‘…Thomas began to learn how to apply the ointment of dreams to the wounds inflicted by experience.’ – The Opium Eater by Grevel Lindop

May 17, 2017 at 12:36 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

  The Opium Eater is subtitled, A Life of Thomas De Quincey. It was a deeply turbulent and difficult life. As an adult, De Quincey was chronically short of funds and relentlessly hounded by creditors, frequently needing to flee from them and find repose in the homes of friends or in designated sanctuaries like Holyrood House in Edinburgh. His health was frequently poor, with problems exacerbated by his use of opium.

All of this was preceded by a childhood positively Dickensian in its cruelty. That the cruelty was in the main psychological made it no less devastating to Thomas, a child in desperate need of warmth and encouragement. His mother Elizabeth Quincey, a domineering woman with a heart of flint, believed that praising children promoted vanity and this refrained from demonstrating any kind of approval or even basic kindness toward her children.

De Quincey’s father, a successful merchant, was often absent. He finally came home for good, to die of tuberculosis at the age of 40, as Thomas was approaching his eighth birthday. Shortly prior to this, Thomas had lost the one bright light of his chilldhood: his sister Elizabeth, who died at the age of nine.

What a catalog of miseries! The burden of sadness must have been nearly intolerable. And as for the mother in the case, I found her conduct so enraging that I had to stop reading from time to time, to give myself a chance to simmer down.

Despite the absolute lack of maternal love and support, De Quincey began to exhibit signs of an insatiable intellectual curiosity. These were accompanied by unmistakable signs of brilliance. His scholarship in the fields of the classics and philosophy was deeply impressive.

At thirteen he wrote Greek with ease; at fifteen he not only composed Greek verses in lyric measures, but could converse in Greek fluently and without embarrassment; one of his masters said of him, “that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.”

From NNDB.com

De Quincey attended Oxford but does not seem to have derived much joy from the experience. He began his writing career as a journalist, editor, and reviewer. He earned a precarious living in that manner  for the rest of his life. He married Margaret Simpson, a farmer’s daughter whom he loved dearly.

To this superb young woman . . . I surrendered my heart forever almost from my first opportunity of seeing her; for so natural and without disguise was her character and so winning the simplicity of her manners, due in part to the deep solitude in which she had been reared, that little penetration was required to put me in possession of all her thoughts and to win her love.

Quoted by Grevel Lindop from “The Household Wreck,” a story by De Quincey

They had a large family, though a number of the children did not survive to adulthood. The saddest story on that subject involves their son William. He contracted a rare and particularly cruel cancer called chloroleukaemia and died at the age of eighteen. He was the firstborn of Margaret and Thomas; they were devastated by the loss.

Somehow, amidst all the pain, loss, and hardship, De Quincey persevered. In September 1822, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” was published in London Magazine:

The Confessions were instantly famous and have remained so ever since. Between 1821 and 1823 some fifteen reviews appeared, nearly all of them enthusiastic about the book’s style and imaginative power, though a few thought the author vain or immoral and there were doubts about the truth of his story. Imitations and parodies abounded, and before long De Quincey’s literary influence, unknown to him, was spreading abroad. In 1828 his work was introduced to France by Alfred de Musset in L‘anglais, mangeur d’opium, a very free adaptation; in 1860 a better version was to be made by Baudelaire in Les paradis artificiels, and by then the Confessions had reached Edgar Allan Poe and contributed an important element to his style and vision. vision. De Quincey had written a classic work.

I cannot praise this biography too highly. Grevel Lindop’s writing is wonderful; his research, exhaustive. This was obviously a labor of love, and I, for one, loved it.

Grevel Lindop

Here, from Lindop’s site, is the story of his thorough-going involvement in the life and work of Thomas De Quincey:

In the late 1970s I became interested in Thomas De Quincey, ‘the English Opium-Eater’, essayist and friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge. I wrote a biography of him, published in 1981 as The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. Later I edited his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings for the Oxford World’s Classics series in 1985, and later still I piloted The Works of Thomas De Quincey, a 21-volume complete edition of his writings, produced by a team of eleven editors under my direction and published in 2000-03.

There’s much more in this biography that what I’ve described above. Of especial interest is De Quincey’s relationship with Wordsworth and his family. Anyway, read it, for that and for so much more.

The question arises as to what to read by De Quincey himself. I won’t deny that I find some of his writings abstruse. For one thing, his prose is liberally sprinkled with quotations from the Latin and Greek. For another, there is an antiquarian aspect to his prose that can  be rather daunting for the modern reader – or this reader, at any rate. Be that as it may, there are works that Lindop really made me want to read: The Avenger, The English Mail Coach – and of course, The Confessions. I’m currently rereading On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts and finding it tougher going than I did this first time; don’t ask me why. I do, though, have to share this quote from it:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.

The tone, I think, is what makes On Murder especially memorable. A good place to start, though, would be On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth. It’s short, powerful, accessible, and deeply profound.

Thomas De Quincey 1785-1859

 

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