The Magus of Dreams
Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey
By Frances Wilson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
The vast majority of writers leave no lasting posthumous trace. They die, and their work, successful as it may have been in its time, simply fades away. A lucky few—the Dickenses, Trollopes, Woolfs— end up firmly ensconced in the culture, their major works widely read, their minor ones remaining in print, and even their ephemera published. Then there’s the middle ground: the writers who are known for one or two pieces drawn from a vast body of work that is otherwise almost wholly forgotten.
Such a one is Thomas De Quincey, whose phantasmagoric memoir Confessions of an English Opium Eater has been handed from poets to trippers in an unbroken skein since the it was first published in 1822. De Quincey wrote many hundreds of thousands of words in addition to Confessions—the complete edition of his works prepared by a US publisher in his later years ran to twenty-two volumes—but it’s not inappropriate that Confessions is what he’s remembered by: opium was his regrettable lodestar, rivaled only, perhaps, by Wordsworth. But whereas he soured on Wordsworth and moved beyond him, opium kept him in its grip for a lifetime.
“Opium was the making of De Quincey,” writes Frances Wilson in Guilty Thing, her absorbing new biography. The Confessions made his name as a writer, and—at least in the early days—the access that opium gave him to other parts of his mind and experience helped him carve out an imaginative space that was different from that of other jobbing prose writers of the Romantic era, like William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt. Wilson explains:
As an “opium-eater,” De Quincey found not only a literary identity, but a subject suited to his style. He was never to be, like Dorothy Wordsworth, a miniaturist. He thought in terms of accumulation and he piled his sentences high; he observed distortion rather than detail, crowds rather than individuals. A face, for De Quincey, rarely had features. “It was my disease,” he said, “to meditate too much and to observe too little; he “suffered,” said Virginia Woolf, “from the gift of seeing everything a size too large, and of reproducing his vision in words which are also a size too large.” But his writing could always support the weight of his reveries, and opium gave voice to De Quincey’s stylistic insatiability.
Until, that is, it didn’t. Though De Quincey suffered less, both as a writer and a man, than his friend Coleridge did from their shared addiction, it contributed to a lifelong succession of failures, debts, broken friendships, and isolation. We, as readers, may have come out ahead; it’s hard to argue that De Quincey himself did.
De Quincey was born in 1785 to a prosperous Manchester family, the fourth of eight children; even as he fell out with his mother in later life, he remained close to his sisters. His father, described by a friend as “the most upright man I ever met with in my life,” transformed a drapery shop into a lucrative import business. Thomas thus grew up in at least moderate luxury, in a spacious country house with a library; both houses and books would remain obsessions his whole life.
De Quincey’s father died when he was eight, though he’d been largely absent in the colonies, for both business and health, so his loss seems not to have been deeply felt. It did, however, leave De Quincey in the hands of his mother, whose “primary legacy to her children,” Wilson notes, “was a sense of guilt.” Meanwhile, De Quincey, self-dramatizing at every turn, cast his “horrid pugilistic” brother William, who “would have fastened a quarrel upon his own shadow for presuming to run before him” as the archetype of the vague, yet ever-present threat De Quincey felt throughout his life from some shadowy pursuer, dark and violent yet not wholly dissimilar to himself. More important, at least according to De Quincey’s own Autobiographic Sketches, was the death of his sister Elizabeth, age nine, in 1792. Her death, of hydrocephalus contracted on a midsummer day, was sudden, and the knowledge that his beloved sister’s bedroom now held not her but a corpse seems to have deeply marked the boy. “[A]ll men come into this world alone; leave it alone,” he would write of that day years later. The distress became gothic when doctors the next day performed a postmortem in the house, sawing off the top of Elizabeth’s skull. He didn’t see it, but what child—let alone a child with a vivid imagination—could help but conjure up life-long horrors from hearing of that scene?
A move to the rich resort town of Bath in 1797 (to a house previously occupied by Edmund Burke) offered the young De Quincey his first taste of intellectual life. His mother quickly made friends with Hannah More, a poet, playwright, and public-spirited moral reformer who was a genuine celebrity; in her drawing room, De Quincey met writers and actors, and heard countless anecdotes of Burke, David Garrick, and Samuel Johnson. Schooldays, subsequently, couldn’t live up: De Quincey’s teen years read like one long, somewhat whiney attempt to get called back home. Eventually, he would actually run away, the first of what would become a lifelong pattern of periods of desperate homelessness and flight. Wilson is exceptionally good at drawing on De Quincey’s own later writings to show the psychic weight of this early isolation and escape, particularly his flight to London, and subsequent homelessness, in 1802–03 :
It was late November 1802 when he crossed back into England, but the days seemed to him like “the last brief resurrection of summer.” The departing season was “awful” in its “universal silence” and “death-like stillness,” the light over the woods and fields resembling “lambent and fitful gleams from an expiring lamp.” Some kind lawyers De Quincey had met on the road gave him twelve guineas to keep him going, and the final night of his walking tour was pend at the Lion Inn in Shrewsbury. Here he waited in an empty ballroom for the arrival of the Holyhead mail that would take him to Birmingham. Outside, the wind was rising and the “whole atmosphere had become one vast laboratory of hostile movements.” Midnight came and the household retired; De Quincey, listening for the wheels of the carriage, was left alone to reflect. He was facing a “precipice;” the next stage of his adventure filled him with “terror,” “horror.”
More important than all of that, however, was a life-changing experience in 1799: Hannah More passed on a manuscript copy of a poem titled “We Are Seven.” It was De Quincey’s first encounter with the poet who would dominate the first half of his life, William Wordsworth. As Wilson puts it, “When Coleridge described admirers of Wordsworth as ‘distinguished’ by a ‘religious fervour,’ he was thinking principally of Thomas De Quincey.” It would take him seven years, but eventually De Quincey would meet Wordsworth, and quickly would become his friend and collaborator.
First, however, came the more approachable Coleridge. De Quincey sought him out in 1807, and he claims that at their first meeting they discussed opium: De Quincey happening to mention that he’d taken laudanum for toothache, Coleridge responded that he was “under the full dominion” of the drug. Soon, De Quincey was involved on all sides with the Coleridges, smoothing the troubled marital waters with Coleridge’s wife, Sarah, entertaining the children, and anonymously lending Coleridge a substantial sum of money. (As Wilson writes, “Before he became a borrower, De Quincey was a lender; he experienced from both sides the deep moral power of debt.”) Though the friendship seems to have been genuine, it was nonetheless a stepping-stone to meeting Wordsworth, which De Quincey finally achieved in late 1807. While both Wordsworth and his library were at that first meeting unprepossessing in appearance, De Quincey rated the conversation “superior by much in its tone and subject” to any he’d experienced.
The acquaintance would blossom into friendship, at least to the extent that the cold, self-involved Wordsworth had friends in later life. Like nearly all Wordsworth’s (and, to be fair, De Quincey’s) relationships, however, it would suffer powerful vicissitudes and eventually sour. Wilson runs down the list of charges that led to a breach in 1811:
A coastal shelf of indignation had built up inside him. De Quincey lived for the Wordsworths: he was forever running errands on their behalf; he was used as a library, a babysitter, a tutor, a secretary, and even at times, when Mary needed ready cash, as a bank. Any intellectual ambitions of his own had been discarded; he would never be anyone so long as he was Wordsworth’s courtier, and it had not occurred to Wordsworth that De Quincey might have any other ambition.
It’s typical of Wordsworth to recognize no ambition but his own. Though De Quincey would continue to orbit the Wordsworths fitfully for years, his marriage in 1816 to Margaret Simpson, the daughter of a Lake District farmer, insured the break would never fully heal. The Wordsworths “never ceased to condemn his choice,” while Mary and Dorothy “made it plain that they would not take tea with the new mistress of Dove Cottage.” (Wilson tartly observes that “unlike Wordsworth, [De Quincey] had married the mother of his illegitimate child.”) By 1837, when Margaret died of typhus, De Quincey wrote of Wordsworth with open hate. Even so, both William and Dorothy would do him favors at key points in later life.
The marriage itself seems to have been as good as could be hoped in the conditions, built on Margaret’s almost unfathomable forbearance amid the poverty, unreliability, and addiction that were De Quincey’s natural milieu for most of his life. She nursed him through the worst of his addiction, when he was taking 10,000 drops of laudanum per day, “wiping his forehead and pressing water to his black-baked lips” as he lay insensible.
That labor is cruelly fitting, for opium, after all, was his true wife. As he would write, with his usual dramatic flair, in Confessions, “This is the doctrine of the true church on the subject of opium, of which I acknowledge myself to be the only member.” Though he would fight the addiction admirably, if haphazardly, throughout his life, frequently bringing it under a semblance of control, he would remain a user until his death. In his early days, Wilson notes, opium enabled him to “‘run away’ from his ‘torments’; he was no longer pursued by whispers, footsteps, hysterical rivers, angry mobs or mad dogs.” As the addiction took hold, however, he lay, “to use Carlyle’s memorable phrase, ‘invisible in bed,'” awaking in cries, seeing horrors. When he could battle his “infantine feebleness” and kick the habit for brief periods, “the results were “sleeplessness, restlessness, excessive sweating, ‘unspeakable, unutterable misery of mind’ and ‘the wretchedness of a lunatic.” But when he returned to using, “the drug once again ‘aggravated the misery which for the moment it relieved.'” Perhaps worse, De Quincey found that “what he wrote under the influence afterwards filled him with self-loathing.” The drug he’d begun taking in order to open his mind to experience was now preventing him from capturing any of its results.
The break with the Wordsworths was followed soon by encroaching poverty, as De Quincey’s increasingly large family and inability to manage money exhausted his patrimony. Like many another down-at-heel gentleman in that explosive era of print, he turned to the magazines. Wordsworth recommended him as editor of the Tory Westmorland Gazette (with a warning that De Quincey was weak “on the score of punctuality,” which is putting it mildly), and he managed to hold the job for a year and a half. Eventually, however, harried by deadlines—which “drive a man into hurried writing, possibly into saying the thing that is not”—he resigned. Desperate for money, however, he quickly saddled himself with new deadlines, pledging an essay first to Blackwood’s—and failing to deliver—and then to the new London Magazine (home of Hazlitt’s Table Talk and Lamb’s Essays of Elia). There, in the September issue, the first part of Confessions of an English Opium Eater broke upon the world.
Despite being unburdened by logic or obvious structure, Confessions was an immediate hit. A century and a half later, it remains easy to see why: writing autobiography before the term was widely known De Quincey both laid bare his addiction and hid it behind a swirling, phantasmagorical, incantatory prose that even in its day harked to earlier centuries. This is from the opening of Part II:
So then, Oxford-street, stony-hearted stepmother! thou that listenest to the sighs of orphans, and drinkest the tears of children, at length I was dismissed from thee: the time was come at last that i no more should pace in anguish thy never-ending terraces; no more should dream, and wake in captivity to the pangs of hunger. . . . For myself, however, the storm which I had outlived seemed to have been the pledge of a long fair weather; the premature sufferings which I had paid down, to have been accepted as a ransom of many years to come, as a price of long immunity from sorrow: and if again I walked in London, a solitary and contemplative man (as oftentimes I did), I walked for hte most part in serenity and peace of mind. And, although it is true that the calamities of my noviciate in London had struck root so deeply in my bodily constitution that afterwards they shot up and flourished afresh, and grew into a noxious umbrage that has overshadowed and darkened my later years, yet these second assaults of suffering were met with a fortitude more confirmed, with the resources of a maturer intellect, and with alleviations from sympathising affection—how deep and tender!
Though De Quincey would write—and, at times, write well—throughout the rest of his life, he would never again reach those heights. The combination of the chance to focus on his favorite subject, himself, and to cast his often sordid struggle in heroic terms and wildly florid prose brought out his best. The other writing of his that is still read today, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” shifts that language just enough to make it archly ironic rather than gothic; it’s a fun essay, and one that, in its preoccupations with violence, murder, and dark fates, ties in with many of De Quincey’s lifelong obsessions, but it carries none of the power of Confessions.
The rest of De Quincey’s life was of a type to greatly challenge a biographer, an endless cycle of debt, hiding out, moving house, and jobbing writing. A hoarder of printed matter, he lived amid a mare’s nest of papers, and every time he moved he left behind masses of books and materials. Wilson describes the process of trying to track down his papers for an English edition of his collected works near the end of his life:
All his papers needed to be located; some had been burned by candles, others he vaguely remembered depositing in various lodgings. Miraculously, some of the dispersed manuscripts made their way back to him: when De Quincey was sheltering from a thunderstorm in the Royal Exchange Hotel, a waiter tapped him on the arm and politely handed over a bundle that had been left there for storage several months before. Former landladies, who received payment for their trouble, appeared at [editor James] Hogg’s offices with cartloads of packages; one of them—probably Mrs McInDoe—exploited the system by returning what turned out to be several parcels of straw.
Among those collected writings were what would become some of the key documents of the Romantic era: for all his quarrels with Wordsworth, De Quincey became perhaps the greatest keeper of the flame; his considered, surprisingly frank sketches of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and others, published in the 1830s and ’40s in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, remain a largely reliable, unquestionably essential account of that group. And he had become a fixture. “In Lothian Street,” Wilson writes, “the Opium-Eater had become as celebrated a magus as Coleridge on Highgate Hill. Disciples came from afar to witness his dreamlike voice and antiquated manners.” Better yet, he was, after a lifetime of penury, flush: “He was now receiving royalties from both the American and the British editions of his work: at last, his writing was making money.” Perhaps the interest was to some extent nostalgia: by the time of his death in 1859, a much more regimented, commercial, outward-looking era had taken over. It was no time to look inward; the reveries of opium belonged to an earlier era. De Quincey, last of the Romantics, died on December 8, 1859. He was in bed, the place where he’d dreamt so many of the vivid dreams that continue to draw us to him today.
Levi Stahl is the editor of The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany and the associate marketing director of the University of Chicago Press. He blogs at www.ivebeenreadinglately.com and tweets about books as @levistahl.