Thomas De Quincey Criticism

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V. A. De Luca (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Giant Self: Suspiria de Profundis” in Thomas De Quincey: The Prose of Vision, University of Toronto Press, 1980, pp. 57-83.

[In the following essay, De Luca discusses the sequel to Confessions of an Opium-Eater as a blending of autobiography and myth.]

There is little precedent in other major Romantic writers for the strangely late onset of De Quincey's chief phase as an imaginative artist, a phase that begins with the Suspiria de Profundis of his sixtieth year and continues for a dozen years more. A last and climactic bout with the powers of opium, a struggle always fecund to his imagination, partially explains this phenomenon.1 But whatever the external circumstances, this mid-winter spring of De Quincey's career is peculiarly appropriate, for a pattern of tentative beginnings and late flowering is intrinsic to all of his best work. Such a pattern is visible in the Confessions, for example, in the way that the common day of experience at school and in London leads to and is absorbed by the unearthly gleam of opium's revelations, or in ‘The Revolt of the Tartars,’ where the prosaic history of the tribe modulates into a myth of divine guidance. The phases of his literary career seem to follow the same sort of progression; it is as if De Quincey feels compelled to circle warily about his central theme of the imagination's power, occasionally approaching it and retreating, only to rush upon it at last, allowing it to transfigure his art.

Suspiria de Profundis initiates the culminating phase of this progression, and De Quincey clearly intended it to occupy a crowning place in his work. Its subtitle in the original version published in Blackwood's Magazine in March-July 1845 is ‘A Sequel to the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,’ and the new work supersedes, at least in intention, the earlier one that established his literary reputation. In a letter sent to his friend Professor Lushington in 1846 De Quincey calls it ‘very greatly superior to the first [Confessions], … the ne plus ultra, as regards the feeling and the power to express it, which I can ever hope to attain.’2 Attempting to assimilate and transcend the earlier Confessions, the Suspiria also seems intended as a kind of repository for every piece of ‘impassioned’ or visionary prose that De Quincey was subsequently to write. As a list of titles found among his papers after his death indicates, he applied the general title Suspiria de Profundis not only to the pieces published in 1845 but also to The English Mail-Coach of 1849, to ‘The Daughter of Lebanon,’ appended to the revised Confessions of 1856, as well as to other pieces not published in his lifetime, some of them now lost.3 The Suspiria of 1845 thus seems to represent the central core of a canonical structure, an arch of autobiography and vision, raising the life of the English opium-eater to the level of myth.4 It is, to be sure, an unfinished arch, for De Quincey completed only one of the work's four intended sections and later raided the work freely, distributing parts of it among the heterogeneous materials gathered to form the Autobiographic Sketches of 1853. Yet both in its aspirations to canonical stature and in its incompleteness the Suspiria is reminiscent of other Romantic works of similar scope and intent such as Blake's Four Zoas, Wordsworth's Recluse, or Keats's Hyperion, great myths of fall and redemption which their authors can neither finish nor leave behind but which live on in successive versions of themselves. Like these, De Quincey's work is more moving for its lack of completion than any finished work could be, more revealing of the open-endedness of Romantic myth-making.


Like Wordsworth's Recluse, the Suspiria aspires to becoming a grand philosophical poem (though in prose), marrying personal history, visionary experiences, and a universal healing doctrine. The principal difference between the two works is in their plans of organization; whereas Wordsworth expected to...

(The entire section is 70,491 words.)