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Review: The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, by Robert Morrison

The life story of Thomas De Quincey (1785−1859) is a cautionary tale about the twin dangers of becoming a drug addict and writing a bestselling book. A Manchester lad of modest means, De Quincey - like Daniel Defoe, he added the "De" to class up the name - had a prodigious talent for Latin and the Germanic languages. He entered university at 15 but departed without a degree, having "convinced himself that he was not likely to gain much from a place like Oxford in any case. Far better to live freely in London, enjoy the many riches of the city and get an education that way."

The quotation is from a new biography by Robert Morrison of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., a specialist in De Quincey and certain other 19th-century Romantics. It is a book that, in the best way, calls to mind an anecdote about De Quincey's friend and fellow essayist Charles Lamb. Each autumn Lamb would scour the second-hand book stalls for an inexpensive old folio volume that he and his mad sister Mary could pass the winter reading aloud to each other. The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey is certainly long (though not too long) and so rich in research that the readers can profitably ingest it at a relaxing rate.

Even before he became dissolute, De Quincey was already hapless. He stood to inherit a small monthly sum but wished for a big lump of money that he could begin to run through. So he used the inheritance as collateral with a London lender for a loan at 17.5 per cent. Thus "a steady erosion of Thomas's patrimony was under way two years before he was even able to receive it" on turning 21.

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Following an introduction effected by Lamb, he began to pattern himself after Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the great uncombed poetic genius of the day, "whose public persona was closely associated with opium dependence, unfulfilled potential, Gothic imaginings …" That led him to an equally complex relationship with William Wordsworth, whose cottage in the Lake Country he eventually took over. De Quincey said he "always intended of course that poems should form the corner-stones of my fame." Instead, prose became the foundation of his infamy. And rather odd prose at that, for as a stylist he was hardly the equal of his coeval William Hazlitt, for instance.

He wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote

In the first half of the 19th century, opium was not merely legal but downright ubiquitous in shops and in print. The young De Quincey had read about it in popular fiction and in such poems as Ode to the Poppy, by one Charlotte Smith. He began taking it to fight a fever that resulted from a toothache. His consumption varied, but he appears to have gone over the edge in 1813 following the death of Catherine Wordsworth, the poet's young daughter (who some gossips suggested was De Quincey's biological child). It is worth quoting his descriptions of some of the drug dreams he endured. He found himself being "stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, 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 …" Good grief.

In 1821, he began writing about his struggles in a series of magazine pieces under the title Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (which he later expanded into a book, with some loss of readability). The harrowing and apparently quite hyperbolic tale was an instant commercial success and, as Morrison points out, has "had an enormous influence on literature and art from his time to our own. In knitting together drugs, intellectualism, unconventionality and the city, he maps the countercultural figure of the bohemian."

But the title was misleading. He didn't eat or even smoke opium. Sometimes he took it in pill form, but usually he drank it as laudanum, whose other ingredient was 60-proof alcohol: When doped up, he was likely drunk as well. One contemporary recorded that De Quincey was "a good scholar and a sharp critic - arrogant enough already and pompous [but normally]dead drunk at an early hour - for he drank as much as he could get and between glasses kept munching opium pills. … I soon dropped him as unfit for a decent house with ladies in it."

He supported his habit by writing about (the list is Morrison's) "everything from philosophy, politics, history, economics, and literary theory to the lives of famous contemporaries, the pleasures and pains of opium, the afflictions of childhood, and the fine art of murder." He scribbled for both liberal periodicals and conservative ones, in Edinburgh, where he eventually settled, as well as London. He was one of the first significant writers to make his name by appearing in Blackwood's Magazine (just as Thomas Raddall of Nova Scotia was one of the last, a century later). He was both a wretched hack like George Gissing and an exoticist, a precursor of Lafcadio Hearn, perhaps. He wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.

A previous biography, The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, by Grevel Lindop (1981), contains one chillingly evocative sentence: "The Works of Schiller in twenty-six volumes lay about the cottage, waiting to be reviewed …"

Opium did him no good, but he died of journalism.

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George Fetherling's novel Walt Whitman's Secret will be published in next month.

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