclaim as an outstanding piece of psychological criticism, and his critique of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads is considered a brilliant analysis of the poet's creative process. De Quincey's attention to the psychological aspects of literary, political, and domestic life stands as an important precursor to twentieth-century inheritors of the Romantic tradition. In addition, De Quincey published essays that sketched personal portraits of other Romantic authors; his reminiscences of his interactions with Coleridge and Wordsworth offer largely sympathetic insights into their literary circle.

Critical Reception

Some critics consider De Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis the supreme prose fantasy of English literature. Initially, the public believed that the confessions were fictional, to which the author responded by stating that the papers “were drawn up with entire simplicity and fidelity to the facts.” Critics often point to the diffuseness of his style, which some believe to be the result of carelessness rather than a conscious artistic device. At the time of his death, his expertise as a literary critic was underestimated, though his prose talent had long been acknowledged. As a critic, he sometimes revealed more prejudice and narrow-mindedness than insight: he found Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, immoral and cited evidence of plagiarism in the works of his friend Coleridge. Many recent critics have emphasized De Quincey's complex relationship with British imperialism: his horror and anxiety about the depravity and chaos that he associated with the Orient and his staunchly conservative political views seem to contrast sharply with his Romantic tendencies. Critic John Barrell claims that this tension permeates De Quincey's writing in various forms and is met by attempts to expel “hybridity.” Although many critics disdain the ornateness of De Quincey's writing and complain of its digressive tendencies, others find that his essays display an acute psychological awareness. The impassioned prose of his autobiographical works recreates both his youthful dreams and later drug-induced meditations. De Quincey believed that these dreams chronicle the soul's development and provide readers with insight into their own minds. By explicitly addressing the role of visionary experience in the creative process, De Quincey helped to forge a new kind of prose, one which rivaled Romantic poetry in its intensity and evocation of “grandeur.” According to contemporary scholars, his literary strengths and the tensions that mark his work situate him within the realm of modernity. In this way, De Quincey exemplifies the Romantic prose writer and at the same time heralds the emergence of a new understanding of literature and subjectivity.

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Principal Works