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De Quincey: So Original, So Truly Weird

1.

If you saunter or dream your way along the narrow streets running east of London’s Covent Garden, drifting like a ghost amid the late-summer tourists, you may eventually come to the Café Murano at 36 Tavistock Street. Look carefully upward, and you will notice on the wall above, half-hidden between two tall windows, a discreet blue commemorative plaque that makes a startling and possibly sinister announcement. It was in this building (actually in a set of rooms at the back) that Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) wrote his disturbing masterpiece, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, in 1821.

Thomas De Quincey; photogravure after an 1855 chalk drawing by James Archer
National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas De Quincey; photogravure after an 1855 chalk drawing by James Archer

Today this elegant quarter of bars and restaurants seems an unlikely location for opium eating. Yet it was behind this solid London brickwork that De Quincey first opened up his astonishing “apocalypse of the world within.” Here he exultantly described his first experience of drug-taking:

Heavens!…what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit!…Here was a panacea…for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be corked up in a pint bottle: and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.

The truth of De Quincey’s ecstatic discovery of opium is far more complicated than this lighthearted (and rather attractive) account would imply. For a start, the drug was not especially rare or exotic at the time, but easily obtainable from any pharmacy as a household medicine and mild painkiller, even given in small doses to babies. It was De Quincey’s sheer excess and unlikely endurance (he lived to be a ghostlike seventy-four) that, coupled with his kaleidoscopic literary powers, made him so original and so truly weird. Nor did he eat opium, but drank it in an infusion with brandy as a glowing, tea-colored, slightly bitter liquid called laudanum, and as a result he became an alcoholic as much as an addict, and what would now doubtless be called a dysfunctional personality.

In the last decades of his life he was spending £150 a year on the drug (from an income of £250), permanently in debt and pursued by creditors, continually adopting false names and shifting lodgings (he would simply abandon his rooms when they overflowed with his books and papers), often dressed in castoffs and writing barefoot (a friend observed “an army coat four times too large for him and with nothing on beneath”), and largely unable to support an ever-growing family of eight children and a suicidal wife (who died prematurely of exhaustion and typhus at the age of forty-one).

It was De Quincey’s peculiar genius to transform this pathological tragedy into something rich and strange, and to create for himself a uniquely marketable soubriquet in the journals of the day as “The English Opium Eater,” which he used for the rest of his life. The truth is, his original Confessions has no real location at all. The whole of the book is what De Quincey called “a palimpsest,” many layers of fact and fiction, pain and exultation, memory and dream, time and place, overwritten one upon another, over many years. A sequel followed in 1845, and a series of revisions as Autobiographic Sketches in 1853.

His visionary opium world, composed of “oriental imagery and mythological tortures,” remains essentially unearthly, savage, and displaced:

I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paraquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms…. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, 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.

This is one of the many reasons it is so hard to write a plain, factual biography of De Quincey with any kind of conviction. It requires not merely scholarship, but a special mixture of imaginative agility and nimble scepticism and, one might add, the patience of a saint.

As far as one can tell, De Quincey was nineteen, a privileged student at Oxford, when he first tasted the drug, one “wet and cheerless Sunday afternoon” on a trip to London in 1804. But two years before he had run away from Manchester Grammar School, another expensive education, and had an affair with a fifteen-year-old prostitute in London, who became his famous romantic and retrospective invention “Ann of Oxford Street.” His obsession with her (and many other young women and girls, which he called his “nympholepsy,” and which may or may not have been pedophilia) also became part of his drug experience. Sometimes he looks rather like the original dropout.

Yet he did not became seriously addicted to opium until 1813, when he was twenty-eight and living in the Lake District as the increasingly frustrated amanuensis of his onetime idols, Wordsworth and Coleridge. It was not until he was thirty-six, with his wife and children and a growing mass of debts, that he again came to London and dashed off his Confessions. Presented as an artless outpouring—“guilt and misery shrink, by a natural instinct, from public notice”—it was actually commissioned as two highly professional, well-paid articles for the newly founded London Magazine. He was still completing its “sequel,” the Suspiria de Profundis (“Sighs from the Deep”), this time for Blackwood’s Magazine, when he was sixty and adrift in Scotland.

The true subject of the Confessions, he now said, was not so much opium itself as the potential grandeur of the “human dreams” it inspired:

The machinery for dreaming planted in the human brain was not planted for nothing. That faculty, in alliance with the mystery of darkness, is the one great tube through which man communicates with the shadowy…the magnificent apparatus which forces the infinite into the chambers of a human brain, and throws dark reflections from eternities below all life upon the mirrors of the sleeping mind.

Paradoxically, this ingeniously extended metaphor is in fact drawn from a modern science of the external world, observational astronomy, and the advent of the great Victorian reflector telescopes—the “one great tube.” It turns out, as just one more surprise, that the penniless De Quincey had been lodging for many weeks in the Glasgow Observatory at the time he wrote Suspiria. He had simultaneously written a long article about Lord Rosse’s forty-foot “Leviathan” telescope and the discovery of an image of what he termed a cruel “monster” in the constellation of Orion.

Indeed it is easy to overlook De Quincey’s remarkable erudition, which stretched far beyond mere drug literature. He had an outstanding education (despite his truancies) in Greek and Latin, and could deliver a speech in fluent classical Greek. He had covered a vast range of miscellaneous reading (hence his constantly overflowing lodgings, in one of which he filled his bath—presumably unused—to the brim with books and magazines), and a dazzling speed and facility in journalistic writing. He was capable of turning out—or spinning out—a ten- or twenty-thousand-word article in a matter of days. Admittedly this produced many longeurs, and his prose could be as interminable as Coleridge’s talk, which De Quincey described as meandering “like some great river, the Orellana, or the St Lawrence.”

He covered in his articles an astonishing spectrum of subjects—for example, Homeric literature, political economy, the Chinese Opium Wars, California, free trade, emigration, the French Revolution, Afghanistan, Irish liberation, the Church of Scotland, the Corn Laws, mythology, evil, or the antislavery campaign. He could also write vividly about personalities, not just the famous essays on Coleridge and Wordsworth, but on Judas Iscariot, Immanuel Kant, Joan of Arc, Malthus, Aristotle, Euclid, Lamb, Hazlitt, David Hume, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Shelley, or the Sphinx. His mind started as a huge Romantic echo chamber and finished as a chaotic Victorian pantechnicon of miscellaneous learning. Altogether this makes his life peculiarly difficult to define and contain.

2.

Thomas De Quincey himself had strong views on the shortcomings of conventional biography. He believed it was “wearisome and useless” when merely “chronologically arranged,” as a slavish narrative of events. This merely produced “‘the hackneyed roll-call’ of a man’s life.” The essence of any life was its “doubleness,” its exterior and interior existences, and the access to these was governed by “single” scenes and “deep impressions.”

Thomas De Quincey; according to Frances Wilson in Guilty Thing, he ‘was the only Romantic to have had his photograph taken’
Trustees of Dove Cottage
Thomas De Quincey; according to Frances Wilson in Guilty Thing, he ‘was the only Romantic to have had his photograph taken’

Frances Wilson is not a conventional biographer, and she seems to know instinctively about this doubleness. She has set out, with immense energy and flair, to “hunt” De Quincey “through all his doubles,” and unlike previous biographers, notably Grevil Lindop (1981) and Robert Morrison (2009), she intends to write what she calls the first “Quinceyan biography.”

Much to the purpose, she has written wonderfully about the Lake District circle, in The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008). This book achieves a strikingly empathetic account of Wordsworth’s “wild” sister, in all her mixture of passions and frustrations. Young De Quincey already has a significant walk-on part here, and Wilson describes him as “ever the most acute” of the commentators on Dorothy, and gives him the final envoi on the last page of the biography: “farewell, impassioned Dorothy!”

It might seem less relevant that Wilson’s most recent book was about the sinking of the Titanic (2012). Yet this may be curiously appropriate. In it she restructures a well-known story from a highly unusual point of view, that of the manager of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, who was doomed not to drown in the wreck, but to survive, by taking to a lifeboat intended for “women and children first,” and suffering a lifetime’s shame and obloquy in consequence. The book experiments with time and fatality, so different kinds of secret guilt and moral ambiguity steadily accumulate behind the surface narrative.

All this makes Wilson especially prepared for the ambiguous, shape-shifting, changeling, illusive quality in De Quincey. She sees the need for stylistic fireworks as well as steady scholarship to illuminate his life. She writes with speed, flamboyance, and constant changes of viewpoint and perspective, offset by moments of calm, shrewd analysis:

His Confessions and his Autobiographic Sketches present two selves: the man of experience who holds the reader in the palm of his hand, and the child of innocence who is the subject of the story…. What makes De Quincey’s writing so unnerving is that he felt rivalrous with this other self; his mind was “haunted” by jealousy of the “ghostly being” who walked before him.

She is determined to keep pace with both figures.

One particular method she employs to capture her Quinceyan prey is to net him with snapshot phrases and pin him with provoking aphorisms. He is first introduced briskly, in bold thick outline, as the “Romantic acolyte, professional doppelgänger, transcendental hack.” But soon his shape is beginning to shimmer and distort, “a figure on a perpetual staircase,” and a man living in a world “designed by Piranesi.” These transformations continue throughout the biography and give it much of its fascination and originality. As a young man visiting Grasmere, De Quincey is a polite, shy, diminutive guest (under five feet tall) with manners of “porcelain.” Then he is the biddable literary groupie, first to Coleridge and then to Wordsworth: “used as a library, a babysitter, a tutor, a secretary, and even at times…a bank.” But this “façade of meekness disguised turbulence and ferocity.” The episode in which De Quincey takes over Dove Cottage, fills it with thirty chests of books, and then savagely cuts down the orchard and the moss hut beloved of Dorothy (and symbol of her love for Wordsworth) is psychologically one of the most revealing and dismaying passages in the whole book.

Later, after he fled to Scotland and published in Blackwood’s Magazine, De Quincey is a “cartoon of poverty,” with a moth-eaten jacket “a size too large” and a necktie that looks “like a piece of straw.” The vengeful biographical writer, who now sells his Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (1834–1840) as an occasional series to Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, becomes master of “the fine art of character assassination.” These essays are in reality “tale[s] of pursuit and revenge.” Yet his portrait of Dorothy Wordsworth, “all fire…Egyptian brown …wild eyes,” is by contrast tender and extraordinarily perceptive. He praises her “sexual sense of beauty” but laments the way her love for her brother eventually limited and damaged her own undoubted genius. Perhaps De Quincey might have married Dorothy, Wilson speculates, rather than the “strapping” farmer’s daughter, the long-suffering Margaret Simpson.

But by the end he is living in a dream world that “resembled a place like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland or JM Barrie’s Neverland.” He is a boy who never grew up, “the quintessential Peter Pan.” Yet he is also the sophisticated, autobiographical genius whose works will influence the Brontës, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde, as well as William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Peter Ackroyd, and even Alfred Hitchcock. He is the man whose dreams were hailed by Borges as “the best in literature.” He is one of the few English authors now issued in the classic French Éditions Pléiade (2011).

So another problem emerges: How to bring all these paradoxes, all these scintillating and constantly shifting images, into a steady biographical focus. How far can the biographer really improve on the blue plaque in the Café Murano?

3.

Charles Baudelaire, after partly translating the Confessions as Les Paradis artificiels (1860), thought that nothing could possibly be added to De Quincey’s autobiography. Its defining shape was enclosed, involuted, and “naturally spiral.” Yet the different traditions of De Quincey biography are surprisingly rich and varied. There is his friend David Masson’s brisk, defensive life of 1881, justified shortly after by the fourteen-volume Collected Writings (1889). There is Edward Sackville-West’s dreamy A Flame in Sunlight (1936), eventually corrected by Grevel Lindop’s scholarly and skeptical The Opium-Eater (1981) with “modern medical and psychological views of addiction” and much “scrutinizing” of the testimony and “checking” of the external evidence.

This in turn was followed by a spectacular new edition of the Works (2000–2003), under Lindop’s general editorship and now running to an alarming twenty-one volumes, including some 250 extended essays written over forty years. “Reading his collected works,” remarks Frances Wilson gleefully, “is like falling into Pandemonium.” The fullest biography is still that by Robert Morrison (2009), who has written many critical essays and introductions on the subject, makes confident use of the new Works, and also gives us the most detailed and sympathetic account of De Quincey’s chaotic domestic life, especially with his sweet, harassed wife Margaret and his eight hapless children (only three daughters eventually survived). It is a fine and learned study, yet perhaps it keeps too close to the brickwork.

Cultural and psychological interpretations have also flourished, notably Angela Leighton’s essay “De Quincey and Women” (1992) and John Barrell’s The Infection of Thomas De Quincey (1991), both of which ingeniously explore the complex mythology of De Quincey’s self-proclaimed “nympholepsy,” the worship of the series of unattainable, lost, damaged, or frankly dead girls or young women that recurs throughout his works and that may or may not be sexual. These studies move in different directions (Barrell’s is a dazzling analysis of De Quincey’s “orientalism”), but both agree on a psychological key. This is the death of De Quincey’s eight-year-old sister Elizabeth in 1792, when he was only six, and his account of a traumatic visit to her beautiful corpse in a locked but sun-filled front room, and a stolen last kiss of her marble lips until, hearing footsteps on the stairs, he slinks away “like a guilty thing.” From then on, we are to understand, he was a haunted creature.

The phrase (an echo from both Hamlet and Wordsworth) gives Wilson her title and another biographical key. But true to the Quinceyan principles of chronology, she makes us aware that the account of his visit to his sister’s corpse does not actually appear in the original Confessions of 1821 at all, but is gradually elaborated over forty years after, first appearing in an early Autobiographical Sketch of 1834, then in the Suspiria of 1845, and then again in 1853. (As virtually everything of De Quincey’s was first published in one of the magazines, and later revised and re-revised endlessly, the textual history of his account is so complicated that all scholarship seems to retain a faint opium haze around the edges.) The problem of biographical authenticity across such elapsed time, or dream time, is not dissimilar to that of Gérard de Nerval’s lost early love in his contemporary masterpiece, Sylvie: Souvenirs du Valois of 1854.

De Quincey’s haunting account has already been picked out and praised by Virginia Woolf: “the art of biography…is being transformed…[by] the slow opening up of single and solemn moments of concentrated emotion.” Wilson’s own comment is lyrical, and then characteristically sharpened to a sudden point:

Few autobiographers have given us a more remarkable, or convoluted, childhood scene—part memory, part midsummer daydream, part opium reverie—or one that propels us more swiftly into the furnishings of their imagination. It is an example of what De Quincey calls his “impassioned prose,” which takes flight mid-sentence…. What De Quincey describes is terror recollected in tranquillity.

It is here that Wilson introduces her new master theme: not merely opium but what she calls, in an unexpected concussion of two contrasted ideas, De Quincey’s “preoccupation with murderers and poets.” While the first half of her book largely concerns his spoiled but solitary adolescence, his discovery of the Lyrical Ballads, and his strange dreamlike pursuit of Coleridge and Wordsworth, up to the point that he is established in Dove Cottage, the second half has a quite different tone. It bursts into a vision of dreamlike terror, sudden death, and horrific violence, with events that took place in London in the winter of 1811. These, she argues, provide the touchstone that “ignited his genius.” They will lead him to another kind of masterpiece, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (yet another extended text, eventually appearing in three parts in 1827, 1839, and 1854), and take him northward on to Edinburgh and Glasgow and poverty.

At this point she takes an immense risk. She opens her book not, as one might expect, with the ornate opium dream of his sister’s death in 1792, but with a thoroughly bloody and precise murder scene in 1811. At “ten minutes to midnight” on December 7, 1811, an entire household—Mr. and Mrs. Marr, their young apprentice, and even their baby—had their skulls hammered in with a builder’s maul and their throats cut at 29 Radcliffe Highway, in the poor dockyards quarter of London’s East End. Having described this action with forensic care, Wilson suggests that Thomas De Quincey had a lifelong obsession with these murders and that in them we can find “dispersed in anagram” the story of his whole life. (The riddling phrase is skillfully lifted from De Quincey’s own essay on Charles Lamb.) It is, she suggests, his dreams of violence that lie even deeper than his opium dreams. “His murder essays always take us to the seabed of his psyche.”

It is, in every sense, an arresting opening and a striking thesis, and provides in effect the deathly pre-title sequence to the second half of her biography. But having introduced the scene, Wilson holds back its implications for nearly two hundred pages, a truly Quinceyan gamble with the reader’s attention span. Only then comes “the point where De Quincey’s life broke in half.” From here on she brilliantly exploits the themes of impending violence, murderous hatred, and suspended terror in so much of De Quincey’s later work: as an editor of the Westmoreland Gazette (1818–1819) fascinated by true crime stories; as the acute literary critic with his psychological analysis of “the hell within” in the “Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823); as the genial biographer secretly taking his revenge on—or sticking the knife into—his fallen poetic idols, Coleridge and Wordsworth (but sparing Dorothy), in his Recollections (1834–1845); or as the dandy essayist who strikes a new perverse pose in On Murder:

Everything in this world has two handles. Murder for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle, (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey); and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it, that is, in relation to good taste.

The final 1854 part of this essay has De Quincey’s gripping and bloody reconstruction, forty-three years after the event, of the Marr murders at Radcliffe Highway in 1811. With its repeated sinister themes of “knocking” at a closed door in the middle of the night, or of being “suspended” in terror on a staircase, it forms a grand reprise of so many of De Quincey’s autobiographical “deep moments,” or what he called, in an evocative term, his “involutes.”

Wilson can now show that these include even the climactic collision scene in the third part of De Quincey’s essay The English Mail Coach (1849), the “Vision of Sudden Death.” Here the vulnerable young woman in the fragile carriage (another of De Quincey’s nympholeps) undergoes a fearful countdown to destruction as the huge, hurtling nighttime mailcoach thunders down upon her. (Inventing a peculiarly modern narrative device, De Quincey literally counts down to the moment of impact, “a minute and a half…seventy seconds…twenty seconds…fifteen…five seconds more…Oh! Hurry, hurry…”) She escapes by a hair’s breadth, with only a glancing blow that leaves her carriage “alive with tremblings and shiverings.” Yet she herself at the breathless end of the essay is suspended in a kind of orgasm of Quinceyan terror:

But the lady—! Oh heavens! will that spectacle ever depart from my dreams, as she rose and sank upon her seat, sank and rose, threw up her arms wildly to heaven, clutched at some visionary object in the air, fainting, praying, raving, despairing!

Wilson observes evenly that we can now see that throughout his life De Quincey had approached murder and death in so many different guises, all of which magnificently displayed his chameleon genius: “from the position of Shakespearean critic, satirist, reporter, Gothic novelist and self-plagiarist.” Moreover this gives her the chance for one of her own memorable pyrotechnic displays as a biographer. In the late self-defining piece On Murder, Wilson writes,

De Quincey’s object was to prove that [the murderer] Williams was an actor, a connoisseur, a dandy, an aesthete, a scourge of God who walked in darkness, a tiger, a man of snaky insinuation, and a domestic Attila. The murderer was, like Wordsworth’s vision of the poet, a solitary artist, lonely as a cloud.

And of course, like Thomas De Quincey himself. It is particularly for these daring passages that one admires this risky, sprightly, passionate biography, which goes further than anything previously in catching the strange, elusive Opium Eater, and which could never for a moment be mistaken for a blue commemorative plaque.