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.
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).
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.