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In the early 19th century opium was as cheap and widely available as aspirin is today, and used almost as freely. Taken typically in a liquid form called laudanum, it was an effective painkiller for persons of all ages, and a cheap intoxicant. Thomas De Quincey first took opium as a youth for an affliction that sounds like a sinus infection. He so enjoyed its effects that for several years he took a dose as a treat every Saturday night. He found it made him more sociable and enhanced his enjoyment of the opera. It was only when he started taking laudanum daily for a chronic stomach pain that he became physically addicted to it. As he took greater and greater doses, De Quincey experienced vivid, exotic and terrifying dreams, some of which he describes in his writings.
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.