Talent and self-destruction: since the 19th century, De Quincey's addiction has eclipsed his once-brilliant literary reputation.
Weidenfeld and Nicolson
480 pages, softcover
BY THE CLOSE, ON DECEMBER 8, 1859, of Thomas De Quincey's troubled and chaotic life, which endured far longer than the opium dependence infiltrating every aspect of it made predictable, he was the last representative of the cluster of evocative names--Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Blake, Southey, Hazlitt, Lamb--that had defined English Romanticism. He outlasted his only rival, Leigh Hunt, by a few months. Of the circle surrounding Wordsworth and Coleridge, only the assiduous diarist and indefatigable correspondent Henry Crabb Robinson outlived him, and while Robinson was certainly an attentive eyewitness to literary history, he did not himself make it. De Quincey, by contrast, decidedly did, although it was not until the publication of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) at what was for a writer of his generation the advanced age of 36 that his name gained currency with the expanding reading public that kept afloat a burgeoning array of periodicals in pre-Victorian England. The same journals gave De Quincey his always tenuous hold on solvency, finding room for a remarkable number of his essays and reviews on an impressive range of topics--philosophical, literary, historical, political, sociological, scientific. But it is on the Confessions that his reputation still largely rests, with some support from the equally felicitously titled essays "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts."
The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, the first in nearly 30 years, by Robert Morrison of the Department of English at Queen's University, benefits from the magnificent De Quincey collection issued a few years ago by Pickering and Chatto, to whose achievement Morrison himself was a major contributor, editing or co-editing four of its 21 volumes. Morrison's immersion in not only published editions but also manuscripts unpublished before this comprehensive series made them available (indeed, much of the correspondence is still unpublished) brings unrivalled authority to his biography. It occasionally also brings the attendant risks of information overload suffered by obsessive scholars anxious to find a place for all they know, regardless of the real contribution it makes to their subject. There is, after all, a certain repetitive inevitability to the situations in which a self-destructive and self-preoccupied personality finds itself. Recurrent missed deadlines, flirtations with bankruptcy and skirmishes with long-suffering family, friends and landlords are likely over the long haul to merge somewhat muddily together in a reader's mind, especially when such formula phrasing as "in March," "in early August," "on 7 July" pops up at inconvenient distance from the most recent mention of a year. One leaves this biography feeling that while there may not be much more to find out about what De Quincey did when and with whom--how much he borrowed, lent, got himself in debt for or consumed, narcotically speaking--there may well be more to be done with this knowledge in illuminating a bafflingly self-destructive but prodigiously talented writer.
That having been said, Morrison does keep De Quincey's engaging humanity percolating through the morass of deceits, broken promises, unthinking cruelties and manipulative self-justifications tainting, in some instances irrevocably, his relationships. The disaffected included at one stage or another virtually all those on whom he was most dependent for emotional support and financial survival. His association with Wordsworth, for example, began in veneration: De Quincey called his first reading at the age of 14 of "We Are Seven," Wordsworth's wonderful poem about a child's understanding of death (a subject forming a relentless part of De Quincey's own childhood experience), "the greatest event in the unfolding of my own mind." But his relationship with the Wordsworth menage ended inevitably in alienation: "Notwithstanding his learning and his talents ... he can do nothing; he is eaten up by the spirit of procrastination" was Dorothy Wordsworth's typically waspish summation. The friendship with Coleridge was similarly troubled, although the full animus directed against him for his evenhandedness in charting Coleridge's temperamental weaknesses along with his intellectual strengths was reserved, Coleridge being conveniently dead, for the younger generation to express. Coleridge's nephew excoriated him for "the incredible meannesses of thought, allusion, or language perpetrated in these papers," a judgement that sounds almost temperate when set against Southey's view that Coleridge's son "ought to take a strong cudgel, proceed straight to Edinburgh, and give De Quincey, publicly on the streets there, a sound beating!"
If the relationships with friends were volatile, those with family, particularly with his longsuffering and long-suffered mother, were equally unstable, feeding traumatic intra-familial resentments. A child of relative privilege, he lived his life as if uncertainty and victimization were its governing principles. Despite his father's death when Thomas was only eight, he would have had sufficient resources to live independently in modest comfort had his grasp of financial reality been surer. His unconventional domestic arrangements recurrently found him responsible for rent on a number of residences simultaneously, some of which ended up as homes to only an expanding and intractable collection of books. His consumption of laudanum made some of the heaviest inroads on his finances. At its highest it rose to 12,000 drops a day, which would have cost him a crippling 14 [pounds sterling] per week. Even his daily average intake of around 300 drops would have cost seven shillings a week, which was not far short of a wage for many a farm labourer.
De Quincey's dependence on opium derivatives, first resorted to when he was 19 as an escape from "excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face" may well have been caused by emotional as much as physical pain. T.S. Eliot's memorable observation on the Elizabethan playwright John Webster--"Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin"--applies with even more literal point to De Quincey. The loss in childhood of his father and three siblings, most particularly his beloved sister Elizabeth, whose death chamber he crept into certainly before and possibly after her skull had been opened in an autopsy, haunted him for the rest of his life. These deaths were the vanguard to a relentless parade of loss (including his wife and three of his children) that may well have made reflex solipsism a survival response to overwhelming grief.
As Morrison observes, he had by his final years "consolidated the shift in his reputation from Romantic bohemian to Victorian man of letters," but the bohemianism evoked in Morrison's titular foregrounding of his subject's most enduring sobriquet provides the ground-bass of this biography. His was a reputation made by the bullish publishing market of the times, with proliferating journals hungry for the kind of essays at which he excelled. While Morrison's claim that "the mass media that now dominates our lives developed during his lifetime" is decidedly tendentious (the implication that the audience for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine bore significant relation to what constitutes a mass audience in our age of near universal literacy, tabloids, reality television and the internet is absurd), it is true that De Quincey became an accidental celebrity in an age only recently attuned to the idea of them, in part courtesy of Romantic poets less blessed with powers of survival than De Quincey. When the English opium eater did finally succumb to "exhaustion of the system"--brought on by old age rather than narcotic abuse--The Scotsman recorded his passing as the departure of "almost the very last of a brilliant band of men of letters, who illuminated the literary hemisphere of the first half of our century with starry lustre." Morrison's biography makes abundantly clear why this writer, almost in spite of himself, should have elicited such encomiastic comments. As his American publisher James Fields put it in writing to condole with De Quincey's daughter Florence on heating news of her father's death: "Dear old man! Some of the best moments of my life I owe to him, the great Master of English Prose."
Keith Wilson is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa. His most recent book is the edited collection A Companion to Thomas Hardy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
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|Title Annotation:||The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey|
|Publication:||Literary Review of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2010|
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