Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: Being an extract from the life of a scholar

I kept putting off reading this afraid it was going to be dry and dusty but not a bit of it. Thomas De Quincey is a great raconteur, dropping names wherever he can and making full use of his artistic license he makes us feel as if we’re at a very sociable gathering, listening to him holding forth on his favourite subject – himself!

First published in 1821 opium was incredibly cheap and could be bought anywhere. Jane Austen’s mother took it for travel sickness, Robert Southey for hay fever. On a Saturday afternoon small packages would be prepared in all manner of shops for the evening rush because it was cheaper than ale or spirits. Not surprisingly there was considerable debate about the harms versus the good of opium and laudanum addiction and these Confessions were seen as an encouragement to experiment, TDQ responded:

‘Teach opium-eating! -Did I teach wine-drinking? Did I reveal the mystery of sleeping? Did I inaugurate the infirmity of laughter’

Confessions is a short autobiographical essay, split into three sections – an introduction, the pleasures of opium and the pain.

The long introduction is as full as a Dicken’s novel of entitled young gentlemen, waifs, strays, excitement and melancholy. He begins at the beginning with the death of his father when he is seven years old, his precocious brilliance (‘At thirteen, I wrote Greek with ease; and at fifteen my command of that language was so great, that I not only composed Greek verses in lyric metres, but could converse in Greek fluently, and without embarrassment. . .’) and how at the age of 17 he runs away from Manchester grammar school with a copy of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads in one pocket and a volume of Euripedes in the other. Arriving in London destitute, he befriends Ann, a fifteen year old prostitute.

This is all told as a great adventure, making full use of his classical education as he dips into Greek, Latin, French and Italian and borrows from Milton and Shakespeare, Homer and Chaucer, Aristotle and Cicero. He quotes liberally from Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge as if they’re sitting with him (as they might be) and his conversational style is made all the more gossipy with comments on contemporary politics and disagreements, the little details like the note that The Bristol Mail is the best appointed stage coach in the kingdom and adding his wisdom to the ongoing argument as to whether opium is a stimulant or sedative.

In The Pleasures of Opium TDQ comes down very definitely on the side of it being a stimulant, indeed ‘here was the secret of happiness, . . . happiness that may be bought for a penny.’ And he gives advice on how much to take and how to boil it for consumption. ‘Wine’ he says ‘robs a man of his self-possession: opium greatly invigorates it.’

But, The Pains of Opium describe his vivid dreams, ‘I seemed every night to descend, into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that I could ever re-ascend.’ His dreams are largely classical with lots of architecture and Roman soldiers but with a sense of the enormous space of eternity and infinity that is terrifying.

The references come thick and fast and having the Oxford World’s Classics edition was invaluable but his writing also goes off on bucolic dreams of mountains and cottages where he plays fast and loose with boring details like geography or time scales and I found this an extra bit of fun as if the pedantic explanatory notes were out to stop a good story! My favourite involved TDQ, while in London and pining for his wife living in Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the Lake District. He says:

‘I look up the streets that run northwards from Oxford-street, upon moonlight nights . . . and remembering that though art sitting alone in that same valley, and mistress of that very house . . . Oh, that I had the wings of a dove -‘

and the note says:

‘slightly misleading. . . she and the children were in fact living three miles away at Fox Ghyll Cottage’

That really made me chuckle, no pandiculation in sight (reading this has improved my vocabulary no end!) And I’ve made it by the skin of my teeth for the deadline of the Classics Club Spin

12 thoughts on “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: Being an extract from the life of a scholar

  1. I recall reading this way back in the mists of time when I was in my teens, and although the detail now escapes me I do remember something of the ‘feel’ of it. Thank you for a terrific reminder!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Kaggsy – probably because you recently reviewed Fleur Jaeggy ‘These Possible Lives’, which I read alongside this on your recommendation, she gets it in a nutshell!


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