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Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings Paperback – Mar 28 2013
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Review from other book by this author: ''Robert Morrison's biography is astute and revealing, quarrying new sources." --John Carey, Sunday Times
''Robert Morrison's biography is impressive, the first biography of De Quincey in almost thirty years, and is the first to use all his published and unpublished works.'' --Tom Paulin, The Literary Review
''The time was ripe for a new biography and Morrison has done his man proud. This is an exceptionally well-balanced account." --Jonathan Bate, Sunday Telegraph
About the Author
Robert Morrison is the author of a critically acclaimed biography of De Quincey, The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009). He has edited volumes of De Quincey's complete Works for Pickering and Chatto, and he is the editor of On Murder, a collection of De Quincey's essays 'On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts' and other writings for OWC. He has also co-edited with Chris Baldick Polidori's The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre for OWC.
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As to the Confessions, they are more interesting as autobiographical material than for what they say about opium addiction, and you risk being disappointed if you are looking for something racy. The novella, which first came out in magazine format, caused less controversy than might be imagined, since the sale and consumption of opium were legal in Britain, without limitations, and De Quincey was far from the only addict in the literary world. The Confessions are a poetical work anyway, and the author's descriptions of the pains and pleasures of opium are less literal than about exploring the power of dreams and raw imagination. A second strand is autobiographical, going into De Quincey's struggles and flight from London as a penniless student and other later experiences. The Suspiria, meanwhile, are somewhat redundant, though they dwell on De Quincey's unhappiness at the loss of his sister when still a child. And the Mail-Coach is a highly entertaining flight of fancy that returns to the more phantasmagorical opium dreams of the Confessions. In the midst of it all, De Quincey, who was foremost an essayist and commentator and who lived from the pen, rambles from one subject to another from classical Greek theatre to political economy. The works are more valuable, indeed, for their commentary on Victorian life and for their poetical force than for anything they may say about drugs.
Lastly, a tangential obervation: Britain waged the first opium war, a war to force the Chinese to keep buying opium from its merchants, in between the publication of the Confessions and Suspiria. The war was for obvious reasons controversial in Britain. De Quincey wrote two pieces, published in 1840 and 1841 in Blackwood's Magazine, advocating military intervention against the Chinese. These two articles were violently imperialistic and De Quincey, as a short passage in the Confessions already hinted, was no friend of the Chinese. He paid in his private life for taking this position, as one of his sons was among the few British soldiers to die in the expedition, in 1842. None of this is hinted at in any way or directly relevant to the Confessions, but it adds a strange and dark twist to De Quincey's and the opium question.
'Suspiria de Profundis' (Sigh from the depths) is the second work in this collection. Published twenty-four years after the 'Confessions' it continues on in the vein of its predecessor as De Quincey relates more of his childhood tragedies and pains. He shares these stories and thoughts as they appear to him at the time of writing, trying to understand his own past and the part it had in shaping his present.
The final, shorter piece in this collection, 'The English Mail-Coach', is predominantly concerned with a period in De Quincey's Oxford years when he and his fellow students often rode the mail-coach. He describes the esteem the mail-coach was held him by him and his contemporaries, the etiquette they created around it, as well as the dreams they inspired in his opium-fueled mind years later.
This edition also includes three appendices; these contain manuscripts and other writings relating to each of the works.
De Quincey tells us in no uncertain terms that he is THE expert on opium addiction. He disputes what the medical profession says about the drug. "And therefore, worthy doctors," he proclaims, "stand aside, and allow me to come forward and lecture on this matter." He also lets us know that he was, and is, an unparalleled scholar of the Greek language and as at home in Latin as Cicero. But he seems to have disdained any form of regular employment and spent most of his life in poverty, living off of the charity of a prostitute at one point, and later becoming something of a parasite of the poet William Wordsworth. De Quincey moved frequently to stay ahead of debt collectors, and wrote his Confessions while in hiding in London.
The Confessions are largely a self-justification of his predicament, but there is some valuable insight into the effects of opium from a person who has gone through all stages of casual use, dependency, addiction, and withdrawal. As an example of one of his dreams: "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."
"Suspira de Profundis" (A Sigh from the Depths) is a sequel of sorts to the Confessions, but one that mostly goes back to fill in details of De Quincey's childhood. His point apparently is to show the raw material for some of his opium dreams, but he doesn't tell us a lot about the dreams themselves. Instead he, once again, seems chiefly to want to impress us with how exceptionally brilliant and sensitive he was as a child. He writes with such a combination of insufferable arrogance and rambling, purple-prosed Victorian sentimentality that it becomes an unintentional self-parody. De Quincey would have us believe that he was in tears when his housemaid killed a spider, and was only consoled when she explained that it was necessary to save the lives of the fifty flies that the spider would have murdered.
"The English Mail Coach" begins with a much welcome bit of humor, as De Quincey describes the public express coaches which he rode frequently between Oxford and London. The coaches held four passengers inside, and three on the roof with the driver. "It had been the fixed assumption of the four inside people," he explains, "that they, the illustrious quaternion, constituted a porcelain variety of the human race, whose dignity would have been compromised by exchanging one word of civility with the three delf ware outsides. Even to have kicked an outsider might have been held to attaint the foot concerned in that operation; so that, perhaps, it would have required an act of parliament to restore its purity of blood."
In the second half of the essay De Quincey gets serious again and describes in detail an accident in which the massive mail coach in which he is riding at the furious speed of thirteen miles an hour overturns a small gig. The horrified De Quincey sees a young woman go flying, and he assumes she is killed (though the coach apparently never stopped). He then describes five opium dreams from later years, each a bizarre and unique variation of that accident.
De Quincey's condescending tone and his rambling, repetitive, but incomplete narrative can be infuriating, but his Confessions do offer valuable insight into the social and psychological aspects of opium use in early 19th century England.