Thomas de Quincey

Portret van Thomas de Quincey

Hieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over Thomas de Quincey.


Letter The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, originally printed in the London Magazine, and published in a seperate form in 1822, describe the personal experiences of a scholar and man of genius who, like Coleridge, became a slave to the use of opium.

To such an extent had he carried this baneful habit that in „the meridian stage of his career” his daily ration was eight thousand drops of laudanum. He had found, he says, that the solid opium required a length of time to expand its effect sensibly, oftentimes not less than four hours, whereas the tincture, laudanum, manifested its presence instantaneously.

The author of the Confessions was THOMAS DE QUINCEY, son of an English merchant, and born August 15, 1785, at Greenhay, near Manchester. His father died while his children were young, leaving to his widow a fortune of sixteen hundred pounds a year. Thomas was educated at Bath, and subsequently at Worcester College, Oxford.

When about sixteen, he made his way to London, and tried to raise a sum of two hundred pounds on his expectations from the paternal estate. He was reduced to extreme destitution by his dealings with the Jews, and by his want of any profession or remunerative employment. He was saved from perishing on the streets by a young woman he knew – one of the onfortunate waifs of the city – who restored him to consciousness with some warm cordial, after he had fainted from exhaustion. This „youthful benefactress” he tried in vain to trace in his after-years.

It is strange, as Miss Martnineau has remarked, and as indeed occured to himself when reflecting on this miserable period in his life, „that while tortured with hunger in the streets of London for many weeks, and sleeping (or rather lying awake with cold and hunger) on the floor of an empty house, it never once occured to him to earn money. As a classical corrector of the press, and in other ways, he might no doubt have obtained employment, but it was not till afterwards asked why he did not, that the idea ever entered his mind.”

His friends, however, discovered him before it was too late, and he proceeded to Oxford. He was then in his eighteenth year. In the following year (1804) De Quincey seems to have first tasted opium. He took it as a cure for toothache, and indulged in the pleasing vice, as he then considered it, for about eight years. He continued his intellectual pursuits, married, and took up his residence in the Lake country, making accosional excursions to London, Bath, and Edinburgh.

Pecuniary difficulties at length embarrassed him, and, enfeebled by opium, he sank into a state of misery and torpor. From this state he was roused by sharp necessity, and by the succes of his contributions to the London Magazine, which were highly prized, and seemded to open up a new source of pleasure and profit. He also contributed largely to Blackwood’s and to Tait’s magazines, in which his „Autobiographic Sketches,”„Recollections of the Lakes,” appeared. Next to Macaulay, he was perhaps the most brilliant periodical writer of the day.

In 1843 De Quincey removed to Lasswade, near Edinburgh. He died in Edingburg, December 8, 1859, in his seventy-fifth year. Thomas de Quincey: his Life, Writings, and Unpublished Correspondence, by H.A.Page, was issued in 1877. Besides the Confessions, Mr.De Quincey published Dialogues of Three Templars on Political Economy, 1824; and twenty years later, he produced a volume on the same science – The Logic of Political Economy, 1844.

The highest authority on political economy – Mr. M’Culloch – has eulogised these treatises of Mr. De Quincey as completely succesful in exposing the errors of Malthus and others in applying Ricardo’s theory of value. A collected edition of the works of De Quincey has been published in sixteen volumes, distributed in the main, he says, into three classes: first, papers whose chief purpose is to interest and amuse (autobiographic sketches, reminiscences of distinguished contemporaries, biographical memoirs, whimsical narratives, and such like); secondly, essays, of a speculative, critical, or philosophical character, addressing the understanding as an insulated faculty (of these are many); and, thirdly, papers belonging to the order of what may be called prose-poetry – that is, fantasies or imaginations in prose – including the Suspiria de Profundis, originally published in Blackwood’s Magazine – and which are remarkable for pathos and eloquence.

In all departments, De Quincey must rank high, but he would have been more popular had he practised the art of condensation. His episodical digressions and diffuseness sometimes overrun all limits – especially when, like Southey (in the Doctor), he takes up some favourite philosophical theory or scholastic illustration, and presents it in every possible shape and colour. The exquisite conversation of De Quincey was of the same character – in „linked sweetness long drawn out,” but rich and various in an extraordinary degree. His autobiographic and personal sketches are almost as minute and unreserved as those of Rousseau, but they cannot be implicitrly relied upon. He spared neither himself nor his friends, and has been accused of unpardonable breaches of confidence and exaggeration, especially as respects the Wordsworth family.

It has been said that if his life were written truthfully no one would believe it, so strange the tale would seem.