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The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey - Robert Morrison ”stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquests, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas; and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed, I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia; Vishnu hated me; Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris; I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

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Laudanum dreams in the mind of a creative creature such as Thomas de Quincey found plenty of material to work with. He was one of the great readers of his time, not shying away from every form of literature and philosophy. He was addicted to collecting books even before he began his love affair with laudanum. He accumulated thousands of books and for his whole life books as much as his addiction to laudanum kept him on the verge of bankruptcy. Even while still at school books were eating up most of his income and putting pressure on his future income.

”Thomas was ‘always buying fresh books and was sometimes at a loss how to find money for them. In those days men dressed for Hall: and Thomas having one day parted with his own waistcoat in order to purchase some book or other went into Hall hiding his loss of clothing as best he could’, but the concealment was detected, and Thomas was fined for the breach of etiquette, though this did not change his habits. He was entirely indisposed to ‘spend upon a tailor’, what he had ‘destined for a bookseller’. It was trend that continued for the rest of his life.”

Thomas loathed school. He was very good at it, but that was part of the problem. The better he did the more the other boys hated him. He was pummelled many times for doing too well on his lessons. Part of the problem is he had a tart tongue and a short stature. Full grown he barely topped five feet. Probable for survival reasons he did learn to get along with his fellow students and after a while they couldn’t help but admire the imp’s courage in the face of certain annihilation.

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Thomas De Quincey by Sir John Watson-Gordon

De Quincey began his addiction to opium/laudanum the way that most people of that time period did by getting sick and buying it from the local drug store. The ruby liquor was used to treat everything from a cold to cancer. It was widely available not only at drug stores, but also at the grocery store or the butcher shop. As his addiction grew he learned to buy from a wide range of places to hide his dependency. He also was an alcoholic. He liked wine. When he attempted to wean himself off the laudanum he was fighting dueling problems of addiction and each and every time attempts at abstinence ended in failure.

”Why is there such a gap between De Quincey’s experience of opiate withdrawal and established pharmacology? To some extent, the discrepancy can be explained by the fact that on several occasions De Quincey knowingly exaggerated his pains in order to garner sympathy or create a diversion, or heighten a literary effort. He also undoubtedly suffered in varying degrees from what is now known as ‘protracted withdrawal syndrome’ where withdrawal can last up to six months though in forms far more muted than the agonies De Quincey recounts. Another possibility--wide ranging in its implications--is that De Quincey was also an alcoholic, so his withdrawals were repeatedly complicated by the fact that he was fighting, not just opium, but a toxic blend of opium and alcohol.”

De Quincey does seem to have rather extreme reactions to separating himself from the ruby liquor.

”He could not sleep, He could not sit still. Excessive perspiration obliged him to use a bath five to six times a day, and he was racked by sneezing, a sudden distention of the stomach; violent biliousness; rheumatic pains; then pains resembling internal rheumatism and many other evils including the misery of the mind.”

He sought out and obtained the friendship of the two best English poets of the time (arguably) William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge(also fighting his own addiction to opiates.). He wrote them both very convincing letters despite his own lack of published work at this time. He became friends not only of the poets, but also of their families for a while before egos began to drive wedges between them. Thomas so adored Wordsworth’s daughter Catharine that when she died he was so overcome with grief that he went a little crazy.

”For the next eight weeks, he stretched himself every night upon Catharine’s grave in the Grasmere churchyard.”

He had lost his sister Elizabeth at a similar age and the death of Catharine brought back a double dose of grief.

This all leads us up to his famous book Confessions of an Opium Eater. It hit the Victorian landscape like a bomb. It was quickly reprinted and became the authoritarian book on opium addiction. More scientific studies were not conducted on the drug until long after De Quincey’s death. The book was heavily criticized because it depicted a too positive view of opium addiction which lead to many young men of the time dangerously experimenting with the drug. Several English writers developed debilitating addictions to the drug after reading his book including Francis Thompson, James Thomson, William Blair, and perhaps Branwell Brontë. Over fifty deaths were attributed to the influence of this book.

He became a rock star of literature.

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”De Quincey, asserted William S. Burroughs, wrote the first, and still the best, book about drug addiction. No other author since has given such a completely analytical description of what it is like to be a junky from the first use to the effects of withdrawal.”

Magazines and book publishers hounded him for material. De Quincey was really good at saying yes, but was slow to deliver. Despite the constant stress and strain of his financial circumstances he was very particular about his work. It was a slow process what with the bouts of burning energy followed by bouts of sickness. His long suffering wife Mary who bore him eight children they could barely afford to feed had to move constantly to stay ahead of creditors.
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The lovely De Quincey Daughters Margaret, Florence and Emily. Emily is featured in Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell.

De Quincey rented at one time six houses because he accumulated so many books that they had to acquire new lodgings just to have space to live. His kids became master spies dropping off material to his publishers, collecting money, and dodging creditors who tried to follow them back to their father. His children’s education was sketchy at best harkening back to his own loathing of the education system, and the fact that they were on the move constantly to avoid arrest for debt. De Quincey thrived in the upheaval.

”De Quincey mismanaged his time and money because to a considerable degree he wanted to be hounded. He had a taste for suffering, a craze for being despised.”

De Quincey seemed to be on the verge of death most of his life; and yet, even with suffering from drug and alcohol addiction for over fifty years he lived to be 74. A ripe age especially in that time period. He is buried in St. Cuthbert’s churchyard in Edinburgh. His stone remarkably says nothing of his work.

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Thomas De Quincey Grave at St. Cuthbert’s churchyard in Edinburgh.

This book was fascinating. Robert Morrison knows his subject and draws such a vivid picture of De Quincey that I really feel I know him personally. I’m exploring De Quincey backwards. I picked up from the library, really on a lark, the David Morrell fictionalized account of De Quincey helping to solve the copycat murders of a famous murder he wrote about so reverentially in On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts. Murder as a Fine Art Review Robert Morrison was a consultant on that project which reminded me that I had his fine biography of De Quincey already in my personal library. I will now read Confessions of an Opium-Eater. Normally I would have read these three books in reverse order, but life demands flexibility of this reader. A book in the hand trumps two books that need to be found.